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.
Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I always assumed that I was a Christian. Before I go further, allow me to allay any fears from my friends who are Catholic; I am NOT bashing Catholicism. Indeed many wonderful people I’ve met who are disciples of the Christ remain within the Catholic Church. My Mother was the reason I attended and grew up in the Catholic Church; I was enrolled at a Catholic school in Waukegan while my Dad was pushing boots at the Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, IL.
One of the main things I remember about growing up Catholic (especially during the time I attended the Catholic school) was an awe of the majesty of God. While a teen in Swansboro (we lived in Cape Carteret, but attended St. Mildred’s in Swansboro. During one confirmation service, my twin brother Eddie and I were drafted into being the altar boys to hold the Bishop’s crosier and miter. We were given silk sleeves that draped across our shoulders and down our chests with glove-like openings in which to place our hands to prevent our touching these items. At one point in the service (I admit, I was wool-gathering and not paying attention), the Bishop handed off his crosier, assuming my hands would be there to grasp it. I hurriedly thrust my hands into the sleeves (have no idea what they are called), but my right hand missed and I (gasp) TOUCHED the crosier with my bare hand. I remember closing my eyes and waiting for the lightning bolt, but nothing happened. I quickly did put my right hand into the proper place and grasped the crosier ‘properly,’ all the time thinking that this stuff apparently wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Keep in mind this was in the 60’s and a teenager in high school with rampant hormones and music playing whose siren song told me to question all that I’d been taught. I continued attending church with our family, but this event caused me to wonder if all this religion stuff was just so much hoo-hah and as soon as I entered the Navy, all church attending ended. I still felt that there was something more to the universe than could be explained by science alone, but was not sure what. There were times when I would have a narrow escape from some catastrophe, and I would exclaim, “Thank God!” That or I would see a beautiful sunset or other natural beauty and think, “Good job, God!” But for some time, that was the extent of my belief.
Once I was out of the Navy, I initially attended school at NCSU but transferred to UNC to complete a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. While there I worked in the Emergency Department at NCMH (very different from the ED at UNC Hospitals now) as a nursing assistant. One of the many folks I got to know there was the night secretary named Malcolm MacGregor. While being rather odd in appearance (his hair, beard, and mustache seemed wiry and uncontrollable), his gentle nature and sense of humor drew me to him. He would, on occasion, share his faith in Christ; I usually tried to put him off by saying I was already a Christian, but he persisted. It wasn’t all that intrusive; we built a friendship that lasted for many years during that time, and I grew to respect Malcolm for the manner in which he lived.
He’d ask me almost every week if I wanted to join him at Gerrard Hall on campus at UNC where the Chapel Hill Bible Church was meeting at the time. I finally caved and continued to join him there each week, not necessarily because I was intrigued by Jim Abrahamson’s sermons (though that was true), but because (as a former sailor) I noticed that it was a ‘target-rich environment,’ filled with many lovely young ladies. Regarding issues of faith in Christ, I didn’t have a clue! I remember after one service when many gathered outside Gerrard Hall, seeing Jim and complimenting him on the lesson that day. His response, “Well praise the Lord! ” threw me off. I remember smiling and moving on to see if I could engender any interest from the co-eds gathered there. Jim even had me come out to his home on occasion, possibly at the behest of Malcolm, to engage me in conversation.
When I graduated from UNC, Kathy and I moved to Pensacola, FL; I lost touch (not that I tried) with everyone at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and the memory of all that I’d heard there soon faded into the background. But, there was an ‘itch’ that is hard to describe that remained with me through the intervening years. When I would reconnect with the Bible Church and told them of my journey, they remarked that a seed had been planted and took some time to sprout. The ‘germ’ that caused this seed to sprout was my being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1988. I remember my first night at Central Prison (the building I was in has since been torn down); the lights from “the wall” that surrounded the prison glared through the windows so there was no chance of sleeping in the dark (that would remain true until my release in 2011). I had arrived, been processed and in my bed assignment (three-high bunks, mine was the top) by about 1 AM. I wasn’t sure if I would be raped, murdered or both if I closed my eyes, so wasn’t all that interested in sleeping. A Bible that I’d had for years (bought it while going to the Bible Church) was the NIV that Kathy had thoughtfully (and wisely) included in the bag of belongings she sent with me. I took it out and turned to the Psalms and read it through before the lights came on at 5 AM for the count. At that point, I can honestly say that I wasn’t necessarily searching for a Savior as much as some form of solace in the dark place that my actions had landed me.
My second Sunday there I went with a few others to the weekly worship service in the prison chapel. The head chaplain, Skip Pike (never did learn his real first name), gave the lesson, but it just bounced off. It wasn’t until the next Sunday (I went just to get out of the dormitory for a time), and another chaplain was there. His manner of speech reminded me much of Malcolm; to this day I cannot recall what he spoke on for the sermon. All I can say is that when he gave an invitation to receive Jesus as Savior, it was as if I’d heard a voice tell me, “Now or never, Shook.” The following weeks, Eugene Wigelsworth mentored me, encouraging me to grow in my new found faith.
Another factor that helped me to grow as a babe in Christ was my ‘happening’ upon the local Bible Broadcasting Network station. The music and teaching was a balm to my heart and helped me to realize that it wasn’t anything that I had done, it was all that Jesus had completed. Throughout the next 23 years, I would blow it (sometimes in a rather spectacular fashion!), but His grace always brought me back. Volunteers who came into the prisons I was housed in showed me the true love of the Gospel and encouraged me to keep on.
When I reached Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough and was able to begin getting ‘passes’ to get away for a time, I reconnected with Malcolm (we’d corresponded for a time while I was incarcerated) and Jim Abrahamson who kindly agreed to be a sponsor for me to take me out. Sundays were always a day I looked forward to; the mornings Jim would take me to the Chapel Hill Bible Church and in the afternoon I got to see my beloved Kathy during visitation. Upon my release we discussed where to go for a home church; Kathy had attended a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church in Winston-Salem for a time, and we both became close friends with the pastor there, Doug Klinsing. Kathy had an apartment in Morrisville and had gone to a CMA Church in Apex (even took me there once when I was on home passes). I suggested the Chapel Hill Bible Church, both because of my history there and because they had a new pastor named Jay Thomas. We went there once and at the end of the service Kathy turned to me and said, “He makes me think!” We became members and continue to enjoy learning and serving there.
I am not yet the man that Christ wants me to be, but my desire to be such grows with every day. Yeah, I still blow it (and still, though thankfully, rarely) do so in a grand manner. I’m not home yet and Philippians 1:6 is a verse I refer to often.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 ESV)
The journey continues…
Recent events in a suburb of St. Louis have me doing more than a cursory search of my own attitudes and beliefs. One particular person whom I do greatly respect has called me to task for something I posted on Facebook in which someone responded to what is happening in that troubled town. I allowed the fact that the individual in the above video rant is black to not hear the invective that this person uses; yes he makes some viable points that I do agree with, but the use of derogatory language toward any person of any ethnicity for any reason is never appropriate for a disciple of Jesus and being a platform for the dissemination of such drivel is just wrong. I was wrong and I apologize to those whom I offended with that video, especially you Karen Garmon (if you’re still reading my posts in Facebook or my blog).
What brought this about? My friend Karen commented on the rant I’d thoughtlessly passed along and, while I did not initially take that to heart, an article I read this morning reinforced the twisting in my heart that had already begun since reading Karen’s comments. That “…still, small voice…” once again interrupted my preconceived ideas of right and wrong and reminded me of a prejudice that I live with every day. In many ways this particular prejudice puts me in the same boat with many spoken of in Matt Chandler’s article on The Gospel Coalition, but it is a prejudice that crosses all boundaries, encompassing many of your neighbors and perhaps some of your friends. We are a population that is forever tainted with a stain that, like Lady Macbeth’s, can never be scrubbed clean from the view of those around us. We are condemned to forever carry the red “F” (for felon) on our lives (Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of a woman sentenced to wear a scarlet “A” in The Scarlet Letter with whom we can identify); we are people who at one time in our lives have been convicted of crime against society. I've blogged before on this topic, commenting that it seems in many places the attitude seems to be “…once convicted, always condemned.”
This sub-culture of individuals (many whom have had only one conviction) can find it almost impossible to find meaningful work or even a place to live; we live with the dread of friends finding out our secret or, if they already know, what they really think of us. Being the recipient of such has, perhaps, made me more sensitive to others who face such daily simply because of the presence or absence of melanin in a few millimeters thickness of the outer layer of their skin! Without knowing a person, without realizing who they are we judge and condemn someone because of their color. Crazy, insane, sinful, just plain wrong! We can do better, especially those who read this who are of the community of faith in Christ. We are called to be better than this!
The facts surrounding the death of Michael Brown are not in yet; sadly because of the furor over what has happened, the whole truth may never be reached. But can’t we provide the same grace that is given to us by a loving God to this situation as well? Whatever reason for the actions of Mr. Brown or of the officer who shot him; it is time we as a society did some heart-searching and reflecting on the divisiveness that seems to be gripping our nation. Is this the America that our founding father’s envisioned?
We can be better.
Many times through the years since I initially surrendered to Christ a lesson that has been taught to me over and over (and over ad infinitum!) is how difficult it is for me to LISTEN and TRUST in the One who knows me more than I know myself. Far too often I want something that is not God’s will and when He chooses to close the door on that something, I whine and whine instead of stopping and listening for His leading.
Tonight, Kathy and I arrived at the home of a friend for our weekly Life Group meeting and in our discussions before the others arrived we wound up speaking to the results of the hearing before the NCREC regarding my being licensed as a Realtor as well as the response of many within an agency that I’d hoped to work with once I was licensed. It was disappointing and frustrating, but it seemed that despite an initial response that kept me in the vertical (to use some fighter-jock parlance I heard once that is particularly apropos), my heart had not yet surrendered to what God had for me and I still clung to MY goals, MY ambitions and that embracing of MY was stifling what that “…still small voice…” would say to me in this time of transition. My trust was still in MY ability and so I was blind to what God wanted for me; amazing considering how many times He has taken me to the woodshed over this very thing.
Our meeting tonight continued a discussion following the series of lessons from Galatians taught at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, specifically this week’s lesson from Galatians 6:1-10 where Paul admonishes the Galatians (and us) about selfishness and an egocentric attitude. The unholy trinity (Me, Myself, and I) is ever present in the lives of those who focus only upon themselves, not looking to the needs of others or how we may serve or benefit others first. With all that was shared, it didn't really hit home how much “I” had usurped the place that only God must fill, the throne of my heart. Thankfully my King was not content to let me stew any longer, deceiving myself with my platitudes and religious jargon covering up a stew of self-righteous indignation about how “I” had been treated by the Real Estate Commission as well as some others who’d pledged their support regardless of the outcome and then seemingly had turned away instead.
On the drive home, while listening to BBN, a pastor was teaching from different parts of Scripture, but centering the lesson on the idea of how we can be self-deceiving regarding our relationship (or lack thereof) with Christ; the idea of examining our own hearts rather than looking at others has been in the lesson we’d discussed earlier, but as this pastor spoke it seemed as if my King had opened my eyes to how ugly and sanctimonious I’d been in my serving up my own whine rather than the fruit God calls me to produce. It is a bitter brew unfit for any, especially so for a King’s kid, and my heart was pricked by conviction as we drove home from the meeting.
No, I still do not know what (if anything) in the way of income I will do; there is a certain angst about that and much of it is prideful as the man who is supposed to be the bread-winner, I am rather the one dependent upon my wife as the majority income producer. Being dependent upon her is an ego-hit big time for me, but am I also in this reflecting a heart that seeks to deny my dependence upon God? Do I really think that the Gift of salvation through Christ is something “I” can earn? Better question, can I learn to be content and even joyful in my unemployment, serving Kathy as a house-husband while also seeking other opportunities to serve others through my volunteer activities with the USO, Job Partners, and Our Children’s Place? Can I trust God to provide where I cannot and also to allow Him to work in me as He will?
Hard questions, but ones that do help me to see that stepping down from the throne and allowing the King His rightful place in my heart regardless of what may or may not happen today or whatever tomorrow He may give me. My struggle continues; I’m not Home yet, but it promises to be a journey that, even with the bumps and sometimes hairpin turns, is one that does lead me not only to a wonderful forever with Christ, but a more peaceful and joyful now.
A good friend recently shared a video by Toby Mac, "Speak Life," and I found myself quietly weeping at the images in the video and the words of the song. Words do have tremendous power; they can bruise and even kill or they can heal and encourage all depending on how we use them.
So often we read or see images in the news and elsewhere that demonstrate the power of words to destroy, tear down and crush hope. My experience with this was all too real; trying to find meaningful work after a prison sentence is often an exercise in futility as one employer after another just shakes their head (when they respond at all), telling me by their words that I should have stayed in prison, that my value to society is over because of time spent behind bars.
My wife has been one to continually work to "Speak Life" into my heart; I have to confess that there were times when my words to her caused her pain. It was as if that one supporter to whom I owed so much (she stuck with me throughout my incarceration when she'd pretty much decided to divorce me prior to my being indicted because of my hurtful words) was the handiest victim to my invective and poison that I felt.
The folks at the Chapel Hill Bible Church did much to welcome me with all my foibles and failures, encouraging me and even working with me to keep plugging and not give up. Time and again they were there to pick me up from the latest in a long (450+) failures to find work; I'd begun to resign myself to being a 'house-husband' to Kathy, to be honest while glad for her providing me a home it was a big hit on my ego (hey, I'm a man, I'm supposed to be the bread winner!). I even 'retired' once I hit 62 so that I could provide some income to our home (big deal, after almost 24 years 'inside' my monthly deposit from Social Security was $724.00!). Then an amazing thing happened; a good friend and then neighbor just offhandedly asked me one day if I'd ever considered real estate as a new career. I remember just shaking my head, thanking him for the suggestion and filing it away with all other such suggestions. But it sat there in my head and heart, like a pot on low simmer, bubbling and making me wonder if that was a possibility and a fit for me.
My investigation of this possibility led me first to Chris Barnette, the instructor at the Go School of Real Estate, who was very encouraging, but told me that I should check with the legal folks with the NC Real Estate Commission regarding whether or not they would allow me to be licensed. After speaking with several people there and being told that there were no automatic denials, that a character conference would determine whether or not I would be licensed after taking the Pre-Licensing Class and passing the state exam for Real Estate Broker, so I began the course with some measure of hope that my new career was ready for launch.
But, after successfully passing the final for the Pre-Licensing Class (Chris' apparent intention was that if you could pass his exam, the state exam would have no terrors for you!) and then the state exam, I waited to see what would happen and received a fairly negative response from one of the attorneys representing the Commission. During this time I'd also begun investigating associating myself with a local brokerage; initially when first signing up for the class I was told that Go Realty did not hire new brokers; that I would have to get some experience elsewhere and then, if it was a good fit, move to Go later. A few weeks before we finished the class, however, we were told that this policy was changing and that if we were interested in associating with one of the Go Realty offices, to let them know. I did and was directed to the Go Durham office to meet with the Broker-in-Charge there and discuss my options with her.
One of the core beliefs of Go Realty is that Go believes in change; this is reflected both in the way that they have not only embraced the technology of the 21st Century (no jet-powered skateboards though...yet), but also the idea that people can change and deserve a chance to grow. Karen and I spoke at length about my felony and my struggle to find work and how I'd been led first to the Go School and then to Go Durham. My concern was that if I was associated with Go, it could impact their business and asked her to be sure the agents in the office would be agreeable to my being part of the team. She did check with them all and each told her that they would welcome my being part of the family there at Go Durham. Those words and the countless others I've received from my new family there, have spoken healing and warmth to my heart; I have begun to believe that this is possible after all, I have begun to live in hope of what can be rather than in the dread of what cannot be.
It's far too easy to speak harshly to one another; such thoughts and words spring quickly from our minds because we are all, after all, sons and daughters of Adam. But when we choose life affirming, healing words; when we Speak Life to those around us, we can change the world. My friends and family at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and Go Realty have shown me this; more importantly and without a doubt where there inspiration comes from, Messiah shows the way to Speak Life to those we meet today.