Friday, March 18, 2011

Loan Fraud Frustrates Pastor's Vision

On Wednesday, March 16, the local sheriff's office in Richmond, CA, was tasked to enforce a forclosure notice against Bibleway Apostolic Church. On the surface, it appeared that the church was another victim of the mortgage squeeze, unable to make its payments due ot the economic downturn's impact upon its members. Pastor Sidney Keys, however, supported by his wife and members of the congregation and community, argued that a more sinister cause, loan fraud, lay behind the church's woes.

In January, 2010, Torrey Pines Bank notified the church that the monthly payments for a recently approved commercial loan would be $6000 per month. The pastor protested, saying that he had been told by the bank's predecessor, Alta Alliance Bank, that the payments would be in the range of $4000 per month. Keys further informed the bank that there was no way the church could afford such a payment, saying that the church's financial statements clearly supported a loan payment closer to $4000 than $6000. According to Keys, then-bank president Arnold Grisham told him that the bank needed to see the church's financial statements, saying that "there was a problem with the papers" that the bank had in the file. The original loan was brokered by Jet Stream Mortgage, which, according to public records from the California Department of Real Estate, went out of business in 2007. Keys states that there were also discrepancies in the property appraisal, documents contained forged signatures, and false financial statements were created.

Pastor Keys turned his information, which included documents given to him by a former bank employee, to the offices of Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and State Senator George Miller, who each tried, unsuccessfully, to intercede with the bank. Eventually, Keys contacted the District Attorney's office, which is investigating and expects to make a determination within 30 days regarding possible indictments. The evidence provided by Pastor Keys could lead to arrests, but by that time, the damage could already be done. The church property was sold at auction on November 18, 2010, to "Macdonald & 2nd LLC." The chief official of that company, Ronald Haskins, is also Senior Vice President, Commercial Credit Management, for Torrey Pines Bank.

Both Keys and Torrey Pines Bank agree that efforts to resolve the dispute have thus far been unsuccessful. Bank Spokesperson Krystal Watkins replied by email, stating that "Torrey Pines Bank (formerly, Alta Alliance Bank) has worked with the Bibleway Apostolic Church for over a year to resolve this unfortunate situation, going well beyond our typical collections protocol.

The Bank understands and regrets the disappointment of those who have been affected by this situation. However, any suggestion that the Bank acted improperly or illegally in any way is simply untrue. The Church and Pastor Keys have had multiple opportunities to substantiate their claims in appropriate legal proceedings over the past many months. The bank is not aware of any pending investigation and no other legal claims have been filed with any court."

Commenting on the broader aspects of this case, Pastor Chris Deknatel of Promise Lutheran Church of Murrieta, noted that Lutheran churches are able to seek funding for ministry projects from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund. A nonprofit entity of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Fund operates with rigorous checks and balances from the Synod, but also has no incentive to fraud, since it does not operate from a profit motive. Commercial banks, by contrast, must keep as a bottom line motivation, high rates of return on investment. In addition, the fact that many loan officers work for 100% comission wages, creates a strong pressure to make loans that are based upon shakey or even false information. Commenting from a commercial lending perspective, Mike Brewer, of Griffin Capital Funds, a company that has had several years of experience in the church financial market, stated that many of these issues should have been caught by the loan underwriters for the original lender. companies like Griffin, which does work with mortgage brokers, takes a dim view of brokers who try to sneak loan through. "A lender will stop working with brokers until investigations are finished, and may rely more on its own in-house loan offficers," he said via a telephone interview.

As of March 18, the congregation was still on the property, and an ex parte hearing had been requested seeking an injunction.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Growing seeds, fighting weeds, and having needs.

I recently wrote about the Parable of the Seeds, sharing my thoughts that the message of this parable is less concerned with our eternal destiny than it is with how we live while we prepare for eternity. So far, I only had one person who disagreed, and I look forward to engaging him when he comments here. As promised, I am now exploring this story further, in hopes that my thoughts will help both myself, and those who read my words. Who knows, maybe you have the needs I feel as well; the need to feel at peace with God, to live without the guilt of condemnation, even the need to look in the mirror of God's Word, and feel ok with what you see.

As I seek to live a life that is useful to God, and a blessing to others, I am looking in the mirror, and I find myself confronting a question: is the seed bearing fruit, or has my life "gone to seed"? I know that I must be careful, as I have a personality that tends towards being critical, particularly regarding myself. Nevertheless, do I see fruitfulness, whether 30, 60, or 100-fold, or do I see feeble branches struggling to remain viable as the cares of life try to stifle the life of Christ that was planted in me so long ago? I want to say, "50 years and all is well," but I hear a nagging voice that shows me my inner frailty, both physically and spiritually. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do"(Rom 7:15). I want to succeed as a parent, as a teacher, as a minister, but I feel so stagnant, like a hamster running a wheel. Sometimes, I'm not even sure that I am running the wheel.

"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works"(Tit 2:11-14). Paul does have a penchant for writing long sentences, but he says a lot in them. My faith in God, and trust inn His grace and mercy, hopefully guards me against self-inflicted legalism, but I know that my enemy, the devil, is wily, and will use anything, including and especially complaceance, to lull me into a false sense of security.

In that regard, I am not that much different from the Jews who had, on the one hand, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, along with the Temple and it's services, as a reminder of their covenant relationship with YHWH. That relationship, first established with Abraham, whom God selected while he lived among idolatrous worshippers of the moon-god - indeed, he himself may have also worshipped Sin (Josh 24:2), developed from that of an individual and God to a liturgical system with a fully functioning priesthood. Eventually, Jeremiah would be called to proclaim that being connected culturally to YHWH did not allow Israel to walk contrary to His Word. You cannot rely on the protection of the LORD while simutaneously refusing to submit to His authority as expressed in His Word. The nation's blindness to this truth led to its exile in Babylon and humbling; Israel lost her glory, Jerusalem was trodden underfoot, and the rulership of God's chosen people, granted to the house of David, was turned over to pagans who did not know the God Whom David worshipped with his whole heart.

I should learn from their example, in fact, God intended that I, as a Christian, do just that, which is why the Old Testament is part of the Bible (1 Cor 10:11), even though, as a Christian, I am not under it's provisions, but am under "a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Heb 8:6). Even though that issue was settled historically very early in the Christian faith (Acts 15:1-31), we still struggle with wanting a nice, tidy set of rules that we can use to ensure thaqt we are on the good side of God, and keep us away from those who are not in His good graces. Just like the Pharisees, who started out with the best of intentions, we want to make sure that we are staying pure, but sometimes we end up "doing too much." My natural intellect and human wisdom are ill-equipped to guide me in doing the will of God. The Spirit of God alone knows the mind of God, Who reveals His will to us, and enables us to understand and do it. Without the Spirit of God, I am dead to the will of God, blind to the Word of God, and opposed to the Kingdom of God.

Even with the promise of His Spirit, still, I struggle, and sometimes I stumble. Still, thanks to the Spirit, the water, and the blood (1 John 5:8), I "get back up again." Just as Christ rose up from the grave, we get up from our failures, we rise and turn away from our sins, confessing our faults to one another, and praying for one another, not simply so that we can feel better about ourselves through our commiseration, but so that we may be healed, as God has provided in His Word (James 5:16). This is why confessing my security in Christ leads, not to pride, but to humility. I know that He is the only security I have, and He chose me; I did not choose Him, so I have no basis upon which I can boast (Eph 2:8-9). My desire to be fruitful reflects, not my innate goodness, but the presence of His Spirit within me, working in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

The great thing about this is that my availability is more important to God than is my ability. He is not looking for what I don't have, but for what I do have! Even better, I am not getting a special deal, for God is not moved by such surface things as my attractiveness, charm, or wealth; He is "no respecter of persons," - literally, God does not regard our face when He chooses us to be recipients of His grace. God's love is not earned, which might be part of why it is not fathomed. We find it so hard to grasp, and thus accept, that God loves us, neither because of, or even, in spite of, who we have become as individuals, but simply because it is His nature to love. As that old Commodores song declares, "Jesus is love." God loves, just like He creates, because it is His nature to do so, just like it is Satan's nature to steal, kill, and destroy. God's love wil triumph over Satan's devices, and I will triumph over the weapons which are formed against me. I have been sanctified, so I will be holy.

So as I look at myself, endeavoring to live in such a way that I reflect the presence of Christ in me, I do so with the reminder that the ultimate judgment lies with my Savior, and His grace is enough for me. Do I see plants that look more like weeds than the fruit of the Spirit? Yes, of course I do, but I also see the Hand of a wise Vinedresser, who knows the difference, and He will remove the weeds, purifying the soil of my heart, and enabling me to bring forth even more fruit as I abide in Him and His word abides in me. This is why the Gospel truly is good news, and we share it with others, so that everyone can have the oppodrtunity to experience the power of God leading to salvation, the joy of the Lord as our strength, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding for those who don't understand Him. So the mirror doesn't frighten me, it encourages me, and I have all I need, for I have Him, or even better, He has me.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Can I be fruitful today when I was barren yesterday?

The Parable of the Sower and the Seeds is one of the more familiar stories that Jesus told to teach the crowds about the Kingdom of God. I have read it and listened to sermons and Bible studies about it. I have not, however, given much thought to what it means and how it could apply to my life.

Recently, a friend who was joining my tour through the Bible this year, commented on this parable, and her words sparked something in me. Then, a conversation with one of my New Testament Greek students pushed me even further. I think that my thoughts today will help someone else, so I will share this with you. Think about it, wrestle with it, and reflect on it. If you like it, apply it, and if you don't, talk to me about it.

The parable is found in Matt 13:3-9, Mark 4:2-9, and Luke 8:4-8. In each version, the story is the same. A sower sows seeds in a field. There are four sets of results. Some seeds are eaten as soon as they hit the ground by nearby birds. Other seeds land in hardened, rocky soil. Although these seeds spering up quickly, they die as quickly becaused they are unable to take root in the hard ground. Still other seeds land in ground that also contains weeds. The weeds, springing up, overrun the ground, hampering the seeds ability to grow, as weeds are prone to do. Finally, some seeds take root, and, unhindered by the obstacles related earlier, bring forth a crop of varying sizes.

It's a pretty straight-forward story, and Jesus did not preface it by saying what he often says, "the Kingdom of heaven is like...". Somehow, I developed the idea that this parable discussed the eternal destiny of the four types of soil. To be sure, I cannot tell you why I thought this, but I know that I did. At the very least, I would have been certain that the soil which Jesus later described as representing people who never even heard the Word because Satan snatched it out of their hearts before they could even respond. Therefore, not having heard it, they were doomed to disobey and end up eternally lost. Now, to be fair, Luke does write, in his version, that the impact, or lack thereof, does seem to have an eternal impact. Verse 12 says that the devil snatches the Word from their hearts, lest believing they should be saved. In verse 13, he wrote that there were those who would fall away rather than endure trial.

The thing about this, however, is that Mark and Matthew were written earlier, and they merely say that some would stumble because of trial, and that the first group has the Word snatched out of their hearts by Satan, but neither Matthew nor Mark say that this is a unchangeable situation. To put it another way, only Luke discusses this parable from an eternal perspective, while Matthew and Mark leave room for an alternative understanding. The alternative, that this parable is primarily, if not totally, talking about the Word of God making an impact in our lives here and now, is what I would like to offer.

One of the reasons that I am looking at this parable this way, relates to the description of the seeds that bore fruit. Not all of the seeds bore the same amount of fruit; some seeds were much more fruitful than others. We have no mention in Scripture that there are different degrees of eternal life, or that there are different levels of heaven, some more heavenly than others.

We do recognize, however, that there are different levels of life here on earth, even among those who are committed to lives of obedience to God. Not all who are dedicated to serving the Lord experience the same type of lifestyle. Some enjoy lives of affluence and exposure, while others live much more modestly, and are only known by friends, neighbors and fellow congregants. In some cases, these outcomes are pursued, but in others, the results are unexpected and unsought. Charles Colson often wrote and spoke about the "little platoons," Christians whose lives of service to the Lord by serving others goes unnoticed by all except those whom they have blessed, and the Lord Himself. Further, the Lord gives no assessment regarding the relative superiority of the fruitful plantings; the "hundred-fold" seed is not commended for being over three times more fruitful than the thirty-fold harvest. The only comparison that we see is between the seeds that bear fruit and the seeds that do not. The "good" ground (Greek καλός) is good in the sense that it is well-suited to the task. It is prepared, fertilized, and cleared.

While the parable does not discuss the pre-sowing preparations, it is reasonable to expect that the good soil was not that way by chance, and in like manner, we believe that the hearts of those who experience the power of the Word in a positive way do not just happen to do so. Rather, God prepares those hearts, "through the washing (laver) of water by the word." The English makes it sound like a verb when it is actually a noun. This is a lovely description of baptism. In baptism, we are not merely undergoing a symbolic ritual, but God's word is operating upon us transforming us from spiritually dead individuals with no capability to positively respond to Him, into spiritually alive saints who will, through the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, become equipped for the work of ministry to which God is shaping them. It is for this reason that Baptism is an act that takes place in the context of the community of the saints. The new Christian, whether infant or adult, is not left to her own devices to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. Rather, the household of faith bears witness through instruction and fellowship that this person is also part of the body of Christ. It is an awesome responsibility, one that we perhaps take more lightly than we should.

Wherever one is in Christian experience, there will be times when the word does not strike home, for a variety of reasons. I have experienced times when I was filled from what I had heard in the service, and I have left the worship service struggling to remember just what had been said. It is not a situation that we should ignor. Just as ground which has been left untouched can become unserviceable, in the same manner, a heart that has grown hard from lack of exposure to the refreshing and cleansing of the word of life can become calloused to conviction. Even hard ground, however, after a long, barren winter, can, with the first showers of spring, be softened and enabled to bring forth fruit. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and we can repent, if the Lord draws us by His grace. Rather than lamenting the winters past, let us look forward with expectation to the fresh wind of spring, as the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus brings newness of life to us.