Gone too soon

There’s an old song by Harry Chapin that haunts me some days. If you find yourself saying “Who’s Harry Chapin?” don’t feel bad. The name may escape you, but you’ll undoubtedly remember the lyrics of his only #1 song Cat’s in the Cradle. The chorus goes like this:

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man on the moon

When you comin home, dad, I don’t know when,

But we’ll get together then, Son,

You know we’ll have a good time then.

In fact, now you’ll probably struggle to get the echo of that refrain out of your head the rest of the day. Sorry about that.  If you remember the storyline of the song, you know it is the story of a father who doesn’t’ have time for his son – the relationship with his son gets lost in the details of life.  As time passes and the chorus flows into later verses, the roles are reversed and the son gets busy with his life and the father finds himself on the other end of the stick – longing for the relationship for which his son most likely yearned in earlier years.  Harry Chapin once said in an interview that the song was about his relationship with his son, Josh, saying “frankly this song scares me to death.”

29 years ago this week, my Dad helped me to move in to a really, really hot single room on the 3rd floor of Kitchin Dorm at Wake Forest University. The high temperature that day was 104 and air conditioning had not found its way into most of the dorms on Wake’s campus. The window fan was a life-saver those first days as a Demon Deacon. After the last load of clothes, school supplies and other assorted items was hauled up the stairs, Dad and I said our goodbyes in the parking lot between Kitchen and Poteat dorms.

That moment has played back through my memory over the last several days as my son Andrew has moved into one of the campus residence halls at N.C. State University.  The passage of time has brought me to a place where I stand in the other’s shoes – I’m not the student beginning college, but I’m the father of a young man who is stepping out to make his way in the world.  At one and the same time, in different relationships, I’m the son and the father — the son who may choose to not make time for his father and the father who hopes his son will make time for him.  I think the transition would be hard enough in and of itself and when you add the sorrows and regrets of a thousand selfish choices I have made that have undoubtedly affected Andrew; you begin to have a sense of the chilling wind that whistles through the corridors of my mind.

There is no way to go back and undo any negative consequences associated with the past and the impact on Andrew (and a host of others for that matter).  There is not a cosmic balance where the other end of the scale can be loaded with good, positive, healthy attitudes, decisions and actions.  It simply is what it is.

As I dropped Andrew off after lunch yesterday afternoon, the pain of those regrets and missed opportunities just flooded my soul and thoughts as I drove home.  He had to hurry off to one of the many events that are a part of freshman orientation and I drove away in the same way as my father 29 years earlier, with tears in my eyes, sadness at what has been missed but hope for what the future holds because of the fierce determination and dedicated and compassionate faithfulness of my son.  I hope someday that it might be said those things run in the family – my Dad got it from his father and passed it on to me and I passed it on to my son.

Since you have a Harry Chapin song playing on the mp3 player in your brain, let me close with another thought from his music.  There was something in his music about the pursuit of opportunity and the hopefulness of life – that the past doesn’t have the last say in determining the patterns of the future of our lives, our families, and our world.  That’s the balance of hope to the melancholy of regret over past mistakes.  He wrote about it in a song “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World”.  The lyrics provide the epitaph inscribed on Chapin’s tombstone, marking the place he was buried after dying in an automobile accident in 1981, just months shy of his fortieth birthday.

Oh if a man tried

To take his time on Earth

And prove before he died

What one man’s life could be worth

I wonder what would happen

to this world

Every tomorrow that becomes today provides that opportunity to exercise ability to choose which God has given you and me – how am I going to live my life today?  Imprisoned by the regrets and sorrows of failure or liberated by the hope to do everything I can to leave the world better than I found it?  Don’t let your hope be stolen away.  Don’t let it be gone too soon.

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Keeping Your Fence Lines Clean

In honor of the life of Roger Allen Edwards, August 30, 1933 – October 3, 2017

If you drive around the countryside of western North Carolina, you’ll see all manner of fence lines — ranging from those well-kept by those who tend that land and others that have become obscured by honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, kudzu, and other things that like to climb on fences.  Even today, 12 years after his death, I see an unkempt, neglected fence line, and I think about how the principles of my Poppie, Basil Edwards, would make such a thing intolerable and how he strove all of the days of his life, including the day he died, to keep his fence lines clean.  When I speak of fence lines, I’m not focusing on just the literal boundaries of his pasture land surrounded by barbed wire fences, but also the boundaries of his relationships with others, where he sought to address and resolve differences, redress any wrongs done, and maintain strong connections with others.

That’s really a characteristic that Poppie and his brothers and sisters received from the teaching and instruction of their parents, John and Bessie Edwards.  To some degree, I can witness that I have seen it exemplified in each of their lives — keeping fence lines clean meant doing the work to maintain solid, strong relationships with one another and other family, friends, and neighbors.  If there was a relationship that exemplified that for Poppie more than any other, it was most likely his relationship with his “little” brother Roger.  Uncle Roger was more than a brother to Pop.  He was also one of his best friends.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005 Pop and Roger started the day at the Junction with a cup of coffee, conversation with a small group of men from the Lomax community, and a bit of armchair quarterbacking solving the world’s problems for that particular day.  This particular day, they didn’t linger as long as they normally would because there was an unfinished chore which had Pop’s attention — finishing cleaning the fence line around his pasture.  There was a section of the fence line that ran alongside Tharpe Road along a high bank left when the state had widened and paved Tharpe Road several years earlier.  While the state trimmed the road bank from time to time, the fence line at the top of the bank was beyond their responsibility — that belonged to Poppie.

Poppie and Uncle Roger took their weed eaters and set out to trim grass and weeds that had grown out of control since the last time the fence line had been cleaned.  This was just one of the tasks to which Poppie seemed “called” during the late summer and early fall of 2005.  Even with his physical limitations, he had worked intently to leave his farm in good shape for the coming winter and beyond, having, I believe, a sense that his earthly sojourn was drawing to a close.  It wasn’t as if he had received a telegram or a phone call communicating the day and hour of his departure, but more of an inner sense compelling him to be well-prepared.

After some time, as I understand the sequence of events, Uncle Roger’s weed eater wouldn’t run anymore.  As the story has been related to me, what happened next is significant to the events of that day, and this past Tuesday, October 3, 2017.  It is said that Pop handed Uncle Roger his weed eater, telling him it had plenty of gas, and then went down to the pick up to rest and wait, telling Roger that when he was done they would go home.  Pop sat down in the pick up while Roger continued to work and sometime in the next few minutes took his last breath, going on “home” ahead of Uncle Roger.  I have heard stories that older brothers will sometimes do that, running ahead of their younger brothers.  In this case, I think it was well-intentioned and purposeful.

The handing off of a weed eater, in essence, became the passing of the torch.  Roger became even more of a leader in his immediate family, the larger Edwards family, and in his church and community.  He had never labored in the Poppie’s shadow or that of any other person.  Even still, his opportunity to have influence in the lives of others seemed to grow over the remaining years of his life.  Even while he battled lymphoma, he continued to serve, and give, and love.  His testimony, in the face of his diagnosis and journey with lymphoma, repeated often, was “I am a winner either way!”

Uncle Roger went into the hospital over the weekend due to a pretty sudden decline in his health.  As I received and reflected on that news and the setting in time of this sequence of events, I began to wonder about what the next few days might hold.  When news came on Tuesday of Uncle Roger’s death, 12 years to the day since Pop’s, I can say that I was not surprised.

Over the last several years, Uncle Roger has honed something of a talent for singing in church as a soloist.  One of his oft-requested songs is How Great Thou Art.  He sang that at Poppie’s funeral.  What I appreciated most about his rendition of that beloved hymn that day was the genuineness of his offering in song.  It was, no doubt, an emotional day, and he “made no bones” about that, acknowledging it and allowing his emotion and tears to flow during his singing.  If memory serves me well, it was the final verse that elicited such a distinct and visible response —

When Christ shall come
With shout of acclamation
And take me home
What joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow
With humble adoration
And then proclaim My God
How great Thou art

There is no way to know whether Uncle Roger saw down through the days and years of time and looked forward to this past Tuesday, the anniversary of his brother’s home-going, anticipating that he would go home on another Tuesday in October, 12 years hence.  Whether he did or didn’t, it is certain that a little after noon on Tuesday, Uncle Roger did what he often sung – he heard a shout of welcome, his heart experienced joy unspeakable, and with humility and honor, he bowed before the One gave him life everlasting and a song to sing about it.

This past Christmas, at the Edwards family Christmas gathering, Uncle Roger challenged those of us of younger generations to step up and serve, specifically in hosting the annual dinner, but more generally, I believe, in keeping our fence lines clean — maintain solid, strong relationships with one another and other family, friends, and neighbors.  With that in mind, I would urge you to consider that the torch has been passed to those of us who remain, continuing the work until we have opportunity to go home to rest.

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Some Thoughts about Sowing and Reaping — Galatians 6:7-10

Note:  if Grace were about getting more chances to get it right, I’m pretty sure I would exhausted my share and those designated for a couple of other people.  I’m grateful for Grace and the invitation to speak at Corinth Reformed Church this morning, July 2, 2017.  It fulfills a bit of my dream to be involved in pastoral ministry in some fashion once more.  


7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (NIV)

The book of Galatians has been called “the Magna Charta of the Church.”  God has used its message to stir world revivals in former generations.  The great spiritual awakening of Martin Luther and of the Reformation was stirred as Luther read and studied the message of this book.  John Wesley received peace of heart – peace for which he had so long searched – when he heard a sermon preached from Galatians.  The message of Galatians is targeted toward our hearts and is intended to stir us to action – action rooted in the knowledge that we are saved by Christ and Christ alone.  It has been said that Galatians contains the message of Liberty, yet Subjection; of Unity, yet Diversity; of Oneness, yet Difference.”

Blake Tommey wrote in this week’s d365 devotional:  In 1963, 300,000 protestors gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and sang the hallmark civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.” Enduring violence, discrimination, political opposition, and painful longing to this day, African Americans and others in pursuit of racial equality continue to recite the famed gospel song when freedom feels most threatened.

Verse after verse, singers repeat one line above all: “Oh, deep in my heart.” Perhaps that’s the only part of our bodies that can’t be chained. Maybe true freedom has to occur deep in our hearts, especially if we’re waiting for oppression or sin to release their grip on the other parts of us.

Paul says the heart is the source of our obedience to God’s grace. Only there can we experience true freedom from sin. Sin will, of course, continue to have its way with us, but if the core of our being knows only a loving, grace-filled God, then we will be free.

True freedom means deciding we are free even under the yoke of an oppressor— whether it be cultural in the form of racism, sexism, ageism, or another of the countless ways in which freedom is limited or personal oppression as it manifests itself in selfishness, fear, neglect, indifference, hatred, feelings of inferiority, diminished self-efficacy….and the list could go on. With God’s unbelievable grace deep in our hearts, with our hearts securely in the grasp of God’s grace, we can face these oppressions, these limitations, these hindrances with freedom.

Our Scripture reading earlier in the service this morning came from the New International Version.  As we move into the heart of the sermon and I share some thoughts on sowing and serving out of this freedom of the heart, I want to read the same verses from another source, a different version, to perhaps give additional illumination to the text and the thoughts to which I want to call our attention.  This is Galatians 6:7-10 from The Message:

7-8 Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.

9-10 So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.

I’d like to offer you a handful of observations and thoughts about sowing and service based on these verses from Galatians 6.

First, notice with me that there is a Word of Reminder.  I read several other translations of this passage and noticed that the first part of verse 7 is rendered as an imperative in every translation I read.  An imperative is a way of making a request, offering an exhortation, or giving a command.  Paul urges us “Do not be deceived.”  “Don’t be misled.”  Or J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament – “Don’t be under any illusion.”  To what deception, misleading, or illusion can we be subject?  While there are many, I want to just highlight a couple that come to mind quite readily.

We can be subject to the deception that God is distant and thus, He is unconcerned, uninvolved, and uncaring.  If our concept of God’s sovereignty extends to the point that we require His intervention to stop senseless violence, inhumane acts by one person or people toward another, or the downward moral spiral of our society and culture, and God does not act, we can be inclined to think that God is distant and is not concerned, does not want to get involved, and thus, He does not care.

We can also be misled by the thinking that we have figured out God.  This is when we view God from a strictly pragmatic standpoint.  The thinking goes like this – If I do A, then God will do B.  Sometimes our pragmatic thinking about God gets very involved and complex – If I do A, B, C, and D, then God is required to do E.  It is an understanding of God based in cause and effect.  In other words, by my actions (the cause), I can elicit a defined, expected response (the effect) from God.

Another illusion in which we can be inclined to believe is that we can contribute to our own salvation or even achieve our own salvation by our efforts.  This is the particular illusion Paul is writing to dispel through the book of Galatians.  The churches in the region of Galatia had encountered a group of false teachers, the Judaizers as they are called, who were professing Jewish Christians teaching a mixed Gospel.  They taught that a person is saved partly by faith and partly by works; and that a person grows in Christ partly by faith and partly by their own effort.  In the particular context of the Galatian believers, they were taught it was necessary to believe in Christ AND to participate in the main ritual of religion, i.e., circumcision, AND observe all the ceremonies and rituals of religion.

For what reason does Paul include this reminder?  I believe it is because a level of self-awareness, knowing the particular deception, or misleading, or illusion to which we ourselves are subject will greatly assist in our hearts remaining free, unencumbered, and unoppressed to serve and to sow out of our experience of the grace of God.

Paul reminds us so that we will be aware of the temptations of thought to which we are inclined.  Then he offers a Word on Relationship in Sowing.  “A man reaps what he sows.”  “What a person plants, he will harvest.”

I grew up on a farm in Wilkes County.  Pun intended, you might say that I was raised on a farm.  When someone asks what we grew or what we raised on the farm, I will sometimes respond by saying that we grew rocks.  If I had not observed and participated in the sowing and harvesting of the corn that became silage for my Dad’s cattle and later in the cultivation of fescue for hay for the cattle, I would have been left to the evidence of my experience of picking up rocks out of the plowed fields.  Rocks.  Hundreds of them.  They ranged from the size of my five or six year old fist up to the size of my father’s hands in a double fist.  After the corn was cut for silage, and the field was plowed, it was time to “harvest” rocks.  Part of the reason I know that we didn’t grow rocks is because we didn’t plant anything in the way of seed to produce them.  They were produced by innovations and improvements in farming technology and equipment that allowed plows to cut deeper and deeper into the levels of the earth.  In case you are wondering, you can’t plow as deeply with a mule and a single point plow as you can with a Ford 4000 and a moldboard or disc plow.  The point of the story is that we were not harvesting what we had sown because we had not sown.

Paul talks about the outcomes of sowing in Galatians 6 – a person reaps what they sow.  That is the relationship to which I believe our attention is drawn and we will consider that in just a moment.  First I want to attend to an implication I believe I see in these verses that one may choose to not sow at all.  Please note that I am not suggesting that it is an option, but rather hoping to underscore that it is not an option.  A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, beautifully illustrates this.

God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Richard Rohr has written, “If your spiritual practice doesn’t lead you to some acts of concrete caring or service, then you have every reason not to trust it.”  Not sowing, I would suggest, truly is not an option for the heart secured in God’s grace.  Every child of God has a unique gift to share with the world that reflects the grace of God which they have experienced.

The relationship in sowing to which Paul directs our focus is not just the relationship between sowing and reaping – we harvest what we sow, but also the relationship between our sowing and the source out of which we sow – selfishness or Spirit.  Where the NIV translates the phrase “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction,” the Message renders it with a stronger emphasis – “The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God! — harvests a crop of weeds.”  The text continues by saying all that person will have to show for their life is weeds – crabgrass, poison ivy, kudzu, horse nettles, and thistles, spiritually speaking.

The outcome of sowing to “please the Spirit” or “in response to God” is far different.  The harvest will not be weeds or destruction but rather “real life, eternal life.”   You and I may sow in small ways, medium sized ways, or large ways through relationships, attitudes, and actions.  The magnitude of your sowing isn’t the most important thing.  In fact, I’m not sure it even registers as an important factor to consider.  More important is that we are attentive to and rooted in the grace of God allowing us to sow out of the Spirit.

The last observation or thought about sowing and serving that I want to share is that Paul gives a Word about Responsibility.  Verse 10 in the NIV begins with the word “Therefore”.  You might replace the word ‘therefore’ with the phrase “In light of these things.”  Then the verse continues to say, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  I would submit to you that our responsibility begins not with the act of doing good, but with the intentional awareness of and engagement with opportunities to do good.  Opportunities exist all around us and our hearts, unbound to live in the freedom offered by God’s great grace, unclouded by the deceptions of our limited thinking, can readily identify those opportunities for which we are gifted and for which we have a passionate call, or sense of leading from God.  I believe both are important and necessary to avoid the calamity described in verse 9 where Paul speaks of growing weary, even to the point of quitting.  Be on the lookout for opportunities – YES!  But be careful to avoid the trap of serving at every opportunity – it will exhaust you.

Speaking of opportunities, I do want to remind you that some of the opportunities for this Service Sunday are time-limited and specific to today.  There are others that are on-going – the Hope Garden, Hickory Soup Kitchen each Wednesday, our Card Ministry (just to mention a few).  I also want to make mention of one opportunity that exists right now within our church family.  Earlier this week, Pastor Bob sent an email to the men of our church with a couple of opportunities for men.  There may have been a similar email to other mailing lists, but I am aware only of the email to the men.  The second request in that email had to do with a specific, current financial need for a church member.  Through gifts to our Good Samaritan Fund, there is an opportunity to assist in this need, to “work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith” and not only this need, but others that arise as we go from week to week.  Please note that we are doing the offering differently today and you can place your offerings and gifts in the offering box as you go, designating gifts to the Good Samaritan Fund as you see fit.

Be reminded that our best human thinking can be influenced so that we are misled or deceived and our continuing focus on the grace of God extended to us in salvation through Christ alone helps us to not be disillusioned.  Don’t forget that the relationship out of which we give is most important and seek to give out of the Spirit of God which lives within you.  Finally, exercise responsibility, living out of a heart secure in God’s grace to seek and engage opportunities to do good, and seek the benefit of all.

Amen.

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Light to Find the Way Home

For the funeral of Jay Tilley
February 27, 2016

A little boy walked along a country lane one dark night, with his father, and carried the lantern which lit their pathway. The darkness and the silence all about frightened the little fellow. He said, “Daddy, this light reaches such a little way, I am afraid that I can’t see the way to get home.” His father answered, “True, my boy, but if you walk on, and walk in the light you have, the light will shine to the end of your journey and you’ll find your way home.” I have no doubt that you would agree with me that there are what we might call “night times” – dark times in the Christian’s experience when God gives His children what seems like only enough light to take the next step. And that is all that is needed. We may be sure of one thing,—the light will never go out. If we walk on, it will shine to the end of the journey.

For some of us this morning, in spite of our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, this may feel like one of those night times. The loss of a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, neighbor, and friend leaves a really empty place and it may seem as if there is very little light shining right now. The little story that I told is not only proven by our experience, but it also expresses a truth that is endorsed by Scripture. This morning, as we remember and pay tribute to the life of Jay Tilley, I want to talk about his life, the knowledge of it that I have based on my experiences with Jay, and I want to talk about the light that helped Jay to find his way home, to be at home, to be whole, complete, fully knowing and fully known forever with God our Father.

In the first chapter of Genesis, we read “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” On what we know as the first day of creation, God saw there was a need for light, something to illuminate the darkness and the Creator spoke, and it came into being. It appeared. It existed. From that moment until this day, there has been the presence of light, naturally provided by the sun and artificially created in a myriad of ways, and it illuminates our world. On March 18, 1933 when Jay was born into the home of Albert and Vadie Bryant, he began to experience and to benefit from this natural, created form of light. It is the light that speaks of the general revelation of God, how God has made himself known to all people, everywhere. And Jay knew that light by virtue of his birth into the family of man, by his entrance into our world.

Just as there is physical light and physical darkness, illustrated by our day and night, there is also spiritual light and spiritual darkness. At the same time God was creating physical light, which is contrasted by darkness, there also existed this spiritual light. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the Scripture says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I want you to let that 5th verse settle into your heart and mind and think with me about it as a pattern in Jay’s life. It happens more than once through the course of his life.

Most often, we will experience spiritual darkness before we can know the opportunity to experience or benefit from spiritual light, the light of God’s love shining into our lives. It was that way with Jay. This is a part of the pattern of his life. At a young age, death separated him from his parents and as a young child, he knew the darkness, the spiritual void of loss. On the first day I met Jay, which was almost 10 years ago, he and I talked for about 2 hours. As he told me the story of his first wife, I knew her as Mrs. Tilley, and their life together, he also told me about his life and as a man 72 years of age, he recalled the faint, thin memories of his mother and father and you could sense, even then, the emptiness of loss and the darkness it brought to such a small child. This was the first time in Jay’s life that loss brought the experience of darkness and created the space for the experience of light. Simone Weil, French philosopher and Christian mystic, once wrote “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Into this void came the opportunity for Jay and his siblings to live at what was known as the County Home, what is today Hope Valley over near Dobson. I think it was there and in the experience of being taken in by a family that would raise him and provide for him that Jay first experienced something of the spiritual light that he knew in his life. That family not only raised him, but they instilled in him the values and ethic about work, and family, and kindness toward your fellow man that guided and served Jay well through his life. There was a receptiveness with which Jay welcomed this light and this light seemed to be sufficient to guide him through much of his life.

There were other ways that this spiritual light came into Jay’s life, other ways in which Jay came to know something about the love of God as he experienced it in the giving, unconditional love of others. He experienced it in the love he was shown by his first wife, Mrs. Tilley. He experienced it in the love and affection of the children which blessed that home. He experienced it in the love, affection, and adoration of his grandchildren. When I first came to know Jay almost a decade ago, I remember the care and concern the grandchildren had for their grandfather – they looked after their Papa. They loved him and he loved them right back, maybe just a little more than they loved him.

I came to meet Jay in the midst of what would be another of those dark times of his life – a night time when there didn’t seem to very much light. Mrs. Tilley had been fighting Alzheimer’s for a long time and hospice was involved to help the family. On several different occasions, the family had declined when asked about a chaplain coming and on a Thursday near the end of April 2006, I received a message that the family had asked for the chaplain to come and they wanted me to visit the next day. Jay and I sat in the living room and talked for a few minutes and then, when we were asked to step out for a few minutes, we went out into the back yard. That’s where I learned about his experience of spiritual light in the love he had been shown by others – his wife, his children, and his grandchildren.

In the course of just a few days, Mrs. Tilley passed away. When the family requested that I conduct her funeral service, I thought back to that conversation the first afternoon Jay and I met. I think back to it often. I wrote in my remarks for Mrs. Tilley’s service a statement that is still true today; “I wish that I could have recorded that conversation because there was a lot of wisdom in what he said and it was a beautiful tribute to his love and to her love for him.”

I made a commitment to stay in touch with Jay. As a chaplain with hospice, there is most always a desire to stay in touch with families after the death of their loved one, but there is not enough time to allow you to do that. It seemed there was always time to keep that commitment to visit with Jay and stay in touch. Over the course of the summer and early fall of 2006, I would stop by to see Jay. Often it was late in the day, when other visits were done and if we ended up talking another two hours, I’d just be home later that evening.
On a Thursday afternoon that September, I visited with Jay and again we sat down in the living room to talk. As we talked, he began to retell the story of his life, the story that I had heard that Friday afternoon in April. This time, it was different. Remember earlier, I mentioned there were some patterns that stand out in Jay’s life. This was another time when there was spiritual darkness that allowed for the experience of spiritual light. This was another time when the light shone in the darkness and the darkness was not able to overcome it.

As Jay talked that afternoon, I sensed there was emptiness, an uncertainty. He knew, as he recounted the story of his life to that point, where he had come from, but he seemed to be unsure of where he was going from there. He wasn’t certain if the light that he had would be sufficient to get him home. In John 8:12, we read “12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

I remember asking Jay if he could point to a time in his life when he had, by faith, accepted Christ as his Savior, invited him into his life, and trusted him for the forgiveness of his sin. Jay didn’t just speak with his words. He spoke with his eyes, his facial expressions, and his body oftentimes. As tears came into his eyes, he told me that he had not. He said, “I know I’m lost, preacher.” I loved that he called me preacher, especially at moments like that. I remember asking Jay if he would like to change that and profess his faith in Jesus. As long as memory serves me, I believe I’ll remember what happened next. Jay said that he would like to do that, but that he would like to have his daughter involved. Before I knew it, he was out of his chair, down the hall, calling for Debby, except, as we all know, Jay called her Elaine. In just a few minutes, Debby (or Elaine) joined us and the three of us stood in the living room of what is now Debby’s home and Jay Tilley invited Jesus, the light of the world, to dispel all of his darkness.

Over the next three or so years, I was privileged to become Jay’s pastor (yes, he still called me preacher), to baptize him into the fellowship of God’s family at Flat Rock Baptist, and to see him grow and serve in the Body. He sang in the choir. He got involved in Bible study. He was active with the Senior Adults. He helped out with most everything that took place around the church. He was sharing the light that he had received.

God saw fit to bless Jay with other experiences of spiritual light – particularly through his meeting and marrying Mary. I remember the Wednesday night, some months after they met, when Jay told me that he wanted to talk to me and that conversation led to the planning of a wedding and I had the privilege to marry Mary and Jay at the conclusion of a worship service at Flat Rock. God also blessed Jay through the continued love of his children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. A couple of weeks ago, when I last visited with Jay, I was not surprised to hear that the great-grandchildren were still able to draw Jay’s attention. They continued that pattern of extra special connection that Jay experienced with their parents and were another beautiful and wonderful way in which Jay was blessed with the light of the love of God.

I find in my recollections of Jay Tilley more than mere evidence of his faith and trust in God through Jesus Christ. I find experience of his faith and belief through his words and his service. I am grateful for his presence in my life and for the assurance that, in walking in the light God provided; Jay found his way home to the Father.

The Bridge Builder
By Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

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The Spider in the Endoscopy Suite

Turning 50 earlier this year has, in some way, been a form of the gift that keeps on giving.  By that, I mean that the celebration of my birthday has extended well beyond the actual date of my birth, March 3.  In fact, even as I write this, I’m anticipating one more gift — the arrival of my AARP membership card.  My wife, partner, and colleague in crime (Deb) has assured me repeatedly that she will make sure that I get mine so I’ll no longer be a hanger-on as an associate member connected to her full membership.  While I’m sitting, propped against the mailbox, a la Charlie Brown waiting for Valentines, let me tell you about the most recent gift I received for my 50th.

A couple of weeks ago, on the 26th of May, I was treated to my first colonoscopy.  That’s right, I joined the club of those who have willingly limited their diet to broth, Gatorade and jello of any color other than red, and clear liquids in the run up to the rite of passage that is commonly known as “The Prep”.  Even if you haven’t been through the initiation ceremony that makes you a member of the colonoscopy club, it’s likely you have heard tales of another soul’s plight as they endure this regimen.  For many, it includes foul-tasting liquids chased by large quantities of water and an abrupt change in activity and routine so that everything (and I do mean everything) is focused on frequent and extended trips to the restroom.  Thank goodness it lasts less than a day.  Otherwise it might be considered torture and you’d have to engage the Geneva Convention to address the harm done and, truthfully, you just don’t have the energy to do that.

If you’re thinking that this sounds more like a gag gift, then I would say that you are right to this point.  The gift wasn’t in the colonoscopy itself or “The Prep” leading up to it, but rather it was found in the tiniest creature in the endoscopy suite.  Before I tell you about him (or her), let me tell you a bit about what was on my mind that morning.

As the nurse was putting an IV in the vein on the back of my right hand, I realized that it has been 41 years since I have had to have an IV.  The last time I remember having an IV was when I was in the hospital in 1974 with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  I haven’t had to have surgery.  I haven’t been hospitalized.  I haven’t encountered a hospital emergency room except as a visitor.  It would seem I’ve been rather adept at avoiding the vast majority of health issues that have affected others in my family and circle of friends.  In spite of that good run, as I waited in the holding room, I was more than a bit anxious.  There’s an old saying about anxiousness which goes, “I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”  That would be a pretty accurate description.

That anxiety began to settle though when I noticed the tiny creature making its way over and around the monitor which was beside my gurney in the endoscopy suite.  In the midst of the hurried activity going on within just a short distance, a little spider was calmly making itself at home on that monitor.  At one point, the spider attached to the bottom edge of the monitor and via a single strand of web, lowered itself about eight inches toward the floor and then pulled itself back up to the monitor.  I thought to myself, “If this tiny little being can go about as if nothing else important is happening, then I can relax and be calm in the face of the most invasive medical procedure I’ve had since an ER doctor put a couple of stitches in my head after a mini-bike wreck when I was five.  Yes, I had a great anesthesiologist who administered Propofol just a couple of minutes later, but in the moments after watching the spider, I was the most calm and relaxed I had been in the last week.  Just a quick aside, I now understand why Michael Jackson relied on Propofol to go to sleep every night — once it is administered, it’s like someone has flipped a switch and you are out, or under, just like that.  It’s a shame that its use was fatal in the case of the King of Pop.

I happened to see my anesthesiologist the following Sunday at church and in the process of thanking him for his kindness and excellent work, I happened to mention the spider.  He told me that he had not seen what was surely an uninvited guest.  As I walked away, I wondered if he thought I might have been hallucinating.  Whether I was or not can’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but Deb will tell you that the spider was the first thing I spoke of in recovery and I assured her I wasn’t hallucinating.

Dallas Willard has written in The Divine Conspiracy, “The obviously well kept secret of the “ordinary” is it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows.  But the divine is not pushy.”  Then Dr. Willard quotes Huston Smith who said, “Just as science has found the power of the sun itself to be locked in the atom, so religion proclaims the glory of the eternal to be reflected in the simplest elements of time:  a leaf, a door, an unturned stone.”  I believe it is also found in a spider playing on the monitor in the endoscopy suite.

Father Richard Rohr has written, “If God became flesh and entered this world in Jesus, then the hiding place of God is this world, in the material, in the animals, in the elements, in the physical. These are the hiding places–and the revelation places–of God!”

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Remember

Even though I’ve heard the story countless times, I can always stand to hear it once more.  It’s a story my Dad tells from his childhood and it fits into the context of today, Memorial Day.  When Dad was just a young fellow, there was a young man from the Benham community who was killed in action, as a part of the United States Army forces fighting in Italy.  Initially, the young soldier, not quite 23 years of age at the time of his death in September of 1944, was interred in an American cemetery in Europe.  After some time had passed, perhaps 2 or maybe 3 years, his family opted to have his remains brought home to be buried at Benham Baptist Church where the family belonged.

Some recollection of this story comes to mind almost every time I set foot in a cemetery, particularly when I accompany a family to their loved one’s final resting place as the minister conducting the service.  It is especially prominent in my thoughts when I officiate at the service of one who is a veteran of a branch of our Armed Forces.  That strong association between my circumspect awareness of my surroundings and my Dad’s memory focuses on the playing of “Taps” which concludes the rendering of military honors at the burial of our military personnel.  Dad’s telling of the story first captured my imagination and attention because he vividly described the chills sent up and down his spine by hearing those shrill notes sounded by a bugler positioned some distance away.

There’s another reason why that story and the associations it creates are vitally important on this Memorial Day which comes almost seventy-one years after the death of Charles William “Charlie” Hanks.  It has to do with the importance of remembering.  Dad was 2 years, 6 months, and 11 days old when Charlie was killed on the 16th of September 1944.  He recounts wondering how he could remember something so vividly at such a young age.  In other words, looking back on this event, he wasn’t sure he could trust that he had actually experienced what he remembered given his age and Charlie Hanks’ burial date.  Was it possible that he had heard the story told in such a memorable fashion that he incorporated into the memories of his own experiences?

In order to verify that he “knew what he knew,” Dad talked with another member of the Hanks family to gather some additional information about when Charlie’s burial had taken place.  Remember the time that passed between Charlie’s death and burial in Italy and his return home to be buried in the familiar soils of Wilkes County?  That passage of time is not reflected on the marker that denotes his final resting place so it would appear that Dad’s age at the time of the funeral would have been as I noted earlier.  When Dad learned that he was somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 when the re-interment took place, it made perfect sense to him and he could own the memory, truly, as his own.

Why is it important to remember?  You could quote George Santayana who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  While I tend to like that quotation, it doesn’t quite suit the purpose of Memorial Day.  Memorial Day has its roots in what was known as Decoration Day, which began to be observed after the Civil War.  There is evidence that soldiers’ graves were decorated by both the North and the South while divided forces of our country were still engaged in conflict with remembrances being conducted as early as 1861 and 1862.  It is interesting to note that recently freed slaves joined together with teachers and missionaries to organize something that was very much like Memorial Day to honor the Union soldiers who had been killed and buried in unmarked graves near Charleston, SC.  While President Johnson named Waterloo, NY as the birthplace of Memorial Day observances in 1966, it should not be overlooked that May Day, May 1, 1865, saw the gathering of some 10,000 people in Charleston led by recently freed slaves and most brought flowers to decorate the graves, honoring those who had died in the horrors of war.

Remembering isn’t particularly valuable as a preventative measure.  We tend, by virtue of our living, to make the same or very similar mistakes as the generations who have come before us.  We don’t seem to do very well at avoiding the mistakes of the past just by remembering.  Remembering, in the context of Memorial Day, is distinctly valuable as a means of conveying honor, respect, appreciation, and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of women and men who have died while in the service of our country’s military.  While I do not believe it is prudent to wrap oneself in our nation’s flag and defend every action of our country as right, just, and above reproach, I sincerely believe that the calling and choice of military service is one that should be honored, without fail, each day that we live.  In the service of our nation, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, over one million women and men have given what has been aptly named the ultimate sacrifice.

I walked this morning through the tombstones and markers at Oakwood Cemetery and stood for a long time at the grave of another young man who died in World War II, just as Charlie Hanks did.  His name was Rome Wilson Stewart and he was killed in action in France in 1945.  As the sun began to drive away the chill of the early morning air, I listened for a bugler set on a distant hill.  In my mind, I heard the familiar refrain that, as it did with my Dad in the mid-1940’s, still sends chills up and down my spine.  The original lyrics written for “Taps” seem to be a fitting reflection and guide for your life and mine (emphasis added):

Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know

God is nigh.

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A Not So Usual Anniversary and its Unusual Gifts

There are anniversaries in our lives that we observe most effectively by remembering, engaging in a time of recall and reflection.  Recalling what happened to us, or to our world, on a particular day or at a specific time and reflecting on the impact of that event in our lives and how it has shaped or changed us, or has altered the way in which we view or approach the world.  Something significant, perhaps even world-changing occurred, and it is essential to our lives to remember.  These are not occasions routinely marked by the giving of a gift or planning a time of joyous celebration.  Usually these milestones are more solemn than celebratory and evoke reminders of past loss, shock, sadness, disappointment, or other emotions of bittersweet remembrance.

As a society, there are a number of these occasions that come to mind, some more readily than others because they are a part of our contemporary experience.  Those who belong to an earlier generation would include Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy as examples of this type of anniversary event.  My generation would undoubtedly include the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 and the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  Perhaps, like me, you remember where you were and who you were with when you heard or saw the first reports of those occasions.  Each year, on those particular anniversaries, I find that I easily call to mind those details that help to etch in my mind the significance of those occasions.

There are often events in our personal lives that are occasions marked by somber reflection.  Many times these are occurrences that touch our lives and the lives of others within our family.  It may be the death of a loved one or the ending of a relationship through divorce that we remember with a bittersweet mixture of memories.  There are instances like that in my life and the remembrance of those events may evoke tears that are shed in the midst of a smile.  Some times the moving of a family, the loss of a job, the closing of a major employer, or other similar event will provide the basis for such an anniversary.

It is the loss of a job that provides the basis for this particular reflection.  After working as a chaplain for hospice for over 7 years, I was terminated.  Fired.  Dismissed.  There is no other way to characterize it and try to put a different spin on it.  Looking back, there is no doubt that it was the right thing to do and the decision was certainly warranted based on my conduct.  The date was Friday, February 4, 2011.  If you’d like to be more specific, I can give you the time as well.

As the fourth anniversary came and went this year, I was intent on being more “in charge” of the direction of my reflection.  Having come to a place where I could see this event, once the source of much pain and shame, as a catalyst for much that I consider good in my life, I could honestly characterize being fired as one of the best things to ever happen to me.  That perspective was a gift to me, in and of itself.  I really was blown away by the gifts that I realized I had received in the weeks following that anniversary.

Let me share a bit of the back story that adds context and meaning to this experience.  The experience of being fired dislodged me from the comfortable world of denial because it brought me face to face with the ugly reality of what I do when I feel I have been betrayed.  It reopened a wound obscured for almost forty years and led me into therapy.  There, for the first time ever, I was able to acknowledge before another human being that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and identify the sexual compulsivity that became a way of medicating and numbing the intense pain and psychological torture.

In the summer of 2011, I attended a conference in Philadelphia.  The event was sponsored by New Life Ministries and was called Every Man’s Battle.  It is specifically directed toward men who deal with addiction issues around pornography and sex.  One of the activities asked that I draw two pictures — the first would depict the outcome of my life if I was unsuccessful in my recovery and the second was to depict something I hoped for as a result of my recovery.  Needless to say, the first picture was rather dark and bleak as I drew a grave marker for my final resting place.  The other picture depicted a family gathered around a large dining table — the family I hoped to share with Deb in marriage.

In the weeks after this year’s anniversary of my termination from hospice in 2011, I have seen the fulfillment of that vision in a couple of ways, but not in the way that I expected.  A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a group of guys who have been my workout partners for over two years.  They continue to be a source of support, encouragement, and accountability and seeing them gathered around our kitchen table reminded me of that picture I had drawn almost four years ago.  That was one way in which I believe that vision has been fulfilled.  The other instance was this past Sunday night when we hosted our foyer dinner group.  This time, rather than just being gathered around the kitchen table, there were groups gathered around both the dining room and kitchen tables and I shared a briefer version of this story as a prelude to our blessing.

This coming weekend I hope to see the fulfillment of the specifics of that vision as family gathers to celebrate my birthday.  We’ll be missing some of our family who won’t be able to make it home.  That simply means there will be future opportunity for additional fulfillment of my dream.  That is a most wonderful gift.

20 Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, 21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”  Ephesians 3:20-21 (KJV)

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I am Christian Grey. NOT!

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed taking what I would call a mental health day for me.  Purposefully, I did some things that were good for my emotional and spiritual well-being.  I traveled to Surry County to have coffee with a friend, stock up on honey as my sweetener of choice, and to have lunch with my parents.  While driving, the radio was tuned to a station that played an  advertisement for Valentine’s Day  and that caught my ear.  So as not to promote the company, their name will not be used here, but I suspect you’ll be able to identify them rather easily.  The radio spot featured their limited-time offer for the “50 Shades of Grey” bear.  The image that appeared in my mind was confirmed to be rather accurate when I visited the advertiser’s website later in the day — a teddy bear outfitted in a tuxedo jacket, shirt, and bow tie holding a blindfold in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other.  I couldn’t help but think about all the media attention given to the movie that was obviously the inspiration for the item advertised and the comments and social media posts from those who couldn’t wait for the movie to hit the screen.  From a dark corner of my mind, a very smug, self-righteous voice spoke, wondering just what “they” would do if their son or daughter walked into the room where their 50 Shades bear was prominently displayed.  “Why is your bear holding a mask and handcuffs?”  In essence, I wondered about how aware they might be of the lessons a child would take away from that encounter.

Instead of remaining a projective judgment about the intentions or actions of others, that question became an intensely personal reflection.  Within moments, I recognized the voice as that of my Shadow, my personal representative of human nature’s tendency to deny one’s unhealthy, harmful, destructive tendencies, seeking to remain hidden in the darkness while shining the spotlight of judgment and condemnation on others to insure escaping notice.  That is commonly known as deflection and can be used to escape blame or to cast shame on another.  Christopher Pike has written, “When your point your finger at someone, anyone, it is often a moment of judgment.  We point our fingers when we want to scold someone, point out what they have done wrong.  But each time we point, we simultaneously point three fingers back at ourselves.”  In that moment, I decided I wasn’t going to allow my Shadow to return to its dark, comfortable, hiding place, but rather, I would engage the invitation of the 3 finger majority aimed in my direction and examine myself more closely.  In almost four years as a sex addict in recovery, I have learned some things that I would like to share.  These are things that come out of that self-examination and personal reflection at the core of any journey of recovery.  These are the things that permit me to say, humbly and gratefully, that I am not Christian Grey.

I have come to believe:

Love is not manipulative.  We all know what overt manipulation looks and sounds like.  “If you love me, you’ll ___________.”  Fill in the blank with whatever the manipulator’s desired outcome is that will be the proof of another’s love for them.  The proof of love is shown in the performance of the desired response.  That’s up front, straight-forward, and intentional manipulation.  There’s also a more subtle form known as emotional manipulation.  Don’t be fooled by the use of the descriptive “more subtle” because it is really covert aggression fueled by the manipulator’s need for control, determined to manage the outcomes to meet their expectations.  Love doesn’t require an expected performance on the part of another to prove its existence.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Love is marked by a willingness to trust another and to let go of expectations and give up the need to have control over the outcomes.  In essence, love trusts.

Love and arrogance cannot co-exist.  Merriam-Webster defines arrogance as “an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter, or more important than other people.”  On occasion, arrogance is a projection designed to protect a very fragile and insecure sense of oneself or what would be termed a low self-efficacy by presenting a facade of superiority.    Carl Jung said, “Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”  That something, which is out of tune, can be a manner of being where arrogance appears as a false humility and others become things, material objects without value, worth, or dignity except in what they can offer to or provide for the arrogant user.  Love, however,  establishes the dignity and value of others based on an affection for and acceptance of oneself, recognizing a flawed propensity to to put oneself ahead of or above others.  Love views others as equals with the slight advantage of being preferred over oneself.

Love is not self-centered or narcissistic. In the DSM-5 Guidebook:  The Essential Companion to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Donald Black wrote, ““Narcissistic personality disorder is named for Narcissus, from Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection. Freud used the term to describe persons who were self-absorbed, and psychoanalysts have focused on the narcissist’s need to bolster his or her self-esteem through grandiose fantasy, exaggerated ambition, exhibitionism, and feelings of entitlement.”  Arrogance and narcissism are familiar bedfellows, quite well-known to one another and, more often than not, they go hand in hand.  Love is other-centered based on the awareness of and attention to one’s own needs and caring for oneself, while avoiding the use of others as a means of meeting those needs.  Love says, wholeheartedly and honestly, “It’s not about me.”

Love is not given to expressions of entitlement.  Oscar Wilde, while imprisoned at Reading Gaol (jail or prison) wrote a 50,000 word letter later published as De Profundis.  The title is taken from the opening line of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord.”  In that letter, the writing of which was wholly therapeutic at the time recounting Wilde’s spiritual growth in prison, Wilde wrote “Every one is worthy of love, except him who thinks that he is. Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling.”  The words “I deserve this” as an expression of selfish entitlement are absent from the vocabulary of love.  One who feels entitled will go to any lengths, without regard to damage or harm to others or themselves, to obtain what they feel they need.  There is a healthy expression of “I deserve this” as one acknowledges that they are not a gift to others as much as others are a gift to them and through that gift they receive the care, respect, and love that are essential to well-being.

Love is rooted in our brokenness through which we become whole.  It might seem, as you read this, that the message is that I consider myself to be something of an expert in what love is.  I tend to think that the opposite is far more true.  By experience, I am, demonstrably, much more of an expert in what love is not.  How do I know this?  In my addictive functioning and acting out, I was all of those things that I have presented as exclusive of love — manipulative, arrogant, narcissistic, and entitled — satisfying, fulfilling love cannot exist where those things are present and dominant.  Those are the things that my Shadow would rather you not know and the reason for the accusatory finger pointed at others seeking to draw attention away from itself.  Those are among, if not at the very top of the list, the worst things of which I am capable, the ways in which I am broken.  The very awareness of that is the first step in the journey of healing and toward wholeness, the road I know as recovery.

I’m on that road.  I haven’t arrived and I pray only that I do arrive as I draw my last breath.  This post, some two weeks in the writing, is an invitation to others who find themselves aware of how their brokenness has harmed and hurt others and who want to stop living out of their own pain and hurt and move toward the wholeness of healing, those who would be brave enough to live in the mystery of grace rather than the certainty of judgment.  The words of Anne Lamott seem fitting to capture the sentiment of my journey:  “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

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