by David Sisler

4.9 billion square feet is an enormous piece of real estate, approximately equal to the area inside the I-495, the beltway which encircles Washington, D.C. That figure is equal to the area of land which is under roof in American shopping centers.

3.8 billion dollars is an enormous amount of money, definitely beyond my comprehension, but I know my wife and I would have to work three-quarters of a million years to earn it. That amount of money was lost by credit card companies in the second fiscal quarter of this year.

Build it and they will spend?

One more number, smaller this time, but no less significant. More than one million Americans will file for bankruptcy this year, 95 percent are individual consumer bankruptcies. Perched on an ever-growing mountain of bills, they charged, with apologies to Tennyson, into a valley of debt. Someone has blundered.

One of the most amazing symptoms of our society's growing financial irresponsibility is a new game show: "Debt." Ageless host, Wink Martindale, billed as "The Duke of Debt," introduces "three debt-laden Americans just like you" who "compete to have us pay off all their bills and go home with nothing." A small aside: the producers of this show flunked arithmetic. Categories feature negative dollar amounts, and when a correct answer adds the sum to the contestant's score (also a "minus" figure), the total decreases. Ask your seventh grader. It's the wrong answer.

The desire to acquire is as fundamental as eating. Only in today's society, when we charge food, it is no longer "once over the lips, forever on the hips." It is forever on the balance sheet. Charging food, by the way, is one of the two fastest growing categories of debt-acquisition, according to MasterCard -- the other is charging your taxes.

If you save your credit card for an occasional luxury or an unforseen emergency, you may find your card canceled because of infrequent use. In days gone by, you were rewarded for carrying a zero balance on your plastic money. Today you must pay a service charge for the privilege. And small wonder, the interest on your cards provides the provider with 78 percent of his earnings. Merchants fees and annual fees account for less than one-fifth of industry revenues, according to the American Bankers Association.

Some of what has been going around has been coming back. Not satisfied with top notch risks, Signet Bank added $175 million in new loans, made to people with tenuous credit. Thousands defaulted, leading to credit loses of $5.7 million. Bank of New York recently added $350 million to its reserves for bad credit card debt. Delinquencies are up 3.6 percent and bankruptcies are at a ten year high.

Increasingly people are using credit cards not merely to stay in style, but to supplement their incomes. We used to save to make a purchase, now we are using our savings to pay off our charge cards. You lose your job, but you still have to buy groceries, or pay the doctor, or even make the mortgage payment. Borrow from Peter to pay Paul. That scenario is understandable. Dangerous, but understandable. But most over-extending is simple greed.

We have an eagerness to possess what we will not wait to secure, a craving which does not fulfill, and a hunger to indulge in temporary satisfactions. Ravenous appetites are grasping and intemperate. And we pay for it with plastic.

If an aging missionary had been writing to his young protégé in 1996 instead of almost two thousand years earlier, I wonder if the root of all evil would have been identified as the love of credit cards, instead of simply, the love of money. One contestant on "Debt," who was $7,223 in the red explained, "The world has too many nice shoes." Being well-heeled walks a fine line, which when crossed, becomes idolatry. Grasping and grabbing, selfishly wanting more and more, really means living to serve a false god.

Greed, a twisted desire for prosperity and abundance, means we will always want something more which is just out of our grasp. Greed may put more shoes (and shirts and slacks and dresses) into our closets (speaking of closets, greed, not morality, will ultimately decide whether or not TV character "Ellen" will reveal she is a lesbian -- if ABC and Disney decide advertisers will not go into the closet, "Ellen" will come out), but it will never clothe the nakedness which exists inside every man and every woman. That spiritual debt, which is caused as much by greedy grasping as is financial debt, needs a spiritual solution. When Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads and I will give you rest," he was offering relief from a debt we cannot pay. It is a debt which he does not owe, but simply for the asking, he will write over that spiritual debt, "Paid In Full."


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 10/26/96

Copyright 1996 by David Sisler

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