Faith

Christmas calls you home

As I thought about what Christmas Eve message I might like to give at my church, I knew that I wanted it to be more about the hope the birth of Christ brought to the world, than about the birth of Christ itself. Here’s the message I gave last night.


Lots and lots of people travel at Christmas. AAA estimates that one in three Americans will drive or fly somewhere this Christmas season. That’s more than 100 million people!

Perhaps it’s been that way since the beginning. For Joseph and Mary, Christmas Eve came during the last leg of their long journey home, as Joseph had been ordered to return home to his city of birth for the purpose of conducting a census.

Where was Joseph going? Home. Where are most Americans going this Christmas? Home, just like Joseph. Christmas calls us home.

Why have you come to Christmas Eve services tonight? If you’re like me, somehow Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the familiar hymns and the candles and the story we know so well. It’s tradition – we’ve done Christmas Eve services at West Park for as long as anyone can remember. If you’re like me, you’re here tonight because Christmas has called you home.

The word home reaches deep into our spirits, deep into our souls. Maybe when you think of home, you feel safety and warmth and love and affirmation. If so, you were fortunate. Because for many people, thinking of home brings up painful memories. Dad disappeared and Mom couldn’t keep up with the rent and the family nearly ended up homeless. A daughter died in an accident, and it nearly tore the family apart. A son became addicted to drugs and went in and out of jail and put the family through some incredibly hard times. Mom drank too much and when she did she lashed out at everyone, and the whole family was afraid of her.

For anyone whose story is hard like that, it’s understandable if they don’t want to go home.

Yet it’s only by working through those painful memories that we may return. Our spirituality is so vitally connected to our own story, to our own journey, and to our deep longing for home.

I remember after my first marriage ended. I lost my home. I didn’t get to see my two young sons every day anymore. I couldn’t even figure out a stable life for a while — I moved three times in four years. As we kept moving, no place felt like home. Those were hard years for my sons and me. Finally I bought a modest house in a quiet neighborhood near Kessler and Michigan. In that house we made a home for ourselves. We built our traditions and fell into good patterns. There was love in our home. We suffered for a while, but we came out okay in the end. We were fortunate.

There’s real suffering in this world. Maybe there’s been real suffering in your life. Most of us fall on hard times, most of us suffer, at some time in our lives. Sometimes that suffering makes us wonder where God is. It makes it hard for us to turn to God, to come home to God.

So what does it mean for you to come home? Would it mean asking questions that have no real answers?

The faith to which we cling, the faith that we celebrate this night, is one that through the course of Jesus’s life would take Him from the cradle to the cross. We have no answers to the questions about suffering – we know only that He meets us in it.

Which brings us more than anything else to why we are here. The shepherds were working the graveyard shift when they were surprised by angels. Sleepy shepherds and sleepy sheep were suddenly awakened to a floor show that blew away anything they had ever seen before. After the angels made their announcement there came a crescendo of hope that built and built until the angels themselves erupted into song. The angels announced the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ announces Good News. Christ is the good news, for it is in Him that we have hope.

It was the announcement of His birth that re-awakened hope in the lives of the shepherds. And hope, in turn, awakened a curiosity to the extent that they were willing to risk even their livelihood to “go over to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, that the Lord had make known to (them).”

Coming home means that we are willing to risk again, to re-experience the awakening of hope, and that we are willing — if we are curious enough — to latch on to His star and hang all of our hope on Him. Coming home means that before we can feel at home, anywhere, we must first be at home with God. Coming home means we have a relationship with a person, the person of Christ. Home then is more a state of being than it is a place. It is not a goal to achieve, but a child to receive.

The idea of home reflects a deeply rooted yearning within us to have a place to rest, a place to be, a place to belong. Jesus addressed this desire when, after He and His friends had their last supper together, He spoke about His death and resurrection. He promised that although He would go away, He would come back for them. And He would prepare a room for them. A dwelling place. A home.

When evangelist Billy Graham died last year, his daughter Ruth spoke at his funeral. Her story is a perfect illustration of what it means to be welcomed home. Here’s Ruth Graham’s story.

I have learned in the weeks since my father’s death that everybody has a Billy Graham story. But I have my own Billy Graham story. Some of you may have heard it many times, but it bears repeating because it speaks to the essence of who my father was and is.

After 21 years, my marriage ended in divorce. I was devastated. I floundered. I did a lot wrong. The rug was pulled out from under me.

My family thought it would be a good idea for me to move away, to get a fresh start somewhere else. So, I decided to live near my older sister and her family and near a good church. The pastor of that church introduced me to a handsome widower, and we began to date fast and furiously. My children didn’t like him, but I thought, you know, they’re almost grown. And they can’t tell me what to do. I knew what was best for my life.

My mother called me from Seattle. My father called me from Tokyo. They said, “Honey, why don’t you slow down? Let us get to know this man.”

They had never been a single parent. They had never been divorced. What did they know? So, being stubborn, willful and sinful, I married this man on New Year’s Eve, and within 24 hours I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.

After five weeks, I fled. I was afraid of him. What was I going to do? I wanted to go talk to my mother and my father.

It was a two-day drive. Questions whirled in my mind. What was I going to say to Daddy? What was I going to say to Mother? What was I going to say to my children? I’d been such a failure. What were they going to say to me? “We’re tired of fooling with you. We told you not to do it. You’ve embarrassed us.”

Many of you know that we live on the side of a mountain. And as I wound myself up the mountain, I rounded the last bend in my father’s driveway, and my father was standing there waiting for me.

As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Welcome home.”

There was no shame. There was no blame. There was no condemnation. Just unconditional love.

You know, my father was not God. But he showed me what God is like that day. When we come to God with our sin, our brokenness, our failure, our pain and our hurt, God says welcome home.

And that invitation is open for you.

That’s Ruth Graham’s story. It’s a story of hope, a story of acceptance. It’s the story that began 20 centuries ago on that first Christmas. When Jesus was born, so was born our hope.

Jesus made a home for us with God when he went to the cross, sinless, and died. He assured His disciples that if He went to the trouble of creating this home, that of course He would come back for them and not leave them alone. They didn’t need to fear or be worried about their lives, whether on earth or in heaven.

We can take comfort and assurance from Jesus’s words, for we believe and trust that He makes a home for us; that He makes His home within us; and that He has gone ahead of us to prepare our heavenly home. Whatever sort of physical place we live in, we belong with Jesus, upheld by His love and surrounded in His peace.

This is the home Jesus offers us in the right here, and in the right now. A place of peace, where we can rest in Him. Rest. Isn’t that what we all want when we go home?

Jesus is calling you home. Christmas is calling you home.


This isn’t truly my original work. I used the structure of, and plagiarized whole paragraphs from, a sermon by Timothy McNeil, which you can read here. My wife Margaret gave me some great ideas and even a few key phrases that found their way in here. I also used ideas and text from the April 17, 2017 Our Daily Bread devotional, which you can read here. Finally, you can watch and listen to Ruth Graham’s story at her father’s funeral here.

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Personal, Stories Told

Because I love myself enough

Someone who was supposed to love me abused me instead. Putdowns. Belittling. Gaslighting. Crazymaking. Intimidation. Isolation. Limiting who I could have as friends. Destroying my possessions. Occasionally even punching me in the face.

It’s been over for a long, long time. Thank God.

abused

Abused.

I’ve worked hard to sort out what happened and make a healthy, happy life. You see it all through this blog. But then one evening almost a year ago, an unexpected encounter with my abuser left me curled into a fetal ball on my family room floor, rocking back and forth, afraid for my life.

Near dawn my emotions finally settled enough for rational thought to return, for me to see that I was in no danger at all, for me to remember that there was nothing my abuser could do to harm me anymore. Things I had figured out through the work I’d done, but things that didn’t help me through that night.

Back into therapy I went. My recovery road is littered with all sorts of psychological diagnoses and associated treatments: major depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder. The first three were right; the last two flat wrong. Psychological diagnosis is such a judgment call. But after my full-on freak out, I thought it had to be post-traumatic stress disorder. So I found a therapist who specialized in it.

I’m not writing this to gather sympathy, or open a conversation about abuse, or shame my abuser (who I won’t name). I never planned to tell this part of my story here. But since I wrapped therapy in August, every post has been more a strain to write. This happens every time I need to tell a story from my life. And I have to tell it here or the block won’t lift. That’s why I told my divorce story last year (here, here, here, and here).

I’m fully blocked now; words won’t come. I usually have three weeks of posts scheduled in advance, but if I don’t tell this today, the blog will go silent. No posts are queued.

And it’s not the abuse that I need to tell about. It’s just that if you don’t know about the abuse, the story I need to tell won’t make sense.

So here goes.

The therapist used a technique called EMDR to help me process what she called the “flashbulb” moments — key abuse incidents that seared deeply, leaving deep feelings of shame and powerlessness, risking me being helplessly, inappropriately triggered into fight-or-flight mode in moments that recall what happened. EMDR was astonishingly effective. When we finished processing a flashbulb moment, I was fully freed from it. It had become an event I felt sorry I had to endure, but that no longer controlled me. After we had processed several of those moments, I began weave together a story of what happened, and assign meaning to it. I could feel the abuse’s power draining away.

When I was a kid, we used to tie knots in used-up socks as toys for our Labrador retriever. One game was to wave a sock in front of her face and laugh as she shook her head back and forth trying to clomp down. But old Missy was unusually smart. She figured out that the arm just behind my wrist was still. So she moved past the sock and closed her soft, bird-retrieving mouth on my wrist, all the while looking me right in the eye. The sock stopped instantly, and she took it right into her mouth and pulled. She wanted to play tug!

Go right to the source. But you have to recognize what the source is. Missy did. And thankfully, this therapist did, too.

One week, with several more flashbulb moments left to process, she said, “Next time I’d like to do something a little different with you, if you are willing and comfortable.” I was up for anything. “Then next week, tell me the story of the day you were born. Tell me as complete a story as you can put together.”

I knew where and about when I was born. I remembered that Mom Grey was thrilled to have a boy great-grandchild; she openly favored boys. I remembered that my mom’s parents flew in from Seattle to meet me, and that my uncle who was a photographer for the Chicago Tribune visited with his press camera and got a great photo of me with my grandfather, which I still have. I wove it all into a narrative and told it in my next session. It was oddly fulfilling.

“Do you see how anticipated you were? How much everyone in your family wanted you and enjoyed you when you were born?” I hadn’t seen it, actually. And I felt something shift slightly inside me, but I couldn’t describe it, couldn’t feel its value yet.

Then she asked me to close my eyes and imagine it was the day I was born. “Pretend you’ve traveled through time and arrived standing in front of the hospital. Now imagine with me. Feel the warm summer sunshine on your shoulders. Walk in. It’s cool in the hospital and it smells antiseptic clean. A nurse is leading you through the corridors to the maternity ward. And there you are, standing in front of the window, a room full of new babies before you. The nurse points out which baby is you. Do you see yourself there?”

“Now walk in. Walk up to yourself. Reach down and pick yourself up. Bring yourself up to your chest. Feel your warmth, maybe even your heartbeat. Lower your nose to take in the scent of newborn you.”

My mind flooded with memories of the first times I held my sons that way after they were born: their warmth, their scents. I remembered my feelings of love toward them, of excitement over their very lives. I recalled how I’d tried to love them and nurture them, to protect them, and to share life with them and prepare them for their futures.

I knew instantly that I had not given myself the same. Felt it deeply. A long thread had run through my whole life of accepting treatment from others that I would not accept for my sons, treatment that would cause me to fiercely intervene to protect them. I had not loved myself enough, not given myself full care and protection. But I felt that level of love for myself now, the same as I felt for my sons. And with that, I knew that I would be okay. My abuse story instantly lost all its power.

It was not an overly emotional moment. My eyes did fill with tears, but none fell onto my cheeks. It was a pain reaction, as if I had been walking around with a dislocated joint for 20 years and someone finally popped it back into place. It hurt for a minute, but then I felt great relief, and finally I was able to use that joint as it was intended.

I get to be me as I was intended.

I didn’t need to work through the rest of my flashbulb moments. Not only did I know I was safe and loved, but I could feel it; the emotional connection had been made. I felt compassion for the fellow I was, who suffered through abuse, who felt trapped in it. And now those days are properly sorted and I’ve finally fully moved on. But even better, I feel no fear for my future. I know I can take care of myself, protect myself, through whatever comes. Because I love myself enough.

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Essay

I shed no tears for Amazon’s white-collar workers — but its blue-collar workers deserve better

Some companies are just hard to work for. Amazon appears to be one of them. I shed no tears for its white-collar workers, but in many cases its blue-collar workers deserve better.

The big online retailer’s corporate culture has been in the news a lot lately after a damning article in the New York Times lambasted the company for unrelenting pace and pressure at its Seattle headquarters. It told stories of ridiculously long hours, of scoldings for midnight emails not immediately answered, of employees undermining each other using an anonymous feedback system, of a brutal annual performance rating system that ends in firing those ranked at the bottom even when the ratings are good, of grown men routinely crying in their offices.

The article smells like a hit piece to me. I wonder what axe the Times or the reporters have to grind. Indeed, people inside Amazon are calling the piece largely bunk, including this employee who tore the article apart piece by piece.

Largely bunk, though, because nobody denies that Amazon is an intensely demanding workplace that wants to attract and keep overachieving A players. Anyone who can’t hack it isn’t coddled — they leave, voluntarily or not.

Plenty of people thrive in such an environment. Plenty of people don’t. And for those who don’t, they all have skills and talents that transfer easily to other companies with cultures that fit them better. Plenty of companies are available for them to choose from. And that’s why I don’t cry for the workers at Amazon headquarters. They have good options.

Inside Amazon's Whitestown, Indiana warehouse. WRTV photo.

Inside Amazon’s Whitestown, Indiana, warehouse. WRTV photo.

But Amazon’s blue-collar workers have far fewer options, and many of those options are poor. Some stories of conditions inside Amazon’s many warehouses enrage me. One warehouse turned off the air conditioning in the summertime and sent the prostrated to the ER. They wouldn’t even open the warehouse doors to vent the heat, to prevent theft. Worries about theft also lead Amazon warehouses to make employees wait for up to 25 unpaid minutes at quitting time to go through a security check. Lawsuits followed. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, which validated the practice, unfortunately.

Even when Amazon warehouse workers avoid dangerous conditions, the warehouse is still far from a joyful place to work. I know someone who worked the last holiday season at the Amazon warehouse in nearby Whitestown, Indiana, and he complained of a deeply intense, almost impossible pace that left his feet aching. But, he added, for anyone who doesn’t like it there, five more people are waiting in line for the job. Few other viable employers are available for these workers.

Low-skill blue-collar workers do have options — they’re just enormously difficult. I think about my dad’s family in West Virginia’s hill country. Coal mining provides most of the employment, and it’s all dangerous work. Worker abuses used to be very common; even during my father’s childhood there, “I owe my soul to the company store” was real. But many in my family found deep courage and took big risks to find a better life. My great grandmother opened a tavern and boardinghouse in a little town where the railroad loaded the coal. It was a bold move for a woman in those years, but my great grandmother had guts (and was a deadly shot). And many of my family moved to northern Indiana in the 1950s to find safer, surer work in construction and manufacturing. That was not done lightly — West Virginians are fiercely dedicated to family togetherness.

Indeed, half my family still lives in West Virginia in or not far from that railroad town, and many of those who choose to work still go down into the dangerous mines. Other jobs are very hard to come by, even though Amazon does have a warehouse up the road in Huntington. This surprises me given how hard those hills are to navigate — this isn’t prime factory or warehouse territory.

I applaud anyone at this end of the worker spectrum who takes good risks to find a better life. But not everybody succeeds, and not everybody can do it. At some point, it becomes necessary to protect blue-collar workers from workplace abuses, simply because some number of them will have no options and can be terribly exploited. It reminds me of turn-of-the-20th-century stories about six day, sixty hour weeks, and about child labor, and about poverty-level wages, because the employers could get away with it. Federal labor law and labor unions ended up solving those problems. I’m no fan of government intervention and I deplore what labor unions have turned into. Yet I do think that working people with limited options deserve some protection, some guarantee of humane working conditions.

White-collar workers are much more likely to have good options; many of them can get another job in the same field near where they live. If any of the abuses in the New York Times article are true, I deplore them. But a software developer or a marketing specialist at Amazon headquarters can quit, and soon find other programming or marketing jobs right there in Seattle. A departing Amazon warehouse worker in Whitestown, however, is much more likely to face long unemployment and an uncertain future.

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Personal, Stories Told

Why New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is both too much and not enough

A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.

There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.

This boy was miserable.

The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.

The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.

No, the worst was the physical abuse.

On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.

At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.

The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.

I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.

I needed more help than I got.

There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.

The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.

The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.

Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.

In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.

I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.

I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.

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