Just Faith

Faith is a gift from God. Faith can move mountains, even the mountain of addiction. Ending a life of self abuse caused by addiction will happen when you trust God to lead the way over, around and even through the mountain. God's "Twelve Step Program" begins with one easy step-believe in Him. Your steps want be easy, but remember the words of the Apostle-
"These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold which perished even though refined by fire-may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." 1 Peter 1:7

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Next Chapter

As of late, I’ve been spending my evenings reading “Great Expectations”; one of my all-time favorite novels. Somehow Dickens manages to coerce me from chapter to chapter even as I am stumbling over his bumbling prose. Last night I continued a familiar journey beginning in the 37th chapter of this great novel, knowing from the outset, that the 38th chapter was my desired destination.

As eventide turned towards midnight, the lids of my weary eyes felt as if they were cloaked in the great weight of granite; yet that region of our cerebellum that motivates us beyond exhaustion was ignited as my memories of Miss Havisham’s cry to Pip (found in the 38th chapter), in the perfect Dickens dialogue, hung before my mind’s eye— “Let her call me mad, let her call me mad!”

Not only is “Great Expectations” one of my favorite novels, the 38th chapter of this classic may be my favorite in all the books I have read in my lifetime. Great books have great chapters—an accomplishment that I hope one day to achieve in my own writing.  The talented storyteller conveys his story in such a way that we desire to travel to the Next Chapter. The skilled writer recognizes when to insert the chapter break; serving to provide the reader a resting place or, with even greater skill, a launching place.

Book chapters come in many styles. There are the great ones, like the aforementioned 38th chapter of Great Expectations. And there are also the not-so-great chapters. These are typically filled with what move-makers would designate B-roll. There are long chapters and short chapters. There is the first chapter and the last chapter. There are chapters that you will not remember and there are chapters that you will never want to forget. There are the chapters that make you want to move, without pause, onto the Next Chapter. And then there are chapters that you never want to end.

But tonight I am not here to write about books.

When I look back at my life I do not see it measured in years, but instead, as chapters. There have been some good ones and bad ones. There were long chapters and others were so brief I wonder if I was even there when they unrolled. There have been some that I don’t remember and others that I don’t want to remember. 1975, 1982 and 2005 would fall into the murkiness of one of these two categories.

There were chapters that had me begging for the Next Chapter. 2014 tops the list of these. Not because I desired more but because I wanted to slam the cover shut upon it. It was miserably slowed by a nurse with a needle. All I could do was hope it would surely come to a close
.
There have even been great chapters, although they never seemed to also be a long chapter. And there were those that could called B-roll chapters. With manufactured optimism I try to think of these as learning chapters. But with well-developed pragmatism I know that what they really were… a waste of time.

The last three years of my life, my current chapter, (even with cancerous 2014 sitting near the rise) is probably the greatest chapter that I have ever lived. God is the author of my life and although I don’t always agree with his prose, chapter breaks, or his use of poetic humor, I accept it for what it is. After all, he already knows how this book ends.

On July 26th of 2013, God introduced a new character onto the storyboard called my life, a little baby named Logan James. I have ten grandchildren, each one is a blessing and I love each one with a love I did not know I possessed. But you see, Logan James came into my life during a chapter that needed him the most. And God knew that…and God did that.

This chapter was such that with each passing day I wanted to know more. I wanted the Storyteller to take me by the hand and show me everything. I wanted to know what was next in the life of Logan James. Each night, for three years, I have closed my eyes, wishing for the Next Chapter.

I guess I should have used more care in what I wished for.

The last few weeks have beckoned a new a call to a new chapter. Or as some would say (even when I didn’t want them to), life is always changing, you cannot halt its stride. This new call singing in my ears is not a joyous call, but it is one that I knew was coming. The words were clearly written on the final few pages of this last chapter, I just didn’t want to heed them.

Oh, what a grand chapter this has been. If I could tell my story to Dickens I think he may be jealous. Three years may seem long to the reader, but for me, it was oh so brief. I cannot find the words to describe how this last chapter changed me…but I can tell you this, because I know it better than any other great truth…

I did not want it to end.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Michael's Chair

(Based on a true story)

I knew the first time I saw him that it was more than cancer that had broken his body.
His name was Michael.
I saw him in a room where chemotherapy is delivered six days a week to about a dozen people. Sitting in the hard gray, high-backed chairs wasn’t new to me.  Every Monday for the past two months I made the trip to this Cancer Center to have the profitable poisons delivered through a port in my chest. From there the toxins would enter my veins to begin another skirmish with the cancer that had made residence inside my body.
That Monday was my fourth or fifth treatment; it is harder to keep track of such things anymore. For Michael it was his first time.
I had already settled into my chair and the pre-meds were traveling along the vessel byways when this new stranger plopped down in the chair across from mine.  He wore an old pair of dirty blue jeans, a lime green sleeveless shirt with a faded logo for Mountain Dew. The words “Do the Dew” had mostly worn away, now only professing, “o the ew”.  It seemed strangely appropriate.
On his feet he wore black work boots that had seen better days; the steel protection toe revealed on the left boot attested to this.
Both arms had tattoos.  His right arm was conservative in the ink paintings; a braided rope wrapped around his wrist. There was a word entwined within the rope but from my position I could not read it. On his left arm he wore a magnificent sleeve tattoo filled with brilliant colors.
I do not have any tattoos. My fifty-seven year old arms have shied away from the artist’s ink. I have nothing against those that desire to have their body become someone else’s canvas. I am an admirer of great art—and what this young man wore on his arm was beyond great, it was a masterpiece.
Once again from my vantage point I could not see this entire protoplasmic canvass. But over the next few weeks I would be able to learn more of the story his tattoos would tell.
Beginning at the curve of his almost but not quite scrawny shoulder was the image of great tiger, bearing his sharp teeth. If tattoos included audio, you would have heard the beast roaring his authority. The eyes of the tiger were a luminous gold, so realistic they looked as if they could be plucked right off his arm. Behind the tiger, serving as the background canvass were flames of orange and yellow, outlined heavily in charcoal black. This apocalyptic image was the background for the three images on his arm.
Below the roaring tiger was a rose in full bloom. The artist had combined a dazzling red with the same orange and yellow he had used as the backdrop. In doing so the rose seemed to be on fire, and yet like Moses’ burning bush no harm came to the rose.
The traveling tattoo ended just an inch above the wrist. This last image was a wise owl colored like none that have ever flown the night skies. The artist’s love for orange, yellow and red and a tinge of charcoal gray were blended together to create a color I have no name for. I can only describe it as grand. The talons of this owl were not perched upon a twig, but instead they gently held a stogie in its grasp. The cigar ring was gold colored with the letter “M” placed carefully like diamond on a wedding ring.
Over the next few weeks I asked Michael numerous times about his tattoo. I wanted to know the story it told. Michael would always laugh at my inquiry and then say “I will one day, when we have more time”
He never did.
He ran out of time.
                                                                                               

It is not my habit to speak with other patients when I am experiencing the delights of chemotherapy. It is not that I want to be left alone in my misery, but the majority of patients that are on the same schedule as me are…older. It is my experience that the older someone is the more they seem to want to share their miseries with anyone who will listen. Please don’t color me without mercy or without compassion, for I truly try to be. But to mix my own misery with someone else’s just does not fit well.
Michael was a talker. Within minutes of sitting down he looked across the aisle at me. I was reading an e-book on my tablet.
He asked, “What are you playing, man.”
I looked up from the tablet, “I’m not. I’m reading.”
“Oh” was his only reply.
Michael looked around the room. He had the jerky movements associated with someone who was hooked on drugs. Tremors, as he explored these new surroundings, were noticeable. He seemed anxious, a trait rarely exhibited in a room built to serve the inhabitants chemo drugs. Although at that moment he had silenced his tongue, as the day progressed he talked excessively and randomly.
He spotted one of the nurses returning to the room and raised his right hand as if in grade school. Just one indistinguishable tattoo on this arm, nothing to be considered. But what was clearly noticeable were the track marks running down his arm; the harbinger of abuse.
The tracks formed a “T”. In the crook of his arm three red circles surrounded by bruising, formed the cap of the “T”. Traveling down his arm were five or six smaller circles. The bruising around these was lighter in color, almost light maroon in appearance. I though these must be older. Each mark I imagined, just as he tattoos, also had a story to tell.
Michael looked across the aisle, “You wondering about these?” His east Texas accent made it sound like—“Ya wonering bout deez?”
He was pointing to the track marks; I was busy turning red-faced.
“It’s okay, man. I don’t try to hide them anymore. In fact I sorta hope they never go away. They remind of where I came from.”
His words somehow reduced the embarrassment I had just moments before encountered. I shifted in my chair, searching for the right words.
“It’s cool man,” he said, “You don’t gotta talk.” He smiled, his teeth revealed what I had first suspected. They wore the decay of a drug abuser.
Sometimes a little voice whispers in my ear, and in my heart. I know there have been times when that voice belonged to God and other times it came from something we call our conscious or inner-voice. I can’t tell you where the voice originated that day. But I can tell what I heard—
“Talk to him!”
“I’m sorry,” I began, “Where did you come from? And where are you going?”
“I came from a pretty dark place, man. You probably wouldn’t want to hear about.”
He was wrong…I wanted to know.
He continued, “Where am I going? I am going to heaven man!” He laughed.
This young man, who wore so many scars, sat up straight in his chair and asked me, “Do you know Jesus?”
“For almost thirty years now.” I replied.
“Wow, man that is awesome.”
“What about you?” I asked. “How long have you known Jesus?”
My question was not just in response to his. I was curious about track marks on the arm of a Believer.
“I’ve known Him for one day, man. Yesterday I walked into a church for the first time since I was a kid.”
Over the next three and a half hours I would learn that shortly before he walked into a church and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ he had attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the emphatic request of his sister. She had been clean for more than three years and knew the only way out was to look up. After the N.A. meeting they had breakfast at an I.H.O.P. restaurant just a few blocks away from the church his sister attended. Feeding her brother a real meal was the opportunity and leverage to urge him to finish what he had begun that morning by going to church with her.
Michael confessed to me that he didn’t really want to do that. His idea of religion was that churches were filled every Sunday with hypocrites that would look down on someone like him. He told me that as they walked to the church he wanted to “bolt” about every ten feet. But his sister kept talking to him, telling him that not a single person in this church had ever looked down upon her. That they had stood by her during the darkest hours of her life. They had been there when she backslid, returning to the blackness of her own addiction. They had stood by her side when she hit rock bottom for the second time in her life.
“Did you finally hit rock bottom?” I asked him.
“No man, the people think that you have to hit rock bottom before you can stop using, are wrong. That’s BS! That’s an excuse not to find help. Because they haven’t felt the sharp edges of the stones they think that they don’t have to stop sucking down Norco or snorting Cracker Jack. It’s BS man.” His agitation was a little unsettling.
Michael continued, “I ain’t bullshitting you man. I could see the bottom. I could touch the rocks with my toes. But I never hit the bottom. I never will now.” He smiled again.
I saw in Michael a raw intelligence that I wouldn’t have thought was possible in someone who had abused drugs. The drugs that he invited into his life will destroy brain cells without concern for the proprietor. Their destruction leads to a weakened system that can no longer say “no”.
Our conversation that day and the next chemo-day included stories of his addiction, talk about sports, tales of his tattoos and questions. Many questions.
Michael’s understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of religion and of God was innocent and elementary. He often would change subjects in midstream and ask me a question about God.
He talked. I listened. He questioned. I answered.
I learned.
                                                                                               

The following week Michael was already planted in a chair when I arrived. Sitting next to him in a hard-backed chair was a young woman. She was dressed casually in a light yellow sun dress. She was pretty, with long flowing golden blond hair. Her complexion was that of someone who spends time outside. She looked tired. She is Michael’s sister. Her name is Chelsea.
Michael smiled when he saw me walking down the path that is formed by the chemo-chairs. The seat across from him was occupied by another chemo patient, so I took the chair next to him.
He introduced me to his sister. His voiced reflected the same tiredness that was on his sister’s face. This pair of siblings looked worn down.
The nurse arrived to prep for my treatment, Michael and his sister sat silently, looking at nothing.
It only takes a few minutes to get the chemo-engine running. The nurse patted me on the head and turned in route to her next patient.
I looked over at Michael and asked him how he was doing...
“Not good.”
It took a while that morning for Michael and Chelsea to tell me the latest chapter in their story.
Michael was going through withdrawals. Years of abuse was refusing to leave quietly. Chelsea had tried to find a rehab center that would take Michael. But there was no money, no insurance. Michael hadn’t held a steady job in over two years. I learned that he had lived by stealing, by cutting the drugs he purchased and re-selling them as pure. More than once the buyer had returned to beat Michael into a surrendering a refund or just out of a maddening revenge emanating from their own lack of euphoria.
Almost three months ago Michael moved into a weekly rent apartment building after landing a job as a dishwasher in a local honky-tonk. The apartment building had once been the home of hard working citizens who paid their rent each month and on time. Years of decay, not only of the building but of the neighborhood, had changed the profile of local denizens. Most were poor, jobless and always one step away from being homeless. Many of them abused the same drugs that Michael did…a united community. The truth was that any of them would kill you just as quickly as they would share a joint with you.
Michael provided just a glimpse into the dark place he had come from, stopping short of providing complete details. I did ask him if he had spoken to his oncologist about getting help. He said they, the “We care People” were “working on it”.
Chelsea changed subjects, typically a task delivered by Michael.
“Michael told me that you helped him understand some of Scriptures he was struggling with. I appreciate that. He doesn’t talk to me about God…”
Michael interrupted, “That’s the way it used to be sis. You brought me to your church, even when you knew I didn’t want to go. I will talk to you about God. I will talk to anybody about God. I just don’t how to go beyond telling someone that I love Him.”
“Sometimes that is enough.” Chelsea smiled, taking her brother’s hand.
For the nearly two hours we talked about God. Avoiding the subject of withdrawals, rehab and the earthly future he was facing. Michael had many questions about his walk with Christ and where it would take him. Chelsea impressed me with her knowledge of the Bible. Her love for Jesus Christ was on display each time she answered a question from her brother.
Our conversation took an unexpected turn and suddenly we were talking about Michael’s past. He told us a story that Chelsea had never heard. (Of course I hadn’t either).
“You know I thought I saw an angel once. I was so frickin high that the angel began to change. You know like a Transformer. And then I thought it was God’s face I was seeing. It scared me, man. I was more scared than I had ever been in my life. I thought God was going to kill me right there in the alley. He was going to kill me because I was stealing and getting annihilated all the time. I was ate up man, God’s face was right there. I could have reached out and touched it, but I thought my hand would frickin burn off or something. I knew I was bent bad, somewhere inside my head I heard my own voice telling me that it ain’t real man, you’re just screwed up. But I was scared, seeing God’s face was freaky, man. I started crying like a little baby. And then I started to scream. I squeezed my eyes shut, screaming for the face of God to go away. When I opened my eyes again the face was gone. But in its place was the face of Trapper Jack. He was so close I could feel his hot breath on my cheeks. It smelled like butterscotch. I looked into his eyes and knew that he was coked up. I also knew that he was pissed. I owed him a lot of jack for some of the crap I had bought from him. But I had been hiding from him because I blew the profits on buying more shit for me. Man, I couldn’t help it, I need to be high, I needed to go numb. Trapper Jack stood up and I saw his foot heading right for my man parts. He kicked me hard over and over. I thought I was going to die again right there in the alley. I was crying again. Suddenly the kicking stopped. I looked up and Trapper Jack was gone. From out of the darkness appeared three of his boys. They picked up where Trapper left off. I didn’t know I could sober up that fast. I started counting the hits. I was hoping that by counting I wouldn’t feel them. It didn’t work. I blacked out. When I woke up I was in the County Hospital emergency room. That was cool…I knew they had drugs.”
I sat there looking at Michael. I didn’t know what to say.
Chelsea was crying.
                                                                                               

Michael’s treatment was finished before mine but they stayed until the chair Michael had occupied was needed by another patient. Michael got up and headed to the restroom, leaving Chelsea there alone. She told me she was worried about Michael and the withdrawals that he suffered each night. The days were better she told me, it seemed that if he kept busy that the pains were less. She asked me for my phone number, “In case I don’t know what to do when he is at his worse.”
I didn’t hesitate to give her my cell number, adding that she could call anytime, day or night. We said a quick prayer that God would take control of Michael’s life and ease the pain he was suffering.
Michael returned and we exchanged farewells.
I had no way of knowing that this would be last time I would ever see this tattooed drug addict-born again Christian.
                                                                                               

Day 28
I hate chemo-day. I just started feeling better after the terrible side effects of the previous treatment. I knew that before the end of the day” feeling better” will be nothing more than a faded memory. But today my usual anxiety was replaced by anticipation. I looked forward to talking with Michael; to hear how he was progressing in his recovery, how he was handling the chemo treatments and how his walk with Christ was growing.
The waiting room was filled near capacity when I arrived at the Cancer Center. I checked in and found one empty seat, sitting, waiting to hear my name called. First would be the weekly blood draw, followed by a weigh in and a conversation with the doctor. After the brief and mundane interview I would enter the treatment area to begin another agonizing journey.
I looked around the waiting room to see if Michael had arrived yet. No signs of him or his sister. I launched my weekly habit of looking at the people in the room. I was careful not to stare as to make someone uncomfortable. I have perfected the art of observation without the appearance of observing. I thought about their stories. What cancer are they battling? Many of those waiting were older. They had run past the average life span sign many years ago. I always wondered if I would have their courage if my own cancer had been delayed, arriving twenty years from now. Chemotherapy is an awful experience. The “We care People” will try to motivate and convince you that it won’t be as bad as what you have heard. Lying is part of their duties. I thought these aged participants were either crazy or desperate.
I remember on the first day of treatment meeting the nurse that would administer the chemo treatment. She belongs to the “We Care People” club, yet she was different. Her name is Rosie; I have grown to admire her abilities as a caretaker. I will never forget her words regarding the treatment—
This is going to suck pretty badly. But you will be okay. It is my job to make sure you are.”
Blatant honesty! How refreshing.
Back in the waiting room I heard my name being called. At the same moment my cell phone informed me that I had an incoming call. I didn’t recognize the originating   number on the screen and almost slid the screen to ignore the call.
I did not.
I wish I had.
But denial has no resurrecting power.
“Hello”
It was Chelsea’s voice; I recognized the east Texas drawl immediately.
“Hi. Can you talk?” She asked.
I spied the nurse who would begin my day by draining blood from my arm standing in the doorway waiting for me.
I asked Chelsea if I could call her back in a few minutes. I explained quickly that I was entering the torture chambers. She didn’t reply right away. When she finally agreed I could hear the disappointment in her one word— “Okay.” Then she was gone.
The few minutes turned into thirty minutes before I could return Chelsea’s call. The doctor had dominated most of that time with good and not so good news. Later the not so good news would pale in comparison to the story I would hear from a phone snuggled up to my ear.
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket after settling into the chair. The nurse poked my port marking the beginning of the four hour poison drip. I hit the call back button; Chelsea answered after the first ring.
“I’m sorry it took so long to call you back. The center is very busy today. What’s up?” I began the conversation.
Ten long seconds passed before she spoke, “It’s Michael.”
 “What’s the matter Chelsea? Is Michael okay?
Another long pause, longer than the first. I could hear her breathing.
“He is…he is dead.” Her sobbing increased with such intensity it seeped through speaker on my phone. I could feel her breathing, I could taste her tears.
I let her cry before saying anything. I listened waiting to hear her agony ease. It seemed as if it may never stop.
Suddenly it did stop, as quickly as it had come.
“He’s dead”, she repeated, “I don’t know what to do.”
An image exploded in my mind of Chelsea and Michael. Was she with him now? Was he lying dead on the floor with his sister sitting next to him? The vision developed slowly like an old Polaroid picture—Michael was lying on a carpeted floor. His blood was soaking into the torn and ragged material of the cheap carpet. His head had been beaten in by some thug Michael owed money to. Chelsea was sitting on the floor, her shins folded underneath her legs, in a praying position. The yellow sun dress she wore was slowly consuming the blood the carpet ignored.
This image was grossly skewed. That is not what happened.
But Michael was dead.
“Chelsea, I am so sorry. What happened?” I asked, trying to conceal the tremble in my voice.
She began to speak.
“Twenty-eight days. It was twenty eight days ago that Michael changed his life. All he spoke about yesterday was reaching the thirty day mark. His N.A. meetings recognize these milestones. Thirty days isn’t a long time…unless you are an addict in recovery. Then it is a lifetime.”
She stopped and began to sob again. I could only listen and wait.
Again, she spoke.
“Yesterday evening there was an Eviction Notice on his door. He was sixty days behind. He never told me. It was only three hundred dollars! He didn’t tell me, I could have found the help. He didn’t tell me! I could have helped, but he wouldn’t let me.”
More sobbing. More waiting.
“Early this morning the police were knocking on my door. I saw them through the side window and I knew something was wrong. I knew it was Michael. But I didn’t know he was dead.”
A short pause. No crying.
“The police told me that the landlord came to evict Michael or collect the money. The Constable was with the landlord. When Michael didn’t respond to them knocking loudly on the door…”
A longer pause. Silent crying, but I could hear the tears making a pathway down her cheeks.
“They opened the door. Michael was lying on the floor with a broken syringe sticking out of the rose tattoo on his arm. He had overdosed. He was dead.”
“I am so sorry Chelsea.” I didn’t bother to try and hide my own emotions this time.
“There was a note” She told me.
Suicide?
I didn’t want to ask, “What did it say?” I asked anyway.
“There were two words—‘I can’t’.” Chelsea cried.
I waited.
“Jim, there was more.”
I waited.
“He wrote a question for you.”
Silence.
“Jim, do I still get to go home?” I could tell she was reading the note from memory.
“Does he?” she asked.
I felt the hot tears running down my own cheeks. I could taste their bitterness on my tongue. I did not sob, I cried silently in a room that was almost full with people that may soon die.
She waited.
I cried. My shirt was stained by the endless stream of tears.
Then the Lord infused me; not with chemicals but with His promise.
I looked across the aisle at the only empty chair in the room. Michael’s chair.
I spoke.
“Jesus said, ‘And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never parish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.’ Chelsea, Michael is in His hand. And he shall never parish.”
“Thank you. My brother is dead, Jim. I don’t understand. He was trying so hard.”
“Twenty eight days was not long for you and Michael. But it was long enough for God to call Michael home. He has plans for Michael, great plans. God knew Michael was finished here. He allows everything to happen…even when we make bad choices, wrong decisions. I think even the decision to die.”
“Michael liked you Jim. So do I. God brought you into our lives at the right time. I needed to call you and tell you what happened and to thank you.”
The call disconnected. I never saw Chelsea or Michael again. I realize I don’t even know their last name.
Michael’s dead.
28 days.
Dear God, please let me be right.
Amen



"Michael's Chair" can be found with other short stories of faith athttps://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Faith-other-short-stories-ebook/dp/B00YX3T876#nav-subnav