Today we are talking about the spirituality of money, and, as with everything to do with spirituality, the temptation is to go straight to enlightenment. The temptation is to bypass the mistakes and the trial-and-error pathways and elevate instantly upwards to the God’s own truth.
I’m stepping back from that temptation this morning. No spiritual bypasses, here. Not that I don’t have some wisdom to share.
But let me tell you my story first, of the zig-zag path towards that wisdom. How I got to it. Warts and all.
It was 1981, and back then, my family lived in Texas, in a town called Palestine. At the time, it was our habit to travel the 115 miles or so north to go to the big city of Dallas. We’d arrive at our hotel room late Friday night, since Dad had to fulfill his doctor duties. Saturday, all day was spent shopping at the ginormous Prestonwood Town Center shopping mall, and then in the evening, for dinner we’d eat at one of the restaurants nearby: Magic Time Machine, or Bennigan’s, or Ninfa’s. It was our family’s ritual of normalcy—a little shot of sanity—before having to return to Palestine on Sunday and re-enter the “same-old, same-old.”
That was a family phrase used all the time, when describing our life together. “Same-old, same old.” Have you ever used that phrase?
Let me try to describe what that looked like for us.
I have to start a little farther back, with our family’s move from Canada to Texas. Dad and Mom had arranged for our new home in Palestine to be renovated. But when we arrived in early January of 1980, the renovations were not only off-schedule and incomplete, they did not live up to my father’s perfectionistic standards. His father (who had emigrated to Canada from Ukraine and was as self-made as you can get) had become a carpenter with capital P perfectionistic standards, and he had passed that on to my Dad. Dad fired the contractor, whom he thought a fool, and he fired the subcontractors too, whom he thought were ignoramuses. He would do it himself. He would complete the renovations himself, using the skills his father the carpenter had taught him. This man, who worked 80+ hours a week as a medical doctor.
So where would we live in the meantime, we Canadian newcomers to the strange land of Texas? At the Holiday Inn, Room 246. Mom and Dad slept in one of the Queen beds, and me and my two brothers slept in the other bed—all in one room. We lived like that, while waiting for Dad to complete the renovations: for one week, for two weeks, for six weeks, for six months, and by 1981—the time in my life I’m inviting you to visit—it would be a year.
My fellow seventh and eighth graders at school knew me as the son of the new doctor in town, presumably a prestigious thing to be. But what would they say if they saw through the mask I wore every day to the reality beneath: that my family lived in a single room at the Holiday Inn, and I shared my bed with my two brothers?
What would they say, in fact, if they saw the actuals of what that looked like? Because, in that cramped single room, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder was flaring up. There were all these strange, highly-restrictive rules we had to follow. There was nowhere to escape. The strangest thing of all was the emergence of a completely new OCD pattern in her. She started to take everyday objects (like a comb, or a light-bulb) and wrap them like they were gifts. She would do the wrapping with Holiday Inn towels or bed pads that Dad brought from the hospital, and she’d seal things up with masking tape. You never knew when a thing of yours would go missing. Every day, she wrapped two or three items and then she’d stack them on previously wrapped things, until, over time, she had something that looked pyramid-shaped. This pyramid was positioned on the foot of the bed I shared with my brothers.
We were never to touch this mysterious thing.
That’s when the real crisis hit (or a crisis bigger than all the other crises) because then my mother insisted that we were no longer allowed to sleep in the bed, because then her stacked objects would not stay, would be jarred by our sleeping feet, would be jostled off the bed and onto the floor, ruining the pyramid.
She could not have that.
Dad’s solution was to rent a second hotel room, next door. That’s where he and the boys would stay. Mom could have room 246 all to herself.
Often I wonder what life would have been like if Dad had not made so much money, which enabled him to keep on kicking the can of my mother’s mental illness down the road. For two years, we would live like this: fleeing the suffocating reach of my mom’s OCD by living in rooms other than the ones my mother colonized. But two years would prove to be the limit. That’s when Dad finally repented of his perfectionism, because it was bankrupting him. On top of the monthly mortgage payment was the hotel bill, and to this day I can’t believe how he sustained a lifestyle that burned through money the way ours did.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Back in the year of 1981, to which I’ve invited you, I would not know when the “same-old, same-old” insanity of our Holiday Inn sojourn would end.
And now you might understand better the importance of our family ritual of normalcy: the weekend getaways to Dallas, to Prestonwood Town Center Mall. That’s how and when Mom and Dad could indulge themselves in materialistic pleasures, which was a big part of what money meant to them. Money was self-esteem. Money is what filled the hole in their hearts. Having money and using money was how you felt good about yourself. God knows, they weren’t feeling that good. My Mom knew she had OCD and how she was hurting the rest of us through it. My Dad knew that he had no clue how to handle it effectively (together with the rest of her mental problems) and therefore the hurt kept on spreading.
So, just for the weekend: a bit of a moral vacation. A bit of an escape from the grim and joyless “same-old, same-old.” Spending money just so you can feel a little better about your life, at least for a little while.
I will add that, in all my years growing up, I never once witnessed my parents give charitably. Our psychological and spiritual poverty never translated to a sensitivity about the very real material poverty of too many people in our community–people who not only had no money to burn but just had no money, or did not have it reliably enough, and they were struggling. I also never saw us–my family–put our money in service to Love with a capital L, in the form of a church pledge. And, I get it. When you don’t know how to base your self-esteem on something more reliable than money—when money is the only thing you know that makes you ok–charitable giving feels like you are cutting your own throat. It feels personally diminishing, threatening, undermining.
It does not have to be that way, but I get it.
But back to our ritual of sanity. My part in this started just inside the doors of the shopping center, when Dad would peel a couple twenty dollar bills from his wallet and give one to me and one to each of my brothers. He’d say, “Take your time with this—you’ve got all day.” Then he and Mom would go off and do their thing.
We boys headed straight to the video arcade, which was named “Tilt.”
Do traditional mall arcades even exist anymore? Yes, there’s adult fun places like Dave and Busters, or kids’ places like Chuck E. Cheese. But 1981 was the heyday of video game arcades in shopping malls. If you wanted to really game, that was the place. Back then, home gaming consoles were super simplistic. You had Pong and you had Atari 2600 and it was fun but it was fiddlesticks compared to what the mall arcade offered.
As for home computers? Do the names Commodore, Sinclair, or Sharp ring any bells? I know the name “Apple” will.
But all were primitive. Two words: “floppy disks.” Meaning: floppy home video games.
You just had to go to the mall arcade to get your real kicks.
We knew we were close when the non-offensive muzak playing over the shopping mall speakers started to lose coherence and be disrupted by the growing sounds of the arcade. Sounds of Space Invaders, for example, with its deep bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep of alien creatures in rows slowly advancing upon you, and you are represented by a snub-nosed and squat missile-launching machine that’s trying to destroy the aliens, and every missile you launch is a short, high-pitched whine.
Piu! Piu! Piu! Piu!
These sounds would co-mingle with scores of others. One was Donkey Kong sounds: “Du-du-du-du-DU!”—that ominous sound is when the game begins, and an enormous gorilla climbs up a tall building, with a beautiful girl in a pink dress in one arm. It’s similar to music played in silent films from 70 years earlier, when the villain makes his dastardly move. But suddenly, the sounds of Donkey Kong change into something brighter: “Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-dooodle-do!” and the hero is a short guy with a mustache and the world has since come to know him as Mario and he trudges up the building one level at a time to save the princess and the sound of that trudging is squeak-squeak-squeak…..
We boys got closer and closer to the cacophony of sounds of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Flight Simulator, Pac Man, and so many others. Then we were there. The video game arcade Tilt. Flashing lights grabbed at us, from a space that was cave-like, cavernous, a place you could get lost in, a place you could pretend you were someone else.
A place that was nothing like room 246 of the Holiday Inn in Palestine.
For me, the video games would open up sights way stranger than my mother’s pyramid-shaped OCD creations, but videos I could at least control. Videos I could at least decide whether to play or not. I did not have that choice with my mother’s illnesses.
We’d enter Tilt and go straight to the change machine. Insert the twenty dollar bill. Suddenly, the crash of coins gushing down into the holding cup below. A crashing sound that took some time since twenty dollars’ worth of quarters is a lot of quarters.
That crashing sound was the sound of love to me.
I made that twenty dollars serve my deep need for love, to make up for the sort I wasn’t getting.
Money was the basis of my parents’ self-esteem, and it had become that for me, too. So what about what my fellow seventh and eighth graders thought. So what.
Twenty dollars in quarters jangling in my pocket: sound of love.
This is my money story. And I’m going on and on about it, because I want you to go on and on about your money story and what your “same-old, same-old” might be. Mine is a story of middle-class wealth in servitude to mental illness and dysfunction. Maybe yours is similar, or maybe it is quite different. Maybe it’s an experience of financial austerity and relentless penny pinching. Maybe it’s blue collar living from paycheck to paycheck, or white collar living from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe it’s living in a poor family and community where people know that, to survive, they have to rely on each other and feed the collective good, and so they become the most generous givers of all.
Did you know that, by the way? How statistics show that poor people are the most generous givers of all (not in amounts necessarily but in percentage of giving)? Again, because they know that, the more you feed the common good, the more that common good can benefit individuals back, and support them. (It’s the wisdom encoded in Jesus’ powerful story of the widow’s mite, which I told earlier…)
My hope today is that the telling of my story may inspire you to think of your own and tell it too, to someone who loves you enough to just listen. My story and your story will reveal something about how we have come to relate to money. Why the relationship is the way it is. And the quality of that relationship—the degree to whether it is life-bringing or life-diminishing—is precisely where the spirituality comes in.
There is no question that genuine poverty creates terrible stress in people’s lives, and that a person’s life chances are harmed in so many ways. By poverty. But I’m not so much talking of poverty as of wealth that people genuinely have but they have somehow come to think they are poor, and must not give. People who do have money but they have come to relate to it as if it were oxygen, and their survival absolutely depends on gulping it up all for themselves.
This is what is life-diminishing for self and for the world.
The profoundly spiritual question is therefore this: can there be sources of safety or self-esteem that transcend money, or material things? Because we all know you can be as rich as anything and the hurts of life will still find you. You can be a billionaire and it is no defense at all from suffering. This piece of wisdom is so cliche that to say it makes me feel like Mr. Obvious. And yet, people fall for the happiness dream of riches all the time.
I’m not saying that money is evil. Not at all. Money just IS, like sunlight, like rain.
The question is: what are we going to feed with our money?
I say: Not dysfunction. Not the happiness dream of riches. Not some “same-old, same old.”
I say: Feed healing. Feed the pursuit of knowledge and spirituality. Feed community. Feed justice for all. Feed hope.
Feed these sources of safety and self-esteem and meaning with your money, and all will be well.