Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Embarassment of Riches



It's hard to say where I am...well, where we are in terms of unity in our marriage. I'm struggling to discern God's design for me. On the one hand, I feel so strongly called to take care of the poor, but on the other, I've already made a commitment to take care of my marriage. I can't help one at the expense of the other.

Last week I ran an experiment. My husband and I had both watched the 60 Minutes documentary on Darfur, and we discovered that we fundamentally disagreed as to whether there was money in our budget for a donation. Rather than argue about whether we could afford it, I asked him what we could sacrifice. After some thought, he replied that he didn't want to make any sacrifices right now.

"You're kidding, right?"

"I know my limitations," he replied.

I was at a loss. We've had this discussion so many times and never get anywhere with it. So I simply said, "I'll find the money." And we went to bed. As I lay there praying and thinking, wondering how I could find an extra $100 without having the family sacrifice anything, it occurred to me that I spend $106 every week on groceries. (I don't really know how that number comes about; it just happens to be the total every time the cashier rings me up.)

I wondered...could I go a whole week without grocery shopping? What did we have? There was ground beef in the freezer, a cornish hen from when I bought three and only two would fit in the crock pot at a time, some homemade chicken soup I'd frozen months ago, a head of broccoli, some green beans, 1/2 an eggplant, a red pepper or two, a bag of carrots, a couple onions, 6 eggs and plenty of rice, beans, condiments, pasta and spices. Would it last a week?

I realized right away I'd have to buy something. Every morning my husband has a bowl of cereal with banana, and every afternoon he has an apple with peanut butter. I'd have to buy milk, apples and peanut butter or he would definitely feel that he was sacrificing. And the point was to do something for Darfur without affecting my family. Ideally, I would come to him after a week and say, "I didn't grocery shop this week. We did okay, didn't we? How about we give the money we saved to Darfur?"

I don't know whether to characterize it as hard or not. It was different. Almost immediately, I started to run out of things. Chili powder. Butter. Flour. Onions. Sugar. Eggs. Tomatoes. We'd invited guests for dinner on Friday night, so I had to entertain in the middle of this whole experiment. Overall, it was a success -- we ate a balanced, healthy, satisfying meal every night and I provided my husband with lunch to take to work every day. We were never hungry. It wasn't until Monday when he ran out of cereal that I brought him in on the whole idea, and he agreed to eat oatmeal for three days until I next went to the store.

I did things I'd never done before, like grate up a broccoli stalk and add it to chicken broth for our lunch. Normally I just throw the stalks out. Instead of cheese and crackers for a midafternoon snack, I popped some corn kernels. I substituted for lots of things I didn't have and tried new recipes when my usual ones wouldn't work. The thing that struck me the most was how much of my time I spent worrying about food, and how diligent I was at conserving it. I sat down at the start of the week and took stock of everything we had to plan out the menu. It didn't allow for any deviation. Monday's meal was crock pot beef bourguignon with a handful of green beans and the remaining 1/2 bag of egg noodles. So I couldn't touch any of that until Monday, even though Sunday's dinner could have used it.

And in so many ways, God provided. I'd planned to attend a prayer rally at my church on Saturday night. They advertised a "light supper" in between the 5:30 Mass and the speaker, so I planned it into our week. No cooking Saturday night. We'd just make do with whatever they served. Hot dogs? Pasta salad? Cheese and fruit? I hoped it'd be enough to satisfy our family and count as a meal. To my astonished delight, the Indonesian community at our parish prepared a feast for us. We had skewered chicken with peanut satay sauce, beef and vegetable crepes, rice with sweet soy sauce, salad, meatball soup, and cupcakes for desert. Not just enough food...bountiful, delicious, remarkable food. I was so grateful to God I nearly cried.

We only made it through the week, of course, because we had so much food already in the house. I think more than anything, it turned out to be a statement about how blessed we are. Even when my fridge is empty, my cupboards are still full. If we had to, we could have gone on longer, but at that point we would definitely have been compromising the nutritional content of our dinners.

Yet the success of the week wasn't the whole point of the experiment. Overarching the entire thing was my hope that it would set up another dialogue with my husband about giving to charity and where that fits into our lives. On that front, the week was less than successful.

When we talked about it, my husband agreed we could give $100 to Darfur. I'm grateful for that, and encouraged by it. But I don't know where we go from here. It's not like any time I want to give to charity I can just stop grocery shopping for a week. Besides the fact that it requires considerable reserves (and the intervention of my parish's Indonesian community) my husband doesn't consider it "saved money." To him, there is no difference between spending $50 on a skirt and spending $40 on a skirt then giving $10 to charity. We're out $50. I can't argue with his math, obviously, because that's fact. But to me, if our budget allows $50 for clothing, then buying something on sale should allow us to spend the extra on something else. Charity, for instance.

Without taking paragraphs and paragraphs to detail our fruitless, circular discussions, I'll just say that my husband feels the only things we should be spending money on right now are necessary items. However, he and I disagree on what constitutes a necessary item. In the interest of unity, and for the sake of my marriage, I want to resolve this in a way that makes both of us happy. I know we are a partnership, and therefore I can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do, but is it right for him to prevent me from the exercise of my faith?

Because that's what this is. God calls all of us to care for the poor. Stewardship is as much a requirement of my faith as Mass attendance and adherence to the doctrines of the Church. I don't know what the middle ground may be, but I know in my heart that it's not right for me to simply give up. I'm praying about this, asking God to help me discern what is pride and what is truth, for Mary and St. Elizabeth of Hungary to intercede for me, for Christ (who showed unflagging love and consideration for the poor while he was on Earth) to show me His way, and for the Holy Spirit to guide my words. I trust that God will find a way and give me the strength to follow it.

14 comments:

Sister Mary Martha said...

I have a great deal of admiration for you.

Tienne said...

Sister, that means so much coming from you!

Jennifer F. said...

Tienne - really random thought: is it an option that perhaps you could donate some of your time to getting *others* to donate money? With your passion I wouldn't be surprised if you were able to be a very effective fundraiser. You may be able to talk others into donating far more than you guys would be able to even if your husband were on board.

Anyway, just a thought. Keep us posted!

Anna said...

It still blows my mind that you could come out being $106 every week. My bill can vary by $60 from one week to the next.

Still no particular advice, except to confidently ask God for a solution.

Jennifer F. said...

I just read this great bio of a saint previously unknown to me, St. Frances of Rome. Certain aspects of her story reminded me of yours, such as her getting in trouble for giving food to the poor during a plague. Anyway, I thought you might like to know of her and perhaps ask for her intercession in helping you find a solution.

qualcosa di bello said...

Tienne...in spite of your frustrations, this is a beautiful & thoughtful post. & this is similar to some of the struggles my husband & i have had - which after 20 years of marriage i see are rooted in different thought processes (thankfully God made man & woman different & complimentary!). A husband/father tends to see the needs of his immediate family - how he must provide for them. My husband is very focused on that & it is a very deep thing with him. he is also very wary of what charities will do with the funds. i tend to see things in a perspective as you describe. i am *still* struggling with the words of the Gospel..."sell all you have & give to the poor..." as a single woman, i am certain that i would do just that (St. Francis of Assisi is one of my drawn-to saints & now i must go read up on St. Frances of Rome!). but in spiritual direction, somewhere in the years, i was told or read that our callings require different interpretations of that - if our family of 6 sold everything, we would not be prudent.

that said, i still would rather wear consignment clothing & shop for bargains with coupons,off season buys, etc (& have continued so in spite of my husband's increases in income - with countless stories of blessings i could tell you). your post on the bath mat really touched me!!

early in our marriage we began tithing, which my husband was very skeptical of for awhile. we agreed that we would only give to persons/situations that would receive the money directly rather than an organization that takes money for administrative pay. we pray & discuss together before we give. that came out of a lot of prayer. but i still feel we should do more, however i let that be in God's hands, because i believe God speaks to both spouses & when a change is needed, they are *both* nudged in that direction. in the meantime, i think jennifer f. speaks very wisely to your circumstances. and you may always give through your time & your own physical & spiritual gifts. also consider that your blog & your example of a godly wife/mother is a very valuable giving to the world around you.

Abigail said...

Tienne- thank you for the honesty of this post. We are struggling with this same issue. I don't have any advice to give on this struggle, but I did want to encourage you to take the "slow" approach by getting to an agreement with your spouse first.

Two years ago, I ran into a similar financial issue. We were trying to launch a home business at the same time that we were expecting a newborn--and ran out of savings. I was raised on the firm saying "never have credit card debt." My husband wanted to borrow $8,000. My reluctant compromise was to borrow the money, if he promised to get a job in six months when the interest was due in order to pay it off quickly. Well, six months later, we had a 3 month old, an 18 month old, a home business that was still not taking off, a family income that landed us on food stamps AND $400 due a month in credit card payments. My husband at this time couldn't find a job- and I was so mad! I KNEW that we shouldn't have taken on that credit debit. I must have brought this issue up during every marital spat for at least a year.

Finally, I read this article about finances and marriage in the Washington Post. The author stated her shock that people treated "money" issues differently than issues about child-rearing, etc. It was all just things to find an acceptable compromise on.

From that moment on, I made a conscious decision never to fight about this issue again. I figured that even if I wanted to never have credit card debt, I gave up the right to have all of my money decisions made exactly how I wanted them as soon as I became married.

Of course, things have worked out! By not being able to pay on our credit card for so long, we were able to qualify for a much more reasonable repayment plan. The money out each month forces us to be frugal, without sacrificing the basics. The time that we did "live off of borrowed money", meant that my husband could build up a design portfolio which lead to him getting hired as a manager, in a job that can now support us all. Meanwhile, my son was a high-needs baby who greatly benefited from having two parents at home to hold him.

I know that your situation is unique because you're trying to follow the example of Jesus, and not just some random Susie Ormond advice like I was. Still I just wanted to share my Frances of Rome story, that God's will and timing is really perfect and that our job as married women is to put our marriage first, even ahead of things we think we know to be true.

SteveG said...

Tienne,
I think your desires are not only understandable, but admirable. However in the interest of trying to offer an idea that may possibly help you find a way out of this dilemma, I'd like to just suggest a change of focus in how you conceive poverty.

I am hinting here at Mr. Teresa's observation that...

"In the developed countries there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than that one."

...and ask if there isn't a way to look right in your back yard at how you might sever those in poverty in the spiritual sense?

There are no lack of such people in our culture despite our wealth. And you might just be able to 'feed' them with other 'talents' than dollars (your time, your love, your touch).

Visiting abandoned folks in a nursing home? Teaching CCD at your local parish? I could go on and on.

Maybe you can fulfill the call in another way that not only fits with your situation, but might be even more inspiring to your husband.

On top of it all, please never forget that as a mother you feed the hunger, care for the sick, clothe the naked, and all the rest....ever day. It's no small thing itself.

SteveG said...

dang..that's the second time I abbreviated Mother with Mr. that really looks strange...I'd like you to meet Mister Teresa...:-P

NYC Mama said...

Because of you, I have just donated $50 to the International Rescue Committee. So you see, you have made a difference. I applaud your efforts to be the change you desire in this world, and as a Buddhist, deeply respect that your faith leads you to be that change. My fondest and best wishes to you in your quest to balance your individual fire for stewardship with your desire to have a balanced marriage of equals.

Milehimama said...

My husband is not Catholic, and I am. He is Christian but doesn't go to church. So the question of "tithe" comes up - how much? 10%? 5% since I'm half of the couple? What about other charitable donations?

Into this mix throw in that he wants to rebuild our computer, I think it's fine. He wants to upgrade other things, I'll make do. We rarely see eye-to-eye on what is necessary or not.

One thing that has helped was going to a cash system. Our budget for household expenses is $200/week (way more than your $100! Wonder if I can cut back) (That also includes diapers, paper products, clothes, school supplies, and everything else you can buy at Walmart and Target).

Money left over - I can spend as I want (well, within reason). So my time clipping coupons, etc. is also time I'm giving to God, if I use it for the poor, prolife causes, etc.

We also fundamentally disagree on how much of our budget should be spent on Cokes. Me = $0. Husband = At least one Coke everyday. More if there's a long honey-do list.
Our solution is that we each get $20 of "our" money to spend on whatever we want. Theoretically, I could use that money for tithing, etc. but really I use it for Mocha Joe's at Burger King and at the used bookstore. I think I need to cut down on the Mocha Joe's and beef up the donations after reading your post!

BTW< St. Frances of Rome is my patron saint. Her story is really relevant to your situation.

Roz said...

I'm late to the conversational party here but am too intrigued to just pass by.

You just served the poor by writing this. The title of your blog speaks of the passion of your heart and can certainly be used by God to help others gain attentiveness to a similar call.

You feel passion for giving to the poor out of the love of Christ. The giving, though useful, is most delightful to God because it's a response to the touch of his hand. For your husband, who's a different person, what does a personal response to the love of Christ look like? Is it deeper prayer? More attentiveness to his guardianship of the family? Willingness to face anxieties and grow in courage?

Perhaps this might be an opportunity for you both to grow in unity around supporting each other in responding to God's call in spite of difficulties.

Forgive my intrusiveness, but could he be experiencing pressure from you towards an action that doesn't sit right with him? In that case, it might be hard to let go of "protecting the position" long enough to listen to the cry of your heart and work together with you to figure out how you can respond to this deep desire of yours in a way that he can be peaceful with.

[And, on a practical note, how about gleaning cast-offs and garage sale finds and selling them on eBay to raise funds for charity? If you happen to have more time than money (a huge leap of assumption, I know), it's possible to trade one for the other.]

I admire you, dear sister in Christ. May God pour out more and more grace on you and your family.

God bless you,

Roz
Exultet

Anonymous said...

I feel the tension here in your marriage (again, something I'm familiar with)... and I urge you, my dear, to please, let your husband decide about these things. Stop pushing him so much. Let God work on his heart. Just work on being the best wife and mother you can be; feed your family wonderful meals while still keeping a frugal budget; work at building up a pantry (by shopping sales) that would feed your family for at least one solid month without shopping at all (except for milk, eggs, and produce); work at being more kind, more loving, more generous with your time and smiles and love.

And put every single worry about caring for the poor in God's hands. You will be amazed at what happens in your husband if you would just let him be the provider and make more of the decisions about finances.

I know, because I've seen it happen in my own husband. He is now more generous with our charitable giving than I would be! A number of years ago I finally decided to leave it all up to God, and to not mention it again. Wow. It's amazing. Now he is the one who decides to increase our church donations, he has found a charity near and dear to his own heart, he is the one who always comes up with an amount to give that is more than I was thinking!

Just put it in God's hands. Your vocation is to be a wife and mother. It can be a temptation to care more for the distant poor in Darfur then for the feelings of our own husbands. We are bound to them by a sacred vow and a sacrament; that's mighty powerful.

You don't have to publish this is you don't want... and again, please don't let my strong words offend you ... I am only telling you what I've learned on my path.

God bless you and your family!

pve design said...

Wonderfully inspiring to be so giving and still to find gratitude in tithing. When we look at what we have and not what we don't have, we suddenly realize how fortunate we are. Thanks for the inspiration.
pve