Beyond the Me

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. – Robert Evans

You’d think after thirty years in print journalism writing thousands of newspaper stories and interviewing at least a half-dozen people every day it would be no big deal sitting down and writing a book. Instead of one story it’s just a more thorough exercise writing several dozen stories across a few hundred pages. Same thing, but more. That’s what I thought, too, and it’s one of the most misguided notions my brain ever conjured up.

My first book, Pilgrim Strong, was a memoir account about a Spanish pilgrimage where people from all over the world converge and walk anywhere from a hundred to a thousand miles or more.* The Way of St. James concludes in Santiago de Compostela where legend says the bones of St. James, apostle of Jesus are interred. 

The experience of walking across a country in a place where cultures, philosophies, and all sorts of belief systems collide ignited an all-new storytelling passion. On arrival back home I organized hundreds of notes into categories that looked vaguely like a book. A few days later I pulled up a chair to write that first book. The words flowed almost effortlessly, thousands at a sitting.

About ten thousand words into the manuscript I shipped the first seven chapters to my long-time editor, Brad Harris, who is both a magnificent teacher and scathing critic all in one. Brad has always given me permission to let him know just how brutal he may be

With my primary style and content editor, Brad Harris. This was our very first meeting almost seven years ago!

with his editorial comments. We use a one to ten scale and as we move through the process I direct him to dial his harshness up or down. His reply came in around a nine and it devastated me.

“I’m amazed at the great fondness you have for yourself,” he wrote. “If I see another “I” or “me” in this text I’ll stick a dull butter knife in my neck. Get over yourself.”

But it’s a memoir. What does he expect? I’m supposed to tell my story. How do you write a memoir outside a first-hand account? I struggled with the critique for days, then pretty much went on just as before.

A few weeks later we met at Brad’s favorite downtown Memphis cafe* where I asked him how I’m supposed to get around taking myself out of a memoir detailing my own experiences. And he did something then I’ll never forget.

“Describe for me what’s happening outside that window,” Brad said, sitting back patiently as if he’d just cast a line into his favorite fishing hole.

For the next few moments I went on to describe the dozens of scenes I saw, how they made me feel, even what I suspected might be going on in the university building across the street, the weather and the mood it aroused. It was a foggy, gray, fall-season morning in the South and it evoked a sleepy mood. Looking over his glasses, hands clasped across his mid-section, he let me go on a bit.

“Stop,” he said, a little drama in his tone.

“Now you’ve just done a great job explaining everything through your eyes and from your perspective,” Brad said. “This time, take yourself out of the scene, stop thinking about what you see, and tell me what’s happening out there. I want you to go beyond the me.”

In the second description I imagined myself hovering above it all looking down as an uninvolved observer. Somewhere in the description I completely forgot about myself and directed every ounce of focus to some imaginary person listening with great interest. In the new scene I was absent, and it was all about the other person. It felt like inviting someone to come along for a walk while holding hands.

Finishing the narrative, I turned to Brad.

“Now you’re telling a story, lad.* Well done.” (He loves calling me lad.)

Brad’s lesson over a western omelette, hash browns, and coffee that day changed my writing and much about my perspective on life. I see things, especially people and circumstances, differently now.

***

It’s a mystery why we view others the ways we often do. And it’s just as great a mystery why we feel so compelled to put on a facade of strength and act as if everything’s okay in our life when we could really use a friend. Listen to the greetings that get exchanged in your church lobby next Sunday morning, or the small talk at your weekly Rotary Club. You’d think no one has a problem in the world!

Rare is the case on social media where you’ll see someone get honest and transparent about a serious issue in their life and ask for prayer or help. Even less frequently do we convey our mistakes. Instead, we see images of perfect families practically always on vacation, every other day a celebration of something great and everyone’s beautiful. Everyone is #livinthedream if you gauge things by Instagram. This, despite the fact everyone knows that’s not nearly our life’s whole story. Why are we so reluctant to talk about and share adversity and pain? Moreover, what makes us view ourselves as less broken and not nearly as mixed up than our neighbor? Psychologists have studied this for years.

Think about all the stereotypes and those who get looked down upon most. Stay-at-home parents don’t do “real” work while working moms don’t spend enough time with their children. Drug addicts may receive their harshest judgment from overweight people who lust after food as if pornography. My personal favorite? One person refers to another as a moron* in the process creating a plural with an apostrophe and misspelling two words all in a single sentence. There’s something in our nature that says, …I may have a minor issue or two but at least I’m not as bad as that guy.

Researchers say whenever we make a big decision, particularly one requiring a substantial investment of time or resources, that we rationalize, idealizing the choice we made, and devaluing the one we rejected. For example, someone who chooses to rent a condo instead of buying a house will increasingly see more value in things like mobility, and less value in long payment plans that go toward ownership. Because almost anything we do is likely to have some downsides, it’s a mechanism that brings satisfaction instead of a constant longing for the things we don’t choose.

It’s interesting how this theory applies as we’ll even rationalize a key component of God’s economy when it comes to our free will, bad choices, and forgiveness.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

New American Standard Bible

We frequently distort this verse’s meaning to one that implies everything happens for  reason. It’s a wonderful way to justify and gloss over our mistakes by way of some mystic power that predetermines our every move and declares all things were meant to be. But that’s not how God works because he’s a God who loves us enough to grant our free will. We get to live our own lives. And just when we’ve screwed things up so badly it seems there’s no way out, our acknowledgment of those mistakes causes God to play the grace card. Through the worst, most awful, and the darkest circumstances we may create God turns on a light and makes a way out. He makes all things, the good and the bad, come together for His glory.

It manifests a problem, however, when the rationalization creates a rift between people who make different choices. Even if we don’t directly tell someone the reasons we disagree with their choices we may internalize feelings that can manifest in subtle ways. It’s a superiority complex that causes us to look down on others. All this in spite of the truth that God calls us to serve, not judge one another, and pay the grace forward.

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Metanoia: The Ultimate Game Changer

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

SIDETRAIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

***

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 8.06.56 AM

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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Let it Rain

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 7.58.40 AM

They’re calling it the Maya Express.

Everything has to have a name today. We assign personalities to the most intangible stuff now. But I actually like this one.

Whatever they call it, it spells a lot of rain for where I live over the next few days. It began raining last night and will continue through most of the weekend.

This isn’t just your average, every-day rain. We’re in for a lot of rain. The Maya Express lives when weather patterns from deep in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Pacific combine and push tropical moisture northward through parts of the Deep South. Prognosticators say we may receive as much as nine inches. In Arkansas, we’re in the bullseye.

I say, “Let it Rain.”

***

When I was on pilgrimage in Spain last year, I had kind of a “walking prayer” that I meditated on almost constantly. Sometimes I thought about it quite consciously. Other times, it was a prayer that was deep in the back of my mind. It’s the kind of prayer Paul described that we can pray “without ceasing.” It was simple and uncomplicated. I prayed this:

“Show me your Glory, Lord. Let it Rain.”

I was surrounded by lots of people from around the world on pilgrimage, but it was also very much a solo experience. I love my family, truly I do, but I’m much better for them, and me, when I have some time alone. They would vouch for that. I wanted the Camino for selfish, alone time with God, and I prayed that He would demonstrate His magnificent glory for me on a daily basis. I wanted Him to show it to me in such a way that it literally poured down on me like rain. I didn’t care how wet I got. I prayed for a flood.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 8.34.37 AMHe answered the prayer, not in the way I expected, but according to His own purpose. Over 500 miles God showed me His glorious creation, the decency of His people and the resilience of our spirit made in His image. He showered His glory down on me each day there, and He hasn’t stopped yet. He’s raining down on me in a way now like never before. I’ve never experienced such peace. The flood keeps coming.

Over the last few months, Dana and I have had tax scares, unexpected bills, things have gone awry literally all across our house, and we’ve lost some of our closest friends and mentors. And it’s funny how it hasn’t rattled us one bit. Honestly, everything’s fine.

The Maya Express doesn’t phase me. I say, “Open the Floodgates. Let it Rain.” I’m still praying that prayer today, and I’m not gonna stop.

 

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He Called Me a WHAT?

 

“In the end, everyone can understand themselves only. You are the only one to which you never have to explain what you mean. Everything else is misunderstanding.” ~ Renate Dorrestein

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 9.29.22 AM

An unfortunate New World reality is one that forces modern-day pilgrims to consider a disquieting proposition early on.

You must consider whether you will “plug” or “unplug,” that is whether you will remove yourself from the world of technology during the sacred time of pilgrimage, or whether you will bring it along for the ride. As previously described, it was an evolutionary process for me as I ultimately decided I’d chronicle my journey electronically across Spain for family and friends, and to go so far as to convey what I “felt” as it all transpired.

By and large, it was a good decision. In fact, it was the absolute right decision for me. At certain moments, however, it made things much more difficult than they had to be.

When you make the decision I made to remain connected to people across the world, and to share thoughts, feelings, even philosophies and beliefs in a transparent way, you must also accept that you’ve invited people to disagree with you, call your convictions into question, and even, at times, act a fool. That’s the deal you make, and it’s precisely why I advise just about everyone who goes on pilgrimage to take a serious electronic break. Unplug, for God’s sake. Seriously, and literally.

But if you don’t, it’s even more important to realize how your environment and circumstances can affect your state of mind to make you more vulnerable than normal. It happened to me more than once, and it’s the price you pay.

***

“My byline’s been pooped on more than once. I’m sure of it.”

My mission as a journalist has broadened across 25 years, in part, because of the way the media, itself, has evolved, and, in part, because how I’ve evolved as a person. As a cub newspaper reporter in 1988, I’d write a story one day, and the medium was delivered to the reader’s doorstep the next. Subscribers might read what I’d written over their morning coffee, or they might use it as a fresh liner for the kitty litter box. My byline’s been pooped on more than once. I’m sure of it.

Today, it’s radically different. I can communicate in an instant with thousands of people across the world. It’s a mass communication guy’s dream, but the speed and volume of electronic media make getting noticed and building an audience more difficult than ever.

I still produce the occasional “hard” or “critical” news piece, and really enjoy an interesting personality profile. During the last several years, however, the most significant evolution in my approach to journalism has been in its tone. Today, I write less for money, and more for the pursuit of what I believe is my life’s mission. It’s not an in-your-face message, but those familiar with my style know there’s generally a message about how the good news of the Gospel has changed my life. With that change comes a natural desire to share it, and anything short of that probably wasn’t real change. I like that I can intermingle journalism with ministry for a higher purpose, and not be preachy about it. I can just be myself. Alas, that’s enough.

It’s also a New World reality that my journalistic message, the very thing that’s at the heart of what’s most important to me, creates a greater divide than it once did no matter how subtle it may be. Our “progressivism” takes us in a direction opposite the narrow Way.

On Day 14 en route to San Juan de Ortega, I experienced two things that made me more vulnerable than normal to what otherwise wouldn’t bother me much. The last six miles of that long day were cold, wet and windy, I was really tired, and hadn’t had English-speaking company in a while. And while it normally wouldn’t bother me in the least, all my albergue companions for the night were German and South Korean. As we all enjoyed down time in the common area, they segregated into groups early on, and I felt a little left out.

(Above: A lesson I learned about minority status.)

I’ve experienced minority status abroad more than most U.S., middle-class, middle-aged, white guys, and normally it doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I know without a doubt that pushing that comfort zone is good. That night, though, it made me feel pretty lonely, and subsequently, downright irritable. The other pilgrims weren’t being intentionally rude. They were just surrounding themselves with others who were like them – it’s what comes most natural to us all.

So I made social media my company for the night, and it made a bad situation even worse. When you’ve been cold and tired for a long time, and even feeling a bit sorry for yourself, it’s best to keep your emotions in check. I guess I failed that night.

Scrolling though my “news feed” I came across a post by an older gentleman from my hometown who’d shared a video I posted several days earlier after an evening’s stay at a nice hotel in Santo Domingo. The man, who was well familiar with my journalistic style, apparently found some hypocrisy in the idea I’d used a credit card to rejuvenate with nice accommodations while on an ancient Christian pilgrimage. He shared the video and decided he’d describe me to the world as a “pseudo-Christian asshole.” I read it three times thinking I was surely seeing it wrong. Nope. That’s what it said. Pseudo-Christian asshole. Nice. It hurt my feelings more than anything.

I deleted the video from his post, blocked him forevermore from my “friends” list, as well as a few others who found innocent humor in what he’d said. It kept me awake all night, and my reaction to it all was unusually excessive. I realized the following day just how much the peripheral circumstances of the day had affected my good judgment. In retrospect, it was a great Camino lesson.

Pseudo Christian Asshole. I’ve been called worse. I just can’t remember when. Thank goodness that didn’t become my trail name.

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Standing at the Helm of Destiny

The vista of Alto de Perdón.

The vista of Alto de Perdón.

“Have you ever sailed across an ocean Donald … on a sailboat, surrounded by sea with no land in sight, without even the possibility of sighting land for days to come? To stand at the helm of your destiny. I want that, one more time. I want to be in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. To feel the surge as 10 racehorses go thundering by. I want another meal in Paris, at L’Ambroisie, at the Place des Vosges. I want another bottle of wine. And then another. I want the warmth of a woman and a cool set of sheets. One more night of jazz at the Vanguard. I want to stand on the summits and smoke Cubans and feel the sun on my face for as long as I can. Walk on the Wall again. Climb the Tower. Ride the River. Stare at the Frescos. I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book. Most of all I want to sleep. I want to sleep like I slept when I was a boy. Give me that, just one time. That’s why I won’t allow that punk out there to get the best of me, let alone the last of me.” ~ James Spader as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist”

 

If life’s peaks and valleys have taught me nothing else in 50 years, they’ve shown me the importance of recognizing seasons when you should just be still. When you feel like you’re in the wilderness, the best thing you can do is embrace the quiet and listen.

Most of 2015 was such a season for me. And it was, furthermore, a year when I thought a lot about my own mortality.

Entering my sixth year of a career funk, (some would call that more than a short dry spell) I’d spent much of 2014 considering the next major move. There was a strong draw to a six-figure investment for a retail franchise I really liked, then a movie about a successful chef with a food truck brought some surprising inspiration about that notion. Go figure. Needless to say, I was all over the map, and both required money I could probably get, but couldn’t necessarily afford. At this point wounds from closing my beloved publishing business in 2008 were healed, but I still remember how much they hurt. It’s not a pain I want to feel again, and with it all comes a certain sense of caution. When clouds of caution hang like heavy fog over a risk-taking personality, it’s constant inner turmoil. A betting friend of mine says, “Scared money never wins.”

I’d always heard the ages between 45 and 55 were the most productive times of a man’s life – the time when he makes a real contribution. The urge to sink my energies, and invest my time into something real, was, well, real. But this is also an age when you first begin experiencing the loss of important people, many of whom shaped how you are, and what you think and believe.

The unusually high number of friends, mentors and other acquaintances who died that year pulled me in another direction that whispered, “Time is short. Forget a career. Experience your purpose. I’ll take care of the rest. Breathe.”

***

Cultural change and progressive attitudes over time can be a good thing. Society evolves, and that’s a double-edged sword. The evolution of how we think makes many things better. But it also often moves us in the opposite direction of many things that are true. One of the cute little sayings that’s made its way into society is this notion that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea is based on a dangerously liberal paraphrase from Romans 8:28 which reads:

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”

So yes, God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign reign over all creation make everything work in His behalf, and in His time, but the gift of our own free will means we screw a lot of things up along the way. Much of what we do was never in God’s greater plan. The very idea that everything I’ve done in my life was perfectly in line and with the greater good makes me laugh out loud. I know disobedience personally.

Free will means we have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s also a gift, given by the Creator, consistent with his creative nature, that allows us to shape our lives in beautiful ways, learning uniquely, and growing as we go. It requires that we have a certain comfort level with uncertainty.

It requires faith.

***

Signage at the Alto de Perdón monument very roughly translated "where the path crosses the place where the wind meets the stars."

Signage at the Alto de Perdón monument very roughly translated “where the path crosses the wind.”

With anxiety and a sense of urgency over my career growing inside every cell of my spirit in early 2015, it would’ve been easy to make a bad decision, and a bad decision could’ve been costly in more ways than one. The time wasn’t right to do something big, and I knew it. So I bought myself some time in a crazy, low-risk sort of way. I bought a lawnmower and a trailer, and decided to mow yards for a living until the next move became clear. It’s the best decision/non-decision I’ve made in a long time.

I had about 12 yard-mowing clients in the summer of 2015. It’s really hard work when the temperatures are high. But it was a good way to be my own boss, and gave me much needed time to think about a bigger move, also giving us a bit of bill-paying money. The unexpected benefit is there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in work like mowing yards. At the end of the day, you can look back and see you’ve really done something. It’s important, I think, especially to men.

Once I realized that, and really thought about it, my next move became crystal clear. As much as I’d been patient in recent years, and done my best to listen, on July 4 as I was preparing a backyard barbecue for family and friends, I realized I needed to go away, be even more intentional with my listening, and pursue something I’d been thinking about for nearly three years.

I needed to do something to feel like a man again, and remembered a C.S. Lewis quote I’d first read in John Eldridge’s book, Wild at Heart.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I walked into my office, fired up the computer and booked an October 19 plane ticket to Madrid. A 500-mile walk across Spain might just be the perfect place to figure things out, and even feel like a real man again.

***

Fourteen kilometers west of Pamplona, pilgrims reach the peak of Alto de Perdón (the high place of forgiveness). It’s a significant stop on the Camino made even more famous in a special scene in Emilio Estevez’s The Way. Like many personal experiences we all encounter, it’s difficult to describe exactly how you feel at this place where the vista seems almost endless, and you can look back nearly 70 kilometers to see how far you’ve come. It’s one of those rare feelings you never want to end.

As I reached the peak of Alto de Perdón my feet were blistered, my back hurt, and my legs were just beginning to sense the effects of a long-distance walk. I looked across the amazing sight of the Spanish countryside and was thankful for every ache and pain. I’d asked for this through the gift of my own free will.

With no idea what tomorrow would bring, it was the first time in years when I felt I was standing at the helm of my destiny. It was a defining moment.

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James the Apostle: Son of Thunder

(Blogger’s Note: Taking a break from my normal format and style today to offer a few thoughts about James the Apostle. It’s appropriate here, since the Camino de Santiago’s traditional route along Camino Frances (The French Way) concludes in Compostela, Spain at a cathedral where it’s believed James’ remains are enshrined.)

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  • He is not to be confused with two other men named James who appear in the New Testament: James, the son of Alphaeus, another apostle; and James, the brother of Jesus, a leader in the Jerusalem church and author of the book of James.
  • Of the three apostles who comprised the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples (Peter, James and John), we know the least about James. We do know, however, that he was the eldest brother of John, and that their father’s name was Zebedee (their mother’s name was Salome.)
  • James possessed two natures, both of which were characterized by strong feelings. He could be particularly indignant, had a fiery temper when adequately provoked, and when the storm was over, he was inclined to justify and excuse his anger. Except for these periodic upheavals of wrath, James’s personality was much like Andrew’s. He was a superior public speaker. Next to Peter, James may have been the best public orator among the 12.
  • James, his brother John, Peter and Andrew were all partners in a fishing business prior to their calling to follow Jesus.
  • There is evidence that James was the first cousin of Jesus, and had been acquainted with Him from infancy. It is believed his mother Salome was the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary.
  • Not much is known of his ministry after Jesus’ resurrection. It is believed, however, that he lived another 14 years before his martyrdom. By order of Herod Agrippa I, James was beheaded in Jerusalem about the feast of Easter, 44 AD. It’s believed that during this 14-year period, James visited the Jewish colonist and slaves in Spain to preach the Gospel.
  • He could be quiet and thoughtful one day, and a very good talker and storyteller the next. He usually spoke freely with Jesus, but for days at a time he was the silent man. James had many spells of unaccountable silence.
  • The outstanding feature of his personality was his ability to see all sides of a proposition. Of all the 12, he perhaps, came the nearest to grasping the real import and significance of Jesus’ teaching. He, too, was slow at first to comprehend the teacher’s meaning, but once they had finished their training, he acquired a superior concept of the gospel. James was able to understand a wide range of human nature; he got along well with the versatile Andrew, the impetuous Peter, and his self-contained brother John.
  • James, John and Peter, had three experiences with Jesus witnessed by no one else. They were present for the Great Transfiguration, witnessed the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and were called aside to watch and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before His death.
  • James was the first apostle executed.
  •  He was not above mistakes. When a Samaritan village rejected Jesus, he and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. It was his fiery temper for which he and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder.”
  • It has been said that when the apostle James was led out to die, a man who brought false accusations against him walked with him to the place of execution. He doubtless expected to see James looking pale and frightened, but he saw him, instead, bright and joyous, like a conqueror who had won a great battle. The false witness greatly wondered at this and became convinced that the Savior in whom the prisoner by his side believed must be the true God. The man himself, therefore, became a convert to Christianity and was condemned to die with James. Both were consequently beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 5.30.51 AM
  • One of the Camino de Santiago’s great traditions upon arriving at the cathedral in Compostela takes place at the Pillar of Many Hands where James’ image is carved into a pillar and surrounded by Christ and the other 11 apostles. For 10 centuries, pilgrims who complete the journey have placed their hand on the same spot and offer a prayer of thanks for protection and safe travel.

(Biblepath.com was a source for some information in this post.)

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