Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On MY Road to Damascus

I don't remember exactly when I started down this road. It may have been when I was molested for the first time. Or it may have been when I viewed my first pornography...or the second...or the thousandth. I may have taken the first stem on that spring day when I first discovered the pleasures of masturbation. Or was on my first sexual encounter with another boy near my own age. I'm not sure I will ever know. But, sadly, I've discovered that this road leads away from life...and toward a lonely, painful death.

I recently read the story of Paul in the Book of Acts again when he had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He went by the name of Saul at this point in his life. He was a strict Pharisee, as religious as they came. And he hated anyone who believed that Jesus was who He claimed to be...the Son of God. So he started down a path...a try to rid the earth of as many Christians as he could. It appears that he was doing such a good job that he wanted to go after those who had moved out of his "hunting" range. Paul got permission from the big mucky-mucks in the church and went out of country to arrest Christ's followers.

But a funny...or not so funny, depending on your perspective...thing happened to Paul as he and some of his fellow travelers where walking down a dusty road leading to Damascus. God didn't seem to like what Paul was up to so He paid him a little visit. Appearing as a bright, blinding light, Jesus touched Paul and he fell to his knees in awe and fear. And in blindness. After a few words with the Master, Paul picks himself up off the ground to find that he can't see and his travelling companions guide him into town where he decides to fast for three days.

It's the next part of this story that has had the greatest impact on me. God tells a Christian living in Damascus to go to Paul and pray for him so he can receive his sight back. And when this man, Ananias, prays for Paul, the Bible says that "scales" fell from Paul's eyes and he was able to see again. I know what that must have felt like because I had been living with scales on my eyes for years...probably decades.

As I look back on the season of my life when I was more or less addicted to pornography and chat on the Internet, it is still difficult for me to comprehend how I could put so much at risk to look at some pictures or read the words that someone I didn't know and would never meet had written for me. How could I prefer to spend hours and hours in chat rooms with "fantasies" when the real world that surrounded me contained all that I loved and cherished. Many people have asked me that question and I never have a good answer. "I don't really know or understand" sounds pretty lame even to me.

More than one person has told me that I couldn't see it, even if I had been looking for it, because I was completely and totally blinded by the sin that I had allowed to creep into my life and establish a stronghold. Even though my wife Paula had told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever went back on-line to chat with boys again, our marriage would be over and I would lose my kids and grandkids, it didn't sink in. Even though I had sat in meetings where we were warned against the problems of pornography in the schools and among professional educators and the consequences if they got caught, I never saw it. And even when a teacher in one of the schools in the district where I was working as an administrator was suspended for having pornography on his school computer, it never occurred to me that anything like that could happen to me. I just couldn't see it!

In the Book of Acts, Paul thought that he had it made as he started out on his little trip to Damascus. He couldn't see the truth of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures that he most likely had memorized. All around him, prophesy was being fulfilled, but he didn't see it. It took an interruption into his life by Christ before he was able to actually see the truth that he had been seeking his entire life. As we read through the remainder of the Book of Acts, we see that the truth for Paul would bring him pain and suffering, and ultimately death. But at least he died seeing the truth.

Like Paul, God interrupted my life as well (not that I can compare myself to Paul). I was living in a life filled with sin that had blinded me from the beauty of the life that God had given me. So He showed up in a big way. I never saw the possibility of the FBI showing up in my office as I would sit at my computer for hours on end. The thought of having to face my board of directors and submit my resignation for being in possession of child pornography had been as likely in my mind as being elected president of the United States. The image of me curled on the floor of my condo, cold and alone, with tears spilling out and staining the carpet as my wife drove away had never entered my mind. But all of it happened.

I can look back now...from a distance of nearly five years...and most of the pain is gone. The loss is still there. My wife and family are still gone. My career is history and can never be an option for the future. The reputation and respect that I had enjoyed for years is still tarnished, though there are a few spots that still have a little sparkle to them. But something else is gone as well. The blindness to the sin that had bound me for so many years is no longer there. Like Paul, the "scales" that were on my eyes fell off...or more likely, were washed away by gallons of tears. I celebrate the day on the road to MY Damascus when I encountered the reality and relationship of God for perhaps the very first time. The day He took away my blindness. The day He turned me around and started me down a road that is leading to life...a new life...and not the death and Hell that I was living in.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Out of the Cave

As a young boy, I loved the mountain that rose up behind our farm. I can't count the number of warm summer days that my brothers, and sometimes my sister, would climb and play on that mountain. As we would look up at it from our dairy farm in the valley below, there were three "cliffs" that stair stepped their way up the side of the mountain. The highest one was made up of a giant rock that jutted out from the side of the hill, most likely left behind by a slow moving glacier many millenia ago. Lying at the base of the "third cliff" was a field of rocks and boulders that lay scattered randomly until they eventually disappeared into the forest below. The cliff and the rocks below provided the backdrop for countless adventures of cowboys and Indians, playing "Army" and hunts for hidden, buried treasure.

I can remember one summer day when my brothers and I decided to explore the rocks at the base of the cliff. We had climbed over the rocks numerous times, often times stopping at the "big cave". It wasn't a cave in the classical sense, it was actually a hollow created by the arrangement of the way the large rocks lay on top of each other. We would sometimes find bones laying on the floor of the cave, igniting the imagination...and perhaps a little the mind of this young adventure seeker.

What kind of bones could they be? Maybe the remains of some unlucky hiker ravaged by a hungry bear. Or perhaps the bones of a deer or some other wild animal that had spent their last moments under the protection of the large flat stone that served as the roof of the cave. The fact that most of the bones we found in the dirt floor of the cave had neatly sawed edges didn't occur to the active minds of those young boys. We were exploring and reality rarely invades the minds of an adventurous spirit.

As we worked our way along the rocks in the heat of that summer day, my little brother Geoff yelled over to us.

"I think I found a real cave", he hollered. "The opening isn't very big, but it looks like it goes back a long way."

My older brother Frank and I climbed up and over the rocks to where Geoff was on his hands and knees, his body neck deep into a small opening in the huge stack of rocks and boulders.

"How far can you see?", Frank asked. As the oldest, he immediately took charge, encouraging Geoff with a pull of his shirt tail to back out of the "cave" so he could get a better look.

Soon, Frank was working his way into the opening between the rocks. At first, his head and shoulders moved through the crack. His hips and finally his legs and feet soon followed. Geoff and I knelt on the hard rocks outside this newly unearthed cave, waiting and wondering what kind of treasure Frank was going to get to discover while we waited outside.

"Wow!", we soon heard coming out of the opening. "It was kind of tight getting in here, but it opens up into a big room. You guys should come in here."

It didn't take another invitation for Geoff and he was quickly slipping in through the hole, his body wiggling and sliding inside. I moved closer to the opening, slowly peering inside. It was a lot darker than I thought it would be. The "big cave" was never this dark. Of course the fact that it was only about eight feet deep with a six foot opening would explain that, but I wasn't thinking about that right at that moment. Instead, a feeling of fear and dread slowly crept around my chest, squeezing my heart and lungs until I could barely breathe.

"Come on, Mark", I heard from inside. I couldn't tell whose voice it was...Geoff's or Frank's. "Could they be that far in there?", I wondered?

I leaned closer to the opening. "It's probably getting pretty full in there with both of you now", I yelled in. "If I come in, we probably won't be able to move around or explore." I figured that my words and my "selflessness" would be warmly received and my brothers would simply start exploring this new discovery on their own.

"Come on, you chicken!" I didn't have to try to figure out whose words those were. My little brother was calling is as he saw it. I was standing outside and he was inside and he knew I didn't really want to crawl in that hole

"I'm not a chicken!", my voice weakly replied. "If we don't have room to move around, it won't be my fault", I bravely yelled in. I lowered myself to my belly and started to work my way inside this narrow cave. The air was cool and smelled of fresh dirt and an odor you can only discover by being underground. I soon found my entire body underneath the rock at the base of that third cliff, moving slowly deeper into the core of the mountain.

"How much further?", I called out.

"You're almost here", Frank replied. "Pretty soon, you're going to feel the edge of the tunnel fall away. There's about a two foot drop and then a big room." Sure enough, in a couple more wiggles of my body, I could feel with my hands that the floor of the tunnel was gone. I pushed myself a little deeper and as I bend over the edge of the end of the tunnel, I could feel the floor of the cave with my scraped hands. I soon found myself inside a room that was blacker than anyplace I could have ever imagined. No matter which way you turned, you couldn't see anything.

Suddenly, I was nearly blinded as the explosion of a match lit up the room. As the match settled into a small flame, I could see Frank and Geoff in the middle of a room created by the position of numerous rocks laying against each other. As the match slowly burned down, we looked around the room. Hoping that we might find treasure or maybe even Indian paintings on the walls, we were disappointed to simply see grey rock all around us. Geoff moved around the room, looking in the corners. Soon we were in pitch blackness once again and I could feel that tightness around my chest returning.

"Hey, light another match", Geoff called out. "I think I found another opening over here." The room was soon bathed in the warm, yellow light of another match as we looked around, once again seeing Geoff's legs and butt poking out of a hole in a far corner of the room.

"Can you see anything?" Frank asked. "No. It's really dark down there. Give me a match and let me see if I can see where it goes", Geoff called back. Frank handed him the book of matches as Geoff retreated from the opening. Grasping one of the match in one hand and the book in the other, he crawled back into hole. We could see the faint glare of light as it leaked around his body, poking out from the hole in the corner of this dark room.

"It looks like a tunnel that goes down for a while", Geoff said as he slid out of the opening and back into the room. "I think if I go in feet first, I can slide over the edge to maybe another room deeper in", he continued. That constriction grabbed my chest again.

"I...I dunno", I said, with probably a little stammer in my voice. "It's getting kind of late. We should probably head back don't you think?" The room was pitch dark, hiding the fear that would be so visible on my face and on my body that was visibly shaking by now. "Come on", Geoff pleaded. "Let me see if I can reach the bottom."

Outvoted, I stood back as Frank lit another match and Geoff moved into position at the opening to the hole, his feet wiggling into the dark opening. He continued to push himself back until only his face was visible. "I'm at the edge", he said. As the match faded, Geoff disappeared from our view as the cave was once again veiled in the darkest blackness.

Frank was just striking the match when we heard it. "Help!" We peered into the corner where the opening was and Geoff was no longer visible. "Heeeellllpp! I can't reach the bottom", he cried out. As Frank bent down, he could see Geoff's fingers on the edge of the tunnel ledge, his body completely out of view. "Hold on", he yelled. Dropping the matches, he slid into the tunnel after my little brother. I fell to my hands and knees, scrambling to try to find the matchbook as I heard Frank continue to tell Geoff to hold on...that he was coming. My hands worked back in forth in front of me, trying to find the place where the matchbook fell. Soon, I could feel the paper of the book cover and as I pushed back on to my knees, I grabbed a match and struck it with my trembling fingers on the rough strip on the back of the matchbook.

"Shit", I cried as I felt the match disintegrate without lighting. I opened the book and grabbed another match. I could tell without seeing that the book was almost empty. I tried to slow down my breathing as it felt like my heart was going to explode. I could still hear Geoff in the mountain, calling out...fear in his voice. Something you didn't often hear coming from my daredevil little brother. I could hear Frank's voice but couldn't distinguish what he was saying. I slowly struck the match and suddenly, the room was filled with light again.

"Hold on to my hands", Frank was saying. As I looked over, I could see his body slowly coming back into the room. At the end of his arms, my little brother's hands were clasping his. His face and hair speckled with dirt, my brother looked like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen as he finally emerged completely from the tunnel.

"Wow! That was sooo cool!" I shouldn't have been surprised to hear those words as they erupted from Geoff's mouth. I wanted to run over and hug him, but I think I wanted to hit him even more. Fortunately, the room was still bathed in darkness and the tears on my cheeks were invisible to both Frank and Geoff. We decided that it was time for this adventure to be over and Frank lit another match and pointed to the opening that would lead us back out into the bright, warm sunshine.

I was the first to volunteer to go out. It didn't seem to be nearly as long of a crawl going out as it did going in. We soon found ourselves back out on the sea of rocks and boulders, looking up at the big cliff above us.

"I'll bet that went down at least a hundred yards", he said. "When a couple of rocks fell away as I was hanging there, I couldn't even hear them hit the bottom of the pit. I never would have gotten out if you wouldn't have grabbed me."

I think of the darkness of that cave on that warm summer afternoon every so often. I can still remember the fear and weight of the darkness that was so complete and overwhelming. I've never liked the darkness...I don't know if it's because of that adventure or if it's just an innate fear that I think God put into all of us to a certain degree. I've felt that weight at other times during my life, even when the lights were on around me. The weight was the result of choices that I was making and the fear of being found out.

Of course, like that day in the middle of the summer during my childhood, I couldn't stay in that darkness for ever. It was a bottomless pit, and like Geoff, I never would have found my way out unless a hand would have been extended to me. For me, that hand was extended on a cold, February day in 2004 as my life crumbled around me. In His mercy, God extended his love and grace to me, shining His light into my life so that I could see the sin that I had immersed myself in. I had been in the darkness for so long that I had become blind to the choices that I was making and had no idea how to get out of the "cave" that I had crawled into. Fortunately, I accepted that hand that was extended.

There is a Christian song that's on the charts right now that remind me of the darkness that I was in and a reminder that I was never alone in that cave. It's a song by Meredith Andrews called "You're Not Alone". The song ends with the following verse:

"You're not alone
for I... I am here
let me wipe away every fear...
Oh yeah My love I've never left your side
I have seen you through your darkest night...Your darkest night
And I'm the one who's loved you all your life
All of your life"

I've come to believe the truth of the words to that beautiful song. Like most people, I've been in some of the darkest places imaginable. And even when I felt so afraid...I know now that I was never alone. He was there with me...waiting to lead me out of the cave.

Monday, September 1, 2008

First Love

The aisles are crowded and the air is slightly musty...but still I love to come to these places. Today, it's a new I've never been to before. Though I've driven past it dozens of times, it remained hidden in the corner of the small strip mall. I'm not looking for anything in particular...just wandering, looking, picking items up for a closer inspection.

I find myself needing to sneeze from the dust motes hanging in the air, tickling my nose. I turn another corner and peer into the crowded shelf. There are items of colorful glass and cut crystal. Old tobacco tins and sewing kits. Even an orange juicer and measuring cup. And back in the corner I see the glimmer of silver. I go and find the clerk with her ring of keys and she comes and opens the case.

"The small bundle of silver ware in the back", I say, pointing in the general direction of the four spoons, tied together with a small piece of pink ribbon.

I take the spoons and look them over carefully. I notice they are marked "silver plate" which is fine. Sterling is too expensive and I'm not really looking for anything in particular anyway. I look closer at the back, noticing that the spoon handles are engraved with very small writing. I take my glasses off, hoping for a clearer look...hoping to be able to read what's written in small, italic script.

First Love

I look again and find that my eyes didn't deceive me...the two simple words "First Love" were engraved on the back of each of the spoon handles. My mind immediately began to think on those words. My ex-wife Paula came to mind first. Not that she is the first woman that I told that I was in love with, but she is the one that I can say that I was truly in love with.

I purchased the spoons and began the drive home, thinking of my "first love". My mind wandered back to fourth grade...and Shirla Cunnington. She was the first girl that I had a crush on...the most beautiful girl at Farmin Elementary School. Dark, curly hair. A smile that made my heart race. Eyes that twinkled. And dimples that made her whole face shine. She was my first date...a trip to a matinee at the Panida Theater. I held her least I think I did...or I might have...or...I know I definitely wanted to! In reality, I was just a little too scared to be that bold...we were only 10 and confidence was not my strong suit.

Over the course of the next several days, as I would look at the spoons, I would think about my first love, but every time I would think of a specific woman, there would seem to be a hesitation in my spirit. Something telling me that she wasn't the one. I continued to mine my memory, searching for that first love. Who could it be? Shirla? Mary? Lynn? Marla? Debbie? Darla? Paula? Something just didn't seem to fit.

It's amazing to me how simple life is sometimes and how complicated I/we try to make it. While I was expending my energies over that week, wracking my brains for the answer, a new realization was coming to me. My 'first love' wasn't not going to be found in the deep recesses of my memory. I wasn't going to find "her" in the pages of my school year books. In fact, it wasn't a "she" at all.

I don't even remember when it finally struck me, but when it did, it was as clear as some of the crystal I would look at in the antique stores I love so much. My first love has become God! In hindsight, it makes complete sense to me now. And it also helps me to see why it has been so difficult for me my entire life to love anyone the way they deserve to be loved. I didn't know how to love because I hadn't discovered the true source of all love that exists.

I spent yesterday with my older brother Frank. We've had a pretty strained relationship for the past eight years and it is slowly healing. We are both coming to know each other as we really are instead of as the men who hid behind masks of who we thought we were for most of our lives. As we sat on his boat...a dream of his for as long as I can remember...a dream not yet realized with workmen still coming on board each day to move a little closer to completion, he pointed to a buoy with the name of his boat on it..."Our Third Love". I didn't have to ask him what it meant. If you know Frank, you know he's going to tell you anyway...and he did. He explained that he and his new wife named it "Our Third Love" because in their lives, God is first, family is second and then comes the boat. His dream...but third on his list of priorities.

I found irony in his story as he own thoughts resting on that package of four little spoons that I had purchased several months before. He had it right, although it took him nearly as long as it took me. And I realize that I've figured it out as well. I hope to one day have a beautiful woman return to spend the rest of our lives is a constant dream of mine. Not a boat. Not a big house. Just a happy marriage. And I realize that it is possible now because I've learned that to love my wife as I should, I must know who my first love truly is.