Sunday, December 28, 2008

Inside the Package

One of my favorite songs that I used to sing when I led Worship while in prison is called "In the Secret". We sang it in church this morning and the power of the words once again struck me.

I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You, more!
(From "In the Secret")
I spent the Christmas holiday with my sister, Debbie. As has become our practice whenever we seem to get together in the past year, we talked. That may seem like an unusual statement to make, but if you knew me (and the dynamics of our family), you would understand what a miracle that a genuine conversation in our family is. My history is that I would engage in conversation, but I would never "talk". There was just too great a possibility that by really talking, I might reveal part of who I really was and not just the mask that I had become.

All the changed when I went to prison. As anyone can imagine, prison changes a person...sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In my case, I believe it was for the better. It's not that I would say my life today is great...it's far from it. Instead of living in a quarter of a million dollar condo on the golf course, I live in a fifth-wheel trailer that is worth less than 10% of my last home. My salary is half what it was when I was arrested and the family I had married is no longer mine. No more wife. No more kids. No more mom and dad. No more grandkids. All gone.

But there is something else that is gone today as well...all my secrets. When your life is splashed across the front pages of the newspaper and makes the lead story on the five o'clock news, it doesn't make much sense to try to conceal your life any more. And there has been such a blessing in that. I can openly "talk" about who I am and what I'm feeling and what my fears are without worrying about whether it may tarnish my reputation or not. And since I've been out of prison these past 16 months, that has been my everyday practice.

While my sister and I were talking this week, I realized how little I knew my sister until this past year...and how little she really knew me. Through her blogging and the book she is writing and our "real" conversations, she has been willing to reveal her deepest wounds and dreams...not only with me, but with any who are willing to read her words. It struck me that there are people out there who know my sister better than our brothers do...and it broke my heart. Like the song I sang in the prison worship service speaks so eloquently about how we establish our relationship with God by getting to know Him, we can't have true relationship with anyone unless we get to know the person. I am thankful that I have been willing to enter into that conversation with Debbie, and the gift that getting to know her has been.

As the Christmas holiday comes to an end, I think of the gift that can be found in each one of us. Our story. But like the gifts we find under the tree, we can only appreciate what's inside when we open it. Opening the gift leads us into relationship...a genuine relationship that allows us to see each other's hearts and souls. It allows us to trust and love unconditionally. I've discovered that not only has my relationship with God become genuine in the last 16 months, but so has my relationship with my family. Everyone needs to be willing to open the gift that sits across the table from us in the morning or who holds the phone at the other end of a long distance connection. Only then can we truly know one another and hear the story that resides within.

I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Questions???

It was actually a really good conversation. I was at my brother, Frank's, boat for dinner and the exchange of early Christmas presents. Baby-back ribs, fresh salad, oven-fried potatoes with onions still populated my plate. A half-empty glass of wine rested nearby. Clare and I were in a pretty serious conversation about how people can REALLY be helped out of a life of sin.
Without going into great detail here, I shared some of my "hitting bottom" experience of being in prison and how that has changed my perspective on life in a lot of ways...including being willing to be unashamedly honest about things I never would have even considered talking about five years ago.

The conversation moved toward what people (men mostly) are supposed to do after they go through a workshop like "Every Man's Battle" and coming out like they can beat their addiction to pornography. They feel better because they realize they are not alone. But what happens after the "weekend retreat" is over and the real world hits them again and they are being bombarded by the same temptations they had before the retreat.

It was then that Clare asked a question that caught me off guard.

"You know, Mark, if you were to write a book about your experiences...your battles and what it all cost you...and men read your book. What would tell them they needed to do after they had the information...after they had read your story...after you had given them hope that they could win this battle?"

It was a really great question that I'm not sure I have the answer for yet! And that really disturbed me. I've really believed since I was first arrested that God has placed a calling in my life to use my story and my experiences to help other men who deal with the same issues of sexual sin. I have absolutely NO doubt that I have to write a book that might give men (and their wives) hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. But Clare's question really brought something into a more clear focus for me.

A book that simply tells my story...even though it is an interesting one, is not going to be a great help for most men. As I think back to where I was five years ago, I'm not sure I would have even picked it up off of a book shelf, let alone read it. Why? Pride and shame! Most men struggle with those two issues. I can remember my own shame and embarrassment when I bought a book called "At the Alter of Sexual Idolatry" a week after I was arrested. It was almost as bad a taking a pornography magazine to the counter in an adult book store. In my mind, the question, "what if someone sees me with this book" keeps rolling around and I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Most men are NOT going to spend a lot of time in the "self help" section of the local Border's books store and even fewer will spend time browsing the "sexuality" aisle, unless it's to take a peek at some erotica or maybe hope for some skin someplace. Even with as much "sex" as we see prominently displayed in our culture, we men still struggle with who might see us taking a peek.

So what is the story I want...no, need to share that men will actually want to read? What is it that I really want men to know after they have read my story? What do I need to leave them with so that they can be confident that they can win more battles than they lose with pornography?

When Clare asked me the question, sadly, I didn't really have a good answer. I know what has made the difference in my life. My relationship with Christ! But I know that there are a lot of men (and women) out there who have been so beaten up with the whole "church" and "Christianity" thing that the mere mention of Jesus for some will result in an instantaneous blockage of the auditory nerves, leaving them temporarily deaf! They won't hear a message that can change their lives.

So how do I share my message in a way that men can hear it and receive it? I told Clare that there are two passages from my intense reading over the past five years that have really stuck with me. One is found in the Bible and one is found in "Wild at Heart", by John Eldredge. In his book, Eldredge says, " I never trust a man who hasn't suffered; I don't let a man get close to me who hasn't faced his wound. Think of the posers you know...are they the kind of man you would call at 2:00 A.M., when life is collapsing around you?...I don't want cliches; I want deep soulful truth and that only comes when a man has walked the road I've been talking about."

That passage struck me so strongly because I was that "poser" for so many years of my life. I had a ready batch of cliches that I could share with others to "help them feel better when they were struggling." But I was never telling them the truth! I had never been where they were, or if I had been, I would never admit it...that would be revealing a weakness! I believe Eldredge really hits the issue at its core. Men (people) will trust someone if they have been there and are willing to admit that they are/were broken and that they finally came to a realization that they couldn't solve the problem all by themselves.
And that leads me to the second passage, found in the Book of Acts. "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me...the task of testifying to the gospel of God's Grace" (Acts 20:24, emphasis added). God has called me to tell my story, but the emphasis is on how God has changed me...not how I've changed myself!

It has not just been a "parting of the Red Sea" miracle. God didn't just "heal" me and now I don't have any problems. I don't just count on God to miraculously save me every time I feel tempted. Instead, I've come to realize that he helps me through the people He has sent into my life, the songs I hear on the radio, or a comment someone will make without even knowing that I'm listening. God shows up in many different shapes and colors...but He does show up!

So, now I look forward to having someone ask me that question. When I do finally sit down to write my book, I have confidence that the Holy Spirit will direct my words and my fingers across the keyboard...that He will give me the words that will leave the reader with hope, with the desire to ask the next question...and the next question after that. Only through the questions do we find the answers.
Photos by Flickr

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle




It has only been four days since my last group session, but a lot of our discussion that night continues to roll around in my head. It ended up being a night that mostly focused on me. Because of the "storm of the century" (as the TV news will soon be calling it, I'm sure), most of the group didn't show up...there were only four of us plus the therapist. I had been dragging my autobiography with me to group for the past month, but the time never seemed quite right. With the small group we had lots of time so I offered to share it.


In my mind, I had figured that I would pretty much simply read it. I had spent considerable time writing it up...over eight pages typed. But as I started to read the first sentence, I soon found myself ad-libbing and going into considerable more detail than my written version. It didn't really seem to matter though, because the therapist soon had me jumping from moving to Sandpoint when I was two years old to wanting to know about when my dad beat me with the willow switch until it cut my legs open. I had shared the story with the group several months ago on a night when we were talking about trust...or lack of it, and apparently the doctor remembered.


As we talked, he wanted to know how I felt about my dad after that, and how old I was...and how close in time proximity it was to when I was molested by the neighbor boy.


As I sat there and thought about his questions, there were a lot of things going through my mind. I wasn't sure initially how old I was...I've tried to forget. But after thinking and relating it to other events, I remembered that I was in the sixth grade, so I would have been about 11 or 12 when dad beat me. I searched for the right words to describe how I felt about my dad after that event and the only word that seemed to fit was "indifferent". I didn't hate him...I still don't. But I know as I look back through the years at that moment under the willow trees that I never looked at dad the same way again after that. He wasn't really my "father" any longer. He still provided for me...clothes...food...a roof over my head, but he wasn't who I trusted or respected in the way that a boy should love and respect his dad.


The discussion moved to the molestation. As is the habit with the doc, he asked me to describe what happened again for the group.


"When I was ten, the neighbor boy gave me some candy if I would perform oral sex on him," I managed to tell the group. Though I've shared the experience with the group before, it is never easy to say.


"How did it make you feel?"

That's one of the questions that I hate the most! He asks it every time I have to share this story.


"Hmmm...I guess it wasn't unpleasant", I say. "I got candy for it and we didn't get a whole lot of candy growing up."


One of the members of our group is a young gay man in his early thirties and he only joined the group about a month ago.


"As the only openly gay guy in the group", he starts, "I find it interesting that you describe it as 'not unpleasant'. It's kind of like how you described your feelings toward your dad as 'indifferent'. Why do you think that is"?


I'm not used to having people ask me questions when I share my story. Usually all I get is the nodding of the head and a few sympathetic looks. That's not the case with these guys. Five years ago, I would have hated the questions. Now I've learned to appreciate them.


I sat there thinking and trying to fit the pieces together.


"I guess it wasn't a painful experience or anything. I didn't really think of it as sex...I guess maybe I was too young. All I knew was that I got candy out of it. But when I look back at it now, I realize that what I was really doing was prostituting myself....sex for candy. I get angry when I think about it."


The young gay guy jumped on that. "You were only ten...why do you think you should have been angry? Do you really think that as a ten year old you should be beating yourself up for giving a guy a blowjob for candy, when you didn't get candy very often?"


I sat there for a moment, searching for the right words. "I wasn't angry then", I said, "but as I look back at that event, I get angry. I'm coming to realize that what happened to me when I was ten years old changed me and I have tried to deny it and bury it for the past forty years. What I'm angry about isn't what I did when I was a little kid. I'm angry that it may have ruined my life."


"How do you feel now when you see teenage boys?" he asked. He has shared that he still struggles with having sexual feelings when he sees young teens. A part of me wanted to lie and say that they had no impact on me at all, but I've learned that when I'm lying to others, I'm really just lying to myself first and I've learned the hard way how costly lies can be.


"I do have feelings when I see teen boys", I share. "The feelings aren't sexual though...they're emotional. When I see young boys, it seems like I end up seeing myself a lot of times and it is really painful." I shared the story of the young boy I see walking to school each morning...alone and seemingly unhappy and how my heart aches for him.


"When you were in chat rooms with guys, did you try to save them?"


"Yea, a lot of times I did. Whenever one of the guys would talk about planning to meet some guy that he'd met online, I'd tell him she shouldn't go...or that at least he should take someone with them", I said. "And there were a couple of guys who shared that they had attempted suicide in the past and sometimes thought about it still, and I'd try to find to help them through it."


We all sat there quietly for a moment and then the questions continued...mostly from the young gay guy, but also from the doctor. As I would answer the questions and share more of my story, things began to become more clear in my own mind. The doctor helped me realize that part of the loss in my life in my relationship with my dad had really been significant and that he could see that I would be looking for a way to fill that void. I had never really considered that.


We meet again in two days. I don't know if the discussion will continue to center on my story, or if someone else will be the focus. But for now, I'm glad that I'm discovering more of the pieces...and that I'm finding that some of them do actually fit together....that they are not from two different puzzles. One day, I'm praying that the picture of my life story will become clear to me and that I will be able to find the healing my heart so dearly needs.







Photos by Flickr

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Fosters"

The deep richness of the blue eyes immediately catches my attention. Her thick, blond curls drape softly around her cheeks, framing her beautiful smile. She stands there, with a shy hesitation as Jim introduces me.

"Sammie, this is Mark. He's one of the guys I told you about that I go to breakfast with. Can you say hi?"

Slowly, a small hand reaches out to take mine and we gently pump our hands in greeting.

"Hi", she says, barely above a whisper. I tell her "hi" back and she moves back toward Jim, still smiling as she clutches his leg.

The smile on Jim's face is broad and deep as he moves around the church sanctuary, introducing this little girl to other choir members and friends. You can tell without asking that there is a bond of trust between this little girl and the man that became her foster "dad" only days ago. She continues to smile and shake hands and say pleasant "hellos" as she moves from group to group on this first day that she has ever gone to church.

As I watched Jim and Sammie, I felt a tug in my heart and an all too frequent question emerge from my subconscious..."how could a beautiful little five year old like end up in the foster system?" "How could God's greatest gift to us besides salvation go unclaimed and unloved by the ones who created her?"

I don't know all of Sammie's story, just that she is one of four children of meth addicts. When the courts determined that her parents could no longer care for her or her three older siblings, her aunt and uncle took them in. But that only lasted for a year, and ten days ago, they chose to give them up and place them in foster care.

I remember as a younger man, in my early twenties visiting my sister and her husband at the time. They had opened their home to foster children, and I remember one child in particular. I was lucky enough to visit their home shortly after the little boys was placed with my sister. He was a beautiful boy...not unlike Sammie. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Even with his placement in the foster system, he was still a "lover". I can still remember the hugs I received from him that weekend and the times I was just able to hold him in my arms. I don't know his story and don't know what happened to him. He was eventually moved from my sister's home to another placement.

But seeing Sammie this morning and remembering the different foster kids that my sister took care of strains my heart. I think of the miracle of God's creation and how careless we as humans can be in caring for that precious gift. Sometimes, for unknown reasons, parents (if we can call them that) simply don't love their child and want to get rid of them. Other times, tragic circumstances result in children becoming "parentless" and the foster system or adoption is their only option. Still other children become wards of the state because of the power of addiction in their parents' lives. And my heart breaks.

Fortunately, there are people like Jim and Peggy...and my sister...who are willing to take these children in and love them as their own. I wish I could say that I would be able to do that, but I fear I am too selfish for that. I love kids too much and I don't know if my heart could handle being able to love them and care for them, only to have them taken away. Perhaps back into an abusive situation. Perhaps into another stranger's home. Nevertheless, it would be away from me.

I don't know if the pain I'm afraid I would feel comes from my own childhood pain and fear and loneliness, or if it comes from seeing the long term impact of those who bounce from foster home to foster home. The once loving child who becomes callous and hard, not understanding why no one loved them enough to want them forever. The child who seeks love in inappropriate, dangerous ways because they can't seem to find it from a stable home. The youngster who turns to the gangs for acceptance and love, only to have their lives cut short due to the violent lifestyle membership brings. Sadly, I've seen it all...young lives destroyed because a child lost the stability of a safe home and loving parents.

So today, I salute the Jim and Peggy's of the world! The unselfish, unconditional love they show for children not their own. The home's they open at a moment's notice so that a child will have a roof over their head and a warm bed to sleep in...and a hot meal to nourish the ache in their tummy. Thank you for your love.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Unblemished

It was mid-November when the phone rang. It was "the" phone call every parent is afraid they might one day receive. Paula and I were asleep and were pulled out of the foggy state by the ringing of the phone. It was her mom on the other end.

"They've been in an accident and the doctors aren't sure Doug is going to make it", she whispered with a voice that was barely audible through her stress-strained voice.

I tried to console mom and then handed the phone to Paula. They spoke for a few moments and as Paula hung up the phone and handed it back to me, the tears began to flow from her beautiful, blue eyes.

"What happened?", I asked. She shared that the Northwest College basketball team that her brother Doug coached had been in a serious accident driving from Spokane to Walla Walla. The van he was driving his a patch of black ice as it went in a corner and Doug lost control. The van left the road way, rolled four times and skidded nearly 900 feet before it came to rest.

I almost couldn't get the words out of my throat. "What about Jason?"

Jason is Paula's oldest son. I consider him my oldest son as, even though none of my blood flow through his veins.

"Mom said he was taken to the other hospital. She isn't sure, but she said he's not as bad as Doug is." Paula lay there in bed next to me, her body trembling. I pulled her close and simply held her. It was all I could offer her. After a while had passed, I told her that I would call the principal of the school where I taught and tell him that I would need a substitute and we would leave to go see them as soon as she was ready.

Her brother did nearly die. He didn't breathe on his own for the first several day and spent the next month in the hospital. In describing his injuries, the Seattle Times said that they would "take up several chapters of Grey's Anatomy." But he finally came home before Christmas and spent the next several months slowly recuperating. Our son Jason suffered a broken collar bone and a fractured vertebrae in his back and spent three days in the hospital before coming home.

It's been over 15 years since the accident, and from the outside, both Jason and Doug look healthy. Their bodies appear unblemished. But that's not what they look like on the inside, especially Doug.

Doug is one of those people who now have one of those hangers on their rear view mirror that have an image of a wheelchair. He's legally physically disabled. His doctors have described him as a man in his 50's with the body of a 90 year old. Five of his ribs were crushed in the accident and it's pretty difficult for the body to stored bones that looked like mush back into strong, solid rib bones. His knee joint is bone rubbing on bone...all of the protective cartilage gone. His shoulder shares the same fate.

But looking at Doug, you would never know. In fact, it's not uncommon for him to have people make rude comments about him being "one of those" who somehow got one of "those" decals for his car so he could park close to the front door. He's been called "lazy" and "selfish", simply because people see his unblemished body, and not the damage that has been done to him on the inside.

I spent this past weekend with my older sister. She came to up visit and watch me perform with our church choir as we presented our Christmas concert. Her visit was a beautiful gift to me. As has become our custom when we are together over the past year, we talked and shared. And revealed more of ourselves to each other.

My sister is five years older than I am, and I have discovered that I really didn't know very much about her. Through her gift of writing, she is revealing the painful past that is her life that I never knew....that I never saw. My sister is a beautiful woman...professional and distinguished looking. You would notice her in a crowd because she has the aura of someone who is someone. From the outside, she looks "unblemished".

But like Doug, that's not the case. Her injuries inside are not the physical kind, they are the kind that are much more difficult to heal. Sadly, I never saw them...I didn't realize they were there. Maybe she didn't know they were there either. Through God's grace and love, she is healing...slowly, but still healing.

I realized as I sat and visited with Debbie this weekend that my own wounds are much deeper than I realized. I feel such pain deep in my heart when I encounter certain situations and see a particular group of people that it is almost unbearable and inevitably leads to the tears flowing from my eyes. I'm slowly discovering that the pain comes because I see myself in those people and circumstances. I see a boy who was hurt in ways no one else saw because the wounds were of the heart and soul, and not of the skin and bones.

I thought I had come further in my healing process than I have, but I still have so far to go. There are still traps for heart that have been laid out there like the black ice hidden in the darkness of a curve up ahead on a cold, wintry night. I don't have a "damaged inside" hanger to place on my rear view mirror. Like my sister, when people see me, they see this person who looks like the have it all together. I guess that's probably what I want them to see. Not the man who feels so broken at times. Not the man who seeks understanding for the confusion that he feels at times over his own identity. Not the man who finds himself with hot burning tears streaking his cheeks whenever he see a teenager alone...or bullied...or unloved.

Unblemished? Only on the outside!