When did this become my normal?


In 2009, I was driving a little sporty Mazda 3, when all of a sudden something strange happened.  

After a couple of knocks and pings, the engine went silent and coasted to a stop.    The car was dead on the road.    After trying unsuccessfully to perform CPR on the car, the two truck came, and slowly drove the car away and into my memory.   The engine had ceased, and to fix it would require twice what the car was worth.

Unfortunately, I owed 2 ½ years on the car, and now had no transportation.  

In what was a wonderfully sound and financially principled decision, I decided to go to a car lot, and purchase the cheapest brand new car on the lot.    That way, I could roll the 2 ½ years of my little sporty car into a brand new cheap one, and not go broke along the way.  Sure the payment would be higher, but if I add a couple hundred dollars on top of a cheap car, the monthly payment wouldn’t be that bad and within a few years I wouldn’t be under water.

Although it made sound sense on paper, I left the lot with the little clown car that is the Nissan Versa, and I have been cursing it ever since.   About a month ago, the car doors stopped working from the inside.    When you stop the car, you have to roll down the window and pop open the door from the outside.    Easy enough, until you make the mistake of getting into your car, shutting the door, and realizing that you left the keys on your desk or on your coffee table.

Without keys the power windows don’t work, and you have to make the horrifically embarrassing call to a coworker or your kid, and explain how one locks themselves in their own car.

This week something bizarre happened on my way to work.   

As I was driving through a cell phone dead zone, an alarm started ringing from my dash.   In a panic I looked down and realized that my air bag sensor was flashing (Never something you want to see).

Now I am frantically looking for a place to pull over, all the while expecting a giant balloon to deploy and break my nose.    After a few hundred yards I find a logging road that cuts into the back highway, which allows me to pull off the road just out of the way (and out of sight of traffic), and I shut off my car.   

With a sigh of relief, my heart rate returns to normal.    A few seconds later, I go to turn the engine and nothing happens.  

See, I have a fancy Nancy little key for my fancy Nancy little car, that doesn’t require me to stick it in the ignition, all fancy Nancy like.  Some Bluetooth wireless mumbo jumbo means that my key just needs to be near the ignition.  This moment, sitting on the side of Route 9, is when the little watch battery decides to die.  

Luckily, there is a key back up in the unit that ejects when you push the button, or should.   Should is the key word.  As I sat there on the side of the road, there is nothing that I could do to get that pesky key out.  

There I was, on a patch of dirt, out of sight from passerby’s, stuck in my car, unable to open my windows, unable to start my car, and unable to call someone.   This is one of those freak incidents that you read in the newspapers from time to time.   At sure I am going to be one of those momentary comedic moments in the newspaper as I meet my certain fate.

No matter how hard I smacked that key, how hard I prayed or how loudly I swore at anything and anyone, I was stuck.

I was sure I was going to meet my fate on the side of the road.   I had a couple of marshmallow peeps and a power bar in my gym bag, plus a half a cup of coffee in the cup holder so I knew I would make it a least for a few hours, but I was most certainly doomed.

Then I remembered…   I had a screw driver in my trunk.  

After employing some yoga skills and all my contortionist training,  I managed to pry myself in the back seat of my little clown car, and after some blind probing find the screw driver.   After a few more minutes I had managed to pry my key out of its super duper military grade protecting cover, wipe the sweat off my brow and finally, much to my relief, start my car again.

As I was driving to work; I asked myself again, and again,…when did this become my new normal?  When did money keep me in broken dishwashers, washing machines, drafty windows, and clown cars?   When will we finally be at that place where when my car goes south I can buy a new one and not the cheapest one?  

Maybe after college is paid for, and the girls are in their twenties and thirties?

What I wouldn’t do to win the lottery…   Imagine what it would be like to have all your financial challenges disappear in a moment….

As I stewed on the thought of finding the lucky combination, Jack Whittacker’s image crossed my mind.

 

Jack won a mind boggling $315 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas Day in 2002.   At first glance it appeared as if it was the perfect Christmas Miracle.

Soon long lost relatives, distant cousins, and even strangers descended on him demanding a piece of the fortune.   Soon the demands became threatening, and he started to barricade his life.    It wasn’t long before he turned to alcohol and even strip clubs.

For those that he was closest too, he tried to buy their continued love.  He lavished cars, diamonds and cash on the most special person in his life; his granddaughter, 17-year-old Brandi Bragg. Almost instantly Bragg’s life as a normal teenager spiraled out of control; she $30-40-50K  on shopping sprees,  thousands on diamond stud earrings for her boyfriend of the moment, and even chartered planes to Vegas for her teenage friends. She also purchased a great deal of crack cocaine.

Meanwhile, Jack’s marriage fell apart as he became known a notorious womanizer. 

Sadly, in 2004, two years after Whittaker won his fortune, his granddaughter was found dead of an apparent overdose, on the same day he was being charged with assault over a bar fight.

In the end,  Whittaker told reporters his dream Powerball win had turned into a life’s nightmare. “I wish we had torn the ticket up,” he said after his granddaughter’s funeral.

These are all too common stories.   Countless people just fall apart when they win Lotteries. 

I read a book a while back entitled “Money for Nothing”, by Ed Ugel.   Ed’s job was to travel the country and buy the lottery and law suit annuities from down on their luck lottery winners.   There is a whole industry built around the reality that lottery winners will screw up with their money.

Knowing that I am a finance guy, I could not help but consider the math;  

  • Scott wins $3 Million dollars in the lottery.  
  • 40% disappears for taxes, leaving me with $1.8 million dollars for the rest of my life.   
  • They pay me $500K upfront, and spread the remaining over the next 30 years of my life. 
  • That means I will receive $60,000 year.  

$60,000 is a great deal of money, but it doesn’t buy the high life.    As a result, many winners soon go into hock.   People like Ugel make a living purchasing the rights to the annuity for pennies on the dollar.   In the end, winners go bankrupt and some are no better than they were before.

People want all their blessings today and entire families quit jobs, buy mansions, purchase expensive cars and live high on the hog.   They trade in their Nissan Fancy Nancy Versas for Rolls, Bentleys, and Mercedes, and it’s not long before the black cloud settles.

Although some report that this happens at a staggering rate, you also got to consider the Alan and Violets of the world too.

Violet Large was cleaning up after dinner in her Nova Scotia home one summer night  when she stumbled upon a forgotten lottery ticket.  Not wanting to throw it away without checking, she called the lottery hotline to check the numbers.

She was speechless when she realized that she held a ticket worth $11.2 million.   With her jaw surely on the floor, she turned to her husband, Allen, and simply asked “What do we do now?”

The answer was more startling and helps restore faith in the better hearts of strangers.   They gave it all away.  They gave every penny of the $11.2 million away.  Despite being a retired welder living on pensions and retirement funds, they gave it all away. The pair divided the winnings between 14 family members and 63 Canadian-based organizations, including everything from Firesquads, schools, and churches.   

In the end, they like their life.   They like their ’87 Dodge Diplomat sedan.   They like their old – often in need of repair – Victorian home.  They have enough to get buy on what they have and do so comfortably.

“Money can’t buy happiness,” says Violet, who still buys lotto tickets every week. “We have everything we need; I have Allen, and he has me.”   

I am comfortable believing that no pennies on the dollar annuity purchaser will be knocking on the Large’s door anytime soon.

I think of Jack Whittacker from West Virginia and I think of Alan and Violet from Nova Scotia, and I hope I know what type of winner I would be if I ever got on the right side of 175 million to one odds.    Do you know you have a better chance of dying from a flesh eating Amazonian virus then you do at winning Powerball?   Still, I dream.  That is the answer to my fancy nancy Nissan Versa.  I know it.

I hear the news stories… I see the big checks, and honestly I would like to win that prize.   I would give to friends, family, and the church.    I would certainly not be stuck on the side of Route 9 in my fancy dancy car, rolling around in the back seat trying to figure out how long a peep will provide nourishment.  

I will –at times- close my eyes and dream of that big check.

And although I will dream of that beautiful new Ford F150 or 2012 mustang, or the paid off mortgage, I need to remember that in many, many ways, I have already won the lottery.   We all have.   We are all the big winners.

We have been awarded a gift that is bigger than any of us can truly put words too.

We have been given, through the Grace of God, the knowledge and the very real truth that there is a better way.   We have, because we have chose to listen to pushes, prods, and calls, received an assurance that there is joy, celebration, and treasure in all things.  We have the assurance that happiness is not measured in the size of semi-annual annuity checks, and that love is measured in what we can buy for another.

We have been given the winning lottery ticket, for that in the end is what God’s grace truly is.

We can take that lottery ticket, and throw it off to the side and forget about it.    Did you know that 85% of all winning lottery tickets are never claimed?   Sure the big prizes are but the $500s, $1,000s, and the $10,000 winners are redeemed at a rate of less than 15%. 

People just don’t know what they have. 

We need to know and celebrate, and cash in the tickets we have been given.  

Don’t let your faith be about rules and punishment.  Make it be about experiencing hope, peace, and joy.    Don’t think that faith is measured by how often you find yourself in a pew each week.   Our God doesn’t worry about attendance. 

Cash in your ticket and claim your prize.

At the same time we claim our prize; we can become the Jack Wittackers and conclude that faith is about making me happy and me alone.   That is not how it works.   Faith isn’t our ticket to gumdrops and lollipops.    Faith doesn’t mean that life is easy.    In fact, I believe the greater your faith the more frequently your heart is broken.

There is something called the prosperity gospel which has become very popular of late.   It says – more or less – the more faith you have; the more blessings you possess.   This I can agree with, but for adherents of the prosperity gospel, those blessings are measured in things.   The bigger my faith the bigger my house, better my job, and the more things I have.  In the end, it’s pure garbage.

If you treat your faith like that, you are no better than the Jack Whittackers.   Happiness is not about the things, and faith is certainly not about what we can get out of God; that’s a business deal.   Faith is the tool that helps us to begin seeing everything as a potential source of blessing and power.

  • Faith is the power to see the normal, small, regular and rusted things as a sign of God’s love.   Faith is the power that tries to remind me that there is a blessing in that Fancy Nancy Clown Car. It is the power that reminds me there is a blessing in that mortgage bill and in the broken dishwasher.  
  • Faith is the power that keeps me looking to the horizon when I can’t roll down the windows and start the car.  
  • Faith is what tries to have us see all the good and wonderful things that we do have.   Faith is that which tries to have me close my eyes and not see lottery winnings but the vast treasures that I already possess. 
  • Faith is that which changes everything, and every day, and every moment. 
  • Faith is what feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, comforts the hurting, and releases the imprisioned.
  • Faith is the agent of “his will be done” and “thy kindom come”.

I might not be able to see it, but Faith says to trust.

Although this is often the hardest statement to explain, see or to put words to; it is faith that tells us there are blessings to be found in the darkest, hardest, coldest, and scariest of things, and if we embrace that power – all things can change.

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