It was just before Christmas and the temperature outside was below freezing. Anyone would have done precisely what I did when I opened the door. I paused to take it all in.
The lights in the house were off except for the flickering Christmas tree lights bouncing from one vintage ornament to another. Beautifully wrapped presents were piled high around the tree and there was the unmistakable aroma of popcorn in the air. The recently stoked fire cast a compelling orange glow on my three boys and wife, all gathered around the fireplace watching a movie on television. A big bowl of popcorn was on the tapestry ottoman in front of the fireplace and my youngest, wrapped in a vintage quilt, had his pillow and was asleep on the Oriental rug on the floor. The other two boys were on the floor propped against the sofa. Sharon was tucked in the corner of the sofa under an afghan nursing a mug of hot chocolate. The scene could easily have been a Christmas card. It was one of those Kodak moments you couldn't duplicate if you wanted to.
Several months earlier I made the decision to accept a position at a church in another town. We made the decision that the family would remain in our home and I would move to the new church ahead of them. I came home every couple of weeks and the family joined me at our new church when they could. The scene I described in the previous paragraph is actually what awaited me when I returned for Christmas that year.
What you do not know is far less idyllic than the scene I have just described. The hard cold fact is our furnace had burned out. It had barely made it through the previous winter and finally quit in the middle of the first really cold spell that year. We were strapped financially and did not have money to install a new furnace. For the entire winter my family slept in the living room in front of the fireplace to keep warm. The boys took turns stoking the fire through the nights and they all dressed there in the mornings throughout the winter.
"Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul" had become a way of life for us. We were constantly taking today's money to pay for yesterday's or last year's responsibilities and commitments. I was constantly borrowing money I did not have to buy things I did not need, and in doing so, I put those I loved the most at tremendous risk. Sharon and I knew that our house of cards was not stable. We did not understand we were, in fact, on a slippery slope that would ultimately lead to crash and burn. It was spiritually debilitating, as well. The grace "sufficient for the day" had to be applied retroactively and on the futures market, as well. We were in-debt and at the same time leveraged to the max. Plain and simple, effective money management in our household was too often sabotaged by a pattern of seemingly innocent decisions to make purchases we could not afford, often at the expense of our family.
Let me say a word here about our family. We are close, loving, and supportive of one another. We are a family that enjoys each other's company and doing things together. We are fiercely loyal and jealous of the time we have with each other. Sharon and I have a great life and the boys and their families are friends for life! I have apologized to each one for making so many mistakes with money and putting them at risk as I did for so many years, and they all say the same thing, we have no regrets Dad, we've had a wonderful life!
They are gracious, but I know I put them at risk and I know that in spite of some really great times, life could have been better. If you are looking for a silver lining in the clouded Clayton family experience, here it is, the really good news: while you can't go back in life and start all over again, through God's grace, you can come full circle. That's what God did for us, He brought me and the Clayton family full circle!
I know my story is not unlike the story of many individuals, pastors, and families who are right now struggling with money and living at risk. I've come to understand something about my generation. For Baby Boomers, the golden coin of success is arrogance. It is the rock-solid conviction that we can and will have it all—and we will have it today! Everything is ours for the taking.
The silver coin of success for Boomers is ambition. Now, this is really tricky because ambition is never satisfied. There is always another rung on the ladder, another conquest, another dream to fulfill, more things to have, and more money. Ambition is what causes Boomers to push and press to get more and more. The silver coin of ambition is also a double-edged sword. We find ourselves pursuing a moving target, and, once obtained—ever so rarely—we find it even harder to keep. In truth, the silver coin is both a treasure and a curse. Ambition, in and of itself, is rooted in Scripture, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10a). But for many of us, ambition has run completely amuck!
So, how did Sharon and I begin to move from financial bondage to experiencing true freedom in Christ? I'm still not completely sure why we were paralyzed for so many years, stuck in a rut, and unable to implement the most basic and fundamental financial principles, but, all that changed when Sharon and I attended a Crown Financial Ministries, all-day, biblically-based financial seminar. A whole new world was opened to us. We decided to give it a chance and make some big changes. We knew those changes had to be consistent with our new goals and values.
Our first step was to begin talking about things differently. That meant we needed to redefine some key words to help us reshape our thinking and ultimately our living. So, before crafting a plan we had to make sure we were speaking the same language. We undertook to redefine words like wealth, fulfillment, generosity, contentment, success, investment, riches, and retirement. We came to understand that financial freedom is not a destination, it's a journey.
For the Claytons, and so many individuals and families like us, our problem was not a money problem! Rather, we had a spending problem. So, we needed to set some action steps to begin to change our approach to money and spending. Our plan included four resolutions: spend less, spend smarter, spend together, and spend longer. When Sharon and I think about spending longer, we think about those things we can do today, the people we love and the people who love us, the ministries, organizations and causes that match our personal values and goals.
One day our lives will be etched in stone and our bodies put to rest in a grave until Christ comes again. No one will remember the houses we lived in or the cars we drove. What makes us eternal is our ability to make an investment in people, the only eternal thing God created.
The hardest thing we did was taking the first step. We left the Crown seminar that day with hope in our hearts and a plan for getting out of debt in our hands. Where are we now? We're on the journey!