Day 54: Gary Eubanks

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(Note: I haven’t seen Gary Eubanks in years. He was a member of the first church I joined after first becoming married in 1988.)

Dear Gary,

This will sound strange to many people. Religiously bizarre and progressively out of touch to some.

It was selfless and pure. And let’s fan the flame a bit further even – one of the downright manliest things I’ve seen.

Gary Eubanks

Gary Eubanks

There was never a more honorable servant leader at Highland Drive Baptist Church – no one who modeled Christ’s love better. You struck all the younger men (including me) as the kind of man we aspired to become. No hidden agendas. No ego. A single standard of what’s right. A servant. My, how we forget the greater must first become the lesser. I digress.

The entire church body clearly believed all the same things about you. When it came time to cast the votes for deacon that season your name collected more votes than any other. And then you made one of the most honorable and humble gestures I’ve seen the the body of Christ.

You said you’d been previously divorced.

“Let the deacons be the husband of one wife …” 1 Timothy 3:12

You were thus unqualified, you said. Ineligible for the servant role we wished to convey upon you.

Gary, that simple verse could ignite a half dozen different debates today, none of which really interest me here. There’s a much greater behind your action.

You examined your heart, asked the will of your Lord, checked the standard, and decided for yourself that the words citing deacon qualifications simply said what they meant. You decided they were uncomplicated, unobtuse, written as a clear unconfusing communication.

For you, there would be no “WhatAboutism.”

Many would have said, well, let’s check the context, or the translation is confusing … even, well, that was written for a different time. It doesn’t really say what it says.

Not you, sir. The words speak exactly what they mean, you said. If there was error to be made on this important decision in Christ’s church, you would err on the conservative side. You perceived a boundary, and chose not to cross it.

Almost no one does that anymore, Gary. We are a society plagued with “WhatAboutism.”

I’ve reflected on your actions that day so many times. In fact, I view it as one of the most meaningful lessons I’ve learned. It’s easy to complicate some of the simplest things. In what seem times of stress, there’s often no decision to wrestle with at all. And there’s perhaps nothing more important than how we see our own reflection in the mirror every day. What God sees most is the heart. My, oh my, that’s good news.

Sometimes, things are painfully simple.

Thank you for that lesson in how you live.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 52: Helen Corbett

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Dear Helen,

It may surprise you, but I’ve reflected on what you wrote so many times. It was just a simple social media post, yet one of the most endearing things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Snow in the elevations at O Cebreiro.

Day 39. I’d walked almost exactly 800 kilometers. Up and over a mountain range. Through cold, rainy wind and lots of mud. One night of delusional fever. There was an eight-hour blizzard. And my lower left shin was visually hemorrhaging blood now. But only one day of hobbling remained.

A friend of a friend sent a message suggesting maybe it would be best to call the whole thing off. Come back and finish another time. Nothing is worth that kind of pain, she said. “You gave it a great effort,” I read her final suggestive words as my blood pressure spiked.

Oh my Lord, someone’s recommending I quit.

Never has a suggestion seemed more hateful in the pit of my gut.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

Moments after reading all this, I remember pausing for a photo at a Galician crossroads just as the sun peaked over the distant eastern mountain ranges. They were so far away. The fog was burning off revealing the promise of the deepest azure-blue sky for a final Saturday walk. Tomorrow, the prize: Santiago de Compostela.

I sat in some dewy grass and crafted a public response to the idea about quitting. The urge to write was overwhelming. That happens sometimes.

“The very thought of quitting is hateful,” I wrote. “I’ve come this far, gone through this much, walked through this kind of pain to quit one day out? Do I really seem a quitter to you?” My words became unnecessarily defiant and obnoxious now. “I’d crawl all the way through oozing Spanish mud to reach that cathedral tomorrow.”

Now, that was very much NOT what a pilgrim should exude at this point, but it sure felt good.

***

It might be the honor of a lifetime how so many people followed along on that walk. Some actively joined in the conversation over 500 miles. Others just quietly sat back and watched. You fit the latter category, I suppose, until you read that awkward articulation of raw emotion on Day 39.

That night I read what you wrote, and I wept with the sincerest honor I’ve ever experienced. I kept a screenshot of your words so I’d remember them forever.

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Crap, I’m weeping again!

From across an ocean divide you chose me to take you to the cathedral? You chose me???

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

Aside from my own wife, I don’t think anyone’s ever expressed a sentiment more understanding of my spirit. Yes, hell or high water, we would get there, Helen. I wish I’d known you were along for the journey earlier. I might have been less indignant – a bit nicer even – polished things up a bit more.

I’m not sure if I followed up to share this with you, but the final Sunday of walking was glorious. There was much hobbling and it took about two hours longer than it should have to complete those final 12 miles, but I savored every step, much because of you, and others like you.

In the final steps to cathedral square, the trumpets did resound and I recalled your words. I shall never forget the moment. The cathedral spires appeared just to the left, I walked toward the square’s center, laid down on the cobblestones, and cried. Yes, I’m a crier, it’s true enough.

Lots of people and many things ran through my mind as I lay there after 40 days of walking. But one of them was you, and I thought you should know.

It was the honor of a lifetime taking you on that journey.

Thank you for letting me know you were there.

Your pilgrim brother,

Steve “High Roller” Watkins

 

 

 

 

Day 50: The Pastor Who Wouldn’t Baptize My Dad

Dear Pastor,

This is delicate. It has to be just right.

It would help to first identity what “it” is, but I’m not sure I truly know. It’s not an apology. Nor is it a rant. It’s not even what we’ve come in today’s world to know as “click bait.”

These are just raw emotions expressed through fingertips and a keyboard. Raw emotions. That’s all this is.

It was the kindest of gestures when you befriended my dad during his hospital stay five years ago. When you came along we didn’t know he’d never leave. But he never really had anyone to call “pastor,” and your kindness and concern was welcome during a difficult time.

At some point the realization came to us all that he probably wouldn’t leave.

My dad, in one of the places he most loved - our duck blind on the St. Francis River.

My dad, in one of the places he most loved – our duck blind on the St. Francis River.

Oftentimes, I say daddy lived a hell of a life. It was surely complicated by the relationships of his childhood which permeated almost everything he did. He never saw himself as good enough, up to the standard, and never grasped higher notions of grace and forgiveness. Until near the end.

In the last week of his life the Holy Spirit did a work as I’ve never seen. Daddy was transformed. Made new. Redeemed. As he slipped gradually and painfully away, there existed a peace in my father not of this world. To this day it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve personally witnessed.

Less than a week before he died Daddy wanted a baptism. The logical thing seemed a phone call to you as you’d gone out of your way with regular visits. Mom called me, the extended family showed up, and you came early that Sunday afternoon. What a magnificent celebration we anticipated.

But you said, “no.” Daddy was bedfast. He couldn’t make it to any vessel large enough for a “full immersion.” Your theology would permit nothing else. I’ll never forget your words as you walked away.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help.”

Daddy just made the decision of a lifetime. How this got managed over the minutes that followed was delicate. Thankfully, as He does, God worked it all out for the good. I rejoice at my father’s citizenship in Heaven which had nothing to do one way or another with baptism.

But for five years, your response echoed in my mind. “I’m sorry. I can’t help.” It unleashed some less than Christian behavior in my own life, was the beginning of my own turning against the Church, and didn’t do a lot for my propensity to depression.

Over time, we’ve lost the art of apology in this country. People will often say they offer forgiveness “for their own sake” because they deserve the peace that comes with forgiveness or some other such nonsense. It’s crazy that such a self-centered society has now made even forgiveness about self. Nothing is further from the truth.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-6-48-13-amThere’s no doubt your actions that day were grounded in firm belief, probably even obedience to a cause. I’ve tried to understand, but honestly never have. Adherence to such rigid rules is the stuff of the pharisees it seems to me. The symbolism of a decision is all we’re talking about here. Did you ever have a second thought about your decision, I’ve often wondered? I’ve pondered it deeply. I just can’t see your way here.

Forgive the inference because this specific situation is but one example, but it seems that all of us in the Christian community have become our own worst enemy regarding the spread of the gospel. The conflicts we’ve created and the tone we’ve set recently are the opposite example of that to which we’re called. Because of it all, witnessing to non-Christians and people of other non-Christian faiths has never been more difficult.

I’m not mad anymore, pastor, and I don’t mean this text as some passive-aggressive internet prose. This is simply how I process and express. I’m sorry for anthing I may have said or done that was hurtful toward you. Truly, I am sorry. Everything’s okay.

Maybe this was all orchestrated as some grander plan, who knows? But that moment on a Sunday afternoon five years ago is one pillar for all my thinking now about modeling the servanthood of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 48: Mike Overall

 

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(Note: Mike Overall worked at our local newspaper, The Jonesboro Sun, for 32 years. He was my associate editor and friend for 10.)

Dear Overall,

I can still see you over there halfway across a smoke-filled newsroom incessantly beating on the desk with two pencils as if you were in some sultry jazz hall.

You were one of a kind, if I’ve ever seen it, sir.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-7-55-22-amReading your newspaper column as a kid I often wondered who is that guy who uses all those words? He must be some kind of a professor or something. Overall Comments appeared in every Monday edition of The Jonesboro Sun. I read every word, every week.

Little did I know 10 years later you’d be my editor and boss.

Kindhearted, aloof, an organizational disaster, you’re the one who brought stability to a newsroom full of personalities as diverse as any place I’ve known. Amongst all the places I’ve called home in a career, no other has come close to that sense of family. You were the reluctant stepfather to us all.

What a pleasant gentleman of a man you were, Overall. A wonderful sense of humor with a laugh as genuine as sunshine. Book lover with a vocabulary that must have been in the top 1 percent. Movie buff. Story-teller. Musician. Chain smoker. General misfit. You belonged in another place where the night life and the music lived large into the wee hours. Jonesboro, Arkansas was never really your gig. How a man of your taste tolerated it here, I never understood.

And you had a special, unanticipated quality I’ll never forget.

Mike and his beloved wife, Jane.

Mike and his beloved wife, Jane.

On a November evening in 1992 we elected a governor from Arkansas the 42nd president of the United States. There were dozens of local race results equally as important to our 30,000 readers. The newsroom was in complete frenzy. Even your counterparts at the editor level were in chaos.

And from nowhere, you became this extraordinary calm in the storm. “Everybody just stop freaking out. It’s just another edition. We’re gonna get this newspaper out. Be cool,” you proclaimed. Was that really you, Mike? Did you just do that? Seriously, who was that guy?

Respect.

Barely more than a month later in the earliest dark hours of a cold and foggy December morning we had an exchange I shall never forget.

As we walked into the hospital anticipating the birth of our son, you walked out having just lost your beloved mother. It was such a sweet exchange we shared. You offered such a heartening word.

Your illness was brutal and I’m so sorry for what you endured. Thank heavens you’re at peace. You are missed as few others.

Thank you for being such an anchor in one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve known.

A reader, admirer, and friend,

Steve

 

 

Day 46: Hollie Lawless

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Dear Hollie,

It was always such an inspiration watching you put a special brand of passion into everything you pursued.

Wife and mom. Professional. Charitable advocate. Literacy promoter. Goofy, eclectic friend.

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-4-06-46-amWhen Dana wrote me out of the country last week to tell me of your passing it was as a punch in the gut.

If we ever met I’m not even sure, but a few of Dana’s friends have always felt like my own, and I knew if we had known one another more personally we’d have been good friends. We look at life much in much the same way with a reckless disregard for the norm.

So many things about you were admirable. Your responsibility to, and sense for, family was unsurpassed. I can only imagine the void your loss leaves them. The manner in which you encouraged your daughters to read and learn … that legacy will live in them forever. Your obvious affection for a husband who knew how lucky he was to live a life with you … I pray for his peace and a covering of grace.

As time passed your illness grew more obviously chronic. No one wanted to think of it as terminal. Whatever the case was for you, it seemed you faced it all with such dignity. There was a peace and resolve as I’ve rarely seen. We need more people like you here among us. It is our great loss we have that example as but a memory now.

Days later we still mourn you. It feels as if something is missing – something that was good and true and real. I’m reminded of the scripture in James 4 that asks, “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

It was my privilege to know you from a distance. On behalf of many, thank you for teaching us the good things by way of a simple witness in how you lived each day.

Your friend in mourning,

Steve Watkins

Day 45: Dana Watkins (my Valentine)

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(Note: This is the first of several notes I’ll write about the most important person in my life.)

Dear Dana,

Love … Someone created this day so we might celebrate love.

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Cards. Candy. Flowers. So much pressure to get things just right. There is no one else in the world for whom I’d walk inside a Victoria’s Secret store. It seemed a guy in there yesterday actually enjoyed a store assistant showing him all the latest panties and laced thinglets. “Oh, those are very nice,” I heard him say to the young 20-something. Seriously, dude? Eyes straight ahead and get me the *%#! out of here, was all I could think.  Breathe. I’m not a pervert. I’m not a pervert…

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-12-37-amI knew you’d be just as happy if I wrote you a note on the back of a Wal-Mart receipt. But I went there because I love you. I really do love you.

I’m sorry you’re sick on Valentine’s Day. The bouillon cubes in hot water will have to do for our Valentine’s dinner. C’est la vie. We can celebrate soon enough.

There are some things I thought you should know on this day.

It is the privilege of my life being your husband. No one is more important. It was us in the beginning. It will be us in the end.

To use an old biblical term, it’s so nice being “equally yoked.” I can’t imagine experiencing life with someone who believes differently on all the important things.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-09-35-amAs a child, dreaming about you was my number one pastime. I’d often wonder about the future love of my life … where you were at that moment, what was the color of your hair, did you have freckles, what would it be like to feel the touch of your skin … You’re my dream come true.

One of the best feelings I’ve ever known is trust. Thank you for being the person I trust most.

Your capacity for love is the greatest I’ve ever seen. There’s no other person I know who exemplifies greater love toward people.

It’s my great fortune that you are happy in the simple things. Uncomplicated. Not passive. Without underlying motive. Transparent. Real.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-12-07-amA few days ago one of your old high school friends made this observation in something I’d written about you. “She’d walk to the ends of the earth with you,” he said. I hope you know it’s true for me as well. I am here to the end, and to eternity, and that’s a long time. Me and you.

Sometimes at night when you feel me reach over and touch your shoulder in bed, I’m just making sure you’re still there. I need to know you’re there.

It would’ve broken my heart and crushed my soul not to be your mate. If we’d never met, there would have always been a void.

But honestly, I think you already know all these things. I’m searching for something you don’t know after all these years. What can I tell you that I haven’t said before?

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Because it’s your nature, you give me a lot of credit, much of which I don’t deserve. But when it comes to holding it all together, making it all as good as it is, maximizing everything about our relationship, it’s you. You’re the one who makes it this good. You sacrifice, stretch boundaries, and see things at the most intimate and important place they can be seen. You understand things that for most, would be misunderstood. I’m smart enough to know that. And I’m thankful for it.

You’re still the one.

I love you to the core of my soul.

Your Valentine,

Steve

Day 44: Dr. David England

Dr. England,

You were a brilliant creature of habit, and I loved it so.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at 9:59 sharp it was exactly he same. You’d blast through the door like a bull in china closet, cigarette smoke permeating your clothes hair and breath, toss a book or two on the lecturn, and without even looking up or so much as a “good morning,” it was the same every time.

“Alright, lets begin.”

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-7-37-59-pmAnd for the next 60 minutes we took a torrid pace through the world of constitutional law and civil liberties.

Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, we covered them all. Academic study was never more thrilling.

You never used a single note. You knew the opinion’s author, the dissenter, the progeny of cases both preceding and following. You would have been easy to admire if it weren’t so difficult keeping up. It was frenetic in that seminar class.

I’ve never knew a more demanding teacher. One or two came close. None matched your oppressive and meticulous pace through a 60-minute lecture. It was exhausting.

You were brilliant, kind-hearted, no-nonsense, charitable, scholarly, honorable and inspirational. On every paper and every test, I just wanted to make you proud. Your praise was coveted as gold.

And when you passed, I mourned for days. You’re still in my heart. It may be better that you’re not here to see how society is pillaging the constitution today. I can only imagine what you’d say.

You’re one of the best educators under whom I ever had the privilege to study. That’s a fact.

Undergraduate political science minor (1988),

Steve Watkins

Day 42: Tim from Alaska

(Note: I met Tim two years ago in Leon, Spain, two-thirds across the Camino de Santiago. Like so many pilgrimage relationships, our time together was short, ( I never got his last name) but long enough for a conversation I’ll never forget.)

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Dear Tim,

If you searched long enough I suppose you could find all sorts of quotes with wisdom and grace about woundedness and the healing that may follow. So many will say we’re better and stronger for it all. Even so, we may always have our doubts and wonder … why???

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-4-35-38-amOne thing you learn on the camino is how certain pilgrims have stories that precede them. Just as the pilgrim herds wander slowly across the Way, their stories somehow become a part of everyone’s experience, and the focal point of their respect.

I’d heard your story from others. So thankful to hear it from you.

The magnitude of your loss still resonates.

You’d come walking in a tribute to your wife who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground and drown in six inches of water. In an instant, you and your family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was your best friend.

As you shared the story, it didn’t bother you one bit to let me see how much it hurt.

The honor in your walk was so very evident. You’d brought her spirit with you on pilgrimage. I could see it on your face, hear it in your voice. She was right there. Pilgrimage was mostly for her, not so much about you.

(Above: A short interview with Tim.)

A day later you placed few of your wife’s remains at Cruz Ferro, the place where, for a millenia, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind. I never saw you again, but thought of you often and prayed that some understanding would come, some wholeness might return.

Some time has passed now. The pain may be less painful. I doubt the wound is completely healed, nor that you honestly even have that desire. Whatever the result, I pray you have peace.

I’m thankful you’d share such a personal experience with a stranger who, much like you, seeks the meaning in it all. Our conversation that day was part of an ongoing process for me as well.

Be well, my friend. Keep walking the path.

A fellow seeker,

Steve Watkins

Day 41: Tommy Shewmaker

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Dear Tommy,

It was around 10 a.m. when I learned. I couldn’t speak the rest of the day.

It was as if I’d been punched in the heart. I sat there staring at the phone for 15 minutes as paralyzed as I can ever remember. At some point I walked into the grocery store, but couldn’t even remember why I was there.

You were diagnosed with an aggressive cancer around Thanksgiving as I was nearing the end of the Camino de Santiago, and 50 days later you were gone. It was that fast.

Decent. Radically good. That’s what you were.

You loved your family. Spoke about them all the time. They were your highest priority. A great storyteller with a distinct voice, I always thought you belonged on radio. You loved the ribs I’d occasionally cook for a company lunch. Loved sports. Worked out almost every day. You were many things. But mostly, you were kind and decent and normal. I loved that you were so normal. Blessed you were so kind.

We didn’t even really know one another that well when my father died. And so I couldn’t have been more surprised when you walked up and gave me a hug at his funeral. It was just the right thing to do. That’s what you always did.

We said we’d get together and talk travel and retirement in far-away places, but that talk never happened. I never saw you again. I should give you a call, or write a note, I thought on so many occasions. You were dying and I didn’t even know. I’m so sorry for my selfish behavior.

You were a passionate servant to your family. Purely decent. Humble. Real.

I sure miss you, Tommy.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 39: Fernand Brault

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(Note:  I met Fernand Brault 4 years ago as he surveyed a small piece of land near the home we’d just built in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.  I liked him from the first moment and knew he was a good man.  We’ve been neighbors ever since.)

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Dear Fern,

At this point, I’ve been around long enough to know the difference between romantic notions of friends in far-a-way places and genuine friendship. If you were only a friend, that would be good enough for me.

I hope you do not mind if I think of you as just a bit more.

As we grow older we reflect on certain things about life. What if I had done this? What if I’d worked harder at that? A turn or twist of fate here or there could’ve made all the difference. Who knows?

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-10-32-41-amMy childhood was good with two parents who made me their priority without question, but I never knew what most people experience with the relationships of brothers and sisters. When I am with you, it is much like the experience of how I imagine a big brother. If there had been a brother in my life, I would have wanted him to be like you.

You are a man of the world, kindhearted, passionate, demanding more of yourself than from others. It is such a pleasure in these dubious times to enjoy relationships with men of integrity and honor. Do the right thing, your mantra in a nutshell. That’s good enough for me.

I suppose the first kinship I felt with you was the day we drove you to the Jipijapa bus station as you and Frede departed for Montreal to attend the business of selling property and other details that would allow your residency here full-time. We were scrambling here and there, getting things done shutting down your property, and as we drove away, you wept.

And I understood every tear.

For someone who does not know what we feel, it is difficult (impossible) to describe, but I shared in your tears because I understood.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing the story about that bold adventure when you sailed solo from Montreal to the Bahamas and back. There is nothing I admire more than a man who sets sail for the unknown, a quest for life itself. Herman Melville once wrote:

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

Ah, the torment of forbidden seas. We share the agony indeed, my friend. I feel your pain.

When I finished my first camino across Spain two years ago, there was a period of adjustment that followed, not depression in the purest sense, but a time of sadness and melancholy nonetheless. As I finish up the book project about the experience, that sadness is the topic of a final chapter I intended to call Camino Blues. But your story has changed that title.

You shared with me the feeling of the Empty Space that ran through your soul as you passed Virginia en route back to Montreal and as your adventure neared its end. So profound, that understanding of the Empty Space. I hope you won’t mind that I “borrow” your creative thought as a new title for the chapter.

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It is a mixed bag of emotions as I leave today.  I will miss the sunsets, the cold drinks and good conversations, passing time in my back yard listening to the birds and watering the plants, and the good laughs we share.

But as much as anything, my friend, I think I will miss you. In so many ways I believe we were created for relationships, for fellowship, for breaking bread together and serving one another. There have been few greater gifts in my life than the pleasure of knowing you.

I pray for the greatest blessings in your life.

Vaya con Dios.  Until we meet again …

Signed … One who would stick as close as a brother,

Steve