Archive for June, 2009

27
Jun
09

Forgiveness, Evil’s Parasite

The University of Miami recently released a study comparing the hunting habits of the Great White shark to those of serial killers. This is not a surprise. In fact, I believe that this proves a long-standing hypothesis: sharks are pure evil. They are behemoth killing machines, not evolved or adapted since their beginning, meaning that they were perfectly created for their grisly existence. I contend that serial killers may share basal instincts with the shark, not the other way around.

I briefly stated my position on FaceBook and I was told “Ponder this…If you believe in true evil, you have no room for forgiveness.” I pondered this. I have spent a lot of time pondering forgiveness. I am forgiven. I have forgiven some dreadful things. I live with a man who is bi-polar. Forgiveness is a big part of my life and it is a big word. We throw it around fairly easily, but how often do we mean it? More importantly, how often do we genuinely seek it? When we throw out a hapless “I’m sorry,” do we really hope for forgiveness or are we sorry we are in the situation and we want it to stop?

As a Christian, I have to take a very honest look at what forgiveness means because my entire faith hinges on it. There is not a person on the planet God would not forgive, but we have to ask for it. It has to be different from saying “sorry” as though we bumped into God with a shopping cart at Target. When we seek forgiveness from God, it has be sincere, heartfelt, and indicative of a major willingness to change.

The same is true for seeking forgiveness from each other. We are not charged to forgive someone who is not asking us to. But when we are asked, that is the test. That is when we have to turn our backs on the past and step ahead, leaving the hurt somewhere on the road. There has been a misconception among us Christians, though, as we assume a need to forgive everyone who has wronged us. This dangerous misconception fills the Christian walk with potholes.

I turned an ankle in one of these potholes about a year ago. I had just begun to really grasp unconditional love as a matter of faith and I made this assumption that forgiveness is inherent in that. Enter the Bad Relative. This man exhibits deplorable behavior that only gets worse as he nears 70. He has done irreparable harm to our family and continues to do so. I was struggling with this, wondering how to forgive when I know that it only required my own heart to change. After careful study and a lot of prayer, I found an answer. If he is not recognizing a need for forgiveness and therefore does not seek it, I am under no obligation to forgive. I have to love him and have to treat him with the gentleness that comes with that, but to forgive implies a rebuilding of trust. It suggests a commitment to carry on a relationship despite the rifts of the past. It is impossible to forgive someone who does not understand he has behaved badly, or who will not admit responsibility for his actions. If this person feels no need to adjust his behavior going forward, it is not possible to carry on a relationship washed in forgiveness.

Contrary to my Facebook challenger’s contention, I do believe in evil just as much as I believe in forgiveness. Evil is evident throughout history and the world. I witnessed evil at the mall today (nobody should wear shorts and high-heeled boots, please stop so I can forgive you). Evil is the feeding tube keeping forgiveness alive. Without it, forgiveness would be obsolete. We may live in a shallow existence where shopping cart bumps are quickly brushed aside, but without evil, we could not appreciate the sacrifice involved in overcoming it. And sacrifice is the greatest expression of unconditional love.

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26
Jun
09

Let’s Skip the Bread Before Dinner

Iran has become my latest obsession. Not necessarily the election; I heard that it was expected the election would be rigged long before it happened. I also learned that Mir Hossein Mousavi shares in Ahmadenijad’s ideology, minus the messiah complex, so I don’t know that the election results really matter all that much. What does matter – A LOT – is what lies in the bloody fall out. First of all, the ruling parties of Iran are showing their character. They no longer have the excuse of a scrappy George W. and yet they are bullying on their very own. We are getting an up close look at a regime bent on power and dominance. It is a precious close-up, too, thanks to the new media.

For the last couple of months, I was beginning to believe that our mainstream media had become obsolete. This last week has confirmed it. The media are fed sound bites from various press secretaries and public relations professionals and we know that the meat of the story was chewed up over lunch, never to be heard. If we do get any of the meat, it comes to us seasoned with ideology. The problem is that these people are charged with the responsibility of our opinion, something we tend to hand over quite simply.

At first it was the many stories covering the green shoots in our economy. Frankly, if I had any power, I would do everything I could to ensure that Americans felt good about the economy. Much, probably too much, of our economic success is driven by public sentiment – animal spirits is the technical term coined by John Maynard Keynes. There is a fine line to walk because it is crucial that Americans spend confidently. The downside of that involves a need to deceive. As MSN and the local stations were flooded with stories of green shoots, unemployment bottoms, and a slowly recovering housing market, China was dumping dollars. China is our largest foreign investor and didn’t like the prospectus. Russia is pushing for a standardized currency that is NOT the dollar. The United States dumped one HUNDRED BILLION dollars into the IMF, proving that the global economy is not looking much better than our own. We are a long way from a sustainable recovery. I contend that it will not happen.

But we are distracted. We have inserted ourselves into the lives of John & Kate. We wait with bated breath for the outcome of American Idol. We wonder if Susan Boyle is really the Cinderella story of the year. We accept these stories like bread before a meal, too full to pay attention to the main course. The media slides by with their sound bites and we trust them because we have already gotten what we want.

Before this week, I was finding that if I wanted news, I had to dig past all of these stories and search for credible voices on the blog circuit. They’re all over. They are first-hand witnesses not beholden to anyone for a paycheck. They are scholars and observers and employees who understand the situation better than the financial reporter who just got promoted from obituaries ever will.

Now the world is seeing it. Despite Iran’s efforts to block foreign media, we are being fed pure news. It is a collection of first-hand accounts bound together by grainy pictures and slow video. There is no opinion save the horror any human being should feel at witnessing atrocities first hand. Ironically, what we are seeing from Iran is not colored by ideology, no matter how subtle. This is what news should be. We see it and we can decide. We have a precious opportunity to see Ahmadenijad and the Ayatollah for what they are, not through the lenses of policy through which we usually see them.

This power shaved off of the vulnerability of an empire is frightening to the offenders. China is launching unprecedented efforts to censor the internet right now. India is following suit. How far behind are we? I have witnessed myself changes in search results from day to day, knowing that items have been removed. It was a quiet censorship, but what precedent will be set coming out of Iran? If Asia and the Middle East embrace censorship, is this going to be an accepted norm? We have a lot to lose, but so do they. There is one right Americans, both liberal and conservative, treasure. That is our First Amendment. We agree on this. Could Iran possibly unify us, after all? Is it possible that when nobody is toying with our opinions, we can agree on what is right and what is wrong? If that happens, America will once again be the force of goodness she was founded to be.

20
Jun
09

Redundant Robust Regulation

Because I have nothing to do on a Friday night, I hurried home from work today so I could begin reading Obama’s White Paper “outlining” his financial system overhaul. I made it all the way to page 21. I will finish, but needed to stop and breathe. The buzz is that Obama wrote this all by himself. I have not substantiated that, but if he did, he needs an editor. The first 16 pages are so redundant, I actually had to use the table of contents as a map and still I thought it was a test to prove that nobody reads these documents. There are full paragraphs repeated in the document.

I need to read the rest of it, then I need to read it again, but this should be broken down. I wondered how something so momentous was released with barely a hiccup on Wall Street and now I understand. It is innocuous. Really the first 16 pages simply state and re-state that there will be increased supervision over financial agencies of all sorts. I actually don’t disagree. The financial industry is behaving horribly right now and Obama, or whoever the author is, makes a valid point when he mentions how banks are circumventing regulation.

But there are a couple of troublesome tidbits tucked away in this document. First, it calls for increased supervision of “Tier 1” financial institutions by the Federal Reserve. This is odd. This is not a Federal Reserve responsibility. It is a little known fact that the Federal Reserve is not a government entity. The increased supervision may not be the worst idea ever, but the definition of “Tier 1” is dangerously undefined. It includes any institution that is involved with an institution deemed too big to fail. This can include smaller correspondent banks, third party payment processors, small insurance agencies and investment firms. It expands the reach of the Fed beyond where it was ever intended to be.

Speaking of the Federal Reserve, buried between all the talk about supervision, a real change is casually mentioned. The discount window is to be subject to Congressional approval. I can’t even imagine what that might mean since later in the document, it mentions relaxing emergency lending by the Fed. There are no details on either item in the first 21 pages, so possibly I have misinterpreted, but I find this confusing. It makes me wonder if anyone involved with this truly understands the Fed Funds and discount window process, because this does not seem workable.

Of course, I am not overly concerned with the Fed’s new role. I am reading the document because I want to find a real benefit to consumers. Rest easy. The Community Reinvestment Act is going to be protected and possibly expanded under this plan. Last I heard, that very piece of legislation was a great contributor to the current situation. It’s a nice idea, but it is unrealistic. There is a reason that lending standards were as high as they had been.

Another hidden dagger for consumers, the Gramm, Leach Bliley Act is going to be compromised, dissolving the stringent distinction between entities under examination. Right now, Gramm. Leach, Bliley allows banks to offer investment and insurance services, but each offering is very separate. Very simply, if you hold a small investment account with ABC bank, it cannot be considered when processing standard banking requests, such as overdraft payments or charge offs. Perhaps under the new standards, the bank will still not consider a $50,000.00 investment account when decisioning an overdraft. But the Fed, in a regulatory role, may consider you a high risk customer because of an overdrawn checking account regardless of your investment account. Such perceived risk could be detrimental to a financial institution’s rating.

Additional “benefits” to the consumer include fair and balanced disclosures. Bank disclosures are pretty much just factual regurgitation, so this seems like a red-tape-laden token. It also calls for simplified “plain-vanilla” to quote our president, product offerings and disclosure of such offerings.

A quarter of the way in, it’s hard to stand behind this. There is so much regulation, but there are very few specifics regarding the regulatory standards. There are agencies, expanded oversight, and more, but all of this intervention is not qualified. There are no defined goals. Personally, I would like to see a plan that empowers financial institutions and consumers. Too big to fail? Break it up. We have anti-trust laws on the books. CRA as consumer advocacy? Let’s get rid of unfair overdraft practices that essentially trap customers into paying an additional $30-$40 per transaction. Clarified disclosures? Why don’t we strive for financial literacy? The financial world is riddled with pitfalls and is automated to the extent that consumer need not monitor their own finances. This has led to complacency in an area most crucial to our survival. Complacency breeds exploitation.

17
Jun
09

Only Friends get to Have Friends

It took an hour for me to write “Move on and Chuckle” yesterday. Even after thinking about it for the entire day, the words were not flowing smoothly. After it was FINALLY posted, I realized why. There is a fallacy in the argument. I am accepting of people already – this is not a growth area for me. However, in the past years, I have lost some very dear friends due to political and religious views. Some relationships, while in tact, have been very strained.

Acceptance is a struggle for me, but it is a struggle from the outside. I do not like to walk away from an evening out feeling like I compromised my beliefs in the name of polite company. I personally feel that everyone brings something to the conversation. I am not chafed by those who disagree with me and I welcome a differing point of view. However, I have found that as I am identified as a Christian, there is an assumption of haughty judgement. People begin to apologize for their actions while they scrutinize my own.

The priviledge of being included in a group, whether it be a church picnic or my oldest friends, comes from knowing that I don’t have to watch my tongue. That if I mention an affection for Ronald Reagan, the statement will be taken as an insight into my personality, not a challenge to anyone’s intelligence.

Unfortunately, many people I have tried to befriend over the years accept my very existence as proof that they don’t measure up. It would grieve me to know that something I said caused this misperception, but I don’t really think it has. I have found that people understand their own shortcomings more than we realize. I know that I personally see every one of my failures when I witness somebody else living the life I expected for myself. My personal issue is success. I had hoped to find wild success in the world and I feel that I did, but it is certainly not visible. When I learn of someone from my past who experiences real, measurable success, it is a great struggle for me and I am fully capable of behaving like an ass in these situations.

I have had friends who were involved with drugs or who were alcoholics, or struggling through divorce. My heart goes out to each and every one of them, but the anger directed toward me has often made the friendship unsustainable. It was in the midst of this that I discovered people’s tendency to judge themselves. I need not say a word about leading a Christian life to invite hostility, but would these people be hostile against any person who avoided the mistakes they find themselves trapped by?

Being Friend of the Week did change me, but I cannot be any more forgiving. This newfound status has shown me that true friendship and the positive benefits that come with it is only possible when everyone involved feels comfortable where they are. It is one thing to struggle through something difficult, but completely different to allow the struggle to own us. People who fester with discontent are toxic. I have been there. When I looked for the root of my anger, I discovered that I hated the way I was living my life. It had nothing to do with the people I was angry at and everything to do with me.

Now, as Friend of the Week, I will not apologize. I will not hide behind discussions of John & Kate to avoid being controversial. I am absolutely going to address the differences in my relationships. We may even celebrate them. Anyon

17
Jun
09

Move on and Chuckle

The Bible strongly encourages us to have fellowship and not to be alone. Personally, I kind of prefer the “alone in the desert” part of the Bible. I can be a little reclusive. Therefore, when the topic of tolerance comes up, I gag a little. When people want to hug, I just step away. I am confused by women who complain that their husbands don’t spend time with them. I have never sat in a circle to sing Kum By Yah or whatever that song is and I failed therapy (Yes, you can fail therapy. You can drive the therapist to meds and you will be labeled) because I would much rather discuss Iran’s election than any hidden reasons I am unhappy (it’s actually TARP, not Iran, that makes me most unhappy).

So I was a little surprised at a church gathering on Sunday when I found myself enjoying the company of virtual strangers. Not just enjoying it, but actually languishing in it. It’s a new and very small church so we don’t know each other, yet we regularly step from our different backgrounds to ponder the greatness of life. We bowed our heads in prayer and I wondered if this is was so restorative because it was fellowship ordained by the Lord. I believe that it was, since we were gathered in His name. But as the week wears on, I am picking up on something else, too:

Acceptance.

Is it possible that acceptance is the greatest expression of love? It is the essence of unconditional love. I discovered it late last night when I learned I am “friend of the week,” an honor bestowed by complicated first love George, whom you may read about in my very first posts. George and I dated for years, but grew apart as adults since I got married and became a conservative Christian and he embraced his homosexuality and the more liberal ideology that comes with it (that is the quintissential definition of growing apart, BTW).

George and I had not spoken for a while…Many years…and we reconnected on Facebook. It’s been awkward, but finally we had an exchange that went beyond liking each other’s status. That led to the silly honor of friend of the week. To him, it’s very silly, and he may even be making fun of me. To me, though, it meant the world. He introduced me as on-again off again girlfriend of liberal roots who turned into a kinder, gentler Ann Coulter and he thanked me for calling him out on his liberal rants. And that is what hoisted me to Cloud 9. Our Facebook friendship was awkward because not only are we different from each other, but we are different from our expectations of each other. Unfulfilled expectations are the enemy of relationships. Thus, this acknowldgement of our differences was an amazing gift. He will not likely know the value of what he did, but it will change me forever.

I began to consider that he had accepted me for who I was then and who I am now and I thought of the friends I have now. I have 64 on Facebook (not that I’m keeping score), but I have 2 true, clean-out-my-house-before-my-funeral friends. I feel blessed to have two; I think many have fewer. They get to clean my house before my funeral because they know what’s in it and they still love me. If they did happen to find a surprise, they would chuckle and move on, not judge or question. Maybe they would squeal, but it would be with delight in knowing I had more to offer, something yet uncovered.

This is how it’s going to be from now on. I would much rather chuckle and move on than leave the house a mess, too disgusted to continue. Jesus never turned from anyone; he never made a person feel shamed or unfit. We people have mastered that. Ironically, we even do it in His name. I am sure that is different from His expectation and yet he will still make us His friend of the week.*

*Please excuse the vacation bible school cliche. It was unavoidable. Surely you understand and accept me anyway.

13
Jun
09

The American Dream up for Resale

I am not a fan of TARP. I am not a fan of the bailouts. I am not a fan of an ineffective but over-priced stimulus package. I am not a fan of a banking system that exploited consumers to the point of exhaustion, then went to the government begging for alms. With a democrat in office and a democratic congress, I would have hoped that government payouts would ultimately have helped the consumers, not simply the behemoth sized banks.

The truth is, the middle class is being squeezed dry. Now that they can’t give anymore, the juicers have gone to the government to DEMAND more. It is unfair on a new level and we Americans should be outraged. We should be afraid. We should make it stop. This is still a representative government that is ultimately responsible to us.

Here is my nutshell version of the financial crisis, complicated by great legislation like the fair housing act: In the 90’s, adjustments were made to reserve requirements, freeing up A LOT of money to lend. In the beginning of the 21st century, right off the bat, our financial sector was attacked. Businesses were dealt a physical blow that they could not overcome and Americans were frightened. To combat a financial meltdown, rates were reduced to historic lows. It was all harmless until greed walked in. With rates so low, it was no longer profitable to lend money – and there was all that new money just waiting to be loaned out… Banks had to find new ways to generate income. Standard fees were increased, but it wasn’t enough.

This is when it became sinister…Banks had to go one step further and find new sources for fee income. This is where the average consumer got involved with the financial crisis. Now banks figured out that the lower middle class may not have a lot of money individually, but as a collective, it was a great cash cow. Even more lucrative was the less savvy lower class. Banks could offer them exactly what they wanted – easy credit, overdraft protection, increased services – all for a fee. Studies were done, numbers were crunched, and the “UNBANKED” demographic became highly sought out. In the eyes of the banking industry, this demographic was practically willing to sign over their government checks for just a little more purchasing power that would soon run out.

And run out it did. When this increased purchasing power ran out, so did the increased fees. And the losses started coming in. The charge-offs, the write-offs, all began to add up and banks were about to experience a day of reckoning for what they had done.

Thank goodness for TARP or those banks would have really suffered!

But what did TARP do for these exploited customers? Credit card rates for risky customers still hover around 30%. The once-manageable rate on the adjustable second mortgage is now out of reach so homeowners can barely make an interest payment. Overdraft policies have not relaxed in the least (actually, that is a little untrue. I JUST read this morning that B of A is tiering based on the size of the overdraft). Overdraft protection that further entrenches consumers by paying offending items and drawing account balances VERY negative has become an industry standard.

And the ultimate, cruelest irony? These very squeezed consumers are paying for TARP. They are feeding their captors whose only lifestyle adjustments involve laying middle-class people off.

OMG – THIS IS WRONG!!! We were pacified by passage of the most ineffective banking reform bill of all time when really we should be rioting in the streets. I am a capitalist through and through and I love to see successful business. But greed and corruption will defile any capitalist system and that is what we are living right now. We are at risk – grave risk – of losing our way of life to this. It is imperative that we stand up for what is right. Write to congress. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. And for goodness sake, be vigilant. This happened as people slept, offering their financial independence as a sacrifice to an American banking system that promised an American dream that was not theirs to give. All the banking system has to offer us Americans is begged, borrowed, or stolen.




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