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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Class of 2012...Thoughts on Graduating (at last) from LU. Snowflex, Online education...and why I am still a "Jerry's Kid"

In August of 1982 I arrived on the campus of what was then Liberty Baptist College. I was 19 years old and as lost as a man could be. I didn't know what I was doing or where I was going. But I knew I wanted to go to this fledgling school in central Virginia. I lasted three weeks before the lack of funds and the general blur of trying to figure out my life sent me packing. I withdrew and left, but not before I met one of the three or four best friends I would ever make...Jim Freeman.
Two Years later I returned and completed a full year. I loved that place. I met my other best friend that year, Greg St. Clair. I played on the very first hockey team we ever had that year and Jim and I had some amazing adventures...Mr. Olympia in November and Springsteen in January. I left in May, hoping to return for the following year but my home situation precluded that. That Christmas was when I found out about my dad and it sent me spinning like a tilt-a-whirl. From 1985 to 1994 I was a carpenter, a counter clerk in an HVAC supply shop, a very good hockey coach, and a lost soul. Through the ups and downs, maybe the one thing that ate at me the most was never finishing school. It broke my heart to be honest and I let it define me...the guy who didn't finish college. The one dream I couldn't make come true.
In 1994 I was blessed with the chance to return and I did. I went back to what had become Liberty University and played another year of hockey and loved every second. I transferred to another school the next year in order to get into their PA program. That was the year I lost my sister and came home to be near family. It was also the year I met my future wife. I had completed all but 18 hours of a pre med degree and had been accepted at Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine. I got married that winter and by the following September we found out we were pregnant. I quit school after the spring semester and moved my unhappy wife to Nashville. I became a dad, a mortgage banker and then a divorcee all in about 2 1/2 years. I fought my way to prominence in my new career and bought my first house. Then my second house. I was basically in cruise control. Doing a job I didn't really care much for in a town that had one solitary good memory for me...the birth of my daughter...and hurting inside like nothing I could understand or believe. Under all the other unhappiness...divorce, homesickness for my native Philadelphia, lack of purpose and fulfillment...there was the gnawing issue of school. At every turn, every time I saw Doc Falwell on TV or went to LU for Homecoming or talked to my old school friends...I was regretting never finishing my degree from LU. I didn't want to graduate from any place else on earth.
In 2007 I lost my home as the mortgage industry collapsed. In 2008 I couldn't renew the lease on the rental house I lived in and I was homeless. The company I worked for reduced in size from 900 offices to 125 and I was one of the very unfortunate ones. By May 2008 I was homeless and spending my nights in my Volvo, hidden in the weeds behind a church in Nashville. I was more lost than I'd ever been. I had no family to turn to and no real friends in town. I don't remember ever being so alone and it was the most devastating time in my life. I lost my home, my career, the dreams my daughter and I dreamed together...even our family pets. I became a vagabond for the next three years. I lost everything I loved or held dear and I sank into a terrible place of desperation. I had no hope left.
In August of 2009 I talked to a friend who had gone back to school and who told me how much money she had been getting to do it. I looked into it and sure enough...I was eligible for grants and loans and so I decided this was the time for me to finish my degree and maybe improve my situation. I remember sitting in my car talking to an adviser at Liberty online and them enrolling me in 15 hours that first semester. When I hung up I broke into tears. I'd forgotten how much this meant to me and I was a Liberty student again. I had something to hope for and work towards for the first time in 18 months.
I was still homeless and completed that initial 15 hour semester while sleeping in that Volvo and studying in Panera Bread company or the public library and reading by dashboard light. I got  4 B's and a C. Since then I have lived in a friends basement, in a 10x12 office sleeping on an air mattress and my car again. There is little work in Nashville and I have alternately built chicken coops, detailed cars, done construction, roofed a house and aerated lawns. It has been as difficult as anything I ever tried to achieve. I changed to a Religion major so I had to surrender about a years worth of work that just didn't count towards my major in any real fashion. So I slugged it out for the last two years and last Wednesday night, at Fedex Kinkos I was sitting there finishing up my summer semester work and I decided to do a Degree Completion Audit.
The results...I have 100 credits, I need 20 more to graduate and I am taking 24 between now and May. I did it. I am going to walk across that stage in May and finish what I started 28 years before. I had to dash out the door because I didn't want the people in Fedex to see me crying. It was all I could do not to break into sobs. Even now...a week later...I got tears just seeing those words on my screen; "I will graduate in May". Besides the length of time it took, the lone regret I have will surely be that my beloved Doc Falwell won't be handing me my diploma. Doc is why I chose Liberty. I loved that man. His faith is why there is a Liberty Mountain. He used to come watch us play hockey and cheered loudest at our fights. He was a funny, cantankerous, godly, heroic man and I wanted to look him in the eye when I got that paper and tell him "thanks"...and probably "I love you Doc".
I'll be getting the diploma from his sons so that's not too bad a deal either. I'm so happy I stuck it out and I'm so happy I went back to where I started instead of just finishing at some local college. There is only one LU and I will really be an alumnus now.
In the week that has passed, I have become a palpably different man. This has been the first good news I have received since my life began to tumble 4 years ago. I needed this success and it came at exactly the right most things God engineers will do. I am truly happy for the first time maybe since arriving in Nashville. Hope deferred truly does make the heart sick, and my heart has been on life support for years now.
But that changed with just the click of a mouse. Just something as simple as some real. good old fashioned hope. Some real tangible success I could look at and point to and say " can do it!"
I feel ten feet tall right now...and I think Doc, while he was proud of every one of his "kids" who crossed that platform, would be particularly proud of what it took for me to get this diploma. Doc used to tell us about 1000 times a semester "You measure a man not by what it takes to knock him down...but by what it takes to keep him down." Thanks Doc...I understand now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Finding my way Home...A Prodigals Tale

There are those who maintain that God adds punishment on top of our sins. That he thinks up ways to make our lives worse than our foolish behavior already renders them. These are the people who have never seen their own reflection after they fell. They don't even believe they have ever slipped and fallen themselves. They have never heard the voices in the night, that scream out every failure and every mistake. They don't know the burden of being unforgiving towards ourselves. They don't replay pictures in their minds of that one poor choice, or that one drink, or that one harsh word. They have never come home to an empty house where children's voices once filled the air. They have never stood at the grave of a friend or a parent and wished it had turned out different. They have never awoken in the pig pen, smelling like a pig and having pig crap on their clothing and broken down in sobs because they are sure that because of that one decision, all they will ever know is this pig pen, and these pigs. They have never lied to themselves that it wasn't really that bad because deep down they had lost all hope that they could ever leave this pig pen...and go home. They are the whitewashed sepulchers that hold the bones of bondage and fear and doubt. Bondage to the shame that our sin forces on us. Fear that we have lost all contact with anything good...and dread that this is true. Shame at the thoughts of what we have become. The reflection we catch in the mirror or in the shiny bauble that lured us away in the first place. They are the people who have decided that this pig pen wasn't bad enough. That this shame and hurt and fear and self loathing I carry because of my sin...or because I was sinned against...isn't enough and I need to suffer more. That God watches with His arms crossed as I writhe in pain and as I stoop lower each day under a burden of shame and He somehow decides that isn't good enough...that I need to suffer more. That memories and visions and echoes and loss aren't already breaking my heart more than I can bear it being broken and He wants to grind the tiny fragments that remain.
I learned this about God from those pious brothers who told me this about him. Who steered clear of the pig pen because they might get some on them. Who shouted from a safe distance, telling me how bad I was and how this was what I had coming and how God was going to add even more to this. More to the pigpen. More shame on my unbearable shame. More pain...if He can find a sliver of my heart that doesn't already ache. I learned God was wringing His hands in disgust and dreaming up ways to make my life hurt more. Finding something further to take away. Some kernel on the cob that the pigs might have missed.
They lied. The fact is that the moment I chose what I chose or the moment someone else chose what they chose and it affected me...the moment a wedge started to drive it's way between my Father and I...that was the punishment. The loneliness...the shame...the horror...the fear and doubt and flashbacks and what-ifs. That is the punishment. Those are the built-in jail terms we serve for letting our humanity win over the love of God. Then our jealous older brother decides he hates this grace that our father keeps referring to. He hates Him for standing out at the edge of the property every morning and evening waiting for us to come home. After all...HE never left. He never screwed up and chose poorly or just plain sinned on purpose. He did it right and he is better than I am and he is mad that our father still loves me so much that he misses me so terribly.  He knows our father has sent people to find me and to relay the message that all he wants is for me to come home...that there is no punishment at all...that the life I am mired in IS the punishment. But the older brother heads them off at the pass. He finds me first and shouts loudly from the safety of his perfect, pristine judgementalism. "Daddy doesn't want you anymore...look at you!" "Daddy doesn't love you anymore" "Daddy is so angry with you that if you come home he'll really take you to the woodshed! Look at you! Who could love what you've become?!"
After a while I start believing it...we start believing it. Because after's my brother telling me this. I look up to him. He did it better than me...he did it right. And so I stay in this pig pen and in this filth and I lower my gaze a little more each day and I slump even more under this enormous weight and I turn my eyes away when I catch my reflection. I scream in anger to drown out the voices that keep screaming in my ears at night. I cry when nobody is looking and claw at them when they are. "I help you up a ladder to watch you dangle from a rope..."
...and I wish I could go home