When Winning Isn’t

Part 1

My father died in 1991. We had never been close. A family friend who had known my father from 1931 to 1991 said in 1993, “Your father was a hard man.” I knew that from a lifetime living with my father.

From my earliest recollections of my father, I never would describe our relationship in loving terms. I was in my early 20’s before he ever quietly said, “I love you.” Not much ever said after that. He was indeed a hard man. I respected him. But I have many memories of his volatile outbursts of anger. Thankfully, he never hit us boys. But fear was our common response to his anger.

Through the years of school, I did relatively well, consistently an honor student. My father never said a word of appreciation or congratulations. In sports I was far from a good athlete, but did well enough. Not a word from my father. That pattern continued through college, Naval service, commissioning, graduating from Naval Postgraduate School, and early selection to LCDR.

In 1961 I began learning to play guitar. My father had a 1934 Montgomery Ward guitar but never played it. That was my first guitar. Finger action was so bad that my fingers bled consistently for the first few months of playing. But I stuck it out. My father passively supported my attempt at playing.

Two brothers, my mother’s age, were superb guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin players. They began to invite me to sit in with them. I learned much about music and complementary styles blending with all instruments, and each session was a joy. My father and mother would drive me there every week. He seemed to enjoy, but he never said a word.

The lack of acknowledgement was discouraging, but I grew to expect nothing. By 1971 my wife and I began our moves as adults as I found work away from that part of the state. But each year we would drive home and get together with the two brothers, and often others joined us. It was always a highlight, and my parents were always there.

My father never said a word about whether he enjoyed it, but his expressions seemed to indicate he did.

Then 1983

In 1982 I entered seminary. My time was consumed with seminary studies, part time job, and raising two boys entering their teens, one of whom was beginning to cause major problems for us. Meaning, I had little time to keep up with my guitar playing, much to my dismay because I loved playing. I missed it.

In 1983 we went back home at the end of summer Hebrew. So we managed to contact the brothers and set a date to play. My parents also came. After an hour of playing, my lack of practice over the previous two years was evident, certainly to me and the brothers. But nothing was said, we were enjoying and reminiscing, and I was able to keep up with all of it. We still had fun.

That was when my father made his only comment ever on my playing. “Boy, you really are rusty, aren’t you?”

I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. For 33 years he had never said a positive word about anything I had done, especially my guitar playing. And now in one night he mentions my failure to play well in front of about 15 people, close friends. I swore that I would never let that happen again. For the next 8 years (until he died) I wasn’t going to risk another public humiliation. Hence I never played guitar in front of him. I wasn’t going to let him “win” this.

And I became the hard man.

So who won?

My father never mentioned my lack of playing again. Years after he died, my mother said he noticed that I never played. I began to tell my mother… and she stopped me, saying that she knew exactly when I stopped playing because she had heard my father as well. She cried that night (I didn’t know that).

So who won? Certainly not me. In the short run, I “won” because I never faced his public disapproval again. But my mother did not win because she loved my playing and missed it. And my father did not win, because he did like my playing but he could never say the words.

Part 2

From 1983 to 1989, our older son was getting into further trouble: drugs, stealing, etc. By spring 1988 we had asked him to leave the house (he had just turned 18). He was then arrested, and he spiraled out of control.
In 1989 my father and I began to have an uneasy but unspoken truce; we spoke politely, but nothing serious. My parents came to visit that summer. They had taken a day to travel to a larger city in that area to shop, etc. When they came home, my father was very different. They had seen and met our older son in that city.

In previous years, he had made comments about how disruptive teenagers could be. One time when I was about 11 years old, we had seen teenagers causing a few problems, but nothing out of hand. My father commented, “If you ever see kids acting that way, you can definitely blame the parents.” That assessment hung over my head when we adopted the boys in 1978. As it got worse, my memories of that comment intensified, causing me guilt and shame.

I had never seen my father shook up, raging anger, yes, but never this way. He spoke first: “I never realized how bad it has been for you these past years. I am so sorry.” And he had tears in his eyes, something I had never seen. He apologized, which I also had never experienced.

They visited two years later for our younger son’s high school graduation. They usually stayed two days because the altitude affected his breathing. But after two days he talked to my mother then asked me if they could stay another day or two because they enjoyed our time. We gladly agreed. And we did have a good time.

Three weeks later my father died. I am so thankful that our last time together was not clouded by all the distance, lack of words, lack of showing affection. When they left, he hugged me seriously and thanked me and said he loved me. How could I not also say the same thing? That’s all I wanted.

Who won then?

I think finally we all did: my father, my mother, me.
My only regret is that I didn’t play guitar for him and my mother. But we did mend a rift that had festered for 42 years. For that we all won.

I learned to say many things to my sons. No matter how bad our older son got, sometimes behind prison bars, I always, always told him I loved him. So also with our younger son when he deployed and was in combat, the last words he heard from me were “I love you.” So also my words to his wife and our grandchildren. There is no doubt that such will be the last words they hear me say: “I love you.”

And we all win!

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Who Am I? Pt 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

While I was no better off than them I knew that going back to a prison cell was not something that I wanted. So one night I remember laying in my bed in my room and began to recall all the things that I had experienced, and for the first time began to think about what my future held. Thoughts of my friends’ actions and mentality began to creep in, as well as a realization that their choices and decisions were not the ones that I was envisioning for my future. As I lay there that night I began to stew in my past and what a miserable hand that I had been dealt. I thought deeply about all of my life’s regrets and what had become to the 35 year old man.

I thought of my dad, step-father and mother. For the first time in my life I began to see the consuming anger and hatred that my life had become to the point of despair. For some reason that night I also thought of those messages that I heard in my grandparents’ church, those messages that my step-father preached, yet had not practiced, those messages that chaplains and preachers brought to me in some of the deepest and darkest times in my life. That night, through the anger, fear and hatred I began to recall those Biblical stories that told of a caring, kind, and compassionate God that desired happiness and peace for His sheep.

That night I began to see that what I desired is what I had been fleeing. No parting of the clouds or a burning bush but simply a softening of a very hardened heart, by which I could view these things in a differing light. Beyond my calloused flesh, I began to see the distant, flickering promise of God and a scripture, that I can never recall hearing before, began to settle on my heart, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (I didn’t know it was John 16:33, would soon).

I remember lying there that night, and for the first time since my mom was given the cancer diagnosis, prayed through a torrent of tears a very simple prayer, “God help me!” and I fell asleep. I awoke the next morning, still the same angry and tormented person, and tried to forget the previous night’s thoughts chalking it up to stress and desperation but with a new found realization of wanting to escape my present reality.

That next morning I had an job interview with someone that I had never met but who had heard through a Christian friend that I was looking for work. Despite my anger and stubbornness I found that something extraordinary might be going on. I met with the gentlemen and began working as a landscaper the very same day. After a month of working for him I had been promoted to a manager and had amassed enough money to move out on my own.

For the first time my past took a backseat to my future. Around this time the office manager of the landscape company asked me out on a date and I readily agreed. It did not take very long for her to express her Christian faith to me. It did not take long for me to see that she valued her relationship with God. I tried refute her position using shared pieces of my life and all of my reasoning behind my anger toward God. She sat patiently listening to my tirade, and then took out a Bible and began reading to me the scripture that had been placed on my heart a month ago. That verse from John 16:33 began to wrap my heart as she gently and lovingly began to show me a little of the trials and tribulations that she had faced in her life.

For the first time ever, I felt like I was not alone. As she began to share her own anger and resentment toward God I could not help but feel that there was something to it all. Many nights she continued to listen to this conflicted, angry man as he came to terms with the misplaced hostility toward God. She invited me to church; the whole time we sat in amazement as the pastor spoke directly into our lives.

We began attending Bible studies and exploring together the scriptural truths of God’s Word. Through the study of the scripture, the exploration of my past and the love and kindness of this amazing woman I began to view God not as a make-believe figure whom I could blame for everything but as a kind, loving and compassionate Lord who gave so dearly in order to free us all from the bondage and slavery to sin. We were married at that church, and Christ was no longer a foreign object to me but the foundation upon which our marriage was to be built. Yet again, a new reality had set in.

The Wounded Healer

From my many scars of deep and serious wounds (imposed or self-inflicted), I am beginning to understand what Nouwen meant. Nouwen states that the minister, “is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister….” (Wounded Healer, 82) For the minister there is a connection between the suffering that this world has to offer and the suffering in the minister’s heart that leads to the precept of a wounded healer. The wounded healer is one who takes his own loneliness and suffering and through that lens of understanding creates a “hospitable space” for all of those who are wounded and looking for understanding and consolation. The wounds of the minister enable him to enter into the pain and affliction that the person is enduring, begin to understand them on a different level and connect with the person through a mutual suffering.

“For the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and to make that recognition the starting point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.” (Wounded Healer, xiv)

I wish this could be the end of the story. But there is more…

Who Am I? Pt 3

See Part 2 here.

This new reality and routine continued on in my life until the fall of that year when I was again summoned to another office, but this time it was the Chaplain’s office. I vividly recall sitting in that chair and listening to the chaplain explain that my mother had finally lost her battle with cancer. He offered to pray with me as he explained that our God who is rich in compassion and cared for me dearly, who would not forsake or leave me during this time.

With this news and through my floodgate of tears I lashed out verbally at him telling him of what I thought of his God. No longer could I contain my anger, fears, and outrage at life and what it had given me. I was sure going to let him, and everybody I ran across, know what I thought of this fictitious deity.  Soon after I stopped going to classes, began masking my pain with alcohol and marijuana use, and was given a hardship discharge from the military. Being an only child and having the rest of my family succumb to death I decided to stay in the area. Instead of looking at the new reality that I found myself in, I focused on the past and the entirety of what my life had become. I was angry, hateful, full of resentment—overall mad at the world. Words alone cannot express the depth of the emotions that seeped from every pore of my body.

I continued to deal with all of these emotions and pains by abusing substances that would allow me not to feel anything beside the sadness that dwelt within me. It was not long before I had yet again fallen into the “wrong crowd” and surrounded myself with people who were of the same ilk. I became good friends with the pot dealer who lived across the hall from me and we would spend every night, for the better part of a year, partying and selling marijuana to others. One night that all changed though— through a tip to the police we were raided and arrested in my apartment for possession, burglary and theft.

I spent the next nine months of my life in the county jail where my anger and frustration with life only seemed to grow more deeply and manifest in more ways. Eventually I was sentenced to fourteen years in the state prison. Now these feelings of anger, hatred, and embroiled passion manifested themselves toward any of those hypocritical, Bible-thumping Christians. I spent the next ten years of my life confined in numerous prisons throughout the state. I made sure that everyone I encountered knew how angry I was with their make-believe God.

Through my penal tour I became known and feared as a “bible basher” who would do some pretty deplorable things to anyone who professed a faith in Christ. Child molesters, woman abusers and rapists were often the target of my anger as they so desperately sought to go to these church services where God gave them such a false comfort and security.  Not one time in this ten year span did I ever enter a chapel, attend a service, or accept any amount of help from a religious community or group.

While I was released from the confines that I had so desperately wanted flee, I was still filled with anger and hatred. The new reality that I now faced was one of fear as I stood before the world a free man, but a free man who had no place within society. Ironically, the only places, people, and organizations that would help someone in my situation were those Christian groups that I despised so much. Not wanting to join the ranks of the hypocrites, I began my journey of new found freedom not by accepting any help from them, but by continuing on in my obstinate anger, and hence my own self-made prison.

Living in a shelter and endlessly searching for work proved to be quite challenging for an ex-convict with little work history and obvious anger issues. This routine continued for a month or so until I ran into some friends of mine from prison who offered me a place to stay as they too could relate to the difficulties in transitioning back into society.

Eager to escape the shelter I jumped at the opportunity for this new found freedom, but it did not take long before, yet again, reality kicked in. My friends, plain and simple, were up to no good as they were already back into the lifestyle that had led them to prison in the first place. While in one breath they would praise the freedom they had on the “outside,” in the next breath they would talk about how they could get their next fix or how they could rob and rip off people to support themselves.

Now my prison had no visible walls, but my prison was just as real.

Who Am I? Pt 2

Who Am I? Pt 1 The story of abuse continues…

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So life began anew for my mom and me. Within a year she had married a Baptist minister, and we moved to a little town, where we settled into a parsonage prepared to begin a new life. My mind was ablaze with the opportunity to start fresh and no longer live in the uncertainty and pain that the prior years had brought.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the new reality kicked in and my hopes and dreams were extinguished. While my step-father was not physically abusive, he was very verbally abusive and morally demeaning toward my mom and me. While living in the parsonage next to the church, my step-father would often treat us like his personal slaves, demanding that we cater to his every need. He would often berate us with his words saying things like, “You are too much trouble to have around.” When not being wait upon hand and foot he, would vacillate between totally ignoring us and critizing us in front of other people for any action or word that was done that was not up to his standard.

Again this was quite a different message from the one that we would hear him preach and teach from the pulpit on Sundays. He, too, proclaimed to the people how caring, kind and compassionate God is, and how we are to mirror those same qualities in our lives. For me as a freshman in high school the hypocrisy of this situation, coupled with my past experiences, was just unbearable. Any thoughts of God’s grace, peace, and mercy toward His children switched back to that of being good for others and brought with it some serious doubt as to whether God even cared at all. My mother was not immune to this pattern of thinking either as we had a few occasions where we would be able to share our feelings and frustrations in a rare moment of privacy.

While this new reality and cycle of abuse began to affect our lives, it lasted only eighteen months. Upon returning from school one day, again holding my breath as I entered the door, I encountered my mom who was obviously distraught and crying. Earlier in the day she had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor; she was given less than a year to live. I will never forget the raw emotion that came from both of us that day as we sat in each other’s arms crying and begging God for His mercy. Upon his arrival home, after hearing of this diagnosis, my step-father – the pastor – demanded that we pack up all of our belongings and get out of his house because, “he didn’t have time to deal with this sort of thing.”

The police were eventually called as I lunged at him, swinging my fists erratically and cursing him with every ounce of my strength. We were escorted away from that home, only with what possessions we could pack in ten minutes, to begin yet again but now with new and frightening realities in our lives. At this point God was truly nothing more than a fictional character that only existed for a small few who had never experienced life to the extent that I had.

Picking up and moving on, coupled with the diagnosis of cancer and chemotherapy, brought with it numerous challenges and frustrations. At the age of sixteen my new reality had become: trying to maintain all of my school work, caring for a chemo patient, maintaining a steady income flow, and still trying to find time to be a teenager. My daily routine typically consisted of getting up to fix breakfast, scheduling appointments, going to school, coming home to relieve the caregiver, going to work at a movie theater or gas station, coming home to do homework and finally passing out on the couch from sheer exhaustion.

As medical insurance began to run out and my graduation from high school was approaching, I was left with little choice but to join the military to help support my mother and provide the care that she needed. Again, not learning from the past, I stood with eager anticipation and hope as to what this new change would bring.  All of my pay was sent home to provide care for her. I was granted special leaves of absence so that I might continue to support and care for my mother. In basic training, I began to attend the worship services and hear those messages of God’s grace peace and mercy, and although I was still hardened in the heart the appeal to the call of such things tugged at my heart.

Was this the turning point? Not at all…

Who Am I? Pt 1

I have invited a friend to share his life story of the “lonely, broken, and forgotten” and The Hurting and Christmas. It will be five parts. Be sure to read all five.

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I begin with a reassurance of understanding of Nouwen’s words in which he rightfully calls the reader‘s attention to this point:

Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all me share (Wounded Healer, 88).

The intent of this section is not to boast of myself or to talk solely about the miraculous work and blessings that God has done in my life. The intent of this section is to recognize the sufferings of my own heart and to make that recognition the starting point of service for ministry

Both of my parents were police officers who had a passion for their jobs. As a young man growing up and due to the nature of my parents’ work, my weekends were mainly spent with my mother’s parents where I would often find myself ripped from the confines of a comfortable bed and drug to church every Sunday morning. I would go, attending Sunday school and church with them, and hearing Biblical stories that told of a caring, kind and compassionate God that desired happiness and peace for His sheep. After church we would go out to eat; then I would be dropped off at home where I lived a far different reality than what I heard talked about in church.

Returning to my home it was not uncommon to find my father intoxicated and my mother crying. My father was often very physically abusive toward my mother and me; he would take out his anger and rage from his stress-filled job on us. Most of my early childhood memories involve beatings, trips to the hospital, and numerous occasions of my mother packing and both of us leaving only to have us return hours or days later to endure the same abuse in some sort of insane cyclical pattern.

My thoughts would often wander to the message that was spoken at my grandparent’s church, and even as a young man I could not help but feel that the message of a kind, caring and compassionate God was something for other people, not me. This was simply the norm for me growing up, through elementary school and junior high. I lived in a household where I held my breath coming home, entering the door to see what I would find. “Be seen and not heard” was my imposed mantra as any words or mistimed actions would often lead to physical punishment for me or my mother.

This pattern continued for many years but one day something happened to break the cycle. When I was in eighth grade I can clearly remember getting a call to go to the principal’s office. This was not uncommon, lest the reader think too compassionately upon me, as I often found myself getting into trouble as a younger man. Through my rebellion of my home circumstances I would regularly skip school or classes, get involved with the “wrong crowd,” and experiment in drinking and marijuana use – you name it, I probably got caught doing it.

So heading to the principal’s office that day my only thoughts were of how severely punished I would be for getting caught in whatever I had done. Approaching the office that day and seeing the two guidance counselors, my grandparent’s pastor, a few police officers, my mom and the principal my heart sunk—I knew I was really in for it. Desperately searching my mind for what I had done, for what possible thing that I did that would warrant such an gathering of people, I was in for a surprise. They began to explain to me that earlier in the day my father had been shot and killed in a drug raid.

I can remember sitting in that chair and looking at my mom with a smile beginning to creep across my lips as this new reality began to set in. To others the reaction might have seemed strange, but to me through this death was newfound freedom that had been granted to my mother and me. We no longer had to face the reality of abuse and torture that we endured. Even in this time where God and church seemed to be a place of make believe and fantasy I could not help but join in with prayer that the pastor offered, one of a new reality and the promise of God not to leave or forsake us. In my childlike mind I truly believed that God had taken my father’s life to spare us the hurt and suffering that we endured for so many years.

I was free, or so I thought…