Maneuvering their way methodically through the crowd of Sunday morning tourists the three young women emerged from the descending tunnel just as every bell in the city launched a frenzied peal proclaiming high noon. Commanding all attention, the bells overwhelmed every other noise in the plaza, including the bagpipes that always seem oddly out of place, yet inevitably evoke emotions consistent with something so powerful and deep as the conclusion of this journey.
Walking sticks in hand, clickety-clacking along the ancient cobblestones, the trio made the last of more than a million purposeful steps across the better part of forty days. Six hours prior and ten miles eastward they’d set out early but there was no beating the heat this day. Noontime temperatures already pushed three digits and heavy streams of sweat ran down their dusty legs as gravity pulled tiny rivers of mud into their long-ago sweat-filled, worn-out shoes. The threesome remained close making their way respectfully through the bustling crowd and came to a point that obviously seemed suitable. In unison, they turned their bodies and eyes eastward and upward now bringing into full view the place they’d walked toward a month. Newly restored and refurbished, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is breathtaking against the deep blue August sky. For the moment, each was lost in her own private thoughts.
Just as they were soaking it all in, one of the peregrinas made an independent step forward raising her hands wide toward the heavens as if to receive this long-anticipated moment into her spirit. In a crowd of hundreds, she is alone in a private state of thanks — immersed in gratitude. Following suit, her compañeras step alongside as they clasp hands skyward celebrating as family.
Together, they have walked across a country on a footpath known to seekers for more than a millennia. Maybe it was nothing more than a long walk. But it’s just as possible they may never be the same. Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, together, they have arrived.
After four days traveling Dana and I had already spent two recovery days on the ground shaking an unusually difficult bout of jet lag. We decided to fight the fog of flying forward in time and pretty much losing an entire night by taking a bus to the cathedral plaza — the familiar place that defines Santiago de Compostela. It was there where we witnessed the scene described above. I was already caught unwittingly off guard by the emotions returning to the site where the Way of St. James concludes. This place, and what it means, has become an unexpectedly important part of my life over the last three years. There was two years of book writing most recently followed by nearly fifty presentations from Potomac, MD to San Francisco. It seems I’ve lived “The Way” for a long time now.
God works in mysterious ways. This pilgrimage experience continues bringing personal and important revelations about the things I consider most important. And it has blessed me with an incredible network of family and deep and meaningful friendships across the world. It’s a big deal for a kid who grew up in a cotton patch in the middle of rural Arkansas.
So I know exactly how these women felt as they concluded their long pilgrimage. What they may or may not know is the truth found in that cliché notion that their real pilgrimage begins at the end. I hate that cliché. But I now know that it’s real and that it has the potential to shape us in wonderful ways.
Here’s a recap of our experience so far:
Saving more than a thousand dollars on air fare, Dana and I bypassed our home airport at Memphis International and made the six-hour drive to Dallas-Fort Worth for our departure point. The total ten hours from Dallas to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Madrid was about as flawless as international travel comes. Still, we were three hundred miles from Santiago de Compostela, our home base for the next three months.
I’d not pre-booked any travel beyond Madrid in the event of delayed connections or airport problems. Too many reservations can quickly become a falling house of cards with the slightest glitch in this type of travel. The other side of it is that you never know the scenarios that await.
After catching the airport commuter train to Chamartin Station, the man at the ticket counter explained that every train to Santiago for the next four days was fully booked. August is vacation season in Spain and everyone is squeezing in their last bit of free time before school starts. The bus lines were also fully booked. I’ve learned these moments are not resolved with panic.
After a few back-and-forth texts with our hosts, Nate and Faith Walters, we discovered a ride share program in Spain that works much like Airbnb. They call it Bla-Bla Car! After a few hours weighing all the options (which amounted to one) we booked three seats (one for each of us and one for our luggage) with Humberto who was headed from Madrid to Santiago the following day at noon. By 7 p.m. that night, we’d arrived at Nate and Faith’s, exhausted, but at home base for the next eighty-nine days. As noted earlier, we remained in a travel fog for the next thirty-six hours.
The final puzzle piece that made this trip possible was the opportunity to house sit for Nate and Faith as they are on an extended trip back to the US. So our responsibilities include both caring for their house and serving at the faith-based, non-profit they founded, Terra Nova Pilgrim House, just a few blocks off the cathedral square.
It’s a nice, four-level home with all the modern conveniences, an outdoor patio, a great kitchen where I’m already re-learning how to cook, and a nice backyard garden.
Together, we experienced a four-day transition as Nate, Faith and their four children departed for Washington just yesterday. They were all so gracious. It’s not easy having guests in your home as you’re preparing that many people for a six-month trip across an ocean. They must have walked out the door yesterday with a dozen suitcases.
We’re a fifteen minute walk from a local mall and super mercado, and just twenty minutes off the Way of St. James as you enter the east side of town. I can throw a rock
to the local bus stop and busses run every thirty minutes all over town. Public transportation in Europe is great once you learn it. We’re looking at possibilities for all kinds of long-weekend side trips. Dublin is even a possibility.
There is a training school for circus performers two doors down from us. Interesting, yes.
Just as we arrived European news agencies disseminated warnings of all-time record heat in the forecast. We’re talking 118 degrees Fahrenheit in some remote areas. We approached 100 on three consecutive days. Because this rarely happens it’s just not
practical for families to invest in air conditioning here. You open the windows and turn on the fans. Our finding a large fan at the mall was a divine miracle last Saturday. Practically every shelf in town was bare. Best €25 spent in a long time. Last Sunday, I took five cold showers.
It’s 68 degrees as I write at 11 a.m. now and a lovely breeze flows through our large open windows. Sweet relief.
Our sleep patterns here are complicated so far. Not only was there the adjustment of time, but at this latitude in this season our sunset doesn’t happen until around 10:45 p.m. Because I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy it’s totally thrown me off from what we’re accustomed to in the lower southern latitudes. We are going to bed around 11 p.m. and getting up between 8 and 9 a.m. I haven’t slept that late since college. At least it’s pretty consistent with Spanish culture.
COOKING AND FOOD
Yesterday, we ventured to the old-town outdoor market. It’s a place that will make a foodie downright giddy. I’ve never seen better produce than what’s available in the Spanish markets. Combine that with the local cheeses (Galicia is famous for its cheese), locally produced wines (I’m determined to learn more about wine while here), fresh seafood and meats (chorizo everywhere), and baguettes for €.35 each, and I could easily gain fifty pounds in three months. This whole volunteer experience may require another long walk!
After yesterday’s market trip I prepared our first comida — (late afternoon lunch,
typically the biggest meal of the day here). It was a nice chorizo and seafood pasta with a tomato, pepper, zucchini sauce.
I’ve discovered some low-alcoholic fruit ciders here that are refreshingly delicious. A cold San Miguel or Estrella Galicia beer is nostalgic of “second breakfast” on the Way. I also love an occasional cold sangria here, and cerveza de limon, a drink that is half beer, half intensified sparkling lemon juice. So refreshing. We’ll attempt a homemade papa tortilla soon.
Not to overlook the very most important part of this experience ahead.
Beyond everything, Dana and I have come here to serve and to listen. There is something inside my spirit telling me that listening will be the foundation of our service. The more I contemplate Jesus’ commission for disciples to take the gospel news to the ends of the earth, the more I think it’s about listening in the modern day. Historically, our delivery method has been talking. Telling people this and that. Inviting them to come into our circle as if we are somehow different and set aside. We just don’t sit still and listen enough. “Come into our group, affiliate with us, and you will be okay,” we say. “You are there, but we are here. Come here.” I think it is time we listen rather than be so determined to recite the four spiritual laws to someone and expect a miraculous change in someone’s life in fifteen minutes. As Rick Warren says, for Christians, “we have a lot to unlearn.”
I want to embrace people. We are all the same kind of different.
Beyond this, I have come here with personal expectation.
Over the years this has become one of a handful of places where I believe I better hear God’s direction for my own life. Maybe I imagine that, or maybe it is true, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I believe it. I’ve come here with the expectation that God will clearly show what comes next. Ideas abound. Clarity is needed. Maybe it is another book. Maybe it is a new mission, altogether. If you pray, I ask that you might pray for Dana and me as we sort through what’s next. I’m personally praying each night that God will make me receptive to the place where He leads. I want to have an open heart and an open spirit. So we covet your prayers in that regard.
Tomorrow, we’ll receive our first mission and vision training at Pilgrim House and go through full orientation. Our work schedule begins on Saturday.
Until next week, buen camino.
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.
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