Mr. Restoration

photoLast week my company sent me to a home about an hour north of Charlotte to visit with a couple whose home had recently caught on fire.  Apparently the fire began in the garage, quickly spread to the kitchen and traveled through the attic before it was able to be contained.   By the time I arrived on the scene, 3 days later, the flames were extinguished, the smoke had subsided and the homeowner was left with the task of figuring out what could be saved.

My specific job is to meet with the homeowner, work alongside the insurance adjusters and contractors and try to see what fabric-related items can be salvaged.  Traveling through 6 South-Eastern states, I am in fire-damaged homes every week.   To date, this one was by far the worst.   True, the fire was indeed a bad one.   Most of their furniture and possessions were destroyed.  But what complicated this one even more was one added element.   By anyone’s standard, this couple would be defined as HOARDERS.

It’s bad enough to be in a hoarder’s home on a normal day.  It’s truly an eye-opening experience to see a hoarding home damaged by fire.  To say it was a mess, would be an understatement.   There was a pile of clothes (about 4 feet high) in front of the bedroom closet.  In fact, every closet was jammed packed with hanging clothes.  Over 2,000 clothes hangers were found strewn in various rooms.  Dozens (think 15) of empty shoe boxes littered the home.  Even a piano was discovered in another room under another pile of clothes.  (Yes, a piano!)  I understand that many ladies have a thing for shoes.  This hoarding woman is your leader.  We discovered over 600 pairs of shoes from this 1400 square foot home.   From what I could see, she only had two feet.

Being in the home and interacting with this couple was – at the same time – both disturbing and fascinating.  It was a train wreck that I could not stop looking at.   It made me realize why we are intrigued by the various reality TV shows.  As the couple sat outside their home, a half dozen of us men were in the house doing what we could to help.  Two men were focused on structural issues.  Two examined the furniture.   A fifth man, the insurance adjuster, was there to see what could be claimed.  I was interested in the fabric.  (There is a sentence I have never said before!)   Regardless of why our various companies had sent us, we all were there for one primary reason:

RESTORATION.

We all were interested in helping this family restore what had been lost.

Walking around their home was overwhelming.  Every room desperately needed to be restored.   Between the fire, smoke, water and filth, there was literally a gaping black hole of need everywhere we looked.   Privately, we joked that the fire department should have just let it burn.  The project was so daunting, even the trained professionals weren’t exactly sure how to get started.   And honestly, as we looked around – we didn’t see much worth restoring.  The clothes were not particularly nice.  The furniture was not particularly expensive.   Their taste in art work, carpet, and other household items were tacky, at best.  No one thought what they had left was worth saving.  Fortunately for them, none of us “experts” had a vote as to whether we should try to restore their items.   In these situations, value is determined by the homeowner and validated by the insurance company.  Our job was not to place value.   Our task was simply to restore.

Unsure of what they valued, we brought them bag after bag of clothes from inside the house.   IMG_0379Blouse after painstaking blouse, pant after pant, shoe after shoe – Mrs. Hoarder would tell us (one by one) what she was willing to give away and what she still wanted to keep.   To be fair, she did surprisingly well – willing to give away over 65 bags of clothing.  Sadly, she was not able to part with over 250 bags of clothes – still maintaining her status as a hoarder.  As I looked around, I saw a house full of trash.  The hoarders clearly saw treasure.   I saw a room full of old clothes.  They saw a closet full of “Sunday best.”  In fact, many of the things they wanted to save – I would have thrown away years ago.  Such is the difference of opinion on worth.  On this particular day, I learned a lesson about value and who establishes it.

As I have thought about this family over the last week or so, it seems that we often look at others’ personal lives in the same way.   We tend to stare at their mess in disbelief.  We are shocked to see how they have kept the closet of their heart.  We marvel at their once hidden depravity and ponder at the number of sinful “shoes” they have accumulated over the years.   How did it get that bad?  How did they keep it from others for so long?  As we walk through the rooms of their lives, we are overwhelmed with their black hole of need.  As we gaze into their moral basement, we are left with two burning questions.   The first is asked in a moment of compassion, “How can I help them?”  The second question, if we’re honest, is a bit more transparent, “Do I even want to?”  For many of us, we are not sure we even want to get involved.  I mean, helping a moral hoarder can’t be done from the front lawn.  They don’t need money or prayer as much as they need an investment of sweat.  At some point, you are going to have to walk in, walk around and begin touching the mess yourself – if you truly want to help.  And sadly, for too many of us, we just don’t want that kind of contact with those who are morally messier than us.   We begin ignoring phone calls.   We stop reaching out.  We stop asking dangerous questions like, “How are you?”   We quit giving a hand or our shoulder or our ear or our money in hopes that maybe someone else will get involved.   We abandon those who need us, not because God released us from the relationship – but simply because we got tired of being in the hoarder’s heart.  Let’s face it, it’s just not a comfortable place to dwell.   We prefer easy and those who need to be restored are far from it.

As I read the Bible, I see the thread of restoration running through every page.

  • Adam & Eve: Before our First Parents were even out of the Garden of Eden, God had restoration on His mind.  As He was doling out the consequences for their idolatry, He was also paving the road of restoration back to Himself.
  • Israel: As a nation, they abandoned God and as a result were led into a 400+ year bondage at the hands of Pharaoh’s Egypt.  God never forgot His chosen people and raised up His rod of restoration, the servant of Moses.
  • Jonah: The prophet of God who would rather have died than follow God’s plan for his life.  From the “stomach of the fish” and from the “depth of hell,” Jonah “cried for help” and God “answered” him.   Why?  God could have easily raised up someone else for the task.  But that’s not how God works.  God doesn’t throw away people or His relationships.  We run, God pursues.  We ruin.  God restores.  While we are swimming in our moral abyss, God is preparing our mansion.
  • The madman: In Luke 8, we are told that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee with His disciples.  His men probably assumed they were on another field trip with their Leader.  Jesus was actually on a restoration mission and not even a raging storm could stop Him.   Waiting on the other side was a man known throughout history as the “demoniac.”  If there was any man not “worth the effort,” it would have been him.  By all human accounts, he was beyond “saving,” just ask the townspeople who lived near him.   In fact, Scripture paints a pretty dim moral portrait describing him as demon-possessed, naked, chained, under guard and living in the tombs.  Literally, his home was the community cemetery.  Within moments of landing ashore, Jesus rolls up His sleeves and gets to work.  With one question, Jesus began the restoration process.   Others treated him like an animal.  Jesus wanted to know his name.  Seconds later, he is a new creation – “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”   Such is the effect of a messed up life in the path of a restoring God.

I think about restoration a lot these days.   For starters, I’m in need of it.   I’m a man who understands what it’s like to cling to the bottom knot of a moral rope… and then let go.  Again and again.  Foolishly, I have spent time with “bad company” and like the Bible predicted, it corrupted “good character.”  (I Corinthians 15:33)  Like a negligent captain, I have run my moral ship aground and have, as a result, lost my most precious cargo.   The lyrics to the song “In the Light” by DC Talk resonate with me:

I keep trying to find a life
On my own, apart from You
I am the king of excuses
I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do

The disease of self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to my soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring this sickness under control

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicions
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior

Ironically, I drive a company vehicle with the word “restoration” on it.   Every day I am in a home that has experienced tremendous loss.  Every day I interact with people who know what it’s like to lose something precious to them.   A few have lost loved ones.  All have lost possessions.   Some have lost hope.   Whether it was fire damage from a stove, smoke damage from an appliance, soot damage from a chimney or water damage from a busted pipe, my entire focus all day, every day is restoration.   As I walk through devastating home after devastating home, the one question that permeates my work is “What can be restored here?”   I find myself asking the same question in life; for me and others.

mr restorationAs I drove off the property that day, I saw the name of the company that was working alongside of mine,

“Mr. Restoration.”

How fitting, I thought.  I was struck with the irony.  Yes, it is the name of a franchise business.  But it’s also the name of my God.   This company restores furniture, my God restores lives.  The business does it for money, God does it for glory.   And this company operates their business just as God operates His, one person at a time.

Whether you live in the cemetery, struggle with an addiction, wrestle with your tongue or your temper or battle a bitter spirit, restoration is on the heart and agenda of God.  And if it’s on His mind and schedule, it should be on ours too.

“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up.”  - Anne Lamott

Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (Joel 2:25) 

 

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4 blessings of the Billboard

BillboardI used to have a secret and by all accounts it was a juicy one.  It was the kind of secret that - if it got out – would be BIG news to a large number of people, literally all over the globe.  It was a secret so salacious that it would – without doubt - forever impact the lives of thousands of people – beginning with mine.  It was a secret so potent, so dark, so unbelievable that at first, no one would believe it.  Eventually, when reality set in, most everyone would turn on me for having it and keeping it so long.  Because of the damning nature of this secret and the irreversible damage it would cause, I thought it best to keep it hidden, covered under the proverbial lock & key.  And I did.  For many, many years.   I covered my tracks.  I erased my fingerprints.  I rehearsed and remembered my story.   In the process, not only did I become good at hiding the secret, but I became good at becoming something I never intended on becoming – deceitful.  As I discovered, secrets and deceit always go hand in hand.

And then it happened.

One night, while on vacation in Hilton Head, SC with my family, I broke down.  Emotionally broke down.  As they slept in the next room, I was on the condo floor with my Bible and a bucket of tears – realizing it was time for the secret to be shared.  My guilt, suppressed for years, had taken its toll on my soul.  My secret was beginning to crack.  The safe it was in was no longer safe.   Figuratively speaking, the bodies I had buried were apparently not buried at all.   My skeletons were coming out of the closet and there was nothing I could do – but confess.

And so I did.

In the beginning stages of brokenness, the only ones who knew the secret were the ones that were in a position to help.  That is, until the secret jumped out a window, ran into the front yard, got into a nearby taxi and made its way down the street.  Very quickly, it travelled beyond the walls of help.  Apparently, the town gossip (a ministry leader in town) made it her mission to share it with others and, as a result, my secret was leaking faster than Wiki.   Life, as I knew it, would never be comfortable again.  My darkest sins felt like they were on the city billboard.   The scarlet letter was now permanently branded on my chest.

In the early days, I resented this woman and those who were sharing my secret with others.   Not only did I hate the sin, hate getting caught and hate the consequences they brought – but I hated the exposure that came with it.   My once good name was no longer good.   I had fallen off the pedestal.  All the good deeds I had done were simply erased from the ledger.  It is hard enough to go through a personal crisis or moral failure privately.  It is excruciating to wade through the moral muck publicly.  I can’t even imagine the celebrities (actors, politicians, musicians, etc.) that have to publicly climb out of their immoral fishbowl after national or international exposure.  The pain, at any level, is virtually unbearable.

For me, several years have gone by since the initial exposure.  I have had time to work on my “stuff” and begin to heal from the pain caused by the sin, broken relationships and public fall from grace.   And I have come to a surprising revelation – after the dust has settled.  Simply put,

There is a blessing in the billboard.

Billboards are the highway’s advertisements.  Located off of major roads, they are designed to get the message out to as many people as possible.  Yes, it’s hard to have your sins listed publicly.  It’s really tough to have your long-held secrets shared in open forum.  It’s deflating to discover your darkest stain is mentioned under the guise of a prayer request, the church’s justification of gossip.  And when living in the age of Google and Bing – the search engines used by the planet – a traditional billboard would be a welcomed alternative.

As time has gone on, I have discovered some blessings in the billboard.  There are 4 distinct advantages in having your darkness exposed publicly by the light:

1) For starters, the secret is no longer a secret.  Bad things grow in the dark.  Good things grow in the light.  The cockroach of your secret scurries away from the brightness of the light.   Like hydrogen peroxide on a fresh wound, light has a purifying effect.  Though painful at first, the light will soon become the preferred environment to dwell in.  A secret-free life is a free life indeed.

2) As painful as it is, your past mistakes (publicly mentioned) can help others avoid the pothole you fell in.   Though most of us have to learn the hard way, there are a precious few who learn by the mistakes of others.  Your sins on a billboard help them see the “bridge is out” sign long before they get there.

3) Everyone can fall.   You are in a unique position to show others how to rise again.   If your secret was revealed privately, very few people would know what you are overcoming.  But when your name is in lights – everyone can see that restoration is possible and what it can look like.  Public disgrace can turn into a trophy of grace.

4) Pride is the root of all sin.   We often get into the trouble we do because of pride and pride keeps us from getting help or getting out.  When your world does finally crash on you, a humbling of sorts takes place.  When your private moments are broadcast on a public billboard – it creates a humility that can scarcely be found anywhere else.  And that humbling experience, as hard as it is, can keep you from moving back to the land of secrets.

The truth is, secrets live where God wants to dwell – in the heart.  And God doesn’t share His space well.   When He finds darkness where there should be light, He does what He does best – heart surgery.   And unfortunately for us, His kind of surgery is often without anesthesia.

It’s painful.

It’s public.

It’s necessary.

And it’s motivated by love because He likes His children in the Light – away from the bondage of secrets.

 

“I am not what I ought to be, not what I want to be, not what I hope to be. But still, I am not what I used to be. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.” – John Newton, former slave trader & writer of the popular hymn, Amazing Grace.

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.   It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.   But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” (Ephesians 5:8-13)

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Law to the proud, Grace to the humble

Rod with his players during a time out.

Rod with his players during a time out.

Last year I had the privilege of co-coaching a girl’s volleyball team for a local high school.  Like most coaches, I love my team but sometimes struggle with the various personalities and abilities represented.  Some of the nicer girls can’t hit a ball to save their life.  A few of the attitude problems seem to also be my better players.  Obviously there are those who maintain a great balance between ability and pleasantness.  As a coach, you are wired to win.  However, you also attempt to teach sportsmanship and emphasize the importance of positive attitudes and teamwork, regardless of score.   attitude quote

One night during a frustrating match, I had an attitudinal “coup d’etat.”  One player refused to give me eye contact when speaking to her,  blatant disrespect.  Another player rolled her eyes when given instructions.  Another athlete responded to me “curtly,” obviously frustrated by her lack of performance.  Another one sat sullen on the bench after realizing she wasn’t going to play that much.   The reason she was on the bench?  Her sullen attitude.  The girl who could barely do anything on the court immediately found herself in the game.  The “gifted” girls sat on the bench stunned by this move.

How do you handle such behaviors?  How do you know when someone deserves the law or whether they need to be shown some grace?  If you are too soft, the team won’t respect you.  If you are too hard on them, you could crush their spirits.  What if you yell at the girl who needed a pat on the back?   What if you pat on the back the one who is stabbing yours?   These questions don’t just plague coaches, but parents, teachers, employers, etc.  How do you know when to be lenient or just “throw the book” at them?   Believe it or not, there is a 2,000 year old principle that gives us insight on this question.

It’s best illustrated in the lives of two different people, each possessing two different hearts.   One is a man, the other a woman.   One looks great on the outside, seems to have everything we all want in life.   The other can’t look any worse, at the lowest point in life, on the verge of being executed.   One struts in pride.  The other is drenched in humility.  Both represent mankind.   We are either like the man or we are like the woman.   Which one represents you?

Meet the woman (John 8:1-11):  It’s bad enough to be having sex with someone you shouldn’t be.  It’s even worse when you are caught in the very act and drug into the public square about it.   That’s where we meet this woman.  Clothes barely on.   Hair all messed up.  Tears streaming down her face.  Sitting alone, in the open square with judgment and shame all around her.  Her sins are listed on a billboard on Main Street.  Her dirtiest secret is now front page news.  In her case, her sins are not only immoral but illegal.  According to Jewish law, sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be was punishable by death – death by stoning.  With rocks in their hands, the men surrounding her were more than happy to execute.

They bring her to Jesus, clearly setting a trap for Him.  She is the bait.  They want His opinion on how to handle such a sinner.  It is obvious by her crime that she deserves the law.  If He agrees, she will be dead in about 45 seconds.  If He says to show grace, He will be violating Jewish law – the very Law handed to the Jews by His Father and the very law He has claimed to fulfill.

Meet the man (Mark 10:17-27):  Rich, young, powerful.   Isn’t that what we all want?  Who doesn’t want to be rich?  Who doesn’t want to be young (again)?   Who doesn’t want to be in charge?   Yet, in spite of being in possession of all three of those desired traits, this man still knew he was missing something.  And oddly, he knew that a poor, homeless, carpenter from Nazareth had his answer.

Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to get eternal life?”   (In other words, how do I get to heaven?)

The question is cloaked in pride.  By outward appearances, he looked good and he wanted to look even better.   The common view in 1st century Jerusalem was that the rich were blessed by God.  Naturally, this guy would be in Heaven.  His life is too blessed (materially) not to be.   21 centuries later, our views have barely changed.

When the rich, young ruler asked Jesus his now famous question, he was not expecting Jesus’ answer.  Of course, that is typical God.  He never answers our questions the way He’s supposed to.  He spent His entire life on earth turning our logic on its head.  His faith often baffles our reason.  Every word He uttered was contradictory to His culture.  As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.” (55:10)   This is clearly the case here.   The man had earned salvation.  If anyone was getting to Heaven because of their good deeds, this man was it.   At least, that’s what he thought before Jesus opened His mouth.

It’s a fair question and one we still ask today.  In other words, what spiritual coins do I have to put into the cosmic vending machine to get the spiritual goods?   Live a good life?  Be more good than bad?  Don’t kill people?  Don’t rob banks?  Don’t commit adultery?  Just obey the 10 commandments, right?   As long as I follow those rules, I’m in?

In the case of the woman, her deeds clearly earned her a spot in hell.   I mean, next to murder, adultery is #2 on the sin list.  In the case of the man, his deeds clearly earned him a spot in heaven.   He is a pillar of the community.  And they both stand in front of a Holy Christ – certain to confirm what their hearts already told them.   Their deeds are recorded.  A human court would agree.  The divine courtroom awaits the Judge’s verdict.

Notice how Jesus addresses each one individually.  Notice how each one receives something completely unexpected.   Why?   Why would He give the law to one and grace to the other?   Why not give the law to both or grace to both?   The answer is found in the heart of each person.   Herein lies the 2,000 year old principle:

Law to the proud.  Grace to the humble.

Jesus takes the man to the only place you can take a proud heart.   Directly to the Law.   To him He says, “You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

The man, in his pride, was quick to say he obeyed them all.  Pride often does that – blinds us from our faults. It obscures our inadequacies.  Makes us think we are better than we are.   It prevents us from seeing ourselves as God sees us.  We obey the verses we want to obey and think we are fine. We keep the law physically and assume we’ve kept the law morally.

It’s true, he had never killed anyone.  He probably didn’t sleep with anyone’s wife.  He had no reason to steal.  He most likely visited his parents weekly.   Man always focuses on behavior.  God always looks at the heart.   And when a heart is filled with pride, the only thing that can break it is the law.

By contrast, the woman knew she was sinful.  If her deeds didn’t remind her daily, her reputation did.  And she was caught in the very act of adultery – sex with someone else’s husband.  There is no hiding such exposure.   There was no where for her to go.  Caught and in custody, she had no reason to assume that she would ever be free.  If the stones didn’t kill her, shame certainly would.   Humiliated beyond repair.  Humbled beyond hope.  Only a miracle would save her now and that, she would learn, is all she needed.

So, on a volleyball court in Columbia, SC – as I watched my team of 12 struggle during one of our games, my mind flashed back to this 2,000 year old principle.  How do I address these girls?  How do I know who needs to be benched?  How do I know who should be on the court?   And it hit me.   Their heart.  “Let their heart guide you.”    And so it did.

The rich young rulers were benched.   The girls who were humble and respectful finally saw playing time.   Ability, talent & performance, for this moment, were secondary to what was really needed – heart.    Hubris may win a few more games, but heart makes a better team.   Ask any coach.

So, next time you are at home and dealing with children… or at work and dealing with employees… or on the court and dealing with players… look at the heart.   Think about the principle.

2,000 years may have gone by but the human heart is still the same.   Some of us are Pharisees and some of us are prostitutes.   Some need the law to change.  Others need some grace.  And though our habits do matter to God, He’s really interested in our hearts.   And He’ll bench you all day long if it will help make your heart more like His.

Law to the proud.  Grace to the humble.

What’s in your heart?

God opposes the proud

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Lovers: Pridefully hidden or humbly caught

One of the most well-known verses in all of Scripture is found in John 8:1-12, most commonly referred to as the passage about “the woman caught in adultery.”   Though her name is unknown, her sin is well documented.  To the biblically literate, her story is as familiar as it is powerful.   One minute, she is enjoying a passionate illicit rendezvous with a lover.  The next minute, she is before a kangaroo court with her life hanging in the balance.  One Man, stooped on the ground, seems to hold her fate in His hands.   A group of men, self-proclaimed executioners, await His verdict.  And off in the safe distance, barely visible and barely dressed – is her hidden lover. Equally guilty. Completely uncaught. The story represents all of mankind.  Before a loving God, we are either the hidden man or the caught woman. We hide in pride or confess in humility. Which one are you?

Below is the possible perspective of the hidden man.  Click here for the possible perspective of the caught woman.

*************************************************

They gave me 30 pieces of silver to sleep with the town whore and then they bust in the room and take her away?  What kind of move is that?  It looks like they are dragging her to court.  How is that for justice?   Why would they pay me to sleep with her, anyway?  That’s certainly an odd request coming from the Pharisees. Makes me just like her, I guess.   I thought it odd that some of them seemed all too familiar with her name and whereabouts.   This obviously isn’t her first rodeo.  Strangely, I don’t think it’s theirs either.  I wonder what she got paid for our tryst?   Doesn’t matter really – this whole experience is going to end up costing her.  

(He watches)

She must be cold – only wearing that robe.  She certainly looks scared.  I would be too if I were facing her judgment with all those stones.   woman caught in adultery 2Her cries for help seem to be falling on deaf ears.  Honestly, I think her fate was sealed before she ever came to the room today.   And now she sits, sobbing, dirty, soiled, on the ground in the middle of the temple court – a public spectacle for the people to see.  It’s not like her reputation could be worse.  But clearly, in this case, she was set up for a fall.  Such is the price of being a first century woman.

(Continues watching.  Sees a lot of commotion.)

Now, this is interesting!  They are bringing her before Jesus.  I’ve heard about that Man.  Strange Fellow, really.  Obscure background.  Odd companions.  Weird cousin.  Outrageous claims.  But, I have to say – He does some amazing things and everyone loves Him.  Well, everyone but the Pharisees.   I wonder why they are bringing her to Him?

Pharisee: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women: what then do You say?”

Wait a minute!  The Law says both parties should be stoned, not that I’m going to come forward with that legal fact right now!  I wonder how Jesus will respond to this one? I wonder if He knows this is a trap?  If He says stone her, He will be violating Roman law since only a Roman judge can convict someone of murder.  Besides, He preaches too much grace and love to say such a thing.  If He lets her go, He will be contradicting the Law of Moses – the very law He keeps saying He fulfills.  Man, He’s stuck either way.   No matter how He answers the Pharisees are going to use this against Him.   This should be good. 

(He continues watching)

What is He doing?  Why is He stooping down like that?  Is He writing on the ground with His finger?  Man, this guy is strange!   I wish I could see what He’s writing.  The seasoned Pharisees seem to be reading it.  The younger guys keep demanding an answer.   I’ve got to say, this Jesus guy does everything in His own time.  He doesn’t seem in any hurry to answer these men.   Oh wait, He’s standing to speak.

Jesus: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Now He’s writing on the ground again.   He writes something and stares at one of them.  Writes something else and stares at the next guy.   His eyes are piercing.  They are all squirming and whispering now.  What is in the world is He writing?  I wish I could see!

(Thud.  Thud.  Thud.)dropping rock pic

Wow!  The older ones are dropping their rocks!

 (Thud.  Thud.)

Seriously?  They are walking away!  I can’t believe this!  Not one of them is going to stone her??  Is Jesus picking up a stone?!   The woman is sobbing again.   Maybe Jesus is going to stone her??  After all, He seems to be the only One without sin here.

Jesus: “Woman, where are they?  Did no one condemn you?”

Woman: “No one, Lord.”

Jesus: “I do not condemn you, either.  Go.  From now on sin no more.”

(The woman walks away, right past her semi-hidden lover.)

Who is this Man??  If He is really sent by God like He claims to be, why isn’t He judging her?  Is my view of God all wrong?  A God who cares?  A God who forgives?

I have spent all this time hiding in the dark, afraid of being judged.  I wonder if it’s safe to come out now?

Jesus: I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

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“What are you here for?”

untitledIf there were one question that was most commonly asked to someone in jail, it was this one, “What are you here for?”

Correction officers asked this directly to inmates.  Inmates frequently asked it to each other.  Guards, inmates, prison workers – everyone wanted to know what you did to get there.  They knew there was a background to the story and many wanted to hear it.  After all, no one ends up in jail accidently.

Every inmate is there for a reason.   Some, as you can imagine, committed pretty heinous crimes.   Others were in for less violent reasons.  The crimes varied across the board.  For example:

  • I slept thirty feet away from Mr. Johnson, a quiet, elderly man serving a life sentence for a double homicide.
  • One man, named Paul, I met while doing some work in the Maximum Security wing.  He was an enormous man with an award-winning smile and fantastic personality.  On the few occasions that we spoke, he was a very engaging conversationalist.  He was there for raping his three-year-old niece.
  • A twenty-year-old named Chris was there after kidnapping a ninety-year-old woman during a botched armed robbery.   Chris and I spoke every night.  That is, until he attempted to assault me when I refused to give him a piece of candy.
  • One of my cellmates was there after his sophisticated shoplifting ring at Walmart was finally busted.
  • Another cellmate (I had six overall) named Andrew, a truck driver, had failed to pay a speeding ticket seven years ago.
  • One guy was locked up for cursing at the Judge during his hearing.
  • Many men I met were there for manufacturing Meth, a rampant problem in Lexington County (SC), where I was detained.
  • As I mentioned in a previous blog post, hundreds were there for their failure to pay child support.
  • Public drunkenness, simple possession, resisting arrest, DUI, driving under suspension, driving without a license, trespassing - the list of charges was as long as it was varied.

Some, like myself, were taken into custody immediately after a court hearing.  Others were arrested at work.  Several were taken from their beds.  One was detained right from the shower.   It was fascinating to hear their stories and the background of events that led to them being in jail.

And while I listened to literally hundreds of stories, two thoughts constantly came to mind.

The first was the level of transparency each man possessed while sharing his particular story.   As they were telling their version of events, most did not sugarcoat the offense but instead provided details I would have no way of knowing – details that could not be shared if they weren’t telling the truth and details that would not help “spin” their story more positively in their favor.   I was impressed with their candor.

And their candor got me thinking.

Why are we not (usually) this transparent in free life?  Why do we not share at this level with our families?   Why do we not talk this openly around the water cooler at work?  What keeps us from providing such damning details about our previous lives to those in our current social circles?   What is it about the truth of our past that forces most of us to want to live a present lie or pretend it never happened?

I think the simple answer is… relationship.

If we actually shared (out-loud) the things we have done or thought about doing – we’d have no friends.  No one, we think, could hear about our past and still want to be in the same room with us.   What I have done (fill in the blank) is so bad/so wrong/so dirty/so deviant (etc.) that no decent human being could hear it, let alone relate to my actions.   If they knew I think about such things (or gasp – did such things), it would certainly affect my current relational status.

So, we keep quiet and force our painful past (or current thoughts) to endure years of solitary confinement.   We keep the demons locked up behind a freshly painted door and hope that their screams will not be heard by those on the other side.   They can kick, scratch or yell all they want but as long as we keep that door closed, we’ll be fine.   This is what we tell ourselves in the free world.   Keeping the door to our past closed, I have come to realize, puts us free people in even greater bondage than those I met in jail.

Jail is one place where the demons come out.   It is where the past torments the present.  And in the darkness of a place like that – it has a way of doing what the free world cannot – level the playing field.   In the free world, I can hide my past deeds or current thoughts and blend in rather nicely in the environment I’m in.   In jail, I cannot.   I might be in for jaywalking and you might be in for disturbing the peace but the point is – we are both still in.  Our very presence there points to an embarrassing reality.   And because incarceration is such a public event, your private deeds are no longer private.   This, I think, is why I saw such refreshing transparency in there.   It’s easier to talk about your wrongdoings in the midst of other wrongdoers.  Is someone there going to judge you because you committed a crime?   Can someone in jail look down on you for being incarcerated?   Your offense may be different but you’re both there for a reason and therefore you share a common bond that few on the outside can understand.

This leads me to the second thought that hit me as these men were sharing transparently with me.  Why isn’t this same question (“What are you here for?”) asked in more often… in Church?

Our normal answers to this question reveal more about our propensity to deceive than we care to admit:

  • “I’ve heard great things about this church and wanted to check it out.”
  • “I like the music.”
  • “The sermons are always challenging.”
  • “They have great programs for the kids.”
  • “It’s close to home.”

Is there some truth to all these answers?   Sure.  But does it really address the true reason why we go to church?   Is it really about the music?   Or the youth programs?   Or even the sermon?

When I walk into a hospital, there is no shame in telling everyone I meet that I have a broken bone.   In fact, I’ll even show it to you if it means you’ll fix it.  And I’ll tell you how it happened and how it feels in the moment and answer any question you ask without shame or embarrassment that I’m there.

When I walk into a doctor’s office, I don’t feel any temptation to hide my flu-like symptoms.   I’ll sneeze my head off and blow my nose like a trumpet without a second thought because I’m sick.  I know I’m sick.  You know I’m sick.  The doctor knows I’m sick and the sooner I’m honest about every last symptom – the sooner I’m walking out of there a healed man.

For some reason, though – we do not view our soul sickness the same way.   Our mind could be corrupted, our heart could be deceitful, our tongue could be forked and our hands covered in blood – and we would still have trouble admitting why we are really in church.   What if we heard the following answers to the same question, “What are you here for?”

  • I’m a functional alcoholic and desperately need help.
  • I fight with my spouse every night and I don’t know what to do.
  • I am addicted to pornography and I obviously cannot stop on my own.
  • I need help forgiving my parents for something that happened years ago.
  • I am the victim of domestic abuse and am looking for a safe place to heal.
  • I am divorced and very lonely most nights.   I need a supportive community.
  • I am struggling financially and want to know what the Bible says about money.

What would happen to our communities if church was THE place where these real life needs were talked about from the pulpit?  Even better, what if the members of the church were equipped to handle visitors walking in with real life issues like these?

Recently, I attended a local church that addressed some real life issues from the pulpit.  The series was called “The Bible’s Biggest Problems” and I was impressed that the Pastor was tackling some of these taboo subjects head on.   The Sunday I was there the topic was “Homosexuality.”  Could there be a more divisive topic than this one today?   Click here to see for yourself how this particular Pastor handled it.   In my opinion, it was refreshing.

The truth is, we ALL have a past and we are all called to use that past to help others.     A recovering alcoholic can empathize with and help those who struggle with that addiction.   Only someone who has buried a child can understand the devastating pain of a grieving parent.  Whether you are a survivor of rape, a person with a criminal domestic violence charge or the woman who experienced a miscarriage – your painful past can help someone else’s current painful present.

This is why the Apostle Paul reminds us that the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

Church wasn’t meant to be a country club to go to on Sundays before lunch.   It’s not designed to be a place where you can drink some coffee, meet up with friends, enjoy a rock concert and hear a humorous motivational talk.  It is THE place where the spiritually sick can find, in the Person of Christ, their cure.   And God puts people with a past in positions of comfort and encouragement – for those walking into the building – looking for help and hope.

What’s in your past?   Have you received the comfort of God yet?   If so, pass it on.   There are those sitting next to you (in your family/at work/at the gym/in the pew) who need to know that their past deeds or present struggles can be redeemed.

After all, it’s what they’re really here for.

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I fought the law and the law won

handcuffed handsAs they were putting handcuffs on me, I had a flashback of a chorus of an old song playing in my head:

“I fought the law and the law won. 

I fought the law and the law won.”

Like catching a case of the giggles in a funeral, I found myself smirking at the remembrance of this song – though I was not at all happy about the circumstances or the reason I was being “locked up.”

Growing up, I had a record player in my room.  As best as I can remember it, I only owned 2 records myself; one of a Bill Cosby routine and the other was Bob Newhart – both delivering hilarious deadpan comedic genius.   I listened to both of them repeatedly for years.  When those two were not spinning in my room, I would borrow some LP’s from my step-Dad’s collection.   One favorite from the Bobby Fuller Four was called, “I fought the law and the law won.”   The lyrics, “I needed money because I had none” and “robbing people with a six gun” lead the listener to assume the nature of the “fight” with the law.

Last August, I had my own “fight” with the law.  Needless to say, my “fight” was a bit different than the one in the song.   I wish I could tell you I was a fighting a speeding ticket or that I appeared before a judge because of a parking violation.   No, my “crime” was a bit more serious.   And no, it did not involve “robbing people with a six gun.”

Unfortunately, my “fight” with the law had to do with child support.   Like most divorced Dads, I am required (by law) to pay this each month.  However, instead of my child support amount being determined by my income, I am required to pay a flat amount regardless of how much money I make.  (For the record, I foolishly agreed to this arrangement while unemployed unaware of how difficult finding a salaried position would be.)  The amount I owe, by anyone’s standard, is high – particularly in relation to my income.   To make matters worse, I have really struggled to find consistent employment and employment that will pay consistently.   I have sent my resume to hundreds of companies (literally) and have found that the only companies that will pay what I need are the commission-only sales jobs.  As those who share a similar compensation can attest, commission-only sales can be “feast or famine.”  Some months you make quota, some months you don’t.   Given this economy, it’s been mostly famine.  Many months I have been unable to pay rent, and barely able to put gasoline in my car or keep my electric on.   It’s been that bad.   It’s not that I didn’t want to pay my child support – I literally couldn’t and still survive.  The months I had the money, I paid.   As the saying goes, “you can’t get blood from a stone.”

So last August, I found myself back in court – as a Defendant, trying to explain to a family court judge as to why I was behind (yet again) on the child support.   Though there were many factors that attributed to my inconsistent track record, I tried to merely explain what caused the most recent infraction.  Not being able to afford a lawyer, I reluctantly represented myself and was given only a few minutes to plead my case.   In my possession I had proof of employment, proof of why I was not able to pay child support that month (I lost an unprecedented 5 sales in one month thus causing a charge back of commission) and proof of incoming income.  The judge was not interested in seeing any documentation.   My request to approach the bench with this information was denied.  Shockingly, he then turned to the Plaintiff and asked for their suggestion on how to handle this situation.   Their suggestion was crystal clear… I should be sent to jail.   Apparently there I would “learn my lesson.”

Within seconds, the judge declared his verdict, grabbed the gavel and slammed it on the mahogany wood “bench.”   I was to be sentenced to six months in the local county jail.   Needless to say, I stood there a bit stunned.  All I kept thinking was, “How is this in the best interest of my children?  How does me being in jail get them the money they need?”   Within 30 seconds I was in custody and whisked away by the courtroom bailiff.

Once I was out of the courtroom, I immediately surrendered my personal belongings and three different set of cuffs were placed on me; one on my wrists, one around my waist and one binding my ankles.   I was treated like a dangerous serial killer.   A bit extreme, I thought, for a man who unintentionally violated a civil court order.

Over the next hour, I watched man after man enter in from the courtroom, all before the same judge, all violating the same order, all receiving the same exact sentence.   As we compared stories in our 10 x 15 cell, it was obvious that justice was the last thing being served that day.   The family court’s objective is to determine what is in the “best interest of the children.”   The court is the established keeper of this mantra.   That is the standard that all parties (Judge included) are supposed to follow.   It falls to the court to determine not only WHAT is in the children’s best interest but how to enforce it.  Granted, it is in the best interests of the children to receive child support.  Raising children costs money.   Most divorced dads understand that and 98% of us want to get the kids what they need.  98% of us pay what we can as soon as we can.

That morning, in that tiny little cell directly behind the Judge’s chamber, every divorced dad in chains asked the same question, “How is THIS in our kid’s best interest?  How is losing our jobs in their best interest?  How is losing our homes and worldly possessions in their best interest?   How can a Dad be expected to provide anything for his children when everything is being taken away?”

Over the next few months, I sat, ate, worked and slept next to over 250 divorced dads incarcerated for their failure to pay child support.   I learned their names and heard their stories.   Of the throng of men I met, only 3 were truly “deadbeat dads,” the scarlet letter title automatically given to men in our predicament.   The majority of the men are dads who love their kids.  They are dads who want to provide for their children.  They are dads who, for various reasons, are victims of this economy or the target of an ex-wife who just wants to see them punished for past sins.   And sadly, the courts facilitate such revenge with counter productive punishments like jail sentences.   Jail should be for criminals.  Or actual deadbeat dads (those 3 I met).  Jail should be for dangerous people; drug dealers, drug users, shoplifters, murderers, rapists and burglars – not loving dads who are struggling in a hurting economy.

On August 27th, 2013 – ten dads had a fight with the law and the law won.mugshot

Ten dads lost their jobs.

Ten dads lost their homes.

Ten dads lost their worldy possessions.

And what about the children represented in those 10 families?   They lost too.

The children lost their dads for a season of their life – a season they can never get back again.

And they lost the financial support they needed while their dad was incarcerated.

But hey, the law won.

And THAT is in the best interest of the children.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

  • Sadly, this was my fourth appearance before a family court Judge in four years.  Every time, the Judge has threatened me with jail.  (It is their default threat since the County financially benefits from dads being incarcerated.)  All three times, the Judge required me to pay an extraordinary amount of money, within days of that hearing, or a bench warrant would be issued for me.  All three times, I was able to borrow that sum of money to avoid jail time.  As is their custom, the Judge oftentimes will ask the Plaintiff what outcome they would like to see happen.  (I have since learned that Moms hold tremendous influence as to what happens to the “deadbeat dad.”)  On one occasion, the Judge was asked not to throw me in jail, since I played an instrumental role in the children’s schedule – taking them to and from school every day (a 2 to 5 hour commitment per day, depending upon the after school activity).  By the time of the hearing mentioned in this post, the Plaintiff had re-married, moved the children out of state and I was no longer needed to help with the children’s daily schedule.
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