There's a recession coming, they say. You ready to take it on?
I'm always conflicted when the experts start predicting an economic slowdown. What, I wonder, is my own duty? Am I to back off on my personal spending and commitments-which, if everybody did, would only add to the problems already afflicting us? Or do I go out and spend a little extra for a few weeks, patriotically juicing this incredibly complex financial animal they call "the economy"?
I couldn't help thinking about this odd dilemma because of three different beginning-of-the-year reminders:
1. The fourth-quarter reports I'm getting for my modest savings and investments aren't looking so good. Every single one of them indicates a southerly rather than a northerly direction. My friends tell me my experience isn't unusual. Q4 was a downer.
2. As many as a dozen families in the medium-sized church where I'm a member are starting the new year without jobs. All of them had been thriving on the housing boom. Now they are facing the harsh realities of the housing bust.
3. Polls (for whatever they are worth) say that the economy is now of greater concern to most Americans than either the war in Iraq or international terrorism.
In this context, I was talking-a little glumly-with a wise financial expert who had been a close friend and professional colleague of the late Larry Burkett. Burkett, through his books and his daily radio program, was probably the most listened-to financial guru ever in the evangelical Christian community.
The economy, my friend predicts, is likely to be OK (although volatile) until after the election next November. But then, he said, watch out-no matter which party wins the White House and/or Congress.
"Is this," I asked, "the coming economic earthquake that Larry Burkett predicted so boldly in his best-selling book in the very early '90s?"
"Yes," my friend said. "Only his timing was off. But everything that was fragile then is 10 times as fragile now."
But isn't timing everything? What good does it do to know that an earthquake is coming if all you're certain of is that its scheduled arrival is sometime in the future? And I couldn't help recalling a public debate Burkett and I had in 1999 about the liabilities confronting us then in the so-called Y2K crisis. Talk about specificity in predictions! There was one that either was going to come to pass-or not-at a very specific point on the calendar and even on the clock.
Yet all this is not to diminish the memory of a man like Larry Burkett, but instead to laud it. It is appropriate-and maybe even necessary-to acknowledge that a prophet may have missed a relatively minor point or two just to enhance the essential nature of that person's central message.
So what was Larry Burkett's central message-and what relevance does it have for us in early 2008?
"Don't be a slave to debt!" If you were to ask 100 Burkett disciples what they had learned from this wise man, 99 of them would point quickly to his urgent advice: "Get out of debt!" His wisdom was simple to the point that some called him simplistic. But the message was liberatingly clear.
Even now, the overdue Burkett prediction of an economic earthquake may or may not come true. But individuals, families, businesses, churches, and other organizations that put an emphasis during 2008 on reducing their debt rather than extending it will be wonderfully stronger for the effort. That bigger house, that snazzier car, that more exotic vacation-if it has to be put on a credit card or a second mortgage-then Larry Burkett's counsel is as timely as if you heard him say it again on the radio this morning.
If the only thing that stimulates our national economy is the piling up of even more individual and corporate debt, then it's not just Larry Burkett's wisdom that we're ignoring. It's the age-old wisdom of the Bible itself. For such a society, in such a case, the experts won't be emphasizing that the Burkett schedule was off by 10 or 12 years. They'll be complaining instead that his term "earthquake" was way too mild.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.