Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Relying on God, not our Retirement Funds

Ever since eating with the homeless two weeks ago, I've been thinking about wealth and how it's distributed. I've been thinking about my grandparents.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, and they'd have been considered poor throughout much of their lives. The churches that they served always made sure they had a house in which to live--but it was a parsonage, so they never owned it. They were paid, but those were in the days before the current ELCA guidelines were in place. They had enough, but not much more.

Still, they gave away money. They tithed to the church, and saved 10% too. My grandmother will still tell tales of tramps finding their way to my grandparents' house and asking for money. My grandfather never gave away money, for fear that it would be used to buy alcohol, but he would always make the tramp a fried egg sandwich, even if there weren't many eggs in the house. And then he'd sit on the back steps and eat with the stranger.

They never really saved for retirement. My grandmother's pension check from the ELCA is $90 a month--like I said, they were serving the church long before the ELCA guidelines were in place, guidelines that help insure that pastors will be compensated fairly--or what our current generation sees as fair. My grandfather made some investments with money that he made from selling honey, but for the most part, they trusted God.

And they have been compensated, far more than they ever would have thought possible. My grandfather's stocks, bought in teeny amounts, have appreciated. He didn't invest in the strange options we have now--he bought shares, often one at a time, in things that he saw his family using, like Duke Power, which provided their electricity. He would have been astonished had he lived long enough to see how well he provided for my grandmother with those stock purchases.

Of course, he'd have probably taken no credit for that.

He served a church in South Carolina for almost twenty-five years, and when he retired, the church gave them the parsonage that had been their home for that time. Pastors had started asking for a housing allowance, and the church knew that the next pastor was unlikely to want to move his family into a parsonage, into a small house that was in need of upgrades. So that church gave my grandparents the parsonage.

I think of all those Bible passages that tell us not to worry about tomorrow, all those passages that tell us that God will provide for the faithful. My grandparents were the only people I've known personally who were able to live that faith, and I'm sure part of what made that possible is that they lived through the Depression. They understood, in some visceral way, that humans will always be subject to economic forces that they can't understand.

They understood where their allegiance belonged. I'd like that kind of strength.

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