Stuck on the threshold. Blue tennis shoes part 3

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“Hold the screen door,” I told my twin brother.
“What is it?”
“A Nickel!”
I couldn’t pick it up. It was stuck on the wood.
“Your Uncle glued that nickel to the threshold when he was but a boy,” Grandma said. “It’ll take a miracle to get it off of there.”
I tried anyway.

In the house my Dad yelled at my Mom. He did that a lot.

It was the fall of my fifth grade year. We had moved to a farm outside the town where my parents grew up. The population sign said “360” but I think it was less than that.

“Get in the car!” my Dad screamed at my brother and me. He had my youngest sister in his arms. She was bawling loudly. I could smell her soiled diaper. Shaking, I looked at my brother and we both started for the car. Behind me I heard my other sister—five years old—call him by first name and yell, “NO!”

“I don’t want you any way.” He said, and slammed the screen door behind him so hard I was sure the nickel had come loose.

The car spun out and we went to the farm. We lived in my Great aunt’s two story farmhouse. There was a large front porch and a tire swing on the big tree in the front yard. Our Great Aunt had died of nose cancer. She had done too much tobacco snuff and her nose was completely eaten away by the cancer. My brother and I would gross out at the sight of her. She placed a big Band-Aid over the place where her nose should have been.

“How does she smell?” I would say.
And my brother would reply, “Bad as always!”
We would laugh till our sides ached.

But today I wasn’t in a laughing mood. Mom and Dad had fought before. At times he would beat her terribly. This time was different. Everything was wrong.

“Get outta my face. Go feed the chickens,” Dad yelled at me when we got back to the farmhouse.

Scared to say anything, I went out to the chicken house to feed the chickens. While in there, my mind raced. I thought of the time my brother had frightened a skunk in the hen house and had been sprayed. Or the mountain of chicken dung we shoveled out of that place and how accomplished we felt. There was a time we had to dig up rocks so Dad could plant potatoes. We pretended they were Gold.

But, what was I going to do now? I didn’t want to be with Dad. I wanted to be with Mom. So, I ran away from the chicken house, past the cattle into the dark woods. I crossed the creek, and stopped for a moment at a place where I could see the county road. I held my breath and ducked down when a car drove by. Was that Dad’s car? I wasn’t sure.

Eventually, I came over a hill to another farmhouse. I was hot, tired, and thirsty. I needed help.

“Are you run-away?” the man asked.
“No, Sir. I just need to get to town to my Aunt Marie’s house.” He knew the place.
“Well, if’n you’s a runaway, you just crossed the state line and you’re in big trouble.”
“No, sir. Just going to my aunt’s.”

He took me in his truck into town. I kept looking to see if Dad was following us. I spied two rifles in the back window. I made note of that—just in case.

I liked Aunt Marie’s place. Her husband was a short man—the town milkman. We called him “Uncle Pint”. They both were very kind to us. When we got to aunt Marie’s, the farmer didn’t say anything, just dropped me off. I excitedly ran around back as that door was never locked. Perhaps Mom was there.

I walked in, letting the screen door bang behind me. I felt safe and called out to see if anyone was home.

Just then, the front door opened and the room filled with light. I had a direct view. Standing there was my Dad.

On the way, back to the farm, I found out from my brother that during my run my mother had called the police. They told her that they couldn’t do anything as “He’s the father. He has rights.” They allowed her to pick up a few things and she and my sister went to Kansas City. They went to live with her sister.

The next few months I stayed with Dad, my brother, and my baby sister at the farmhouse. Dad would be gone much of the time. Sometimes he would not come home for several days. When he was home, I never knew when he would hit me or ignore me. Some days he would take us with him to the bar. We would sit out in the car and listen to Old-time Radio Mystery Theatre until the car battery would go down. One time he came out with his friends and gave my baby sister a cupful of whiskey. They laughed as they watched the little baby get drunk.

We started fifth grade. The school was so small that they combined fifth and sixth grades. There were only four boys in the class and two of them were my brother and I. But we didn’t get much schooling that year. To care for my sister, my dad made my brother stay home from school. Then the next day, I stayed home and cared for her. I listened to the radio and did what I could. We drank milk and tried to scramble eggs to eat. The school always made sure we had food to eat when we were there. It was then I grew to love peanut butter.

He enjoyed fishing, but would only take one of us at a time so the other could watch the baby. He couldn’t tell us a part and always took my brother. “You should be glad you didn’t go,” my brother said.

One day I was listening to the radio. I remember clearly that the song “Snoopy and the Red Baron” was playing when they stopped the song and I heard this, “We are in a tornado watch.” I had grown up in California. I didn’t know what to do. I went from room to room, carrying the baby. I looked out the windows all day ‘watching’ for tornados.

Eventually, the School made my dad hire a babysitter for the baby.

One night he brought a woman home.“Think we need a maid,” he said.

One of those nights, the woman had brought along her mentally challenged child. He wanted to play cards. So I went downstairs to get them and I saw Dad in bed with the new maid. They would always be gone in the morning and dad would say, “She didn’t work out.”

During that time, we tried to make everything better by living in a world of adventure. We would play in the wheat field, or the barns, whatever we could do to avoid the pain in our lives.

If we cleaned house, Dad would let us walk several miles to play with a friend. The friend’s mother was the babysitter. We would “coon hunt” or try to shoot frogs with a bow and arrows. We lost all
the arrows.

One day Mom snuck in a call. “I’m praying for a miracle to get you back.”

I felt like that glued nickel. Only, I was not stuck on the threshold of a back door. I felt like I was stuck on the Threshold of Hell.

Days passed. Bad days passed.

“Get out of bed.” My Dad yelled. “Get dressed and meet me at the car.”

He had been gone all night again. I put on a white T-shirt, my ‘farm jeans’, and a pair of blue Converse tennis shoes—no socks. He drove us to town, to Aunt Marie and Uncle Pint’s house.
Mom was there!

My sister had gotten sick at the babysitter’s overnight. She had a 106° temperature. When they couldn’t reach Dad, they got ahold of my aunt. They didn’t want to be involved.

“The baby’s gonna die,” she told her. ”It’s an ungodly fever!”
She gave the babysitter my mother’s phone number.

Mom rode a bus from Kansas City. They said that when she got there, they placed the baby limply in her arms. And then something miraculous happened. The fever broke. The baby survived.

Now, standing there, Dad cussed my mother out. I thought he was going to beat her up again.

“I just started a new job and I’m late.” He yelled. Then to my brother and me, “Go to school.” He quickly left, evidently expecting us to walk to the school. We always did whatever he commanded.

“Let’s take you to school,” my Mother said.
My heart sunk. What was she doing?

We went to school and Mom had us pick up our things. She talked to the office and we left. We then got on a bus and went to Kansas City to live with her.

Many people talk of God healing them of great illness and pain. The miracle here was not the healing but the fever itself. It wasn’t an ungodly illness. It was a Godly illness that God sent my sister to get us out of that terrible situation.

Years later, they bulldozed the farmhouse that we used to live in. My Dad had abandoned it and it had been taken over by wild dogs. My Aunt Marie’s house is no longer there either. But Grandma’s house is still there. I can’t help but wonder if that nickel is still there on the threshold. It would take a miracle to remove it.

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Blue Tennis Shoes –Part two

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I have reviewed what I wrote as “part two” and it skips to where I have been in the last year. It is revealing and… more than I might be ready for. I will work up to it. Not wanting this to be a memoir, I thought that I would in this post connect some of the dots that led me to where I am today…

Mexico changed me. Aware of God’s loving kindness to me, my attitude was transformed. I no longer had plans to kill myself. That is probably why to this day I have never owned a gun.

I got more involved in church, even had a girlfriend—briefly. And, I didn’t even resent the bully-target of taking my Bible to school. A Mormon friend saw my stance and decided to bring his books to school as well. He had more to carry than I did.

In gym class the bullying continued. The worst of the gang was a pastor’s son of all things. When we started a class in gymnastics I knew I would never be able to climb the rope or do an iron cross on the rings, but I could do a backflip.

One day, I jumped hard on the trampoline, flipped high and landed goofywompus. The angle sent me shooting out into space. I knew it would leave a mark when I splatted on the gymfloor. But to my surprise, a big guy was standing there and he caught me like I was a baby in his arms. I began to sit next to him in choir. For some reason the bullies left me alone. I don’t know if Phil Vineyard ever knew I used his friendship as protection. He has been there when I needed someone most.

During a church youth canoe trip, I still wore my blue tennis shoes. Things were going well for me. As I was running to my tent, the shoes fell off. (they were so worn.) It would be many years before I owned another pair.

I went with the Youth group on another Mission’s trip. This time to Peru. It was an amazing experience. One day, several of us got left behind. Waiting for the group to come back and pick us up, I sat with the Missionary and Pastors as they told funny stories of their ministry. Then Dr. Bill Dowell from Baptist Temple in Springfield, Mo. shared his heart for ministry. He gave me much to consider. I was amazed at his courage and boldness.

Later on the Peru trip, we visited an old Monastery. A flock of sheep driven by a young boy passed us. A little lamb straggled behind. I picked it up and turned. Someone took my picture.

The next summer, the Youth Pastor asked if I and another young man wanted to drive with him to Lynchburg, Virginia, to a Youth Pastor’s Convention. I agreed, thinking it would be a blast. For several days, I sat and listened to messages aimed at Youth Pastors and heard them share their burdens. When they cried, so did I. That burden was somehow passed on to me as if Elijah himself had given me a mantle.

The last year of High School I had a difficult time walking the halls. I kept looking at the other kids wondering if they had had such pain as I had experienced in my life.

I gave up my goal of being an artist and applied to Baptist Bible College before the year was out, not knowing what waited there for me.

To be continued…

Blue Tennis shoes

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Writing the second book in my series The Long-aimed Blow, coauthored with my twin brother, is harder than I thought it would be. The first book talks about trauma. Book two is how the characters responded and deal with the trauma. It has brought back many memories and has thrown me into a deep depression. Let me explain. No, let me summarize….

As an identical twin, it is always difficult to get individual attention.

One day as a child, I was sick—and my brother wasn’t. He went on to school and I got to stay home. Mom brought me soup and put a cool rag on my forehead. I felt loved. It was not long before I had learned to fake being sick and would be sent home from school for more individual attention.

One day, waiting in the nurse’s office for mom to pick me up, I overheard the principal tell my mother, “He’s not really sick. We know that. But what can we do? It is such a shame, he has so much potential. If only he’d just stay in school.” I felt so ashamed. I thought that was the last day I would equate sickness with love.

I looked for the attention in other ways. I found that I could get praise for drawing and art and was kinda good at it. (so was my brother) I could sing and wanted the solo in the Christmas program, but some girl got the part. I failed at a spelling bee when I couldn’t spell the word “dirt.”

Much of the trauma from my fifth grade is seen in the Princes of Albion. I won’t take the time to tell that story now. I walked away with only the clothes on my back and a pair of blue Converse tennis shoes.

I was never good enough. Never as good as the other guys. Never strong enough. I once cried because I had little arms. In sixth grade, the other boys knocked me down on the playground, took my shoes off and my white socks, then lifted me up and paraded me around the school yard waving my socks like flags.

I intently watched the other boys and saw that they got attention from girls by saying something funny. I had been using my sense of humor to escape bad feelings for a long time and I started being a wise guy/clown in class. People laughed when I told a joke or a good pun. But the laughter never felt like love.

In high school they dumped my blue tennis shoes in the boys’ toilet, put a jock strap over my head, and a punctured can of Right Guard down my gym shorts. At the church youth group, I nominated myself for the Spiritual Council. I got one vote—mine. (They read the results out loud). I did art for the youth department and tried my best. I was in the ninth grade play… but forgot my lines.

But, I didn’t feel loved. I would look at myself in the mirror at home and tell myself how much I hated who I was—until I blacked out. My brother had a girlfriend, but I was too shy. No one loved me. Oh, mom did. But she was mom. I began to seek ways to commit suicide.

That summer the youth group was going to Old Mexico for a missionary trip. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay home and die. But my brother was going, so I reluctantly went. I remember stepping on the bus. I looked down at my worn out tennis shoes and said, “God, I’m so tired.” That trip we built a building from the foundation to the finished roof. It was hard work. We handed out Bibles in the afternoon. In the evenings we would hold meetings. I was asked to give my testimony. I made one up.

I met an old Mexican who spoke a little English. He asked my name and I told him.  He called me “Jaunisito.” I asked what that meant and he said, “Little Jon with love.” I gave a scoffing laugh and gave him a Bible.

By Thursday of that week I was exhausted. That evening–very late–the Youth Pastor gave a Mission’s message on God’s love for all mankind. I heard him say, “God loves you.” And I broke down. I did not believe him. He was very wrong. I walked to the back and fell to my knees and sobbed.

Then, in my despair, I somehow felt God’s arms enfold me and He whispered in my ear, “It is true. I do love you, Jon.”

…to be continued…

I am able

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When Jesus asked his two disciples if they were ready to drink form the cup he drank from and to be baptized with the baptism he would be baptized with, they replied, “We are able.”

When I was in Junior High I was bullied by a group of boys so much so that I would have to race home to keep from being beat up. They called me names, and threatened me daily. Then one summer one of them confronted me while I was mowing a neighbor’s yard. He wanted to fight. I said, “No. Christians don’t fight.” He replied with a crass comment about Christ and before I could think. I had pushed him down and sat on top of him—my knees on his arms. I raised my fist and told him to leave me alone.

At that moment I was grabbed under the arms and hoisted to the fence. With my shirt bunched in the young man’s grasp and his fist held high, I gasped. It was the boy’s older brother—a Golden Glove winning boxer. He glared at me and yelled, “Say you are a wimp, and I’ll leave you alone!”

 I knew he would pound me to a pulp. It was gonna hurt really bad. So I ducked my head and whimpered, “I’m a wimp.” He made me say it again before he let me go. He picked up his little brother and they left me standing alone in my shame against the fence.

I have regretted it ever since. Whenever I shrink from a hard task, neglect doing things I know are important, or take the easy road to the battle, I am reminded of this one event.

Many times I answer the call to duty with the words, “I cannot” in my mind.

When it comes to writing, I still struggle with this. I am not good enough. In the movie “In the Heart of the Sea” Herman Melville tells a man, “I am not Nathaniel Hawthorne.” And I say, “I am not Herman Melville.” Someone may one day say, “I’m not as good as Jon Hopkins.” It is easy to discount reader’s praise for my work. But I just write and try my best to do it well.

In every life there are experiences of darkness. When we are put up against the fence-edge of dread the Master asks, “Are you able to follow me through this trial, this sacrifice, this mystery of pain?” We must remember that the greatest blessings of grace lie beyond this experience. He leads me. I am not able. I wimp out. But I follow the One who is able. Anyone can do the possible. He can do the impossible.

Today I will say to the raised fist, “Bring it.” And trust in God to lead the way.

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Writing in the Dark!

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Yesterday, I listened to an old Don Francisco song, “Balaam.” The lyrics include the line: “So when the Lord starts usin’ you don’t you pay it any mind. He ‘could have used the dog next door if He’d been so inclined.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbTAaBWmqsM

This year marks my forty-second year serving in various ministries always involving teens. I have been a Psychological Youth counselor, Youth minister, and school teacher. Now I call myself an “author.” I am surprised God has used me at all.

Last year, I made a spiritual goal to use my writing AS ministry. As part of that I gave a speech to a monthly meeting of the Heart of America Christians Writers Network. (HACWN) My topic? “Writing in the Dark.”

I shared that all of my published works came from deeply dark times in my life. I encouraged the attendees to also embrace the darkness—find God there—and share that with others.

I opened my heart and bled profusely before the crowded room. I talked about the time I forgave my alcoholic father, where the idea for my novel came from, how my wife died, and other tragedies that have been turned into stories in print. Only God knows how those things were used to comfort or encourage others in their dark times.

Then, I was asked to repeat the speech at HACWN’s yearly writer’s conference. And again at the American Christian Fiction Writer’s monthly writer’s meeting in Kansas City. I gave it my all hoping that it would affect writer’s lives for God. I felt like Balaam’s—uh—dog.

Surprisingly, I am privileged to repeat the talk at this year’s HACWN conference. Apparently they like to watch me bleed.

Unfortunately, we experience darkness in our own lives, in the lives of family, and friends and wonder how we even survive.  Each unexpected turn of events has a profound effect on our writing lives and our faith. We have asked the same question, “Where is God in the dark?”

Yet, as writers, we somewhere find the courage to pick up a pen or our computer and write stories of conflict, loss, and love with a hope of shedding God’s light in a dark world. It is in the storms, hardships, trials, and losses that we find our stories and tell others where God is.

Come hear a message of testimony, encouragement, and writing tips for “Writing in the Dark” from someone who uses his pen as a flashlight in the darkness. Information and registration is found on their website for the HACWN 2016 Conference. Embrace the Call October 20-22, 2016  http://www.hacwn.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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