Book Excerpts

Chapter 1

Flawed Foundation

 

Over the next fifteen years, I would experience my mother’s looks of disgust tens of thousands of times—poisonous, soul-dissolving facial expressions that would add toxicity to her physical, mental, emotional, and religious abuse, and shape every aspect of my personality for the next several decades.

Now before going any further, I want to make it very clear that I have long since forgiven my mother—and others I discuss in the book whose behavior negatively impacted my and Debra’s lives. I understand as well as anyone that to be who and what she was to me, she obviously had endured a measure of abuse herself at some point in her childhood.

There’s a scene in the movie The Shack where the character Wisdom allows the character Mac—who wants to punish the man who murdered his daughter—to be the judge of the world. Wisdom asks Mac if his daughter’s murderer should be punished, to which he replies, “Yes!” And then Wisdom asks him, “And what about his abuser and the one before him and so on?” Then Wisdom continues, “Doesn’t the seed of evil and violence go all the way back to Adam?” So, I understand forgiveness, but restoration, on the other hand, is something that requires additional effort from both parties.

#

Even as an unusually—oddly—underdeveloped four-year-old, I remember constantly watching Mom—reading her facial expressions and demeanor, and paying close attention to how she responded to my every word and action—in order to gauge her demeanor, determine what was right and what was wrong—at the time—or if I was going to “get it” again. But even then, it was a hit-or-miss effort and eventually, I just tried to stay away from her—as much I could, that is.

The skill I would develop from reading Mom’s facial expressions to protect myself from her would later be of immeasurable value to the abused wolves here at Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary—and a key component in their healing!

#

Early on, Daddy was fairly engaged with us kids—despite working seven days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, every single day of the year. But over the course of my childhood, I would watch him gradually retreat into a world of confusion, self-doubt, and despair, to the degree that he would often go days without saying a word.

#

Daddy, who was working at the golf course all day, every day, saw the polar opposite manner in which Mom treated me versus how she treated my brother, and I think he instinctively knew that it had to be worse for me when he wasn’t around. So he began taking me with him to the golf course for a few hours during the day.

While there, Daddy would attempt to soothe my sorrows by letting me eat crackers and candy and buying me a few things here and there. Unfortunately—even at the very young age of four or five—I was so screwed up that I didn’t really appreciate his efforts for what they were and gradually learned to manipulate him to get what I wanted. I also became a master at rationalizing my behavior to avoid punishment and gain his sympathy when he’d call me out for something I had done.

I had such a deficit inside of me from the previous years of seeing my brother treated like royalty and get the things he wanted and needed, that all I thought about was catching up and getting what I wanted and thought I needed.

Unfortunately, I would refine this manipulative behavior over the course of my childhood and maintain portions of it well into my mid-twenties. Over the course of the next few years, my behavior in this respect would gradually progress to the point where I had all but become the person my mother always said I was.

After a few more trips to the golf course, I noticed that the men who were getting ready to play golf in the mornings would drink a lot of coffee beforehand and then laugh loudly while they were talking. It always looked like they were having fun and really enjoying themselves. So one morning after they left to play, I slipped over to the coffee pot, poured myself a cup and put a lot of sugar in it. Then after a few sips, I remember feeling like I was superman—it was a feeling I had never before experienced, both mentally and physically.

This was my first experience with a mood-altering substance and a powerful enlightenment regarding things that could make me feel good about myself—instantly!

#

From my earliest memory, Mom referred to me as “stinker,” “dummy,” “pig,” “nasty,” and many other names and labels that destroy a child’s self-image. But as I got older, the names changed to “Hitler,” “the devil,” “demon,” “Judas,” “hellion,” “the prodigal son,” “Cain,” and numerous others, while also talking in graphic detail about Hell, hellfire, the judgment, damnation, burning forever, and other forms of eternal punishment. But the worst by far was her telling me about having to have my head cut off to go to Heaven.

When a young child continuously hears that if he doesn’t change—something he has never been able to do anyway—he’ll be “left behind” with the Antichrist and have to have his head cut off to go to Heaven, it mars his soul, disfigures his self-image, and warps his perception of God!

However, the name “nasty” seems to be the one that caused the deepest wound and was by far the most destructive to my self-image. It also had the most conscious negative effect on me socially—probably because that particular word so flawlessly matched her facial expressions when she’d say it, thus causing its destructive power to penetrate deeper than the others.

In addition, during this time she was constantly shaming me in public about the way I talked and my inability to pronounce certain words, often adding, “I don’t know where he came from; he’s obviously not mine!” Because of how Mom treated me in public—and portrayed me to her friends—I honestly don’t recall ever feeling totally comfortable around people.

But I was always fascinated with animals, and I enjoyed watching an old show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild  Kingdom, hosted by Marlin Perkins.

#

In hindsight, I realize that I was so heavily preoccupied with how I was perceived by my classmates and teachers that I was incapable of mentally focusing on learning anything, or even placing any value in it, for that matter. Being liked and accepted by others was the only thing I valued—that was the deficit I needed filled before anything else would work.

Children who grow up with an abundance of love and are watered with a continuous flow of nurture and affirmation rarely even consider how they’re perceived by others and they’re usually good students and over-achievers in their early lives. Conversely, children who grow up without love, nurture, and affirmation have less mental and emotional energy to allocate toward learning because they’re preoccupied with thoughts of being loved and affirmed—and what could possibly be wrong with them!

#

A few weeks later, we were coming back from the beach one night where we all had gone out to dinner. I had this incredibly ugly, faded out, lime-green, plastic pistol that I took everywhere with me. I was holding it out the window and the wind was bending it because we were going pretty fast. Then suddenly, it slipped out of my hand and was gone—Boom! I immediately screamed and asked if we could please go back and get it. Right away, Daddy began slowing down to turn around, but Mom abruptly said, “No, too bad! You shouldn’t have been holding it out the window!” I remember Daddy just shaking his head and clearly being upset about it, but at Mom’s instruction, he just continued driving and my “hideous-looking” little companion was gone.

While this may seem like an incredibly minor incident, it’s possibly the one I remember most vividly, and for whatever reason, it was one of the more painful of my childhood memories—it was my first encounter with the loss of something I valued.

One day here recently, I was watching the TBN series Restoring the Shack, and William Paul Young was describing some of the characteristics of an “orphaned spirit”—something that’s common in children who grow up feeling rejected by their parents. One of the things he mentioned was that children who are carrying an orphaned spirit can feel as if nothing they have is ever really theirs.

I used to frequently wonder why Daddy didn’t overrule Mom and turn around to get my pistol, or why he never said much when she would do these things—not anymore!

As previously mentioned, everything in our lives was about God and the devil, Heaven and Hell, good versus bad, right versus wrong, and so on. Mom’s opinions on all of these issues—combined with her relentless browbeating of Daddy with them—had begun to undermine his confidence in himself and slowly dissolve the confident, charismatic, and successful person he was before they met. Looking back, I can now clearly see that at that time in her life, Mom’s power to destroy someone from the inside was not limited to the immature mind of a child.

This well-educated, accomplished man—who had excelled in quite literally everything he had done—simply did not have the mental, emotional, and spiritual integrity to withstand Mom’s debilitating, condemning, fire and brimstone brand of religion—he had no defense for it!

Today, I firmly believe this to be the reason Daddy was unable to bring himself to ever really step in on my behalf and put a stop to what he saw happening. Mom was a master at seeing someone’s religious vulnerabilities and putting the type of fear in them that made them question everything about themselves—everything!

Early on, Daddy was fairly engaged with us kids—despite working seven days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, every single day of the year. But over the course of my childhood, I would watch him gradually retreat into a world of confusion, self-doubt, and despair, to the degree that he would often go days without saying a word.

#

Over the course of the game, I listened to Mom talk about my brother as if he were a prince and praise him for just about everything under the sun: his looks, his smarts, his athleticism, everything—you name it, she covered it. By the time I was five and about to start first grade, it was crystal clear to me that my value was not even remotely comparable to his.

I didn’t understand why I was treated so differently than he was—constantly being praised for everything he did—when there were many things I was pretty good at doing myself—some of which I was able to do even better than he could.

But Mom continued to either belittle me or completely dismiss my strengths and my accomplishments, choosing to highlight my faults and shame me in front of her friends and mine, especially about the way I looked and spoke. Adding to my shame was that she always made it a point to conclude her public belittlement of me by highlighting my brother’s strengths and accomplishments. Today, however, I realize that the behaviors and characteristics of mine that so repulsed her were those which reminded her of herself.

I understand this today because I tend to struggle with negative feelings toward people whose unattractive behaviors are those I either used to display and have overcome, those I’ve overcome but to my embarrassment still pop up at the worst of times, or those I continue to struggle with and wonder if I’ll ever have victory over.

#

Mom had begun telling me about something “she thought” Daddy had done; something a child should never have to hear about one of their parents. I never gave mom’s accusations any weight and often wondered if it was just a product of her jealousy—or possibly a strategy designed to take the focus off her and what she knew I was hearing at school about her and the preacher and divert our suspicions onto Daddy. Either way, her relentless attacks on Daddy slowly tore away at him. Over the next couple of years, his light seemed to get dimmer and dimmer, before completely dying out.

The dissolving of one’s identity and the decline in self-confidence that accompanies it—their ideas, their sense of right and wrong, their self-worth, and sense of value to others—is a horrible thing for someone to go through. From the time I was ten years old, what I remember most about Daddy is that he always seemed sad—as if he felt everyone was looking at him like he was a criminal. I think Daddy knew that Mom constantly told me how bad of a man he was and that he, too, was probably going to hell, and his knowledge of that completely crushed his confidence in being a father. While I loved Daddy very much, looking back, I can see that the strongest emotion I had toward him was sorrow—I felt so sorry for Daddy.

#

By this time, we had already gone to several churches, and each time we “moved on,” we’d end up in a smaller one with odd, even more awkward people whose presence alone made me uncomfortable. I was desperately trying to hold onto some sense of value and self-worth, yet I was constantly being told how bad I was by the pastor, the church folk, and, of course, Mom.

Each Sunday—after the verbal beating from the pulpit—we’d sing what seemed like a hundred verses of “Just as I Am,” to prompt us to go to the altar, ask forgiveness for our sins, and rededicate our lives to the Lord. But having been browbeaten from the pulpit for who and what I was over the previous hour—a condemning the condescending looks from various people in our small, awkward congregation made even more alienating —“just as I was” just wasn’t good enough. It literally made no sense to me! In fact, it was actually a massive contradiction in terms—being told how bad I was over the course of the sermon and that I needed to either change or burn, versus coming “just as I was”—like the song we sang afterward said! It was extremely confusing to say the least. Also, my internal programming dictated that being perfect—flawlessly sinless—came first.

Looking back, it’s astonishing that, in addition to “Amazing Grace,”—which we also must have sung a thousand times over this “decade and a half” period of condemnation—I never really heard the words I was singing in either song. If I had—and had been able to really take them in—I don’t think my perception of God would have been that of an angry judge and punisher.

I must have rededicated my life to the Lord hundreds of times over the course of my childhood, but rather than to God—like I thought I was doing—it was always to a life of more self-effort than that which I’d put forth in my previous attempt, and it would always—inevitably—end in failure. With each failed attempt to behave with the perfection I learned was required in order to receive love and affirmation from Mom, God, or anyone else, for that matter, I would spiral a little further downward into despair and hopelessness and only reaffirm my complete worthlessness.

As a young child, I learned that there was nothing really good in me anyway—only bad—and each time I went around this familiar merry-go-round, I just reaffirmed it. The only image of God I knew—or could have possibly developed in that condemning environment—was that of an angry one who couldn’t wait to punish me for my badness. That image of God was deeply engrained in my soul. Since there was little to no value in anything I did, I felt there was no value in me. Mom’s response to my presence alone was disgust, and on a good day, it was nonexistent—as if I weren’t even there. As a result of my first decade of “training,” I increasingly saw others as being either far superior to me, or far inferior—regardless of their age or their status.

Chapter 2

Futility Galore—The Curse

 

It was a cool night on October 25th, 1978, in the post-Vietnam Era, as the bus with about fifty others like me pulled into the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Paris Island, South Carolina. When the bus came to a stop, the drill instructor stuck his gnarly-looking head in the front door, glared at us—with the most startling, psychotic look I’d ever seen—and after a few brief instructions said, “Get off the bus!” I instantly realized that the “tough guys” I looked up to in our small po-dunk town couldn’t even spell tough!

This was one of the longest nights of my life, and the way I looked the next morning was possibly the scariest part of it all. I now had a near cadaver-pale bald head, and my eyes looked twice the size they were the day before—the ugly kid had returned!

As previously mentioned, I enlisted in the Marine Corps so I could escape the self-image Mom had created in me and prove to everyone how “big of a man” I really was. But with what I saw in the mirror after getting my head buzzed, I had my work cut out for me.

#

Surprisingly, Mom showed up at the graduation ceremony along with my brother. But when he pointed out the rank insignia on my sleeve indicating that, unlike him, I had been promoted from Private to Private First Class, she actually frowned, shook her head, and rolled her eyes, completely dismissing my accomplishment and displaying the same familiar reaction of disgust I’d come to know so well. At the time, it really didn’t even register that much, as by then, her reactions of disapproval were not just the norm, they were expected.

Ironically, disapproval from Mom was no longer my problem; rather, my problem was me—I had become my own disapprover. When I left our abusive home, I brought with me the same condemning spirit Mom had hammered me with over the previous seventeen years; only now, I was hammering myself— my new abuser was me. Once she was no longer around, it was only a short period of time before I realized just how much I hated every aspect of myself and began to self-condemn.

The self-image Mom had created in me was the only one I knew, and my inner voice was now the only voice speaking words of disapproval, hate, and condemnation into my life—the very same ones I had learned from her.

#

Unable to perform my job with two steel plates and eleven screws holding my crushed forearm together, I was ostracized and constantly belittled by my superiors—who routinely referred to me as a malingerer and a sh*t-bird who wasn’t fit to be in the military. With my new label—which was really no different than what I had grown up with—combined with the stress of being confined in a small room all day, every day, I developed a fondness for pain killers, alcohol, and other drugs—and a nasty, insubordinate attitude toward my superiors. Making matters worse, about a year before my enlistment was over, I was informed that Daddy’s cancer had returned, only this time, it was terminal—he was given only six months to live.

At that point, I applied for a Humanitarian Discharge—a type of discharge created specifically for these types of family situations—and usually granted during peace time. But nothing was happening, Daddy was getting closer and closer to his death, and my attitude was rapidly worsening. Considering the possibility that he may die before the paperwork was done, I decided to go home for the weekend to see him. But somehow—in my frazzled, self-absorbed state of mind—I ended up staying at the beach with my friends all weekend partying, and only dropped in on Daddy for a few minutes on my way back to North Carolina.

I remember patting Daddy on his right shoulder with my left hand and saying, “Hang in there, Daddy,” before getting in the car with my friends, driving away from the small, one-room rat-hole in which this WWII Veteran and PGA Golf Professional with a Master’s Degree was left to die, and then lighting up a joint and heading back to Camp Lejeune. To this day, I am haunted by this!

Upon returning, I would ask my commanding officer each day if there had been a decision on my Humanitarian Discharge, and not only would he say no, but he wouldn’t even make a phone call to check and see why the process was taking three times as long as it normally takes. After a few more months of this futile routine, I realized that nothing was going to happen and that it was highly likely that they had never even submitted my paperwork. So I went AWOL.

I stayed off base with some friends over the weekend and then caught a Greyhound bus home the first of the week. At a stop-over where we changed buses, I called to tell Mom that I was on my way home, and I’ll never forget her response.

When she answered the phone, I said, “Mom, I’m at the bus station in Wilmington and on my way home; I should be there by 7:00 a.m. or so.” Mom said, “Well, I hope you brought some clothes with you because your daddy is dead; his funeral is at noon!” I would later learn that in his last hours, he was continually asking for me—another memory that haunts me to this day…if only I had left sooner.

Sadly, the very last words I said to my father, just a couple of months earlier were, “Hang in there, Daddy,” as if he and I were just co-workers carrying a heavy piece of furniture and only had a little further to go before we could put it down.

#

I was getting increasingly frustrated with our situation, although much of my frustration was due to fatigue because the idiotic work schedule I had adopted was slowly killing me. I was working constantly, getting very little sleep, and becoming psychotically exhausted. I was also getting bitter because of our ongoing financial struggles, considering that it appeared—on paper—that we should be doing fine. Making matters worse—for all of us—I had no idea how to be a husband or a father, other than to make sure that we all went to church and adhered to the law, rules, and punishment garbage I grew up with. There was no natural flow or interaction between personalities in our little family, and no structure—only hit-and-miss interaction that caused confusion and unnecessary tension. While I honestly tried to be a good husband and father, the truth is that I was astonishingly clueless in both areas and therefore awful—like someone trying to play football with golf clubs.

Then one Saturday while working overtime, a coworker saw how tired I was, asked if I wanted a boost, and offered me some cocaine. Completely exhausted—and therefore, off my moral game—and knowing full well that cocaine would give me a much-needed boost, I accepted. Now chemically energized, I “zoomed” through my work the rest of that day and into the night. Then at 10 p.m. when we finished, I followed my coworker to his dealer’s house to buy some coke for myself. This began a two-week coke binge that would blow through two thousand dollars and completely freak out my wife.

After coming clean about what I had done, my wife reluctantly forgave me, and I resumed my overtime work schedule, only now, my guilt and shame drove me to work even more hours. After all, it was my reckless decision and behavior that had put us an additional two thousand dollars in debt—and I had to fix it.

#

I was now digging drain fields—by hand—for a septic tank company for about thirty to fifty dollars a day. It was incredibly exhausting work digging huge holes in the ground, all day in the heat and humidity, and I drank every day after work. I remember sitting in the back yard at Mom’s house after work one day, drinking beer and not caring that there were literally dozens of mosquitoes all over my arms, legs, and face. I was so full of self-hatred and depression that I just let them continue to bite me—knowing that I deserved much worse.

Every now and then, we’d finish a job early, and the boss would buy some beer for us to drink as we rode home in the bed of his messy old truck—like migrant farm workers. What’s astonishing is that I was only twenty-five years old, and these drunken rides home had become what I considered to be “the good times”—that’s how much my life and my mentality had declined.

#

My attorney knew Mom was lying, my probation officer—who today is an attorney himself and a personal friend—knew she was lying, and everyone else in the courtroom knew she was lying. I also believe that the judge knew she was lying as well. But having made a previous ruling that cost someone his life, he wasn’t about to take the chance.

I vividly remember exactly how I felt about what Mom had done that day in the courtroom, but to this day, I still can’t describe it.

Chapter 3

Derailed

 

Within a couple of months, I was transferred to another prison and put on a work detail. My job was picking up trash on the interstate and various county roads under armed guard—the modern-day “chain-gang.” Each morning after breakfast, I, and a dozen other “prisoners”—dressed in stiff, scratchy prison uniforms—were each handed a paper bag containing a piece of fruit and either a peanut butter and jelly or salami sandwich. With lunch in hand, we were loaded into a van and driven out to a highway somewhere to pick up trash for eight hours.

#

A few months later, I was transferred to another prison down south where I was placed in a work camp with prisoners who were using their construction skills to build new prison quarters. While there, I was able to refine my basic construction skills and learn a few additional ones as well. I did this for several months before being transferred to a work-release program in Jacksonville, Florida. Once there, I was allowed to seek employment in the city while staying in the work-release prison quarters at night.

A group of us were dropped off in downtown Jacksonville one morning, and I immediately slipped away by myself, as I didn’t want potential employers thinking they had more than one person seeking employment with them. I was hired by the first construction company I applied with and began working the very next day as a carpenter’s helper, making seven dollars per hour, building the new “Sky Way Express” through the center of downtown Jacksonville.

After a few months on the job, I was released from prison and dropped off at the Salvation Army in the middle of downtown Jacksonville, where I stayed for a couple of weeks. I didn’t have enough money saved to get an apartment and buy a bed and the normal essentials, too, but I wasn’t comfortable with the type of people that were coming and going at the Salvation Army either. So one day, I just hopped on the bus and rode around until I saw an area I felt comfortable with and had a bus stop close by—so I could catch the bus to and from work until I could afford to purchase a car. I found an apartment, paid the fees with money I had earned over the past couple of months, and promptly moved in.

This was the easiest move in my twenty-seven-year history. My belongings consisted of a garbage bag of work clothes and a large, plastic coffee-mug—all of which I was able to carry in one arm.

After the first night in my new home, the first thing on my list was a pillow, as sleeping on the floor is uncomfortable enough, but doing so without a pillow is brutal. However, even with no car, no TV, no furniture, and no essential household items, I was elated to be where I was, realizing that with my current income, my circumstances would gradually improve.

#

After a few months, somehow—despite my modest blue-collar income and my profoundly ugly car—I found myself dating quite a bit. Surprisingly, the girls I was dating were those who worked downtown in the business district—those with whom I’d exchange smiles and “hello’s” in the mornings—and who saw me as “the hot construction worker”—an image that was still the polar opposite of how I saw myself.

During this time, I was drinking on the weekends with my construction buddies, and doing so without it affecting my attitude, my job, or my focus on building a better life for myself. I was enjoying my life and it seemed as if I had become a “normal” person. But unfortunately, I soon found myself drinking regularly after work, and I began to feel guilty about it—especially when I drank too much. My life wasn’t exactly unraveling, but that familiar sense of fear and condemnation was slipping back in and slowly chipping away at the self-confidence I had developed over the previous few months—a self-confidence I had never experienced before this period in my life. So I quit drinking, started working out and jogging, resumed my AA meetings, and set out to live a healthy, sober life.

I was still dating, but not quite as much, as I had been saving money to buy a better car and couldn’t afford to do both. There was one woman, however, who didn’t work downtown, but drove by our work area every morning, smiling and waving at me each time. This had been going on for months and I was really hoping to meet her one day.

She was very pretty, and it appeared that she wanted to meet me as well—and saying that her elusiveness compounded my desire to meet her was an understatement. Then one day—finally—she stopped, rolled down her window, and handed me a Valentine’s Day card with a lipstick kiss on it—I was smitten. We spoke a week or so later and went out for dinner together—in her car of course!

While on our date, I learned that, like my father, she had a master’s in education, had just been awarded “teacher of the year,” and that her father was a retired Pentagon Colonel, while she learned that I was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who had just been released from prison—not exactly a match made in heaven.

#

A few weeks later, I received a call from Randy—my old carpenter buddy who had taken me under his wing when I was on work release from prison. He said that he was working for a company in Hawaii, that they had a carpenter position open, and that he could get me hired if I was interested. I told him that I was and began planning right away for the move. I informed my current boss what I was doing and gave him a full month’s notice.

But unfortunately, the night before I was supposed to fly out, I received a call from Randy informing me that the company had decided not to bring anyone else on at that time and that there was no longer a job opening.

Without hesitation, I said, “Randy, I’ve quit my job here, sold most of my belongings, and everything I own is packed up in one suitcase. I have no place to go, so if you’ll pick me up tomorrow at Honolulu International Airport, I’ll figure it out from there.” This was my first act of blind faith and it would set the stage for many future ones.

I arrived in Honolulu late the next day, and when I got off the plane and walked into the airport, Randy met me, shook my hand, and said, “Hey, big guy, you look good! By the way, they decided to go ahead and hire you anyway.”

In a twenty-four-hour period, the situation went from one that looked like I was going to be six thousand miles from home, essentially homeless and jobless, to working on a nuclear blast and containment facility in the middle of Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii, earning $28.35 per hour.

#

On the weekends, I would drive over to Waikiki beach and lie out in the sun to tan, in preparation for my upcoming bodybuilding contest. Now in Hawaii, the wind is always blowing, and, on this day, it was blowing a little harder than usual. Well, a petite Japanese-Hawaiian woman who was lying in the sun about twenty feet or so from me, working on a stack of papers, lost them in the wind and I quickly jumped up to help her retrieve them before they were blown down the beach. To make a long story short, we ended up dating for most of the time I was in Hawaii. Ironically, she was a prosecutor at the State Attorney’s office who dealt exclusively with DUI cases. Here we go again.

So within only a few short months, I was once again in a relationship with a woman who was well above my educational, professional, and social levels. Yet this petite Japanese-Hawaiian woman named Jan never once indicated in her words or her behavior that I wasn’t just fine exactly as I was. We only dated occasionally though, and neither of us felt it would be long-term—we mainly just enjoyed each other’s company. Jan did, however, fly over to Kona with me for my competition in The Big Island Bodybuilding Classic and she even videotaped the show for me.

#

Shortly after returning to Jacksonville, I started a Personal Fitness Training business. I’d been working hard to develop a clientele, in hopes to avoid having to go back into construction. At that time, I weighed about 270 pounds and had 20.5-inch arms, yet I was actually leaner than I was at 260 pounds. A few weeks later, I began training for the 1991 Mr. Jacksonville Bodybuilding Contest and started the initial phase of gradually chiseling away at my excess body fat, in order to preserve as much of my hard-earned muscle as possible.

In addition to the big AA meeting at The JABA Club, I started going to a smaller men’s group with a half-dozen or so others, led by my sponsor, Harry, a retired marine fighter pilot with about twenty years of sobriety. After the meeting, we’d all go out to a nearby restaurant for coffee and casual conversation unrelated to recovery. My life consisted of little more than bodybuilding and recovery, but I’d been wanting to meet someone and fall in love. Although I had dated several girls in Hawaii—in addition to Jan—none of the relationships were serious. It felt like there was something missing in my life. Then one night after the meeting, while we were all out having coffee, I abruptly stood up and said, “I’m going to meet someone. I’ll see you guys later!” then pushed my chair back under the table and walked out of the restaurant.

I found myself at a place called T-Birds, which is the last place I’d recommend going to meet someone to fall in love with and start a life together. It was a huge bar with hundreds of drinkers, but that’s where I went. I walked around the perimeter of the huge dance floor—which equated to about three hundred feet—turned around and walked back the other way. I was about to walk out but decided to just stand there for a few minutes and see if anyone interesting walked by. Well, this beautiful brunette with eyes like a cat walked by and I immediately reached out and touched her shoulder. When she turned around, I said, “Hey there, my name is John. If you’d like to meet for coffee sometime, just give me a call.”—or something stupid like that—while handing her one of my personal trainer business cards. She grabbed my card and wrote two phone numbers on it so I could call her. After we exchanged a good gaze into each other’s eyes and a couple of words—ones I’ll never remember—she and I both walked out of the bar. On the way out, I told her that I’d give her a call the following week.

Well, I thought about her the rest of that night and all the next day and decided to go ahead and call her the following night—less than twenty-four hours after getting her phone numbers the night before. When she answered the phone, I remember saying, “Hey, Debra, it’s John, the guy from T-Birds the other night. I thought it would sound cool to say that I’d call you next week, but I couldn’t wait; I guess I’m just not that cool, ha-ha!” She laughed, and we met for dinner the very next evening. That was twenty-eight years ago and we’re still together today.

#

I won the heavy-weight class of the 1994 Jacksonville Physique Body-building Championship, and then had to compete against the winners of the other four weight classes. After what seemed like an eternity—five full minutes—of posing against the other competitors, I was judged the Overall Winner of the 1994 Jacksonville Physique Bodybuilding Championship and Debra won the middle-weight class of the Miss Jacksonville Contest for the second consecutive year.

Having finally accomplished something I had aspired to for fifteen years—an accomplishment that involved a level of hard work few people can fathom, and a degree of self-discipline over an extended period of time to which very few are capable of adhering—my passion for the sport had vanished.

At this time, I had two clients that were heavily involved in real estate, one division of which was purchasing foreclosures, making the necessary repairs, and then selling them for profit. I had been training them for several months and we had become pretty good friends. I’d been wanting to get out of the gym scene and had been talking to them about my options. They knew about my construction background, and eventually sold me on the income potential. So after finishing the remaining commitments I had to my fitness clientele, I joined them.

Things seemed to go well early on, but after a few months, I realized that under the circumstances, there was essentially no way for my income to reach the level they indicated was possible. I was required to manage all the construction work—and do as much work as I could myself in order to boost my income—while they did the buying and selling and made the big money. I was just another gullible idiot out there helping them get rich.

Here I was, at Christmas time in 1995, having won The Heavyweight and Overall 1994 Jacksonville Physique Bodybuilding Championship a little more than a year earlier—an accomplishment that gave me a credible platform to do exceptionally well in the Health and Fitness Industry. Yet now, I was completely detached from the profession and had no idea what I was going to do. Realizing that I didn’t have the luxury of a couple of months to rebuild a fitness clientele, I decided to look for a higher paying construction job that would help immediately with the additional twelve-hundred-dollar monthly mortgage payment.

I was offered a job as an assistant superintendent by a construction company that specialized in building wastewater treatment plants. The job would require me to live in a small company-owned travel trailer over a hundred miles from home, Monday through Thursday, while Debra stayed alone all week in the new house. But we needed the money and I felt the $32,500 annual salary left me no choice. So I took the job.

I decided to get Debra a couple of dogs to keep her company while I was away during the weeks, and, of course, for protection. When I looked through the pet section of the newspaper, one ad in particular caught my eye—“Wolf Hybrid puppies for sale!”

Debra and I had always loved wolves and had talked about having one someday, even though we knew that we probably never would. But feeling so bad about the situation I had gotten us into, I wanted to do something that made her smile, while also giving her some companionship and a sense of protection during the week while I was gone. Of course, these were just mid content wolf hybrids—“wolfdogs”—which didn’t require a special license to own, so I called the number and then drove over to see the puppies. When Debra got home that evening, I had the puppies there waiting for her, and just as I expected, she was blown away.

Due to my nonstop work schedule, it had been a few months since I’d gone to the AA meetings, and the guilt I was feeling about having gotten Debra into a situation like this was crushing me—every minute of every day. The feeling of being away from her during the week was bad enough but spending the nights alone in a small tin box, twenty or so miles outside of Orlando—in the middle of Boogerville, USA—was brutal.

After only a couple of weeks there, I began drinking and things went downhill from there. I jumped in my truck one night after drinking, ran a red light, hit another car, and you guessed it, I got my third DUI, resulting in my license being revoked for ten years. The wreck also totaled my truck and I lost the new job, which landed me back home with Debra—unemployed and unable to drive.

There was a huge new fitness center that had just opened less than a mile from our new house. I knew that if I was able to work there, transportation wouldn’t be an issue. When I applied for a job at the fitness center, I immediately recognized an old bodybuilding buddy on the sales staff. After I left, he told the manager that he needed to hire me “ASAP” because I was the best trainer in Jacksonville. I was hired the following day, and for the second time in our marriage, I resumed my career in the health and fitness industry.

#

I had begun contemplating designing an in-depth golf-specific fitness program, and I’d discussed it frequently with the physical therapists. This was mostly because the fitness trainer profession was being flooded by “the kids” and I didn’t want to find myself being associated with this new breed of incompetent, inexperienced fitness trainers who knew little more than what they read in their study guides.

#

Of the seven Playfit® Project components, the first three were ready to go, as it was by design for the others to be implemented in the second and third years respectively. The first one was The Playfit® Performance Enhancement System book and its accompanying diagnostic software—the PPES©. Upon being reviewed by the Fitness Instructor Certification Organizations, the PPES© book became a continuing education course for golf fitness instructors and was given the highest number of continuing education credits of all previous golf fitness instructor courses. So the core component of The Playfit® Project—The PPES© for Golfers book—provided maximum credibility for the project’s entry into the golf market.

#

We had only been in our new home for a few months when I received a call from a relative who we’ll call Eve. She was sobbing uncontrollably, telling me that she couldn’t deal with her situation at home any longer, and wanted to come live with Debra and me. I told her that she could, and that Debra and I would even help her move down. But I stressed that it was very important for her to graduate from high school first and that she needed to stay put, be patient, and just do what she was told until then. Since she was a senior and her graduation was only a couple of months away, she said that she could do that. Unfortunately, shortly after our phone conversation, she gave up and moved out, started dating a “real winner,” and found herself immersed in a life of partying and drugs. We stayed in touch, however, and a year or so later, we flew her and her boyfriend down for a weekend to attend the Annual Florida-Georgia game with us.

When they arrived, Eve was frail and unhealthy looking and, while here, she stole Debra’s pain medication—something Debra desperately needed for her spinal fusion pain. After confronting her about it later over the phone, she promptly blamed her boyfriend, and we didn’t hear from her again for a year.

#

One night while reminiscing with Debra about the decade-long developmental process and how far we had come with it over the years—from Divinely inspired conception to completion—I was reminding her of the vision God gave me of the entire project several years before at the country club, and how it was designed to work, when I realized something miraculous in my spirit.

In the core component of the project alone—The PPES© for Golfers book—there were seven aspects of a golfer’s athleticism. But also, there were six golf-specific fitness components, with one nonphysical component (psychology)—which we referred to as “the 7th component”—totaling seven golf specific fitness components. And finally, there were five golf performance indexes, a primary golf performance rating, and an overall golf performance rating, totaling seven areas of measurement.

To say that discovering the project’s core component was comprised of the numbers 777—signifying divine perfection—boosted our faith is an understatement!

But then a few days later, I realized that the overall Playfit® Project also consisted of seven separate “project” components as well. To us, this was clear-cut confirmation of its perfection—just as it was—and that it was God who designed it—not me. With this revelation, we were extremely excited about the future of the project and felt that everything was finally coming together.

After nearly a decade of research, design, and development—the final six years of which I had worked numerous odd jobs to get us by while constructing the project and refining the business model and operations plan—it was about to come to life. Our hard work and faith had paid off, and it appeared that Debra and I were finally on our way.

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We were in the most critical stage of the project when I received a call at work from Eve’s aunt. Eve was strung out on crack cocaine and needed help.

When I hung up the phone, I immediately called Debra at work to tell her I was getting ready to make the six-hour drive to get Eve. I saved my work, closed my computer programs, turned my computer off, and left to go get Eve, never even considering the status of the project, my responsibilities to my employees and business partner, or to Debra. Looking back, I realize that I never even asked Debra if it would be okay with her. I just instinctively went.

When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was that Eve had obviously been using cocaine for quite some time—possibly months. This once beautiful girl now had matted hair, looked like a wasp, and smelled like a combination of diesel fuel and smoke. I spoke to her and the family for a few minutes about what I felt was necessary and they all agreed that she needed to come back to Florida with me. So we immediately began loading her belongings into my vehicle.

I will never forget Eve’s stepfather just flippantly and hurriedly throwing armfuls of her belongings into the back of my vehicle, with shoes and other items from each armful falling out onto the ground. By this time, it was dark outside and I picked up what I could see, but when we got home and I unloaded everything, I noticed that there were a couple of single shoes, meaning that the matching ones were probably still on the ground six hours away.

The next morning while Eve was still asleep, I began washing all of her clothes and trying to get things organized so we could make a plan. I wanted to send her to treatment but didn’t want to take the chance of her getting into a relationship there with another “recovering” drug addict—something that would have quickly landed her right back in the same boat she was in. But I knew she needed to get into recovery “ASAP,” so I began making calls to see what was available. Unfortunately, there was nothing available that Debra and I could afford, so I began taking her to my office with me, watching her like a hawk, and taking her outside for breaks when it appeared that she was struggling or getting anxious—which was several times a day.

Eve and I spoke often over the years, and regardless of how long we were away from each other, we always seemed to pick up where we left off. I remember her saying that I always explained things to her so clearly and that my analogies never failed to put everything back into perspective for her.

The next Sunday, Debra and I brought Eve to Celebration Church with us and she was instantly captivated. She accepted Christ and plugged right in, but she still needed to get into recovery, as the diseased thinking that supports addiction needs special attention. It rarely goes away on its own, regardless of the addict’s progress in their new Christian life. In fact, it’s almost always redirected, manifesting itself in other forms of addictive and obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as overeating, compulsive spending, and many others.

In other words, the diseased thinking of addiction does not automatically disappear with normal spiritual growth, rather, it continues to progress right alongside of it, just as diabetes, cancer, or an infection does if not treated. God doesn’t instantly remove the diseased thinking when someone accepts Christ as their Savior. Its removal takes time, effort—and most importantly, the capacity to be honest with oneself.

He gave us the Twelve-Step Recovery Program to help us dig out the garbage and “arrest” the diseased thinking, and He gave us the recovery meetings to help us gain insight into our issues and develop humility—a vital component in recovery.

What Debra and I wanted for Eve was not just for her to begin the process of resolving her issues and gain freedom from her addiction, but to learn some marketable skills and develop some self-confidence. Understanding addiction—and codependency—like we did, we wanted to see her financially independent and valuing that accomplishment “before” she got into another relationship. We knew that with the help of the Twelve-Step Recovery Program for alcoholics and drug addicts offered by our church, she could reach this important milestone—if she took it seriously and got honest with herself, that is.

If she could do this, not only would she avoid being dependent on a man to help her get by, but she’d be able recognize the “red-flag” behaviors in men that would cause problems in their relationship later on—insecurities, jealousies, and the controlling behaviors that grow out of them.

But another reason was because of something Debra and I had seen more times than we could count. When a young woman has an opportunity to work hard, accomplish her goals, and become self-sufficient, yet decides to bail out when she meets someone she feels will take her to “the promised land” a little quicker—and without the hard work and sacrifice needed to get there on her own—she’ll often take on a type of shame—a quitter’s shame—and begin trying to cover it with a snobbish, “I’m superior” facade, when her husband—not her—is the one who worked hard and became “accomplished.”

But when a young woman works hard, accomplishes her goals, and becomes self-sufficient, she earns a type of self-confidence—and self-respect—that makes her less likely to put up the facade of being “accomplished” or in a higher class of people—like Eve’s mother had done—despite having only a high school education and having never lived a day completely independent of either boyfriends, husbands, or her mother.

We had seen Eve’s mother display this nauseating facade for fifteen years, and Tammy—the legitimately  accomplished schoolteacher I dated prior to meeting Debra—took note of it in our time together as well. This was among the main reasons I wanted Eve to accomplish some goals on her own and become self-sufficient, as I knew what we were in store for if she didn’t.

But unfortunately, Eve never really plugged in to the program and embraced the recovery process, choosing to say she was involved, but with more of a “hit-and-miss” type of involvement. Consequently, her unaddressed issues continued to tag along with her spiritual growth, visibly surfacing when her pride was pricked, when she felt threatened, or when she didn’t receive the praise she felt others should be giving her for her perceived progress and accomplishments.

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With everything that was going on with the project—at its most critical time—and with me now having the added responsibility of Eve’s recovery—and ultimately her life—I began to wonder if we’d even be able to hold the first Playfit® Golf Performance Tournament as planned—which was vital to launching the overall Playfit® Project.

After nearly a decade of research, design, and development—during which time I worked several low-paying odd jobs just to keep it moving forward—I was starting to see the possibility of it all unraveling. But I was praying a lot and maintaining my faith, so at that point, I was still relatively positive.

One of the reasons I was so determined to make the project successful was because of Debra’s health issues. Her lower back had been fused a decade earlier and it was not doing well—she was in constant pain and it wasn’t getting any better. I desperately needed to get us in a financial situation that allowed her to quit work, so she didn’t have to be on her feet as much and could focus more on taking care of herself.

But now, I had the responsibility of Eve, who still wasn’t trustworthy and didn’t have transportation, and therefore, depended on either Debra or me to get from one place to another. We were spreading ourselves paper thin and the laser-like focus I had on the project—at its most critical phase—had all but switched over to getting Eve well, on her feet, and independent.

I had been paying some of my employees—who were supposed to be working on the project—to teach Eve computer skills and a few software programs—and paying her a small wage while learning them. The remaining capital we had to launch the project was rapidly dwindling, and it didn’t appear that Eve was putting forth more than an average effort at best—often far less. Also, she wasn’t taking any of our efforts very seriously either and had no idea what we were sacrificing to save her life. It became clear to us that we had a “twenty-two-year-old going on thirteen” in our home and business, who had no marketable skills, no idea how to be an adult, and was completely oblivious to what she was doing to our personal and professional lives. The Marine and 1960s brand of Football Coach in me awakened.

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Around this time, our last wolf hybrid—Sarah—was having some health issues and had to be euthanized. Debra and I took it pretty hard. With everything that we were dealing with, we made an emotional decision to buy two wolf puppies from a known breeder in Texas. A couple of weeks later, we made the two-day, roundtrip drive to pick up Sampson and Spirit and allowed Eve to remain at home by herself—with a few simple responsibilities.

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At this time, Sampson and Spirit were growing like weeds and they could not be left unattended. Wolves never stop chewing on things and if given the opportunity, they’ll destroy an entire house within a couple of hours. So for the next several weeks, I found myself loading a large playpen into the car each morning and taking them to the office with me.

Debra and I loved them like children, and they loved us like family. With brains that are 30% larger than those of dogs, wolves behave more like people than they do dogs. If they’re treated well—and are allowed to be who and what they are—they develop deep bonds with their human families. Their emotional capacities are nearly identical to ours and there was no doubt in their minds that they were loved. There was only one place Sampson and Spirit wanted to be—in our presence.

Eve was becoming increasingly frustrated with us for the amount of time and attention we were giving Sampson and Spirit—as opposed to her—like we had been, revealing the concealed jealousy issue she had previously divulged to Debra.

A few days later, she moved out of our home and in with some of her friends from church. But unfortunately, resuming our previous life was not possible, as Debra and I somehow had to deal with the reality that everything we’d worked so hard to accomplish—for nearly a decade—was gone, and once again, I had to find a way to make a living because my livelihood was also gone.

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Then one day I received a call from someone thinking about buying a wolf from the breeder in Texas from whom we’d purchased Samson and Spirit. He asked if he could come by and see our wolves before making his decision. I agreed, and we set a time for 9:00 a.m. a few days later. I was looking forward to it because Debra and I had put a lot of love and nurture into Sampson and Spirit and I wanted to tell him what we did with them—and what he should avoid doing—if he chose to buy one.

Just before 9:00 a.m. on the scheduled day, a few wildlife officers abruptly pulled up into our driveway—along with a couple of police officers, a sheriff’s deputy, and an FBI agent as well. They were there to take Sampson and Spirit because we didn’t have the proper license. But there was more.

As it turned out, there was a major drug bust in South Florida and the person they arrested had wolves that were purchased from the same breeder in Texas. The wildlife authorities interrogated them and got the breeder’s name and phone number. Then, one of the officers called the breeder—posing as a perspective buyer—and asked him if there was anyone in Florida who had one of his wolves so they could see it before buying one. The breeder gave him my name and number—meaning that the person who called me, posing as someone who just wanted to see our wolves before buying one, was really one of the wildlife officers.

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After demolishing our home and realizing that they had badly overshot the mark, it was time for the wildlife officers to take Sampson and Spirit—they were not going to go without a fight!

Fearing what these particular wildlife officers were capable of doing—the “hunter mentality, good old boy” types—I told them that I would put them in the cages. With my heart breaking —and at the same time beating ninety miles an hour—I picked up Sampson and Spirit, one at a time, and put them in the cages—one of which was filled with hay that still had feces from the previous animals they had transported mashed into it.

I will never forget their eyes and the way they looked at me as I closed the doors to their cages and watched the truck drive away, until it turned the corner and we were no longer in each other’s sight. Sampson and Spirit were gone.

I stood there for a few minutes in a state of shock, with a gaping hole in my heart and a crippling sense of fear for little Sampson and Spirit, not knowing what awaited them or what to do. The fear I felt for them was indescribable—it was as if I was on another planet!

As I walked back toward the front door of our house, I was terrified to go inside, as I knew that the feeling of their absence awaited me. Once inside, I sat down on the couch, alone, and embraced the crippling sense of fear—and the mind-numbing  feeling of despair—and somehow managed to say the words, “God please help us,” yet I never shed a tear.

After a decade of hard work and diligence, the rapidly moving freight train of promise our lives had become had been derailed, leaving broken bits and pieces of our hopes, our dreams, and our ambitions; our livelihoods, our relationships, our sense of self-worth, our “once romantic” relationship—and a massive chunk of our faith—scattered along the train track of life.

Within just a few short months of embracing the responsibility of helping Eve, life as we knew it had come to an end—everything we knew was gone!

Chapter 4

The Wilderness

 

After another stressful day at work, Debra arrived, and she instinctively knew something was wrong. She immediately asked, “Where are the puppies?” When I told her what had happened, she was stunned with panic and obviously heartbroken, knowing that up to this point in our precious puppies’ lives, they knew nothing but love. However, she was furious at the thought of having a dozen “good ole boy” wildlife officers rummaging through our house and her personal items, as if we were big-time drug dealers and they were going to “make the news” with their huge drug bust. But when she learned where Sampson and Spirit had been taken, she was overcome with fear, just as I was.

Sampson and Spirit had been taken to the wildlife facility where we had previously volunteered but left because the standard of care was well below that which we felt the animals needed in captivity—and that’s being generous!

When volunteering at this facility several years before, Debra and I witnessed the owner kicking the wolves during feeding time and repeatedly screaming, “Get the ‘F’ off of me” at them when they’d jump up for their food. After witnessing this abusive treatment from only a few feet away, we were nauseated and never returned.

After discussing the situation—and coming to terms with our limited options—Debra and I decided that regardless of what we had to do, we could not leave Sampson and Spirit in that type of environment, especially considering the love and nurture with which they’d been raised. So we prepared ourselves to do whatever was necessary to get them back and to do so as soon as possible, as we loved them very much and knew from experience what the owner of the facility was capable of.

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After a half-dozen denials, I finally found a place—three hundred miles away—called Shy Wolf Sanctuary. The staff there had already heard about our situation and they were well aware of the environment at the facility where Sampson and Spirit were being kept. So they agreed to keep them for us for a monthly fee, and care for them until we obtained our license.

The woman we were trying to get Sampson and Spirit away from did just about everything she could to keep it from happening, and when she finally realized that she couldn’t, she made it as difficult as possible for both us and the people at Shy Wolf—who had to make a six-hour drive from Naples, Florida to “rescue” them. We had to pay the woman somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred dollars for the month Sampson and Spirit were there, and she made us do so in the form of a money order. But finally, after a mentally and emotionally grueling month, we got it done.

When the people from Shy Wolf were finally on the road with Sampson and Spirit, they called to let us know. However, they also informed us that they were not cared for very well, were very thin, very dirty, and infested with fleas.

Debra and I made the six-hour trip to Naples that night, checked in at a hotel room a few miles away from the sanctuary, and prepared ourselves to see our precious puppies the next morning. When we entered the facility and turned the corner where Sampson and Spirit were able to see us, they went nuts—screaming and howling in a crying type of howl that wolves often do in desperation, and literally sobbing with a combination of relief and excitement. Upon seeing them, Debra abruptly burst into tears, while I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach. Both had clearly been neglected, but it was obvious that Spirit had been abused.

Once the excitement of being reunited with Sampson and Spirit subsided and the reality that what we feared the most did in fact happen to them—and that their condition may not fully reveal the nightmare they had endured at the hands of the evil, abusive woman at the previous facility—something happened inside of me.

I went from a person who was fairly certain that I wasn’t capable of actually killing someone, to one who was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to avoid it. It was a full two years before I knew that I could safely run into her in public and not “lose it” on her.

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Once we were home, we immediately began looking for property. We loved our beautiful new home and selling it had never even crossed our minds. But we couldn’t abandon Sampson and Spirit, so there was only one thing we could do—sell it and purchase a few acres out in the country.

After a couple of weeks, Debra found a three-and-a-half-acre lot in the country with hundreds of massive oak trees. Upon walking onto the property, I remember Debra walking around with a look of wonder on her face—much like a young child who was seeing something breathtaking. Then all of a sudden, she looked over at me and said, “I want it!” That was all I needed to hear. As far as I was concerned, it was a done deal.

We had already put our house on the market, but we weren’t getting much interest. We were making one faith-based decision after another—and trusting God to “connect the dots”—the last of which was purchasing the property and a new mobile home, prior to selling our house.

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The new property was one hour south of our home in Jacksonville. I would arrive there at daylight and work until sundown every day of the week. Then every two weeks, Debra and I would make the 300-mile drive down to Naples for the weekend to visit with Sampson and Spirit—to keep their hopes up and preserve our relationship with them.

Around this time, we received a contract on our home, and it sold within a couple of weeks, thus relieving us of the stress we felt from tackling two mortgages with what was now only one income. We also managed to get our hundred hours of experience with wolves documented at another licensed wolf facility—two hours west of Jacksonville—and Debra and I both passed our written exams. A few days later—after a grueling three-month period of heavy, daylight-to-dark work—I finally finished our wolf enclosure and we passed our inspection.

That very night, I rented a Ford Econoline Van and I arrived at Shy Wolf Sanctuary early the next morning, anxious to bring Sampson and Spirit home. I will never forget what happened that day, as the visual of what played out that morning was seared into my heart.

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Debra and I have always said that wolves are unlike any animal on the planet. They can read us like a book and judge our motives from a hundred feet away. When I entered the facility, the instant I rounded the corner where Sampson and Spirit were able to see me, Sampson was already looking at me and…he knew I was there to take them home!

His reaction to seeing me on this glorious morning was radically different than it was the other half-dozen times I had come to visit them. Rather than wait for me to enter his enclosure and spend time with them there—like he usually did—he was jumping up on the gate trying to get out of the enclosure and get to me so we could get on the road.

Both Sampson and Spirit’s eyes and facial expressions were profoundly animated. They were looking deep into my eyes, as if they were seeking confirmation from me regarding what they had already determined I was there to do. Even the owner said that they clearly knew that “today was the day” and that daddy had come to take them home. It was powerful!

Once I had them in their crates and loaded into the van, I paid Shy Wolf the fees we owed for boarding them and promptly hit the road. Initially, I was being uncharacteristically careful on the interstate. However, I was so anxious to get them home that I found myself driving almost ninety miles per hour at least a dozen times over the course of the—now only five-hour—trip home.

I pulled into our new property around mid-afternoon and wasted no time in getting them out of the van. Once I had their crates inside the fence, I looked at them, asked them if they were ready, and then opened the doors to their crates, after which they exploded out of them and were halfway across the property in what seemed like seconds.

For the next thirty minutes, I sat back and watched them scamper all over their new three-and-a-half-acre home with the biggest, happiest smiles on their faces—and more trees to pee on than they could have ever imagined. Debra arrived home a few hours later, and the reunion was complete.

Finally, after an incredible four-month ordeal involving the selling of our new home—which Debra and I genuinely loved—a grueling twelve-week construction schedule—involving a level of physical work I was no longer accustomed to—jumping through numerous hoops with the governing state wildlife organization to get our license and permits—as well as the county to resolve a zoning issue—making a half-dozen 600-mile round trips to maintain our relationship with Sampson and Spirit and keep their hopes up, and of course, battling the evil that was working against us in the form of people, it was finally over. Or was it only beginning?

The first night here, Debra and I walked outside just to feel what it was like in the more peaceful environment of the country. I remember her jokingly saying, “It’s a little scary out here, babe!” While I reassured her that we’d be fine and that there was nothing to worry about, I failed to acknowledge feeling a degree of vulnerability myself. But our subtle fear of the unknown quickly subsided and we embraced the quiet solitude of our new country atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, we settled in and adjusted to our new “life on the farm” in Boogerville, while secretly praying that we’d never hear the distant sound of a banjo—“Please God, no banjos!”

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Now that Sampson and Spirit were home and safe, we resumed our Sunday mornings at Celebration Church, although we weren’t as consistent given the workload here and the distance. Within our first couple of months here, Eve began asking if she could bring her new friends from church out to meet Sampson and Spirit on Sunday afternoons. We agreed, and there was never much of a problem, as everyone was pretty respectful of our rules, and Sampson and Spirit seemed to enjoy them.

During this time, Eve met a young man from church—whom we’ll call Adam—and they began dating. He was an exceptionally nice young man, physically strong in appearance, but oddly meek and noticeably uncomfortable with eye contact. Debra and I really liked him and thought they’d make a great couple. However, we did have our concerns. Despite growing rapidly in her Christian life, Eve had not plugged into the Twelve-Step Recovery Program at our church, nor had she made a serious effort to dig into her issues before getting into a relationship—something I heavily stressed she do from the beginning.

That being said, Debra and I felt that at this point, it was important for us to keep a “hands off” approach regarding the relationship, as Eve was doing well at work and becoming increasingly involved with her new church family. So we took the position that we had done our jobs and needed to “let go and let God,” as they say, although Eve and I were still working together on a couple of her recovery issues.

A few months later, Adam asked Eve to marry him and she accepted. While we were happy for them, we had mixed emotions. Eve had all but bypassed the deeper—getting honest with yourself—part of the recovery process and Debra and I knew how that could play out. But she was growing spiritually and had a good group of like-minded friends who could double as a support system, so we gave them our blessing. In hindsight, however, I wish we had suggested that they hold off until Eve had gotten a little further along in her recovery and gained some insight into her core issues—and how they affected others!

Debra and I would later discover that Adam was an Adult Child of an Alcoholic/Drug Addict (ACOA) and had a slew of unresolved issues of his own.

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Within just a couple of weeks of giving them our blessing, we noticed something new in Adam’s behavior—a fear-based type of insecurity often seen in high school relationships. Eve had driven out to the sanctuary so she and I could go out for lunch together and talk. We were sitting at our dining room table preparing to leave when Adam called. She answered and I heard her say, “Okay, I will…okay!” Then within a couple minutes he called right back, and the same type of conversation ensued, only with more frustration on Eve’s face and in her response. When she hung up from his second call, Eve and I left for lunch, but before we made it to the end of the one-mile long road—only five minutes later—Adam called again, and the conversation went the same as the previous two. Then after she hung up, she said, “What the heck? Jeez, he just needs to chill!”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but I distinctively remember thinking that he was telling her to “say this, don’t say that, do this, don’t do that,” and so on, and that his behavior was consistent with that of an insecure high school kid who was afraid someone was going to say something negative about him and cause his girlfriend to break up with him.

Being familiar with this “fear-based” dependency on another person for happiness and/or security—both in my own past behavior toward others in previous relationships, and from others toward me—I knew it was deeply rooted in fear and insecurity and that it would not stop until Adam had either eliminated the perceived outward threat—me—or got honest with himself about his insecurities and sought help.

The meek and soft-spoken Adam who Debra and I thought so much of in the beginning had the very same issues Eve had—in abundance. After his third phone call to Eve in less than ten minutes, I knew in my spirit that Adam’s efforts to undermine my relationship with Eve had officially begun and that they would not cease until she saw my value to her as being insignificant compared to his. When Eve and I returned from lunch, I remember telling Debra that Adam had called again before we had even made it to the end of our road, and to “stay tuned”—he was going to completely destroy the close relationship she and I had always enjoyed.

Young men who are at this insecure place in their lives are completely incapable of allowing their new girlfriends to have other men in their lives—definitely none they would lean on for advice. Everything is about them, their supremacy, and their girlfriend’s complete loyalty in all matters. Anything less brings their insecurities to the surface. While Adam’s three phone calls in less than ten minutes clearly exposed this insecure thinking and behavior in him, Eve’s behavior over the following months would confirm it.

Making matters worse, Eve had previously asked me to “please” not say anything to Adam about “the degree of” her drug use, or her life before him. I agreed, but then strongly encouraged her to be fully honest with him about her history with addiction—like I had been with Debra about mine from the very beginning—and to make sure that she didn’t sugarcoat it, before cautioning her about the consequences if she wasn’t. She said that she just couldn’t bring herself to tell him where she was in her life only a year or so earlier, but she would try to tell him later.

Unfortunately, she didn’t. Instead, she pridefully chose to down-play her history with addiction—and the associated lifestyle—and self-servingly emphasize her mother’s embellished version of my history with addiction, and that of her father. Since Adam’s father had also suffered from addiction, this narrative was advantageous to her in the relationship. However, it was a massive betrayal of me, portrayed Debra and me much differently to Adam than we were—and caused him to direct the resentment he had toward his father at me. From that point forward, Eve went with the “wholesome and virtuous woman” act—acting holy.

Adam was under the impression that Eve had just gotten caught up in drugs for a few months. However, the truth was that she had been smoking pot and steeling her mother’s prescription drugs for two years prior to leaving high school, and then drinking, doing all kinds of drugs, and shoplifting for the three years following high school—the last few months of which she spent strung out on crack cocaine.

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We had only been on the new property for a few months when the wildlife authorities began contacting us to take in wolves and high content wolfdogs they seized from unlicensed owners or abusive situations. Initially, we were a bit surprised because they treated us like criminal animal abusers when they seized Sampson and Spirit. But now, they were now treating us like colleagues.

Debra and I had nearly killed ourselves to rescue Sampson and Spirit—essentially from them—not to become a free wolf rescue service for them. Also, I was still desperately trying to salvage the golf project and had no intention of having a wolf sanctuary. But we were now considered a “licensed facility” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) and considering what we had been through over the previous several months, we didn’t want to get them angry with us again by turning them down. For that reason, we reluctantly agreed to take the first two animals they asked us to take.

Also, what had happened to Sampson and Spirit did something to me on the inside—something that caused me to feel an unusual sort of panic at just the thought of these animals having to suffer, without knowing if or when someone was going to help them escape the pain, suffering, and fear of their unknown situations. The unforgettable visual of our two precious puppies being driven away alone—in separate cages—had a lot to do with my new fear, and seeing what Spirit had endured in the hands of a “wildlife professional” just exacerbated it. I was simply unable to handle not knowing if one of these animals would be properly cared for and accommodated by another person. Debra and I had been around long enough to see the standard of care many of the “wolf people” considered good, and quite frankly, it made us nauseous!

We had radically different views of the accommodations wolves in captivity required—views that were acquired through prayer and therefore firm.

Also—for some reason—the beautiful wolves and wolfdogs needing to be rescued always seem to be aggressively pursued by rescuers and better cared for than the less attractive ones. As a result, the chances of the less attractive ones being rescued and finding a safe and comfortable home are considerably less than those of the beautiful ones. They don’t have the “wow” factor, and therefore, don’t make for the “hey look at me” social media pictures like the attractive ones do—confirming that it’s really more about the person than it is the needs of the animal!

We’re all mesmerized by the beautiful wolves, but the not-so-attractive ones are often mistreated or even euthanized, as their appearance doesn’t provide the “big shot” status their “hey look at me—got me a wolf” owners are seeking when they buy them. Having grown up as the “ugly duckling” child, I knew this from my own personal experience with rejection and abuse.

Today, when people ask me which wolf here is my favorite, I always respond with the names of those whose needs are the greatest at the time—they are the ones that capture my heart the most. Nonetheless, we essentially became a wolf sanctuary overnight.

#

Eve called and asked if she could bring one of her friends from work to meet the wolves. When they arrived, I realized that her friend was the girl with whom the previously fired Practice Administrator was having an affair. It wasn’t really an issue for me, so I just took them around to see the animals and let them play with Sampson and Spirit for a while—with me supervising, of course. Spirit had become notorious for reading pride in people and then ripping their pants off, and Sampson was always more than happy to join in on the fun.

While they were here, we got to talking about Spirit doing this to people in the past and all of the funny scenarios that could happen. As usual, I came up with all kinds of silly, outlandish scenarios, and we were all laughing hysterically. However, during this encounter, I either did something, or said something to Eve and her friend that created an offense, in spite of the fact that it was completely consistent with the silly behavior in which Eve and I had always engaged—the purpose of which being purely to make people laugh.

Shortly after the humorous encounter, Eve and her friend left, and I—being oblivious to having offended them—went back to work and never thought anything else about it. However, I would later learn that this time, the silly humor of mine that bonded Eve and me like “two peas in a pod” would be what she would later use to inflict me with the most destructive wound I would experience in my entire adult life—one that came frighteningly close to ending it.

A week or so later, after an argument with Eve about her poor recovery efforts—and a follow-up email she received from Debra also calling her out—I received an email from her thoroughly blasting me, telling me that I didn’t do anything for her, Jesus had done it all, and that I had it in my head that I was supposed to be held up to a “special place of honor”—hello Adam!

She went on to say many other spiteful things intended to completely dismiss every aspect of my sacrifice for her, and create both hurt and division between Debra and me. While these comments were disappointing, we felt they were just those of someone who still wasn’t honestly engaged in her recovery. What Eve said next, however, was designed to kill—it did more damage than anything she had previously said or done, and by far.

Eve said she had spoken to her counselor about my behavior while she and the girl she brought out to the sanctuary were here—the girl who was still sleeping with the former Practice Administrator, a married man—and that her counselor said that what I “said and/or did” when they were here was “inappropriate.” And then, just as her mother had spitefully said to her father so many times before, Eve said that she had to “protect her child from me.” Boom…I was instantly nauseous!

Here I was being told by someone who was barely removed from a life of drugs, promiscuity, and stealing, that something I said or did—which was completely consistent with my silly, trademark humor designed purely to make people laugh—was “inappropriate” and that she had to “protect her child” from me.

Debra and I had seen Eve’s mother display this very same behavior and spew hateful, character assassinating stories about Eve’s father over a fifteen-year period—most of which were complete fabrications. Each one was carefully designed to create in her a negative image of her father and destroy their relationship. Ironically, Eve’s grandmother had done this very thing to Eve’s mother—with comments about her father—throughout her entire childhood. So we were all too familiar with the spirits of pride, jealousy, and—misdirected—anger from which Eve’s accusation originated, and clearly understood what it was designed to do—destroy!

This was the new and extremely toxic dysfunction that Debra and I were dealing with, and one that I—not Debra—had allowed into our once happy life.

Nonetheless, the silly, happy-go-lucky relationship Eve and I had always enjoyed, that I had so deeply cherished—and Debra marveled at—was now toxic, and the relationship Debra and I envisioned having with her kids dissolved like a sugar cube when water is poured on it.

Eve’s poisonous accusation revealed something deep inside of her that would prevent us from ever again feeling completely comfortable around her and Adam, or from even being ourselves in their presence. It also severed the “sense of family” I would naturally have felt with her children, thus preventing a normal family relationship with them from ever developing. In other words, Eve’s poisonous accusation retroactively ended those relationships before they could even begin.

Over the next few months, I developed a particularly destructive type of social anxiety disorder that gradually worsened over the next year. I became extremely uncomfortable around people I didn’t know—primarily younger women Eve’s age—but some men—and all children! Unfortunately, I was never again able to comfortably interact with children—including those on Debra’s side of the family with whom I had enjoyed awesome relationships for over a decade. And as a result of the social anxiety disorder, I didn’t leave the sanctuary much for about three years other than to get supplies. Also, I graphically contemplated suicide daily during that time—one method of which was by designing something that would enable me to shoot, stab, hang, and burn myself all at the same time.

The shameful label Eve had spitefully branded me with was the last thing I ever expected to have to carry, every waking moment, everywhere I went—especially not from the person for whom I had sacrificed everything. So I just stayed out here “in the wilderness” with the wolves—wearing my now nasty sleeveless yellow shirt—and became obsessed with meeting their needs.

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One morning, one of the volunteers called to me and said that something was wrong with Sampson, that he tried to get up but fell back down. In a full-blown panic—and feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach—I ran over to where he was lying in the grass to see what was wrong with him. Suddenly, I realized that he had broken his leg. The pit in my stomach immediately turned into a burning sensation up under my chest.

I slowly knelt beside him and began softly and very carefully petting his head and telling him he was going to be all right. After a few minutes, I called our veterinarian office and asked if they could get him in. They said yes, and I immediately began the dangerous process of getting an injured, 130-pound wolf into a crate for the forty-minute trip to the veterinarian’s office.

Sampson was huge and extremely powerful and could nearly crush a forearm with one good bite. So for everyone’s safety, he had to be sedated before they could x-ray his leg. Having experienced an unusually bad break in my left forearm while in the Marines, I knew that what I was seeing wasn’t good and feared the worst. Unfortunately, the x-ray revealed a bad break in his right rear leg. It was so bad that when I saw it on the x-ray film, I knew it would have to be amputated. My heart imploded with a combination of sadness and futility, giving birth to a type of confusion with which I was not familiar.

I remember the massive wave of sorrow that hit me in that instant like it was yesterday, followed closely by the thoughts I’d previously had of shooting, stabbing, hanging, and burning myself—all at once. Shortly after this, I went off the deep end for a couple of days and blew sixteen years of sobriety. But thankfully, I pulled out of it and continued on with the responsibilities here at the sanctuary.

#

A couple of years later while listening to Pastor Prince of Joseph Prince Ministries, I was shown scripture confirming that all animals really do “go to heaven.” This particular passage in the Bible would also confirm everything the Holy Spirit had shared with me for the video that day while driving home from the vet with Angel lying dead in the back of my truck.

Romans 8:19-21 – “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

From that day forward, I never again questioned the “Message of Hope” the Holy Spirit shared with me that day, as it was right there in black and white, in God’s divinely inspired word for me to refer to, any time I needed reassurance.

But the previous divine enlightenment I received prior to Angel’s death—the one that enabled me to see deeper into who and what these animals are and why—which I also indicated would prove to be a “double-edged” sword, was about to do some more cutting—from the other side of the blade.

As previously mentioned, the first and last two-hour periods of every single day here involve interacting with all but a handful of the five dozen animals here, during which time I’m deeply focused on meeting their emotional needs. Each time I’d make my rounds, my love, nurture, and happiness would visibly transfer into them, while their sorrow and despair clearly and consistently transferred into me. This was the part of me cut open by “one edge” of the aforementioned double-edged sword, allowing the despair I saw in them to transfer into me.

But like people, the previously abused wolves had issues as well, and I began to see all of my issues in them and their behavior—those I had resolved long ago and today see so clearly in others, those that I’ve addressed but occasionally resurface at the worst times possible, and those I continue to struggle with and wonder if I’ll ever be free from.

As with all of us, each wolf had its own unique issues and triggers based on the type and level of abuse it suffered and their triggers—sensitivities to outside stimulus such as looks, words, tones, demeanors, and mannerisms—were wide-ranging.

The parallels between my behavior, issues, and triggers, and those of the previously abused wolves were astonishing. This was the part of me cut open by the other edge of the double-edged sword—allowing me to see myself in them.

Considering who and what I am today as a man, and that ever since my first marriage, providing for my family has been extremely important to me—despite my monumental failure to do so then, and my subsequent bout with addiction—this first acknowledgement is particularly humiliating. It begins with what I’ve learned about Pharaoh.

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Pharaoh is a huge, and often dangerous, 120-pound wolfdog who only trusts three people here and attacks everyone else. He also has issues with most of the animals in the neighboring enclosures and spends nearly every waking hour running his fence line barking at them. His behavior is so challenging that he was given to us by another wolf sanctuary, although I suspect their decision to bring him to us had as much to do with his non-stop barking than it did with their safety.

Now Pharaoh’s packmate is Skye, and they’re in a large enclosure where they’ve been quite happy together for several years. But unlike the other twenty-two enclosures, theirs is the only one that doesn’t extend all the way up to the front where they can see us better and be closer to us when they prefer.

Although at times, Skye can be a bit dangerous herself, she’s actually an unusually sweet wolfdog who enjoys attention from the volunteers and prefers to be closer to us. But because of Pharaoh’s loud, anti-social, and often dangerous behavior, she’s forced to live a less enjoyable life than she’d prefer, tucked away in the back, so to speak, all because of Pharaoh. If she wasn’t “joined at the hip” with Pharaoh—married to him—she’d be right in “the thick of things” with the rest of the community and getting so much more enjoyment out of life.

Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it, I often find myself thinking that the reason I’m out here in the wilderness with animals, oak trees, and the Holy Spirit—in the back—is because of who I’ve become since the destruction of our previous life, and the mental and emotional volatility I developed following Eve’s subsequent accusation.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s God’s way of protecting others from me and protecting me from myself—just as I’ve had to do with Pharaoh. I think often about who I’ve become over the years since our previous life was obliterated. But I think even more about Debra and how her life would be so different if it weren’t for me and my decisions.

In fact, Debra said, “Babe, when you brought Eve into our home, I lost you! But when she made that ‘whacked out’ accusation, you lost you!” As usual, Debra was spot on.

If I had it to do again, I know I would make the exact same decision because that’s just who I am. But the fact remains that what Eve did to my professional life—combined with the impact her subsequent accusation had on my state of mind, my personality, and my identity—affected Debra’s life tremendously as well. I carry the poisonous guilt of that every minute of every day, and I’ve carried it for well over a decade now.

As someone whose primary focus was on faithfully pressing out the vision God gave me for the golf project—exactly as He gave it to me—I knew that the fruit of doing so would also provide for my family on a level that would allow Debra to back off of work and focus on her health. Seeing it dissolve into thin air in just a few short months while the person responsible for its destruction angrily dismisses every aspect of my sacrifice for them—combined with the sobering impact of realizing that I had wasted a decade of Debra’s life while building it—is not something that leaves one unscathed. But again, the wound from the semi-public accusation of my having been “inappropriate” caused exponentially more damage than the destruction of our previous life—that one left a mark!

But regardless of its point of origin or who’s to blame, I still think about how well-off Debra would be and how much fun she’d be having in her life if she was with someone else—someone who wasn’t possibly being made to stand in “life’s corner” until they could learn to behave—and just how much more fulfilling her life could have been if she had met someone else.

When I look at the rationale behind my decision to place Pharaoh where he is—which under the circumstances is my only option—and consider how bad I feel for Skye, I can see the similarities in God’s options regarding my and Debra’s situation—not a pleasant thing to look at!

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Seeing all of my issues and behaviors—whether past or present—in the wolves only added to the near debilitating depression that had plagued me since my childhood. This new insight into my issues was yet another addition to the guilt I felt from the demise of the golf project and the resulting inability to provide for my wife financially.

I had already gone years without buying much of anything for myself, and the overwhelming feeling of being deserving of nothing had once again worsened. On a personal level, I went out of my way to deny myself, choosing to reuse my dental floss until it broke, only using toothpaste once or twice a week; taking a bath in my wife’s bath water rather than wasting more water to take a shower, and only washing my hair every three or four days in order to use as little of our financial resources as possible. I’d also wash the styrofoam plates I used and reuse my napkins multiple times before throwing them away.

And while working on the property, I wore my ten-year-old gym shorts and muscle shirts—most of which had become pieces of old, worn out cloth that should have been thrown away years earlier.

With the few donations we received, I bought the things we needed for the sanctuary and those necessary to meet the animals’ needs, but skimped by on the least of materials in order to save money—nailing together two old fence posts to make one good one, plundering through construction site dumpsters for wood, asking highway construction companies for their used fence materials for the wolves’ enclosures, and numerous other miserly measures. I used and reused everything and rarely threw away anything.

The person who was on the verge of bringing to life a hundred-million-dollar-per-year endeavor just a few years earlier had basically become a scavenger, struggling through each day to provide for the wolves. There was no difference in how I was living—and thinking—than a man who had grown up in the late twenties and had experienced the worst of the Great Depression—I used less than minimal and spent nothing. I embraced this miserly behavior and continued to live this way for the next several years!

The person who was on the verge of bringing to life a hundred-million-dollar-per-year endeavor just a few years earlier had basically become a scavenger, struggling through each day to provide for the wolves. There was no difference in how I was living—and thinking—than a man who had grown up in the late twenties and had experienced the worst of the Great Depression—I used less than minimal and spent nothing.

Adding to the emotional dilemma was that these powerful and majestic creatures—ones God made to be free from any “man-made” boundaries or human control—were now incarcerated for life in my little “federal prison for wolves”—my wolf orphanage. My heart ached deeply for them and seeing them in these circumstances every waking hour—while struggling futilely to “fix them”—crushed it a little more each day. Their dilemma and needs had also imprisoned me.

The only thing that seemed to bring me any relief from my guilt, shame, and self-hatred was consoling the imprisoned—orphaned—wolves here at my little wolf prison—way out here in “Boogerville,” USA.

Chapter 5

From Condemnation to Grace

 

Now when Kyra arrived, she was anywhere from thirty-five to fifty pounds underweight, and her natural growth had likely been stunted due to malnutrition. Not only was she recovering the weight she would have had if she had been fed properly, but she was recovering the structural growth from the stunted period as well—in addition to the weight she was gaining from being a one-year-old who was still growing.

Over the next few months, Kyra gained an estimated fifty pounds and blossomed into one of the most beautiful wolves we had ever seen. She was now very big, very strong, and she was lightning fast.

But unfortunately, the seeds of abuse planted in Kyra by her abuser had taken root and they were starting to break through the ground. Having totally regained her physical health, Kyra would never again allow anyone to hurt her.

At that point, Kyra became acutely sensitive to what we were carrying inside us—particularly our normal, daily frustrations and anxieties. As her suspicions increased, she became skeptical of our motives, and she had many hairline triggers—Kyra was now extremely dangerous!

When a young child is removed from an abusive mother and placed in a loving foster home, all may be well for a while. But if the foster mother in the new loving home is trying to cook dinner after a tough day at work, and all the kids are running around her saying, “Mommy, mommy, when are we going to eat, mommy, mommy, mommy?” she may become frustrated. Then suddenly, with an angry look in her eyes, she barks, “Okay, that’s enough! All of you get out of the kitchen, now! We’ll eat when it’s done!” Well, the previously abused child may turn around and say, “I knew you were just like her, you’re all alike!” Unfortunately, the tone of voice the foster mother used, combined with the look in her eyes, “triggered” thoughts of—and feelings from—his previous abuse.

Over the next few months, fewer and fewer of the volunteers were capable of going into Kyra’s enclosure. The fear she sparked in someone with one of her psychotically carnivorous looks alone was more than enough to completely dissolve their confidence. And if an encounter with Kyra escalated to the point of her growling and grabbing them, they would question everything they’d learned about interacting with wolves—to the point of even fearing some of the other, less dangerous ones with whom they had enjoyed relationships for years. At that point, other than Debra and me, the only people capable of entering Kyra’s enclosure and “safely” interacting with her were volunteers McKee, Sheryl, and Wendy.

But as dangerous and volatile as she was, my heart broke for Kyra more than it did the others, and everyone here saw it—everyone but me, that is. I did, however, know—on some level—that the abuse she had endured was nearly identical to that which I had experienced over the course of my childhood—hateful, verbally condemning, and physically painful treatment that left her bitter, angry, afraid, mistrusting, and constantly second-guessing herself.

Today I realize that I was identifying with Kyra’s abusive past and resulting behavior on a subconscious level. As a result, I found myself spending three times the amount of time in direct contact with her—the most dangerous animal at the sanctuary—than I did with the other wolves here, with no one else but me on the property. I had to show her just how much she was loved.

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A month or so after my surgery, I was coming down with a bad case of bronchitis yet preparing to drive an hour and a half away to pick up an old freezer that was being donated to us. But before I could leave, I heard a commotion coming from Titus and Kyra’s enclosure and decided to walk down the path to see what was happening. Well, our neighbor was parked behind their enclosure in a golf cart with her daughter, and they were antagonizing them. Terrified by the mentality of these people alone, Titus had jumped two ten-foot fences trying to get away from them—and closer to me—while Kyra was left alone in the enclosure—petrified of the presence of the very same evil spirit that had made the first year of her life a nightmare.

These “neighbors” were drug dealers and addicts who we believed to have poisoned at least six of the rescued wolves here over the previous five-year period—possibly eight in all—although we were never able to prove it. We had referred to them as “the Grifters” for years, and despite a dozen calls to the wildlife authorities and Sheriff’s department—who knew all too well of their drug activities—no investigation was ever done.

Now Kyra had just been antagonized by a whacked-out, drug-addicted woman whose behavior had triggered the neglect and abuse issues she’d acquired over the first year of her life—at the hand of another whacked-out drug-addicted woman—while Titus responded to what he perceived to be a life-threatening situation based on his triggered abuse issues. Making matters worse, I was coming down with bronchitis and likely had a “look of sickness” in my eyes—a look eerily similar to that which Kyra’s drug addicted abuser constantly had in hers. Needless to say, it was a recipe for disaster.

We were about ten feet apart when Kyra left her chicken—she hit me like a bolt of lightning and went straight for my throat. Fortunately, I was able to get my right arm up in time to block her, but she managed to sink her canines into my arm instead, right at the elbow, with her bottom canines puncturing the large vein just above my funny bone. For the next minute or so, Kyra and I were engaged in an all-out “hand-to-hand combat” type of battle—for what we both perceived to be our very lives.

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During the ride across town, I felt the Lord was showing me that the abuse Kyra endured had shaped her mind much like that of a severely battered wife—one who’s so afraid her husband will kill her the next time he beats her that she decides to kill him first. This incident alone revealed just how badly Kyra had been abused and the severity of the physical and emotional pain she suffered over the first year of her life.

Again, wolves can see the particular spirit we’re carrying inside of us at all times. But the difference with abused wolves is the spirit we’re carrying when we’re frustrated about something is more visible to them than a happy one, because the spirits of frustration and anger were always present when they were being abused. These spirits are the ones they’re most sensitive to, because they’re the ones that caused them pain.

Depending on the severity of their past abuse—and how they perceive the situation—they may be unable to distinguish between our mere frustration about something unrelated to them, and that which mirrors the frustration of their abuser—a scenario that can trigger all of the fear and pain they experienced at their hand.

All of Kyra’s abuse triggers had just been pulled by the drugged-out woman on the fence line, and I was carrying an enormous amount of animosity towards that woman when Kyra and I made eye contact—at which time this previously starved wolf was also protecting her food. Kyra was not attacking me—she was attacking her abuser.

Over the next several months, I developed a deep understanding of Kyra, her issues. and her insecurities, eventually realizing that Kyra was a mirror image of me, with respect to my detest for prideful people and my back and forth relationship with the law and grace.

Because of her abusive past, Kyra was conditioned to think that our love for her was contingent on her doing everything right—keeping the doggy laws—when the truth was that we loved her just as she was, and the most pleasing thing to us, by far, was seeing her happy and enjoying her life, totally confident in our love for her.

The first year of life for a canine equates to our first fifteen years of life. Ironically, the first fifteen years of my life were eerily similar to Kyra’s first year of life. Subconsciously, I deeply identified with Kyra’s fear and the pain and abuse that supported it—the chronic fear of feeling like I had done something wrong and having been conditioned to expect punishment. Little by little, the Lord was showing me how He saw me, my issues, and my insecurities by showing me how I saw Kyra, her issues, and her insecurities.

The source of Kyra’s dangerous behavior was the doggy law. It exposed her wolf nature and aroused her “fear-based” wolf behaviors—ones she had previously been punished for. But she was here now, at the sanctuary, where the old doggy law had been replaced with grace. So the source of her dangerous behavior was gone—or was it? Unfortunately, the expectation of punishment—condemnation—had been so deeply engrained in Kyra that she perceived herself to still be under the old rules—the doggy law—despite having never even been reprimanded for anything she had done here. This was going to be a long process.

Every encounter the abused wolves had with their previous owners showed them how “bad” they were because they didn’t behave like dogs. And after being punished, they were going to stay in a crate, a small pen, or remain chained up until they could learn to be a “good doggy” like they were told—a treatment that only reinforced their sense of condemnation and their fear and mistrust of people. Similarly, nearly every encounter I ever had with Mom and the church while growing up convinced me of how bad I was and that I was going to hell to be punished for eternity, unless I could learn to behave perfectly. This treatment not only perverted my concept of God, but it warped my perception of His love and how He felt about me—despite knowing that every single biblical encounter Jesus had with “broken” people while here on earth involved Him extending them love, mercy, and grace, rather than punishment.

What I wanted for Kyra was for her to know that she never needed to fear me, she didn’t need to do anything special for me to love her, and that my greatest desire was to see her happy and enjoying her life here with Titus, knowing how much I loved and adored her—just as she was. But Kyra was deeply confused and so preoccupied with “right versus wrong” that she didn’t even know how to play with us. She had no confidence in herself or her actions. All she knew for the first year of her life were rules and consequences. The painful experiences associated with them had completely warped her sense of self, confused her likes-and-dislikes meter, and ultimately fragmented her identity.

This beautiful creature was now focused only on herself, her behavior, how her behavior would be perceived by us, and how painful the punishment would be if she miscalculated her level of freedom in interacting with us. Here she was in a state-of-the-art wolf enclosure the size of a football field, with the freedom to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, for as long as she wanted, yet the abuse she endured created a fear-based, self-focused paralysis in her soul that mentally and emotionally imprisoned her.

Kyra’s mindsets and issues were deeply engrained. Instead of running around and playing freely—and focusing on all of the interesting things that naturally stimulate wolves’ minds—her preoccupation with her behavior, how we perceived it, and whether or not we were going to punish her controlled every aspect of her life.

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For those of us whose early lives were filled with law-based acceptance and religious condemnation, it’s easy to feel that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ—when we feel like we’re doing well and are in a stretch of mental, emotional, and behavioral consistency, with respect to not acting on our issue-based impulses and desires. But when we fall short, we can fall right back into fear and condemnation, only now, it’s we who are condemning ourselves. Why? Because we failed to keep the law again. Uuugh!

What this reveals is that we may not have had as good a grasp on God’s grace as we thought we had and that the condemnation that originally came from the outside—through another person—is now coming from our insides.

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Regardless of how much love and affirmation Kyra would receive from us, how well she’d been doing in terms of confidence in our love for her, and how much she’d be enjoying a deeper level of intimacy with us, she would occasionally retreat back into a state of fear, self-doubt, and despair.

It appeared that her depression was the result of an ever-present sense of being undeserving of our love, leaving her feeling like a partial outsider in her relationship with Titus—compared to the relationships she saw in the wolf packs around her. I could see that her sense of separation came from deep within her.

Again, little by little, the Lord was teaching me about me, my issues, and my behavior, by showing me Kyra’s issues and behavior—and the type of treatment that brought them to life in her. But more importantly, He was showing me how He saw me, and how He felt about me, by showing me how I saw and felt about Kyra.

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Then later that evening, something else happened—something profound that further illuminated who God is to us. The Lord ever so subtly showed me something about His love and grace toward me, by showing me the effect of the love and grace I extended to the wolves.

While watching a video Debra had taken of me with the wolves, I noticed that I was continuously saying to them, “I love you. I love you. You’re beautiful. I love you. You’re not in trouble. You’re my sweet puppy. You’re perfect. I love you!” and on and on, as I pet and loved all over them. It was obvious from watching the video that there was an all-inclusive grace I was trying to impart to them. And without fail, their facial expressions would gradually transition from those of fear, suspicion, and skepticism to ones of peace, happiness, security, and mutual love.

And then again—in that “still, small voice”—I heard the Lord say…

“This is what I’ve had to do with you, John. Why has it taken you so long to realize that just as the grace you extend to the wolves works with them, My grace works with you? The deep love I placed inside of you for the wolves and the all-encompassing, heartfelt love and nurture you so love to give them is a mirror image of how I love to love and nurture you and others who were misled about Me and how I feel about them.”

From that point forward, I knew deep in my spirit that the feeling I had when the wolves realized that I genuinely loved them, would never do anything to hurt them, was happiest when they responded to me with love and complete trust, and genuinely looked forward to spending time with me, was the very same feeling Jesus had when I realized that He genuinely loved me, wasn’t looking for a reason to punish me, and was happiest when I responded to Him with love and complete trust. Wow—what a revelation!

Within a few days of this revelation, Debra and I, along with volunteers Sheryl and McKee, were in Kyra and Titus’ enclosure visiting with them, and they were really enjoying the attention, as they always do when the weekend volunteers are here. But when we were leaving, either Debra or Sheryl relaxed their focus for a brief second, allowing Kyra to squeeze halfway through the partially opened gate. A startled Sheryl then quickly dropped to her knees and tried to block Kyra—prompting her to snarl in her face and display her one-and-one-quarter-inch canines as a stern warning. I immediately said, “No, no, no, Sheryl, let her go, let her go!”

A split-second later, a dangerous and volatile Kyra bolted through the gate and took off running down the pathway, at which time I said, “Laugh everyone! Just laugh and say her name, like you’re praising her!”

For the first minute or so, Kyra ran up and down the pathway, displaying her terrifying combination of defensiveness and her indefensible offense—in anticipation of punishment.

But as our laughter and praise of her filled the air, we all watched as her demeanor turned from fearful, vulnerable, and protective, to one similar to that of a puppy who had just been let outside to play in the snow. Then after a couple of minutes, she suddenly turned and ran right back through the gate on her own and into her enclosure, where the four of us were standing and saying her name with happy, praising tones and laughter. Once in the gate, she ran straight up to me—singling me out from the others—jumped up in my face, put her massive paws on my shoulders, and began kissing me right in the mouth. I promptly began kissing her right back! Grace is universal and it affects all flesh in the exact same way.

On her own, Kyra was unable to stop displaying the natural wolf behaviors she’d previously been punished for. But in this incident—having realized that punishment had been removed from the equation and replaced with love, mercy, and grace—her fear-based wolf behaviors dissipated and were replaced with calmer, more relaxed wolf behaviors, gentler interactions with us, and a genuine desire for our presence—where a more intimate and trusting relationship with us could develop.

Kyra actually became gentler and more doggie-like as a result of the grace we extended her, while the doggy rules that were previously imposed on her made her afraid, angry, and volatile—which only amplified her fear-based wolf behaviors. While she will always be a wolf and still occasionally slips back into her old thinking and does things that hurt us, we continue to keep the grace flowing so she can see that nothing she does will ever cause us to treat her in any way other than with love and nurture.

Before, Kyra was always concerned with her behavior and how it affected her standing with me. But knowing her past, I made the decision to take the consequences of her actions and behavior on myself—and in my body—and to view her as being completely “righteous” and always in good standing with me. With this new arrangement in place, Kyra is “righteous” because of me and my decisions—not because she behaves perfectly—just as we are “righteous” in God’s eyes because of what Jesus did—not because we always behave perfectly!

Romans 1:5 says, “By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name:”

So, the “obedience” Jesus wants from us is not to the law, but to “the faith,” in believing that He paid for our sins once and for all; that in Him, we are righteous; and that as a result of His sacrifice, we are always in good standing with Him!

Just as Kyra’s struggle was in what she believed about me—believing that she had to keep the doggy rules to be loved and avoid punishment—my struggle was in how I believed about God—believing that I had to do everything perfectly to be loved and accepted by Him, and to avoid punishment. The faith I wanted Kyra to have in me and who I am to her is a mirror image of the faith God wanted me to have in Him and who He is to me. When she and I were obedient “to the faith,” our behavior followed.

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As I walked back to the house, the “Holy Spirit” comment was the one that was bothering me the most—it was particularly illuminating! Adam and Eve’s desperate need for praise and/or acknowledgement—Eve, more so than Adam—was so excessive that every time I “shared” something the Holy Spirit had shared with me while out here at the sanctuary, their “unaddressed,” drug addict/ACOA thinking caused them to interpret it as either “advising them”—which ripped into the fabric of their inflated opinions of themselves and their accomplishments, exposing both their egos and insecurities simultaneously—or as me “bragging”—which revealed that they were still projecting their need for acknowledgement issues onto me.

If I told them about something I had designed or built here at the sanctuary, they saw it as bragging. But if I told them that the Lord had revealed to me how to design or build something here at the sanctuary, their position was that I thought I was the only one who heard from the Holy Spirit. The situation was impossible!

Over the next month, I would put much thought into the family disease of addiction and receive numerous revelations. During that period, everything I’d learned from the thousands of sermons I’d heard in church, and on TV, what I’d learned from the thousands of hours I’d spent reading the Bible, what I’d learned from the thousands of recovery meetings I’d attended over a period of more than two decades, and, of course, what I’d learned about myself and others from working the twelve steps of recovery during that time, was pulled together—with the important, inter-related aspects of addiction, recovery, and the Christian faith illuminated like the brilliant, contrasting lights in multi-colored fireworks. The following pages are written expressions— frustrated regurgitations, rather—of some of those revelations—one of which is how the disease of addiction infiltrates and affects the Christian community.

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I know of no pastor who would tell a diabetic not to take their insulin, yet I’ve met several over the years whose position on people suffering with addiction—along with their affected ACOA family members—was that they did not need a Twelve-Step Recovery Program—despite routinely referring Christians dealing with other issues to counselors and support groups. Yet here we are with a massive opiate crisis, and the disease of addiction affecting nearly every family on the planet in some form or fashion. Hmmm…

The twelve steps of recovery God gave us for treating the disease of addiction are simply extracted biblical principles that target and arrest the diseased thinking that’s spinning—out of control—inside of both the afflicted and the affected family member.

Just as an extract contains a more concentrated, more powerful active ingredient of its original source, and has proven to heal the infirmities for which it was extracted, the twelve steps in the recovery program are biblical extracts that specifically target the diseased thinking and behavior of addiction. They too contain the powerful, more concentrated “active ingredients” that have proven to successfully treat the diseased thinking and behavior of both the afflicted and the affected members of families suffering from addiction.

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I’ve often found myself thinking, “Why would God be okay with people bypassing something He created to help them recover from their dilemma and acquire the humility He wants us all to have, when their involvement would also help others recover, acquire the humility He wants them to have, and break their ‘family curse’ in the process? Is it not the very same pride, ego, and denial the alcoholic or drug addict who refuses to admit they have a problem displays that prevents Christian ACOAs from admitting that they too have a problem and entering a Twelve-Step Recovery Program to help them recover from the very same diseased thinking?”

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As I reflected back on the previous thirteen years, I was able to see that just as I had always been here caring for the wolves and meeting their needs—regardless of how they perceived me and my motives, or how they behaved toward me—the Lord had always been with me as well, helping me every step of the way—despite my flawed perception of Him and His motives, and my occasional bad behavior!

It’s amazing how much someone can learn about themselves and others while the Lord is teaching them about His animals. I’ve always said that wolves don’t teach you about wolves—they teach you about you, and who you are at that point in your life. When I’m with them, they look at me with their soul-penetrating eyes, telling me where they are emotionally and why, and who I am to them. Their inquisitive gazes always prompt me to look inward.

When one of the rescued wolves would leave for Heaven, I would always wonder if I had been what they needed me to be for them here. Having now sacrificed the last fifteen years of my life just to give them a measure of peace and tranquility—at the expense of my health and all of my hopes, dreams, and ambitions that were once so important to me—I’d think of all of the things I’d done for them here, and the measures I’d taken to meet their needs. However, I was always able to find something I didn’t do for them that I wished I had done.

But the Lord always reassured me that I had done my best, and to focus on what He had done inside of me instead, only this time, He would also remind me of what He said in Matthew 7:11…“If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: ‘how much more’ shall your Father who is in heaven, give good things to them that ask him?”

Chapter 6

How Much More

 

It’s August 16th, 2018, and I finally finished writing chapter five—the most mentally challenging one thus far, and one of the most emotionally depleting experiences of my life! So I was really looking forward to writing the final two chapters. They were the ones Debra and I felt would show the brighter side of our journey and reveal the fruit it produced. The hundreds  of comparisons the Lord had shared with me regarding my efforts in caring for the wolves and those in His caring for me were powerful illustrations of His love, mercy, grace, and providence—ones I felt would be particularly enlightening for people who’ve struggled with fear and condemnation. So again, I was really excited about sharing them in this chapter.

But unfortunately, consistent with my history of untimely injuries here—ones that somehow always seemed to cause me the most difficulty with the project I was working on at the time—I was bitten by a spider. My right hand looked like a world record sweet potato, and it felt like a watermelon. Typing was like trying to pick your nose with a ping-pong ball!

Adding to the situation, one of our big British Columbia wolves—Micah—had a bad ear infection that needed to be addressed as soon as possible. Since he’s also quite feral and capable of badly hurting someone or worse, we would have to tranquilize him to treat his ear.

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Having gained insight into Kyra’s issues, I was mindful of her potentially dangerous responses to my every move. So my interaction with her had to involve tact and finesse. But to break through her skepticism and defensive mind set—which in her case, could quickly turn offensive—my strategies always had to be clothed with love, gentleness, and a nurturing spirit.

The Lord revealed to me that this is how he often has to approach me and others who’ve been beaten down with fear and condemnation—often much more carefully, though! He knows what we’ve gone through, how we think, and exactly how to interact with us to help us heal.

He steps right into the middle of our often messy, broken lives, with all of our fear-based condemnation issues and confusion, and shows us that in His eyes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with us that His sacrifice on the cross didn’t cover, that His love for us is not contingent on our doing everything perfectly, and that in Him, His grace covers all of our flaws and imperfections. The realization of this is where change begins!

And why would Jesus do this? Hmmm…Perhaps for the same reason I did so with Kyra! So we can gradually come to know just how much He loves us and come to realize that His desire is not to punish us, but to see us happy, enjoying our lives under His providence, and being fulfilled daily—through an intimate and trusting relationship with Him!

As previously mentioned, the Lord knew that because of my abusive past, He could help me come to see the condition of my soul—and the origin of my dilemma—by showing me those of the previously abused wolves. He also knew that as a result of the empathy I felt for them, I would focus intently on interacting with them in a manner that would gradually tear away at their false belief that I was there to punish them, and that I would continue doing so until they realized that my only motivation was for them to know that I loved them—just as they were—and wanted to give them the best life possible—without any rules or conditions.

But why did He do it this way? Perhaps to show me that if I, with all of my flaws and issues, could step into the world of a badly abused, extremely dangerous animal—one who’s capable of killing me and who attempted to do so once—and meet her exactly where she was, right in the middle of all of her fear, mistrust, anger, and volatility—her mess—how much more readily would He do the same for me? Am I more capable of love and empathy than He is?

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As previously mentioned, when Kyra would do something her abusive owner taught her was wrong—“bad”—she would walk off by herself and pout because, once again, she had broken the doggy law. Despite having never been punished for anything at the sanctuary, her lingering sense of fear and condemnation—which was produced by her abusive owner’s cruel and oppressive enforcement of the doggy law—still controlled her thinking. This was deeply saddening for me because seeing her happy and fulfilled from being able to receive my love for her also fulfilled me.

For people like me—who grew up with an incorrect perception of God and a massive sense of condemnation—it may be difficult to realize the degree to which it saddens Jesus when our lingering sense of condemnation robs Him of the intimacy He lives to have with us. I wonder how much more deflating it is for Jesus when we rob Him of the quality time He enjoys spending with us, than it is for me when Kyra robs me of the quality time I enjoy spending with her? Hmmm?

The most important thing to understand here is, just as I experience a deep sense of fulfillment when Kyra is able to receive the love and affection I live to give her, Jesus experiences a deep sense of fulfillment when we’re able to receive the love and affection He lives to give us.

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Part of owning a wolf sanctuary is that I’m continuously lost in the needs of the wolves and at all times thinking about their overall wellbeing. It just comes with the territory! As a result, I frequently found myself praying for the wolves here more than I prayed for people. Each time the reality of this would hit me, I’d feel guilty and begin to wonder if God was frowning on my compassion for animals over that of people—sometimes even the people who were close to me. But He reassured me that we are all on our individual journeys and that He uses everything in our lives—our passions, our focuses, our objects of empathy, and even our obsessions—to teach us what He wants us to learn about Him and His love for us. But the Lord would show me something next that had a profound impact on me.

When Debra and I would slip away to have dinner out, I would always feel extremely guilty. It was literally impossible for me not to think about the wolves and how it wasn’t fair for me to leave them and go enjoy myself when they had to stay in their enclosures. The images of their sad faces would haunt me throughout dinner!

But the Lord showed me that just as my compassion and empathy for the wolves caused me to think about them and their needs constantly, His thoughts were always turned toward us, and He would never leave us or forsake us. He showed me that my compassion and empathy for the wolves were simply scaled down versions of His compassion and empathy for us. He had allowed my love for them, my insight into who and what they are—which again, He gave me—and my focus on meeting their needs to reach that level, so He could show me how He felt about me—and all people, for that matter! So, if we think about how much we love our animals, we might want to consider how much more God loves us!

In Psalms 139:17, King David says, “How precious also are your thoughts to me, O God! how great is the sum of them!”

Chapter 7

Seeds, Soil, and Seasons

 

One spring morning a few years ago while spending time with the wolves, Debra noticed that one of the huge live oak trees had several of the smaller water oaks growing around it, and felt they were taking away from its beauty. She said, “John, you need to cut those little trees down so we can see the big one better. It’s really beautiful and those little ones are blocking it.”

I remember thinking that she was right and wanting to see the huge tree standing unobstructed myself so its beauty and magnificence could be seen from every angle. But I also remember telling her that there was a reason I couldn’t remove the smaller, irritating little water oaks—a good reason!

During the hot summer months here in Florida, it rains nearly every afternoon. The powerful thunderstorms dump an enormous volume of water onto the ground, enabling the huge live oaks here at the sanctuary to undergo substantial growth over the course of the summer. But in these conditions—the ground being saturated with an abundance of water—the live oaks’ massive root systems undergo minimal growth. The problem with this is that hurricane season follows the rainy season.

Under drought conditions, the live oak’s roots are forced to fight their way through the hard, compressed soil in search of water, thus dramatically expanding its root system, while its foliage—its outer growth that we see—is limited.

But since the abundance of water allowed the live oak to grow more limbs and foliage than it normally would have grown during its growing season, it has more foliage to be pushed by the strong winds during hurricane season. Adding to the dilemma is, the abundance of water also prevented the live oak’s root system from developing proportionally, so it’s less capable of securing the now larger tree to the ground with enough integrity to withstand the force of the strong winds.

Making matters even worse, the wetter, softer soil—“the easy life”—is unable to hold the tree’s under-developed root system in the ground like normal soil would.

Under these conditions, it’s easy for the strong hurricane winds to topple the tree, whereas, if the roots would have had to fight their way deeper into the dryer, harder soil for water, it would have a stronger—more secure—foundation to “weather the storms.”

Without the proportional root growth necessary to support the tree’s new limb and foliage growth—and adequately secure it to the soil—it simply can’t withstand the storms. So when the hurricane winds come, the huge live oak is easily toppled over, demolishing everything in its path as it falls to the ground in destruction.

The smaller water oaks I left growing around the huge live oak are rapidly growing trees that use an enormous amount of water in their growth process. By allowing them to remain around the huge live oak, I was putting it in a position where it had it to compete with the thirsty water oaks for water. This not only forced the live oak to sink its roots deeper into the soil, but it helped limit its limb and foliage growth to that which its new root growth could support.

On the surface, my decision to do this may not have looked like the right one—it wasn’t pretty! However, it was a protective move I made to balance the tree’s limb and foliage growth—its fruit—with the development of its root system so it would be strong enough to withstand the storms that I—not the tree—knew would eventually come. The Lord does this very thing with us!

We’re all dealing with problems and frustrations in our lives—uncomfortable work environments, dysfunctional family situations, toxic people, slander, anxieties, and so on—that we’re constantly asking God to resolve, only to see our prayers go unanswered and our problems remain.

These problems are the water oaks in our lives, and the Lord leaves them in place for the same reason I did—so we’ll sink our roots deeper into Him and His word. His purpose is not to frustrate us, but to develop us to the point that we can handle the storms in our lives without falling.

But He also does this to prepare us to handle the enormous blessings He plans to bestow upon us without falling—the fruit of the dreams He places in our hearts.

Unless we’re sufficiently rooted in Him and His word, we can fall under the weight of His blessing as easily as we can in one of life’s storms—easier, in this day and age!

The dreams He places in our hearts are almost always followed by developmental difficulties—just as Joseph’s dream was in the book of Genesis.

Again, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, said the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”

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But sadly, too often, Debra and I see people in the Christian community looking down their noses at “friends” and family they see struggling, and making shortsighted judgements about them, their situations, and their decisions.

The offenders are usually the pharisaical-minded ones who’ve experienced some professional or financial success in their lives, measure their value by routinely comparing themselves to others—by their respective accomplishments—and display an elevated sense of self-worth. Again, this prideful behavior does not attract people to Christ—it repels them!

In Matthew 7:16-17, Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit.”

But when we have a true revelation of what Jesus did for us, we’re given a measure of humility that counters this prideful tendency to compare ourselves to others and judge people for their situations. This humility is also what enables us to acknowledge—confess—our faults and issues to others we’ve offended with our words and our behavior—and our judgments.

Acknowledging our faults, our issues, and our bad behaviors to God and those we’ve hurt creates the atmosphere required for the restoration of damaged relationships, while the humility it produces in us makes the removal of our issues less painful.

Acknowledging our faults is an act of humility that loosens our soil and allows God to begin pulling our weeds with less trauma to our soil—our soul. Pridefully keeping our faults and issues secret, however, and trying to fix them ourselves—when everyone around us can still see them—hardens our soil, while refusing to acknowledge our wrongdoing in conflicts with others can harden their soil.

Refusing to acknowledge our wrongdoing in conflicts is one of the fruits of the weed of pride. Failing to do so not only prevents the restoration of damaged relationships, but it almost guarantees that the removal of our issues will be more painful. Pride is a weed that quite literally ravages the soil of its nutrients and starves our humility plants, thus preventing them from ever producing any edible fruit for us and others.

When we try to restore relationships with people we’ve harmed—with the counterfeit kindness that arises in the absence of humility—we’re attempting to plant contaminated seeds of restoration in their soil—the surface of which we previously hardened with our hurtful words and behavior! Without first acknowledging our part in the conflict, our efforts not only fail to restore the relationship, but the person’s recognition of the contaminated seeds we’re attempting to plant can add to their anger and further harden their soil.

But if we acknowledge our part in the conflict first, it softens their soil and allows our genuine seeds of restoration to take root and grow, where they can choke out their weeds of hurt and anger and produce the fruit of restoration.

1 John 8-9 reads, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This is how restoration works in our relationship with the Lord, and it works the exact same way in our personal relationships.

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