Free Indeed

I have a different mind-set on perfect mornings when weather affords me the opportunity to pilot my motorcycle in to work. I ride into town, my VTX at a comfortable rumble, and smile as I pass the less-fortunate at gas stations—their vehicles tethered to the pumps while the dollar digits steadily climb. It’s a different world when you behold it from the seat of a harnessed, 1300cc-horsepowered freedom machine. It’s the open road; or at the very least a throwback to the days when men bare-backed horses and rode through the primeval forests of yesteryear.

Freedom—it’s a good thing, I tell ya. Books have been written on the subject, songs sung, and in our human imaginations few things can stir the heart like the mere concept of being free can. Yet in the end, what is this ‘freedom’ we all aspire to? Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” I like that, although I’ll be the first to admit it took a long time for me to understand what He was ‘getting at’.

Three Gospels in the Bible refer to a time when Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gaderenes. None of those writers suggest a reason for the trip, they only mention that Jesus said they were going, and so they did. As they drew near to the shore, a naked man came rushing toward them out of the graveyard. He was obviously mentally deranged, with scars on his body, wild hair, and broken chains hanging from his arms. I can only imagine the sight in my mind, but had I been there my first impulse would have been to run—I’ve seen far too many horror movies in my lifetime.

Long story short, Jesus casts a legion of demons out of the man and into a nearby herd of swine. The possessed pigs, not happy with their new-found unholy situation, swiftly ran down into the sea and were drowned. A legion, depending on where you research it, was a Roman division of anywhere from 5600 to 6000 soldiers and usually 200 horsemen. That’s a lot of demons! The Gospels mention that the man was next seen fully clothed and in his right mind, and furthermore he wanted to follow Jesus and his disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus tells him to go back home and tell everyone what G_d has done for him.

In my manner of thinking this may be the perfect example of the freedom that Jesus offered in the verse I mentioned earlier. The man had not always been in that condition, he surely had a home and people that loved him somewhere locked away in his past. Sin had destroyed his life although we do not know the cause or how it all started. In the end we find him living among the dead, unable to control himself, and shunned by the society of his time. Uncontested sin can do that to a person if allowed to fester in one’s life. I know—I’ve been there.

I especially like the part in the beginning of the story where Jesus decided to go across the sea, because I believe Jesus knew all along that this poor man was out there and unable to help himself. The Gaderene demoniac did not need medical insurance, he didn’t need a good therapist—he needed a savior.

Most importantly, he needed someone who could set him free.

Though my own sins probably cannot compare with the subject of this story, (depends on who you ask) there was a time or two (or three or four) in my own past where I’ve allowed sin to take control of the better part of me. I’ve found myself in wretched conditions at different points in my life as a result. However, I’m happy to say it was during those times when Jesus actively sought me out, and stirred in my heart a desire to release those sins and return to where I obviously needed to be. Did He do this because of my special standing or status in this world? No. His offer of freedom is available to anyone who believes and accepts Him into their heart. And the offer is valid because after all; 5600 demons is certainly a lot of demons—but even one demon is a demon too many.

Writer's Block

“And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17:20-21

My absence from this blog over the past few weeks has been the result of a losing record in the Spiritual war I am destined by my faith to constantly fight. If you are wondering, no, I still have a gazillion stories from the past and vats of inspiration for others, but nothing comes to mind when I sit down to write. You see, it’s not the stories themselves; it’s the Spiritual tie-in for those tales I’ve had problems defining during what has been for me a very stoic time.

I’m pitted against some pretty powerful foes as the battle unfolds each day. (Yes, each day!)

There is this big dude, rough-looking and mean, and I don’t know his name because he won’t tell me. Why should he? I simply call him ‘discouragement’ because that is his nature. When I sit down to write, he reminds me that what I am doing is of no use to anyone but me. He uses phrases like ‘nobody cares what you think’ and ‘what you write inspires no one anyway’. He check-mates me with ‘go watch TV and forget about this pointless blog. After all—it IS purely random thoughts—and by your own definition!’

A demon… in McNeill? Who knew? I mean, surely they inhabit New York and most assuredly reside around 42nd street. I’m positive there are quite a few on Bourbon or Decatur in New Orleans as well. But McNeill? This is smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt for Pete’s sake!

That big dude I mentioned has an ugly little friend. I call him ‘despair’ because again, we seldom discuss names in this business. He reminds me of all the things that are wrong in the world. The earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan along with the radioactive meltdown, the mess over in Libya and the Middle East in general, and the impending fall of Western Civilization. (Yes, he calls it that) He tells me to work harder in the gym, store up dried and canned food, and hunker down with plenty of ammo—because all is lost and I can depend only upon myself first and foremost. It would be comical, but he has an innate ability in slanting my thoughts in the general direction of his point of view. He makes sense during those times—what’s the point if it’s all going to go bad for us anyway? But he’s still ugly.

Then, as if these two aren’t bad enough, on my left shoulder sits this girlfriend of theirs. I call her ‘lust’ because man, you should see her! Perfect in every way. Just the way they serve ‘em up on TV shows I know I shouldn’t be watching. You’ve seen her, I’ll bet, in a short skirt on Dancing with the Stars, walking through the jungle while wearing next to nothing on Survivor, maybe smiling suggestively on The Bachelor. She purrs in my ear, crooning that Spiritual things were good back in their time, but ‘this is the New Age, baby’. She makes getting with the modern, worldly program seem like the real deal to me as I gaze in envy at new cars, boats, and other castles made of sand. I can’t acquire those things by sitting behind a terminal and writing stories about what G_d has done for me. She whispers promises of how much more fun it would be to write about Charlie Sheen, Madonna, or even political rants because, she teases, ‘you know you’d be good at it.’

There are others, too, but these guys merely stand out to me this morning. They destroy my will and make me less than what I know I should be. They freeze my thoughts when they attack; making me use the delete key far too often as I type and retype empty words that never come.

So I upped the ante this week following a sermon last Sunday that touched my heart and quickened my Spirit. I went all-medieval on that trio and their ilk—I resorted to the nuclear option if you will.

I started a fast, backed up by faith, that has now stretched into its third day, and I’m setting aside three scheduled times a day to pray. I’m back to basics with a morning quiet time, immersing myself in His Word and praying for everybody I know as I they come to mind. (I’m probably praying for you, too, if you are reading this!)

The words came this morning, and lots more. So much and so many I can’t type fast enough. I should be writing three or four posts today in order to catch the blog up—but that’s not the way we do this. I’m humbled for what He has done for me. I’m happy for deliverance from my own personal ghastly trio, though I know they are anxiously waiting right outside my door. And I’m hoping that those of you who are facing your own demons can take heart in my own struggles, while finding your own deliverance at the same time.

Freedom is closer than you think!

True Bearings

I’m not good with my hands. The talents that other men take for granted, you know—things like engine work or carpentry—those skills have eluded me throughout my life. I’m a thinking man. I understand concepts of molecular movement and comprehend all of the theories involving the flow of electrons. Sometimes I wish it were the other way around, but then again, my complaints would only then be construed as shallow.

The air conditioning repairman that occasionally visits my house will attest to my failed handiwork. Many times I’ve watched him shake his head in disbelief; incredulous at circuit changes I’ve made to my outside unit on the fly or in an emergency. Most of the times the things I do out there work, (for a little while) but they are not pretty. I’ve also had my share of snafus when it comes to simple tasks like oil changes—I sheepishly admit to a time when I removed the wrong drain plug and emptied the fluid needlessly from a perfectly functioning transmission.

I concede these shortcomings to address another—in an effort to somehow enable you, dear reader, to understand what I went through during my first assignment in the United States Coast Guard. I was in Panama City Beach, Florida back in late 1985, and I had arrived to fill the position of a crewman on a 41-foot small boat at the station. Certain jobs were reserved for new members of the unit, and somehow they involved every task I had proven to be least proficient in. I painted, washed decks, cleaned oil spills, and assisted seasoned mechanics with routine engine work. It was less than a match made in Heaven, I tell ya.

Other duties involved being a rescue swimmer, and I could do that. An early life spent mostly along the banks of the Hobolochitto had made me proficient when it came to being around water. So my handyman skills as a crewman coupled with a part time responsibility to swim was a trade-off—a ‘wash’ if you will. “Seaman Johnson is terrible with his hands, but man, the boy sure can swim!” Well, that’s how the XO put it anyway.

It was while I was filling the billet as a crewman that I discovered another thing I was not good at, not at first anyway. A crewman was also required to steer the boat when the coxswain (boat captain) was busy performing other duties. The coxswain would call me into the cabin and tell me to take the wheel, for example, and order me to keep the boat on a heading of 270 degrees. Sounds simple enough to someone who has never done it (it did to me) but there is a lot more to it than that.

Placed conspicuously in front of the helm, or steering wheel, sat the binnacle. Housed inside its glass dome was the compass; an outer ring displaying measurements in degrees. To keep a heading of 270 degrees, you turned the steering wheel (helm) and the compass moved in response. As the compass turned you could line up the boat at whatever degree matched the required course. At first, it is hard to handle, because in order to get the boat to turn and line up with the correct course, I learned that you had to go against what appeared to be normal. In other words, if I wanted to make the compass move to the right, I needed to turn the wheel left, and vice-versa. Eventually I was able to perform this task without too much forethought—I had to learn to ignore my instincts and what felt right to me and instead follow what I understood by merely watching the compass.

This worked fine until the coxswain had to navigate through a tight channel. At that point he would call out to me things like ‘starboard five degrees’ or ‘to the port seven degrees’ and I’d have to look at my hands to get it straight in my mind that port was left and starboard was right--much like a second grader counting his fingers during a simple math exercise. Behind the boat, meanwhile, our wake would usually resemble the path of a snake that had spent far too much time in the wine cellar. Once again, I found that although I enjoy navigation and can read maps better than the average person, when it came to putting that knowledge to use via my traitorous hands—I was simply no good at it, period. I did get better with time and experience, and eventually I learned to trust the compass and ignore what my mechanically-challenged hands wanted to do.

I’ve found it’s the same way when you are performing a daily walk with G_d. Sometimes the world shows you ways that seem to make more sense in life, or it feels right to go routes you shouldn’t. It’s hard to be like Josiah: “And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left.” My ways are not His ways, and what might appear to be a good idea or a correct choice of action on my part may not always line up with what He has planned for me. I have to let go and trust in Him—in so doing my course lines up to the true bearing that He would have me take.

The Hill

I passed an old reminder on the way home from town the other day. The memory, although as fresh in my mind as if it only happened the day before, has assuredly been placed in the annals of a more carefree time many years ago. Funny how time works—it sincerely counts and keeps counting.

It was the summer of my fourteenth year, and I had put in another hard day on the sod farm that employed me during those sweltering July afternoons between the school terms. Unrecollectable to me is the ‘why’ we went to the store, a memory only that Danna and I were in my dad’s Datsun pickup truck. (Datsun is now known as Nissan to you Generation Xers) I was driving illegally without a license, not uncommon back then as long as you didn’t get too wild with it, because traffic and rules were sparse compared to what we‘ve grown to accept in our current world—even in places like South Mississippi. Besides, I needed the practice, as an official Highway Patrol driving test awaited me in my not-too-distant future.

The store we frequented in Carriere has long since gone, a victim of progress; but a good Barq’s root beer and Snicker’s bar can still be had at even the newer stores in our area. (Some things will never change, not really!) I pulled away from the store with merely a slight grinding of gears while we drank and ate our sugary surplus. Meanwhile we talked of things in a way only teen-aged brothers and sisters can, at least when they will cotton to each other’s company long enough to do so. In fact, we discussed so much that before I knew it, I was fast approaching the hill.

The hill is still there today, but it’s been tamed somewhat over the years by the automatic transmission. I know because I smiled during my aforementioned recollection when I saw it the other day. The hill would probably still prove to be a monumental task to a new driver if they happened to be operating a stick-shift today—do those things still exist? I’m not sure. Those manual transmissions, replete with gear-shifters and clutches, have gone the way of things like candy cigarettes and Sunday-school pins, or full service gas stations and prayer in schools.

So anyway, once you approached the hill you were all-in; there was no option of turning back on a less-provoking road. At the top of the hill stood a stop sign, a red octagon representing many broken dreams in the pantheon of all the novice motorists of our time. I’m not really stretching it when I say my blood ran cold and sweat popped out on my brow as I realized my mistake in choosing that route. But I could not show it as it would have been all the opportunity my sister required to tease me—an exercise she was duly noted for. I decided to drop down to second gear and reduce my speed to a crawl, enough so that I could roll slowly through the stop sign, make my turn, and be on my way without too much heckling from Danna. Unfortunately, a quick glance toward the crossing street sealed my undoing—a car was approaching down that very highway I was slated to turn onto.

Grimacing, I pushed in the clutch while pressing on the brake with my other foot, stopping at the top of the hill while waiting for the car to pass. Motion in the rearview mirror compounded the sad situation for me; I watched nervously as another truck arrived behind me. The car passed, and Newton’s laws being what they are, my vehicle began to roll backward as I released the brake in an attempt to reengage the engine. To top off my precarious quandary and add teeth to it, the guy behind me began to impatiently honk his horn. I figured the only thing worse at that moment would be for Danna to begin yelling at me—not to say I wasn’t used to it.

However, just as things reached a point where I was eying the mirror for an opportunity to back into the ditch, she did something totally unexpected and out of character. She reached her foot over and worked the gas pedal without being asked, thus enabling me to slip the clutch and escape my near-vertical dilemma. I was thinking about how nice she had been to do that—and how unlike she had been inclined to do so at other times—when due to the excessive hill and mechanical principles in play, the back tires on the truck began to spin wildly. Unfortunately, before I could comprehend and adjust to what was happening, they caught traction and we were propelled across the road at a high rate of speed and into a ditch—hitting it with such uncontrolled force that we crossed it airborne in a jump that would have made Bo Duke proud. We finally came to a vehicular-silent resting place in an abandoned lumber yard near the railroad tracks.

Sheepishly, I gathered my wits enough to re-fire the engine, and taking off much more professionally we made it back to the road and were soon on our way home. Danna assured me she wouldn’t report my mishap to mom and dad—but that’s not what I was worried about at all. I didn’t want her to alert my friends as to my challenged driving skills. In the end, she told no one, and for a few weeks at least, I was deeply indebted to her for it.

I’d be remiss to say that it was the only time she helped me, really. Looking back, when we were young it seems as though she always had to bail me out or cover my shortcomings. I miss her even more today as a result of those memories, her life being lost way too soon a few years back.

In one of the most amazing verses of the Bible, Paul writes: “But G_d commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The hill recollection reminded me of another time when I realized I had no hope, no chance, and no way out. Christ took the blame for me, covering my sin and paying the price when I could not do so myself.

I didn’t have enough feet in the cab of that truck that day—too many peddles to press and inertia was dead-set against me. I needed help, and it was given graciously at the moment I needed it most without being asked for. Like my older sister, Jesus did the same thing for me, yet in a much more profound manner. His sacrifice keeps me out of the ditch and hides all of my sins from my Heavenly Father at the same time. And it’s not because I’m privileged or special in any way—what He did for me, he will surely do for you.

Me and Danna, circa 1964 or so.