By Tom Ehrich

MOUNTAIN HOME, AR -- A leaden gray day didn't do any favors for the Arkansas countryside. It underscored the poverty I drove by, the rural towns that modernity overlooked. Wonderful places to live, no doubt. What looks dull to me might be life-giving for their residents.

So in the spirit of acceptance I am trying to develop, I just accepted what I saw and kept on driving. In the end, acceptance worked. I stopped seeing the deficits, as compared to the beauty of neighboring Oklahoma, and chatted happily with Arkansans.

I had had a similar experience in Oklahoma, when I honored one of my favorite singers, Merle Haggard, and drove into Muskogee. I hoped to see something of the idyllic town he described in "Okie from Muskogee." Instead, I found a Main Street that seemed lifeless.

But in a spirit of acceptance, I pushed on to Tahlequah and was enchanted with this capital of the Cherokee Nation.

I can't imagine the same positive experience happening in Mountain Home. But who knows? That's the miracle of acceptance. Even the dowdy can seem vibrant, even the tarnished can seem redeemed.

That is our hope, isn't it? No matter how far we fall or how foolishly we squander our opportunities, God remains faithful to us. If we can accept ourselves as worthy and accept the people around us as worthy, even the oddest, we can see the light.

God wants us to choose the good by seeing the good, by imagining the good even in the throes of evil, by setting our course to the good even when we feel lost.

Today, unless snow interferes, I will cross the Mississippi River and enter "my" part of the USA. This is the region where I grew up and where I know the history. And yet what I know as narrative is constantly being refreshed. In fact, if I can summon the honesty and energy, I want to see it all as if for the first time.

My goals for this pilgrimage -- fresh words, fresh ideas, fresh faith -- require me to set aside old stories. Not that they were flawed or demeaning. They were just the stories I took as true when I was growing up. I see more now, and it is that more that will be the basis for going forward.