“When he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion… and… said this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Luke 15:20, 24
We were camped at close to 10,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado near the Continental Divide in the fall of 1999. After a few days of hunting and not seeing many elk, my father and I needed to come out of the mountains Saturday evening to preach at our respective churches on Sunday morning. We left Jim, my best friend and associate pastor, in the mountains to continue his hunt. We would be back the next evening to continue our week-long hunt in the mountains.
All my life had been traveling to this moment. As a pastor, I had invested every ounce of my soul into being a preacher and a leader. It had become my reason for existing. I was good at both. Virtually everything could be taken from me, but I could always preach. I could lose my family, and yet I could still preach. I could lose my health, but I could still preach. I could lose my voice, but I could still preach—write.
In Littleton on that Saturday evening—my world imploded. My infidelity had been discovered while I was up in the mountains. It was all waiting for me when I got home. An “intervention” had been arranged and was awkwardly handled. My wife took our three boys and moved in with her mother and father. I was left alone in our house.
I resigned my position as pastor via an email to my staff, deacons and elders. And I began to spiral down in darkness. I did the only thing I knew to do…I went back to the mountains. I have always been more at home in the mountains than anywhere. So I carried in more provisions and went back to my camp. I packed up my tent and gear and moved higher up into the mountains. I moved further away from where any man might go in the deep alpine snow, planning to stay there until my food ran out. I had my gun and could kill what I needed to live; I had planned to stay for weeks up there.
Somewhere around day two or so I began to panic about how I was going to take care of my family now that I had lost my only means of making a living. The currency of a pastor is his integrity and I had spent all of mine in prodigal sinning. Having put all of my intellectual and soul capital in what I performed for my identity— I was spiritually and relationally bankrupt. I couldn’t see any future. I lost hope and found despair.
It was during this darkness that I considered having a hunting accident and ending my life. My life insurance would take care of my boys and wife for years to come. I was depressed, scared, angry, hurt and alone. Shame had slammed me into the ground like an avalanche, crushing the life out of me. I could see no future. This way out would be quick and painless.
Less pain. That is what I needed. Even in the immediate aftermath of my public humiliation, I was thinking about how I could ease my own pain. As I fell deeper and deeper into that hole of self-pity, my only thoughts were of myself. Not of my wife, three young sons, or several hundred people who called me pastor, it was personal pain-management that was on my mind.
As I thought of my wife and sons, and the joy that comes from being loved, I took the 7mm shells and threw them out into the three foot deep snow that covered the ground in the dark timber. The next morning I packed a light pack and my cell phone and climbed a 12,000-foot ridge to check my phone messages. There were about ten. Not all of them were civil. There was a worried and plaintive one from my wife, begging me to call her. There were several from angry people. But there was a message from my father that changed everything.
When I listened to his message, I could hear the wind blowing in the receiver of his cell phone and he was breathing hard. Here is his message:
“Son, I know that if you don’t want to be found, I will never find you. But I just wanted you to know that I am up here, walking these ridges looking for you. I love you, son.”
Above tree line, I sat down beside a cairn, a pile of stones, and wept. My tears froze to my cheeks and sent a chill down to my bones.
I went down the mountain and packed up my camp and walked to the trailhead. As I drove away, I saw my father driving up in his truck. I unzipped the window to my jeep and asked him what he was doing. He said that he had come up every day—looking for me. I told him I was going home to see if I still had a wife. He asked if I wanted him to go with me to meet her and I allowed that I did. He followed me the two hour drive to Littleton.
That was nearly two decades, countless counseling sessions, and rivers of tears ago. And still, the bride of my youth is with me and we are now enjoying the fruit of repentance, recovery and forgiveness.
I have heard my father preach hundreds of sermons in my life, but none changed my life like the one he walked on those wind-swept alpine ridges of Colorado. Where did my wife learn to ache for me and beckon me to come home? Where did my sons learn to hope in the father hiding in the mountains?
It was love. A love birthed in eternity, proven on an old rugged cross and spoken through a scratchy cellphone. In the Les Miserables Finale lyrics there is a stanza that says,
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
Once you’ve felt that in the depth of your soul, there is no place to go but home.
Here is a video retelling of this story:
I of course know your story because I was in Denver when your prodigal journey began. I also know your dad, my friend of many years, and his testimony to me in looking for and loving you when you were in escape mode in the mountains. I have prayed that I would be a father like Dub if ever called upon. I have also marveled at the love and forgiveness of your wife and i have always told of her love when I have told of Dub’s love and of the Father’s unfailing love for you. You have of course suffered the natural consequences of your actions—as we all do, but your willingness to continue to be available to the Father and keep hooking on has been a testimony to your many friends here in Colorado.
Your journey of discovery is a warning and an encouragement to us all, but most of all it is a reminder of the Father’s love for us as the Spirit reminds us of the super abounding grace that is every Christ follower’s. I think of this as I think of my many sins that have gone unpublished.
By the way, you are not a “recovering sinner.” That is no longer your identity but rather you are the righteousness of Christ, holy, a “oak of righteousness,” a heavenly man because of who you are in Christ.—your real identity.
Thanks Kenny. I understand your comment about “recovering sinner.” I have kept the designation for a couple of reasons. One, it reminds me that while I am a son in the Father’s house, there is a pigpen right outside the window and it has my name on it. Second, Martin Luther used the phrase “Simil Justus Epecator” to describe this state……Simultaneously Saint and Sinner.
My identity is secure as a favored son of the Living God, and I want to stay in utter dependence on Him for my repentance. Memories of my sin push me into the arms of the Nazarene.
Thanks for the encouraging words.
Yes, I love Luther’s phrase also. What a comfort.
I read this today through mingled tears: personal memories of failure, admonition, encouragement, etc. Thank you for being open to sharing His story of continued restoration in your life. Love you my brother!
I have heard your story before Joe, but never your father’s words. I am crying. So much love.
Gods endless love and grace were would we with out it.
Joe, you are so blessed with a family that loves to the depths of their souls. Your father, whom
I have met during a visit at RCM. Describing this kind of love and profound compassion for his
prodigal son. I am moved by his wisdom, forgiveness and grace reflected in “Christ likeness.”
You reflect the same quilaties in your leadership with the congregation. Everyone is welcomed
in to the “family of christ” with our imperfections….no perfect people allowed….says Joe. You
had me at “Hello” ( Magaurie…Tom cruze) The stories shared are life’s experiences connected
to scriptures perspective shared by Jesus.
Not growing up with a father your story stirs me to continue work and pray regarding my own fathering of my sons. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m encouraged to continue to guard my heart for the sin that lurks close by.
I remember clearly the first time you shared this story with me at a time when I was enduring some pains of my own. Much like your father, you met me on the mountain. Your honesty when it comes to your testimony is nothing less than a reflection of your integrity and why I so value you as our Pastor. This testimony addresses love from all of its many angles. Love from the very core, in it’s purest form and impurest form, is always beautiful though not always painless.
Joe, thanks for your transparency and your courage…..I am so happy that your relationship with your family was restored. I see the pics of your family on FB and know that you Love them and that they love you. God is Great!!!
Thank you so much for your courage. The path we have walked is not easy but more than worth it. Look forward to meeting you in a few weeks.
What an incredible story! Thanks, Joe, for telling it so honestly. Your dad’s message moved me to tears.