Paths (Part 43: Israel-The Wild, Wild East)

Divorce from V was the first of two great emotional blows that shook me to my core and drove me into the arms of God. The second was the death of my mother years later. I have never been one to successfully endure chronic pain however, I do pretty well with acute pain. If given a choice I would usually choose an intense and sharp pain which is shortly over, to something long and drawn out, though at a lower magnitude. Because of this I intuitively knew I didn’t want to seek diversions to distract me from the utter pain and sorrow I was feeling in losing V. I didn’t want to hide from this sorrow, or avoid it by entertaining myself, or eating myself into an emotional stupor; nor did I want to find excuses to avoid the utter failure I felt. I didn’t want the healing to be drawn out because I failed to put ointment on my wounds, or neglected to go to the true healer of my soul.

I closed the door to my house, literally and figuratively after V moved out and I cried and prayed, and didn’t allow myself any deceptive or false outlet for my grief, but sought out the only One who I believed could truly heal me, my Lord Jesus Christ. Eventually I did seek some outlet: went to a few movies, watched the world cup, and found some measure of distraction because I couldn’t endure day after day in prayer and grief. But for the most part I endured, prayed and eventually began to heal from the loss of my wife. I accepted her decision, I accepted my responsibility, I mourned the loss of her, prayed for her future joy and hoped for her happiness, and moved on with my life.

Perhaps too soon I connected with someone online and we went out on a date. When I told her how recently my wife and I had parted and that the divorce wasn’t yet finalized, but would be soon, she became understandably angry with me and ended any further contact. I completely understood, was a little disappointed, but was also grateful to her because on our date she had taken me to a Messianic Jewish service which I really enjoyed. I felt enlivened by the faith I felt there and I loved the connection I felt to the historically early believers, through worshipping with Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, or Yeshua Ha Mashiach as he is known in the Hebrew tongue. It felt very authentic to me and I was deeply drawn by the history, culture and music of the Jewish people. I began to attend this congregation after my divorce.

After the divorce I needed a fresh start, something to give my life a new direction, and I wanted to find something to serve others. The messianic congregation I attended supported several ministries operating in Israel, so I applied to volunteer with two of these: Holy Land Ministries, which ran homeless shelters for men and women in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, and Hands of Mercy which provided material, emotional and spiritual support to victims of terrorist attacks, located in Jerusalem. In September 2004 I flew to Israel for a three month stint serving with these ministries.

The women’s shelter and main office of Holy Land Ministries was located in a four-story building in a busy urban neighborhood not far from the Mediterranean coast; while the men’s shelter was in a different neighborhood several blocks away. I lived with the men in that shelter and walked or rode a bike to the office and women’s shelter to work during the day. Each morning began with a Bible study on the rooftop patio of the women’s shelter. The sunshine and the light breeze off the sea created a relaxed ambiance and studying God’s word together with the other volunteers and residents of the shelter provided a good start to each day.

The Bible studies were led by an immigrant pastor named Michel. He and his wife, Ingrid had moved to Israel many years earlier and fell in love with the country and never left. Well, Ingrid fell in love with the country while Michel mostly tolerated it; but he loved Ingrid so he stayed. He soon became one of my closest friends because of his honesty, empathy and his caring for others; but not only because of these virtues, but also because his faith was so authentic, and he lived his spiritual struggle so openly, not pretending to be a model Christian, nor putting any effort into a façade of any kind. I had known so many Christians who tried so hard to be what they believed they should be and pretended to be what they weren’t, and Michel had no tolerance for that in himself or in others. I found this incredibly refreshing and enjoyable; and on top of that he was very funny and liked to have a good time. He had a complex relationship between worldly life and the spiritual life—he would mostly rather be pursuing the latest fashions in his favorite city, London, or enjoying the pleasures of Singapore, or cultivating rare plants that he had harvested on one of his many adventures to Asia, but he lived year after year in Israel, “in exile in the desert” as he put it. But this was done out of love, love for Ingrid as I mentioned, but also love for those in need whom he met and helped through this ministry. He had a tremendous heart for the downtrodden, the outcast, and those marginalized by society.

I was attracted to Israel and the men in women in the shelters for many reasons. I had already come to a deep appreciation of Jewish culture; the music especially, but also the language and the customs, so living in Israel felt like home in certain ways, though my heritage is Irish and English. Beyond this though I admired the fact that no other people have endured so much hardship and persecution throughout history and yet endured and even thrived against these odds. In a sense, they are the world’s underdog that has come to outperform most of the world. I liked their toughness. The men and women in the shelters also had come from persecution, most from the former Soviet Union, and were beginning their own journeys to overcome, persevere and hopefully thrive. It was difficult in a new country for most of them because either they didn’t have skills or the skills they had couldn’t be used in their new home due to bureaucracy. One of the men in the shelter had been a top surgeon in Moscow, but here he couldn’t find work, ended up homeless, his wife left him and now he was despondent and wasting away on the street hoping to find new meaning for his life. Another lady had been a concert pianist in Belgrade, but couldn’t find a way to make a living here, had suffered panic and anxiety attacks and became destitute. Many of the younger women had been brought into the country illegally or persuaded to come for good jobs, had their passports taken so they were afraid to go to the authorities, and then were trapped and even imprisoned for the sex trade in Tel Aviv. But they had all managed to find their way to our shelters and were trying to find new paths for their lives now, and to make new beginnings. I appreciated their courage and admired their grit.

Israel isn’t a place for wimps. It is a difficult place, the epitome of a melting pot, at the confluence of so many cultures, so many histories, and even at the nexus of continents. The native Israeli is known as a ‘sabra’ which is the Hebrew term for the prickly pear, because they are prickly on the outside, but sweet on the inside. One friend I met in Israel had a different description of people like me, who live in the United States, she said we live on ‘planet easy’. By comparison I had to agree with her.

But Israel is also a place for reverence and holiness. I found closeness to God walking the ancient streets of Jerusalem, treading the paths alongside the Sea of Galilee, hiking amongst the rocky crags and across the arid sands of the Negev desert in the south. At the southernmost tip of Israel is the town of Eilat, where the Negev meets the Red Sea. It is a place of stark natural beauty: barren but colorful mountain ranges, deep gorges, brilliant sunlight shimmering against bright stone, or heavy shadows darkening the depths of tight river valleys, or wadis, submerged far below. The arid wind blew gently in the fall, when I was there, but the sun was still penetrating—baking the earth and scorching the stone. In the shade of a cliff or a small tree, animals took shelter. At En Netafim, a year-round spring just a few kilometers from the Israeli-Egyptian border, a small family of gazelle satisfied their thirst and kept a wary eye on me as I sat nearby.

Everyone in this harsh climate seeks desperately for water, the gazelles at this spring are not alone in this desire. I hadn’t packed enough water with me on my hike, but in a unique and immediate answer to prayer as I was hiking along the silent trail to Uvda, two jeeps suddenly came into view, and when they arrived, they stopped beside me and one of the men inside reached out and handed two liter bottles of water to me, and then they drove off as suddenly as they had appeared. It wasn’t a mirage, but it sure seemed like it, until I opened the first bottle and tasted the genuine and wholly real water inside. And I thanked my God to whom I had just prayed moments before.

The next day I drove along the border between Israel and Egypt. I pulled off the road and got out of the car and walked up to the barbed wire fence which separated the two countries and looked down into the Sinai. It was an isolated place and I thought I was alone until I glanced along the fence to my left, and down the slope I saw an observation tower on the Egyptian side with two guards watching me. I watched them as well for a few moments and then turned to walk back to my car. One of them called out to me so I turned and looked their way again wondering what this was about. He kept yelling to me so I started walking down the hill towards their tower. As I got close enough to see his face, he gestured as if to drink water. I understood and ran up to my car and grabbed a large bottle of water and then walked back down to the tower. When I made it back down the hill he had climbed down from the tower and was waiting for me on the other side of the fence. I handed him the bottle of water through the barbed wire and then we reached through the fence and shook each other’s hand. In very broken English he asked me my religion and when I told him I am a Christian he made a gesture of an open book and then motioned to the sky. He did this several times until I finally gathered he wanted me to pray for rain. I asked him if this is what he meant and it was. So I promised him I would pray for rain for Egypt and for Israel.

When I turned to walk back up the hill I noticed several Israeli border police had pulled in next to my car and they were watching me intently. I was fairly certain I wasn’t supposed to hand things over this border fence, and my actions might have caused some suspicion, but as I returned to my car, none of them said anything to me, they just watched me silently until I started my car and drove away. Farther up the highway I came to a checkpoint where I was stopped and prevented from driving any further. The Israeli guard asked me if I had a gun with me, which I didn’t. He told me without a gun he couldn’t allow me to continue on this road because it was too dangerous. If I had a gun I could continue but without one I would have to turn around. I asked him what specifically was at issue and he explained this highway had lately been a favorite target for terrorist activity coming through the barbed-wire border fence. In several cases they had caught Egyptian border guards helping terrorists through the fence; once through they were hiding alongside the highway and ambushing vehicles and killing the occupants. They didn’t want anyone traveling further if they didn’t have a weapon to defend themselves.

(to be continued)

~FS

May 30

The communion itself of the Holy Spirit, celestial treasures, the dances and festivals of the angels–these things are clear only to those who have experience of them; to the uninitiated they are totally beyond comprehension. Thus you must listen with reverence to what is said about them, until through faith you are enabled to attain them; then you will know, with the actual experience of the soul’s eyes, in what blessings and mysteries the souls of Christians can share even during this present life. When in the resurrection their body becomes spiritual, it too is enabled to attain, behold and, so to speak, grasp these things.

~St Makarios of Egypt

May 29

If on hearing about the kingdom of heaven we are brought to tears, do not let us be content with these tears, or think that we hear well with our ears or see well with our eyes, and that we need nothing further. For there are other ears, other eyes, other tears, just as there is another mind and another soul. I am referring to the divine and heavenly Spirit, that hears and weeps, prays and knows, and that truly carries out God’s will.

When the Lord promised the great gift of the Spirit to the apostles, He said: “I am going; but the Intercessor, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything” (John 14:26); and: “I still have much to tell you, but its burden is more than you can bear now. When, however, He who is the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). He, therefore, will pray and He will weep. For, as St Paul says: “No one but the Spirit of God knows about the things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11).

When, as promised, on the day of Pentacost the Paraclete made Himself present and the power of the Holy Spirit came to dwell in the souls of the apostles, the veil of sinfulness was once and for all removed from them, their passions were annulled and the eyes of their heart were opened. Hencefore they were filled with wisdom and made perfect by the Spirit: through Him they knew how to carry out God’s will, and through Him they were initiated into all truth, for He directed and reigned in their souls.

Thus, when we are brought to tears on hearing God’s word, let us entreat Christ with unwavering faith and in the expectation that the Spirit, who truly hears and prays according to God’s will and purpose, will indeed come to us.

~St Makarios of Egypt

 

 

Paths (Part 42: Micronesia)

The Mennonites, who had so graciously accepted me into their fold, so to speak, and allowed me opportunity to serve others and God alongside them, also had a working relationship with FEMA. They provided needed volunteers to help with various rebuilding projects after disasters within the US and its territories. About the same time as I was studying at UW a major cyclone hit the island group of Chuuk, Micronesia, destroying many of the homes of this island nation, located several hundred miles southeast of Guam.  Since Micronesia has a close relationship with the US FEMA sent materials to the islands to help rebuild homes devastated by the cyclone and the Mennonites sent volunteers to do the work building and training Micronesians how to build. Sensing a wonderful opportunity for an interesting adventure I applied to be a volunteer and was flown to Guam and then on to Chuuk to help with the rebuilding effort in the summer of 2003.

When I got off the plane at Chuuk International Airport on the island of Weno I felt I had been dropped into a blast furnace. Coming from the temperate region of the Pacific Northwest in no way prepared me for the heat and humidity. By the time I was shuttled to my accommodations on the other side of the island both of my feet had already swollen to the point I had to loosen my sandals to their limits. I wasn’t well suited to this environment. Nevertheless, there was work to be done so I joined a small group of volunteers and native Micronesians as we loaded up one of the motorized longboats used to taxi people from island to island, piled in ourselves, and headed out on our hour-long boat ride to reach my first building site on the island of Uman, some ten or so miles to the south.

The houses were simple stick construction with a deck platform up on wood pilings, light framing with plywood sheathing for the walls, and composite shingle roofing. We just built this simple shell and left the rest to the homeowners to finish as they wished later. Most of the materials had already been delivered to the site and on this particular house the pilings and floor were already completed when I arrived. It was hard work but great fun lugging our tools and generator and fuel up from the beach, through the trees to the building site. On most days the local women prepared our lunch which consisted of fresh tuna caught that morning and breadfruit, a local staple which was mashed and had coconut added along with sea-salt, as well as sweet potatoes and rice. It was a wonderful meal, made all the better enjoying it with the locals who we were working with and forming friendships.

Chuuk is an island grouping comprising a large lagoon in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. It is famous among divers because of the many ships sunk throughout the lagoon during WWII and is a destination for this reason, as it has some of the best preserved underwater wrecks in all of the world. I wasn’t a diver but several of those I was volunteering with were, and on Sunday, our day off, I joined a small group heading out to dive the Fumitzuki destroyer several miles off the west coast of Weno. While they dove down to the wreck I swam on the surface, which still afforded amazing views of the wreckage as I looked down through the crystalline waters.

I was a fairly good swimmer, having competed in several triathlons earlier in life and still routinely swimming for exercise, but I had never before swam alone, miles out in the open ocean. The others in my group had all dove down to the wreck, leaving me alone on the surface. I jumped in over the side of our small boat and got out a few feet from the side when I was overcome with panic. The immensity of the ocean caught me off-guard; and the closest land was several miles away, and barely perceptible on the horizon from my vantage point in the water. I reached back to the side of the boat and held myself there as I took deep breaths and regained control of myself. I slowly acclimated to the open waters by putting my head underwater and breathing out, while holding to the side of the boat. After a few minutes of practicing breathing and submerging my head in this way I relaxed and took a short swim out and back. Once this became routine I was ready to venture out and over the wreck of the Fumitzuki destroyer.

As I swam through the warm clear waters, gliding gently over the bow of the destroyer below me, I forgot all about my fear of swimming in the open ocean. The entirety of this warship revealed its fascinating secrets to my greedy, enraptured eyes. I couldn’t believe I was actually swimming over the top of a Japanese destroyer sunk back in WWII and it was still nearly intact. I floated over the forward guns on the deck and then over a portion of the bridge and the funnels. Depth perception was difficult through the water but, as I discerned these elements and some of the communication antennae rising up towards me, the reality of this vessel struck me, as well as the beauty. It had become a reef for all sorts of fish and sea life which I could see swimming in and around the gun turrets, through the open funnels, and across the deck of the ship. The scene was mesmerizing and other-worldly. I crossed over the length of the ship a couple times, enjoying new details each time and then finally made my way back to our boat.

Next we visited a Japanese fighter plane that had been shot down and sunk upside down in only about 10-15 feet of water. I was able to swim down to this one and touch the wings while one of my companions actually pulled to the surface a portion of the original flight mask and hose for us to examine before he dove back down and returned it to the cockpit. At one point, as I was swimming along, one of the others in our group suddenly yelled over to me excitedly and asked if I had seen ‘it’? Seen what I asked her. “The shark that was following you,” she said. “It was following you for about fifty yards, right behind you, didn’t you see it?” No I hadn’t, and I’m very glad I didn’t, because seeing a shark trailing me in the open water isn’t on my bucket list.

The rest of the following week I spent building homes on the island of Udot, about an hour by boat, west of the main island of Weno where we spent our nights. The weather was mostly clear and beautiful while I was in Chuuk but one day as we worked, the clouds came in and we were warned that a storm was heading our way, and we should hurry back to the main island. We gathered our tools together and set out in our boat. All of the water taxis were driven by locals who knew the waters well, so I never had much concern and besides, the weather had always been perfect and the ocean calm. As we set out from Udot towards Weno the fog came quickly in, so that soon we were completely enshrouded without any visibility. The waters were very calm, and there was a strange stillness as our driver cut the motor and attempted to discern our location. He and his companion didn’t speak English but I could tell there was a problem, based on their expressions. Soon I came to understand that they were lost, and on top of that they hadn’t brought along enough fuel with them for the motor.

As we drifted through the thickening fog I couldn’t help but recall several stories I had heard earlier that week about folks who got lost in these little boats and drifted out beyond the barrier islands that encircled the lagoon and on out to sea. Apparently this wasn’t all that uncommon, but there was nothing I could do about it. If our pilots were lost and they were both born and raised here, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to help. Eventually we heard other voices through the deep mist, and slowly the dark outline of another boat with several occupants emerged. Our two boats came abreast and we tethered their boat to ours. It turned out that they also were lost and drifting but they had fuel. This was a Godsend as our pilot filled our tank and started up the motor. The fog began to lift, along with the wind. The folks in the other boat didn’t have experience on the water and asked to be towed by our boat, so we dragged them along behind us as we made our way back to Weno island. The island was still far away as the clouds grew darker and more foreboding and the winds increased. We were racing the storm now and hoping to make it safely to harbor before the waves grew much higher.  We made it back to shore in time and got inside when the first of the rains and high winds hit the islands. It didn’t end up being a significant storm by their standards, but it was still much better to be on dry land than out on the water.

We didn’t do any more building after this. FEMA needed to divert resources to a different natural disaster, so the funding was suddenly discontinued, and we were told to leave the island the following week. When I returned to Seattle V welcomed me home, and the following day asked for a divorce.

(to be continued)

~FS

The Space Explorers

We are in a weightlessness of space,

untethered and floating away into darkness.

The Father’s love is reaching out to us, to catch us,

and draw us back to safety.

Our choice to reach out and grab the line

offered us through Christ His Son.

There is no other tether to draw us back into our original bliss.

Certainly there are other ways to ameliorate our supine sleep,

and other comforts to enjoy,

as we fall away into abandon.

 

We look for other suns to warm us,

in our slow inevitable decline,

as we are passing our time in this cold, dark vacuum.

We see stars and reach out to them for warmth,

but they are indifferent to our inner yearnings,

and laugh secretly at our poverty.

We attempt to hitch ourselves to a passing comet,

the newest one, that might take us home again,

or give our freefall meaning,

but it glances past us and sets us in a spiraling motion,

still floating, arms flailing now and grasping at stardust.

 

We cannot breathe,

for the weightlessness of our world

is crushing us and we gasp for air,

searching desperately for a way out.

Meanwhile the Father’s love is reaching out to us,

to catch us, and draw us back to safety.

Would that we only reach out and grab it

and follow His line back to our eternal home.

 

We search for a new world, a new home in the darkness of space

and reject the best one that is offered to us.

 

~FS

Paths (Part 41: The Thief Who Gave It All Back)

The door locked behind me, its sound echoed briefly down the hallway as I gazed along the empty corridor. I was alone in jail—not completely alone, as there were surveillance cameras up near the ceiling, so I was being watched. I made my way through several more locked doors, up an elevator and was finally greeted by an armed guard who led me into a small holding cell. I had made this short, silent journey every Friday morning for months and each time it was a strange sensation to hear the doors lock behind me, and find myself alone in this cold, indifferent environment.

Earlier in the year I had joined a prison ministry program through the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa and as a member of this I had an official identification card and free access to visit inmates at the Sonoma County Jail. There were three young men who had requested visits so I spent several hours meeting with them one at a time on Fridays, listening to their stories and providing a friendly presence. Occasionally we opened the Bible and read a psalm, a proverb or another passage, but for the most part they just wanted to talk and needed someone to listen.

Once they came to see that I was there to help them and trusted that I didn’t have any ulterior motive, each of them had a great deal to say and were eager to share their life stories, the ups and downs, the good and bad, and how they had come to be in jail. The common thread in all three stories was a lack of support and caring in their homes growing up. They detailed abuse, or neglect and often violence in their childhood environments. When I told them that I loved them, each reacted with surprise, confusion, skepticism and finally in time, when they believed me, with hope and sadness. They were hopeful that what I said was true, grateful that someone finally expressed love for them without anything to gain in return, and sadness for the lack of love in their lives. Beneath the hardness, the craftiness, the worldliness and emotional armor these guys each turned out to be gentle and sad, and more than a little bit empty inside.

I could empathize with them and I saw myself in each of them. Were I to have had a less fortunate childhood, or had I been caught doing this or that, or had I given in to any number of my vices, or been overwhelmed by them to a larger degree than I typically am, then it could easily have been me locked up in this jail, hoping for a visitor. Without any doubt at all, if God had ever made a prison for my crimes committed against Him, for my sinful thoughts and actions, I would absolutely be in that prison.

I hired one of these young men to work for me when he was released from jail. For several weeks I picked him up from his mother’s home each morning and he worked closely with me as I trained him in various aspects of landscaping and construction. However, it turned out he was more comfortable in jail, with the routines that he knew and had grown accustomed to, so shortly thereafter, he was arrested again for a new crime and returned to jail. When we met again in the visiting room of the jail he looked at me and shrugged and said he guessed this is just where he belongs. I didn’t have a good answer to that but smiled at him and told him I was sorry it had turned out this way.

I was also sorry things had turned out the way they did for MD. He had warned us years earlier that a likely outcome of our course with him would be that he would end up in prison.  Even though he had known this was possible, maybe even likely, and even though he had prepared me for this potential I was still sad to see him there. I visited him on occasion in Vacaville, until he was transferred to a different location farther south, in Atascadero.

By the year 2001 I was getting tired of landscaping and wanted a different challenge so I applied to graduate school in architecture. I was placed on a waiting list at the University of Washington, but could take classes towards the degree through their extension office while waiting to be admitted the following year. So V and I moved north to Seattle and I enrolled in several architecture courses starting that fall.

In looking for a new church to attend in Seattle, I told a friend that I wanted to find a church that really lived out their beliefs and practiced their faith in concrete and practical ways. He suggested I look into the Mennonites. Seattle Mennonite Church was not far from the house V and I rented, and it was convenient one Sunday to drop in and see what their services were like. As I learned more about the Mennonites I was impressed with their history: the oppression and suffering they had lived under in Europe and the dedication to their beliefs which they displayed in the face of this oppression, to the point of martyrdom in very many cases, and I was impressed with their commitment to social issues from helping the poor to helping anyone who was marginalized by our society. They were true champions of the underdog, which is also something I had always tried to be, so it felt like a very good fit.

Later that year I was hired to coordinate their volunteer programs which included a service program aimed mainly for college-aged students in which they volunteered for a two-year commitment with various non-profit agencies in the Puget Sound region. The participants came from all parts of the United States and even from overseas. While in Seattle they all lived together in a large Victorian house on Capitol Hill owned by the church. Part of my job was to interview applicants to the program, help place them with agencies and then provide support to them for the two years while they lived and worked in the program. At any given time there were around ten young adults living together in the house and volunteering with the program.

The following year I began attending the University of Washington full-time as a student in their graduate architecture program while also continuing to work as the volunteer coordinator for the church. V wasn’t interested in attending the church with me, and though she exhibited so many qualities of a Christian, in her kindness and empathy among other things, in the final analysis she wasn’t a Christian and I think in many ways she felt antagonized by my Christianity even without my intent. One thing was certainly true, between my graduate studies and working for the church I had very little time left over to spend with her. She was quiet and didn’t often let on what was bothering her but I imagine this bothered her and contributed at least in part to her desire to leave me the following year and to request a divorce.

One of my roles as the volunteer coordinator for the church was to welcome a group of short-term volunteers from Colorado State University who came to Seattle each year on their spring break to serve people in the inner city. Our church hosted this group while they stayed in Seattle and it was my job to welcome them at the airport, drive them back to the church and orient them to their rooms, the showers and the kitchen where they would prepare their meals and then be available for whatever needs might arise for them during their week in Seattle.

One year, as I was walking the group up to the side entrance of the church, we all got a big surprise. Fortunately later that night, after the surprise had ended, I wrote out an account of the entire thing, including the dialog, which I present here:

It was getting dark as we finally pulled into the parking lot. In the van with me were a group of fifteen college students from Colorado State University who had come to Seattle for a week to work on a service project over their spring break.  They were excited to be here but were also tired from their flight, and ready to see where they were going to be staying for the coming week.

 Their accommodations were on the second floor of the Mennonite church building in town.  The church is situated in an urban environment amidst low-rent apartment buildings, thrift stores and car dealerships. At night, it is probably safe, especially if you are in a group of fifteen, but it is still a good idea to keep an eye out for potential trouble.

 This particular year I was working for the church, coordinating service programs. So it was my job to welcome this group, show them around, and be available if they needed anything.

 We piled out of the van, loaded ourselves with duffle bags, suitcases, and sleeping bags and trekked across the parking lot to the church.

 In my mind I was running through everything I needed to show them about the building; the location of the shower, the bathrooms, the kitchen, which door to enter through and which one to leave closed and locked…when I saw, coming out of this very same door, someone who shouldn’t have been.  In his arms he was carrying a microwave oven and stuffed poorly into his backpack was a portable stereo.

 He glanced our way and then hustled quickly around the corner of the building with his new acquisitions.

It is a rare thing to catch someone in the act of stealing, so my mind didn’t immediately register what I had just seen. Was he really stealing from us? I asked myself. Maybe I know him. He probably attends the church and I just didn’t recognize him in the fading light. I rationalized. But then, why did he scuttle off so quickly in the opposite direction after seeing us coming towards him?

 I decided he was definitely a thief so I sprang into action. I quickly told the students that we were being robbed, handed them the keys to the building and told them to go inside and make themselves comfortable as I dashed off after the intruder.

 I caught up with him not far down the street and confronted him. “What are you doing? Those are our things you are taking from the church.”

 “No they aren’t,” he replied.

 “Of course they are. I can tell you exactly where they came from. That microwave in your hands is out of the youth room, and the stereo is also.”

 “They’re mine.”

 “But I just saw you coming out of the door of the church.”

 “No I didn’t.”

 “I see those things everyday. I know you took them.”

 As the conversation proceeds we continue to walk down the darkened street.

 “Look”, he said as he turned to face me. “Do you want me to just smash this over your head?” He gestured to the microwave.

 He looked menacingly at me and I took him at his word.

 “No. I just want you to return them.”

 He started walking again and I followed alongside. “Okay. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are yours and it is just a crazy coincidence. Come back to the church with me and we’ll look at the location I think they belong. If the microwave and stereo are there then I apologize.”

 “I’m not going back,” he snapped. “Just leave me alone.”

 “I’m not going to leave you alone. You have our things.”

 No reply. We walked a moment in silence. Who knows what he was thinking, but my mind was racing trying to come up with the key to unlock this situation. The line I was taking wasn’t working.

 “What do you need?” I asked him.

 “Money.”

 “I understand…look,” I said, “I don’t want you to have to steal for it and you don’t want to steal either.”

 He didn’t answer.

 “I know you don’t want to steal. Not really.”

 We walked a little further and he stopped. We were standing under a dim streetlight, at a corner where two roads met. I pulled out my wallet, opened it, and counted to myself what I had.

 “I have forty dollars. You can have it.”

 His expression changed, softening for a moment. Then he looked suspicious.

 “Why would you give me that?”

 I thought for a moment, and in that space of time, God gave me love for him.

 “Because I love you. God loves you too. I don’t want you to have to steal.”

 He looked at me for a moment, evaluating me in some way unknown to me. And then he asked,

 “If I didn’t give these things back would you still give me the money?”

 That was a great question. I paused to think about it. The answer had to be yes or my ‘love’ was going to look pretty cheap. But the answer also had to be true because I was sure he would have seen right through me if it wasn’t. In any case I didn’t want to cheapen this brief relationship with a lie.

 I imagined the possibility that I gave him the money and he kept the stolen property. I didn’t know how that would eventually turn out but I made myself okay with that chance and told him so.

 He considered my response. I offered him the money, reaching out to him. He thought a bit further and then really surprised me with what he said next.

 “Let me carry these things back for you.”

“Really!? I asked, “I can take the microwave for you.”

 “No. I want to carry them all back for you.”

 So he turned around and began walking back the way he had come, retracing his steps back to the door of the church. I turned and walked alongside him yet again. On the way back he began talking, and talking, and he didn’t stop talking for a long time.

 “Nobody has ever loved me. No one says they love me. My dad never loved me. I can’t believe it, that you love me. I’m just passing through town. I don’t have a home and I don’t know anyone here. You know if someone just would have loved me. That was really cool. Thank you so much for the money. I really need it.”

 “No problem.”

 We stopped in view of the church and he looked at me. “Can I give you these now? I don’t want to go back there.”

 “Sure.”

 He handed the microwave to me and then took off his backpack and pulled the stereo out and placed it on top of the microwave in my arms.

 “You’re welcome to come and join us while you are in town. I won’t tell anyone who did this so if you come in on Sunday no one will know you. It’ll be fine.”

 “Thanks. I probably won’t be around.”

 We exchanged a few more pleasantries and then he waved goodbye, turned and walked into the darkness. I watched him go and then walked back to the church. I thought to myself, I’ve met several thieves in my life but I’ve never before met a thief that gave it all back.

 I felt that God really taught us both a lot that evening. I was surprised to find the person that emerged when he was treated with kindness instead of anger. Though he acted despicably at first by stealing, he was treated with dignity, and in the end this allowed him to respond with dignity and with grace. I praise God for teaching us the value of love, and the practical way that it can make a bad situation good.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths (Part 40: Confessions)

The writings of C.S. Lewis also had a strong influence on me at this time. I was particularly impacted by his two books: The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters. In The Problem of Pain he engages with the problem of evil and suffering in our world, and how that reconciles or doesn’t, with our human conceptions of good and evil. I appreciated his rational and logical reasoning around these issues, and his sincerity in grappling with this most difficult subject. The Screwtape Letters is a humorous fictional series of letters written by an accomplished demon to his nephew giving him advice on how to be a successful demon through the best methods for leading humanity astray. It is poignant as well as humorous, and I enjoyed the insights it provided into the nature of our struggle with sin and the role the fallen angels have in our daily battles.

It isn’t intuitive to know how to interpret the Bible, and since it is so complex and in many places confusing or shrouded in mystery, I needed to learn how to interpret this book I loved so much. I began to learn many of the tenets of the protestant perspective on this matter, without understanding that they were only one approach; I just accepted that they were the correct approach. I learned about the concept of sola scriptura in which we believe only what is written in scripture alone, which sounded very good and very simple and straightforward, until I discovered that even the founders of the protestant point of view diverged on many points of scripture right from the start while supposedly using this concept of sola scriptura, which was supposed to provide a self-evident interpretation based on a comparison of scripture with scripture, without any outside influence. Still, I didn’t know any alternatives to this idea, and even though this concept seemed flawed to me for this reason and other reasons as well, I kept it as my working hypothesis for many years, trying to make it work, and ignoring the evidence of its shortcomings.

Another approach to the Bible that I inherited at this time was to read it literally, as a work of historical and scientific truth, as if it were intended to be used as a history book and as a science textbook. Certainly it is filled with historical truth and scientific accuracy but these aren’t the reasons it was written or given to us by God. The Bible tells us about the nature of God; who He is and what He has done, why He made us, who we are in relation to Him, what has happened to us and why, and demonstrates His love for us, His plans for us here on earth, and His plans for us into eternity in the world to come. Understanding this purpose allows an entirely different approach to interpreting and understanding scripture. Had I understood this at the time I might not have allowed myself and my faith to be cornered by the attacks of the world and the arguments levied against my faith and the Bible by historical and/or scientific arguments that reasonably run counter to it.

I considered this dilemma: if I see the Bible, and my faith which is built upon it, as needing to be correct in every historical or scientific account found there, or else if it is in error on these points then my faith is false; if this is the point, then I am easily cornered, and my faith can easily be shaken or even destroyed by every new scientific discovery. Something seemed very wrong with this approach, but I didn’t know another at the time, so I stayed the course and tried to find and listen to intelligent and skilled apologists of the faith, and those who could reason passably in support of this approach.

The church I attended needed Sunday school teachers for various grade levels. I considered what level I was most suited for based on my ability and knowledge so I picked kindergarten. I felt I could keep up with this age group and even stay a step or two ahead of them, at least intellectually, if not physically. In addition to teaching the little ones, I also helped lead a couple mission trips to Mexico to build houses and an orphanage cafeteria. Building was great and the results were needed, but the best part by far were the relationships built with others in our group and with the children living there. My fondest memories from those trips are of kicking a soccer ball or throwing a Frisbee with the little children in the dusty streets of Tijuana and praying with the other volunteers.

It was around this time, after returning from a mission trip to Mexico, that V and I had our first real discussion about having children. There were surprisingly quite a few important issues like this one that we had never discussed together prior to getting married. As it turned out she had no interest in having children. I had imagined myself having children since I could remember first thinking about it in elementary school. However, after some reflection I could also imagine adopting and not having children of my own. But as it turned out, V wasn’t interested in adopting either, although I have to give her a lot of credit for subsequently trying to go along with this idea for several years. In the end though, she really didn’t want to be a mother of children whether they were hers biologically or through adoption.

I managed to adapt to this reality and come to peace with it, although I still thought it would be great, and harbored some inner desire for children. In lieu of children, we volunteered for an organization called The Family Connection in which we helped mentor a young single mother, assisting her in job training and how to take care of her home and her two little girls; in many cases we were baby-sitters while she went to classes or to work. Again, I have to give V a lot of credit for volunteering with me at this, considering she didn’t really feel comfortable around children. I expect she did it entirely for me.  She was kind and thoughtful.

Over the years there weren’t many things that could upset me or cause me to lose my temper but one recurring thing that easily could, which I’ve alluded to earlier in this story, was being unfairly accused of something, or feeling as though my good name was under attack. I attribute this entirely to my sin of pride and vanity, and it is the antithesis to what Christ calls us to do in laying down our lives for others, in taking up our cross and following Him, or as He tells us that we are blessed when we are persecuted, and when we are reviled and when others make false accusations against us.  Shamefully, on two occasions at least, I responded reprehensibly towards V when I felt she was accusing me, and in both cases I acted disgracefully; once throwing a dish into the kitchen cabinets so forcibly that parts of it stuck into the wood and were very difficult to remove, and another occasion calling her a ‘bitch’. Oh, how I wished I could take those words and actions back, almost immediately after I had committed them, and I apologized profusely, but they were emblazoned into the sky, and my world was forever changed because of them. As much as I wish they weren’t me, or could claim that somebody else made me do it, these things were done by me and they are my history.

Crimes are committed, sometimes in the heat of anger without forethought, such as these I’ve just revealed, while others are taken deliberately; they are measured, calculated, and executed with desire. Often we can look back on these and see that we were effectively out of our mind, or ignorant, but most of the time we were just plain selfish and uncaring. There was one such incident that occurred about a year into our marriage that even now as I write, I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes for sorrow and remorse. V never knew about it and I couldn’t speak about it to anyone for years; not until a couple years after she and I divorced was I finally able to confess it to my pastor and begin to find a measure of healing and restoration.

I met up one day with a friend, actually someone I had been in a relationship with several years prior to meeting and marrying V. We spent the day together and then we spent the night together. There were plenty of opportunities to take a different course, to say goodbye, to avert what was about to transpire, but I didn’t. I remember wondering what on earth I was doing as the day wore on and we headed towards that night. I could have stopped myself but I was entirely selfish and I didn’t. At the time I knew I was far off the mark, I was sinning, and acting unlovingly and hurting V whether she knew it or not.  Only later did I learn that I was also hurting God, as King David said, “against You, and You only have I sinned and done this evil in Your sight.” But now I believe that not only did I hurt V and God by this, and hurt myself too; but in an important way, I also hurt everyone else in this world, and I hurt creation itself. I tore at the very fabric of life by my sin, and while certainly most in the world didn’t know of my particular sin, and most will never know of it, nonetheless every act of unkindness and every action taken in selfishness and un-love has a universal effect on everyone and everything else. I cannot prove this, but I feel it to be true. As good food nourishes the body and bad food breaks it down, so too, virtuous life nourishes our world and vice degrades it and breaks it down. My heart doesn’t know if I’ve eaten good food today or bad, but over time it will feel the effects of both, so too, you may not know the sin I’ve committed today, or in the past, but over time we all feel the effects. I am sorry my heart, my love, all of you out there who must bear the suffering caused by my un-love and my selfishness because I’ve made our world a little less like paradise, a little less as God intended.

(to be continued)

~FS