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 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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
(Blogger’s Note: This long journey of walking, writing, and marketing comes mostly to a close in three days – at least this particular experience. Our Amazon Launch Day is Wednesday when we’ll get a fair measure about the kind of book Pilgrim Strong will become. As we promote and push over the next three days, I hope you’ll help spread the word to those who could use a good message about hope, truth, perseverance, and the true meaning of strength. Proper thanks is so important. Counting all who contributed to this book (especially several thousand friends across social media) is impossible, but the key players are mentioned below. )
A wise mentor once shared his beliefs that nobody achieves anything significant without the help of others, and there is no such thing as the self-made man. His realization is as true in book writing as anywhere else I know. There is so much gratitude to give for this two-year journey.
Thank you to each of my walking companions across those 500-plus miles, and for the stories we shared. My deepest thanks goes to Naomi White and Aïda Guerrero Rua, my Camino sisters. You will always be family.
A team of five committed they would pray for me each day during my walk, and indeed they did. Jim Jackson, Kathy Qualls, Steve Terrell, Keith Richardson, and Maria Blount—thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
The experience would not have been the same without the Facebook forum American
Pilgrims on Camino (APOC), a place that graciously allowed sharing daily thoughts about pilgrimage. APOC is an incredible resource.
Everything about Annie O’Neil makes me smile. Her documentary filmmaking is a creative inspiration and her friendship highly prized. Thank you for contributing to this work, Annie. You’re one of the great pilgrims.
My informal creative team is incredible. Brad Harris is a master wordsmith who’s helped me become a more thoughtful, relational writer. When I hired Brad five years ago, I needed a developmental editor. What I got was a real mentor and friend. Thanks also to Anita
Agers Brooks and Beth Jusino who allowed me to pick their brains in countless email exchanges. This book is better because of you both.
Visually, this work belongs to cover designer Jenn Reese, interior designer Colleen Sheehan, and freelance designer Hanne Pelletier. You three rock. Thank you for sharing your gifts and giving my work the perfect look.
Raney Rogers is the mild-mannered genius who produced all promotional trailers for Pilgrim Strong. Raney, you nailed it every single time. Thank you for understanding my vaguest visions, and producing work I could never create on my own. It would be in error not to mention the inspiration of Terry Watson, pastor of the Rock of Northeast Arkansas from whom I diligently take notes each Sunday. He stimulated much of the creative thinking for the topics of monotony and proving ground detailed in chapters twenty-four and twenty-five.
Finally—my family. Thanks to my mom who has an unblemished streak of fifty-one years now as my trusted cheerleader. She has never once failed me. To my children, Adam, Emma, and Sophie—there is hope for the world in each of you. I love you to the core of my soul.
And to my wife, Dana. Suddenly, words fail me. Thank you for saving my life, and then for encouraging me to live. I’m so blessed you came along. Every man should know the love of a woman like you. I love you to eternity.
Josh White has faced difficulties that few will ever know. He served a tough tour of military service in Iraq where his Humvee took a direct hit, fought the night terrors of PTSD, and battled depression and addictions through the years readjusting to life in a civilian world that he says has no rules or structure for war veterans.
But none of it compares to the moment three weeks ago when he stared helplessly at the last $2 in his hand and feeling a complete failure.
He remembers looking at his wife in bed that night and apologizing.
“The last thing I remember feeling that night was complete emptiness and embarrassment. There was nothing else.”
Just two hours before, Josh did something extraordinary. He’d given their last $2 away.
Things had never been easy during Josh’s return to civilian life. But he’d persisted enough to get his life headed back on track. He’d been drug-free more than a year, re-established a relationship with his ex-wife, gone from homeless to having a nice three-bedroom home, landed a job with the city maintenance department, and the family now had two new working vehicles.
“I felt like we’d really turned the corner in so many ways,” he said.
When an injury prevented Josh from working earlier this year, the family’s financial situation was tight again, but nothing ever challenged Josh like the Veteran’s Administration letter he received on May 18.
The VA claimed he’d violated the conditions of a felony release from years ago and ruled to terminate his benefits immediately. The ruling caught him completely off guard, especially because of his involvement with a local program that helps keeps veterans on the right side of the law, and he’d been faithful to the program.
“There was no way it could be right, but it was a government agency’s word against mine, so what are you going to do?” he said. “It was devastating.”
As the bills quickly grew, Josh’s biggest burden became not knowing how to provide his family with the basic necessities. “I remember looking up one day and just saying, ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.'”
Through his most difficult times with PTSD, Josh said he never questioned his faith in God, but would sometimes wonder what he’d done to deserve so many tough breaks. “I knew I wasn’t doing all the things I needed to do, and going to church and being active in church was one of them,” he said.
“I just remember looking up one day and saying, ” ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.’ “
As they realized the desperate nature of their situation, Josh’s wife looked at him one Wednesday afternoon and said, “Looks to me like we ought to be back in church.” He agreed.
“When we pulled into the parking lot that night, I reached into my pocket and found the $2, looked at Brandi, and said, ‘This is it. That’s all there is.’ And we made the decision right there to give it to the church. I just said a quick prayer and said, ‘Lord, bless this and bless it abundantly.’ And we gave it away and that was that. We were broke.”
The next four days were some of the most difficult the young family had faced.
“My only thought was I’m not going to be able to take care of my family, where is my next dollar going to come from, where is my family’s next meal going to come from? I was injured, depressed, mentally exhausted and couldn’t stop wondering what I’d done to deserve all this. But I can honestly say the night we gave the money away I gave that situation to God and completely turned it over to Him. There was nothing else I could do. I was empty, and genuinely crying out to God.”
Five days later Josh received another letter from the VA and a local senator that read just as shockingly as the first.
The agency made a mistake in its ruling against Josh, the letter said, and found cause to award him $43,000 in cash benefits. When Josh checked his online bank account the records showed a direct deposit made less than six hours after he’d given the $2 to his church.
His first thought (and fear) was there had been some terrible mistake, so he immediately fought through the maze of bureaucracy and automated telephone voice prompts to clear the confusion. When someone finally came on the line, Josh told them the money wasn’t his.
“The lady on the other end of the line said she couldn’t explain the money, and saw no real reason for it, but also could find no reason the agency should reclaim it. She even went and got her supervisor and the only advice they could offer after a long time was that we should use the money to pay our outstanding debts.
“You can imagine all the things running through my mind at that moment,” he said.
The family has since paid $18,000 in debt and eliminated a $2,000 loan taken to pay monthly bills last May, and they’re using the unforeseen circumstances to start a new life.
“We never lost faith during the whole time. It wasn’t easy and I’ve had my share of shortcomings, but we never lost our faith. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to explain the money.”
(Note: This list of principles isn’t something I sit around and study, pour over daily, or even consciously consider, but rather an articulation of words expressing practices that have come naturally over time. Sometimes, in my own spiritual journey, I find it’s important to write these things down. That’s really all this is. Nothing more, nothing less.)
A general distaste for labels aside, I am a Christian whose identity is in Christ. I claim it without pride, superiority, self-righteous indignation, guilt or shame. I claim Christ as my only saving grace and aspire to follow Him. We communicate in words and so Christian is as good a word as any for what I am. I’ve found none better.
I’d also wager that because of a growing movement in my own tribe I’m considered by many as a soft, weak, even an unpatriotic Christian. The juxtaposition of those latter two words doesn’t even really work, but that’s where we are today – an entirely different topic. “Libtard.” “Moron.” Suffering from “cranial-rectal syndrome.” Those are a few things other Christ followers have called me, or said about me lately.
“Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35
It’s possible during the last couple of years I’ve had upwards of a hundred conversations with non-Christians. Atheists. Agnostics. People of other non-Christian faiths. Frankly, they’re among the most constructive conversations I’ve enjoyed, and in many cases the quality of these people’s character is unsurpassed.
If you’re a Christian who’s never entertained a deep conversation with a non-Christian, you should try it. What non-Christians see in the “Christian” community, and the conversation they’ll engage you in as a result might just test you more than you know. Try, without judgment, to explain Christian evangelical support for some high-profile things non-Christians have seen in the last two years. Imagine, without emotion, how you might explain your belief system in those various contexts.
I’ve done it dozens of times, and will do it dozens more, and I’m okay with it, but it ain’t easy. I had one such conversation last night with a couple that I adore and care about as much as family.
Consistently, non-Christians express three ideas about this distaste for the faith. They say:
- That we almost never practice what we preach;
- That we claim forgiveness without repentance. (Those aren’t the words they use, but that’s what they mean.) and;
- They say that we rub God in their faces with language such as “God did this, or God did that,” as if He micromanages the minutia of our daily lives. Did God really cause you to find your keys? Then he also caused you to lose them, right?
Because I’m frequently in these situations (and welcome them) it’s been more important than ever to find the clearest ways to articulate the who, what, where, when, why, and how of my Christian belief. It begins with knowing those things myself, not only how to express them, but how to live them. Witness is how it might be best described.
And here’s an uncomfortable confession: While I’ve never been more at peace with my beliefs based on bible study, church attendance, and the guiding of the Holy Spirit, I often tell non-Christians that I’m not the “typical” Christian. And I don’t even know if that’s really the right thing to say, or even if it’s good or bad, but it’s surely how it feels. Ah, the struggles of imperfection. Some things we’ll never understand on this side of the realm.
Since life is less about what we say (although, yes, words do very much matter) than it is about what we do, the following are some guiding principles I try to practice in being the kind of Christian I believe God wants to see in me. I fail at these things, yet try, … in no particular order of importance:
- Know what you believe, and why you believe it. Period.
- Be quick to apologize.
- Listen without judgment and never, never, never condemn.
- Understand every person you see is wounded and in need of a friend.
- Avoid “we vs. them” language and move through conversations slowly.
- Know that doubt is a part of faith and ultimately causes growth.
- If you remain inside four walls, the only thing you’ll ever see or know is the same four walls.
- Don’t be a hypocrite. Keep convictions and actions consistent and be hyper vigilant about it. It’s that simple.
- Be charitable, but low profile. Don’t shout your good deeds from the mountaintop.
- Remember, someone is always watching. See #9 above.
- Create for yourself a mission-field mindset the moment you walk away from the bathroom mirror each morning. This mission begins after you brush your teeth.
- Have a world view, and lose the false notion that God has some kind of special fondness for your homeland.
- In the emotional valleys, remember that the vine dresser prunes the vine so new and better fruit can grow.
- Be the cheerleader you always needed. We’re at our best when we’re cheering for others, plus, everyone needs a cheerleader.
- Jesus is the model. Live like Him. How I live like Jesus is determined by how I learn about Jesus and how I learn about Jesus is entirely up to me. But live like Jesus.