“Debt” is a Spiritual Word

Maybe it is because I grew up on the Lord’s Prayer. And maybe it is because I’m not used to the current cacophonic repetition of the word, “economy.” Either way, I always thought the word “debt” was a spiritual word.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for the forgiveness of our debts, as we forgive our debtors. I know some congregations say “trespasses” and others say “sins.” Where I come from, we always said “debts.” It meant something different from what the landlord did when he knocked on our door, asking for the rent. He wanted money. The Lord’s Prayer asks for a new equilibrium between cost and payment—a different marketplace altogether.

This new equilibrium is a simultaneous spiritual, economic, and political transformation. It can happen to the “bankrupt” among us, who have credit card debt or are underwater, as well as to those who sport a robust stock portfolio. No one is exempt from forgiveness. This debt interchange, where we forgive the debts owed to us the way our own debts are released, says something about a trans-economic life.

Don’t tell the media, but there are other news stories besides the rise and the fall of the stock markets. Whisper that some people don’t even have stocks and others have way too many, and both groups of people find themselves often moved to pray: “Forgive us our debts—the ones we owe to the poor and don’t pay—as they forgive us,” the rich might say. The poor might say, “Forgive us our resentment and anger against the rich, even as they forgive it in us.” The middle might say, “I’m not bankrupt but I sure feel bankrupt, forgive me for not knowing what to do or say next.”

In each case, debt is newly structured while at the same time energy transfer results in market shaking and market-shaping freedom. People dwell in that freedom.

Spiritual economies involve a transfer of energy. When money transfers, there is indeed energy. But when spiritual energies transfer, we are reanimated, reconceived, and reborn. We find a way to understand what an economy is and what place it needs in our vocabulary and our lives. We get out from under “debt load,” which is just something we pay to banks. 

As we face the so-called debt crisis, I keep thinking of the beatitude that says, “Blessed are the poor,” which includes everyone within its reach. Owing, paying, being under water, being out of pocket, living as though it was uphill both ways—these do not feel like blessings. More like curses. But the curse comes from the exaggeration of the economy’s importance in our lives.

Someone just told me she felt she had more “debt” than a first-term congressman. She had over-promised and could never pay her way out. One of the hardest things I face now as a pastor is how my unemployed congregants, who are many, often blame themselves for being out of a job.

Forgive us for taking on too much blame! As we forgive others who take on too much blame. As we forgive those who are to blame.

Economic Debt, Spiritual Debt

You may not think this story is related, but I do: the ceiling on our church gym fell down. No one was hurt as no one was in the gym at the time. It was the same day that NPR was boosting anxiety medication sales by ceaselessly intoning the phrase, “debt ceiling.”

I too saw another bill our beautiful building couldn’t pay, as we are already fixing the bathrooms and knowing we have to fix the roof with money that we don’t have. When we were down to one flush, we knew debt was our destination. So we borrowed money. Our building is dedicated to God, even in its failings and fallings. My religion wants me to understand that the poor are blessed and to pray to forgive others, even as I am forgiven.

I did feel some of the blessing in my laughter at the words, “debt ceiling.” I felt even more of the blessing when I remembered that debt is a spiritual subject before it is an economic one. I realized that forgiveness of debt might be something that has to start in your heart first, before it goes to S&P or Equifax for a rating.

This is not my first ecclesiastical ceiling collapse nor will it be my last. I was there when Rev. Howard John Wesley was ordained at St. John’s in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Rev. Jeremiah Wright was playing the piano and the ceiling fell down, dusting quite a few fancy outfits with a thin white plaster. Rev. Wright kept on playing. His persistence joins my laughter in having a glimpse of what it means to be so forgiven that you can have joy, even inside a debt ceiling “crisis.”

Right now it feels as if the energy of most Americans is that of a barn-bound horse, or a rootbound plant. We are wound around the economy as though it were our lifeblood. People aren’t working, even if we are working. We are looking for a rebirth of wonder and blessing and engagement. 

How do you pay off debt? You forgive it in another. You receive the blessing, then, of the poor. Maybe you even stop being so afraid of being poor and become poor. Your favorite word is “blessed.”