The Reconciler

Junior wouldn’t claim title to being a reconciler. In fact, he might give you a blank stare, a look of incomprehension, if you suggested to him that he was. I’m not even sure he was conscious of what he was doing. It seemed to come natural to him. He did it because it needed to be done. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He did it because he loved people. He did it because he was a peacemaker.

The word reconcile has at least three meanings: it can refer to Christian theology, court approved arbitration, or a function of financial bookkeeping. Reconciliation, as used in the Christian Bible, shares some of the same characteristics as an arbitrator. Like reconciliation, arbitration settles differences, but unlike reconciliation it doesn’t bring concord. In the 1990’s some courts attempted to use what they called “reconcilers.” This person went beyond arbitration to not only settle disputes, but also work with the parties at variance to see how they could cooperate with one another for the benefit of both. That’s what reconciliation means.

As I reflect upon the life of our protagonist, Junior had the characteristics that every reconciler must have.

He cared about people. One evening I called him about a problem involving a family that I feared I had offended. His profound advice, “You have to love people.” It was one of his principle philosophies of life. When Junior was involved, both sides of the adversarial situation knew he cared for them. He would call them by name, and name their children and grandchildren, too. He knew where they worked and what hobbies they enjoyed. Very likely, he had been a guest in their homes or broke bread with them somewhere. Neither party of a dispute in which he was involved doubted he cared.

It is said that the four critical components of a reconciler are truth, justice, mercy, and peace (John Paul Lederach). Junior demonstrated these. People had confidence in him. He was reliable. He did not favor one party over the other, not even a son. One of his daughters-in-law told me that she loved him because he often took her side in a disagreement. He was a man of character.

Although he did not fear calling out right and wrong, most often he stayed neutral and allowed people to discover the right thing to do for themselves. The old proverb, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” is appropriate here. Junior did not force decisions on others, but laid hold of a latent desire deep within the feuding parties that wanted to forgive and be forgiven. He knew reconciliation could not be forced, it had to be welcomed.

He was not a warrior; he was a peacemaker. That doesn’t mean he was afraid. I’ve watched him wade in where angels feared to trod. I don’t know if it was his booming voice of authority, the justice of his cause, or because he was a big man with large features, strong arms, and big hands, but he always came out unscathed. In 1978, I remember the newspaper headlines blazing, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” after President Jimmy Carter helped Egypt and Israel come to a lasting agreement known as the Camp David Accords. Such was Junior. No, his face did not grace grand marquees and he wasn’t wildly celebrated. Quietly, he sifted through the hurt and pain to recover peace where hot or cold wars once waged.

Today, the political atmosphere in Washington D.C. is one of winners and losers. The art of compromise appears dead; destruction reigns. Truth is lost in rhetoric. “I want it my way,” tantrums replace reason. As a reconciler, Junior sought the win/win. His goal was for rivals to become partners. Enemies become friends. Enmity become fellowship. For attitudes of intransience to become cooperation. Fragmentation become harmony. I know of people that Junior helped to resolve differences who are now fishing buddies, vacation partners, and regular house guests.

In Christian theology the word reconciliation is mostly used in regard to God and humankind. Jesus came and died to bridge the gulf between the justly offended LORD GOD and the justly condemned, willfully offending sinner. With confession comes instant forgiveness and reconciliation. The relationship between God and humanity is changed forever. When the Christian Bible refers to reconciliation, this is its meaning.

However, there are two or three references that use the term for individuals. There are, of course, multiple passages about forgiving and living at peace with one another that allude to reconciliation. In The Cost of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, I wrote, “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.” Junior gently and wisely helped people make this second step.

I don’t know where he got his abilities. He was not an educated man, barely finishing the 8th grade. To my knowledge he never received any formal training in the ministry of reconciliation. Perhaps it was instinct. His childhood was difficult, conflict was common. As a child he vowed to be a different kind of man than the father who raised him. Could it have been a gift from God? If it was, he exercised his gift to help others, never for self-aggrandizement. Junior was a man of wisdom who knew how to lead people. I’ve heard stories about him planting ideas in people’s minds that came to fruition later. When it did they owned the project as if it were their idea all along. I don’t know how he did it. Unfortunately, I never learned to be a reconciler like him.

291858_2366417846546_5943061_nHe was known as Junior in his youth. His birth name was James Junior Shuck. Most people called him “Jim.” I called him “Dad.”

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He Cared for My Soul

After I was incarcerated, there were several people who came to visit me – my youngest son, my oldest brother, men from one of the churches of my two-charge circuit where I had pastored, and a married couple from the other. They all had such kind words of encouragement. The ones from the two churches expressed appreciation for my ministry among them when they could have shamed or scolded me for bringing reproach upon their individual churches. I remain in touch with several of them and thank God for their support. However, none of them asked about my soul.

There were several who wrote to me on a regular basis – my other brother, two friends from high school, my former boss, and a close friend from Eastern Kentucky. The two or more letters I received each week were a lifeline. I was blessed to have my brothers and friends express trust and confidence in me. At the lowest point of my life, they lifted me up. But, none of them asked about my soul.

On every Wednesday, a local pastor made a contact visit. (In most of my visits, the visitor and I were separated by glass and we had to talk over phones. Our conversation could be listened to or recorded. Not so during a ministerial visit. I could actually shake hands with him, talk to him in a normal manner, and everything I said was confidential.)  During my year in jail, he missed at most only two or three times. He listened to my story without condemnation and shared his story with me. Before I went back to my cell, he always prayed with me.

Another minister came to visit after the Chaplain informed him about me. He pastored the local Presbyterian church and wanted to share with me as one minister to another. I felt free to express some fears and issues with him and he prayed earnestly for me more than once. Both of these men treated me with respect and told me over and over again that my ministry was not finished. Their visits gave me hope as they ministered to my spirit, yet neither asked about my soul.

Please don’t take this as being ungrateful or condemning in any way. All of them were concerned about me spiritually and prayed for me repeatedly. They were aware that I was seeking God, reading the Bible and other Christian literature, attending chapel and Bible study, and maintained a profession of faith. Besides, what do you say to a person who has been a Christ-follower for forty years, studied the Bible in depth, and had been a pastor/teacher for 36 years. All of them helped me when I most needed it and were pillars of strength when I was so very weak.

There was one, however, who consistently inquired about my soul. Several times during my year in jail and the years that have followed, he would ask, “Have you repented of your sins?” “How is your relationship with Jesus?” “Are you having daily devotions?” “Are you telling those you hurt how sorry you are?” And more than once he would repeat, “Are you sure you are right with God and know that you have been forgiven?”

He was direct. Fearless. Uncompromising. Persistent. Probing. Unsatisfied until I had explained my answer thoroughly.

I have known this man his entire life. He has overcome a great many genetic, mental, physical, and social issues. Under-educated, he works at Wal-Mart. He could stay home and draw a government disability check, but he chooses to work and support himself the best way he can. He is happy, smiles broadly, and laughs hardily. Most of all, he is a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. From things he has done and said, I have come to believe that God talks to him in a very intimate way.

As I walked down the jail corridor with a guard escorting me to the visitation room, I heard a whisper, “It’s him.” Sure enough, it was him. He told me about his struggle to know if it was right and proper to visit me, but a lady at his church encouraged him to do so. It was during that first visit that the inquisition began. Each visit afterwards eventually led to the same set of questions.

After being released from jail, he called me one day with more of the same. At first, I was offended and weary of the searching. I had given him the same answer each time he asked. Why was he being so dogged? A few minutes later my attitude changed. Thankfulness replaced offense. Awareness followed. He was holding me accountable for my walk with Jesus.

A few months ago, he asked me again. I gave him a ready answer. He has made himself my spiritual accountability partner. He is welcome to do more of the same.

18447112_10155492554207867_5806284590722023497_nOh, by the way, that man is my oldest son, Adam, and he cares for my soul.

I love you, son.

My Depression and My Spouse

Image result for wife holder her depressed husbandLast week was a really bad week for me. Although I am never really symptom free, I am able to manage. But last week the bottom fell out and I lapsed into a deeper depression. As I write this I am gaining strength and I can see the light getting nearer. Because I am somewhat drained mentally I asked my dear wife to give me a suggestion for what to post this week. She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Write me a letter about what you want me to do when you are [depressed].”

Charity and I have been married for less than 18 months and she had not personally witnessed me in that state. Oh, I told her everything long before we started talking marriage. Early in our renewed relationship (we were high school sweethearts) I was hospitalized twice and went through a year-long-ordeal as a result of my major depressive disorder. Her eyes were wide open when she agreed to be my wife. But, letters and phone calls, and dates and discussions are not the same as living with it and seeing it for the first time.

Therefore, the following is my response to her request. . .

Dear Charity,

Thank you for asking me what I want you to do for me when I am in a depressed state. Your desire to help and respond appropriately are refreshing. You truly are a gift from God.

I want you to . . .

  1. Reassure me.

You are well aware why I ask this of you. During the 19 years I have lived with depression, it has cost me a lot – significant damage to my connection with God, my previous marriage and many other precious relationships, careers, freedom, most everything I owned, and nearly my life. My marriage ended 14 years before it became official and depression was the direct cause. Charlene was not able to adapt to or live with a person with depression. Our marriage and I became the least of her priorities. Those 14 years have left an indelible scar of fear upon me.

Charity, my love, I know you are not her. Still I need you to tell me that you love and respect me. To tell me that you are committed to our marriage and the vows we shared before God. To tell me that you believe in me. Relieve my fears by telling me that you will not leave me either physically or emotionally. That you will give me your support through my dark hours and beyond.

I want you to reassure me that I have an important role in our family. Before, my place in the family was absconded and to this day it has never been returned. Therefore, I was and am unimportant, dishonored, disrespected, discarded, and destroyed. Queen of my heart, tell me that my role in our family as friend, husband, father, grandfather, and protector is valued.

  1. Let me isolate for two or three days.

It is when I am alone in the dark with the door closed that I can process my thoughts, assess the severity of my depression, and plan for the next step. It is the way I charge my batteries for the task ahead. You are welcome to come in and check on me, but ask me if I am able to see anyone else before you send them in. There are exceptions. If you see me sleeping all the time or wandering about the house aimlessly all night, unhygienic, and generally unable to function, it is time for an intervention.

  1. Act normal.

Please, sweetheart, act as normal as is reasonably possible.  I am not mad at you and you have done nothing wrong. It is NOT your fault. Be patient with me, you did not cause my depression and you cannot cure it, if it can be cured at all. Neither hover over me nor withdraw from me. Do not be either angry with me or indifferent toward me. Show me compassion without condemnation. In other words, be balanced, be normal, be your own beautiful self.

  1. Encourage me.

Depression is not a way to avoid responsibilities. It is not a phase. I cannot “just get over it.” For me, honey, it is a serious disease of my brain. I apply the tools I have learned to try to manage it, take my medication as prescribed, attend individual and group counseling, and have gathered a support group around me, of which you are such an important part, to prevent free falls into utter darkness. I wish I could tell you that it works every time, but that is not true. Sometimes the severity of my depression overwhelms all personal and medical efforts to control it.

Encourage me to take my medicines and do spot checks to see that I do. Encourage me to keep my psychiatrist, counselor, and group appointments. Ask me what I have the strength and will to accomplish today and accept the answer I give you. You can challenge me to go beyond what I feel I can do, but please do not nag or ridicule me if I cannot do it or fail in the attempt. You are such a comfort and confidant and I need you to be my wife and friend, and leave the cajoling to my doctor and counselor.

  1. Ask me if I am having suicidal ideations.

Do not ask me by saying, “You’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, are you?” I may answer, “No,” not because I am not thinking about suicide, but because I do not think it is a “stupid” idea. Ask me in a straight forward manner, “Are you thinking about suicide or harming yourself in any way?” Ask me in such a way that you expect me to tell the truth and will not act shocked and upset by the answer. You do not want me to give you the answer you want to hear, you want me to tell you the truth. If I answer, “Yes,” then it may be time to take me to the hospital. Be strong, my precious princess, look me in the eye and ask the question.

  1. Educate yourself about my depression.

Do not rely on what you have heard from others or learned on television. Get recommendations for good books to read. Glean through the medical transcripts that I have stored at the house. Make an appointment to talk to my counselor. I will sign the necessary confidentiality waver to make it happen. I want you to be informed. I want you to know.

You are my hero in so many ways, Charity. You reached out to me in my darkest hours with encouragement and support, believed in me when all the evidence for doing so was negative, and loved me for who I was and not for who you wanted me to become. I thank God for you every day.

With all my love and gratitude,

Porter

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.

Project: Bathroom and Trust

Our bathroom had not been remodeled since my wife bought the house 20 years ago. It was in rather poor shape. The shower quit working, the tub and commode were leaking, the ceiling fan had stopped a long time ago, and there was carpet on the floor – a poor choice for a bathroom.

I asked my wife if she would trust me to remodel our bath. She said yes. Now that was quite a leap of faith for her. You see, I have never done it before. Oh, I have watched hundreds of episodes of This Old House and other construction/remodel shows. And I was not totally ignorant because my brother has taught me some basic carpentry skills and I worked with him for three years when I was a teenager. I felt confident I knew how to do it, but, for the most part, I did not have any real world experience.

I started by fixing the leak in the tub, changed the seal at the bottom of the commode tank (a first), and replaced the O-ring under the commode (another first). Next, I built a wall for the new shower, plumbed the shower (first), put in a new tub surround (first), installed the shower head and valves, built an access panel, and sealed it all with calking.

There was a lot of drywall work that needed done. It went on the newly built wall, four corners with aluminum corner beads, and several other places that needed attention. I mudded and finished it all (first). (I used way too much dry wall mud and had to use an electric sander to smooth and reduce it. There was white residue about a quarter of an inch deep on everything in the bathroom, including me.)

My wife chose beige and chocolate brown for the paint scheme. The walls were painted beige. I set up a little workshop on the porch for the trim. Each piece was pre-fitted, hung with eye-screws from the porch rafters, and painted brown without the need to touch it. There was one window, two doors, three mirrors, and the new access panel to trim. It went well for the very limited experience I have with trim work.

Afterwards, I built a new closet, installed two shelves with clothing rods, and put up a new door – frame and all (first). The door sticks a bit (okay, a lot), but it will trim itself out with time. The bathroom exhaust fan followed (first). I was always afraid to work with electricity, but if I was going to finish the project I had to do it. The choice of fans was made that would fit into the 8 X 8 inch cut in the ceiling. The old one did not want to come out and the new one did not want to go in. How can a 7 1/2 X 7 1/2 replacement fan  not fit into an 8 X 8 hole? The electrical part was easy compared to all that. Alas, I prevailed and the fan and new flexible, foil duct are working great.

The last step was the floor. The old carpet was hard to get up and I had to change the blade in my utility knife multiple times. (Good thing I bought ten.) The padding came up without much effort and then there were all the nails and staples that had to be pounded down or pulled out. I got real intimate with our bathroom floor – much more than I cared to. The order for our new bamboo flooring was made and I installed the eco-cork padding (first). The flooring came in and I started to lay it (first). The most difficult thing was to cut around the commode, the other cuts were fairly routine. My wife put up some decorations and our newly remodeled bathroom has been upgraded to the 21st century.

Because I am a perfectionist, I can only see the flaws, but everyone else, most importantly my wife, appear to be happy with it. When I have attempted such things in the past, I was ridiculed and told that I was not capable of doing it. But my wife believed in me and trusted me, even with my want of experience. That kind of trust brings confidence and freedom.  “What’s the next project, dear?”

 

MANAGING THE GHOSTS

It was the last class I had to finish before I met all my requirements for ministerial ordination. History and Polity were two of my favorite subjects, (I know, I am a nerd.) and narrowing the focus to the denomination into which I was born, loved, and served enhanced the experience. There were five other guys taking the course, too. During one of the discussion sessions, a young minister began complaining about his predecessor and the things he did while he was pastor. I do not know if the man realized it, but that former pastor was my father.

Image result for white wood framed church in disrepairDad took a hard-scrabble church that had sunk to five members, with no money in the treasury, and in a dilapidated building with wavy floors, a broken-down chimney – in the sanctuary no less – and long strips of wallpaper hanging from the ceiling. It was a challenge to say the least. Dad was faithful and for the next 15 years the church grew. Sometimes the growth was meager, but he never had a loss. By the time my father resigned from that church, every member in it was saved or brought into the fellowship as a result of Dad’s work. Everywhere you looked – from the new ceiling, lights, walls, floors, piano, sound system, pews, and never had before off-street parking to the new addition that housed an entrance with separate men’s and women’s restrooms – Dad’s hand could be seen.

The new pastor was challenging the ghost of my dad. I thought then, and still do, that he had a very destructive strategy. Instead of making new memories and succeeding at new goals, he chose to fight the past. It did not end well. Within three years from his declared war with Dad’s memory, he had destroyed the church and it had to be closed. You cannot win a battle with good ghosts. You can only manage them.

One year, three months, and 10 days ago I married a widow. It has been a glorious ride. However, I knew coming into the relationship that I would be entertaining the ghost of the dearly departed husband for a very long time. At first there were pictures of him around the house and in our bedroom. I gently asked my beloved if she could move the ones out of the bedroom, otherwise I said nothing. About a month ago, the last picture – a refrigerator magnet – was taken down and carefully stored without another word from me.

His hats and a jacket or two hung on the hall tree just as he had left them. Again, I said nothing. Eventually, she decided the hall tree had seen better days and needed to be thrown in the trash. I dismantled it and took it out and his hats and jackets were put away.

I do not sit in the same spot as he did at the dinner table, sit in his recliner, or Image result for recliner chairuse his lap blanket. To do so would make it appear that I was replacing him, and I never want to give that impression. My wife chose to change the plates we use from the ones he liked to the pattern she likes. The decision was hers to make. I helped her make the necessary changes in the kitchen cabinets. Her children and grandchildren call me Porter and that is fine with me. I do not need a formal familial title to belong.

On Monday of this week, we returned from a three-day excursion to one of the barrier islands off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. My lovely wife enjoys going there. She went there every year with her now deceased husband and we have gone together the past two years. It is there that I see his ghost the most. He is in the condo community where they used to stay and on the beach on which we now frolic. He is at the restaurants where we eat, the shops we browse through, and the tourist traps we give a nod to. The dolphins outside one store were “ridden” by him. He walked through the belly of a shark that is displayed at another. There is no missing him, he is everywhere on the island.

Last year I decided to find something to do that she had never done before. There is no way I can replace or overcome his memories, so I decided making new experiences forImage result for st. joe island texas just the two of us was the way to go. I read about an uninhabited island that was good for beach combing, watching birds, hiking, and playing in the surf. She had never been there. Mid-morning the next day, we took the ferry and spent several hours on the island. It was fun, exciting, and best of all, an outing owned by her and me alone.

This year I found three places new to her. On the island there is a university marineImage result for port aransas marine science institute sciences program she had never visited. It has a welcome center and multiple displays related to the local environment. We explored the Eco system of the Gulf, discovered one of the few natural estuaries in the world was nearby, learned about several species of fish the students were studying, and looked through artifacts washed ashore from Central and South America and Africa. It is another memory that only we share.

Image result for padre island national seashoreNext, we went to a national seashore preserve. Seventy miles of this very long island are exactly the way God created nature to shape and reshape it. In Texas all coastal beaches are designated as highways, so we drove a few miles down the beach until the sight of humans was very distant. We combed the beach for hidden treasures, walked where the waves gently brushed our feet, watched birds running away from the water only to return when the tide went out, discovered a species of jellyfish neither of us had encountered before, fought off seagulls that tried to steal our snacks, and built an elaborate sand castle with a deep moat and a high keep protected by three layers of defensive positions. No ghosts were present with whom we had to share our venture.

The last place was a city park built along a shipping channel on one side and the localImage result for large ship in channel at port aransas harbor on the other. There were piers that jutted out into the ocean for fishing and viewing. A two-and-a-half story observation platform was a great place to watch the brown dolphins swim down the middle of one of the Gulf’s entrance ramps. A large ship went by headed out to another port. Beside it was a tourist boat filled with people enjoying the good fortune of escorting a ship to the open ocean. It was quite a contrast to see the two vessels side by side. The one looked like a horizontal skyscraper and the other like a bathtub toy. A walking path ran atop the sea wall built with massive mauve colored stone cut from solid granite and ran along the shore line following the natural contours of the island. While there my precious wife spoke about the beautiful park she had left undiscovered so long. It was another moment that went into a file reserved for only the two of us.

On the way out of the park going toward our hotel, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant for supper. A first time for her and a forth keepsake that we alone treasure.

I do not know if my observations for managing ghosts are unique to me or if the geniuses of behavioral sciences have long ago published them, but here are some thoughts I have found useful.

  • Learn to accept and respect the important ghosts elevated by others for who they were and the important roles they played.
  • Ask your new friends, co-workers, followers, and/or newly created family to open their hearts to make room for you without dislodging anyone else.
  • Build new relationships and make new and unique memories that create a strong position for you without threatening or dethroning the physically departed.
  • Be wise, compassionate, and patient. Your time will come.

The LORD be with you to bless you and give you grace.

Choose Your Insanity, Part I

Untreated or Under-Treated Depression

Image may contain: house, sky, tree, outdoor and natureOver the past 19 years I have learned the consequences of untreated and under-treated depression. And, I have picked up a thing or two about the side-effects of antidepressants. Either can drive you mad.

The first sign that my 30 years of occasional melancholia was turning into clinical depression was in the summer of 1999. It started with what the doctor called, “cluster-headaches.” It was painful and came in cycles of repeated headaches followed by periods without them. The doctor prescribed sunglasses. (He probably gave me a medication, but the sunglasses are all I remember). It may be a cool look to wear shades, but imagine me in church on a Sunday morning leading worship and preaching with sunglasses on. Believe me, it makes eye-contact pointless when the congregation cannot see your eyes.

The second sign began in the fall of the same year. After multiple trips to the hospital and the doctor, it was determined I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The pain was severe and disabling. Nothing I was prescribed helped. I was asked to join a trial study for a medication that reportedly “was the best thing since toilet paper.” Because of some bleeding, I had to have a colonoscopy. Every medical person who was part of the trial study was interested. My procedure became the main attraction of the day with a regular stream of doctors and nurses coming in and out for a look. Hey, bottoms up! After no noticeable change, I was referred to yet another specialist who prescribed a medication that finally worked. But, with the pain gone, the true culprit appeared with a vengeance – depression.

A moderate to severe depressive disorder can have serious effects on your physical and mental health. Besides headaches and digestive issues, depression is often accompanied by back pain, stomachaches, chest pain, achy legs and arms, sleep problems (insomnia or hyposomnia), and weight gain or loss. It can make it harder to get over the flu or other seasonal illnesses, too. Studies have shown that people recovering from a stroke or heart attack and have comorbid depression are at double the risk of death than a person without depression. One study concluded that an “episode of clinical depression is as dangerous as smoking in causing heart disease and heart attacks.”

Depression also affects your brain. Sluggish thinking, difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering, problems making both minor and major decisions, and difficulty focusing are common. Recent studies have determined that untreated or under-treated depression can cause the brain to shrink. In most cases the brain will recover, but it can become permanent if the depression is left untreated over a long period of time. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning has shown that depression is related to abnormalities in the memory center, conflict-resolution area, and the planning and executing parts of the brain.

My under-treated depression was partly my fault. I was inconsistent about going to a psychiatrist or a mental health counselor. After a while, I thought I could forego the travel and hassle of seeing a psychiatrist and let my family doctor prescribe my medications. One general practitioner gave me prescriptions covering a whole year. One annual appointment was really convenient for me, but not healthy.

Finding a counselor with whom I could stay engaged was difficult. On the second visit to the first therapist I tried, she told me that maybe God was finished with me. After my next visit, I was finished with her. Other times I used the miles I had to travel or the money I had to spend as an excuse. You see, I had yet to lose confidence in my ability to handle my own depression. It was not until after four hospitalizations and losing nearly everything in my life that I held dear, that I decided it was time to see a psychiatrist and go to counseling consistently. During that time, I had frequent, long and persistent episodes of suicidal ideations. The first lasted four and one-half years, the second and third one year each, and the fourth two years.

Untreated or under-treated depression carries a high risk of suicide. Thoughts can grow worse with time. My last round of suicidal ideations was so severe that it took every ounce of will I had to not jump in the swift river I walked beside or run and step in front of the train whose whistle I heard. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and visions of an aimless future gripped my soul. At one point, only the thought of spending an eternity in hell prevented me from completing suicide to escape the pain. Suicidal ideations can also express themselves in reckless behavior, risky situations, and dangerous circumstances.

Relationships can be damaged beyond repair. Family and friends can feel ostracized by your changed mood and behavior. Irritability, isolation, anger, lashing out at loved ones, and a disinterest in most things including sex do not make for healthy relationships. During my under-treated depression, my marriage ended and I became estranged from my children and grandchildren. God seemed far away.

Careers can become a casualty of moderate to severe depression. Accumulating sick days, unproductive efforts, lack of energy, and diminished concentration is not a recipe for a good employee. Both of my careers – pastoral ministry and counseling – were lost and are now unrecoverable. Students can lose interest in or find it difficult to study. Class attendance can be sporadic and assignments are late if they get turned in at all. Aimlessly sitting around thinking about your symptoms, sadness, and misery can interfere with decision-making and make matters worse.

Substance and/or alcohol abuse, addiction, and self-injurious behaviors are possible.

Yes, untreated or under-treated depression can put you into a sad and worsening state of affairs. Psychotic breaks from reality, catatonic features, catalepsy, posturing, echolalia or echopraxia, anorexia, obesity, and leaden paralysis are possible.

Is there any hope? There is always hope. Proper treatment can go a long way toward restoring a new normal. However, that “new normal” can come with its own challenges and its own brand of insanity.

Come back next week for a look at the common side-effects of anti-depressant medications and the issues they cause.

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.

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.