Category Archives: Faith

The Sins of My Father

Forgiveness is Freedom

Like many sons, I worshiped my father.

He was strong and kind, slow to anger and generous with what he earned. He supported me. He supported my whole family. Then one day, when I was in my early thirties, a horrible revelation kicked the supports away and I fell into the dust.

That was the day I called my step-mother on Easter, to wish her a happy holiday. I called her from work, because I could get a free long-distance line. I was more than half-way through my 20-years in the Air Force then and stationed in Germany. My dad lived with me. I had taken him in because he had fallen apart emotionally and physically after he and my step-mother divorced five years before.

After half-a-decade, I still didn’t know why their marriage failed. They had been together for twenty years and it seemed like a pretty good relationship. And for reasons unknown, both parents refused to reveal what broke them apart.

Whenever I called, my step-mom found it difficult to talk with me. Apparently, I reminded her of my father and many terrible, but secret, memories. This time, after a few minutes, she had broken down in tears and asked me not to call anymore. She just couldn’t take it. I was devastated. My biological mother had left my father and I when I was nineteen- months-old, and here, my step-mom, the only mother I had ever known, was abandoning me as well.

“Roy, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.” I could barely understand her as she sobbed, nor could I understand why we couldn’t still be mother and son.

“I don’t think you should contact your step-brother or sister, either, Roy. They are coping with problems of their own, and you’ll just complicate things.”

“You know you’ll be leaving me with no family.” My voice started to break.

“I have to go,” she said.

I didn’t want to make a scene in the workcenter or hurt my mother’s feelings anymore than necessary, so I said, “Okay, mom. Goodbye.” But before I hung up the phone, she said, “Wait…I need to tell you something.”

There was a long minute of dead silence on the line. I was about to ask if she was still there when she finally spoke.

“The reason I divorced your father was because he sexually abused your step-sister and one of your step-brothers from the time they were nine until they were sixteen. I wouldn’t tell you this, except that you’re dating that woman with two kids,” she said.

Early in our call, I had told her I was in a long-term relationship with a woman who had two children.

Don’t let those little boys be alone with him.” And she hung up.

It took awhile for that to soak in.

The image I held of my father shattered like a favorite mirror into a million shards. That mirror was one I looked into often and saw myself, one that reflected all the ways I was like my dad: the line of our jaw,  the gentleness of our eyes, the kind sternness that bubbled up from our hearts. Those mirrored images broke into sharp pieces of betrayal that sliced through my love and especially my trust.

Now what was reflected in the mirror? I found some of my identity there. Could I do that now? Was I like my father in ways I hadn’t looked very deeply at? According to my grandmother, my grandfather had been a child abuser. She’d caught him in the back of his auto repair garage with a little girl who had her panties around her ankles. I was afraid of just how deep our similarities might be.

I can’t say I was angry right away. Emotionally, I was lost and didn’t know what to feel. Pouring myself a cup of coffee, I stepped outside for a smoke in the break area, but couldn’t sit still, so I walked around the satellite compound where I worked,  thinking and looking up at the stars. Their light seemed cold there in the black vacuum of space. That’s how the inside of my chest felt, cold and utterly empty.

I felt alone, too. My mother had just pushed me aside, unable to stand the pain I caused by association. She’d cut me off from my siblings, as well. I didn’t have a biological mother that I knew, and now I find out I didn’t really know my dad either. Was he going away, too?

I walked for hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette until Hal, one of my co-workers, came out and said they needed me back inside.

“You alright?” He asked.

I put my hand on his shoulder, “No. But let’s not talk about it. Okay?” He shrugged it off and we went inside.

The rest of my shift went by quickly, and soon I was driving home to face my dad. A prospect I was not looking forward to.

My dad wan’t home when I arrived. So, I had a little while to mull over what I might say and how he might react. What was I going to do? We were living in Germany. I couldn’t easily distance myself from him, but that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do anyway. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Confusion and disbelief clouded my thinking.

I was angry, especially about how my father’s perversion had injured my family and driven them from me. What kind of hell had my sister and brother been through as children? And now as adults? What amount of guilt weighed my mother down after she found out what had happened? What fits of painful self-condemnation wracked her after discovering she hadn’t protected her children?

Even though these and a dozen other mixed-up thoughts pounded me, I still couldn’t have brought myself to just throw him out into the cold. Knowledge of his sinful perversion cut through my love, but now I can see that those bonds were too tough, too deep to be severed quickly.

When my dad came in, we exchanged our usual greetings. He stood in the living room doorway, swaying a little. He’d been over at a local pub, the Snell Imbiss, drinking with a few of his German friends. I sat at my word processor, where I had been writing a letter.

“I called mom today,” I said, letting that sink in.

“Yeah? What’d that bitch have to say?” He sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

The revulsion in his voice and the emphasis on the name, “bitch” made me wince inwardly. “Who are you to call anyone a bitch?” I thought.

“She told me why you two divorced.”

He froze a little in his chair, then took a deep drag and flicked his ashes.

“What did she tell you?”

“She told me you sexually abused my step-sister and step-brother from the time they were nine until they were sixteen.”

“What do you think of that?”

His cold matter-of-factness shocked me. At the same time, I was glad he didn’t deny anything. I had feared my confrontation with him might turn into a shouting match of denials and recriminations. Instead, he sat there quietly smoking in the shadows across the room. I could see his hand shake as he rolled the glowing red tip of his cigarette along the edge of his ashtray, betraying the fact that he was afraid, either of losing me or having to go back stateside to uncertain circumstances.

“I certainly don’t think it was right, dad. How could you do that? What the fuck were you thinking?” I was growing upset.

“Well, you need to hear my side of it, Roy. Your step-sister had a role to play…”

“Don’t give me that shit! My brother and sister were kids. You were a grown-up! He was ten and she was fucking nine-goddamn-years-old, dad!”

We sat there in silence. I couldn’t believe he was trying to make excuses. I felt ready to explode. He’d poisoned everything I knew about my family. It was gone.

Even though I was furious, what strangely coursed through my mind right then was how I needed to forgive. It was Easter. I am a Christian, and I deeply believe in the teachings of Jesus and the commandments of God. And all evening as I walked around the compound, I had been asking myself, “Even now, does God expect me to honor my Father? Even now, in the face of such an abomination, does Jesus want me to forgive? I’m an only child. My biological mother was who knew where. To shun my father made me an orphan to all intent and purposes. Is that what I wanted?”

My dad hadn’t moved or said a word. He just sat there smoking. I’m sure he was more than a little drunk. He and his buddies at the Imbiss put away a lot of beer a few nights a week.

Above my desk I had tacked a Calvin and Hobbes comic that I had cut from the Stars and Stripes Newspaper. It was one where Calvin’s Dad has just arrived home, and a sheepish Calvin is standing in the yard with a sign that says, “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” Above the Dad’s head is a thought bubble with the words, “Uh, oh.”

“Yeah. Uh, oh’s an understatement.” I thought.

I’d hung it there because it was funny and it was something I truly believed in.

I pulled it off the wall, took a deep breath, and walked over to my dad and handed him the comic.

“Why’re you giving me this?” He asked. “What’s it got to do with anything”

“Dad, listen. It doesn’t matter where truth comes from. I believe what that comic says and I have to forgive you what you’ve done: for you, for me, for God. No matter how you’ve betrayed me, I can’t hate you. You’re my father.  But no matter what, this is  going to take some time to resolve.”

He held the comic for a moment, then handed it back. He avoided looking me in the eyes and didn’t have anything to say.

I said goodnight, and went to my bedroom, where I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Eventually, I fell asleep.

My dad and I didn’t talk much for days after that evening. But eventually, the air began to thaw, and we slowly returned to a semblance of regular day to day life.

I had to tell my girlfriend at the time about what I’d found out, for her children’s sake. She supported me and empathized, but she was wary of my dad, and it wasn’t long before we parted ways. And no matter how amicable our parting was, it left me just as alone.

Two years after the fateful call, we returned to the States, and he lived with me for three more, until I met my future wife and married her.  During that time, our relationship was cool and distant. He lived on the upper floor of the place I rented, and I lived on the bottom. We didn’t do much together. The love for him that once flowed from me with unrestricted freedom was dammed forever.

Forgiveness is a struggle, like love can be a struggle. There are days when I think of my father and only feel pity and hope he’s alright. I worry about his health and whether he has confessed his sins to God and received forgiveness. Other days, I wrestle with anger or wish he would just die and it’d be over. I can only hope that, when I stand before God and Jesus, my forgiveness was complete, but I’ll never be sure that it is.

I don’t regret my attempt to forgive, though. I shudder to imagine the damage that could have been done to both our hearts and souls by holding my anger and hatred of his sin close.

Now, I’ve been married for twenty years and have two beautiful, gifted children. I hold their love so much more dear as a result of my family’s betrayals. I have spent time in the desert, and as a result have been better able to enjoy the Easter of my soul, as it rises from the dust.

Christmas in Your Heart

Only If Christmas lives in your heart, will you find it underneath your tree.

Long ago, and probably still does in some places, the first sign of Christmas emerged from the Church’s liturgical year and from behind the pulpit. Priests and pastors prepared their expectant flocks for the nativity by marking time in advent, an opportunity to contemplate the great gift of Jesus the Savior, the state of one’s worthiness, and the hope for his second coming.

During this time, the gifts, feasting, and family gatherings were physical symbols of a spiritual reality.  The entire holiday centered on and observed the birth of Jesus, God’s gift for humankind’s salvation. We feasted on God’s providence, shared those gifts, and gathered in solidarity and strength against coming winter.

Over time, as you surely know, the world grew more capitalist in nature, and those symbols became something businesses took advantage of. Our sincere spirituality and love for friends and family gave them opportunities for instilling in us a very profitable guilt.

Today, the early signs of what is called “the holiday season” begin as business men and women open the advertising floodgates from every media outlet and their stores prepare lavish displays of tinsel, lights and cottony snow. Their goal is to entice buyers to spend their earnings by making them aware of how little money they need to fulfill their dreams and how much more they’d spend elsewhere.

I cringe a little when someone asks me, “How was your Christmas?” I know they mean well, but they’re not asking me about my holiday in a spiritual sense. For many people, maybe most, Christmas is only gifts, family gatherings, and feasting. None of those are wrong. But without the underpinnings of the Christ story, they are fleeting pleasures that miss the permanence that underlays the season.

Without that permanence, there’s often a post-Christmas let down, poignantly expressed by best-selling author, Jeff Goins, as a kind of lament.  He writes, The (post-Christmas) mixed emotions collide and cloud our vision. Was it the best day of the year, or the worst? Did we find the true spirit of Christmas and recapture child-like wonder? Or did we lose another piece of our innocence to the cynicism of adulthood?” Even if you aren’t a Christian, the actions taken during Christmas depend on something deeper in order to not suffer from a cheapening futility.

There is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for those you love.

But Christmas doesn’t have to suffer from the cheapening merchandising of the holiday. It can be revitalized by restoring the symbols and transforming our intent.

I have a suggestion. Instead of cringing, taking the easy way out and avoiding the truth, what about donating to a charity? Then you can tell people, “My holiday was good. I donated my time/my talent/my money, to Amnesty international/Women’s Shelters of America, Etc.” Wouldn’t that be better, turning yourself into a beacon of light instead of being disingenuous?

Our small efforts may seem futile in the face of searing family memories and worldly realities, but the world has always had dark places in it. And every life been touched by loss. Those realities, as Jesus said, will be with us always. We have to press on.

I’m not suggesting that these common tragedies are unworthy of deep feelings. I suggest grieving in the light instead of the shadows. Honor your lost and do something in their name, work with them side by side once more.

As far as the hard realities, shine your light of charity and love into what crannies you can reach, but don’t blacken your holiday with what’s beyond your control–leave that to a greater omniscience than your own.

The experience of every holiday is personal rather than societal. Even though I am inundated with ads and other influences, they flow over me like water because I see them for what they are. You see them truly, too. Let them pass unheeded. The experiences I share with my family have nothing to do with that falseness. I purchase gifts with a sincere eye for each person’s needs and hopes. We decorate our home to celebrate the joy of gratefulness we feel. After all, every holiday begins and ends in your own heart.

Rope

Rope binds us like blood

 

Rope

drapes around my feet,

like an old, faithful dog.

It ties us to this vertical stage

we dance upon as we perform

our rising, brutal ballet for

no one but ourselves.

We push and pull our way

upward in turns, minds

focused and taut, hearts

soothed within the harmony

of rock, line, and movement.

 

We and the rope knot our fists

against gravity’s strong current,

as each man ascends alone:

lost in the stone’s sharp grit,

the impulsive voice of the wind,

and the silent distance below.

The bright rope, running

untangled and free, reminds us

our fate is tied to one another.

Rope binds us like blood:

woven with faith, unfrayed by fear,

made brave by love.

 

 

Pilgrimage

Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul.

Every summer when I was single, I embarked on a three to four week/over-sixty-mile backpacking or rock climbing trip. And it wasn’t just something to do either. I needed it. The military life I had adopted did not mesh with the soul I cultured by growing up in sedate, rural South Texas. Where, on summer nights, I listened to coyotes and called back to owls hooting in the mesquite trees surrounding my family’s five-acre place.

Working in rotating, 12-hour shifts and living with the speed, aircraft noise, and pressure of life on an Air Force facility set me on edge. I always knew when it was time to go. I would grow steadily more depressed and my right eye would begin to twitch. That was my body’s signal to provide my supervisor with a leave projection and set about planning my annual pilgrimage into the backcountry.

There was lots to do: pick a destination, obtain the necessary maps, plan my meals, etc. But this really wasn’t the beginning. Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul. And I don’t necessarily mean a pilgrimage must be religious. You don’t have to walk the El Camino de Santiago or embark on The Hajj into Mecca to step off into self-discovery and restoration. Those paths, while not magical in themselves, draw power from the traveler’s faith and the history they represent.

A traditional religious pilgrimage possesses a meaning before you have taken a single step. You can tap into the power of those who have traveled before you. Meaning rises from every traveler’s story and the belief that drew them there. Those stories and beliefs, like crumbs marking the way, show you where to walk, which can embolden any traveler. There is an inherent optimism set in the success of those pioneers who trod the path before. However, sometimes the deepest discoveries are made by setting aside maps and their legends to rely on the compass of who you are and what unique understanding you are seeking.

Going mapless allowed the deepest discoveries

My pilgrimages were always of the second sort. I found that going mapless allowed the deepest personal discoveries. Rather than a religious trek, I let my soul’s needs guide my inner direction. On the trail, every step is a prayer, and the miles, like rosary beads, passed under my feet in a litany of meditations on what it meant to be a modern American man, to be a Christian, to be single, to be searching for purpose, accomplishment, or meaning.

Even though I may have shunned a spiritual map, I was smart enough to carry maps of the land, and I did carry Rainer Rilke’s  Letters to a Young Poet. The mountains, like a library, are deep with quiet surroundings, which lend themselves to thinking–deep or shallow, and Rilke was my favorite muse. As a bonus, it was under a hundred pages and didn’t weigh much. Rilke always provided me with insight about maturing, being creative, or what love is and is not. He had his personal flaws and failings, but the wisdom he chose to write down for public consumption, rarely failed me. To me, such a book is as important as any map I can carry into the wilderness.

Rilke urges us to live our questions now, so my backpack would be stuffed with animal necessities, while my heart brimmed with the unsolved questions I struggled to fall in love with. Questions that arose out the day to day experiences of life as a young man in a world burgeoning forward technologically but seemed to be tumbling backwards socially. Rilke advised not to seek answers, but I grew up in the nascent era of instant gratification, so I was prone to being impatient. Sue me. However, as I walked the rocky trails of America’s and Europe’s wild places, my pilgrimages began to open up what it meant to “live the questions” and to gradually live into answers. Not The answers, but answers that belonged to me.

For example, in July 1998, two months before my marriage, I hiked into Rocky Mountain National Park. As I crossed the Continental Divide on foot, I felt I was crossing another divide, one that parted my life in two. I was 38 and had always been single, never even had more than three or four romantic relationships before. Now, I was about to join with a woman for life, and I was unsure about what the future held. Some of that uncertainty arose  from my past.

My childhood family life haunted my ideas of marriage. To say I came from a “broken home”  doesn’t capture it, shattered is more like it. I have three half-siblings, all four of us are from different fathers as my mom married six times. I have two step-brothers and a step-sister, but all were distanced by my father’s abuses. My wife, Brenda, says I don’t have a family tree. I have a shrub; it’s been cut back so many times. A successful marriage was light-years outside my personal experience.

But two days deep into Tonahutu Valley, I began to break free of questions or choices that belonged to my family past, but not to me. I slipped into the scenery and the silence and became more able to look objectively at possibility. Still, even as peace flowered within me, more questions buzzed in my head like hungry bees: What was marriage’s promise? Could life alone be as good? Should I look for certainty, or was the bend past this current hour allure enough?

Did my pilgrimage provide answers to those? Well, frankly, no. But it did allow me the opportunity to look at my life from an uncluttered perspective. And now, I have my wife of eighteen years, two teenage children, a personal training business of my own, etc. Many questions have been lived and that living has provided, if not outright answers, at least assurances. And I am well.

Now, more than a half-century into my life, I feel more like every day is a journey into unknown possibilities like loss, failure, and uncertainty. And since I am less of a cynic, there’s also the potential for success, joy, and hope. As I live more in the present the gifts of the future are more of a surprise, which I like, but I also still like going on long pilgrimages into the wilderness. Perhaps I’ll see you out there, or we’ll pass on the street, caught up in the pilgrimage of living.

Play the Lottery: Dream Big!

“Luck is not as random as you think. Before that lottery ticket won the jackpot, someone had to buy it.” ― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

A little over a week ago people around the world waited with bated breath every evening to see if they had picked the billion dollar numbers of Powerball. Nationwide, the populace went a little crazy as greater and greater numbers of people climbed on the bandwagon of possibility. What was the possibility? Never more than one in 292 million. Not much.

Nevertheless, people played. The thrill of possibility must be pretty strong, either that or the escapism of spending hours dreaming about winning big is more entertaining than I ever imagined.

If people are willing to play the seemingly impossible odds of the lottery, what I’d like them to do is invest in some other long odds activities. For example, the chances of keeping a resolution for losing weight are somewhere around 8 to 1–against. But here’s an important side note, those who make resolutions, successful or not, are ten times more likely to change their lives significantly than those who don’t.

This is an crucial distinction. Those who play the lottery are the only ones who win. Even though the odds are supremely against them, some do win. What are the odds for those who don’t play? Well, their odds of winning the incredible prize are always the same: zero.

The point I’m making here is that sometimes, we have to be Hans Solo and demand that the reasonable C3PO’s in our heads and around us, “Never tell us the odds.” We sometimes need to take our chances and go for whatever drives us. Why? Because we just might win. And if we don’t–we are certain to lose–in more ways than one.

Hans Solo

To never throw ourselves headlong into our dreams, despite abysmal chances, erodes our courage, makes us fearful and unconfident. We may tell ourselves the odds will never be in our favor, or employ reason and logic to prove how we will never win, but after a while our voice will start to sound like we have a mouthful of sour grapes. We need to dream big sometimes. Otherwise we’ll miss out on that one chance in a million that we win big–really big.

And winning doesn’t have to involve dollars and cents. You may be dreaming of lifting or losing a heavy weight or spending more time learning how to code a new video game instead of sitting on the sidelines, playing someone else’s game.  Think about it, every week someone posts something on Facebook that goes supernova viral and makes it to the front page of Huffington Post and appears on Good Morning America. Every year, some new, unknown author writes a New York Times best seller. All of these things, and so many more, feel like lottery payouts to me. The difference? The odds aren’t as long.

So, don’t be one of those people who loses all grand ambitions for significant change and greatness by heeding the advice of the “realists” and the fearful who tell us to set our sights low. The resulting wins are almost assuredly going to end up being small, uninspiring, and predictable. They will never take you into the wilderness where real vision and progress lives. Play the lottery. Take a chance. Win big–and “may the odds be ever in your favor.”