Pastor In Residence

As many of you know Naomi Wootton was born 3 weeks ago.  
 
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I’m writing now with her cradled in my arms.  She was asleep by herself just a few minutes ago but started to get upset without fully waking.  As soon as I picked her up and held her she calmed down and went back to sleeping peacefully.  Whatever you might think about parenting strategies for newborns I think you might agree that we all long to be held close in the arms of our father.  It may take some work to get past the difficulties that this broken world has created that might make us fearful of touch and of our fathers, but if we do that work I believe we’ll see that it’s what we’re made for.  We’re made to be held close by our dad.
My dad died when I was 18 and even before I lost the opportunity for him to hold me I didn’t get much of the warmth of his embrace.  He wasn’t particularly touchy feely and was emotionally distant.  Even so, I long for our reunion in heaven when he can hold me close and we can rest in the restoration of father son the way it’s supposed to be.  This, from Lewis’ The Last Battle, is the picture I hold onto.  Tirian and others are with Aslan as he has begun the work of restoring Narnia to the way it should be; they see the Kings, Queens, and heroes of old and Lewis writes this:

… before he (Tirian) had had much time to think of this he felt two strong arms thrown about him and felt a bearded kiss on his cheeks and heard a well remembered voice saying: “What, lad? Art thicker and taller since I last touched thee!” It was his own father, the good King Erlian …

But what about today?  Today is probably not the day for those sweet reunions at the restoration of all things.  So how do we move forward in hope today?

Today I struggle with my future.  Today I struggle to understand God’s provision.  Today I struggle to understand why people tell me that I’m called to ministry but don’t yet have the opportunity to work and provide for my family in that calling.  I’m so very thankful for the opportunity to serve as the Pastor in Residence at Grace Covenant in Williamsburg.  If you didn’t read my previous letter about that please do read that now.  You can find it here on this blog I’ve tried to get started. 

I need to be reminded that today I am being held by The Father.  I need to be reminded today that God hasn’t left me, that he knows where and when I’ll serve, and he remembers his promise to provide.

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.  – Psalm 138:8

I need your help with this.  I need you to pray for me as I continue to search for a call.  I’ve had a dozen or so good conversations with Pastors who are looking for another pastor to come alongside and help them in their work.  It’s encouraging to hear what God is doing across the country.  It’s tough when it’s clear that that opportunity is not God’s plan for me and my family.

Please pray that the right opportunity to serve in my calling and giftedness would come along soon.

I also need your financial support.  To work as a Pastor in Residence my family is dependent on your gifts, and they all help, no matter how small.  Would you consider giving as little as $10?

If you’re able to give, your tax deductible donation to Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church can be given through the link here through PayPal, a guaranteed secure method of on-line giving.

You can also send a check made out to Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (Memo line; PIR) to,

Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1677 Jamestown Rd.
Williamsburg, VA 23185

Thank you for taking the time to read through all of this, please take a moment to pray for us now. 

In the Peace of Christ,

Rob

Tragedy … 23 years later

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Monday a week ago was the 23rd anniversary of my father’s death.  I’ll tell you that story now. A warning before you read on, it may not be safe for work, unless you’re ok with crying at your desk.

The picture above was taken sometime around 1975, but you probably could have figured that out from my dad’s hairstyle and sweet belt buckle.  You astute observers and those that know me a little may have noticed that I am eating something out of a Redskins’ mug.  Though my parents may have been influenced by the Redskins proximity, growing up in Virginia, I resisted and rebelled turning to the dark side. I’ve been a Cowboys fan for about 3 decades now.

Monday before last, on the anniversary of his death, I didn’t feel anything in particular.  I wasn’t particularly sad or upset.  There wasn’t any coldness or avoidance of it either.  It’s been 23 years.  There are still times now that I may feel the loss of my father but it doesn’t affect me the way it did say 20 years ago.  I’ve often pointed out to people, that a significant loss like this you don’t get over.  I’m not over my father’s death.  I haven’t moved on.  I’m changed. I’m different.  I still have that scar, it’s just healed and I don’t think about it as often.

To tell the story of my dad’s death I need to say a little about who he was and how we grew up.  My dad’s father was not a good father and probably not a good man.  He died when I was three and I’m told that he loved having a grandson and doted on me.  I’m also told that he came to faith on his deathbed.  He died of liver cancer that came about from his drinking.  My grandfather’s legacy lives on today.  He retired a Brigadier General in the Air Force and was very demanding of his boys, my dad and uncle.  They were expected to perform academically and athletically.  My father excelled as a swimmer and swam at Georgetown. My uncle played football and then rugby at the University of Virginia.  Through all of that my father and uncle never really knew the love of their father.

What that did for my dad, and my uncle to a lesser extent, was sent him to pursuing more and more extreme adventures.  The short of it is that my father lived like he was more lovable if he was doing the most extreme things he could.  He was an adrenaline junkie before that label existed.  He also learned with an alcoholic father that you hide your emotions and feelings, and that eventually you even hide them from yourself.  When you jump off a cliff you feel. You feel alive like you don’t most of the rest of your life.  I believe that it’s the same reason people watch horror movies.  I think it’s why people cut.  Those things, extreme sports included, allow us to feel something when the rest of the time we feel dead inside.

So I grew up with stories of my uncle, father, and their cousin Bill’s extreme adventures.  Jumping off of cliffs and bridges, racing and wrecking cars and motorcycles, hang gliding, parachuting, white water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing.  And I was discipled into this family lifestyle.  It was normal for me growing up to participate in these extreme activities even as a young child.  I remember when I was around 10 and my sister 6 that we were riding our bikes along some railroad track, and we came to a trestle that spanned a small gorge.  We rode across. It certainly wasn’t designed for pedestrian access. Right as I had gotten across, and my dad and sister were only about 2/3 of the way, we heard a train approaching.  My dad had to pick up my sister and run to make it across in time.

Another time when my sister and I were roughly the same age we walked across the Roanoke damn.  Another place not designed for pedestrian access, we had to climb over a 10 foot chain link fence to gain access.  The damn itself was about 12 feet wide and rounded on both sides.  On one side was the lake the damn had created, and the other side had a 300 foot drop to broken rocks below.  In the middle there was a spillway where the water cascaded over.  I remember walking through that rushing water, making sure that I was on the lakeside, and even though it was only a few inches deep and not really strong, I remember being pretty scared all the while.

I look back on those things now and think how incredibly stupid and irresponsible my father was for taking us with him on these adventures.  But when you grow up in that environment you figured out how to live in the midst of the adrenaline junkie life.

I was 18 when my father died.  Spiritually speaking it had already been an eventful year.  I had come to faith through Young Life just 10 months prior to my dad’s death.  My uncle, in March of the year my dad died, recommitted his life to Christ.  In May of that year my paternal grandmother called my uncle and said, “I just realized that I’m a sinner, I knew your father was, but I always thought that I was ok.”  My grandmother at the age of 72 recognized her need for a savior and accepted the love of Jesus.  Just a few months before that, my father had gone on a men’s retreat with our church.

The moment he walked in the door, coming home from the retreat, is one of my fondest memories of my father.  There was nothing unusual about what he had on, a long sleeve teal t-shirt that he had gotten from running a 10k. It had Michelob written all over it as one of the sponsors of the race.  He had on a pair of tan corduroys that were so worn and thread bear that you could almost see through them in some places.  My father was a very thrifty man and didn’t care much about what he wore, which explained his shoes.  They were a pair of royal blue and bright yellow Nike waffle sole shoes from the 70’s.  Today they’re in style, retro cool, back in 1990, not so much.  But back in the 70’s there had been such a good sale on these shoes that he bought 3 pairs and some 15 years later he was on the last of those three having worn out the previous 2.  All of this was normal attire for my dad. What wasn’t normal was the big wooden cross, like 8 inches long, hanging around his neck from a rainbow-colored piece of yarn.  There was more though. When he walked in he had a huge smile on his face, not that smiling was particularly unusual for him but he did tend to be a pretty serious man.  As soon as he walked in through the garage door into the dining room, he came right over to each of us with his huge smile and gave each of us a big hug.  And again, hugs weren’t completely unusual but it certainly wasn’t the norm.  I can picture the entire scene right now, and am thankful that this memory has been preserved.

A few months after my father died I received a letter from the man who had seemingly led my father to Christ on that retreat.  The letter was brief and said only that he thought that I would like to have the postcard that my dad had sent him after the retreat.  Here it is.

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Did you know that there are quite a few papyri fragments of the New Testament dating back to the 2nd c.?  And the latest report is that there has been one found that dates back to the 1st c.  You can read about that and its implications on our understanding of the bible and what it says here.  Imagine reading the actual letter that Paul sent to the Romans. Wouldn’t that change the way you thought about what it said?

That’s kind of what this feels like for me.  I have, in my dad’s hand writing, a note that says the Spirit lives in me and will forever.  I know that many people do not have the same confirmation about their loved one’s faith though they doubt it no less.  Yet I am blessed to have this and as I retell the story of his death it is a great comfort to me.

I was preparing to start my freshman year at VCU and my mom and sister had moved to Mississippi for a the job my mom had just accepted.  My dad was staying in Virginia a little longer to sell our house and wrap up his work as well as seeing me off to school.  We lived in Roanoke and were about a half hour’s drive from Smith Mountain Lake.  We had a little ski boat and we would go about every week during the summer to the lake to ski and play in the water.  I mentioned that my dad swam at the collegiate level and my sister and I both grew up on the swim team. We were all excellent swimmers and had no fear of the water whatsoever.  At the place where we would put our boat in there were these cliffs that were popular for jumping off of into the water.  They were about 50 feet high and every trip to the lake included jumping off of them.  As far as jumping off of a 50 foot cliff goes it was as safe as it could get.  The water was plenty deep and it was a straight drop from cliff’s edge to the water, there were no outcroppings that needed to be cleared.  I did it and I enjoyed it, but I had to psyche myself up for each jump.  When you’re standing on top of something it looks a lot further from the top looking down than it does from the bottom looking up, especially as you consider hurling yourself into that void of space.  My dad however, showed no fear as he made that jump.  He would run and jump.  He would climb a tree to get another 20 feet into the jump.  He couldn’t get enough of the adrenaline that it provided and like any drug it took more and more to satisfy.

Our next adventure, and the more satisfying jump, was to be a train trestle that we figured to be about 100 feet off the water.  It was easily accessible by boat and we checked it out a couple of different times.  The water was at least 35 feet deep directly under the bridge and there were no obstructions.  I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have even considered jumping off something that high but my dad was particularly excited.  The week prior to his death we were over at my Young Life leader’s house for dinner and I remember the enthusiasm of his demeanor and in his voice as he told them about the possibility of jumping off this bridge.

It was Sunday August 19th, 1990 and the summer and my childhood were coming to a close.  In two days I was supposed to show up for freshman orientation at VCU.  I don’t remember if we went to church that day.  I remember riding in the passenger seat of our big black Chevy van as we towed the boat to the lake.  I remember an overwhelming sense of anxiety as I sat there on our 30 minute drive from home to lake.  I asked my dad if we had forgotten the key again.  Earlier that summer we had gotten all the way to the lake and had put the boat in the water when we realized that we didn’t have the key, my dad drove back to get it while I waited in the boat for over an hour.  He assured me that we had the key this time but my anxiety didn’t dissipate.  I didn’t connect my anxiety to the prospect of jumping off the bridge.

When we got the boat in the water and started off across the lake my dad asked if we should ski first or jump off the bridge first.  We decided to jump first and even joked about how it could ruin our day of skiing if it didn’t go well.

We got to the bridge and checked the depth of the water again and swam around to see if any trees had floated in making it an unsafe jump.  It’s curious to me how careful my dad could be about so many things yet willing to risk so much to get his fix of adrenaline.  It really does paint the picture of addiction.

My dad wanted to go first, I think he was even beginning to understand how serious a risk this was and wanted to make sure he did it and it was safe before he sent his son up.  We had tied the boat to the big concrete bridge support that was coming out of the water and he climbed up the bank.  It probably took him 10 or 15 minutes to scramble up the side and walk out to the middle of the bridge.  I was treading water and was about 25 yards from where my dad would go in.  I was there to make sure he was in the right place and to be able to help if there was a problem.

I think my dad was overwhelmed at how high he was above the water.  I learned later that the trestle was about 120 feet off the water.  I think when he looked down and thought about jumping that he realized that this was far more serious than anything he had ever done.  I think he had to psyche himself up to have the courage to make that step into the void.  What I know is that he ended up leaning forward before his feet left the bridge.  It was like he couldn’t convince his body to do something so outrageous and his feet stayed put even when his mind said go.

He fell at about a 45 degree angle, leaning forward.  He knew that it wasn’t good and so did I.  He was waving his arms around and I was yelling at him to straighten up.

I’ve done the math in my head over and over again throughout the years.  120 feet = 36.5 meters / 9.8 meters per second.  Under 4 seconds.  That’s all he had to try to correct his position.  I’ve also in my head over and over again through what if he had … what if I had …

He hit the water at about that 45 degree angle, he couldn’t correct his lean.  There was a huge splash.  The coroner said that the impact probably knocked him unconscious.  The coroner also said that he had severe bruising along his torso and head from the impact with the water.

My dad liked to brag about how he didn’t float.  Throughout most of my growing up he was pretty fit and when he had died he had recently run his first marathon.  He dreamed of competing in the Iron Man Triathlon.  He didn’t float that day.

I was about 25 yards away.  As a competitive swimmer, and being pretty fit myself at the time, I know how long it took me to cover 25 yards, less than 15 seconds.  As soon as he hit the water I started sprinting towards him.  When I got to the place where he went under I took a quick breath and dove.

I remember clearly the sun trying to pierce through the murky green water of Smith Mountain Lake.  I remember the pressure in my chest as I tried to swim further down and frantically looking around for my dad. I remember looking for bubbles trying to find him.  I remember the fear as I had to go up to get another breath and dove down again.

I came up a second time and screamed for a boat that I saw in the distance to come help. They came over and dropped off two guys who just floated there in their life jackets as the boat went to get help.  I screamed at them to do something but they just looked at me seemingly paralyzed.  They never said a word.

I climbed up onto the bridge support and I sat there with my back against the steel beam, my elbows on my knees, and my head in my hands.  I was in shock.  It didn’t make sense. It had been at least 5 minutes since he went under.  I said out loud, “My dad is dead.” And I had to say it again out loud because it was too surreal, “My dad is dead.”

I don’t remember the next hour or so, nothing, that hour is gone.  I was in such shock that I didn’t see the boat come back.  The next thing I remember is standing in our boat with a park ranger looking at my dad’s driver’s license.  It was as if seeing his picture snapped me back into reality.  I looked around and there were at least a half dozen boats there and one of them was this little green John boat with two guys in it who were dragging the bottom with this awful grappling hook device.  When I saw that I turned to the park ranger and said that if they found him with that hook that I couldn’t be here.  The park ranger took me to a marina where I called my Young Life leader and he and a guy that I was in a bible study with came and picked me up from the lake.

This story has taken longer to write than I expected.  I’ve told it many times but never written it out.  I’ll tell you about the rest of that day and week and some about that first semester at VCU in my next post.  It’s a story about mourning and grief, about the Church being the Church and loving me and my family well, and mostly about God again proving himself faithful to his children.  Thanks for reading.

… the house was dark …

I was sitting in one of those early 70’s, olive-green, velvet arm chairs.  It had the brass tacks along the front of the arms that had developed a dark brown patina.  I was five years old and I don’t remember all the details, but I had gotten off the bus from kindergarten by myself and walked the block or two home. I remember sitting there crying, I remember that the house was dark, that no one else was home, and that I had let myself in with the key on a shoelace around my neck.

My first job out of college was doing campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.  Right out of college I was making my own schedule and had the flexibility when my kids were young to be there when I needed to.  We had a regular babysitter at times as my ex-wife was working but her job was also flexible.

My parents didn’t have that luxury.  My dad was working as a youth counselor for the Department of Corrections and my mom as a nurse.  Their schedules were set and didn’t offer the kind of flexibility that would allow them to be there when I got off the bus and got home from school.  I don’t remember other times when I had to let myself in during that period.  I don’t know if that day that I sat crying in the foyer was an anomaly, but it is a memory that stands out.  I have other memories from those early years in Richmond, playing Star Wars with friends Tyson and Will, riding bikes and big wheels with kids in the neighborhood, sledding in the park, but those don’t seem to be the type of memories that shape you in the same way and affect the way that you relate to others.

I felt all alone.  I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be alone.  Of course I couldn’t have articulated all of that, I was just a very upset five-year old kid.

I’ve never talked with my mom about that day.  My father had been gone for many years before I even began to consider the implications of this as one of my earliest memories.  I don’t know what the exact circumstances were that got me there.  I don’t want my mom to feel bad about that, I don’t want her to have to feel like she has to defend herself, or make excuses.  I don’t feel the need to confront her with this and say something like, “How could you?!”  I’m not angry, maybe I should be.  Maybe I’m the one making excuses for my mom and dad.  Maybe I should demonstrate some sense of righteous anger towards the circumstances that led my parents to the place where they had to make the decision to let their little boy take care of himself at such a young age.  Maybe I should be angry that my parents didn’t make the sacrifices necessary to be there.  Maybe I should be angry because when you’re angry you can then recognize the offense and then forgive those who offended.  Or maybe I have forgiven my parents.

I wrote above that I felt all alone and I wrote above that I never talked to my mom about that day.  These are the two points that stick with me, I was alone and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.  Of course as a five-year old I wasn’t going to go to my mom or dad and say, “You know coming home alone today was really awful, I don’t like that.  Is there some way we can change things so that it doesn’t have to happen again?”  No five-year old could articulate that and unfortunately I was never taught how to do that.  The ability to express my feelings was never modeled for me.  I was rarely, if ever, asked about my emotional life as a child.  I didn’t get those relational and emotional tools and I know that that’s one thing that I am not alone in.

I think to my kids at five years old. Did I ask them how they were feeling?  Did I encourage them to share what they thought and felt about their day?  Did I give them words to use so they could name their emotions?  I want my kids to talk with me and so I have through the years asked them what the best and worst part of whatever it is their dealing with.  What was the best part of the trip?  What was the worst part of the trip?  By asking them both questions I’m encouraging them to share with me the good and the bad with the hope that when the time comes to talk about deeper issues the pattern for sharing has already been established.

My father was very distant emotionally.  It was often joked by many people in and outside of our family that he was like Spock on Star Trek. I remember watching the original TV show with him as a little kid and even gave him a Spock doll for his birthday one year, I believe it was around the same time of life that I wrote about above.  If you’re not familiar with who Spock is and the connection to being emotionally distant then you need to get out more, seriously, with the new movies and the all the press that Leonard Nimoy has gotten out of it how could you not know what I’m talking about.

My dad grew up in a difficult home.  His father, who died when I was 3, was an alcoholic and that wreaks havoc in a family for generations to come.  I’ll write about that and my father more later but it all played a big part in him not being able to name his own emotions and model for me and my sister what it means to engage on an emotional level.

What’s the point of writing all this?  I think to say that not learning to understand or express my emotions and feelings as a child, although not abnormal for my generation, significantly affected every relationship that I’ve ever had.  From it I learned to hide, hide what I thought, hide what I felt, and hide what I did.  It never felt safe to express anything.  It was painful in my household as a kid to say I love you.  We were not very affectionate physically.  I don’t remember many hugs.

Some of this could be explained perhaps by differing personality types or not speaking the same love languages and these are valid points, but there’s more to it than that and the emotional life of our children is an often neglected part of our parenting responsibilities. Although I am of the personality type that makes decision based on feelings, I have had a hard road learning how to express what I feel and knowing that it is ok to express what I feel.

I’ve done some woodworking lately, I made my and Robin’s wedding rings, rings for my kids and others, and I’ve made a couple of necklaces for Robin and my daughter out of a few exotic woods like Ebony, Holly, African Blackwood, Teak, and Mahogany.  I’ve used a variety of tools both hand tools and power tools.  When I use the power sanders they’re fast but you can’t be very careful with them and you can’t get things as smooth as you can with a piece of fine sandpaper and your hand.  With the power tools you also don’t get the same handcrafted feel that comes from the careful pressure of your hand.

I have never felt more secure and loved in my life the way that I do with Robin yet the patterns set in my childhood are deeply engraved and sanding down that far to make things smooth again takes a lot of work.  It still hurts sometimes to say to Robin, “I’m not ok”. I know that she doesn’t expect me to be ok.  I know that even if she’s not ok that it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me.  I even know that if she’s upset with me that it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me. Yet it’s still difficult to be as open as I want to be and should be as her husband.

I guess my hope in this is to rest and trust in the hands of the Master Craftsman who has guided everything in my life.  That in His time he is working everyday in my life as he sands down not only the rough edges, but as he lovingly polishes me to make me more and more beautiful, the way I was created to be.  There are times when He has had to use tools that did not feel particularly gentle but the tool he’s using the most right now is the love of my wife and I couldn’t be more encouraged about His work in my life right now.

And I trust that he is doing that in Robin’s life, and my children’s lives, making them more beautiful in His time, and in your life as well.

Are you content?

In my first post I asked this question, “How do I tell my story well?”  How do I do this in a way that’s honoring to all involved?  How do I speak the truth in love?  I think this gets at the bigger questions of, How do you make sense of your life?  How do you make sense of all that’s happened to you?  All you’ve suffered?  All your success?  The Apostle Paul writes this in the 4th chapter of the New Testament book Philippians,

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”

What’s the secret to contentment?  I believe the answer to that questions comes in part from how we deal with the ugly parts of our story, the hard parts, the parts we don’t like to think about, the things we wished hadn’t happened, what happened to you when you were a kid, that mistake you made as a teenager, that one event, whenever it was, that you’re trying now not to think about.  Maybe it was abuse, maybe you were the abuser, perhaps it was the death of a parent or child.  You lost your job, you lost your spouse, you lost …

If you haven’t lost anything, if life goes easy on you most of the time, maybe you’re running, maybe you’re hiding, maybe you’re afraid to tell of your losses, maybe now’s not the time.

If it is, if it is the time now to look at your life and make sense of everything, how will you tell your story?

I’ve suffered a lot of loss and I struggle to be content.  We all in this culture struggle to live in contentment.  We are constantly bombarded with the hope of a better life found in the bigger house, the cooler car, the newer phone, the list goes on …  I tend to think that if I found the right job that I’ll finally be content in life and able to move on.  How do I move on?  This blog is called – How did I get here?  Where am I going?

To answer these questions there are three different paths I can follow.

Path 1 – “It’s all their fault!”

Well, at least mostly their fault, right? On this path blame falls to others.  And why not!  I have been wronged.  So have you.  So let’s go down this path.  My parents failed me.  My mentors have failed me.  My ex-wife failed me.  If they had done what they were supposed to, or not done that which they shouldn’t have done, then I wouldn’t be in this place that I am now and have suffered the way I have.  And these statements are true.  It’s an attractive path to follow because when I go down this road then I don’t have to look at the bad choices that I’ve made and when I do I get to say, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if they hadn’t done this.”  On this path of blame I don’t have to sit in the reality of my own brokenness, I can focus on others.

The problem with this path is that it leads to bitterness and anger.  You can’t focus on what others have done wrong and not get angry.  In fact I’d argue that you have to get angry if you look at other’s wrongs but when you get there by assessing blame it will always leave you discontent.  You’ll constantly be looking for people to blame.  So what do you do? How do you break out of this cycle of blame?  What if you have been wronged and you’ve never gotten the vindication that you think you deserve? How do you recognize if you tend to always play the victim?  Are you an angry person? Does everything set you off?  When you get cut off in traffic, when your neighbor at Starbucks is hogging the table, when the guy waiting for his coffee takes yours because he’s in a hurry, … . How long does it take you to recover?  Do you hold onto grudges or do your forgive easily?

To be honest with you I don’t spend a lot of time on this path and it’s not because I’m a better person than those who do a lot of the blame game.  I don’t spend a lot of time on the “It’s all their fault” path or in anger because I get sucked into Path 2.  There are times when I’m angry for sure and very few people chose one path or the other exclusively, we jump back and forth, but we tend to spend more time on one than the other.

Path 2 – “Why am I such a failure?”

On this path you heap it all on yourself.  Instead of the path of blame this is the path of shame.  On this path you quickly move from I have done something wrong to I am wrong. You may acknowledge that others have wronged you but you can’t help but think that if you had been better, if you had been stronger, if you hadn’t done what you did then they wouldn’t have done what they did.  This is the path of depression instead of anger.  This is the path of introspection that turns to despair.  You see your failures and they haunt you and it becomes difficult to move on, it may become difficult to get out of bed, it may move from introspection to clinical depression and if this is the case for you please get help.  I know, I’ve been there, long-term stress can change the chemistry in your brain and you get caught in this cycle.  If you know someone who may be caught in this, help them, love them, encourage them to talk to a doctor.  Most primary care physicians now will prescribe an antidepressant that can help break this cycle.  Maybe their brain just needs a break from the stress that the drugs can offer, or maybe their brain is broken and needs ongoing medication in the same way that someone with heart disease needs on going medication. What you don’t do is tell them that they need to just get up and stop worrying so much.

You can’t help people by telling that they need to just stop doing whatever it is they’re doing that you think isn’t healthy.  This 5 or so minute clip makes the point well.  You can’t just stop it, worrying, condemning yourself.  You can’t just stop the fear, the anxiety, the pain.  You can’t just will it way and if you think that you have then there’s a good chance that you’re not being honest with your emotional life.

So what you do you do?  There is of course a third way, a third path.

Path 3 – “How is this being redeemed?”

re·deem  – /riˈdēm/ – Verb – Compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something) synonyms – ransom – rescue – save – deliver

Instead of blaming others and growing in anger or blaming yourself and falling into shame what if you ask what good can come out of the difficulties I have faced.

A word of caution before I go on.  In crisis or grief this is not a helpful question to ask someone.  Please don’t take this to your friend who’s suffering and tell them that what they need to do is to focus on the positive, that is not what I’m saying.  For someone in crisis or grief go and sit with them, let them know that you’re there and that you love them and then shut up! Seriously, don’t offer advice or anything other than you quiet non-anxious presence.

But for you as you consider your own story, for me, when I look at all that’s happened, do I blame, or sit in shame, or do I wait to see how my experiences of pain and suffering will turn into a life more beautiful than if I hadn’t gone through them.

My wife Robin would not have married me if I hadn’t suffered emotional, spiritual, and sexual neglect in my childhood, (yes, neglect, it’s a post for another day), if I hadn’t struggled through sexual addiction, had I not gone through depression, divorce, cancer, joblessness, hopelessness.  She wouldn’t have said yes to the man who had not suffered in these ways and I would not have been the man that I am.

So, there it is, one example of how my story is being made more beautiful but there’s more. There’s more than just, “It will work out, you’ll see.”  The more is that your suffering can make you more beautiful, more attractive, more enjoyable, but it can also leave you angry, bitter, and depressed.

Which path are you on?  Which path am I on?

I hope in this blog to write about how I’ve been wronged with forgiveness as the motivation and goal.  I hope to write about my failures with repentance and confession as the driving force behind me.  I hope to look at where I’ve been and where I’m going with the hope of redemption and beauty.  I hope …

WHOSE DOG IS THIS?!

I was in my Father’s arms crying as he stormed into a Baskin Robin’s that we had walked to near our home in Richmond Virginia. I was three years old and this is my earliest memory. 

I grew up with a German Shepard/Collie mix named Rusty.  He was a great dog and he shepherded his little flock, me and my sister, well.  When we were little and playing in the front yard Rusty would herd us away from the street and keep careful watch over his little lambs.  Rusty died of old age when I was 14 years old and I have tears in my eyes now as I think of his death and how difficult that was for me, but that’s a blog for another day.  I mention Rusty because I grew up with big dogs, and for the first decade of life I had a big fluffy dog.

So, at three years old, when I walked up to Baskin Robin’s excited to get ice cream, holding my father’s hand, I thought nothing of and had no fear of going up to the Husky tied up outside.  He was another big fluffy dog like my Rusty, but as I reached out my little chubby hand to pet this fluffy dog he snapped at my face and bit me in the cheek.  I don’t know if it bled, I know there were no lasting scars, but I was scared, in pain, and crying.  My father scooped me into his arms and charged into the Baskin Robin’s.  I can still picture it today, almost 40 years later.  It was a deep narrow store, you know the kind in a shopping center where when you walk in the door there are a couple of two person tables on the wall on your left and the counter and the ice cream cabinets on your right.  In the back there are six or eight more tables.  It was a warm summer night in Richmond, which means high humidity and when ice cream seems like a good idea for everyone so the place was crowded.

I can hear the anger in my dad’s voice as he yells, “Whose dog is this?!”  It was a righteous anger because his son had been hurt.  I don’t remember what happened after that, I don’t even remember if I got any ice cream.  I have a vague memory of a man talking with my dad about the dog.  Maybe the dog had never bitten anyone before and never did again.  Maybe since it was a Husky and it was a warm summer night he was irritated because it was hot and he was so fluffy.  I do know that my father shouldn’t have let me go near a dog I didn’t know but maybe he greeted the dog first and judged it to be safe, that’s what I would have done, and have done many times as I introduce my kids to dogs.  Maybe the dog didn’t have experiences with kids.  None of those things really matter, it doesn’t even matter that it didn’t affect my love of dogs, my dad did make sure that it didn’t in the years to come.  What matters is that my dad was there, that he held me when I needed him to, and that he wouldn’t just let it go, that he demanded someone take responsibility for what happened.

It could have been an awful first memory but instead it’s one of my most encouraging.  My father died tragically when I was 18, I watched him drown and there was nothing I could do to save him, I’ll write a lot more about that and my father later, but I have this memory and I know how much he loved his little boy.

I’ve faced a lot of difficulties, my dad’s death, my divorce, cancer, job loss, and it all feels like death.  Through it all I know that my Father has held me close and hasn’t let the injustice of death go unreconciled.  There have been dark days when I’ve even cursed my Father God but even still he hasn’t let me go.  He reconciled all the death in my life by dying himself, by facing the crowd and saying, “This is my son, and so he can live, I will die.”

What’s your story?

When I first meet someone and it seems like there’s time to have a conversation I’ll often start with, “So, what’s your story Ben?”

(I know a couple of Ben’s but I don’t remember if I’ve done this with either of them, this is just an example, but you get that right?)

When I ask this question I often get a bemused smile or look of confusion, every once in a while I’ll get a look of terror because Ben, or whomever, realizes that I’m not satisfied with just hearing about what they do for a living or where they’re from. Often times I’ll get the more mundane about what they do and where they’re from but sometimes I get more, a lot more, and I’m honored that people share their lives with me.

Several people have asked me to share what I’ve learned over the past few years because of the trials I’ve gone through, closing a church plant, divorce, and cancer being the most notable But to do that well I’ll need to share more than just the last few years, I’ll need to go back as far as I can remember and even look into my family history, that family of origin thing that counselors tend to want to talk about.

So, how do I tell my story?

How do I do it well, in a way that’s respectful to those whose stories have crossed my own?

My life is profoundly shaped by others, my dad, mom, uncle, my ex-wife, my children, pastors, friends, my wife Robin, and many others.

I have chosen self-destructive paths and others in their selfishness have made choices that caused damage in my life. As Christians we say that we have sinned and been sinned against and then made sinful choices in response. It keeps going on and on, but all is not dark and there is much hope and light as well. My hope is to share both the joys and sorrows of my life, how I’ve been blessed by others and how I have been wronged as well. I don’t share how other’s have hurt me to place blame, I am responsible for everything that has happened in my life, and I believe that God is in control of it all. I do this to understand how I got here and where I’ll be going. This isn’t about anyone but me, but I hope along the way that others will be encouraged, helped, and challenged.

If you’d like to dialogue with me along the way I’d be honored to answer any question you have, though I may not be able to answer as fully as you might like. Sometimes I’ll do it publicly, other times I’ll take it off-line. Either way I’d love your help, I don’t want to do anything alone and am so very encouraged to have people in my life with whom to walk.

I may at times, some more often than not, take a break from telling my story to write about other things on my mind, you know, like many a blog out there, including my favorite writer.