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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The rare breed...A tribute to Mr. Harry Flohr

I'm reading the title to this post and thinking how absurd it really is. "A Tribute to Harry Flohr"
It's absurd because if you knew this man during his time on earth, you know already that there isn't a really good way to pay tribute to him. But I am going to try because he was a giant in my life and because he was--maybe more than almost anyone I have known--deserving of a tribute...deficient as it might be.
 I started attending church with the Flohrs when I was 8 years old. It was a medium sized baptist church, maybe 400 members. It was the kind of place where you knew everyone very well. I have had...and still probably have...some issues and disagreements with the theology and the personal convictions, but one thing they did very well was they never let anyone slip through the cracks. They were involved almost to the point of being nosy. Right or wrong, if you missed more than 2 Sundays in a row, someone called you to make sure you were okay. They took you dinner if you were sick and they wept if you were weeping. One of the first men I met there was Harry Flohr. I remember him being tall, handsome, funny, with a warm smile and a laugh that made you want to join in. He was vibrant, and lively and you instantly felt the kindness that his huge heart possessed. The other thing huge about Harry were those hands. Mr. Flohr had hands like catchers mitts. Shaking that hand when I was 8 years old was like shaking hands with a giant. As I grew to adulthood and my own hands grew to X-L size, Harry's were still the benchmark. I'd shake his hand and still be amazed every time at how large and powerful they were. Handshakes were a big thing to Harry. He had a slew of funny gags he'd play when you shook his hand. He'd say "How does a cardiologist shake hands" just as he reached for yours. Then before you could even think of the answer, he'd squeeze your hand to mimic a pulse and he'd laugh at himself before you laughed with him. His favorite handshake was his tireless "How does a Christian shake hands?" Then he'd reach for your hand, and as soon as you clasped, he'd open his hand away from yours and your hands were connected at the thumbs and the open palms formed a dove....the symbol of the Holy Spirit. That was his favorite and he'd smile if he caught you forgetting to open your hand in unison with him.
More than anything--more than any words or deeds--Harry Flohr was consistent. If I were a pastor, I'd want at least one Harry Flohr in my church. Mr. Flohr was the most giving, caring, diligent, hard working, involved man I saw in all my years at that church and in the years after I left that church. Harry didn't just wait for the pastor to mention a need...this was his church too and he saw the needs and jumped in with both feet. He would be on his lawn tractor with a snow plow attached, plowing the parking lot so we could have church on Sunday morning. He would be the first adult to offer to provide rides to the youth group kids to go ice skating at University of Delaware or roller skating at Merryland. He cared. He loved everyone. He was blessed with a good job that paid fairly well and allowed him a few niceties and he never saw them as just his. He had a beautiful Boston Whaler boat that we all went fishing on at some point. He had a motor home that I would dare say saw more miles on youth group activities--often without him even being there--then it saw miles for Flohr family vacations. Everything he and his wonderful sweet wife Lucille owned was really God's and it was there for God to use whenever and however he wanted.
He was simply one of the godliest men I ever knew.
I could fill page after page with things he did. Acts of obedience and service. But that would be beating a drum that misses the point. So I'm only going to bring up two specific memories I have with Harry. One...When I was a senior in high school, we started our first baseball team. We were very very good. Being a small Christian high school, the budget was tight. Harry stepped up and bought us our uniforms and equipment for that first year. Nobody ever told us who the anonymous donor was. It was years afterward that I finally found out who had done it.
The other memory is the one I'll treasure most. About two years ago, I saw Mr. Flohr at the church he'd been attending for some time. Crossroads Bible Church in Elkton Maryland. It was a church that had a lot of folks from the original church we'd all attended. Harry and Lucille were faithful as always, even though his body had been ravaged by Parkinsons and he was confined to a scooter and slumped badly. It hurt me to see this wonderful man, a man who was playing basketball with high school kids well into his fifties, so bent and worn. This disease is brutal and it's taken it's cruel toll on several people I love.
I felt the overwhelming urge to tell him what he meant to me that particular morning. I couldn't think of the right words (imagine!) but I knew I wanted him to know how he'd touched me.
I found him after the service ended and I bent down and gave him a long hug and finally the words came..."You are my hero
If you want to know what it was that made this man a hero...what made him a giant of the faith for myself and for about three generations of believers who felt his influence, it was simply this...consistency.
I was talking with Dave Lewis, our youth pastor back in those days, and one of my dearest friends now, and we were reminiscing about Harry. We talked about his qualities and his service and his consistency. We were both so moved by simply knowing this man. And I said something to Dave that struck me in my heart. I said  "Harry was the most consistent believer I ever knew. He lived it the same way every single day of his life. Some of us try to do something huge for God with our lives all at once. Sometimes we make a big splash and pour a lot of water into the bucket at once. Some goes in but most splashes on the ground in wasted effort. Harry filled his bucket a cupful every day for every single day of his life."  Over a lifetime he seldom ever missed the target and his bucket was overflowing onto us all right until the very end, and it will continue to fill us all until Jesus returns. That was harry Flohr in a nutshell. One cup at a time, well placed, carefully poured, never wasting a drop.
I'll probably never reach that sort of testimony, but I can try.
To honor Harry, I will.
Your work continues in Heaven Mr. Flohr...thank you so very much for the careful, wonderful life you lived. We will see you are not far from our hearts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Just Leave Me Alone...

Hey everyone...
It's been a while since I've posted on any of my blogs. I miss writing. Miss it very much. But I am so busy with school, and with my business, and trying to make a living and rebuild a life...something has to give and unfortunately it's the thing I probably love most...creating with the written word.
But here I's been a most unusual day and I felt the tug of creativity and soul-bearing rising up inside me. God is...if anything...the greatest of laundry agitators.
Rich Mullins, (whose songs I quote more than anyone else except maybe my friend Rick Elias'), once wrote a  song titled "Calling out Your Name".  There is a wonderful line that says;

From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope
To run wild with the hope
The hope that this thirst will not last long
That it will soon drown in the song
Not sung in vain
And I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name
There is one line in this song that is my anthem today and tonight and will be for the week ahead I suppose...maybe longer. It simply says; "How the Lord takes by its corners this old world And shakes us forward and shakes us free..."
He does...He has...He continues to do so.
This week has been a torrent of his shaking me at my foundation. I could write a lot about what He has been up to, but I think I need to make this article more generic...more universal.
Who amongst us isn't caught up in inner turmoil sometimes? Who doesn't look at the content of our lives lived until this very moment and wonder about it's's's lasting impression and legacy? Who doesn't want more and better?
I wish I could examine my life until today and simply yawn and say " far so good" but I  cannot. As I write these words, tears form because I am listening to another of Rich's songs- "Hard to Get"- sung by my dear friend Rick Elias on the posthumously released "Jesus Record" that Rich was working on when he died and that his closest friends "The Ragamuffins" released as a tribute / closure a few years later. The line Rick just sang was "I'm reeling from these voices that keep ringing in my ears...all the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret..."
That is me tonight...I am there...right there. I'm reeling. Reeling from the losses of homelessness and failure and defeat. Reeling from the collapse of an entire industry that I thought would carry me into my retirement. Reeling at the loss of a house that I considered my little 5 acre slice of heaven. Reeling from watching my little girl go from 10 year-old girl to 13 year old almost-adult without being able to spend the night with her daddy because for 3 1/2 years this economy has made it impossible for me to find a 2 bedroom apartment and rebuild our time together. I am reeling.
I am reeling from the loss of one of the two men I consider to be true father figures...Poppa John went to heaven in January and the hole he leaves is huge and palpable and I am empty because of it. I wish I could hear that distinct northern Virginia draw and silly laugh. I wish I could ask him just a few more questions.
I'm reeling because I have drifted...probably because of the pull of the hardship of these last few years...from the man I was to the man I am. Ask anyone who knew me as a kid or as a young adult or right up until I got married and then divorced. They'd tell you I was the funniest, most easy-going guy you'd ever meet. I'd choose to laugh first before I'd argue with you. In fact I was known for disarming a situation by making the other person laugh. That was before I was reeling.
"reeling from these voices that keep ringing in my ears...all the words of shame and doubt blame and regret..."
I feel a ton of shame. Daddies don't lose their homes. Daddies don't sleep in cars, or basements, or rent single rooms that render it impossible for overnight stays with their daughters. Daddies don't fail. But I have done all that and sometimes the shame is overwhelming. I can joke about it. I turn it into a funny story about hiding my car in the weeds or a heartwarming story about hearing Harry Kalas' voice coming from my radio when the Phils won the Series in '08. I can try to wash it and clean it and spin it and be inspiring to others...and I have done that. But the truth is it still is embarrassing and sometimes I still feel ashamed. I doubt. I doubt sometimes that I'll ever be back on my feet. I doubt that I'll ever tuck my daughter in again under my own roof. I doubt my ability and my strength and my resolve. I blame myself. I blame the man who owned the company I once worked for who ran it into the ground with vice and excess and flaunting of the rules. I am broke and broken and he will probably pay a fine...not from his own personal funds...and walk away into the twilight years of his life. I blame myself for not seeing this coming somehow. Because dads are wise and they take precautions. Even though I know the economy was a lot more intricate than just my little piece of it. But I am intelligent and broad shouldered and darnit I should have known. I am reeling with regret. I regret the years I've lost with my precious little girl. I regret losing our pets and our home and our time together.
More than anything I regret the loss of the man I used to be. Before the pressures of adulthood and career and loss and embarrassment and failure and relentless hopelessness took their toll. The guy who made everyone else laugh and who did so because he was truly, deeply, happy and funny at his very core.The guy who came up with the name "Doe, Fluffy, L." for the "toe tag" on his Cat specimen in Anatomy and Physiology lab. The guy who once had Dr. Falwell booming in laughter with his commentary / jibes at the opposition during a hard fought battle against N.C. State. The guy who wept when his daughter was born and told her about 1000 times during her first 3 hours that her daddy loved her. Those were the only words I could form and the only phrase I wanted to say.
The years haven't been kind. Not entirely. But God is good.
This especially...God was shaking me forward and free. Maybe to run wild with some new found hope again after 3 plus years of desert. I sure hope so. I miss the guy I was and lament that I likely will never be exactly that man again.
But I rejoice that God refused to just "leave me alone!" when I demanded He do so.
I am thankful that He never left me nor forsook me even when I thought he had...even when I told Him to.
I tried...God knows I tried to run Him off. I have had my moments of bile-spitting and angry screaming matches with The Almighty. He has always seemed to endure my tirades and then whisper; "I know...I know it hurts. I'm here..." Sometimes I hated Him for that. Why was He so patient? Why couldn't He have just sent a bolt of lightning, or a random semi truck, or a tidal wave, or a gnat that lodged itself in my windpipe? Why does He have to be so long suffering during my worst? I guess it's because when He says "I love you" and "I will never leave you or abandon you"...He means it.
I've wounded some people over the years with this hurting heart of mine. I've bitten and retreated to the darkness of my doghouse with the taste of blood on my tongue and sorrow in my eyes. The growl hid the tears and the hair-on-end was just a disguise for the brokenness and shame I was feeling. This has not been a fun ride. I've asked to get off many times but God in his infinite wisdom decided it wasn't time yet...there was still something to learn. If you're on that list of those whose flesh has broken in a tangle with a "biter"...please forgive me.
I wrote this to encourage...and to tell the truth about the hurts we all carry. Sometimes just one person saying it out loud makes it okay for others to think about it too. If that's you...and if that is what is happening as you read these goal has been accomplished. In the coming days I hope to explore some of the good that has come from this dark path I've journeyed. Because honestly I need to encourage myself as much as I want to encourage someone else.
God will not let us rest where we are and being who we are. I realize that and I am being shaken by my corners. I hope when this is done that I will run wild with the hope once again...because I still have some wild running left to do. I love you all, my dearest friends.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I’m in the process of filling out my schedule for what will be my final semester at Liberty University as an undergrad. I am graduating in May, 27 years and ten months after first arriving on campus as a 20 year old freshman.
I can hardly believe it’s happening. Since August 3rd, when I did my degree audit and realized I was entering my last two semesters I have been excited, overjoyed, hopeful, and ecstatic. I have shed tears of joy and relief probably a dozen times since that night at FedEx Office.
28 years is a long time to wait for something. It’s more than half my lifetime. It’s hard to comprehend.
But this morning as I was planning out my final semester, I got a little sad. It’s finished. I’m done. The focal point of my life for the past two years is concluding. Since the day in 2007 when I lost my home do to the mortgage crisis, to the day in 2008 when my branch was closed in a downsizing and I couldn’t renew my lease and I became homeless, right up to today, it has been my return to school that has been the lone consistent good thing.  That day in August 2009 when I was sitting in the parking lot of Panera Bread Company and I hung up with my academic adviser and I looked at the schedule I had just scrawled on an envelope is when the journey resumed. 15 credit hours. New Testament Survey, History of Life (A Creation class) Survey of American History, Theology survey, Philosophy and Contemporary Ideas. I sat in my car and cried for about 5 minutes. I guess I had forgotten how much this all meant to me. I had always longed to return to LU and finish what I’d started, but life got in the way and I stored that desire in a file cabinet somewhere next to my dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup and owning a Corvette.
But that stifling hot August afternoon, the events of the previous 2 years coupled with the lifelong desire to graduate from college came bursting out in tears of joy. I’m sure that having recently lost everything I owned and everything that identified me as a dad and as a man added to the emotional response to my fall semester schedule. It was the first good thing that I could point to in over a year. Maybe this would be the first step on the road back.
Two years later and I am in the homestretch. I don’t know the date yet for graduation but I know I’ll be there. I have an idea what message I want to write on my mortarboard and I know who will be there when I walk. I know whose smiling faces I will look out on and who will be beaming at me in pride. The people who’ve loved me and who always believed I could do this. Momma Jewell, Bob and Cathy, and of course my precious daughter Morgan, for whom I endured all I have so that she would still and always have her daddy nearby. I will see friends who still live in Lynchburg and who are still involved in events on LU campus.
The image I have in my mind is different from the one that would have taken place had I graduated on time in 1988. The school is bigger; the campus is so different now that you’d hardly recognize it from the “old days”. The online program has exploded so much that LU has moved into the top ten ranking nationally for all schools, public and private.
The changes haven’t been immediately welcomed by us “old guard” alumni. We balked at the thoughts that our school was “going digital” and becoming an online school. As it turns out…it’s not. The growth of one does not mean the sacrifice of the other. In fact residency at LU is going to be stronger than ever.
I was going to write a long expose about the changes on campus. I even approached Chancellor Falwell about it and we’d talked a few times about the content of what I wanted to write. (I’d reached out to him in an effort to be factual and fair) But I decided today that none of that matters now. Most of the bluster about the changes going on at LU has died down. The alumni feel very comfortable about the direction of the school. There isn’t a point in writing about it anymore. So I decided to focus on what this degree means to me. How it represents something more than a 28 year pursuit of a dream and more than a nicely framed piece of paper.
What this degree gave me…especially the last 2 years finishing up at LU Online during the hardest, most difficult phase of my life…was pride. It gives me self respect. It gave me hope. Each semester was a chance to do the only thing I had any sort of control over. I couldn’t find a job, I was sleeping in my car, and I missed my daughter because I could only see her for a few hours at a time. I shivered in the dark of winter as I studied by flashlight in that aged Volvo 850. I got an A, a B and two C’s that first semester. More than that I got a boost. I achieved something in the midst of a string of failure. I learned about the Faith I have entrusted my soul to. I accomplished a deeper understanding of the Bible and the elements of the Church body I am a member of. In the 24 months since that first semester began, I have been homeless for about 20 of them. To be honest I was homeless for all of them. Having a “place to crash” isn’t a home. Not remotely. I put out over 300 resumes in that time and found one job…in Houston Texas. I built chicken coops and roofed a house and detailed cars and painted a friends porch. I wrote four books and four blogs and made nothing on any of them. I ate Ramen noodles in Panera and laughed about it when in reality it was humiliating and made me want to cry. And I did a lot of that too. Being a dad who used to have a home and used to have pets and used to have a workshop and used to go on vacations with his precious little girl and used to look in the mirror with a sense of pride, is a crushing weight. I cried a lot. I missed my daughter so much some nights that I cried myself to sleep. I hid the truth from her as best I could but she knew. Being in school at LU was the one thing I could show her that was consistent and was progressing. It was the one promise I was able to keep. It was the only source of pride in my otherwise humiliating world.
This degree means more to me than simply an educational achievement. It was how I showed the world that I was still alive over the last two years. It was the thing that set me apart from an otherwise utterly devastated man. It sustained me.
I am blinking back tears even as I write this. I am thinking about the things I have endured until today. The losses that heaped upon themselves and bent my back until I thought I would break. The tears and the sadness and the shame and embarrassment. Completing a degree is hard enough without doing it without a home. But I am almost done and it is a feeling I have heretofore not experienced.
The one face that will be missing on that Saturday next May will be Dr. Falwell. He would have loved this story. I think he would be as teary-eyed as I will be, had he been alive to hand me that diploma. Doc loved stories like mine. He loved people who refused to quit. He loved the God who gives the strength it takes to endure the seemingly endless defeats that found their demise on the road to my graduation. He spent his life proclaiming the truth that faith in the God he served could truly move mountains. And…as that campus proves…faith can build mountains too. My life proves this. That degree…my degree…proves it too.
The pursuit has been what kept me alive over these last two years. The degree represents something more than simply an education. The pursuit was a lifeline to me.
All of this is only coming true because the school I love is in able hands. The vision that Doc had in his heart from day one, back in 1971, is alive and vital and it’s probably expanded beyond what even that man of gigantic vision could have ever imagined.
Liberty University is doing just fine. In fact it’s better than ever. Liberty University is alive and well, and because of that, so am I.
And next May, one very appreciative member of the Class of 2012 will walk across that platform, receive that long overdue diploma, and stand taller than he has in a few years. My diploma will have cost exactly the same as those of all of my classmates.
But maybe nobody in that stadium that day will value theirs more.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My thoughts on the "99%" and "Occupy Wall Street"

I wasn't going to blog about this topic because to be honest...these people make me sick and I don't want to give them any space on a blog I've worked hard on, to develop a small following. But I have had enough of them and I have been in enough arguments with Internet friends about this "movement".
"Occupy Wall Street" is a farce. It's a joke and the perpetrators are frauds. You look at them attacking corporate greed and corporate excesses and they do so with their iPhone and iPad and wearing clothes made by the biggest corporations in the world.
Of course I could pick apart their hypocrisy for an hour but I'm not going to. The real reason I am compelled to write is the reasoning behind it all...and the lack of initiative these losers demonstrate.
First of all...Nobody earning $50,000 ever hired me for a job. They don't employ people. These protesters need to grasp basic economics. The rich are rich because they are good at making money. Typically they don't do that alone so they have employees. Most of the time they create whole industries that employ even more people. For that...for the burden and the impressive achievement of employing hundreds or thousand or tens of thousands of hard working people...these greedy selfish pigs are paid handsomely. They pay huge taxes on those huge paychecks. Those taxes employ the government employees who bitch and whine about everything, while having the best pay scale and benefits plan known to man outside of Congress.
You want to know why those people are worth all that money? Because if they don't do the job right, it's not just their own job they's all those "99% ers" out there who work for the companies that these brilliant minds manage. If they screw up, the result is exponentially bad. want to have the best and brightest running the company that pays YOUR paycheck? Or do you want some liberal minded moron who thinks he should run a Fortune 500 and be paid $250,000 for his efforts?
You let the rich do whatever it is that got them rich, (assuming it's not running moonshine during prohibition) and they will need to hire you and then you can put away your signs, take a shower, cut that dreadful thing on your head and go to work. But the truth is you don't really want that. You'd rather see yourself on the news crapping on the flag.
This is still the land of opportunity. If you want to improve can. I know...because I have.
4 and a half years ago I was a successful mortgage banker working for the largest privately held mortgage company in the U.S.  I was a multiple award winner and an achiever. I had a home and a life. I have a (now) 13 year old daughter that stayed with me every other weekend and who was, and is, the focal point of my life.
By May of 2008 I was homeless. The company contracted from 900 offices to 125. The entire industry collapsed. I had no money and no place to live after I lost my home. I refused to leave my daughter and move away to somewhere where there might be work. So I slept in my car at night, showered at the county rec center and picked up odd jobs. I am not from Nashville so few, if any, people reached out to me. I was isolated and alone and broken. I found one job, only to have that company go out of business as the economy worsened. I lived on unemployment for 6 months until that ran out, and I ate Ramen noodles that I snuck into local restaurants in my computer backpack and mixed with hot water that I told them was for a refill for the hot tea I had never actually bought. I shivered in the dark when winter got here. In 2009 I discovered I was eligible for financial aid and I decided to finish the degree I had started 26 years prior. I enrolled at Liberty University Online (I had attended LU as a resident student before) I lived off the extra funds I didn't need for school. I slept in a friends basement when winter 2009 arrived. I studied by the interior light in my 1995 Volvo and I uploaded my homework using the free wifi at Panera Bread Company. I worked odd jobs when my unemployment ran out. I discovered I am a very good writer and I self-published four books. I did anything I could do to survive, overcome and eventually rebuild. I missed my daughter horribly, seeing her only an hour here and there during the week. I have not had a place to live where she could come stay with me for 3 years now. I miss her more than I have words to express. But in all that time she never wondered if I would still be there if she needed me. I never missed a violin recital or a school play or a talent show. She knows what I have been through and she knows I did this...I endured this humiliation...for her.
I learned who my friends are...and sadly I learned who they are not. I learned who has real compassion and who only speaks of it. I learned that some people will not accept your suffering unless you suffer exactly as they think they would if they were in your shoes. ( I also learned that these people never really considered what my shoes might have felt like.)

I just filled out my Spring 2012 class schedule...the last one I will have to do. Because I will graduate in May. Against great odds and screaming resistance and isolating loneliness, I have finished this task. I could have gotten much better grades...I know I am capable of better. I could have finished sooner by a semester or two. But considering how I had to do this I am satisfied. Some efforts are more than the grade on the paper.
It was hell. It was hard work (it's not over yet, but it's all but final now) and it was mentally tough and it was demeaning to live this way. I wore out that Volvo after 250,000 miles.
I'm not making enough money to get my own place yet, but I am keeping gas in my truck and some food money and I can do something with Morgan on weekends. I am resisted by her mother on every turn because she somehow thinks this was all a result of some failure of I singlehandedly sank the economy. I have had friends abandon me because sometimes on my darkest days I vented and spit bile when they think I should have "had more faith". They said this, of course from the comfort of their homes, or in the comfort of their office, or while their kids played nearby, and after consulting with their loving spouse. Had they lost everything, as I have, they would have probably sang a slightly different song.
But I made it. I have begun looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing a real man looking back. I have soldiered on and remained there for my daughter when I was never afforded that blessing myself.
I will tell you it was the grace of God. I am a strong, stubborn man, but I would have broken long ago. God came through a million times in the wolf hour, when I was questioning the value of my life and not believing there was ever going to be anything good coming from this. There were times I thought I would die like this state. Always God came through with some small wink or kind word from a true friend. And if that wasn't available...he merely flashed my daughters face on the monitor of my memory and that's all it took. I would die for her...and sometimes that required that I live...for her.
Some "corporate fat cat's" taxes paid on his greedy, overblown income was a portion of the financial aid I get that has enabled me to finish my dream. And it's not just the's the hope. It's the knowledge that I am really going to see something good happen after 4 years of sorrow. it's feeling like a man again. Liberty University Online has not just been a means of completing my's been life support.
Those "occupiers" who whine about Wall Street and who embarrass themselves with their disgusting antics...try trading with me. Try fighting all the way back from devastation. Maybe "the whole world is watching" as you say...but that's nothing compared to knowing that my 13 year old daughter is watching.
Come May, you can have my spot in the humiliating pantheon of the wanderers. Because while you have been carping about what you think you were owed, I went out and got what was available. Just thinking about walking across that platform and getting that degree makes me weep. It's been a long hard road and the only reason there is anything at the other because of those "1%" who make careers for people and who pay the bulk of the tax burden so that mid-forties dads who are hit with devastation can find the resources for a second chance for themselves and their child. I, for one, am thankful for them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Coming Home...thoughts on homecoming week

Friday is Homecoming at my alma mater, Liberty University
I won’t be going back this year…the first time in 5 years I won’t be there. But I’ll be there in spirit…because in a lot of ways my heart has never left. Because in so many ways, Liberty Mountain is home. I guess that’s why they call it “Homecoming”.
     When I was in high school, the only college I wanted to go to was Liberty. The only degree I wanted was from Liberty. The only place that mattered was the mountain. In a lot of ways that hasn’t changed.
     I was thinking about this post for a few days. I had written something different and wound up changing it this morning. I was thinking about the words to a song that a dear friend of mine, Allan Shamblin, wrote and that Miranda Lambert made into a number 1.
The song is called “The House that Built Me

                                         I know they say you can’t go home again
                                         I just had to come back one last time
                                         Ma’am I know you don’t know me from Adam
                                         But these handprints on the front steps are mine

                                         Up those stairs in that little back bedroom
                                         Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar
                                         I bet you didn’t know under that live oak
                                         My favorite dog is buried in the yard

                                         I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
                                        This brokenness inside me might start healing
                                        Out here it’s like I’m someone else
                                         I thought that maybe I could find myself

                                         If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
                                         Won’t take nothing but a memory
                                         From the house that built me

                                         Mama cut out pictures of houses for years
                                         From Better Homes and Gardens magazine
                                         Plans were drawn and concrete poured
                                         Nail by nail and board by board
                                         Daddy gave life to mama’s dream

                                         I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
                                         This brokenness inside me might start healing
                                         Out here it’s like I’m someone else
                                         I thought that maybe I could find myself

                                        If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
                                         Won’t take nothing but a memory
                                         From the house that built me

                                       You leave home and you move on and you do the best you can
                                        I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am

                                       I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
                                       This brokenness inside me might start healing
                                       Out here it’s like I’m someone else
                                       I thought that maybe I could find myself

                                       If I could walk around I swear I’ll leave
                                      Won’t take nothing but a memory
                                       From the house that built me  

Allan didn’t know me seven years ago when he wrote this. And he’s never been to Liberty University and as far as I know he’s never even been to Liberty Mountain. But without even knowing it, he captured the heart of what LU means to so many of its alumni. It’s home for us. It’s the “House that Built Me”
I didn’t have a home like the one in this song, where character was formed and love abounded. There isn’t a house in my memory that calls to me from across the years and says “If you can just get back here you’ll figure it all out and be alright” But I have Liberty University.
     In a lot of ways, that place is home for me. I met my best friends there. I slugged it out for the hockey team and made the “bad food” jokes. I was there when curfews were ridiculous and dress code was like a “Happy Days” wardrobe. I remember when the DeMoss building was a blueprint and when the Vine center was an overgrown ravine where we played Capture the Flag.
Liberty was where I was first challenged to really know what I believed, and why. It’s where somebody knocked the kool-aid out of my hand and told me to drink beer like a grown-up. (Okay…not actual beer…you get the analogy) It’s where Jim Freeman and Greg St. Clair became my best friends. It’s where Cory Walyuchow and Justian Wylie and Craig Handwerker and Wade Burrows and a bunch of other guys became my team mates, and my dream of playing collegiate hockey came true.
It’s where I first saw mountains. It’s where I first saw mountains move.
Most of all, it’s where Dr. Falwell was. I loved that man. I went there because of him. I would sometimes listen to his sermons in chapel and think “C’mon Doc! Seriously? A D-1 football team with our own first-class stadium beating Notre Dame someday?”  Doc had said this when Lou Holtz was coaching ND and they were unbeatable. 28 years later and five consecutive Big South titles in hand, I would dare say the LU teams from last year and the two years prior probably could have done the job. (Brian Kelly sort of changes that possibility for now) I remember one service at Thomas Road Baptist Church when Doc told us of his dream of Liberty having it’s “own channel for spreading the gospel” and it would come through some new technology called satellite. He told us the receiving dish would be “slightly bigger than a pie plate…maybe 24 inches in diameter” and you could hang them from the eaves of any home in the US. I remember sitting there thinking “Right Doc…That’ll never happen”  Then came Dish Network and Direct TV.  Then came “The Liberty Channel” Doc was right. Again.
He would lay out his grand dreams for the mountain and we’d sometimes sit there thinking “I love the idea Doc…but that aint gonna happen. A law School? A med school? Dorm rooms with only 2 people in each one? That will NEVER happen! (Those of you who are of my vintage remember being crammed 4 deep into dorm rooms built for two.)
     Doc was larger than life. He was a cantankerous kid in a grown-ups body who never lost sight of having some fun now and then. He had a passion for Jesus Christ that defied description. He had faith that literally moved mountains. He loved people. He had a knack for seeing people as Jesus saw them. It’s why he could reach out to Larry Flynt after Flynt had done his best to denigrate Dr. Falwell in the most salacious manner. When Doc died, Larry Flynt actually got choked up during an interview with Larry King, when he referred to Dr. Falwell as his friend. Flynt was always downplaying the fact that Doc befriended him and, Doc took a beating for it from his contemporaries. But I thought it was genius. He reached out in love to an obviously bitter and hurting man and openly called him his friend. What could Flynt ever do against that kind of big heart?
I learned about loving people on the mountain. I learned about which battles were worth fighting and which were not.
     Mostly I learned that with God, one seemingly unimportant preacher from a small town in central Virginia could be used to touch millions simply because he said “yes" to God and dared to dream big dreams.
     Two years ago, my daughter went to homecoming with me. She was 11 at the time. We had gone to an art exhibit and were crossing the road to go to the dining hall for dinner. Standing on the curb in a cold late October breeze on a grey overcast day, I stopped and looked around. Morgan was enamored with “SnowFlex” the giant artificial snowboard slope high on Liberty Mountain across from the campus. The day was dark and dreary so the lights were already on at the slope. I pointed across the street to dorm 22…my first dorm on Liberty Mountain. This was the room I shared with Jim Freeman, who would become one of the best friends I ever made and, my defacto big brother. I told Morgan how there used to be nothing on that side of the mountain but brush that caught fire every spring. I told her how there wasn’t a Vine Center or a Demoss building or an ice rink when I first came here. Then I choked back tears and told her about Dr. Falwell. My daughter has wonderful, daring faith even at her young age. I knew she’d be impacted when I relayed the stories of Doc’s constant biting off huge chunks of this mountain and turning it into a tangible “home” for all of us…his “kids”.
I put my arm around my little girl and swept my hand across the view in front of us and told her; “All of this…everything you see here is because one man said “yes” to God and had faith that God had a plan. And God can do the same thing with you." Morgan somehow understood the importance of what I was saying, and she had heard me talk about Dr. Falwell enough times to know how I loved him. She got a big smile when I told her, “Go ahead and dream big, honey. Jump in and do what God tells you because the same God that was behind Doc is the same God who will see your dreams come true."
     My upbringing didn’t lend itself to great faith…I had to learn that on the mountain too. But I had a great example and over time I learned. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating…Dr. Falwell used to tell us all the time “You don’t measure a man by what it takes to knock him down…but by what it takes to keep him down.”
August 1984 was the start of my freshman year. I completed my last 5 semesters online, most of the time living in my car after losing everything I had in this economy.
Next May I will walk across the stage on that mountain and I will receive my long awaited diploma…because there at my home…in the “house that built me” I learned that I do have what it takes to finish what I began. I learned by watching that giant of a man and father-figure, that I will never be measured by what it took to keep me down. Because I watched a man who kept getting up. I have travelled back to the mountain many times over the years, probably, as Allan wrote because               
                                      “ I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
                                         This brokenness inside me might start healing
                                         Out here it’s like I’m someone else
                                         I thought that maybe I could find myself
I think I’ve come home so many times looking to find myself. To find the young man I once was who first came here when there was little here to come to. I think I have travelled back to this house that built me because I knew instinctively I was still being built. Liberty Mountain has, in many ways, been the fixed end of my compass.
     Now I will finally return as a graduate. In May I will come home to this house that built me with a little swagger, a little pride. I have some scars from the battles I fought just finding my way back here and I’m limping a bit from my wrestling matches with God. But I’ll be home again. Because this place built me and throughout life we all need to come back and remember who we were when we got here and who we were when we left.
Welcome home LU alumni…and I’ll see you all next year.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Homeless Savior...Some thoughts on the life Christ chose

It’s been a hard few days. The past few days…maybe two weeks…have been some of the most difficult of my life. This will be a very revealing post and I am doing it because the spiritual lesson is worth the cost of the openness it takes to express it. Deep down, I’m okay. So please, no concerned phone calls or emails. I’m really okay.
     Four and a half years ago, in the height of the mortgage industry collapse, I lost my home. It wasn’t fancy but it was exactly the home I wanted. Large enough for me and Morgan, acreage, a large garage / workshop for my hobbies. A big garden like my uncle Franny has, a country setting 20 minutes from town. It was what I’d always wanted. We had two Springer Spaniels, and a cat, and Morgan had a pony. It was the only thing since my divorce that brought me some real happiness and a sense of achievement.
     In my second book, “Nowhere to Lay My Head”…I answered the question “What is a Home?” in this way.
               “Have you ever been on a vacation or an extended business trip and been away from your home for a long time? Do you remember that feeling when you walked through the front door after a long absence? The feeling that your home actually greets you somehow. 
       Later, when you turn down the sheets on your own bed and climb in and bury yourself beneath your covers, and smell the signature smell of your pillow, you know you are truly home. I lost that emotional connection when I lost my home to the mortgage meltdown. 
       It wasn’t an investment gone awry. It was my home. It was a safe haven for my daughter and me.  It was where I could find my way around in the dark because I knew it so well.  
       It was where my heart could pull into a safe harbor and anchor until the hurricane passed. That is what I lost. …and that is what I hope to convey.”

I opened that book with that statement, and I am referring to it today because I am thinking about those days again. I lost that house on January 27, 2007. I had lived there almost four years. It was my safe place. It was where I could go to escape from the pressures of the world…and the memories of a broken marriage and the failed dreams that come with that. It was were I was rebuilding my life again. It was where I could hear the click of the latch when I walked in at night and the sound somehow meant the wolves had to stay on the other side of the door…at least for the night. I could sink down into my favorite chair, turn on the TV or read a book…or write one. I could tend my garden or tend the horse or photograph deer and turkey or go for a walk in my woods. It had nooks and crannies I could find in the dark. My kitchen smelled like my grandmothers “red gravy” and my clothes smelled like fresh air…because I am probably the only 6’ 4” 250lbs former college hockey player who likes to hang out his laundry.
It was my one special place in Tennessee. I have special places back home…Battery Park, The Vet, CBP, Beaver Valley, Ocean City MD, The Chesapeake…but in Tennessee, after (at that point) 10 years of residence…this home was my only “special place”. That was enough for me. I loved my workshop, where I made furniture or tuned up my car.  I loved those two Springers dearly.  I loved Giacomo…the cat that convinced me that cats were cool. I loved having Morgan there on alternate weekends and making popcorn on Friday nights and watching Cartoon Network, strawberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, and Nonna’s gravy on Sundays. The only time I didn’t love that house was Sunday night when I came back after dropping her off at her mom’s.
I loved spending two hours cutting the grass on my riding mower. I loved doing repairs and remodeling. I loved that garden. I think I’m a little like Uncle Franny in that way. Mostly…I just loved having a real home. A place where I was safe and could be myself.
That was gone on January 27, 2007.
In the four years that have come and gone, I rented for one year and then when my former company reduced their branches and I got closed down, I couldn’t renew the lease and I was homeless. That was May 2008. In the 3 and a half years since then…40 months…I have slept in my car about 20 of them. It’s more humiliating than I can express to you. It’s a wounding thing and it takes your pride and your self esteem. You pretty much have to lie about it to avoid the embarrassment.
It’s fair to ask “Where were your friends?” Well, it’s like this. (A) You’d have to tell me how you define friendship for me to answer that. As I define it, I don’t have that many here. I won’t even attempt to explore that. But it’s not strictly because people are unfriendly. (B) I had offers from people to “crash on the couch” but the problem is, everyone will tell you “You stay as long as you need to” but the economy being what it is, and jobs being impossible to find for so long…that can be a very long time.  I knew I wouldn’t want someone crashing on my couch for months on end…so I politely refused the few offers I did get. If it was dangerously cold I would do it for a day or two. But mostly I just did what I had to do to get through it alone. I’m not going to be delving into this any further because this post isn’t about any of that. But I wanted to set the stage…
     I returned to the carpentry business recently. It was out of necessity but I am very happy that I did. I love the craft. I am happy in a job where I can create and then see the finished product. I have been staying with a friend so I haven’t been truly “homeless”…not in the conventional sense. I am going apartment shopping this week. It’s not my house and five acres in the country…but it’s going to be home for the first time in four years. And that’s the real topic today…
Jesus said “Birds have nests, foxes have dens…but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head”. (Luke 8:9) That’s where I took the title for my second book from. I remember when I was first homeless and sleeping in the car…it hit me that Jesus was homeless too. Only He had chosen this lifestyle. His Father’s plan was for Him to be a wanderer and a vagabond. He was really homeless.
Go back and re-read my description of homelessness and then picture, (if you can) the Son of God living like that. Sleeping in a fishing boat shivering in the night, wrapped in stinky fishing nets to try to stay warm. Sleeping where he could, eating what He could, bathing when he could. That was God.
I don’t like to be where I am staying, except when I go to bed. I’m just weird that way…I feel like a guest and I don’t like that feeling. So I am up at 5AM, I go to the rec center to workout and shower, I go to Fedex office to do my homework and then I am on the jobsite by 8. I work until dark, go to the rec center to shower again (sawdust is irritating…but manly) and do homework until about 10PM. On rainy days…when I used to be sitting in my living room reading or writing or watching TV or even taking a nap…I drive around, looking for a place to go to kill time. I get homework done, but what I really want is to put my feet up, make a cup of coffee in MY kitchen, watch MY TV or do whatever. I want a safe haven. And I don’t have one.
Neither did Jesus. In his 3 and a half years of ministry, he had no place to call home. The verse I quoted translates “The Son of Man has no place to take His rest”. That’s what a home is. A place to rest. To recharge. To repair your broken dreams or celebrate your victories. A place to hear the snap of the latch and know in your heart you are safe for the night…the problems of the day can’t come inside. Home is the smell of your pillow on your bed. I haven’t slept in my own bed in four years. I don’t even own one anymore. I moved into my dorm at age 20, into my own apartment at 23 and never lived at home again, except for one 6 week period. In 25 years of owning my own beds, I never thought about it once. Now I think about it all the time. I was in Sam’s club about 3 months ago and they had mattresses on display right up front. Normally they are off to the side, but they were running a sale and they were moved to the front of the store. I was walking around just absorbing the air conditioning on a hot afternoon and I came across those mattresses and in a split second I had hot tears burning in my eyes. I was in tears before I even understood why. Then it hit me…mattresses. I want to sleep in my own bed again.
Maybe it’s knowing that I am almost in a place of my own again…I don’t know. Maybe it’s the feeling that some of this horrible nightmare of the last four years is finally ending, that makes it safe to touch the things I’ve buried in my heart since it began. But the past few weeks…maybe the past few months…have been overwhelming. I’ve felt all the losses I had been denying or ignoring. I drove past my old house a few weeks ago. I had to pull over and cry. That was my home. I don’t have one anymore. I haven’t had a kitchen in 4 years. (It’s one thing to rent a room and have “kitchen privileges” but it’s another to be a gourmet cook and have them. It’s like owning a boat and having “bathtub privileges” you can take a bath but you cant put your boat in there) I haven’t had a refrigerator or that Bunn coffeemaker I keep in storage. I haven’t seen those dogs since August of 2008 when I gave them up along with the cat. And I haven’t tucked Morgan into a bed in my house since then either. I feel so lost without a home base. It has made me miserable and grouchy and sometimes even vicious. If you got caught in that grinder I apologize. If you are one of those who would try to spiritualize the way I handled my suffering, and told me I was doing it wrong…I have words for you that I can’t print here.
Now that I’ve painted this picture for you, let’s return to the unbelievable, incredible, unfathomable fact that Jesus chose to live as I have lived. And while I spent four years trying to find my way out…He purposefully remained there. He lived this lonely, isolating, tiring life. Make no mistake…there is no rest when you are homeless. There is truly nowhere to lay your head. You drift and wander and it is tiring, because you can’t stop moving. Jesus lived like that. Jesus…God in the flesh…roamed and wandered and survived. When he needed friends, they mostly failed him. When he needed solace and solitude, He was hemmed in by the crowd most of the time. When He needed sleep, He collapsed in the bow of a boat and was so tired he slept through a turbulent storm that had his disciples…all experienced fisherman…scared out of their wits. He was often hungry…often dirty…probably smelly from time to time…and He was restless. He had no “favorite place” No comfortable chair to sink into at the end of a tiring day. No favorite glass for his iced tea or mug for his coffee. He couldn’t get up in the night and get some food from the refrigerator. He couldn’t stay inside on a rainy day and think and rest and recharge. He had to roam and wander and keep moving…because He had no home.
Before the more spiritual amongst you reminds me “He had a home in heaven…” I will tell you that is true…but Jesus was a man as much as he was God. And the man Jesus needed a home like we all do. That’s why he referenced his homelessness to that rich young ruler. Brennan Manning calls this “The loneliest verse in the Bible”, and it is.  Jesus did this so we would understand that He understands. I have been overwhelmed lately…and I mean overwhelmed, swept away in a tsunami it seems…of hurt and grief for all that I lost four years ago. Maybe God permitted me to be tough and hard about it until now, just so I’d survive it. Maybe He let me “go into shock” and have huge sections of my heart go numb, so I could get all the way through it. This summer…when a job finally emerged after 3 years and then when it became a reality that I will graduate college in May, and now that I will be able to get my own place again…the scab came off and the wound reopened. I have lost four precious years of overnight stays with Morgan…years I can’t get back. I have shivered in the dark more nights than I can remember. I have lied about where I was living to avoid my embarrassment, in those days before I even had a room to sleep in. My heart has aged more than my 48 years. I have seen a lot and I am tired. Thankfully I will have somewhere to rest very soon. But Jesus…the very Son of God…never did in all his days on earth. He died a homeless man and was raised a homeless Savior. He ascended to His rightful home in Heaven, but here…he had none. He was a man of no reputation, and He chose this life for me…and you. If you fear Him, or you are threatened by some misconception of His posture or his personality…remember He was a homeless vagabond who found no rest at all while he lived in this world. So he understands that so many of us are just like that…even if we do have a place to live. He understands the pain we feel and the sorrows that go along with living on earth. And when those hurts of humanity ganged up on Him and he would have liked to have gone inside and shut the door and propped his feet up and relaxed for an afternoon, He never once had that option. He slept out in the open, or in the Temple courtyard or in the olive grove. He knew how people could disappoint each other and hurt each other and at the end of a long day, when you and I would be going home to leave it all behind until tomorrow…He had no place to do that. He had nowhere to lay His head. And He did this on purpose. The next time you are wary of His presence, remember he endured this humbling, crushing, lonely life of ours to a degree many of us never will…and he did it just so we would understand, that He understands. Come as you are…to the man of no reputation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Braces, First Kisses, Pretty Daughters...and why it is God loves us so much

This morning I took Morgan to get her braces checked. She had hoped she was getting them off today, but that was not to be. About 3 more months and then she'll be finished. She was really sad that they weren't coming off today...until they showed her the pictures from when we first began this whole process 4 years ago. Dr. Joel Cooper is a genius!
It seems like with my life the way it has been, the only real time I get with her anymore is when I take her to the orthodontist or to school. I have missed some time with her over these past 3 years living from place to place, but I've always been here for her.  Now that I am settling in again here in Nashville, things will be normal soon, but three years is a lot of time lost.
Last week, taking her to school, we talked about how she is doing right now. I asked her about school and her friends and her little brother, you know, small talk. Then I asked her about boys in her class. Was she interested in any of them, did she have a boyfriend? She let out a resigned "No" and then she said "The boys my age are stupid anyway". "Good" I thought..."That will change soon enough but one less day of boy-craziness is fine with me. " I said "Honey don't worry about are so much more mature than them right now, you're 13, there's plenty of time for that stuff" Then she looked at me and said just a little plaintively "But I haven't even had my first kiss yet." I was ready to alternately shout for joy and break down in tears. I was happy to hear that, but sad because of the pressure she must be under and the importance in this culture of the first kiss. I instantly realized this was a critical daddy-moment and I uttered a silent prayer for a wise response. "It will come in time don't kiss someone just to kiss them" was my attempt at wisdom. She said "But all my friends have already had their first kiss" I wanted to cry. Not because the thoughts of my little girl kissing a boy was sad -even though, for me, it is-- but because my daughter is living the very struggles I read about each day on the Internet or in the newspaper. How this world pressures kids into becoming adults way too soon.
Something in the way she said "But I haven't even had my first kiss..." just broke my heart. My little girl is at that stage where a lot of things are painful and awkward. She is a beautiful girl who doesn't see herself that way. She doesn't see herself as ugly -her daddy has made that impossible-- but she wrestles with the doubts that young women this age do. She often tends to be so determined not to go along with the norms for beauty and femininity that she goes 180 degrees the other way. She dresses very different from the "girly girls" in her school. She is artsy and a tremendous singer and artist. She is beautiful but she is afraid to accept it in case she is wrong about her beauty. It's a hard time for her and a hard time for a kid to be coming of age. I hate the messages this world sends. Messages from vapid synthetic stars like Miley Cyrus or pick-a-Kardashian. I wish there were some approachable, visible, young women who truly lived from a biblical world-view but were still "cool". Mostly I wish my daughter wasn't caught in this teenage time period when she is so unsure of herself. I wish I could just sweep her up into my arms and hug her tightly until she was about 20, and ready to face this nonsensical world. I wish I could absorb the blows this world hands out to 13 year old young women. I wish I could make her be 4 years old again.
I love my daughter...anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes with me knows this. But I love her a little more and I linger in our hugs and I kiss her forehead more when she is hurting. When she needs me the most is when I respond in love the most. Isn't that like God?
A friend of mine recently watched as God granted a wonderful dream come true. At a time when she yearned for hope and healing and life..God backed up the dump truck and did what God can do...He poured out His love in an unmistakable way. There was simply NO way my friend could look at what God did, at the timing, the perfection, the path it took to happen, and not say "This was God".  My friend wrestled with God's love and her (and all of our) worthiness of that love. How can God love us as He says He does when we do the things we do? God decided to answer with an exclamation point..." I don't love you because you deserve my love...I love you because you never COULD deserve my love" God loves us a dad loves his children. He especially loves us when we are broken and far from Him. When we awaken in the pig pen and look at our ragged clothing and smell the pig poop on our skin and decide we have fallen so far that even our daddy won't want us now. We are convinced He could never forgive, never heal, never restore, only to discover that this is when He loves us the most. When we need His love so desperately but are so convinced He could never love us again, it is then that we find out he never stopped!
When my daughter is confused and sad and full of doubts and fears, that's when I want to be the best dad I can be. It's not a time for ignoring her or being harsh. That's how God is too. When we are afraid, He answers our fear with His awesome love, because "perfect love throws out all fear".
I don't know where we got this misshapen idea that God only loves us when we don't need Him to. Or that we have to clean ourselves up before he will love us. Or that His love is mercurial and capricious -on one minute, off the next. The truth is that God loves us like a real daddy; without regard for the dirt on our shoes or the sweat on our forehead or the snot running from our nose. He only longs to hold us in His arms, and let us grow quiet until he can hear our heartbeat next to His...
When we come crawling to Him because we are in pain, because our job is gone, or our home is gone, or our spouse just left us. When we are worried because life hasn't graced us with our first kiss yet and we are starting to wonder whether we are as good as all the others who seem to be making out in the hallways while we pass by them on our way to choir...God pounces on us. He runs to us -the great hound of heaven-- and smothers us with love. He loves us as we are, because we are as we are. My failures don't define me, they are the reason God loves me as much as he does.
I'll close with a wonderful story from "The Ragamuffin Gospel" that Brennan Manning quoted. It is a story written in first person by a neurosurgeon who had just operated on a beautiful young woman, removing a tumor from her face...
     "I am standing with the young husband who is impatient as I gently unwrap the heavy gauze bandages from the face and head of his beautiful young wife. He is almost jittery. It has been two weeks since he has seen the whole of her face and he is almost like a groom on his honeymoon. He holds her hand to reassure her. Just two weeks ago she had come to me to remove a tumor on the left side of her face, that threatened her eyesight. The operation was a success and the tumor was benign. I unwrap the final strands of bandage and hold a mirror to her face for the young woman to see. She reaches her hand gently to her face and sees the tiny, almost imperceptible scar. The I watch as her eyes fall sullen and grow moist. Fear spreads across her face as she sees her lips as they sag on one side of her mouth. Her smile is twisted into a clownish pose with one side perfect as before and the other drooping and fallen. She clears her throat and looks at me..."Will it always be like this?" she asks  "Yes..." I begin..."You see I had to clip the nerve when I was removing the tumor and it was a delica..." My voice trailed off because what happened next was beyond words. Her young husband leaned over and took his wife's pretty face in his hands, he smiled and said "I like it...I think it's kind of cute"  then he bent in close and shaped his mouth to fit her twisted clown-lips...and he kissed her deeply.  In that kiss he restored her beauty and told her "see...your kiss still works, and I still like kissing you"
That is what God does for us. He takes off the bandages we have wrapped ourselves in to hide our faults, looks at us, decides He likes us, and then He kisses us squarely on the lips. He does this with a song, or a perfect day on the beach or an unmistakable moment with our children...or in the form of a lost love that returns after half a lifetime and brings with it more happiness than either person dreamed still existed. That is how God responds when we feel like the unlovable, unkissable, awkward kid in the schoolroom. That is how much He loves us. Not because we are perfect and beautiful...but because we are so broken and we need the love of a dad.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Birthday Thoughts, Rich Mullins, Calling Stars by Name...

*Today is my birthday. In four and a half years of blogging I have never written about my birthday until now. I debated writing this because it's personal and it could easily be interpreted as whining or sour grapes, although neither is actually true.  I decided to go ahead and write this entry because I know from conversations, from speaking engagements I've had, (especially when I've spoken to kids) and from countless e-mails I've received, that this is something that touches the hearts of a lot of people. A lot of people. So when you read this, keep in mind that I have learned this lesson, but that many folks desperately need it.* --Craig

Hey Everyone...
Today is my birthday. I received over 100 birthday greetings today on various social media and I want to say thanks to everyone who let me know that they care. It was more appreciated than you know.
I haven't always enjoyed my birthday. In fact for a lot of years I have purposefully ignored it. But this year it's different. I think I need to tell the story behind the difference.
The story doesn't begin with my birth...although ultimately it does I suppose. It begins, in fact, with the birth of someone else. Two people to be exact. You'll need some background...
In January of 1992 I started attending Praise Assembly in Newark Delaware. I had attended only one other church for most of my life until that point. I instantly fell in love with Pastor Paul Walters, whom I consider my "spiritual Daddy" and with the people and attitude that his leadership fostered there.
I was also pleasantly surprised to run into not a small umber of old friends from years before. Amongst those friends was Pam Owensby and her husband Fulton.
I had met Pam and her sister in the 1980 when we had all attended Summit Lake Camp with our various youth groups. Pam was a genuinely sweet and absolutely breathtaking beautiful girl who had become a sweet and breathtaking beautiful woman by the we reconnected years later.
I had been attending this church for maybe only three weeks when the beginnings of life-change for both Pam and Fully...and ultimately for me as well...commenced.
One particular Sunday morning, We had an altar service, as pastor Walters frequently did, and Pam was kneeling and was surrounded by several women of the church, praying fervently. I stood in the back and for whatever reason, I was drawn to watch Pam and the other women in prayer. Pam was visibly emotional. I watched for a few moments and suddenly, just as sure as I can hear my own voice, I heard the distinctive voice of God internally. "Tell Pam to get ready to have a baby!" was the very clear command. To be honest, it scared me...terribly. I was raised in an ultra-conservative Baptist church who kept the Holy Spirit on a very short leash and things like this were never "of God". God's one and only means of revelation was the Bible. If it wasn't written between the leather covers of a King James Bible, God had nothing to do with it.
That line of reason was still firmly entrenched in my mind when I heard that voice. So I did nothing. I said nothing to Pam and Fully and kept this to myself, doubting the authenticity of this word from God.
Three weeks later, we were sitting in the auditorium for the annual Valentines Dinner the church always held. The folks my age all managed to congregate at one large table. I was sitting there during dinner, cracking jokes and enjoying my new friends and the friends I'd rediscovered. After dinner as we sat and chatted, I was holding Nathan, the then-one-year-old son of Heather and Dwight Walters, the pastors' son and daughter in law. Nathan was laughing and I was in my wheelhouse. I was a natural with kids long before I became a dad. At some point, Heather said "You need to have children Craig" to which I laughingly responded "I know...I decided that if I don't get married by age 30 I am going to I have a year!"  Thinking I was serious, Pam looked at me and said "Fully and I have been thinking of adopting too. have you checked into it?"  I instantly remembered the voice I'd heard and the message I was supposed to have given Pam three weeks prior. Wanting to be sure, I asked "How come you're adopting, Pam?" She smiled a bit painfully and told me "We've been trying for almost 7 years now and we can't get pregnant. The doctors can't figure it out...everything comes back okay, but it's just not happening. We really want a family."
Now, I am a notoriously emotional man, but usually I don't cry in front of a table full of friends as I try to explain that I heard from God. But I could not fight the tears as I told Pam; "Pam I am so sorry...three weeks ago I absolutely heard from God and I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know you guys were trying to have children and it never occurred to me to ask." I swallowed hard and spilled out the message I was supposed to tell her before... "Three weeks ago God told me 'Go tell Pam to get ready to have a baby'. To be honest Pam, it scared me so much I thought I was hearing things and kept it to myself. But now I understand. So...Pam, God says get ready to have a baby!
One Friday night about two months later, we were sitting in the dugout at our church softball team's game. Pam was not in the stands and that was unusual because she never missed. Fully pitched or played third base and was a centerpiece of our very good team. She showed up around the 3rd inning, walked to the fence and whispered something in Fully's ear. He broke out in a huge smile and then told the rest of us...Pam was pregnant. We whooped and hollered and shouted and smiled. They were our friends and they wanted this so very badly. I was coaching first base at the time, waiting for my turn at bat. I watched the whole thing from 30 feet away and had to hide my tears. God had permitted me a tiny role as a messenger of hope to these two dear friends of mine and I was watching the last scene of the play He had begun a few months earlier.
The entire church had already heard the news by Sunday morning and we were all celebrating. Pam and Fully are so well loved by those folks, and we all knew what this meant to them. There had been so many people praying for this miracle and finally it was here. We were all collectively celebrating with them.
The months that ensued were very eventful and not without worry and fear. Pam had a difficult pregnancy and so prayers for conception quickly became earnest prayers for safety, blessing, and the completion of the promise. The worry was punctuated by even more great news...twins! Pam was going to have a boy and a girl. God had truly blessed them back for their faithfulness.
All that summer and into fall and winter we prayed, worried, hoped, and thanked God for each continuing good report. And then on January 18th 1993,  we all let out our collective breath when Kelsey and Ryan arrived...a little early but arrived they did.
Our happiness was immediately tempered with concern as the twins had to remain in the hospital long after their arrival. We prayed for their health just as we had prayed for their safe arrival and for their conception before that. Good news kept coming and finally the word passed...the twins were going home!
This is where it really becomes personal...
Some time that spring...I want to say it was in May...the day came for Kelsey and Ryan's baby dedication. It was a truly beautiful, sunny warm Sunday morning. Both grandparents and families were there. The twins were simply beautiful as was Pam. Fully was proud and beaming. It was a wonderful sight.
Dear, sweet pastor Paul Walters called them to the stage and the families stood there with those two beautiful babies and it was a scene of victory and celebration. We had all prayed these two children into this world, it seemed. This was the most special baby dedication I ever saw. It felt like the children had about 400 additional family members that day.
Pastor Walters said some wonderful words about parenthood and blessings from God. His voice broke frequently as he recounted all that these children encompassed. Then he invited the church...anyone who join them at the altar and pray a dedication over Kelsey and Ryan. About half the church responded, probably 200 folks praying, extending their hands towards the family and pronouncing a blessing of their own. People wept, they sang, they celebrated. Kelsey and Ryan were here at last and safe in our arms.
I sat in the back watching and taking it all in. I wept too, but my tears turned from celebration to sadness. I walked to the very back of the church and stood next to the audio booth where my friend D.J. was manning the controls. I watched people finding happiness because of the arrival of two babies. I saw a mom and dad who had been married for 7 years and all they really wanted was right there in their arms. I saw grandparents beaming with pride and a church weeping for joy.
Right there I asked God the questions that had been screaming in my heart for years. "God.." I began, "Was anyone happy when I arrived?" "Was my birth a good thing to anybody at all?" On September 7, 1963 I arrived to a single mother who had only turned 20 that spring. My dad had recently arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 101st. He was fighting for his own life as I was beginning mine and my mother was doubtless wondering what would become of hers. Kelsey and Ryan went from the hospital to a beautiful home that had been awaiting their arrival for years. I went home to my grandparents house. To a grandmother who had been damaged by life but who held to her faith, despite her quirks and idiosyncrasies, and a grandfather who was more chained to his vices than any man I will ever know. His demons caused him immense pain and he had crawled inside a bottle many years before. he was a sad and tragic man.
I wondered to God who might have been anticipating my birth. I didn't have a dad who was eager to teach me a curve ball or buy me my first Eagles helmet. I didn't come home to a freshly painted nursery, and a roomful of stuffed animals. I arrived to whispers and hushed accusation. I wasn't a long awaited bundle of joy, I was an interruption.  Instead of having great plans for his newborn son, my father was trying to stay alive and get back to college and finish the plans he had dreamed of since he was a boy.
That morning as the twins were dedicated and celebrated, I felt as if I were a study in contrast. Whatever they were...I was not. Whatever longing and desire they represented, I represented shame and secrecy and the scarlet letter of a mistake that you pay for forever. That's what was raging in my heart as I watched my dear friends dedicate themselves to doing whatever it took to raise these two sweet gifts of God to adulthood...and they took this vow before God that morning.
I asked God again..."Who was excited about my arrival God? Who celebrated? Who anticipated?" By now I was weeping and I had to sit down in the back row because I was far too visible for me to be comfortable.  " there a plan for me? Is there a reason for this life of mine?" I asked plaintively.
       As God often does...his answer was surprising in it's simplicity. It came in the form of a song. Instantly, as the tears were still burning hot in my eyes, I heard a line from a Rich Mullins song. The song is "Sometimes by Step" and the line says: "Sometimes I think of one star he saw had been lit for me." Without hesitation, I heard the words of Psalm 147:4 echoing in my soul; "I number the stars, and call them each by name" I had always wondered what that verse meant. Numbering them I understood...but naming them? Why would God name stars? In one split second He connected those two elements...that song and that verse. They merged at Genesis 15:5: "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  There it was. From zoom to pan in one moment God showed me the specific promise to give Abraham a child for each star in the sky...and those children...each one of them...was a personal fulfillment of the promise He made with Abraham. Each one was part of a detailed plan...a plan so detailed that God already knew my name as He placed my star in the sky while He was creating the world. A plan that promises to bless me and that I am the central figure of. A promise whose fulfillment is embodied in me.
I was weeping again but for joy. I was part of a great plan and I was important to it's continued fulfillment. Then I heard God in an unmistakable voice..."Son...I couldn't wait for you to arrive. I couldn't wait for you to be born, and I celebrated your birth. "I danced over you while you were unaware" and I still do. I know exactly which star is yours and I know it's name. It's not "Craig"'s that secret name that only I know. The name I have written on a white stone that I will give you one day when I see you face to face." I couldn't wait for you to get here. I am your Daddy, and I have loved you from the moment I placed your star in the sky."
In the 18 years since this truth first burst into my soul I have learned to accept it slowly. It hasn't been easy letting go of the desire to know a dad who doesn't hold that same desire for me. As I held to that dream and goal of establishing a relationship with my earthly father, I continued to stiff-arm my heavenly Father. This summer I finally let go. I have a great dad...he is the God of heaven and he has never spent a moment where He didn't love me...and you...fantastically.
I know this is intensely personal...I also know there are a lot of folks who needed to hear this.
Please listen to have a star in the is there to mark the promise God made. A promise that you are the fulfillment of. You are at the center of the very God of the universe. Abraham went out to the mountain that night and "one star he saw had been lit for me..." and for you! He has a wonderful plan. You are at it's very heart! Never again feel unwanted or unplanned..because you were never that! God paced the halls of heaven until he heard your first cry. He danced and sang over you while you took your first breaths. He began the detailed moves that put His plan in place. he did this for you. You are a promise! He sent his son to die for the love of you! You are not alone.
Your birthday was happy indeed!