Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Debt and Preparedness

The following is the transcript of a talk I gave in the Everett 4th Ward on August 26, 2007.

I remember a scout campout one cold November years ago. I was in New Mexico at the time and my scout troop camped by a little man-made pond in the sage brush wilderness a few hours from my home. We had a pretty normal campout, as far as those go, until we had packed up everything and were just about ready to leave.

The other scouts and I had discovered a swing next to the pond, obviously intended to be used for warmer weather, but that didn’t stop us from swinging on it and thinking the inevitable. I got on the swing, and I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I got the other guys to agree to give me five dollars if I jumped into the lake with my clothes on. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through with it, but they egged me on so I pumped the swing up to clear the edge and without thinking too deeply about it, I let go and launched myself in to the very cold water.

Now, I had never swum in my clothing before and the fact that I was wearing a heavy sweatshirt on top of my regular clothes didn’t help much at all. I soon found that couldn’t keep myself afloat and I started to panic. I yelled, “Help! I can’t keep my head above the water”. The other guys just stood there on the shore and said something back, but I couldn’t understand them. I really needed help, so I became more emphatic: “Help! I’m drowning! Help!” They yelled back at me again, and this time I understood them. They all said, “STAND UP!!!”

Sure enough, I put my feet down and the water was only three feet deep. I said, “Oh.” Everyone had a good laugh and then I had the unpleasant task of slogging out of the lake, digging around for dry clothes, and trying to change into them without freezing my tail off. And to top it all off, I never did get the five bucks.

There are two lessons in that experience that are relevant to what I have to say today. The first lesson is that sometimes the false promise of a quick buck or a cheap thrill or even peer pressure will get us into a very unpleasant situation which was easy to get into, but hard to get out of. The second lesson is that sometimes when we think the situation is at its worst, we need only stand up and then we’ll discover we have the foundation we need to get out of trouble with patience and diligence.

Now I will give some context for these lessons- Our stake presidency, out of love for you, and through inspiration, has given some guidance, in the form of a stake focus, to help us live in preparedness for troubling times that are sure to come. The guidance is to accomplish three specific tasks this year:

1) Reduce our personal debt

2) Build a 72 hour kit

) Begin to build a food storage

The bulk of my remarks will be on the reduction of personal debt, however, all three of these items are related and have a synergistic effect when we practice them together.

An important question to ask at the beginning of any effort to teach correct principles is to ask this question: What does this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or in other words, How does this principle affect my salvation and enable my quest to know God the Father and his son Jesus Christ?

To answer these questions, I will use as my text the entire 25th chapter of Matthew, which contains three parables: The parable of the Ten Virgins, the parable of the Talents, and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. I will assume that each of you are familiar with these important parables, if not, I invite you to prayerfully study Matthew 25.

All of these parables are not aimed at the world at large, but are instead intended to illustrate the difference between wise and foolish members of the church.

In the parable of the ten virgins, we learn all members of the church know that the Lord is coming and have been invited to the event, yet all will be surprised at the time of his coming. Some will be ready, because they have laid up in store what will be necessary. Others will not, because they failed to prepare. And as a consequence of their foolishness, they will not be able to take part in the Lord’s kingdom.

The important point is that we don’t know when the Lord will come, so we must prepare as though he could come at any time. There are spiritual aspects of this preparation as well as temporal aspects. We may be tempted to think of these aspects as separate ideas, but they are deeply related. The Lord has said “all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; … for my commandments are spiritual;” (D&C 29: 34-35)

Included with the many commandments of spiritual preparation that the Lord has given us have been commandments to “Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing” (D&C 88:118), save money (D&C 48:4), and get out of debt (D&C 104:78).

I want to stress here again that there is an important relationship between how we handle the things the Lord has given us and how our spirit develops and grows. To illustrate this further, I will return to Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents. In this parable, we learn that everyone is given valuable gifts and resources from the Lord. Some have more than others, but all are under the same charge to magnify what they have been given. Now, we know that some of these gifts are spiritual, such as: faith, intelligence, courage, knowledge, etc. on the other hand, some of the gifts are also temporal, such as: wealth, possessions, power, time, etc. What we must do is take these gifts and increase them somehow. It is not enough to simply retain possession of what we have been given; the increase that must happen requires that our gifts leave our hands in the service of others.

There is a mundane practicality to what I am talking about here- I’m talking about little, ordinary things that happen in every-day life. These clumbsy, dirty, noisy moments of life stand in contrast to the reverent holy experiences we have at church and in the temple. It is tempting to think that church and temple experiences- where we are dressed cleanly and everything is quiet and in tune- are somehow higher, more spiritual, or more mystical than the ordinary events of daily living. But a great deal of our spiritual growth is tied to this Earth, our experience here, and occurences that are easily disregarded.

Case in point: As I sat in my office writing that last paragraph, who should come in, but my son Leif, begging for help on a word search puzzle he was doing for homework. My initial reaction was to feel a little annoyed and brush him off: “Can’t you see I’m doing something important for church? It’s a word search for crying out loud, just search harder!”

So after I tell him this, I got back to my talk and I reread the paragraph I just wrote. I have to say I did I did a pretty good job of accusing myself. The spirit whispered to me that maybe I aught to practice what I preach. So to repent, I took a little break from my talk to help Leif, and we had a nice experience.

The moral here is: it is very easy to forget the little things in pursuit of what we think is spiritual. The truth is that all of life is spiritual. This point is illustrated by the Savior in the final parable of the sheep and the goats. I will quote just a portion of it here:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, … then shall he sit upon the throne … And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats … Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, … inherit the kingdom prepared for you … For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in… Naked, and ye clothed me …

The practical aspect of the care of the poor and needy is of huge import to our spiritual progress. This thought is echoed many times in the scriptures. In one of these, the prophet Alma taught:

… if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance … to those who stand in need—…your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

Satan, of course, knows all of this. He is precisely aware of the value of material things, and he is expert at using his knowledge to get people to become as miserable as he is. In our time, he has launched a vast and unprecedented campaign of covetousness and self-indulgence to ensnare us. To put it another way, he has made it popular to be greedy. The primary evidence of his success is the prevalence of war, and the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor at a time of great wealth and prosperity.

Now, why is greed such a powerful weapon against us? Remember the Lord’s parables- It is the wise use of material things that separates the righteous from the wicked. If Satan can somehow tie up the resources God has given you, he can prevent you from acting in ways that will bring you eternal life. Debt is one of the ways our resources can be tied up. Debt is dangerous because it takes what the Lord has given us and puts it in the control of someone else. There is a Proverb that says, “The borrower is servant to the lender.” (Prov. 22: 7) How can we be stewards of wealth if we do not control it? How can we be servants of the needy, if we are servants of the wealthy?

In his effort to get us into binding debt, Satan’s strategy is to fool us to live beyond our means, to purchase with credit, and to feel like we need what we really want. It is true that there are a few things for which we might justly go into debt. These things are a modest home, a dependable car, and an education. But even in these items, we must beware, for Satan will attempt to persuade us to get the biggest, fanciest home we can possibly afford, or he will try to get us to buy a more expensive car to satisfy our wants instead of our needs. If we heed is siren song, we will find ourselves struggling in a cold, wet lake of financial servitude and barely able to keep our head above water. Such a state will limit us spiritually, for we will be unable to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Many in the church find themselves in a situation where they feel greatly burdened by debt. A large debt can weigh upon our spirits day and night, causing feelings of helplessness and perhaps even unworthiness. We may feel that there is no way we can get out of such a situation on our own. Fortunately, we aren’t on our own. Through the help of Jesus Christ, there is a way out of financial difficulty. The Lord’s way is not necessarily easy, but he will support us and help us to succeed. His way simply requires a little obedience and faith, and then he will help us develop the self-mastery needed to become masters of what he has given us.

The Lord’s financial principles are very simple. If we heed them, we will eventually be able to be self sufficient and free of debt. The principles, as outlined in the “Family Finances” pamphlet publish by the church are these:

1) Pay a full tithe and a generous fast offering. By faithfully putting the Lord first, we put ourselves in a position for Him to bless us. We cannot expect a blessing without first exercising our faith in Christ.

2) Avoid Debt by spending less than you earn, and by making wise purchases for what is needed. If you are already in debt, create a debt elimination calendar and set goals for paying off your debt as quickly as possible.

3) Use a Budget- The primary purpose of a budget is to make hidden financial pitfalls clearly visible to you. I once helped a family make a budget. Before starting, they had mentioned to me that they were interesting in taking a trip to Europe that year and they thought it would cost around $10,000. Well, we entered in their salary and bills, and expected expenses, and it became clear in about 15 minutes that they couldn’t afford a $10 vacation, much less a $10,000 one. This financial disaster would have been largely invisible to them had they not put together a budget.

4) Build a financial reserve. A reserve acts as a buffer through financial difficulty and disciplines us in the use of the Lord’s blessings. One of the secrets to saving is to put away just a little out of every paycheck right after tithing. It is kind of funny how we automatically adjust to living on what is left over.

All four of these principles will be easier to follow if we heed one simple guiding truth: All that we have is a gift from the Lord and it is sacred. Think about that! What if we treated the money we receive with the same care and spirit that we would expect the bishop to use with the fast offering funds? Bishops treat these funds very carefully and seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost before dispensing them. Imagine if when you prepared your budget or before you made a large purchase, you would gather your family around you to prayerfully discuss the matter and seek the will of the Lord. I think that we would see significant changes in our spending habits; and our money, instead of a spiritual liability, would become a tool to lift us heavenward.

I remind you now that we have been directed to reduce our debt, and prepare for emergencies by obtaining a 72 hour kit and beginning to build a food storage. This may seem like a daunting task, but we can each do a little, can’t we? Resolve today to at least make a start of it. Find some little thing you can do in the coming week, even if it is just making a plan. Following this counsel will bless you both physically and spiritually, and the Lord will assist you as you take a step forward in faith. With the Lord’s help, anyone can do these things.