Beyond the Me

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. – Robert Evans

You’d think after thirty years in print journalism writing thousands of newspaper stories and interviewing at least a half-dozen people every day it would be no big deal sitting down and writing a book. Instead of one story it’s just a more thorough exercise writing several dozen stories across a few hundred pages. Same thing, but more. That’s what I thought, too, and it’s one of the most misguided notions my brain ever conjured up.

My first book, Pilgrim Strong, was a memoir account about a Spanish pilgrimage where people from all over the world converge and walk anywhere from a hundred to a thousand miles or more.* The Way of St. James concludes in Santiago de Compostela where legend says the bones of St. James, apostle of Jesus are interred. 

The experience of walking across a country in a place where cultures, philosophies, and all sorts of belief systems collide ignited an all-new storytelling passion. On arrival back home I organized hundreds of notes into categories that looked vaguely like a book. A few days later I pulled up a chair to write that first book. The words flowed almost effortlessly, thousands at a sitting.

About ten thousand words into the manuscript I shipped the first seven chapters to my long-time editor, Brad Harris, who is both a magnificent teacher and scathing critic all in one. Brad has always given me permission to let him know just how brutal he may be

With my primary style and content editor, Brad Harris. This was our very first meeting almost seven years ago!

with his editorial comments. We use a one to ten scale and as we move through the process I direct him to dial his harshness up or down. His reply came in around a nine and it devastated me.

“I’m amazed at the great fondness you have for yourself,” he wrote. “If I see another “I” or “me” in this text I’ll stick a dull butter knife in my neck. Get over yourself.”

But it’s a memoir. What does he expect? I’m supposed to tell my story. How do you write a memoir outside a first-hand account? I struggled with the critique for days, then pretty much went on just as before.

A few weeks later we met at Brad’s favorite downtown Memphis cafe* where I asked him how I’m supposed to get around taking myself out of a memoir detailing my own experiences. And he did something then I’ll never forget.

“Describe for me what’s happening outside that window,” Brad said, sitting back patiently as if he’d just cast a line into his favorite fishing hole.

For the next few moments I went on to describe the dozens of scenes I saw, how they made me feel, even what I suspected might be going on in the university building across the street, the weather and the mood it aroused. It was a foggy, gray, fall-season morning in the South and it evoked a sleepy mood. Looking over his glasses, hands clasped across his mid-section, he let me go on a bit.

“Stop,” he said, a little drama in his tone.

“Now you’ve just done a great job explaining everything through your eyes and from your perspective,” Brad said. “This time, take yourself out of the scene, stop thinking about what you see, and tell me what’s happening out there. I want you to go beyond the me.”

In the second description I imagined myself hovering above it all looking down as an uninvolved observer. Somewhere in the description I completely forgot about myself and directed every ounce of focus to some imaginary person listening with great interest. In the new scene I was absent, and it was all about the other person. It felt like inviting someone to come along for a walk while holding hands.

Finishing the narrative, I turned to Brad.

“Now you’re telling a story, lad.* Well done.” (He loves calling me lad.)

Brad’s lesson over a western omelette, hash browns, and coffee that day changed my writing and much about my perspective on life. I see things, especially people and circumstances, differently now.

***

It’s a mystery why we view others the ways we often do. And it’s just as great a mystery why we feel so compelled to put on a facade of strength and act as if everything’s okay in our life when we could really use a friend. Listen to the greetings that get exchanged in your church lobby next Sunday morning, or the small talk at your weekly Rotary Club. You’d think no one has a problem in the world!

Rare is the case on social media where you’ll see someone get honest and transparent about a serious issue in their life and ask for prayer or help. Even less frequently do we convey our mistakes. Instead, we see images of perfect families practically always on vacation, every other day a celebration of something great and everyone’s beautiful. Everyone is #livinthedream if you gauge things by Instagram. This, despite the fact everyone knows that’s not nearly our life’s whole story. Why are we so reluctant to talk about and share adversity and pain? Moreover, what makes us view ourselves as less broken and not nearly as mixed up than our neighbor? Psychologists have studied this for years.

Think about all the stereotypes and those who get looked down upon most. Stay-at-home parents don’t do “real” work while working moms don’t spend enough time with their children. Drug addicts may receive their harshest judgment from overweight people who lust after food as if pornography. My personal favorite? One person refers to another as a moron* in the process creating a plural with an apostrophe and misspelling two words all in a single sentence. There’s something in our nature that says, …I may have a minor issue or two but at least I’m not as bad as that guy.

Researchers say whenever we make a big decision, particularly one requiring a substantial investment of time or resources, that we rationalize, idealizing the choice we made, and devaluing the one we rejected. For example, someone who chooses to rent a condo instead of buying a house will increasingly see more value in things like mobility, and less value in long payment plans that go toward ownership. Because almost anything we do is likely to have some downsides, it’s a mechanism that brings satisfaction instead of a constant longing for the things we don’t choose.

It’s interesting how this theory applies as we’ll even rationalize a key component of God’s economy when it comes to our free will, bad choices, and forgiveness.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

New American Standard Bible

We frequently distort this verse’s meaning to one that implies everything happens for  reason. It’s a wonderful way to justify and gloss over our mistakes by way of some mystic power that predetermines our every move and declares all things were meant to be. But that’s not how God works because he’s a God who loves us enough to grant our free will. We get to live our own lives. And just when we’ve screwed things up so badly it seems there’s no way out, our acknowledgment of those mistakes causes God to play the grace card. Through the worst, most awful, and the darkest circumstances we may create God turns on a light and makes a way out. He makes all things, the good and the bad, come together for His glory.

It manifests a problem, however, when the rationalization creates a rift between people who make different choices. Even if we don’t directly tell someone the reasons we disagree with their choices we may internalize feelings that can manifest in subtle ways. It’s a superiority complex that causes us to look down on others. All this in spite of the truth that God calls us to serve, not judge one another, and pay the grace forward.

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No Matter What, No Matter Where

But forget all that … For I’m going to do a brand-new thing. See, I have already begun! Don’t you see it? I will make a road through the wilderness of the world for my people to go home and create rivers for them in the desert. –Isaiah 43:18-19, The Living Bible 

 

Sitting there almost mesmerized, it was as if we were eye witnesses to freedom.

Whatever your level of spiritual maturity there’s an uneasiness that goes with visiting new churches and we’d spent most Sundays during 2015 as visiting strangers hoping to remain low-profile. We’d watched one church fight itself into a split, and another required that an elder certify our salvation for membership so the wounds were fairly fresh. We’d settled into this new church for more than three months now and sensed it might be the one.

But something in the atmosphere was different in the moments leading to this service. The worship team entered the platform more focused than usual and volunteers moved swiftly up and down the aisles greeting late-arrivals and newcomers and exchanging occasional glances as if nodding green lights of approval. There was a buzz in the air as a visual five-minute digital countdown launched ticking down the seconds on massive screens to each side of the platform.

My heart was completely unprepared for what happened next.

As the worship team made its way through a verse or two of a song called Reckless Love, individual members of a group known as Celebrate Recovery*, recognized for its work helping break habits, hurts, and hangups, walked out stage front one after another. Each held a large cardboard sign marked in heavy black ink with words describing a life they’d left behind. A man I’d known for years walked out before hundreds and humbly held a sign labeling himself a liar, thief, and drug pusher. A young woman followed with her sign, that read “crushed by the guilt of abortion.” Another came next, the sign declaring him a sex addict. “So depressed I tried suicide twice,” read another. One after another they came frontward with labeled identities and moved into rows on the platform. There must have been fifty people on stage.

This is the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed, I thought, and tears streamed a steady flow. 

As the last member took his place in line the music reached a crescendo and in a single, coordinated motion each face changed expression and every sign flipped in unison. Now, the new sign for the drug pusher read, “clean, self-employed, Celebrate Recovery leader.” The guilt of abortion was replaced with “forgiven by God’s amazing grace.” A former sex-addict is declared “porn-free.” Hundreds stood cheering in the most anointed moment I’ve known.

In the midst of it all came the strangest feeling of misbelonging. Watching as the group members came one by one presenting themselves in a void of pretense acknowledging past mistakes, I felt guilty observing as if a judge. I belong up there with them, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on his own place as chief of sinners came to mind. Never have I witnessed a more defining example of God’s redemption, grace, and the power of testimony among average, ordinary, and broken people— the kind God has always used most.

***

There was a great sense of gratitude two years later when Celebrate Recovery invited me as guest speaker for their five-year anniversary. I’d just finished my first book focusing much on my own experience with chronic depression and the celebratory pilgrimage I took along the Camino de Santiago and in the early stages of recovery. It was that long five-hundred-mile walk where God put me on a new path to understanding, a genuine relationship with Jesus, and a burning appetite for His truth. And like so many in Celebrate Recovery I was set free from guilt, shame, and a debilitating depression. Because they’d had such an enduring impact on me from their presentation years earlier I worked for days on a thoughtful message I hoped to leave with them. What’s the truest thing I can share? As it turns out, it’s the same message I remember feeling right there in the church pews two years earlier.

We all carry a sign every day. Whether we have the courage to acknowledge, and do something about it is up to us. God’s not looking at our resume, our past performance, the number of chamber of commerce awards on our office wall, or even the number of times we knew what was right, but did the wrong thing anyway. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, a single, heartfelt cry for help unleashes the same power that created the universe. No one is beyond forgiveness or another second chance. Our past doesn’t define us, but it refines us. He promises to make a way through the wilderness.

Indeed, we’re all in recovery.

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The Story of Daniel Brown

 

Daniel didn’t have a phone number, but he at least wanted to exchange contact information, so he gave me this slip of paper with his name.

As we turned east down the access road a fresh spring breeze rushed through our partially rolled-down windows and the morning sun radiated warmly through the windshield. In the passenger seat, Daniel Brown thumped a cigarette and reached down into his cloth backpack for an already opened silver aluminium can of Always Save citrus drink. He turned it up for a long, satisfying swallow.

“Pretty good deal for thirty-seven cents,” he looked at me with a smile. “Found forty cents on the sidewalk back at the grocery store and thought I’d treat myself to drink. Sure is good.”

The twenty minutes we spent together seemed oddly ordained. Sometimes we believe we’re doing someone a favor. Then the blessing gets pointed at you.

***

Earlier that morning and as part of the daily routine I’d scratched out a rough to-do list. But today’s list focused on chores that would take advantage of the welcome sunshine and hope for the end of a winter season that seemed it might never end. There were garden seed to buy, a bit of hardware for hammock hanging, and just a day earlier I’d seen mini-palm trees on sale at Harp’s Grocery Store for $9.99. The palm tree sale happens every year and is a heck of a deal. They are always a centerpiece for summer landscaping around our backyard pool.

Loading the trees into the back of my old El Camino a man came up from behind with a question.

“Sir, you’re not by chance headed over toward the Social Security Office are you?” he asked. 

“No, actually I’m headed directly in the opposite direction. I’m sorry,” I replied, thankful for a quick excuse. 

“That’s okay. Have a nice day, sir.”

Reaching for another palm from the shipping pallet, I watched as the man walked back toward the store, sat on a bench, and put a backpack in his lap. He seemed perfectly at peace.

Then as if on cue, a vivid picture of guilty contrasts raced through my mind.

Here’s a man on a bike, obviously in need. He can’t have much money, and he needs a hand. It’s perilous riding a bike in this town, and the Social Security Office is a good five miles away.

I’m buying palm trees to landscape a luxury swimming pool, driving one of three cars I own and bought at auction two months ago because I thought it would be cool having a car named El Camino, and I have all the time in the world.

I looked toward him again and saw the same manner in his eyes. Peace.

About that time, that voice you sometimes hear telling you exactly what you should do rather than what you’re about to do made itself perfectly clear. I growled under my breath a second, and surrendered. 

“Mr., if you don’t mind going in the other direction while I drop these at my house, I can run an errand toward the Social Security Office and we can get you there,” I said.

“I sure appreciate that. Can I put my bike in the back of your car there?”

“Sure.”

The next ten minutes transcended every expectation offering up another test so clear it’s embarrassing acknowledging it was a choice.

***

As we drove toward home Daniel Brown strapped on his seat belt and introduced himself with a hand shake. They were hands from many years of manual labor.

“This is mighty nice of you, mister. I rode here from Paragould and am having a time getting my disability payments started. The people in this town aren’t too friendly toward bikers.”

Daniel complimented my old car and asked a few questions about my occupation and plans for the day. For small talk, Daniel made it all sound down right genuine. He saw a copy of my book, Pilgrim Strong, in the seat, flipped through it a moment and asked what it meant to be on pilgrimage, and I gave him the elevator pitch just about any author gives when someone asks about their book. Briefly, I told him about experiencing depression and some things I do to fight that tendency. Shifting the topic I asked Daniel what kind of disability brought on his hardship.

“They’re mostly mental issues,” he said. “I have a lot of anxiety and can’t make decisions very well, spent some time in prison and it’s hard getting a second chance in the world after something like that. Had ADD as a kid, but back then nobody knew anything about that and all daddy knew to do was whip my ass. It really wasn’t his fault, you know.” 

Daniel said he lived at the Salvation Army and didn’t have a lot of connection to the outside world. “They’re pretty nice to us down there, though.”

Where do I take this from here, and what do I do now? The voice returned.

***

Taking someone by the hand, looking them in the eye, and asking if I might pray for them right then and there in a public place has never been my go-to approach for helping people. I admire those who do it, and see it as a real gift. Maybe it’s a modest Methodist raising, shyness, or the fear that comes with spiritual rejection, but it’s always been easier fixing these moments giving money, sharing some food, or just taking someone somewhere as I was now doing with Daniel. But for the next several minutes and with our destination approaching fast the voice was clear.

You need to pray for this man.

As we reached the Social Security Office I told Daniel about a program called Celebrate Recovery. Our church operates a strong chapter for people who have experienced all kinds of peaks and valleys in life, and I told him I’d take him there soon. He enthusiastically agreed and we exchanged contacts.

Through the window Daniel reached for a final handshake and I asked him if we might pray a moment. 

“You would do that for me?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

We held hands and I thanked God for the way He brings people together. I thanked Him for the knowledge that what he sees most is our hearts, not our good intentions, our hang-ups, not even our failures or the times when we know what’s right, but do what’s wrong, anyway. And together we thanked him that even through Daniel’s time in the wilderness, God is making a path for him and that He’s about to do a new thing in Daniel’s life. He is making a way.

Daniel wiped a tear and said, “I sure am glad we met. I’m going to have a good day now and feel so much better already. Let’s go to that Celebrate Recovery.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

I thought I was helping Daniel. Turns out he poured grace and blessing on me.

Yo so el camino, y la verdad, y la vida. – Jesus

Hamtramck, Michigan – This is America.

Gracious hosts on holiday are allowing me the warm convenience of their home in Hamtramck, Michigan for our Detroit swing of the Pilgrim Strong book tour. This community is lovely, fascinating, and, in so many ways, shows our country at its best. A few quick facts from Wikipedia, and some photos from a morning walk:

  • Known in the 20th century as a vibrant center of Polish American life and culture, Hamtramck has continued to attract immigrants, especially Bangladeshis. In 2015 its city council became the first majority Muslim city council in the U.S.

Typical frontage on main street.

  • Hamtramck is named for the French-Canadian soldier Jean François Hamtramck who was the first American commander of Fort Shelby, the fortification at Detroit. It was originally known as Hamtramck Township.
  • Hamtramck was originally settled by German farmers, but Polish immigrants flooded into the area when the Dodge Brothersplant opened in 1914. Poles used to make up a large proportion of the population. It is sometimes confused with Poletown, a traditional Polish neighborhood, which used to lie mostly in the city of Detroit and includes a small part of Hamtramck. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, 14.5% of Hamtramck’s population is of Polish origin; in 1970, it was 90% Polish. Over the past thirty years, a large number of immigrants from the Middle East (especially Yemen), South Asia (especially Bangladesh), and Southeastern Europe (especially Bosnia and Herzegovina) have moved to the city. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, the city’s foreign born population stood at 41.1%, making it Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.

Typical Hamtramck neighborhood. Seems peaceful with lots of co-existence.

  • A recent survey found 26 native languages spoken by Hamtramck schoolchildren.
  • In 1997, the Utne Reader named Hamtramck one of “the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada” in part for its punk and alternative music scene, its Buddhist temple, its cultural diversity, and its laid back blue-collar neighborhoods.

Yard sign indicative of this community’s spirit. May I say, “Amen?”

Beef Gallaba from a Yemeni restaurant. Oh, so good.

After lunch, the kitchen chef brought me a cup of tea. I don’t know what’s in this stuff, but it’s easily the most fantastic cup of tea I’ve ever enjoyed. Nothing close.

Burek. Bought this for supper tonight. Basically a meat pie that originates somewhere along the Balkan peninsula. This one is stuffed with meat and cheese. How can you go wrong?

Finally, I noticed this on my host’s bookshelf and thought I should take a photo. Likely to never see my name next to HDT again. HAHA!

Pilgrim Strong Book Party in Nashville

Thanks to pilgrim friends Hal Humphreys and Kim Green for all the gracious hospitality at their home last weekend as we kicked off the Pilgrim Strong Book Tour. Thanks also to REI CO-OP for hosting our Getting Pilgrim Strong on the Camino de Santiago class. We’ll end our book tour right back where we started in Nashville this November. Until then, onward!

A few photos from Hal and Kim’s.

 

With Hal. True pilgrim. Fantastic chef!

Spanish cuisine so authentic we thought were in Navarra!

On the ride from Jonesboro to Nashville. Of course she takes a great photo of her. Meanwhile, I chew on jerky with a large, blurred head.

I love this photo. Just makes me feel good.

I get so much credit, but no will will ever know how much a part of this Dana has been. This is a “we” project, as is pretty much everything we do.

Ten Things I Think I Was Wrong About

  • Time alone  – Up to around age 40 I never wished to be alone. Always needed people around. I think it was part of the only-child upbringing. But since then, not only have I grown comfortable with alone time, there are seasons when it’s completely necessary. Time alone makes us better for all those around us and it reacquaints us with who we are and what we’re here for.

 

  • George W. Bush – He came during  a time when I viewed things from an Us vs. Them perspective. It’s a part of actually growing up, I think. We must always have a battle. Bush wasn’t the most intellectual president by a long stretch, but after the fact, he strikes me a decent man, flawed, imperfect, yet with a good heart. He made mistakes, but Bush had core beliefs. I think we long for leadership with core beliefs today.

 

  • Christianity – When a radio personality asked author Donald Miller to defend Christianity, he simply said no. “Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people?  Some of these ten will have had terrible experiences with Christianity. They may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, Christianity means something that I will not defend.” For the most part, Christianity is a contrived, evolving label. Some friends will call me a heretic at the very thought. But it’s true. I’m learning that I need not be the defender of Christianity. Jesus didn’t found Christianity. He founded the gospel because he IS the gospel and he IS the truth. The Christian label’s subversion is a big part of a modern-day problem. I’m no longer sure I need to be a Christian. I’d rather follow Jesus.

 

  • Rev. Billy Graham – It wasn’t uncommon for ABC to air Billy Graham’s massive revival events on prime time television during my youth.  My, how times have changed for ABC. Memory recalls they were generally aired live Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. and would interrupt Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley. I was just a kid. I never liked that Billy Graham took my TV time, plus his language sounded so harsh to a kid raised in a small-town Methodist Church. I grew to love Billy Graham over the years. What an extraordinary man and a life well lived.

 

  • Coffee — didn’t drink it for some forty-seven years. Now part of my daily routine.

 

  • Depression – I once believed it was a made-up excuse for the weak. People who’ve never had depression can’t understand it. Following my own experience, sharing it, and hearing from others who have also been there, I’d rank it as one of our top ten national epidemics. If you’re sitting in a room with a hundred people, 20-25 have experienced, or will experience, depression.

 

  • Being part of the least – As a kid I dreamed of becoming successful in business, owning a jet, and flying here and there to business meetings. I wanted to be somebody. Over time, as I’ve come to a greater understanding of the gospel, and honestly what fulfills me most, it is serving others. Maybe it’s cooking a big meal or helping people in time of need, or just making someone more comfortable. The great paradox of the gospel message is that the least become the opposite of how they are perceived. Greg Murtha’s Out of the Blue is a great read on this topic.

 

  • “Bird watchers” always seemed so uncool. So of course, over the years, I’ve now become an amateur birder. Birding is actually pretty cool and I’m hopeful that one year before I’m gone I can dedicate 365 days to a Big Year.

 

  • That when it comes to doors, you should always pray God will open them – This may sound weird, but over time, I’ve prayed much more frequently that God would close doors. I’m fond of the Jabez prayer that says “expand my territory,” but I also believe in prayers for closed doors.

 

  • That journalism was something I did as a fall back because writing was the only gift I had. I now realize that writing was always my calling and that the privilege of putting words before people’s eyes is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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