Saturday, November 24, 2012

How "A Ragamuffin Christmas Came To Be..."

I moved to Nashville, Tennessee in November 1997.
I'm a native of Philadelphia and grew up in the Philadelphia area. I had never considered living anywhere else, except one brief notion about moving to California because I had been there for 10 days when my best friend got married and I was in his wedding. Who wouldn't fall in love with a place that was 35 degrees warmer when you got off the plane than it was when you go on board? (Greg had gotten married in January and it was 35 degrees in Philly the morning I flew to L.A.)
But I love my hometown so very very much and I never thought I'd ever live anywhere else.
Then I got married.
My now-ex-wife is from Utah. (It's an interesting story how we met but one I won't tell here) She hated the Philadelphia area from day one. So we moved to Nashville where I soon realized she merely hated me.
We were married in February 1997, she got pregnant in August, we moved to Nashville in November and in May 1998 my daughter was born.
My daughter is everything. She is the one thing I live this life for (other than God of course). She is all the hopes and dreams I have for every day I shall walk this earth. I loved her from the moment I found out I was going to be a dad. I fell even more in love with her when we had that first grainy sonogram done and I could see the outline of a real-life child in there. I loved her every day during Holly's pregnancy and I told her so each night, when I would hold a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels against her mother's belly and tell her "Hi's your daddy. I love you and I can't wait to see you!" One night around the 7-8 month mark, I did this as I always did, and before I got to "I love you and I can't wait to see you"...she kicked. Really kicked. It's a story I've related before so I won't retell it further.
Morgan has been the driving force in my life for every day of the 14 plus years she has been on this earth...and the 38 weeks before. (She was induced 2 weeks early because it was a difficult pregnancy).
I started out down here doing carpentry but that wasn't paying nearly enough. So, on the advice of another of my dearest friends, in September 1998 I got into the mortgage industry. I struggled terribly that first year. I stayed up late memorizing lender matrices so I could know which programs to put my customers in off the top of my head. I studied rate sheets and called on realtors. I held first-time home-buyer seminars. I called "For sale by Owner" ads and asked them to send me leads from people inquiring to buy their houses. I busted my butt to make something of myself for my family.
On December 1, 1999 at 2PM, I walked out of Davidson County Fourth Circuit Court a divorced dad.
My ex had really never been happy and my struggling to have success in a business I was brand-new to was all the impetus she needed to end our marriage. It crushed me. I had dreamed dreams and made plans and set goals for this little family of mine...really all the family I've ever had...and suddenly the person I dreamed all those dreams for decided she was going to find someone else to make them come true with. And my little princess, my daughter-who was the driving force that kept me going when I worked for that first crappy mortgage company where I learned to excel but was rewarded with my pocket getting picked in a thousand ways- was now a visitor in my home once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer.
I don't know if you've ever known a broken-hearted divorced dad but let mt tell you...if you are a real dad, you don't have an off switch to make your love for your kids subside on the days they aren't there. I was a zombie for years after my divorce. Morgan was my one source of life and energy and the one person in all my life who had not changed her mind about loving me and who I could love safely. I would spend myself willingly for her happiness and I did.
A year after my divorce I really turned the corner in the mortgage business. I was really really good at my job. I had become a branch manager of a net-branch company and had my own office and was starting to see some real, measurable income. By 2005 I was a branch operator with the largest privately funded mortgage company in the U.S. I was successful, I was making more money each successive year. I was nationally recognized by my bosses for running a good branch and for being active in the community and for developing a really great marketing campaign for a FSBO product we had. I was doing okay.
There was still a massive hole in my heart, but I comforted myself with being a great dad and with the house I had purchased in 2004. Nothing special, 2500 square feet on five acres in the country. It was really the five acres that I loved. I had a wonderful vegetable garden that was ten times bigger than I could ever consume myself. But like my uncle Franny, I love making things grow. I once planted Cheerio's to see if I could grow donuts. (Not really...)
By 2006 the industry was really starting to feel the rumblings of what was ahead. I made very little money in 2006 and by January of 2007 I lost my home. 2007 rebounded for me in my market and I made enough money that I rented for a year and Morgan and I lived a nice little life in a neighborhood in Franklin. But my heart was sinking and the business was drying up. I had my best year ever in 2007...and I didn't close one loan after August 1st of that year. I closed two loans in February 2008. They closed my office in March, along with all but two other offices in the state. I was officially a loan officer for another branch but I had no more business. In May my lease expired and I was homeless. Morgan and I stayed in a friends loft apartment for the summer, travelling back and forth to Delaware so we'd have something of a time together. In August she went back to live with her mom, and my friends needed the apartment for a previous commitment  And so from August 2008 until January 2012 I was homeless. I slept in my car and showered at the local rec center.
Christmas 2008 was hard, but not the hardest. 2009 was terrible. Morgan had informed me that year that she no longer believed in Santa. Okay...I knew this was coming. But along with losing my home, my workshop and garden that were my refuge, and the two dogs the cat and the Welsh Pony that were also part of my I could no longer climb up on the roof on Christmas Eve, as Morgan was just drifting off to sleep, and stomp around and shake the sleigh bells I had made and bellow my "Ho Ho Ho" and be Santa. I would have liked one more chance to do that...on my own roof while my daughter slept in her own bed.
Morgan and I had always had the Advent calenders. I would buy two identical calenders and she would take one to her mom's and leave one at my house. And so together, whether in person or on the phone, we would open a door each day and get even more excited about the approaching holiday.
2009 she told me she didn't really want to do that either. I think it was her defense mechanism. I think that because I was living in my car, and had no kitchen counter to put it on, she just didn't feel like it would be the same. I have wondered if her not wanting to do the Advent calender that year was her way of dealing with the hurt and disappointment of what had befallen her daddy...and subsequently her as well.
I was devastated. I was worried that my daughter would lose faith in me and in God. All I had at the time were my words. And so I began writing a series of stories for the Advent...only they were very grown-up stories about broken Morgan's daddy...who found their way back to the manger and to the baby Jesus. They found their way back to Christmas itself somehow. They were broken, limping, hardened, and desperate. Their faith was dimmed by the beatings the world had inflicted. Their hearts were calloused from the blows of life. But somehow they all knew they needed to be the cave where Jesus was born. They needed to hold this baby and let babies do what babies do. Each day became a journey for me. Each story was inspired as I walked five miles each morning before going inside the rec center to shower and then go off to try to find a job. Each story became very real to me-in the way characters become real to writers- and I was amazed sometimes at how the stories twisted and turned and finally found themselves in front of the most precious Gift ever given.
These stories...and this book...were born from the heart of a very very broken daddy who had seen his whole life vaporize and who wondered if it was ever going to be the same again. Sometimes I still wonder that. I am still such a long long way from anything resembling the normalcy we once knew.
I wrote these stories during the worst Christmas Season my daughter and I ever knew. I had no money for a gift. If my friend Chris hadn't generously given me a rebuilt laptop he had worked on at his shop and was willing to let me pay him for it over time, I would have had nothing whatsoever to give my daughter.
I was crushed. I was nearly lifeless. I had nothing but these stories that seemed to pour out of me from a place that held so much pain of my own and so much embarrassment and humiliation over what my daughter was having to endure, not being able to stay with me on our weekends and knowing her daddy was living in his car. I could have left. I could have wandered into another state and found work and suddenly 5 years would go by and I would be too involved with that life to return to my first life. It happens all the time.
All I had that year were these stories and the love for my daughter that drove me to write them and polish them over the next 3 years until they became what you see now in final form.
These stories were my gift to her...from the deepest pain I've ever felt they brought me hope. Hope that one day we would look back on this difficult time we lived in and found something to share for generations.
It's the hope I have for everyone who reads it now.
Merry Christmas, Ragamuffins...

Friday, November 23, 2012

A word about my Christmas book "A Ragamuffin Christmas"

There is a certain "mystical" quality to this book. There has been since I first started writing it as a blog series in 2009. Most of the stories took me less than 10 minutes to write. They would come so fast that it sometimes felt like taking dictation more than it did composing a story.
The entire project was inspired...and I say that as solemnly and respectfully as I can. There are some amazing "stories behind the stories" on the pages.
Two Christmases ago, when I had self published the book and released it on a limited basis, someone told me it had a similar effect on him as when he read "The Shack".  Now, I have serious issues with the Theology of "The Shack" most folks do who have even a modicum of training in the Bible. But I understood what the guy meant.  As long as you read "The Shack" for what it was, it was a great book. It was special in a way that made you stop and realize that it was a once in a lifetime literary event. It's the folks who tried to develop a theology around the book that ran it off the rails. The underlying thing about "The Shack" was that, while you knew the events in the book could never couldn't help but wish they would.  Everyone who read the book wished, somewhere deep in their heart, that there was really a shack somewhere in some woods near their home. We all secretly wished we could escape for a mystical weekend with God in a nice little mountain cabin and hang out, and eat delicious food and get to know Him as we all deeply desire. We all wished it could just be us for a few days...just Him, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and me, and we could walk along the lake and hike the mountains and open up our souls and ask the burning questions that we all have inside of us. Questions that you can only ask when you are really comfortable with the person you are asking.
That was the magic of The Shack. It was horrifying what the main character endured to make the shack necessary. But the way God entered his life and brought healing...that was the real medicine the book offered. The author crossed the line quite a few times in the process but as I said before, if you were grounded, you could take the good and overlook the bad and be better for it.
The guy who told me that "A Ragamuffin Christmas" had the same feel, explained to me that it was this mystical feel that he compared to "The Shack".  Only my book is infinitely more Theologically sound. There aren't any doctrinal ideas that will make anyone cringe. No views of God that will cause you to run for your Bible and start emailing me scriptures to correct my post-Christian philosophy.
I make the case for salvation as clear as a bell by the end of the book.
But there is a quality to the book that is similar to "The Shack". The other day in discussing the book with a friend, it dawned on me what it is. Just like "The Shack", this book creates an event that you know immediately could never take place...but you wish with every page that it could.
It's obviously physically impossible for any of us to somehow become transcendent and return to that Holy night and see Jesus actually enter this world. To interact with Mary and Joseph and watch a parade of Ragamuffins as they come to meet the infant King of Kings. To hold Him ourselves and gaze in wonder at the very face of a form that makes us love Him more deeply. To smell the "baby-powder smell" of his skin, and to have our hearts implode as his tiny hand curls around our finger while he sleeps. ...and to understand the entire time..."This is God...and He has chosen to do this for come here like this, in this form and let me draw this close to Him."
That is the thing that every reader seems to take from "A Ragamuffin Christmas". That deep longing that this could really happen. That we could somehow really have this moment too. Sacred, silent, amazing. I don't present God in any form other than the forms he presents Himself in the Bible. Nothing in this book will make you scratch your head and wonder if you should be offended.
Instead, I think the book bridges the gap between who Jesus really is and what we have tried to make Him. Somehow we created a dichotomous Savior. Somehow in our lives, we developed a disconnect between the infant Savior of Bethlehem -sweet and peaceful and beautiful and approachable- and the Savior of Calvary, writhing in pain, abandoned by his Father, dying alone on the garbage pile of Jerusalem, with spit running down His face.
I think one of the great things the book does is reconnects those two. We are reminded throughout the book, in various scenes, that this beautiful baby is destined for a final showdown with death. And the realization makes both portrayals of Jesus more wondrous, more special, and more painful for those who love Him.
I think we all wish we could hold the baby. I think we all wish we could go back to the very opening scene in the Great Plan of Redemption, and experience the beginning, now that we've been touched by the end. Those of us who have made the journey up Calvary's hill, would have a very special view of Bethlehem's manger.
...if only we could really go there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

My Christmas Book is Available NOW!

Hey dad's...
Here is the book I wrote for my daughter while I was enduring homelessness a few years ago.
It's a great story and one I recommend sharing with your family.

A Ragamuffin Advent Journey

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Christmas Season is Upon Us...

Hello Dads...
It's very early in the morning here in Nashville as I write this.
I have been praying for you guys...the ones I know by name and the ones I do not. We are coming upon probably the hardest time for divorced dads (and for moms) of the whole year. The Holidays are tough, because even if we have a great relationship with our ex and even if we see our kids a good portion of the's not the Holiday we always pictured it being. I understand this all too well. I will only tell you that we all need to remember to keep the Holidays about what they are about...our children and the One Child around whom history revolves. Jesus
Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year and as that is the weekly air date for my radio show "Sometimes Daddies Cry" I am seriously considering going ahead with the show. I will be home in Philadelphia for Christmas, as I always am, I will have my daughter with me, and I certainly can find an hour that evening to go on the air. I was thinking of this yesterday and thought that maybe it would be a comforting voice on a tough night for someone. So as of right now it's still undecided but I am leaning that way.
I also want to let you know about my new book; "A Ragamuffin Christmas" which will be released this coming week by Liberty University Press. It is a fictional account of visitors to the Nativity on the night Jesus was born, and how they interact to the baby. It's my first fiction and a book I am very proud of. I will post the Amazon / Barnes and Noble links as soon as they are active. You can also purchase a signed copy directly from me. There will be a link for that as well in a few days.
I am seeking ways to make time to write here more often. I know many of you can't set aside an hour to listen to the show and this is an easier format as far as flexibility goes. I am really wanting to get to a point where I can afford the time to write at least 3-4 entries a week here. I am also revising the original book "Sometimes Daddies Cry...what a dad really feels about divorce." Hopefully for a Spring release.
I want to remind you guys that you have a special place in my heart. I really believe God brought me through my divorce and allowed that pain so that I could become a voice for men like me. I am not saying...nor would I ever say...that God caused my divorce. But God knew it was going to happen and He permitted it so that he could reshape me into a minister of His grace to dads like us. I hope He is pleased with the results thus far.
Be strong, dads...never give up on your precious children. When I was homeless, living in a car and broken and battered, my daughter took great comfort in knowing that I never gave up and just skulked out of town. I endured the shame and embarrassment and crushing humiliation of homelessness and the growing worry of not finding work and I stayed in her life as best I could. It brought her a little bit of comfort and security knowing that her daddy was still in the area. I know this life of ours is heartbreaking and friendless. But your kids see the effort you are putting out...or not putting out. And they will remember it and love you for it.
Remember the real reason we celebrate the upcoming season. Because God became a dad like us, with a child like ours, from whom He was separated...much like we are. While Jesus was here on earth, He was not in his rightful place in Heaven and I have wondered if His Father missed his presence. we do.
Remember that God endured this loneliness for you. Because of His love for you. Do not forget that in the midst of crushing pain there is healing hope.
Let's go into the Season of Advent and Christmas with expectation  hoping for a mystical moment when God shows Himself to us in a special and personal way.
And let's make a memorable and wonderful Christmas season for our kids.
Your Brother,