Monday, November 15, 2010

When Giveth and Taketh Leadeth to Hideth -- Chapter 5

When you've come to the end of your ration of grace
And it seems there's no more left for you.
When you look at the life still remaining to face
And you don't know what else you can do.

Then remember that grace is not rationed at all,
In its limitless wash over you.
And your life still remaining is part of a plan
Of what God's yet intending to do.

So much more than we fathom, so much more than we know,
There is reason beyond what we see.
There is grace beyond measure and love still to flow
For the persons we are yet to be.
--Thom Hunter

Putting one foot in front of the other is not of much benefit if you're heading toward a cliff.

On the morning of May 1 -- the morning after my arrest -- I woke with an awareness that my life was being measured in hours, much like a man on a deathbed who is aware that all is slipping away, but has no clear understanding of what will happen when all he knows is gone. I wanted life to pass swiftly by; I wanted life to stop passing by at all.

Twelve hours from arrest to release.

One hour to drive home.

An hour of silence.

An hour of tossing and turning.

A few hours of sleep.

An hour to drive to work.

A few hours at my desk pretending all would be well, that no one would know, that I would somehow be protected from exposure and granted an unearned escape from consequence, my heart stopping each time the phone rang, racing each time someone paused near the office door.

My lunch hour came and I completed the errand I had failed on the day before, driving along the same route, right past the park -- 24 hours after the lunch hour of disaster -- followed by four groggy hours in the afternoon. An hour 'till leaving time. The near-normalcy of the day was lulling me into a slim sense of relief, an almost even-breathing.

During those hours, my mind shifted back and forth from "what have I done?" to "what will happen to me now?" At the halfway point of the final hour, between 4 and
5 p.m., the answers began to come. This would be a rough ride before a sellout crowd.

The Daily Oklahoman's on-line edition hit the web at
4:30 p.m. featuring the story of a police sting in a public park, noting several men had been arrested through the day-long operation. My past years as a journalist prepared me for the inevitable. I was featured prominently in the story because of my position as the state chief of staff for AT&T. I read the story once, packed up my laptop and headed home. The drive home took . . . about an hour.

At home, I sat. I waited. After about an hour of mind-shouting solitude, the phone rang and a co-worker who had read the story just wanted to know if it was true or if there had been some kind of mistaken identity. I assured him the identity was clearer than the circumstances, but it was indeed me; he assured me of his thoughts and sympathy. While it seemed odd to reply with a typical "thank-you," there seemed nothing more appropriate to say. "Hang in there," he replied.

I knew that in about 12 hours, the morning edition of the daily news would be slapped on porches across the metro. As the paper would be unfolded, so would my future. My failing would be one of many bearing revelation in the day's edition, but to me and many others, all that would matter was what was revealed about me.

I wonder about the complexities of the mind; how it can race and freeze in unison. I was overwhelmed with fearing, regretting and supposing . . . but in a total stall when it came to acting. My mind screamed "do something," but offered nothing to do. Finally, early in the evening of post-disaster-day, I sent two e-mails, two cries for help, two hopes for some offering of clarity in the descending fog. One was to Stephen Black, director of First Stone Ministries in
Oklahoma City; the other to our pastor, ---- . Both Stephen and ---- knew of my struggles with same-sex attraction and the stumbles that had marked my past with loss. My need for their help overcame the shame of having to admit that need.

Pastor ---- and Stephen, 
I am very grieved to have to confess to you that I have stumbled. Not in the sense that I actually committed a sexual act, but in the sense that I allowed myself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time again and did not flee as I knew I should.

Yesterday, on my way to --------- to take a flag for framing for the company, I was talking on the phone to Lisa as I drove up upon ------ Park on ---- St. I turned in, with nothing at all on my mind beyond finishing the conversation with Lisa off the road and then continuing on to --------, about a mile east of there. After I concluded the call, I decided to go ahead and eat lunch in the car, since I had my lunch with me. As I was eating lunch and reading the paper, a man in a pickup truck pulled up beside the passenger window and motioned for me to lower my window. At that point, I should have driven out. I did not. He began a very innocent conversation, but I should have know where he was going with it. I resisted the conversation and the direction it was headed, but he was skilled, perceptive and persistent and I allowed it to proceed to an inappropriate point. Apparently, he heard enough to signal his co-workers and I was arrested. It does not matter whether he was an undercover officer or not, the location and the conversation was inappropriate and I know better. I should be able to sense evil and flee.

I do not go to -------- Park. I am unfamiliar with it and would not have been there at all had I not been going to ------------ during lunchtime. That is not an excuse; only a statement of fact that I do not cruise parks and I no longer cruise on-line. Those activities are behind me. I realize that is hard to believe now, but it is true. What I realize is that, put in a certain situation I am still not careful enough and now am paying a very high price.

While this is horrible and painful for myself and for Lisa, I don't intend for it nor believe it will get me off track. I have made significant progress through the Grace of God and on the prayers of friends and I know where my heart and head are. This may be one of the most painful chapters yet, but for even this, there is purpose. Perhaps under this painfully bright light I will have to face up to all the past years of denial and be honest with everyone now. This is not how I would have preferred it, but if it be so, I accept it.

There is little more to tell. It just is what it is. And it's bad and sad and only God can get us through this. I believe He will.

I am sorry for the great disappointment this must be to both of you. I love you and I have gained tremendously from your support and guidance.


The phone rang. Having read my e-mail, Pastor ---- was on his way over, a rapid response that brought me and Lisa temporary relief. I did not realize I had just pulled the first string of the great unraveling. I was entering a time of taketh away.

The '60s

I can't remember what the evangelist preached at
Willow Meadows Baptist Church in Houston when I took the bus to the revival service when I was 12 years old. I only remember that it had something to do with coins and a fountain . . . and all of a sudden, to the accompaniment of the old hymn, Softly and Tenderly, I was slowly and gingerly making my way down front. It may have been the song which softened my heart and helped me believe that in a world of abuse and abandonment, there is a God who cares and a Christ who loved and died for little boys like me. I decided to trust and believe, to give in and receive. I opened my heart . . . a bit.

Blessings on my head . . . and a good life from now on. I wasn't quite sure how all that would reconcile itself under the influence of a cursing, chain-smoking, gambling-addicted alcoholic stepfather whose ideal attire for Sunday lunch was boxer shorts, black socks, slippers and a too-tight t-shirt. Meals generally started with a belch, not a prayer, and ended with a toddy, not a blessing.

"Two roads diverged in a wood" . . . and it would take me a long time to realize I would be traveling on both, accumulating and discarding baggage along the way. I was carefully devising ways to not get hurt again, to avoid the Mr. Hootens of the world, of which I was sure there might be many. The little boy's once yearning heart became a turning heart . . . selectively shutting out anyone the least bit threatening, but doing it skillfully so no one would know. I vowed myself to be untouchable, not invulnerable in the way that a boy models a superhero like Superman, but in a way that came across only as casual separation . . . a determination that few would really know me. I had secrets. I knew things I should not have known, had already done things I should not have done.
My memory of the sexual abuse was not one of guilt or shame. It was of anger, albeit a strange mix of anger, a swirl of colors and characters. I felt angry with myself that I was not better and stronger and more appealing, coming to the realization at a very early age that I was easy to leave behind. First my father, then Mr. Hooten, and I was clearly of no interest at all to my stepfather. I was angry at all of them because they didn't seem to care enough to help me change and become something better. And I was angry pretty much at everyone else because they didn't even seem to notice I was hurt and angry. My response was to create a wall of separation internally and externally. On one side was the happy boy, on the other was the hiding boy. After a while, they were not that aware of each other. I was hiding.

When we are children, and sometimes even as adults, we think that every choice a person makes that doesn't include us or somehow hurts us was made as a conscious decision to reject us. We make it simple: daddy leaves because he doesn't love me. Mr. Hooten turns away because he doesn't need me. The boys on the balcony laugh at me because they hate me. My stepfather serves lima beans because he knows I hate them. My brother runs away because I'm not worth staying home for. My mother doesn't listen because she doesn't care. In truth, we all make decisions surrounded by competing influences and our own layers of protection and misconceptions of self-identity. We make many choices out of desperation and ignorance, unaware that our choices are washing like storm-driven waves against the innocent around us and even the innocent yet to come. Such was m y own decision to divide myself into the me-you-see and the me-you-never-will. A decision that set waves into motion.

Unable to wrap myself in the newness of my salvation -- bus rides were less frequent when the revival was over -- I was fading, perhaps intentionally, sensing some safety in diminishing myself. In my growing guardedness, I realized that those who notice you have a greater potential to harm you. Speeding through the Houston alleys on my banana-seat bike I was vibrant and colorful, shouting to the walls, challenging the skies. Sliding through the living room of our small apartment to the room I shared with my brother, I let slip the brighter hues and took on the grey of home.

We lived in the shadow of the emerging Astrodome and rode our bikes through the construction of
Houston's first superhighway, all of which made me feel very small. As people changed around me -- my teenage brother leaving Houston behind forever in a furious motorcycle ride north, my older sister spinning 45s and hanging out with friends to dance instead of coming home from school -- I felt stunted. Though my little sister became my best friend and unwitting ally in a determination to survive the uncertainty, a child should not be so focused on growing up.

I began, in my mind, to wonder why God as Creator had not been able to achieve a better balance between giving and taking, good and bad, leaving and staying, loving and hurting, pain and joy, dark and light, rest and fight. Why this mix? And, important to myself, where was I in that mix? Just grey?

My earliest memories of God as being something different and bigger than man had come in the cavernous sanctuary of the old
First Baptist Church in Denton. When we went there, my mother wore her best dress, highest heels, finest fake jewelry and widest smile. She would sit between me and my younger sister to try to keep us separated, but we would peek at each other from in front and then behind my mother's perfect church posture until the giggling would begin to overtake us. Only Mother's brightly-polished fingernails with nearly skin-piercing pressure could quiet us down. She would not have done that anywhere else; God must be something.

A few years after
Denton, when my stepfather moved us to Shawnee, before he moved us to Houston . . . I discovered that God is . . . in people. I didn't understand it, but I saw it. I was 10. Ironically, it was here that the first flicker of hope grew in me that there were indeed good men. My mother took me to Vacation Bible School at a Shawnee Baptist Church. I was in a big room with lots of boys, laughing and building things. My mother had dropped me off so she could look for a job.

We all had two curved pieces of wood, a coat hangar and a pair of wire cutters . . . and we were going to make a harp. All except me. I was gauging whether I could get to the door and out without being caught. I had not had a father to teach me such things. I was so all-thumbs and lost. . . until this guy caught me eyeing the door and walked across the room and sat down across the table and picked up the wire cutters and the coat hangar and started snipping the coat hangar . . . and talking to me . . . and we built a harp. And I was back there tomorrow. I had been rescued. It impacted me that he was probably unaware of his impact on me. He expected nothing in return. He gave me some hope; he planted a seed. In the midst of all the brokenness of
Houston, the seed would grow and God would move into me.

It takes a while to learn that while God is good all the time, the world in which He places us is not.  Abiding in us, God giveth and God taketh and he is generous in both actions, but neither are always easy to understand. Giving often seems to come when least expected; taking often claims when least deserved. I feared His taking; I doubted His giving.

I knew that He had taken my third-grade friend who was accidentally killed while wrestling in the front yard with his older brother. A misplaced hand-move or arm-lock and my friend was gone, a family shattered, an older brother trapped in guilt and sorrow, a mother who would drive around for the rest of her life with a lonely flower of memory on her car antenna and a father who retreated into his work. They faded.

I knew that He had taken a fourth-grade friend who -- dashing across a not-so-crowded street after school -- met the front bumper of a passing car and was thrown to the curb where he lay still and gone. I remember the tears of his baby-sitter, who also worked with my mother at the office supply. In her bitterness, she dismissed my pain with a "you don't understand. you're too little." I went to my first funeral, saw my friend in his quiet dashless rest, and he faded.

I knew that God had taken away three young friends of my little sister who turned a slumber party into a nighttime fire, probably with tipping o fa simple candle. Their bodies were found huddled together in the corner of what had been a pink-filled room of stuffed animals and ruffles and Tiger Beat posters. They faded.

And yet, God had given me a stranger who could help me make a harp, a bus to a church, an evangelist who could connect with my longing, and the words to "Softly and Tenderly." Before then, God had been little more than polished shoes and a hard church pew and whispers to hush. He had now become more than just a reason for Papa to abandon Solitaire, Nanny to slip out of a house dress and mother to shine her nails. Now, He could whisper to me. In those first days after Meadow Wood, I wanted to believe that God was everywhere, but the bus would take me home and I could not find Him there. It would take a while for me to try to put him on my hiding list . . . and even longer to learn I could not.

We don't always know at the moment if God is doing His greater work through the giving or the taking, but these are all events that I've never forgotten, early events that add their bulk to the weight of who I am. He knew then what I just now know . . . and He knows already what I may never know in this life, but will know with Him. And He already knows about all the losses to come and the gains that remain.  Someday I would be able to look back on my life and His intricate balancing of the giveth and taketh and see the full force of grace, but as a boy I was less impressed about God's abilities and more concerned about what seemed to be His limits.  I held back.

I picked up one more thing in
Houston, something that even in the past uncertainty of life I had never experienced much before, not as a little boy barefoot running the peaceful streets of little towns, pausing beneath bright streetlights to dodge clouds of summer June bugs.

It came in winter, which in
Houston was often not much more than just an excuse to wear a jacket in the colder humidity. My stepfather had planned a Christmas Eve poker party. The liquored chocolate-covered cherries were in abundance, the best whiskey shot glasses were out for the Black Crow flow, the poker chips were stacked, the Marlboros ready to fire up to create a proper smoke-filled environment.

"Where's the damn egg-nog?" Michael bellowed. That would be my signal to scurry through the darkness to the U-Tote-Em to get it home so it could be properly spiked in time for a
midnight toast. I was happy to go, knowing I was just to be trapped all evening in the dismal back bedroom, unable to drown out the deafening profanities of the drunken guests he called his friends.

Dollar bill in hand, I began my trek through the dark streets of the jungle of apartments. It was a cool night with a gentle breeze and only a sliver of a moon. I decided to walk, leaving the bike behind, knowing it would take longer and make my stepfather even more angry, an anger he would have to hide because guests were coming.

Halfway down the sidewalk in front of a neighboring building, I heard a scream, loud and long and fading into silence. I stopped and stood in front of the building until a man -- dressed in total black -- came running out of the building on a sidewalk set to merge with mine. He also stopped and stood . . . and it was suddenly my time to run.

I knew the alleys and all the shortcuts and soon the bright neon lights of the U-Tote-Em glowed like an island of safety. I browsed the comic books, drifted up and down the candy aisle, wandered eventually to the cooler, selected the eggnog, paid, paused at the door and headed home. The man in black was no-where and I was soon safely home in the comforting chaos.

About an hour later, our doorbell rang. I had heard the Christmas carolers making their way down the street and I hesitantly looked in my stepfather's direction through the haze of the smoke-filled room as the bell rang again.

"Give them this damn dollar and let 'em sing," he laughed.

My sister and I through open the door and stepped out onto the apartment lawn to the strains of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and I came face-to-face with the man in black, singing, yes, but wringing black-leather-gloved hands and staring straight at me. My mind was racing: "He knows where I live."

No, nothing happened. A stronger breeze blew a plastic bottle filled with my sister's bath powder out of the window in the middle of the night producing a scream from her that rivaled the one I had heard earlier when walking by the building next door, but I never saw the man again. Still, I had come to see that good and evil are often intertwined and in constant collision with each other. Sometimes evil just stands and mocks; sometimes when we answer the knock it comes in and has its way.

The afternoon of the front-lawn underwear protest had been the early-warning signal to us all that we would soon be leaving
Houston, and not long after Christmas, we did.  I said goodbye to the bulldozer, George, the Jewish deli, Meadow Wood and, at least for a time, even my stepfather. Despite a desperate near-death faint into the carpet in his stringy bathrobe, we were moving without him, this time to Lewisville, Texas. My mother was finding her voice and her worth.

I was searching for my voice and worth as well, looking among the men who carry harps of compassion and those with black-gloved hands bearing harm.

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