July 15, 2008

God. Surf. Debt. Away from my beloved family and friends, that’s pretty much what constitutes The Great White Shank’s earthly existence these days. Sure, there are the usual more mundane concerns and pursuits that float in and out of that circle – work (lots of it), the rabbits, the A/C unit, for example – but the Big Three is pretty much where all the action is these days. Let’s take a close look at each of these in a little more detail – a “State of The Great White Shank’s Union”, if you will:

God:
What can I say, I’m on a slow barge drifting with the current across the Tiber, away from Canterbury and towards the Roman Catholic Church. This journey, which started on almost a whim last year, has seen its share of fits and starts; there has been a lot of questioning, contemplation, and prayer; but I’m feeling very positive about this direction and really don’t see myself ever looking to the Episcopal Church as a way to being spiritually fed ever again.

Attending Mass has become very important to me, and I feel like the Roman Catholic Church is the first church I’ve attended in my life where the focus is on God’s love for humanity and the evangelical mission that draws from that. Here the focus is not on the preacher or the priest, or whether the sermon was good or tied together all the lessons neatly, or whether the music was tolerable, or whether the church is liberal or conservative in its theology, or whether gays and lesbians are welcome or not. It’s not about the priest, the church (big “C” or little “c”), or the congregation – the Mass is all about the sacrifice of Christ given for us out of His love poured out for us, received in His Real Presence. Even though I don’t receive, it is still a truly humbling and moving experience to simply be present in His Holy and Eternal Presence. It centers my spiritual life and keeps my soul moving forward to (I pray) spiritual unification with Him.

And from that, becoming reacquainted with my old friends from my original conversion experience – Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and St. John of the Cross, among others, has made this journey all the more special and freeing. Lots of demons are being exorcised along the way, and yet I’m under no misconception that this is anything else but yet another phase in a long and convuluted journey of faith. It hasn’t been easy, and I can’t say when I’ll take that final step and ask to be received into His Church, but the day is coming. And when it does, it will seem as natural as breathing.

Surf: There’s no question that this year has seen a magical re-introduction of surf music into my life. It’s kinda funny that I ever even got into surf music, because I only came to listen to it around 1974 or ’75 (more than a decade since its heyday) as my brother Mark and I began to work our way back from the most recent Beach Boys album released at that time (“The Beach Boys In Concert”) to their earliest surf albums, and from there branched off into “The Endless Summer” by The Sandals.

Mark never went any further than that, but I’ve always listened to it off and on as the spirit moved me (usually in the summer, of course), and, while never collecting a lot of it, had a classic surfing hits CD to go along with my Beach Boys CDs and a couple of later releases by The Sandals. This year, however (and I’m not sure why), it’s just grabbed me in a big way. Maybe because I can feel my spritual life coming around after a seven-year drought and want the music I listen to to reflect that positive direction (after all, it’s pretty hard to stay in the dumps when surf music is playing!). Maybe because I feel the music in a different way than I used to – now it’s not just the driving beat and the twang of reverb guitar, but a feeling of celebration of God’s creation present in that special mix of sunshine, surf, and sand. (I’d include chicks, but I’m married…)

Make sense to you? If not, that’s OK, but I’ve discovered some great new bands to mix along with the more classic surf songs and groups – The Aqualads, The Surf Zombies, The Diamond Heads, The Metalunas, The Sharkskins, just to name a few. Check my updated CD mix for all the bands represented, and I encourage you to check them out. Believe me, you’ll be “stoked”.

Debt:

When we look back on 2008, it will be the year that Tracey and I finally began to take control of our finances and our financial situation more seriously. Like most people, we have spent our married lives (actually before) simply buying things because we felt like it, with no thought whatsoever about how and when we were going to pay for them. Don’t get me wrong, the credit cards we have used have served as plastic magic carpets upon which we rode the tradewinds to many beautiful places around the Western Hemisphere. Not having children, we have been blessed to have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit, taking numerous vacations and cruises, and live the good life without a thought as to how we were going to pay for it in the future.

I’m not sure when we finally realized we had to do something about our credit card debt – maybe the trigger was that sober realization of seeing somewhere around nine cards in circulation and about $60K on them that got our attention. And last fall, after returning from our last vacation, we started that long and lonely trek to debt-freedom by attacking a Chase card that had ballooned to over $16K, getting that down to below $10K before declaring all-out war on our Bank of America cards (another $16K). We didn’t have any kind of plan – we were just attacking the cards we were most sick of and making some progress doing so. But we hadn’t truly engaged the battle or committed ourselves to becoming debt-free.

Enter Dave Ramsey. One night, I caught the new Fox Business Network while channel-surfing and came upon “The Dave Ramsey Show”. Now I had heard Ramsey before on the radio, catching his syndicated show from time to time but never really paying much attention to it. For some reason, however, that night my eyes met Dave’s gazing back at me from across the room on that big-screen TV, and something finally clicked. And when it did it was as if a light wa sturned on and two paths had magically intersected. Everything he was preaching (and preaching he does, with an evangelical fervor!) made sense to us, and we were hooked.

Since that time, we have bought Dave’s “Total Money Makeover” book and are steadily working our way through his “Baby Step 2” (eliminating all debt outside of your primary home mortgage). That $60K in credit card debt of last November has been reduced to $17K, we have begun our “debt snowball”, and our goal (God willing) is to be completely debt-free with the exception of our home mortgage by around this time next year when we expect to finish off the $30K loan we took out on my 403-B to buy our house.

The impact of having a plan and a goal of being debt-free has really changed our lives and the way we live. For me, this has become a crusade in the truest sense of the word – I see it as a way to help my soul detach itself from the world and what the world considers important in some real and measurable fashion. I was never a big possessions or “toys” guy anyways, but there’s a sense that living our lives in a more disciplined way glorifies God in some way – perhaps by preparing us for new and different paths that can only be opened to those who have been more financially disciplined in their lives. I don’t know, we’ll see, but I can tell you that every credit card that gets paid off (we’re down to three from nine) has lifted a weight I had never really felt before from my shoulders. If our situation sounds familar to you, give Dave Ramsey a try.

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