When Religion Makes You Think Too Much

 

It’s worth noting at the beginning my sensitivity to this topic. It began in 2012 when a well-intentioned, but misguided church pastor literally walked away from my dying father’s request for baptism.  There is no more anger. Over the years, I have understood this moment for what it was.

Fast forward six years.

Dana and I were working a  three-month term of volunteer service at a facility in Santiago de Compostela, Spain known for its welcoming atmosphere, peaceful environment, and Christian foundation. This is not a place that pushes religion on you, but it ideally operates as if Jesus managed it. We often said we hoped visitors experienced Jesus when they walked through the door. It’s also worth noting that the founders of this facility were abroad on business during these three months, and had they been there, none of this likely would have happened.

As I mentioned, Dana and I were volunteers working with several full-time staff members. We greeted visitors, helped them with travel issues, helped them understand the city, and other basic needs. Volunteerism is a commendable thing, but you also have to remember your place. You are there to assist, not necessarily lead. You are on someone else’s turf.

Several weeks into our service, a young man from Portugal came in. After helping him with some logistical issues, he began a conversation along spiritual lines. The young man mentioned he’d been on pilgrimage for three weeks, stopped in three churches to request baptism, and was denied each time. He was confounded how this could happen.

“Can you baptize me here?” he asked.

I asked a few questions exploring his faith a bit more. My judgment was that he’d had a genuine experience out there that fully merited his request.

I should have handled it right then and there. It was so exciting. What a moment this will be, I thought. We will remember it forever. It even crossed my mind that this was the reason we were called so far from home. Yes, I should have handled it right there. Were it to repeat, that’s exactly what I’d do.

But in the moment, I decided the best protocol was to quickly explain the scenario to a full-time staffer and let him and others move this process forward. There was no question in my mind they’d do so, and it was the respectful thing to do.

So I led Carlito into a conversation with the senior staff member on duty and went back to the desk, listening intently, and excited about Carlito’s decision.

Carlito described his frustration with the three churches who would have no part in his baptism. He did not wish to be catholic. He wished to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I counted this a real sign of his understanding.

At this point, it might be helpful to explain what baptism is, and what it is not.

It is not:

•Membership in a denominational church

•A magical moment of conversion

•Even particularly necessary for  one’s salvation

It is:

•A symbolic profession of faith carried out as a result of a previous experience

•Agreement that one believes in Christ Jesus, His deity as the Son of God, his death as atonement for sin, and his resurrection ,and place at God’s right hand today

•A milestone moment on which a Christian can reflect

Our staffer, a well-educated, deep-thinking scholar and Christian evangelical from Tennessee walked Carlito though conversation. I eventually heard him explaining how baptism is an act of community, and should be performed in community. He encouraged him to return home, find a church, explore his faith further and invest in a place where he could serve. There was so much talking, and so little acting.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would be the fourth time Carlito was refused baptism. He left later that day never knowing the difference.  I was sick to my stomach.

So much theology!

It doesn’t take a special set of circumstances or a certain environment to profess your faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t care if you are fully immersed, or sprinkled, or if you are in a church of five thousand, or with a friend in the woods. Jesus cares for the condition of your heart, and asks that you take a step in faith to know Him.

Our faith has never been about the rules, or the guidelines, or the principles. Just as it is not about your resume or list of achievements. We come to the place where we realize that we are not enough, and we need a helper. A simple decision, not a ceremony.

Don’t overthink Jesus.

-30-

 

 

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.

-30-

 

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

Pilgrim Strong – The People Who Didn’t Get a Byline

(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. )

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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

With Annie O’Neil at the 2016 Hot Springs Film Festival. Annie authored the Pilgrim Strong foreword.

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

With my primary style and content editor, Brad Harris.

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.

-30-

We Were Genuinely Crying Out to God

 

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.

***

Josh and Brandi White

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.”

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Am a Christian: A Confession and 15 Personal Principles

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-3-07-14-pm

(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

Haha.

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:

  1. That we almost never practice what we preach;
  2. That we claim forgiveness without repentance. (Those aren’t the words they use, but that’s what they mean.) and;
  3. 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?
This morning's sunrise over the foothills of the Andes mountain range is as good a visual as any to pop in here for some variety.

This morning’s sunrise over the foothills of the Andes mountain range is as good a visual as any to pop in here for some variety.

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:

  1. Know what you believe, and why you believe it. Period.
  2. Be quick to apologize.
  3. Listen without judgment and never, never, never condemn.
  4. Understand every person you see is wounded and in need of a friend.
  5. Avoid “we vs. them” language and move through conversations slowly.
  6. Know that doubt is a part of faith and ultimately causes growth.
  7. If you remain inside four walls, the only thing you’ll ever see or know is the same four walls.
  8. Don’t be a hypocrite. Keep convictions and actions consistent and be hyper vigilant about it. It’s that simple.
  9. Be charitable, but low profile. Don’t shout your good deeds from the mountaintop.
  10. Remember, someone is always watching. See #9 above.
  11. 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.
  12. Have a world view, and lose the false notion that God has some kind of special fondness for your homeland.
  13. In the emotional valleys, remember that the vine dresser prunes the vine so new and better fruit can grow.
  14. Be the cheerleader you always needed. We’re at our best when we’re cheering for others, plus, everyone needs a cheerleader.
  15. 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.

-30-

Praying for a Closed Door

There’s nothing that excites me more than a good idea. And one of the things I’ve learned to guard against is my own propensity to get carried away with an idea that stirs the heart. Sometimes, I can go for months with no such inspiration. In other seasons, the “good ideas” will break and ebb perpetually as waves on the beach.

When an idea evolves to opportunity, it’s often exciting, but perilous ground.

In 50 years it’s become evident when something that feels like a good idea pours into my heart, it’s best to resist a natural urge to go with a gut instinct that almost always wants to bore full steam ahead. Some call it patience, or a process of discernment, or even the kind of wisdom that comes with age. I often call it excruciating agony.

But I’ve made enough of those kinds of mistakes that it comes easier than it once did. Thank God for his grace and freedom that permits our mistakes and wrong turns.

As Dana and I walked the Camino a few weeks ago, I meditated and prayed on two or

I love taking photos of doors across the Camino. It seems they take on a greater meaning to the Spaniards than in other places across the world.

I love taking photos of doors across the Camino. It seems they take on a greater meaning to the Spaniards than in other places across the world.

three ideas that have ebbed and flowed through my heart for a few years now. While each had the potential to fulfill a unique calling I feel toward my own purpose, my relatively new proclivity to patience, and the desire to get it exactly right the next time around have created a kind of extended “holding pattern” that’s been both uncomfortable and peaceful at the same time.  It’s an odd enigma that feels strangely normal now, and pours out of a heartfelt desire to follow what’s most real in my life.

One of those ideas has long involved the acquisition of neighborhood commercial property just two blocks from our home. It’s an ideal place for living out a calling Dana and I both sense in our lives – one of those rare things that comes almost naturally with no effort at all. In the times it’s come available in recent years and when my juices would flow, something always said, “Wait, wait, wait. It’s not your time just yet.” So I’ve waited. I meditated on this circumstance a lot as we walked.

One night on the Camino as we overnighted in Mañeru, a small village just outside Puenta la Reina, I enjoyed the best night’s sleep we’d had since the trek began. The bed was comfortable, the room was absent the stuffiness we’d experienced for the several preceding nights, and the proprietors were kind and gracious. There were even enough spare pillows around to create the nightly nest I’m accustomed to back home. The good sleep brought a transcendent peace.

Less than a handful of times I’ve experienced dreams (for lack of a better term) that were more real than reality. At times, they’ve been as vivid and clear as the most beautiful day in your life. Last year, I wrote about one such experience here. Others, like this one, brought a less resplendent confirming peace that satisfies a restless soul like few things I’ve ever known.

That night, I felt the voice of the Holy Spirit telling me the property back home would be available to me when we returned, and the “time” was now. And it didn’t feel remotely abrupt. It was dream-like, yet not a dream. It sounds weird, but it wasn’t. When I awoke, I said, “okay,” and we walked on. The experience was as real as the blisters I’d been nursing for days now, yet graciously didn’t overwhelm the pilgrimage experience as some profound revelation. It seemed, rather, just a natural, seamless part of the bigger experience. I’d best describe it as “gentle.”

And so we walked on. Ultreia, we say on the camino.

***

Yesterday, 19 days post-camino I went through the regular morning routine of gathering what I needed to complete the daily errands. Our neighborhood is configured in such a way that almost any errand takes me by that property. As I approached, there was an unusual activity that caught my eye as movers emptied the building into three large moving vans. There was another strange sensation as if a surprise that I knew was coming. I’m becoming more accustomed to these odd sensitivities.

My “dream” had come true. The business located on the property was moving to a new location. Maybe it wasn’t a dream after all.

On the spot, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to begin making calls and contacts about the property, like a natural extension of the peace I’d experienced in that cozy albergue bed.

If we pursue this calling, a dozen things will have to perfectly align to make it work. A personality like mine can get easily worked up about scenarios far less involved than this. It would be easy to push things in an excitedly urgent sort of way. I have to remind myself if it’s God’s plan for us, that peaceful sense will remain throughout.

I’m not an eloquent prayer. My prayers are simple conversations with God and I frequently find myself at a loss for exactly what to say in situations like this. In just that situation last night, I recalled a recent conversation with a respected long-distance friend now considering three extraordinary service opportunities all at the same time. Any one of them fits his gifting and unique capacity to make a real difference in the world. As we agreed to pray for one another about some different things, here’s a paraphrase of something he said that seemed the perfect answer to prayer about my own situation:

“So I need unmistakable guidance. When I have asked for such in the past, God has always been so kind to clearly open certain doors and clearly slam others shut.”

The realization brought a reinforced peace that feels so right. If I truly pursue His will, and if He’s in this situation as I want Him to be, and if it’s purposed for His glory and not mine, he’ll close the door shut if it’s not His will. It gave me such peace to know if this opportunity somehow vanishes, it will be Him who closed the door for my good.

“Lord if it’s not right, close the door. Slam it shut. Slam it hard.”

I’m good with that. Anyway, it’s exciting, and all good.

-30-

Metanoia: The Ultimate Game Changer

“What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” ~ A.W. Tozer

Mom, me and Daddy, in the middle of a record cotton crop in 1990.

Mom, me and Daddy, in the middle of a record cotton crop in 1990.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when, or what caused it, but at some point, knowing what I believe, and why, surpassed everything else important. There was a new understanding that my belief affected everything.

The message I felt from so many pilgrims who’d gone before me on the Camino de Santiago was that pilgrimage would change my life. To the contrary, I think it made me much more of who I already was.

***

John Muir understood the pursuit of both the seen and the unseen. In 1867, working as a sawyer in a wagon wheel factory he was injured when a tool slipped and struck him in the eye. Muir was confined to a darkened room for six weeks, thought he might never see again, and the experience forever changed the course of his life.

As he gradually regained sight he saw the world, and his purpose, in a new light. “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes to teach us lessons,” he later wrote.

As Muir healed, and early on the path that gave him the reputation as the father of our national park system, he took a long walk he recounted in his first writing “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.” Along the “wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find” from Indiana to Florida, Muir marveled at God’s creation, and at the journey’s conclusion, decided his most important pursuit was one where he’d be true to himself.

***

Of all that amazes me in God’s sovereign glory, nothing overwhelms me more than the beautiful simplicity of repentance. At the heart of the gospel is the divine truth that what God sees most is your heart – not your good intentions, or your failures, or your resume, even what you say you believe – but what you truly believe inside.

“There’s no escaping His inward-seeing eye. ‘…for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’” ~ 1st Samuel 16:7.

It parallels our worldly ideas about integrity – the ways we act when no one else is watching, and moreover, the ways we react to situations when we don’t even think about it. The purest of everything we do comes from the heart.

The English word “repentance,” is the common translation for the Greek “metanoia.” The Greek is a prefix, and a root. “Meta,” meaning overarching and behind, or after, and “noia,” meaning, how one thinks, or in a greater sense, one’s worldview or philosophy. The prefix and root when combined translate as: having a completely different overall view, afterwards. It leads anyone to wonder, after what? What is it that leads us to repentance? What creates real change?

***

To this day, my own father’s road to repentance best defines for me the goodness and graciousness of God’s love. Daddy lived a hell of a life.

On a hot summer night in 1999, I jumped upright in the bed, cold sweat pouring down my neck and back. From nowhere, it was as if God grabbed me by the shirt collar and shook me awake. “Go see your father now, and tell him who I am,” He said. “Now.”

It was 2 a.m., and my dad lived 40 miles away. As much as I tried to rationalize that I’d awakened abruptly from some dream, or that there was some other worldly explanation, I knew even as a very young Christian that God was speaking. The voice was too clear and its delivery too urgent.

It’s funny how we often wrestle with what we know is so plainly the right thing. I paced the floor an hour thinking it was all just crazy, went back to bed hoping it was all a dream, and felt God speak to my spirit again. “Get up and go.”

But I never went. And I knew I’d been as disobedient as the most rebellious child.

It haunted me for years. My dad and I were so very different, really didn’t understand one another that well, and often fought like dogs. But we loved one another, and I felt so helpless that he always considered himself unworthy of God’s forgiveness. He knew he needed forgiving, but as so many of us do, had a hard time comprehending God’s simple plan for how it works. That’s exactly as the enemy intends.

The burden on my heart to help daddy lingered like a wound that never healed. In ways, I’d become obnoxiously obsessed with it. In so many other ways, I was just plain weak.

Six years later on the day of my dad’s 65th birthday I was making breakfast, getting the

Daddy, in that same cotton crop. I shot photos of him all day on that Sunday afternoon.

Daddy, in that same cotton crop. I shot photos of him all day on that Sunday afternoon.

kids ready for school just like every other day, and began sobbing uncontrollably. I had no idea what to get daddy for his birthday, and it was such a busy day ahead. The thing that should have been most important was more of a distraction. How I felt in my heart disgusted me. My disgust was about much more than just a birthday gift.

Dropping the last child off at school I made a decision to cancel everything that day, and focus on dad. Today was the day we’d talk. Rather than try to convince him of anything religious or academic, I decided I’d sit down with daddy and tell him all the ways I’d personally seen God make a difference in my life. I’d just tell him my story.

At a local bookstore, I picked up a hardback copy of Randy Alcorn’s classic work, Heaven, as a gift, then drove around aimlessly waiting for some magical moment that seemed right to pull in the driveway. Daddy was out in his shop, watching television and passing time on the computer as he did every day since his retirement. I hated that he spent so much time in that shop.

It’s odd how difficult it often is to have the most important conversations with those we love the most. Three hours passed before I mustered enough courage to walk in his door, but after years of resisting a clear calling to share the gospel with my dad, I’d handed it all over to the One who called.

I wished him a happy birthday and proceeded as honestly as I knew how. During the last few years God had used different ways to help me understand more and more about Him, and just how much he loved me, I explained. And more so than a good job, or financial success or anything else, those revelations gave me the greatest security.

As I talked and Daddy listened, and I could see the walls coming down. “I want you to feel everything I feel, because it just feels so good,” I told him. “And I want to know you’re going to be waiting for me in Heaven when I get there.” It probably wasn’t the right thing to say, but I said it anyway. It was the son more than the witness coming out in me.

He told me exactly what I already knew he felt – that he’d committed so many wrongs, he was beyond forgiveness, that he just wasn’t a good person, and he knew he didn’t act right. As we have the tendency to do, Daddy was making it all about him, and as best I could I tried to explain that just isn’t how it works. God is perfect so we don’t have to be, I said. “If perfection were the standard, I wouldn’t be here talking with you.”

I asked him if he wanted to pray, and he said yes, but that he didn’t really know what to say. So I prayed, and he repeated my words, and we cried and hugged afterward. Right then and there, I thought we’d both done something really special. Maybe that was true, or maybe it wasn’t.

Time passed, but so much seemed as it always had been. In fact, within days, it was as if we’d put that moment on a shelf and moved on with life unchanged. Part of it was my immaturity and insecurity, the other part perhaps daddy’s incomplete surrender of his own junk. The timing we think is right, isn’t always the right time. It doesn’t mean we don’t try.

Not so different from most of us, at the core of what most affected my dad’s life was simple fear. He was just scared.

In January 2012, Daddy’s chronic COPD put him in a hospital bed, a place he’d never leave. As the weeks passed, and as it became clear he’d never go home, something happened that’s still difficult to explain. An unsurpassed peace overcame him. Daddy knew he was going to die, and he was okay. The Holy Spirit did what none of the rest of us is capable of doing. The Spirit spoke to Daddy’s heart. I’ve never seen a more distinctive, undeniable transformation.

Mom called me early on a Sunday morning and said daddy woke up asking for baptism. As the family gathered, we celebrated the ceremony right there next to a hospital bed, and in the two and a half weeks that followed up to daddy’s passing he was completely different. My dad had courage, and he was brave, and at peace. It’s an odd thing to say, but I reflect fondly on, even admire, the way my dad left us.

As much as I know anything, my father experienced a profound change in the way he saw things. He’d crossed the fulcrum of afterward and was led to repentance by the One who leads. That’s how real change happens. You’re just never the same, afterward.

***

In my own journey of mountaintop highs, and lows so deep they felt as if in some foreign realm, I’m thankful, above all, for the Holy Spirit’s revelation that my destiny isn’t tied to either my failures, or my good deeds. I’m at peace, even thankful, with the knowledge that what God see most, is my heart.

“It will change your life. You will never be the same.”

That’s what so many people told me would happen on a 500-mile pilgrimage across the Camino de Santiago. To the contrary.

Somewhere in the Basque country God told me to relax, he wasn’t changing me, just reshaping me. He told me he’d use my storytelling for His purpose, one much higher than I’d previously committed it to.

It was then when I breathed in freedom. He’d sent me on pilgrimage to become more of who I already was.

***

SIDETRAIL

Daddy’s hospital baptism was a glorious moment, but it wasn’t all so smooth.

During his stay, he’d befriended a regularly visiting local pastor, and that’s who we called to conduct the “ceremony.”

When he arrived and got an understanding of daddy’s request, he explained to mom and me that he couldn’t baptize him because dad was bedfast and couldn’t be fully immersed in water. His rigid doctrinal understanding would permit it no other way.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do it,” he said. And that was that. Suddenly, we were in a delicate situation and shell shocked.

Fortunately, my mom’s call to a church pastor in our hometown 40 miles away met with a positive response. He gladly came, overjoyed with my dad’s decision, and poured water over his head as a public pronouncement of his faith. We laughed and cried. We had joy.

But he pastor’s refusal to baptize my dad, affected my view toward organized religion for years. It was one of the most formative moments in my Christian life.

-30-