Twenty-seven million. That’s the total of current and retired American government workers at the state and local level. The vast majority of them either will be or already are collecting a pension guaranteed for life. Many of these pensions assure retirees of a comfortable retirement. Some of them go beyond comfortable. For instance, some former police officers, still in their early 40s, now collect pensions in excess of $100,000 a year. A few annually exceed $200,000. Adjustments are possible for future workers. But for the most part, there’s no scaling back of pensions for either current employees or current retirees. Blame and finger-pointing abound.
Where is all that money going to come from? Nobody knows. Since the stock market drop and the financial crisis of 2008, projected revenue streams aren’t what they used to be. The total pension obligation to state and local government employees now creates a shortfall of around $3.4 trillion. Taxpayers are on the hook for it.
What to do?
A chapter from the story of Joseph – a spiritual giant from early in the Old Testament – maps a problem-solving course for today. His story becomes especially useful just following his release from prison. Servants bring Joseph before Pharaoh in the hope of his deciphering a troubling dream that perplexes the ruler. But before Joseph explains the dream, he explains why he can.
Joseph points not to any personal knack or financial strategy. There’s a noticeable lack of blame and finger-pointing. Instead, Joseph points to the one God, who is infinite Soul, the source of all intelligence and inspiration. God, the Soul of all, is the divine basis for seeing abundance right where others might see only scarcity. Joseph says to Pharaoh, “It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Gen. 41:16). That “answer of peace” foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of want.
The story continues. Joseph – perhaps because he is so unencumbered by any personal agenda – goes well beyond his original assignment of explaining the dream. He points toward resolving the looming crisis. Joseph lays out a program of harvesting and warehousing the overage of grain from the plentiful years, in order to carry the whole nation through the lean years.
Amazingly, he doesn’t just get Pharaoh on board with this plan. He also gets society as a whole on board. In fact, they not only buy into this discipline but stay with it year after year after year. (That’s almost unimaginable in today’s jittery, solve-my-problems-right-now-and-give-me-a-tax-break-[grain-break?]-while-you’re-at-it political environment.) Joseph’s whole approach grows from his initial rejection of the notion of personal problem solvers and his turning instead to the one Soul, or source of all promise, as well as all fulfillment.
“It is not in me,” he says. “God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” If the answer had been in or of a finite person, the answer would have been riddled with finiteness. But this message, which glows with meaning for spiritual seekers today as well as yesterday, springs from infinite Soul. God, not a mortal, not even a whole troop of mortals, gives us answers of peace. Those answers calm and quiet and assure thought. They open windows to solutions from on high. And they never rob Peter to pay Paul.
Mary Baker Eddy – a lifelong student of the Bible, consecrated follower of Christ Jesus, and avid appreciator of Bible characters like Joseph – once wrote, “Soul has infinite resources with which to bless mankind, and happiness would be more readily attained and would be more secure in our keeping, if sought in Soul” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 60). Those “infinite resources” of Soul inevitably involve the idea of abundance and the reflection of intelligence, both coming from the same divine source. In Joseph’s day it would not have been enough to have abundant harvests for years on end. They had to be intelligently valued, managed, stored, distributed. Not surprisingly, there was enough to go around.
God’s “answer of peace” allowed for thoughtful deliberation and the unearthing of good answers. And today, it allows for the spiritual listening that leads to better human strategies, including the very strategies now needed to defuse the pension time bomb.
To sum up: We can start with humility of the “it is not in me” variety. Turn thought away from a personal or political agenda. Claim assuring answers of peace as already present, even if we don’t yet see them. Realize the promise and fulfillment of Soul, the source of all abundance and all intelligence. Then expect problems, even those as massive as the pension problem, to get solved.
From an editorial in the Christian Science Sentinel.