like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 131:2 ESV
I have been taught different truths before by C.J., our somewhat brain-damaged cat, but this morning was particularly wondrous.
My mind awakened this morning running at warp 12; it just wouldn’t shut up and let me get back to sleep. Finally surrendering to the inevitable, I got up and went into the ‘reading room’ to spend some time just trying to calm my spirit. C.J. normally follows me around in my morning ablutions and medicine taking, waiting (impatiently) for me to pick her up and hold her on my shoulder. It had never occurred to me how persistent she was throughout the day in having me do this; yes, she liked it when I refilled the food bowl or put fresh water in the water dish (with some ice mind you), but mostly just to be held on my shoulder and stroked. To be completely honest, at times it was rather distracting, even irritating to be pursued by this little creature. She would not stop crying until I acquiesced to her demands and picked her up!
Then, finally, this morning…
Awakened by a multitude of worries and problems, I just couldn’t go back to sleep. Getting out of bed and getting dressed, I wandered out into the ‘reading room’ and sat down to begin my daily devotions. It seemed that something was bothering me deep down and it just escaped me. Opening my web browser on my laptop, I connected to Bible Gateway and began searching for a study or devotional centered on the Psalms. Not finding what “I” was looking for, I just started looking for what was there and found Eternal Words, a series that combined Scripture readings with music designed to, “…bring Joy to your heart and Peace to your soul…” I opened the first one, and within it, a quote from Psalm 131 struck my heart as what I’d been looking for;
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 131:2 ESV
Okay, but what does that have to do with my roiled thoughts and anxiety this morning, and how does that fit in with C.J. normally following me around and crying to be picked up. Wait a minute; it’s been over 30 minutes since the bed spat me out and no C.J. Then it struck me; she wanted nothing more than to be held and cuddled by me. No treats, food, water (even ice!); she just wanted to spend some time being held on my shoulder.
A weaned child wants nothing so much from the mother other than just that thing. They may be hungry (especially once they are teenagers!), but the Psalmist is speaking of the desire for God’s presence rather than His presents. Magically (stop your laughing!), C.J. appeared crying to be picked up. We spent over 30 minutes with my holding her close to my shoulder as we both reveled in the time spent together.
That is what God seemed to be telling me; more than all that He has already gifted me with, He desires my heart to long to be with Him, to pursue Him and for that to be not only sufficient but to be completely satisfying to my soul.
Amazing how my little professor of Theology has once again taught me so much.
Last year while attending a business meeting I had asked someone what the possibility of that company having a position with them for me. Honestly, it was more a proforma kind of request; after almost five years of either being ignored or told my services were not needed, I’d all but given up hope of ever finding meaningful work with any business or company. That this was an organization that did much to demonstrate a willingness to reach unreached populations with health care gave me a small amount of hope.
So, I asked.
Amazingly, the person I spoke with responded in a positive manner. For a moment I did not know how to respond. Over 450 times I’d either heard nothing or a polite dismissal; to have someone in a position of authority tell me that there would be a position for me bordered on the miraculous. It would put me in a position to help those who, like me, were struggling to find a way to live a purposeful life after getting out of prison. Those in the room with me who overheard my conversation were exultant at my finding this possibility; it felt as though my long, the night could be coming to an end.
So, we began plans to look into moving to the Wilmington area to take advantage of this. Over the next few days, it seemed as though one door after another opened and connections made all seemed to confirm that this was happening. In late January of this year, we did move, putting our townhome in Durham on the market. When an offer well above asking price was made less than 24 hours after listing, it seemed yet one more confirmation that we were where we needed to be.
I followed the website for this company daily, checking to see when the position that I had asked about was listed; within an hour of it’s being listed on the website, I had sent in an email to the appropriate person with my resume, cover letter and other material attached. As the weeks went by I continued to hope, but then I learned that interviews had been ongoing for some time, but I had not called. Then, one day when I checked I found the position was no longer there.
When I was just out of the Navy and becoming more and more bitter as the result of my wife divorcing me after she’d forced me to get out of the Navy, a friend I worked with in the ED at NCMH, Malcolm MacGregor seemed to have something I was missing. This rather scruffy looking guy never got rattled and always demonstrated a calmness of which I sorely lacked. I knew he was a Christian, but didn’t think that had anything to do with it as I thought I was as well (after all, I’d been raised in the Catholic church and was an American, and so, of course, I was a Christian). We had ample opportunities to discuss what his view of Christianity was (reading the Bible because you wanted to?), but no matter how I at times disagreed with him, he was always kind and gentle to me.
He kept inviting me to this gathering of folks called the Chapel Hill Bible Church which was then meeting in a building on campus (Gerrard Hall) each Sunday morning. I put him off for weeks until finally, I decided to go if for no other reason just to shut him up! When I did I was amazed at what I SAW; what I’ve heard referred to by others in the military as a “target rich environment” because of all the beautiful coeds who attended there. I decided to continue going to the services there to see if I could ‘mine’ this rich environment (hey, I was still a sailor at heart, what can I say?). Over time listening to what James Abrahamson taught, something began happening to me that I did not then realize. Once after a service as many were congregating outside Gerrard Hall, I walked up to Jim and told how much I had enjoyed the lesson. He smiled and said, “Well, praise the Lord!” I was taken aback as I expected a very different response as I’d complimented him, not the Lord.
Sadly, shortly after this, I became so ‘busy’ that Sundays were usually the only day I could sleep late, so my attendance with that strange but wonderful group of believers came to an end. A rich seed had been planted by God through the work of Jim, Malcolm and several others that would not bear fruit for many years. I’d begun dating and then living with another woman (also recovering from a divorce), and we both did attend different ‘churches’ at times through the intervening years but never felt we belonged there.
When we moved back to North Carolina from Florida, we thought we’d found a new home in Winston-Salem, but events and my ego interceded and I found myself convicted of murder following the death of a patient I’d cared for in ICU. I was convicted and sentenced to prison in February 1988 and thought my life was as good as over. Convinced that I’d soon be stabbed, shot, raped or who knows what else, I settled into an uneasy ‘life’ in prison without any expectation that I’d ever get out. BUT GOD (two of my favorite words) had not allowed that seed planted in 1980 to die and began nurturing that all but dead seed into life. My second week at Central Prison, another prisoner invited me to accompany him to the chapel for a church service. Not having anything else to do and looking for an excuse (ANY EXCUSE) to get out of the cacophony of noise that was K Dorm, I accepted.
Chaplain Skip Pike taught that Sunday and I remember comparing him to Jim, keeping things all logical and all, and just thought ‘meh’ at the end. A week later (and a day after my 36th birthday) I was again invited to go; using the same reasoning led me to go. This time another Chaplain was teaching, Eugene Wigelsworth, and to this day I cannot recall what he said or even the passage he taught from; all I know is that when he asked if there was anyone who felt a call on their hearts to come forward, I practically leapt from my chair. I was the second in line (I have no idea if anyone was behind me; all I knew was that the ‘now or never’ feeling in my soul impelled me to move and so I had. When the other prisoner had finished and turned away, I somehow felt unable to step toward Pastor Wigelsworth and began to sob out loud. Had he not stepped forward and hugged me to himself, I would have fallen to the floor. Such a feeling of acceptance and love flooded my heart and soul that even now I can not describe it. Again, I have no recollection of time, or what was happening around me, only as my crying began to subside, a JOY beyond description began to fill me. Pastor Eugene stepped back from me, still holding my shoulders and told me, “You will be fine, young man. I want you to come to my office immediately after the service so we can talk.” I stammered a, “ Yes, sir!” and went back to my chair.
In the following months, I came to love this godly man and to look forward to the times when we could sit in his office and just talk about this seedling growing within me. Far too soon, my time at Central Prison drew to an end as I was in a group selected to be moved to a high-security road camp (where we’d have contact visits!). As we walked toward the area where I was searched before boarding the transfer van, Gene continued to encourage me to follow up on course work he’d arranged for me through Lee College (now University). I’d also ‘discovered’ the Bible Broadcasting Network with such teachers as Chuck Swindoll, Vernon Magee, and others I came to know and respect (indeed, from then on whatever place D.O.C. sent me, my priority was to try and locate a local BBN outlet. Through the years the teaching I heard on BBN and my personal study (used up three separate study Bibles while ‘inside’), God did continue to nurture the seedling, but finding a community of like-minded believers was rare within the prison system.
As I approached the conclusion of my time in prison, I was transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough. I had lost contact with several over my years in prison, but once at OCC I reached out to Malcolm (still had his address) and wrote him. He wrote back that he was excited that I was so close and that he would let others know to pray for me. Within a few months, I qualified for Community Visitor passes, but needed some sponsors willing to take me out. I’d already connected with one of the Yokefellow volunteers (Bruce Dalton) and had been out a few times with him when the annual volunteer's banquet was held. The yard was closed to all prisoners, but a guard came to my bunk (where I was reading) and told me that someone wanted to speak to me. I went into the visitation area (where the banquet was being held) and saw Jim and Cecee Abrahamson; Jim standing with his arms wide open and a great big grin on his face. We spoke briefly and he promised to start taking me out on CV passes very soon.
The next Sunday he and Cecee arrived to take me to the Chapel Hill Bible Church (no longer meeting on campus, but in a beautiful building off of Erwin Road). Many of those in the Sunday School class he led knew me from BC (before Christ) and I have to confess to feeling more than a little trepidation at what kind of welcome I’d receive. Very soon it became apparent to me that the doctrine of God’s grace was more than a textbook idea to the people there. The warmth and welcome I felt amazed me after almost 23 years in prison. In the following year and a half, I continued to bathe weekly in Jim’s teaching as my release date drew nearer. Days before that happened I was transferred to Wake Correctional since my wife was then living in Wake County and so my parole officer was also in Wake County. Soon after that, we became regular attendees of the services at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and then members; I won’t claim that I have arrived at being all that He wants me to be, but the atmosphere and teaching there had my roots going ever deeper and my heart filling more and more.
Now, with our coming move to Wilmington, it is time to say goodbye or perhaps “Aloha” would be better. So much has happened and so much has changed in who I was even since surrendering to my King. New adventures await, but it is with a pang in my heart that we draw this chapter of my journey Home to a conclusion. We had a saying we shared in the choir at Piedmont Correctional Institution as we concluded rehearsal on Wednesday night; “See you in the morning or in the clouds.” I guess that’s as good as any way to speak to my family at the Chubby-C.
The journey continues…
One of the ways that I have begun my healing journey is through the Yoga Warrior class through the wonderful folks at the Military Family Ministry at Hope Community Church. Every second and fourth Thursday I continue to stretch the envelope on my ligaments (gently though) and learn to be aware of my breathing. We all do it but have you ever stopped, closed your eyes and concentrated on each breath as it enters and exits the body. Of course, this is similar to what Amy Gressler at Harbor Reins has been teaching me as well as part of the Equine Therapy. Being more cognizant of the NOW, the sensations of air moving past your body as well as the movement of the body (and the horse beneath you). Amy had me matching my breaths with that of the horse; it amazed me how once I’d done that, it seemed the stress and tension just flowed away.
Coming home from the Warrior Yoga class tonight, a song played on HIS Radio (107.7 here in Durham) that has always reminded me that no matter the pressure to DO, all I need to do is “…just breathe…” Breathe is one of those songs that not only is firmly based on Scripture, but is a reminder in today’s chaotic world, that peace IS possible. The mantras that the Yoga instructor has taught us I have replaced with another reminder that is far more biblical:
“I am in Christ,
God is in control;
My future is secure,
Jesus owns my soul.”
Amy sent me a self-evaluation to go over again (I’ve done it before as it is a good measure of where I am in the healing process). Considering where I was when I first started with Harbor Reins and now, the difference is night and day. Most of the nightmares, the self-loathing and ennui, are fading replaced by a knowledge of who I am in Christ and where I am NOW. It fills me with gratitude to my God for directing me as he has in ‘finding’ Harbor Reins and Warrior Yoga as those two have had much to do with how far I have come in the past months. I am also thankful to an incredible woman who has put up with me over the years (yeah, she even stuck it out while I was in prison for about 24 ½ years), but mostly I am grateful to a God, who took me in my filth and welcomed me with open arms. And, though I do continue to blow it (oy vey, how I still blow it at times!), he is there telling me, “Just breathe.”
The journey continues…
What a day!
When I pulled up, I noticed that Liza had already put Bob in the ring, so I decided to go over and say hello. I called out to him, and he came sauntering over to where I was standing which blew my mind, considering our last session. I rubbed on his nose and ears for a bit, and then he turned and walked away; shortly after Amy and Liza came out, and we began our session for the day.
Bob was standing at the far end of the ring, so I placed the grooming tray on a stand in the center and walked toward him to begin. He seems to like most of the grooming (at times he does take a nip at me whenever I clean his right front hoof), but Friday he seemed more relaxed and willing to allow me to do whatever I wanted. As I moved to get him to lift his hoof, he did indeed lift it but then brought it down on top of the toes of my boot (thank God for steel toes). Yep, it hurt like a son of a gun, but I was able to flex the toes inside the boot so figured nothing had been broken.
Throughout the session, Bob seemed a different animal (compared with the previous session when he ignored and resisted my efforts to get him to come to me). It was almost too easy; at one point whenever I would walk away after he came to me, he would follow without being told! Amy had spoken to me about two phases of this; one where I have him come to me, another where I stay in the center of the ring and have him move around the periphery of the ring. I started to attempt this, but each time I called to him, he would walk to me. I would speak to him while rubbing his ears and nose; finally, Amy and Liza told me that by doing this I was reinforcing his behavior, that I needed to be more firm with him to get him to circle instead of approach.
They had given me a ‘carrot stick’ (a metal rod with a length of rope attached) that I had used at times to get his attention so he would approach me. I called to him and, as he had before, he turned and began walking toward me. I popped the rope to one side and said, “No!” while pointing to the other side. He stopped, then walked to the inner part of the ring and began to walk around it. I continued to stand in the center with my arm pointed to the side while I turned with him, continuing to tell him to move on.
I’m not sure who was more thrilled at what was happening, but Amy had a big grin. Earlier she had remarked Bob had begun trusting me more as evidenced by his being more comfortable with my ‘snuggling’ with him; all that had happened that day seemed to reinforce this. I guess our next session will be the ‘proof in the pudding,’ but I am excited at the changes in Bob and me. One of Amy’s observations was that I was obviously more at peace with myself, and Bob had sensed this and so was working with me as a team.
A great day; a wonderful session and an indication that we (as a team) are going in the right direction.
So, what’s new with you?
Another 24 hour period passes and the world seems to pause to celebrate this particular day more than another simply because it marks the passing of one year (2015) and the beginning of yet one more (2016). Spending multiplied millions (if not billions) on the gaiety of such an event and, with the new risks we face, add to that the billions in added security to protect the revelers who gather around the globe.
Why do we do this every year? We eat special meals, supposedly to influence events in the coming year that will bring us additional money and good fortune all the while laughing off such and telling each other that we are not taking such folk-wisdom seriously. But those meals are served with the same regularity as we light up the night sky with brilliant displays of fireworks each year.
Multiplied millions share resolutions to at least attempt to improve their lives, if not that of some attempt at improving the world around them; such promises for change often forgotten in the passing of days (hours?) that the ‘new’ year brings. We hope, perhaps, that this year can be different; that governments can work together, and that industry as well will work more for the benefit of the world and the people who live on it rather than chasing after the amassing of more and more in the coffers of those same governments and businesses.
But what is new with you? Is it vain to hope for improvement as Jiminy Cricket once sang, “When You Wish Upon A Star?” or are we doomed to continue the same circling of the drain as we await the final push of a button to end it all with nuclear oblivion or some other form of destruction? Can that be the underlying cause of such careless and hopeful abandon each New Year Eve? We did not blow ourselves up (at least in the case of the majority) and can hope that such will be the case next December 31st all the while nervously watching the growing tensions between religious groups, countries, and individuals.
Dare I say it? Is there hope in something (Someone) outside of our control? Events that I participated in while in the Navy back in the 1970s make me less hopeful of man’s efforts to obtain “Peace on Earth.” As more countries and the despots who rule them become members of the nuclear club, it seems that we are indeed circling the drain of our demise unless there is Another who will, as the bartender in a pub I once visited in Scotland said, “All right, gents. Closing time.”
We have no means to stop our maddened rush to eventual destruction. A perusal of any news media or just looking within our hearts will demonstrate this truth. Mutual Assured Destruction Doctrine is no guarantee of peace (as I learned in the 70s) and the vehement argument between scholars of different (or the same) religions give me little cause for hope. It is only in one Person that I can look and see hope; a baby born in a slum of a forgotten part of a subjugated people brought that hope to all mankind. A baby foretold for centuries, who was born to die and lived his life in complete obedience to the Law of His people, then executed putting an end, the authorities thought, to this sect of Jews.
But hope arose and continued to grow despite the efforts of any politician or imam; the Light of all men provides a newness in the most despicable of us (and I have, at times, been such and will be again). Scattered around the world, the followers of this One look into a future that is New and filled with a Hope that the world scorns. As this ‘new’ (but far too much the same) begins, I invite you to consider this Jesus and ask yourself what answer He would give you to the question with which I began this.
So, what’s new with you?
“Get over it!”
I’ve heard that many a time; have to confess to saying it myself at times either directed toward myself or some other person. Life can hurt, but to be successful it seems important to put a brave face on and ‘soldier on’; to keep on no matter how you may feel. I’ve done this for years, I thought somewhat successfully, until this past weekend when Kathy and I attended a workshop/seminar on Post Traumatic Stress and the impact it has on lives.
William Tecumseh Sherman once opined regarding war,
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
One of the speakers, a Marine combat veteran, stated it rather succinctly when he said that war kills the soul of any who participate in the hell that is all too real for those who have ‘seen the elephant,’ a descriptive phrase attributed to first being used in the mid to late 19th century as a way of describing someone who has encountered something (usually combat) that results in overwhelming emotion and disturbance.
War twists the psyche in unimaginable ways, often not surfacing for years or even decades when sleep disturbances, bursts of anger, paranoia and hyper-awareness can turn an apparent normal person into a quivering echo of their former self. It will take you where you do not want to go, but you cannot gainsay it’s overwhelming command and find yourself watching almost from a third person viewpoint as you either explode or implode.
Thankfully there is help, really only one solution for the horrific damage that war does to people. That solution, the only real hope for any so afflicted is to recognize your inability to handle it and to seek help outside of yourself.
Gary Cunha is the Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs; his task is monumental because as of today we are losing one veteran to suicide every 62 minutes. He spoke on the spiritual component of obtaining help, of experiencing hope in the midst of despair. While speaking to experienced counsellors like Gary will help, there is only one solution to bring light into such dark places.
If you are a veteran, you are not alone. No matter what may have happened to you, there is help readily available through the Veterans Crisis Line. Call 1-800-273-8255, press 1 and you will have a ready ear who does understand to share your burdens. For those who have not served; please, pray for our military and veterans and thank God that you have been shielded from the horror and hell that is war by those who volunteer to face it for you.
How can I understand all that has happened? At times I feel like a plaything, a toy boat tossed about on a pond by the dirt clods some boy is throwing at it. Can I be sure that it is God who is talking to me? Does it not seem presumptuous on my part that the Lord would communicate with this son of Eli? The dream or vision, could it not have been that spicy meal I had eaten or maybe some sour wine I’d drunk? I am no priest or scribe, how can I expect God to speak to me?
Lord, those who laugh at me openly don’t hurt so much, but I grieve at the sneers and whispers about my beloved Mary. Others shake their heads at me when they think I don’t see; am I a fool to believe all that I think you have told me? When she told me that she was with child, my heart stopped, Lord. She of whom I have loved and longed for had been with another! After all, that is what is needful for such to happen isn’t it, Lord? How could I marry her now, but if I publicly confront her, she’d be stoned! Lord, how can I let such happen to my Mary? I still love her, Lord, and I am trying to understand all that is happening. How can I, a simple carpenter who has become a plaything of God?
She looked so beautiful at the betrothal. My breath left me whenever our eyes met; so much promised in a look! How I worked to prepare a home for us, then the whispers began. Mary returned from visiting Elizabeth already showing her condition- and the story she told me! How can such things occur in our simple village? We are not related to the priests in Jerusalem, Lord. We are simple people!
Have I erred in keeping Mary as my wife? The dream I had, what the angel said about her – and the child within her! I would have to be mad to believe it! But when I talked with Mary, the tears in her eyes… Lord, I love her so!
Now, here outside this ….CAVE! Dear God, I would expect such a child to be born in a palace with many attending to Mary. But this filthy place! How can I but wonder where this child came from when we are forced to a hovel such as this to bring a child into the world. God of Israel, help me to understand! Help me to see your hand in all this. How can Messiah be born in such a place?
There! I said it! The Messiah! After all these years of waiting is it really the time we've yearned for, or am I the victim of a hoax? Help me, Adonai to see you in all this. Calm my heart that I may comfort Mary and protect her son. Her son! Is it pride, God, that has me so worked up? Am I jealous of the father of this child? But who is he? What the angel said. How is that possible? Am I, like our father Jacob, wrestling against God? Help me to know what is true, Lord. Calm my heart.
If this child is indeed Messiah, how can I teach him? How does a carpenter raise God’s Son, the King of kings? Lord, every time I accept this, more questions come. What do I do, Lord, to provide for all that will be needed? My shop and my customers are all in Nazareth. How can I hope to begin all over again here when I can’t even find a clean home – such a provider to birth a baby in a cave?
A baby, your Son? Incredible! The Son of God coming to visit us by being born to my Mary? Here? In a stable? Insanity! Dare I really believe this? Dare I not?
This was originally written while I was incarcerated; in it I sought to imagine myself in Joseph's place, how would I react to the events surrounding the birth of the Christ-child? How this man must have wrestled; how many of us still do with the idea of Immanuel entering His creation in such a manner. A blessed and wondrous Christ-mas to all.
Not a topic that is comfortable in any context, but especially within the church today. So many teach and/or believe that once you have surrendered your life to Christ that life will be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere. As with Job’s friends, when someone does not fit that mold, many question the individual’s walk with Christ; accusations flow and fingers point, but how many harbor their own pain, hiding it to prevent others from treating them in the same way?
Thankfully I am in a fellowship whose members do “…come alongside…” the person who is hurting, from whatever source. Still, it is hard to ask for help; when I see others in the body at the Chapel Hill Bible Church who are wrestling with much worse, how can I ask for help when they seem so much more in need of that help? Indeed, one of the men I would go to for counselling is himself struggling with a battle with cancer; what is depression when compared with something that could take his life?
As I related in an earlier blog, with Job I can state categorically that I do know that my Redeemer lives; that He holds onto me is a solace and comfort that is beyond measure particularly now that my strength is all but gone.
A day is coming for all of us in Christ when such pain and confusion will be forever banished; for now, we do struggle and wander in a dark world. I have no answers or expectation of when (if?) this greyness will end, but I do know that I am loved and, as Elisabeth Elliot quoted so many times, “…underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 32:27)
It has been a bit over three years since I was released from prison; in that time I have applied to over 400 different jobs with little to show for it other than the expenditure of time and, hopefully, a growing sense of reliance on God’s provision of grace and patience. I have continued working part-time on a very episodic schedule with Measurement Incorporated as a Reader/Evaluator and, while the work is usually fairly interesting, there usually isn't a lot of work to be had (last year my total income from that position was less than $4,000).
Recently it seemed that I was being pushed in a different direction; I had no idea what that direction would be, but began examining other options than a full-time position in some business or company. As many of you can recall from earlier blogs, I have continued to volunteer with the USO-NC and Our Children’s Place including in those venues my growing skills as a photographer. I had considered for a time beginning a small business in photography, but elected not to pursue that as it seemed that some other employment would certainly come along.
When a friend who has a property management firm in the area asked if I’d be interested in doing the listing photos for him, I began to reconsider my reticence of entering the photography business; having a Realtor I met at Fitness World ask me the same question seemed to cement the idea in my mind and heart and so I have begun the process of getting this going.
Several have agreed to help me with advice and I've also begun searching to find what kind of help the VA can provide for my launching Tony’s Take Photography. Completing the Coalition of Prison Evangelists Mid Atlantic conference in Greensboro as their photographer and receiving some great feedback from them concerning the images I captured while there has served to further hearten me. It promises to be an adventure, all part of my journey Home.