Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Storm Rages.

The white flashes light up the eastern sky as lightning bolts arc across the darkness. The heat from the past several days are colliding with the cooler air on the snow capped peaks and the result is the lightning storm that is displaying itself in all of its glory tonight. While the storm rages in the mountains outside, a different kind of storm is raging in me.

Some days being a convicted felon are harder than others, and it seems like today was one of those. It wasn't any one specific thing, but rather it was simply a re-awareness of loss...and restriction. And it wasn't just things that happened today...I just felt it more today than I do on most days.

When most people think of least this how I used to think before I was that they go to prison, pay their penalty to society, get out and move on with their lives. Oh, we know from our greatest source of information on felons (TV and the movies) that they can't associate with other felons and they can't have a gun, but other than that, who really thinks about what their life is like? I know I never did.

I just got off the phone with my sister. It was a fun conversation and I loved hearing the excitement in her voice as she talked about the trip she is taking tomorrow. She and a teaching friend are on their way to Scotland for 10 days. I remember when our daughter was in college and she had the opportunity to go to Scotland for a semester to work with handicapped kids. Paula and I talked about how exciting it would be to go over and visit her, and I even saved up money for Paula to be able to go for a week. She chose not to, but the opportunity was there. We always knew that one day we would do that.

Last Monday evening, my younger brother Geoff and his wife called. They had just spent the previous week on vacation in Mexico...Baja California actually on the Sea of Cortez. They belong to one of the those condo organizations where they can spend vacations in many places around the world, and they have really enjoyed this particular place in Mexico. They had called to tell me that Geoff had 21 new stitches in his body from an accident that he had one a four-wheel ATV. He got thrown off and tore a pretty good gash in his arm and bruised him up pretty good. But thank God, there was no serious injury and no permanent damage.

I had breakfast with my older brother Frank about three weeks ago. We were celebrating his 54th birthday a week late. He and his wife had spent his birthday weekend in San Diego with his son Jon and his wife. They had a wonderful time and Frank shared the memories with me of some of the adventures they had while he was on the vacation.

Tonight, I sat in a church service and tears burned my eyes and streamed down my face like they haven't for a long time. The teens from the church had been at their summer church camp this week and there were about 25 of them lined across the front of the alter sharing their testimonies. Some were so powerful as they shared how they met Christ for the very first time. Many had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues for the first time. One young man broke my heart as he told how only last year summer, he got home and found it filled with police officers. He kept looking around for his mom and she was no where to be seen. Finally an officer came over and told him and his sister that their father had murdered their mother earlier that day. He shared the anger that he felt and how he had met Jesus that week and camp and how he was released from the anger and pain he felt. I just wanted to hold him and tell him that Jesus does indeed love him and that there are many in the church who will continue to pray for him and his sister.

As the service came to a close, the pastor called all of the young kids back up to the alter and invited the congregation to go up and be prayed for by these kids who were on fire for the Lord. Or, if we felt led by God, to go up and pray for these kids who face unbelievable tests and temptations in this world that they live in. All I could do was stand there and weep. I couldn't go forward. I couldn't go up there and let these young people who were on fire for God pray for me...and I couldn't lay hands on them and pray for them either. So I stood at my chair, with my hands lifted to Heaven...singing and praying and crying...not only for them, but also for me.

My pain today is all about restriction. I'm not saying that my restrictions aren't deserved. I made a terrible choice in life and I have to pay the consequences for it. But, it is nonetheless painful. I'm not allowed to do something as simple as travelling over the mountain to see my ex-wife without two weeks prior notice to my probation officer and a strict itinerary of where I'm going and who I'm going to be with. I may never be able to take a trip to Scotland, or even to Mexico because it may be that I can't get a passport now that I'm a felon. Dreams of travelling to Europe, or the Middle East to walk where Christ walked, or take a trip to the Caribbean or even to Canada are only that...dreams. While I am excited and happy when I hear stories from those who travel, it is difficult to know that I may never be able to do some of those things.

My entire adult life has been about kids. I worked as an educator for 25 years and my life was dedicated helping prepare kids for a future none of us can really predict. I didn't really know Christ as a child myself, and even though I gave my life to Him after reading the Bible when I was a teenager, I didn't get to know Him in a personal way until the last five years. So, whenever I hear teenagers share their testimony, my heart is moved in an extremely deep way. Many times, the stories that the kids share are of unbelievable pain and sadness and my heart is broken. What is different today is that before I was arrested, I could talk to those kids and pray with them or share how excited I was for them at how God was working in their lives and the healing that they were receiving. My restrictions now don't allow me to engage a kid in conversation. "Don't engage, don't prolong!" That's the rule I have to live by when it comes to anyone under the age of 18. tonight at church...that rule is more painful than the three years I spent in prison. There is an aching in my heart that no medicine can relieve!

God is merciful that I don't have to spend many days like today. He has blessed me in remarkable ways and I thank Him everyday for the gifts and grace He has shown me. But once in a while I feel overwhelmed. But like the storm that sends out its bolts of lightning in the mountains to the east tonight, this day and the storm in my soul will pass.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"I've Got A Mansion..."

"I've got a mansion, just over the hilltop
In that bright land where, we'll never grow old.
And some day yonder, we will never more wander
But walk on streets that, are purest gold!"

The words to the chorus of that old hymn are resonating in my mind today...for so many reasons. Today, I feel like I'm living in a mansion. I'm sitting here today on this overcast Saturday afternoon in my own "home". I'm reclining on my couch with blinds pulled up with my view to the southeast. Mt. Rainier is trying futilely to peek out from beneath the clouds in a losing cause. On a clear day, the view from the RV park here on the top of the hill provides one of the most beautiful views of the mountain I have ever seen. But today, I don't really care. I can sit here, in my little living room everyday and look for the snow capped peaks. I know one day, the clouds will lift and the mountain will stand there in all its glory. The view, and the living conditions, are so different from where I was only a year ago.

"Tho often tempted, tormented and tested
And like a prophet, my pillow a stone.
And tho I find here, no permanent dwelling
I know He'll give me, a mansion my own"

The view from my room in "that place" was obstructed by steel bars, extending vertically to the heavens, though I was in a living hell. The walls of concrete block would occasionally "sweat" when they had the air conditioning set extremely low in a futile attempt to quell the 100+ temperature outside. Outside my window, the dirt yard extended up to the ten foot fence with its crown of razor wire. Beyond that, a dirt road and another barrier to keep me in. An adventurous rabbit would occasionally meander across that stretch of dirt, looking for shade behind a fire hydrant or cooling unit. The burrowing owls would remain in their holes during the heat of the day, only to come out at night.

Across the room of my ten foot by ten foot "house" here, my room mate Ray would sit and stare at his list of for each day he had to stay in this place. Or he would lose himself in a mindless novel (that he would of course share with me after he was finished), just to pass the time. My "cubie" was legally deaf, and had been since he was a young child. He is an incredibly generous man and one that I proudly call "friend". He used to wear his hearing aids all of the time but they stopped working. The authorities here won't replace them and won't let him send them out to get repaired at his own cost. So...he spends his time here trying to function through what must be a horrendous silence or blur of noises.

The 100 square feet of space that I can call my own here has no ceiling of its own, just six foot high walls. My neighbor in the next cube lays on the upper bunk of his bed, reading and occasionally looking over to see if anything exciting is happening in our cube. Across the hallway and down a few cubes, one of the "illegal's"waiting for deportation is cutting and dicing vegetables for some kind of exotic microwave meal. The laughter and occasional swear word drift from the day room where men are watching TV or playing "slam" dominoes. I sit in my own plastic chair, resting my feet against the gray door of my locker where I store the extent of my possessions. A half dozen Bibles, three sets of clothes and a couple of threadbare towels fill up most of the space.

"Don't think me poor or, deserted or lonely
I'm not discouraged, I'm Heaven bound
I'm just a pilgrim, in search of that city
I want a mansion, a harp and a crown."

When I was released from prison near the end of last summer, my Pastor here let me move into his motor home until I was able to get my feet back on the ground. He and his wife had bought it when they retired from their church in Yakima eight years ago. It's a nice coach...a 32 foot long recreational vehicle. It gives me about 200 square feet of living space and a place that I can find rest and peace.

When I moved in, I hadn't planned for it to be long term...and neither did they. As retired "seniors", they enjoy going on RV outings with the senior group from the church here that they lead. But I found that it is extremely difficult for ex-felons, and particularly sex offenders, to find a place to live in our society. Between renters and apartment complexes that don't open their doors willingly to those who have made extremely poor choices and the restrictions that are placed on me because of the nature of my crime, this little RV park has become more than just a temporary home. And the RV that was planned to be for "just a little while" became my home for over ten months.

I spent a fall, winter and spring in that coach and it was a blessing I will always cherish. But, besides the pastor having plans to use it this summer, there was something else wrong. It wasn't mine. It wasn't "my" home! Always in the back of my mind was the concern that I was somehow preventing pastor and his wife from enjoying their RV. It felt like I was intruding in some way...a feeling that they never gave me but nonetheless, dwelt in my soul.

"I've got a mansion, just over the hilltop
In that bright land where, we'll never grow old.
And some day yonder, we will never more wander
But walk on streets that, are purest gold."

God has blessed me so richly my entire life, and especially these past ten months. He surrounded me with friends who love me, restored me to family, placed me in a great job and has now blessed me with a new home.

I started looking for my own RV over two months ago. It appeared obvious to me that it was going to be next to impossible to find a place to rent and I couldn't get a loan to purchase my own home. At lunch on my birthday in early April, I was telling Pastor that I was looking to buy my own RV and asked him to keep his eye out for me. One of the friends who were celebrating my birthday overheard my conversation with the Pastor.

"You're looking for an RV, huh?" he asked. "This may sound kind of weird, but one of my favorite things to do is look at all the new RV's that they have displayed at the fair. A couple of years ago, I saw one that had a really cool layout with the living room upstairs in the front and the bedroom in the back."

As I listened to him, the layout sounded interesting. I had gone to a couple of RV places on the day before and hadn't seen anything like that. Most have the bedroom up in the front with either the kitchen or living room area located in the rear. I spent the next month and a half checking out Craigslist everyday and going to nearly every RV dealership between Tacoma and Everett. I even got Geoff, my younger brother, going to RV places with me.

Then it happened. May 24, 2008. I was sitting on the couch having coffee at Geoff's when my cell phone rang. A friend (Art) from church is a salesman at an RV dealership and he was on the other end of the phone.

"Oh man, won't believe what came on the lot this morning! I've never seen an RV like this before."

The excitement in his voice was real...not simply a "salesman" show for the sake of his customer.

"I'm standing in the entry and the living room is upstairs. It's like a real house! There's even a railing at the top of the stairs. And get even has a fireplace!"

I had an immediate sense in my spirit that this was the one. I looked across at my brother as Art continued to describe this RV as he walked through it.
"And get has a really big bedroom in the back! The place is huge and it has lots of storage outside. It even has the larger hot water tank you've been looking for."
I asked Geoff if he wanted to take a little "road trip" with me. Even though his daughter was coming home from New York city that afternoon, he immediately said "yes" and I told Art that we would be down to check it out in about an hour and hung up.

My mind was filled with silent prayers as I drove the 40 miles from my brother's home to the RV dealership. I wanted to make sure that this was the "home" God had set aside for me, even while I was in my 10 foot by 10 foot cube in California. We pulled into the dealership and the RV was sitting right out front.

Art was busy with another customer so Geoff and I were able to check it out. Even as I took my first steps inside, I could tell this was the one. We spent nearly 45 minutes checking every inch...inside and out. When Art became free, he plugged the power in to make sure everything worked properly. In my mind, I was battling with myself...not believing that this was possible. This place was so nice! My mind said I really didn't deserve this, but in my heart, I could hear God telling me that He loved me enough that this could be mine. So, I did it. I made the offer and it was accepted.

So today, as the sky grows darker, I'm able to sit in "my own house" ...all 346 sqare feet of it...and relax and write. My feet are on the couch and I don't have to worry about messing up something that isn't mine. My heart is smiling at the goodness of God and how He continues to love me and provide for me. For this season of my life, He has given me a "mansion on a hilltop" as I wait to spend eternity in the mansion He has been preparing for me since before time began.