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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Boys Who Can't Be Sons

Three weeks ago, a friend and co-worker invited me to do a study together using Henri Nouwen’s book “Discernment.”
My friend had discovered Nouwen while doing some reading for a project he is working on here, and he was captivated by the Canadian mystic priest. I had been familiar with Nouwen, because he had such an influence on Brennan Manning, and my love for Manning is well documented here. Brennan quoted Henri often, and I followed that reading with some skimming through his works as well.
This is the first of his books I have ever actually endeavored to read through. I am enjoying it tremendously. Nouwen was a pilgrim, as we all are, but more willing to reveal his struggles and stumbles. I would admit that his Catholicism sometimes causes me to re-read a section, and think it through, and make sure it doesn’t conflict with my moderately Protestant theological bent. I have yet to read a selection and think, “Now that I can’t abide…”
Yesterday, after reading chapter two of this book, Nathan and I talked through the discussion questions at the end. We both found ourselves pausing at one question: 
Can you name persistent challenges in your life that keep you in need of discernment and guidance?”
Nathan asked me the question first, and my answer seemed to flow out of me, almost catching me by surprise. It was something I knew, deep in my heart, but had never verbalized. At least not to another human being. I think I may have prayed about this problem of mine, privately. But that I can recall, my friend Nathan is the first person I’ve ever said these words to.
I told him that, looking back on my life, I struggle with trust. I don't place my trust in God. For as long as I can remember, I have taken care of myself. When I was 7 and played Little League for the first time, the registration fee of $15 was too much for my parent’s pockets. It’s not that we didn’t have $15, because we did. We were very lower middle class, but we weren’t poor. It’s just that where I was concerned, it wasn’t a priority. It was always like this.
My mother and father never married, and I was raised believing that my mother’s husband, whom she married when I was almost five, was my father. There was no connection, no bond. In fact, the emotion I felt most deeply toward him was dread fear. I was afraid of him. Not respect…dread. I thought he’d snap one day and take out whatever it was that made him so mean, on me.
So, the next year, when Little League dues came around, I’d already been saving. I cut grass for a couple of my neighbors and I earned my own money. I bought my own baseball glove that way too. I’ve owned five baseball gloves in my life and none of them had any sort of emotional attachment. My stepfather never gave me any of them, and other than one time that I can recall, we never had a catch.
I have no memories of a father-son relationship. Neither with my step father, and obviously not with my biological father. He doesn’t recognize me as his child and desires no relationship at all. It is what it is, and I’ve dealt with it as best I can and refuse to give it anymore of my time and energy.
 But this lack of a father-son bond has produced some sweet and sour results. On the one hand, I knew, very early on, that nobody was going to help me. Not in any of the things that a young boy, or later a man, could use help from his dad with. There was never an encouraging voice on the sidelines at any of my sporting events. Never. Not once. There was never a dad, in the backyard, teaching me the curveball, or showing me how to change the oil in a car. I stopped even asking him by the time I was about 9 years old, and being a smart kid, I researched those things and learned for myself.
It made me industrious and gave me a broad set of life skills. I absorbed the essentials of manhood from other boy’s dads. I learned how to really shake a man’s hand, from shaking the massive, garden-shovel-sized hand of Harry Flohr, a pillar in the church I grew up in. I learned about working on cars from the guy across the street and from Ken Winward’s dad, Ken Sr. who races an alcohol dragster, and who welcomed me into the gang when I was still in high school.
I learned from my coaches, and from the dads of my friends, how to be manly, how to treat a lady, when a joke was going too far, how to keep your word. I learned from Bob DuHadaway and Poppa John Iorizzo, how to be a good dad. Thankfully, I was surrounded by enough good, decent, men of character, that what I needed to know about being a man, and about being a father, I learned. But there was one thing that none of them could show me. One thing that no other man on earth could teach me except my dad, and he simply decided never to do it. And this one thing has crippled me since as far back as I can remember.
I don’t know how to be a son.
The Bible makes constant reference to God being our Father. The Lord’s prayer -Jesus’ model for prayer for his disciples—begins with the line: “Our Father, who is in Heaven…”  Paul talks about the “Spirit of adoption, by which we call God our Abba” (The Hebrew equivalent for “Pappa”). David writes a single line in Psalm 31:6 that says, “Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” “Make your face shine…” is a wonderful Hebrew alliteration. It means to smile at, or to “beam with pride.” David was saying, “Look at me with beaming pride. Let the very sight of me bring a smile to your face…then move on my behalf.”
It’s what God’s face surely must have looked like, that morning at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, and the sky was torn open, and God’s voice boomed: “This is my much-loved Son...He makes me happy!”
I have never seen my father smile at me. I don’t know what it looks like to see pride for his son radiating from his eyes. I’ve never felt his arm on my shoulder. I’ve never heard him say “I’m proud of you. I’m proud to just be your dad.” I’ve never brought a smile to his face, simply by being myself in his presence. This is the basis of the truth I spoke to Nathan yesterday when I told him; “I don’t know what it’s like to be a son.”
Just now as I typed those words, hot tears came to my eyes. It’s true, and it has shaped my life from as far back as I can recall. I have no idea what it feels like to be someone’s son. I have never rounded the bases after belting a homerun and seen my dad in the stands, slapping another dad on the back and saying: “That’s my son!”
There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Invincible” where Vince Papale is playing in his first home game as an Eagle. His dad and some friends have gathered in Max’s Bar, where they all went for beers and pool. Vince’s dad’s name was “Kingie” and he was a tough, hardened man, played brilliantly by Kevin Conway. Kingie loved his son, but in that hardnosed, post-WWII way of another generation. There is a scene where, after Vince makes a tremendous play on a punt return and scored a touchdown, Max, the bar owner, walks over to where Kingie is sitting at the bar and says; “That’s your boy, Kingie…” Conway’s character smiles with the sort of pride and love that those hardened men of that generation tend to stuff down deep inside them. It seldom shows, but when it does, it is an amazing thing. Kingie is teary-eyed and can only shake his head and acknowledge the immense pride in his boy…now a real Philadelphia Eagle.
I’ve never known that. I’ve never had my dad tell me I was a good man, or a good dad, or call to offer advice. We’ve never shared moments as a father and son. I have no archetype with which to formulate a prayer life, and approach God as a loving, benevolent Father. Those words are meaningless to me. I can’t find an emotion in all my life history that resembles that. Nothing from which to draw a similarity and say “Oh…it feels like that.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a son.
I think that I call God “Father” because He says He is, and because I at least know how to be a dad, and oftentimes I simply assume that He’s just like me…only better. Surely this sells Him short, but I have no idea how to change the image I have in my head. I’ve never been someone’s “little boy.” I can’t even imagine it.
There is a consequence to every action, every decision. My father’s decision not to be my father, and my stepfather’s decision to marry a woman with a child he could not love, resulted in a man who does not know how to be a son. This is the prism through which I view God and it has marked my life of Faith from the moment I first became a believer.
I don’t know how to change it. I don’t know how to battle the voices of doubt when I pray “Father God…” I don’t know what sort of emotions I am supposed to feel when I come to Him as a Father.
Because I don’t know how to be a son.

Monday, March 12, 2018

"Please Daddy Make Them Stop" How Fatherhood taught me about God's love in Painful Times

It started with a phone call in March of 2008.
I was sitting in my office in Franklin, TN where I had lived for seventeen years. I operated the local branch of the largest privately funded mortgage company in the United States. I worked hard, had been very successful and won numerous awards and recognition by our home office.
But beginning in July of the year before, things had begun to slow down. There were rumblings within the industry and they became an earthquake. I had not closed a loan since October of 2007. Applications kept coming in, but fear had gripped the industry and loans simply weren’t being approved like they once were.
By March the decision had been made to close my office. I had been living off savings for almost six months. By May 2008…I’d lost my home.
This began a long, six-year journey through the darkest days of my life.
My daughter was ten years old when this happened. Her om and I had divorced in 1999 and I was content being a single dad and devoting myself to my only child. She was all the family I had, and I was happiest just spending every moment I could with her.
I had a modest house in the country, on five acres. We had a garden where we planted vegetables. On cottony summer nights, we chased lightning bugs and kept them in a mayonnaise jar in her room. We had two beloved Springer Spaniels – Bonnie and Cooper—and a precocious cat named Giacomo. I felt alive on those every-other-weekend visits and for the two months in the summer when she stayed with me full time. She was, and is, my world.
Yet in May 2008, the rest of that world of mine began to unravel. My daughter had a place to live -her mom had remarried several years before—but losing my home meant not having a place for her to come for the weekend anymore. Making matters worse, her mom’s husband had returned to his chemical dependency and my daughter was enduring horrors on an almost daily basis.
I couldn’t find work in Nashville and I couldn’t leave, because my little girl needed me.
So, I stayed.
Staying meant sleeping in my car, hidden behind a church on Franklin Road in Nashville. It meant showering at the county recreation center, and sometimes making a meal out of the sample kiosks at the grocery store. It meant working every odd job I could find and still not having enough for more than a tank of gas and a meal every day or so.
But I stayed because she needed me. Her life was a nightmare and I was the only barrier between her mom’s abusive husband and my daughter. So, I stayed.
I have been asked many times, how this affected my faith. Did I question God? Did I shake my fist at Heaven and curse under my breath? I’ve had folks ask me if it was somehow a mystical period of isolation with God, where I heard only his voice and drew closer to Him, like a mendicant. I’ve been told that I was being punished for some unknown sin and I’ve heard I’d been especially selected for a lonely walk with only God as my companion. My answer to all these is… “Yes.”
Yes, it affected my Faith. Sometimes for the worse, much of the time for the better. It stripped it down. It forced me to ask questions that I had always wondered about but never asked. It taught me about suffering. It taught me about gratitude. Mostly…it taught me that God will permit the painful things in our life because they so often result in our betterment. So much good came out of my six years of homelessness.
My daughter saw, beyond a doubt, that literally nothing short of death would separate her from her daddy. That no matter what it meant to me personally, or how much it cost me in terms of money or comfort, I would always be there when she needed me. Always.
I learned so much about homelessness. So much about what it does to a person’s soul. How lonely it is. How soul crushing that loneliness and isolation is and what it does to you long-term. Things I’ve used when I’ve spoken to other homeless men. Lessons forged in a fire only they understand.
I learned the truth behind one of my very favorite quotes. Something that Dr. Falwell used to tell us at least once a week when I was a residential student at Liberty University many years ago. He would say; “You do not determine a man’s greatness by his talent or wealth, the way the world does. But by what it takes to discourage him.” He sometimes said it this way: “You don’t measure a man by what it takes to knock him down, but by what it takes to keep him down.” I learned that it takes a lot to keep me down. During that six-year period, I completed my bachelor’s and walked across that stage to get my degree…while still homeless. I rediscovered my love for writing and have published six books now. I met one of my heroes, Zig Ziglar and have become friends with his family.
In 2014 I was hired by Liberty and I work here in Virginia now. My daughter lives with me and is a music major.
But sometimes I still wonder why. Why? Why did I have to lose my career and my house and six years of weekends with my daughter? Some answers I’ve found over time, but in my quiet moments I still wonder why.
I was thinking of this last week as I was pondering this article. I remembered a story from my daughter’s childhood. She was four years old and had contracted a strep infection on her skin. You couldn’t even see the rash, it was invisible. You could feel it, but just barely. It felt delicate but rough…like a kitten’s tongue.
She didn’t respond to oral antibiotics and the pediatrician was concerned and eventually they admitted her to Vanderbilt Children’s hospital. The course of treatment was simply going to be four days of IV antibiotics along with assessment by an epidemiologist.
Her mom and I took her in to Vandy around 2pm on a Monday afternoon. I was tasked with, maybe the toughest thing I’ve had to do as a dad. I had to hold her down while they inserted and IV needle into her leg. My daughter was and is a daddy’s girl and she trusted me then as she does now. She knows I won’t let anything hurt her. But that day…I had to. I had to hold her while she cried and begged me “Daddy make them stop” as they placed the needle in her leg. She cried. And her 6’ 4” 250-pound, college hockey player daddy cried too. But I turned my head, so she couldn’t see my tears. I had to be strong. I had to let her feel a little pain, in order to avoid the greater pain of an untreated infection.
I was thinking about this last week and it made me cry with each memory. But I suddenly thought how this was so much like what God had to do during my six years living in my car. He knew the plan, but I did not. So, when I cried out to Him; “Daddy make them stop hurting me…” He too had to turn His head and keep me in place until the process was through. I lost so much but then, I gained so much. Would I ever want to go through it again? No. But would I go back, and undo do it if I could somehow? I can say confidently…No!
So often we can’t see anything but the darkness we are trapped in, and we can’t see God working. We wonder why He isn’t making the pain stop or taking away the troubles. But just as I had to do with my little girl, He is always…only, letting things happen for our good. Even when they don’t seem that way. He is still our Father, He is only wanting the best for us. And, I believe, sometimes our temporary pain hurts Him worse than it hurts us. But remember…just as it was love for my daughter that made me hold her while she felt pain, it is His love for you that will bear you up and get you through to the day of victory. Trust in His love.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Story From Our Homelessness

A story from when I was homeless: My homelessness started in May 2008. Daisy would spend June and July with me every year, that was our divorce arrangement. (Beside the usual Once a week and every other weekend) That first summer, a friend let us stay in a nice loft room he had over a barn on his property. It wasn't home, but it was better than not seeing her. It had a shower and a TV and some couches. We slept on the floor on air mattresses. She had just turned ten, and didn't understand what had happened to our house or to my job. I didn't want to trouble her with it so I explained the little I could and let her go on being a little girl. One weekend, she went to stay overnight with her friend Shirley Puinno. Shirley's mom had a yard sale that particular weekend and Daisy found two framed sketches of kittens. She brought them home with her when I picked her up on Sunday. The next morning, I woke early, as I always do, and sat there looking at our situation. I was living in a friend's loft, sleeping on air mattresses, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. I looked across the room to where Daisy was asleep on her air mattress and I spotted those two pictures in their frames, propped against the wall near her head. She didn't have bedroom with a wall to hang them on, so she leaned them there before she went to sleep. I had to go outside because I was sobbing and didn't want to wake her. That was a low point for me. There would be many others. If my homelessness had ended right there it would have been painful enough a memory for the rest of my life. But it wasn't. It had only begun. I kept those pictures. They're in my storage shed. My goal is to hang them in our house one day. That's why I'm trying so hard for this house. To finally have something of our own again after ten years. We've talked about planting another vegetable garden like we used to. Having a fenced-in yard for our dogs. Being able to wash our cars without needing a pocketful of quarters. Having neighbors that aren't transient and are separated by more than four inches of studs and drywall. Please keep praying that this happens for us. It's much more than just buying a house.