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I ran away two times in my life. Once for a couple of hours, another time for a solid week. The first time I was in elementary school and got as far as the backyard. The second time I was at least 18 and made it to Daytona Beach. According to my dad, these were not solid run away attempts and really should not even be considered as such. When you are in elementary school and take your stuff to the backyard, it’s called camping. When you are 18 and go to Daytona, it’s called moving out. Needless to say, I am glad he wired me some money and let me move back in.

The first time, I was angry and knew that life on the mean dirt paths of Eastern NC in the 70s would be easier than living in the continued oppression I faced inside those walls – or as my father said, “under his roof.” Faced with the unrealistic expectations of keeping my room clean, picking up my clothes, and cutting the grass, I did the only reasonable thing for a child to do. I struck out on my own. Knowing that this whole running away thing could possibly end poorly, causing only more sanctions, I kept my options open and ran away to the dog pen in the backyard.

In the dog house.

It was a rather large doghouse – really big enough for five or six dogs. Just right for two dogs and a third grader. The straw was soft to sleep on and would keep me warm if it was a bit chilly. The dogs loved me and did not require much more than a scratch on the belly. This was a perfect plan. I would be completely out of sight, but close enough to hear their worried calls. And, if the heat became too much, I could sneak back to the house and act like nothing ever happened. So, I ran away 200 feet, to the doghouse.

The dogs acted like they appreciated me being there. It was nice. The straw was comfy and the company loving. As the sun began to set, the old doghouse got dark and I stretched out for the night. I remembered the good ole days building the doghouse with my dad. Money was tight, and he was resourceful, so we used boards out of the old barn behind our house. The same barn he told me never to go in because it was infested with black widow spiders and copperhead snakes. But I was sure that was nothing to worry about now.

Lying there with my grateful roommates, I thought about helping my dad dip the dogs each month for fleas and ticks. We had a good system. I would catch the dogs. He would put his hand over their eyes and dip them into a 50-gallon barrel of the worst smelling concoction imaginable. The flea shampoo bottle had a smiling dog and the word “happy” on it. How anything could be happy after being dipped in that stuff I didn’t know, but it was supposed to really do a number on fleas.

Reality setting in.

That evening as the sun set in the sky, I became aware of what the word “infestation” means. Those old boards from the barn, the hay I had hoped would offer a bit of warmth and comfort, and my grateful roommates all combined to create the ideal environment for fleas. There was no way any mild black widow spiders or copperheads could survive the living blanket of fleas that covered me and my bag of belongings. Even the dogs gave up hope and went to sleep under a tree.

I was recently reminded of my ill-fated attempt at running away as I read the minor prophet Joel. In his message, Joel describes a locust invasion that destroys the land and all hope of survival. His words paint a vivid picture of devastation, starvation, grief, and fear. He even urges the drunkards to wake and the wine drinkers to wail because the new wine has been removed from their lips. (Now is not the time to groan about the deep theological meaning of new vs old wine and let the truth get in the way of a good story). Friends, things were bad.

Lessons learned.

I try hard these days not to run away and lie down with dogs. If you do, I can assure you that you will get fleas. I am not sure I can tell you the difference between a cricket, a grasshopper, or a locust, but I am reminded daily of disasters in life that are as devastating as the locusts Joel spoke about; events that dry the vines of our souls and wither our joy. When I look at the face of a new child at Crossnore, I often see the vivid picture of grief and fear hiding behind the forced smile. Uncertain about their future, they laugh at my silly jokes, and I promise them it will get better.

It was not too long ago I watched a little boy sit beside his new cottage parent and cry. He was surrounded by kids his age all playing and having fun. He was new at Crossnore – new to the foster care system. I sat down with him, talked a bit, but mostly just listened. He did not understand this place, why he was here, and no one could tell him when he was going home. He told me that if he had just kept his mouth shut, he would still be with his mom. I suspect my new friend felt a lot like God’s people felt when the locust invaded – devastated, grieved, and afraid.

Days went by, and he threatened to run away. He yelled often and even used some colorful language. But he showed up to the community garden often. He participated in things like white water rafting and a trip to the Barter Theater. He enjoyed helping serve communion. I had to remind him that when someone took off more bread than he thought they should, he could not say, “The Body of Christ… Dang! How much are you going to take?!”  But, most importantly the tears left, and he began to smile. Behind that vivid picture of devastation, grief, and fear was an awkward, sometimes cussing, one little-front-tooth smile.

The message of hope.

Eventually Joel and the minor prophets all get around to a message of hope. At Crossnore, we skip straight to the end. We do not beat around the bush, stumble or crawl, we run straight to hope. Whether it is a cottage parent, therapist, case manager, weirdo campus pastor, Day Treatment counselor, an Advancement person who simply cannot say no, or maybe even a cottage dog, there is always someone who cares.

In every sense of the word, we are a Christian sanctuary of hope and healing for every child in our care. Sure, we have kids who want to run away and live with Chloe, the friendliest community dog around, or take off to Daytona for a week with just a few dollars in their pocket. But if they do (and when they do), I am prayerful that when the fleas or locust attack and the money runs out, they know who they can call.