Day 54: Gary Eubanks

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-6-16-31-am

(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 53: My Dad (and his birds)

A purple martin colony as they would appear on my dad's housing each spring. Dad was meticulous with having the housing just right for his birds.

A purple martin colony as they would appear on my dad’s housing each spring. Dad was meticulous with having the housing just right for his birds.

(Note: This is the first of several notes I’ll write to my Dad this year. He died from complications with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2012.)

Dear Dad,

To be honest, I thought for the longest it was senility and a general propensity to reclusiveness. I think you cared about those birds as much as anything else I’d seen.

A favorite photo of some female house finches on my back yard on a cold winter day.

A favorite photo of some female house finches on my back yard on a cold winter day.

You’d clean the housing sterile, repaint for the new season, systematically track the migration north, and at just the right moment (not too early, not too late) you’d raise the housing. And just about this time every spring they rewarded you with a season of pleasure. The purple martins arrived gracefully by the dozens. Nothing made you happier.

For the longest I wrestled with jealousy over how much you loved the birds, versus how much fun it was seeing you love something so simple and innocent. I’d never seen anyone sit outside for hours on end just watching birds fly around.

You surely loved “your birds.”

A goldfinch I captured in full spring plumage.

A goldfinch I captured in full spring plumage. He’s munching on some nyjer.

Now, all these years later, look at me. It raises minor panic if we’re low on bird seed and bad weather’s on the way.  I have 10 seed feeders in winter, a dozen hummingbird feeders in summer, and just this week I scrubbed my own martin housing in hopes of their arrival. Those birds are so elusive in the city. But every day I’m watching – just like you.

I wish you were here to see the little backyard habitat we’ve created. The birds love it and we have a bunch. Beautiful cardinals, gold finches, house finches, tufted titmice, several woodpecker varieties, carolina wrens, chickadees, upwards of 50 hummingbirds during the southern migration in August, blue jays, and the occasional indigo bunting. If the martins are coming it will be any day now.

Two carolina wrens acting goofy on some suet. Probably my favorite songbird in our backyard.

Two carolina wrens acting goofy on some suet. Probably my favorite songbird in our backyard.

We could sit back here for hours and watch, you and I. Even Dana has become a pretty good spotter. If you could see what we’ve done with the backyard birds in Ecuador you’d really be amazed.

Am I senile now, or just a recluse? I often wonder, and I bet you think that’s funny.

I miss having you around. We all do.

Your son,

Steve

 

Day 52: Helen Corbett

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-5-51-27-am

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-5-53-06-am

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-4-41-40-am

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 51: Jim Reed

 

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-5-41-23-am

Dear Jim,

Every morning delivering my daughter to school I’d admire that flagpole in your yard. How cool it is to fly the flag so prominently each day, I thought – a simple, personal choice to honor many things.

When I called inquiring how you created it so I might do the same your response was, “When would you like to do it?”

No detailed explanations. No beating around the bush with this or that. Just when

“Well, how about next Saturday?” I replied, still caught off guard by the offer.

“That sounds fine. I’ll gather everything up and see you Saturday.”

Jim Reed

Jim Reed

Nobody just jumps up and helps people any more. What were you thinking? Don’t you have something better to do than helping me? You made me your priority for nearly a day. Huh? What?

It’s one of the nicest gestures anyone’s made toward me in a while. You just showed up with everything I needed. You dug the hole, set the pole and tied the flag. Now that I think about it I was sick that morning with a fever. You did everything.

Thank you for your radical kind gesture, Jim. It made an impression I’ll never forget.

And thank you for always being nice to a cub reporter back in the day when he covered the monthly City Water and Light board meetings each second Tuesday. You never talked down or showed frustration and impatience. I was always welcome.

Thank you for being you.

Sincerely,

Steve 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 49: Jimmy Campbell

screen-shot-2017-02-18-at-4-59-38-am

Dear Jimmy,

This note would be easy to over-write. Too many words would spoil it.

So I’ll get quickly to the point.

Jimmy, Alysia and Carmen Campbell.

Jimmy, Alysia and Carmen Campbell.

Thank you for your example. I can think of no one who models a more decent Christian man than you. I want to be more like you.

A few days ago, you wrote a really nice message on a post about our pastor. Your kind words were never expected. How can a guy say things like that about me when at the same moment I’d give anything to be more like him?

Jimmy, I want you to know there is no agenda behind these words. I want nothing from you – seek nothing of you. Isn’t it sad we have to say that these days? But seriously …

You quietly and brilliantly model the servanthood of Christ.

Jimmy and Alysia Campbell and family.

Jimmy and Alysia Campbell and family.

From random good deeds no one will ever know, to an adoptive family that represents the globe, you get it (whatever ‘it’ is) as well as anyone I’ve seen. Thank you for your decency, your genuine and authentic response to a higher call. If anyone brings a smile to God’s holy face, it surely is you, sir.

I count it among the most amazing things I’ve seen when you stood on the church stage alongside brothers and sisters in Celebrate Recovery last year. The symbolism of the sign you held representing who you were, versus who Christ has allowed you to become was one of those blow me away moments rarely experienced. Thank you for the most powerful witness my eyes have seen. I shall never forget the moment. The heart of the gospel has never been more clearly depicted.

Jimmy, I’m reminded about what a wiser, more seasoned man shared with me years ago when he said, “Just remember, someone is always watching.” It’s so true. Someone’s always watching.

It’s such a refreshing pleasure watching men like you.

Enough words now. I hope these few convey my heart.

An admiring bystander,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

Day 48: Mike Overall

 

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-4-52-00-am

(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 47: Cathy Spano

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-6-14-27-am

Dear Cathy,

Isn’t it strange the turn society has taken with all its bickering, name calling and insult?It’s as if we’ve lost all civility. We’re in crisis and don’t even know it.

Such a sad “new normal.”

Thinking about this sad state of affairs yesterday took me back to a time that was like medicine for the soul.

Cathy with her beloved granddaughter, Chloe.

Cathy with her beloved granddaughter, Chloe.

In late 2015 I set out for a solo walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago. For more than a millennia, pilgrims have walked this path for penance, to heal their hurts, as a matter of faith, or just for the sake of a long walk and some thinking time. Most people go it alone and enjoy the quiet. By way of social media, I took several hundred people along for the ride. That wasn’t necessarily the plan. It just happened that way.

You came early, and stayed late. And what a great guest you’ve been.

Some years ago this profound revelation came into my spirit and stayed there for good. Since then, I’ve both welcomed it, and done my best to give it as a gift. Everyone needs a cheerleader. It’s really so simple.

Your enthusiastic words of encouragement and support bought a smile to my face and peace to my soul on many occasions across the Camino and since. There were times when it was really difficult, that walk. Cold. Rain. Mud. Snow. Mountains. Painful injuries. Some people said, “well, maybe you oughta quit.” Not you. You cheered through it all to the end. “You can do this.” Your message was that simple and that on cue. You knew exactly what I needed to hear.

God gives us all certain talents, abilities and gifts. When it comes to doling out the gift of encouragement He chooses a certain kind of person. He chooses the people who will use it with reckless abandon because amongst all the gifts it would be such a terrible one to waste.

Thank you for directing that gift toward me on occasion, and especially across the Way. I’m not sure why you sent your encouragement my way, but I’m surely thankful you did.

A thankful pilgrim still on the path,

Steve Watkins

 

Day 46: Hollie Lawless

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-4-35-55-am

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)

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-06-19-am

(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.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-11-07-am

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?

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-13-26-am

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