The Front Porch

My heart lies at Your feet in fear.

My vision trembles and thoughts cry:

Shall He that made the ear not hear?

I wait through all the waiting year,

Bringing You my waning sigh;

My heart lies at Your feet in fear

And yet this quiet hope hangs near,

A question with no firm reply:

Shall He that made the ear not hear?

I watch, in hope You will appear;

Lord, hear! I cry. My words aim high –

My heart lies at Your feet in fear.

Clouds laugh at me and vacuums jeer;

But there is time still to defy.

Shall He that made the ear not hear?

The heavens sit, a blank frontier,

Yet nothing hides there from Your eye.

My heart lies at Your feet in fear…

Shall He that made the ear not hear?4

~ “He that made the ear” by Matthew Pullar (After George Herbert’s “Longing”)

Our family home rests on a plot of seven and a half acres in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. One of the features we fell in love with when we found the house is the large front porch.

We moved in during March – mud season. We quickly fell into the habit of removing our shoes on the porch so as to not track in a mess. When we found the floor to be a little chilly in socked-feet, we placed slippers just inside the front door to put on as we entered.

We remove our shoes for purely pragmatic reasons. We don’t have any cultural or religious mandates. We don’t have any safety concerns (like when I’ve had to remove my shoes at psychiatric units so I wouldn’t hang myself with the shoelaces). We do it purely to keep the house clean. And we provide slippers for comfort.

I’ve placed the meditations in this section on “the front porch” because they offer views of faith and mental illness that help you remove the mud-caked stereotypes of the world before you enter into the particular perspective I have as a person of faith with a mental illness. While the “slippers” I provide may seem foreign and fail to fit perfectly, hopefully they will keep your feet warm as we explore the house together.

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Lost on Long Island, Back to Nineveh

In high school, I learned the Peter Principle,

“People rise to their level of incompetence.”

In seminary, I was taught,

“Be careful what you pray for;

You might just get it.”

Still, I prayed to rise,

More people, a bigger community, better pay.

A church on Long Island called

And offered me all this and more

more than I expected.

more than I could handle.

From the moment I landed, I was consumed with busyness

That had no end.

The church needed a Savior.

And I wasn’t Him.

The ministry became my golden calf

Where I sacrificed my family and my sanity.

One night I went to bed early,

Emotionally exhausted and physically drained.

Lying in bed, I heard a voice say, “It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t the voice of assurance.

It was a word of relinquishment.

I got up and filled my palm with psychotropic drugs.

Put them in my mouth and swallowed.

I did it again. And again.

It wasn’t enough to kill me.

Only to put me in a drug-induced stupor.

I collapsed on the floor.

Alice found me and called my psychiatrist

He said I could sleep it off.

But I kept falling onto the floor.

My body was contorted; I kept running into walls.

Alice had to direct me to the bathroom,

And clean up after me when I missed.

I was angry –

angry at myself for making such a mess of things.

angry at Alice for cleaning up my mess.

angry at God for messing with me.

*****

Some people ask me now how someone who claims

To have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ

Could try to kill himself.

My only answer is

Though I’ve wanted to give up on God,

God hasn’t given up on me.

Now I’ve come back to the outskirts of Nineveh,

I’m hiding from the scorching sun,

Grateful for the shade God provides.

jonah-and-the-gourd-vine

In the Heart of the Finger Lakes, Chosen to Adopt

 I heard of a church in upstate New York

Searching for a pastor.

It was just two towns over from Alice’s parents.

I wasn’t looking to leave, but the location seemed perfect.

We went through the process and a call was confirmed.

Ovid rests between the two largest fingers of the Finger Lakes.

If you climb the church steeple, you can see

Cayuga Lake to the north and

Seneca Lake to the west.

I was the only pastor in town,

So I became the village vicar.

We ran a Thrift Shop where you could get any item of clothing

For less than a buck.

We housed the Food Pantry where you could get a week’s worth of groceries

For free.

People came for prayer and stayed for service.

I led a twelve-step Bible study group at a local addiction treatment center.

I cheered on the basketball teams,

And went to the school plays.

My devotion to ministry fueled

My commitment as a father.

We homeschooled Sarah and Grace.

I kept the shelves stocked

With the best books I could find.

We wrote our own stories, went camping,

Danced in the park.

My journals from our Ovid years show shortcomings,

Spiritual and relational struggles that kept it from being

Paradise on earth.

But when God created the earth, He didn’t call it great.

He called it good. And then He rested.

*****

While at Ovid,

We were blessed to be a blessing.

Inspired by a book called Expecting Adam

We chose to adopt a child with Down syndrome.

Within a few months,

We got a call from an agency in Albany

For an eight-week old boy we named

Caleb Ezra Anthony.

The church adored Caleb,

Lavishing him with affection.

He would raise his hands in praise,

And direct the people to sing with joy.

In time, we chose to be chosen again.

We flew to New Orleans for our BUFA girl –

Baby Up For Adoption, we named

Hannah Elizabeth Sarai.

Our ugly duckling soon became

A beautiful swan.

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Alone in a Fog, On a Teeter-Totter

I woke up in a solid white room.

Alone, strapped to a bed.

“You have bipolar disorder,” they said.

I got a diagnostic code to replace

My points per game, my GPA, and my SAT score.

DSM 296.4×4.

I would need treatment the rest of my life.

I spent most of the next year heavily medicated.

I prayed to God, but couldn’t hear a response.

I read the Bible, but the message escaped me.

I tried to write, but the words wouldn’t come.

Mostly I slept, and ate, and took pills.

My mind was thick like fog.

One day Alice was taking a nap with the children.

A friend stopped by to take me for coffee

I left a note which read:

“Dear sugar bear,

Gone to the mountains to pick blueberries.

Be back by spring.”

The church was wondrously generous.

They provided me paid leave.

They stopped by with meals.

They watched Sarah and Grace

When Alice and I had appointments.

Eventually, I went back to work full time.

But I had nothing left for home (or so I thought).

Alice was fed up.

She decided to get a job,

Then a divorce.

We went for counseling as a last resort.

In counseling, the fog started to lift.

Not overnight, but gradually, and steadily.

I asked Alice to stay.

She agreed, thank God.

***

We enjoyed some time of basic balance.

Like when you’re matched with someone of equal weight

On a teeter-totter.

But soon we learned that Alice’s father had cancer.

Colon cancer – very aggressive.

She took the children and moved in with her mom to help.

He made it through surgery, but something went wrong

And he ended up in a coma.

For six weeks Alice managed her father’s illness,

Advocating for him while caring for Sarah and Grace.

I came up on Sunday nights and stayed through Tuesdays,

The pastor’s version of a weekend.

It was winter time, and the storms blew strong,

But we weathered them together, traveling the distance.

They discovered his chemo had induced the coma.

With time and physical therapy, he got better.

Alice and the girls returned home,

Eager for spring, looking for new life.

Alice wanted more children.

It was her calling, to be a mom.

We became foster parents.

Shortly after being approved, we got a call.

Two sisters, ages five and nine, needed a place to stay.

Jessie and Elena became part of our family.

They were with us over a year before

They found a permanent home.

Life was good.

God was in heaven, and all seemed right with the world.

teeter-totter

Prayer, Parenting and the Clarion Call

In a fit of creative energy, I composed a book on prayer.

I was so busy with prayer that I made no time to pray.

I started a book on faithful fathering;

Alice took Sarah to a friend’s.

They were gone three days.

When they returned, I fell into a deep despair,

Sleeping days, staying up all night.

A friend recommended his psychiatrist,

Who prescribed pills

A new generation of anti-depressants.

Not your mother’s Valium, I was assured.

With prayer and pills, God and therapy,

I found some relief.

Released, we conceived again

Our graceful pilgrim,

Grace Alehah.

Our pilgrimage led East – to Pennsylvania.

I became pastor of a heavily-endowed church

Looking for an infusion of youthful zeal,

A young pastor to do the trick.

I was full of myself, but little else.

When growth was slow, I fell down in despair.

And looked to a new drug to pick me up.

Effexor did just that—

It picked me up and kept me up for six solid days and nights.

Street signs became messages from God.

Ideas became revelations.

Feverous with a mission, not to assuage but to save,

I started crying during sermons

And laughing when I was alone.

Alice took me to Clarion hospital.

As they fastened the door,

I started pacing the floor.

Sensing some signal.

It was the end of the world.

I was in the only safe haven left.

I had to break out and bring my family back.

I grabbed a plate full of sugar cookies.

And shoved them in my mouth.

Then I took off running toward the glass door,

Crashing into it with a loud BANG.

A crowd gathered around me,

I shoved them away and started running for another door.

They surrounded me and thought they had me subdued.

(Or so they told me later.)

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Higher Education

College was a place to experiment,

Mixing songs with sex, ideas with drugs.

The God I had come to know went up in smoke.

I replaced the living Word with words from lives

That thirsted for truths to absorb the Truth

And hungered for rights without Righteousness.

I wrote a book my senior year called,

Life (in obvious places)

Filled with family stories and ones I’d conceived.

At the end, a coquettish Claudia Matson asks the narrator,

“Why don’t you write any love stories?”

“I don’t know any,” he replies.

I took a job at a plastics factory

And started going to a country church

Grammar Presbyterian.

Filled with farmers and grandmothers

Who made room for me in my stained Salvation Army clothes

Smelling of smoke, looking for a God of substance.

Easter Sunday, on my way to church.

I saw a grey-haired woman in a tattered coat wandering.

I pulled over and tried to help.

She didn’t know where she was.

I didn’t know where to take her.

We were both lost.

I drove her to a church downtown.

Dressed in his Easter best, an usher gave her coffee and a muffin.

He sat with her and helped her find her way home.

I left the church in tears.

Finding strength to be weak in a community of grace.

I went to seminary to serve God with my mind,

Hoping my body and soul would follow.

In class we looked at the language of Scripture

And discussed how not to talk about God.

In my pastoral work, I found God:

in the joy of a boy who would never speak.

in the songs of prisoners longing for freedom.

in the tears of a man praying beside his dying wife’s bed.

I say I found God,

But really God found me,

I just didn’t run away.

I met Alice in the office of friends.

She was arguing with the phone company about a deposit.

She won.

I said to myself, “I want her on my side.”

Within six months, we were engaged.

We moved to a three-room row house in South St. Louis.

The heat was unbearable,

Steam rising from the asphalt.

We passionately loved and more passionately fought.

From this conjugal clash, a child was conceived.

We moved to the countryside,

And I became a pastor,

Shepherd of a frozen flock.

I delivered sermons on Sunday,

And took out the trash on Tuesdays.

Sarah Emily was born in early spring.

There was a chill in the air and ice on the roads,

But we barely noticed.

We brought her home to balloons and signs;

A Noah’s Ark nursery.

We made her first week a music video

with Sandi Patty singing,

You are a masterpiece

A new creation He has formed

And you’re as soft and fresh as a snowy winter morn.

And I’m so glad that God has given you to me.

After a week, I was spent (or so I thought).

I retreated to my office and didn’t come out

Even when I came home.

Father Kissing Newborn

Out of Nineveh

When I was born, Nineveh was no longer the capital of an evil Assyrian empire.

It was a small town in the Midwest, straight out of Hoosiers.

With a mother seeking comfort, finding passing victory in Valium.

And a father consumed by work; entangled by emotions unexpressed.

Their friends put beer in my bottle and laughed

At the toddler toddling tipsy to the turf.

A picture in the school yearbook shows me at age three.

In the crowd at a basketball game,

Eyes riveted on the action; not reacting like others;

Searching for substance in the orange globe of a ball

As if God put it there.

Sports structured my days,

A soothing, sure escape.

Countless hours at the school playground

As Pistol Pete Maravich.

Each shot a last-second buzzer beater,

A ticket to immortality.

When my parents divorced,

I was made to choose where to live.

I chose Dad’s – where I could be free

To eat Braunsweiger and Nacho Cheese Doritos

Until I made myself sick.

Dad’s buddies came over to drink Budweiser,

One asked, “Do you like playing with yourself?”

I said, “Sure.”

He burst out laughing;

Spewing beer through his nose.

I moved in with Mom and Dan, my step-father.

He was an EMT and liked to carry guns.

We watched “Emergency” during dinner.

Dan yelled at the TV, shouting instructions.

They argued a lot – Mom and Dan.

One day, their yells reached a feverous pitch

their arms were raised.

I was struck by the image of a gun.

I felt a sharp stab in my gut and yelled out.

Dan looked at me

And decided my appendix had burst.

He rode with me in an ambulance to the hospital.

They diagnosed it as gastritis.

I believe it was the finger of God.

I was driven to succeed in high school

In sports and studies.

My senior year I discovered girls,

Paula in particular.

To date her, I had to go to church,

Which I gladly did.

She wanted more than kisses and cuddling.

I wanted more than her body had to offer.

At eighteen, I was on top of the world

But knew it was not a steady place to stand.

I had mono when I gave the graduation speech.

I talked about the need for faith,

With a runny nose.

I recited the poem “Richard Cory,” which begins,

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And ends…

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.