[Meet our dear old friend George Thornhill. he’s going to be posting a series for us on what it’s like to get put through the financial washer on permanent press.  This is part one – stay tuned for the rest.]

I remember I couldn’t afford gas for my old car, so I rode my bike to get a pizza with a free coupon. My family expected dinner and this coupon represented our only food option. It was 24-hours before payday. This was the bottom. I remember smiling at the profound stupidity of it all as I pedaled: life was easier a few months before —when I was a millionaire.

I don’t know how many people get to experience the full spectrum of financial classifications: most people born in poverty die there, and people born into generational wealth are usually fenced off by their handlers in such a way that they can’t totally crash the family ship in their lifetime. But some people (and you’re hearing from one of them now) wander hither and yon around the financial spectrum and back again. I am here to testify that riding the waves up and down is both horrible and thrilling! There’s nothing like it: the highs are very high, the lows are very low, and I now know that any one of us could get a random call on any Tuesday afternoon that could either make or break us in an instant. I know you probably don’t believe me when I say that (“Me?  Never.  I’m stuck in this tax bracket and I’ll never move”), which means you haven’t considered all the possibilities:

  • Grandma just died. Guess what: she was a multi-millionaire. Now you are!
  • Your house was built on a burial site; you’re being sued for everything you own.
  • We appreciate your years of service here at MegaCorp, but we have to lay you off.
  • Well, Mr. Jones, it’s malignant. I’m sorry.
  • You had what was essentially a “penny stock” in your portfolio, Rick. …and it just closed at $19.72.  Shall I help you find a real estate agent?

None of us can escape the financial roller coaster, and no insurance policy in the world can insulate you from life’s random fortunes… or their reversals. We all better know what’s at the bottom on the day the storms hit. Is your life based on something more than your net worth?  Can you lose all that and still be standing upright?  How about your reputation?  Can you let go of any feelings that “I’m a success” or “I’m savvy” or “I’m keeping up with my graduating class” and still be secure in your identity?  These are hard questions, and you might be shielded from answering them in the short term.  Do yourself a favor: try to answer them now, anyway.  I have learned through much travail that the Bible is true: Our foundations must be built on sturdy rock because the winds will most certainly come. Even if we are built on the Rock Himself, we don’t escape the sandblasting of storms (matter of fact, you might be signing up for more if you follow Him).  Failure meets us all.  Death visits every family.  Disease and random suffering finds most of us.  The sleep-shattering pain of brokenness in those around us is a certainty.  You make it through, of course, by the grace of God–but those sandy winds will peel the skin right off your face! By the age of 40, I had the unique experience of riding those waves all the way up and all the way down.

My millions of dollars (which I came by virtually overnight via a settlement from the death of a relative) were courted by financial advisers at the Four Seasons on one afternoon… and one year later (after having the whole enchilada–and more–ripped from us by a shyster of a financial advisor), I was trying to figure out how I was going to use my bicycle to pedal a mile, pick up a free pizza with my coupon, and return it to the house so my family could have dinner (pizza + bicycle = tricky. This was, BTW, after we had moved in with my younger brother’s family — all six of us). That was the top (the Four Seasons) and that was the bottom (pizza coupons).

This extreme/compressed volatility in our personal finances did yield a few golden insights that I am happy to own–and share with you!–as we all face the sure-to-be-bumpy road ahead:

  1. You can’t beat stress with effort. Personally, I like a good fight. Every day during this journey I felt like I was waking up to a snare drum and bugle blast. I would meet my stressful situation with energy!  But when you’re facing injustice or generalized pain (both describe poverty, by the way)… there’s just nothing to fight, really.  You’re all tensed up ready for a brawl, but it never materializes.  And you just find yourself pent up and anxious.  All the time.  At one point, I realized that my baseline of stress was OFF.THE.CHARTS. I had stress-brushed my teeth so hard for so many months, for instance, that I eroded the enamel off of them. My dentist was recommending gum-grafting. One morning I looked down to discover I had a handful of my own hair in my shampoo-covered palms. I was fighting in every part of my life — consciously and otherwise. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I am not my own Provider nor Protector.  I’m a slow learner and too ready to stand in my own strength. There is no lasting victory there.  Rest.  Not in your ability–because you have none–but in your Provider and Protector.  He is the One in power, and He is the Shepherd.  Rest.
  2. Proverbs 17:17 “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” This was one of the scriptures that meant so much to me during that period we call “our financial apocalypse.” This verse hits the nail on the head. Most commentaries will mention that these two clauses are speaking about the same person — a friend/brother. We made it through because of generous friend/brothers who saw we were in a pinch and came to our assistance. We had been able to do similar things for others in the past, but there are few things so humbling as being on the receiving end of generosity. We felt deeply loved.  May we all be the friend/brother when the chips are down, and when the chips are NOT down, may we all be tying the knots of brotherhood.
  3. I married the most beautiful woman in the world —and she has titanium bones. Pressure reveals character. When I married my wife, I enjoyed her from every angle, but was guessing at everything below the surface — at all that was unseen. I distinctly remember thinking: marrying the wrong kind of woman is a quick way to sink your own ship. They can make or break you. You hope it’s the right call, but life has a way of helping you find out. Well I found out… and boy howdy am I impressed. My wife is resilient, fearless, faithful, and loving in the midst of agony. Most marriages crumble at the kind of financial earthquake we have sustained.  Fellas, choose a spouse very very carefully, and with as much input from as many wise people as you can get your hands on.
  4. Letting children into the ugly is invaluable education.  My wife and I didn’t shield our children from the unsavory experience our family endured, and I’m glad they saw it all happen three inches from their noses — tight and close up. As we rebuild our family’s finances, they have no illusions about “the deceitfulness of riches” or its frailty.  They also know about the aforementioned friendship, and about marriage.  This knowledge will serve them well for the rest of their lives.  Let your children into the real story.

Lastly, I will say that Matthew 7:24 (the passage where Jesus talks about houses built on sand and those built on rock) means more to me now than it did a decade ago. I might have passed over that story as “helpful for a rainy day”, but now I know it’s a God-given standard issue umbrella for the guaranteed rain that will most certainly be forthcoming.  Older generations used to talk more about that passage, I think. They sang Rock of Ages and On Christ the Solid Rock.  We have disposed of such timeless ephemera, and concentrate on worship songs that say “Jesus help me feel coddled right now”.  I’m more convinced than ever that we need to say the old things. We need to sing the old songs.  These perspective-inducing songs and stories are anchors for our souls.  Keep them handy and familiar.

There are more lessons to share–and I will do so–but as someone who’s been very up (“Well I guess we never have to work again…”) and very down (“You don’t just throw out broken shoelaces, son. We can repair those…”), the perspective gained from the journey is worth more than gold.  The resultant wisdom is ballast for me, and I hope it is for you, too.