Monday, October 16, 2017

Ordering Your Private World: A Review

I had never desired to read Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald when I first saw its title in 1984.  Perhaps that was because I don’t like taking orders.  Or maybe because I have little order in my life. You might think I live in chaos if you surveyed my desk or any other flat surface in my home.  Or it may have been because I believed that my private world was in order or, even if it wasn’t, I had no ability to bring such order.  Or perhaps I likened this book to another book on organization I had purchased which I could not bring myself to read past the first chapter, and finally discarded.  In 2017, however, I noted the words “Revised and Updated” above the title and decided to give Ordering Your Private World a chance, harboring the faint hope that perhaps even I could have order in my life or at least in my life’s private world.

From the beginning, the Authors Note encouraged me with these words: “I am still challenged—every day!—by the notion of ordering my private world.”  So, Gordon MacDonald who wrote about bringing order to our private world did not even have his own private world in order many years later.  It’s both encouraging to know that organization is a problem for a successful person, but also discouraging to realize that after all these time, he is still challenged by the effort. 
The Preface provides additional discouragement.  The author is married, has children, and one day suddenly realizes that his professional life, family life, and spiritual life are in shambles and he has no ready answers.  His natural talents and gifts enabled him to do well in his profession, but they had masked the reality that his spiritual life was weak and shallow. He suffered a complete breakdown.  And then Jesus said to him, “Now you know what it’s like to live out of an empty soul.”  To live.  Out of an empty soul.  Isn’t that a bit like kicking someone when they’re down?  But we must remember that Jesus didn’t say “Yay, Peter!” when Peter walked on the water.  Instead, when Peter feared he would drown, Jesus reached out a hand and said “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Is Jesus reaching out a hand to you in this book?  Maybe.

I plowed ahead into the first chapters because having order in our private world is important.  What do we do with our souls?  How do we exercise soul care?  Body care is relatively simple.  We eat right, exercise, and sleep an appropriate number of hours.  But what about our soulish part?  What about that undefined space where God’s Spirit resides?  What do we do about that?  As I listen to acorns drop and the squirrels rustling aside the fallen leaves to search for them and plant them, I wonder how we find and nourish our souls during our own dark nights and cold days.   Here’s what the author found:  If our private world is weak, we become empty shells, rotten nuts.  Like the squirrels in autumn, we must formulate a plan to find the best nuts and secure those in a cache for leaner times.  It requires work in advance of the need, and quality rather than quantity.
Our plan must be wide.  No squirrel concentrates only on one tree.  We must take direction from those wiser than us: from the Bible and Biblical mentors.  We must maintain control of our passions and gifts or we will become self-centered in an uncontrolled pursuit of more, more adulation, more high-level connections, more, more, more.  We will rush after the goal rather than paying attention to the process and see people only as a means to our end.  We will discover disloyalty everywhere and nurture our anger rather than giving it to God.  Indeed, we may become so busy hurrying after what is of little worth, that we have no time or desire to play and or to exercise spiritual activities.   Sound like anyone you know?  A prime example from the Bible is King Saul. 

Saul begins as a warrior king who spirals downward.  Like Saul, when we pursue our passions above all else, we forget that we are called out ones, people with a purpose that is larger than ourselves and which supersedes our passions.  We know the One who called us and do not assume ownership of either our work or the people we work with.   Called people know when to move forward and when to fall back and release. 

According to the author, how do we implement our called-out purpose? Control our time—like Jesus we must know when to pray, when to act, when to sleep (yes, even sleep can be a soulish activity, for in that sleep, what dreams may come!), and to understand our limits.  Like John the Baptist we cannot hold onto a position forever.  At some point we will be called to release our activity, our calling, just as John released his crowds, his disciples, and his reputation to Jesus.

How do we control time?  According to the author, if we do not control our time, we become disorganized, feel poorly about our work, and lack intimacy with God.  How did Jesus do it?  He understood his purpose, his mission.  Jesus understood his limits as a human being, and a man, and a Jew in a time of Roman occupation.  He listened and observed.  He worked within His limits and within His culture.  And he made time to be with a few important people (his disciples).  Who are the people who are important to you?  Do you make time for them?  Listen to them?  Who are you spending the most time with?  Maybe it’s time for a change.

How do we change? Recognize that unmanaged time flows toward our weaknesses and we spend time doing thing that are not helpful.  And because we are not managing our time, someone else may mange it for us—we may be unduly influenced by dominant people.  When we fail to manage time, we end up putting out fires and neglecting what we really need to do. Our unmanaged time is used to bring us immediate gratification and not for what is most important.  Time is best managed when it is budgeted far in advance.  If an activity is set for a certain date, all that precedes that activity can be accomplished in the most effective manner.  But, if we try to be consistently spontaneous, we will invariably forget something important.

However, even if we do everything right, there may come that dark night of the soul, that desert experience that leaves us adrift in a lake of sand.  Jesus made a point of spending time in deserted places.  What happens there?  Our senses are heightened.  Away from noise and the call of the ordinary, we can experience the extraordinary.  We may be able to hear God more clearly.  We may view life from a different perspective.  We learn dependence.  And in the bleakest of desert times, we are accorded freedom to hear thoughts that lead us in a new direction, that give us a different plan, that help us prepare.

And here’s my main quibble with Ordering Your Private World: the book is disorganized.  I don’t know if it’s because new material was added without rewriting the old material, but it is most evident in my outline as I search back and forth for topics that fit together.  This was one difficult book to follow.  So far, this review has taken you through the first seven of 15 chapters.  The final eight chapters deal with spiritual disciplines such as endurance, mindfulness, silence, solitude, reflection, meditation, prayer, friendship, and rest.  Only Chapter 13 on prayer was one into which I could sink my teeth. 

Prayer is difficult.  Gordon MacDonald asks “Why do we have trouble praying?”  Yes, why?  It should be second nature for those of us who carry God’s spirit within us, but it’s not.   Gordon MacDonald has the answers and if we absorb these and let them work in us, we will realize that prayer is a vital necessity for ordering our private world.  Yes, worship and intercession feel unnatural.  They are not part of everyday life in America.  Nor is it normal to worship what we cannot see and to intercede with One we cannot physically encounter.   When we pray, we act contrary to our culture and it creates a dissonance within us—a dissonance that may keep us from prayer.

Praying exposes our weaknesses.  Even as we proclaim our dependence on God, we tacitly declare our independence and self-sufficiency.  We are Americans, after all.  We overcome, we endure, we succeed.  We are DIYers.  At some point, however, we have to learn that we cannot do everything, that we are not as strong as we think we are, and that we lose relationship with others when we do not ask them to help us and with God when we don’t depend on Him.  

And perhaps, prayer seems irrelevant when no matter how much we pray, or how little, the results or don’t happen anyway.  We have become fatalists.  We see prayer as only a means to an end result.  But prayer is not about getting results.   Prayer is aligning our thoughts, motives, and desires, indeed our whole selves, with God so that we may participate in his work in the world.  We pray to seek His will, not to impose our own on Him.  But just as we struggle for independence wouldn’t we like a world fashioned after our own passions?  Indeed, this is the very struggle we have in prayer.  Not my will, but Thine. 

And once we have, but how feebly, prayed to the point where we are aligned with God’s will, then, and only then, notes Gordon MacDonald can we effectively intercede for another in prayer. 

Ordering Your Private World was a useful book to read for time management and an overview of spiritual disciplines.  For an in-depth ordered view of the disciplines, I recommend Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster.  Ordering Your Private World also made me more mindful about how I use time.  Recognizing that unmanaged time flows toward my passions causes me think twice before I perform any activity.  Is it useful?  Will it bring improvement?  Or am I just doing what I like doing to the excess?  And what about you?  You must recognize your own times of maximum effectiveness and have criteria for time usage.  Ask yourself, does it advance a cause, is it useful for others, is it helpful to your Christian life?  Will it bring you closer to God?  Will it allow you to rest, relax, or play?  Take the best from multiple good choices. And, when you are able, budget time far in advance so you can effectively use the intervening time to efficiently prepare for the future event.  

A wise presenter once told me that if his audience took only one new idea, tool, or perspective from his talk, he felt that he had done a good job with his topic.  Ordering Your Private World is a tool to use to step out and begin your exploration of time management and spiritual disciplines.  Anyone can take away at least one new idea, tool, or perspective from this book. Or your time may be better spent reading the Bible and paying attention to how Jesus lived, reading a good business book (perhaps the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey), finding a good personal time management book, and reading Celebration of Discipline provides keen insight into the spiritual disciplines and why they are important.

 I received this book free through a book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Leaving Room for Revelation

Some time ago, a friend explained that she didn’t agree with a particular interpretation of the book of Genesis in the Bible because “it’s”  And for her that concluded it.  “It’s history,” means that what we have is a set of linear facts, nothing more.  And though I love my friend, in this she is wrong, wrong because for the Christian (which she is) the Bible is far more than history, or poetry, or songs, or letters; the Bible is revelation, and not just any revelation but the revelation of the living God and as such, it is living and active and sharper than a double-edged sword.

When we say one thing is nothing more, i.e. a woman is nothing more than a sexual object; an immigrant is only drain on society; a person on welfare simply lazy; then we set the worth of that person and we become no more than slave masters putting a value on something, someone, who is priceless.  We want to think we are civilized, but underneath we all wish to enslave that we might have the greater power.

But, I don’t really think that was my friend’s intent.  No, her desire was to protect, to keep close what she feels is eroding, to hold onto something good and decent.  But, in doing so, she is falling into the camp of the atheist.  As the great atheist Thomas Paine stated:

As to the bible, whether true or fabulous, it is a history, and history is not revelation.  If Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and if Samson slept in Delilah’s lap, and she cut his hair off, the relation of those things is mere history, that needed no revelation from heaven to tell it; neither does it need any revelation to tell us that Samson was a fool for his pains, and Solomon too.

Yes, in diminishing the scope of the Bible, we also diminish its revelator and without the Revelator the Bible really is nothing more than a book of ancient history, poetry, and letters.

But what if we say that the Bible is more than history.  What if we say that there are multiple ways to read the first couple of books of Genesis.  What if the book of Genesis is both a history and a book showing God’s original temple on earth.  What would it mean if God actually took the stuff of earth, molded it and shaped it to make it fit for Himself and for the crown of his creation: human beings?  What would it mean if that original pattern was God vision casting, creating His theocracy?  What if both this interpretation and the factual (historical) creation and something else beside are all true?  What if we looked at the words with all the creativity imbued by God?  What if we looked at them with all our academic prowess?  What if we looked at the Bible as a complete book (yet, more than a book) where the first and last books echoed across time?

If we think about the Bible in the way that ancient cultures did (and some current cultures that are not so westernized) we would have a decidedly more exciting and accurate experience.  They did not believe that you must settle for just one thing (history) but could hold various interpretations in thoughtful ambiguity. 

So what do we settle for.  Will we allow revelation to color our reading?  Or do we settle for black and white. thus taking the Bible prisoner for our own intents? 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Temple Policeman! Temple Policeman!

I recently read a novel and its sequels (Finding Nouf, City of Veil, Kingdom of Strangers, by Zoe Ferraris). The location is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and its desert environs. What fascinated me was the Morality Police who could arrest a woman for driving a car, not walking behind the man she was with, not wearing appropriate covering clothing, and various other offenses by both menGold_and_Silver_Jewelry_in_Downtown_Jeddah_(3343317802) and women who would be publicly shamed (and worse)for such actions. [Zoe Ferraris was told to cover her hands with gloves and wear socks because she was so white.]

This differs little from the 1st Century Pharisees in Israel who sometimes went around looking for “sins” to uncover.  (unwashed hands before eating, working on the Sabbath, and the like). 

I recently discovered a certain Christian denomination (and I’m sure there are others) that refuses to allow into membership people who drink alcoholic beverages or smoke. For those who, as it says in Colossians 2, still "submit to regulations, do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" and I would add: do not drink, do not smoke, do not dance, do not, do not, do not. . . Colossians reminds us that these are only human commands and only appear to promote piety, "but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence." Christians should certainly remind their alcoholic friends not to drink, their drug-addicted friends drug to stay away from drugs, and their technology addicted friends to leave their cell phones behind.  But, to exclude people from the congregation on the basis of personal habits is not something that Jesus ever practiced.  He was highly inclusive, making the best wine for a neighbor’s wedding at Cana, socializing with the enemy, the thief (tax collector), and sharing life with both the religious and irreligious, the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated.  So, instead of being Temple Policemen,  Colossians 3 says Christians are to get rid of slander, abusive language, and lies, and not practice greed, fornication, and impurity, but instead to practice "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience" and, not the least, forgiveness and love.

Once we start being Temple Policeman, we are just like the Taliban, the Morality Police in Saudi Arabia, or any other repressive society.  So let's get rid of any inclination we have to be Temple Policemen or Morality Police. As Christians, we are to walk in love and forgiveness, humility (there, but for the grace of God, go I) and kindness. 






Picture of Saudi Woman trying on jewelry by Nouf Kinani (Gold and Silver Jewelry in Downtown Jeddah) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Conspiracy of Silence by Ronie Kendig

A Review

I requested to review this latest book by Ronie Kendig because I have enjoyed her previous military thrillers. Each of those featured a special forces fighter with great skill, but relational/emotional problems, who finds himself on a perilous mission with civilians to protect. Among those civilians is a woman who eventually will become the love interest. I had hoped that this novel would be similar to those with lots of action, and in the basics, it was. However, the convoluted plot left confusion that was not part of her other novels.

Conspiracy of Silence is a military thriller along the lines of Tom Clancy or Lee Childs, with an emotionally distraught soldier sent out after an assassin. However, this novel adds archaeology and two archaeologists, references to the Bible, a certain Biblical event, and the supernatural all thrown into the mix. Yes, think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ah, but if only it was another “Raiders!” Raiders had one Ark, one hero pursuing the Ark, and one love interest. In Conspiracy of Silence we also have one hero and one love interest, but we also have one assassin, four censers (containers for burning incense), and three pages (leaves) from the Aleppo Codex, a bound 10th century C.E. manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, originally kept in Aleppo, Syria, but later parts to parts of it were transferred to Israel. This book does not explain the Aleppo Codex until late in the story and in the appendix, however you can find information on Wikipedia.

In any event, at about the same time an American official is assassinated in England and our hero is tasked to eliminate the assassin, one of the archaeologists unearths a missing page from the Aleppo Codex and three censers, and somehow unleashes a plague which can be stopped only if all four censers are located and reunited along with several pages from the Aleppo Codex. This is where the novel loses its vision and lost this reader. A reader by definition must suspend their disbelief in the reality of the situation in order to become immersed in the world of the novelist. But when the novel loses its vision, the reader also loses theirs. If it had remained a novel about the search for and destruction of an assassin, it could have followed an interesting path and ended with a struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist in which the protagonist emerges bloody, but victorious. In other words, a classic hero novel.

But Conspiracy of Silence introduces a subplot which did not work. The subplot includes the theft of the censers, a plague introduced by the censers (how does that happen?), a need to find the censers and read certain marks on pages from the Aleppo Codex, which were located in different parts of the world, and the introduction of seemingly supernatural characters and situations. And, with the addition of this subplot, many more words (409 pages) than the author had in her prior novels.

The plot bogged down for me and my mind started questioning. How does a woman wrap her arms around her waist? Why do several team members smirk? Why is the team travelling with two archaeologists, putting two civilians at risk? Why does one archeologist who is skilled in martial arts never use this skill? Why does such a virulent plague only kill about a dozen people? Why is The Frenchman inserted like a super-hero? Why does one member of a covert team that had worked together on previous projects and who is very close to the team leader, why does this man have contacts and knowledge that are new to the team leader and that he refuses to disclose to the team leader? Why does the team need pages from the Aleppo Codex when they could consult any modern text of the Hebrew Bible and find the same information? Some of these questions are answered; most are not.

I also took issue with the author comparing the Masons to a terrorist organization. I don’t know her personal experiences with the Masons, but in a cursory search I found no evidence of their involvement in anything but charitable work. She could have easily compared the terrorist organization in her novel to the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, or any other multi-national terrorist organizations.

Those issues aside, the novel does have plenty of perilous situations where our hero can shine. Yes, after a chapter that made me question the novel’s integrity, the following chapters have a real chase for information from a contact inside the religious establishment and an assassin that pops up in unexpected places. In fact, the second half of the novel picks up nicely with only a few pauses as the team resumes its search for the assassin and a way to stop the plague, experiencing secret tunnels, confusing messages, chases, shootouts, flaming arrows, explosions, an abduction, and everything you’d want in a thriller. There are only a few confusing blips—when the team leader thinks he is chasing down mace and the lack of any role for The Frenchman. All in all, it’s a satisfactory ending with tension-filled final scenes. If you skip over the confusing parts with the censers and Codex, you have ably written military thriller will give you hours of pleasure.

This novel was provided for me at no charge by the publisher for purposes of review. I was not required to write a positive review.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Shattered Vigil by Patrick Carr


I don’t read fantasy. Not for me the aliens and half-man half-beast beings. I want no eggplant suns rising over lemonade seas. Yes, I can take a few hobbits, but some race must resemble human at least in the way humans act and reason. This Patrick Carr novel is one of a very few fantasy novels that I enjoyed completely. The author adeptly weaves a tale replete with blue skies, green trees, and people that look and act like you and I might if we were in the same circumstances. The society feels somewhat medieval with horses for transportation, swords and knives for weapons. But the city looks more like Rome with its classed society, more than medieval towns with a local ruler and farmers and trades people living inside a walled community. However, as in modern times this culture boasts libraries and an efficient means of long distance communication (though restricted mostly to rulers and priests). The novel’s world comprises two major divisions: the Darkwater (an unexplored land of war and legend) and the known world where our protagonist and his friends live and travel. The kings and the four churches vie for the peoples’ allegiance along with another unknown entity. The churches each hold a different view of Aer, their god. The inhabitants of the known world are imbued by Aer, with. . . well it might be well to quote The Exordium of the Liturgy at this point.

The six charisms of Aer are these:

For the body, beauty and craft

For the soul, sum and parts

For the spirit, helps and devotion


The nine talents of man are these:

Language, logic, space, rhythm,

motion, nature, self, others, and all


The four temperaments of creation are these:

Impulse, passion, observation, and thought


Within the charisms of Aer, the talents of man,

and the temperaments imbued in creation

are found understanding and wisdom. Know and learn.


The charisms, or gifts, are limited in number. Those people who possess them generally gain wealth. The gifts are highly sought and highly treasured. They are most often handed down within a family, from one person to another, by the laying on of hands. The characters are real, questioning their destinies and their decisions.

Our hero Willet Dura received his gift unexpectedly in the first novel in this series, The Shock of Night. Willet is a former student of the priesthood, a soldier who fought in the land of the Darkwater, who alone among the fighters returned to live in the land of his birth, and to live a somewhat normal life. Willet is a reeve (detective) for the Kingdom of Collum. He examines murder scenes, interviews witnesses, and places guilt. This novel begins after an incident in which Willet acquires a gift, and a battle which changes the course of his life and the lives of others in his community, both described in The Shock of Night, the first novel in this series, which should be read prior to The Shattered Vigil.

What was missing from The Shattered Vigil? I would have liked fuller descriptions of the places in the novel. The author paints his landscapes with a broad brush but I would like a fuller description of the sights, sounds, and odors of the environment. I am thinking of The Lord of the Rings because in some way I was reminded of those books when reading The Shattered Vigil. Where Tolkien described a multi-layer forest, Carr leaves us with a few trees. There are plenty of places where the action can rest and description begin. That is my only quibble. Give me a little more description to go along with the almost breathless non-stop action and political intrigue.

Without telling you anything to destroy your enjoyment of The Shattered Vigil (or The Shock of Night), I can tell you that this novel works on several levels. First, it lets you see that good characters do not always do good, and bad characters can sometimes be life savers. Next, it explores issues that relate to our lives today, issues such as church-state relationships, political maneuvering, the appropriate use of gifts and talents, how evil functions, and others. And this is the type of novel I like: one that makes me consider and reconsider attitudes and perspectives that I may have to adjust. Just what might happen if church and state get too chummy? To what lengths might spiritual gifts be exercised? Is it ever right to do wrong from a good motive? Is it right to do good from a bad motive? What powers should people have over others? Is the right and honorable thing, really the correct action? Are there times when we should be less open and truthful? And it challenges us to consider the wider ramifications of our actions. Could we save a life or change a life for better or worse by our action or inaction?

Finally, The Shattered Vigil leaves you wanting more, needing more. You need more time to ponder the line between the people in the known world and those in Darkwater. Will those in the known world survive? What would it mean to survive? Would they become evil? And what will happen to Willet and his comrades? Will they survive? Or will they succumb to the Darkwater? Is survival even possible with the tools of their enemy arrayed against them? I guess we’ll all have to wait for the next book in the series.

NOTE: While reading the prepublication version of this novel, which was provided for me at no charge solely for purposes of review, I noticed several major errors that should have been corrected. I also logged onto Amazon prior to writing this review and found that the Kindle edition was already being sold. It is my hope that these errors were corrected prior to the Kindle edition being released.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Pontious Pilate, sitting as judge, heard Jesus say “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to Way_to_Akiba_secret_areathe truth.” Pilate’s response?  “What is truth?” His response summed up the world of the judge with the words of the jaded, the one who has heard it all, all the lies, the half truths, and so many truthful witnesses giving very different descriptions.  That was in the 1st century A.D.  In the 21st century, the question is still the same: What is truth?  Police detectives ask it, as they sift witness statements and physical evidence.  Each witness may portray a different truth.  Politicians claim to have the truth?  Do they?  We think we know the truth based on our own education and experiences.  Do we?

The truths we see may run contrary to the truths others see, and we assume they are wrong.  But what if they are right, and we are wrong?  What if we both are wrong? Could we be wrong?  What if, like witnesses to an accident, who see a red car, a black car, a dark green car, with a woman driver, a man driver, a man with a mustache and glasses, a man without a mustache or glasses, a passenger, no passenger, a tinted windshield, one with no tint, what if, like those witnesses we see only part of what is true.  What do we really know?  What have we actually observed?  Who knows the truth?

If if we are completely and sincerely honest to the best of our ability we are still going to be caught out someday. Yes, we will be wrong.  So, where is the truth?

Jesus said it.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  If we want to know the truth we must know the One who is the truth.  We can be wise, we can demonstrate our wisdom, but unless we are honest with ourselves all we may be able to say for sure is that we saw a dark car.  We can be sure of only one thing. And if that one thing is truth, it’s the most important thing.  So where do you find your truth?  Is it with yourself, you parents, your classmates, your teachers?  Sure, they will all have some of the truth but which bits are the right ones?  Jesus is the only one who has all the pieces.  He is the one who embodies  truth.  He’s the only completely reliable teacher, and He’s the only one who can teach you the truth, show you the truth, and be the truth in your life.

The Apostle Paul said it well when he said that some want wisdom and some want signs but he would teach only Christ.  If it’s truth you’re after, it’s Jesus.  If it’s life you’re after, it’s Jesus.  If it’s a way you’re after, it’s still Jesus.  There no way, no life, and no truth without Jesus.  And there you have it.


Photo By Stéfan Le Dû from Nantes, France [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Landlords and Tenants and their Circumstances


EVICTED by Matthew Desmond   

I was drawn to Evicted by my own circumstances. I had made friends with a poor family living about an hour away. We hosted their daughter’s 18th birthday party and invited her to live with us while she attended school. When they were losing their 9780553447439home through financial ignorance (they thought they could pay ahead and then stop paying for a while), I offered to sell them a property which I was preparing to rent—to sell it to them on land contract because they had bad credit: no bank accounts, no credit cards. In the back of my mind I carried the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to own their own home. After all, isn’t that the American dream? What this family lacked in financial stability, they had in friendship. There was nothing they would not do to help me, going out of the way to find a part for one of my appliances, offering to mow my lawn, not asking for anything at all in return. I believed that I could give them the means to improve their lives financially, to learn how to make regular payments, to gain an asset, and ultimately to qualify for a bank loan.

My assumptions were that someone acquiring ownership in a home would improve the home. I also assumed that a friend would make regular monthly payments and would follow through on everything they promised to do. Both of these assumptions proved false. After about 5 months, the payments stopped. I gave them more time—a few months and then confronted them. They told me about a work injury and hung their heads in shame. I gave them even more time and told them that I would not throw them out because of an unforeseen injury. Now, 20 missed payments later and a trashed house, I must do something, but how can I throw out a mother and three minor children? Even though I no longer trust the mother (who is now divorcing the father), what about the children who have not only lost the stability of a two-parent household but now might lose their friends, their teachers, their coaches, and their school? What might an eviction cost them? It sickened me to think of evicting these children whose birthdays I had celebrated, baseball performances I had cheered, and who had cut and colored my hair. Their mother cleaned my vacation rental in the area and their father performed carpentry and other work for me. I had an entanglement that is far more complex than the ordinary landlord/tenant relationship.

The stress of my decision convinced me to read and review the book Evicted. Maybe it would give me a different perspective. Maybe it would help me understand people who seem so irresponsible and uncaring. Maybe it would help me find other options.

The book was not as I expected from a major publisher. Cheap paper and large print do not create a pleasant reading experience. I only hope that the copy I have is not the final version. However as bad as the paper felt, I quickly forgot it when I encountered the real people within the book, landlords trying to make a living and provide for Milwaukee’s poor and tenants who take measures that seem reasonable only to themselves. This is an ethnography, a book relating a culture through the eyes of the people within it.

EVICTED follows the stores of 2 landlords and several tenants in a poor section of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One landlord, a former elementary school teacher buys distressed properties and with her husband fixes them well enough to rent to the poorest of the poor. She and her husband work full time on their properties and bring in about $10,000/month. When a tenant fell behind, she said, “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because nobody is feeling sorry for me. Last time I checked, the [county treasurer, loan officer, electric company] still wanted their money.” My feelings exactly. Doesn’t my tenant realize that I have bills to pay? The other landlord profiled in EVICTED owned a trailer park and had hired a manager and office helper to rent the trailers, handle repairs, and collect rents. This is not part of my experience and as I read about the drug dealers renting in the trailer park, it was as though I was peering into an alternate reality. I simply could not relate to someone whose only interest was achieving the highest return on his property with no concern for the quality of his tenants or his properties, or what extreme measures were taken to collect rent. Still, it was an education to see the lengths to which he went to get cash in hand from a defaulting tenant. The author rented from him and could not even get this landlord to supply him with hot water. That’s my definition of a slumlord.

All of the tenants were low income, but shared little else in common. Most of them were desperate to provide for their children. Some of the tenants were on drugs; others would not touch drugs, and still others were recreational marijuana users. These were people who could not plan for the future, who simply spent each day trying to survive. Those who made paying rent a priority often had little left to live on, and found themselves scrimping on food, medications, and clothing.

And the landlords? One had the time (and money) for week-long island vacations, but found herself scrimping the last week of the month—a week before the rents would roll in. Some landlords would not rent to people of color, people with children, or people who had even a single eviction on their record. Evicted shows us the landlord using self-help means to collect rent: knocking on doors the day welfare checks arrive, showing up at odd hours with hands out, asking for money, going to court and working out a settlement . . . or not, and then the sheriff and moving company walk in, empty the house of all items down to the ice cube trays, leaving a pile at the curb, or in storage where the tenants’ treasured belongings remain in rented storage space until redeemed, or more likely, until rent goes unpaid and the things are sold or discarded.

Landlords get tired—tired of handling evictions, tired of fixing broken plumbing and appliances. Tired of physically knocking on doors to collect rent. Tired of tenants who make empty promises to pay in full when their income tax refund comes in, or from money borrowed from a tapped out relative, or when they receive their welfare check. These promises are recycled in various forms at various times by various tenants trying to stay in their homes. Landlords hear them at the eviction hearing where the tenants try one last time to convince the landlords to give them more time.

The tenants are tired, too, and overwhelmed. Instead of fixing a constantly clogged kitchen sink, they just ignore it, throwing old clothes on the floor to soak up the overflow. They close the kitchen door and do dishes in the bathroom, until that sink clogs. The heat fails and they turn on stove burners. The toilet fails and they go in a bucket and empty it into the trash. The refrigerator fails and they live on McDonalds. When children’s services comes calling, they purchase cheap half-working appliances just to keep their children. Why do they do this? To avoid any contact with the landlord to whom they owe money. And no, this is not the heart of Appalachia, this is Milwaukee, Wisconsin a major metropolitan area.

In Milwaukee, as in every American city, we see families forced to endure sub-standard housing, living in shelters, searching for the elusive “home.” This book isn’t even about home ownership, but about the ability to have a safe and stable housing situation. Ownership is too far away from many people to be even a glimmer in their minds, but a safe and stable living situation is their desired goal. They scramble to find rent by begging, borrowing, and stealing, selling drugs, and even their own bodies. The author allows us to peer into their world and see “solutions” that are not working and the desperate search for housing.

I had never considered the author’s idea, statistically supported, that neighborhoods have a life of their own which can be fragile. We in the “burbs” enfold ourselves in subdivisions where houses and yards look similar and we have our “standards.” But inner city neighborhoods are formed from people who have a common interest. When people remain in a neighborhood and get to know their neighbors, they can band together for the safety of their homes and children. One man in the book was struggling to raise his two teenage sons in a stable environment. He was a double amputee but was unable to obtain Social Security disability payments. He survived on welfare payments, with next to nothing left over after his rent payment. Despite his circumstances, his place was where the neighborhood teenagers would come to hang out in safety, play cards, and talk about growing up. He was a stabilizing influence on his block. When people are shunted in and out of a neighborhood through eviction (or foreclosure) the neighborhoods become unstable and unsafe. Drug users and sellers move in, gangs are formed, and crimes increase. Stable neighborhoods, where people can move in and out freely and are not evicted or otherwise forced out of their homes, are safer and make the entire community safer. The author believes that decent housing should be a basic right afforded to all people for the common good.

The current system is broken. That’s clear. No one can survive in northern winters and no one should have to survive without a safe place to lay their heads. Landlords cannot give away rental property. They should and must make money from their investments. And tenants are not all the same. Some will treat property well and even improve its value. Others will allow their children to run wild, tattooing hardwood doors and trim with ball point pens, tearing doors from their hinges, smashing holes in the drywall. Discouraged tenants live in squalor and disgruntled landlords give up performing more than make-do repairs and just go after the money.

The solution offered by the author, vouchers or rent subsidies, does not currently work because landlords can and do raise the rent above what is customary in the locale simply because the voucher authority sets high rent caps. In many cases, access to vouchers are limited—many poor cannot get them and the program sets standards for the housing which might exceed a landlord’s improvement budget, especially in older homes. The author’s solution would require universal vouchers for every family below a certain income level, less onerous requirements for landlords to accept the vouchers, and a demand that all landlords accept vouchers. But who will fund this? It’s been successful in England and the Netherlands, but those are small countries. Is some legislator in the United States willing to try? Or could there be a better solution?

Something must be done. I’m almost persuaded to leave the rental market due to the stress of broken relationships and a trashed property that I put so much time, energy, and money into making beautiful and up to code. On the other hand, my erstwhile friend and her three children need a safe place to stay. Maybe the electric companies have the right solution. The poor can pay drastically lower utility bills through a program that gives them an incentive to make regular on-time payments. For each payment (at about 10% of income), the remainder of what they would owe each month is forgiven and they have a percentage of their payment applied to past debt. But how many of the poor keep up the utility payments? The utility company has an out. They can turn off their service. Landlords’ only recourse is to convince a defaulting tenant to move or to evict them. And there is no evidence that the utilities have success with their program. If someone will not pay rent for more than a few months, perhaps they will also stop paying for their utilities. Maybe we landlords can come up with something better for tenants who fall behind. I don’t know what that may be, but private solutions are often better than ones provided by the state. Just look at public housing.

This book was provided to me free for an unbiased review. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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