Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When he knew me he still loved me.

When you think of a confession what scene comes to mind?

An interrogation room with a street punk sitting in front of two hardened city cops trying to get a confession? The room he's in reeks of stale coffee and cigarette butts.   How about a guy with a hood over his head and a knife at his throat?  That room has blood stains on filthy walls, flies buzz around the stink and there are various torture tools laying on a rusting, metal table.  Does a confessionary in the interior of a sepia toned church with large fresco paintings and a marble floor come to mind?  Prayer chants, candles?  Afternoon light streaming in through a massive doorway slicing the haze of incense dust?  An old priest sits on the other side of a screen?

Would it ever enter your mind this scene might be at a backyard, picnic table in suburbia in front of a struggling drug and alcohol addict?   The addict isn't making the confession, a self-righteous, arrogant, proud man lacking love and wisdom is confessing his heart to the addict.  The man wants to be forgiven for his coldnes that he showed the addict, he also wants to confess his lifetime of failures and foolish choices to him.  It will be the first time the man has ever acknowledged his darkest sins to a family member. This scene is true and  the addict was my nephew and I am that man.

What is confession?  I define it as a deep need to admit failure to someone who will listen and love, guide to truth and healing.  As a Christian, I believe confession needs to flow constantly to God and to others as I admit my sin.  (Sin means to miss God's perfect standards.)  Then I need to return to that place of failure and overcome the next time.  Ture confession with the sole desire to admit failure and seek forgiveness and a new life has the effect of keeping us humble before God.  It does what doesn't seem possible, confession brings us closer to God.  Everything in our natural thinking wants to excuse our behavior, to blame the situation, people, whatever, and run from God. It's not us, it's them, or that.  God wants us to own our failures when they are ours. When we learn about His character and love we run to Him with our failures. We start with God and move toward those we have offended then we purpose our hearts to walk in a new way.

God in His love knows our failures and waits for our hearts to turn to Him for forgiveness.  He is willing but we have to come fully convinced of our failures and wanting remedy.  When we justify ourselves before God, the flow of confession and the necessary understanding of our shaky ground breaks down. This blocked flow hurts us. We get hard in our hearts, self righteous, proud and lose compassion.  We become hypocritical and contemptible.  Love and truth dries up.

And He (Jesus) also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

Two men went up to pray, one a Pharisee (an expert in the Law of God and considered to be the holy standard bearers of their day) and the other a tax collector ( a Jew collecting taxes for Rome and a moral leper of Jewish society).  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself:  God, I thank You that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I pay tithes of all that I get.  But the taxcollector standing some distance away was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, the sinner.

I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Luke Chapter 18. 9-14

Drug addiction and alcoholism is a very complex, frustrating, hurting, miserable pain in the heart of society. There are so many people on the streets in our cities passed out, covered in stink and urine or panhandling for money in misery. Clinics and shelters are full to capacity and so are prisons. It can be maddening because it is such a hopeless and horrible situation that keeps growing and widening in misery.  When we walk by these people that seem to be everywhere we lose sight that they have families somewhere.  These modern day lepers and losers of society are people that are easy to shun because of their choices and we dismiss their suffering because they refuse to get help.  We dismiss them because they are way beyond our help and there are places that offer help that they must be refusing.  We forget their broken humanity.

Often: enter arrogance and self righteousness.  Not knowing, or dismissing, our own struggles and failures we compare our lives to that waste on the street and believe we got it all altogether.  And we may actually have a lot of it together but never enough to forget the leper inside of us that we deal with in our own struggles everyday. When we do forget what we are and who we are before God we become a Pharisee at worst and a hypocrite at best.

Two years ago this summer I was visiting home and my family with a very heavy heart.  I was going through a very serious time with God as He revealed my spots of leprosy. One night at a picnic table in the backyard of my sister and brother-in-law's house my family eventually moved indoors and left my nephew and I alone as the sun faded away.  We swatted and smacked mosquitos as I began to apologise to him for my arrogance and self-righteousness.  The bugs didn't matter anymore and we slowly looked up from the perfect lawn and into each others eyes as I confessed my gross, life failures to him.

He shook his head.  Not in the cold, pride I had shown him years ago as I poured out my advice about his struggles, but in empathy and love.  He shared his wisdom and understanding gained through years of heroin abuse and addiction.  He also told me things about what he saw in me that are mine alone to keep.  He didn't give advice or tell me about his life, he just listened and loved me and recognized familiar pains, shames and failures.  We finished our conversation and before he left that night I hugged him in his mother's kitchen and he hugged me back. Recently I was told he cried all the way home that night.  I will never see my loving nephew again because he died this month.  His broken life ended in the bathroom of a cheap motel.  He was one of many addicts in the area that had died this past summer from heroin overdoses.  His story was in the local paper.

Not the story of his accomplishments, his life pains or those that loved him.  Not the stories of the abuse he witnessed growing up that his father gave his mother.  Not the stories of watching his uncles and aunts shoot heroin when he was only a young boy.  They didn't mention his amazing kindness and love to the outcasts and the losers of the streets he helped.  The paper didn't mention his incredible gift to bring a room to hysteria with his impressions and crazy stories.  They didn't mention his accomplishments becoming a licensed plumber with a union card.  They didn't mention that he taught himself guitar and played in local bands.  They didn't mention that he loved nature and animals and loved to cook for friends and family.  They didn't mention his mother who spent well over a decade praying and pleading and begging God, and her son, to be free from his addiction and pain. They didn't mention his exhausted sister who gave everything she could possibly give to help him and now that he's gone a piece of her heart is misssing.  They didn't mention the family that loved him and how their hearts broke when they heard the news. They didn't mention the friends he knew showing up at his mother's doorstep in tears when they heard the news.  They didn't mention how much he loved, when he loved others. They didn't mention his heart-broken family that will miss him and that forever there will be a hole there that will never be filled.  He fillled our hearts and we will never lose the sound of his laughter when he was straight enough and sound enough to spend time with us.  The paper never knew those things and would never tell that story of the dead addict they found. Somewhere, someone only read the story of another junkie who died over the weekend.

My family said good-bye to him Saturday afternoon at a funeral home.  He was forty seven years-old and he finally lost his battle to addiction.  He lost his battle to a lie that said he could be free from his inner torments with a drug.  That lie is what killed him.  Different lies want to kill us too, let's be thankful that evil lie of drug addiction isn't pulsing through our veins twenty-four-seven, turning us into pitiful, miserable souls so desperate we will hurt or kill everything good in our lives to get it satisfied.

We cannot imagine that addiction unless we have experienced it. Let us be thankful, seriously thankful for that, and when we meet an addict on the street let's meet them with compassion.  Let's try to drop the hard attitude, drop the guilt trip, drop the sermons, drop the coldness and meet them with empathy and love.  That's how my nephew met me when he heard my confession.  God brought me to the exact person I needed to confess to that night and I will be forever thankful to God that I had that last face to face conversation with my nephew.  He forgave me and he loved me.

When he knew me he still loved me.   And that is how I will remember him.

God is close the broken-hearted and Christ came for the sick and the lost.  He ate and drank with the lepers of society and He loved them.  He loved them.  We must try to do the same.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Marriage as truth.

I watched a romantic film yesterday.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  I hate romantic movies now.  There was something about this film though that kept me watching because it was a movie that doesn't work anymore.  And it didn't work for me not because of the genre or the believability of the story or the chemistry between the actors or the writing or the cinematography. That was all ok.  It didn't work for me because it was a romantic myth from the decades of the 1980's and 90's that they put on screen in 2008.  Older now and married for eleven years I rejected the myth completely.  I also hated the fact that I believed the myth for years of my life and so did most of America.

Here was the myth of 80's and 90's Hollywood: Two broken and lonely strangers come together and walk into a future based on romantic possibility ending with a gooey hope they will live happily forever.

The movie I watched a few days ago ended at the beginning of the couples future and we were left to wonder about their success in new love and happiness.  As the credits began I gave their success rate a big, fat zero.  In fact, in real time their future would have been over before the credits had left the screen.  That short.   My wife gave it less than zero because she refused to believe in the chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and left the room rejecting it all completely.

I love these actors and it was so good to see "Dusty" on screen again,  but it was like watching a Bogart movie without the noir, while I sat and added the noir.  Cynicism came over me along with a sense of their total failure at a future.  I'm not bitter about romance or the possibility of love happening for lonely people but as I watched I began to ponder the film's message and how that Hollywood myth poisoned love and marriage and fueled an empire of therapists and marriage counselors left to sort out the distortions and drain the poison. I took comfort as I realized I survived the 80's and 90's but those years affected my life and my marriage and I looked at that.  I thought about romance and faith and I thought about myth and truth.

I met my wife in a flash of love that overwhelmed me.  I tried to build my marriage on that foundation.  My brain had been filled with hours of movie viewing by that time but guess what?  My wife had watched other movies growing up.  She was also a working actress that never lost sight of the fact that film was just characters acting out a written scene with a huge crew standing around behind the camera. Her degree of suspended disbelief in a romance movie was and is zero.

A really bad and necessary wake-up call was waiting for me in my future with my wife.

It was a pummeling.  A brutal and relentless shattering of every 80's and 90's flick that I had consumed drove me to total despondency because marriage was supposed to have some incredible soundtrack going on constantly.  Romance and feelings and pure joy and Hollywood scenes were supposed to happen every day in my marriage.  They abruptly ended only a few short years into our marriage and I was crushed.  The myth died painfully and I mourned.  The mourning was my reaction to the poison I ingested for years finally leaving my mind and my heart.  The truth began to enter in.  Desperate for reality to fill the vacuum of what was lost in my marriage.....God entered in.  Marriage is not about romance or feelings or happiness, it was not designed for that, it was designed as a hammer to smash us into a pile of rubble where we would be built up into something altogether different.  It was designed to make us desperate and hopeful in the same instant relying on God to help us get through and grow.

The myth, the "love" film, that was supposed to be my marriage had to die in totality for that reality to come in.  Marriage is mostly hard for me (and my wife) with long seasons of reflections about how much I need God to help me.  And His comfort and concern and kindness, along with correction, gives me life and breath and hope.

We would have no marriage without God.  Period.

And we would have no love in our marriage without God either.

The sixties rejected marriage of the fifties and talked about free love.  I think that happened because of money and greater ease after America settled in after World War II.  The fifties was a time of America coming into the zenith of her American dream but then closed with the death of the Kennedy's and M.L.K. and the war in Viet Nam.  The dream was over and America reacted with a rejection and a fascination with exploring distraction and dumping every value that seemed like a sham anyway.  A schism opened up between generations.  The "good war" rescuing the world from tyranny and the war based on lies and greed of Viet Nam, music that you could listen to or wild kids banging on drums and guitars, stoned and screaming with hair flying around, restraint and caution rejected for abandonment and self-discovery. That chaos flowed into the slump and swamp of the seventies, oil embargoes, gas lines, easy divorces, jiggle television, abortions, union busting, discos, corporate expansion into foreign markets, all sliming their way into the cheese and sleaze of the 80's, health clubs, psychology babble, technology, more recklessness with fake money and the gluttony in the Reagan years, AIDS, MTV, cocaine and more oblivion into the expanding bubbles of the 90's, support groups, cable news, strip bars, strip malls, corporate greed, gangs, drugs, urban blight and porn addiction, political corruption and media manipulation: all the fruit then was ripe from four decades of manure and the fruit dropped in the form of two towers rumbling down in plumes of gray ash under a sky as blue and clear as sapphire.

Not in the dark.  This happened in a 360 degree bright, light of a day for everyone on this globe to see.

Now we are really going to have to deal with our lives and issues because "the" truth is staring us in the face and there is nowhere to run anymore.  We have exhausted ourselves in debauchery and excess as a globe.  The emerging markets will now mop up and run out the clock.  There is no distraction anymore that works, and most of us that use it know that facebook has to go in our lives.  We need reality.

We need truth.  Real truth.  Rip you open until you lie in agony wanting the truth that makes you free.

In the five decades that are my life, Hollywood and the music industry, along with politics, banking and media worked together to form a myth about life that was a lie. The lies multiplied and mutated and spread out affecting the globe through the internet.  A constant devouring of Hollywood film was the greatest vehicle of this deception until the music industry and music videos added a deeper dose of the drug for a new generation.  Every time I find myself in a crowd now I feel the ragged edges of five decades that I lived through and I wonder about the effects of those decades on the crowd around me. I wonder how aware they are of so much that is going on in the world and how we got here.  And what the Bible says about these times.

The world is 3D now. The fabric of our lives have been woven with deception, distraction and denial.   It rages now with smartphones and immediate access to all information.  Collecting all those facts and opinions, even when they are shockingly true and not lies, what difference does it make?  We are past the tipping point.  To gorge ourselves on information isn't really going to comfort us or help us.  To believe so is to believe in another myth that's out there; that we are all connected and we are able to change things for the better.  We are not connected, we are disconnected.  We are separated and divided and pulling in different directions.  There is no hope in us pulling us out as we get our acts together.  All the global information at our fingertips is ultimately worthless and we should not believe that it has the power to change our collective outcome.  That's just another myth and fabrication.  In the sixties they thought music was going to be the answer to all the world's problems.  To sing songs about peace and love and get high and drunk and naked was going to stop a war somewhere and eventually stop wars everywhere.  What a bunch of stupid, worthless, temporal crap.

Now, somehow, information is going to do it.

All the nonsense and meaningless, lifeless crap that was dished out to us for five decades.  All the lies and mythologies, all the distractions went through my mind as I sat watching a dead myth on television.  Interesting to me was a gray haired Dustin Hoffman was the lead in this romantic film.  Hollywood cast him to close the quotes to all the Hollywood mythology that "The Graduate" tried to get us to investigate in the sixties; it now had an old Dustin as the leading man in a romantic film that doesn't work in Hollywood anymore because romance in film, and also in life, is dead now.

It is dead for all of us.

We are all only facing severe, severe reality.

I love my wife and her constant pursuit of non-romantic truth.  I think about her when I watch breathtaking sunsets or falling stars that she can live without and I wonder about the future of our son.
I wonder about those I love as all things on this earth begin to come to a close.

I know I am inadequate, empty, weak and broken.  I followed lies for decades.

I pray and I tremble.


PS.  Love to you my amazing wife.  Happy Anniversary.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Elephants, chains and Mother's Day.

The training to break and train a baby elephant is brutal.  It is tied up in restraints, beaten, starved and kept without water until it gives up trying to get free and submits and learns a new way of "living".  A large chain, far heavier than needed, is tied around a hind leg and the elephant will exhaust itself trying to escape until it understands that there is no escape.  It will give in to the chain.  At that point the chain can be replaced by a rope.  The rope could be broken with some effort but as soon as the elephant feels the familiar resistance on it's leg it remembers the former futility and doesn't try to break free.

The elephant has been conditioned to accept it's captivity.  Later in it's life the power and strength of the full grown elephant is no match for the hopelessness in it's mind; and what it believes is true about what is around its leg.  The rope could be as thin and breakable as clothesline but that small resistance is enough to forever keep the elephant from it's freedom.

I have been thinking and praying about the power of lies lately.  I have gained so much insight into lies and how destructive they are and have been in my life.  There has been great discoveries in these past weeks and great anger and shock as well.

"Wait a minute!  This?  This is what I thought was a chain?  It was nothing more than a frayed rope."

I was kept by so much freedom and victory in my pursuits because of resistances that I thought were unbreakable chains.  I am thankful for the hindsight that is currently being applied.  To look back then and to look down now with new clarity and refuse to accept a frayed and dried out rope as being a chain anymore is huge.  Elephant huge.

It is a beginning.

Around this time of prayer and discovery I heard about a very close friend whom I love falling back into addiction.  For months he was making great progress in his sobriety.  His health was returning, his sleep, his work, he was laughing again and hopeful and he had the community of his family again.  Then someone gave him a car, with the freedom of mobility he hadn't had in years he went to a bar and blew his whole paycheck.  He threw months of pain and success, love and possibility away to go back to his cage and his chain.

 And to the familiar, hopeless dialog of addiction.

"I can't get free.  I will never be free.  I can't live without this drug."  And then to greater misery of denial where he cannot accept the fact that one drink or one drug can destroy his life in totality. Life in his conditioned mind is about getting high only and without that high life is rather dull and meaningless. Insisting that he isn't that bad or that there are worse prisoners than himself, he proves himself wrong by destroying his precious life over and over again.  Far worse than anything, and the greatest link in the chain that holds him bound, he believes he can handle it.  Deceived as the elephant but in the opposite way, my friend sees the chain which goes down into a pit, not as a chain, but as a thread that he can easily break or untie and that he controls the tension.  He doesn't yet see that chain in full clarity.  He still believes from the moment the desire to get wasted comes into his mind, which will destroy his walk to sobriety and will break every heart around him, he still only sees that chain as sewing thread.  And he goes back to the familiar chain until he wakes again in agony; more miserable than before because he has briefly tasted the hope of freedom.

Knowing more about myself and the many cliffs I threw myself off and the cliffs that are all around me still, I only feel compassion for my friend. To see what is a chain or a rope or  a thread in our lives takes a renewal of our mind.  It takes discernment.  It takes wisdom.  It takes honesty.  It takes humility.  It takes community.  It takes tremendous discipline. It takes truth.
None of these elements come easy and so it takes great courage.   Courage fuels perseverance.  Perseverance fuels hope.  Woven throughout those new and good substances that are more precious than gold is faith, trust and hope in God who will meet us in our weaknesses and make us strong.  A God of compassion and total understanding that looses the bonds and sets us free.  And sets us free not to go back to our chains but to walk in the place of victory.  A victory that expands inward in our lives and outward to those we love.

Discernment gives us the ability to see what is a chain of doom in our lives that we must avoid at all costs or what is merely a thread that is telling us that it is an unbreakable chain.  That discernment is outside of us in a fountain of unlimited power.  A Higher Power!

"Oh, but I don't struggle with addictions," one might say.  You still need a Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon we came home from church and a long Mother's Day celebration and went out at night to something completely different, an awards party sponsored by a men's magazine.   Beauty, glamour, celebrity and awards, and awkward.  My wife and I missed our son and our arms dangled next to us reaching for his hands.  We don't get out much together.  We dropped our son off for the evening with his aunt and uncle that he adores.  My wife waited in the car as I carried him up in my arms to their apartment.  He had on clean space man pajamas and his blue robe wrapped up against the spring air, his soft blonde hair smelled like baby shampoo.  A ten pound bag of his toys and books slammed against the side of my thigh.

With his arms tightly around my neck he waved good-night to his mother.  As we walked away from the car he asked me when we were coming home.

"We will be home as soon as possible son."  As the words left my mouth I was already searching for a prayer.

I left him in the great love and care of his newly pregnant auntie and hugged him goodbye feeling the tug in my heart to hold on longer.  The elevator ride down was very sober.  I prayed we would get back home safe and alive from the Portuguese highway lunacy.  When we were both in the car we just looked at each other for a moment.  We already felt bad leaving him.  I pulled the car out carefully and started for the intersection.  From behind me a black sedan almost ended our lives right in front of his aunt and uncle's apartment.  The car was cruising at over a hundred miles per hour on a city street.  He didn't see me, or didn't expect me, but he almost killed a little boys parents.  The driver missed us by the width of a layer of paint.  He continued on through the intersection running two sets of red lights and up a hill where he almost hit another car.

The driver of that car believes because he has a fast car, an expensive car, he has power.  He has power to do what he will.  He has no power.  He is merely but carefully kept by the grace and mercy of God just like the parents in a car he doesn't know.  Parents that pray every time they get into a car for God's protection.

We all need that Power daily, hourly.  Our lives are so fragile and challenged but it takes discernment to fully understand that.  Or to appreciate it.  Or to admit it.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Treasures Mined In Darkness.

Our son always goes to bed with a book, or two, or four.  My wife and I take turns reading to him in English and Portuguese and then we slowly shut off lights, pray together, and finally the lights go out and I tell him another story in the dark.  It's called a "dark story".  These are funny stories often about my family and my childhood, or how his mom and I met, or the things he did when he was growing up, or crazy tales with no endings. My alpha-wife falls asleep completely spent by her day but he and I will continue on and talk about our day, or laugh hysterically about our day, until she shushes us both to quiet down. In the darkness he always asks me a flurry of questions trying to hold off on sleep and they are usually questions about God.  His mind tries to comprehend complex issues regarding eternity, heaven, creation, angels or possibly how tall he will be when he's five.  When he's satisfied with my answers, or my struggles to answer, he will hold my hand until he drifts off into little snores.  It's a powerful part of my day.  All of what I wanted to accomplish and did or didn't succeed at throughout my day, all my plans for the next day, completely end as I hear the sound of his chest rise and fall next to me.  Alone in my thoughts next to him I often think about all the love and pain that brought me through to this time in my life.

Before he fell asleep last night he whispered, "Daddy, I will love you forever."

He fell asleep before I could reply.  I didn't have words anyway.  The gratitude and wonder of that sentence and what will be in our futures overwhelmed me into silence.  My mind went back to struggles and pain well over a decade ago but now to have all of this beside me and so much hope for more ahead of me, I had no words.  The gratitude actually hurt.  All through me there was a burning thanks that I could find no words for.  A place in me that I could not reach with language.  I could only hold the hand of our small son in the dark thinking about what he had just said.  I was profoundly grateful because at one time in my life I never imagined that I would ever hear that sentence directed towards me.  His words were a very significant sentence in my life, one that leveled me with honesty and challenged me as his father.

As I held his small hand I thought about the great age gap between us and I wondered quietly about our days together.  Of all that is ahead for him and how much of it I will be there for.  I thought about how short life is and how impossible it is that such an insignificant length of time can satisfy our lives.  I wondered about eternity, grasping for comfort,  praying that God would give us that timeless place together.  As I remembered where I was in the history of my life, I was without words to express the "thank you's" for where I am now, and the "help me's" for all that is ahead of me.

I fell asleep in the darkness weighing my responsibilities and aching for the grace and power.  It's a prayer that I am certain fills the hearts and minds of every parent on earth.  We all must believe in a future that is so different than what we can possibly imagine today and move towards it.  We may only have a glimpse of it in our battle but we have to move everything out of the way that would prevent us and keep persevering.  I am thankful for my son's words last night whispered in the darkness of his room, far beyond the darkness that was my life for years.  It gave me hope for today.

There are moments like I had with my son that we cannot see in our afflictions now but they are there; precious and in a future we cannot see in our current struggles. They are the valuable pieces of our individual lives that bring us hope with wisdom and encouragement that we can share with another.

The substance of these things cannot ever be bought but are treasures mined in darkness.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Invitations Are Being Sent Out.

You have an invitation.  You might have received it but never opened it.  You may stumble upon it every day in your day to day but still have never opened it.  The envelope that holds it is getting larger and brighter now so it doesn't get lost in the darkness.

Recently my wife was asked to make a quick video clip for an NGO to be shown at it's annual event.  The event was held at a small church where some of the members are connected to this NGO.  I can't name the NGO in this blog because to do so would put it at risk because it operates in a Muslim nation. The NGO is not a Christian based missionary outreach but it is mostly supported by Christian workers.  The NGO isn't a Trojan Horse to get Christianity into the country where they operate, it just happened that the workers are mostly Christian.  They are not in this Muslim country to start a church in a clandestine way but to help people who are living in desperate situations.  The Christians are going into this Muslim nation only to make a difference in people's lives for the short time they can be with them.

My wife and I sat with the two pastors that head up the NGO and they told us of some of the pain and hardship they encounter when they go into the city they work in.  I have known these pastors and many of the people that go with them for years now but I had no idea what they do and what they and their fellow workers confront when they do their work.  When they told us I shook my head in unbelief.  I wanted to cry.  I almost vomited.

These quiet pastors and the very ordinary people that go with them are going into a place of such poverty and squalor that would be enough of a challenge but the neglect and sexual abuse of the young children they attend to is beyond comprehension.  The NGO is made up of dentists, gynecologists, physiotherapists and ordinary people doing extremely unordinary things in a place so horrific it defies the mind to grasp it.  A dentist friend told me that when he returns from his trip there he holds his young daughter and weeps.

They are not going into this city with a mayor, the military, police or any local officials to protect them or a news crew to highlight what they are doing, they are going in by faith alone.  The officials of the city have written this part of this city off and Muslims will not go in there because they believe it is the place where the devil actually lives.  There are tourists who go in there though.  They go in to prey on little children that are abandoned to alleys with no safe place to go at night and no authorities to arrest their predators, or they avoid the street hassles and just pay the parents to have sex with their children. But it gets this town, 60% of people are handicapped...why? Because of incest.  There is no outreach to help these children or others until this NGO shows up twice a year.  It took days for me to process out what they told me at the table.  Just like my friend, the stories made me want to run home and hold our son.

If you think the church is a building, it isn't, it is a community of people. People coming together under a roof or in a field or a basement or a landfill all over the earth to study the Bible, learn and grow together, and then apply what they are learning.  Sometimes that application happens in very terrifying and difficult situations.  The Christians working in this NGO are applying their faith where there is nothing but thick darkness under bright African sunshine.  I am humbled to my core for what they are doing there; relying only on their faith alone.  Faith alone.  I could go on about the brutality and degradation, the suffering of Christians in North Korea being caged up worse than animals and tortured for simply owning a Bible and their desire to share the gospel.  I could write about the suffering of Christians persecuted for their faith in Egypt, Syria or in Nigeria but what I want to write about today is my personal pain of seeing twenty four empty chairs at a banquet table.

I went with my wife to the event and agreed to take a few photos for the NGO's website.  It was a miserable evening with rain coming down in torrents.  Traffic was backed up so bad that what should have taken us thirty minutes to arrive turned into a two hour traffic nightmare.  When we finally arrived I had time to walk around and take photos of tables and decorations because the event was running late.   Next to the main room there were two long banquet tables and twenty four chairs carefully decorated for people invited for an evening out.  It was a free event with excellent Portuguese food. The candlelit tables and the decorated seats that surrounded them was a statement of faith by the people who set those tables with faith that they would attend.  The pouring rain didn't diminish the care of the table settings or change the expectations that some, if not all, would arrive.

Eventually, none of those invited came in.  At the end of the evening the clean tables were stripped down and put away.  They all missed a beautiful evening with great food for a great cause.  They missed something much greater than that however; infinitely greater.  I do not know the reason each seat remained empty but I have some thoughts and not one of them has anything to do with the rainy evening or the traffic.  I looked at the table in sadness because these lives do not fully understand the party they declined to attend.  I believe many still want the other party.

Desires and dreams in a huge ballroom of confusion and darkness makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get out of that other party.  The love of so many things keeps most doors blocked.  Entertainment and consumption block some doors, relationships block others.  A sense of rejection or shame block others.  Pain,  hatred and violence blocks others.  Money and excess blocks others.  Biblical ignorance and unbelief blocks others.  Personal spirituality nail some doors shut. Other doors are blocked by crowds of people that seem to be having such a great time living it up, it seems this must be the place. Crowds gather around mostly at those doors because it would seem so.  Life must be a party, right?

There is an eternal divide between these two parties and the divisions and distinctions played out in our temporal world are getting more apparent to me every day.  I was a bartender for many years and I never needed a clock to know how much time was left before the bar closed.  I could tell by the last rush when everyone wanted to get another round of drinks before the bar closed.  The volume of the crowd would go up. The clock was winding down to closing time but everyone wanted to keep the party going.  They didn't want to leave.  They didn't want the illusive dream of a good night out they slaved for all week to pass away without a fight.  I sensed that same feeling in the traffic as we drove to the event that night; chaos, frenzy, a frenetic rushing with little courtesy to get somewhere.  Mob madness.  In my two hour traffic odyssey I thought about the madness not just on that highway but in cities all over the world demonstrating and protesting against corruption and brutal selfishness, voices making defiant stands against those who have lost their humanity for money and power.  And the forces against those voices use intimidation, deception, manipulation and fear, imprisonment and torture, war threats, empty promises, corrupt leadership, repression, suppression and greed.  Lobbyists buy governments and political and corporate corruption destroys societies, families and individuals while the very planet groans in ecological suffering under the weight of it all.  Fortunately, many people are finally recognizing that something is very wrong with what is going on and are looking around for a fire escape to get out safely.  To forget the blocked doors and look for another way; the only way out and to safety.  I attend a church where some people are entering the doors for the very first time in their lives.  Somehow they found the fire escape and they left the ballroom of confusion and darkness. That fire escape is the goodness and love of God calling people everywhere to abandon that party and turn to God and come out of there.  He is looking around that room for broken hearts and raised hands to grab.

Those twenty four seats that sat empty that night represent thousands, upon thousands, upon countless thousands that are being invited by God to attend something far greater than what this temporal world offers and has offered. These parties have a totally different atmosphere and spirit and a very different ending.  The invitations are after the hearts and lives of human beings.  Ultimately, the invitations are for the eternal souls of mankind.  There is no neutral response to the invite.  It's an all or nothing.  No one can attend both of these parties simultaneously by going back and forth because they are opposed like never before. You either love one or you love the other.  You either sit in one or sit in the other.  You embrace the values and enjoy the atmosphere of the party you're sitting in or you don't.

I attended the party the world desires for decades.  All the while, over the confusion and seduction of unmet promises of security and pleasures, I could hear and often see a very different party in the far distance.   A party that had a very different dress code.  The dress code there wasn't about wealth or power or prestige or perfection, it wasn't about talent or beauty or popularity, it was one where you came with a desperate need that could not be met at the other party. How I chose to meet my needs determined the party I was attending. In those decades (I will describe as: decades of deception.) I did not even begin to understand my desperate situation at that party in darkness because what I was pursuing was only leading me to my death.  For that is what the party I was attending was actually celebrating; it was celebrating death, my own and everyone next to me.  It didn't say so on the invite though. I had to get deep into the party before I took a look around at what it was doing to me and to others.  It was then I raised my hand.  "God, please rescue me from this place."  And His hand grabbed me. I pushed through the thick crowds and past one room of lies after another toward a narrow door, all in desperation to get out of there.  Finally outside, I ran for it.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm still running for it.  Some days I feel completely at ease and great at this new party and other days when I feel so unfit and too damaged to be there.  It is then I reach for the invitation.  I have a stamped invitation written on my heart.  And yet, I will never feel confident in myself that "I" belong at this new party or that "I" earned the right to be here.  I actually tremble.  Even in my deep gratitude, I tremble because it is such a perfect party and I am far from perfect.  Every seat was set by the One who invites all men and women and I fear I may break something.  I can only cling tighter to the One who invited me and Who stamped His Name on my heart.  A stamp of love that meant His own death so I could leave the party of death I was celebrating.  I couldn't get out of there without Him and as I stumbled through the crowds in darkness it was His voice and hand that was reaching out to me.  I do not deserve to be where I am nor it is arrogance to have hope that I was rescued.  I am in this new party only because of divine pardon and grace.  I heard something else and believed it to be true and reached out and felt a hand there.  Mercy was calling to me in the darkness of that party of death.  When I stopped to think about what I was doing I reached out for a hand that is so loving and kind, so perfect in goodness and so stable and trustworthy, I wonder why, why did I ever slap away such a hand?  Why did I stay where I saw the hands around me closed tightly into fists of rage or pain or grasping tightly to things they did not own and could not keep?  I believe I am most fortunate in my life because of this: I wanted to leave that party and a light shone in the darkness to lead me out.  I did not rescue myself nor could I ever.  I once was blind and now, by grace, I see.

There is so much to learn and do at this new party because it is not a big chill out party, it requires everything everyday pursuing new things in faith and courage. As weak as I am, as imperfect as I am, I never look back at that other party or that other time and feel any regret about leaving, I only feel loss of so much life because I didn't leave sooner.

And I wasn't able to take more people with me.

I'm at a new party now helping to set a table for friends and family with hope and with love that they will attend;  and when I look up at this amazing party so is everyone else around me.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bonnie and her favorite Manolo Blahnik's.

When you describe a dog what characteristics come to mind?

I went to a pet event called Petfest last Friday afternoon in Lisbon, Portugal.  The weekend event showcased dog training graduates, police horses and horse jumping, exotic birds and reptiles. My wife was there participating with an organization that helps poor people feed their pets so families and individuals don't have to abandon their pets.  The organization called, Animal life, supplies pet foods and vet care for free.  Animal life works with social services agencies to determine what families need their support and what the needs are.  The volunteer service provided is a unique and great way for people to keep their beloved pets without taking food out of their own mouths to feed and care for them.  Our son is kind of lukewarm about pets so he and I almost stayed home.  If we had I  would have missed an amazing opportunity to learn something about my faith from a canine obedience school.  It's true.  If one is willing to learn from God, and if you ask for wisdom, He will take every opportunity in many unexpected ways to teach you something.

My son and I walked into an enormous event hall and he made a beeline for his mom and led her off to find a lemonade.  That gave me a few minutes to check out the mounted police taking their Lusitano horses through their incredible routine.  I was amazed by the timing and skill of both rider and horse but the horses basically knew their routine already and all the rider had to do was enjoy the exercise.  It was so much fun to watch this that I thought it was probably going to be my highlight for the afternoon.  I was watching excellence in equestrian training but also centuries of horse breeding that began long before the Greeks and Romans used these horses in their epic battles. Two teams of dark or white horses left the arena and I went to look for my wife before she took home another cat because we have two already.

I did a quick fly-by checking out cages full of birds that I never dreamed existed and caught up with the family and we took a walk to the exotic area.  Not big fans of reptiles in our family but in that area, in a large cage on the floor was an animal that I have absolutely loved since childhood.  There in her cage, (kind of freaked out by the close proximity of people without her defense weapon) was a beautiful, adult North American skunk.  The last time I was that close to one was on a warm spring night walking through a field I grew up playing in as a kid.  As I walked through the tall grass I heard a strange drumming sound coming from somewhere around me.  The grass was up to my knees and with each step the drumming got louder and more intense.  Finally I stopped walking and waited, fortunately, so did the skunk.  In a small clearing in the grass, about two feet in front of me, was what looked like a huge black and white plant with a fat whispy leaf curved into a tight circle.  I had about three seconds to register exactly what I was about to step on and I turned and ran for my life.  I had a flight to catch the next morning but at that range the stink would caused me about a month of delay.

"Good afternoon, reservations."

"Hi.  I'm sorry.  I have to cancel my flight because I was sprayed by a skunk. Will there be a fee to reschedule?"

"Oh, hmmm, ahh, Let me put you on hold because this is a first for our airline."

Hold music, probably Vivaldi's, Four Seasons. Minutes later,

 "No, there will not be a charge but we will require a stink check at our ticketing counter.  You'll also need to submit a photo of yourself for our break-room."

"Ok, I'll see you in a month.  Thank you."

"No, snickering and group laughter in background thank you sir."  Bwahahahaha ha ha snerk  click.

I think it was my affection for skunks since I saw Bambi that prevented me from being sprayed.  I was in the bomb zone that night but now I was able to look down into the large cage and watch her pump her feet at everyone that came near her.  She was a little stressed by the visitors but I think it was also the Lusitano music loop that never seemed to end over in the next hall.  A hypnotic military trance sound with trumpets and crashing cymbals that you either love, hate or whinny through.

I dragged my wife away from the adorable fixed cats they were trying to find homes for and sidestepped the puddles caused by a massive beast of a dog used for shepherding in Portugal called the Estrela mountain dogs.  This breed is HUGE and there were a few of them, including puppies, lounging and rolling around like fluffy balls of enormous ballroom carpets.

We ate and then wandered over towards a large fenced in arena to watch a dog school putting on an obedience demonstration. There were about twenty dogs that walked out into the middle of the large area with their handlers. The dogs were different breeds, sizes and colors all led on leashes by their handlers.  The handlers were dressed in a dark blue military style uniform with cargo pants and shirts with red and white badges on their pockets and sleeves.  The dogs proudly wore red bandanas around their necks.

For the next half hour the dogs were put through various exercises to show off what they had learned.  The trainers would parade them around at different speeds and the dogs never missed the tempo.  Glued at their trainers knee the dogs would anticipate the pace of their trainers turns to the left, right, or at any time, a complete stop.  When they stopped the dogs waited for their trainers next command.  The trainers sometimes dropped the leash and directed their dogs to wait at attention and stand completely still, sit down or to lay flat until they were given a whistle, voice or hand command.  The dogs never got out of step once or moved before the trainers. They were excellently behaved dogs.

It is worth noting here that the handlers were perfectly clear about what they wanted their dogs to do. There was never a mixed command given by the trainers at any point.  There was no confusion about what was asked or who was in charge. The dogs never took their eyes off of their trainers and looked at them with complete readiness at all times.  It was fascinating to watch.

At the end of the first demonstration the trainers stood side by side with their dogs lined up with an arms length between each other.  The dogs were all commanded to sit down.  Trainers and dogs faced the large crowd that was completely still with what was going on in the arena.  Even my son who isn't really crazy about dogs was still.  A woman was picked out from the crowd and she approached each dog with a healthy sized dog treat in her hand.  She went from one dog to the next holding the treat out to them within reach.  About half way down the line a young female German shepherd pushed her nose out and almost took the treat with her dog lips.  The crowd held their breath to see if she would take it.  She wanted that treat so bad she was whimpering a little. She looked up at her owner who was looking straight ahead at the crowd avoiding eye contact with the dog.  She looked like she was going to take a small nibble but she finally backed her nose away.  The treat went down the rest of the way and back down again.  Once again the shepherd hesitated but didn't take the treat.

The crowd all let out a sigh of relief and almost applauded her restraint.

As the treat went from dog to dog the dogs would move their heads away from the treat and put their heads across the legs of their handlers. One dog put it's whole head and shoulders behind the legs of it's trainer not wanting to even see the treat coming it's way.  When that dog saw the temptation had passed away only then did it bring it's head from around the back of the trainers legs again.  It was an incredibly fun thing to witness but there was more coming.

The dogs all left the arena for a few minutes while a large ladder was set up like an upside down V.  The dogs were brought back out and commanded to climb up the ladder and go back down the other side.  Every dog had a turn and every dog climbed the ladder until the turn came for the same dog that almost took the treat.  She started up the steps of the ladder taking about two steps but looked at the height ahead of her and backed down the ladder.  They let other dogs go ahead of her and then gave her a turn again.  Same thing.  She took a few steps and she was straining and crying and wanted to go but she just couldn't get there.  Once again, she slowly climbed back down the ladder.

A woman with a mic came out at the end of the demonstrations and told the crowd about the young dog that was struggling through the exercises.  She told us that it was because she was still learning with the treat exercise and had never climbed the ladder before.  The dog could do the task easily but she did not believe that she could do it.  The trainers, however, were confident that she was going to climb that ladder in a few months with no trouble.  Once she trusted her trainers, and believed that she could do it, she would do it every time.

It was an amazing demonstration of obedience, trust, training and willpower of the dogs to wait and listen to it's trainers commands.  Their relationships together were so connected it was like they were reading each others minds.  Later on at home I thought about that half hour demonstration and realized I had watched all of the elements of what I have been praying for in my relationship to God.

I want to be in step with Him. I don't want to get ahead of God because that's impatience and pride. I don't want to drag behind Him because that's stubbornness and the self of independence; known simply as rebellion. I don't want to wander away from the safety of His side, getting tangled up in my life like an untrained dog who has wrapped himself in knots on a leash.  I don't want to take anything that even looks like a treat if it doesn't please Him. And if I have to close my eyes or turn my head, or hide behind Him until the temptation passes by that is exactly what I will do.  Besides obedience and total trust, I want to keep my eyes fixed looking for God only.  If God says wait, I want to wait.  Get up, I want to get up.  Be still, I want to be still.  When He says trust and go up and do what looks impossible, I want to put my best efforts to believe Him and make the effort to do; to do and keep doing with perseverance until I can do it and never go back again to what I have known. Faith is about getting out of your comfort zone and climbing every mountain in front you because there is a call in your heart that says you can and must do it.  At first if you can only crawl, crawl.

In patience to myself in my struggles, I also know that some things take time and I must not give in to discouragement.  But there must be no room for slack.  I ask God to help me and each day the relationship grows.  Faith, trust, obedience, walking in step with God takes time.  It takes time to know God.  I need to learn to hear His voice, to know His thoughts,  to understand what pleases Him and to pursue a life of fellowship with the One who calls Himself my Shepherd.  I need God every minute of every day to grow in this relationship and I also need trainers to help me through the exercises.  I need God's Spirit and I need people who have walked with God and learned to wait on Him, grow in Him and rest in Him. Through their counsel I can learn what it takes to undo my nature to have His nature.  It's not a natural thing to follow God, it is a spiritual thing, and it requires our commitment and our letting go of what we want for what He wants. Like any relationship it takes quality time practiced daily.

I'll ask you the opening question again.  What character do you think of when you think of a dog?

Loyalty? Obedience? Friendship? Courage? Faithfulness? Gentleness? Useful?

I have a dear friend who admitted that she used to spend enormous amounts of money on shoes.  She had a wall of hundreds of shoes but her favorite pair was a pair of Manolo Blahnik's that cost, and I'm guessing ballpark here, they were somewhere in the range of seven hundred to one thousand dollars.  She didn't want to tell me  She was also too embarrassed to admit to me what she paid for a dining table she bought and shipped from Florence, Italy. She doesn't spend that kind of money anymore, not that she doesn't have it, she just doesn't want to spend her money that way anymore.  A  few weeks ago we went for a visit to her lovely home where we met her gentle dog who I will call Bonnie.

Bonnie is about eighteen months old and is a long-haired and fluffy, Golden Retriever.  She attends dog school and goes twice per week and has her homework to do. School was imperative for Bonnie. When she first came home as a puppy she managed to go through boxes and boxes of my friend's shoes, bypassing the assortment of cheaper brands and discovered she loved the delicious flavor of Manolo Blahniks.  Bonnie the gentle dog, gently pulled out seven-hundred plus dollars of shoe from a box and gently destroyed them.  My friend came home that night and found both of her shoes in a corner, drooled up and chewed up like cheap rubber balls.  She admitted to a mini meltdown but she had enough control to go down to her expensive table and count to a thousand. A few days later she saw that one of the legs of her Florence table was also chewed up. Bonnie was immediately enrolled in dog school.

When I first came to Christ I was like a puppy pulling on my leash jumping around because I was so happy. And I stayed that way for many, many years.  I had the pure joy of being found like a lost mutt in a pound.  I was thrilled and I thought the big part of Christianity was the being found part but I never knew the real thrill, yes thrill, of learning to obey and submit to my Master.  I bounced around knocking things over in foolish enthusiasm or breaking things in disobedience and when I was corrected I felt bad and sulked with my tail between my legs. Only to repeat the bad behavior again.  I never learned to wait, sit still, shut up or trust.  I thought just because I had a collar on I could do what I pleased.  My disobedience almost destroyed my life completely.  I'm not talking about shoes here now, I'm talking about my eternal situation.

I needed time under strong discipline that still continues while pleading often for the patience of God to correct me and show me things I never knew, and the strength to do them.  I need obedience and training. I need to accept the yes and no's, waits and trusts and commands of my faith.  That process will never end and I know it.  There are new things I have to learn I never learned. For example, I don't want to obey what I think is true because it feels right, I need to have God's truth and desires at my highest level making my feelings irrelevant. The heart, that we hear so much about as the ultimate guide to our lives, is completely unreliable and worthless as a spiritual compass.

In my life now I need to have the faith to believe for much more than I have ever known.  I cannot climb the simplest ladder God says I must climb if I don't trust Him or have the faith to believe I can do it.  I must not only resist but completely kill off the habit of listening to a worthless compass.  I need correction, consistently, and daily. And I need the heart and disposition that can handle correction without a whine session following.  I have so much to learn.  Where do I learn?  From God and with God in His instruction manual called the Bible.  I can get lessons and patterns in many ways so God can reveal things to me but the first place is the Bible.  I can pray for wisdom and discernment from God, and may find my prayer answered at a dog show, but the Bible is the source.

Then I need connection for growth.  Church is a place where a bunch of mutts get together to encourage each other to become what they never could be on their own.  Church is a place to help and support each other and look out for one another, to climb the high ladder together and find out what pleases the Master.  To walk together and develop character to be useful to God who wants us to serve Him by being loving and obedient.  That's not the final goal of our faith though.  We are not supposed to be just obedient and loving servants, we are also supposed to bark warnings if we have to.  And in the days we are living in now we do have to bark sometimes.  People will tell us to shut up and be quiet but we have to keep warning them about the danger and darkness in this world that wants to devour everything.  That danger is still out of range for the unbelieving world, like a sneaky house fire beyond the sense of people who do not have faith in Christ.

Christians are commanded by the Master to go into darkness and danger, the fires and floods, working with Christ in an intimate relationship. We are trained to find those who are tangled up in situations too big for them to untie by themselves and lovingly lead them to the only One who can.

Of all the traits of a dog, as wonderful as they all are, the greatest one of all is that they love.

They love.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Under the Jacaranda tree.

Did you ever need a second chance?  A chance to heal a desperately broken part of your heart?

It's a rare thing in life to get those chances. 

My father was a working man.  Blue collar.  He thought in terms of pay checks and not career.  I am my father's only son, his last child after three daughters.  I was closer to my mother.  I never really got to know my father while growing up and I didn't understand him or love him until two years ago when I turned fifty years old.  That was about twenty-six years after his death in a hospital bed.  The night my father died my exhausted mother reluctantly took her first break away from his bedside and went to my sister's for rest.  His only son, twenty-six, sun-tanned from a ski resort in Colorado and dragged away from the party life I was living in Malibu, was now home and just down the street from the hospital sitting in a movie theatre completely numb in denial.  I wasn't much farther than a few blocks away, I might just as well have been in the darkest part of the galaxy.

The year I turned fifty God's grace and mercy poured out on my life and my heart began to break under His heavy hand.  At that time His work in my soul was terrifying and relentless.  It was a sense of burning, a searing, without any remedy except to wait in hope for God's divine pardon and forgiveness.  It was serious correction and the pain in that correction was a constant part of my life for about eighteen months.  It was my personal terror that I might die in that state of: agony, hopelessness, isolation, sorrow and dread.  I wasn't in hell though, I was in correction.  I do not want to imagine a place without the hope of God's loving mercy finally coming to pardon a soul.  To suffer in torment knowing you failed in every way and now do not have the mercy of God to deliver you, that is hell.

I had many things to review about my life in that precious time and I was given the grace to carefully examine my life .  The failings that came to mind were tremendous.  It was then I remembered my father in his hospital bed.  My relationship with my father, my thoughts and beliefs about him as a person, my wrong understanding of his heart towards me and how damaged my life was lived out, in part because I did not have a bond with my father, was brought into the light.  In that light, I wept for my father.  I missed him.  I wanted to thank him for his love and talk to him.  I wanted his pardon.

My father was a WWII veteran and was almost killed on the coast of North Africa.  He was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart.  His Naval assignment was bringing troops to the shore in a landing craft.  When the doors opened to his craft there was carnage and death waiting for many young men and my father witnessed it, peering straight into the eye of an inferno.  He was eighteen when he entered the war and twenty-years old when he was wounded in action.  My grandfather died when my father was only five years old.  My dad grew up without his father.  It was my grandmother who would sign papers for him to enlist because he was too young to sign the papers without her permission.  He entered the war a very sensitive but troubled young man who would be turned into a commando.  He wanted the adventure and the privilege of serving his country while leaving his small hometown in New Hampshire.  He wanted to become a man.  He could not have imagined what he would experience in just a few short years and how those years would affect his life.  He went from a quiet town in New England, to a beach in North Africa, in a landing craft under enemy fire in a little over a year.  Not a lot of transition time.  He shared some of his stories with me as a teenager, stories of spilled brains and guts, body parts and vomit, the crying and dying of young men my own age by then but I couldn't hear him so he gave up telling me.  He was trying to share his pain but I tuned him out.  I only wanted to deal with my teenage angst, not knowing the intrinsic connection.

He carried his war's visions and sounds the rest of his life. My father no doubt had PTSD but he didn't realise it and we didn't realise it. He got through his days and his family got through their own.  Now we know about PTSD from all the broken men and families from so many wars since WWII and that has helped my family and I understand so much about our father.  My father returned home from his war and his injuries with nightmares that would cause him to jump up from sleep with terror in his eyes.  The softness of my dad's eyes were replaced with pure adrenaline, ready for what I cannot begin to imagine.  He tried to manage his life, marriage and children doing what he thought was right but he struggled through his life with a broken piece that was never restored and never talked out past a few war stories.  The sad irony is the war didn't make my father a man, it kept him frozen in that time of his life emotionally and rationally.
He died, more or less, a sixty-four year old teenager. 

I needed a father so badly but there was such a divide.  He failed me as a boy when I really needed him to help me.  He let me down and my heart broke.  It was an event at school and he didn't come through, he never knew it but I dismissed him after that.  I had no relationship with my father again, only a difficult distance.  I felt loss and a gnawing loneliness and it settled into my life.  I was only ten years old and that pain would remain and materialise in different ways for over forty years.  A foreign ache came into my heart when my dad let me down and that would send me on a search for healing.  For years I tried to escape the lies and pain that insisted my father didn't love me.  Despondency cut me and distorted my world.  I was sullen and moody and found peace by various escapes but the pain grew and got more tangled up.  I couldn't forget that pain and bitterness and selfish pride filled me like poison.  He tried to connect with me at times but he didn't have the skills and he didn't have time.  Things were coming at him in his own life and he wasn't prepared or able, he had enough on his plate just to get through his own day.  He did the best he could but I didn't understand so many complicated things in his life.  I just knew that he made a promise to me that I begged him to not forget and he let me down.  My pain was in the way of our relationship.

As I grew older I flailed around looking for direction.  Bitter and proud, I rejected most of his views on life and we argued constantly or sat in silence.  Eventually I left home breaking away from my parents, then miserable attempts at college, multiple disasters in relationships and failings in lists of other areas throughout my life. I was angry and it came out in various shades of self destruction.  My father was a loving, kind and gentle man but all that translated differently to me, I just saw his limitations and felt a divide.  I had no concept of his pain that made him check out as my father, I felt forgotten, and worse, awkward.  Being awkward with someone you should be connected with is so much worse than total separation.  Awkwardness causes confusion, distance and longing, questions and feelings that need to be sorted out.  Suffering and other emotional dregs fills the gaps instead of relationship.

As he was dying of cancer I was swinging like a pendulum on a chairlift caught in a war going on in me to continue to hide in a ski resort or to return home and try to connect somehow.  I pushed it all away with denial and postponed my decision until the last few days of his life.  I had no bonding with him to fall back on and no character in my life to rise up to the challenge.  I had no love.  I had feelings though, tons of them, but feelings and love do not necessarily intersect.  I skied and beached away my inner fears of losing my father far away from him and home and kept my oblivion going.  In my time of correction with God I began to vaguely understand love and how shallow my concept was.  In that time with my heart laid bare before God and myself, I began to understand my father and my broken relationship with him; I also began to fall deeply in love with him.

In the middle of that time of examination I went home to spend some time with my family and my mother.  A few days before I left she mentioned some things that were my dad's that I should see. In a drawer I found his wallet with all that he carried until he died.  The first thing I saw inside was his license.  He looked tired and worried.  At the time of his photograph he had gone through the first part of his cancer treatments and surgery.  Pictures, even drivers licenses, don't lie, my dad was scared.  I noticed the expiration date on his licence and realised he never lived long enough to renew it.  Did he know he would never renew his license?  That kept my thoughts for a while and then I found a buried photo of myself that I had never seen.  I froze.  I looked into my own eyes and saw a time of my life that was forgotten. I was probably about fourteen.  A mixture of compassion and regret filled me, I loved that person I was looking at now.  I didn't loathe him.  I was fifty-years-old and I was comforting a part of my teenage life that was afraid, lonely and hurting but trying to find something to go forward and not lose hope.  I remembered learning to ski and how that changed my life and opened up a way for my future.  A future that was now remembering it's process,  "Yes, there are going to be very hard and sad days as you move through your life but there are going to be amazing people, powerful moments and events in your future that you cannot imagine right now.  You are going to set out to see the world and almost get consumed by darkness and excess, sensuality and vanities but you will meet God, and incredibly, God will not let you go.
He will call you back to Him by grace."

When I saw that forgotten photo buried in my father's wallet and knew that he carried it with him all of those years I was overwhelmed.  Then I found my ski-instructor business card.  I had to sit down for a minute.  He loved me and he was proud of me. The grace of God was revealing something to me I never knew.  A little later, my mother quietly came in and handed me some of his letters before he went overseas for war.

In incomplete letters, and in handwriting similar to my own, he told her stories about the fear and frustration of "some of the fellahs" and their crazy indoctrinations into their new military world.  He talked about his dreams past the war, to learn to cook and open a restaurant, and he asked her to say hi to some of his friends and family.  It was written in pencil on U.S. Navy stationary with the date of 1943.  I could hear my father's voice as I read his brief notes back home. I heard him and somehow I understood my father's life.  They were written long before I was born and read long after he was dead but time and history dissolved as I continued reading and hearing the dreams of my young father.  It was a time travel sensation, an other-worldly meeting, a reunion of a broken father and a hurting son.  As I understood him more through those letters, I was free of so much childhood confusion and pain I had carried my whole life.  A few days later I stopped by his grave that I had only been to once in twenty-six years and paid my honest respects to my father.

There was still a hole in my heart for how I never got the chance to thank him at his bedside.  
The chance to heal was in my future, orchestrated by the goodness and mercy of God who knows all things ahead of time.

My father and I never had the chance to speak to each other before he died.  I waited too long to come home.  When I finally got home I immediately left for the hospital frustrated with the gloom everyone was under.  "He is going to be fine!"  I was angry that I had to stop my life for what I was certain was going to be just a hospital stay.  In complete denial I imagined my dad in his hospital bed with a game on and a can of beer at his bedside talking to the guy next to him.  My oldest sister drove me to the hospital and didn't say a word as I went on about all the family drama.  When we got to his floor it was late and the lights were dimmed way down.  I marched down the long, dark hall passing many rooms of dying men expecting to find my father sitting up and walked right past his room.  My sister gently grabbed my sleeve and pulled me back.
"This is dad's room."
I peered into the dark and saw my father from the light of the hallway, his bed was closest to the door.  He was lying completely still.  His thick grey hair was almost gone and his skin was as pale and smooth as porcelain.  He was almost gone. I  took two steps towards his bed and crumpled to the floor in a heap of agony, shame and fear.  On my knees I reached for his hand and sobbed. He had lost so much weight his wedding band was only dangling on his finger.  He never spoke to me, he just sighed and slowly shook his head.  I got up from the floor and tried to speak to him but only managed to cry.  My sister waited patiently without intruding.  My face was buried on my dying father's chest but he was so frail he didn't have the strength to lift a hand to comfort me.  His skin smelled like chemicals and body powder because I had waited so long to come to him even his smell was gone.  We drove back home that evening in silence.  If my sister spoke to me I didn't hear her.

In the few days I had with him I could see it in his eyes that he was struggling with all of his strength to remember who this young man was at his bedside.  He only looked at me and shook his head.  And I was too afraid to talk to him.  I grasped at my Bible but I had zero understanding.  I had no refuge and no comfort from anyone.  I was losing my father.  After painful visits to the hospital I would go to my parents home at night and try to find solace in a bedroom that I had left behind; slowly coming out of my total denial, my body would fold up in a pain that felt like I was being broken in half.

My father died on a night when I went to a movie with a friend and decided to go home afterward and not to the hospital.  It was a horrible decision not to stop and be with my father.  He died alone.  The phone rang at home and I picked it up in our kitchen.  After I knew he was gone I sat alone at a table scratching a fuzzy memory into a journal that I would eventually lose somewhere in my life.  I was past tears as I wrote that night, I only felt shock.  The next morning I went to pick out his casket and the shock continued so my brother-in-law made the transaction.  Later that day a pastor would come over to meet the unfamiliar family he was going to represent over a man he never met.  My father had faith in Christ but it never led to church attendance.  I think it would have been a good conversation between them.  A generous and kind man, the pastor asked us questions and we were thankful for his company.  At some point I asked the pastor if he would care for a drink and he suggested that he would have what we were having. A tough call for me, I hesitated for a moment and then I poured him a stiff vodka and orange juice.  He took a sip and left the rest of the glass untouched.  After conversations and some prayers he left and my mom and my sisters would laugh when I told them what I offered him.  It was the first laugh for everyone in a long while.  It's one of those nervous laughs that is happening even though you are in pain.  A life can be lived out like that.  Things are happening, pleasurable things, necessary things, your life is being lived out but just under all of it there is this tragic, untouched pain that needs to be resolved.

The morning of his funeral I woke up to the sound of a dove loudly cooing on my bedroom window sill and I remembered God's love to me and His great compassion, "God is close to the brokenhearted."  I got through those first few days but it would take decades to heal my shame and the horrible life choices I would make after his body was lowered into the ground.

I often talk about God's intervention in my life.  I have experienced a love, tenderness and a mercy that silences me in awe.  A God of love so rich in grace, I can believe why it will take eternities to thank Him for His many comforts and kindnesses to those He saves.  He has sewn my heart together over and over again with His love.  In His timing and patience, as I floundered through my life, God moved me to Portugal to live with my wife's family where I would love her amazing father.  I was on a course of healing and I did not know it.  Chapters of my walk with God would be written in a strange country, with a different language, far from my own family.  My father-in-law would be a significant character in those chapters.

My father-in-law was Hollywood handsome with a very sharp mind.  There are photos of him throughout his life in Africa where he worked as an assistant-scientist.  Sepia toned photos of a celebrity look-a-like carrying a rifle in the Bush or behind a microscope lay in drawers around the house I moved into. The photos are portraits worthy of a LIFE magazine story of his days in the 1940's and 50's.  He was married to his only wife, an Ava Gardner double, and eventually moved to Portugal with their five  children.  For years the huge house was filled with parties and entertaining.  Their mother loved plants and flowers and they gushed out like fountains running along the drive-way and down staircases and throughout two gardens.  She filled that house with a great big personality and love but she died unexpectedly and tragically on a New Year's Eve and the family suffered an irreplaceable loss.  What I understand about pain now is that it can devour everything in our lives and we have to look for avenues of healing that do not make our pain much worse.  It can be a very treacherous journey and we must be extremely conscious and careful with our choices.  After she died the house caved in to sorrow and loss.  The parties were never as full again.  The flowers would fade away.

Before moving to Portugal from the States I had an encounter with God that was so powerful I assumed I should attend Bible school somewhere and I prayed for the opportunity.  I imagined classrooms and chalkboards as I prayed about this.  Clean shirts and maybe a tie?  God had perspiration in mind.  I would go to the house of my father-in-law and clean up a drive-way and clear dead gardens contaminated by a decade of dog waste.  I would empty out and paint rooms covered in mildew and chaos.  Wash floors and dishes.  Clean toilets.  For over two years I would wrestle day and night in a spiritual war against pain and sorrow that hung over the house like a damp blanket.  Even the Portuguese sun couldn't get deep enough into the house to cut the darkness.  Eventually my wife and I moved into our own home but my mission was partially completed and I knew it with regret and unsatisfactory justifications.  When God began to correct me in my time of terror I went back to that house and to my abandoned Bible school.  Almost seven years of my life had quickly passed me by.

Under the flowers of a Jacaranda tree and surrounded by it's fragrance that I will never forget, I was on my knees pulling up weeds in the drive-way.  The weeds were always a menace in that yard.  In a deep quiet I began to understand my years at that house and my wife's family through different eyes.  My anger, self-righteousness and sense of failure began to wash away and healing came in.  I was filled with gratitude for all that I learned there in those difficult years.  It was a precious time of learning and growth but I was too angry and spiritually immature to appreciate it.  My mission wasn't ever to be about the house, it was about the people who lived under it's roof.  As I cleaned the familiar drive-way again I reflected on my time there, and my heart and mouth.  God was teaching me things I missed there and missed in my life.  I once again thought of my own father and his love for people.  His love for gardens and planting.   His love for flowers.  I remembered the sweat on his face with a rake in his hand.  I begged God to forgive me for despising my father's labor; his gardens, his dirty work boots and his garden tools.  As I stood in the yard with my hands covered with dirt I remembered his compassion for poorer people than my family and his gift of understanding broken hearts.  I remembered his laughter and his many sacrifices for his family, even in his deep emotional pain.  I remembered his hidden love for his only son.  I asked God to forgive me for how I treated my father at the end of his life and how I responded to my failure in later years.  I believe He forgave me but there was a deep wound in me.
Twenty-six years had not been able to heal it.
Time sometimes heals nothing.
We need a second chance.

My father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer.  He began to show signs of illness before his birthday last January.  In less than a year he would become a man who could no longer get out of bed.  His stubborn independence and ability to take care of everyone was now confined to a bed or a chair.  For many months his head hung low toward his chest with his eyes closed, the ability to help his children and do what he always did was leaving him.  The end of his life was now about hospitals and bed care while still trying to give to his family somehow.  How he would give, however, was beyond his ability.  His life's end would be about his children coming together around him while they dealt with the realities and inadequacies we all face with a slow and certain death of a parent.  He was given some time and his grown children had a second chance to be there for each other in their loss this time.  That precious gift was stolen from them when their mother died so suddenly on a night the world parties together.  In the very similar scene of a hospital bed, twenty-six years later, a broken part of my heart and life would also be healed.  I was familiar of the landscape of a father dying with cancer and I was determined not to detach my heart this time.

I watched and prayed for my father-in-law and his children over the months as he slowly left this earth.  I watched them grow and struggle.  I watched them love each other.  I remembered my past failure and I was afraid I would not get the chance to thank my father-in-law for his love, that events somehow would cruelly prevent it.  Two nights before he died I went to his bedside and held his hand. He was awake and alert.  I spoke thanks into his ear for all of his love and his help to me and my family.  My past and present were simultaneous at that moment.  Tears that I never got to share with my own father rolled down my cheeks.  I held his warm hands and kissed him good-bye.

He told me he loved me and a desperate need for healing came into my heart.  They were precious words that I ached for years to hear.

The God of the Bible is the God of reconciliation.  He, a loving Father, gave His only Son Jesus for humanity.  That through the Son we would know the Father and we would know that we are loved and how much we need restoration in every way back to Him.  Lies, pain, pride, self and self-destruction gets in the way but grace is always reaching for us to return and know God alone as Father.  The Author of reconciliation uses grace, forgiveness and perfect truth.  The ingredients are always the same and the dosage is applied carefully.  He knows our pain and our needs individually and meets us personally.  Personally.  No one on this earth knows us like Him and no one can reach into our depths to satisfy us.  That place is reserved for God alone.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the great and terrible day of the Lord, 
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to their children
And the hearts of the children to their fathers, 
Lest I come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4:6

I am so thankful to God for His gift of mercy in my life.  I got a second chance to love a father that gave everything but was shy with his feelings of love.  I ran through the awkwardness this time and loved him.  I was as present as I could have been in his last days but there are emotional weights in our hearts that cannot be lifted until we stand before God and He wipes the tears from our eyes.

I love my father now.  I am so thankful for two excellent but imperfect fathers that God gave to my life; but more importantly than these earthbound graces, late in my life I learned about my Heavenly Father and how much I need Him.  I am finally discovering an intimate, patient and perfect Father who is willing to correct, forgive and bring us all through deep sorrows and lift great burdens.  A Father who teaches me who He is and that I am loved, even though I am nothing more than dust.  I have never been closer to the God I pray to than I am at this time in my life.  I missed so much of my life because of a lie I believed and the poison it caused and I want to renew my heart with truth.  I want to know things and do things that must be done but I have never done them.  I need my Father.  I do not cry to my dead father in my weaknesses and profound needs, I cry out to a Heavenly Father who is alive and present.  A Father that knew my grandfather's grandfathers and knew my father and saw me long before I was born.  In grace and truth He opened my blind eyes to show Himself as Father to me in a way I never knew Him.  He revealed my great need and opened my heart. I pray in desperation for His help and wisdom, and for everything He is willing to give me as a father and a husband, to help me love, and raise our own son so he will know that in spite of my own struggles, he will know that his father loves him.

The house of my father-in-law will be left vacant eventually.
And so will the gardens that I can only hope and pray I grew in.
Those chapters of my life are now over and I look ahead with hope.