Monday, November 15, 2010

Debt and Dogged Discipline

Over the course of college, I racked up a total of $16,500 in scholastic debt—not much by comparison to many of my peers, but still far more than I wanted. God willing, that will finally be paid off next month. I can hardly wait to click the button that will confirm the final electronic payment and free me once and for all from this chain.

Make no mistake: it is a chain, with a heavy ball at the end, and it can pull you down to the depths and drown you if you are not careful and disciplined in the way you handle it. I had little choice: my scholarships (the reason I have much less debt than I would have otherwise) required me to be a full-time student, and they fully covered only four years. A mistake with some paperwork one semester—unnoticed and unreported until it was too late—left me needing a loan to cover the remainder, and of course loans from the federal government never come in custom sizes, so I ended up with substantially more than I needed.

When Jaimie and I married last summer and I started my job, we resolved to pay down my debts as quickly as possible. When we finish my car next spring, God willing, we will have zero outstanding debts. That will be a wonderful thing; I can hardly wait. The path has been somewhat longer than we initially hoped, because sometimes life happens: a computer needs replacing, the car needs repairs, a friend has a financial need that we can help meet, etc. Even with all of that, we will still have paid down about $25,000 in loans in 22 months. On the one hand, that's a testament to the generosity of our God and the provision He has given us. On the other, it has happened because we have been disciplined with his gifts.

More on that in a moment, but first, you must understand that while I am pleased at how well we have done, it is deeply frustrating that we will have essentially lost that money. $25,000 would pay for seminary, or be a substantial down payment on a house, or open the door for us to adopt a child. It would be wonderful to have that money, instead of having it go to debts. So I strongly encourage anyone reading this post to consider before you go into debt. Sometimes it is unavoidable. For all other times, avoid debt like the plague. That includes college, especially if your degree will not land you a job that will let you pay the debt off quickly. It especially includes everything else but houses—don't ever buy a television on credit. It's not worth it (not least since, with a little discipline, you could save the same amount of money you would pay each month for 2/3 the time and buy a better TV at the end).

Now, how exactly did Jaimie and I manage to do so well? Even with a good job, it hasn't been easy. It has required us to sacrifice—not terribly painful sacrifices, but sacrifices nonetheless. We have made precisely two major purchases (over $100) since we got married: a new television, bought entirely with gift money, and a new computer for Jaimie when her old one died. The first was pleasure, but not something we took out of our budget; the second was a necessity for Jaimie's schoolwork. By contrast, a coworker hired at the same time as me bought a motorcycle and a new truck in the same period of time. (I intend no criticism: he's debt free and single; those were perfectly responsible decisions on his part. My point is simply that the money I make could readily be spent instead of applied to the debt.)

In addition, we kept a close eye on our budget. Initially I did that mentally, with fairly good results—but I soon realized that using a formal budget and tracking our expenses closely would allow us to be even more diligent about paying down these debts. So, at the beginning of this past year, we decided exactly how much we would put toward the debt every paycheck. With the exception of a few unavoidable pauses (like the month we bought Jaimie's computer), we have kept on that track. We have kept our other costs down by simply deciding how much we were willing to spend—whether on gas, on entertainment, or on groceries. If we don't have the money budgeted, we don't spend it. It's that simple.

Second, we have used a "snowball" approach to eliminating debt. This simple technique is recommended by most financial experts. You pay the minimum payment on all but one of your existing loans—the one with the lowest balance (or, if two have similar balances, the one of those two with a higher interest rate). You pay as much as you can afford on that one every month. (If, like us, you can afford to pay on it twice a month instead of just once, do it: you'll pay less interest.) Once you finish paying that loan off, you take all of the money you were putting into that loan and add it to your minimum payment on the next larger loan, and repeat until you're done. Each debt you pay off allows you to pay off the next debt even more quickly—it snowballs. Counterintuitive though it initially appears, paying off the smaller debts first allows you to pay down the larger debts much more quickly.

Again, that requires diligence. We didn't allow ourselves to spend more money entertainment after we paid off the first student loan (other than a celebratory pause—which is a good idea). We held our lifestyle constant (and we made wise decisions about that lifestyle from the getgo, choosing to live in a comfortable but inexpensive apartment rather than a more lavish one, and so on). We will do the same when we finish this second loan, and the same when we finish the car payment—so in another two years, we will have saved as much or more than we have paid on debts, God willing. And why should we up our standard of living? We have everything we actually need; we, like Paul, have learned to be content with what we have—all of which is more than nice enough for us.

Avoid debt. If you're in debt, be disciplined and get out. Is it hard? Yes, it is. It takes time. As my dad once commented about getting physically fit, it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you work at it faithfully and regularly, you'll get there, just as steady effort in the gym over a course of months will get you in shape. Little bursts of exercise never made anyone a successful athlete, and little bursts of financial wisdom will never get you out of debt. Work hard, be disciplined, thank God for his good gifts, and escape the slavery of debt. You will never regret it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Praying Threats Against Evil Men

This week, I saw evil, clear and real and personal—the kind of evil that enrages, that enflames the kind of deep and violent anger that I rarely experience for any reason. I learned of circumstances that touched a friend's life, and wrath burned in me.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.

Of course, I have been angry many times in my life—but nearly all of those were times I was angry on my behalf, or even selfishly angry on the behalf of those I was close to. Rarely, I have been angry because of injustices or people's apathy toward the things of God—but even those, I am afraid, were tainted by self-righteousness: that sort of smug pride in how I cared more or was doing more than they were. This was different. There was nothing about me in it—simply fury that someone could do such a thing, especially to someone so deeply vulnerable and helpless to resist.

For the first time, I think I glimpsed a little bit of the fiery, righteous anger of God at sin and injustice and evil. He hates it. Time and again the Scriptures affirm that God abominates injustice, abuse of the poor and weak, and those who take advantage of those with no defense. He is incensed by murder and rape and torture and every unnecessary violence of this world.

Driving home, yesterday, I was praying for God to show His grace in this circumstance. All week, I have thought about what that prayer means. The God we serve, after all, is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

That's a wonderful and terrible passage, the foundation of all God's subsequent revelation of himself. It calls us to stand in awe: he is slow to anger; he overflows with steadfast love and faithfulness; he is merciful and gracious; he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin but he does not clear the guilty; the sins of the fathers have deep consequences in their families.1

God's great mercy on display here is sobering. You see, the way my wrath remained unrighteous and unlike God's, at least initially: it was not tempered by loving kindness and mercy. I simply wanted God to strike dead the man who did this evil. Now, in part, that is a righteous desire: it reflects just how deep God's anger burns against those who sin—all those who sin, more on that in a moment—and how fierce his judgment against evil is and will be. Nevertheless, there is more to God than his righteous anger.

The same who God who pulled me out of my sins and opened my eyes to the light of his glory and goodness when I was six or seven can save this man from his sins and open his eyes to the light of the glory of God. Had I committed smaller evils? Yes, of course: I was a child. But I was a sinner, through and through. I was selfish, self-righteous, angry, and prideful, to name but a few of my many faults. God is still saving me from those sins and more besides; they may no longer have dominion over me, but I certainly run back to them frequently enough that you'd think they and not God were my true heart's desire.

All of that to say: God's mercy to me is no more deserved than it would be toward this man who has done this great, wrath-enflaming evil. God's anger does burn hot against this man, far hotter than my anger burned even at its hottest. His anger is a searing, destroying flame that punishes evil violently and completely. Lest anyone complain: that is a good thing. Think how outraged we would be if a human judge sentenced a convicted serial rapist to a stern talking-to and a few weeks of community service! The abortion of justice is a terrible thing—not something we really want in God. Our tendency in the other direction is ultimately because we don't want to acknowledge that his justice necessarily includes all of our sins—not just Hitler's or Dahmer's.2 No, God's anger is a good thing, as is his judgment against sin, precisely because it is fierce and terrifying.

But God's mercy is a good thing, too—and here, too, we run off into the weeds, because we think his mercy should only be offered to those above a certain moral level. In other words, we think we deserved God's mercy by being better people than the Stalins or Ted Bundys of the world. We are wrong, and praise be to the God who makes no such distinctions in his offer of grace. All of us are undeserving wretches, saved only by grace of God in the death of Christ, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Not one of us has a better claim on the forbearance and loving kindness of God than this evil man does, because every one of us is evil. We have no grounds for self-righteousness; our rightly angry prayers in circumstances like this must always be tempered by the unmerited favor God poured out on us in all our wretchedness.

So yes, we can and should pray for God to do justice against evil, but we must also pray that in his mercy God would redeem those who do evil. Over the course of the week, my prayers about this unquestionably evil man became, "Oh God, restrain him from evil. Save him, send to him to jail, or strike him dead: let him do no more evil. In your mercy, please draw him to you and redeem him, restoring the many relationships he has destroyed. But protect those he has hurt, and never let him harm them again." It is not a perfect prayer, but it is the best I can do at summing up the tensions that run so deep here. It is a prayer for mercy and salvation, but also a prayer for justice, and above all a prayer that evil would be ended—in whatever way God chooses.

How would you pray here?

1For some helpful discussion of the hard parts of this passage, see John Piper's sermon, The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious [transcript available]. He concludes: "[God] simply lets the effects of the fathers' sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible."

2Note that I have in view here not those who object at a deeply thought through philosophical level their opposition to hell, etc.—though they are still wrong—but the general population's outlook on hell, which essentially reduces down to, "But that would make God mean!"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hiding Post Page Content on Home Page [Blogger Hacks]

One of the features I implemented for Pillar on the Rock a few months ago is a means of showing different content on the main page than on the post pages. Oftentimes, we have introductory or editorial content that's simply extraneous in the context of our magazine-like landing page. People are not interested in reading an introduction to each post; they want to see whether the article itself grabs their attention or not. (Similarly, what's the point in having a great first sentence if it's buried below a bunch of other content?) At the time, we were shifting from showing entire articles on the front page to showing snippets. I took the opportunity to implement a small, easy fix that allows us to hide any content in a post from the front page while still displaying it normally on the post page.

Before you implement any of the following, make sure you backup a copy of your full Blogger template (Design→Edit HTML→Expand Widget Templates, then after the reload, choose Download Full Template). Now, you're going to need a couple pieces of CSS, and then some HTML implementation in Blogger's post-generating XML code. We'll start with the CSS. You can update this one of two ways. If you're using a new Blogger template, the CSS can be customized in Design→Template Designer→Advanced→Add CSS. If you're using a classic template, the CSS is available in the <head> section. Either way, you'll want to add some code like the following (the particular name of the class is not important; that you can remember it and it's descriptive of what you're wanting to do with it is important).

We're going to add a CSS "class" that we can apply to our content. (If you're unfamiliar with CSS, W3C Schools' tutorial is a great place to start. It'll explain concepts like ids, classes, and how CSS works in general.) Here's the class:

.hidden-content {
    // any styling you want applied to this content on your post pages

You could actually ignore that entirely, but if you want to do anything special with the content on your post pages, you should add the styling to that class here.

Next, on the Edit HTML tab, run a search for "Blog1" (the name of the blog widget element). Scroll down (or just run another search) until you find the following code:

<div class='post-body entry-content'>
    <div style='clear: both;'/> <!-- clear for photos floats -->
Here, we are going to insert some code to tell Blogger what to do in the particular case that we are not on the post page, which Blogger identifies by setting the pageType to item—that's the section highlighted in yellow below.

<div class='post-body entry-content'>
<b:if cond='data:blog.pageType != "item"'> <style type='text/css'> .hidden-content { display: none; } </style> </b:if>
<div style='clear: both;'/> <!-- clear for photos floats --> </div>

Aside: Those of you familiar with Blogger's templates may wonder why I didn't use pageType == index rather than pageType != item. The answer is that if you do that, archive pages (those accessed by searching by label or date) will all still display the content. Obviously you'll need to decide whether that makes sense in your case. For me, I only wanted the content to appear on the post pages.

Now, save your template, and you're done with the template changes. Now, any time you want to hide text on the front page but show in on the post-page, you simply need to wrap it in an element that has the class article-hiddne-content. For example, if you want to hide a whole section of text, you might do the following in your post (of course you'll have to be using the Edit HTML tab of the post creator):

<div class='hidden-content'>
Donec fringilla lobortis metus eu sollicitudin.
Nam eros quam, venenatis ut ultrices sit amet,
tincidunt ac nisl. Phasellus varius ante ut nibh
mattis dapibus rutrum purus pellentesque. Morbi
congue risus et metus pellentesque vel pulvinar
leo sagittis. Duis sapien diam, volutpat sed
pharetra sit amet, consectetur vel sapien.

Donec dictum sapien at ipsum suscipit id
condimentum turpis tristique. Nam bibendum
molestie libero, sed imperdiet quam pharetra non.
Maecenas bibendum nunc ut libero congue volutpat.
Vivamus eu ante lorem, eu sodales risus. Mauris
ultricies gravida interdum. Praesent eu tortor
nibh, vitae facilisis orci. Duis et justo eu
libero tempus viverra. Nulla.
Alternately, you could hide anything else just as easily:
  • Images: <img src='image_url' class='hidden-content'/>
  • Links: <a href='target_url' class='hidden-content'/>[link content]</a>
  • Paragraphs: <p class='hidden-content'>[paragraph text]</p>
  • Spans: <span class='hidden-content'>[span text]</span>

It's that simple! Of course, you can apply the same technique to accomplish substantially more sophisticated behavior as well. In my case, I not only wanted to hide some content on the front page, I wanted to change certain styles when on the front page (e.g. I didn't want my drop-cap first-paragraph effect to appear anywhere except the post-page, so I reset the styling for it to match ordinary text). All that requires is adding other styling elements inside the <style type='text/css'>...</style> block we created—those styles will only be applied when you're on a post-page, because Blogger won't even create that code for other kinds of pages.

(Much Delayed) Reflections on a Month of Blogging

Last month, I wrote 24 consecutive days, missed one, and finished out with a small bang on Sunday. I still have a dozen more ideas for posts, and plenty more to say. I am not entirely sure where to go from here, however.

Blogging takes time. Even a short post demands a certain amount of mental energy, and producing 500 words takes me at least 20 minutes. That's a bare minimum: depending on the 500 words in question, they might take me an hour to whip into a satisfactory shape. I might be able to push out 1000 words in 35 minutes—but only if I refuse to edit the piece, if I intentionally let the written record be simply what I thought at first. As any good writer—and especially any good editor—will tell you, that's a terrible strategy. So, given that I was publishing posts between 500 and 1000 words long every day, that was an average of 45 minutes each day that I spent on blogging. That, in turn, was an average of 45 minutes each day I did not spend on other things.

As it turns out, I didn't particularly miss most of those things. While there were a few days I didn't want to put out a blog post, by and large I enjoyed writing far more than I missed any of the other things I wasn't doing with that time. Halo: Reach is fun, but not nearly as enjoyable as thinking through interesting concepts, synthesizing ideas from the books and articles I'm reading, and generally forcing myself to grow by forcing myself to write.

That is part of why I love blogging so much. Like many others before me, I find that I learn by writing. I start out with a rough idea what I think on a subject, and tease out its intricacies, its twists and turns, its interesting corners by writing about it. Sometimes I find that I have to rewrite the opening of a position piece because, by the time I finish it, I have changed my mind. The process of wrestling through ideas and their consequences is transformative. At its very best, it forces me to distill vague notions down to concrete terms, forcing the vapor of my original conception to materialize into a solid shape.

Add to that the challenge of saying something meaningful day after day, and writing proves the best sharpener of my thought—and indeed, the best means of provoking careful thought throughout the day—that I know of. I enjoy writing not only for its own sake, but because it forces me to think throughout the day, not merely to drift along in the current of consciousness but to seize a paddle and force a direction through my stream of thought. It forces me to take hold of a notion and grapple with it until I understand it well enough to say something about it to others.

On the whole, I loved blogging every day last month. It was draining at times, certainly, especially when combined with a busy schedule and another major project running simultaneously. (You can see the results of that project here.) That sort of busyness is not itself a problem, at least from my point of view. My time was being spent productively and effectively, and I enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed any of the purely entertaining alternatives.

For my beloved wife, however, the month was a bit different. She was not inside my head, enjoying the adventure of thinking, processing, understanding with me. Much as I try, I can never quite communicate the thrill I get from thinking and writing—to anyone, even her. For her, those hours not spent playing Halo were hours not spent playing Halo with her. She felt separated from me, isolated by my tapping away at the keyboard. We are different, she and I. I feel happily connected if we are sitting near each other, occasionally pausing from our own tasks to talk, or share a quiet moment of holding hands, or an amusing thought or idea from a book or our own musings. She feels connected when we are sharing the activity itself. In short: I like writing side by side, she likes watching movies together.

While there are several reasons I haven't written a post since the start of November, one is that I haven't yet worked out the balance here. On the one hand, blogging is good for me. For all the reasons outlined above, it benefits me deeply. It sharpens my thinking and forces me to think, and in the sheer mundanity of my daily routine, that's important. At the same time, my relationship with my wife is exceptionally important. If I value my own intellectual satisfaction over caring for her and making sure her emotional needs in our relationship are met, I am just being selfish. When you add in all our other activities, especially in the evening, it is easy for her to feel disconnected (even if I don't). That is not a situation I can or will tolerate. As such, I am chewing on how to both serve my wife and achieve the ends that blogging helps me reach.

When I figure it out, I'll let you know. Until then, I will be here, fitfully and irregularly as ever.