OK so it turns out that Todd’s storymay not be true. His claim to be a hero and victim of PTSD is disputed by his aunt. According to her, “NO, NO, NO, HE DID NOT SERVE IN AFGHANISTAN OR ANY OF THAT. I have NO medals here. I can’t confirm the year (s) he was in the service and I think, but not sure, he was stationed in New Jersey. Don’t print anything he says. He is a very sick alcoholic.”
OK Auntie, but here are the facts: He did serve He is homeless He does need help. And I did smell alcohol on his breath at 9 in the morning.
Who knows what part his service played in shaping the rest of his life? I don’t know Todd well or his aunt at all, and as I said last week, the truth of the matter is and isn’t important. There are many stories that are true.
A Vet’s Advice Ben was deployed for six years and came home to raise his family. “I’ve had a terrible time figuring out how to deal with my PTSD and injuries. Making a living wage is hard when I have a hard time concentrating.”
He struggles to counsel those who want to help. “I don’t know. If I knew better, I’d be dealing better. My advice to returning vets: Get a good doctor and don’t trust the V.A. any more than you have to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Feeling suicidal doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
How many of us have to live this way? How many of us need that advice to survive? Rich, a doctor friend of mine, has a unique perspective on returning vets. He was the Command Surgeon in New York City for a regional readiness command, which is to say that he was responsible for maintaining the medical readiness of the units, interviewing each soldier before deployment and upon their return.
He reminds me that PTSD is a catch-all for a “a spectrum of disorders from the stress of combat to the stress of separation to the stress of being involved in a mass casualty as a first responder.” He sees PTSD as a very individual thing. “I believe there is a pre-existing mental status that makes certain individuals more susceptible to PTSD, a chronic anxiety disorder or depressive personality disorder. I think those individuals probably would best be served by psychiatric treatment.” But there is a problem.
Obstacles to Re-entry Joe was a Marine deployed in the Middle East during the first Desert Storm. Some of his buddies never received treatment. “There’s a lot of shame involved. That’s why most veterans with PTSD keep mum about their experiences… plus they feel there is no one to talk to about these things. If still on active duty, the serviceman feels that revealing thoughts and anxieties to comrades and/or superiors might compromise their trust in him and may even ruin his career.”
Rich sees other problems with re-entry. “The solider in combat is trained to react to the world in a whole different way. If he is on the front lines in a combat situation he has to have an increased alertness to his surroundings. He is aware of imminent danger and his level of anxiety is increased. He is taught a new sense of values which are dramatically different than those he has learned in his family or church. Killing is okay! When he returns to peacetime or the civilian world he has to re-learn civilian values.
“All the above is complicated by drug and alcohol abuse,” adds Joe, “Military culture is still centered on the idea of the ‘hard-drinking, hard-fighting’ serviceman, and our civilian culture has embraced foreign substance abuse as an acceptable lifestyle as well.”
Apples & Testaments Back to Todd though. In a Sunday sermon I shared his story. After the service a woman approached me in tears, handing me a 10 dollar bill. “Please give this to Todd and tell him we appreciate his service.” I carried that bill in my pocket for two weeks before I finally saw him again walking downtown. I pulled over, put down my window and did as I was told. A few days later I spotted Todd on a stoop downtown. I walked toward him and noticed someone had left two New Testaments and two shiny apples on a bench nearby. Taking one of each I sat down beside Todd and said, “God really does love you, Todd. This little book will tell you all about it.”
He gave me that, “I’ve heard it all before” look.
Someone had left those apples and testaments at the right place at the right time and probably prayed that they would find the right person. They did. If I never see Todd again others will enter his life. I’m convinced of it. I will continue to pray for them and for him. Prayer may be the best way to help.
Everyone has the need for acceptance. Family is usually where that takes place, beginning with a mother’s and father’s love and then outward to extended family and, in time, to friends, neighbors and work associates.
Being accepted for who you are is a rare gift and can shelter from the harshest criticism and scorn. God accepts us that way after we have faced our sins and been forgiven by Jesus’ sacrifice. That salvation becomes our safe place, our island of security that nothing can threaten.
In prison Andrew often reflects on his past and present. He recalls the early days of foster care and the twisted road that led from a Christian home to the lifestyle of a prodigal son and eventually homelessness and prison. His next letter sees a future that is possible because of God’s acceptance.
“My goal is to have First Christian as my home church (even though a church is where there are 3 or more gathered). I will always respect the fact that regardless of my situation and my homelessness I was accepted among other great people and nor judged but loved.
“I now know where I stand and can be confident that my problems definitely pertained to my attitude and how I treated life and others in it, taking for granted my freedom and the love from God.”
Now, six months later, he is a month away from a parole hearing. While we pray for his release, he is secure in his position before God and others and will continue a path forward.
“Today is a new day and the growth of my Christian faith and grateful understanding of life has never been better. It was once told me that the Bible says, ‘Raise your children in the Lord and they will nor call astray. Amen to that! So I wrote the Apostles’ Creed (a sermon series on the Creed was his last before his arrest) down and have it up on my wall.”
A college professor of mine once said, “Statistics don’t lie, statisticians do.” A 2016 study on recidivism concluded that nearly half of federal prisoners will be rearrested within five years of their release. There are many nuances in the report that adjust this for age, education and race, but findings are consistent with previous studies.
The lie here is not in the statistics or in the statistician but in the minds of those who reject ex-prisoners and the prisoners themselves. The loving purpose of God drives out that lie.
“I don’t feel as if I failed at all. It is all part of God’s plan. Yes, the struggle is real and as I have said before, ‘We only struggle when we don’t fully give ourselves over to God,’ There is no doubt that God has a plan for my life, and if in the meantime there is any way I’m able to be used for His good I’m all for it. “
Life can be complicated and hard, like a maze that leads nowhere. Andrews path has led him through the loss of family to foster care, delinquency, drugs and now, prison. But he has learned the truth he was taught by his adoptive parents, that there are really only two ways.
“Obey the voice of the Lord your God… This commandment… is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it… I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 3011-15)
As Andrew’s heart has softened he not only understands this for himself but is anxious to pass it on to others. In his most recent letter he says, “It has been on my heart to reach out while I can and while the Lord continues to work his miracles in me.” He included a “Letter to the Troubled Children of America.”
To the Troubled Children of America
“First things first. Many of you are not alone choosing crime, alcohol or drugs due to the circumstances of your pain. These are ways people have been coping for a very long time; not unusual or uncommon for our society or its leaders.
“I strongly advise you to pray and urge you to think about the choices that you may make while you still have your freedom. The simple truth is that our culture has been flooded with young adults experimenting with different ways of dealing with stress and constant pressure.I’ve been there along with hundreds of thousands of other criminals: movie stars, rappers, successful people and poor people. These prison walls do not discriminate!
“We cannot stop crime but you can as an individual. You are the only one you can control. This cycle must stop. Please think about how much better our society could be without criminals before you become one.
“I offer these words of advice:
If you are experimenting with drugs or feeling lonely and depressed, get help!
Listen to friends who care about you. Keep a clear mind. It’s never just about you.
Love others the way you love yourself. Above all love God for God is love.
There is help, there is always help if you’re willing to take it.”
Could it be that the path God has for us is not so much a maze as a map that leads us to give up ourselves and depend upon Him? Andrew would say, “The choice is yours.”
With the passing of the holidays and the onset of early spring, Andrew continues to struggle with two men: the man of his past and the man he knows God wants him to be. Learning from the first and striving to be the second fills much of his time in prison.
I had sent him bits of my first book, LifeDeck, the part that tells of my encounter with a homeless woman in Boston. I was so moved by her faith and positive outlook in spite of her situation that I stood for a moment, “wondering why two souls should be assigned such different lives.”
Andrew never dwells on this paradox, never sees himself as a victim. Recalling our first encounter he says, “It sounds like you lived that story before, like when you bought a walking stick from a homeless guy.” That guy is not the guy he aspires to be, and he resists those who would keep him there.
“The one thing that gets to me is the criminal justice system makes it out as I’m a horrible person and my record is going to make it tough on getting a good job. Yet… I have faith God’s got my back.” That last phrase he uses often, a reminder of how God watches over him. Yet he never uses God as his crutch, and takes full responsibility for his future.
“One thing about me is my knowledge of the work force. Because of the many odd jobs I’ve done to survive, it shouldn’t be too hard to get work.” Before his arrest Andrew’s work ethic was well known. One business owner I spoke with had plans for his advancement but shook his head and said, “If only he could get rid of the anger…”
Andrew has known from the time he was young that there is a spiritual battle raging between God and the devil, but I think prison life has made it real and helped equip him for it. “So many people think that once you’re become a Christian the struggle is over. Well, sometimes that may be so, but when God gains back a fellow soul, the devil loses control of another so a constant battle erupts and who wins that is totally up to us.”
If you’ve ever read the Screwtape Letters, you know this is true. C.S. Lewis imagines a senior devil (Screwtape) advising a student (Wormwood) on the fine arts of destroying faith in God. In one exchange, Screwtape offers this, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
That is Andrew. Removed from the universe of free people, dogged by his past, he nevertheless continues to follow hard after God. In his next letter he takes us deep inside his personal struggle.
Regrets are what happen on the other side of life.
There’s the saddest of pictures in the New Testament, in a story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury while Lazarus lived in squalor just outside the rich man’s mansion. The rich man died and entered hell while Lazarus entered heaven. The rich man begged Abraham for mercy, but was told that he was getting what he deserved, and that there was no do-over.
Talk about regrets!
Our lives are made up of years and months and weeks and days. Each day brings new opportunities that, if seized, will lead us to the end of life without regret. But there are three regrets that will change your life forever…
Regrets not Finding Your Life’s Purpose
It’s not what you think.
My wife knew from the time she was a little girl that she wanted to be a teacher. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Purpose in life grows out of your identity, who you are. It may have nothing to do with your career, or it may lead you to one.
Let’s first start with what we know: You are not the person of your past You are not the person others see you to be You are not the person of someone else’s dreams You are not even the person that you dream you will be
Once you agree with the above you are ready to embrace the truth: You are the person God created you to be, even if you don’t believe in God. Your “life’s purpose” is not a pursuit of some goal – yours or someone else’s – but rather the pursuit of God. In Him lies your life’s purpose.
Here’s how I know: “In your book were written… the days that were formed for me when as yet there were none of them.” These words from Psalm 139 should loop in your mind as a reminder that, when you find God, you’ve found your life’s purpose.
Regrets not spending time with family
I’ve told this story before. Here it comes again. “In my last class at seminary we had gathered to hear a popular local pastor speak to us about ministry, expecting he would tell us how to do it. Instead he told the story of how he almost lost his marriage and his church doing the work of ‘ministry.’ It was not what we expected to hear. It was exactly what we needed to hear.
“After that class, I went back to our apartment, gave my wife a hug and promised her that I would never have to learn that lesson twice; that our marriage and our family would always come before the ‘work of ministry.”
Over the years I have reminded myself that what I do as a husband, a father (and now a grandfather) matters more than all of the other things in life.” As Jesus said, “A man’s (or woman’s or boy’s or girl’s) life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.”
That’s just stuff.
Regrets not worshiping God
“Don’t get all religious on me here!”
Well, guess what – you are religious, if by that you mean that you are by nature a worshiper of something or someone. We are all worshipers, like shoppers, going through life, trying on spiritual fashions, searching for the perfect fit.
I’m not one of those who believe, “There are many ways to God,” but I do believe we’re all on paths that lead to God. The detours and back roads lead somewhere else. Along the way we will all have to decide whether what Jesus said was true: “I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the father except through me.” If he was telling the truth, the single pursuit of Christ is the only thing that really matters.
There’s another story in the New Testament that occurs at the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the story of the criminal hanging beside him. Actually, there were two. One mocked Jesus, “Save yourself and us if you are the Christ!” The other scolded him. “Stop it! We’re getting what we deserve. He has done nothing wrong.” Then, turning to Jesus, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “Truly, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s never, never, never too late to escape regret.
The holidays can go either way. They can be a time of family celebration and cheer, or they can twist like a knife in an old wound that won’t heal. Given his checkered history, it always surprised me that Andrew somehow avoided the holiday blues.
His arrest came in the late fall of the first year he was in our church, so he never got to celebrate with us. He was, nevertheless, more like Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge in AChristmas Carol, thankfully blind to his condition and genuinely happy for the season.
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family! How are those beauties (our two baby granddaughters)? Did you and the wife enjoy shopping for gifts? Please say Hi to everyone for me!”
Then he adds, “…the only gift I can send is my love.”
Sometimes having nothing at Christmas lends a strange and wonderful spirit to the holiday. Even Andrew’s few belongings had been confiscated when he entered prison a year ago, and now he extends empty hands with joy.
The next words of his December letter make this joy all the more surprising: “Now it’s getting rough in here. Just had a set back and God still looked out for me like always…” (The setback, I would later learn, was a scuffle with another inmate. Because of Andrew’s history, he was put in the hole and his sentence extended).
Then in typical fashion he pivots to my problems rather than his own. “… speaking of which, I heard you were sick. Hope you get better. Was hoping to be on the other side of the wall soon and it’s not looking good. Need some prayer, have to stay out of trouble for another three months and I’ll be back on track.”
I have noticed a shift in Andrew’s thinking in the last year. He left us, accepting that who he had been was who he was. He had settled into a lifestyle of unhealthy relationships, occasional work, outbursts of anger and moving on. In prison of all places, God was there, reminding him of who he could be; reminding him, in the words of that old hymn, that there is a “love that will not let me go.”
In prison his mind found a resting place for the more permanent things of faith, family, friendship and his future. “If you get a chance please tell my family I said, ‘Happy holidays!’ And that I am hanging in there. Say hi to our Starbucks fans. I’ll be out soon.”
He is like the new Scrooge, scared into his better senses by the ghosts of his past having learned the lessons they teach. “I get the point. Keep my nose clean. After a few weeks they will let me go on approved outings and church events. Well, enjoy the holidays, God is good!”
This calls to mind the words of the reborn miser in the Carol, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!”
Andrew’s not quite there yet, but he beat the holiday blues.