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.
It is amazing the ways that God has of speaking, of teaching anyone who has ears to hear; even using cats.
One of the three that graciously allow us to share their home and care for them has been an illustration God has used before, but especially more recently. Kathy and I are members of The Bridge Church in Wilmington, N.C. and recently the lessons have broached topics that not many will come near. The series “I Am Done” spoke to how the superficial ‘I’m fine’ so often masks sorrow and pain that we are afraid to share with anyone (or even admit to ourselves). We see others and ask them, “How are you?” not really wanting to know, just being ‘polite.’ When asked the same, we almost always automatically respond, “Fine.” But we are far from fine or okay or great; even committed disciples of the Christ are often anything but that. The series had four separate lessons; “I Am Defeated,” I Am Depressed,” I Am Discouraged” and “I Am Disillusioned.” Not the usual sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows that are proclaimed from far too many pulpits each Sunday; instead a frank look into the souls of the majority of us who are afraid of what seems a world of division that is bent on self-destruction. Yes, in Christ we, more than anyone else on this sad planet, do have hope; but life on this world WILL involve pain no matter who you are and denying that (or worse, ignoring it) does the Gospel no favor. The Good News cannot be perceived as good unless we also face the very real BAD news.
Today we began a new series, “Hurting Out Loud, The Psalms of Lament,” beginning with Psalm 130. The opening verse screams with the anguish that we all have experienced, whatever the cause. Clayton spoke of how weeping is a vital prolog to worship; heartfelt and genuine worship cannot come unless that person has had a season of weeping or, as Chuck Swindoll once put it (paraphrasing), ‘God cannot use anyone unless He has first crushed them.’ This may seem cruel and heartless; how can a God of love do such you may ask. Only a heart that has been through the crucible of suffering can be open to God’s work in their heart, and it is that suffering that often does speak loudest to anyone. Still, we choose to ignore this; instead, we pretend that all is well and by wearing this façade we hold our Creator at arm's length.
Getting back to our cats, or rather to one in particular, C.J. She is a rescue (as all of our owners, excuse me, cats are), but when she first arrived in our home was full of worms. The treatment for this was an extensive course of medication that, unfortunately, was neuro-toxic. This critter became somewhat ‘different.' She is usually very lovable, but can without warning return petting with claw and fang! She is one of the neediest animals I’ve ever seen (outside of a mirror anyway) that constantly seems to need assurance that she is loved. I can be in the same room with her, and if I am out of sight of her, she begins the most piteous wailing imaginable. Sometimes just speaking to her will silence the anguished cries, but it can be necessary to go to her to comfort her.
Another cat that owned me was Charlie. He adopted our family when we lived in Cape Carteret and was feral; much more comfortable outside than in and not usually willing to suffer being petted (though he did make an exception for me). To say he was self-sufficient was an understatement of galactic proportions! He was unafraid of any creature; once fighting off a bobcat that had wandered onto his turf and killing a hound that had begun to attack my brother. Yes, Charlie was his own ‘man’ unwilling to accept any master; he would come inside briefly during inclement weather, but soon would be standing at the door wanting to go.
I used to think that Charlie was my all-time favorite cat but recently have come to change my opinion on that. C.J., as pitiable as she is, has supplanted Charlie simply because she is so pitiful and needy. C.J. is much more like me than Charlie; indeed despite what I’d like to pretend at times, Charlie is NOTHING like me! Tony, as with C.J., is a creature broken by life who is destitute of any ability to survive in a world gone mad. Even surrounded by those who do love me, I often feel isolated and bereft of hope. I cannot ‘see’ God, and so feel all the more isolated and alone; I smile at others and keep my façade in place, but within I am, like C.J., calling out for comfort and reassurance. Sadly when such does come from God, I am prone to fight back and push such comfort away.
Being in a body of believers whose leadership is embracing this topic has breathed within me the realization that I am NOT alone in my struggle. There is hope for me and the many like me who silently struggle.
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.
Last summer a good friend invited Kathy and I down to Emerald Isle to enjoy a stay at the beach. The house was located on the beach with its own boardwalk out to a gazebo with stairs down to a path to beach; for this old sailor and former surf bum, it was close to heaven. The next few days were filled with laughter and fun with Tom and Bernadene as we lazed time away enjoying the beach and just relaxing with good friends.
As our time to leave approached it seemed that I needed some alone time to just enjoy the sound and smell of the surf. I awakened at 4:00 AM and got dressed (well, as dressed as any sensible person does at the beach), went downstairs to make coffee, then went out to the gazebo to sit. It was pitch dark, some lights scattered up and down the beach from the different houses, but looking out over the ocean was without any light source. While I could hear the waves and occasionally glimpse the froth of the surf, it was as if I was within a warm, salty cocoon.
As I sat there I began to think of the way that God had moved in my life to bring me to this moment. Over and over the idea of a God who made all of what I was sensing, whose hand held the universe, but whose attention was focused so singularly upon me when I was so adamant at remaining rebellious that only grace could begin to explain what had happened in my life leading up to that moment. An overwhelming feeling of gratitude and awe that after all that I had done and all that I’d been through, God loved me!
I began to sing some of the hymns I’d learned through listening to the Bible Broadcasting Network while in prison. One hymn led to another as my eyes filled with tears and my heart overflowed with gratitude and praise. I’m not sure how long this went on, but as the sun began to provide a glimmer of light on the horizon, my singing stopped and I sat and just reveled in the knowledge that I was not only free of the physical prison that had constrained me, but of the more insidious prison of my own making. The freedom I obtained on release from prison was something that I had anticipated (and at times wondered if it would ever be mine), but even better was the sure knowledge that because of Christ’s work on my behalf, even while still incarcerated, I was more free than most of those outside of the walls that held me. No more was I a slave to the old man and to experience that with my physical freedom (especially once I had satisfied the parole requirements that went with my release) was something I hope I never forget or take for granted.
As the sun showed itself, my wife and friends came out and we all sat and just enjoyed another day at the beach. My wife kept asking me why I was smiling so much; I would just shrug. The memory of that time still fills me with wonder and does not fail to bring a smile to my face.
When I was just out of the Navy and becoming more and more bitter as the result of my wife divorcing me after she’d forced me to get out of the Navy, a friend I worked with in the ED at NCMH, Malcolm MacGregor seemed to have something I was missing. This rather scruffy looking guy never got rattled and always demonstrated a calmness of which I sorely lacked. I knew he was a Christian, but didn’t think that had anything to do with it as I thought I was as well (after all, I’d been raised in the Catholic church and was an American, and so, of course, I was a Christian). We had ample opportunities to discuss what his view of Christianity was (reading the Bible because you wanted to?), but no matter how I at times disagreed with him, he was always kind and gentle to me.
He kept inviting me to this gathering of folks called the Chapel Hill Bible Church which was then meeting in a building on campus (Gerrard Hall) each Sunday morning. I put him off for weeks until finally, I decided to go if for no other reason just to shut him up! When I did I was amazed at what I SAW; what I’ve heard referred to by others in the military as a “target rich environment” because of all the beautiful coeds who attended there. I decided to continue going to the services there to see if I could ‘mine’ this rich environment (hey, I was still a sailor at heart, what can I say?). Over time listening to what James Abrahamson taught, something began happening to me that I did not then realize. Once after a service as many were congregating outside Gerrard Hall, I walked up to Jim and told how much I had enjoyed the lesson. He smiled and said, “Well, praise the Lord!” I was taken aback as I expected a very different response as I’d complimented him, not the Lord.
Sadly, shortly after this, I became so ‘busy’ that Sundays were usually the only day I could sleep late, so my attendance with that strange but wonderful group of believers came to an end. A rich seed had been planted by God through the work of Jim, Malcolm and several others that would not bear fruit for many years. I’d begun dating and then living with another woman (also recovering from a divorce), and we both did attend different ‘churches’ at times through the intervening years but never felt we belonged there.
When we moved back to North Carolina from Florida, we thought we’d found a new home in Winston-Salem, but events and my ego interceded and I found myself convicted of murder following the death of a patient I’d cared for in ICU. I was convicted and sentenced to prison in February 1988 and thought my life was as good as over. Convinced that I’d soon be stabbed, shot, raped or who knows what else, I settled into an uneasy ‘life’ in prison without any expectation that I’d ever get out. BUT GOD (two of my favorite words) had not allowed that seed planted in 1980 to die and began nurturing that all but dead seed into life. My second week at Central Prison, another prisoner invited me to accompany him to the chapel for a church service. Not having anything else to do and looking for an excuse (ANY EXCUSE) to get out of the cacophony of noise that was K Dorm, I accepted.
Chaplain Skip Pike taught that Sunday and I remember comparing him to Jim, keeping things all logical and all, and just thought ‘meh’ at the end. A week later (and a day after my 36th birthday) I was again invited to go; using the same reasoning led me to go. This time another Chaplain was teaching, Eugene Wigelsworth, and to this day I cannot recall what he said or even the passage he taught from; all I know is that when he asked if there was anyone who felt a call on their hearts to come forward, I practically leapt from my chair. I was the second in line (I have no idea if anyone was behind me; all I knew was that the ‘now or never’ feeling in my soul impelled me to move and so I had. When the other prisoner had finished and turned away, I somehow felt unable to step toward Pastor Wigelsworth and began to sob out loud. Had he not stepped forward and hugged me to himself, I would have fallen to the floor. Such a feeling of acceptance and love flooded my heart and soul that even now I can not describe it. Again, I have no recollection of time, or what was happening around me, only as my crying began to subside, a JOY beyond description began to fill me. Pastor Eugene stepped back from me, still holding my shoulders and told me, “You will be fine, young man. I want you to come to my office immediately after the service so we can talk.” I stammered a, “ Yes, sir!” and went back to my chair.
In the following months, I came to love this godly man and to look forward to the times when we could sit in his office and just talk about this seedling growing within me. Far too soon, my time at Central Prison drew to an end as I was in a group selected to be moved to a high-security road camp (where we’d have contact visits!). As we walked toward the area where I was searched before boarding the transfer van, Gene continued to encourage me to follow up on course work he’d arranged for me through Lee College (now University). I’d also ‘discovered’ the Bible Broadcasting Network with such teachers as Chuck Swindoll, Vernon Magee, and others I came to know and respect (indeed, from then on whatever place D.O.C. sent me, my priority was to try and locate a local BBN outlet. Through the years the teaching I heard on BBN and my personal study (used up three separate study Bibles while ‘inside’), God did continue to nurture the seedling, but finding a community of like-minded believers was rare within the prison system.
As I approached the conclusion of my time in prison, I was transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough. I had lost contact with several over my years in prison, but once at OCC I reached out to Malcolm (still had his address) and wrote him. He wrote back that he was excited that I was so close and that he would let others know to pray for me. Within a few months, I qualified for Community Visitor passes, but needed some sponsors willing to take me out. I’d already connected with one of the Yokefellow volunteers (Bruce Dalton) and had been out a few times with him when the annual volunteer's banquet was held. The yard was closed to all prisoners, but a guard came to my bunk (where I was reading) and told me that someone wanted to speak to me. I went into the visitation area (where the banquet was being held) and saw Jim and Cecee Abrahamson; Jim standing with his arms wide open and a great big grin on his face. We spoke briefly and he promised to start taking me out on CV passes very soon.
The next Sunday he and Cecee arrived to take me to the Chapel Hill Bible Church (no longer meeting on campus, but in a beautiful building off of Erwin Road). Many of those in the Sunday School class he led knew me from BC (before Christ) and I have to confess to feeling more than a little trepidation at what kind of welcome I’d receive. Very soon it became apparent to me that the doctrine of God’s grace was more than a textbook idea to the people there. The warmth and welcome I felt amazed me after almost 23 years in prison. In the following year and a half, I continued to bathe weekly in Jim’s teaching as my release date drew nearer. Days before that happened I was transferred to Wake Correctional since my wife was then living in Wake County and so my parole officer was also in Wake County. Soon after that, we became regular attendees of the services at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and then members; I won’t claim that I have arrived at being all that He wants me to be, but the atmosphere and teaching there had my roots going ever deeper and my heart filling more and more.
Now, with our coming move to Wilmington, it is time to say goodbye or perhaps “Aloha” would be better. So much has happened and so much has changed in who I was even since surrendering to my King. New adventures await, but it is with a pang in my heart that we draw this chapter of my journey Home to a conclusion. We had a saying we shared in the choir at Piedmont Correctional Institution as we concluded rehearsal on Wednesday night; “See you in the morning or in the clouds.” I guess that’s as good as any way to speak to my family at the Chubby-C.
The journey continues…
Something J.R.R. Tolkien has Frodo stating as he journeys back to his beloved Shire near the conclusion of The Return of the King has resonated with me in my journey home…
“Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I come to the Shire, it will not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest.’
Gandalf did not answer.”
Post Traumatic Stress is not a sign of weakness, I have read, but the evidence of a strong spirit that has endured great suffering or trauma and come through it. The memory of my service in the Navy produced changes in my psyche that only recently have I recognized; that trauma, combined with my imprisonment, had me wounded in ways that mostly did not show. The evidence of my wounding was mostly invisible except in my inability to trust, to relax, and to believe that I am of value to society or that anyone could believe in me again.
Violent anger, often uncontrolled and seemingly out of nowhere, filled my waking moments (and often my dreams) with fear at who I would hurt next. My beloved wife, Kathy, was often the recipient of these outbursts; the one person on the planet who demonstrated far above all others her sacrificial love for me, yet I often doubted her as well. Suicidal ideations filled my daily thoughts; it just all seemed so pointless to go on like that.
In an amazing series of ‘coincidences,’ over a period of two years in which He kept me from harming myself (instances of how close I came still cause me to shudder), I made the acquaintance of and became friends with another volunteer at the USO-NC Center at Raleigh-Durham airport. She invited me to participate in outreach to the military and Veteran community in our area with resources that would help them. During that time I began researching PTS through many of those resources and one meeting met Amy Gressler of Harbor Reins. She is a licensed counselor and equestrian who has started a program for Veterans and active military to help them resolve issues relating to their service by working with horses. The idea intrigued me as I had, with Kathy, ran a boarding stable for horses for a time when at UNC and remembered how calming being around these majestic animals could be.
I began counseling with Amy and Liza Chartier as well as working with two different horses, Bob (a Belgian) and Commander (a pinto). The process of learning how to connect with the horse enabled me to connect with the deep-seated hurts that I had not dealt with in any healthy fashion. Over the time in which I participated in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, the ‘horse-sense’ of the animals I worked with, coupled with Amy and Liza’s insights, brought me closer to home than I ever thought possible. The sessions would often end with me feeling exhilarated and more peaceful; doing these sessions weekly (for the most part) helped bridge me from the ‘ago’ (as I referred to it) to the now.
Something else that helped a great deal, again as a result of my learning about it through the Military Family Ministry at Hope Valley Community Church, was Yoga Warriors as taught locally by Jody Probert and Anne Bequet. I remember laughing at a friend in prison who had told me that yoga was a great cardio workout; at the conclusion of my first session of Yoga Warriors I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. I’m laughing no more.
Combining these two activities did much to bring me out of what had been a decade's long funk and began (yes, began) the process of healing. As with my friend Frodo, the memories will always be there as they are a part of the person I am today. Through what I have experienced and especially through my faith in Messiah Jesus, the dreams are fading (really, all but gone) and the angry outbursts are gone. But, just as with Frodo, my healing will always be incomplete in this life. There will always be an echo of the wounding, the long burden within me. Thankfully the effect it has on me is dramatically decreased, but it will always be there until I find my final rest.
One day, years after his return to the Shire, Frodo invites Sam to go riding with him. While riding, they meet many of the Elven folk who are on their way to the Havens. From there they will set sail to the far country (spoken of also by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia) where both he and Bilbo (the two ring-bearers) will finally find peace and an end to their burdens. This ‘far country’ also is my expectation; that one day I will enter that rest and bow before my King and begin an eternity apart from any sadness or grief.
Until then, the journey continues.
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…
The wonderful folks at Harbor Reins (where I go for equine assisted psychotherapy for PTS) recently relocated from the Corral to a new location in South Raleigh. It is a much quieter place (less traffic noise and few nearby homes), but sadly I had to leave my buddy, Bob the Belgian. He and I had begun to mesh as a team, and I will miss this humongous horse. Change is part of life and Amy (my therapist at Harbor Reins) has introduced me to a group of guys (horses, but you get my drift) at the new place.
For the first few sessions there, it was kind of a meet and greet where I went out into the pasture. It was HUGE, lots of walking to help me make my goal each day. Amy asked me to see if any of them seemed to ‘fit’ and, if so, to let her know which one. I asked her for their names, but she was reticent to let me know them, I wasn’t sure why until I learned them later. Apparently, she did this to avoid letting the names influence my choice. To be honest, knowing their names now, I have to agree it would have done so.
I approached the gang, having no carrots I chose just to walk up to each and introduce myself and speak with them quietly while stroking them. There were two who seemed rather stand-offish, but the other two seemed interested. One in particular, what I think is a pinto with brown and white markings seemed very friendly and over the the time I spent with him, even began to follow me around. The other one, whose name is Freedom, tagged along as I later learned they did so with each other. Once again, had Amy told me their names, Freedom would have been hard to resist for obvious reasons. When I was released from prison, I noticed that Kathy had a statue of a foal curled up on the floor in the living room. I asked her if she’d named it and she said that was my job; I immediately called it “Freedom.”
So, once again Amy showed wisdom in how she allowed me to make a selection based solely on how each of the horses seemed to interact with me. The pinto was much more friendly, coming when I called (sometimes when I did not); two different times he rested his head on my shoulder, something that touched me very much. So, I turned to Amy (who was standing in the shade on the outside of the pasture) and told her that the pinto was my choice. She smiled and told me his name was Commander; if I’d known that I would have saluted him when I approached the first time!
We have now had two full sessions together; it is like the song, “Getting to Know You,” in that we both are learning about each other and how to work together as a team. It is amazing to me how horses (and many other animals) seem so able to sense our emotional state and provide a means of relaxation. Our cats (whom we serve with the utmost respect) had often come to me when I was upset and just been there and provided me with companionship. Horses, though, seem on a different plane. Looking into Commander’s eyes, it seems as though he can understand what I’ve gone through and is telling me that TOGETHER, we can work this out (reminds me of an old Beatles’ song).
We continue to work together; today was a pretty good session where I learned some more about my new buddy and team member. It promises to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship (with apologies to Humphrey Bogart).
The journey continues...
One of the ways that I have begun my healing journey is through the Yoga Warrior class through the wonderful folks at the Military Family Ministry at Hope Community Church. Every second and fourth Thursday I continue to stretch the envelope on my ligaments (gently though) and learn to be aware of my breathing. We all do it but have you ever stopped, closed your eyes and concentrated on each breath as it enters and exits the body. Of course, this is similar to what Amy Gressler at Harbor Reins has been teaching me as well as part of the Equine Therapy. Being more cognizant of the NOW, the sensations of air moving past your body as well as the movement of the body (and the horse beneath you). Amy had me matching my breaths with that of the horse; it amazed me how once I’d done that, it seemed the stress and tension just flowed away.
Coming home from the Warrior Yoga class tonight, a song played on HIS Radio (107.7 here in Durham) that has always reminded me that no matter the pressure to DO, all I need to do is “…just breathe…” Breathe is one of those songs that not only is firmly based on Scripture, but is a reminder in today’s chaotic world, that peace IS possible. The mantras that the Yoga instructor has taught us I have replaced with another reminder that is far more biblical:
“I am in Christ,
God is in control;
My future is secure,
Jesus owns my soul.”
Amy sent me a self-evaluation to go over again (I’ve done it before as it is a good measure of where I am in the healing process). Considering where I was when I first started with Harbor Reins and now, the difference is night and day. Most of the nightmares, the self-loathing and ennui, are fading replaced by a knowledge of who I am in Christ and where I am NOW. It fills me with gratitude to my God for directing me as he has in ‘finding’ Harbor Reins and Warrior Yoga as those two have had much to do with how far I have come in the past months. I am also thankful to an incredible woman who has put up with me over the years (yeah, she even stuck it out while I was in prison for about 24 ½ years), but mostly I am grateful to a God, who took me in my filth and welcomed me with open arms. And, though I do continue to blow it (oy vey, how I still blow it at times!), he is there telling me, “Just breathe.”
The journey continues…