Finding God's Purposes in Bankruptcy
- Friday, January 04, 2013
As a Christian finance writer, there are two topics I approach with great fear: divorce and bankruptcy. I remember in my early days as a Christian writer receiving a letter from a pastor scolding me for including a chapter on divorce and finances in one of my books. The letter not only shared his disappointment in me for allegedly making divorce easier for people, he added that he would never buy any of my books and that I was banned from being a speaker at his church. Despite my best efforts, and several paragraphs of disclaimers making clear that I was not advocating divorce, some readers would never forgive me for broaching the topic. I have run into many of the same hurdles when addressing the issue of bankruptcy. If I offer understanding and compassion to a caller in bankruptcy during a live radio show, I need not wait more than about five minutes to start seeing an influx of e mails rebuking me and even questioning my salvation. I have struggled for years wondering why Christians are so judgmental about bankruptcy.
In 2002 I was given the opportunity first hand to have an in depth education on bankruptcy. I was going bankrupt. I became completely convinced that this would be the death of my Christian financial writing and speaking career. This time I was not offering grace and understanding to someone else going through bankruptcy; it was me. My accountant informed me in the spring of 2002 that my my brother Carmen Paris (who was our internal accountant) had been embezzling from me for several years. The amount lost was estimated at 2 million dollars, although they stopped counting after going through five years of bank records. (For more details on my financial collapse – click here)
I had hired an outside accounting firm, at an annual cost of $15,000 to $20,000, to audit my financial and accounting records. Each year I received a clean bill of health and was told that my finances were in perfect order. In an elaborate embezzlement scheme, my bookkeeper was maintaining two sets of books and financial records. The accountants were completely fooled and only when I switched auditing firms was the embezzlement uncovered. I was left with no operating funds, and over a million dollars of debt that I was unaware of. It was tough to accept, but I had only one option: bankruptcy.
I remember the day I was required to go to Federal bankruptcy court in Jacksonville, Florida. It is a large white building with plenty of granite and marble in the entrance way. Everything about this place screamed out intimidation. About two hundred of us, soon to be bankrupt individuals, were herded into a dimly lit room. We were to wait and as our name was called and then go to the front of the room and sit at a long table. At the other end of the table was the bankruptcy trustee. He explained that it was his job to represent the creditors in our bankruptcy. As each person was seated they were asked about five to ten questions. In my case, the process took almost twenty minutes, which seemed like an eternity. “Now, Mr. Paris, why are you filing for bankruptcy?” I was asked. The trustee seemed extremely interested, especially when it came out that I was a financial writer. “A Financial writer, so what was the title of your most recent book?” I answered, Money Management For Those Who Don’t Have Any which caused us all to start laughing, to which I added, “How ironic, huh?”
Talk about humiliating, this was about as bad as it could get. After I was excused, I sat back down in the back of the room to gather together all of my personal papers and I saw an elderly man go up to take his place at the table. He was steadied on either side by two younger individuals that appeared to be his adult children. The man could hardly speak he was crying so uncontrollably. For a moment, my problems seemed trivial compared to the heartbreak I was witnessing. The man explained through his tears how he could not pay his medical bills, and in order to save his mobile home, he was filing for bankruptcy. There is a generation of our population that still views bankruptcy as perhaps the largest personal failing one can have in life. This man was losing far more than money; it looked like life itself was being wrenched from his body. Tears began to well up in my own eyes as I left the courthouse. I had to wonder how anyone could not have compassion on such a soul as this?
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