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.

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Chapter 16: Becoming Tim (excerpt)

“My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” ~ Sheila Walsh

 

Seventeen years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomena of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society has moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.

A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work shows that, while the number of people who bowled during the last twenty years has increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues has decreased. They were bowling alone.

Carried further, his data show dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us—Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care have evolved to fenced-in burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with panicked anxiety when the doorbell rings. We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnoses, where we are less healthy, less happy.

Simply stated, Putnam’s book addresses the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand this in an acute way.

***

It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank God I’m becoming more like Tim.

***

Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among the family herds. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in Leon’s iconic Parador Plaza. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, the antithesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other setting. That’s the very lesson Heinrich shared with me three weeks back in Pamplona.

Visiting with Tim in the Parador Plaza in Leon.

I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim had come to Spain to heal from the unexpected loss of his wife, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so soon about the loss.

A self-described Alaska couch potato who’s always enjoyed watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before—the equivalent of a full marathon—when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked him why he’d come so far.

Right away, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife, who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground, and drowned in a six-inch puddle. Instantly, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.

“She loved long walks. This is for her. She would have enjoyed every step,” he said.

The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz de Ferro, the place where, for a millennium, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.

I understand better as time goes on: Pain doesn’t have to be private. We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might help someone else. One of my goals is that, each day, I become a little more like Tim.

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Chapter 25: Proving Ground – I Could Have Just Walked to Pensacola

It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“At every stage of life, it’s important to be a rookie at something.” ~ Unknown

 

My youngest daughter, Sophie, (right) with two of her friends on a recent Spring Break trip to near Pensacola.

With only days remaining to the end, it occurred to me I’d jumped through a lot of logistical hoops and come an awfully long way just for a long walk.

For more than twenty years, a favorite annual vacation spot has been the sugar-white sandy beaches near Pensacola, Florida. It’s 501 miles from my front door in Jonesboro, Arkansas to the condo where we always stay. I wondered whether walking those miles would have created the same experience as those produced on the Camino. It would have been an experience, indeed. But not the same.

Just as the fixed nature of the North Star has guided voyagers for years, we all need static points of reference to recall who we are, and find where we’re going. It seems those reference points come most clearly to those go away for a time and think purposely about them. This purpose lies at the heart of pilgrimage. It’s what Eugene Peterson referred to in his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. History is filled with examples of people who used an intentional escape to find their deepest identities.

John Muir went away for months before finding his calling to advocacy for a national park system. Henry David Thoreau secluded himself in a remote cabin in the woods for more than two years to write and “live deliberately.” Jesus spent forty days in the desert in preparation for a ministry that took the gospel message to the ends of the earth. In fact, so much of the gospel’s foundational message can be reduced to two words.

Come and go.

When you’re away and alone, it paves the way for so many things that normally elude us. My senses, both physical and spiritual, come to life when I go out and far away.

A favorite sunset photo from Puerto Cayo.

The modest home we maintain in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador is as much a missional outpost for my wife and me as anything. It’s there where we have an especially unique opportunity to give and share. But just as important are the uncommon learning experiences we enjoy in a far-away place. Everything’s different—language, the weather, customs, transportation, even a lack of certain things we believe, back home, are necessities. It’s also a place where we’ve felt alone at times. As a result, many of our experiences there serve as reference points for a broader, deeper, more far-reaching life.

When I experience certain difficulties, I think back to moments in Latin America—those when we’ve been completely lost, without access to what we think of as the basics, and become dependent on God and one another to make it to the next day. And when I think back to those moments, I remember what sustains us.

In the height of my depression, I’d call my mom at random times through the day. I’m not sure why, but I suppose she was the most familiar thing I had—the one person who’d always had my back. When I’d lament hopelessly about circumstances and the inability to see ahead, she’d often say something I hated acutely every single time she said it. “Son, you’ve forgotten who you are.”

It’s not broken toilets, flat tires, the impending cost of a new roof, or even some ominous medical diagnosis that’s our biggest battle. The most challenging conflict we face every single day is the one we have with self. Some days it’s packed with guilt, regret, shame, and feelings of unworthiness. Other days are more about pride or arrogance. The most difficult days I have, by far, are those when I lose my sense of worth in the fog of depression.

Everything I knew about the Camino told me it was the right place at the right time to take stock of my own integrity. And how, as well, to think through going about what was now most important to me, summed up succinctly in the Gospel of John: He must increase, but I must decrease.

For me, the Camino de Santiago was a Proving Ground, where I rediscovered and reclaimed God’s calling on my life as a storyteller.

SIDETRAIL
Go Away

As he entered the early days of literary success in 2000, novelist John Grisham served as the spring commencement speaker at Arkansas State University, where I worked for six years. I was assigned as Grisham’s “body man,” mostly responsible for getting him safely into and out of town.

Grisham, who grew up just twenty miles from the ASU campus, offered graduates a message that raised eyebrows, and still holds the record as the shortest commencement address (seven minutes) in university history. In a loose paraphrase, he said this:

“Get out of here. Go away. Plant yourself somewhere else for a while. This is home, and it’s always been home, and it’s a good place, but it’s a place to which you can always return. You need to go out, and you need to experience the world. Leave.”

It was bold, and the last thing everyone in the room expected to hear. When it was over I remember looking at parents’ dumbfounded faces across the building. They didn’t know whether to applaud or throw things.

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I Am a Christian: A Confession and 15 Personal Principles

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(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.

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Day 3: Nate and Faith Walter

Published today on my companion blog, noteaday.com

Note A Day

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Dear Nate & Faith:

It was such a pleasure meeting you both in Santiago de Compostela last November. Lucky for us Dana made us keep searching the narrow, crowded streets, and that we finally came upon you at Pilgrim House.

I had my reservations. Not sure why, but I did. I thought Pilgrim House might be some mystic out-of-the-way place, the smell of incense burning from the back, full of strange people I wouldn’t connect with all discussing their karma and listening to tracks of buddhist chant music playing about. I’m not sure why I presumed that, but I did, and not that it would’ve been the end of the world. It’s just not my comfort zone. Of course, to my great pleasure, it wasn’t, and to our great fortune, we had the pleasure to meet you both.

Thank you for being so kind to us, for washing our clothes…

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2016: My Year-End Review – Filters and Anchor Points

(Blogger’s Note: This is the last in a series of posts looking back at 2016, and ahead to the new year. Thank you so very much to everyone who read the posts at Pilgrim Strong this year. Your encouraging comments and friendship are so much a part of what’s real in my life. We really are “just walking each other home.” May the Lord bless and keep you. May He make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May He lift up his glorious countenance upon you. And give you peace. I hope you’ll join me for a new and different kind of writing adventure next year at noteaday.com. )

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When the final numbers come in, these are the likely top 10 movies of 2016:

1) Finding Dory
2) Captain America: Civil War
3) The Secret Life of Pets
4) The Jungle Book
5) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
6) Deadpool
7) Zootopia
8) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
9) Suicide Squad
10) Doctor Strange

Notice any trends? It’s all fantasy. More and more every day, we’re living a very real life in a make-believe world driven by fantasy and conflict. We’re losing touch with reality at unsurpassed momentum. And so many of those whose public professions you hear about making things great again, are really just driven by self-serving motives best advanced when you’re kept in a fog. I’m imploring you not to be part of the shell game.

It’s never been more important that we take responsibility for ourselves, especially as it relates to how we formulate important, fundamental opinions. To a great extent, civility’s survivability depends on how successful we are in knowing what we believe, and why.  I’m challenging you to be as shrewd as Kido the cat as you face the bait-and-switch shell game ahead in 2017.

You watched that video didn’t you? Admit it. I knew you couldn’t resist.

In 2017, please don’t let your reality be based on people or media conglomerates or commercial businesses whose self interest is to manipulate every part of your brain. Just say no.

You can help yourself with two things: filters and anchor points. These are my working definitions:

Filter – methods, personal experiences and hands-on techniques you can use to sift fantasy from reality; lies from truth.

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Anchor Point – a solid, unwavering, fixed point of reference reminding you of your identity, purpose, and direction. A practice creating a north star-like quality.

I think a lot about those two things this time every year. Isn’t it wonderful how every 365 days, we sort of get to imagine new beginnings, second chances, and do overs?

On pilgrimage in Spain this year I felt the strongest calling to make 2017 a time when I’ll take my eyes off myself and be ever-aware of the motives behind my actions. In 2017, I’ll launch a new blog designed to do just that. (You can sign up to follow that blog by email here). I’ll travel a lot – it’s high on my priority list for understanding a world outside Jonesboro, Arkansas. There will be an extended adventure/walk somewhere, most likely on the first one-quarter of the Appalachian Trail or the John Muir Trail, and I’ll walk upwards of a thousand miles getting ready, and actually doing it. I’ll start fishing again. I love fishing, and have missed it for years. I’m going back to stand in cold streams and feel the thrill of a taut, jerking line. And I want to spend a lot of time thinking about how my giftings can help others. Those are some of my plans for the new year.

In all the things I’ll do, I’ve resolved to do them with more vigor, deeper passion, greater gusto. I want to take deep breaths of fresh air, stand in awed amazement at breathtaking vistas, listen intently  to birds singing at the dawning of a new day. And I never want to stop having laughable dreams. They’re among my greatest personal anchor points.

As we close out this frenetic year and look to a clean start, I wanted to share with you some possible ideas for thinking about your own filters and anchor points.

FILTERS

  • When it comes to social media, learn to recognize bait, and just don’t take it. It’s easy enough to spot certain trigger words that immediately create ascreen-shot-2016-12-24-at-5-53-20-am “we vs. them” forum. Don’t get caught up in the false idea that your participation in these discussions advances some convicting cause or that you’re making a difference. You’re not, and no one’s really listening anyway because everyone’s talking and thinking about what they’re going to say next. Don’t take the bait.
  • As a general rule for social media, limit your time there, and don’t use it as a babysitter for your boredom. I have a lot of work to do here.
  • Limit your time watching television. I haven’t watched network news in almost 80 days and life is better. The world isn’t nearly as bad as they’re telling you.
  • Resist the comfort zone you perceive in being around people just like you. Yesterday, I received the nicest note from a man who’d read one of my blog posts in this series and he asked for some clarification on a religious matter I’d raised. We had a wonderful genuine exchange about some things on which we disagree, and yet further advanced the respect we have for one another. Isn’t that so refreshing?
  • Do your best to look at situations through the eyes of others, and realize that very few things are truly as they seem. There’s usually much more to the story.
  • Be proactive, not reactive. And calm down, for crying out loud.
  • Resolve to listen more than you speak. Be present. Again, I speak to myself.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve laughed at myself more in the last couple of years than in all the rest of my life combined.

ANCHOR POINTS

  • Be someone’s cheerleader. Younger, older, it doesn’t matter. This is SO important. One of the things I believe most about life is that we’re at our very best when we’re cheering for others. I have a few specific people already picked out for 2017.
  • Do some very difficult things all ALONE. I’d never discount the immeasurable value of sharing life experiences with a loving, trusted partner, but some of my most profound anchor points also come from times when it was just me, mentally and physically depleted, and when I had no idea what came next.

“You can’t accomplish ANYTHING without the possibility of failure.” ~ Gary “Laz” Cantrell, founder of the Barkley Marathons, the race that eats its young

  • Meditate regularly on why you believe what you believe. The ability to answer this simple question is important for you and everyone you touch.
  • Keep an understanding inside your head that the current world economy is driven by fear and conflict. Don’t be afraid. Is it any accident this phrase is mentioned 365 times in the bible?
  • Consider a daily journal and the lasting power your written words can have on your outlook.
  • Develop some new hobbies that actually require a lot of time. I mentioned fishing as one I’ll bring back next year. And I love watching Bob Ross videos and trying my hand at painting, even though the outcome is always laughable.
  • Read. Pretty simple.
  • Do some good deeds that remain a complete secret. Don’t tell anyone.
  • View life through the lens of time. So much of my thinking now is shaped by the realization of how short my time is on earth.
  • Invite people into your home. I think this is so important, and it’s such a shame that the “dinner party” is less a part of society than it once was. We’re designed for communal fellowship. Three years ago we began hosting a New Year’s Day Feast for as many friends as we can get to come. I love this day, and it gets my year off to a great start surrounded by people I care about. In fact, I’m planning the menu this morning for our fourth annual event.

In fact, it’s time to go do that now.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Cold and Sick. Sick and Cold.

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin

 

Naomi, Aida and me making our way into beautiful Galicia.

Naomi, Aida and me making our way into beautiful Galicia.

Certain personality types, of which I’m one, carry an exceptionally low tolerance for complaint. If you’re unhappy within your circumstances, change is within your power, and is no one else’s responsibility. I’d be friends with a man who got knocked to the floor trying every day before I’d cozy up with a successful grumbler. And the Camino, I’d decided, early on, was a No Crybaby Zone. For me, that was among its greatest attractions.

But as our family now trekked on to Villafranca, I was increasingly tested by my own No Crybaby philosophy.

***

The weather’s a great unknown just about wherever you are, but especially in a place that’s unfamiliar, and one with so many variables that affect it. Mountain elevations, nearby ocean currents, and during November, a rapid transition in the season affects weather moving across Galicia. It was only a few hundred miles back when I observed a general sense of frenzied activity as families throughout the Basque country prepared firewood for winter’s onset. People were splitting and stacking cords of firewood everywhere. You could only imagine how brutally cold the weeks ahead might become. But you could sense it in the feverish exertion at almost every business and home.

My Camino weather experience was marked by consistent, extended weather cycles. It was basically two weeks of wet, damp, cool, followed by two weeks of brilliantly clear, sunshiny skies, followed by a final two weeks of wet, damp, frigid cold. Numbing as it was, it apparently wasn’t cold enough yet for most albergues to flip the heat switch for the night. You never really got warm. I returned home with an all-new appreciation for heated blankets.

As we approached Villafranca, I’d already been cold for four days. Aida walked ahead with our friend Sebastian, and Naomi and I kept a slower pace behind. It didn’t help that my left shin now hurt so much it literally felt as if the bone was bruised, and I could actually see the hemorrhaging more each day. I now felt the onset of a fever but kept it to myself. In the silence, Naomi knew something wasn’t right. She knew about the leg pain, but not the fever. As was her tendency, and with Camino wisdom, she attempted to distract the aggravation with some new, philosophical conversation.

“So, tell me what you’re proud of,” she said from nowhere.

“What?” I answered, knowing exactly what she was doing, but purposefully not acknowledging it was a decent idea.

“What you’re proud of. Talk about it,” she said.

It was one of those Camino moments when I really stopped to think. Proud? The answer would’ve been different in a different time.

I’d held several “dream jobs,” run my own business, understood what it took to make money, and even wielded some influence at times, but it all seemed so irrelevant now. When it all fell apart one day, I’d literally experienced the end of myself. Complete brokenness. And I thought about a bible verse I’d studied a few days earlier.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

It’s easily misunderstood. Jesus’ words from His sermon on the mount aren’t necessarily about the poor, per se, but the poor in spirit. The broken. The ones who’ve realized that we, ourselves, just aren’t enough and never will be. It’s not about us. And so after walking another half mile or so, I had Naomi’s answer.

“I’m proud that after all this time I’ve found peace in the belief that what God most sees, is the heart, not my good intentions or even my failures, but what’s in my heart. Because I know what’s in my heart, and I’m good with that, and I think He is, too,” I said. “In fact, that’s my only hope. I’m proud to know that kind of peace.”

I’d never really thought about that until Naomi asked. I think it was an unexpected defining moment that shaped how I’d consider my Camino experience after it was all over, and for the months ahead.

***

We caught Aida and Sebastian at the entrance to Ave Fenix, a donativo albergue run by Camino legend Jesús Jato in Villafranca del Bierzo. Jesús is a long-time hospitalero, artist, poet, builder and healer. He’s known for his genuine concern and care for pilgrims on the Path.

(A video from the morning after. I was so thankful to be okay.)

As we arrived, it was the worst I’d felt since leaving home.

I could now strangely feel my heartbeat pulsing through a twisted, discolored knot in my left shin. Every step was painful. In the moment, though, it was easier not to think about it because of the fever. The achy feeling a fever brings was coming on fast, and for the first time on this trip I was worried about tomorrow. I’m well-acquainted enough with how my body works to know it was going to be a long night.

Jesús sent Naomi and Aida to one housing area, me to another. All I could think about was bed, and the unlikely hope that hours of rest would make a big difference in how I felt. Without radical change I’d go nowhere tomorrow. Since I was a kid, fevers have always wiped me out.

I couldn’t bear the thought of expending another ounce of energy, but knew I’d rest better clean. It was the first time on Camino I’d encountered a shower in an outdoor facility – and there was no door – and it was cold outside – and I was miserable. This was going to be bad.

Organizing my clean clothes and towel for a quick transition, I dropped my dirty clothes and turned on the only faucet that worked. Moments passed, to what seemed five minutes and the water never warmed. An ice-cold shower, in a cold, exposed room with no heat and a fever. Pure misery.

Still mostly wet in a pair of boxers and a t-shirt, I gathered my things and walked quickly back outside to our bunked quarters, threw my sleeping bag over me and took the fetal position. An hour passed, maybe two, chills set in, and I was shivering non-stop praying someone would eventually come check on me.

Saying goodbye to legendary hospitalero Jesús Jato.

Saying goodbye to legendary hospitalero Jesús Jato.

About that time, Naomi came in wondering if I was joining everyone for dinner. I told her I was in bed for the night and asked if she’d grab a blanket and throw across me. When she realized the severity of how bad I felt, she got several blankets and pressed them down on me tight to create some warmth. I told her I was sorry to be such a baby and so much trouble, but thanked her for being so nice. She said a prayer and asked God to take care of me, and the chills eventually subsided. After dinner, I’m sure she came back to check on me, but if she did, I never knew it. What a miserable night. By God’s grace, I had a friend who cared.

Thirteen hours later I awoke and couldn’t believe how much better I felt. It wasn’t a complete transformation by any stretch, but comparatively, I was much improved. I dressed and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen area where Jesús was preparing coffee with fruits, breads and jams. He was concerned for me. Apparently there was dinner discussion among the group about the Estados Unidos pilgrim who’d been so sick.

I was moving slow, but moving, and it was so much more than I expected. It’s hard to remember when I’ve been so thankful.

We organized for the day, bound for the long climb to O Cebreiro and our official passage into Galicia. There was a heavy snow warning ahead. We had no idea what adventure lie ahead during the next two days.

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A Lavish Lesson in Grace

 

 

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(Blogger’s Note: In the hiking community, a side trail, or spur, is a footpath that wanders off the main trail and simply leads to another scenic vista or practical destination. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of journalism’s sidebar. Closing in on the manuscript draft of myScreen Shot 2016-03-30 at 10.07.06 AM book, #PilgrimStrong, I’m incorporating a “side trail” (a different, but related) short story at the end of each primary chapter. I think it kind of breaks the story up and adds some variety. Hopefully, it works. Here’s a “side trail” preview excerpt I wrote today.)

 

At 33, I left a potentially promising career in the frenzied political world for one more structured, predictable and family friendly. It was that structure that soon got me in trouble and ultimately bestowed a great lesson.

As state communications director for a member of congress I enjoyed the freedom to do just about whatever needed doing to make things work. Most rules, wherever they existed, were completely gray, and I knew how to work them. They were much more black and white in my new state-regulated job as a higher education fundraiser. Rules abounded.

When we needed some giveaway promotional t-shirts for an internal fund drive I called up a buddy I trusted and knew would give me a quality product on time. He said, “What do you need?” I told him. He said no problem. I said, “Done.” We committed to the deal and I sent him a check for $15,000. There wasn’t as much as a handshake.

Just a few days later a trusted secretary brought attention to my grievous error. The structured, predictable and friendly government rules required all requisitions above $1,000 go out for at least three competitive bids. It meant the money I’d committed would have to come from our private foundation, rather than our state-supported budget. In short, it was a $15,000 screw up. Yes, my bad.

There was no hiding. I’d completely exposed my inexperience and had to tell the boss. He was newer to his job than I was to mine. We didn’t know one another well yet, and he scared me a bit. I walked in his office to take a beating that would’ve been well deserved and told him exactly what happened. I said it was my fault. I said I was sorry, and didn’t really know what to do.

He leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands and was silent for one of the most intensely painful moments of my life. And then he said this:

“Well, you won’t make that mistake again, will you?”

“No sir,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did.

“I’ll take care of it. Get back to work,” he said. And so he forgave my debt.

It was the most unexpected, underserved grace I’ve received in a lifetime of mistakes. And it’s a lesson that’s served me well.

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Clean Slate: A Vision

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In Spring 2009, my depression reached critical mass. I hadn’t worked at a real job for six months, carried some heavy relational baggage, and the truth is, I thought I was going to hell for eternity. I believed God erased my name from the book. I’d been taught better. In fact, I knew better. But that’s how depression, and the enemy work. They strike at the very heart of your greatest vulnerability. Completely without purpose now, I can’t convey for you in words how much my heart hurt. I was broken.

I’d taken mostly to the safety of our home where I could keep the doors and windows closed. Walking to the mailbox was a big deal when I could force it. The yard went unmowed. I rarely took out the trash. Sleep was the best escape when I could manage it.

Dana walked me through the greatest part of it all and did the things that needed to be done. She joined me in a nap one weekday afternoon as the rest of the world did normal stuff. Unusually peaceful, no tossing or turning, I faded off.

What happened next wasn’t a dream. I’ve had dreams. This wasn’t one. It took me years to actually put words to it. This was an all-encompassing, seamless experience with no boundaries or definition. It was an otherly realm.

I found myself in a man’s arms, holding me as if a child. He was seated on a big rock, just holding me. There was no verbal exchange. It wasn’t necessary. We were completely at peace together. He rocked me gently and stroked my arm. I was so content. Finally. Some rest.

It was Jesus.

Moments later my focus shifted as he reached to the ground and picked up a large, flat object. I recognized it as a piece of natural slate. You could have written on it with a piece of chalk.

With his palm and forearm, Jesus reached to one side of the rock, and made a slow, smooth, purposeful motion across it, as if to wipe the slate clean. We still didn’t speak, but I understood. And that was it.

There was no time, space or dimension to any of it. I’m giving you the best words I have, though they seem completely inadequate.

I woke up, still very much at peace wondering if I’d really just experienced what I thought. Was that a vision?  Now, seven years later, I’m convinced that’s exactly what it was.

***

God works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure why He shared that experience with me, in that way, and at that time. I think it maybe it was because He knew in my own free will I might’ve done something really stupid. And He wasn’t finished with me yet. Not here. Not yet.

It took me five years to share that story with anyone, and until now it’s only been shared with two people. It was an experience so genuine and pure I felt it might somehow be diminished if I talked out loud about it. Or maybe people would just think I’m crazy. Of course, Dana was the first. She didn’t think I was crazy. She understood. The second was my Camino de Santiago pilgrim friend, Naomi.

A typical slate roof in Galicia, Spain. I saw lots of this on the Camino de Santiago.

A typical slate roof in Galicia, Spain. I saw lots of this on the Camino de Santiago.

Galicia is the last of the three distinct geographic regions on the Camino. It’s spectacular country. As we transitioned gradually from the Meseta into Galicia, I noticed little bits along the roadway in the beginning. Then they became much larger. Then there were fences and rooftops and buildings constructed from it.

There was slate everywhere.

It looked just like the slate in my vision. I couldn’t help but think how significant it was to see clean slate everywhere as I walked the final steps to Santiago. Yes, God works in mysterious ways, indeed.

A clean slate.

For me, that story represents the power of this day.

Happy Easter.

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Cruz Ferro: Leaving Hurt Behind. Ultreia.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.” ~ Psalm 103:12

 

Cruz Ferro, perhaps my most meaningful moment on The Way.

Cruz Ferro, perhaps my most meaningful moment on The Way.

There are certain things you don’t think much about, but really need for creating a deeper, more meaningful life. Two such things for me are symbols and ceremony.

Our symbols are those “notes to self” that remind us of our most important commitments, our heritage, even our deepest convictions. Today, they play an ever-increasing role in our lives, not always for the good.

Ceremony is to the meaningful life as the period is to the sentence. It punctuates, gives definition, and separates our most significant moments from those less consequential. Ceremony forever marks a milestone. It places a picture-memory in your mind.

My long-awaited arrival at Cruz Ferro afforded the opportunity for embracing both.

***

A pilgrim’s departure from Leon means the Meseta’s end is near and radical changes in the landscape are upcoming soon. Aside from Astorga’s magnificent architecture, the next two days are uneventfully necessary en route to Galicia. I pressed on purposefully through the last of the flat land eager to conquer the remaining elevations, see the new land’s heralded splendor, and leave my burdens behind at Cruz Ferro.

Keeping with standard practice in the bigger cities, I walked slowly through and past Astorga that Sunday seeing the sites, soaking up the culture and restocking with a few supplies. I intended to move on for an overnight in the smaller Murias de Rechivaldo five kilometers outside town.

In mid-November the Camino hospitality industry rapidly shuts down for winter’s onslaught. It often means the smaller villages have no pilgrim accommodations whatsoever, and you eat when you can find food. I enjoyed a great night’s rest in Murias where the only facility open was an actual bed and breakfast. There was a private bath, clean sheets and a toasty fireplace-warmed common area with a comfy couch. High Roller lives large again. If Vegan Tom could see me now…

The proprietor prepared a home cooked breakfast the next morning before I left out for the final steps along the Meseta en route to Foncebadón. She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and directed my attention to a framed photo near the exit. It was a portrait-type photo of a beautiful woman I assumed was her daughter.

“Es su hija?” I asked.

Denise Thiem, a pilgrim gone home.

Denise Thiem, a pilgrim gone home.

“Se trata de una peregrina de los Estados Unidos,” she said.

It was a photo of Denise Thiem, an Arizona pilgrim who went missing on the camino seven months earlier on Easter Sunday. She was murdered by a local who lured her off the path just a few kilometers ahead. The proprietor met Denise before she was killed. Everyone knew the story. It was a Camino tragedy that made news around the world. I thought much of Denise and said a prayer for her along the straightaway where she disappeared. One pilgrim gone home.

***

Cruz Ferro (iron cross) marks the highest elevation along the Camino Frances. It’s really nothing more than a tall pile of rocks and a wooden pole topped with an iron cross reaching skyward. Known as a sacred place where pilgrims leave symbolic objects (traditionally stones) brought from home, a pilgrim walks away from Cruz with a lighter load both physically and spiritually. Reaching Cruz Ferro was a moment I’d anticipated more than three years.

I overnighted in Foncebadón just a mile short of Cruz so I’d arrive there the next morning at sunrise. There’s just something about the sun coming up over the mountains that goes well with the blessings of forgiveness, second chances, and new beginnings.

Foncebadón is an unusual place that has a dilapidated, ghost-town like feel to it high

Leaving Foncebadón at daybreak.

Leaving Foncebadón at daybreak.

atop the Cantabrian mountain range. Its rickety rock-wooden structures, winding dirt pathways and an indescribable sense of quiet emanate a secluded sense of abandonment. But the vistas from that elevation are silently spectacular. The sunlight, especially at sunrise and sunset, interacts with the clouds and landscape in a way that produces colors I’ve never seen or imagined. It induces a sense of holiness.

On Day 30 I packed up and set out in pitch dark for the 5,000-foot elevation at Cruz Ferro. For me it was a high point in more ways than one.

***

The village’s main dirt path was dimly lit by a couple of ancient street lights. A hundred yards ahead at the edge of town, the path disappeared into black darkness. A young Scottish woman was seated on a rock considering the same dilemma I now faced – wait for a bit of natural light, or press on carefully with a flashlight.

Two strangers, now momentary partners by way of Camino fate, we discussed our options when Megan interjected as she gazed eastward.

“Oh my goodness, would you look at that,” she said staring past me.

I turned to see the first glimpse of daybreak, and a horizon that danced with streaming clouds and thin air painting a picture of holy fire. It was a moment when your soul tells your mind to take a picture and file it in a special place. We both went speechless.

We obliged a few photos for one another and decided to walk toward Cruz together for safety and reassurance. If the views were this lovely from town, we could only imagine what we’d see and how we’d feel a mile ahead and further upward.

No more than 10 minutes into the walk we encountered two more pilgrims, one from England, the other from Ireland, as they, too, stopped every few seconds looking back at morning’s fiery dawn. You wanted to move forward, but couldn’t help looking back at the majesty in motion.

Megan, Lauren, Philippa and I walked on through a foggy, damp darkness as the sky slowly illuminated. Our group conversation about the morning’s evolving beauty and my focus not to misstep on the rocky footpath distracted me from what we were doing and where we were about to arrive. Before I knew it I could see a tall cross taking form through the haze. I stopped and took in a deep breath of reality as the threesome walked on. I was about to step foot on what I personally considered one of the holiest places in the world. I was really here.

***

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The three young women walked up as a group and I stayed behind, both so I could take photos for them, and walk to the cross alone for my personal moment. I’d brought four marbles from my father’s prized collection to leave behind, along with a prayer I’d seen Martin Sheen pray at this site in The Way nearly four years ago. Trivial as it sounds, it completely expressed my sentiments about the moment:

“Dear Lord, may this stone, as a symbol of my efforts on pilgrimage, that I lay at the foot at the cross of the Savior, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds, when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so. Amen.”

Reading the prayer, I let the marbles slip randomly between my fingers falling where they might for eternity, set alongside the spiritual baggage of millions of others who’d Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 8.06.34 AMdone the same for a millennia. As they fell and trickled along the stones, I thought of my parents, my children, my wife, the people I loved the very most, and the ways in which I’d fallen short so many times. I thought of God and the times I’d offered him deals in exchange for my wrongdoing. He’d forgiven me for such things long ago. I knew it as well as I knew the sun just came up. So I promised never to waste His time again with another request of forgiveness for all things past. It was Finished here.

As my three companions stood silently watching below, respectful and reverent, I taped my written prayer to the pole, and wept. I could hear them crying, too. There’s power in such moments.

I walked down and we all gave one another a hug wiping tears and laughing and the unexpectedness of it all.

“Let’s go to Santiago,” I said.

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