Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Hard Part of Forgiveness

This is a picture of my mom taken when she was 25. By my reckoning I was 2 or 3 years old at the time. My mother died last week at the age of 78. Cancer      
had ravaged her body throughout and she made the decision in November of last year to discontinue her  treatments. It took cancer to move me to reestablish a  relationship with her, to attempt to learn who she wa
 and who she had become. I discovered as much about  myself as I did about her. To understand, or perhaps it is better to say to begin to understand the words that will follow requires me to cover familiar territory for some of you. 

My childhood was far from normal. My parents had a difficult relationship that included abuse and neglect of both his spouse and son. My father was an enigmatic man of great talents but also great failings. His was a difficult   upbringing that I don’t believe he ever made peace with, and those unresolved issues bled into every area of his life. Eventually their marriage fell apart, my mother leaving him in the summer of 1976. Through a series of hard to understand events I found myself with no family shortly after my 16th birthday. My parents never reconciled, their marriage finally dissolved by my father’s death in 1983.

There was little to no communication with either parent and for many years I was unaware of either’s whereabouts. Needless to say, this created lots and lots of unanswered questions. I had a poor opinion of both for a number of years, until hearing from an aunt who finally began to provide me with some of the answers that I had wanted for so long. This interaction with my aunt reignited in me a desire to answer those questions that had haunted me for so long, questions about rejection and reasons and fears of being a man I didn’t want to be.

My mother seldom gave me the answers I sought. She didn’t want to reopen old wounds. She had remarried and was building a new life. To be honest, for a long time I held hard feelings towards her over that. I needed answers about my father and why she permitted the things that happened. I came to understand that my mother had been a buffer between my father and I, that she had taken many blows intended for me and had taken the brunt of many blows intended for me. I came to understand that she left me behind, in part, so that I could have the stability that a 16 year old needed, that she trusted my soon to be adopted parents to be able to provide for me what she could not. I cannot say that it was a noble act, but it was not as calloused as I had come to believe.

In the 34 years since my father died my mother was able to piece her life back together. She married again, a man who loved her and cared for her. They were good for each other. She had found a way to break free of the chains of her past.  She discovered faith in Christ and turned her life around. She made an impact on many people. She became someone I did not know. The question was and is....can I break free of the memory as I have held it all these years?

As Christians we are called to forgive, and I believe that most of us genuinely try to forgive others. But we all have trouble forgetting. Genuine forgiveness involves forgetting the offense, to choose to no longer hold the offense against the person we have forgiven. There can be no true forgiveness without forgetting. I had to choose to forget the past, unanswered questions and all, if I was to truly embrace forgiveness for both my parents. I had allowed my memories to color how I thought about and how I related with my mother, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately. My mother had become a different, a better person, and I was unwilling to let her be that person. I limited my love and forgiveness for her by the memory I chose to keep alive, and nobody suffered for it but me.

As I spent a few days last week at my mother’s I came to realize that my mother had become the person she was always meant to become. She had been molded by her experiences into someone who made a difference in the lives of others. She allowed what was to pass and became someone I had never given her the freedom to become because I would not forget.

Sometimes it’s not so much who we need to forget but the memory we hold of them.

Rest in Peace, mom. We all will miss you, even me.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Fresh Starts and New Years

Fresh Starts and New Years

I’ve seen a few New Years in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean anything other than I’m getting older, which really only means that I was pretty adept at dodging cars while playing in the street as a child. I have also made my share of New Year’s resolutions throughout the years, but I don’t do that much anymore because I came to the conclusion that anything worth making a resolution about was probably serious enough to just go ahead and do.
Having said that, I will take up your time and mine today by sharing some hopes and resolutions for 2017:

1. I resolve to be a giver of cheer this year. Those who know me would agree that I am usually a glass half full type of person. The last two years have made an outlook more and more difficult, but as a Christian I need to remember that God is still such in control and that the word “oops” is not in His vocabulary. Everything comes into our lives for a reason and according to His purposes (even the bad stuff) and it’s high time that I began reminding myself of that and living in accordance to the confidence that knowledge gives me. When I remember to have that outlook I will find that my life will begin to bring joy to the lives of others once again.

2. I resolve to be more thankful this year.  It’s too easy to slip into an attitude of ungratefulness (is that a word?...spell check thinks it is). I/we live in the greatest country in the world, regardless of who’s President, and we have more to be thankful for than anyone else in the world. We need to quit thinking of what we don’t have and comparing our lives to others and considering just how blessed we truly are. Thankfulness flows out of hearts that are focused properly.

3.  I resolve to sing more this year. There is no better therapy for the blues or the blahs than lifting up your voice in a song. I’m blessed with the ability to sing pretty well but I don’t use that talent as often as I should. I have decided to change that. It doesn’t matter whether you have lots of talent or not....well, maybe it does (I suggest the car and the shower for those who don’t have a lick of ability in this regard). You don’t have to only sing church songs, sing love songs, country songs, silly songs (some of my favorites)...just sing! I guarantee your heart will feel better because you did.

4. I resolve to journal this year. This is the toughest one of all for me. I have had a truly “on again, off again” relationship with journaling (and blogging; truth be told). But I have come to realize that one of the reasons that the tough times have gotten to me is that I have a super-short memory when it comes to God’s work in my life in the past. The simple act of recording my thoughts about the day will give me a reference to look back to when the tough times threaten to overwhelm me and that’s a great thing.

5. I resolve to pray more this year and talk less. Nobody stays around long when a person is constantly complaining about their situation or is always being critical of others. The people in my life who are the toughest for me to be around are folks just like that. Therefore I have decided that from this day on I will take my concerns and complaints to God rather than sharing them unnecessarily with other. Gods a better listener and when I shut up long enough to really listen to Him I discover that He gives far better advice that any  of you...or me.
And lastly:

6. I resolve to speak more words of appreciation and affection. I desire to become someone who give others hope and not discouragement, joy and not sorry. In short, I want to be someone others want to be around because I help them find joy in their lives.

Is it too forward of me to say that I hope these would by your resolutions as well?

Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Comfort and Joy...and other painful things this Christmas

I love Christmas, always have. But I sometimes wonder how much we love Christmas. I have noticed as I’ve grown older that Christmas seems to have lost much of its specialness. Could that be a natural part of growing up? I’m not sure, I mean, I was the guy who wore Santa Hats to classes while a seminary student (in my late 30’s and early 40’s) and even in the pulpit a time or two during the last 16 years. My family has always done its best to celebrate the day and the season with as much happiness and joy that we could, even when things seemed rather bleak economically, which has been often. That’s gotten harder to do as the years have gone by, especially with my health issues (I’m not allowed to climb ladders or get on the roof to hang lights any longer) and the fact that my kids have gotten to the age where they are moving away and establishing their lives in other places (what was once a busy, noisy house of eight is now a much quieter house of four).  I will forever miss those crazy, hectic times but I also cherish the special moments that we have now.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Our culture seems to be making a mockery of much of the season, but especially the idea of the Christ Child as the Prince of Peace and the concepts of comfort and joy. We seem to have lost sight of the personal aspects of the story of the Christ Child. Anyone who doesn’t believe me only has to visit any store during this time of year. A smiling cashier or waitress is a rare person, and one who probably hasn’t worked too long that day. Survey the lines at any Wal-Mart and you will notice that they don’t seem to be bursting with Christian cheer or charity.

But there are glimpses of hope. Very recently my birth mother called me with what has to be considered discouraging news at the least. I won’t belabor you with the sordid details but suffice it to say that she and I have a very troubled past and only in the last two or three years have been able to begin to piece together some semblance of a relationship.

Regardless, she called to tell me that her cancer is no longer in check. Her cancer has manifested itself in three different parts of her body and she has been turned over to hospice for the last stages of her life. I haven’t seen her since 1990 and we speak only occasionally. To be honest, I have a difficult time giving her what she needs from me. Her news couldn’t have come at a worse time for me (as if my time and life were somehow more important than hers), but she has acknowledged her sickness and is preparing herself for her last days.

Somewhere in the last twenty-six years my mother converted to Catholicism and seems to have a strong faith. That faith is what she clings to know. You see, part of her cancer is in her liver, and liver cancer is painful and hateful and quick. What was a two year prognosis just a short time before is now two months; two pain filled hateful months know that nothing can be done.

As a minister, I am supposed to know exactly what to do in this kind of situation, both by training and experience. But none of that prepares you for the gut-punch that happens when it hits so close to home. The fact that my mother and I were and have been estranged for forty years is not important. She needs me and I am beginning to understand that I need her too. I called her this morning (the trip has been impossible before now, but I shall find a way) with the intention of gathering more information and encouraging her as best I could. My words were polished and understanding of her condition was deep and my experience gave me the proper sense of timing, of what and when to say just the right things.

But my words rang hollow in my heart and my ears, as I’m sure they did in hers. We talked quietly, but there was a strength and confidence in her words that was absent in mine. You see, my mother knew just where she was and what was happening and she was at peace with it all. Her peace, according to her, came from Jesus...the knowledge that she had given her life to Him and that He had forgiven and received her into His family.

Friends, my mother knows real comfort and joy.  I have often told my congregations/youth groups through the years that joy is living in the confidence that God is in control and that He keeps His word. But somewhere in the last two years I had begun to lose sight of those words and the God who is the source of all true hope.

And it took a woman with only two months to live to wake me up from my spiritual slumber.

Maybe it’s time to put away the rush, the pressure, the foo-foo of Christmas and take a long look at a dirty cattle stall, a tired young family and the shepherds, filthy from their flocks, who came at angelic invitation.

Where has the Christmas spirit gone? Where is our comfort and joy? I want to tell you that we’ve lost it in all our cute Facebook posts and Jesus- light. The truth is that the manger is powerless without the cross and the empty tomb. Our comfort and our joy are to be found in the perfect life of God’s perfect Son who died for us and rose again so that we might one day be with Him.

Like I believe my mother will be soon.

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 14, 2015

While Shepherds....

There are three messages that my parents gave to me during the sixteen years that I lived with them:

     1. I was ugly.
     2. I was unloved.
     3. I was unwanted.

My parents managed to communicate those messages to me in every area of my life. They had, and still have, a profound impact on me. Unfortunately those messages have a way of forcing themselves back into my consciousness from time to time and can still wreak havoc with my heart and mind.

I would be lying if I said that I haven't been struggling with them lately.

Some of you will remember that this year has been a very difficult one for my family and I. Family struggles, job stress, and unemployment have taken a heavy toll on us. Each passing day without a paycheck or even interest from prospective employers creates more and more stress and makes the messages from the past even harder to wrestle with and to subdue.

To be brief, I am lonely, hurting, and struggling to hold on to the belief that God loves me.

Some of you are shocked that a minister would make such an admission. Others are uncomfortable with it. But the truth is that I have spoken the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. The people of God can and do struggle with despair and depression, and the sooner we can learn to talk about it honestly with each other the better.

But that's not what I want to talk about.

The gospel of Luke tells us that there were shepherds in the fields on the night of Jesus' birth. Scholars and theologians (of which I am neither) tell us that those shepherds were not at the top of anyone's social ladder. Shepherds were ceremonially unclean, unable to enter the Temple because of their association with unclean things. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy; their testimony not admitted in courts. No one wanted there daughters to marry shepherds because they were considered dishonest and immoral.

Not exactly the picture we are familiar with in our church Christmas pageants.

But the shepherds are precisely where I find my source of hope during this very difficult Christmas season. If God would dare to present the good news to a group of unworthy, unlovely, unwanted shepherds then he must believe that even someone as unworthy, unlovely and  unwanted as me is worthy of the good news as well.

I am sitting in the lobby of a McDonald's as I write this and I am surrounded by many types of people, people of whom I am sure there are some who are hurting as I am and others who would consider themselves unworthy of the love of God.

The church has sanitized the story of the Nativity. So very few of the mangers on display show the mud and straw, the dirt of a stable. I have never seen shepherds dressed in dirty robes, covered in the dirt of the  Judean hillsides and the fatigue written on their faces. Mary and Joseph are always calm and  peaceful...never showing the signs of stress and exhaustion that are the natural byproducts of the birth of a child.

When did the birth of Christ become a Sunday School lesson and not the reality of Emmanuel, God with us?

The truth is that the birth of Jesus was witnessed by shepherds who were considered to be second-class citizens. Those second-class citizens were the first bearers of that good news. Yet today it seems that the second class among us are the very ones who are passed over in the telling of the good news.

I want those of you who might read this, those who are struggling with a hard life filled with poor choices and disadvantages that the good news is for you too. You see, it was only after I discovered the good news; that Jesus Christ loved me and died for me that I was able to find the ability to overcome those messages that were planted so deeply in my psyche.

I want you to know that you're not ugly.....God sees you as His beautiful child.

You are not unloved...God loves you enough that He sent His Son to restore you.

You are not unwanted....God has prepared a place for all His children.

If God could love me....then I know He loves you.

Christmas is the ultimate expression of that love. I hope that someone will share that love with you this season.

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Life and Death in August of 1987

August 12, 1987 - Wadley Hospital, Texarkana.

Sometime during the day....

The nurse threw a set of scrubs at me and told me to put them on "quickly" and pointed me to a restroom just to my right. I remember juggling the scrubs as I moved into the room as quickly as I could. A weird mixture of fright, excitement, uncertainty and wonder filled my soul as I changed my clothes. The shoe covers were the last things that I put on and they kept catching on the bottom of my shoes. I hopped on one leg into the delivery room while struggling to put on the last cover.

An overwhelming silence stopped me in my tracks.

I had helped to deliver a baby in a bathroom of a McDonald's as a senior in college and remember that scene as loud and chaotic, complete with someone calling for "hot water" and "towels, we need towels!"

The scene before me was nothing like that. The room was bright and cold. Why is it that hospitals are always cold? The mood was somber and heavy, as if a gigantic weight was pressing down on all of us. In the space of a heartbeat, or maybe less,  my eyes fell upon the reason for the mood.

Laying on a delivery bed was my wife. My wife has always been stronger than she realizes, but at that moment she looked broken and empty and deeply wounded.

Just across the room from her, on a warming table, layour baby. Johnathan Michael was born at 23 weeks....too soon for a realistic chance at life 27 years ago. Even then, if we had been a hospital better equipped for such a premature infant...but there was no time. There was no time.

I remember my wife reaching out to me, calling me. My eyes and my heart were fixed on the tiny little form on that warming table. As I watched I saw his little body spasm and then become still. The nurses would later tell me that what I saw was just a natural part of the death process. I am convinced that I saw my son die.

Later that day a very wise, compassionate nurse brought Johnathan to us. She had cleaned him and wrapped him in a little blue blanket and put a little blue cap on his head. She brought us an unofficial certificate of birth, the kind you keep in a scrapbook and a camera. She urged us to spend time with him and take pictures of him.

Those few minutes are some of the most precious moments in my life. We counted fingers and toes, caressed his hair and wept and prayed. The nurses made sure that no one disturbed us in that quiet time. Like the rest of the event of that day, time stood still.

Johnathan would be 28 years old today. God has blessed us with other children and 19 month later Johnathan was gifted with a brother in heaven who we named Timothy. I can only imagine what our homecoming in heaven will be like one day. But for now I have 6 other children to love and cherish and guide/shepherd through life.

I have not watched the Planned Parenthood videos. I don't need to watch them to know that abortion is a sickening act that has no redeeming value. I know and have known many women who have had abortions, some of them more than one, and none of them see it now as a good thing. Compounding the issue is the profit motive. It is not enough that America has the blood of over 50 million innocent lives to account for....we now have compounded the issue with blood money. We have taken the lives of the innocent to improve our bottom line.

Don't give me any of the standard "it helps medical research" reasoning. The truth is that fetal experimentation had never given us any real advances that could not be achieved in other, less barbaric ways. I have a bad heart and diabetes, I know that my own health can be directly affected by medical research, but the buying and selling of fetal body parts is far beyond the line I would draw and far below the worth and value of all human life.

It is only a short step from disposing of inconvenient children to the disposing of the inconvenient elderly and those who bring no "contribution" to society because of mental or physical incapacity. Our collective memory has forgotten the atrocities of the Nazis against the Jews and the  experimentation of the Japanese on prisoners of war.

In our selfish quest for a "better" life and for "profit" we have become as barbaric as any great villain  or fictional monster from the past. God forgive us.

God save us.

God save the children.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Cry of a Broken Heart

If you're one of the two regular readers of this blog then you know that I've been away for several months (I believe my last post was written on March 18). When I last posted I had shared with you that our family was working through a crisis that was almost more than we could bear. It seems that we may be finally seeing the end of that long and winding road...

But that particular road merged into a super highway of more trouble. I will do my best to summarize without any particular comment.

In March I became aware of additional issues at our church and began the process of ferreting out the truth. Difficult, unpopular decisions were made and there was a massive backlash. It became obvious to me that my position was in jeopardy.

In April I had a heart attack, my third since 2010. I spent 6 days in the hospital and had another stint placed in a small artery. I returned home on a Thursday. The situation at our church continued to deteriorate and the stress began to grow more and more severe. After being home four days I was taken back to the hospital by ambulance with an apparent heart attack. After another five days spent in two hospitals it was determined that I had not had another heart attack but had experienced what is called an arterial spasm. Additional information about the condition of my heart was uncovered during the myriad of tests and such. I came home on a Friday with instructions to rest through the weekend.

The next Sunday I was informed that my continued performance of my duties was unnecessary. 

I had been home two days. 

I know that many of you who will read this will not approve of my sharing this information, you will feel that I am damaging the church, my reputation, and the cause of Christ. I want to tell you something; my honesty about my situation will do more to advance the cause of Christ than all the posturing that we do to appear "Christian." The world doesn't need a sanitized version of Jesus, of the faith. The prosperity gospel and the watered down thing that passes for faith today are actually driving people away from Jesus. The world needs to see a Jesus who wept, grew weary, and who gave his life for broken, wounded people like me and every other lost person in the world.

Am I angry? At times, yes. Am I worried? I struggle not to be, and lose that struggle more than I win. Do I wish ill upon those who hurt me and my family? 

Honestly: No.

I have placed my trust in God and believe that somehow He will work all this out in a way that brings Him glory and restores my soul. These past few months have been so very hard, but I know that at sometime, if not in the here and now then in eternity, God will bring justice. My responsibility is to follow Him as faithfully as I can and submit myself to His will daily.

Does this make me a hero? No. It makes me a fellow struggler...It makes me human. A human who needs a love that heals, a love that restores, a love that overcomes. I am a person who needs Jesus.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finding a Way Through Pain and Fatigue

I have struggled with this week's blog. I have started over at least five times and even now can't seem to get my head and my heart to align on a single train of thought. I wish I could say that  this is an isolated, one of a kind thing, but anyone who read last week's blog knows that life for me these days is less than picture perfect (as if it ever was). And so I just keep plugging on.

I learned a lot about perseverance in 1975....yes, that 1975. I had decided to participate in a bike-a-thon to help raise money for the American Heart Association. I badgered all my friend's parents to pledge an amount of  money per mile that I rode. Whenever anyone asked me how far I planned to ride I told them that I was going to ride 100 miles. Most folks would look at me as if I was crazy (I was) and say something like "right..." I certainly inspired confidence.

So the day of the bike-a-thon came and I was there at the starting line at the starting time. The weather was nice and there were a lot of kids riding that day.There were lots of people to ride with ad to talk to. We started the bike-a-thon with a lot of excitement.  It was fun.

For a while.

The crowds began to thin out about three hours into the ride. As the day went on it became harder and harder to find people to ride with. I was committed to making my 100 mile goal and had even gone so far as to calculate how quickly I needed to make my way around the 10 mile course in order to make my goal in the time allowed. With people to ride with I had no problem keeping up with my time goals. But as the number of riders dwindled it became harder and harder.

So I changed my strategy. Instead of riding with someone all the time I decided to "hunt" other riders. I would spot another rider well ahead of me on the course and would push myself to catch them within a certain distance or time. But it worked. I pedaled and pedaled and pedaled until I would catch someone or I would set myself a time limit to ride from one checkpoint to another. In short, I just kept pedaling, plugging along, committed to achieving my goal

And I'm proud to say that I did. In fact, I finished my 100 miles with more than an hour to go in the bike-a-thon. I could have ridden more, but my rear end was really sore and so I went home. As I remember, I was the only person in our local race (and maybe in the whole state of Arkansas) who rode 100 miles that day. And all because I just kept pedaling.

Perhaps that's one of the most important lessons for me in the midst of all the turmoil of late. I need to keep plugging. Somehow Christians have come to believe that life should be a wide, easy path lined with shade trees and flowers. But that's a lie and couldn't be farther from the truth. Life in this fallen world is hard enough, and when you factor in the opposition that we as believers face from a world that doesn't love us it gets even harder. But ease is not and has never been a mark of blessing or favor. Jesus said that we should expect difficulty. Paul said that he struggled with himself to be faithful. John was exiled as an old man because of his faith. So why do I think I should get a pass?

If you would allow me to be so bold...we shouldn't desire ease and comfort. They don't make us fit for anything. The writer of Hebrews likened our  faith lives to a race, calling on us to strip off the things that would slow us down with following Jesus. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are few rest stops along the way. The path is narrow, steep, and difficult, but the lessons it imparts are more valuable than any treasure.

So don't get discouraged, don't grow weary, and most of all don't give up. Brace yourself for the struggle. Look to Jesus and find your rest and hope in him.

If I can do it, you can too.