Letters from Jail #5 Part 2 of 3*

The following are excerpts from letters I wrote while serving a 360-day sentence in Hopkins County Jail in Kentucky. Normally, I edit and arrange the material for readability, but this month I offer it to you in chronological order with little editing.

My purpose for these excerpts is to: first recognize the grace of God under very different circumstances, open a window into my thoughts and struggles that may relate to yours, and hope that you may be moved to empathize for the jailed and mentally ill.

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June 14, 2013

It’s about 3:30 AM. Once again, I’m wide awake – actually I haven’t been to sleep. My thoughts are filled with prayers on the behalf of others and for my own concerns. It’s quiet except for an occasional turning and snoring.

Yesterday, I started reading a short book called, The Wounded Healer. I’d heard of it but never before read it. The author writes of compassion as being able to feel the joy and sorrow of others as if they were your own. He states that compassion is being able to recognize yourself in the actions of others – good or bad. I don’t suppose he meant we literally had to go to jail to feel empathy for the prisoner, but here I am. (lol) I like the quote, “Those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring, and superficial life.” No one would accuse me of having a “boring” life. : )

In your last letter, you spoke of being a “simple” person. Yet, I find you deep in faith, profound in wisdom, and beautiful in character. Simplicity is awe inspiring when adorned with grace. You have a generous kindness and an utter selflessness about you. Your gift of seeing to the heart of people’s pain and nursing them with empathy is so engaging. Your ability to bring comfort to a hurting soul and ease an awkward moment is wonderful. You listen without judgement and correct without condemnation. Perhaps, you are without complexity, but it is the most beautiful and attractive simplicity I have ever observed.

My brother stopped by yesterday to take care of practical things. He is now my POA. Poor guy, I gave him a four-page to-do-list. He also said that my divorce attorney has received a proposal. I’m inclined to give her what she wants.

My children are still alienated from my side of the family. Thank you for praying for them. A_____ is preparing for the ministry and I don’t want him to have a black hole in his soul.

Pastor Ron H_____ came by today and I was able to ask him to intervene on my behalf regarding the work program. He appeared to understand and said he would do what he could. God’s will be done. Contentment till then.

How blessed I am. In the book I’m reading the author wrote, “No man can stay alive when nobody is waiting for him.” Again, “A man can keep his sanity…as long as there is at least one person who is waiting for him.” I have you, R_____, my brothers, R_____, and others. Thank God.

Sincerely,

Jay

May the LORD be with you.

*Because of the length of this letter, I have divided it into three posts. Monday November 27, 2017, Wednesday November 29, 2017 and Friday December 1, 2017. Thank you for reading.

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Contradictions Revisited

Image result for contradictionsMy writer’s group thought that my article, Contradictions, last week lacked a connection between contradictions and expectations and they felt that the conclusion lacked connection between the aforementioned subjects and a neat wrap-up to the whole. Therefore, without regurgitating the original Contradictions, I want to try to revisit the subject for the purpose of clarity and connection.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2016 I was attempting to make amends to people I had harmed and repair friendships that had been damaged or broken. To that end I joined Facebook – after a three-year absence – and sent emails and letters. In several instances I was disappointed, hurt, and disillusioned by the response. One person I sent a letter to responded with a phone call extending forgiveness, but then proceeded to justify all his/her actions leading up to our break. I was disappointed and angry. The self-justification was unnecessary. It left me feeling like I had worked and processed my words and actions from the past, accepted responsibility for the same, made thorough admission of my guilt, sincerely apologized, and sought reconciliation for nothing. S/He responded in a way that left me believing that s/he had no confidence in my growth, no culpability in the whole affair, and had performed perfectly. It was not the response I had expected or wanted to hear. (Thankfully, after several more gentle and earnest attempts, the relationship is mending.)

In another letter I sent I recalled the close friendship this person and I had shared and some of the humorous and serious moments we experienced together. In the letter I asked him/her what I had done to him/her for him/her to not respond to me in my hour of need. The reply I received thanked me for the recollection of good memories and abruptly ended there. Not only was there no response to the questions I asked, there was no acknowledgement of them at all. Within days of receiving his/her letter s/he published an article on his/her blog about the need for a fallen Christian to embrace the church rather than run away from it. S/He used words and phrases like “safety,” “embrace,” “a place to grow,” a place where one can have the “freedom to fall and get back up again,” and a “community (where the fallen one) could have … an opportunity to flourish in faith and life,” The contradiction of his/her words and actions were dark clouds, pouring rain, heavy winds, and stormy seas to my mind, soul, and spirit.

S/He is not the only Christian who turned away from me. The community of Christians from which s/he came and of which I had been a part for 25 years did not reach out to me either. Not one person from that fellowship has ever asked me what happened or ever attempted to contact me in any of the myriad of ways one person can get in touch with another these days. Furthermore, when I attempted to befriend people from the Christian communities of my past – going back to my childhood – on Facebook, I was ignored or blocked by a host of them. (I thank God for the Christian people – mostly from my adolescent years – who embraced me, loved me, expressed confidence in me, and helped me in so many ways.)

You see, I have certain expectations of people, especially those who profess to be a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. I not only have these expectations of them, but also hold myself to the same standard. If I announce to all that I have a certain and clear set of values, then you have a certain expectation that I will adhere to them. The same is true of me to you, I expect you to be what you profess to be. It is at this very point where expectations and contradictions converge. When you or I do not live up to the system of beliefs we profess, you and I are disappointed, disillusioned, hurt, and yes, even angry.

As I mentioned last week, contradictions of our expectations come from a variety of sources. There is/are . . .

  • Accidental and unaware contradictions. We are human and we are bound to say one thing and do another some point in our lives. For me, it has been several times I am sure.
  • Rethought positions. Beliefs that change with careful study of the original sources from which our belief systems flow.
  • Immature thinking on a subject. Beliefs often change with time, experience, and maturity.
  • Blind spots. These are words and actions that are unknown, unintentional, and unawares to us that contradict our stated standards. Others may see it in you, but you do not see it in yourself. It awaits revelation.
  • Blatant contradictions. These are known, intentional, and purposeful violations of ones stated belief system.

It is this last category that causes me the most irritation. It concerns me when Christians profess to believe in forgiveness and reconciliation and fail to do either. When they profess to embrace 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (NKJV) and fail to accept that in another. I have come to believe that the Christian community at large has a systemic issue with reclaiming their failing or fallen brother or sister in Christ. This appears to be especially true of any who sin in a dramatic or public way that embarrasses the Church or betrays its trust. At this point the Church appears to actually become hostile, critical, condemning, unforgiving, and unwelcoming. The lost sheep is not sought and the prodigal cannot return home. I will not be the judge of the intentions of others, but when it is happening to you it is hard to feel that it is not intentional.

It is a bit tricky to recognize when my expectations are mine alone and not related to a larger scheme. In my first illustration regarding the phone call I received in reply to my letter, this is the case. I had no right to expect this person to respond in the manner that I thought s/he should. The hurt and anger were of my own making because I set myself up to expect one reply and received another. I still do not like the response, but it did not necessarily violate a dearly held set of values.

However, the second illustration is, I think, an example of a person acting contrary to his/her stated standards. Instead of “safety,” and all the other things contained within his/her writing, I found coldness, disinterest, lack of concern, distance, and a refusal to engage. I will leave it to God to judge whether these were blind spots or blatant contradictions, but contradictions they clearly are. It is here where my expectations of certain behavior based on ones proclaimed position and his/her actual behavior contradicted each other. I expected him/her to act like a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ and he/she did not. That is the contradiction that most disillusions and disappoints me.

What can I do about this conflict between beliefs and behavior? As I stated last week, I can …

  • Shield myself from all pain and become emotionally unattached to my own feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Become a cynic or skeptic and not believe in myself or others, or in God’s ability to give one enough grace to live consistent with his/her beliefs. This is not an expectation of perfection, but an expectation of reliability and dependability.
  • Believe in God and in people.

I choose to believe. I choose to believe that God’s grace is sufficient to redeem and change people and provide them with the will and desire to live free of blatant contradictions and respond quickly to blind spots when discovered. I choose to believe that people, although fallible and imperfect, want to live consistently and adhere faithfully to their system of beliefs. When my expectations are not met and there is just and clear evidence of contradictions, I will still choose to believe. As a result of believing in people to be what they profess they are, I will continue to have my expectations of myself and others unmet at times. Because people intentionally or unintentionally fall short of their professed belief system – I include myself here – there will be contradictions between profession and practice. I choose to believe in people anyway.

As a Christian I am called to love others. The  greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love others. This is the core of the Christian faith. It is precisely this call to love others that results in my disappointment and disillusionment, but I choose to love others as unconditionally as I am capable. The risk of pain pales in importance to the belief in and love of God and others.

CONTRADICTIONS

Image result for cartoon character scratching headThere has been a question that has haunted me for the past eight months, “Why do people disappoint me?” “Why am I hurt by the words and actions of others?” I have come to the conclusion that disappointment and hurt are the result of my expectations of others. Am I wrong to have expectations of others?

As a former counselor, my clients had an expectation that I would keep their confidences. Nearly every session I informed them that everything they said was confidential with the exceptions of voiced desire to harm themselves or others, confession of juvenile abuse or molestation or elder abuse, or if the courts demanded disclosure (which is extremely rare). I held that trust inviolate. Whether in the role of pastor or counselor, to me the pastoral/mental health/substance abuse counseling office was as sacrosanct as the confessional. Once I was asked to disclose to appropriate staff and faculty the content of my counseling with college students if said counseling revealed violation of school rules or codes. I strongly objected and flatly refused to do it. And I never did. In whatever setting, clients have the right to expect that their counselors will keep their confidences.

Other types of businesses and relationships have their own set of ethical and moral expectations to which we expect adherence. The same is true of my Christian walk. If I tell you that I am a practicing disciple of Jesus Christ and if you tell me the same, it comes with an implied set of spiritual, moral, and behavioral standards. When my attitudes, actions, and words contradict my profession of faith, I should expect you to be disappointed in me. And, if you fall short, you should expect me to be disappointed in you. These I call – contradictions.

Contradictions come from a variety of sources. There is/are . . .

  • Accidental and unaware contradictions. Inevitably it happens that you and I will say one thing at one time and another thing at another time and not even be conscious of your or my contradiction.
  • Rethought positions. A sincerely held position at one point in time may not last the microscope of learning and revelation. St. Augustine of Hippo lived long enough to write, “Retractions.” A work from his mature years of life that “retracted” some of his ideas recorded earlier in his youth. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, revised his journals and other writings with margin notations that expressed his current understanding. Oh, that we all would live long enough and have such a sense of responsibility to truth and accuracy to do the same to our proclamations, speeches, and writings.
  • Immature thinking on a subject. It is the evolution of thought where what was spoken at the beginning of your understanding changes with the maturing of your study. As a first time and very young pastor, I used my college class notes to lead a Wednesday night Bible study on the book of Revelation. While preparing for and teaching each lesson, I became aware that I was disagreeing with what I had learned and was now teaching. I finished the series, but never used those notes again. Over the years, my thinking on the subject has matured and is far from what I taught and began to question over 35 years ago.
  • Blind spots. These are areas that are unknown to us and unintentional. The Johari relationship window has four panes: 1) known to us and others, 2) known to us, but not others, 3) known to others, but unknown to us, and 4) neither known to us nor others. The third pane is my meaning here. It represents places in our lives that need to be confessed and corrected. They may be clear to others, but as of yet unclear to us.
  • Blatant contradictions. It is when you say or do something that you know contradicts your belief system. About three dozen years ago I was a passenger in the car of a minister who was throwing trash out onto the side of the road. The next day his sermon was about our responsibility to God’s creation. In my eyes, he spoke without much credibility on the subject.

It is this last category that causes me the most irritation. Because of my personal failures there have been some in the Christian community who have turned their backs on me. It hurts when I send a letter seeking reconciliation that gets no reply or one that is very formal. I feel anger rise when I confess and beg forgiveness for my sins, faults, and failings to another only to hear them become sanctimonious and “holier-than-thou.” One person spent our entire conversation without taking any responsibility for his/her actions, instead s/he justified them.  When I see the names and faces of people within the Christian community who have blocked me on Facebook, ignored my friend requests, or made it impossible for me to send them a friend request, I feel pain.

One author wrote, we who fail should “embrace the (Christian) community as a safe place to grow. Within holy community, we have a freedom to fall and get back up again. We shouldn’t leave when we fail!” That has not been my experience. Instead of a forgiving “embrace,” I found rejection. Instead of “safety,” hostility. Instead of a “place to grow,” a toxic and unhealthy environment. Instead of “freedom to fall and get back up again,” condemnation and ostracization. Ronald Reagan once said, “I did not leave the Democrat party, it left me.” I feel the same about many in my “family” of Christian friends, I did not leave my church family, they left me. Here I stand repentant with wounded arms reaching out for help, but many are they who pass by on the other side. (I thank God for those who did welcome me, allowed me to minister in the ways I could, and who demonstrated confidence in and acceptance of me.)

The author of the above statement is one who passed me by. Is this a blatant contradiction or a blind spot on his part? “Christian community could have given (a fallen person) an opportunity to flourish in faith and life,” he says. Does he think that statement includes me? Unfortunately, I have found it best to hide my failures from the Christian community and make them known to God and a very few confidants alone. The risk of rejection and condemnation is too great to disclose to the Church. This “haven of rest” for the redeemed Christian can become an anchorage of death for the fallen. Therefore, I stay silent. It robs me of an opportunity to share what God’s grace can do and has done, and it robs them of the joy in rejoicing with a lost son who has returned home.

I know the cause of my woundedness – expectations – yet the question goes beyond the cause. It is not enough to identify the why, I need to determine the next step. In my estimation, there are three possibilities. I can . . .

  • Shield myself from all pain. Although that sounds reasonable, pain actually serves a valuable purpose in our lives. If I ignore the pain, I risk greater injury, not less. If I harden myself to my feelings and emotions, I leave myself without empathy. Star Trek’s Spock is an example of this brand of Stoicism. He is presented as a praiseworthy character, but he is stunted in the department of relationships and pleasure. By suppressing the painful lows, he also loses the pleasant and exhilarating highs. My personal pain has taught me too much and afforded me too many opportunities to help others to give it up.
  • Become a cynic or skeptic. A cynic is one who distrusts the motives of others, and a skeptic is one who distrusts belief systems. The cynic questions whether you have God in your life, while the skeptic questions whether there is a God. If I cannot believe that people are who they represent themselves to be, then I must logically question the same in myself. As a Christian, it leaves me without assurance of my standing with God and without confidence that God can truly change you or me. It is only a small leap from there to question if God is really active in our world today or is He distant and uninvolved. Ultimately, it leads to questioning the very existence of God. I believe in redemption – the power of God to change people from the chains of sinfulness to appropriated and actual righteousness.
  • Choose to believe redeemed people are who they say they are. I choose to believe the grace of God can change people. I choose to pray for those who intentionally or unintentionally cause me pain. When I am hurt, disappointed, or disillusioned; I choose to believe in God. For I have found that God is always good, faithful, true, and trustworthy.

Will I be hurt again? Most definitely. I will be frustrated. I will be annoyed. I will be offended. But I choose to embrace all the negative risks that come with loving and believing in people.

Our LORD be with you.

The Price of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Image result for reconciliation“My dad was an angry and volatile man,” the young man exploded the information across my desk. “You never knew whether he’d respond to news with anger, resolve, defeat, or acceptance. If I did something wrong or didn’t do what he asked, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get yelled at or gently counseled. My godly mother took the brunt of much of his anger. It appeared she could do nothing right for him. After she told him to leave, she disclosed to me that she feared for her life.” He paused, appearing to be searching for clues to a mystery, and then continued. “He professed to be a Christian man and he was a minister. You couldn’t help but admire his intellect and his preaching and teaching abilities. In public he was a composed, unflappable man. You could tell that, although quiet and reserved, he was clearly in charge. Few things rattled him. When everyone else was in a panic, he remained calm. But, at home he was an unpredictable, angry beast.” He bowed his head and quietly said, “I know he struggled with mental illness. Maybe that explains it. He asked me to forgive him and reconcile with him. I don’t know what to do,” his voice trailed off in resignation.

Many of us can identify with this man’s dilemma, actually, two dilemmas – forgiveness AND reconciliation. I must admit, within the past few days the distinction between the two has become much clearer. Forgiveness and reconciliation are separate issues. You can give forgiveness without reconciliation. In fact, it is sometimes necessary and preferred. However, in some cases forgiveness also requires reconciliation.

In Christian teaching, God both forgives and reconciles us to Himself at the same time when we seek Him. But, with we mortal and finite humans this is sometimes a two step process.

Forgiveness always comes first and is required. Biblically, we are to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed and we are to extend forgiveness to those who ask it of us. I will forgive because it is the right thing to do. Peter learned in Matthew 18 that forgiveness for others comes as a result of our gratefulness to God for forgiving us. Not only is it a mandate from God – it is also good for our emotional well-being. Mental health literature is replete with the benefits of forgiving. It releases the searing pain that torments our memories. It rids us of the burdensome obligation to seek personal revenge. And, the festering anger that threatens to destroy our relationships can be discharged. I have found that forgiving frees me and gives me peace.

Not forgiving is often a survival mechanism from being betrayed, wronged, injured, or humiliated. We know that among the risks of not forgiving are eternal victimization, continual emotional upheaval, smug self-righteousness, and the inevitable loss of compassion for others.

It is only human for us to build defenses against hurt and pain, both physically and emotionally. That is why we seek shelter during a storm and lock our doors at night. It is why we fortify and guard our hearts and minds against hurtful people and unhealthy situations. We are particular about who we let in to our inner sanctums. To use a home analogy, some people get no nearer than the sidewalk or street, others are allowed into the yard, a few are invited onto the porch, a smaller number are allowed inside to the formal living room, but those who are invited into the kitchen with refrigerator privileges are numbered often on a single hand.

Reconciliation is another step. Sometimes it is not possible or ill advised. We cannot reconcile with those who are deceased, beyond our reach, or rebuff our efforts. We do not and should not expect people who have been physically or sexually assaulted or some other violence perpetrated upon their person to reconcile, especially if the offender is a stranger. However, there are times when we need to reconcile.

I know of a couple of neighbors in a small southern Indiana town who hated each other. Both of them had planted “keep out” signs on their property line. And, the two signs faced each other. Clearly, there was not only some forgiveness that needed to go on, but also some reconciliation. If not for their own sake, at least for neighborhood peace and an end to the negative example being portrayed in front of their young children.

I have come to the conclusion that a greater price is paid by both the seeker and giver for reconciliation than that of forgiveness. It requires trust and vulnerability. Once trust has been broken it necessitates a heroic effort to reclaim. Trust has faith. Trust believes. Trust has confidence. Can I trust that his remorse is genuine? Can I trust that she has made genuine changes and is fortifying her gains and continues to grow? Am I able to see him for what he is now and not for what he was?

Trust extends toward another while vulnerability is about me. The less we trust the more fences we build for protection; the more we trust the fewer fences we have and the more vulnerable we become. If we do not trust we insulate ourselves. Now, insulation has a two-fold purpose – it keeps the cold in and the heat out in summer and it keeps the heat in and the cold out in winter. When we make ourselves vulnerable we remove the insulation and expose ourselves to the elements. To be vulnerable means we risk getting burned by the searing heat of anger and resentment. To be vulnerable means we risk exposure to the bitter and frosty bite of indifference. Relationships require an element of vulnerability, without it we have no relationships.

The young man in my office could readily forgive his father, but he was not yet ready to reconcile with him. He did not trust his father in spite of evidence he had changed. Nor would he allow himself to be vulnerable enough to take the risk. That is where the situation remains as of this writing.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not for the weak. Only those with strength coupled with empathy and love can make this journey.

Who I Was Is Not Who I Am

Image result for christian transformation

For my writer’s group, I read my blog contribution, “I Am Stuck.” It included this line, “The image of what I was is so seared into their minds that they seem unable to see the new man I have become.” One man in the group suggested I explore that line more in-depth. The following is my attempt.

Dear Son,

For over four years now we have been estranged. It causes me pain every day and many nights I close my eyes to sleep with tears coursing down my cheeks. I pray for you almost daily. During that time I ask God to bless your marriage, ministry, education, and work; but I also pray that you will overcome the trials and temptations at which I so miserably failed.

Your mother and brother have told me that you feel you must protect the family from me. That is understandable, especially because you do not remember me when I was at my best. Your older sister and brother can recall the times when we laughed and played, went on camping trips together, fished, boated, swam, and piled in at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for holidays and vacations. Yes, I struggled with depression and anger even then, but I was never sidelined for long by my depression and my anger was infrequent and mostly controlled. Your older siblings braved the moves we made from Indiana to Mississippi and then to Kentucky. Those were adventuresome and blissful days.

That happiness and the love between your mother and me blossomed in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. You were conceived in that love and welcomed into a joyful family. Oh the fun I had caring for you and watching you grow. You were the baby of our college community, too. All the girls wanted to hold you and all the boys wanted to play with you. You were never alone for long. It was Dr. John who cut your hair the first time. We gave you a sucker to distract you from what he was doing. What a sight you were holding a hairy sucker while 18 months of locks were cut away.

Those were the best years of our family and your mother’s and my marriage. We moved back to Indiana and things went well for 28 months more before it all dramatically changed. You were only six years old when I became clinically depressed. It wounds me deeply to think that the times after that are 90% or more of the memories you have of me. It must have been very frightening and uncertain for you.

You remember me as an emotionally distant father. I isolated from the family because my clinical depression was so severe that I could not function as a husband, father, or pastor. There were times, son, when my suicidal ideations were so strong that it took every ounce of energy I possessed to fight them off and prevent myself from carrying them out. When we returned to Eastern Kentucky and I found another job, all of my energy was consumed by the time I got home. You remember my routine as being off to work, come home, and go to bed. It was a seemingly endless cycle. On Saturday I slept all day and after I quit going to church, Sunday became another sleep day. I missed your ball games, lead performance in plays, cantatas in which you were the leading male voice, and a whole lot more. What can I say, son, I did not have the will or the strength to stay engaged. I was just trying to stay alive. Can you ever forgive me for missing so much of your life?

You remember me as an absent father. Your mother asked me to leave our home on three different occasions. The first was in 2001, the second in 2008, and the last in 2009. I will confess to you, my son, that she was fully justified in asking me to leave the second time. I was very sick, severely depressed, angry, and unpredictable. She, and the rest of you for that matter, needed a break from me. However, the separation robbed me of your teenage years from 15 on. While I was away I called nearly every day, wrote letters, and sent monetary support trying desperately to be involved as much as 300 miles separation would allow me. You have expressed hurt when I quit calling you nightly for evening devotions. Son, I will not disclose the reason, but I hope you will accept that there was a roadblock put in my way that I could not overcome. In what was to be my last fatherly talk with you, your mother told me you did not welcome it. I must accept that my four year physical, longer emotionally, absence from you had such an effect as to render my words as that of an intrusive stranger. Although I had little control over my absence, I am sorry I was away, and for the reasons I had to leave. Will you forgive me for being absent during some very important years in your life?

You remember me as an angry father, which was perhaps the most damaging of all your memories of me. When my depression went clinical in November of 1999 it began to steal from me the abilities to do the things I loved. From the time I sensed a call into ministry when I was 14, I began to prepare. A sizable percentage of the money I earned from working with your Uncle John was spent on books to help me prepare for ministry. By the time I entered Bible college four years later, I had already read multiple books on theology, homiletics, evangelism, and the biographies or autobiographies of many heroes of the faith and of our Wesleyan heritage. Your mother and I took a position in ministry three months before we were married and continued in pastoral or educational ministry for the next 23 years without a break. During that time I worked on a graduate research degree and earned a Master’s of Divinity. Depression robbed me of my ability to pastor, teach, and preach. I was angry.

When I started looking for work in the secular world, I soon discovered that employers did not respect my MDiv. or the myriad of applicable experiences I gained from working as a pastor and teacher. There I sat, often with more education and experience than my interviewer, being required to answer such asinine questions like, “Do you think you can do this job?” Sure I could do the job and I could do their job, too, and be better at it. I became angry at the absurdity of it all and feelings of worthlessness and helplessness overwhelmed me.

As your mother began to emotionally withdraw from me, we struggled in vain to communicate with each other and save our marriage. (Please do not take this as a condemnation of your mother. As I fell deeper into depression, she had to become father, mother, and provider.) No matter what or how hard we tried, our marriage could not survive my depression. As my grip on my marriage and our family slipped away, I grew angrier.

I lost it all, son, – my full-time ministry as a pastor/teacher, three other jobs, two demotions, your siblings, our grandchildren, you, and your mother. There is no excuse for my abysmal behavior and I offer none. The more I lost the more livid I became. That is when your mother asked me to leave the second time. There is no reason for you to forgive me except unearned grace, and I pray you can find a way to extend your grace to me.

The good news is I am not that man now. I have prayed for and received forgiveness from God. My relationship with our LORD is more vital than it has ever been in my lifetime. I have attempted to make amends with all I hurt and reconcile with them where possible. In the past I thought I could handle my depressive disorder on my own; you know where that got me. I have given up on that destructive approach and acknowledged my need of help. I am on a medication regimen that works, regularly see a psychiatrist and counselor, participate in two Christian depression groups on Facebook, attend two mental health groups each week, write a blog about depression, and have gathered around me a strong support team. My depression has been stable for over two years now, although, admittedly, I am rarely symptom free.

My anger is under control. For just about the past four years, I have not yelled at anyone. (Save one time when I was severely provoked and it lasted for two words before I recovered my decorum.) Gone are the days when I screamed, intimidated, threw things, and hit things. That has not happened in the past four years, either. There was one time during these years that my anger reached the intensity that it did before on a virtually daily basis, but the outcome was much different. I did not behave in the old way; rather, I walked away and hid myself in a private place until the anger dissipated.

You see, son, I am living II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (NKJV) and I am not the man I used to be.

Thanks to Calvary, I’m not the dad I used to be.
Thanks to Calvary, things are different than before.
As the tears run down my face, I’m trying to tell you,
Thanks to Calvary, I don’t live there anymore.
Written by Bill Gaither, adapted




I Am Stuck

Image result for boots stuck in mudIf you have wintered in a climate where the snow flies and the winds blow until there are large drifts and closed roads, you know what it means to be stuck. If you have driven in a field, yard, or on a dirt road during a rainy spring, you know what it means to be stuck. If you have tried without success to solve a problem that appears to have no resolution, you know what it means to be stuck. But, you can shovel your way out of a drift, and push or pull your way out of the mud. You know you can get unstuck, eventually, even if you have to wait for the snow to melt or the mud to dry. And, there are very few problems mathematically or socially that cannot be solved with some knowledge and cooperation. However, I am stuck emotionally.

For the past three years, I have gone to counseling regularly for help with my major depressive disorder and the emotional stress from some disturbing experiences in my past. It took a few months to get stable, but afterwards I made good progress. My depression is now in a mild to moderate state and life is much better. However, the things haunting me in my dreams and many waking hours continue. My counselor tells me, and I acknowledge the truth of her observation, that I bring up the same subjects each session. So, there you are, I am stuck.

Here is the kicker – there is a way out, but I do not know if I want to take that path. My therapist has told me there is a treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR that has shown great promise for people with single or multiple episodes of trauma. In fact, the clinical and field trials show great success – over ninety percent for single episodes and over seventy percent for multiple. Apparently, I am in the “festering wound” stage emotionally and I need to activate my brain so it will remove the block in order that my healing may continue. I am told that it will help me become an objective observer of my experiences rather than an active participant.

My question is, “Do I want that?” Do I want to look at some of these troubling issues from a distance like a spectator? You see, my concerns are near and dear to my heart and they are very active, ongoing issues. I pray about and over them. Cry and get angry. Feel hurt and emotional pain. Ask the question “why?”, experience frustration, and wonder how others cannot see the answer that is so clear to me.

My problems are three in number. The first is with my ex-wife. There are some unresolved issues that I have attempted to settle without success. My goal is not that we would become besties and have standing invitations to each other’s events. No, I want an amicable relationship in which we share what we have in common – our children and grandchildren. This has been my prayer for nearly four years now.

Sure, I would love to be rid of the nightmares with the accompanying screams, yells, physical thrashing in bed, and fighting to stay alive in life-threatening situations. I would love to make the conflict dreams that are filled with arguments, disrespect, and aggravation end. It would be nice to have the subtle needling stop. No more “alternative facts” spread.  And, an end to using our children against me.  But, at what cost – less concern? Satisfaction with the status quo? Indifference?

The second of my frequent topics with my counselor is the loss of my ministerial credentials. Actually, it is not so much the loss, but the refusal to give me a path to reclaiming them. When I asked to be put under discipline in order to be reinstated, I was refused. No one interviewed me. I was not asked to produce character witnesses nor were any contacted. There was no guidance given me about the process or what the ministerial committee required. My defense was not asked for or recorded. The decision appears arbitrary to me, and I was told an appeal would be pointless. Do I need to just let this go? I have held a ministerial license of one kind or another since 1975. It was one of the things that defined me to others. Is there a way to feel differently or look more objectively at what appears to me to be a decision based on less than all the facts?

My third concern is my greatest. Two of my three children refuse to talk to me. Diligently I have sought reconciliation with them. I have written letters of sorrow, accepting blame and guilt, and asking for forgiveness. The efforts I am making to stay in touch with them are ongoing. I send them letters on New Year’s, Valentine’s, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. They have chosen to not respond to my outreach. When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought surely they will contact me now, but it was not to be.

Both profess to be Christians, and one works at a Christian organization and travels in ministry almost weekly. One of the them says I am forgiven, but continues to shun me. Not only was I not invited to their wedding, but some of my relatives were not invited simply because they helped me in a dark and needy moment. They blocked me on Facebook from seeing their site and had their spouse do the same. That does not look like the forgiveness the Bible espouses and which I once preached and emulated.

Am I wrong to believe that forgiveness and redemption cannot abide with shunning? Is it too much to ask conservative, evangelical Christians to live up to the Bible they profess to believe in? Sure, I hurt and offended them. I was not a good father after my depression went clinical. Anger, isolation, and emotional distance were what they experienced from me for many years. They have a right to feel wronged – I do not deny that; however, “all have sinned” and yet God seeks to save and redeem the sinner.

Maybe the image of what I was is so seared into their minds that they seem unable to see the new man I have become. Perhaps they fail to see me as redeemable, and therefore are blind to the redemptive work that continues to make me a better man. It appears there is so much insulation about them that they cannot or will not allow themselves to trust me and be vulnerable enough to give me a chance.

Is it too much of me to expect a Christian to forgive and act like it? Will EMDR rewrite my brain in such a way that I can see their side of things and conclude that they are justified in their continuing behavior? Will I suddenly have an epiphany that forgiveness and redemption can be interpreted to exclude rather than include? Do I want to not feel so troubled, disappointed, and hurt?

The answers are not readily evident to me, thus I remain stuck. I am open to solutions, but if they involve escape, indifference, and/or distance, I am not sure I want to be a buyer. What do you think will help me get unstuck? Response are welcome.

An Open Letter to a Former Friend

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An Open Letter to a Former Friend

Dear Former Friend,

 

 

My thoughts of you and our former acquaintance cause a smile to flash across my face as I recall happier times. When I came into an institution and culture that was foreign to me you were the first to give me a hand in navigating my new surroundings. You and your lovely wife were the first among our colleagues to invite my family and me into your home. We laughed as your daughter kissed my son, and when you corrected her she said, “But Daddy, you told me to love everybody.” It is a cherished memory.

On the nights you cut hair we engaged in ever deeper and open forms of communication and our friendship became more than professional. Our hearts were one as we sought to serve God fully and to seek His will for our lives and careers. We were one in the desire to guide our students to excellence in Christ, character, and academics. As more responsibility came our way we sought with unity to lead the institution we loved and served from the office(s) we held. During a difficult change in administrations, together we stayed by the stuff, supported the new administration, and protected our students from the struggle that threatened to divide as the incoming president sought to chart a different course for an institution mired in the traditions of the past. I saw the hurt in your eyes as some lashed out against your father, of which he was undeserving. You poured out your heart to God and I tried to be a compassionate listener with an understanding heart. We made it through and the beloved institution was and is better for it. I continue to be proud of the contribution I make to that great place through the work of my son.

Remember going out before dawn and climbing the mountain behind our homes to settle into a good stand for deer hunting? Although I had hunted since a youth, it was your first time. You were in much better shape than me, but you waited patiently as this flatlander breathlessly toiled his way to the top. When you downed your first deer, oh the joy and celebration that encompassed our campus community. And I cannot help but remind you of the first time you shot your new rifle and the patch you wore beneath your eye for all to see you made a mistake.

You loved the basketball team from your alma mater and enjoyed your nearly annual brag as your team defeated mine in their yearly rivalry. You took great pleasure in inviting me over to watch the game and rub my nose in our defeats. One night, however, my team schooled yours and went on to victory. It was an upset and you told me you would not have invited me over if you had foreseen this as a possible outcome. I called you on the night your team lost in a controversial last second play that ended their drive to another NCAA championship. You cried.

When I began to descend into the darkness that has become my life for the past seventeen years, you were there. Before I was to pull the trigger on my pistol to kill myself, I called you. You came and talked the gun out of my hand. (Years later I found out the firing pen on that gun was broken. God is good.) That marked the day I emerged from my darkness. It lasted around three years.  After sinking into a second depressive episode, you supported me. On the night I thought I was having a stroke, which turned out to be a panic attack, you stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. When my son ran to you in a panic when he thought I was going to hurt someone, you came to settle me down.

We shared some great times, some sad times, and some difficult times, but for the past eight years we have not shared anything. The last time I reached out to you for help you did not come. It was a day in May in the Spring of 2008 and my wife had told me to leave. It was only a few days past my second hospitalization for my third severe depressive episode. My heart and my head have searched for a reason for our breach ever since.

Perhaps you no longer knew or liked the man I had become. I did not like him either. That man was angry and desperate. Angry because of all he had lost and desperate to hold on to what he had left of himself and his world. On that day he saw it all slipping away and was powerless to stop it. He was broken and alone. The year I spent in jail was God’s way of stopping me from further personal destruction. That angry and desperate man died in jail and a new man in Christ Jesus emerged. It is hard for others who know me now to imagine me as that old man and I pray by God’s grace they never meet him.

Maybe you had reached the end of your personal resources and no longer knew how to help a person with severe depression. That happened to me. While pastoring my last full time charge I was ill-equipped to help a young man of the congregation experiencing depression. I did not recognize it and did not know how to relate to or minister to him. In two short years I became like that young man. My ministry now is to reach out to other depressed people with hope and attempt to educate people in ministry about mental illness.

Possibly you felt compelled to take sides when my wife and I separated. That can be a very awkward position to be in. How can a person be loyal to one without being disloyal to the other? Is it even possible to be loyal to both? As I friend people on Facebook who knew both my ex-wife and me, I ask myself, “Was this person a friend to our family because of my ex-wife or because of me?” It is a dance I do not enjoy, but find necessary. It was on that premise I sent you a friend request. I am truly sorry for putting you in a position to choose between us. Some who I considered her friends have friended me, for which I am truly grateful.

I have considered the chance that I have offended you or your family personally. Honestly, I can think of nothing, but I welcome your input.

In the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,” (Matthew 5:23-24 NKJV) I am seeking a bridge over the chasm between us. Our friendship will never be as it was before, but can we choose to end our indifference toward one another, shake hands, and embrace in Christian harmony? I pray we can.

The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,

PS

I was sorry to hear about the sudden death of your college classmate and friend, and the crisis of purpose it caused for you. However, I am pleased that it led your very competent and gifted hands to the position you now hold in a place I dearly love. May you achieve success in your mission for God.

Forgiving . . . Again

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Ten years ago this month a man walked into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and shot eight little girls, killing five of them. What happened next caused a nation to stand in awe of the families of the murdered and wounded girls. They forgave. Many of the families visited the man’s widow, parents, and parents-in-law to comfort them. It is reported that the father of one of the victims held the father of the perpetrator for nearly an hour as he sobbed. They attended the funeral of the man to support his wife and children and even set up a trust fund for their care. I watched in amazement at the behavior of the Amish community and wondered if I would have the grace to do the same.

Although my pain is nothing like that of those families, I still have hurts that need forgiving.  As I write this, I find myself in a struggle to forgive. I have been planning this blog for several months, but only four weeks ago did I come face to face with my own festering grudges. I was talking to my counselor during our regular session when I heard myself speak about my frequent nightmares and how they relate to my past experiences. Bitterness was coming out of my mouth. Was that me? A man who believes in the fundamental importance of forgiveness within his Christian faith and for his physical, emotional, and mental well-being speaking with rancor? “I sound bitter, don’t I?” I whispered. She said yes and then proceeded to tell me that I was “stuck.” “Oh, God help me!” I cried. My unforgiving spirit had halted my march toward wholeness. It loomed as a catastrophic avalanche, consisting of a multitude of real and perceived hurts inflicted upon me by others, cutting off my path to peace.

The late poet, Maya Angelou, wrote that forgiveness is “one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.”  According to an article written by the staff of the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness can give one “healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less anxiety, stress, and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, (a) stronger immune system, improved heart health, and higher self-esteem.” That is quite a round of benefits. Tyler Perry affirmed, “It’s not an easy journey to get to a place where you forgive people. But, it is a powerful place, because it frees you.”

There are two passages from Matthew where Jesus taught on forgiveness that has always challenged me. The first is a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive like God? Willingly? Unconditionally? Without justice? The second is Jesus’ discussion with Peter about how often we should forgive in a day and the parable of the ungrateful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus said our forgiveness was to be limitless because, how can I, with an unpayable debt to God, experience His forgiveness and then be so ungrateful as to refuse forgiveness to s/he who, comparatively speaking, owes me so little? How can I reach this standard?

(The following outline is loosely based on one given by Stuart Rothberg, but the comments are mine.)

  • Name your pain.

Betrayal. Physical, sexual, and/or mental abuse. Bullied. Disrespected. Unfaithful. Forsaken. Forgotten. Abandoned. Character assassinated. Patronized. Demoted or fired. Little or no confidence shown in you. Crime against my person, loved one, or property. . . .

Forgiveness begins with recording your story about the person or thing that hurt you and its consequences. Who was involved? What happened? When and where did it happen? How did it and does it make you feel? Write an honest and comprehensive story.

  • Be a survivor.

The person or thing that causes you to feel like a victim will always control you until you take charge of your feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Stop defining your life by your pain. Give up expecting something from someone that they are unwilling or unable to give. Determine to be an over-comer.

You may never meet the person who hurt you again. S/he may not even remember you or think about what s/he has done to you. Waiting for an apology or an explanation keeps you trapped. Take back the keys of your heart and mind and release yourself from the jail of the victimized.

  • Release the grudge.

“Justice” is an abstract idea that may never happen and may never satisfy you if it does. Revenge may taste sweet, but it sours the stomach. As a boy I waited the whole week of junior camp to take revenge on a boy who hit me. All week I befriended him. We went everywhere together. The time came and I reared back and hit him with all I had. He looked at me with a look of betrayal and crumbled into tears. I did not feel anything like I thought I would. I felt awful and our friendship did not last.

Let the legal system or God be the avengers. Release the right to personal revenge. Forgive the debt owed to you by your offender.

  • Let go of bitterness and anger.

What prompted my own crisis of forgiveness was a phone call. Several months before I sent a letter of apology to an individual taking responsibility for my role in the decay of our relationship. I think I had expected a reciprocating letter taking responsibility for their role, but no. What I got was a justification for their actions and no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. All the hurt came back like a flash flood. I thought I had forgiven, and perhaps I did, but the conversation brought back all the old feelings and I indulged in the bitterness and anger. I allowed a root of bitterness to be planted, nursed, and grow all over again. Now here I am repeating the process that I thought was finished.

The peculiar thing about forgiveness is that it has to be repeated, often for the same offense, the same offender, and throughout the same day.

  • Give up the right to tell your story.

My pastor preached on forgiveness a couple of weeks ago. He did not need to get my attention because I knew God had my number. The sermon was going along fine until he said the true test of forgiveness is when you, “Give up the right to tell others (your story).” He went on to say that on those occasions when you do tell your story, “It does not sound like it happened just yesterday.” Ouch! I am not there, yet.

  • Realize that forgiveness is both an event and a process.

The act of forgiveness is an event that can be dated and timed, but getting relief from the pain is a process. It is a daily journey and we may have to repeat one or more of the above steps as we go along. Give yourself time to get there.

Forgiveness does not condone the wrong. It may not even require reconciliation. In some cases reconciliation is impossible or inappropriate. Forgiveness is more about you, your peace, your well-being, than it is the offender. “Forgiveness,” someone said, “is a choice for the brave and the courageous.” Well, I must be off to forgive again . . . and again . . . and again . . .