No Matter What, No Matter Where

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

 

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

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

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

My heart was completely unprepared for what happened next.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Indeed, we’re all in recovery.

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The Story of Daniel Brown

 

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“That’s okay. Have a nice day, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

You need to pray for this man.

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

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

“You would do that for me?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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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