Amazing, really, how God can use some of his critters (even humankind!) to teach lessons to His children. Once again I venture into the vaguely disturbing and uncertain area of Cat Theology, or to put it differently, what our cats have once again taught me about my relationship with God.
We have three owners, excuse me, I meant to say pets who are all cats and all female; I seem to be the token male in our household, but that’s a story for another time. They each definitely have their own specific characteristics, but one in particular is the class clown for our family. Spanky. As the image shows, she is a black and white mix with an insatiable appetite for all manner of moist cat food, cheese, tuna, eggs (yeah, that was a surprise to us as well) and many other items (she draws the line at some things, but they are few and far between). We jokingly refer to her as a dat (dog-cat) or other admixture because unlike so many other felines, Spanky will rear up on her hind legs and beg as only a dog can do. She also slobbers (a lot!) when petted, so perhaps there is some boxer in her somehow?
Anyway, I arrived home from the USO-NC Center at the airport ready for a nap (I've been up since 4:50 and arrived at the Center at 6:00, just minutes ahead of 110 British Paratroopers on their way home from Ft. Bragg. The next four hours were, to put it mildly, somewhat hectic, but incredibly rewarding to see the faces of these troops respond to our providing for them not only food, but a place to relax while waiting for their rides home. So, yeah, I was tired when I got home and ready for a nap. Then Spanky jumps on the bed and proceeds to let me know that it is time for me to pay attention to her NOW!
There are many ways a cat has to show affection; purring, head-bumping the object of their affection, rubbing their whiskers on you (‘marking’ you as theirs) as well as others I’ve read about but cannot remember now. Spanky was exhibiting all of the above and more as I lay on the bed trying to sleep. Why all this affection; why was she so adamant about getting my attention? She wants something, pure and simple. Her little mind is so focused upon me as the giver of ‘goodies’ that it is all she cares about and all she is focused upon.
I remember wondering about my relation to God; do I love Him because of His presents or His presence. Yeah, the last few years have been ‘interesting’, but even in the darkest period, the way God continues to provide and bless Kathy and I is astounding. So, what if I was still in prison; what if I was unable to do so many of the things that bring me joy, would I still love Him? Do I pursue Him solely because He can provide or would I love Him if He left me bereft of friends and family.
The answer comes easy to my mind, but part of me hesitates as I struggle to be more honest with Him, with myself and others. All part of growing toward Home, I guess. All part of Cat Theology.
In an earlier blog I spoke to my applying for Unemployment Insurance via the folks at the Employment Security Commission. Last year (the last time I had done so) I had visited the office on South Briggs Avenue in Durham and was amazed at the treatment afforded me because I was a veteran. The security officer there told me that anytime I came there my privilege as a veteran was to immediately head to the front of the line and, considering the crowd there, that was something that I was hesitant to do until the officer came to me and then escorted me to the window where I was soon in the back and seated with a Veteran’s Counselor.
This time was somewhat different.
When I arrived at the ESC office, there was no one else in the waiting area and a sign directed me to sign in at a computer provided for that purpose. After doing so the computer directed me to the window where I learned that, unless I had an appointment, I would not be able to speak with one of the Veteran’s Counselors that day. The ladies there were very friendly and polite, but it was obvious that the new ‘improved’ system was designed to funnel folks away from the ESC to apply for benefits, etc. on-line.
Makes me wonder what the folks in the back do all day; must be some pretty expert solitaire players in our ESC offices!
So, I returned home and went to the on-line site and filled out the application and dutifully signed up at the NCWork.gov web site with all manner of positive advice on how to find a new job. No mention either in the application or material they provided about ex-felons seeking employment; I can understand why.
Several days later I received not one, but two letters (duplicates of each other) that listed my income from my one job (a part-time, temporary position with Measurement, Incorporated) with the following statement:
“You had insufficient wages in your base period.”
Along with this was the statement that because of the dearth of my income in the previous year, I was ineligible for any unemployment insurance benefits, hence my UI was UA (unauthorized absence for those without military experience).
A bit over three years since my release from prison; over 450 applications to a wide variety of companies in the Triangle area and all I have to show for it is the position that I have with Measurement, Inc. Makes me wonder what they expect of me, but then it is a bureaucracy and as such they have a set of rule/hoops they expect folks to jump through and, as in my case, you don’t exactly fit in any of their round holes…well, that is unfortunate.
So, I continue to look for some kind of meaningful work while also investigating other possible directions…stay tuned.
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.
While I was in prison, still growing in faith, I had begun to record some of my thoughts about what Christ had done. The following is one such article that I sent home and which Kathy faithfully preserved over the years. More such will follow in the hope that others may be encouraged in their own struggle and find the solace and hope that I have in this incredible man named Jesus.
Olive trees covering a hill just across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem; a place of quiet especially meaningful amid the cacophony of this center of Judaism as Passover neared. Frequently Jesus had come here with His apostles seeking refuge and rest; no noisome, demanding crowds, just a place to rest and recuperate.
But not that night.
The Passover. A time of rejoicing and celebration for all Jews. Even with the ever-present yoke of Rome upon them, remembering this glorious past deliverance from another world power kept alive within all hearts the hope that such a deliverance would again be theirs. Jesus' entrance into the city earlier in the week had rekindled this in dramatic fashion as the crowds hailed his entrance in such a remarkable fashion that the religious leaders feared the fist of Rome descending upon them for such impudence. "Hosanna!" they had cried while waving palm branches; hailing Jesus as the fulfillment of all the Father had promised their race through the prophets. Their wild abandonment to their hope that the deliverance would come now (their cries of Hosanna meant just this, save us now!), was fueled by all that this man had done and said; if he were not the Promised One, then who else could they hope in? Their expectations were to be quashed this week, however, as they realized that this Jesus was not the deliverer they wanted; He had come to free them, but not in the way they wanted. This disappointment in Jesus would lead that crowd to scream a very different cry by the end of that week.
Knowing what was to come, Jesus' flesh shrank from the pain and horror of it all. What Jew was not all too familiar with how Rome executed non-citizens? Their perfection of crucifixion had become almost a perverse art form; a blending of shame and degradation together with unimaginable pain that could go on for days! But much more than that, Jesus wrestled with the burden He would soon bear; far more horrific than the pain of crucifixion.
He struggled through the dark hours as He faced the unimaginable terror of the perfect Son of God becoming sin--for me! Surrendering His place in Heaven to invade time, walking among His creation, all leading to this moment. He plead with the Father that there be another way, yet knew there was no other. His closest friends falling asleep and leaving Him alone while all the power of hell assailed Him. So great was the struggle within Him, that He began to sweat blood, a condition medicine has labeled hematidrosis that can occur under severe stress. Falling down in grief, crying out alone, yet He chose to obey the Father's will; by doing so, by learning obedience in the flesh and embracing the Father's way, He became the Way for me to enter eternity with Him.
Through the hours that followed He remained obedient to the Father's will. Not once did He call upon the myriad of angels who must have looked on with horror as the Son of God was mocked, beaten and nailed to the cross. Carrying my sin long before I was born, the One who was from eternity past Elohim became my sin and through His sacrifice paid my price. As a result of the sin of all mankind for all time that He now bore, the Father turned away from Him and Jesus was more alone than any being ever was.
More alone than the person in the deepest dungeon, more alone than any ever will be outside of Gehenna; all He did because He loved.
Allowing death to complete His ministry, His triumphant cry of "It is finished!" rang out over another hill, then died.
I cannot comprehend such Love for me; I do rejoice that I have surrendered to it.
Well, this summer I’ve been working some of the time at Measurement, Incorporated (MI) as a Reader. The position is always considered temporary/part-time; only there if the company had a contract to score standardized tests. Once that was no longer true, as is the case now, all the Readers are ‘laid off’ until the next contract comes along. I’ve been there for some time now and have worked to varying degrees at different times of the year, but usually once the summer ‘crunch’ ends, that will be it for the year. So, officially unemployed, what now?
I've been here before; it’s no big thing really, just somewhat disheartening to know that my search (which really never really ends) will continue. Thankfully between Kathy’s full-time salary and my pitiful Social Security payment every month, we are able to live comfortably in our new home and I do enjoy being a house-husband (to an extent). My volunteer activities with the USO-NC, Our Children’s Place and Orange County Partners to End Homelessness provide me an outlet for my energies that are not expended elsewhere. Still, there is restlessness and not just about finding a Job; there is something else stirring within my soul that is hard to put a finger on.
I’m not content to sit idle; idleness drives me crazy (some of you who know me would add an –ier to that), but considering my efforts to date to find work, my ‘looking’ may seem as yet another exercise in futility. That perhaps is part of the something else I’ve alluded to in earlier blogs; when you try and nothing works, to keep plugging along with the expectation of anything different happening is, at least according to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity. So, recognizing that I am behaving in what Professor Einstein would consider an insane manner, I start my search for a Job, not in any real hope of finding a business owner who can overlook my felonious past, but because having the extra income would be nice, and such search is required for me to file for unemployment.
I don’t like asking for unemployment, not only because it does push me to more actively search, but because I feel it seems to be taking time from this something else and I would not want to get so enamored of my search (or any Job that could result from it) that I neglect or overlook what may be a new direction my King wants me to embark upon. Your prayers would be appreciated, to be honest not so much for a job, but that this something else will be clarified whether it is, in fact, the direction He wants for me or just a pipe dream.
Many of you who have followed my ongoing journey are aware of my struggle to find meaningful, full-time employment since I was released from prison in 2011. After over 400 attempts with little to show for it other than some awesome experience at writing and updating resume's and being more comfortable in interviews, my frustration was reaching epic proportions when a good friend offered a suggestion off hand while he was working with my wife and I at finding a place to rent (another frustrating task for ex-felons). He asked if I'd ever considered a career in real estate. At the time I remember telling him that I hadn't and the conversation went on to other topics (like finding Kathy and I a place to live before our lease ran out where we were renting (and told they would NOT renew after they discovered my 'background').
Sometime later, when no other doors were opening, I approached my friend to ask him how I would get started. He suggested I contact the Real Estate Commission, which I did and found that here too there was a barrier, but that there was a possibility that I could obtain my license as a once I had passed the requisite Pre-Licensing Class, the NC State Exam for Real Estate Licensure and then met with the NC Real Estate Commission and satisfied them regarding my having the necessary character. I spoke with Chris Barnette, the instructor for the Go School, and he was cautionary, but positive about my chances. Many within the community of Go Realty were upbeat and encouraged me to move forward and so I enrolled at the Go School in the Pre-Licensing Class.
I found the material initially rather intimidating (the book alone was bigger than anything I’d seen outside of the Power Plant manuals on the Lafayette!); Chris promised all of us in the class a comprehensive overview of what was necessary not only to pass his exam at the conclusion of the class, but the NC State exam as well. With three classes per week, the required reading and other material thrown at us, there was more than a little concern that I’d bit off more than I could chew. While taking the class I’d spoken with Jim Garman and Kevin Woody about if Go Realty would welcome me once I was licensed; both of these gentlemen added to the encouragement I was already receiving, Kevin suggesting I get together with Karen Roberts who was the Broker-in-Charge of the Go Durham office as that would be the closest office to where Kathy and I lived. I contacted Karen and set up an appointment to speak with her and was once again met with effusive encouragement and support for what we hoped was my budding career in real estate.
Over the ensuing weeks I was encouraged to come by the Go Durham office to help out their ‘Angel’ (Go Realty’s version of an office administrator) with some of the minutiae that she was responsible for (and things that did not require a license such as running to the store to pick up various items, etc.). Karen had met with all of the agents in the office and asked if there were any qualms about my becoming part of the Go Durham family (really, that is what it is!); when she told me that there was not a single hesitation on their part despite my felony, all welcomed me with open arms, it felt very much like a homecoming! Apart from my family at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, this had been the first time I’d received such a greeting and I began to have some hope that this dream could indeed come true!
Completing the class (and passing Chris’ exam!) had me pumped! Chris had told us that if we could pass his exam, the state exam should be no problem and a few weeks later I found that to be true. After I’d completed the exam I remember taking a deep breath and wondering if there was something I was missing because it had seemed much easier than I’d expected. I walked out of the testing room and saw the two proctors whispering to each other as something printed out. The expressions were decidedly neutral and I began to think that perhaps my thinking the test had been ‘easy’ was because I had not known the material and only deluded myself about my chances (yeah, still full of positive vibes from all that D.O.C. taught me). Anyway, I’d braced myself to put a brave face on it when the two ladies turned to me and said, “Congratulations!” I blurted out, “You mean I passed?” which caused them both to erupt in laughter and nod yes and show me the document that had just printed out certifying that I had indeed passed the state exam!
“I DID IT!” I yelled as soon as I was out of the testing center. Folks looked at this crazy person, but thankfully no one called the police (or I left the area before they arrived?) and I drove to the Go Durham office to share with them the great news. Now the only hurdle was getting the NC Real Estate Commission to sign off on my becoming a real estate agent; that proved to be quite a hurdle!
There was a great deal of naiveté on my part regarding the hearing; I just assumed that with all the folks from Go Realty in my corner and especially statements of support from Chris Barnette and Karen Roberts, I was a shoe in. When I was told by the Commission that I would need legal representation, I began to understand that this last hurdle (the hearing) was to be the steepest to overcome. Chris suggested an attorney known to the Real Estate Commission whose office was in Winston-Salem and when I’d made an initial inquiry and he seemed disposed to help me, so we set up an appointment form me to meet with him and his partner.
Bill Gifford was an incredibly able attorney, but much more than that, he treated me with respect and affirmation and acted in such a positive manner that I again began to think that this was going to happen. The counsel for the Commission seemed to be indicating to me that his job was keeping from being licensed; this man who’d never met me and only knew me from what he could garner from my record (the old man that I was desperately trying to leave behind) was intent (as events would show) at painting me as a ravening mad man unworthy of even remaining outside of prison walls. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Bill and I explored all the negative that was Anthony Shook before prison (and before Christ) and felt that the testimony of several who knew (all too well) the ‘old’ Tony and now knew the new man that Christ had made me into (rather, was making me into remembering that Philippians 1:6 is still my ‘favorite’ verse of Scripture) as well as several in the real estate community (including Chris Barnette) would overcome what was admittedly a rather dark past.
The day of the hearing dawned bright and expected to be hot, but I felt positively positive and upbeat as we drove to Raleigh. Meeting with those who would testify on my behalf prior to going into the hearing was another dose of ‘let’s get this done!’ but I have to confess to the same gut-wrenching dread whenever I looked into the eyes of the co-counsel for the Commission. I felt like a mouse facing a VERY hungry lion! This was born out during the hearing; I’ve told others since that it was worse than my trial as this time my guilt was presumed and the Commission’s counsel seeming goal was to dig up every single bit of dirt that had EVER happened that could be directly or indirectly attributed to me. The positive that those testifying for me seemed like a feather in the face of the hurricane of ‘evidence’ provided to the Commission and, not surprising, they elected not to allow me to be licensed.
What helped me keep all of this in perspective was that the evening before Kathy and I had attended choir practice (we are on the choir at the Bible Church) and immediately after the Commission had rendered their decision, we left to get to the church in time for the Maundy Thursday service. Yes, the decision was not what I’d hoped and prayed for and how I was pictured by the counsel for the NC Real Estate Commission was painful in the extreme to go through, but in view of what others have gone through, of what my King went through for the man I once was who mocked what I thought I understood of ‘religion’ and those weak-minded folk who needed such a crutch; no I had much to celebrate and little to complain or whine about. As I told one of my friends that evening as we arrived at the church to prepare to sing when they asked how the hearing had gone, “The King is still on the throne!”
So, what now? I continue to work at a part-time/temporary position I've held for some time now, but it seems that there is a door opening, perhaps, that could lead me in decidedly new directions. Stay tuned.