Sometimes, a Co-signer Isn’t Enough

Those of you who know me very well know that I spent 13 years working in the automobile business. I sold cars for nearly ten of those years and spent the remaining time as a finance and insurance specialist and a sales manager. I tell you this, not to invoke your sympathy (although I deserve it for this tour of duty), but to explain my credentials for making the following statement: I need more than a co-signer.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of finance, a co-signer is a person with good credit who signs alongside a person who doesn’t have enough credit history to qualify for a loan of the size requested. Often, the co-signer is a parent or older sibling who has a proven track record of repaying loans responsibly. The co-signer, in effect, guarantees the loan by saying he will repay it if the primary borrower doesn’t handle his or her business. If the primary buyer does a good job of repaying this note, however, he will almost certainly qualify for future loans in his name, alone. Here is the issue, though: as many bankers reminded me over the years as I tried to get loan approvals for customers, a co-signer doesn’t help bad credit… just insufficient credit. In other words, if someone was just starting out, the bank would take a chance on them – providing someone would guarantee the note. However, if someone had borrowed money in the past and had either defaulted on the loan or been seriously delinquent a number of times, a bank would not approve them – co-signer or not.

Let’s put this in a spiritual perspective, shall we? Let’s say a person was trying to qualify for heaven… and let’s say that person was me. Now, if I had just had an insufficient amount of credit (read: righteousness), I could have probably gotten by with Jesus just guaranteeing the note. The thing is… I was rotten. I didn’t just have insufficient righteousness, I had dirty laundry strewn from Chattanooga to El Paso (that’s what one banker used to tell me when he declined a deal… El Pass-O). Lest you think this story is all about me, let’s talk about your credit. You see, Romans 3:23 says, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Now, you may be thinking “yeah, I’ve slipped up a few times, but I’ve done a lot of good things, so my overall credit score has to be pretty good, right?” Well, actually, the good stuff you’re counting on doesn’t really weigh out all that well on God’s scale of holiness. Isaiah says it this way in chapter 64, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” In other words, what we think is good credit stinks, too.

The story even gets worse. You see, our families have a history of bad credit. Our father, Adam, was given the deed to this great garden home. All he had to do was handle his business well and we would have all grown up in Eden. Alas, he didn’t. Next thing you know, our beautiful garden goes into foreclosure (I think that is a pretty mild word for having an angel with a flaming sword placed at the door to keep us out!). Ever since that day, we have been trying to qualify to buy the family home back; but not only is our credit bad, we have been blamed for Adam’s failure. In Romans 5:12, Paul writes, “… sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Yikes! I’ve got enough problems of my own without Adam handing his issues down to me.

Now back to the car business for a minute. There was one other alternative for someone with bad credit: it was called a straw-purchase. In a straw-purchase, someone came into the dealership and bought a car for someone else. In other words, the person who would actually be driving (and, hopefully paying for) the car was not involved in securing the loan at all. The deal was totally based on the credit-worthiness of the person who was making the purchase. The problem is, banks won’t allow that. It is absolutely, positively, strrrrrictly prohibited (and illegal). You can see the bank’s point of view, right? The actual driver of the car has already proven that he or she would not repay a loan in a satisfactory manner, and now he will have even less motivation to make the payments since his name is nowhere on the deal. This leaves the straw-purchaser in line to have to pay for a car they don’t drive and don’t want. How motivated to pay do you think this person will be?

There is good news, though: God allows straw-purchases. In fact, He loves them. You may be asking, “what’s with all this talk about credit? What does that have to do with eternal life?” Well actually… everything. Look at Romans 4:3-5, What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Just a few verses later, Paul explains further, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” In other words, it is all about credit.

There is this amazing exchange that happens when we put our faith in Christ. Two thousand years ago, a man named Jesus lived a perfect life, then was “credited” with all of the sins that you and I (and Adam) have committed and ever will commit. 2 Corinthians 5:21 elaborates by saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Being held guilty for Adam’s sin seems a bit unfair until we understand that through God’s startling act of grace, we can be credited with the absolute perfection of Jesus. One last passage from Romans 5:18, “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

One final thought: stop living like you have a co-signer. Many of us accept God’s free gift of grace and justification, but then live like we are responsible for staying qualified to keep our salvation. While gratitude should cause us to want to “handle our business” responsibly, shame and condemnation over every stumble is not supposed to be part of our lives. Just like with a straw-purchase, the transaction is based solely on Jesus’ credit… and it is perfect.

One Crazy Bird

Just a few days ago I marked the one year anniversary of the passing of one of my best friends, Ken. Now when I say “one of my best friends,” understand what I mean: there are friends with which you share work spaces, classes, neighborhoods, or interests; and then there are friends that share in getting in trouble. You know the ones I’m talking about: the ones who sit in the principal’s office with you trading sheepish looks… or in our case, sit in the general manager or owner’s office cutting our eyes over at each other, wondering what we would do on our “next” job. Ken was one of those friends. You see, we had started working in the automobile business on the same day and had worked together the greater part of the thirteen years I spent in that noble profession. On the outside, we couldn’t have looked much more different. Ken was a tremendous athlete who had been an All-American running back in college; my athletic prowess had been measured by wins and losses on the outdoor basketball court at the East Ridge Town Hall. Ken was insanely strong, often stopping off at the train station on the way to work to lift box cars and locomotive engines; I was also insanely strong… often stopping off at the breakfast bar at Shoney’s or the drive-thru at Bojangles to lift plates of food that were piled inhumanly high; yet while we differed in many ways, even down to our ethnicities, the same heart beat within both of us – the heart of a rebel. Whether collectively or separately, we both generally ran afoul of every authority figure we encountered. It wasn’t that we were bad guys; we just followed the teachings of that role model, John Cougar Mellencamp, who said, “I fought the law and the law won.” This was the type of friendship I lost that day: one that was hardened in the kilns of adversity and resistance to authority, and one in which we had both proven we would stand by the other, come what may. I guess we were truly “birds of a feather” (which leads me to my point… there is a point here – really).

I was given the great honor of delivering the eulogy at Ken’s funeral, so, on the morning of his funeral I was sitting in my home office trying to process my own emotions and wondering how I could possibly do justice to one of the most respected and deserving men I had ever known. As I typed out a few thoughts, I kept hearing some sort of knocking sound out in the hallway. When I finally couldn’t take any more, I walked out into the hallway to bludgeon whatever was making that infernal racket. At the end of the hall are two glass doors which open onto the world’s smallest deck, which is on the second floor of our house. There, a bird pecked at the window. As I watched, he (or she – not really an expert on bird gender) would peck a few times at the glass and then would back up and fly full speed into it. The fearless fowl would then shake his head to clear the birdies singing in it (really?) and start to peck at the glass again. This had gone on for at least an hour at this point, and seemed destined to continue until bird or glass surrendered. My first thought was: this crazy bird doesn’t understand glass at all. He can tell that there is something beyond this window, but he isn’t sure exactly what it is and can’t seem to get to it to find out.

Then a verse Paul wrote came to my mind: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) I realized that I was just like that wacky bird. While I walk around in a world I can see, deep inside of me there exists the awareness that there is more; an inherent sense that life doesn’t end at the moment of death, it merely transitions. Solomon, possibly the wisest man who ever lived, felt this same conundrum. In Ecclesiastes 3, he wrote, “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” There are some days that I peck at that “dark glass” that Paul mentions which separates me from what is beyond, and there are other days that I slam head-long into that window… like the day I lost my dear friend. Those are the days that I just keep knocking on it, attacking it, looking for any way to get beyond that barrier.

Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us totally in the dark on the subject. First Corinthians 15 sheds a great amount of light. In fact, verse 42 tells us, That’s how it will be when our bodies are raised to life. These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. As surely as there are physical bodies, there are spiritual bodies. And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies.” The day of Ken’s funeral, I was on the other side of the window from the bird and knew what lay beyond the glass. I could understand what my feathered friend couldn’t; I had… perspective. One day we will pass beyond the barrier and have a correct perspective on the questions that confound us right now: infant mortality, HIV epidemics among innocents, wars and genocide, and yes… why the good seem to sometimes die young. In fact, from the eternal side of the window, we may very well see passing on as the greatest gift a loving God could give us. We may see that earthly healing just prolonged our exposure to sadness, sickness, and stress… three big S-words that don’t live on the other side of the glass. In the meantime, though, our perspective here could use a bit of adjusting. In verse 19 of that same chapter in Corinthians, Paul writes, If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” What he is saying, in bird vernacular, is: begin to live for what lies beyond the glass. It’ll save a lot of headaches.

 

Dedicated to my dear friend and brother, Ken Adair (7/26/57 – 4/8/10) 

Ode to a Butter Knife

In some of my random, and slightly demented, musings recently, I began to wonder what my butter knives would say if they could talk. You see, a couple of years ago Debbie and I bought some sleek, shiny Cuisinart chef’s knives for our kitchen. They came with their own stand so that we could set them out on the counter. There they sit… imposing, I must say. You look at them and imagine the precise slicing and paring they could perform. However, I have discovered that they are quite the prima donnas. You see, you would never use them to spread peanut butter or jelly – the blades aren’t really suited for those mundane tasks.  And, if you needed to tap on a stubborn jar lid, you’d never use their handle, for the blade would cut your hand to ribbons. Occasionally, there are times when a screw needs a bit of a twist and a screwdriver is nowhere to be found; yet you’d never use one of these gleaming specialists, for fear of bending or chipping their expensive blade. Meanwhile, tucked away in a drawer, out of view, sit the butter knives… just right for constructing that perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich, loosening that stubborn lid, tightening that loose screw, or prying off that ring on the milk container.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Maybe you’re like one of those butter knives. You feel like you sit by unnoticed while that gleaming butcher knife sings a solo, or feel undervalued while that razor-sharp paring knife preaches that moving sermon or teaches that profound lesson. Here’s the thing I see, though: when there’s work to be done, God… just like me, often reaches for a butter knife to accomplish it. He found Moses, not when he was shining brightly up on the counter in Egypt, but when he was out of sight in Midian’s wilderness; and He passed right over all of Jesse’s gleaming chef cutlery to choose David, who was tucked away out in a sheep field. Samuel, who was sent to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king of Israel, seemed to be dazzled by the appearance of Eliab, David’s older brother. I Samuel 16:6 says, When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.’” Look at God’s response, though, in the next verse: “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’” Later, when Jesus chose His apostles, he ignored all of those Pharisaical cleavers and slicers to choose butter knives like Peter, James, and John.

Today, God still looks for someone who is willing to do whatever he or she is asked to do, no matter how menial or “not in my job description” it may be. While gifts may be attractive sitting out on the counters of churches, God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9). In fact, in Gideon’s case, before the battle began, God made Gideon send nearly all of his soldiers home, until the odds looked so insurmountable that only God could provide victory. So, if you feel unnoticed, under appreciated, or unworthy, you are in good company. Be patient, soon God will open that drawer under the coffee maker and pull out that butter knife on which He knows He can depend.

Lessons from a Lawnmower

A few days ago, I was out mowing my lawn and inspiration struck… or maybe it was delirium from the heat. At any rate, it was early autumn and I was looking at all the bare places and weeds in my lawn. Now here’s the thing. We moved into this house in February, and it had a beautiful lawn. The man that lived here before me took great care of his lawn and landscaping. As I lamented the present condition of my lawn, the parallels with my spiritual life came rushing into my mind. First of all, the lawn didn’t deteriorate overnight; it was a gradual process. The worst part: I knew how to avoid it. You see, a number of years ago I worked for the largest lawn care company in America.

Here is what happened (more or less in chronological order): first of all in spring you should apply weed killer and fertilize your lawn – I did neither; secondly, in the summer, you must make sure to water your lawn in times of drought stress – again, I neglected to perform this task; finally in the fall, you aerate your lawn and sow grass seed to replace any grass you lost throughout the year – here, I completed the failure triple crown. Do you see the parallels?

The Bible tells us to guard our hearts, just like that weed killer guards our lawns. The word also tells us to fertilize our lives. Philippians 4:8 says,

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

In those hot, arid times of drought and dryness, Psalm 42 gives us the solution:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?”

There’s the answer for dryness – time with the Lord. In fact, in John 4, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman who is standing drawing water from a well,

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

You see, the dryness in my lawn caused some of the grass to die, which left bare spots. The real kicker is this: they didn’t stay bare, weeds filled in the openings. Aren’t our lives that way? In fact, Jesus said that even if you were gloriously delivered from an evil spirit, that spirit would come back to see if his old house was empty; and if he found it empty; he would bring seven of his friends to move in with him. The parable of the sower describes weeds as “the cares of this life” and says that they will choke out the good things in our lives. Finally, in the fall, aeration is the process of de-compacting the soil.

How about your life? Could it use a little de-compacting? Sometimes the “still small voice” of God is hard to hear in the blaring horns and screeching tires of the traffic of our lives. The final thing we should do is re-seed the lawn. You see, in spite of our best efforts, life has a way of eroding some of our growth; so we must constantly allow God to refill and replenish our lives. Romans 12:2 instructs us, Do not be shaped by this world; instead be changed within by a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to decide what God wants for you; you will know what is good and pleasing to him and what is perfect.”

Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall, there is a process for healthy lawns and healthy lives… and it is a lifelong process. Through every season, hold fast to this promise from Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”