**This is post number two, of the I am a Terrible Christian Series. My friend Courtney wrestles with how the Protestant work ethic infused into the Church’s teachings threatens her family life with guilt.**
“Mommy, are we poor?”
My seven-year old had spent the afternoon at a friend’s three-story suburban home, running in and out of four bedrooms, an attic-converted-playroom (complete with a climbing wall), and a vast, fenced-in backyard. Suddenly she was faced with the relative smallness of her own living quarters: a leased, two-bedroom “garden” apartment, which is just a fancy way of saying we live in a basement.
“Maybe a little, honey,” I confess. “But we are happy!”
These are the words of comfort I have to offer. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I honestly believe them.
The other two percent of the time, I am concerned about my family’s obvious downward mobility. Both my husband and I were raised with a strong work ethic, faithfully passed down to us by a predominantly German Protestant culture. It is a work ethic with enough theological, historical, and economic baggage to earn its own Wikipedia page. As a child, I was taught that hard work, frugality, and self-denial are outward signs of inward salvation. I knew that it was acceptable to miss church if you were working; not so much if you were taking a vacation with your family. I knew the phrase, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” I assumed that the poor were poor because they were lazy and sinful.
Somewhere along the way, the church communicated to me that the fruits of one’s labor were fair indicators of the fruits of one’s spirit.
Inspired by generations of church and family history, Greg and I began married life with a total of seven part-time jobs. SEVEN. That was on top of our full-time college classes. We were the poster children for Protestant Work-aholism: rolling in the dough, churning out papers, making straight A’s. The unhappy result was that we had no friends. At least, no time to spend with friends. The journal I kept in those days reads like a Lamentations excerpt. Misery and self-pity. A longing for proper rest.
Fast-forward ten years, and we have two kids, plenty of free time, bunches of friends… and no money.
It’s not that we don’t work at all. We do, sort of. Greg is a full-time Ph.D. student, I am a part-time nanny. I also spend a lot of time with my preschooler, who only goes to school for three hours a day. And all four of us spend a lot of time with each other. All weekend. Every evening.
I could, if I chose to, forfeit a few of my daytime hours in exchange for another part-time job. Greg could easily pick up some preaching gigs on the weekend. And either of us could skip out on family dinners to wait on tables for extra income.
But you know what? I don’t want to. I like the flexibility in our schedules and our rhythms of shared family time. I like it that I’m able to attend a mother’s support group each week and take my kids to the park on a moment’s notice. I like our family’s routine of riding the subway to a free museum in the city on weekends. I like the fact that we don’t hire a nanny so we can work more. (After all, I’m a nanny myself; something about that seems redundant.)
Unfortunately, the burden of being a poor American is nothing compared to the keep-you-up-at-night guilt of being a poor Christian. As a child of the Protestant work ethic, I feel guilty because we now qualify for Snap Benefits. We have officially become the bottom-dwelling, grabby-handed members of society who rely on the pockets of the rich and able to fill our bellies. It’s strange how quickly we’ve morphed. Now when I see a news story about poor people buying crab legs with their Food Stamps, I no longer get hot flashes of righteous judgment. Instead, I think, “Mmm… seafood sounds good for dinner.”
I feel guilty because visiting food pantries and asking for scholarships have become regular staples in my day. What if there is a more deserving mouth, a more deserving family in need? What if taking those handouts becomes a habit I’m never able to shake? How long will it be before my kids catch on that the only reason they can take swimming lessons is because they qualified for the poor kid discount?
The Protestant Work Ethic is not entirely bad. It can be a wonderful motivator to live more simply so that others might simply live. However, my answer to paralyzing Protestant guilt is to remember that I also have a theology of rest.
My routine of Sabbath might look different from yours, but I believe it is what I presently need to be whole and centered. I need time for friends who speak truth into my life. I need time for walking outside. I need time for marriage counseling, and I need time to soak up the joy my children exude. None of these activities generates wealth, but in my life at least, each of them generates worth.
It occurs to me that Jesus took great pains to be whole and centered. He regularly took time to sit and pray – even spent whole days on the project. Rather than troubling himself with finding food, he regularly asked for handouts. He was homeless, relying on the kindness of others for his personal needs. When his friend Martha was running herself weary with dinner preparations, he told her to chillax.
“Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her” (The Message).
I don’t want to miss the main course. Yesterday my daughter came home with a note in her backpack, passed to her in class. Another child had written, “If you don’t play with just me, I won’t be your friend anymore,” and then drew an angry face, colored red. I pulled my sensitive seven-year old into my lap, and asked her how it made her feel to be manipulated by a so-called friend. To my surprise, she laughed big-heartedly over the letter and showed sympathy for its writer. She explained, “I don’t really worry about people like that. I know I come home to a family that loves me.”
It’s true we’re poor. Maybe even a little lazy. But we are also happy, a thousand times over.
Courtney Coates is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, so no career descriptor here. In the meantime, she is passionate about community-building, cooking, reading and writing. You can find her blog here.
You may also be interested in the first post of the series: “I am a Sad Christian.”