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Keeping Faith During Hard Economic Times
By Jim and Susan Vogt
How can we survive the current economic crisis as people of faith?

Q U I C K S C A N

What Not to Do
What to Do Instead
But What if It's Too Late
If You Feel Abandoned
Putting a Face on the Economic Crisis


PHOTO © DESIGN PICS/CON TANASIUK

HOW POOR IS POOR? For some, economic hardship means belt-tightening— reducing the number of meals eaten in restaurants, skipping a vacation, going from being a two-car family to one car. For others, it’s much more grave—losing a job, a house or health care.

People in both situations are pained, but for those where it’s the difference between eating and going hungry, complaining about having to give up cable TV can look insensitive and frivolous. So how does a person of faith respond to the very real suffering that we all face—both major and minor—during these hard economic times?

What Not to Do

To start from the negatives, here are some suggestions about what not to do at this critical time:

DON’T view economic adversity as a punishment from God.

In some theologies, wealth is seen as a sign of God’s favor. Thus, the converse—poverty—indicates that one has in some way sinned, led a reckless, immoral life or offended God. Although Church teaching does not support this view, those who are financially comfortable may find it tempting to attribute their bounty to hard work and virtuous living.

Sometimes the two go hand in hand. But just as there are innocent people who are born into poverty, so too some wealthy people did not achieve their riches through virtuous living. One does not necessarily cause the other. A person of faith needs to remember that we are all God’s children and God loves us unconditionally.

DON’T hoard what you have.

It’s also tempting during hard economic times to cling more tightly to what we do have. If my family is in survival mode, we have to take care of ourselves first. If I barely have enough food, why should I share? This all makes human sense, but it’s not what Jesus did. When Jesus fed the multitudes, a few generous disciples offered their bread and fishes, and when the food was blessed, it was enough.

During the last recession, friends of ours, Al and Jan, made a decision to donate more than they usually would to charity, even though their own income was sparse. They saw it as a way to trust that God would provide for them as they provided for others in need.

Remember, too, the prosperous farmer who had such a good harvest that he pulled down his barn and planned to build bigger ones in which to store his crops. “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus it will be for the one who stores up treasure for himself...” (Luke 12:20-21).

DON’T nurse your anger, complain and do whatever it takes to get what you need—even if it’s illegal or immoral.

In hard economic times people feel angry and complain. That’s natural. In fact, venting and crying out to God in pain are common refrains in the psalms. Still, there comes a time when nursing anger and unproductive complaining rob us of the energy to find positive solutions. In desperate situations we might even understand why a person feels driven to illegal or immoral means to survive.

For example, cheating on our taxes might be tempting, especially if it’s hard to pay for groceries. That doesn’t make it right. Remember Job? His trials included both economic devastation and personal physical pain. His uprightness in the face of adversity is why his story is so compelling and a model for us.

DON’T count on credit to bail you out.

Unless it is truly a matter of life and death, using credit cards to maintain a lifestyle that your income cannot support is a false savior. Better to downsize your expectations, home, wardrobe and lifestyle. Paying later (on credit) means paying more and that just digs the hole of debt deeper, increases fear and lowers self-esteem.

Governments may be able to sustain deficit spending for a time, but individuals and families cannot. Remember the mantra, “If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.”

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Now let’s turn to the positive side of the downturn:

DO embrace Christian simplicity.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Be not afraid of poverty: some men are born poor, some achieve poverty and some have poverty thrust upon them.” Although some Christians have long embraced voluntary poverty as a means of growing in holiness, too many of our brothers and sisters find themselves living in a poverty that is neither willed nor holy.

With the current economic downturn even those of us who do not choose voluntary poverty as a way of life are being pushed to simplify our lifestyles to be more consistent with Church teaching. That teaching calls us to “practice poverty of spirit and generosity of heart. These virtues liberate us from being slaves to money and possessions....They also enable us to adopt a simplicity of life that frees us from consumerism and helps us preserve God’s creation” (U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, pp. 449-450).

DO downsize your lifestyle.

Jesus asked us not to worry about “‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’...Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).

For many of us, the downsizing that is being thrust upon us is the lifestyle that Christians should aspire to anyway. It’s just that now we may not have a choice. Once we have an attitude of valuing simplicity, the next step is actually to downsize our lifestyle—whether we have to or not.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “We make ourselves rich by making our wants few.” True, we genuinely need food, clothing, shelter, health care and loving relationships. But differentiating our legitimate needs from our desired, but optional, wants is a challenge for the Christian. How much is enough and how much is too much are the nagging questions that we continually ask ourselves.

For several years we grappled with whether to install a whirlpool tub when we renovated our bathroom. It seemed like such a luxury. Eventually, we justified it as physical therapy for Susan, who has a bad back. Besides, it would increase the value of our home if we ever decided to sell.

A rationalization? Probably. Few of us are pure in this regard, but it’s important to keep checking ourselves for creature-comfort creep.

DO rub shoulders with those poorer than yourself.

The best way we’ve found to keep our needs in perspective is to rub shoulders with the poor. It’s so easy to regard ourselves as the “poor” when those around us and in the media seem to have more. Exposure to the poor doesn’t require selling one’s home and moving to India to work like Mother Teresa. We have found, however, that how rich or poor we feel has a lot to do with whom we compare ourselves.

Another friend, Ken, challenged our faith community one evening. He said, “We always say how much we care about and pray for those who are poor, but do we know anybody who is really poor?” Ken decided to start visiting inmates at the local jail on a regular basis.

As a result of his challenge, Susan decided to start tutoring at a local inner-city grade school. Sometimes Jim takes the bus to an event, even though it takes longer, because he comes face-to-face with those who often don’t have the luxury of a car.

In one sense we don’t have the time to do any of these things, but we keep reminding ourselves that rubbing shoulders with those who have less than we do enriches us and keeps us humble. We gain perspective in honestly evaluating our needs versus our wants. It opens our eyes to the needs around us, for “If you keep your food in a refrigerator, your clothes in a closet, if you have a bed to sleep in, and a roof over your head, you are richer than 75 percent of the people in the world” (www.Miniature-Earth.com).

DO take into consideration your spending personality.

On a scale of one (tightwad) to 10 (spendthrift), where are you?

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as nicely balanced in the middle. Most of us give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. If you’re honest, however, and realize that you have spendthrift tendencies, your challenge is to buy modestly, save when possible and cultivate the virtue of delayed gratification.

If you truly are a middle “five” personality, continue to spend wisely, but it wouldn’t hurt to move toward frugality. It’s good for the soul not to buy everything you can.

If your natural inclination is to be ultra-frugal, then your challenge is to be generous and nonjudgmental.

DO be generous.

Generosity, however, is not just for those who have a little extra to give. It may sound counterintuitive to give things away when money and goods are scarce but, still, the Christian is called to generosity. Does everyone on your block really need a lawn mower, camping gear or basketball hoop? Yes, it’s convenient to have your own property, but the effort to coordinate sharing not only reduces cost but also builds community.

Of course, it can also create conflict if some neighbors are not as responsible as others. Sharing is not pain-free, but it offers us a chance to hone communication and negotiation skills. Sometimes, hard times prompt us to learn skills we’d otherwise neglect.

DO steward resources with care.

Although, presumably, we have long been trying to be good stewards of our money and possessions, hard economic times force us to evaluate how to do more. Where is there waste in my life? Do I waste electricity, gas, food, water, paper...? Am I recycling as much as possible? Do I wear clothes that are practical or am I a slave to fashion? Do I try to repair things that are broken or is my first impulse to buy something new? Does every family really need that second car that sits in the driveway much of the time because I want the convenience of being able to go to the store when the urge hits me?

Ever hear of “Zip Cars” (www.zipcar.com)? It’s a car-sharing service available in many cities in which folks sign up for a conveniently located “common car.” It makes letting go of a car more plausible.

Do I try to buy locally produced foods as much as possible? Is my recreation truly renewing of my spirit or do I spend my limited discretionary funds on watching sports rather than playing them, listening to music rather than making it, traveling to far-off lands rather than enjoying the beauty of my own locale?

DO keep a budget.

Keeping to a budget may be bothersome, but it’s also a way to be a responsible steward. If we don’t know where our money is going, it’s hard to make responsible decisions about where to cut back.

“Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?” (Luke 14:28). Plan ahead.

DO spend to save.

Related to being good stewards of property and the earth is the way we spend money. Some would say that those who are fortunate enough to have a job and not be in debt have a responsibility to spend money in order to support the economy and save others’ jobs. The accuracy of this viewpoint depends on the merits of the products or services purchased. Buying bottled water when we can get inexpensive and pure water from the tap in the United States promotes an artificially created need. Paying taxes to support clean water for everyone is a worthy use of money.

Generally, high-quality goods that are needed and will last are items worth investing in. Thus, spending money on most anything “green” pays dividends both in money saved and in a reduced carbon footprint over the long haul.

By Susan Hines-Brigger

“DON’T FREAK OUT.”

You would think that after almost 14 years of marriage, my husband, Mark, would know not to say things like that to me. He knows I’m going to freak out, especially now that he told me not to. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of girl.

But that’s what he said to me last fall—two days before Thanksgiving—right before he told me he was being offered a buyout from his job.

“Don’t freak out.” Right. In this economy, with three kids—two of whom are in Catholic school—babysitting, a mortgage, groceries...I could go on and on. I’d seen the news reports filled with words like recession and depression and the unemployment numbers rising every day. So I did freak out—initially.

But then Mark said something else to me that stopped me in my tracks: “Geesh, have some faith, will ya?”

Faith in what, I thought, the government, the economy, that we’ll win the lottery? But I tried to take his words to heart. I prayed that he would get a job fast. I offered up a novena that we wouldn’t be one of the unfortunate ones who have lost their homes. I entered a self-imposed Lent and offered things up for answers—and faith that things would somehow be O.K. And that’s when things started to change.

We started eating together more often as a family because hitting the drive-thru was out of the budget. And at those dinners we all started talking and sharing. We played outside with our kids, went on walks and scoured the paper and Internet for free entertainment. We connected and in some cases reconnected with friends and family on a deeper level.

My mom shared with me how when my dad lost his job they used to pray the Rosary together at night. And while Mark and I didn’t exactly do that, we did start sitting down and talking more—really talking. And this was not just about money, even though we did do a lot of that, but about our life, the future, our dreams. We snapped at each other less and laughed more.

Luckily, Mark was able to find a new job relatively quickly. The time he was out of a job was not always easy, but it did force us to slow down and put things in perspective. And most importantly, it reminded us to have some faith.

We recently increased the insulation in our attic. It wasn’t cheap, but it will be worth it. On the other hand, we once bought a small inexpensive plastic swimming pool for our kids that didn’t even last the summer season. The next year we got smart and paid more money for a more durable one, and it lasted many years.

Green America (www.GreenAmericaToday.org) has many more ideas of how to save money and energy by spending on products that preserve God’s creation.

Perhaps it’s already too late to spend in order to save.

Sadly, too many people in the United States have lost their jobs, are losing their homes or are too far in debt to have money to spend—even wisely. Often, this is not through laziness or irresponsibility but rather a result of the recession. It can be embarrassing, even humiliating, for those who have worked hard all their lives to be on the receiving end of charity—if they can even get charity since the nonprofit sector is also hurting.

There’s no magic potion, but here are some practical tips from someone who has been there:

Reassess your needs and wants. Perhaps periodically eating out was a custom. It wasn’t a bad custom, but it’s always cheaper to prepare your own food. Likewise, paying money for a health-club membership might have motivated you to exercise, but now you have to self-motivate and walk at home.

Barter and share. What are you good at? What do you own that would be of value to someone else? We recently dropped two newspapers and now trade subscriptions with our next-door neighbor. Each day we exchange our read newspapers with each other and catch up on neighborhood news in the process. We share cars and garden produce and used to trade child care. It’s good to have close friends.

Repair and reuse.We wouldn’t go so far as recommending reuse of dental floss, but our throw-away culture has trained us too well. Recover the lost art of sewing, learn how to change your own oil or glue a broken chair. Jim has gotten into the habit of having his shoes resoled to lengthen their life, and Susan—with the help of a neighbor—fixed our whole-house fan.

Recreate creatively. Movies can prompt stimulating conversation, but so can playing a game with the family or taking a walk in the woods.

Teach yourself a new skill. This may mean leaning on your kids to update your technology skills or spending time at the library or on the Internet to learn something new that might later translate into a paying job.

Be humble. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. If necessary, lean on family and the Church community. You’ve probably helped others in the past. Perhaps this is the time you give others the opportunity to be generous.

Pray and cultivate a grateful heart. At a time when so much around you seems beyond your control, rely on things that will sustain you.

But how can I pray when I feel as if my world is crumbling and God has abandoned me?

If hard times just make us bitter and selfish, they’re not deepening our spiritual lives. We must stay true to the core value of people being more important than things. Caring for each other is what Jesus would do.

To lessen feelings of deprivation, however, revisit the section on rubbing shoulders with the poor. A house with more bedrooms than kids and a family with more cars than drivers may not be evil, but must be evaluated in light of the needs of the poor. One of the marks of a mature and holy person is to know how to live with and how to live without. As Job said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).

Few people welcome hardships, but when they come our way, they may prick our conscience or push us through a door we might not have tried.

They may drive us to deeper prayer. They place us in solidarity with those who have gone without for ages, not just when the stock market tanks.

In the end, we place our lives in God’s hands, remembering that the same God who created the lilies of the fields loves and watches over us.

 

Jim and Susan Vogt live in Covington, Kentucky, have been married for 37 years and are the parents of four young-adult children. Jim is director of the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative (www.MSJC.net) and Susan is a freelance speaker and writer on marriage, parenting and spirituality (www.SusanVogt.net). This article is an expanded version of the March 2009 Every Day Catholic (St. Anthony Messenger Press).


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