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Surviving Hard Economic Times—Thriving on Faith
By: Jim and Susan Vogt
For some, economic hardship means belt-tightening: eating out less, skipping vacation, going from two cars to one. For others, it’s much more: losing a job, a house or health care. Both groups feel pain, but to those for whom it’s the difference between eating and going hungry, complaints about giving up cable TV can seem insensitive and frivolous. So how do people of faith respond to the real suffering that many face—both major and minor—during hard economic times?
What NOT to do
¦ DON’T view economic adversity as God’s punishment. In some theologies, wealth signifies God’s favor and poverty indicates that one has sinned. Although Church teaching doesn’t support these views, the financially comfortable may be tempted to attribute bounty to hard work and virtuous living. Sometimes these go hand in hand but, just as there are innocent people who are born into poverty, there are wealthy people who didn’t achieve their riches through virtuous living. People of faith must remember that we are all God’s beloved children.
¦ DON’T hoard what you have. It’s tempting to cling more tightly to what we have. If my family is in survival mode, we naturally focus on taking 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 followers offered their bread and fish which, when blessed, were enough for all. Remember too the prosperous farmer who had such a good harvest that he pulled down his storage barns and built bigger ones. “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves” (Luke 12:20-21).
¦ DON’T nurse your anger, complain or act illegally or immorally. In hard economic times people feel angry and complain. That’s natural. Venting and crying out to God in pain and fear are common refrains in the psalms. Still, a time comes when these attitudes rob us of the energy to find positive solutions. We might understand why a person feels driven to illegal or immoral means to survive when in a desperate situation. That doesn’t make it right. Remember Job. His trials included both economic devastation and physical pain. His uprightness in the face of adversity is why he’s such a compelling model for us.
Embracing Christian simplicity
Although some Christians embrace 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, many of us are being pushed to simplify our lifestyles. This is consistent with Church teaching which 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). Jesus said, “[D]o not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’... [Y]our heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (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.
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Deepening our spirituality
¦ DO steward resources with care. Although we may already be good stewards of our money and possessions, hard economic times force us to evaluate how to do more: Where am I wasteful? Do I conserve electricity, gas, food, water, paper? Do I recycle? Do I wear practical clothes or am I a slave to fashion? Do I repair broken things or is my first impulse to replace them? Does my recreation renew my spirit or do I spend my discretionary funds on watching sports rather than playing them, listening to music rather than making it, traveling to far-off lands rather than enjoying my locale and neighbors? Keeping to a budget may be bothersome, but it can help us become responsible stewards.
¦ DO practice generosity. It sounds counterintuitive to give things away when money is tight, but Christians are called to be generous. Does everyone on your block really need their own lawnmower, camping gear or basketball hoop? It’s convenient to have your own, but sharing reduces cost and builds community. Of course, it can also create conflict if some don’t act responsibly. Sharing is not always painless, but it can help us hone communication and negotiation skills. Hard times can prompt us to learn skills we’d otherwise neglect.
¦ DO keep values intact. If hard times make us bitter and selfish, we’re not growing spiritually. We must stay true to our core values: People are more important than things. Caring for others is what Jesus did. To lessen feelings of deprivation, it helps to differentiate between legitimate needs and desirable-but-optional wants. Food, clothing, shelter, health, safety, education and loving relationships are needs. Eating out, fashionable clothes, a house with more bedrooms than kids, bottled water and two or three cars may not be bad in themselves but must be balanced in light of the needs of the poor. One mark of a mature and holy person is knowing how to live with and without.
¦ DO stay spiritually centered. Few people welcome hardships but, when they come our way, God may be pricking our consciences or pushing us through untried doors. Hardships may drive us to deeper prayer. They place us in solidarity with those who regularly go without, 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.
Permission to Publish for this article, “Surviving Hard Economic Times—Thriving on Faith” by Jim and Susan Vogt, received from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 11-17-2008.
Jim and Susan Vogt have four adult children and live in Covington, Kentucky. Jim directs the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative. Susan speaks and writes on marriage, parenting and spirituality. Learn more at susanvogt.net.
By: Frank Frost
■ In what ways are you personally affected by economic challenges?
■ “People are more important than things.” How do you struggle to keep this perspective? What thing do you sometimes value more than people?
■ What are you tempted to do when you feel insecure—financially or otherwise? Commit to praying daily for greater trust in God’s faithfulness and care
Hard times are here again. To help reflect on the place of compassion in these times, revisit the 1984 classic Places in the Heart. This story, set in Texas during the Great Depression, seems particularly relevant today, with foreclosures, financial inequality and a bleak economy. It’s about heroic efforts to overcome great odds and, at the same time, the meaning of community. It opens outside a church, its congregation providing background music for the introduction of farmers, townspeople, middle-class whites, poor blacks, homeless people and vagrants.
When the husband of Edna Spalding (Sally Field) is accidentally killed by a young Negro (who is then summarily lynched), she is left with two young children, little money and no work skills. In the spirit of Christian “charity,” the town banker foists his blind brother-in-law, Mr. Will (John Malkovich), on Edna as a boarder.
A variety of income alternatives prove unworkable until Moze (Danny Glover), a black panhandler, offers his help to raise a cotton crop. A storm and a drop in the price of cotton only increase their heroic efforts and serve to bring them together, even to the point of Mr. Will defending Moze against violent Klansmen.
Those who suffer most in this story show the most compassion toward others. And so it is both deeply moving and largely symbolic when the movie ends, as it began, in church. The preacher reads from 1 Corinthians 13:1-8: If I “have not love, I am nothing.” As a communion plate is passed, we see every individual in the community, whatever their status or behavior has been. In response to hard times we must be one people, bound by love.
Next time you watch Places in the Heart, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
■ Which events and places indicate the intertwined lives of the people in this community?
■ Track the role of prayer and religious faith in the story. How do my own religious beliefs shape my response to hard times?
A resident of Hawaii, Brian Alston responded to the call to reach out to another island population—one that sees more humanitarian-aid workers than tourists on dream vacations. He recently joined the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation of Randolph, Massachusetts, on a weeklong “work retreat” in Haiti. The people of this island nation are some of the poorest of the poor. Eighty percent live below the poverty line; 54% live in abject poverty. Haiti’s location in the middle of the hurricane belt means that it is subject to severe storms from June to October. Recent hits by Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike have been devastating.
Brian, a college instructor of ethics, philosophy and psychology and a recovery coach for an addiction-treatment program, says, “I felt a strong sense of fulfilling my calling by going to Haiti. I feel a connection between Haiti and my lifelong efforts spent working with those most in need.”
Through the work he describes as the “treatment of chemical addiction usually with chronic substance abusers, who struggle also with poverty and disease; perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse; and prisoner recidivism programs,” Brian has devoted much time and care to some of “the least and forgotten” in our society. He tells Every Day Catholic, “Since childhood, my goal has been to change the world. I know that sounds pretentious, but Church experiences have taught me that God can do all things through us, and we are his feet and hands.”
Brian says, “The trip required a lot of spiritual, mental, emotional, social and financial preparation. I began setting aside money almost immediately once the November work retreat was decided.” In addition to his airfare, he was responsible for making a contribution to the Foundation and providing some medical supplies. Brian says, “We each brought two suitcases, one with our personal needs for the trip and the other full of medical supplies like gauze, bandages and first-aid items for the St. Boniface Hospital in Fond Des Blanc.”
When many are struggling to adjust to leaner and less secure times, Brian pushed beyond these anxieties to commit to assisting people who are not strangers to poverty and hard times. While on the trip he toured the hospital, visited a senior home where he washed feet and hands and provided the elderly with manicures and pedicures, toured homes being built and those in need of repair, traveled along the coast to see the diversity and widespread needs of the Haitian people and visited an orphanage.
The group celebrated the Eucharist each evening and reflected on the day’s events. Brian says, “Some of us cried on these occasions from the human devastation we saw, and all of us marveled at the warmth and resilience of the Haitian people. I see more clearly now: It’s not the stock market, real estate or business ideas that will bring the greatest return. Invest in the lives of the least.”
(Learn more at hawaiiforhaiti.org.)
By: Jeanne Hunt
Lisa, Mark and their three children are facing financial ruin. Mark’s company has folded, and he has spent months searching for work in his field. Lisa works at a fast-food restaurant, and Mark drives a cab to pay their bills. They struggle to keep hope in these difficult days.
The Great Depression was a life-changing event for our ancestors and may serve as a reference point for today’s families facing tough economic times. After the initial shock of losing income, property and savings, many Depression-era families came together to supply their needs with amazing resourcefulness. Many depict it not as a nightmare of deprivation but as a graced and simple time. Nothing was thrown away until it served many cycles of use. Even the wash water was used over and over, with its final use the cleaning of the outhouse latrine!
As contemporary families travel through recession, we can learn much from the past: First, we must separate wants from needs. Many of us have become accustomed to having whatever we want. Perhaps it’s time to scale down our possessions and share the excess.
Second, we need to be conservative spenders. We must resist the temptation to replace perfectly good belongings with new models. Rather than paying for the latest product, we must challenge ourselves to spend less for the same result.
Third, we can learn from our ancestors. They found ways to enjoy life without spending a dime. What can we do to entertain ourselves? Family game nights, potluck suppers and hikes at local parks are some suggestions.
Finally, we need to pray. Prayer is a powerful weapon against the greed that created this crisis. We must reach out to those who are suffering and share what we have. It’s in the return to a simpler, shared life that we’ll discover a secret that the generation of the Great Depression learned: Our greatest gifts come from the heart.
Mark and Lisa are praying together for God’s help, and with amazing results: There is still no job for Mark, but this simplified life has brought them closer. Even the children seem happier. “If God is not sufficient, you have too much,” said St Augustine. Lisa laughs as her husband tells her, “I’m the richest man in the world.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: Place play paper money, pens, a lighted candle and a Bible on a prayer table.
“You Will Show Me the Path of Life” by Marty Haugen (or other suitable hymn)
Prayer of a Seeker
“Dear God, I’m walking this road without a map in my hand. Once I knew where I was headed on this journey, but now I’m not so sure. Anyway, all I’ve got are a few directions scribbled down, some advice on how to read the road signs, maybe a place up ahead to ask the way when I get lost. Help me set my feet toward you. Steer me to those who will guide me wisely. Send me true companions along the road. Teach me that feeling lost may not be cause for panic but may lead to new and challenging paths. Let me know that you are always walking with me. Amen.”
“In the book The Little Prince, the fox tells the prince his secret for happiness:
‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
“You are invited to take a piece of play money and write on it the names of those invisible things that are most valuable to you. (Play quiet music.)
“We invite you to come forward, place your money on the prayer table and share aloud one of your invisible treasures.”
Response: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“Good and gracious God, thank you for your love and care. We ask for your providence in these difficult times. Provide for us and those we love because we are your own and we love you. Amen.”