Coming soon to my new website, and it’s going to be free!
Most years it was just an obligatory exercise. All the personal self-development gurus said it was something you needed to do. So, I did it, sort of just moving through the motions, and by the end of January, most was long forgotten.
Suddenly, in the mid-50s, it’s an important, drawn-out, thoughtful three weeks that has become the most important time I spend each year – often away and alone. Using time wisely now is more important than it’s ever been. The clock is ticking and each passing year feels more urgent than the last.
And this year, it went deeper. To figure out how I wanted to invest my time and energy in 2021, I tore everything down and started over, being honest, and really assessing what’s important.
The strange thing is, the realization that came with my 2020 self-assessment and new-year plan revealed I’d become the very thing that several years ago I pledged never to be again.
I’d become a hypocrite.
It was well-intentioned, but I’d become a hypocrite, nonetheless. In the desire for “validation” in an ever-changing publishing world, I’d become a marketing guy focused on making it in the traditional publishing world and crafting myself as a product the big publishing houses would desire. I conformed to a set of rules I didn’t even believe in, to achieve something that I’m no longer sure is worth the effort. Certainly not so if it means that I’m no longer true to myself.
Because at this stage in life what’s really important is authenticity, keeping it real, and servanthood that comes from a well-meaning heart.
No longer will I work to become a product that sells stories and books. I’ll pursue what’s real, and genuine, and peaceful, and joyful. So I tore it all down to define these four things:
This is tricky, and in the fog of pursuit, I’d lost my sense of these things – that is what they really are. But this is what will guide my life in 2021, and by definition, here’s how it works for me.
My Mission: While I respect everyone’s right to believe as they choose, I am a believer in the Christian faith that aligns with the gospel accounts of Jesus. It is my core belief, at the heart of all I feel, think, and trust. This is not something to be pushed on others, but I enjoy sharing the lessons learned in my faith walk with Christ. In some way, it permeates my writing, and my approach to life, and my hope for the future. Mostly because I believe Jesus Christ is the source of ultimate truth. So, my mission is the Great Commission. For me, this means sharing stories, and loving people regardless of the label the world has assigned them. Just love people. Most of the rest will take care of itself.
My Passion: To anwer this question, we must ask ourselves this simple question: What most stirs your heart? And in answering this question for myself, I almost made the mistake of not drilling deeply enough. This sounds silly, but at first thought, I saw my passion as cooking. But cooking doesn’t qualify as a passion, really. I think down deep what any person who loves preparing good food loves most is the hospitality of making people happy. Serving them. Bringing satisfaction to a guest’s most instinctive desire. I love cooking great food, but what I’m most passionate about is the hospitality that can be given to people around a table sharing stories, experiences, and letting the boundaries come down. I will spend more time serving people on the mission outpost retreat center we call Tranquility Base.
My Gifting: My biggest mistake has been confusing gifting with passion. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s your passion. God’s gifting to me is communication, and particularly the written word. I am not a mathematician, or an engineer, or even a good handy man. But I can write, and tell stories. It’s just important to keep the gifting in its place and not let it become the overpowering element of your life just because it’s what you’re best at. I am guilty here. You can use your gifting to fulfill your passion and your mission, but your gifting is a tool to be wisely used. I’ll use this gifting in a handful of specific ways next year, and will share more on that later.
My Love: Ambition, work, the desire to be accepted, or validated in any area can consume a person to the detriment of his/her best interests. Sometimes, we are just running from what’s important because there are things too hurtful to face. I have an amazing wife who for some crazy reason enjoys being by my side. We believe in the principal of helpmates, and she is my go-to friend and helper. My relationship with my mom has literally transfigured to one where I consider her my best friend. Funny how age will make that happen. And after the long-lasting wounds of divorce, I am lavishing in the joy of renewed relationships with my three adult children, each of whom is a model of good citizenry, decency, and potential to change the world for the good. This is a God thing. I will spend the rest of my life celebrating all these people, serving them, and basking in the joy of their goodness. More than anything else moving forward, I will honor these people.
And so, these are my guiding principals for 2021.
How they specifically translate into action and not just empty convictions is the focus for my next blog post in the series.
Some time back around 2010 I was getting desperate. I hadn’t worked in two years and chronic depression had settled in, seeming it might never go away. Dana and I were still relatively newly married and I wondered why she even stuck around.
One morning my mom called and explained a potential opportunity with a family that owned one of those elder care businesses with several satellite offices across Arkansas. They needed two people for their Mountain Home office and they needed them soon. I drove up a few days later and they offered us the job on the spot. The emotions were mixed. The money would be a relief but leaving “home” never felt right. I made the decision that we’d make the move despite gut feelings that said it was wrong.
Time passed. Not only were the owners downright tyrants, they were an emotional bunch who lived out most aspects of their lives without discretion. Husband and wife arguments right there in the office, the kind of family dynamics that have no business in the workplace. These people were mean. Mean and depression don’t mix well. Dana and I were miserable at new depths.
And I felt completely trapped.
We’d made the move, though we’d not sold our house back home, and the money paid the bills. We weren’t being a burden to anyone, but the work experience made us so physically sick we came home every weekend, happy to spend time back in our house with no more than a couple of lawn chairs and a blow-up couch. One Monday morning before we made the three-hour drive back to work I had a complete spiritual meltdown, one of the lowest moments of my life.
As the weeks passed, the experience took its toll on us physically. Dana, strong, and typically full of energy became sick with a level 10 sinus infection. She stayed home from work that day, but the owners were relentless sending her email and calling her at home to carry on with her work.
Dana returned to work the following day, still sick but overwhelmed with so much work responsibility. Staying home was no relief.
Looking back, it was also the day that we reclaimed our lives and started living again.
That entire morning, the owners, now working in an office several hours away, pounded Dana with work assignments via text, email, and phone call. Still sick and feverish, she handled it well. (Dana is MUCH better at this stuff than me.)
At the end of a command from one of the owners, Dana replied with a simple, “Gotcha.”
The owner’s reply?
“Never reply to me with a ‘gotcha.’ Your correct response is ‘the task is complete.’”
I’d never seen anything like it. The task is complete. That’s the response she commanded.
We finished the day and went for cheap fast food at a Hardees. As bad as the day had been, we feared tomorrow might get worse. And the next day, and the next.
Dana looked at me. I looked at her.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked.
“I think so.
“Let’s blow this joint.”
That evening, we dropped our keys in a business mailbox, went home, slept like babies, got up early and packed to go home. We never spoke another word to those maniacs. And we literally cheered and sang and celebrated the drive home.
We reflect on it as one of the pivotal moments in our marriage. Solid. Together. One.
Sometimes you have to follow your gut.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely that what others think of you. The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” – Coach John Wooden
Is your character worth a penny?
Lake County has been the poorest of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties for a long time. It’s mostly two small towns with thousands of acres of the world’s richest farm land. This Mississippi River twists and turns through its heart, and the land is so flat you can see forever. There aren’t more than eight or ten families who farm all that land now, so the jobs aren’t all that plentiful.
“You don’t just put any yahoo to operating a half-million dollar cotton picker,” as one local resident recently noted.
Jimmy Lee Tucker remembers the late 1950s when his father worked as a commercial fisherman on Reelfoot Lake. “If he had a good week, I got 25 cents on Saturday,” he said. “If it was a bad week I got nothing. The 25 cents would get you a Coke, a big Baby Ruth and enough bubble gum to last for the week.”
But Tucker, now a census worker for the government, remembers an abrupt change that came to his weekend routine one day.
“The Cokes went from a nickel to six cents. You put your nickel in the slot like always, and they attached a tin box to the outside where you placed the extra penny. They called it the honesty box. Paying six cents for a Coke was a big deal.
“Hardly any of the kids did it, and so it wasn’t a year later before they just upped the price from six cents to a dime. That showed us.”
When I was younger it didn’t bother me so much taking a pen from the bank or just accepting the extra french fries when the order got mixed up. And I must have left a hundred shopping carts right there in the parking lot.
That conscience, though.
The older we grow, I think, the more self-aware we are of that person we see in the mirror. I’ve realized that among all things, I have to live with that guy, and I don’t want him feeling guilty about some small, silly thing.
Dana and I once spent a five-month stretch in Ecuador not knowing if we’d ever return to the US. It was on the back side of a tough time, emotionally, economically, and lots of other ways. The thing I realized most from that adventure is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. There’s really no hiding from yourself.
Everybody has an honesty box.
COMING FRIDAY: Dates for the 2021 Tranquility Base Writers Retreats
•Some days when you get out of bed, it’s just going to hurt.
•Ibuprofen is a wonderful drug, preventive and otherwise.
•No matter how much it disgusts you about yourself, a couple of hairs are going to grow around your ears. If there was any remaining hope of coolness, rest assured it’s forever gone.
•When it comes to physical work in a day, you are going to get less done, and it involves a lot more breaks.
•A daily afternoon nap is okay. I’ve earned it.
•I’m not too old to still dream and set high goals.
•It’s a worthy cause to invest in younger adults.
•At this point, and for many reasons, your spouse becomes more and more important to you.
•Do not set some magical, distant date when you’ll “start enjoying life.” Enjoy life and begin doing those things now. There is no promise of tomorrow.
•The newspaper obituary column is more significant to you than it once was.
•There is great pleasure just sitting watching it rain or snow.
•Always be a rookie at something.
•Convictions are worthless without action.
•Find a couple of things that when you do them daily, make you a better person. And do those things.
•Learn not to be so hard on yourself for past mistakes.
•Try to do a good deed every day. It’s even better if the deed cannot be returned.
•I am the only one who is responsible for reconciling the past.
•It is better to live my faith than to talk about it, though talking about it is worthy discussion.
•My greatest fear will always be acting a hypocrite.
•Some of the greatest moments happen around a big table with great food.
Maneuvering their way methodically through the crowd of Sunday morning tourists the three young women emerged from the descending tunnel just as every bell in the city launched a frenzied peal proclaiming high noon. Commanding all attention, the bells overwhelmed every other noise in the plaza, including the bagpipes that always seem oddly out of place, yet inevitably evoke emotions consistent with something so powerful and deep as the conclusion of this journey.
Walking sticks in hand, clickety-clacking along the ancient cobblestones, the trio made the last of more than a million purposeful steps across the better part of forty days. Six hours prior and ten miles eastward they’d set out early but there was no beating the heat this day. Noontime temperatures already pushed three digits and heavy streams of sweat ran down their dusty legs as gravity pulled tiny rivers of mud into their long-ago sweat-filled, worn-out shoes. The threesome remained close making their way respectfully through the bustling crowd and came to a point that obviously seemed suitable. In unison, they turned their bodies and eyes eastward and upward now bringing into full view the place they’d walked toward a month. Newly restored and refurbished, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is breathtaking against the deep blue August sky. For the moment, each was lost in her own private thoughts.
Just as they were soaking it all in, one of the peregrinas made an independent step forward raising her hands wide toward the heavens as if to receive this long-anticipated moment into her spirit. In a crowd of hundreds, she is alone in a private state of thanks — immersed in gratitude. Following suit, her compañeras step alongside as they clasp hands skyward celebrating as family.
Together, they have walked across a country on a footpath known to seekers for more than a millennia. Maybe it was nothing more than a long walk. But it’s just as possible they may never be the same. Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, together, they have arrived.
After four days traveling Dana and I had already spent two recovery days on the ground shaking an unusually difficult bout of jet lag. We decided to fight the fog of flying forward in time and pretty much losing an entire night by taking a bus to the cathedral plaza — the familiar place that defines Santiago de Compostela. It was there where we witnessed the scene described above. I was already caught unwittingly off guard by the emotions returning to the site where the Way of St. James concludes. This place, and what it means, has become an unexpectedly important part of my life over the last three years. There was two years of book writing most recently followed by nearly fifty presentations from Potomac, MD to San Francisco. It seems I’ve lived “The Way” for a long time now.
God works in mysterious ways. This pilgrimage experience continues bringing personal and important revelations about the things I consider most important. And it has blessed me with an incredible network of family and deep and meaningful friendships across the world. It’s a big deal for a kid who grew up in a cotton patch in the middle of rural Arkansas.
So I know exactly how these women felt as they concluded their long pilgrimage. What they may or may not know is the truth found in that cliché notion that their real pilgrimage begins at the end. I hate that cliché. But I now know that it’s real and that it has the potential to shape us in wonderful ways.
Here’s a recap of our experience so far:
Saving more than a thousand dollars on air fare, Dana and I bypassed our home airport at Memphis International and made the six-hour drive to Dallas-Fort Worth for our departure point. The total ten hours from Dallas to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Madrid was about as flawless as international travel comes. Still, we were three hundred miles from Santiago de Compostela, our home base for the next three months.
I’d not pre-booked any travel beyond Madrid in the event of delayed connections or airport problems. Too many reservations can quickly become a falling house of cards with the slightest glitch in this type of travel. The other side of it is that you never know the scenarios that await.
After catching the airport commuter train to Chamartin Station, the man at the ticket counter explained that every train to Santiago for the next four days was fully booked. August is vacation season in Spain and everyone is squeezing in their last bit of free time before school starts. The bus lines were also fully booked. I’ve learned these moments are not resolved with panic.
After a few back-and-forth texts with our hosts, Nate and Faith Walters, we discovered a ride share program in Spain that works much like Airbnb. They call it Bla-Bla Car! After a few hours weighing all the options (which amounted to one) we booked three seats (one for each of us and one for our luggage) with Humberto who was headed from Madrid to Santiago the following day at noon. By 7 p.m. that night, we’d arrived at Nate and Faith’s, exhausted, but at home base for the next eighty-nine days. As noted earlier, we remained in a travel fog for the next thirty-six hours.
The final puzzle piece that made this trip possible was the opportunity to house sit for Nate and Faith as they are on an extended trip back to the US. So our responsibilities include both caring for their house and serving at the faith-based, non-profit they founded, Terra Nova Pilgrim House, just a few blocks off the cathedral square.
It’s a nice, four-level home with all the modern conveniences, an outdoor patio, a great kitchen where I’m already re-learning how to cook, and a nice backyard garden.
Together, we experienced a four-day transition as Nate, Faith and their four children departed for Washington just yesterday. They were all so gracious. It’s not easy having guests in your home as you’re preparing that many people for a six-month trip across an ocean. They must have walked out the door yesterday with a dozen suitcases.
We’re a fifteen minute walk from a local mall and super mercado, and just twenty minutes off the Way of St. James as you enter the east side of town. I can throw a rock
to the local bus stop and busses run every thirty minutes all over town. Public transportation in Europe is great once you learn it. We’re looking at possibilities for all kinds of long-weekend side trips. Dublin is even a possibility.
There is a training school for circus performers two doors down from us. Interesting, yes.
Just as we arrived European news agencies disseminated warnings of all-time record heat in the forecast. We’re talking 118 degrees Fahrenheit in some remote areas. We approached 100 on three consecutive days. Because this rarely happens it’s just not
practical for families to invest in air conditioning here. You open the windows and turn on the fans. Our finding a large fan at the mall was a divine miracle last Saturday. Practically every shelf in town was bare. Best €25 spent in a long time. Last Sunday, I took five cold showers.
It’s 68 degrees as I write at 11 a.m. now and a lovely breeze flows through our large open windows. Sweet relief.
Our sleep patterns here are complicated so far. Not only was there the adjustment of time, but at this latitude in this season our sunset doesn’t happen until around 10:45 p.m. Because I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy it’s totally thrown me off from what we’re accustomed to in the lower southern latitudes. We are going to bed around 11 p.m. and getting up between 8 and 9 a.m. I haven’t slept that late since college. At least it’s pretty consistent with Spanish culture.
COOKING AND FOOD
Yesterday, we ventured to the old-town outdoor market. It’s a place that will make a foodie downright giddy. I’ve never seen better produce than what’s available in the Spanish markets. Combine that with the local cheeses (Galicia is famous for its cheese), locally produced wines (I’m determined to learn more about wine while here), fresh seafood and meats (chorizo everywhere), and baguettes for €.35 each, and I could easily gain fifty pounds in three months. This whole volunteer experience may require another long walk!
After yesterday’s market trip I prepared our first comida — (late afternoon lunch,
typically the biggest meal of the day here). It was a nice chorizo and seafood pasta with a tomato, pepper, zucchini sauce.
I’ve discovered some low-alcoholic fruit ciders here that are refreshingly delicious. A cold San Miguel or Estrella Galicia beer is nostalgic of “second breakfast” on the Way. I also love an occasional cold sangria here, and cerveza de limon, a drink that is half beer, half intensified sparkling lemon juice. So refreshing. We’ll attempt a homemade papa tortilla soon.
Not to overlook the very most important part of this experience ahead.
Beyond everything, Dana and I have come here to serve and to listen. There is something inside my spirit telling me that listening will be the foundation of our service. The more I contemplate Jesus’ commission for disciples to take the gospel news to the ends of the earth, the more I think it’s about listening in the modern day. Historically, our delivery method has been talking. Telling people this and that. Inviting them to come into our circle as if we are somehow different and set aside. We just don’t sit still and listen enough. “Come into our group, affiliate with us, and you will be okay,” we say. “You are there, but we are here. Come here.” I think it is time we listen rather than be so determined to recite the four spiritual laws to someone and expect a miraculous change in someone’s life in fifteen minutes. As Rick Warren says, for Christians, “we have a lot to unlearn.”
I want to embrace people. We are all the same kind of different.
Beyond this, I have come here with personal expectation.
Over the years this has become one of a handful of places where I believe I better hear God’s direction for my own life. Maybe I imagine that, or maybe it is true, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I believe it. I’ve come here with the expectation that God will clearly show what comes next. Ideas abound. Clarity is needed. Maybe it is another book. Maybe it is a new mission, altogether. If you pray, I ask that you might pray for Dana and me as we sort through what’s next. I’m personally praying each night that God will make me receptive to the place where He leads. I want to have an open heart and an open spirit. So we covet your prayers in that regard.
Tomorrow, we’ll receive our first mission and vision training at Pilgrim House and go through full orientation. Our work schedule begins on Saturday.
Until next week, buen camino.
But forget all that … For I’m going to do a brand-new thing. See, I have already begun! Don’t you see it? I will make a road through the wilderness of the world for my people to go home and create rivers for them in the desert. –Isaiah 43:18-19, The Living Bible
Sitting there almost mesmerized, it was as if we were eye witnesses to freedom.
Whatever your level of spiritual maturity there’s an uneasiness that goes with visiting new churches and we’d spent most Sundays during 2015 as visiting strangers hoping to remain low-profile. We’d watched one church fight itself into a split, and another required that an elder certify our salvation for membership so the wounds were fairly fresh. We’d settled into this new church for more than three months now and sensed it might be the one.
But something in the atmosphere was different in the moments leading to this service. The worship team entered the platform more focused than usual and volunteers moved swiftly up and down the aisles greeting late-arrivals and newcomers and exchanging occasional glances as if nodding green lights of approval. There was a buzz in the air as a visual five-minute digital countdown launched ticking down the seconds on massive screens to each side of the platform.
My heart was completely unprepared for what happened next.
As the worship team made its way through a verse or two of a song called Reckless Love, individual members of a group known as Celebrate Recovery*, recognized for its work helping break habits, hurts, and hangups, walked out stage front one after another. Each held a large cardboard sign marked in heavy black ink with words describing a life they’d left behind. A man I’d known for years walked out before hundreds and humbly held a sign labeling himself a liar, thief, and drug pusher. A young woman followed with her sign, that read “crushed by the guilt of abortion.” Another came next, the sign declaring him a sex addict. “So depressed I tried suicide twice,” read another. One after another they came frontward with labeled identities and moved into rows on the platform. There must have been fifty people on stage.
This is the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed, I thought, and tears streamed a steady flow.
As the last member took his place in line the music reached a crescendo and in a single, coordinated motion each face changed expression and every sign flipped in unison. Now, the new sign for the drug pusher read, “clean, self-employed, Celebrate Recovery leader.” The guilt of abortion was replaced with “forgiven by God’s amazing grace.” A former sex-addict is declared “porn-free.” Hundreds stood cheering in the most anointed moment I’ve known.
In the midst of it all came the strangest feeling of misbelonging. Watching as the group members came one by one presenting themselves in a void of pretense acknowledging past mistakes, I felt guilty observing as if a judge. I belong up there with them, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on his own place as chief of sinners came to mind. Never have I witnessed a more defining example of God’s redemption, grace, and the power of testimony among average, ordinary, and broken people— the kind God has always used most.
There was a great sense of gratitude two years later when Celebrate Recovery invited me as guest speaker for their five-year anniversary. I’d just finished my first book focusing much on my own experience with chronic depression and the celebratory pilgrimage I took along the Camino de Santiago and in the early stages of recovery. It was that long five-hundred-mile walk where God put me on a new path to understanding, a genuine relationship with Jesus, and a burning appetite for His truth. And like so many in Celebrate Recovery I was set free from guilt, shame, and a debilitating depression. Because they’d had such an enduring impact on me from their presentation years earlier I worked for days on a thoughtful message I hoped to leave with them. What’s the truest thing I can share? As it turns out, it’s the same message I remember feeling right there in the church pews two years earlier.
We all carry a sign every day. Whether we have the courage to acknowledge, and do something about it is up to us. God’s not looking at our resume, our past performance, the number of chamber of commerce awards on our office wall, or even the number of times we knew what was right, but did the wrong thing anyway. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, a single, heartfelt cry for help unleashes the same power that created the universe. No one is beyond forgiveness or another second chance. Our past doesn’t define us, but it refines us. He promises to make a way through the wilderness.
Indeed, we’re all in recovery.