“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.
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.
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.
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.