Vampire Problems

draculaWhat kind of problems require faith?

David Brooks has highlighted a problem he calls a Vampire Problem. Say you are thinking about becoming a vampire, but you’re on the fence. The drinking blood, sleeping in a coffin, no playing golf during the day…it’s a tough decision. Adding to the problem, once you become a vampire there isn’t any going back. Brook’s point is that the most important decisions in life, who to marry, when and how many kids to have, what job to take, these types of problems are ‘vampire problems’ – they have two main characteristics:

1.) There isn’t any way to fully know what life will be like if you make that decision.

2.) Once you make the decision, you can’t go back.

These type of problems can’t be solved with logic, knowledge, analytics, research, or education. As the article points out: “’You shouldn’t fool yourself…You have no idea what you are getting into.’” These type of problems require faith.

Following Jesus is certainly this type of problem. He promises that (1.) You’re spiritually dead right now and you can’t know what it’s like to be alive but (2.) you can be alive with a life that’s better than you can ever imagine and once you are alive you won’t ever be the same.

A lot of financial problems are like this as well. There isn’t any way to fully know the outcome of a decision you need to make. Can I afford to have a child right now? If I take this 2nd job, will I have enough time and energy for my friends and family? If I commit to paying off debt will I still be able to have fun? Will this investment pan out? Which of these two jobs should I take? Is it worth it to move to a new city to go to grad school? Should I fix this old car or buy a new one?

The good news is that faith isn’t blind. It’s an action in the direction of my hope. That’s why all my financial (and life) choices need to start with an act of the will. I need to have hope in my heart that I can be debt free and that it will be worth it before I can start taking actions in that direction.

Faith is the action toward the thing I’m hopeful for. What are your financial hopes for 2017? How about 5 years and 10 years from now? Let’s write those down as we head into a new year. Do you hope to be debt free? To pay off your student loans? To have a fully funded emergency fund? To pay for graduate school? To land a specific job? To start a business?

Quick Thought

jason dayI taught a small group this morning on “The Long Defeat”. It’s a quote from Tolkien that I came across this week via Wesley’s wonderful essay (which links this from Alan Jacobs) and I think pairs perfectly with this beautiful poem and reflection by Richard Rohr.

One connection I’ll make here: If I’m results driven, bitterness will eventually become the defining characteristic of my life. Instead, I submit the outcome (including the possibility of defeat in my life, my relationships, my projects, my country, all my needs and hopes and dreams) to God and I learn to ‘practice’ living.

This is true of budgeting and raising children. It’s true for world number one Jason Day: “I got addicted to the process of getting better.” It’s equally true for every non-famous person that does their taxes, serves a client, prepares a meal, teaches a child math, or pays off a debt.

Change (Part Two)

grip golfI have been teaching my son to golf over the past few years. Unfortunately he inherited his dad’s aversion to authority so taking direction hasn’t always gone well. Despite the people that want to help him get better, he pushes back. As we have noted, change is hard.

One reason he pushes back: It doesn’t feel right.

The vast majority of golf teachers in the world will tell you that you need to hold the club in your fingers (not palms) with the “V” of your index finger and thumb pointing at your right shoulder. Often Zeke’s grip will get too “weak”, with the “V” pointing at his chin or left shoulder instead of right shoulder.  This is a critical fundamental to hitting the shots he wants to hit, so I’ll reposition his hands on the club and say “Try it this way”.

But he hates it. He says it doesn’t feel comfortable. He won’t be able to hit the ball the way he’s practiced. After I’ve placed his hands on the club the correct way he even re-grips it back to the old way right before he swings.

Of course he’s right. It doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel comfortable. He legitimately doesn’t like it.

But a good golf teaching professional will tell you “what you feel isn’t real”. If you will stick with the change and hit a couple hundred golf balls, the new grip will become your “normal” grip and anything else will start to feel weird. It will become your new normal fundamental.

I don’t need to make the applications to life for you, but I just want to encourage you. If you’re struggling with an area of change – especially around your personal finances – stick with it. It won’t feel comfortable. That’s ok. Trust the process. Hit a couple hundred balls and you’ll look back and not recognize that old crappy golfer.

“I ruined my life”

Lives on Hold“Step by step, one law after another has been enacted by Congress to make student debt the worst kind of debt for Americans”

One of the things I informally track is overall attitudes toward borrowing, student loans, and higher education debt. I think this is important, because if there is a ‘bubble’ and the landscape of higher education (and paying for that education) dramatically changes, one of the major reasons will be because of a very public backlash.

We may not have a full fire, but there is a lot of smoke around this subject. The latest example:

http://www.consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis/lives-on-hold/

That article puts some of the blame on the private collection agencies, but I don’t think that is a real problem or a real solution.

Larry Burkett used to say ‘Debt isn’t a problem, its a symptom of a problem’. Collection agencies aren’t the problem, but a symptom of a larger institutional problem.

Healthy

judge-mathisRight now I am working on a laptop in the waiting room of an auto dealership while my car is being serviced. On the TV is a daytime courtroom show where a Judge (me looking up) – Judge Mathis – is litigating a string of horrible people who are fighting over ridiculous things, ostensibly for our entertainment.

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.

A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.

I’m struck by how much time, energy, and wasted opportunity is being spent by the foolish people appearing on this show. Not appearing on the show – I mean their actual lives. It’s actually heartbreaking. Why do we waste life surrounding ourselves with destructive people?

By the grace of God and to my greatest ability, I will surround myself with healthy people.

Some forms of healthy are easy to spot (meth users), but some are not.  Am I actively seeking financially healthy friends?

Faith?

Faith imageYou gotta have faith!

What does this mean?

God will provide” is another variant of this idea. The idea that “faith” is a fix-all for what we don’t know and understand or a green light to pursue any desire we can dream up.

Where does the role of faith fit into a healthy understanding of my finances?

While I’m not a theologian, I have heard a lot of people using ‘faith’ language around financial matters for a long time. We’ve discussed that some people use ‘faith’ as a reason for pursing a theological education – sometimes used correctly and sometimes used as an argument for non-logical actions. Prosperity gospel teachers have also used ‘faith’ language to create an entire theological worldview where one’s physical blessings and hardships can be the result of their faith or lack thereof.

While there are many definitions of faith, I believe there is one definition of faith that will change your entire financial worldview. Let’s walk through it:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for…”

One way I believe Paul helped explain the world was dividing it into multiple “realms”. The physical universe (your skin, bones, DNA, cells, etc.), the spiritual world (the heart, the Spirit, Faith, hope, love, peace, etc.), and the mind or your thoughts.  There are a number of examples of this (Romans 12:1, Romans 7:21-24, Romans 8:5-15, Galatians 5:16-18).

I believe when the author of Hebrews 11 (probably not Paul) is saying that faith is the SUBSTANCE, what they are saying is that it is physical thing – an action in the physical world.  This would echo what James says in the second chapter of his book that faith without deeds isn’t actually a real thing. It’s ‘dead’. Faith is itself an action based on your HOPE. Jesus said calling me “Lord” is pretty worthless if you don’t actually take my teaching and put it into “practice”.  Walt Henrichsen says we take risks in the direction of our hope. Where is our hope? Where are we taking risks?

For example, I think this definition works well with understanding salvation itself. Paul in Romans outlines a process:  Though sinful (Romans 1-3), we have justification for sins by faith (chapter 4). Hope isn’t a wish, but an eager expectation that doesn’t disappoint (chapter 5). Our hope is in Jesus (Rom 5:1-2) who is the Hope of Glory (Eph 1:11-14 and Col 1:27), saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9). Salvation comes through the physical actions taken in the direction of our hope. Thus in Romans 10:9 Paul says if you take a physical action in the direction of your hope – confess with your mouth what you believe in your heart – you will be saved. Another way of saying the same thing?  Follow Jesus. Believe he is who he says he is and actually do what he teaches (John 14:15-24).

Back to finances….I believe it’s critical to articulate what I’m hoping for. This will greatly clarify my faith statements. It’s really how the scientific process works. I set an eager expectation when I construct a hypothesis. Then I take a step of faith into the unknown and begin testing (“method”) in the direction of my hope. This is quite literally gathering ‘evidence of things not seen’.

What am I hoping for in my finances?

Having more than $400 for an emergency?

Being a responsible steward of all I’ve been given?

Raising my children without endemic poverty?

Being completely debt free someday?

Going to Seminary without debt?

Paying my student loans off within 5 years?

Sending my children to college without debt?

Allowing my spouse to be able to be a homemaker?

Giving 20% of my income?

Taking a year off of work when I turn 40 to serve the hurting?

 

This can’t be hope as a ‘wish and a dream’, but rather an eager expectation. What Peter called a “living hope”.  Romans 15 calls God the “God of Hope” whom through the Holy Spirit we may “abound in hope”. Peter described hope as something we can “set fully on”. Paul described it as a product of suffering, perseverance, and character. Solomon said without it the heart grows sick.

We need to land on a specific goal, a firmly embedded hope in our heart. Then we can start by taking actions in the direction of our hope. This is an act of faith – a risk in the direction of my hope.

It can be extremely unglamorous. I have a strong hope that raising children in a stable home and remaining married to my wife will be worth it in the long run. The reality is that this isn’t the easiest or most self-gratifying way to go through life. The reality is that I don’t know what life will be like in 20 or 30 years. But I have an ever present earnest hope that my life will be better in the future if I love my wife and serve my children in the present. And so in an ACT OF FAITH, I change diapers and go to work each morning. It is an act of faith – an action believing that it will be worth it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say doing the dishes is an extraordinary act of faithfulness. This is the kind of faith that breaks down generational cycles of fatherlessness, poverty, alcoholism, and abuse.

What is my financial hope? Do I want my spouse to be able to stay home with our children? I understand it isn’t possible right now. Step one: Set my hope on that outcome. Step two: Take a physical step of faith in that direction. What can I sell? Can I work a 2nd job? Can I downsize our house or car? Can I cut our food or entertainment budget in half? Can we payoff a credit card in the next 60 days if we live on nothing?

Do you feel called to go to Seminary without incurring a crushing debt burden? That is a noble goal. Set your hope in that direction. Next, start taking steps in the direction of your hope. Have you applied to Seminary? Have you applied for scholarships? Have you applied to 10 better jobs then you have now? Have you tried doing fundraising? Have you shared your vision with 20 people?  They all won’t work, but that’s ok. We don’t know what act of faith will work unless we try. Finding out what will work or watching God reshape our hope in another direction all together – that is the miracle of the divine crashing into my finite time and place. And it will be your unique story of how God provided and your faith will be strengthened because you will have your own personal “evidence”.  “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” It always starts with an action in the direction of your hope.

When it comes to finances, I’ve often had someone tell me “you can’t do that”. The truth they are telling me is probably “I can’t do that.” I understand these are wildly taken out of context, but there are instances of Jesus being amazed by unbelief. He is saying “Why aren’t you actually doing anything?” We say “Well, because we can’t control the wind and the waves.” Apparently that isn’t a good enough reason.

Conversely, Jesus was amazed by the faith of an outsider who took action when his servant fell ill. I believe a lack of faith is refusing to take steps into the unknown in the direction of my hope. You might believe it’s impossible to pay cash for your next car. Have you considered selling your expensive car that currently has payments? Have you read any books or articles on how to do it? Have you considered driving a crappy car for 6-12 months? Have you considered what you could sell to raise the money? Have you considered driving a car with hail damage? Have you considered going with one car for a significant period of time? Have you bought a car with significantly less features for a lot less money?

I know you can because my wife and I have done all of these things. I’m happy to say we have two beautiful, paid for cars. It took my wife and me a couple of years, a string of ugly cars, several breakdowns, a few arguments when we only had one car, and an ’04 Kia with hail damage I bought for less money than I was making per week, but we did it and we’ll never go back.

I have had people use spiritual language around a financial event that causes me to wonder. They say God “blessed” them with a new car (and car loan) or God “provided” the financing for the house of their dreams.  The reality is I don’t know, maybe He did. But I do believe “The blessing of the Lord makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow to it.” I wouldn’t want the blessing of your car if it came with your car payment.  My deepest desire is a greater Hope for you. I want a greater faith in the direction of that hope.

The message for me, as well as you, is that we wouldn’t settle for good enough. The good news of the gospel is that we can participate in the Kingdom – how the world ought to be. Let’s set forth with Kingdom hope and then take audacious actions in that direction.  When someone says “You gotta have faith”, I trust they have survived suffering, produced perseverance, developed character, and nurtured a hope that is deserving of that faith.

And I hope they have enough faith to take courageous action in that direction.

Article

Here is a long article published last week in the Boston Globe:Capture

LINK: The College Debt Crisis is Even Worse Than You Think.

 

It raises a lot of tough questions about the role college plays in escaping poverty. It’s a tough subject. I’m speaking tomorrow to 25 students on the risks minority students face when taking out student loan debt. In my talk I highlight ‘Layers of Risk‘, including the graph you see here. When you combine layers of risk, the stakes change. For example in the graph, you’re slightly more financially healthy as a black male then a white female – primarily because of the Gender Pay Gap. But when you add an additional layer of risk – being a black female, the numbers jump. Add additional layers of risk like being born into poverty and the numbers jump further.

Email me with thoughts or questions.

Do you have Millionaire Myths?

The_millioner_mind_bookcoverThomas Stanley was one of the most important myth busters in America. His original Millionaire Next Door changed the way we understand wealth building in America. His book Stop Acting Rich is probably my favorite, but his book Millionaire Mind tried to address the mindset (as opposed to the practical – cut spending, investing, etc.) of the most financially successful.

Since Dr. Stanley passed away last year, Dave Ramsey has started doing a Millionaire theme hour every few months where he brings on real life average millionaires and asks them a few questions. What becomes apparent listening to a few of these is that there are a number of popular myths around those that have accumulated wealth:

MYTHS:

  1. Wealthy inherited their money
  2. Wealthy are famous
  3. The wealthy did something unethical to gain their wealth
  4. The wealthy are workaholics without families
  5. The wealthy went to a top college or university
  6. The wealthy are smarter or more intelligent
  7. The wealthy started with money (It takes money to make money)
  8. The wealthy live extravagantly (new cars, expensive jeans, etc.)

The reality – both statistically and anecdotally – is that that these just aren’t true. The vast majority are first generation millionaires (88%) that live very inconspicuous lives (1% are famous musicians or athletes), acquired their wealth slowly by saving over a long period of time, have long stable marriages, and graduated in the middle of their class with average GPAs.

Instead, in the Millionaire Mind, Stanley ranked the most important attributes:

  1. Being Honest – Integrity
  2. Being Disciplined
  3. Getting along with people
  4. Having a supportive spouse
  5. Working hard

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO ME?

You might be wondering how this applies if you’re in Seminary or a graduate school. First, it’s amazing the wisdom of scripture (especially Proverbs) that bleeds through:

  1. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by duplicity.”
  2. “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.”
  3. “The prudent hold their tongues.” “Blessed are the peacemakers”
  4. “A wife of noble character….more precious than rubies. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.”
  5. Hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

If you’ve chosen to spend your life studying and teaching the scriptures, rest assured that if you practically apply what you’ve learned to your own life you are on the road to “all these things being added unto you.”

Second, critically analyze any negative thinking you may have around going into ministry. “I’m going into ministry, so I’ll never be financially stable.” “I’ll never be able to go to Seminary without debt.” Is that true? Maybe. But maybe not. God calls different people into different circumstances, but we do know that “The blessing of the LORD makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” I believe the key to that verse isn’t “rich”, it’s “no sorrow”. You can have a rich ministry with no financial sorrow. You can have a rich marriage, with no sorrow. A rich friendship without drama is a blessing from the LORD.

Third, in The Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren says God cares more about your Character than your Circumstances. You may have noticed that Stanley’s keys are all issues of character. In Seminary, you’re presented with an overwhelming amount of information – brain knowledge. But it’s important to remember that the hard work of discipleship is developing your inner life to be “the same as that of Christ Jesus”. Regardless of your and my future financial gain, we can agree that Jesus had great integrity, showed great diligence and discipline, worked well with others, and wasn’t lazy. This is why Paul said “godliness with contentment is great gain.”

The point of this post: If you’re struggling with financial matters, let’s look at:

Mind: Do I have Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) around money, the wealthy, my finances, my future? Are these true in light of scripture?

Body: Do I practically have financially destructive actions or habits in my income or outgo?

Spirit: Do I have character issues that I need to work through?

DISCLAIMER:

In reviewing this article I think it’s important to note that the scriptures don’t give a formula that teaches CHARACTER leads to WEALTH. The point of this article is that many believe that wealth and good character are incompatible or incongruent, and that certainly isn’t the case.

It’s also important to note that the point of our finances isn’t becoming a millionaire or independence – especially from God who provides all our needs (Pro 30:9, I Cor 4:7, Matt 6:11, 1 Tim 6:17, Phil 4:19). Instead I believe we can and should aspire towards ‘Freedom’, specifically from debt both current and future.

Serious Issues require serious solutions

Hot DogsThis might be the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said, but….I had a dream last night about how we’re teaching personal finance. Aside from how Ridiculous that is, I woke up with a very clear impression. Here is the dream and impression:

I had a dream about a prep-style rally encouraging students to save money and knock out debt. It culminated with a white middle age lady in a pant suit going into a freestyle rap on the importance of fiscal prudence.

I’m sure that scene bubbled up from the recesses of my subconscious as a result of this article I read a couple weeks ago in which Indiana University representatives will at random times jump on a bus (painted with a caricature of a pig swinging on a wrecking ball a la Miley Cyrus) and hand out gift cards as rewards for correct answers to personal finance questions.

Here is (in my opinion) the problem with the strategy that Indiana University’s and other institutions who try to address financial issues with frivolity and merriment. Financial issues aren’t a light matter. While we can use humor to bring humanity to serious matters, the solutions aren’t any lighter than the core issues. This is my favorite clip of 2015. A hot dog eating contest is the perfect stage for outrageousness, but I fear that if you try to draw people into a heavy issue with a light hearted entree, they won’t stick.

I understand this makes me sound incredibly boring and old – believe me when I tell you nobody loves irreverent humor more than I do. But from my experience working in financial services for 15 years: You want your financial planner to take your money seriously. Your Realtor can wear flip flops (looking at houses is fun), but you want your mortgage banker to wear a blazer. I want my CPA to be so introverted he gets nervous looking at my shoes when we talk.

We respect ourselves more when we make respectable decisions. I want to be the type of person who takes my financial future seriously. Serious problems require serious solutions.