“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 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: