Openhearted Again in the Middle of our Story


As you may have noticed my website and blog were on an extended hiatus. There are a number of reasons for that, but. it’s back now and it’s new and improved. I want to share again what this whole thing is about.

I’m excited to be writing again. So much good comes from it for me and I pray for you. Please check it out. One of the changes I made to the site was to reconnect, but really to reconceive, my purpose for this venue.

I will be posting about once a week and promoting the blog post mainly through my network on Facebook. If you read something that stirs you or to which you relate, I hope you will re-share it so others in your network can benefit. This is the new website description.

I write stories, vignettes really. I write them because they open my heart. I write them because they invite me to make sense of my life. I write them because they slow down my frenetic pace and reconnect me. I also write stories that reflect on things that catch my interest: from funny things to emotionally painful things; but in every case it’s something real, honest, true.
      I'm at a point in my life when I don’t want to be disconnected anymore. For far too long I’ve been removed, from myself, from others, from God. I want to have an open heart to the whole of real life – the traumatic, the mundane, the hilarious. I want to see. I want an open heart to receive God’s redemption here and now.
     I have found, though, an open heart is extremely elusive. It’s darn near impossible in fact unless you are really intentional. There are so many obstacles; so much harm. So much regret. So much shame. So much accusation and self-contempt. And so little time.
     Without apology then this avenue is first for me. I need to tell myself vulnerable, honest, and hard stories. I need clear eyes. I need to slow down enough to pay attention and attune to what is around me. I need to be present.
     But I write stories for you too. I hope you will read them. And I hope in reading them you too will courageously venture to tell your own stories to be be present, attuned and honest about what you see around you.
Facing your stories is life changing but it's hard work.
    I pray we experience an open heart in the middle of our life story.

You’ll find me a

These Hands Were Made For Build'n!

My hands.

I never think about my hands until I do. I notice my hands more in the late fall and winter than any other time of the year. That’s why I’m writing this post in November and not in June; this is for one very good reason: they hurt!

Over the last several fall-winters I’ve been forced to notice my hands.

The hands tell the depth and breadth of stories your body knows.

My hands tell a story.

Actually, my hands tell many stories. Through the creases of wrinkles over my fingers and the leathery skin of my hands I can trace a history.  I agree with one thing the fortune teller believes, if you know you’re hands you’ll know your past and your future.

The hands tell the depth and breadth of stories your body knows.

My hands have meaning.

And the “plain meaning” of my hands are their age. You can’t hid your age in you hands, though there is a cottage industry attempting to discover how. On my hands, I see the age of my body. These hands, which I barely ever am conscious of until I am, reflect that I’m not a 16-year old, a 26-year old or even a 36-year old. These hands don’t lie about my 46 years. I have the hands of a nearly 50-year old.

My hands witness to a life of a near half-century.

The “plain meaning” of my hands are their age.

But if I do say so myself, I’ve got good hands. They are masculine. My fingers are not stumpy or thick. They are lean and they are rugged. If only my whole body looked as good as my hands!

None of my fingers point in uncomfortably odd directions since I’ve never broken a bone. My hands have held up pretty well I would say. And even though I spend most of my time typing with my hands or waving them around in a lecture, they look like they have held a shovel, swung a hammer, dug a fence.

My hands are the hands of a man. They are the hands of my father.

They are the hands of my father.

Some years ago, and this was probably a decade ago, I was with my dad, which doesn’t happen much at all. Truth be told I could nearly count out the number of times I've been with my father as an adult on one hand. It was one of those rare occasions when I noticed his hands. Actually I was taken by his hands. Its slightly embarrassing to admit such a thing. Although we have so little in common, he and I, what I realized then was we have the same hands. This realization was both immensely comforting and also startling.


It was comfortable because I’m so rarely conscious of being a "son," that I feel much like an orphan much of the time. I see my mom yearly, but it’s not the same. As Robert E. Willitts' biological son, my hands resemble his; and in the presence of his hands, I felt I had a history beyond myself; I felt like a descendant of someone.

At the sight of his similar hands, for a moment, I didn’t feel so isolated and alone.

Why startling? Because, honestly, I don’t want to be like him in any way. Our similarly looking hands took be by surprise because I felt like his son. I don't like that feeling. My father left me when I was a boy and basically that was that. While there are always circumstances, the fact is when he left, he left. From my 11-year old boy's perspective, the day he called to tell us he wasn't coming home, he ceased being my father. 

But that’s another story. This is one about my hands.

My hands are storied.


When I stretch out my hand, I notice the wrinkles of skin over my knuckles layer and smush together causing a crease to rise at the center of each knuckle, well really just off center. My knuckles recall the topography of the southern Negev with its geological folds and creases. My hands present a turbulent history.

The skin over the back of my hands I hardly recognize as my own. It looks old, weathered, aged. It’s not taut and young. Whereas the knuckles’ skin wrinkles only in a horizontal direct, the skin on my hands has wrinkles in every direction. When you pull it there’s little elasticity.

My hands present a turbulent history.

The palms of my hands have deep creases fanning outward like a set of river canyons; and tough-skinned callouses still present from the summer’s and fall’s yard work.

So I’ve become conscious of all these things in the last several years because in the fall-winter the skin cracks in the corners of the tips of my fingers. It’s the equivalent to having multiple paper cuts. My hands get so dry that the skin at the corners of my fingers crack open sometimes to the point of bleeding. Ouch is right!

There’s only really one solution to the problem, and it’s with this that I have a major dilemma.

Before I tell you tha,t can I tell you one more thing about hands that comes to my mind? It’s not about my hands but about my son’s hands.

“Daddy, my hands were made for build’n”

One day I was out with the kids running errands. Karla was probably on a work trip. Zion and Mary were 4- or 5-years old. Sometime in route to somewhere, Zion says “Daddy, I want to tell you something!” He said it very emphatically. So, I responded, “Yeah son, what is that.” He said “Daddy, my hands were made for build'n!” I giggled and said, “That’s awesome son! God has big plans for those building hands!”

That’s one of those things a child says that you don’t ever forget!

God has big plans for those build’n hands!”

Back to my dilemma. The best thing for cracked dry hands is a combination of Neosporin ointment with pain relief and Aquaphor. Now the thing about both Neosporin and Aquaphor is that both are super greasy and leave a greasy residue on anything your fingers touch.

So, here’s the dilemma: when you have these salves on your painful cracks you can’t use your hands. See the problem. My hands are never idle. Come to think of it, there isn’t a time in the waking hours that my hands are not busy with something. Whether their holding a fountain pen or a pencil, a book or my iPad, or typing on my laptop or scrolling the phone, or holding a steering wheel, my hands are always at work doing something.

There’s no time to heal. There’s too much to do.

They reveal to my consciousness true embodied things about me of which I would have preferred to remain unaware. 

No time for my hands to sit folded in prayer or still to heal. There are tasks to complete; ideas to write; emails to respond to; miles to run; meals to cook; dishes to clean.

The only time my hands are idle is the brief - and growing briefer with each year - hours I’m sleeping.

My hands tell a true story.

They reveal to my consciousness true embodied things about me of which I would have preferred to remain unaware.  

I agree fully with the Ancient Hebrew Sage who also saw truth in the hands when he wrote:

 A little sleep, a little slumber,
               a little folding of the hands to rest,    and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
               and want, like an armed warrior.
                                 (Prov. 6:10-11; 24:33-34)

I’ve learned his lesson perhaps all too well! Resting my hands is not a familiar practice.

What story do your hands tell? 

What story do your hands tell?

The Jail Door

If Jesus were sitting right here right now next to you on this couch, what would you ask him to do for you? What do you really want Jesus to do for you?

“If Jesus were sitting right here right now next to you on this couch, what would you ask him to do for you? Joel. what do you really want Jesus to do for you?” Jonathan asked me “the question” at the end of our first intensive therapy session.

After three hours, the conversation revealed that I wasn’t really sure whether I believed God could work significantly, redemptively in my life. What’s more, I came face to face with the question of whether I even wanted to be healed.

I came to a crossroads.

Did I really want to be healed by God? Did I really believe God would heal me if, in fact, I wanted it?

The question behind all the questions.

But why wouldn’t I want to be healed? It seemed like a ridiculous thought, a broken person not sure if they want to be whole. The truth, however, was far from ridiculous: a state of bentness was all that I have known as an adult. I couldn't imagine a different kind of sexuality; no, correct that, I couldn't risk imagining a different one.

I had already told Scott, my therapist back in Chicago, in our very first counseling session months earlier in the summer of 2013, I was afraid of the person I would end up becoming as a result of the therapeutic process.

"To be honest," I told him, "I like who I am." The lack of self awareness in that statement is breathtaking! But from where I was sitting at the time I felt I had worked very hard to be successful, spiritually, relationally and professionally. 

I had accomplished significant things.
I had a strong work ethic.
I was a survivor and heroic.
I was successful.
My survival strategy had worked effectively for a very long time.

But this was not the truth.

The truth was that my marriage of 20 years was struggling to keep a pulse. I had a lack of sexual desire and avoided intimacy. I was emotionally shallow and lived with a hermit-like independence from others. I had sexual struggles I couldn’t seem to conquer in spite of tremendous spiritual and behavioral effort over decades. I was a pastor who found little enjoyment from ministry with people.

The truth was I had a deep ambivalence (a double-mindedness) about my life of which I was barely conscious at the time. 

In view of my own life experience and that of many other pastors with whom I have the privilege of hearing their stories, I believe that pastors are some of the most self-unaware people on the planet. And this, despite thinking and assuming otherwise.

I am the poster child for the self-unaware pastor.


The path toward healing was extremely unpredictable - too unpredictable for a hyper-viligant person as I was and still am - and the goal was worse than unclear, it seemed impossibly out of reach.

What if I don’t like the person I became?

What if I’m not as accomplished and productive?

What if I really do begin to connect emotionally to people and to life?

What kind of mess would that affect create in me?

And worse, what if I risked vulnerability only to be disappointed or more deeply hurt?

I came into that first session of intensive therapy with Jonathan uncertain about what I would really be getting out of it. Wonder why I had come? 

I had flown from Chicago to Denver on an early October day in 2013 to see Jonathan. But I didn't really know anything about him. He was recommended to me as an Allstar therapist. 

His office was in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The “Office Center” at 9200 W. Cross Drive where he had an office is a six-floor building. The structure looks like it was modeled after a communist-style headquarters, the kind you see in the Czech Republic or some other Central European city. It towers awkwardly over a generic shopping mall that one can find in every suburban city, the one with the J.C. Penny’s and Dillard’s.

The first floor of the office building contains a Wells Fargo bank and an American Family Insurance branch. The suite number for Restoring the Soul is #650, so I assumed it is on the sixth floor. I get into the elevator with two older gentlemen. I don’t’ remember much about the two except that one of them was hobbling around determined to get wherever he was going with only one good leg. I couldn’t help but simile to myself as each man exited, first at the third and then the fifth.

If they only knew why I was going to the sixth floor. That I was headed to talk to a shrink, a person I had never before met, about my story of sexual abuse and its impact. I could be totally wrong, but these two grizzled seniors, who could have very likely seen the evils of war and tragedy the likes of which I could not even begin to imagine, would not be caught dead sitting down with someone to talk about their “dark sexual stories.”

I recognize that I’m part of a generation that had a choice about being in war and is flabby and weak by the ease of wealth. I’m part of a different generation than these honorable men to be sure. But our generation has the will to fight a different, but no less wounding war.

I kept riding the elevator to the sixth floor because I had begun to appreciate the harm that was done to me. I had begun to recognize the damage I had done and was doing to myself. And I had acknowledged the wounds I’m inflicted on others. I had grown disillusioned.

I entered the suite where Jonathan's office was and after sitting for a minute in the waiting room, he walked up. He looked young, but I had expected as much. He wore cool chunky plastic framed glasses with combed back and slightly greying short hair. He had a Christian hipster persona. He was dressed in an un-tucked plaid short-sleeved short with a skinny tie, blue jeans and Chucks. My first impression was a good one.


After getting some coffee, Jonathan steered me to the couch in his office; he sat in a vintage cloth armchair. His whole office had a distressed wood aesthetic, really cool. Among the décor was an old wild-west wood jail door he picked up in an antique shop in Central City, a town just over the mountains. The door was propped up in a corner of the room. At one point after a break we talked about the door. “Oh, that old jail door?” he said.  “I plan one day to make it into my desk.” 

The door had a rectangular shape. It was probably six feet tall and not much more than two feet wide. The top half of the door had a wide opening with a number of rusted steel bars. A slatted wood plank was hinged over the bars that could be opened from the outside.

The wood of the door was full of scars. And at the bottom of the door was a six-inch gash. The door was like a character out of a wild-west film with a rugged story to tell.

For now, the old jail door just leaned up against that wall. It was a powerful symbol in a therapist's office.

Jonathan talked also about his vocation as a liberator of prisoners, the breaking down of jail doors in human hearts. So it was not only a very cool piece of décor, but it was also a profound emblem. And I was captured by Jonathan’s imagination of his therapeutic vocation as jailbreak.

My experience of him over the course of our seven plus hours of our work together reflected his vocational ambition.

He was on a mission, in his own words, “to come and get me!" His strength, confidence and tenacity was both bracing and comforting. Someone was finally noticing I was jailed deeply buried behind the illusion of freedom and power I had projected. I could let someone else save me.

I certainly came to his office seeking the freedom Jesus made possible in his death and resurrection at exceedingly deeper levels of experience. I came to his office to see the jail door of my heart broken down; or at least I thought I had until he asked "the question."

When Jonathan asked me what did I want Jesus to do for me, I felt what maybe the cripple at the side of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 did when Jesus asked him a very similar kind of question.

Jesus comes to this man and asks what was a patently obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?” The nameless man had been crippled for nearly fourty years we’re told by the narrator. Could there be any more obvious question?

We also are told that he had been there in that position for “long time” waiting, waiting for what though?

The KJV, which is based on a much later set of Greek manuscripts, adds that the man was waiting to be helped into the pool when angels stirred the waters, as it was believed to be a healing movement. Whether or not we should take that additional information to be factual, it remains the case that the man was languishing in his harm alongside a “multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” 

Jesus walks up to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” the man might have thought to himself. “Why do you think I’m here?”

I feel the audacity of Jesus' question.

Through Jonathan's question I heard Jesus asking me, “Do you want to be healed?” And I ask myself, “What do I want from you, Jesus?” I say to him, “Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t being here evidence enough that I want something different; I want a change in my life; I want healing?” Jesus says to me, “Yes and it’s a start.” “But here’s the thing”, he continues, “Neither the crippled man nor you need to be anywhere, not in a pool or on a therapist’s couch. I have come to you right here where you are, right now.”

I react, “But Jesus I came all this way. I am paying all this money. Of course, I want to be healed!” “Really?!”, Jesus replies, “I am ready and able to give you what you say you most deeply want, so the question is not from my side. It’s from yours.

I reacted, “But Jesus I came all this way. I am paying all this money. Of course, I want to be healed!” “Really?!”, Jesus replies, “I am ready and able to give you what you say you most deeply want, so the question is not from my side. It’s from yours.

What do you really want from me?”

“Ok”, I said. I pause and reflect for a few seconds. The thought unconsciously rolls off my tongue: “Whoa, this is dangerous moment.” “Ok, Jesus,” I went on, “My whole life is invested in this relationship with you. I prayed the sinner’s prayer when I was five years old; but the truth is I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe in you. Even in my most rebellious periods as a teen I have never doubted your existence or that the gospel was true. That five-year-old boy praying that prayer in the basement of our Baptist church in New Jersey was the consequence of a heritage of belief. I have spent my entire adulthood either preparing for the ministry and teaching of the gospel or doing gospel ministry and teaching.”

But there, in that moment, I faced the jail door in the deepest part of my soul where the enemy of our souls has imprisoned me and I must decide if I do really believe.

Do I believe Jesus has the power to free me?

Does the gospel really matter for my most painful wounds?

I trusted in Jesus for my salvation from hell at five, but now at forty-six will I believe the gospel is actually a word-act of restoration for here and for now?

Does it really matter in the most significant things in my life?

Then I thought, “If the gospel is real, it must! What’s the point of Christian belief, if it can’t; if the gospel isn’t the ‘power of God for salvation?!’”

But I felt the question like a weight around my neck, “Do I have the courage to believe it for me? Am I willing to wager a faith I have spent my life affirming?”  

I am an evangelical New Testament scholar. I teach and publish on Jesus and the gospel message. I am a pastor; I have proclaimed the gospel many times. I have discipled many people in Christian faith through my adult life. So in this question, I sense that everything I’ve build my life around is at stake.

Do I entrust myself to the gospel I say I believe or don’t I? But here’s the dangerous truth: If a relationship with Jesus doesn’t affect my life now in this most significant thing, why should I have any confidence that he matters for the life-ever-after?

But for a while in the early hours of an October morning in 2013 in the fresh air of Colorado I wondered, “Do I really want to know the truth? Am I willing to risk so much?” I’m tempted by what I imagine to be no less than Evil himself to retreat from the question, to pretend that I never asked it. But I know that I can’t do that. Such a move would lack integrity and would get me nowhere. I knew I had to move. But boy it felt dangerous!

Jonathan is a really good reader of people and of the stories they tell, both verbally and non-verbally. As I was leaving that first session, he said he saw a tension in me between faith and hope on the one hand and doubt and pessimism on the other. He sent me out of his office with the question:

Will you believe the gospel?

And I heard that jail door rattle.

I heard that jail door rattle.