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.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


When someone tells me, “I literally stood in line for 20 minutes at Wal-Mart yesterday,” I think I’ll respond, “Do you mean there are times when you’ve figuratively stood in line for 20 minutes?” Or if I hear, “He literally ate 3 pieces of pie at lunch,” I’ll ask, “Have there been times he figuratively ate 3 pieces of pie?”

Or if my cousin Clovis tells me that our Uncle Corbin literally got married for a fifth time I’ll ask, “Do you mean that he once figuratively got married for a fifth time?”

Where did this use of “literally” come from and how did it explode into popular usage? It has come to rival “reach out” in banality and is running neck-and-neck with “to be honest with you” in eliciting a response from me. I am pressed to ask people who tell me that they are being honest with me about the other things they’ve told me – are they indicating that they are taking a timeout from falsehood and that I should prepare myself to hear the truth?

If “literally” means that something actually happened then am I to infer that everything else I’m told is to be taken figuratively?

“Susan, did you send that report to accounting today?” 

“Yes Bob I did.”

“Susan, did you literally send that report to accounting or were you speaking in a figurative sense?”

 “Bob, if I had literally sent the report I would have said “literally” – how dumb can you be?”

Are we using “literally” because we live in such a virtual world that we can’t distinguish between something that physically occurs and something that we imagine? Or are we using “literally” ubiquitously because the norm is to spin language and events to such a degree that when we actually tell the truth it has become the equivalent of “to be honest with you”?

I’m amused that people use language they way they pick up a cold or the flu, by being around other people and not guarding against infection. One minute Susan doesn’t use “literally” every other sentence, the next minute she awakes in a world in which “literally” is crucial to effective communication. However, unlike a cold or the flu Susan doesn’t even know she’s been infected and as she reaches out to others she spreads the infection. It would be courteous if folks who misuse “literally” would cover their mouths before speaking just as they hopefully cover their mouths before a cough.

To be honest with you the next time someone reaches out to me with a description of something that is modified by the word “literally” I think that I will go quite literally mad.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Food Channel, the Foodie Culture, Food Stamps and the Poor

There is a good article on Christianity Today’s website by Richmond pastor Erik Bonkovsky titled, Has Foodie Culture Forgotten the Poor?

I can’t help but juxtapose Bonkovsky’s reflections with a congressional move to eliminate $40 billion from the Food Stamp program – I suppose congress thinks that the poor and hungry can always watch the Food Channel. Hunger is no joke and it is seldom a choice, it affects health, decisions, families, the crime rate (hungry people are driven to do things they may not otherwise do, just ask Marie Antoinette), and the ability to work.

People who think hungry people are lazy don’t know hungry people; people who think that the poor are lazy don’t know the poor, and people who think that employment is there for the asking are just plain ignorant and choose to be uninformed. And I might as well add that people who use a racial or socioeconomic profile when they think about these issues are the most ignorant of all.

This is a blog so my comments are limited by space, but let me tell you that it’s hard to find a job, it’s hard not just for an inner-city person to find a job, it’s hard for just about anyone to find a job – and it’s especially hard to find a job that will allow you to pay your bills, and it’s harder to find a job that will allow you to get ahead and move to a safer neighborhood, or keep the house or apartment you already have, and clothe your children, and purchase transportation or maintain the transportation you already have. And here’s a really big secret – if you have medical problems you have a choice – you can either go without medical care and suffer the consequences or you can seek treatment and face the bill collectors which in turn will affect your credit which will in turn affect your ability to find safe housing, purchase transportation, and to obtain many jobs. I read credit reports all the time in the course of my own job and I know what I’m talking about – I see what happens to people who are just trying to obtain the basics and who have medical issues – the myth that people at the lower end of the economic spectrum don’t have to pay for medical care is a joke – sooner or later they get hit with bills that most of us couldn’t pay. (While I’m on medical care, let’s not forget that a major catalyst for bankruptcy in the middle class is overwhelming medical expense).

But this is supposed to be about food isn’t it? But it isn’t just about food, it’s about our ungodly ability to compartmentalize society, to build firewalls between “us and them”. To ignore the hardships under which people strive to survive.

I often wonder what a starving person would think if he or she watched the Food Channel. I wonder how many hungry people our congressional representatives know. I wonder when the last time was a congressman or woman tried to find an average job. And now I wonder how I can translate my own words into action.