Managing my propensity to occasional depression has pretty much been the same for more than 40 years. I’m just more aware of the management process now, and have become more proactive than reactive about it. Today it’s no longer a subconscious coping tool, but a need of which I’m aware that’s become as much a part of my life as opening the pool for the season, or the annual termite inspection.
The best prescription I’ve found is pursuing something difficult that requires long, disciplined preparation – something intense enough that it brings a focused distraction to the hopelessness many of us privately know in depression. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s found a way to turn sadness into gladness.
I wasn’t a natural athlete as a kid, but found myself working obsessively harder than average to become a decent high school ball player. Spent most of my 20s laying the career groundwork for landing my political communication dream job at 32. Just a few years later invested 36 months completely dedicated to marathon training and made the distance three times. The cycle never ends, and reflecting on those efforts is exhausting. Not to have pursued them might have been deadly.
Early in our marriage and as the recession wrecked our livelihood I experienced a depression that took me so far into myself that I wasn’t sure I’d come back. Dana may have wondered the same. Part of the healing process involved watching late night adventure shows about far-away places. They were shows that kept us dreaming. However you do it, and wherever you must search, depression requires that you cling to hope. My hope has always been in Christ Jesus, but depression will sometimes trick and rob you of that hope. Another topic, another time. One night, a part of my worldly hope was found in a movie called The Way.
In October 2015, I set out for a 500-mile walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago as both preventive depression therapy, and a celebration for overcoming that hard time years earlier. I would’ve never made it through that time, or to the Camino, without Dana. Though 5,000 miles across an ocean, she was with me every step. A man can find no adequate measurement for the value of a supportive, committed, loving wife. There is no standard to which I can point. I value it above all things, save my identity in Christ.
It took four days and about 60 miles of walking last year to realize one of the most valuable lessons I’d learn on the Camino. Pilgrimage was best experienced and more profoundly understood when I approached it as a story. When I became free to experience the Camino in such a familiar way, everything changed. I’d found “my Camino.”
Unconventionally, and to the dismay of pilgrimage purists, I conveyed the stories in real time, up and over the Pyrenees, through the Meseta, eight hours through a Galician blizzard, and to the end of the world. Mostly through meeting new friends along the way there were stories about relationships, hardship, loss, determination, and hope. I found the stories refreshingly rich and real, and the experience of telling them helped me reclaim things I didn’t even know I’d lost. I hate the cliché, but yes, the Camino provided exactly what I needed.
I came home, wrote a book about it, and wondered what would come next, because I knew the story wasn’t finished. A wise French companion once told me “a pilgrim never stops walking the path.”
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” ~ Proverbs 31:10-12
When the unexpected opportunity presented itself last week for Dana and I both to return to the Camino this fall, we booked the tickets without much thought to all the things one should think about when it comes to getting off the grid for a month. I’ve lost enough friends during the last two years to know that when you’re 70 percent sure about something that may seem far-fetched at the moment, you try your best to say “yes,” and figure the rest out as you go. After a flurried exchange of text messages about the chance to go as a couple, we said “yes.”
Not only am I excited to walk again, meet new friends, and see new places, I’m excited to tell a new story. And I think I’m as eager as anything to watch the experience unfold for Dana. That’s the story I want to tell you. This time I want to share the experience through her eyes.
For 31 days I’ll be Dana’s walking documentary journalist, sharing a few of my perspectives about her pilgrimage, but mostly telling it as she sees things through photos, text and video.
This wasn’t her idea. She’s not even comfortable with it yet.
But the world needs more stories about good people. Not the ones who pretend to be good, or those who shout from the mountaintops that they’re good, but rather the ones who are good.
I’ve never known a better, more selfless, more compassionate, humble person than my wife. I thank God that I get to walk with her every single day.
Dana made me #PilgrimStrong.
But together we are #PilgrimStronger.
I can’t wait to tell you her story.
PS: We’re going to need a trail name for her. If you have ideas, please leave a comment.
“What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” ~ A.W. Tozer
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
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.
It’ll change your life …
In a world that notices only the extreme as noteworthy, and where everything in between is lost for attention, it’s something we hear more often than we really should.
Certain things give us new, yet often fleeting perspectives. We may alter habits for a time. Still, few things really, truly change our lives. These are seven things to which I can point that really have changed my life:
Unconditional Love. The moment captured in this photo changed life at my core. With Dana, I learned the lesson of unconditional love – that is love that exists above every other worldly thing. She is always there, always my partner, never wavering, committed, in spite of every screw up or crazy idea or thoughtless inaction I may impose on our relationship. She stands solidly with me, and I never wonder about it. There’s incredible freedom in that love. It opens up a world that allows me to be me. And knowing that kind of love on earth teaches us a lot about God’s love for us all. As close as can be, it replicates His love, and it’s exactly why the marriage covenant is so important. He chose that relationship above all others to represent His love for the church. Knowing Dana brought me closer to God. I’ve written before that when I see Dana, I see Jesus.
My Father’s Death. If you read the “About” page on this site, toward the bottom you’ll see a time I note as a personal defining moment. It happened in the last 10 days of a hospital stay when my dad ultimately passed away. Without many details, toward those final days, Daddy asked for a baptism. The church pastor who showed up refused the ceremony (and that’s all baptism is, by the way) because the environment and circumstances didn’t permit him to conduct a “full immersion” baptism. His doctrinal belief about water trumped the circumstance of a dying man’s request. For years, I let this radically (and wrongly) affect my view of the organized church. The anger persisted more than two years and I mostly stayed away. I’ve come to realize, however, it was a man’s misjudgment, and I choose to believe it wasn’t in the character of the gospel church – not by way of the bible I read, anyway. Because of it all I see church now for what it really is – a gathering of imperfect people doing their best. I’m at peace with church now, and it has newfound importance for me.
Latin America. In 2012, Dana and I committed a part of our lives to Ecuador. More than any other thing, our time there shapes my understanding of a world beyond Arkansas. Wherever I am today, I’m better because of the time we spend there. Ecuador is my healing ground, and everyone needs a place like that.
The Recession. In 2009, I was still young and inexperienced enough not to see it coming. Mostly because I’d never seen anything like it before. It was beyond my comprehension that you could make lots of money one day, and the stream could completely dry up the next. Just vanish. That time reshaped my understanding about the purpose we have for our own life, versus God’s purpose for us.
Depression. That’s exactly what followed the recession. About four years of it. Chronic, deep, dark, and void. I never really thought I’d see the other side of it. After a slow, one-day-at-a-time recovery from depression, there was a moment that changed my life, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but my personal mission completely changed. All I wanted was a knowledge of the truth. It’s core to my purpose now and I reject time spent in any other realm. Truth is nothing to be self-righteous about, but worthy of every pursuit.
Pilgrimage. I went to the Camino de Santiago last year for multiple reasons, and even with certain expectations and assumptions, almost none of which were true. In the months prior to departure I read volumes of material and engaged in conversations with pilgrims who’d gone before. So much of the thematic message was that pilgrimage would “change my life.” It did, and yet it didn’t. I found the pilgrimage experience, rather than change, made me much more of who I already was. It confirmed for me that I’m headed down the right path. Ultimately, pilgrimage helped me reclaim my life’s calling. It’s another place where I’ve found so much freedom.
Understanding Labels. It’s probably the most recent life-changing revelation I’ve had, relative to my faith, and corresponds with my philosophy about truth. Just a short time ago, it was polite to avoid labels because of the stereotypes it projected. That’s less a concern now since we’ve entered into a new time where word definition perceptions evolve and change with a new acceleration. It’s a complicated explanation for how it all happens, but words are shifting “genres.” By and large, “evangelical” is no longer a religious word. Rather, it’s a political word, and in the process, it’s become misconstrued. Same with “church,” and “christian” and so on. It’s about commercialism as well. Just because a book rests on the “christian” shelf at your local bookstore – well, that doesn’t make it necessarily so. It’s a tough predicament for a word guy. As words and labels evolve I find almost no descriptors for who I am.
Because of it all I think it’s never been more important to know what we believe, and why.
Maybe my best descriptor is “ragamuffin.”
It’s the title of a favorite biographical movie, and finds definition when a mentor shares its meaning with songwriter Rich Mullins, who died in 1997.
Ragamuffin – a ragamuffin knows he’s nothing more than a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.
I’m okay with that.
“Some journeys can only be traveled alone.” ~ Ken Poirot
Every traveler has a subconscious switch that flips when it’s time to go home. It’s the least enjoyable part of any journey. My switch now flipped, I was in the zone and homeward bound.
As we re-entered Santiago the bus driver was kind enough to drop me near the train station where he said I’d find plenty of overnight accommodations. I wanted to be within walking distance of tomorrow’s early-morning train back to Madrid. Now running low on money and wanting to keep things flexible, I’d play it by ear in Madrid, even if it meant rolling out a sleeping back on the airport floor the night before departure. If there’s one quality you acquire on camino, it’s flexibility.
Essentially a fast-forward camino in reverse, the train trip to Madrid was nostalgic as I’d catch the occasional glimpse of places where I’d passed through on foot weeks ago. It already seemed surreal that I’d actually done it.
Even if meant there’d be no rest, I was determined to make the logistics simple and minimize any likelihood of missing an 11 a.m., flight departing Madrid on Thursday morning. The best way to facilitate the plan was to wake up at the airport that day rather dealing with big-city transportation issues from a hotel early in the morning. My spirit was oddly anxious about any possibility of missing that plane and I’d dialed up travel mode to intense.
It was a relief just arriving at the airport. However uncomfortable the night ahead might be, I’d make tomorrow’s plane and head for home. Assurance trumps discomfort in my personal travel guide most days.
Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is huge, and geographically the largest travel facility in Europe. With five terminals spread across 3,050 square hectares, Madrid-Barajas is as big as a city and accommodates 50 million travelers a year. Manevering the airport expanse is a challenge in itself.
Though I’d heard about a hotel somewhere on the airport grounds, no one in my departure Terminal 2 seemed to know about it. I dismissed the idea as bad travel information and after a stale 10 euro sandwich and a soft drink made my way to an area outside all the foot traffic and tried out the floor using my backpack as a pillow. It was so uncomfortable I laughed out loud. The thought of alternating positions between the concrete floor and a plastic chair for the next 15 hours was less than ideal. It was there where a janitor with a mop bucket became my savior.
As he mopped the floor nearby, I could tell he felt sorry for me. He kept looking my way, and so I walked over in hopes that he might have advice about a better plan.
“Usted tiene camas en el aeropuerto? I asked.
“Si, si, terminal de cinco en autobús,” he said, so happy to help. I thanked the kind man, and with the new promise of a good night’s sleep made my way outside to find the airport bus. It was hard not to think about the prospect for a final blessing of camino magic.
It’s almost a 20-minute bus ride from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5, and I used the time for making mental notes about getting back early the next morning. I was surprised how uptight I remained about making that plane.
Air Rooms Madrid is tucked away deep in the basement bowels of Terminal 5. It features simple, no-frills rooms with clean beds and hot, private showers for a $135 credit card slide. Underground, absent a single window and with close proximity to multiple bus stops and the airport train station, the dark, noisy environment never varies. Inside the basement hotel it’s virtually impossible to know whether it’s day or night.
I was thrilled with the simple accommodations, knowing I’d step onto tomorrow’s 10-hour flight home clean and rested. My plan for not making plans came together in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. After a long, hot shower, I climbed into bed, turned on the television and passed out around 6 p.m. The next hours indulged a sleep so hard that I lost track of every sensibility – including time.
The simple recollection of what happened next makes my heart race all over again.
Groggy and momentarily unaware of the environment, a passing train roused my attention and I instinctively reached for the phone to note the time. My bleary eyes saw the numbers 10:17. It’s surpising how something as simple as the absence of a window can completely throw your sense of time. I thought I’d slept the clock around and immediately envisioned fellow passengers boarding the flight home. I was a logistical hour away from being anywhere close to that plane, and went from zombie-like sleep to full-blown panic in less than 10 seconds. Heart attacks are the products of more subtle transitions.
With heart pounding, I almost couldn’t breathe, and surely couldn’t think. But instinct had me throwing clothes on my body and into my backpack even though I knew making the plane was hopeless. Then it occurred to me. Maybe it was p.m. rather than a.m. In this dungeon without a view there was no way to know. The only thought I could fathom was the need to look outside.
The desk manager must have thought I was a lunatic. With sagging unbelted shorts, an unbuttoned shirt and bare feet I ran past her to the door looking for sunshine. Looking out to the lower-level driving tunnel toward the train stop offered still no indication. We were underground.
I turned back toward the manager. “Is it day or night?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied.
“Is it day time or night time? I think I slept through and missed my plane.”
“It’s evening, sir. You’ve only been here a few hours. Would you like to receive a wakeup call in the morning?” she asked, never breaking professional stride.
“Yes. Yes, I would please for 6 a.m. Thank you.”
Clutching my shorts, now three inches too big, I returned to the room and fell on the bed waiting for the heart palpitations to cease. It was the most negative rush of adrenaline I’ve experienced, and it took hours for a return to any normal feeling.
A wake up call. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
(Blogger’s Note: The final steps of my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)