Forgive Us Our Debts

IMG_4702I spent my first two years of college at a private liberal arts school in Michigan. I chose the school not because of its academic excellence or even necessarily its “vibrant Christian faith”—although faith was becoming increasingly important to me as decision time approached. No, I did not choose the school because of its rigor or research but because I really liked its downtown area.

The downtown was basically one road, Eighth Street, and it had heated sidewalks and beautiful old buildings. There were two coffee shops brimming with life on the same block. It had a store that sold greeting cards from Curly Girl Designs, which were my favorite thing ever as a teenager.

It was fate.

It might seem silly, but I’m being honest with you. And as an 18 year-old girl with extremely sound logic, I declared that God was calling me to this school and I could not be shaken. No matter that a year’s tuition was half the price of my parents’ house, I was going to be an elementary school teacher! I’d be able to pay those loans off in no time.

Why my parents let me go there I’ll never understand. Maybe it was all the tears and begging. How can you say no when your child tells you, “I know it’s God’s plan for me?” It was against all rationale that I enrolled at Hope College. I’m still figuring out why that sweet, naïve 18 year-old was so obediently bold in the pursuit of a college based primarily on the type of greeting card sold at a store downtown.

So there I was, sitting in a small, windowless room in the financial aid office between both of my parents. A short woman sat across from us, pushing paper after paper our way until we had signed this and initialed that. She said words like “interest rate” and “unsubsidized” and “cosign” and I just smiled and nodded, not realizing at the time how easy it was to find your self (and, in my case, my parents) in tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

I wasn’t thinking about the money during my freshman year. I had a good amount of savings from my summer job as a hostess, which I didn’t hesitate to spend on lattes and clothes from the Gap Outlet. My days were spent doing classic freshman things: spending hours singing “Eye of the Tiger” with 150 other girls and perfecting hand motions so that we could perform in a beloved traditional competition between freshman and sophomores, going to house parties in which the hosts make you pancakes and sing worship songs, and taking trips to the local donut shop, Good Time Donuts, where you were never 100 percent sure whether the owner would be entirely clothed.

Oh, you didn’t do that as a freshman?

I was much too wrapped up in a whirlwind of crazy traditions and changing friend groups to remember—or even care—that I was $35,000 in the hole.

Sophomore year was a little different. My dear grandmother died early in the fall which was a devastating loss for our family. Only two weeks after, we got the news that my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. What started as a small twitch in his shoulder quickly spiraled into his drastic loss of balance, coordination and energy.

I remember talking to him on the phone one evening. I was sitting on an old, mustard brown corduroy couch, keeping watch on the residents entering to and from the dorm. I was a RA, so this was a weekly tradition of mine. After a minute of talking to him, I laughed and asked, “Dad, are you drunk?” He had been slurring his words and talking slowly. He wasn’t a heavy drinker, so it seemed uncharacteristic of him, but who knows what parents do when you leave for school?

He said no, he was not drunk. When I had my mom back on the line, she told me that it was slowly becoming harder for him to speak. Just a couple of months after that, we accepted it as his new way of life. The pills weren’t helping and the doctors didn’t know why it was progressing so fast.

Meanwhile, at Hope College, we were entering the season of housing decisions. For sophomores at Hope College, this is a cruel time where friends become enemies and loyalties are out the window. Junior year is the transition from on-campus dorms to on-campus cottages and apartments, meaning everyone has to decide who they do—and don’t—want to live with next year. Tears are shed. Backs are stabbed.

I wanted no part of it. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be there next year. I still loved the town, but I couldn’t take one more year at that school.

So? Said God. Don’t.

So, after much prayer and debate and anxiety and more prayer, I signed up for a tour at the university 20 miles away and decided to commute there while still living in town. I finished up my sophomore year at Hope and then said goodbye without much sadness and with zero regret. In fact, I felt more confident about leaving Hope than I had felt about going there initially. And it’s not easy to surpass that level of confidence. I’m generally a very indecisive person.

I think the decision to leave was influenced by a myriad of events. I didn’t want to put my parents into more debt, especially now that medical bills were becoming part of the picture. My boyfriend, Brenin, and I were talking seriously about marriage and I couldn’t let him marry a woman $80,000 in debt (and at that point I had given up on wanting to teach so I wouldn’t be bringing in the big bucks anymore…). There were plenty of other small reasons, too, including being fed up with the culture and politics of the school.

So I left, went to another school, then went to another school, then got married, and now I’m living in Minnesota and will finish up school in December.

For a while there, I was really questioning God’s purpose for my enrollment at Hope. Had I been that off? Did He really not want me to go to Hope and I just screwed myself into a huge pile of debt? Why had I felt so strongly that it was where I was supposed to go?

I wrestled with this question for almost two years. I knew that being tied down with debt was not God’s best for His children, but He seemed to lead me right into the trap.

But He knew what He was doing. Even in my doubt and anger, He stayed patient and faithful. See, my dad had to apply for full-time disability this year. He’s no longer in a physical condition to do his job as a civil engineer. But, when someone goes on disability, they’re somehow potentially eligible for loan forgiveness. And after jumping through hoops and making phone calls and faxing papers, after cosigning their lives away that fateful day four years ago, my parents told me that those loans—$55,000—have been forgiven.

Gone.

Wiped clean.

It’s as if, financially, I never went to Hope College.

I fell to the ground and cried. A mountain so impossible to climb and it was simply pushed out of the way to make a clear path.

I was speechless in awe of my God.

At Hope, we had chapel every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each morning, our worship leader, a young guy with great facial hair and horn-rimmed glasses, would remind us of the gracious words of Psalm 103. “As far as the east,” he’d say, stretching out his left arm, “is from the west,” he continued, right arm outstretched, “so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

That reminder was like sweet honey each time. I would believe anew each morning that God really did find pleasure in purifying His children, relieving us of our burdens and forgiving us our trespasses.

But those words I heard every other day at Hope…those words I recited as a toddler in Catholic school: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”…Never did I think God would work so tangibly as to take a serious material burden and lift it as if it had been light as a feather, throwing it as far from me as the east is from the west.

Because what would’ve taken me my entire life to pay off—a life of strict budgeting and sacrifice—took God but a moment. What would’ve been back-breaking work for me was a characteristic act of grace, love, and kindness from the Father who says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Thanks be to God for His abundant, unconditional, fierce love for His children.

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