Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Musing

The juxtaposition of peace in the midst of pain,
Of comfort in sorrow,
Of hope when surrounded by despair,
Of love when buffeted by hate.

Where do such contradictions come from?
How do we know that the world is broken?
How do we know that normal is not normal?
That the ideal has not been realized?

In a place where animals feed lies the Bread of Life.
Into a world of darkness comes the Light of Life.
Into a humanity that celebrates deceit enters the Truth.
Into a world in which money means everything comes One to whom money means nothing.

He was wrapped in cloths and laid in a feeding trough.
Later He was wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb.
Three days later He left the cloths in the tomb.
Now the question is: Will we be wrapped in His righteousness?

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ either means nothing or it means everything. God gives enough light so that those who seek Him find Him, and enough darkness so that those who do not seek Him will not find Him.

If we will humble ourselves and eat from a feeding trough we will have the feast of the ages; if we insist on eating in palaces we will starve and die. The true Christmas message must be a powerful thing for the devil to work so hard to obscure it.

Jesus Christ either means nothing or He means everything.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday – VII

We are like the snake that ate itself; the consumers are being consumed by their consumption.

Black Friday – VI

Retail stores are where we now gather to worship, brought together in a common religion. For those who choose to worship in the privacy of their own homes there is internet shopping. Let us burn the incense of money on the altar.

Black Friday – V

“Liftoff” is a determining factor in the trajectory of a space mission; if our liftoff for Advent is Black Friday what does that say about our trajectory?

Black Friday – IV

We convince ourselves that our families can’t do without Black Friday items, but are we convinced that they need Jesus? If our answer is “yes”, then are we putting more passion and energy into sharing the Gospel – the greatest gift of all – than we are putting into seeking material items on Black Friday?

Black Friday – III

Are we as eager to read the Bible as we are to read the Black Friday sales inserts in the paper?

Black Friday - II

Black Friday casts its materialistic shadow across the Advent Season and we don’t even notice, so enculturated have we become.

Black Friday

Do we seek the Kingdom of God the way we seek sales on Black Friday?

Do we anticipate His coming the way we anticipate Black Friday?

Do we awaken to worship Him the way we head out early on Black Friday?

Do we stay up late at night in prayer the way we head out on Thanksgiving night to Black Friday sales?

Are we more excited about Black Friday than Good Friday?

Will we talk to our neighbors and coworkers and families about Black Friday but not Good Friday?

Are our hearts passionate about Black Friday or Good Friday?

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Matthew 6:21.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Buffet

Two friends met for lunch at a buffet. They both got in line with their plates. When they met back at their table one friend noticed that he got ham and his friend got roast beef, then he noticed that he got mashed potatoes and his friend got sweet potatoes, then he saw that he got peas and his friend got corn; he was relieved when he saw that they both chose spaghetti, that is he was relieved until he saw that he got red sauce and his friend got white sauce.

After thinking about it briefly the friend who was making these critical observations asked why his friend didn’t choose ham or mashed potatoes or peas; and he especially wanted to know why his friend chose white sauce since everyone knows that red sauce is better. His friend responded that he really just wanted roast beef and not ham, sweet potatoes and not mashed potatoes, corn and not peas; he also shared that while there are many days that he enjoys red sauce that he had a taste for white sauce on this particular day.

The first friend insisted that his friend at least try the red sauce. When the friend refused, saying he really wasn’t in the mood for red sauce, the first friend got angry.

Now it would have been one thing if the first friend had seen someone put rat poison in the white sauce, but that wasn’t the case – there was no poison in the white sauce.

Funny how we can think and act when people don’t do what we want them to do or think the way we want them to think, as I recall it was Paul who wrote that we are not to judge another man’s servant for to his own master he stands or falls; some like red sauce, some white sauce – as long as there is no rat poison in the sauce (whatever its color) we can afford to be charitable, we need not insist that all our plates look the same. An element of friendship, it seems to me, is to appreciate our different appetites and not to elevate appetite to dogma, I think it was also Paul who somewhere wrote about the Body of Christ having many members, and needing many members…yes, I think it was Paul.

Well, maybe we’re better off just blending the sauces the next time we go through the buffet line, but is that really a solution?  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Transcendent Friendships – III

When our sister-in-law Janet was visiting us a few weeks ago and we were talking about her husband Rod (Vickie’s brother) going to be with Jesus she shared a facet of Rod’s homecoming we weren’t aware of, Rod raised his arms when he shouldn’t have been able to raise them.

We knew Rod raised his arms, but we didn’t know he shouldn’t have able to raise them. Vickie and I knew that as he was lying unconscious in his bed at home, blankets wrapped around him, friends and family at his side, that he suddenly opened his eyes, pushed the covers back, looked upward with his eyes fixed on someone or something, lifted his arms in the air…and passed from this life into the next.

What we didn’t know is that Rod had not been able to lift and stretch his arms for his entire adult life due to multiple breaks sustained as a child. Rod and Janet had consulted physicians for a remedy but the surgical options were so radical that Rod chose to live within his physical limitations rather than undergo extensive surgeries.

The people in Rod’s bedroom that morning saw Rod’s eyes open, his face light up, his eyes gaze on the unseen, and his hands and arms push back the covers; they saw him raise his arms and hands in the direction of his fixed gaze, and they saw him lay his body down and go to be with Jesus. The doctors told Rod and Janet that Rod’s death would be painful – it was not. Rod should not have awaken from his coma, he should not have opened his eyes, and he most certainly should not have raised arms which had not been raised in decades…but he did.

I hope I’ll never take for granted my ability to raise my hands and arms in praise and worship, and I hope I’ll never miss an opportunity to do so – after all, worship here is but a foretaste of worship in eternity, it is heaven invading earth, beginning with my clay vessel.

I wonder if Rod is known in heaven as “The guy who never puts his arms down.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Transcendent Friendships – II

We’ve had a feast of friendship the past few weeks. Vickie’s stepmom, stepsister, and sister-in-law visited us for a week (Vickie had not seen them for three years and I hadn’t seen them for seven years); then we few to Cincinnati to see friends whom we had not seen in fourteen years; then a friend from Massachusetts whom we had not seen for four or five years came to see us for a long weekend – it was a kaleidoscope of joy and beauty.

Each of these friends brought joy as they refracted the light of our mutual friendship with Jesus Christ, each brought memories, each brought trust, each brought things both old and new. For me it was as if I had seen each one only yesterday – even the son of our Cincinnati friends who had been born since we last saw them seemed familiar…perhaps because from his birth he has been in our prayers?

Our Cincinnati friends remarked that they wondered how seeing us after all these years would be…and for them it was as if we just picked up a conversation from last week. Perhaps we can also attribute a measure of this to the fact that we have been mutually praying for one another through the years.

Seeing our Iowa family was sweet; Vickie’s Dad died in 2006 and her brother Rod died some fourteen years ago. I imagine that often step relations lose track of each other after the unifying family member dies, but this hasn’t been the case with Bonnie (Vickie’s stepmom) and Marsha (Vickie’s stepsister); we’ve kept in touch and looked forward to seeing them – we really had a great time! Their visit was made even nicer by Janet (Rod’s wife) coming with them – it’s great being with people who like each other.

During their visit Janet shared something about Rod that we didn’t know…it made the events surrounding his going to be with Jesus even more poignant…


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Transcendent Friendships - I

There are annuals and then there are perennials – they both have their joy, their beauty, their glory. Unlike flora which can be readily identified as either perennial or annual, it usually takes time to know the nature of a relationship, and even then we may have a surprise or two as the years unfold.

I have a t-shirt from a business trip to San Francisco in the early 1980s; I associate the t-shirt with a man whom I met at the educational course I attended that week, I don’t remember his name but I do joyfully remember his hospitality; he was a native of San Francisco and he took me to places I would not have experienced without his hospitality. There was a favorite restaurant of his in Chinatown in which he ordered for me and another course participant dishes which were not on the menu; then there was Lefty O’Doul’s, a restaurant and bar where he purchased the green t-shirt for me as a memento. While we also saw the Golden Gate Bridge and the crooked street and rode a cable car and ate at a famous hotel, I appreciated my acquaintance’s hospitality more than anything.

I don’t wear the t-shirt for a couple of reasons; the first is that it is a memento evoking memories of a gracious and thoughtful host, the second is that the t-shirt says, “We cheat drunks and tourists”, kind of edgy and not representative of a message I care to send to the readers of attire I wear; but the main reason I have only worn it once or twice during the past 30 years is that it is a memento to me and not a piece of clothing. (I just checked Lefty’s on the web and while they still sell t-shirts they no longer appear to sell shirts advertising that they cheat drunks and tourists – I think I prefer the old and bold rather than the new and mundane).

My San Francisco host was an annual flower, annuals have their place of beauty in life and even though he bloomed for only a week in 1984 it was a bloom that gives me joy to this day.

To be continued…   

Saturday, October 12, 2013

They’re Here To Help

I am tired, it was rewarding. Many things kept me going but this one was the best. I was out doing assessments on houses and a mother and her daughter (around 3 years old) were walking down the street coming toward me. The little girl looked at me and then looked up at her mother and said "Mommy they're here to help." After that it was no problem getting motivated.

My brother Jim, retired US Army and then retired again as a health-care executive, is a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Within the past few months he has been to Arizona in response to devastating fires and more recently to Colorado to assist victims of severe flooding. After he returned home from Colorado a week or so ago I sent him an email which said, “You must be tired and it must have been rewarding.” He wrote the above response. I can see the mother and child amidst the destruction, walking down the street toward Jim; I visualize them hand-in-hand getting closer and closer to Jim. I see big eyes in the little girl as she looks at Jim and then her mom and I hear the words, “Mommy they’re here to help.”

When I first read those words I thought, “That ought to be the way we live our lives as Christians, as the Church, to live them in such a way that when people see us they instinctively think and say, “They’re here to help.” ”

I’m afraid that hasn’t always been the case in my own life, I’m afraid that too often I’ve been so blinded by my own agenda or a sense of self-righteousness that I haven’t focused on helping others. It is easy and effortless to get caught-up in the culture and its hot topics and get sucked into them as into a whirlpool. How do I so often forget that I am to love my neighbor as myself? The story of the Good Samaritan is a story Jesus used to illustrate what it means to love one’s neighbor. The Good Samaritan crossed ethnic lines in helping a Jew, in fact he helped a person of another ethnicity which despised his own people, the Jews despised Samaritans.

The Good Samaritan’s help and love was costly; it cost him time and money – two things which our present society worships to the point where we say, “Time is money.” I wonder what other Samaritans thought of his actions? Stupid? A waste of money and time? Did they say, “You should have let his own people take care of him”?  Or maybe, “Let the government, be it national or local, take care of him?”

The Good Samaritan’s help was open ended, when he took the injured man to an inn and paid the innkeeper he told the innkeeper, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” In other words, the Good Samaritan gave the innkeeper a blank check; when we help people we usually put a limit on what we’re prepared to do.

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) felt compassion for the injured man. The priest and the Levite walked on the other side of the road when they saw the injured man lying half-dead, but when the Samaritan saw the man he felt compassion. Which side of the road do I walk on? The side of the injured and helpless or the side of those in need?

The man had been stripped of his clothes; the Samaritan cleansed and dressed his wounds – he touched the injured man, then he touched him again, then he touched him again. The Samaritan touched a man from a race that would not touch or eat with Samaritans, he touch a man from a race hostile to Samaritans. Do I choose whose lives I will touch? Do I screen those whom I will reach out to and have compassion on?

The Samaritan put the man on his own beast and brought him to an inn. I wonder what people thought as they saw the Samaritan leading an animal with a half-dead Jew on it? It must have been quite the sight. Perhaps Jews pitied the Jew and perhaps Samaritans couldn’t understand why the Good Samaritan was wasting his time and effort?

The passage says that the Samaritan “brought him to an inn and took care of him.” The Samaritan nurses the injured man. There he is by the bed of the injured man, spoon feeding him, giving him sips of wine, cleaning his wounds, helping him with his bodily functions – the Samaritan is touching the man, and touching him again – his mercy and compassion are up front and personal. He does not pay someone else to nurse the man that first night, he stays by the side of the injured man and cares for him.

As I ponder the above I’m convicted that too often I allow my “personal space” to excuse my lack of care and compassion, I’ll help others when I can but I don’t want to get too close or too inconvenienced.

In pondering Jesus’ story of The Good Samaritan I realize that the story is a story that we think we know but which most of us really don’t know; we gloss over the details, we gloss over the cultural context, and we gloss over what the story should look like in our own lives – we know the story but we don’t know the story. We have been inoculated against the story…I think I’ve been getting annual inoculations.

When people see us coming do they say, “They’re here to help”?

Monday, September 23, 2013

In Reverse

Cletus called me on my cell phone the other day:

“Bob, can you please come pick me up from St. Francis hospital?”

“What happened?”

“I fell and hit my head. Wilma brought me down here for stitches and oxygen but she had to leave to meet the tow truck back at the house.”

“Tow truck?”

“Yeah, that new pickup has some damage to it and needs to go into the shop.”

“Didn’t you just get back from vacation this morning?”

“Sure did. Took the new pickup with its extended cab and had a great time.”

“So you had an accident on the way home?”

“Nope. Had an accident right at the house.”

“Who was driving?” I asked.

“No one was driving. The trailer on my John Deere lawn tractor hit the left front quarter panel and drove the sheet metal into the tire and now it can’t be driven.”

“Okay Cletus. Exactly what happened?”

“Well, before we went on vacation I pulled the John Deere lawn tractor into the garage with the little trailer attached to the back. After we got home this morning from vacation and unpacked I went down to the garage to back the tractor out and drive it back down to the pole barn. As you know I ain’t the best at backing things out, which is why even when I drive Wilma’s little compact car that I look for a pull-through parking space.

“Anyway, I’ve been working on backing the tractor up with the trailer hitched to it and I was determined to get it right this time. Before I went to the garage Wilma said, “Why don’t you just unhitch the trailer and push it out, then back the tractor out, then hitch the trailer back and drive it down to the pole barn?”

“I said, “No, I’m going to back that tractor and trailer out of that garage if it takes me all day.”

“So I cranked the tractor up and depressed the reverse pedal and back I went…but the trailer veered off to the left. So I went forward and straightened the trailer out and then depressed the reverse pedal again and the trailer veered off to the right. So I went forward and straightened things up again.

“Before I went in reverse again I tried to recall the YouTube video I’d watched about backing a trailer up. It looked easy on the video and I was sure I could do it. So once again I hit the reverse pedal and once again the trailer veered to the left; I went forward and backward and forward and backward and forward and backward and the trailer just wouldn’t cooperate.

“I started feeling pretty sleepy, and things around me were looking a bit fuzzy. I finally decided to unhitch the trailer and push it out on the driveway. Pushing it about wore me out because I had it loaded with bags of lime for the yard. Finally I got the trailer far enough out of the garage that I could back the tractor out.

“I got back on the tractor, depressed the reverse pedal, and turned around to see where I was going when…BANG!!!! The trailer rolled down the slopped driveway and rammed the front of the pickup. The next thing I knew I was sprawled on the floor and Wilma was standing over me asking “What happened? Are you okay? I’m calling 911.”

“I don’t recall much else until I realized I was stretched out in an ambulance with sirens going.”

“Cletus…what happened to you?”

“Seems running that tractor in the enclosed space just about killed me. I fell off the tractor, cracked my head on the concrete floor. I could have killed myself…and all because I didn’t know how to drive that tractor and its trailer in reverse. Now I’ve messed my head up and I’ve messed my truck up. Will you please come get me?”

“Cletus, I really really hate to tell you this…but I’m out of town. Can I call your brother Clyde to come get you?”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When A Good Idea Goes Bad

My cousin Cletus called me yesterday, seems he had a good idea gone bad. Our friend Earl had emailed him a list of handy home ideas that are supposed to make life easier, Cletus tried it and it didn’t work. As the photo below illustrates, the idea is to put a rubber band around a paint can, then when painting you wipe the excess paint off the brush by wiping the brush against the rubber band, this avoids excess paint on the sides of the paint can. Seems ingenious right? Well there’s a reason you don’t see Home Depot or Lowes selling rubber bands for paint cans.

The phone call (on my cell phone) went like this:

“Bob, I’ve got a problem and need your help.”

“What happened Cletus?”

“You know that email Earl sent us with handy household tips to make life easier?”

“Oh yeah, I saw that. What did you do, forward it to someone as a joke?”

“Not exactly. As a matter of fact I tried one of the tips.”

“Oh no, you didn’t really, did you?”

“I sure did and it worked…at least for a while. The wife is gone for the weekend, she left last night, so I thought I’d surprise her and spend Saturday on doing “honey-dos” around the house – and I thought I’d really surprise her by doing something not on my list, like painting the dinning room.”

“But Cletus, I thought Wilma did all of the indoor painting?”

“Well she does, says I’m not that great at detail work – that’s why I thought this would really be a surprise.”

“No doubt it will be when she gets home. So what’s the problem?”

“Well, I’d been painting for about 30 minutes and things were going nicely. I’d put drop cloths on the floor, I carefully moved the dishes and glasses and other glassware out of the hutch and onto the dinning room table so that when I moved the hutch away from the wall I wouldn’t break anything, I was really pleased with myself…then it happened.”

“What happened?”

“The phone rang. As I got up to answer it I laid the paint brush over the paint can so that the rubber band supported it. As I was walking back into the dinning room after the call I heard a “snap” and a bang and then the sound of breaking glass. The rubber band snapped and sent the paint brush flying into the ceiling and then the brush careened down onto the dinning room table, sending glassware off the table, onto the floor – there is paint everywhere, shards of glass everywhere, the paint is on the ceiling, on the table, on the hutch, on the floor – and I don’t know how many dishes and glasses and what not are broken. Can you come over and please help me clean this up and figure out what to do next?”

“Sorry Cletus, I’m out of town.” 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

“I Can’t Talk Now”?

I’ve wanted to write this for years but I’ve kept putting it off because I didn’t want to be off-putting. But I need to get it out of my system, not that it won’t linger to some degree; at least I won’t think about writing it…though I suppose I’ll think about the fact that I have written it.

Why do people answer the phone only to say, “I can’t talk now”? If they can’t talk then why answer the phone? Sometimes they’ll add, “Can I call you back?” Do they expect to hear in response, “No, as a matter of fact you can’t call me back”? I can understand the occasional instance when we might want to let the caller know that the call is important but that we’re in the midst of something that we need to finish after which we’ll call back; but that should be the exception. This reactionary answering is off-putting, “I can’t talk right now.”

Okay, thanks for telling me that you can’t talk right now but the fact is that you are talking to me right now; if you can’t talk right now then please let the call go to voice mail or let me decide to hang up and not leave a message knowing that you have caller-ID and that you’ll call me back when you can talk. Add to the foregoing that often when people answer and say, “I can’t talk right now,” that they are with someone else and thus are interrupting their time with another person to answer a call from a person that they aren’t going to talk to anyway – what sense does this make?

Are we so addicted to electronics that we’ll go into cardiac arrest or suffer an anxiety meltdown if we don’t respond to the ringtone? Let’s all take a deep breath and not answer the phone if we can’t talk…it really will be ok.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dear Peach Tree Bandit(s)

So you took the opportunity while the nation’s attention was focused on an organized crime trial in New England to pick the peach tree clean? Was the trial a ruse you engineered to divert attention from your local operation? Did you use the peach tree as an educational outing for your brood, introducing them to a life of banditry? How many of you were there? Considering that the tree was loaded with peaches from top to bottom, considering that some branches were weighed down with clusters of peaches bowing to the ground, considering that the deed was done in a matter of days, in less than one week – surely this is the work of a gang with a wily mastermind. Only a carefully orchestrated operation could have removed every last peach. Only a mind able to encompass the entire tree, every branch, every twig, every peach, could have issued assignments based on number of peaches, height of limbs, and weight of peaches in each cluster. And to leave no evidence! Surely you are a master of clandestine operations!

I trust you enjoyed watching me spray the tree…once…twice…thrice…how many times did I foolishly do it? You must have snickered as you watched me spray with that heavy backpack pump sprayer, each time ensuring that I had top to bottom coverage of the tree, each time making sure that the underside of the branches were well-spayed as the topside. Did you video my futile efforts to bring home peaches? Did you play the video for your gang, instructing them to wait till the last possible moment before striking, before stealing every last peach from the tree? Not even leaving me, a son of Adam, one out of every ten peaches?

No doubt you watched me take a sample of two peaches home for my wife, a daughter of Eve, to inspect; no doubt that was the moment when you knew that you must launch your invasion before another weekend passed, no doubt the die was cast on that fateful Saturday morning as I left the garden and the peach tree – naively thinking that a harvest of peaches awaited the next weekend.

At least your fellow bandit who has played Attila the Hun with our tomatoes had the good sense to tease us by allowing some to remain, thus giving us hope for next year – but you, you would rob us of all hope for peaches; you would stomp our desire underfoot, you would rob our wallets of money paid for fruit tree spray…did I mention that you and yours took every last peach?

That’s okay…I have a plan.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dear Critter

I thought of you this morning as I worked in the garden; I thought particularly of you as I worked in the tomatoes. As Patrick Revere used to say when contemplating predators, “All God’s creatures gotta eat.” Patrick’s words make sense to me, they made sense when I first heard them and they still make sense – but you, dear critter, don’t make sense.

Vickie and I put a lot of work into the garden. Constructing raised beds, hauling soil, amending soil, fertilizing; most of my weekends last fall and early winter were devoted to preparing the garden. Dear critter (shall I call you Peter?), in line with dear Patrick’s words I don’t begrudge you a tomato, but I most certainly begrudge your licentious destructive rapacious spoilage of tomatoes throughout the garden – a bite here, two bites there, a half-eaten tomato on this vine, three half-eaten tomatoes on that vine – this behavior is what I begrudge.

Farmer MacGregor where are you? I’m beginning to understand that you are the victim of a smear campaign funded by wealthy rabbits who paid Beatrix Potter to present their wanton behavior in a sympathetic light designed to brainwash children and unsuspecting parents. A dupe no longer shall I be! I will throw off the shackles of childhood romantic notions of dear sweet little bunnies out on an innocent day of play in MacGregor’s garden – I will call you what you are – hordes of Attila the Hun.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Tyranny of Foreclosure – Part 3

There was stress in his voice and countenance as he talked about his home and mortgage situation. What I thought was going to be lunch with a contractor to discuss business was turning into something unexpected, he was bearing his soul to me, confiding in me about his family and finances.

Greg lost his wife to cancer four years ago, with three school-age children still at home he had struggled to hold onto the home that represented stability and memories, but the loss of his wife’s income put pressure and more pressure on him and he just didn’t know how long he could continue making mortgage payments.

He had done the right thing, at least what he thought was the right thing, by contacting the lender on numerous occasions to seek a modification of the loan, after all, interest rates had dramatically dropped since their purchase and an interest rate reduction could be the difference between his family remaining in their home and leaving; it could also be the difference between him continuing with a superior credit rating or dropping to a poor rating.

If you’ve followed the mortgage debacle, debacle that is for consumers, not for corporations, you know what Greg was told, “We won’t discuss a mortgage modification with you until you are in arrears.”

He had, as thousands of consumers have done, given the lender his bank statements, his paychecks, his bills…he had given the lender full-financial disclosure in order to demonstrate his financial situation – but no, the lender would not discuss a loan modification until he defaulted on his loan.

Of course a loan default triggers punitive late fees, then administrative costs, then legal costs, and before the consumer knows it he or she is thousands of dollars behind to the lender, which in turn makes any conversation with the lender about a loan modification more difficult because instead of talking about how to make a monthly loan payment to keep things current you are talking about how to pay thousands of dollars in fees that you would not have incurred had the matter been deal with prior to default.

Add to the above the fact that once consumers go into default on a mortgage that the lender drags communication out over months and even a year or more and the foregone result in the vast majority of cases is that the consumer is crushed by the tyranny of thousands upon thousands of dollars in late fees and other charges.

This is a double standard in that the lenders themselves are bailed out by our tax dollars and their officers and employees held harmless from their poor judgments, predatory practices, and cruel treatment of our fellow citizens. Yes, I wrote “cruel” and I mean to use the word.

Greg shared his struggle with what to do, the financial and emotional pressure was becoming unbearable, while he wanted to continue to do what “was right” he also needed to care for his children and he saw no way that he could continue to provide for them under the burden of his mortgage; seeing no alternative he had decided to rent a home in the same school district for much less than he was paying the lender and default on the mortgage. It was a difficult decision and there were tears as Greg talked to me, but what else could he do in such an unequal contest? The taxpayer is forced to consider the plight of the mortgage companies to the point where in some bailouts we’ve guaranteed losses on loans and houses, while the lone consumer is crushed under the weight of nameless, faceless, and heartless institutions.

This would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of financial institutions and inequitable practices, but to think that this is the child of the fiscal policy of both political parties and that the child is funded by the taxpayer is sad and dark; but perhaps it is even sadder and darker that as long as such policies don’t directly affect an individual American that the individual American is not likely to ponder them, react to them, or seek the change them. This is not only true of the mortgage debacle, it is also true of health care, education, affordable housing, hunger, the conditions in which many Native Americans live…fill in the blank.

I write this as someone who is searching his own soul and coming up short. I write this as one who professes to follow the Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan and yet I confess that I have walked by people more often than not without seeing their need, without reaching out to them, without extending myself and my resources to aid them. I’m reminded of Francis Schaffer’s warning that the great danger to the Western church was the core value of personal peace and affluence – let me alone and allow me to be comfortable and I won’t really care what goes on around me – while I would probably have denied it for much of my life, Schaffer was talking about me. Well, just because you mess up the first three quarters of a football game doesn’t mean you can’t change the game plan in the fourth quarter and stage a comeback.

Note: Greg is not the person’s real name and I have also altered some nonessential facts in order to protect this person’s identity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Butter Cow and the Iowa State Fair

If you've never been to the Iowa State Fair then you've never been to a state fair; I'm sure some Texan is going to disagree, but there isn't anything like the Iowa State Fair - it is a city in itself, it is a happening, it is downright amazing.

An icon of the fair is the butter cow, 600 pounds of pure cream Iowa butter sculpted into a cow.


A few days ago a vegan liberation movement vandalized the cow by pouring red paint on it - I don't get how anyone using these tactics, whether they are butter cow liberationists or religious extremists protesting at funerals, or baseball fans protesting the designated hitter rule who burn baseball bats, think they are going to get their point across.

Anyway, it's State Fair time and even before I knew about the vandalism I was thinking about the cow and wondering whether Bonnie and Marsha saw the cow when they went to the fair today (Bonnie is Vickie's step mom and Marsha is her stepsister - but forget the "step" part, they are truly family and we love them).

The butter cow is a big deal to me, I can't imagine going to the fair without a pilgrimage to the cow. Now I realize that cows got a bad name because of the golden calf thing that Aaron made and the Israelites worshiped, but butter ain't gold...well I guess it is to dairy farmers. You gotta admire the way cows run Chick-fil-a, unless you're a chicken. Why didn't chickens attack the cow - now that would have been a way to make a statement.

If the vegans really wanted to liberate the cow they should have brought bagels.

I imagine that archeologists a millennium from now who stumble on photos of the butter cow will think that Iowans slipped into worshiping idols; they'll think that the Iowa State Farm was a religious pilgrimage akin to the Jews going up to Jerusalem and think the beer tents and stock car races and headline entertainers were all a part of butter cow worship. I guess some future genius will think it was all an attempt to butter up a deity.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Seasons to Share

We enjoy our new home, our puppies love it and we’re so thankful for it; but I miss the Zuck Homestead, I miss what it is like living in close proximity to friends.

One day this week, as the weather changed, I found myself wanting to walk a few hundred feet from our home to David and Sally’s and have a conversation about the unusually wet summer we’ve had and that fall will soon be upon us. Of course I couldn’t do that because we now live about five miles from the Homestead and I wouldn’t have made it back for dinner. It got me to thinking about sharing the seasons of life with others, about life’s rhythms and about the joy and pleasure of having others accompany us on the journey.

A while back I think I wrote about my surprise at living on the Homestead, I am a pretty private person and like my space and tranquility and I never thought I’d tolerate living in close proximity to others…let alone treasure the experience – but I was wrong. There was something about friends driving up and down the lane on the Homestead, about seeing friends taking walks or cutting the grass or Seth and Silas jumping on the trampoline. How many days was I sweating in the garden with dirt and bug bites all over me, no doubt reeking like someone who had fallen into an outhouse, when I’d spy Davey working in his garden and go over and chat about gardening and families and Jesus; there was many a prayer we had together out in the garden, not only did our prayers ascend to heaven but no doubt our nasty stink did too. That must have been confusing to the angels, the prayers of the saints are supposed to be fragrant, I’m not sure ours fit that category.

Seasons change, and not only do they change but when they change they are not always the same as they once were; winters change, falls change, springs change; this summer is proof that summers change. Oh the rain we’ve had. Most summers in Virginia we water our garden multiple times a week, this summer we’ve watered less than five times – this summer just ain’t like any other summer I recall, nor is it like any summer Davey recalls. How do I know that? I know it because a few days ago I stopped by the Homestead and saw Davey and we talked about families and Jesus and…yes…the weather.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Thoughts from the Garden – Weeds Part 2

I don’t know much about weeds, that is I don’t know what they’re called, I don’t know their names. But I do know what a strawberry plant looks like and this morning as I was weeding that was what was important. After all my goal was to remove the weeds for the benefit of the strawberries, therefore I needed to keep my eye on the strawberries, I needed to identify them and work around them and preserve them.

There are folks who define themselves by weeds, by what they are against rather than defining themselves in terms of what they’re for. Political parties can be like that, factions in political parties can especially be like that. The folks against President Obama’s health care program make it clear they are against it, what they don’t make clear is what they are for – unless I’m to draw the conclusion that they are for sick people being without health care.

There are religious folk who are a’gin just about everything that would bring pleasure to a miserable pilgrim in this life; no danc’in or alcohol or cigars, or even smil’in. I think I used to be pretty much like that, I knew the doctrines I was against better than I knew the doctrines I was for; I knew the weeds and not the strawberries.

There are preachers who will preach against 100 sins and contrary doctrines before they’ll preach for anything – including the Biblical Jesus. There are ministries who spend 24/7 identifying and exposing false doctrine, it’s their bread and butter, it’s their identity, and their followers feed off of it like sharks feeding off castaways in the ocean. Now I’m not saying that we ought not to know what poison ivy looks like, but not all weeds are poison ivy and my mission is to know what strawberries look like. And even if all weeds were like poison ivy, my focus would still need to be the strawberries.

I don’t think I harmed a single strawberry as I was weeding. That was good for the strawberries and it was good for me, Vickie doesn’t like it when I mangle her garden. But seriously, when we focus on Jesus Christ then the weeds are usually pretty apparent; when we focus on who He is in us and who we are in Him we can usually tell when a foreign element is present and is seeking to damage our garden of relationship in Christ and with others. It’s as we see Jesus that we are changed into His image, not as we obsess about weeds.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Thoughts from the Garden – Weeds

This morning I weeded our vegetable garden, the pathways between the raised beds were straightforward, you see a weed and you pull a weed. However when I got to the strawberry patch things changed, the weeds were tall, towering over the strawberries to the point that I couldn’t see the strawberry plants. I had to be careful not to step on the strawberries and not to pull the strawberry plants out with the weeds.

Now not to point the finger, but Vickie has kinda let the strawberry patch go; yep it’s true, my very own Master Gardener has let her strawberry patch go. Perhaps you’ll understand when I tell you that she saw a snake in that area a couple of months ago – tall weeds and snakes are not a good combination for Vickie. Of course the longer she avoided the strawberry patch the taller the weeds grew and the taller the weeds grew the harder it was to see the ground and the harder it was to see the ground the harder it was the see a snake – ain’t life great?

It isn’t that I care for snakes, but I knew that I needed to do the husbandly thing and weed the strawberry patch. I admit that I did have a hoe with me, both for weeding and for others things that I’ll leave to your imagination.

As I was weeding I was reminded that the time to weed is when weeds first appear, not when they’ve sunk their roots deep into the ground. The deeper the roots the harder it is to pull the weeds, the deeper the roots the greater possibility that they’ve woven themselves around the good plants and that you might damage the good plants while pulling the weeds, and the deeper the roots the higher the weeds - making the good plants more difficult to identify and protect.

Certainly in my own life when weeds first appear I need to deal with them then, before their tentacles wrap themselves around my thought life and heart life and character. In organizations the time to deal with weeds is when they first start to grow, while some weeds (depending on the type of weed and season) will appear and then die, most weeds will grow and propagate; what’s more no weed will ever turn into a fruitful plant, no weed will ever produce sweet strawberries. All of my hoping and dreaming and saying positive things to a weed will never make it a strawberry plant.

Then there is the snake thing, there are times in life when dealing with weeds means being prepared to deal with snakes, with adversaries. Now of course I realize that snakes have purposes and that some folks are fond of snakes, but I’m not talking about physical snakes as much as I’m thinking about venomous snakes that can invade our souls and characters and inject venom into us and our relationships. Dealing with weeds isn’t great, dealing with weeds when there are snakes around is even less inviting, but not dealing with weeds because there are snakes just isn’t smart in the long run – the short-term confrontation we’re avoiding becomes problematic with time – time is generally on the side of the weed and snake and not the gardener.

A couple of weeks ago I realized there was a weed growing in my soul, it was a new weed, one that had not previously invaded my garden. A first I thought I could coexist with the weed, in fact I kind of enjoyed having the weed and was thinking about turning it into an art form. Then I realized that the weed was toxic, giving off vapors and driving its roots deeper and deeper into my soil. Last Sunday night while praying with friends I asked my Father and Lord Jesus to remove the weed…it’s been a good week, they’ve taken care of the weed…I’ve been mindful of it, but mindful in the sense that I see the ground where it once grew…I’m glad I asked for help before the roots embedded themselves in my heart and mind and speech…before they burrowed deep into my soul.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Tyranny of Foreclosure – Part 2

Our friends highlighted in the previous post have been unemployed and underemployed for an extended period of time – everyone who criticizes others for their economic condition ought to try unemployment for an extended period so they know what they’re talking about. If they don’t have the courage to experiment with unemployment they might consider simply trying to find a job and see what the experience is like. That won’t replicate the identity crisis that unemployment precipitates or the stress whose roots reach deep into the soul and strangle hope and joy, but it might give the judgmental person a small taste of what the job market is like.

Our friends, much like millions of other Americans, acted in good faith with their mortgage company, they sought solutions, they drained first their savings and then their retirement because they naively believed that if they did the right thing that others would do the right thing. And as many other Americans they now realize that their best course of action would have been to save their money and let the bank have their home – at least then they would have had their retirement intact. After all, large businesses appear to have no moral qualms about stiffing creditors and pension funds and retirees, and they certainly have no qualms about seeking welfare payments from the taxpayer while at the same time paying executives obscene compensation. Why don’t we condemn corporations who are on the equivalent of food stamps?

 We have another friend who has been unemployed for an extended period, so far he has made his mortgage payments by engaging in the great American homeowner pastime – liquidate your savings and retirement. His interest rate is 9%; recent interest rates have been as low as 3 – 4%. He has requested that his loan be modified to a lower interest rate, the mortgage company won’t consider it because he isn’t employed – this is a fine example of predatory mortgage company logic. The consumer thinks that by lowering the interest rate that the likelihood of our friend remaining in his home is increased as is the likelihood of the bank continuing to receive payments. If our friend were employed the lender would refinance the home and lower the payment, but since he isn’t employed it doesn’t make any difference that he is not in default – the lender would rather he go into default and lose his home and his equity…to the lender.

 Is this the Great American Dream or what?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Tyranny of Foreclosure – Part 1

Since 2008 there have been over 4 million foreclosures in this country. Many more millions of homeowners are “under water” and many more have engaged in short sales to get out from under crushing mortgage debt.

Last night we had dinner with friends in their home of twenty years; twenty years of raising their two girls, twenty years of entertaining and encouraging family and friends, twenty years of growing in their marriage – there won’t be another twenty years, or ten years or even five years in this home, the won’t be another year and there may not be even another month; not for them, not for their daughters. Vickie and I were one of their last dinner guests. It isn’t that they’re moving into a retirement community, or that they are selling in order to purchase a home in which to enjoy their “golden years” – they are being forced out of their home under the tyranny of foreclosure. I use the word “tyranny” in the full sense of the word; it is economic and emotional tyranny that surpasses anything the Founding Fathers fought against, the Colonial-era Stamp Act is a fifty-cent toll booth charge compared to the American foreclosure process which is wiping out the savings, retirement accounts, security and hope of millions of Americans. The economic aristocracy pays no price for its lasciviousness and lust as our elected representatives bail it out, giving it carte blanche to despoil the bank accounts and homes of those who were once its trusting and foolish customers.

The diabolical beauty of the debacle is that because we are a nation of individuals that cares little for our neighbors, as long as the tentacles of the deep-sea monster do not touch us we don’t care, as long as we are in little danger of having our own economic life blood squeezed out of us we content ourselves with (perhaps) a pinch of sympathy in the sure knowledge that “those people must have done something to deserve it.”

We don’t pause to consider that the mortgage brokers took their money and ran with impunity, not caring about the fate of their clients – was there ever such a massive breach of fiduciary duty? The layperson trusted the professional and the professional breached his duty. We don’t consider the tens of thousands of real estate agents that sold their clients hell under the guise of heaven – they also took their money and ran with impunity – again the professional taking advantage of the layperson. Most of all we don’t consider that the consumers played by the rules laid down by the financial institutions and Federal regulators and that when the game turned ugly the financial institutions and Federal regulators conveniently ignored the fact that they were the ones who devised the rules – they set the interest rates, they approved the home values, they provided lists of approved appraisers, they engineered the macroeconomic conditions…and they bailed themselves out while crushing the ants on their picnic table.

We are told that the financial institutions are too big to fail and must be bailed out, the corollary of that is that the individual and family is too small to matter. Twenty years in a home of love and care and family and friends and memories is no small matter.