By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
The last week or so has been 'interesting' to say the least, both from a spiritual and personal viewpoint (and sadly, despite walking with Christ since 1988, there are times when I do seem to want to keep the two paths separate!). The image shown is of two paths or roads diverging in a wood (much as my favorite poet in his poem, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. In this case, both from what has happened in the spiritual and 'physical' realm, both have seemed to converge and, with apologies to Mr. Frost, "...that has made all the difference."
The week long fast (from food, television, Facebook. I did post some things but did not peruse through at al. No electronic media of any kind other than that required by work...more on that in a bit; all of this combined to heighten my sense of God’s presence in my everyday (man, why not do this on a more regular basis Shook? Talk about an Urkel moment! It seemed easier this year than last, but also more challenging because of another battle that I was in danger of losing at work (and, in actuality, had already lost).
One of our clients there was rather adept at getting inside my head and maneuvering me to do favors for her; things that seemed innocent on the surface, but over time began to push further and further over the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Honestly, it was a big ego lift for this 20-something lady to be hitting on me (even if in my own mind); looking back, it is terrifying to think of how far this could have gone. My surpervisor saw what was happening and warned me (twice!) and on the observed third time, I left them little choice but to terminate me as an employee.
Shame, regret and deep remorse for the loss of what could have been a witness for Christ in that dark place. Instead, I allowed the enemy to subvert me into a trap that is all too common in and out of Scripture. Time spent with Pastor Ethan and my wife began the healing; the Friday night of worship was a catharsis that continued the healing, particularly one song, “I AM a Child of the King” (emphasis intentional)!
Today, while sitting at the bar in Breakthrough Nutrition, an impulse hit me to share with a college student sitting next to me who works some part-time helping out Nick and Blair in the store. I had some cash in my wallet and just felt that she could use it for whatever; to see the expression on her face when I gave it to her let me know that I had ‘heard’ correctly. Leaving right after that, as I walked to the car I sort of remembered hearing the phrase about doing as much good as you can while you can. I could not remember the whole thing or where it came from, so I looked it up:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
This idea or compulsion is, pushing me now to do so with my time, talent, as well as finances. I’m not sure why NOW. It could be the looming surgery in February or something else that only God knows about (and I like it that way), but those words seem to me to fit with not only what Ethan has been sharing, but what God has been sharing since, “In the beginning…”
Let’s see what happens.
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.
In the series in 2 Timothy, Pastor Jay asked a question during the lesson, “What is the worst thing that could happen to a Christian?” I have to admit to blurting out, “Living a long life,” to which Jay replied that it wasn’t exactly the answer he expected. Obviously, he expected someone to say that death was the worst, but I have to disagree with him respectfully. Death has no threat to a follower of the Christ; indeed, it is a door to a forever that cannot now be imagined and that is exactly my point.
My faith journey started at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. Sentenced to life imprisonment and arriving there on a cold, dark, sleety February morning in 1988, I was bereft of any source of comfort or reassurance. My last image of my wife had been as she broke down in tears watching the car I was in drive away. That image haunted me as I was stripped of anything of my old life (I’d already given my wedding band to Kathy); all my clothes including my handkerchiefs were boxed up to send home and I was left naked before my keepers. Dressed in my prison clothes and led to my assigned bunk in a room flooded with lights from the spotlights on the wall surrounding Central Prison, I was horrified at what I had done that brought me to this place and recognized that this is where I belonged.
Sleep was impossible; I fully expected to be raped and killed by the predators that prowl such places looking for fresh fish and sought comfort in a Bible Kathy had included in my belongings that they had allowed me to keep. Someone sleeping not far from me had his watch stolen that night while he slept (what he thought he was doing bringing an expensive watch into prison I have no idea), just another introduction to my new life. Unable to sleep, I read through the Psalms, finishing just as the lights came on for morning count. During the next few days, I began to assimilate to my new life ‘inside’ and had made several acquaintances (a few of whom would become friends in time). Many were familiar with my crime having watched the news and read about me in the paper; thankfully I was not bothered or threatened in the first weeks, and I did settle into a routine that kept me busy while being processed into the system.
Keep in mind that I’d always considered myself a Christian, but as they did not have any Catholic services and the Protestant service was only on Sunday morning, I went to it. By my second Sunday at Central Prison, I’d established a routine that kept me out of the most dangerous parts of the prison at specific times.For example, after money draws on Friday, you went into the Maximum Security Building, where the library, computer lab, and barber shop were, at the risk of your life. The third Sunday, Chaplain Eugene Wigelsworth preached and to this day I cannot recall what passage of Scripture he spoke from or any other detail of the service except for the invitation at the end. I did go forward and spoke briefly with Pastor Wigelsworth and surrendered my life to Christ; almost immediately the darkness and gloom of Central Prison seemed a bit less, and a small seed of hope began to grow in my heart.
In the following weeks, Pastor Wigelsworth met with me to encourage me, offering study material or addresses where different ministries provided such for free to those who were in prison. As I grew in the faith God had given me; I became excited at the prospect that all that I surrounded me with was not forever. The richest billionaire and the most destitute beggar all have this in common; one day the life we now see will be over. What follows for the disciple of Jesus is beyond imagining. Within a few weeks, I’d been asked to join the choir, which I gladly did as this offered an outlet for the wonder I felt at Christ reaching out to me as He did. We met in a classroom in the Maximum Security Building on Friday (yeah, nothing had changed externally to the threat that lay in wait on that particular day, but inside me, something dramatic had taken place).
We always opened each rehearsal with prayer needs and I shared about a man I had met while in K-Dorm (processing) who had been a Baptist preacher but had done something (never asked, that just wasn’t done) to get a life sentence. He rejected his belief in Christ and became a Satan worshiper ( a very active group of guys would meet in an undisclosed part of the prison for their ‘services.'). I felt that we needed to pray for him to turn to Christ and be delivered from the bitterness of heart that had led him to where he was now. Every week, when we met, we would pray for him as I continued to do so every day. One day I had to leave rehearsal a bit early to get to work and found myself confronted with this same man (did I mention that he was over 6’5” and weighed over 200 pounds?). He was in a rage and screamed at me that he wanted me to stop praying for him. When I asked, “Why?” he just said that if I refused to stop he would kill me; as he said this he brandished a long piece of rebar that he had made into a shank. What happened next amazed even (especially?) me; I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m not afraid of your shank, why are you afraid of my prayers. You’re just threatening me with heaven. Go ahead; send me Home!” At this point, he threw down the shank and stormed off, filling the air with all manner of invective. After it was over, I sat on the floor for a few minutes trying to calm my heart rate and praying for my attacker and thanking God that today was not my day, but grateful for the peace he’d given me.
Getting back to Pastor Jay’s question; a long life is, in my humble opinion, the worst that can happen to any Christian. Had this man killed me that day, I would have instantly been with my King. Yes, I was relieved, but also really disappointed. Remember that I was just starting my sentence and that time stretched out before me did seem never-ending. Through the trials that I went through (some my fault) while in prison and since this memory keeps me focused on what is really important. This life, no matter how filled with pleasures and things that can bring comfort, is still a mud pie in place of a trip to the seashore (as C.S. Lewis once stated). I don’t know why I am still here, why He chose me and what is in store for me today. One thing I do know;
“I know my Redeemer lives,
and at the last He will stand on the earth.”
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…
In John Bunyan’s allegorical work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, we follow the trials and ultimate triumph of the main character Christian as he goes from his initial state in the slough of despond to the celestial city. Throughout his adventures (misadventures at times) there are times when those who seem to teach that once saved all your troubles are behind you are firmly repudiated. Indeed, looking at the life of early church fathers such as Paul also seem to deny the nonsense of life as a believer being one of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
In recent weeks this thought has been greatly reassuring; to refer to Bunyan’s Christian, there are times when it seems that I still wallow within my own slough of despond despite having many times seeing real evidence in my life of God’s amazing work of grace. Part of my struggle has been a result of my struggle to find meaningful work as well as being able to fit within the body of believers in a way that will benefit the kingdom and enable me to grow as a disciple of our Savior.
At present I seem to have reached a nadir in my walk with Christ; it seems more and more difficult for me to do more than put one foot in front of another, to take the next breath seems all that I can do. My daily reading of Scripture has all but stopped and my prayer life is pretty much nonexistent but for the inarticulate groan of a soul in torment.
Today was a new low; while sitting in the auditorium, listening to the worship team rehearse before the start of the first service, they began going over a song that declares that in Christ we can change the world. Something in me seemed to wither; I could not believe that it was possible for me to do anything to change the world. It seems that the world has left me standing outside with little or nothing for me to do other than keep out of the way. What previously had been a source of joy and refreshment now felt grating and dry, so I left and drove home.
As Job once stated, “…I know that my Redeemer lives…” (Job 19:25 ESV); that is a truth that I can still grasp and am thankful that it is His hand that holds me, not the other way around.
There are many around me that seem in some kind of rush to get somewhere; there have been far too many times when I too have fallen to the lie that a frenetic pace is mandatory in life today. Modern technology regarding transportation, communication and just enabling us to “multi-task” seem to push us to do more in less time than ever thought possible. Hurry, hurry, get it done and move on to the next task or duty; never stopping until we lie in a casket, cold and dead, no longer in a rush to do anything, but far too late to enjoy everything.
I've been listening to Chuck Swindoll in his series on the life of Abraham and over and over again the theme of quietness and being still comes through the teachings and the Scripture cited. God tells us to “…be still and know that I am God..” (Psalm 46:10); there are 26 admonitions of this nature within the ESV, many referring to the same injunction in Psalm 46:10, that we are to cease from striving (the meaning in the Hebrew) and just know, that is revel and rest in the knowledge that we are not in charge, God is.
Since my release in May of 2012, I have at times felt an almost impossible to resist urge to go on to my next application; to rush from one job fair or help meeting to another in the hopes that somebody would give me a chance at full-time, meaningful work and (dare I hope) a career. Why this madness; why do I believe that such would be fulfilling in and of itself? Yes, additional income would be wonderful and much appreciated by our budget (from the French word meaning to have more month than money), but is it necessary?
During this time of enforced idleness I have wasted many hours in frivolous pursuits (the trap of the watching and re-watching of episodes of different programs I like [such as NCIS] or even ‘educational’ programs on National Geographic), all the while just sitting there like a bump on the proverbial log (or tuning into the log). I have sought to justify this inactivity by pointing out my volunteer work with the USO-NC, Our Children’s Place, as well as searching for new venues to put my hours into in the area. All these are great in and of themselves and I will continue in them at some level, but all were causing me to face outward from the One who loves me more than I could understand in this life. Facing away from Him, even for a ‘good’ reason or cause, had me looking into darkness, but His gently persistent manner in speaking to me through such venues as Chuck Swindoll, different programs I’d catch on BBN and especially the teaching I receive on a weekly basis at the Chapel Hill Bible Church has helped me to realize that I can do these volunteer activities without facing away from God. These can and should become a type of ministry and with that outlook I have found a new energy in that work that previously had been little more than a drudgery that I plodded through.
Additionally, with this and other forms of ministry that may be opening to me, I have also begun considering starting a business that will allow me to use my skills as a photographer (novice as they are in comparison to some that have been teaching me) to not only be a help to many of the above cited organizations, but also as a source of income for our family. It’s exciting to see and feel how God is opening my heart and mind to these and other possibilities; I look forward to each day now with a joy that is hard to describe and I especially enjoy sharing my journey with others via this blog and other media.
Thanks for sharing in this and for coming back to this blog; stay tuned, this could really start to get exciting!
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.
Part of my morning routine is to open a link with the Gospel Coalition as I follow a daily devotional/blog by D.A. Carson, but today the title of one of the offered articles caught my eye; God Can Restore Your Lost Years by Colin Smith. The title alone called to my heart as few other things have recently and I chose to alter my routine by reading it first; this article in addition to some other events recently have filled me with a wonder that God does care for me despite my choices that did lead to far too many lost years.
Some background for those who are new to this blog; it has been an often tragic course I’ve travelled secondary to the choices I alluded to above. Beginning the destruction of a marriage while in the Navy, then completing the task while enrolled at UNC set the stage even as I embarked on a career as a nurse and paramedic; what seemed as a fresh start and an exciting and fulfilling career was endangered by my own lack of a moral compass and I didn’t have a clue! My background in the Navy as a nuclear-trained electrician on submarines seemed to fit me to be able to keep my head and focus in emergencies; those abilities came to the fore and were recognized by others as I began my career. Inside I was uncertain and confused at times; I was aware of course that others thought well of me for my abilities (at one point I had a medical center’s helicopter program competing with a large city’s EMS to hire me), but it was empty and without any real satisfaction. I loved what I was doing and did it well with compassion for those that others looked down upon, particularly when I worked as a paramedic in one city where my partner would deride the homeless to the point that I would always volunteer to care for them while she drove.
Despite this success (I’d been in line for a promotion to shift supervisor at one EMS organization) I felt empty, bereft of purpose or satisfaction and uncertain I was doing something that really mattered! My relationship with my second wife was, at best, stormy and we were each drifting apart as we sought to fill our own lives away from each other (she later told me that at this point in our lives, she’d considered leaving me). Then it all came crashing down as a choice I’d made almost a year previously came back to haunt me.
Something I wish I could tell all nursing and medical school graduates as well, as those now practicing, is that without a sound moral foundation they will one day be forced to make a decision (or decisions) that will not only endanger their career, but their livelihood and reputation as well. I made a choice that was wrong and resulted in the death of a patient; others have painted it as a compassionate choice to end the suffering of a family (the woman in question had been diagnosed as brain dead at some point prior to my caring for her this last time and had been in ICU for months), but I cannot honestly say that this was in my thinking at the time. I’d like to think it was; in light of subsequent events, however, I cannot categorically state that wanting to end the family’s struggle was even in my thoughts that night.
An indictment and subsequent conviction for murder followed and I entered the prison system without a real expectation of ever coming out or even surviving if I had a release date (I didn’t!). My sisters and Mom would write me, occasionally visiting (my Dad had died some years earlier), but it was my wife who would be the main support through the years; she said that she’d seen something in me years before and decided to stick around and see what happened after I was convicted. Friends vanished almost instantaneously with the judges’ gavel striking down when he pronounced sentence and I entered Central Prison.
I arrived there in the early morning in February in the middle of a storm with sleet falling; getting out of the car to shuffle to the door (I was handcuffed and shackled), I stopped for a moment to look up at the wall surrounding this dark place and remember thinking that this was where I belonged. Honestly, I expected to be killed in a short time; my idea of what life in prison were somewhat vague as the only time I’d ever been in a jail was as a paramedic to pick up a patient. It was horrific and the first weeks were a blur as I tried to apply the lessons one man had taught me while in jail prior to my sentencing (he’d been a repeat offender and had spent many years ‘inside’ and given me some advice laughingly calling it “Prison 101”). You never really trust anyone, especially those in authority, and the idea of keeping your head on a swivel (checking six in fighter pilot parlance) at all times, but at the same time, as the commercial once put it, “never let them see you sweat.” If you act like a victim or others sense your fear, you are toast!
Through my years ‘inside’ I did mourn the life I had thrown away and wondered what I would do if I was ever released. Coming to faith in Jesus gave me a source of hope that was comforting (about the only comfort I received!); many speak of ‘religion’ as a crutch for the weak and I have to agree with them, at least in regard to a relationship with Messiah. I was weak and unable to even live day-to-day in prison without some source of help and support and I found that help in my relationship with Messiah.
As I studied Scripture (finding the Bible Broadcasting Network station within range of whatever prison camp I was transferred to was always priority one!) I began a journey that continues to this day. Having been released a little over three years ago I have adapted pretty well to my new reality, re-connecting with the Chapel Hill Bible Church (this time listening with a new heart and seeking desperately to apply what I learn) and becoming involved in different ways in the community, but still without meaningful work outside of those volunteer activities (USO-NC, Our Children’s Place, Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, and Job Partners). Not having a job despite over 450 applications (to date) has been troubling; between my age and my felony I've learned that opportunities are few and far between. Because of an old back injury while working as an ICU nurse that was exacerbated through the health care offered ‘inside’ I am unable to perform much of the tasks that ex-felons are normally funneled toward (dish-washing, manual labor, etc.) and despite picking up an Associate’s degree in computers while in prison, no one seems willing to hire me. From office work to garbage pickup for an apartment complex Kathy and lived at for a while (until they found out about my felony), my efforts to obtain work have fallen flat and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever find full-time work.
With no prospects and my only regular addition to the family income being my Social Security retirement check (not much because of the 23+ years in prison), I am adjusting to my new reality as house husband to Kathy (at least she likes my cooking!) and find satisfaction in helping others through the volunteer activities. Recently, however, there seems to be something else stirring in my heart that I have a hard time articulating and so have begun to reach out to those I respect for advice and suggestions. I’m not sure where this new ‘thing’ will take me or even if it will go anywhere. Stay tuned and I’ll keep you updated.
Recently a friend at the Chapel Hill Bible Church called to ask about Kathy's and my willingness to meet with his aunt who is facing a similar struggle that Kathy did when I was indicted over 27 years ago. He told us that he thought our experience (which I had shared with a new member's class some time ago) could help her both in answering some of her questions about what to expect as well as letting her know that she is not alone in her struggles.
Kathy and I talked about it and we both agreed that what we'd gone through would seem to be an opportunity for us to allow God to use the consequences of sin and the lessons we learned (spiritual and otherwise) to help others facing similar circumstances. She came to our home and spent about two hours with us and I was struck by the similarities to what Kathy had faced in 1987; how does one find hope in such a dark place? This woman and her children were torn with fear and shame at what had happened to their family because as Achan found out (Joshua 7), one man's sin does affect others including your family. Achan thought that his sin would remain hidden with the spoil he'd taken, but his sin did become known and not only he, but his entire family paid the price for his rebellion. Achan's family must have known of his perfidy because of where he'd hidden his stolen goods, but this poor woman knew nothing of her husband's behavior until he confessed to the police who came to their home to arrest him. As she related it to us yesterday, there are other things that she is still learning as the discovery process goes on prior to his trial and she has become overwhelmed with fear and not knowing if there is hope for her family to ever return to normal.
She is a disciple of Christ and knows the promises of Scripture that all sin (no matter how 'big' or 'small') has been paid for by the sacrifice of our Messiah, but the consequences in this life can make it seem as though there is none. What Kathy and I shared with her is that no matter how dark the night or severe the storm, there is hope in Christ. The image I used for this speaks to me of the hope that we do have in Jesus. He holds onto our hand, not the other way around. Were our strength and will all that kept us in Christ, then we would be lost forever; but it is His hand that holds ours and He will never let us go.
Yes, there will be times throughout all of our lives when it seems that we are alone and bereft of hope, but remember that in Christ we are never alone and our forever hope is as certain as if we are already Home. As Job's friends did initially, Kathy and I mostly listened to this dear lady and gave her both of our phone numbers as well as our emails so that she can reach out to us at anytime. We also encouraged her to return to our home, considering it a place to come for reassurance and comfort. We all need such at times and it is wondrous that God can use my sin and the consequences of that act (that really are ongoing still) to bring comfort to others. Romans 8:28 has been used (and abused) as a panacea for those in the midst of a struggle, but Paul's words to the church at Rome are an incredible promise that Kathy and I are seeing lived out daily. More importantly, that which follows the wonder of how God can use even this to bring good into the lives of those He loves is an incredible promise that we are never alone.
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:35-39 ESV
Yes, there is hope for us; no matter the depths to which our sin plunges us or how dark the night we are in, His presence is there and He will never leave us. That is forever hope!
I’ve been ‘silent’ regarding my blog for some time now; the last few weeks have been crazy wild in many different ways and I just didn’t seem to have the energy to spare to do much of anything but get through another day. I’ve had some really positive things happen, such as finding our new home, arranging financing and closing this past Wednesday (thanks to the Kemble Team at Go Durham and Anne Watson of Sun Trust) and some not so great including discovering the ‘joys’ of shingles.
My biggest disappointment has been a decision from the NC Real Estate Commission to deny my being licensed as a real estate agent after much time, money and effort put forward to achieve that goal. It seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity to avoid the “thou shalt not hire ex-felons” that I’ve encountered over 450 times in the last few years since my release and, while I knew that because of the felony on my record it would not be an automatic licensure once I’d completed the Pre-Licensing Class (Chris Barnette’s class at Go School ROCKS!!!) and passed the state exam. All of that was accomplished this past July and I eagerly (silly boy) awaited the Commission’s response to my application.
When that response did come it was the most severe possible. They essentially said that I lacked the requisite characteristics required of real estate agents (honesty, integrity, good moral character among others), but if I wanted to contest that I was welcome to do so. Many encouraged me to pursue this and after consulting with my beloved, elected to do so by consulting with Bill Gifford to represent me before the Commission.
We gathered witnesses, several of whom knew the old Tony BP/BC (Before Prison/Before Christ) as well as those who I’ve come to know and love since my release. Bill spoke with those witnesses and I began to feel an inkling of hope that this would work out for us even with what seemed willingness on the part of the counsel for the Commission to retry my case all over again as part of the hearing.
We all arrived at the Commission’s office on Navajo Drive in Raleigh and I was humbled and encouraged by the statements made by the witnesses on my behalf. Those listening, including the Board members, also seemed impressed by the caliber of those testifying for me and I began to feel we had a good chance of carrying the day. Then it was my turn; it seemed from the start that the Counsel and his assistant were indeed focused solely upon my trial from 1988 and hammered again and again at my statements and behavior back then. What was especially frustrating for me is how they seemed to ridicule my faith in Christ and the efforts I’ve made to volunteer with different organizations as just a ploy used in order to gain favor to obtain my real estate license.
When the Commission’s counsel presented their case it only got worse as they dragged every negative thing they could find regarding my past behavior and my lack of candor regarding my crime until recently. As they closed their case against me, they posted on the overhead projector an email I’d sent to the Commission as part of my application for licensure where they claimed I’d not taken responsibility for my crime. I can understand why someone who did not know me would think that, but this seemed to seal my chances to obtain a positive outcome from the Commission. Bill did a wonderful job of summing up the evidence of my change over the years, but I felt it was not enough when I looked at the Commissioner’s faces as they listened.
We waited for about two hours (I think that’s about how long it took for them) and when they came in it was with grim faces and the Chairman of the Commission confirmed it when he declared that I was not to be granted a license to practice as a real estate agent.
What happens now? I really have no idea except to once again start pumping out resumes in the hopes of finding full-time work.
One thing helped provide some perspective on the events of that day; the Maundy Thursday service at the Chapel Hill Bible church in which I participated as a member of the choir began within two hours of the ending of the hearing. We’d had our usual weekly rehearsal the evening before the hearing and having the hearing bookmarked (as it were) with both the rehearsal and service in which we focused upon the only Person ever to be totally innocent and yet treated so unfairly was an opportunity for me to reflect on eternity versus today. Yes, what my wife and I endured that day was tough, but the King is still on the throne and has a purpose and plan for me that is yet unseen, but no less glorious.