Whoever loves money never has money enough, whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 5:10
I was sitting in the dark, with a candle flickering in the corner, meditating and praying. I lamented, “What is it You are trying to teach me, God, what is it I need to learn from this mess?” Our family business had gone bankrupt, and my brother and I found ourselves with a multimillion-dollar judgment against us, threatening personal bankruptcy as well. In the next moments, I heard a clear message from God. But first, a little bit of back-story.
A little over ten years ago, I sold my business interests to launch a second career; coaching, teaching and equipping leaders for Christ. I was not sure at the time exactly what God had in mind, but knew I was being drawn to take this step. I find that God only lights the next couple of steps ahead on the path. We must step out in faith to see where the path leads. I remember the verse from Psalm 119:105: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
By the time I reached my late twenties, God was already working on my heart. I had been baptized as an unchurched adult, and felt drawn towards some calling on my life. Being a good Lutheran, I had not spent much time in prayer or Bible study, so God’s will was far from clear. Both our kids had been born, and I was working in the family business. I rejoined the business when we got pregnant with our daughter, Florrie, our first-born. I knew it would not be easy; my father was a hard man. So, I committed to give it five years.
At the end of five years, things were going well, but I was sure I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing this. We realized the kids would be out of the house by the time I reached 45, so we put in place our first vision: to achieve financial independence by age 45 and walk away to pursue our dreams.
By age 40, the rigors of growing a business and rearing kids had me push the date back in my mind to age 50. Then I met Charlotte Roberts, who became a mentor and taught me the discipline of Personal Mastery. She challenged me to clarify this vision of a preferred future, and to act on it.
By 1998, I had completed an Executive MBA at Georgia State, in preparation for a second career as a consultant, speaker and teacher. By that time we had moved beyond being a construction equipment distributor (think: car dealer for tractors), and had built a large equipment rental company. A public company had come courting us. They were building a national business by buying up independent rental companies like ours.
Given my desire to leave the business, my brother and I began to explore the possibility of a sale. Our father had died in 1990, and we had very successfully grown beyond the core business he left us. By the end of 1999, we had negotiated the sale of the business. My brother, the eldest son, was uncomfortable selling the business our father started and loved. He negotiated a deal to keep that part of the business in the family’s hands. That suited the public company, which only wanted the rental business anyway. So, they helped finance the recapitalization of the core business and bought the rest.
I departed the business soon after the sale and began my decompression phase, winding down from a decade of 60-hour weeks. Through meditation and prayer, I began to discern God’s faint path forward. I started work with another layman, Al Sagar, to build a leadership academy for our local bishop (ELCA Southeastern Synod), and was doing visioning work with local churches. That led a couple of years later to the founding of TransformingChurch.com, and later to the Transforming Leaders Initiative, a three year learning journey for pastors and mission developers.
In three years, the business our family kept crashed and burned. 9/11 was the last straw, and the bank pulled the plug. At least we had taken some of the family assets off the table with the sale of the rental business. After the business failed, the other shoe dropped. The company that bought us then initiated a lawsuit against my brother and me personally, seeking to collect $5M they had loaned the business.
We had very specifically refused to offer any personal guarantees of the loan, but discovered that they had inserted language in the contract that the court construed as a guarantee. Our lawyers did not see this language, and assured us we would win the case. The man we had negotiated our deal with knew we had no intent to guarantee. We had specifically spoken of it. We felt that if we could just talk with him we would clear this up. Their lawyers would not allow a conversation. Without even going to trial, the judge sided with them, and we lost. We ended up with a $6M+ judgment against us with interest accruing every month as we appealed.
When we were preparing to close the sale in 1999, I noticed some weird things coming from their side. They asked us at the last minute to buy back $1M worth of equipment assets. I put together a list of machines and offered them half of what they were worth. When they accepted my offer, I knew something was weird, because it made absolutely no business sense at all to give away assets at half their value. I suspected there must be some accounting irregularities at this public company.
As the lawsuit unfolded, I began to think about getting back at the man who had constructed this trap for us. By then, scandals about accounting irregularities were coming to light across the country. I was sure that I could get my old EMBA team back together, and hire my accounting professor to help us do some forensic accounting. I was confident we would turn up irregularities in the public company’s accounting. By now, the executive who negotiated our deal was President and CFO of the company. I suspected that this strategy, if successful, would cost him his job.
In my time of prayer and meditation, I realized that I did not want to spend the next years in a mode of retaliation and anger. I remembered the verse from Romans 12:19: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord. So I let it go, and left it in God’s hands.
The wheels of justice turn slowly. Three years went by as we lived under this cloud. I was preparing myself to face personal bankruptcy. During this dark time, I spent time every day in meditation and prayer. One afternoon, as I pleaded with God for some answers, I heard a response. As I weighed the impact of the lawsuit and its implications, I was looking for some insight, some way of understanding what was unfolding in our lives. “What is it you are trying to teach me, God?” The still, small voice spoke to me that day, in a very clear way. “Do I have to take it all away from you for you to realize that is not where to put your trust? You have been blessed in a mighty way. What are you waiting for? Be a blessing.”
I realized how much of my security was tied up in my financial assets. I was free to pursue God’s purpose because of that financial security. Still, God was telling me that I was misdirecting my trust by putting it in my bank account. In that moment, I let go of my fear and anxiety about the future. The peace of God flowed over me, and I knew we would be OK. God had been with us so far; I had to trust that He will be with us for the rest of our journey. This knowing and trusting God was the security we needed.
In my early days of meditation, I focused on a passage from John 14:27. I find this particularly appropriate during the troubled times that have unfolded over the last year. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Funny thing is, when the meltdown in 2008 took a third of our remaining assets down the drain, I did not experience the anxiety I saw all around me. I did not even look at the account balances until year-end. Sure, we’ve tightened our belts, and we're much more conscious about spending money. One of our best friends has a counseling practice, and the reaction she has seen in her patients tells me that far too many put their trust in their financial security. Now that it's gone, anxiety prevails. They feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them. The American dream is slipping away for many. Too bad the American dream is not also God’s dream.
The lawsuit went on for years after this epiphany moment. As the process began to wind down, I went back to God in prayer and said, “Lord, I think I've learned this lesson. Is it OK if we move on to another one?” Still, it was months before we saw resolution. As Mike Foss once said in a sermon, “God and I rarely argue about what needs to happen. Most of our fights are about the timing.”
In the end, we lost the appeal and had to face the fact that the court system is not always about justice. Our attorneys realized they had made a big mistake which led to our predicament, and they did the stand-up thing, offering to help us underwrite a settlement.
It took six months to negotiate and finalize a deal to make the judgment go away. Our attorneys and their malpractice insurance carrier came to the table and picked up 90 percent of the settlement costs. During that time of waiting, we saw on the news that an investigation had begun into the accounting practices of the company that bought our business. In an ironic twist, on the week when we finally settled the lawsuit and had the judgment dropped, we saw another news release. The company’s board of directors had terminated the president for allowing accounting irregularities under his watch. The man who had set the trap for us was now out of a job.
Having let go of my anger and resentment long ago, I felt nothing but sadness for the man and his family. All right, maybe a little “I told you so” crept in. I have told the story a number of times, but just to illustrate that my willingness to let go and let God be God resulted in justice, without my getting involved in vengeance. I realized long ago that resentment never really hurts the person I blame for mistreating me, but it eats a hole in my gut. How wonderful not to live with that for years.
I tell this story now, years later, because my brother sent me a news clip a few months ago. Turns out the former CEO has pled guilty to conspiring to falsify the company's records. He faces a recommended sentence of 27 months in prison in the plea bargain. And, he agreed to pay a fine in the exact amount of the judgment he won against us. Ironic. This morning, I said a prayer for him. May he learn the lessons that God has for him in this experience. I certainly did. God uses people without their even being aware of it. God used him to teach me a very valuable lesson. In these times, I give thanks for that painful lesson, which now turns into a blessing. In his Drops Like Stars tour, Rob Bell teaches that it often takes suffering to unleash a creative spark in us. I would have never learned this important lesson without the pain of the experience. I pray others will hear such a valuable message from God during these tumultuous times.