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Ep. 8 – 1971 - Part 3: FINANCES – FROM CROCODILES TO CUCUMBERS: Follow the money

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The apostle Paul is arguably the most well-known missionary in history. After all, he wrote about half of the New Testament. His words to the Philippian church in chapter 4 regarding his financial situation reveal that his support varied greatly from having nothing to enjoying abundance. In Corinth (Acts 18), he spent time making tents to support himself. Our support varied widely, too. Although we never made tents, over the years we engaged in a variety of professions Paul never even heard of.


In the previous episode, I talked about the importance of the role of family in a foreign mission endeavor. Of course, the same goes for workers in church ministry at home. My point was that missionaries are more likely to leave the field because of family issues than for lack of material resources. After all, if God has called us to a work, He’ll be sure we have whatever we need to do His will. “He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” 1 Thess. 5.24. Truth in application statement: that verse is not talking about our material needs, by the way. The context is God’s call for us to be blameless before Jesus Christ when He comes, and He Himself will work to make that happen. Even so, I don’t think we stretch the point too far when we apply it to the material things we need to fulfil any plan God has laid out for us.

That said, disagreements about money are listed as a main cause of divorce. I would venture to add that those issues would likely arise from two extremes: having too much money or not having enough. I’ve already hinted at certain aspects of our financial situation, but I want to concentrate here on the material challenges we had to overcome in our climb up this mountain God set before us.

Apart from the fact I had quit my job and we were totally dependent on voluntary offerings of churches and individuals, the first battle I faced was getting an exemption from Social Security contributions. If I were giving this talk in person, I would ask people in the audience to raise their hand if they know what I’m talking about, and just as I expected, no one would. So I’ll ask you who are listening to or reading these words to raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about. Well, I can’t see any hands in the air, so I’ll try to briefly explain what led to this point.

Back in the 60s, ministers were included in the requirements to make contributions to Social Security on the income they received from churches. There were enough pastors and religious workers who objected on the grounds of conscience and the separation of church and state that the IRS allowed them to opt out of paying into Social Security on income earned as a minister. Income from any other source would still be subject to SS contributions. This option is still available today, but the catch is that the minister must opt for this exclusion the first time he declares income as a religious worker. My father-in-law and other pastors and missionaries we knew were doing just that as the rules came into effect sometime in the 1960s. As we began our mission work and became dependent on church offerings instead of wages from employment, I felt we would be better served not having to set aside payments to SS. Every penny saved would be a dollar earned, and we would need every penny we got. I went to the SS office in Little Rock in January to apply for the exemption. In their reply, the SSA denied my request, and I made numerous appeals in 1971 before accepting inevitable defeat by the end of the year. The reason for their refusal was that in 1967, shortly after Abbie and I got married, I pastored a small country church for about a year while I was still a student at John Brown University. And although I had not received any income as a minister in the following three years, because I hadn’t opted out of SS that first time, I was locked in.

I had to admit defeat in this first battle, and it was disappointing. But I resigned myself to the fact my best laid plan had been thwarted by bureaucratic technicalities. The importance of that defeat only came to fruition 42 years later when I filed for SS retirement and Medicare benefits, which are a major factor in meeting our expenses now.

There are two lessons (at least) to be learned from this. The first is eschatological, in other words, what does it tell us about the end of the world and the last days? Well, besides their convictions regarding the separation of church and state, there was the belief by some, like one brother my age who was starting his pastoral ministry the same time as I was, that the world was going to end before our generation reached retirement age. Among our churches the emphasis on prophetic messages created the conviction that Jesus’ words, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place” referred to our generation, which was born right at the time Israel had become an independent nation in 1948. In other words, the fig tree had put forth its leaves. Matthew 24.32-34.

Of course, every day brings us closer to the coming of the Lord and the fulfilment of end time prophecies, but we don’t know exactly when that will be. Martin Luther is quoted as having said something along the lines of “If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” Whether he actually said that, or not, is open to debate, but that apple doesn’t fall far from the tree of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24.45-46 when He says, “Who is a faithful and sensible slave…? That slave whose master finds him working when he comes will be rewarded.” The way things are moving so fast on the world stage, who knows? The Lord may still come while I’m collecting Social Security payments. The lesson here is to keep plowing, sowing and watering until we’re called from the field, one way or another.

The second lesson is to always remember that God sees around the curves and over the hills of the road our lives will take and knows the crossroads we will come to even years into the future. Looking back, one of the main reasons I pastored that church for a year back in 1967 may well have been to trigger the bureaucratic regulations that thwarted my plan, which turned out to be not so brilliant, after all.


THE SIGN OF THE CROCODILE

It was in our initial conversation with the SS employee in Little Rock that crocodiles were introduced into our financial future. I explained to the lady in the SS office that we were going to Brazil, along with the why and how of our going. She saw us for what we were, two young visionaries with no guaranteed financial support. Her words of concern were, “Why are you taking two little kids into the Amazon jungle to be eaten by crocodiles?” She was probably close to right about the young, foolish visionaries, but she missed it on the part about the Amazon and the crocodiles. We were going to the other end of Brazil, thousands of miles from the Amazon. The greatest dangers we exposed our children to were not crocodiles, it was driving in São Paulo, and the black expresso coffees the teenage girls of the church gave Jeff back in the kitchen while we visited with their parents in the living room. He wasn’t even two years old yet.

MATERIAL SACRIFICES?

We were never instructed to “sell all and give to the poor” like Jesus told the rich young ruler to do, but in moving from continent to continent three times, we came pretty close to giving it all away. More about that in the chapter on 1972, when we finally made the first intercontinental jump. In October 1971, we were informed by Bro. Garner (see Cast of Characters, Ep. 7) that the church would sell Abbie’s piano and use that money for the travel fund. The Piano. As I mentioned in Episode 7, the piano is a recurring element in our story. Abbie’s older sisters had piano lessons, but when it was her turn, there was no money left for lessons. Her parents got her a correspondence course instead and from the time she was 9, she taught herself to play the piano. After we married, a piano was as essential in our home as a stove and refrigerator. But taking the piano to Brazil was out of the question, and there was no place to store it. Besides, we had no intention of coming back from Brazil, anyway. In the end, when we did leave Brazil, it was for reasons we never dreamed of. Doing without her piano was as big a sacrifice as Abbie could make. She would sooner leave behind her mother and father. Jesus said we should be willing to do that, and although He didn’t mention a piano, I think it’s safe to say He meant that, too.

We never knew what our income would be from one month to the next or even one day to the next. We knew God would provide our needs, no matter their size, and if we had the cash, we would take a step of faith and buy them. (The only credit cards we had were for gas at Phillips and Mobil stations.) One Wednesday in early December in California, we found a suit coat, a pair of pants, and two ties on sale at Sears, and paid $57.89 for them. I’m not sure what we expected to buy with the $0.14 I had left in my pocket. But that night at a church meeting, the Ladies’ Auxiliary gave us $26 and the church gave us a $25 offering. I had a new coat and we had enough to go on to the next day. [Full disclosure: What I spent was all the cash we had. That morning I had cashed $318 in checks and bought $260 in travelers’ checks. That’s why I had $58 in cash and had $0.11 change left over from buying those clothes. Doing the math, I must have had $0.03 in my pocket before I cashed those checks. This raises another question: Do traveler’s checks even exist anymore?]

I mentioned earlier how God used His people to provide us with our daily bread in Tacoma, but in Portugal He used neighbors who would never dare to come hear the gospel from “Protestants” to knock on our door and literally give us the bread we would need for 4 days.


MAKING TENTS OUT OF CUCUMBERS

We were blessed over and over by the gifts and offerings of others, but we never asked for any offerings or launched any appeals for support. We would let people know what our specific needs were, if they asked and seemed truly interested, but that was not our standard practice. Before “bi-vocational” became a catchword for missionaries engaged in tent-making for support, we were “try-vocational”. We tried our hand at anything to make ends meet. Years later in Madeira, we made macramé and decorated wedding cakes. We sold Bibles and greeting cards. I taught English and did translations; eventually I worked for the US Dept. of State as a consular agent.

All of that was foreshadowed in 1971. In September our offerings totaled $90, following the three preceding months in which offerings were under $200/month, while I was doing the linguistics course. Earlier I mentioned the crocodiles we were warned about in January, and now in September here come the cucumbers.

We spent September with Abbie’s sister and her family in Bellingham, Washington. I had no preaching appointments, so we worked. Abbie’s brother-in-law Carlton was delivering newspapers on a rural route every morning from 2 a.m. to around 5 a.m. and for a couple of weeks I made $6 a night delivering the newspapers for him. I would come back to the house, grab a quick nap if possible, and for two weeks, Abbie and I went out and from 9 a.m. to around noon, or as long as we could stand it, we picked cucumbers for the extravagant sum of $0.35 per 5 lb. bucket. It was cold and damp in the early morning; the prickly cucumber vines irritated our arms, even when we wore gloves. It was backbreaking work but rewarding: when we retired from our 2-week career as professional cucumber-pickers, we limped away with $23.45 in our pockets. One morning, for a change, we picked sweet corn for $2.00 a sack and came away with $3.80. By the end of September, when it was time to head to Quesnel, British Colombia, for our next church appointment, we had $86 on hand. It must have been enough because we did get across the border, although I did write in the journal, “…had to talk with the border guard for a while.” I wonder why that was?

We spent about a week in Quesnel, which is about 400 miles north of the border. It was our first introduction to the "other" English spoken by a lot of people. I wrote in my journal that the Canadians say “holidays” when we Americans say “vacation” and “suspenders” to us are “braces” to them. But having lived 40 years in Madeira within the sphere of UK influence, we find such expressions normal to our ears now .

When we returned to Washington, we ended up in Cashmere, and I added apple-picking to my repertoire of farmhand skills. By the end of the 4th day of picking, I had registered 15 bins of apples at $5 each, so that was $75! Not only did the money suit me better, I found standing on a ladder and reaching up for an apple was much more enjoyable than bending over to pick up a cucumber off the wet ground. Bruised apples didn’t count, and we could eat one of them now and then. That, too, was more appetizing than taking a bite out of a too ripe cucumber.

Comparing prices in 1971 with prices today is more entertaining than it is instructive. But having only $0.14 in my pocket now wouldn’t be much different from having only $0.14 back then. Well, I do have credit cards now, and I didn’t then. We did buy gas in El Paso for $0.20/gallon and in Arizona for $0.32. And how much would you say it cost us to go to Disneyland with the two kids in December 1971? Rick got in free because he was still 2, and a church family we visited in L.A. loaned us their Disney card to help with the expenses. I don’t know how much the card saved us, but we got in for $14.

From Cashmere, our next stop was Bend, Oregon, the last week of October. It was there that I got a phone call that revealed the elephant in the room that went wherever we did. An elephant that stalked us for 30 years.

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