“In the crushing, in the pressing, you are making new wine.” – Hillsong Worship-
So we made it to Greeneville Tennessee, a place that five months ago we didn’t even know existed when God so clearly called us here. Everything that could have and should have gone wrong during our transition didn’t. Every good thing that shouldn’t happen so easily did. We are now living in the friendliest place I’ve been to date. Even the most menial, and in my case, normally irritating tasks like getting the water turned on and opening a bank account turned out to be the most fun I have had in a while. The bank was the best because they served gourmet chocolate chip cookies and coffee. I know. I’m like a little kid. The point is we are adjusting remarkably well. Still, there are periodic reminders that I am still in the process of reentry from the mission field.
Yesterday I finally realized that “Ingles” is not a Hispanic store for English speakers.
Holston Home where I now work is one of the most incredible places I’ve been. It began as an orphanage over one hundred years ago. Today it is a place of healing for traumatized children and sometimes their families. It’s a job for which I am particularly qualified. Not because of my professional counseling background but rather because each day that I work I come face to face with my broken teenage self who grew up to become an even more broken parent and eventually healed.
Those who regularly read these posts know my walk with the Lord began in jail. What many don’t know is that my former wife also went to jail and our two children went into foster care. My ex-wife was released before me and so the kids went home with her. But she was broken beyond repair. I was told that the court wanted to place the kids with me but I wouldn’t be out for another year. One day, I was summoned to the guard shack. My lawyer was on the phone. She told me that something horrific had happened to my children as a result of my ex-wife’s lifestyle and acquaintances. The courts wanted to terminate her parental rights but according to the law, they could not terminate one parent’s rights without terminating both. I realized at that moment that there was only one way to end the cycle.
I told my lawyer to terminate my parental rights.
It was ten years before I heard of their whereabouts. Needless to say, I paid a huge emotional price and I questioned my decision through the years. Today my daughter is married with a son and works as a manager for an import-export company. Last I heard my son builds cellos for a living, is studying pre-med, and has a girlfriend he loves.
My ex-wife died as a result of IV drug use.
I’m not sure if the Lord brought me to Holston Home because I know what it means to be broken like the children here or because I was broken like their parents.
Maybe it’s both.
The boys with whom I work like that I’m a former Marine, especially those that need to borrow my self-control. That’s code for physical restraint. I guess it’s cooler to be taken down by an Ex-Marine than a five-foot female.
Of course, that is also a key to what ails them.
We got COVID shortly after returning to Kauai from Honduras and I took it like a hardcore former Marine who knows how to stuff any and everything he feels. I even interviewed for my current position at its peak. I felt horrible.
“If you like me now, you’ll really like me without COVID!” I joked via Whatsapp
The qualifying question during the interview seemed to be “how would you react if a kid called you every name in the book?” I said something to the effect of
“Why I’d feel right at home.”
Humor has always been a key to my resilience. But perhaps you see the connection between that and what ails the boys.
It was 4 am in Hawaii and near the end of my bout with COVID. I was sitting in a recliner because it hurt too much to stay in bed. My fever was breaking and I was getting the chills. The temperature outside was 70 degrees. I was bundled up in sweat pants and a thick hoody under a comforter but I just couldn’t get warm. I was shivering and shaking.
Sometimes it takes a physical affliction to disarm us and reveal more truth.
All at once, I was 15 again, the same age as my grandson Elijah, the same age as the hurt broken boy I recently “lent my self-control”. It was Christmas Day 1979. I’d been living alone in a house with three finished walls and no heat. It was minus twenty degrees outside and maybe 20 degrees inside. Everyone in town knew my situation but no one said anything, let alone did anything. I became the “bad kid” that everyone wanted to keep their kids away from lest I corrupt them. Now I was a lonely kid under a blanket, desperately trying to keep warm. I remember trying to be tough – trying to be hard as I strengthened the imaginary armor I’d created to protect me from a brutal world. I stoked the fires of my anger as I very intentionally transformed all my grief into rage. Anger became the energy source that kept me warm and safe. I would eventually use that anger to throw my father through a wall when he showed up and took a swing at me during an argument.
I began shivering and sobbing like a little child in the recliner. I tried to choke back the tears at first but I’ve learned through the years to let the tears flow when they come. I must have been pretty loud because I woke Cathy up and soon she was by my side holding me and weeping with me as I choked out the memory between sobs. The connection was made, we prayed. Healing came with a deeper revelation of why we were going to Tennessee.
I sometimes joke that most kids run away from their parents but I was so bad that my parents ran away from me. Sometimes it’s genuine humor. Most times it’s a sign of some residual armor that needs to be stripped away and tossed. That’s just part of the continued process of sanctification as we are being conformed to the image of Christ. The fact is that I was a deeply hurt and broken child well into adulthood.
There’s no room for armor and false pretenses in the Christian walk.
To this day I don’t really know, let alone understand what happened to my parents – to my family apart from generations of bitterness and unforgiveness. I once asked my dad as an adult, if there was one thing about his life that he could go back and change; what would that be? “I wouldn’t have had ” F-ing” kids!” he replied.
“You guys ruined my marriage.”
I love my dad. He died several years ago. I got the call while leading a middle school process group of 13 and 14-year-old boys. Ironically they were complaining about their fathers. “What’s wrong Mr. Gray?” they asked as I hung up the phone. “My dad just died,” I replied.
The therapeutic poignance was deafening.
It’s both fascinating and faith-building to watch the Lord direct my steps and turn even the hardest, most hurtful things into pure gold. I hope you can see that and don’t give way to sadness or worse – pity as you read. Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. It is the ability to identify with and join in the suffering of others. Compassion is the fruit of suffering from which the world tells us to flee.
Compassion is what qualifies us to participate in God’s plan.
It was about a week after my COVID-ridden interview that I started thinking about my old childhood friend Craig Hammerly. “That’s weird,” I thought. I hadn’t thought of him for years. Craig was the unauthorized friend with whom I used to play in the woods between our houses when we were 6 or 7 years old. I say “unauthorized” because Craig was that “bad kid”. My mother forbade our friendship. So I’d grab my Tonka dump truck, excavator, and matchbox cars and meet Craig secretly to play. Craig didn’t have any toys so it was up to me. I remember I’d always be trying to build something. Craig just wanted to crash the race cars into the Tonka trucks and destroy everything. It was kind of irritating but I rolled with it. Craig lived alone with his grandfather. Rumor had it that he “did things to Craig” – the kind of things that people didn’t talk about let alone do anything about. Craig got held back and we grew apart by the time I was in the third grade. Soon he became the school bully that everyone was afraid to fight. Craig couldn’t read but he sure knew how to punch. Elementary school mythology had it that “he’d knocked out a high school kid in a fight. Heck, even the teachers were afraid of him.” His identity became the kid who could beat up anyone – except maybe his grandfather. Craig moved away sometime before the 6th grade and I never heard of him after. It seemed kind of random that I’d feel prompted to look him up on the internet after 50 years. But there he was. His picture was all over the internet. It was no surprise when I learned that Craig, who called himself Damien Knight had been on drugs and in and out of jail for most of his life. He’d just been arrested again a week or so before.
Craig beat his roommate to death with his fists
Maybe you come from one of those miraculously functional families that loved Jesus and each other. Maybe you are cringing or weeping as you read this. Maybe you’re scratching your head and trying to make sense of seemingly disconnected albeit traumatic data points. Maybe you just think I’m crazy. Or maybe you recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I”. One of the many ways that God speaks to us in and through the circumstances of our own lives – past and present. When I look at Craig I see myself minus Jesus. There’s no going back for guys like Craig and me only forward. But maybe I can help boys – boys like we once were to choose a different path. What I know for sure is that I had no idea why God told us to move to Greeneville Tennesee. It was such a blind leap of faith that part of me questioned my hearing at times. Today it is clear what God is doing or at least what he’s continuing to do in my life. It’s what He’s always been doing. He’s crushing and pressing.
He’s making new wine.
I don’t know what Craig’s future holds. I do know that with God all things are possible. I know that God used prison to save my eternal life and begin the transformation that resulted in the wild adventure that is my life today. Of course, I didn’t know it at first. I know the goal is to count it all joy in the midst of trials and testing. But let’s face it. The crushing and pressing hurts and all we want to do at first is to make it stop. Most of us are doing well if we can count it all to joy to have passed through them. Still, every day I am excited to see what God weaves in and through my life and where he places me as a living stone fitly framed in His house. I hope you can do the same.
I pray Craig can do the same.