Of Course. Always.

I wrote this reflection for Circle of Hope’s recent At-Home Sunday Meeting, and wanted to share it here. I’m wrestling with how we can know God’s will, and more importantly, how we might come to God when we’re unsure what to do. The text is below, and if you click play in the video above you can hear me read it.

He pulled up at his parents’ house around 9 on Sunday morning. He knew the coffee pot would have just shut off after two hours of being on, and his mom would have just turned it back on to keep it warm a little longer.

His parents liked to linger in bed on Sundays, reading the paper and drinking their coffee. He longed to linger in their unhurried approach to the day.

He was stopping by because a big decision weighed heavily on him, and he was hoping they could lighten the load. He helped himself to some of the remaining coffee as they joined him at the kitchen table. His folks knew why he was there, but they didn’t press him. They talked about the weather and some of their ailments as they aged.

Had he heard about his high school’s robotics team and how they were doing this year? They knew how much he enjoyed being on the team during his high school career.

They talked about the news a little and asked him what he’d been reading lately. When the small talk seemed about as done as the coffee, they decided to take a walk together with the dog, just like old times. The old boy was slowing down, but seemed to keep pace with his parents just fine, maybe because they were slowing down a little too.

They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp fall air and the colorful leaves. He wanted to ask them what he should do about this big decision of his, but there was something about the rhythm of their steps together, something about the feel of the dog’s leash in his hand where it had rested so many times, something about the sight of his parents’ hands comfortably clasped together with well-worn grooves where they had come together so often, that all gave him pause.

He looked at his parents and smiled, and they responded with loving nods of affirmation, and in that moment he realized that the weight of trying to figure out what he should do had lessened. It wasn’t gone, but he remembered that whatever he did, he wouldn’t be alone.

And then it struck him that underneath the big decision he had to come to terms with, were some more basic questions, like “Do you love me?” and “Are you with me?” His parents’ eyes said it all:

“Of course. Always.”

They rounded the bend toward home and his parents asked if he could stay for lunch. “Of course,” he said, “always.”  

In Memoriam

My dad’s body at his viewing. He died nine years ago today.

So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.

As I’ve written recently and for a while, my relationship with my dad was complicated. Here’s what I said about him in that recent post:

As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.

It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.

Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”

Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.

So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.

Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.

So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.

And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.

Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.

What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:

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Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.

His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.

Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.

As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.

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A Dozen + Paragraph Answer to a Three Sentence Question, or How To Talk To Kids About the Bible

So I’ve got my oldest son (11 years old and super smart) reading the Message version of the Bible, starting with the New Testament. A year or more ago I had him start with Genesis. He gave up and forgot about it, and rightly so, and it took me a year to realize how stupid I was. As a nearly 41 year old with a seminary degree, I wouldn’t start with the “Old” Testament if I was beginning to read the Bible in the hopes of following Jesus. I’d start with the gospels and try to get a little understanding of Jesus, and go from there. So this time around I had him start with Mark and then go back to Matthew and read through the New Testament. I asked him to email me questions as he read and said I would email back my thoughts. This was 1) to give us both something to reference in writing as we thought about things and so that we could look back at them later and 2) a stalling mechanism to give me time to come up with my “answers.”
This was his first question:
“I don’t understand. It describes demons in people. Jesus has them come out of the person.”
And God help us both, everything that follows is my “answer.”
We believe, and most humans throughout history agree with us, that we are spiritual beings. As wonderful and amazing as the biological world is- the scientific processes that make our bodies go such as cell division and blood carrying oxygen and plants transforming sunlight into energy and people breathing out carbon dioxide which plants need to live and plants emitting oxygen which people need to live- as amazing as all that is, in fact, in part because it’s all so amazing, we think there’s more to us than all that. We have bodies, yes, and amazing minds (the moxt complex and awe-inspiring “machine” that ever there was), and spirits too.
What is it, after all, that makes us us? Is it just the circumstances of our birth (when, where, and to whom we were born) and the people around us who shaped our personalities plus the consequences of all the choices we’ve made throughout our lives, good and bad? We think there’s something underneath all of that, perhaps literally animating us, giving our brains and bodies a life that is more than the sum of our parts. It’s our spirit that makes us unique. So if we are spiritual beings, then of course there is a spiritual world. We read in the Bible that God is spirit, and that God created us to be like him, also spiritual beings. In John 4:24 we read:
23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
So our spirits are who we really are on the inside, and it’s out of that really-us-on-the-inside part that we’re called to worship God, who is a spirit too.
We also read that there are other kinds of spiritual beings, namely angels, and fallen angels, those that chose not to follow God anymore, those who chose not to be beings of light and love. Those dark spirits, led by the Evil One, the devil, Satan, are also known as demons.
As you just read, the stories told in the Bible tell us that demons can inhabit a person. Literally they can live inside of a person. You asked me if I think that’s just another way of saying that the person is sick, and you may very well be right, though I suspect that it’s a little more complicated than that. When we read in the Bible about someone who is demon possesed, we read about them acting basically like a crazy person, maybe talking to themselves, not cleaning themselves, behaving in ways that are not socially appropriate. Today we think we know a lot more than the writers and readers of the Bible did, and we’ve come up with the idea of mental illness and we give people who “act crazy” all kinds of different diagnoses under the banner of mental illness. We’ve even come up with medicine and other treatments that can improve some of their symptoms. I, for one, say that’s great.
But does that mean that somehow the Bible isn’t true, that the people who “acted crazy” in the pages of the Bible were really just mentally ill and could have benefited from some of our modern drugs? I don’t think so.
I don’t think this is an either/or question (as in either they’re demon possessed, or they’re mentally ill). Like so many things, I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, that this is more of a both/and question (as in both demon possession and mental illness are valid categories; that is, both are possible). Take the passage you read that prompted your question. Didn’t the demon possessed person talk to Jesus and say he knew who Jesus was? I read that as saying that the demon or spirit in the man recognized Jesus as the Spirit, the Being, that created all other beings and even creation itself. I suppose a mentally ill person could say something like that or even have that kind of insight too, but the story makes more sense to me if I read it as one spirit- an evil one, one that is opposed to God’s kingdom- recognizing another spirit- Jesus.
So, bottom line, today we use the mental illness category or idea to describe a whole lot of people whose spirits are broken. They’re sick at the very core of their being in some way. I think that’s a fine description and useful. Nonetheless, I think there’s this other category, this other idea of the spiritual world and the possibility that a spirit that is opposed to God could find its way into a person and influence, even control to some degree, their behavior. If this possibility worries you, I hope I can set your mind at ease. I don’t believe that this could just happen to anyone. We were created as spiritual beings by a spirit, God, and we are invited to have a whole and holy relationship with God. We’re even invited to extend an invitation to God, to ask him to come and join us at the core of our being, where we can love and be loved by that Love (God) that made us. When we do that, we need not fear any lesser spirit moving in and muscling God out so that it can have its way with us. In the end, we belong to God, and he looks after his own.
I want to point out one other thing, something I did two paragraps above. I talked about how the story makes the most sense to me. I was “interpreting” it- reading the words in the book and using the knowledge I have of what I understand those words to mean based on everything I’ve learned and experienced to this point in my life. I used all of that to help me make sense of the story. Everybody does that- every single person on earth, no exception. Anybody who says they “just” read any words in any book and can understand them free of their own ideas and experience is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. My point is that this is okay. It’s okay to read especially the Bible, an ancient compilation of stories written over thousands of years by probably hundreds of authors, in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As you consider what makes sense or not, I would encourage you to lean on the guidance, wisdom, and experience of the countless people over those same thousands of years who have attempted the same thing you are, attempted to “read” and understand the Bible- God’s word to humanity, the story of his efforts to love us and win us over. I do. This even happens within the Bible. You’ll see Jesus talk about an “Old” Testament passage and talk about it in a new way. Usually when he’s doing it he seems to be trying to get at some larger meaning, some big or bigger idea. This is a useful strategy too, and so here’s another really crucial point. A church Mom and I used to be a part of has this idea they try to live by, this proverb, which is that “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible.” Look, there’s a lot of it, especially in the “Old” Testament, that makes very little sense to me. I read about God acting in ways that I just can’t understand. When I struggle in that way, I try to remember that Jesus stands at the center of it all- at the center of the Bible, at the center of human history and even the universe itself, and hopefully at the center of my life and yours. I know Jesus to be the most loving, giving, and selfless being that ever was, and it is this essentially loving being/Spirit that made us and is rescuing us from our own rebellion against his loving order. We read in the Bible that if we want to understand God, we need to look at Jesus. In Hebrews 1 we read:
  Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words!
“The Son (Jesus) perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together.” These are powerful words indeed. Jesus was willing to die rather than see us be separated from God through our choice to try to go it alone. That “choice to go it alone,” sin, comes through our choices to do what we want rather than what God says. That sin separates us from the good, right relationship God wants us to have with him, with one another, and with his good, beautiful world. Separated from God, from the one that holds everything together, we will eventually die, not just in our bodies, but in our spirit, in the really-us-on-the-inside part. Jesus was willing to burst through that place of separation by joining us in death so that we could be reunited with God. That’s good news, and that’s gospel truth (“gospel” means “good news”). Of course, the story gets better, becuase God’s love for us is so powerful that even death could not contain it. God made Jesus alive again, and we can hope some day for that same kind of resurrection. In the meantime, we get to live as God’s beloved, as people who have no fear because nothing can separate us from God and his love.
So again, when I struggle with something I read in the Bible, I remember that in Jesus I know everything I need to know about God, and it usually helps me, even if I don’t always get all the answers I want.
So back to the story you read and your question real quick. Jesus told the demon to come out of the person because that’s what Jesus does. He’s in the saving business. His family business is reconciliation (making things right between two parties), and he invites us to join him in it. He saved the person the demon had gone into by telling the demon to get out and gave that person a chance to be free in the really-them-on-the-inside part, so that they could know God’s love in that part of them.
Well, I guess that’s enough from me for now. I probably raised more questions for you? Ask away. Keep ’em coming. I’ll try to be shorter next time with my answer.

The Pain that Leads to Growth

I’ve been confronted again over the past 24 hours with a truism that I should know as well as anyone: you can’t move away from your problems. Lord knows, I’ve tried. Still, I should well know by now that a change of scenery in the midst of painful circumstances can provide a break, some respite perhaps, but can not make one’s pain go away. I have a friend who recently bought a new house and intended to seize the change of scenery as an opportunity to break old, bad habits and establish new, more healthy patterns. Theoretically I’m sure that’s possible. In my life, though, it’s rarely happened. We’ve moved across the country now seven times in nearly 20 years of marriage, often retracing our steps, often in an attempt to respond to a parental health crisis, but at least a time or two such moves were made in the midst of the pain of broken relationships and unrealized expectations. Sometimes those motivations for moving were mixed, of course, and this last time was no exception.

Here in MN there is so very much to like about the “scenery.” I’ve written in previous posts recently about all that the Twin Cities have to offer, what an oasis it is for progressive politics and tax policy, how we really resonate with much of the culture. MN tends to fare better economically than much of the country, and it’s simply a beautiful area too. Nature is really embraced around here. For all those reasons, we’re glad to be here. Of course, a part, anyway, of why we’re here is to care for Kirsten’s mom as her health declines and be present to her family of origin. That’s something that we’re willing to do, but in hindsight not all that surprisingly, there are aspects of it that have proven difficult, more difficult than we imagined, truth be told. The caregiving burden has been taxing on Kirsten, especially as her overnight work hours and the way they’re scheduled at her job here have proven nearly unsustainable. We live very close to much of her family of origin, but both of us work on the other side of the cities, and House of Mercy meets and much of its “life” happens some distance away as well. My commute is probably 90 minutes total every day, which is tiring.

Speaking of fatigue, I’ve found myself struggling with it in profound ways that are hard to explain. Kirsten’s sleep schedule is constantly shifting and insufficient, and the burden of working nights is literally taking years off her life before my very eyes, but I’m the one who can fall asleep mid-sentence or in the middle of typing. I’ve struggled with this before and Kirsten wonders if I have some sort of sleep disorder. I’m sure that’s possible. My dad worked nights for many years and could fall asleep standing up; so perhaps in this as in so many other things I’m trying to emulate him. Still, I know a lot of it has to do with my diet, lack of exercise, and stress right now. We’ve really struggled to establish sustainable routines here, to get into a rhythym of life that feels like it works. After owning a home for almost ten years it’s so weird to be renting again and, at the age of forty in my case, to feel so transient, so unsettled.

I’ll admit that I feel surprisingly isolated. It’s ironic because there’s so much potential here, so many likely like-minded people around. I just have to do the hard work of building relationship and, more than anything, I know I have to give it time. Perhaps I’m just impatient. Nonetheless, it’s a tough time to be isolated, as I’m challenged to do some deep psychological, spiritual, and physical work that I would feel I have better capacity to undergo in the midst of a supportive community. I alluded to one’s problems following you no matter the scenery above, and that’s been my experience, again. As Kirsten figures out how to be integrally immersed in her family system of origin, our family system has been tossed on its head, at least in my experience. There are new/old stresses placed on it (on our little family system) that are hard to endure. Kirsten is faring better at this than I am, of course. After all, it’s her family system of origin, and she’s such a saintly peacemaker that she can get along with and adapt to almost anyone. In the meantime, I’m experiencing a profound sense of loss. I’ve lost our own little family system as it was, anyway, and this only reinforces all the other losses over the past four years.

The biggest and most notable loss just about four and a half years ago now was my Dad, which I’m sure I still haven’t “dealt” with in the way that I need to. Add to that the health and identity as a new runner I fought so hard for about six years ago and it’s simply devastating to experience life now at about the same weight I was before my weight loss/running journey started, but now with chronic knee pain which I underwent the pain and expense of surgery recently in an attempt to lessen. The losses kept mounting, of course. I “lost” my long-time education job that I felt at least pretty competent at for nearly eight years until it all came crumbling down quite suddenly in the midst of painful character assaults (true or not), just about a year ago now. That job ended so abruptly, and so painfully, that I realize now I’m still reeling from the experience. This is a very familiar time of year as it relates to that job. I’d be in the middle of my busiest time of the year in that job about now, and it would all be mixed up with the holidays approaching and breaks from school and the warm feelings the holidays at least have the potential to evoke. I hated that job by the end as it had changed so dramatically right underneath my feet, but I find myself missing it. I left that job and struggled to find something for a couple of months a year ago, but did. However, the job I took meant going from the height of my earning as an adult to very close to the lowest point of it. I took a $17,000 pay cut moving from the one job to the next and had to start over as a professional.

My job here is certainly better, and pays a fair bit better than that last job in OH, but I’m still very much finding my way as something of a novice in my role now. Starting over is arguably good, but hard. On top of all that, though, there was the previously discussed on this blog loss of our former faith community in OH and all the pain that entailed. That end also came abruptly and without a “voice” or ability to exit on our own terms, and my character was again subjected to much assault, again whether true or not. No doubt, we continue to reel from that experience as well.

I should mention that “losing” our house was no joke either. I alluded to this above, but owning a home brought a real sense of accomplishment, a sense of fulfillment that, right or wrong, for good or ill, gave a sense of having achieved a part of the “American dream,” whatever our many criticisms of this “dream” and its implications might be. I’m loathe to openly praise the joy of possession, but having something that  was real and tangible and felt like it was ours in a way that other “things” are not was fulfilling. And that’s to say nothing of the process of selling our home and the stress that brought, not to mention the financial loss and burden (again, on the order of tens of thousands of dollars).

So now I have to work through all this pain, loss, and change, but have to do so while feeling as alone as arguably I ever have in our married life, not because our marriage is “on the rocks” or anything like that (though it is under duress), but simply because of the many demands being placed on Kirsten (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of us) and the resulting stress on our family as a whole. At 40 I still have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I have to figure out how to be a dad without having one. I have to re-negotiate my roles as husband, dad, and “in-law” while immersed in a larger system that has no vested interest in my success. There’s a lot to unpack there, but now is not the time or place. I have to figure out “community” after more than a few failed attempts at it, and I have to settle into a new rhythm of trying to follow Jesus- or not- after yet another “good reason” having been given not to.

For all these reasons, I told Kirsten last night that I was “as depressed as I’ve ever been” in a fairly depressed life so far. Depression and anxiety have been my twin nemeses for quite a while now. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and rightly so. Then, about eight years ago, anxiety suddenly became my primary challenge and that has largely been the case ever since. Last night I told Kirsten that I’d let nearly debilitating anxiety rule the roost for a while and it was time to let (serious) depression have its way for a while.

I was joking, sort of.

Perhaps more than anything, I’m at a crossroads. Down one path I’ll find lots of hard work leading to growth, development, insight, and perhaps maturity. Down the other no doubt lies ever deepening depression and anxiety, conflicted and ultimately poor choices, and more broken relationships in their wake. Pain is the common denominator. Physical, psychological, relational, vocational, and spiritual work hurts, but these are obviously growing pains that result in my good.

That said, I know that protecting myself from further pain will in the end simply bring it about. I just have to transfer this knowledge from my head into my heart and find the strength to choose the pain that leads to growth.

Melancholy Musings Give Way to Love…Just Because…

So I had occasion to revisit my old journal today. I actively journaled for probably close to a decade, in the pre-blog era. My journaling was a fair bit different from my blogging, especially when I started in May of 1995, just before I turned 20, just before my Kingdomworks summer began. My journals were obviously and utterly private, just for me, but then again not really. For a long while they were prayer journals, just me talkin’ to God by putting pen to paper, trying to work stuff out. Obviously I could be honest in them in a way that I simply can’t when the writing ends by clicking “publish.” Still, I suppose each type of writing has value, though perhaps very different purposes. As I sit writing now, I’m listening to Vigilantes of Love, from the “V.O.L” album. This cd was a hallmark of the early Circle of Hope days, circa ’96-’98. As you can guess, then, right now my mind and heart are reaching back into the past, almost as if I’m looking for something. What, exactly, I wonder? Is it this?






Am I trying to find inside me the person about whom someone once wrote:

“With your intensity and passion comes such an honest outcry for your Creator that you cause people around you to wonder. I often wonder what it feels like to be you. Each time I look at you that way I see King David- and it helps me understand you. You do not let yourself get away with anything and your honesty before God breaks your heart so often, but I do not worry. Because I believe you are a king. And I see you behave like a king. You make the hard decisions to set yourself apart. You love ’til it hurts; you hurt ’til you love. You stretch and grope for His hand when you’re in the dark.”

That same person, referencing our Kingdomworks summer, followed the above up with this:

“At present I desire to high-tail it back to where we belong. Back on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”

Back where we belong. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose. The degree to which I’m still yearning to do such high-tailing is well nigh incalculable. Next summer will mark 20 years since I did Kingdomworks, and I’m still spending more time than I care to admit trying to recreate that experience. “I want to show you my allegiance, Lord. Yeah, I want to be a son of yours,” as Bill Mallonee and V.O.L. sang.

I want to be a son, indeed. But I can’t. I’m not. Am I? It’s been 19 years since Kingdomworks, 16 years since mom died, and 3 years since dad finally claimed his rest. Have I learned nothing in all that time? Am I still the kid who had to parent his broken, abusive mom? The kid who got straight “A’s” and skipped two grades? The one who stuttered and got fat and was picked on all the time? That kid? Am I the high school grad who left all that behind and moved across the country and into another world in order to start a new life? The one who signed up for Kingdomworks in the first place? The one who committed to the love of his life and quit school to live with her parents and support her at the very school he had just left behind? The one who brought his new bride to Philly to get back on those streets again? Am I the husband and son who saw his mom and father-in-law die just a day apart, half a country, and again- a world- away? The one who later moved into seminary housing with my wife…and dad, who was trying to die again? The one who then moved my wife and father into his mother-in-law’s house, however briefly, to try to help her too? The same one who later invited her to live with us in the master bedroom in our first home? Am I the foster dad of two young, very troubled, African American boys (again, however briefly) and my own miracle son too? The dad who dropped it all when that miracle son was born and made it his full-time job to caregive at his bedside during his 4 month NICU stay? Am I the son who uprooted his family again to move to TX when Dad’s terminal diagnosis came through, asking a couple with meager resources to come and live in the house we left behind in OH and pay much-lower-than-it-should-have-been rent as we did so?

Did I stop being a son when my last parent died? Bill Mallonee and V.O.L. again have something to say:

when i’m broken see what happens
arms wide open see what happens
when i’m broken see what happens
see what happens to me…

What happens to me, indeed? Does Jesus shine in my brokenness? Is God’s strength made manifest in my weakness? Whatever I am, I know this: I am utterly, wholly, repeatedly, and irredeemably reckless….with love. As I’ve said from time to time, my policy is to “love first, and ask questions later.” That policy of course gets me into whole bucketloads of trouble, but I wouldn’t give back any of it. It’s far better than the alternative. Again, as Bill says:

hopeless is as hopeless does
i love you i love you well just because
that’s to say if i drown
let’s no go into that now
eyes on Him i am found
there’s a cross before the crown
hopeless is as hopeless does
i love you well just because
i love you well just because

I love you. Why? Well, just because…

…because I’ve been loved, because that’s how love works in God’s economy- the more you give, the more you have. Why does it matter? It’s true. By the grace of God, I love you….just because.

Just Die Already, Part II -or- Home Is Where the Heart(ache) Is(?)

I preached the following sermon to Circle of Hope East in December 2004, just 8 days before Samuel was born four months premature and our lives were changed forever.

John 14: 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Home. For some of us the word evokes fond memories of a nurturing family, especially at this time of the year. For others, including me, the word is fraught with a tension we can hardly describe. We want to be part of a meaningful and nurturing home, but the one we grew up in wasn’t at all like that, and so we struggle to redefine what home means to us as we grow up and make our own dwelling places. But I wonder, and maybe you do too: just what is home, anyway? Frederick Buechner describes home this way:

The word home summons up a place…which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment. To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started, the place which on and off throughout your life you keep going back to if only in dreams and memories and which is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching. I suspect that those who as children never had such a place in actuality had instead some kind of dream of such a home, which for them played an equally crucial part.

As I alluded to a moment ago, I would definitely fall into the latter category. I did not grow up in the kind of home that Buechner describes, though I have always longed for it. In fact, I have spent all of my adult life thus far trying to create such a home, and it has been an exceedingly difficult task.

I think the thing that is so meaningful and important about the dream of home that Buechner talks about it is this idea that it belongs to you, or maybe more importantly that you belong to it, and that somehow, no matter what is happening presently, the result is that all is well or you can rest assured that all will be. Home, for me, is an idea that evokes a sense of safety and security, even though I never knew such safety growing up, and I think that’s often how things work. Sometimes we know things by their presence, but sometimes it is only in the absence of something that we come to know and long for it. This is especially true of God, I think, and you may have heard talk of the “God-shaped hole” that many of us experience in the absence of the abiding presence of Jesus, but I’ll say more about that later. In the meantime, let me say this, and I warn you that this is a spoiler for where my talk is going, but here it is anyway: I believe that whatever kind of home you grew up in- whether you knew a loving home or knew only the absence of one and so yearn for it, like me- either way such a home is a far cry from our true home. That true home is with Jesus, the same Jesus that John says is the Word by which all things were made and in whom all things hold together. God, who is love, so overflows with that love that he made a world. He made us, and breathed into us the breath of life, literally inspiring us to be, to exist. He made us in love, and for love, for right relationship with him and all creation. Ultimately, Jesus is the home we were made for, but like the animals in Narnia we’ve fallen asleep and lost our ability to talk. We don’t remember who we are or what we were made for, but every once in a while, sometimes in the best of our earthly homes, we catch a glimpse of the mystery that lies just beyond our awareness; we see a doorway open for an instant, and we are blinded by the love that waits to make us whole again, and so we set out on a journey- we begin to make our way to our final and true home.

Of course, the hard thing that we find along the way is that this journey to wholeness and home is finally impossible. If Jesus is the home we long for, then like Thomas we do not know where he is going or how to get there. We know only that the lasting peace and rest that we so long for is just beyond our grasp, and so we conclude that we couldn’t possibly be home yet. We are broken, fractured by our freedom to choose because we so often choose that which takes us further from home, away from love. We do not love as we should and do not really know why. We are lost, unable to find our home and in some ways unable to find even our true selves, because as I said before, we’ve forgotten who- and whose- we are. We do not know that we were made in and for love, or we know it only by the absence of such love in our lives. We do not know that we belong to the King, Jesus, and so we bend the knee at any impostor king who comes along and is able to capture our imagination, or at least distract us for a time from the emptiness inside. In the end, lost and alone, yearning for a home we have only dreamed about, we realize that we cannot save ourselves, and we begin to come undone. It’s a hard thing to learn, but I think it’s an essential part of our journey, because in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Realizing that I cannot save myself- that I can not create out of my own force of will the kind of home I never had- has been terribly hard for me, but ever so slowly, I am learning. You see, as I’ve alluded to, my home growing up was a pretty messed up place, and those of you who know me or have heard me talk before may know that all too well. My father was very loving, but that love was drowned in the sea of my mother’s abuse, and that abuse marks me deeply and has gone a long way toward making me the man I am today. In fact, I’ve recently begun to imagine the abusive home of my youth as an image. In this image I see my mother, a vital, raving lunatic, trapped in a dungeon deep in my psyche. This is a deep, dark place inside me where no one ever goes, but there she is, locked in a cage, railing at the bars, cursing at anything that moves. And there I am, as a child, about five years old, sitting just outside my mother’s cage, curled up in a ball, sobbing and rocking back and forth. I think that image is the emotional center that I live out of most of the time, though I’m hardly aware of it. I know it’s true, though, because when Jesus actually gets to me- when I see him for who he really is and remember who I really am, that’s the immediate place I go to. I begin to cry, overcome with the experience of his love and care for me even though I’m just a small, broken, weeping child.

So I’ve sort of been living a double life. As an adult I’m even-keeled and intellectual, and though I have moments of passion I’m mostly disconnected from my emotions. I’m fractured that way because I had to be in order to survive my mother’s abuse. I couldn’t keep feeling the way she made me feel at five years old, or I would simply have died. So I became very skilled at hiding and suppressing those emotions and living as if I didn’t have them, and the result is that today, standing before you, I am only half a person, at best. I’m out in the world, looking for home, and I haven’t even brought all of myself along. I don’t know how to be whole, because the part I’ve left behind is a small, weak five year old, who is scared and crying in front of a cage.

But I recently had what I can only describe as a vison, and I think this vision holds the key to my journey to wholeness and home. In it I see myself kneeling before Jesus- as he might be pictured in Revelation, in full warrior garb, eyes blazing, with sword at the ready. I kneel there before him, and he keeps pressing me, asking me over and over again: “Will you yield?!” Each time I am unable to comply; though I want to- I want to say “yes” and acknowledge his lordship over all creation, especially over me. I want to submit to him and trust that he loves me and can keep me safe, but I can’t. I remain stuck, frozen in indecision, trapped in a halting reply. Finally, exasperated, Jesus simply cuts me in two (think Darth =ader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV of Star Wars). He cuts me in two and I ‘m gone- obliterated….and then, I ‘m there again. Somehow changed. Whole. Complete. No longer kneeling, I see Jesus, and he is different too. With his warrior garb gone, he says to me, “Behold, I make all things new!”

I think that in this vision Jesus offers me a way out- through death, and into new life, but in order to receive that life, I must tread the path that we all must journey down in order to be made whole. If I am to find my life, I must lose it. If I am to be born again, I must die, and God must endure labor to give life to me anew. Jesus offers me a chance to put an end to this identity I have made for myself as the dispassionate intellectual, an identity rooted in my experience of abuse, an identity which consequently is all about self-protection, and so is all about self. Jesus is giving me an opportunity to be that five year old again and live his life over. This time, however, instead of being overwhelmed by the lack of love and abuse that he suffered, I am carried along, as that child, in the loving arms of Jesus. His enduring love is the home I never knew, and that love abides with me day by day as I learn again what it means to live and love and trust and make a family.

This is the task that Mary and Joseph were faced with, I think, as they learned what it meant to carry the baby Jesus, give birth to him, and raise him. Somehow they knew, of course, that their child was different. An angel had come to each of them independently to describe what was to be and reassure them that it was God’s doing, and there were some pretty big moments along the way: like when Mary magnified the Lord after John the Baptist, still in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus, still in Mary’s womb, and later the Magi came, and the heavens opened to announce the birth of Jesus to some unsuspecting shepherds in a field. Likewise, after Jesus was born, they took him to the Temple and an old man named Simeon proclaimed that seeing the infant Jesus was the very thing that made his life finally complete, as he had been promised that he would not die without seeing the Lord’s Anointed One.

All of these things had to have been pretty significant to Mary and Joseph, but these were the high points, the big moments that capture the headlines of the Bible, and we actually know very little about their every day life, about what happened between the lines of the Bible’s pages. And so we wonder about those times when no one was looking, when Mary and Joseph looked into each other’s eyes and wondered what the future held, and what they held in Mary’s belly. The Bible doesn’t capture the secret things they said at night when no one was looking. We do know that Joseph nearly called the whole thing off, but the angel took care of that, and so, like us, Mary and Joseph spent their days watching, waiting, and wondering. They watched Mary’s belly grow, and they waited for Jesus to come as they wondered what it all really meant.

What a magical and mysterious time that must have been. I especially appreciate this Advent season because I get to enter into the story in a new way, as Kirsten and I are expecting a son in the Spring. Even with the very real experience of watching Kirsten’s belly grow, I still can’t imagine what Joseph must have felt, but like him, I hope, I struggle to put it all in perspective and find rest in the midst of it. You see, I think, for a numer of different reasons, that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that you have to be like a child to enter his kingdom. One of the ways that I think this works has to do with belief. Many children, even in our jaded culture, haven’t yet learned to disbelieve. When watching a movie they don’t have to be convinced to suspend their disbelief because their belief hasn’t been suspended yet. Children who have been loved and nurtured well see wonder and magic everywhere- they have “eyes to see” the kingdom. That’s what’s so great about Christmastime, even the commercialized version of it. For six weeks or so, or longer- depending on who can make a buck off it- as a culture we give ourselves permission to be children again. We wait, expectantly, for something magical to happen. We hope, even if we can’t quite believe it, that families will gather and try to love one another. It’s a time when, if only we would stop and be still and listen quietly, we can catch a glimpse of the impossible. You might step through a wardrobe and be in Narnia. The creator and King of the Universe might come to be with us as a helpless baby.

I think Kirsten and I had an experience like this when we decided to move back to Philadelphia and be a part of you all again. We had sojourned in Minnesota for five long years. It was a hard time for both of us, but especially so for me. As you know, I grew up abused and was terribly marked by that experience. While in school I did Kingdomworks, which brought me to Philly to serve in the inner-city, and I was marked by that too, and so I got married and left school and moved here, where we found Circle shortly after it started. We were here for two years and then moved to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father. My mother died the day after he did, and that weekend of funerals was, for me, a study in contrasts between the consequences of a life lived attempting to love and serve others, like Kirsten’s dad did, and one lived in the absence of such love and service, like my mother. I went to seminary while we were out there, which was a wonderful but terribly hard time for me that wound up looking a lot like the desert that Joshua described last week. It was out of that deserted, desert place that I began to hear that still, small voice calling us back to Philadelphia, and when Kirsten and I decided to go for it, I told her that it was time for us to believe again.

It was time for us to believe, at a most basic level, in Jesus again, and don’t be alarmed- it’s not like somehow we stopped believing along the way; it’s quite the contrary, in fact. I am firmly convinced that, despite the rhetoric of some Christians, doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner. As Buechner says:

There are times when all of our explanations ring false even as we make them. There are times when it is hard to see how any honest, intelligent person can look at the world without conluding, like Macbeth, that the whole show is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Many of us have faith in God and yet have doubts too, and in the long run perhaps it is just as well that we have them. At least doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with the things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.

Even so, coming back here, to you, was a step taken in faith, in the belief that ultimately hope is something that happens, and love is something you do. Coming back here, was, for us, another step forward in the long journey home. We keep taking those steps, however halting they may be, because we know in some sense just beyond our perception or understanding that we are of course home already, because Jesus is the home we yearn for, and he has come to live among us. This is the promise of Immanuel, of God with us. Through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and the ongoing life of his spirit in you and me, God has made a “big space of grace” in which we can live, and move, and have our being. Our home is wherever Jesus is, and Jesus is with us always. Like Thomas, we wonder how to see the Father, to see God and by doing so find the home that we long for, and so to us, too, Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But Jesus will not coerce us into acknowledging this. He will not force us to receive his love. God hides in the weak and powerless, in babies and AIDS patients, so that when we find him there we can begin to understand his love- and his judgment. Jesus stands at the margins, with the least of these, wooing us to follow him through death and into new life. I leave you, then, with another quote from Frederick Buechner that has been so meaningful to me because I think it sums up what it means to find a home with Jesus in everyday life. He says:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Grow(ing) Up Already

So, I’ll be honest. My Father’s Day did not go according to plan. In the past, especially early on as a new father, the day was marked by lots of effort to make me feel appreciated and recognized in my role as a dad. Circumstances conspired to make that impossible yesterday. Kirsten was coming off two back-to-back overnight shifts and those shifts were particularly challenging to boot, emotionally and physically exhausting. She was just spent, and rightly needed to rest. Even so, she got up much earlier than she should have to make a celebratory meal. She’s a saint, and I simply don’t deserve her. Nonetheless, the day was mostly marked by the usual challenges of parenting our two unique and uniquely challenging kids. Between the fatigue that comes from the simple routines of raising children- including meals; play and the obligatory clean-up; baths and bedtimes and waking up throughout the night; the emotional drain of enforcing boundaries and teaching, always teaching and training, etc;- and the busyness that marks most Sundays including travel to Canton and back and various church responsibilities, the day just didn’t allow for time to pause and celebrate being a dad. Add in overwhelming work responsibilities and a handful of relational dramas being played out in various ways, and the day just didn’t feel right.

Of course, there’s even more to it, though. Let’s face it- dads get slighted in our culture. There are lots of reasons for this, to be sure, but it’s true. Take this post, for example, which says that “Americans are expected to spend about $7.4 billion less on gifts and goodies for dads this Father’s Day than they spent on moms for Mother’s Day last month, according to the National Retail Federation,” and “about 64 percent of consumers plan to get Dad a card. That compares to 81 percent who were planning to make sure Mom got a card.” As a dad I can speak of this disparity in treatment too, both on Father’s Day weekend and simply in general. Dads are perceived as less capable, less responsible parents. For example, on Saturday we were at a picnic for cerebral palsy patients at Akron Children’s Hospital. This is a great event they do every year that usually includes Akron Rubber Ducks (minor league baseball) tickets. Sam has a mild CP diagnosis, and we usually try to go. So I took the boys and fed them there, and Kirsten met us later just before going into work. When we came to greet her after she arrived, the boys had just finished eating finger (more accurately, “junk”) food and it was evident on Nathan’s very messy face. Of course, he’s two and honestly my nine year old Autistic child still eats that way too, but I hadn’t had a chance to clean them up yet when we saw Kirsten. She was standing there with a co-worker, who casually remarked, looking at their messy faces, “Oh, must be a day out with dad, huh?” as if dads don’t bother to clean up their kids or are oblivious that there’s food on their face, etc. A mom walking up with their kids in identical circumstances would not have gotten the same kind of comment, I’m almost sure.

Do dads deserve a bad rap? Maybe. The statistics could be used to argue that yes, we do. Some of us abandon our families. Some of us are criminals and are rightly incarcerated and therefore unavailable to parent our kids. Dads are out of the picture in many families for many different reasons. To make matters worse, culture tells us that parenting calls for more stereotypically feminine gifts, like “kissing boo-boos,” changing diapers, and teaching. Of course, that’s only one part of the equation. Parenting, when done well, also calls for more stereotypically male gifts like setting boundaries and the like, and truth be told the best parents, I would argue, do all these things all at once. Dads can and should change diapers, and I know Kirsten would be glad to say that I do. Dads nurture their kids; they “kiss boo-boos;” they teach them too. One parent may be more inclined and gifted in a certain way than the other and certainly parenting labor can be divided in ways that are most efficient, but there can and should be a sense that “we’re all in this together.” Mom shouldn’t be- and shouldn’t be considered- more of a parent than dad is, hopefully, and vice versa.

But naturally it’s more complex than all that. Some dads are incarcerated unjustly due to racial/socioeconomic factors largely beyond their control. Cultural factors come into play in this regard as well, as parenting can become denigrated in a culture still very much mired in the legacy of systemic injustice against a people group perpetrated over the course of centuries. Gender stereotypes should be called into question too. Men and women are different, to be sure, but as I’ve alluded to above, moms and dads should be a team that challenge each other, learn from each other, serve each other and their kids, and accentuate the strengths of each while minimizing and overcoming their weaknesses. Kirsten and I still hope for and are working toward this kind of a marriage, though we are no doubt very far away from it still.

All that said, Mother’s and Father’s Day have different historical roots. On the face of it in popular culture today, they’re the same, but Mother’s Day arose as call to end war and work for justice. It was quickly commercialized, however and perverted into the holiday most of us know and celebrate today. Father’s Day arose because it was (rightly?) recognized that there was a disparity in setting aside time to remember mothers- in whatever way for whatever reason- while not doing so also for fathers. So Father’s Day came about as a perversion of the perversion of Mother’s Day, with both holidays now being overt celebrations of consumer capitalism more than anything else these days. Kirsten rightly wanted to opt out of this perverse consumption this year; so I honored her with a Kiva gift card, for which she was very grateful.

I, on the other hand, am exposed for the selfish, poorly motivated, and deeply wounded person that I am in all this, for I find myself wanting to be recognized for my efforts as a dad, as if I need some sort of external acclamation simply to fulfill the privilege and responsibility that go along with my role. It doesn’t stop at fatherhood either. The trauma I endured as a child and the repeated traumas we’ve experienced even into adulthood have left me with a very real felt need for affirmation, praise, and recognition for what I do, up to and including simply getting out of bed every day and trying to do it- to live and love and serve and grow- all over again- and again and again and again. I think I’m special, that I’m a survivor, that I’m resilient and that it’s some great feat that I keep trying again to give what in so many cases I simply have not received. How can I be a good dad when the best my dad could do was to tell me he loved me while daily leaving me exposed to the abuse of my mother, the worst of which he tried to absorb himself? How can I affirm and instill confidence and capability in my boys when my own father never had the time or emotional resources to do much of the above for me? These questions could go on.

Perhaps to my credit, I certainly try. I try to give what I feel like I don’t have. Both Kirsten and I are uniquely and specially bonded to Samuel due to his traumatic birth. For my part, when he was young especially (and our only child, meaning he got my undivided attention) I would literally spend hours and hours and hours holding him, singing to him, reading to him and spending time with him. I pressed my lips against his ears and told him over and over and over again, “I love you; I love you; I love you; I love you,” on and on and on. I delight in that kid, our gift from God, and am glad to do so. Much has happened since then and there’s seldom opportunity to express myself to him in that way now, but it’s no less true.

Nathan is uniquely a gift from God too, the son we dared to hope for despite the odds, the one who survived a high risk pregnancy and was born without the trauma Samuel endured. He’s ferocious, uniquely vibrant and alive with a special energy that we often struggle to keep up with. It’s as if Samuel expended so much energy just trying to survive his premature birth and the aftermath, while Nathan kept it all pent up inside (as he was pent up inside Kirsten for those several blessed months longer than Sam was) and then burst from the womb rarin’ to go, ready for a fight. He’s a wonder to behold, and I delight in him no less.

Father’s Day is hard for Kirsten and I anyway, each with our own dads now gone. Dad Pearson left us much too early, now nearly 16 years ago. I was glad to know and love and be loved by him for a couple of years. His absence leaves a hole, though, that Kirsten especially struggles to fill with love for our own boys and fierce determination. My dad, gone now three years, has also left a hole, one that we all (except Nathan, who was born just after he died, like ships passing in the night) struggle with. He had many faults, some that were horribly devastating to his family, including and especially me, but he was loving toward and was loved by all. Sam really enjoyed Grandpa’s company when he was around, and I wonder how much of Sam’s oft-repeated yearning to return to TX has to do with the experience of Grandpa there. Kirsten I know was glad to know and love him, and his death still has me reeling in ways I can scarcely articulate. This particular father’s day I also experienced some relational disparities that it’s not really appropriate to go into, but they stung and they still do, even as I work to overcome whatever hurt I feel and extend grace, love, and forgiveness even when it’s not even realized that it’s needed.

In all this I’m challenged to grow up already and keep giving what I feel like I don’t have. In all this my own selfish motives are laid bare and I’m given the opportunity to set them aside and put the other’s needs ahead of my own. Perhaps the best a father can do for their kids is teach them how to do this, how to keep growing and loving and serving and growing up, struggling daily to conform to the image of Christ, who knows a thing or two about giving it all for all of us. After all, when it comes down to it though I don’t feel like I’ve been given what I’m being asked to give, the fact is I’ve been given it all, all that I need and more, for all I truly need is the “never stopping, never giving up, unending, always and forever love” of God. So I need to stop all my trying, I’m sure, and let that unconditional love wash over me. I need to fill up on it so that it can pass through me. I once resolved that I could do no better in the Christian life than to spend it plumbing the depths of God’s great love for me, and that remains true today. God, (please) help me to do so. Kirsten and my boys need it. Your world needs it, and you know I sure do.

As the Son Goes, So Goes the Father

Do you remember that scene from one of the all-time best movies, ever, The Matrix?

The dialogue goes:

Trinity: I know why you’re here, Neo. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer. You’re looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn’t really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.

Neo: What is the Matrix?

Trinity: The answer is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.

The question has been driving me too, but I didn’t dare believe that the answer was not only out there, but looking for me and ready to find me, if only I wanted it to. What is the Matrix? It is, after all, a system of control, a way of ordering the world. Everything that happens to me is mediated by and through the Matrix. So what is it, exactly? What is this “operating system” that so fundamentally shapes who and what I am? Why do I hardly sleep, and just who or what am I looking for night after night?

I think, because I was finally open to the answer finding me I suppose, my “matrix,” my operating system… is Autism. I’m an adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Those in the know, know that with the advent of the DSM-V previous “autistic” designations like Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome have been folded into “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This is somewhat controversial in the Autism community and I can see positives and negatives to it. That said, the DSM-V hasn’t been fully implemented yet; so clinicians are still using PDD-NOS and Asperger’s. I consider that a good thing. PDD-NOS has the lowest threshold for receiving a diagnosis of being “on the (Autism) spectrum,” and that’s the diagnosis I was preliminarily given last night. Yes, I know it’s an insurance formality, but I fully expect that we’ll eventually move to an Asperger’s diagnosis (while we still can).

This is an enormous relief. I’ve received numerous diagnoses before, like Depression, Anxiety, and most recently, (complex) PTSD. I still think there’s something to all of those, especially the last one, in no small part because I was terribly (emotionally) abused as a child. So, I get to deal with that too. Nonetheless, horrific as my upbringing was, it never quite fully accounted for what makes me, well, me, for what goes on in my head every day, for the effort it takes to get out of bed and make my way in the world. I’ve long felt so, terribly, exhausted, to the point that my fear and anxiety about getting a fatal disease was so unbearable in part because I suspected that my fight was gone, that when death came, I would welcome the opportunity to rest.

But why? Why so tired? Why is facing the world every day (still) so hard? Why am I so regimented? Why do I seek such order in my world, constantly arranging and rearranging things to make them “just so?” Why am I such a categorical thinker, constantly assigning things, people, thoughts, numbers, letters, and shapes to categories, systematizing all that I encounter? Why do I prefer certain things, and to such extremes? It’s not just that they have sentimental value; it’s as if they’re a part of me, and I feel violated when others use, touch, or even look at them? Why am I so verbose? Why do I feel such a need to provide extensive context for every little pronouncement, and why do I make pronouncements, going on at length about topics of interest so that it’s hard for others to get a word in edge-wise? Why do I struggle to make friends? Sure, I have people that care about me, even some lifelong “friends,” but they are few in number, and I can tell that being my friend is hard for them (hey, I can tell, that’s something for someone on the spectrum). Why do I get into unwanted conflicts as often as I do, usually because of some misunderstanding (on my part)? Why do people tell me I’m “just making things harder for myself?” Why do I find it so hard to start tasks, even work related high-stakes tasks that my and my family’s livelihood depends on, and yet can stay up all night pursuing a topic of interest? Why am I so “all or nothing” about everything? Why do I have such tunnel vision sometimes? Why, indeed.

In short, I now believe that the answer that I’ve finally allowed to find me is simply that, as I said above, I’m an adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There, it’s out there. As I also said above, I’ve flirted with other diagnoses before like depression (for many, many years), anxiety, even PTSD. Yes, I know I got excited at one point too about the PTSD diagnosis, thinking that it might finally help explain me (to myself). Obviously, that proved not to (fully) be the case. That’s kind of the point, though. Ironically, as a Special Education professional in a school whose mission is to serve students with Asperger’s Syndrome, I often tell parents about the “pre-Autism cocktail,” the many (sometimes competing and some of which may be co-morbid) diagnoses that kids will often get saddled with in an attempt to explain their behavior, when all along there could be a single underlying factor that accounts for everything, like Autism. Somehow, though, I failed to see that in play for myself.

What finally brought me to it, sadly, is the likelihood that Samuel, my almost nine year old son, will have an ASD diagnosis very soon. As we deal with more evidence every day that this best explains what we’re seeing in Samuel, I did my homework on Autism (Autism! Which I deal with at work Every. Single. Day.) again, and realized that it probably best explains me too.  So let’s explore my questions above and relate them to the DSM-V criteria, which is similar to what’s in the DSM-IV, I believe. The black text below is from the DSM-V. The red text is how I believe it applies to me (or not).

Autism Spectrum Disorder        299.00 (F84.0)

Diagnostic Criteria

A.   Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

1.    Deficitis in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

I’ve been told that I maintain a flat or serious affect. I certainly can smile and do, but it’s largely calculated on my part. I’ve been told that I’m very “intense.” In hindsight I know I initiate friendships awkwardly, often with lengthy emails seeking to “explain” me and where I’m coming from, perhaps in the desperate hope that if only people really knew and understood me, they’d love me, accept me for who I am, and want to be around me.

2.    Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

This is a skill I was forced to develop from a very young age. My mother was a severe emotional abuser, and I’ve been told that “empathy is the gift of emotional abuse.” I had to learn to read her unpredictable moods, or face “hellish” consequences. Yet, again in hindsight, I realize I still don’t do this all that well, and certainly not naturally. I’m often replaying interactions in my mind, trying to parse their meaning and predict consequences. Ask my wife. I’m often asking if I’m okay, and I no longer think it’s just because I’m desperately fragile and insecure. I think it’s because while in some intellectual corner of my being I know what approval looks like on a face, it usually doesn’t sink in. I don’t get it. I think it’s approval, or love, or affection, or caring or understanding or whatever, but how do I know for sure? I don’t. It’s a mystery.

3.    Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

I find myself frustrated with most friendships. I consider myself very conscientious in making the effort to build relationship (following learned social “rules?”), but do not usually feel that effort is reciprocated to nearly the same degree. I’m also told that I tend to “overcommunicate,” which I do because I’m aware of the dangers that any effort to communicate is fraught with. Hence, I want to remove as many variables as possible that might lead to misunderstanding. I want to provide context and give multiple opportunities to derive the intended meaning, much like I’m doing at this very second. Friendship is hard for me, though I desperately want it, and I guess I understand now that that’s because I (am “wired to”) make it hard.

Specify current severity: Level 1?

   Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

B.   Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):

1.    Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

I have a lifelong stuttering problem, particularly when nervous. It’s changed over the past 10 years or so to what looks and feels like a vocal “tic” when stressed, nervous, tired, etc. I used to think my stuttering problem came from my mother, perhaps, and that I was so nervous in social situations because I knew I would stutter, terribly, and therefore knew that I would be bullied, terribly. I wonder now, though, if the nervousness and stuttering aren’t just indications of how different my brain is. I wonder if my social awkwardness, my struggle to relate to others didn’t precede all of this, and certainly the stuttering was related to it and exacerbated it, but there was something much deeper going on. I tend to bounce my knee or foot in what I’ve been told is excessive fashion. Due to high anxiety related to disease or illness, I’ve been told I use hand sanitizer to excess, when appropriate and often when not. I also use sanitizing wipes to, for example, clean pens that others have used. As a kid I used to get in trouble for cleaning up too much. My dad, for example, would complain that he couldn’t read the just arrived newspaper because I’d already cleaned it up.

2.    Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

I have a high proclivity for change avoidance/resistance. I loathe change (especially “big” change) so much that when, in my calculus, it seems unavoidable, I’ll rush to make it happen in often inappropriate ways. I do not like having routines disturbed. When plans suddenly change, there is an automatic and unavoidable impulse to resist, protest, etc. Once this passes, I’m able to embrace whatever change I’m being subjected to. I’ve tried to explain this to my wife, Kirsten, that when she suggests a change to our “plan,” for the day, for the week, for household routines, for our life together, she should just brace for what (in hindsight again) is a little meltdown. I’ll protest and complain even if I ultimately like what she wants to do. I can’t help it. Speaking of plans, I rely on them, to extreme. I’m constantly asking Kirsten “what the plan is” for weekends, etc. If friends want to do something, I send email queries trying to nail down the plan weeks in advance, because I NEED TO KNOW. I’m sure I drive everyone crazy. Also, I have to be right. All the time. I know I make mistakes and get things wrong, and I can own up to those, but when it happens it feels like a violation to my very soul. If the rule is one that I’ve created, adopted, or adhered to, IT MUST BE OBEYED.

3.    Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

I wasn’t sure where to put this. I have what might be viewed as an unusual interest in multiples of 10. I’ll sub-consciously notice numbers in the environment, like “1535,” and begin adding the individual digits to make them come out as multiples of 10. So, in the example above, 1+5=6, +3=9; moving in the opposite direction +5 and +1 again = 15, plus the unused 5 at the end of the string = 20, a nice round multiple of 10. I do the same thing with letters. I take each single span of a letter and equate it with “1,” then add the spans of various letters in a word to also equal multiples of 10. So, take a common word in the environment like “shop.” S’ are easy as there are five “spans” or parts of the S (a straight parallel line at the top moving from right to left, a downward line, another parallel line moving from left to right, another downward line, and a final fifth parallel line moving right to left). The spans of the “h” add up to 3, “o’s” usually add up to 4, and “p’s usually add up 4 as well. So I’d take 5 from the s, 3 from the h, 4 from the 0, and 4 from the p to give me 16; then I’d probably use the p again to bring it to 20. I typically do this without thinking. I wasn’t even aware of it, I don’t think, until a few years ago, perhaps when I was working out the pattern of a word or number with my finger on my wife’s back. She was laying down with her head in my lap, watching a movie. She brought it to my attention by asking what I was “writing.”

I may perseverate regarding health due to high anxiety concerning, and in relation to, apocalyptic scenarios. I have google alerts set for flu (generally), bird flu (specifically), and the new Middle Eastern Coronavirus. I have a section on my Google News page dedicated to apocalyptic scenarios, including and especially those related to zombies. I can “catastrophize” at a moment’s notice. How badly things could go- and how quickly- is something I’m always aware of.

4.    Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

I pride myself on having “very good hearing.” I often hear things that others may not. I also have a keen sense of smell, and admittedly like to smell (most) things, except vinegar. I CAN’T STAND the smell of vinegar. I’m highly alert to the slightest whiff of it, which makes me want to flee the country. Kirsten says I startle easily, and I do. I have a visceral reaction to sudden loud sounds, which are almost a personal offense, whether intended or not. I used to think this was a PTSD thing. I now know it’s something more. 

Specify current severity: Level 2

   Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

C.   Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life). I’ve dealt with much of this since childhood, with childhood emotional abuse as an exacerbating factor.

This was a problem, diagnosis-wise. Honestly, my upbringing was so terrible that I really don’t remember much of it, and really don’t want to (I did remember the cleaning up thing referenced above, though). With both parents dead and few family friends, I had to reach out to my youngest (but still much older) half-sibling, with whom historically I’ve had a good relationship, in no small part because she was thrust into a caregiving role for me in my earliest years (it’s a long story). So, I asked her. Here is the message we exchanged.

I said:

I’ll just go ahead and put this out there. So, Samuel is on the verge of an Autism diagnosis. I don’t know how much you know about it, but his would be of the Asperger’s variety (which technically isn’t an official diagnosis anymore, but that’s beside the point). If you don’t know much about it, you can find out via this link. Going through this with him has led to some (further) hard self-reflection on my part and the realization that Asperger’s probably best describes me too. For the diagnosis to really “stick,” though, the autistic traits (or some of them, or leanings toward them) would have had to be present by age 3. You’re one of the only people around still that knew me at 3. I know of course that my mom’s abuse was a major exacerbating factor, and how much all of this is nature versus how much all of it is nurture is anyone’s guess. That said, the point in all this is that I want to ask you what you remember about me as a young child. I recall being described by Evette as a “little Spock” (showing little emotion over my very rough home life, which would be very “Aspy,” by the way), but what else can you recall about me then? You often talk about my fascination with trains (like Samuel) and that I would stop and mimic the train signal/crossing guard sound. Did I have other “quirks?” Unusual habits or “rules” I seemed to follow? A need to organize or systematize or clean up things? Odd speech or motor movements? Preoccupation with things that most kids wouldn’t be preoccupied with, or preoccupation with things that other kids would be but to an unusually great degree? Sensory issues (aversion to- or, conversely, preoccupation with- lights, sounds, the feel of things, etc.)? Please tell me what you remember. I need to know. Thanks. 

She said:
You showed several things. Look at your baby pics. You did not laugh freely or with abandon like other kids. It used to take us forever to get a smile out of you. My heart cries everytime I think about it. You were facinated with lights. Besides sitting in front of the Christmas tree for extended periods , you did other stuff. One year Dad got you a Train for your birthday. It had lights and sirens. You would stand transfixed and shake your hands (bold text added) at it. You talked well and quickly but you often repeated yourself and would not look us in the eye. You had seperation anxiety when I went to the restroom ,like you knew you were in danger. So I talked to you through the door or let you in. I loved being there for you. One of my most painfull memories Was having to let you go. Praying Sam is fine ! hugging you right now ! 
As I said to my wife in an email after getting this last night, “So I guess that’s it, then.” The DSM-V continues:

D.   Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning. Coping with daily life, including with many stressors in daily life, is becoming increasingly difficult.

This, I guess, is why we’re “here,” as this is definitely the case. All of the effort I put in every day to make it in the world, to “pass” as Neurotypical (NT) and even as a professional, is resulting in greatly diminishing returns. I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. It’s not working (like I want it to or think it should).

E.    These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Nope. I’m pretty smart (I skipped two elementary grades, for example). If Asperger’s was still an available diagnosis (which apparently it is), I suspect I’d be a good candidate.

So, in summary, “the Matrix has me.” Now what?