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Thursday, April 27, 2017

What now...

So now what?
Two weeks ago, I released my newest book; “Nowhere to lay my Head: The True Story of a Homeless Dad.”  I feel like I let out a giant breath. In a way, this book was a nine-year process. I spent six years living it, three years trying not to think about it much while I recovered from it, and six months reliving every painful moment as I wrote about it, formatted it, edited it, and finally published it.
There were times while I wrote about the painful situations I faced, that I cried harder in the remembrance than I did when it happened in the first place. Thinking about my daughter, and what she was enduring at the hand of her mother’s husband, was heart-rending. I’d forgotten that I’d been hired three times by companies that all eventually went out of business. I’d forgotten how it felt when my former pastor broke my heart by telling me I wasn’t handling my homelessness the way he thought I should have, and that I was betraying my faith by crying out in pain.
I’d forgotten how many nights it was cold beyond belief, and how I never quite got used to that. I’d forgotten how stifling hot it would get in the summers, when it would rain on those hot steamy nights and I couldn’t open the windows because the rain would get in, so I sweltered in my car. I’d forgotten how much trauma it caused to my daughter to have a homeless dad who wanted to help her, but couldn’t offer very much help.
I say I’d forgotten those things but I don’t think I did…I think I buried them. I denied their existence because it hurt too much, and I was too busy trying to survive it all. Then, when I finally found work and moved with my daughter, to Virginia and began the slow process of rebuilding; I just didn’t want to remember it for a while.
When it was finally time to write the book, it changed my behavior for a while. Each morning, as I rose at 4 a.m. to write before work and then each evening as I wrote before bed, I traveled back through shuttered rooms and behind locked doors in my heart. I had compartmentalized the entire six years and I only allowed myself to look at –and to feel- those parts that were “safe” to talk about.
I could feel myself turning darker as the months of writing passed. It was hard enough living through that for six years, now I was retracing every single, painful step and trying to recall, in exhausting detail, how it felt and how it affected me and what it did to my daughter. It overpowered me much of the time. My coworkers noticed. My daughter noticed. Eventually I noticed. Thankfully, the process ended right before everyone grew weary of me and friendships were damaged.
Everything about this book was hard. Everything. Even the title was a topic of debate and turmoil. I originally intended to call it: “A dad never quits” but a friend of mine reminded me that many dads do quit. A lot of dads would go through what I did for my family, but many would not, and the title seemed unfair to the families of the men who were quitters. I realized this and I explained to my friend that within the first few chapters, I defined what a real dad is, and that a real dad never quits, and if a man quits…he’s not a dad. But after we discussed it further, I realized she was right. Besides that, as I completed more and more of the book, I saw it morph from just a simple story of my homelessness, to an analogous tale of Christ’s homelessness. For a long time, I labored under the delusion that my faith was weak. That I had failed Jesus in my handling of this six-year walk through the desert of homelessness. I guess my former pastor’s harsh words had done more soul damage than I knew. I saw myself as something of a failure because I hadn’t smiled through my heartache and sung songs in my prison of homelessness, as Paul and Sylas did in jail. I thought I wasn’t much of a believer anymore because I hadn’t always handled my situation with an endless barrage of bible verses and modern worship songs.
I had cried. A lot. I had questioned God. I had tasted more failure in that six years than ever in my life and I hadn’t always liked the way it felt as it went down. I saw the damage done to my daughter and I was disillusioned by it all.
As I got deeper and deeper into the Faith aspect of the book, and as I wrote more and more about where my heart was in all this, I realized that I hadn’t done that badly after all. I didn’t smile sweetly while the whole world took a giant poo on me and then collapsed, but I didn’t quit either. I didn’t crawl inside a bottle, I didn’t turn to drugs, I didn’t rob a bank to survive.
I didn’t quit.
I didn’t stop trying. I didn’t stop believing. I didn’t get so exasperated that I just refused to take all the small, ignoble odd jobs I was working, in order to just put gas in my car.
I might not have had a faith that others wanted to emulate, but I hadn’t abandoned what faith I did have, either. It got stripped down to its core and burnished in the fires I was trapped in. But, by-God it was still standing.
Writing the book brought me face-to-face with the unsettled nature of my own soul. The “who am I and who does God want me to be?” questions that had already been nagging my heart long before I became a vagabond dad. Suddenly, “Nowhere to lay my Head” became the only possible title for this book. It made sense. It tied the ends together.
And so, two weeks ago this morning, I clicked a button and the baby was given life. So far I’ve given two interviews and people have responded positively. People are intrigued by the story. They are challenged and encouraged.
But now what?
What’s funny to me is that I still feel homeless. I have a home. Or at least a place to live. But I am a turbulent, brooding ocean inside. I have a job and a bed and a kitchen, something I did without for six years. In my heart, though, I am still walking those endless miles in Pinkerton Park in Franklin, TN…trying to find my way home.
More and more I feel that this story isn’t over yet. More and more I look to the horizon, wondering what is out there.
When I began this journey, my daughter was ten. Next week she’ll be nineteen.
I lost six very important years and I can never get them back. Those years were the most valuable thing I had and to be quite honest…I don’t feel that I’ve gotten a fair value in return for them. Not yet anyway.
Now what? What becomes of a man who turns 54 this fall and who’s heart still longs to dream, and battle, and accomplish, and conquer, but who has tasted far more defeat than he has victory, and whose hourglass has far more sand in the bottom than it does at the top?  Where is my home?
I’m restless again. Which means –in some ways- I’m homeless again. The title of my book comes from Luke 9:58: “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” Jesus said that to a man who claimed he would follow Him anywhere he asked. Brennan Manning calls it “the loneliest verse in the bible.” It’s lonely because, in the original language, it reads this way: “The Son of man has no place to lay His head, and take His rest.” It wasn’t just about a bed and a place to sleep. It was about a home. Home base. A safe spot in the world. Your turf.
I don’t know where mine is anymore. I don’t know where I go from here. My compass spins erratically sometimes and I can’t seem to find True North.
What now? What do I do with a story like this? What do I get for six years of struggle?
I’m no hero…I just did something heroic.
The truth is that I still have a heart full of regret. I would give anything to go back and have those six years with my little girl again. Only this time, to still have my home and my career. I am not yet at a place where I say “Yes…it was for something better.”
I know God had a plan and there was a purpose, I just don’t see it yet.
I have a job, and a place to live. But my soul…is still homeless. When I was living in my car, I’d often look into the night sky and angrily ask “What do you want from me?”

I’m not angry anymore, but sometimes I still look into the night sky. But these days I ask “What now?”

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

First interview for "Nowhere to lay my head"

Morning Line hosts Larry Dowdy and Janet Rose on WLNI here in Lynchburg had me in studio as a guest yesterday (4/18)

Here is the interview:

Interview on WLNI for "Nowhere to lay my Head"

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why I don't go to church on Easter Weekend...

I'm uncharacteristically quiet on Easter weekend. Starting Maundy Thursday I get very introspective and I internalize the events, mostly in silence. I appreciate that others post things about the cross and the empty tomb, but somehow for me...I can't. I went to a small Christian High School and we had a Good Friday service each year, and seven "Preacher Boys" would deliver a short, 5 minute sermon, each of us taking one of the final words of Christ. As an adult, I got in the habit of going to the Good Friday service at the church I attended, more out of habit, and maybe some guilt if I thought about doing anything else.
As I grew older and became a little more of a contemplative, I gravitated toward isolation on Easter weekend, especially Good Friday. It became more necessary for me to be by myself in order to stop the sounds of the world intruding on my desire to gaze at the viciousness of the cross, unobstructed, and remember what Jesus did for me. But I'd go to the Good Friday services at whatever church I was attending at that stage of my life because I still felt obligated. I stopped several years ago after the pastor of the church I attended at the time decided that the best day of the entire year to collect a gigantic, one-time offering for a new building project was the day Jesus was slaughtered on a cross. The entire service turned into a horrible (for me at least) attempt at solemnifying this vision for a new addition, and the emotionally burdensome twisting of the Crucifixion in order to squeeze the bucks from the faithful. ( "In light of Jesus' ultimate sacrifice on the Cross, we'll honor that by sacrificing for a beautiful new wing so we can spread the Gospel...")
After that day, I promised to never step foot in a church on Good Friday again. That is NOT to say that any other churches do things like this, or that it's wrong to have a Good Friday service at all. I just decided that for me...I'm going to listen to my heart on this and go it alone. For a while, I'd take communion by myself. But as years rolled on and I contemplated the Last Supper and the Cross more and more, I couldn't bring myself to break bread in remembrance. Not on that day.
Easter Sunday is the same for me. Let me repeat there is NOTHING wrong with Easter services. I just find that for me, personally, everything I'm supposed to be thinking about and celebrating gets lost in the mass of humanity. Easter Sunday is really like New Years Day for believers. I remember that He is risen. His new life means I have new life. Today it begins once again. I won't be in church on Sunday. Not because I think it's wrong. I love my church and my pastor. But I find that as each year rolls by, I connect less and less to the real significance of this weekend. Christmas and Easter are our center, as Christians. Without these two events, we have nothing. Routine has sapped the meaning from them and as a Believer, if I don't have that...I have lost my way.
That's why I don't post "He is Risen" memes or go to church on Good Friday. I am REALLY glad others do. I didn't write this to chastise or question anyone. I guess I wrote it in case any of you have a contemplative in your life and can't figure out why they don't get as demonstrative at the holiday as you do. I suppose I also wrote it to challenge us all to make sure we're considering what it is we're remembering.God bless. Happy Easter. He is risen!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thoughts on Maundy Thursday and the human side of Jesus...

 "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos"
          ("A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you")
This is the Latin phrase from which we get "Maundy Thursday". It fits the day perfectly. Jesus gives us this command in action first, later He gives it in word. This day began with a series of teachings, and the sun set on a final dinner with his closest friends, in a borrowed banquet room.
     At that dinner, He would be misunderstood by his friends, yet again, asked for favoritism, and each man would proclaim his undying loyalty despite what Jesus said. Then He would send His betrayer on his way and turn his disciples tables upside down, once more, by taking on a servant's job and washing their feet. When this was over He would ask a handful of them to stay on with Him through the night, and pray for Him while He wrestled with His Fathers' will.
     His friends would fail him and sleep their way through the hour of His greatest need. He would wrestle alone, crying out not once but three times, and with enough overwhelming urgency that he would break his capillaries, and blood would mingle with His sweat. He would ask three times for His Father to change His plans and make a different way other than the cup of suffering He was being asked to drink. Three times His Father would say "No", choosing instead to strengthen His beloved Son with enough Grace for the task at hand.
     His wrestling and pleading finished, He would go and awaken his sleeping friends and the chill of the night would be interrupted by the glow of torches, and the rumble of soldiers, and the icy betrayal of the kiss of a friend. His friends would scatter, and the one who remained within sight, would curse himself and use profanity in an effort to prove he wasn't a follower. Then the rooster would crow...and it would be Friday.
     Jesus was facing His impending death. He knew this by now. He knew how bad it would be to take on the sin of the world. He knew that it meant separation from his Father. He knew it meant a battle for the souls of men even though He knew there was a broken, sinful nature in those souls. He chose to come here, chose to live here, and chose to die here, for us. 
     In those last hours, I wonder what went through his mind. Did he write a letter to Mary and tell her he loved her? Did he find himself caught up in reminiscences of happy times in his childhood? Did He draw a deep breath and smell the salt spray of the ocean that last night in Bethany? Did he spend any special, individual time with his friends...time we don't know about...chatting and remembering? Did he choke on his words at any point? Was he emotional at all? When he performed the breaking of the bread, the very liturgy we now use to celebrate His death, did it make him wince just a little? For us it is symbolism, for Him, at that moment, it was about to happen for real. 
     Did He wonder how God was going to pull this little band together after He was gone? I know he trusted His father to do it, and take care of them, but did He wonder to Himself..."I don't know how, Father...they still don't seem to get it." Did He commend his few personal effects to one of his friends, maybe telling them to sell them and give the money to his mother? When he dipped the bread into the bowl and declared Judas the traitor, did his hand touch Judas' for an instant, and did it break his heart? When he told Judas, "What you quickly..." was there breaking in his voice? Most of us have been betrayed by a friend at one time or other. Few have known full well it was coming. Jesus was a man, after all. The Total man. How would I have handled this? Thank God we never have to find out.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Letting God lead. The journals of a (formerly) homeless dad

[ In 16 days, on April 18, my new book will be released. It is entitled; "Nowhere To Lay My Head: The True Story of a Homeless Dad" and it chronicles the six years I spent homeless while I remained in my daughter's life. It was by far the hardest thing I've ever written and, I hope, the most helpful. I learned a lot of lessons during that time. For the next two weeks I hope to share some of them as a lead-up to the book launch.]

At the time the great Christian artist Rich Mullins left us in September of 1997, he was working on a new album. It was still in rough demo form, and would become “The Jesus Record” after his death. The album was discovered on a cassette in his belongings and his friends and bandmates in The Ragamuffin Band produced it and released it three years after his death.
It was haunting. There were songs that were very much like what Rich had been writing previously and there were songs that sounded very different. Some were even “other-worldly,” addressing the topics of death and leaving friends behind. It was as if Rich knew his accident was coming and wanted his friends to be ready and to have hope.
He also addressed the topics of loss and failure; both were experiences Rich had been intimately familiar with. Rich had loved and lost. He had battled demons and failed sometimes. He was lonely, even in the midst of his great successes and even though he had deep friendships. He was lonely because he was keenly aware that he didn’t belong here.
In 2002, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, his friends gathered in Nashville to host a memorial concert. It was a wonderful night and in between songs, they regaled us with their favorite stories of Rich and his quirky, crazy ways. They spoke of his kindness and his moodiness. His love and his passion, (they are two different things sometimes.) The great Phil Keaggy said something about halfway through the night and it has stayed with me to this day. He said, (I am paraphrasing because I never wrote it down that night) “Rich was truly the most ‘one-foot-on-earth-and –one-foot-in-Heaven person I ever met. He truly was a sojourner here. I don’t think he ever felt like he belonged here, and so he never felt entirely at ease with what this world offers.”
I think this was why Rich could write so honestly. Because he was unfettered by caring very much what people thought about the content. He was a perfectionist with his music, as his friends have told me. He wanted commercial success as any artist would, but he never wanted to alter his art for the sake of that success. The funny thing is, it was that success that gave him the freedom to not care about that success. Because he had produced “hits” for the label, the label let him do things as he wanted to do them.
On “The Jesus Record” there is a marvelous song called “Hard to Get.” To listen to it in full view of Rich’s death, is to feel the chill of wondering if he knew somehow that a fatal car crash was coming. If you loved Rich’s music you can’t help but weep when he sings what seems to be a goodbye and a message to his friends to remember him and that he isn’t far away…just hard to get to. The song is about Jesus, of course, but it’s also about everyone we ever loved who went on before us.
There is a verse toward the end that says this:

And I know You bore our sorrows
And I know You feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we cannot get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

I seldom listen to this song without getting tears in my eyes. Sometimes I sob. I’ve lived this. Especially in the last ten years. In 2007, the industry I worked in began its death spiral. I lost my home that year. I rebounded enough to rent a house and –as did all the others in that field- kept vigil to see if this hiccup was a death rattle. By 2008, we realized it was. By March of 2008, the company I worked for was gone, and by June the industry itself was literally on life support. Over 800,000 people lost their jobs in that industry. 
I began a six year journey of homelessness, because my daughter was in jeopardy at her mother’s house (we had divorced eight years earlier and her new husband was horribly abusive) and I was the only buffer. I made a choice and I paid a high price for it. I did it willingly and I would not have made a different decision because before I am anything else I am her dad.
I endured this hellish existence until May 2014, when we moved here to Virginia and I was hired by my alma mater. The homelessness is over but the memories linger. They haunt me. The good and the bad. The memories before the fall…of my home and our pets and the life I had with my little girl. The memories of the cold nights and the desperation, and the despair. The endless job search, the menial tasks just for gas money, the embarrassment of trying to eat enough food samples at Sam’s Club to make a meal. The shame of being homeless.
I’m reeling from these voices. There are times when I cannot get free from what I’ve left behind. It hurts. I missed six years of normalcy with my daughter. I never missed her important events like recitals and birthdays. I saw her almost daily. But we didn’t have a home back then. She couldn’t come and spend the night like she did before. She needed her daddy to recuse her and I couldn’t. I hear those voices sometimes. I see the things I lost and watch as they burn to cinders before my eyes.
When I was enduring this terrible ordeal, there were so many times when I questioned God’s wisdom. His plan. Was this His plan, or was I somehow relegated to this whole thing on my own? Was He simply watching from some celestial living room, eating popcorn and waiting to see how I’d handle this whole thing? Of course, that’s not the case, but it felt like that sometimes. It felt like He was letting me wander. The truth is that all along He was leading me.
And He has led me here now. Here to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and to a job with my alma mater, and with my daughter here as a now-sophomore music major. He led me to a place where I was finally lost enough to let myself be led. To let Him take over. To stop fighting Him about what I want, and to accept what He has that I need.
In 16 days, the story of this long journey will be released to the world. I don’t know if it will be loved or hated, embraced or rejected, a blessing or a curse. I do hope it helps someone. I do hope it brings hope to others who are stuck in their own desert, wandering aimlessly, looking for a way out.
I especially hope that it marks and end to this longing and puts these voices to silence once and for all. I hope that talking about it and getting input from others will finally shut down this echo chamber of remorse and regret and shame. It still hurts sometimes when I say, “I used to be homeless.” It is still embarrassing. I still wrestle with forgiveness toward those who ignored my plight. I still fear homelessness sometimes.
I have to let that go. I have to let myself live here, where I am now. Not in the back of a Yukon parked on a farm in Franklin, TN.
We all have something, or many things, that keep calling to us from the past. Mistakes, bad choices, character lapses, just plain foolish actions. We’re human. We have to address them and then let them go. We have to step back and realize that He used even these, even our frail humanity, to lead us to where we are right now; lost enough to let Him take over and lead us.

It’s here where we discover that we were all really homeless…and He is leading us home.