Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are You a "Some-of-You?"

The death of a well-known homeless man in a city nearby set me to thinking about my father. I occasionally let my mind drift back to the few memories I have of him and can do so with smiles, the smell of red beans and sauerkraut, the Fort Worth Zoo, the bus station, Yellowstone.  God gives us memory for a reason.

I've always been careful not to try to attach too many meanings to my father's choices and the way he lived his life. I never got to know him well enough to understand what pulled at him and what pulled him down. I just know at some point he reached the bottom and decided to stay there, accepting the limited comfort of familiar surroundings.

I can't remember when my father died. I feel guilty about that, like I should have it written down somewhere. Someone might ask.  The passing of the man who gave me life is no trivial moment. I went to his funeral and I have visited his grave. I can't remember when he was born either, but that isn't really that unusual. People forget birthdays all the time.

Now, my father was not homeless when he died. He lived a simple life in a small apartment with his few possessions near a couple of loyal friends who were drifting towards death alongside him. Daddy's life had narrowed down to those faded buddies, blurred memories, dreams drafted on yellow tablets, cheap cigarettes and cheaper wine, a stray cat in the alley. His addiction to that wine, drawn out over decades, eventually took away his ability to earn, his ability to reason, his ability to interact, his ability to live beyond what was needed to get the next bottle. His "ableness" drained away.

As a young man, I judged him harshly. He had traded his family for Viceroys and $2 wine. Now that I am more mature, I understand how the things we allow to wrap themselves around us like pythons can slowly squeeze us until even small movements become more than we can manage and we become stationary, our arms at our sides and our fingers unavailable to loosen the grip that is stealing away our lives. Our pride keeps our fears inside us and we battle our temptations alone, not realizing that the temptation towards pride may be the most dangerous of all.  "What is happening to me?" we ask . . . but only of ourselves.

In pride we hide.

Those of us whose temptations are less what we put inside ourselves . . . and more what we hide inside ourselves follow a similar path of denial.  Slowly the grip tightens.  The knots and locks put us under limits we could not have perceived.  It's a grim grip.

To be fair, I have judged myself harshly as well.  Those who have also judged me might not realize that.  Self-judgment is usually internalized and hidden, just like the sin that brings us to the point of chastising ourselves.  In shame, we hide from those who might be willing to help us.  In guilt, we hide from God.  It is a dizzying cycle, but the person who suffers with sexual brokenness somehow stays upright and looking good until the tire hits a pothole and sends us flying . . . and we've fallen and we can't get up.  Even then, we usually muffle our cries and creep to the side to check our wounds.

Sexual sins are usually singled out for special attention.  And who wants that?  Hence, the incentive to hide is increased by the reality that the glare of being known would be blinding.  It seems to some that we choose this sin, rather than being hindered in life by something as minor as stealing, lying, gossiping, living a gluttonous lifestyle, coveting or cheating.  I had a pastor tell me once that he was very sure that the reason I was involved in sexual sin -- at the risk of losing my family, my career, my reputation -- was because it was just so much fun.  In my broken state of shame, I denied that I was enjoying myself.  The best I could get from him was an agreement to disagree.

Perhaps there is some truth that the deep and defiling sins start as something pleasurable during our state of ignorance.  The man or woman addicted to porn began with little glimpses.  An adulterous affair begins with a casual conversation over coffee.  The swindler may have started out as clever joker.  The gossip just liked to be in the in crowd.  The slandered craved attention. The glutton just liked a bigger piece of cake.  And the homosexual?  Perhaps he or she just wanted to feel good about themselves and feel loved . . . not knowing that taking the wrong path to acceptance could lead to disastrous rejection and self-hatred.

Sins come with labels.  We could line them up on the shelf:  immoral . . . homosexual . . . thief. . . greedy . . . slanderer . . . swindler . . . wicked . . . adulterer . . . idolater . . . glutton . . . gossip.

How would you like one of those titles before your name?

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.  Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.-- I Corinthians 6:9-11

So, the truth of the matter is that . . . even if the world around us judges our particular sin . . . whatever yours may be . . . in a very harsh and condemning manner that heaps a great deal of hurt on top of the garbage you have buried yourself under (sound familiar?) the end result for those of us who are Christians is the same.  We can be washed.  We can be sanctified.  We can be justified.  In the name of our Lord. We can be among the "some-of-yous" that were.

Grace by faith.

Whether pleasure was in view when we embarked, the trip down the sinful path is always very painful.  Just read Psalm 38.

David's sins made him ill:  "There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities are gone over my head; As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me."

David's sins lead to isolation an rejection:  "My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague; And my kinsmen stand afar off."

David's sins caused him to be persecuted: "For I said, 'May they not rejoice over me, who, when my foot slips, would magnify themselves against me.'"   

And David's sins lead him into depression via guilt and sorrow:  "For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin."

Psalm 38 doesn't say what David's sin was . . . but I sure recognize the repercussions.  Pain . . . sorrow . . . isolation . . . guilt.

But there is good news:  GRACE.

David cries out to God for help and says to God:  "Make haste!"

I've talked to several people lately who are heavily-burdened by the weight of a sin they entered into with full knowledge they were sinning.  Rarely does the sinner not know in advance where he or she is heading.  Later that realization becomes more than a prick of conscience or a tingling warning.  It becomes a tidal wave.  He gives us a way to survive.

Confess.
Ask for forgiveness.
Repent.
Accept God's gift of grace.
Affirm His presence.
Seek His will.
Journey on.

If we allow our sins to cripple us rather than allowing God's grace to restore our confidence and hope . . . our assurance and joy . . . then we will not complete the journey and sin will win.

Yes, sin is horrible and the damage wrought is sometimes almost impossible to repair.  But, it is a great sin indeed if we elevate it to the point where we reject the truth:  "God's grace is greater than my sin."

I don't know if my father knew that or not. He didn't tell me . . . and he didn't write it down.

God Bless,

Thom

(NOTE:  The original artwork above was created by Anita Parsons Byrne.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Your Faith Has Made You Whole"


Sometimes it seems that there was not a life before this struggle, that all of life is wrapped around it, dipped in it, painted with it, squeezed between its beginning and end (?), tainted with it, determined from it, sorted through it, distorted by it.  The pre-struggle days come in brief glimpses -- memories I guess -- but even they seem to play out like a prelude, an intro to the big number.

It's not true, of course.  The years before the sexual abuse were precious to the little boy that was and those who were with him.  I look back and I think I would have liked him and perhaps who he might have been.  He would not have been me -- abuse and abandon change people -- but someone similar I'm sure.  The experience re-directed him, as experiences do.

Fortunately, we are not bound by our experiences.  The victims of horrendous accidents, disease, warfare or violence pick themselves up to see what is left of self -- mind and body and spirit and soul -- and adapt, changed but able, to live their lives in different, maybe even better, ways.  While life allows excuses, they are usually disguised as limits and, in many cases, we choose how bound we will be by them.

I was greatly heartened by a discussion on another blog recently that went on for days, sparked by the question "What If You Don't Change?" The comments that came from the readers are honest and open and, in some cases, gripping.  More than anything else, they are incredibly enlightening about the desire of the believer's heart to please God and be the person He created them to be.  No matter the reason for being drawn into the struggle of sexual brokenness -- and especially same-sex attraction -- so many strugglers refuse to give in for one inescapable reason:  it's not God's design.  Succumbing is the easy route; it ends the struggle.  Striving and believing and discarding and leaving is the harder route, but the only one that leads to sanctification.  It is heartening to see so many of these primarily young people believing in the Word of God and rising to proclaim they will build their lives around it no matter how hard our culture works to lay out an easier path.  Sometimes it requires us to be long-suffering.  Sometimes that suffering almost smothers us and others around us. 

We all know about the woman who knew long-suffering.  Suffering defined her.  For twelve years, she had bled.  Nothing -- no one, no physician -- could ease her pain and humiliation.  There was no cure.  Twelve years.  She asked herself:  "Why can I not live like other women?"  And she asked herself "Why can I not die?"

It was as if she had never seen the glory and the promise of  the sun.  She had only felt the draining, blistering heat.  She had only thirsted for life as the sun bore down upon her . . . but she had never seen it.

It was as if she had never noticed the flowers . . . only the weeds in her world's cracked, dry ground.  She had never known the precious softness of the petals, the sweet perfume of the perfect bloom.  No, her life was thorns and thistles . . . not blooms.

All she knew of life was that each day was worse than the one before.

And then . . . He came.

She was just one among the gathering crowd.  She would never be noticed.  But suddenly she knew with all her heart that if she could just move closer, just reach out and touch the hem of His garment, her suffering would end.  The current of blood would cease to flow.  Her fruitless search for a healing physician could end with that timid touch.

Faith flowed through her body as she fingered that fabric . . . and the bleeding stopped that instant.  She was healed in an instant.  She thought her soul would burst with joy.  But then, in the midst of that crushing crowd, He stopped, He turned, and she thought she would die.

"Who touched my clothes?" He asked gently.

She was horrified.  She wanted to shrink, to disappear among the grains of hot sand on which she lay at His feet, trembling.  She wanted never to have been . . . not to have had eyes to see That Man . . . never to have had a heart to beat so uncontrollably in His presence.

"Who touched me?" He asked again, as gently as before.

Then her eyes met His.  Eyes so filled with love they overflowed into her own to see inside and wash away the years of painful sobbing.  And she felt pure.

Despite her trembling, she told Him her story.  That it was she who touched Him. Despite the loudness of the crowd, He listened to every word.

"Your faith has made you whole," He said.  "Go in peace and suffer no more."

Her faith.  His touch.

Her heart, which beat uncontrollably out of fear only a moment before, still beat uncontrollably, but out of joy now -- the joy that flooded her soul as fear left her in the presence of Jesus.

And her soul?  That tired shadow of a weary, regrettable life?  In that touch . . . that soul became brand new.  It crossed a burning desert to drink cool water from a well so deep it can't be measured.  Twelve years of suffering became as nothing.  It was over.  Now she could see the sun.  Now she could smell the sweet fragrance of the perfect flower.  The dusty dry sands of her life became the rich, moist soil of a new fertile garden.

All because of that tender, timid touch.  He was there . . . she reached out . . . and He turned to her.  He knew all her pain . . . all her problems . . . all her sorrows . . . all her needs.  He knew all . . . and He touched her.

"In an instant."  Oh how I wish that were my story.

When my sons and my daughter found out about my sexual struggle and my wallowing in the sinful acting out of my addiction, I went swiftly from pain to panic . . . I lied and rushed right into repair.  Too swiftly.  Having declared my own "hem of the garment" experience, I went rapidly into rebuild mode.  When I fell again, the next "R" word for me was ridicule.  There's another:  regret.  Regret that in using the story I damaged in their minds the truth of this woman's suffering and the reality of her healing.

When I was confronted about my sexual sin, I saw in an instant the possibility that my life might crumble and my very-strong survival instinct kicked in fast.  What about my career? My marriage?  My children? Clearly questions I should have pondered more deeply and much earlier.   Admitting to same-sex attraction . . . admitting to sending e-mails and making phone calls . . . admitting to having actually met men -- even though I was that married father of five -- seemed like a mountain too high to climb . . . unless I intended to jump off when I reached the top. So, I lied. I believed the lie would buy me time to conquer my problem once-and-for-all, repair all the damage, reconstruct the relationships and carry on with life. I lied out of fear.


I lied because I believed in time I could reestablish truth and carry on with life. I lied because I believed I could finally face the reality that my same-sex attraction was reaching a consuming point that made it to hard to keep it in the shadows, and I believed that since I could finally face it, I could finally defeat it. I lied to protect myself, but I also lied because I wanted to keep the things I thought I might lose, my sons and my daughter and, most of all, my wife. I lied to others because I believed in myself. My "self" let me down.



Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, -- Colossians 3:9-10
I had everything to lose and nothing to gain, I believed, by telling the truth.

In the end, I lied because I wanted to be someone else and not myself.  I asked myself,  "Why can I not just be like other men?"  And I even asked myself,  "Why can I not die?"

Most people who struggle with unwanted sexual brokenness believe the struggle will end before it hurts too many people beyond themselves.  The struggler's energy goes into covering up, recovering from guilt, trying to maintain composure, and sometimes into concocting elaborate lies to buy time to overcome, to claim that elusive victory. Energy that should go into the struggle itself is consumed by the overwhelming labor of deception. The struggler can become double-minded; develop an alter-ego; maintain two existences and worry all the time that one is seeping into the other.

A person who struggles does not just "accept." Some see the struggler as using the life he shows -- church, family, career -- to enable the life he hides, a life some think he would prefer if he were not trapped by his past decisions. Decisions like salvation, marriage, fatherhood. Those who do not struggle often believe the struggler should just face reality and stop doing what he knows is wrong. It's that simple.

I wish it was. 

I don't know if my relationship to my children will ever be restored.  That lies with them more now than me, and is a complicated mish-mash of forgiveness and trust. 

But . . . just as there was life before this struggle -- a little boy I think I would have liked to know -- there is a life after it -- a man I hope to know for certain. 

It's a matter of faith.  My faith.  His touch.

It is not too late for those who struggle to see what is left of self -- mind and body and spirit and soul -- and adapt, changed but able, to different ways.

God Bless,

Thom




Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hello Darkness My Old Friend



He reveals deep and hidden things;
       He knows what lies in darkness,
       and light dwells with Him. -- Daniel 2:22


Here we are again, almost at the mercy of the months when darkness descends before dinner, drivers head home with headlights on, our two black dogs become just pairs of eyes waiting to be fed in the black of night and the cars on the road far below become visible again through the leafless trees.  My current debate is whether to be really  macho and take the chainsaw down to the woods to gather up a season of firewood . . . or just drive the pickup to the firewood lot and load up a rick for the season. 

I don't like the dark anymore.

Not that I ever really "liked" the dark, but I was way too comfortable there.  And not that the dark is always bad. We just have a way of making it so.

When I was a little boy, dark was fascinating.  June bugs dive-bombing under the corner streetlight, drawn to it from the dark.  Hide-and-seek through neighbors' backyards, dimly lit by porch lights.  Tents pitched beneath a summer moon. The glow of the tip of my father's cigarette at the edge of the driveway.  A shooting star in a dark, but speckled sky.

As appealing as the dark of night was, it was the glow that made it inviting: yellow bulbs on back porches or poles, glowing campfires, burning ashes, streaking meteors, the orange, white or yellow moon in shifting shapes.  Without these intruding lights, there would have been no shadows even to lend interest to the enveloping and shrouding dark.  I guess, actually, that darkness is with us year round; it knows no season.

One December night when I was a boy, as I walked home in the dark from a convenience store in a Houston suburb, I came upon a scene illuminated by one lone bulb.  A man -- all in black from shoes to gloves -- emerging hurriedly from an apartment.  His exit was preceded by a scream from behind the door.  I was alone.  He was alone.  He stopped. I stopped.  We locked eyes for one short moment and I dashed into the night, down a dark alley between buildings and raced home to my family and the brightness of our living room.  Busy parents brushed aside my tale of darkness, but my sisters' eyes grew wide with the details.

About 20 minutes after I arrived home, we heard Christmas carolers in front of the door and ran to throw it open. There stood a group of singers -- one of them the man, dressed in black.  Once again, our eyes locked.  I shrank back into the room, the song ended, the door closed, the group moved on.

"He knows where I live."

No, I never saw the man again.  I can't remember now if a woman was murdered in the apartment down the street or if we made that up among our friends in the neighborhood.  But I know I never felt the same about the dark again.  It became to me a place mysterious, a place where things often are not as they really seem, where what is not seen is filled in with imaginings.

A person who struggles with sexual brokenness knows darkness and light.  He or she knows what is supposed to be . . . but is far too familiar with what often is.  The disconnect between what we should and could do . . . and what we've done.  The clarity of the light; the confusion of the dark.  The true satisfaction; the dishonest distraction.  Like those June bugs, we have greeted the morning light near death on the sidewalk, worn out from going no-where, needing to be righted again so we can crawl away.

I wish everyone who struggles with any form of sexual brokenness -- homosexuality, sexual addiction, pornography, idolatry, relational problems -- could walk once and for all into the light and have all that darkness permanently chased away from our lives without so much as casting a shadow of our former darkness.  Who chooses, really, to struggle?  What's the fun of tripping in the darkness?  Where's the satisfaction in being scorned for falling short?  Yes, the Bible tells us that we will have trouble, but can we not have some choice in the matter?

All of us who struggle would like to think our last call into darkness -- whether we went there or not -- was the final one.  We want to proclaim a total overcoming, a permanent move to the light.  "I'm cured!"  No more temptation; no more disastrous falls; no more painful failings.  For some, Praise God, that may be so.  After all, all things are possible with God.  But, if all things are possible, then the possibilities are also endless.  And it may be that the possibility for you is to endure and continue running strong in the Grace of God rather than immediately break the tape and proceed to the winner's circle.

So, how should we handle the darkness if it lures us again and we start to forget again that we are designed to walk in the light, as He is in the light?

First of all:  don't panic.  You've been there before.  The darkness should not overwhelm you.  Panic is an expression of hopelessness. Prayer is a confirmation of your hopefulness.  Replace the panic with the prayer.  Panic requires immediate response; prayer waits. Panic denies control; prayer yields control.

Secondly:  break the silence.  Someone somewhere needs to know about your struggle.  Pray that God will reveal to you someone you can trust, a Christian friend, pastor, counselor, who can and will walk with you.  And it needs to be someone who means it, who is in for the long haul, who loves you enough to stay beside you even if you stumble into darkness again. This person will help hold the light and lead you back out.

Thirdly:  Run "to," not "away."  God is not unaware of you in your darkness.  You may fool some of the people some of the time, but you fool God none of the time.  You can't run or hide.  You may not remember when you were a little one and you would step on a sticker or see a spider or not notice when your mom or dad had turned a corner in a grocery store and you were suddenly all alone.  When it happened, your hands would go up, your voice would cry out and your feet would move.  Your focus was all on getting back to where it was safe.  Running "to."

Fourthly:  Confess, repent . . . and rise.  Okay, that's three things, but they all work together for good, for restoration, for strength, for preparation.  And they chase away darkness.

We have a God that outlasts every disaster into which we fall, every deed with which we undo ourselves. We have a Savior who is stronger than all our temptations and a stranger to none of them.  Our weaknesses are not greater than His strength.

Our darkness is not deeper than His light.

God Bless,

Thom

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Searching for My Inner Onion


I know the journey seems so long.
You feel you're walking on your own.
But there has never been a step
Where you've walked out all alone.

Troubled soul don't lose your heart,
Cause joy and peace He brings.
And the beauty that's in store,
Outweighs the hurt of life's sting.
There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears.
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more, we'll see Jesus face to face.
But until that day, we'll hold on to You always. 
-- Jeremy Camp, "There Will be a Day"



It seems like I have always worked, from walking neighborhoods door-to-door after grade school selling donuts, to roller-skating as a Sonic carhop, to re-writing a cattle-breeder's guide, to teaching school, to publishing newspapers, to two decades in management at AT&T, to the current borderline-starvation plan as a freelance writer.  Work.  It's what we do as people.

God worked.  He created the heavens and the earth, and in Genesis, it says His work was "very good."  Adam and Eve worked.  They tended the garden before the Fall and then worked a bit harder on the outside afterward, so I guess we can't blame "work" on "the fall,"  Noah worked hard building the Ark.  Moses worked like crazy and, more than once, probably thought "and this is the thanks I get?"

I've had a lot of jobs.  I think one of my favorites will always be as the onion ring maker at the Sonic.  I still have the recipe and I still make those rings at home, the old-fashioned Sonic way.  I remember the backbreaking work of hauling the huge bags of onions out of the pantry, sorting them out, peeling away the outer inedible layers, slicing the onions into just the right widths and then separating each layer of the ring, dipping the rings in the coatings, stacking them in neat rows on the trays, placing the trays in the walk-in cooler . . . dozens of trays, thousands of rings.  By the next morning, all would have hit the deep-fat fryer and then the waistlines of the frequent indulgers, and we'd start all over again.

I remember the big knife I would use to slice the onions and, more than once, my fingers, which would then burn from the onion juice.  I remember the flour and milk and water and cracker meal that would build up on my hands and apron and coat the table and everything nearby, making an incredible mess.  I remember a few burns from grease splashing as we'd toss the rings into the hot oil, turning mushy cold nothings into golden, brown, crunchy, addictive, near-perfect onion rings.  I remember trying to scrub the onion smell out of my hands at night, knowing it would still be faint in the morning when I went to school.

But I remember most of all the tears. You can't peel and separate the layers of hundreds of onions without crying a few tears in the process.  I would try.  I thought I might develop some immunity, but it never happened.  The sting of the onion's odor would bring me to tears every time.

My life is like one of those onions.  It has a lot of layers.  It has really smelled.  It's produced a lot of tears . . . and it's really hard to clean up the incredible messes. I more often resemble the un-assembled and unattractive ingredients -- the mushy cold nothings -- and fall far short of the golden rings.

When an order of rings arrives at the window of the car, the diner doesn't know or think or really care about the process that went on to create the finished product, beginning with peeling of that first layer of dead, dry, flaky onion skin.  And I realize that when God completes His work in me that few will know of the painstaking process.  Some will because they will have personally partaken of it.  They will have experienced the tears that came with the peeling away of the layers.

I don't feel too golden today.  I feel a little bit like the little middle part of the onion that is too small to be an onion ring and gets chopped up and tossed on a burger instead, slimed with mustard and ketchup, buried beneath a pickle and a tomato, producing bad breath.  No oohs and aahs.  No one fights over the last bit of chopped onion.

I would rather be an ice cream sundae, but I turned out to be an onion.  Doesn't mean I can't be sanctified.  Our position on the menu doesn't determine our significance in God's plan.

I know that people are looking at my life day-to-day -- and have been for a good long period now -- for evidence.  Evidence of repentance.  Evidence of true faith.  Evidence of obedience.  Evidence of eradication. Evidence of resistance.  Evidence of a changed heart.  Evidence of His presence in my life. Evidence that I love God more than I love the world.  Evidence that I truly love them.

Evidence convicts . . . and evidence frees.  Evidence can be uncovered one layer a time, as life is peeled away and we are revealed as we truly are.  It's a painful process, but there seems to be no other way to become than to first be pulled apart, at least for me.

Peel away the past.  Peel away the excuses.  Peel away the justifications.  Peel away the anger.  Peel away the blaming.  Peel away the neediness.  Peel away the self-absorbed reflection.  Peel away the woefulness.  Peel away the emptiness.  Peel away the desires.  Peel away the stubbornness.  Peel away the hate . . . the fear . . . the self-loathing.  Gee whiz . . . no wonder it takes me so long to get down to the bare inner onion.  I built a lot of layers before I got tossed into the bag for processing.

Maybe I'm just hungry and that's lead me to all these tasty metaphors.  Or maybe, just maybe, I still hope and pray that God will take this mushy mess and make something golden out of it, building new layers out of repentance and redemption and restoration and truth and hope and faith and love and self-control and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness.  I don't know . . . can an onion be a fruit?

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. -- 2 Peter 1:3-4

I know that God truly has provided everything I need.  And many of the things I have given away through my sinfulness, He may yet restore.

I am hungry . . . 

I'll always remember the tears.

God Bless,

Thom