Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If I Were a Rich Man... Dadadadada....

It came down to the wire. I was supposed to leave for St. Michael’s last week to insulate and sheetrock the Abbot’s cell, but with Christmas, all of our kids and the grandchild staying with us for the holidays, our youngest’s 18th birthday bash, and a new daughter-in-law to be who was visiting to meet the family to celebrate, our finances got stretched thinner than angel hair pasta.  Fortunately, I picked up a couple last minute jobs that gave me a daily check so I could afford to buy some winter clothes which we don't have laying around in Arizona, pay for gas to get to the Monastery and leave a few dollars for the Wifey to buy groceries and electricity while I was gone.  I should have had my truck checked out since it has close to 100,000 miles and I’ve never had any “recommended services” done, the “check engine light” has been on for a few months, and it needs an oil change, but I just couldn’t afford it.

As I faced my diminishing bank balance, the “Mega-Millions” lottery cranked up to almost 350 million.  I was broke, so like all broke people, I spent money I didn’t have and bought one wishful thinking ticket. It was a buck, what the heck.  I’ve bought lottery tickets probably a half dozen times in my life and sometimes even when I wasn’t broke when it got up over 200 million. I always tell Wilma the Circle K Cashier that if I win I’ll set her up with a retirement plan.  Of course that's my way of telling God that if *I* win some good would come of it. This morning on the way to the monastery I bought coffee and told her we’re both going to have to keep working, I didn’t win.  She said “Yeah, I saw that..., oh well.” 

If only I had won the lottery…  I’d give Circle K Wilma a life.  I’d pay off my kids’ student loans.  I’d fix up St. Michael’s, St. John’s and St. Paisius’ Monasteries with all the stuff they need, I’d buy a Church building for our Mission parish, I wouldn’t have to worry about electricity, oil changes and whether I can afford a pair of long johns and work gloves.  I could build stuff for churches and monasteries for free, write and podcast all my *ahem* “wisdom” that no one will pay for, hand out hundred dollar bills to random needy people and cartoon all day.  Oh, the good I would do…

“The good I would do for God if I were suddenly rich” (or even slowly rich) idea runs rampant among Christians for some reason, and especially among wannabe full-time ministers like myself.  It is always the big selling point of sucking people into multi-level marketing schemes to Christians who always seem to be more than willing to use their friends to achieve their selfless goals of being independently wealthy in order to do something good for God, but I digress...

I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of problems with the  idea of being rich, problems that, in the still of the frighteningly silent nights in the bottom of the snow crusted canyon of St. Michael’s Monastery, become all too clear because there is nothing else to do but listen intently.

First of all, there is a problem with just the idea of “the good”.  In my wish to be rich I, of course,  think of myself and my intentions as good.  A corollary is that my judgment of what is “good” is ACTUALLY good.  Another problem is thinking that having money I got the easy way to throw at things I’m interested in is a good thing to do for myself and for those to whom I give so they won't have to work for it. And yet another issue is that I might question the worthiness of someone to receive my generosity, but I don’t question my judgment of their worthiness.

But as problematic as those things are, they are not the real problems.

The real problem is me.  If I were rich, the fact of the matter is I would do good for ME first.  I’d pay off MY debts, I’d buy ME a better car (but a used one in order to appear frugal), I’d by ME a better house (or at least a different one, but I guarantee it wouldn't be a trailer), and maybe even more houses around the country close to places *I* want to be (I’d assuage my guilt by making sure they were modest, maybe condos, and not in gated communities). Or, if I didn’t buy houses, I’d just be sure that I’d have enough money laying around to get me to those places and be sure I had enough money to stay someplace while I was there, and not a Motel 6.  And of course I’d buy some more and better stuff than I have now, instead of a 21 inch TV, I might even buy a 32 inch flat screen something or other.  THEN... with what was left over I’d spread it out among my kids and interests AFTER I made sure I’d have an endowment that would sustain MY new lifestyle, even if it is going to or building Monasteries and Churches.  Bottom line: I’d take care of myself first before anyone else, even if my life wouldn’t be extravagant or self-serving by “worldly” millionaire’s standards. 

But as real as that is, the other reality is, my delusion runs deeper than where and how I'd spend the money.  It is the same delusion that fueled my aspiration to priesthood, my illusions of quasi-monastic spiritual disciplines, my ego that torpedoes my good intentions, gets me my rewards early, and the vainglory that has fed a life of public ministries.  It is the delusion that if my life were different or someone else’s I would be a better person. It is the delusion that I am indeed so spiritual that I would rise above the temptations of riches that others have fallen for. It is the delusion that I am so spiritual that I am capable of greater things than others who have what I do not. If only I were rich is just one more in a long string of "if onlies" I've lived in during my life.  If only I were married, or not married, or married to someone else, if only I had a different job, if only I were a priest, if only I were paid to write, if only I didn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage or electric bill, if only I had a reliable car, if only, if only, if only.

The problem is, all of the “if only” scenarios I’ve ever had existed only in my head. “If only” is a fantasy world constructed by my narcissistic and ego driven self perceptions and assessments. “If only” is me telling myself lies and believing them.  “If only” is a foggy distraction from the clear mirror of what is true about myself. 

“If only” is the delusion that I would rise above my current self, my current inclinations and passions and lusts if given more of what I am not a good steward of now, even in the small things. If I hand forty bucks to a homeless mother in a parking lot on Christmas Eve, I think I’d be as generous with 40 million the whole year ‘round. “If only” is the delusion that given others’ circumstances that I desire or even envy, I would be better than the other "worldly people" I sit in judgment of who have what I do not.  “If only” is the delusion that I would manage another life better than I manage the one I have.  “If only” is the delusion that, given different circumstances, I would do great things.  “If only” is the delusion that I even know what a “great thing” is.  “If only” is a lack of faith that what I have been given is according to my capacity for “greatness”.  “If only” is laziness and the delusion that if I am given something other than what I have I would actually work harder at goodness than I do with what I have been given.  

In the end the reality is that when I aspire to an "if only" I am living in a fantasy dream world, not in the reality of the present moment. It is pride, it is thinking I know better than God what is good from evil, what is beneficial and harmful, what will lead me to perfection or perdition.  It is ultimately the antithesis of Eucharistic living, being thankful for this daily bread.  It is ingratitude and grumbling about the manna that falls from heaven each day and sustains me even in whatever martyric wilderness I narcissistically believe I am wandering in.  It is a distraction from holiness which comes only in the present moment of an encounter with God through my attentiveness to  who is or what is before me.  It is a rejection of humble acceptance of this hour, this minute of my life and the grace given in it. 

Indeed those who desire to get rich in this life pierce themselves with many a pang, even if they have good intentions.

It was two below zero in the mornings at the Monastery when we started working.  If I were rich, I’d have bought myself a set of those 60 dollar winter underwear at Bass Pro Shop and made dang sure I was comfortable working in the snow. Such is my life....


payton said...

This post is tremendous. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have read with joy your posts, your alive and well and help people, I truly envy you. I was in trades till illness knocked me out and an early retirement . I had just become Orthodox and was in wonder as to how i had missed it for so long. I take so many drugs I'm essentially homebound and rarely get to services anymore. I loved the cold of working outside and the heat also, I knew I was truly alive. I relive some of that thru your posts. I never wanted riches, if I got em i would pay my house off and give the rest to my wife who would probably just give it to the church. Keep working in good health, its really the joy in life, helping people, worshiping God, you are rich, life is good, keep writing.

Anonymous said...

them electric socks are good also

Anam Cara said...

One night a two couples from my husband's church, my husband and I were eating dinner before Bible study. Bob said we should go together and buy a lottery ticket. I can't remember what the prize was, but hed figured what the cash payoff would be, divided it by 3 and then announced, "After we tithe, we'll each have (enormous amount)." I said, "Why tithe? If we give God 50% we'll still each have (ridiculous amount).

You could have heard a pin drop. No one spoke as they tried to absorb this idea. Bob's mouth was open so wide as he took in a thought that had never occurred to him; he was so focused on the idea of 10%. Every one thought for the longest time and then agreed that 50% would be okay. And everyone of them realized at that moment how much of the concept of winning was about their desires.

We now laugh about it and even tease Bob about when he's going to buy that ticket. He still hasn't.

Anonymous said...

Just once, I want to be able to prove that money can't buy happiness.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

S-P, thanks for posting this.

Winning the Lottery is one of my all too favourite daydreams, and despite my superficially good intentions, it is all for the wrong reasons.
Thank God He has not ever let me win a jackpot; the only time I ever won was just £10 and that was used to buy my family a much-needed trash-can :-)

Atychi said...

I can only think of Racine's words in his Phaedra:

"Fear, my lord, fear lest the unbending heavens
Hate you enough to grant you your desire.
Oft in their wrath they take our sacrifice.
Often their gifts are sent to scourge our sins" (Act 5, scene 3).

elizabeth said...

Yeah. I relate to this struggle too. Yep. Job searching. God providing. I don't buy lotto tickets but I have the same struggle when I see a job with a great salary and get all distracted.

God help us.

Troon said...

Thx for your ministry of honesty. Amen and amen! I laughed with recognition the whole way through. If you hadn't gone because you had paid someone else to do the work, how poor we would all be. How rich in gratitude the monks must be, seeing your efforts in person. Instead it's all good, thank God.

Gary said...

Been there ... done that ... still doing it ... :(

Ian Climacus said...

I listened to this podcast last night. And listened again. And will do so again.

Your words could be mine; but I do not have your humility in admitting it openly. Thank you so much: I am not silly enough to realise from today I'll be perfect, but knowing I am not alone, and hearing through your words the challenge I should take up, is a great blessing. Thank you Steve.

Anonymous said...

While we wallow in self abasement, it's good to
remember Debi Feris the Garden of Angels
founder who won the lottery in California.
She gives abandoned deceased infants a name, and a decent burial, as well as promoted the Safe Surrender
for newborns program.

I'll call that doing the Lord's work. If she was blessed with some good bounty bucks to carry on with this
effort, good for her. I'll rejoice with those who rejoice.

s-p said...

Anon, Indeed a lot of good comes from ego, desire for praise, etc. "They have their reward" is an indictment of the person, not the value of the "ministry". I (try)to not judge other people's motives, only my own. So yes, rejoice for the good done by others, keep your eyes on your own heart.

ofgrace said...

I just finished reading the (unauthorized) biography of Oprah.. . . Sobering for those of us who envy riches. Just connect the "If only" to "I can and I will, its my 'God'-given calling and no-one can stop me" and you're on a roller coaster ride straight to hell! That is one of many lessons I took away from that book.

I'm now reading "Spiritual Formation" by Henri Nouwen. Back to some sanity!