Sunday, February 27, 2005

My Journey With Debt

Today we are beginning a two week message series called "Escape the Debt Trap," utilizing the book by Dr. Kregg Hood. I thought it would be helpful for me to share my journey with debt as we begin. And let me say that I come to any discussion of money and faith with the following presupposition, with which you may or may not agree: Money is a very powerful influence in our life (as American Christians) and in many ways is a "leading indicator" of where we are spiritually. In other words, I take Jesus' words that "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also" (Matthew 6:21) literally in that how I regard my treasure shapes my heart. When I look at the way I manage my money, and my attitude towards money, I see both positive and negative dynamics that reflect quite accurately where I am spiritually.

I first got into debt a few years after college. I simply spent over a period of time more than I could afford which resulted in credit card debt that I knew would take a couple of years to pay off, absent a financial windfall. The dynamics of this situation were that I was in a 100% commission sales job and I felt I had to maintain a certain "psychology," namely, that if I lived as if I were making a certain amount of money in sales then I would be more likely to make it. That sounds crazy, but it's part of the "positive thinking" that is stressed in many sales environments. When I left my sales job in anticipation of going back to school, I used the intervening six months to work about 60 hours per week in a service job, live like a monk, and pay off most of it. Lesson learned? Nah. That would be too easy.

After Angela and I were married and living in Connecticut working with our first church, we allowed ourselves to get in debt again by purchasing things on credit. By today's standards, (the average family in America has $8,000 in credit card debt), it wasn't egregious, but it bothered us. In essence, we were purchasing a lifestyle we couldn't afford in anticipation of being able to afford it later. And we knew that was somewhat immature and also problematic spiritually. After all, aren't we told to be "content" and "patient"?

This continued through the 1990's, with us always carrying more credit card debt than we were comfortable with because we were too impatient to save for what we wanted. We were in the firm grip of "buy now, pay later." This is the American way, after all. Again, it wasn't a crisis situation, and it never affected our tithes and offerings, which we were careful not to compromise, but it was increasingly an unsatisfactory way for us to live. I began a ministry at our congregation called Financial Peace University (created by Dave Ramsey in Nashville), which is very similar to the Crown Financial Ministries we launched here at West Houston recently, and we were part of the first "graduating class." We paid off our credit cards and have not had unsecured debt since (except for our Building Up, Reaching Out commitment, which we made joyfully!).

It is a great feeling of freedom not to be in the bondage of credit card debt. Are we still tempted to live above our means? Of course. But we resist. And I wouldn't trade this new freedom for the old "buy now pay later" life for all the frequent flier miles in the world. - Matt Soper

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Servant and the Master

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and the smell of gifts is in the air (I would say the smell of romance is in the air but let’s just cut to the chase). Over a billion Valentine’s Day cards will be sent this year, according to the Greeting Card Association, which means if you have a honey in your life you’d better get moving.

It’s a sweet tradition, if a bit coerced and commercialized. But its origin is quite serious. Though there are many facets of the story, and undoubtedly a certain legendary hue has developed, the historical record is that St. Valentine was a priest in Rome during the reign of Claudius II, known as Claudius the Cruel. C-Squared waged so many brutal military campaigns that he began to run short of soldiers, who were not joining his military leagues at the rate he needed. So he cancelled marriage and engagements, figuring that men would be more willing to go off to war if they were not leaving wives or fiancés. St. Valentine, who undoubtedly viewed the institution of marriage as part of God’s redemptive work in the world, continued to marry couples in secret. Eventually he was apprehended and martyred on the 14th of February around the year 270. In the words of Dr. Jennifer Morse (“Love is Worth It”, tothesource newsletter, February 9), “obviously St. Valentine believed that marriage was worth any cost, even when the marriage was not his own.”
I don’t want to be a scold, (he says, assuming a scolding tone) but it does seem ironic that such a weighty beginning that celebrated the romance of love has evolved into an occasion which celebrates the love of romance. I’ll let Dr. Morse explain:

“I give many talks around the country about love and marriage. When I tell the audience that love is worth the effort, I explain that romance is not the same as love. Romance is about feelings. When our husbands bring us flowers, they hope it will make us feel special. When we fix our husband’s favorite dinner, and serve it by candlelight, we are trying to make him feel that he matters. And when we ask for more romance in our marriage, we usually mean that we want the other person to take the time, trouble and effort to make us feel special. Now all that is very well, but it is not quite the same as love. We think we are “in love” if we like the way we feel when we are with another person. But every adult knows that those good feelings are not enough to sustain a marriage for a lifetime. We don’t always like the way we feel at work: that doesn’t necessarily mean we should quit our jobs. We don’t always like the way we feel about our children: that doesn’t mean we should disown them. It doesn’t make sense to gauge the strength of our marriages (or relationships – Matt) on the basis of how we feel minute to minute. But if we see that to love is to want the good of the other person, then we realize that feelings are only a small part of the big picture of love.”

Here’s how I see it: Love is the steak, romance is the sizzle. Steak without sizzle is boring. Sizzle without steak is not life sustaining (and kind of slippery). So by all means buy the flowers, give the chocolate, send the card, give the chocolate, sing the serenade, give the chocolate (can you tell where the focus is in my house?). But the spiritual underpinning of the holiday points us to the deeper love for which romance is meant to be a servant.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


I was shocked, shocked I say, to read a news item this week suggesting that male and female brains work differently. I live with three women and two dogs (one female and one androgynous), plus a male guinea pig who doesn't communicate well, so the idea obviously had crossed my mind, say, thirty times a day, that this could be the case but imagine my relief when an expert actually went public with it.

Some background: We all know this is true. It's basic common sense. But much of elite academia now devotes itself to convincing us that what used to pass as common sense is now hopelessly simplistic, prejudiced, oppressive, even hateful. Consider, for instance Harvard President Lawrence Sommers recent suggestion that maybe, possibly, he didn't know but he thought it ought to be worth exploring, innate differences might account for the reason females are outnumbered by men in the highest levels of math and science professions. Keep in mind that he didn't say women aren't capable of achieving at a high level in math and science; he said men gravitate more to these fields and the reason might (might!) be because the male brain is wired more conducibly for this kind of work. The resulting firestorm and Sommers' abject apologies have redefined the terms "hysteria" and "grovel."

At any rate, Michael Gurian, psychologist and author of "What Could He Be Thinking?" (a fruitless question, I might add) notes there are about a hundred structural differences that have been identified between the male and female brain (CNN, "Brainpower as easy as X and Y," 2/15/05). For instance, scientists say that males have more activity in mechanical centers of the brain, whereas females show more activity in verbal and emotional centers. No doubt you are as disturbed as I am to hear this gross and unfair stereotype perpetuated by scientific findings. Imagine, women talk more than men! And men like to tinker with mechanical things!
"The more female brain will gather a lot of material, gather a lot of information, feel a lot, hear a lot, sense a lot. Men, because we tend to compartmentalize our communication into a smaller part of the brain (for some of us, a very small part of the brain - Matt), tend to get right to the issue," Gurian says.

Scientists have explored the "gray matter" using MRI scans to find out why these differences exist between men and women. The scans show that in most women, the corpus callossum area, which handles communication between the brain's two "hemispheres," is larger. In layman's terms, it means that the two sides of the female brain "talk" better to each other
- which could explain why studies show women tend to multi-task better. On the other hand, the scans show men tend to move information more easily within each hemisphere.
I hope you don't mind me taking a humorous slant on this subject. I grow weary of the hyper-sensitivity which characterizes so much of our public discourse. As a Christian, I see God's beauty, purpose, and wisdom played out in male and female differences. The key is to celebrate those differences with respect and appreciation. And to get right to the issue. With feeling.