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Thursday, November 29, 2012

What were you Thinking?

So how does one write a book about the Nativity, from a first-person perspective? What sort of inspiration is the genesis of a book that places Bible characters, grandparents, and patron saints in the same space and time as the birth of our Savior? How does one imagine what Joseph and Mary's reaction would be to tasting popcorn for the first time? Or when they watch a murderer and his victims worshiping their son together, for reasons neither Joseph or Mary can't nearly grasp?
It starts with being a dad.
I always wanted to be a dad. For as long as I can remember. Maybe I hoped it would soothe the ache in my heart for my own father, or maybe it would fulfill the promise of a real family as it was supposed to be, not as it was in my childhood. Or maybe it was just the way God built me. In reality it was all of those things.
But it started years before I ever became a dad. It started when I read a book by Brennan Manning entitled "The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus".  It's a series of essays and 3 or 4 of them are about Christmas. In the stories, Brennan emphasizes how human Christ was. How He entered this world just like we did and how He felt the same crushing humanity we carry around with us every day. How He was born the same way we all were.
There are things about the birth of Jesus that we forget. Things that we mostly never consider, unless something brings them into focus for us. And it was when I became a dad in May 1998 I started to consider these things.
When I became a dad I started to grasp what the birth of Jesus really meant. What it must surely have been like for Joseph as a poor carpenter, who was stepfather to the son of God and who probably didn't really understand any of that. What it must have felt like for be a teenager and pregnant while a virgin. A story not a soul would believe. In fact, had God's angel not appeared to Joseph in a dream, he had planned to divorce her quietly, and move on with his life, because even he didn't believe her a first.
It's the humanity of Jesus, and his embarrassingly humble birth that draws me to Christmas...and that inspired me to write this book.
I started writing the book in late November 2009. I was homeless. It was the second Christmas I was in this situation. There would be two more before the ordeal ended. My daughter was 10 years old and she was worried about her daddy. She lived with her mom and so she was alright. But Christmas had always been our time together. She has the same Christmas-loving soul that I have and she loved being with me for the Holiday. This particular year it was not going to be like before and I guess we both knew it.
We had always done an advent calender together during the Holiday season, but for whatever reason that year she didn't want to have one. I was devastated. To me it was another thing that the loss of my career had chewed up from my life. It broke my heart.
During a very early morning walk one day in late November of that year, I prayed that God would do something special for me. That He would save Christmas for me somehow. On that walk I started thinking about what it would be like to experience Jesus as a baby. Perhaps I had come to realize that I had allowed life to distance me from the Nativity. With all that was going on I needed to make the trip back.
I walked and walked and as I did I started to process over again, the amazing truth of Jesus birth. How he was a baby just like my daughter was. How he was approachable. How he was gentle and unassuming. How poor his birth was. How he was born amidst the scandalous whispers of illegitimacy...just like I was. I thought about how he was vulnerable...and I stopped in my tracks. It was here that I made a connection I will never forget. Jesus was vulnerable. All of those things we worry about with our newborns were at play with Jesus too. And in my family it was something we never took for granted.
My father is one of fifteen children. The firstborn was my uncle Angelo. My grandparents were immigrants and all the children were born at home except the last two. I guess that's how they did it in Italy and so that's how they did it here. Uncle Angelo was delivered without a hitch apparently. Everything went as everything was supposed to and my grandparents had their first child. They had a midwife for the process and she delivered the baby boy, did the post-partum work she was supposed to do, showed him to his momma and at some point, she headed across the room to clean him up and put the silver nitrate on his eyes and dress him.
Somewhere in the trip, he wiggled and she dropped him.
She apparently didn't think it was a big deal, she picked him up, took him to the dressing table, cleaned him up as planned, put him in his little gown and brought him to my grandmother. When Uncle Angelo opened his mouth to nurse, there was blood trickling out. About three hours later he was gone.
I don't know how my grandmother reacted or how my grandfather reacted. But walking that early November morning I started thinking about how I would have reacted. And I suddenly realized how Jesus could have easily met the same fate. Because he was just like us.
He could have been dropped, he could have caught some terrible infection from the filth of the sheep-pen. Mary could have had complications. What would they have done? They were a carpenter and his teenaged bride in a cave cut into the side of a hill. Nobody even knew they were there except some smelly shepherds who had heard the angels and came to see what the fuss was all about.
I started thinking about the way babies touch us. How it was when I took Morgan out for the first time in public. How everyone looked, smiled, asked if she was a she or a he. Asked her name. Tried to make her smile. they were all touched by the mere presence of a baby.
That's when I got it. That's why I understood why God went to the trouble of telling us in two of the 3 synoptic Gospels, the details about the birth of His son. Because there would be many images and many portraits of Jesus painted in Scripture and the baby was an important one. It was important to see Jesus as a baby in the light of babies we know because for some...that's the only image of God they can feel safe in approaching. We grow up hearing sermons about judgment and justice and righteousness and sin and punishment. We watch "The Ten Commandments" and see an awe-inspiring, powerful, Holy, consuming God. Then we see ourselves and think we could never approach that God. We watch "the Passion of the Christ and see a brutalized, tortured, beaten and bloodied Christ attached to a cross the way you would nail a "No Trespassing" sign to a tree on your property and we feel so guilty, so broken and sad that He had to die like this for us. After a few years and a few blows in life maybe we feel so much guilt and shame and we carry so much brokenness around with us that we are afraid to approach these images of God. The Holy God might hate me and reject me and the crucified God reminds me how bad I really am that He would have to do this. Maybe for some of us we permit this thinking...often coupled with bad preaching that reminds us even more just how terrible we drive us irretrievably from God altogether. We build a wall of shame and fear and embarrassment and pain and we hide from God behind it.
So God sent a baby.
My daughter was a magnet for my soul. I was 34, illegitimate myself, like my own Savior was. I was a scared husband and a scared daddy and I felt like I was all alone in the world with a wife and a child to take care of. I was unsure of myself.
And then I held her...
And whatever I felt by way of doubt and fear and shame was overcome by enormous love and tenderness and hope. My mouth told her "I Love You" probably 500 times that first night. And somewhere in my soul I heard her say "I love you too daddy". Something told me it was okay. That this baby was going to love me unconditionally where others had failed. I could relax and drop my guard and allow my love to flow toward her in ways that frightened me with anyone else. Babies do that.
Walking that frozen November morning, with the shame of failure and homelessness and hopelessness blistering my heart...I remembered that night and the way my little baby made me feel. And I began to understand the reason God wanted us to know so much about Jesus as a baby.
Because all the safety of my daughter love was present in my newborn Savior too. This was an image of God I didn't have to fear and I couldn't misconstrue. He came as a knock down my walls and thaw out my heart. He didn't care how I'd failed or what baggage I carried. He even had the shame of illegitimacy in common with me. All He wanted was for me to hold him and whisper "I love you" thousands of times.
...Just like my own baby did.
From there it was easy to imagine a cast of unlikely characters visiting the manger. Brennan Manning has said that he sees Christmas as the most Holy of the Holidays. Even more special than Good Friday or Easter. Because, as he says; "The only thing more wondrous than the fact that He would die for me is that He would ever come for me in the first place". I agree. And that he did it as a catch me off guard and knock down my walls, was just a wink from a knowing God. A whisper that says "I knew this was what it would can come to me now"
The book places Jesus in the arms of some very colorful characters. And the magic of the book is seeing what the baby does to each heart.
The 24 day period in which I wrote the original manuscript was a true advent for me. Each story really was an anticipation of His arrival, memorialized in each amazing interaction between a ragamuffin and a baby.
Over the course of the writing I became one of those ragamuffins too. It redefined Christmas for me.
And that, is what I was thinking when this story came to be.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Story Behind the "A Ragamuffin Christmas" came to be...

I moved to Nashville, Tennessee in November 1997.
I'm a native of Philadelphia and grew up in the Philadelphia area. I had never considered living anywhere else, except one brief notion about moving to California because I had been there for 10 days when my best friend got married and I was in his wedding. Who wouldn't fall in love with a place that was 35 degrees warmer when you got off the plane than it was when you go on board? (Greg had gotten married in January and it was 35 degrees in Philly the morning I flew to L.A.)
But I love my hometown so very very much and I never thought I'd ever live anywhere else.
Then I got married.
My now-ex-wife is from Utah. (It's an interesting story how we met but one I won't tell here) She hated the Philadelphia area from day one. So we moved to Nashville where I soon realized she merely hated me.
We were married in February 1997, she got pregnant in August, we moved to Nashville in November and in May 1998 my daughter was born.
My daughter is everything. She is the one thing I live this life for (other than God of course). She is all the hopes and dreams I have for every day I shall walk this earth. I loved her from the moment I found out I was going to be a dad. I fell even more in love with her when we had that first grainy sonogram done and I could see the outline of a real-life child in there. I loved her every day during Holly's pregnancy and I told her so each night, when I would hold a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels against her mother's belly and tell her "Hi's your daddy. I love you and I can't wait to see you!" One night around the 7-8 month mark, I did this as I always did, and before I got to "I love you and I can't wait to see you"...she kicked. Really kicked. It's a story I've related before so I won't retell it further.
Morgan has been the driving force in my life for every day of the 14 plus years she has been on this earth...and the 38 weeks before. (She was induced 2 weeks early because it was a difficult pregnancy).
I started out down here doing carpentry but that wasn't paying nearly enough. So, on the advice of another of my dearest friends, in September 1998 I got into the mortgage industry. I struggled terribly that first year. I stayed up late memorizing lender matrices so I could know which programs to put my customers in off the top of my head. I studied rate sheets and called on realtors. I held first-time home-buyer seminars. I called "For sale by Owner" ads and asked them to send me leads from people inquiring to buy their houses. I busted my butt to make something of myself for my family.
On December 1, 1999 at 2PM, I walked out of Davidson County Fourth Circuit Court a divorced dad.
My ex had really never been happy and my struggling to have success in a business I was brand-new to was all the impetus she needed to end our marriage. It crushed me. I had dreamed dreams and made plans and set goals for this little family of mine...really all the family I've ever had...and suddenly the person I dreamed all those dreams for decided she was going to find someone else to make them come true with. And my little princess, my daughter-who was the driving force that kept me going when I worked for that first crappy mortgage company where I learned to excel but was rewarded with my pocket getting picked in a thousand ways- was now a visitor in my home once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer.
I don't know if you've ever known a broken-hearted divorced dad but let mt tell you...if you are a real dad, you don't have an off switch to make your love for your kids subside on the days they aren't there. I was a zombie for years after my divorce. Morgan was my one source of life and energy and the one person in all my life who had not changed her mind about loving me and who I could love safely. I would spend myself willingly for her happiness and I did.
A year after my divorce I really turned the corner in the mortgage business. I was really really good at my job. I had become a branch manager of a net-branch company and had my own office and was starting to see some real, measurable income. By 2005 I was a branch operator with the largest privately funded mortgage company in the U.S. I was successful, I was making more money each successive year. I was nationally recognized by my bosses for running a good branch and for being active in the community and for developing a really great marketing campaign for a FSBO product we had. I was doing okay.
There was still a massive hole in my heart, but I comforted myself with being a great dad and with the house I had purchased in 2004. Nothing special, 2500 square feet on five acres in the country. It was really the five acres that I loved. I had a wonderful vegetable garden that was ten times bigger than I could ever consume myself. But like my uncle Franny, I love making things grow. I once planted Cheerio's to see if I could grow donuts. (Not really...)
By 2006 the industry was really starting to feel the rumblings of what was ahead. I made very little money in 2006 and by January of 2007 I lost my home. 2007 rebounded for me in my market and I made enough money that I rented for a year and Morgan and I lived a nice little life in a neighborhood in Franklin. But my heart was sinking and the business was drying up. I had my best year ever in 2007...and I didn't close one loan after August 1st of that year. I closed two loans in February 2008. They closed my office in March, along with all but two other offices in the state. I was officially a loan officer for another branch but I had no more business. In May my lease expired and I was homeless. Morgan and I stayed in a friends loft apartment for the summer, travelling back and forth to Delaware so we'd have something of a time together. In August she went back to live with her mom, and my friends needed the apartment for a previous commitment  And so from August 2008 until January 2012 I was homeless. I slept in my car and showered at the local rec center.
Christmas 2008 was hard, but not the hardest. 2009 was terrible. Morgan had informed me that year that she no longer believed in Santa. Okay...I knew this was coming. But along with losing my home, my workshop and garden that were my refuge, and the two dogs the cat and the Welsh Pony that were also part of my I could no longer climb up on the roof on Christmas Eve, as Morgan was just drifting off to sleep, and stomp around and shake the sleigh bells I had made and bellow my "Ho Ho Ho" and be Santa. I would have liked one more chance to do that...on my own roof while my daughter slept in her own bed.
Morgan and I had always had the Advent calenders. I would buy two identical calenders and she would take one to her mom's and leave one at my house. And so together, whether in person or on the phone, we would open a door each day and get even more excited about the approaching holiday.
2009 she told me she didn't really want to do that either. I think it was her defense mechanism. I think that because I was living in my car, and had no kitchen counter to put it on, she just didn't feel like it would be the same. I have wondered if her not wanting to do the Advent calender that year was her way of dealing with the hurt and disappointment of what had befallen her daddy...and subsequently her as well.
I was devastated. I was worried that my daughter would lose faith in me and in God. All I had at the time were my words. And so I began writing a series of stories for the Advent...only they were very grown-up stories about broken Morgan's daddy...who found their way back to the manger and to the baby Jesus. They found their way back to Christmas itself somehow. They were broken, limping, hardened, and desperate. Their faith was dimmed by the beatings the world had inflicted. Their hearts were calloused from the blows of life. But somehow they all knew they needed to be the cave where Jesus was born. They needed to hold this baby and let babies do what babies do. Each day became a journey for me. Each story was inspired as I walked five miles each morning before going inside the rec center to shower and then go off to try to find a job. Each story became very real to me-in the way characters become real to writers- and I was amazed sometimes at how the stories twisted and turned and finally found themselves in front of the most precious Gift ever given.
These stories...and this book...were born from the heart of a very very broken daddy who had seen his whole life vaporize and who wondered if it was ever going to be the same again. Sometimes I still wonder that. I am still such a long long way from anything resembling the normalcy we once knew.
I wrote these stories during the worst Christmas Season my daughter and I ever knew. I had no money for a gift. If my friend Chris hadn't generously given me a rebuilt laptop he had worked on at his shop and was willing to let me pay him for it over time, I would have had nothing whatsoever to give my daughter.
I was crushed. I was nearly lifeless. I had nothing but these stories that seemed to pour out of me from a place that held so much pain of my own and so much embarrassment and humiliation over what my daughter was having to endure, not being able to stay with me on our weekends and knowing her daddy was living in his car. I could have left. I could have wandered into another state and found work and suddenly 5 years would go by and I would be too involved with that life to return to my first life. It happens all the time.
All I had that year were these stories and the love for my daughter that drove me to write them and polish them over the next 3 years until they became what you see now in final form.
These stories were my gift to her...from the deepest pain I've ever felt they brought me hope. Hope that one day we would look back on this difficult time we lived in and found something to share for generations.
It's the hope I have for everyone who reads it now.
Merry Christmas, Ragamuffins...

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Magical quality of "A Ragamuffin Christmas"

There is a certain "mystical" quality to this book. There has been since I first started writing it as a blog series in 2009. Most of the stories took me less than 10 minutes to write. They would come so fast that it sometimes felt like taking dictation more than it did composing a story.
The entire project was inspired...and I say that as solemnly and respectfully as I can. There are some amazing "stories behind the stories" on the pages.
Two Christmases ago, when I had self published the book and released it on a limited basis, someone told me it had a similar effect on him as when he read "The Shack".  Now, I have serious issues with the Theology of "The Shack" most folks do who have even a modicum of training in the Bible. But I understood what the guy meant.  As long as you read "The Shack" for what it was, it was a great book. It was special in a way that made you stop and realize that it was a once in a lifetime literary event. It's the folks who tried to develop a theology around the book that ran it off the rails. The underlying thing about "The Shack" was that, while you knew the events in the book could never couldn't help but wish they would.  Everyone who read the book wished, somewhere deep in their heart, that there was really a shack somewhere in some woods near their home. We all secretly wished we could escape for a mystical weekend with God in a nice little mountain cabin and hang out, and eat delicious food and get to know Him as we all deeply desire. We all wished it could just be us for a few days...just Him, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and me, and we could walk along the lake and hike the mountains and open up our souls and ask the burning questions that we all have inside of us. Questions that you can only ask when you are really comfortable with the person you are asking.
That was the magic of The Shack. It was horrifying what the main character endured to make the shack necessary. But the way God entered his life and brought healing...that was the real medicine the book offered. The author crossed the line quite a few times in the process but as I said before, if you were grounded, you could take the good and overlook the bad and be better for it.
The guy who told me that "A Ragamuffin Christmas" had the same feel, explained to me that it was this mystical feel that he compared to "The Shack".  Only my book is infinitely more Theologically sound. There aren't any doctrinal ideas that will make anyone cringe. No views of God that will cause you to run for your Bible and start emailing me scriptures to correct my post-Christian philosophy.
I make the case for salvation as clear as a bell by the end of the book.
But there is a quality to the book that is similar to "The Shack". The other day in discussing the book with a friend, it dawned on me what it is. Just like "The Shack", this book creates an event that you know immediately could never take place...but you wish with every page that it could.
It's obviously physically impossible for any of us to somehow become transcendent and return to that Holy night and see Jesus actually enter this world. To interact with Mary and Joseph and watch a parade of Ragamuffins as they come to meet the infant King of Kings. To hold Him ourselves and gaze in wonder at the very face of a form that makes us love Him more deeply. To smell the "baby-powder smell" of his skin, and to have our hearts implode as his tiny hand curls around our finger while he sleeps. ...and to understand the entire time..."This is God...and He has chosen to do this for come here like this, in this form and let me draw this close to Him."
That is the thing that every reader seems to take from "A Ragamuffin Christmas". That deep longing that this could really happen. That we could somehow really have this moment too. Sacred, silent, amazing. I don't present God in any form other than the forms he presents Himself in the Bible. Nothing in this book will make you scratch your head and wonder if you should be offended.
Instead, I think the book bridges the gap between who Jesus really is and what we have tried to make Him. Somehow we created a dichotomous Savior. Somehow in our lives, we developed a disconnect between the infant Savior of Bethlehem -sweet and peaceful and beautiful and approachable- and the Savior of Calvary, writhing in pain, abandoned by his Father, dying alone on the garbage pile of Jerusalem, with spit running down His face.
I think one of the great things the book does is reconnects those two. We are reminded throughout the book, in various scenes, that this beautiful baby is destined for a final showdown with death. And the realization makes both portrayals of Jesus more wondrous, more special, and more painful for those who love Him.
I think we all wish we could hold the baby. I think we all wish we could go back to the very opening scene in the Great Plan of Redemption, and experience the beginning, now that we've been touched by the end. Those of us who have made the journey up Calvary's hill, would have a very special view of Bethlehem's manger.
...if only we could really go there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Christmas Book is for sale NOW!!

The Kindle version just hit Amazon and the print will be available by Friday! Please check it out...

Craig's Book

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Big Book Announcement!!

Here it is folks! "A Ragamuffin Christmas...An Advent Journey" will be available next week. (As soon as I know what day I'll post) As you might know, this book was a series of devotional stories I wrote for the Advent in 2009 while I was still homeless. It is a wonderful, mystical and emotional Christmas story. It was released this year by Liberty University Press.
Here is the cover art...

There will be more announcements in the next couple of days...

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hearing the Voice of Daddy

When Holly was pregnant with Morgan I got in the habit of every night before we went to sleep, placing the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels against her belly and talking to Morgan. I said pretty much the same thing every night..."Hi Morgan, this is your Daddy. I love you and I can't wait to see you!"
 I did this for several months and one night about the 7 1/2 month mark, we were lying in bed and I did it again as I always did. I put the tube against Holly's side and said "Hi Morgan this is your daddy..." and before I got any further, Morgan kicked. Really kicked. So much that I saw Holly's shirt jump. We laughed and then we cried. And it dawned on me that my daughter recognized my voice and knew I loved her before she ever entered this world. 
I think we would do well to remember that God has been doing the same thing for us since the dawn of time. He says we are "fearfully and wonderfully made". The Hebew word for "made" translated better to "created". It's the same word in Genesis that is used to describe God creating Adam, and it's the same word they would have used to describe an artist creating a work of art.He tells us He has written our names on the palm of His hand. He loved and desired you before you took your first breath and if you are listening...He is speaking to your heart, in ways that get only YOU'RE attention. And He is saying "Hi...I'm your Daddy. I love you. I can't wait to see you". When we finally get to where we recognize His voice, we can begin to kick in happiness at it's sound.