The Big, Bad Competition—And Other Scary Stuff

Wolf

THE BIG, BAD COMPETITION—AND OTHER SCARY STUFF 

   I’ve always wanted to go into business for myself (although this applies to any dream). I’ve worked a couple of businesses through the years helping others and I’ve learned the business-end ropes, so to speak, but now I want to do my own thing. However, while I’m exploring my options in the direction I want to head, I’m finding one thing consistently: the competition is fierce. And honestly, that’s a little intimidating. Can I succeed in a market with businesses already up and established in my industry? How do I break in? Do I have enough money? What if I invest but can’t penetrate the market?

   What if I fail?

    Now I can cite the standard “not trying is failing” philosophy and there’s some wisdom in that. Nevertheless, it doesn’t quench the fear we often have of the competition which, in a nutshell, boils down to one thing: What if I’m not good enough? The logic goes like this: If I were “good enough,” then certainly I would succeed. However, as I’m finding, “good enough” or not, there are other factors besides talent in the mix.

   Thing #1: Do I have the stamina to succeed? Breaking into anything—business, writing and publishing, the music industry, even climbing the ladder at work to attain that desired position—all of that takes really long-term persistence. Do I have that? For instance, I also write fiction and the struggle to reach agents and publishers can be disheartening, to say the least. To offset that, there have been times when I’ve had to work hard to restore vision by reminding myself that even the most famous authors, at one time, faced demoralizing obstacles. (The business, by the way, is intended to fund the writing dream.) So, knowing that the way to success is often fraught with discouragement, downturns and disappointments, will I have the endurance to be successful in business?

   Thing #2: Do I want to do this thing long-term? That’s a question I’m seriously contemplating. Even if I do manage to achieve some level of success in the business venture I’m considering, will I someday grow bored with it? To be perfectly honest, I get tired of the same old thing, year after year, so one thing I’m researching is whether this business has the potential for change, for evolution, for creative expansion. Since it’s a creative-type venture, I’m pretty certain it will but I have to ask the question. If the answer is “no,” the next question would be whether or not I could sell the business and make a reasonable profit. The bottom line is that the last thing I want to do is to create a potential grind or to lose my initial investment of time and money by simply closing up shop.

   Thing #3: What type of economy am I located in? This is a question which cannot be overlooked because it explores the economic conditions of a potential business market. For example, are a majority of potential customers economically struggling, just making ends meet or prosperous? And is the product or service for sale a necessity or a luxury? Will there be repeat business or is the product/service a one-time expenditure? If the product/service is a necessity and especially if it’s a consumable necessity, then it should work in any kind of economy. People need the product or service and they need it on a repeat basis. However, if it’s a luxury item or service, then perhaps the best place to set up shop would be in a prosperous market. Otherwise, it may not succeed. In terms of what I want to do (involving the wedding industry), I need to consider these questions. Are weddings big business? Yes, but even within the industry, some products and services—like wedding cakes and DJs—are standard across the board. Others, like high-end, expensive venues or event-planning services, might perhaps only be successful in more prosperous locations. We need to know the economic landscape of our potential market.

   Thing #4: How much competition will the market bear? Every industry has its competitors, whether one is selling a product or service, opening a restaurant, or trying to get a recording or publishing deal—whatever. Competition is just a fact of life. However, it’s something I need to consider in terms of where I set up shop: How much competition in my target business market is too much? If my competition is too prevalent and the market is already saturated with the type of business I’m considering, will the market bear another business just like it? In other words, will there be the customer base to support what I want to do?

   Many years ago, I invested in a pyramid-type business with what I considered high-quality products—vitamins, nutritional supplements and the like. And while I had never quite trusted that type of business structure, I knew that the products were good and that, being consumable items, repeat business could be expected. What I didn’t realize was that the awesome money that the people above me were making was not because of the great product; it was because they had convinced so many people to sign on beneath them. Consequently, I found out—the hard way—that the market in my area was already so saturated with people selling this product that there was no more room in the market for that business. And since I’m not comfortable trying to make money off of the sales of other people, I had no interest in trying to sign people on beneath me. So, I learned that lesson, cut my losses, and moved on.

   Still, there is some good news in terms of competition: There is always going to be a need for a new generation of up-and-coming people and businesses to replace those leaving the market.

   Whether you’re trying to break into a business industry or the arts, don’t be discouraged by the competition trying to make it the same fields. Writers, bands, artists, actors—they all eventually (how do I say this delicately?) exit the market, most through retirement, some because of health problems, and a new generation is needed to take their places. The same is true of businesses; each has its run, and the market needs to replace those which move or go out of business.

   So what do you do in the meantime? While you’re waiting to “break in” to your field, VOLUNTEER!!! Go out and find that person or company already doing what you want to do, explain that you just want to learn the business, and ask if you can help. You might have to knock on a few doors but someone will take you up on free labor. That way you’ll gain some experience, find out what you didn’t know that you don’t know, and maybe even find a mentor who’s willing to help you to catch that dream. In other words, go out and find your own internship. (Hint: It doesn’t matter what age you are, either—from a corporate-business perspective, free labor is free labor!) And then, when an opportunity happens, guess who’s right there and ready? Volunteering in your industry is a great way to find out whether what you’ve been dreaming about doing is really your dream come true.

   So—once you do a little research, evaluate your location and market, and tuck a little experience under your belt, that big, bad competition won’t seem so scary anymore.

   Who knows—maybe one day soon, you’ll be the competition!

 

  

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Fear of Pride?

Bass Player Edit - FREEFEAR OF PRIDE

   Have you ever held back from doing something you know you’re gifted and called to do because of a fear of pride?

   Is that really a thing?

   It is if what you do puts you out in front of people where you’re likely to get attention and/or compliments—speaking, preaching, singing, acting, politics, any kind of leadership. And if you do get attention, how should you respond? Would simply saying “thank you” suffice or would it look bad that you’re not acknowledging others for your talent? So should you explain that it’s really not you who should get the credit but your parents or your teachers or the person who gave you the opportunity or even God? Or, on the other hand, would that sound like false modesty?

   Believe it or not, many people whose dreams put them in any kind of spotlight do struggle with these questions. Tragically, some of them come to the conclusion that maybe the answer is simply not to take the chance—they just won’t do that thing that brings attention. Especially if they’ve been told by anyone else that even to worry what other people think is a form of pride in itself.

   It’s not. Those questions are often just part of the “getting used to the limelight” process that many people have to work through.

   Another fear people struggle with is this question: “What if I’m not prideful now but if I get attention for my acting (or singing or writing or business accomplishments or promotions or…)—what if it all goes to my head? Then will I become prideful? What if I turn into a diva??  What then??

   Can I just tell you—if you’re worried about becoming prideful, you’re not prideful.

   Nevertheless, here’s something you might be concerned with: not doing what you’re called to do because someone else might have a problem with it.

The truth is that no one else has to stand before God and give an account for what they did with your talent except you.

   It’s rumored that God never has given anyone a pass for quitting because they were afraid. In the parable about the talents, the master (God) was not happy with the man who buried his talent rather than use it because he was afraid of something or somebody.

   “But,” you protest, “it’s wrong to be prideful!” Right. But how do you know that’s even going to be a problem if you quit before you begin? Smarter people than I am have made the observation that “you can’t please all the people all the time.” And may I add that when deciding whether or not to pursue that dream, we shouldn’t worry about pleasing people at all (unless, of course, it’s someone directly involved in the pursuit).

   But what does pleasing people have to do with pride, anyway? Plenty. Let’s face it, the more success your destiny brings and the more visible you become, the more likely it is that someone, somewhere, is going to be envious of you and would be very pleased if you just benched yourself instead of getting out there and playing ball. Remember the Apostle Paul’s words to young Timothy: “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (I Tim. 4:12). Paul knew that people would be jealous of Timothy for his ability to teach and preach at a young age, and he indicated that that jealousy might even be vicious; “despise” is a very strong word. The unfortunate fact is that people might even hate you for doing what you do, but you can’t allow that to stop you. The Pharisees hated Jesus because he healed the sick, raised the dead, and preached salvation—and they couldn’t. But the real reason they hated him was because their followers began following him. And that made them very, very angry.

   Ever seen the TV show Nashville? While it’s fiction, it’s probably quite realistic in its portrayal of the jealousy, slander and backstabbing that go on behind the scenes in Music City. And as intriguing as that might be to watch, the eye-opening paradox is that the famous people who do manage to remain humble are not exempt from falling victim to jealous and mean-spirited villains. In fact, the most down-to-earth often end up with the biggest targets on their reputations. After all, there’s nothing an envious person despises more than a talented, successful person who has not let it all go to their heads.

   Still, one of the best things we can take from Nashville is the recognition that you can pursue your dreams, get really good at what you do, achieve all kinds of success and recognition—and still remain a good, humble person.   

   Tim McGraw speaks to up-and-comers regarding the temptation to stray from your grounded roots in his song “Humble and Kind”:

   “When those dreams you’re dreaming come to you…When the work you put in is realized… Let yourself feel the pride… But always stay humble and kind…. When you get where you’re going, don’t forget to turn back around… And help the next one in line…. Always stay humble and kind.”

   So go ahead, accept that pat on the back for what you’ve done—or even the applause, if it comes to that; just say a simple “thank you” and don’t worry about those who think you should’ve said more. Or go ahead and give credit to mom, dad, God and the whole cast and crew making your success possible—and don’t worry about whether someone thinks you’re full of false humility. (Someone will.) Just do what you feel is right. Do that thing you’re good at, that thing you long to do, that thing the world really needs. And don’t worry—you’ll be fine.

   Really.          

 

 

 

 

 

That Broken Road “Not Taken”

Country Road - FREE

THAT BROKEN ROAD “NOT TAKEN”

   Donna and Joey (not their real names) had tried to have baby for five years but were unable. I won’t get into the details but Donna and Joey decided that, rather than undergo fertilization treatments, they would adopt. Within eighteen months, they had adopted siblings—two little boys from Eastern Europe. In the next four years, Donna gave birth to a baby girl and then a boy.

   That was unexpected.

   Donna and Joey’s situation is not that uncommon. It’s uncanny how often couples who cannot have children find themselves expecting after adopting one or more children. There are different theories among some medical professionals as to why this happens and some have no explanations at all. However, here’s what those adopted children have: stable homes with parents who love them. And while Donna and Joey and couples like them might initially never have chosen to take the adoption road if another path had been possible, would they, looking back now, have chosen differently if it meant never having met their precious adopted sons and daughters?

   Doesn’t it seem that perhaps the hand of God might be busy behind the scenes in these difficult circumstances?

   That health scare that put you on the road to a longer, healthier life? That devastating break-up which freed you to meet your true Prince or Princess Charming? That difficult circumstance your errant son or daughter was forced to endure—perhaps reaping what they’d sown—and yet now he or she is a changed person? And while their pain was excruciatingly heartbreaking for you to watch, helpless, from the sidelines, chances are good that neither of you now would wish the trial away. Perhaps that experience even saved a life.

   That difficult, broken road…

   Joseph found himself in that situation. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he eventually ended up in prison, accused of a rape he’d never committed. And yet it was his training ground to learn the Egyptian language, customs and culture—all things handy to know when your destiny is to become the legendary savior of a nation. In the end, Joseph rescued Egypt and the fledging nation of Israel from starvation during the worst drought in history.

   And Esther. Do we think that she, a virtuous Jewish maiden, thought it any honor to be kidnapped and forced into the harem of a Persian king? Gone were her dreams of a marriage to a nice, respectable young Jewish man, raising respectable Jewish children. Instead, at best, she would have children by a man whom she didn’t know and she would watch them be raised according to a pagan faith. And she herself would be confined to the women’s quarters of a palace, never to see her friends and family again.

   There’s a shameful, broken road.

   Nevertheless, Esther, like Joseph, spent her time learning the language, customs and culture of the Persian empire—all in preparation for her coronation as Queen of Persia and, more importantly, as the savior of her people, the Jews, from absolute annihilation.

   Maybe you’re on that road right now. Maybe you’ve run smack into the brick wall of crisis which has forced you down a path you don’t remotely like, don’t want to be on, and would never have chosen. It’s rock-hard, it’s often lonely, and it’s painful beyond description.

   Maybe it’s called “the road not taken” for a reason.

   Perhaps. But still, don’t back up and do not quit; not now. That broken road can lead to a destiny and a destination you just cannot get to any other way—a place that, right now, you only dream of finding.

   Stay the course. And then one day may you say that taking that lonely road “has made all the difference.”

 

Frost Poem

 

 

 

 

Disappointment: The Silent Killer of Dreams

Bride in Ruins

   Growing up, there were two kinds of kids: those who experienced disappointment from life’s little setbacks and those who were protected from feeling any of those same disappointments. Fast forward a few decades and now there are two kinds of adults. There are those who face disappointments head-on and bounce back, knowing that life doesn’t always check with us to see how we’d like it to turn out, and there are those who’ve had no practice dealing with disappointment and melt down every time life throws them a curve ball.

   Let’s face it—it hurts to be disappointed. However, “disappoint,” per se, is not an emotion; it’s come to mean that we feel “let down,” so to speak, but that’s not the original definition; the original is much stronger. The word itself means “to be unappointed” or, in a more general sense, to be demoted, removed, rejected—in essence, to lose.

   Disappointments come in all shapes and sizes. We face minor disappointments when we lose a sports game or the car we wanted or a good grade on a test. More serious disappointments—losses—include lost jobs or promotions; lost opportunities for, say, scholarships or business funding; and lost life experiences such as the ability to live where we’d like, to pursue a talent or passion, or to retire sooner rather than later. And then there are the life-altering, even tragic disappointments in life. These include (but are not limited to) lost relationships or broken marriages; business failures, financial hardships and/or the irrevocable loss of a dream; and the ultimate disappointments—a failed medical treatment, a life-limiting disability, or even a death.

   We tend to think of “disappointments” as relatively trivial things, but they’re often not minor losses at all. Moreover, the effects they can have on our emotions, perspectives, and expectations can, the end, be quite devastating and destructive.

   The sad truth is that we can’t escape loss and disappointment; it is, unfortunately, part of the human experience. But what happens when we can’t seem to cope with disappointment in any form? For example, what happens when we get the trophy in Little League just for participating—no actual winning required—and then we don’t get the promotion just for showing up for work? What happens when we get to retake the test over and over in high school but in college we get a big, fat, non-negotiable F ? What happens when, as kids, mom and dad never tell us “no” when we want something and then the boss tells us “no” or the police tell us “no” or the person of our dreams tells us “no”? Does that mean “maybe” or “keep asking”? Or is it time for a meltdown because we didn’t get our way?

   What if we just can’t deal?  

   What often happens is that “dealing” with a disappointment means that it’s someone else’s fault. For example, what happens when we lose a position because we didn’t do the job? Is it the boss’s fault, a co-worker’s fault or our mommy’s fault? Do we get angry and demand a “safe space” or do we put on our big-boy pants, hit the asphalt and find another job? But what if the disappointment is someone else’s fault? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t—I wouldn’t know—but I can say with some certainty that burning buildings or bridges won’t make the situation any better.

   Here’s a thought: If we can’t handle the relatively minor disappointments of life, how will we ever be equipped to handle the big disappointments—especially the ones over which we have no control? The economy tanks and so the business fails or the layoffs begin—what then? Will a meltdown get us another job? (Insert Jeopardy theme here.)

   What if we experience repeated disappointments? That does happen—a difficult subject in school with multiple failures or a difficult boss at work who evaluates everyone poorly? Do we pitch a fit and blame the teacher or boss? (Well, maybe—for about five minutes.) But do we quit?

   Repeated disappointments and failures are the worst, the most debilitating. Sometimes, in the face of failed dreams, broken relationships or multiple rejections, it’s difficult not to take those losses and failures personally. Sometimes people quit, stamping themselves “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!” Sometimes people get angry and rage at themselves, at others—even at God. And sometimes people simply lose hope—any expectation at all that they might succeed or that things will ever get better. Sometimes repeated disappointments can even lead to despair.

   Or not.

   If we learn to manage our disappointment over small things, then we’ll be better equipped to handle the larger disappointments life likes to sling.

   Furthermore, the ability to deal is not a talent, it’s a skill. The ability to cope without a meltdown can be developed—and it needs to be.

Hopefully, we begin to learn this while we’re younger rather than older. It’s wonderful to protect our children but there’s a rather big difference between protecting them from actual danger and protecting them from hearing that they lost a ballgame.

   The bottom line is that we’re not doing ourselves or anyone else any favors when we don’t deal well with disappointments. Here’s life truth #36: The inability to handle loss and disappointment only breeds more loss and disappointment.

   Disappointments and losses will come—Jesus even said so.

   Don’t let them destroy you.

  

  

The Grind

Teacher Meltdown

THE GRIND

   I once knew a teacher (whom I’ll call Sophie) who hated her job. Sophie’s retired now, and I’m certain she’s much happier, but before she retired, she was often in deep distress over the nearly impossible circumstances at her job. (She worked in a different district than I do.) And the fact is, Sophie had a lot to be unhappy about; she worked in a very “challenging” inner city district where students frequently didn’t come to school and when they did, they were either beating each other to a bloody pulp or disrupting any given class they had because they’d missed too much of the class to be able to do any of the work in it.

   Now, I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t Sophie just get another job somewhere else if she hated hers so much? Good question; I don’t know—she just didn’t. I do know that she once said she couldn’t start over because that would mean a significant cut in pay and she just couldn’t afford that.

   Don’t get me wrong—Sophie was a great teacher. She loved teaching history and she was good at it but she found it nearly impossible to make teenagers who didn’t want to be in school anyway feel any affinity for learning about “old, dead people”. She’d tried, but her students didn’t value education and resented having to work—and often told her so. So after a while, Sophie just got tired. Tired of having to confront students on their behavior and tired of the mayhem that ensued if she didn’t. Tired of the lack of support from her administration and even less support from parents. Tired of the endless government interference with curriculum and tired of the endless days of testing.

   Tired of the grind.

   Have you ever had days when the “same ol’, same ol’” just feels like it’s sucking the life right out of you? Have you ever felt like you just don’t have what it takes to do what you’ve chosen to do? Have you ever felt like you’ve “missed it” somehow—destroyed the destiny you might’ve had by making a wrong choice, a huge error, or a hopeless mistake?

   Have you ever felt like you’re just doing time until you can be done?

   We’ve all been there. But the fact is, it’s never too late to discover your destiny or to make course corrections and get back on track to it.  How?  Because our God is a God of “do-overs”!

   For example, Moses got a do-over after killing a man (his fault). Joseph also got a do-over after spending 22 years in prison (not his fault).  Whether you’re ten or eighty, God has a destiny for you.  And it’s a good destiny—one that will give your years life and your life purpose. It will get you out of bed and excited to get moving every morning.  And it will allow you to know that you’re making a real difference in the world which, essentially, adds up to eternal purpose.

   I’m reminded of a young woman who had moved to a new town and had no job or money or husband (he’d died); all she had was an old woman to take care of and no food to feed her. Eventually, the young woman got a job harvesting in the fields, barely making any money, and really just living off of what she was able to pick from the fields and take home.  And she did this day in and day out, day in and day out, day in and… you get the pic; you’ve been there.

   By now, you realize I mean Ruth.  But did you ever wonder what she was thinking during those long, hot hours in the fields?

   How did I get here? Did I make the wrong choice?  What will happen if I can’t work anymore?  Why won’t anyone talk to me?  Where would I be if I’d stayed in Moab?  Will I die here…?

   Long story short: Ruth had no idea that she had an incredible destiny, that someday she’d marry a rich man and eventually be counted as the great-great grandmother of King David! Nor did Joseph, rotting away in prison, ever dream that he’d be in charge of all of Egypt. Nor did Moses, a murderer and fugitive, in his wildest dreams, ever imagine that one day he’d be the promised one who would deliver the Hebrew slaves from the cruel Egyptians. Nor did David, a nerdy, smelly, shepherd boy who was ridiculed by his older brothers, ever imagine that one day he’d be Israel’s most famous warrior king. (Funny how Joseph, Moses, and David were all youngest brothers who initially had problems with those older bros… But I digress.)

   It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, didn’t do or tried to do and failed—God has a plan for your life, a purpose, a destiny—and it’s a good one.  But only you can fulfill it.  No one else in all the earth has the combination of talent, giftings, ability, mindset, personality and life experience that you have. You, and only you, can fulfill the purpose for which God planted you on this planet in the way that he wants it fulfilled.

   If the daily grind is killing you, it’s time to do one of two things: either ask for the grace (the firepower of God) to fulfill your calling without disappointment and dread—or seek your real purpose in life.

   It’s time to be done with “the grind”.

 

 

 

 

But—God.

Ballerina II BUT—GOD. 

   Over the decades as a Christian, I’ve heard endless stories of God doing the impossible, but one of the most amazing is that of a young man who was severely mentally disabled with an IQ so low that, at sixteen years old, he was still in kindergarten. However, the time came when, despite his mother’s persistent pleas for her son, officials insisted that he could no longer attend school; he was simply too big to be in a kindergarten class anymore and his own grade level was far beyond his abilities. Still, his mother never stopped praying for her son’s complete healing and took him to various healing meetings. And one night, the impossible happened: her son was completely healed! Today, he not only has a college degree but three PhD’s.

   Nothing is impossible with God.

   Have you ever felt you’ve been called to great things, impossible things? That would be because you have. But do we really believe that? The fact is that we’ve lost sight of the bottom line: “’Nothing is impossible with God’” (Luke 1:37). Maybe it’s time for a quick reminder.               

   “Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘About this time next year I will return, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’ Now Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent nearby. And since Abraham and Sarah were both very old, and Sarah was long past the age of having children, she laughed silently to herself. ‘How could a worn-out woman like me have a baby?’ she thought. ‘And when my master, my husband, is also so old?’ The Lord then said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, “Can an old woman like me have a baby?” Is anything too hard for the Lord?'” (Gen. 18:10-13).

   A “baby” equals a dream, a promise, a heart’s desire. It also represents, as with Sarah, the sign of a fulfilled covenant and the promise of a covenant to come. 

   The same message came to Jeremiah from the Lord. The Lord had instructed Jeremiah to buy a field from his cousin and to store away the deed. Odd thing to do but God meant it as a sign that, although Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Israelites exiled to Babylon, the time would come that He would again restore His people to their land. But as Jeremiah sees the city and nation about to be destroyed, he is in despair and wonders how anyone could ever own land in Israel/Judah again, so Jeremiah questions God as to why He had him buy the land in the first place. But it was a prophetic sign of a future covenant which the Lord would make with His people. So essentially Jeremiah was asking God: “How can You do that—fulfill your promise—when Jerusalem is about to be destroyed??” God’s answer: “‘I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for Me?'” (Jer. 32:26-27).

   In the book of Luke, the angel Gabriel visits Mary to inform her that she will become pregnant with the Messiah through the Spirit of God and have a baby. Mary responds by asking how she can get pregnant when she’s still a virgin. The angel tells her how it will happen (as soon as she consents), and then gives her a sign to believe in: “‘What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s already in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God'” (Luke 1:36).

   In Matthew 19, there is the account of the rich young ruler who leaves sadly after deciding he cannot give up his possessions and follow Jesus (who was testing his commitment by asking him to do that). Jesus watches him go and comments to His disciples that it’s about as easy for a rich person to get saved as it is for a huge camel to go through the tiny city gate known as the “Eye of the Needle.” Knowing how impossible that would be, Jesus’ disciples, astonished, respond, “‘Then who in the world can be saved?'” (vs. 25). Jesus’ answer? “‘With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'” (vs. 26).

   The disciples were panicked at the thought that salvation would be as difficult to attain as a camel getting through that gate (which evidently had never been done before), and so Jesus uses that analogy to illustrate that there is not even the smallest fraction of a chance that man could ever achieve salvation on his own. Nevertheless, what is completely impossible for man—even for privileged or righteous men, is possible with God. And Jesus doesn’t qualify His answer either; He doesn’t say, “most things are possible with God”. It’s “all things are possible with God.” And it’s “all things are possible,” not “will be”; they’re all possible now. And this is all true whether we see these things as possible or not.

   So—dream dreams! Let your visions be conceived—no matter how impossible they might seem, remembering that “nothing is too hard for God.” And while you’re waiting (pregnant…), do as the Lord instructed Abraham who was awaiting the fulfillment of God’s covenant to give him the Promised Land. God said to Abraham, “’Take a walk in every direction and explore the new possessions I am giving you'” (Gen. 13:17). God tells Abraham to “explore” (NIV: “Walk through the length and breath of the land…”)—get a vision of it. Keep it before your eyes in order to hold onto the dream. And we should do the same… keep the vision of our “babies,” our dreams, before our eyes. We need to remember that, like Sarah and Elizabeth, we’re never “too old;” like Mary and the rich ruler, the impossible will not be attained man’s way; and like the people of Israel in Jeremiah’s time, not even our own sin or self-imposed destruction will stand in the way of God fulfilling our dreams in His own (sometimes incomprehensible) way. This is good news because it means that even if we can’t figure out how our vision could possibly ever come to pass, all we have to remember is that “all things are possible with God” and that our part is simply to hold onto that truth.

   In the meantime, as the Lord instructed Habakkuk, “Write [your] vision, make it plain… so that the one who reads it [you] may run with it [do it]” (Hab.2:2).

   It’s time.

2018—It Won’t Be What You Expect.

Sheep II - Free   2018—IT WON’T BE WHAT YOU EXPECT.

   I never expected to get hit with a car. (Who does?) But it happened. I was fourteen years old and just a few weeks from beginning high school, but instead I spent the next three months in the hospital in traction with a broken femur. I also suffered a serious head injury involving six inches of stitches (which can happen when you fly over the back of a car and land on your head). The driver’s insurance company eventually ponied up thousands of dollars in a settlement which, in the end, paid for my college. Until that point, college hadn’t really been an option for financial reasons, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that a college degree would be financed by the front fender of a Buick sedan driven by a 77-year-old man.

   Not what I expected.

   Often God answers prayers in unexpected ways. Of course, that’s an understatement. God’s ways are many times so far beyond our comprehension or even our imagination that when something does happen—which we didn’t see coming to begin with—we often don’t even remotely perceive the connection between the event and the answer to our prayers. In fact, we very often interpret the event as, not just a random non-answer, but as a set-back. Hence the car accident.

   Same with the birth of the Messiah. Scripture predicted a king would be born—and one was—but in a stable?? Not one rabbi, teacher, or Pharisee saw that coming. Even most of the prophets never conceived that their predictions concerning the Messiah meant that he’d begin life anywhere other than a carved ivory cradle in an opulent palace. But he did.

   And the virgin who was prophesied to be his mother would surely be a royal princess, right? And that would mean that this Messiah—whoever he was—would be born into the royal line of King Herod or some other Jewish king. He wasn’t supposed to be born to a poor, nobody virgin from the hick town of Nazareth. But—he was.

Not what anyone expected.

   Moreover, the birth of the Messiah, one would think, would certainly be free from hassles, inconveniences, dangers and threats. After all, God would certainly see to that, wouldn’t he? So no one, especially Joseph and Mary, were anticipating anything remotely resembling what happened. They weren’t expecting to have to travel back to Bethlehem for a census—and on donkeyback when Mary was already nine months along. Can you imagine the conversations with God about that? And they didn’t expect, once in Bethlehem, to find themselves homeless with Mary having to give birth in a smelly barn, laying the Son of God into a less-than-sanitary manger. (You know, where odiferous animals eat?) Certainly God could have arranged for his son to enter the world into better accommodations.

   So—why? It’s not as though God couldn’t control what was happening or had to go to Plan B. Of course, neither did Mary and Joseph expect a bunch of lowly shepherds to appear and worship the baby. That was somewhat novel. Nor did they anticipate several very wealthy astrologer-kings to appear with chests full of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which made Jesus a very rich toddler.

   But there’s more. No one expected King Herod to kill dozens of little boys in his attempt to kill baby Jesus, nor did Joseph and Mary expect to have to take the baby and flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod.

   Could they have even imagined that?

   Had the will of God had gone awry? Had they done something wrong? Certainly it couldn’t have been God’s plan that so many innocent little babies would die. Can we even fathom the grief that Mary and Joseph must have felt?

   Of course not, but none of those events were random or unforeseen by God. They were all road signs of prophecy distinguishing Jesus from the many others who had or would claim, throughout the centuries, to be the Messiah. Maybe some of those imposters had been born in Bethlehem and maybe, unlikely as it might seem, one or two were even born in a stable during the great census rush. Certainly at least one of them could claim to have been from the lineage of King David (but probably not the same one born in a stable). Nevertheless, it’s probably quite unlikely that angels sang, shepherds quaked or kings bowed down to worship any of them. And there is no evidence that a star appeared when any other “messiahs” were born, that King Herod had tried to kill any of them, or that they had lived in Egypt long enough that Scripture could foretell, “’Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Hosea 11:1, Matt. 2:15).

   God planned all of these unlikely events so that, when taken together, Jesus could be identified, beyond any doubt, as the Messiah.

   Attorney Josh McDowell, in his great book Evidence that Demands A Verdict, once calculated the odds of just eight of the 300 Messianic prophecies coming to pass through sheer coincidence as an incomprehensible one chance in 1023 (that’s 10 followed by 23 zeroes). Not odds you’d want to take to Vegas.

   What’s it all mean? Simply that God is in charge. He orchestrated each and every unexpected, “random” circumstance, situation and event surrounding the birth of Christ—no matter how unlikely, outrageous or tragic those events may have seemed at the time in order to do one thing: lay the groundwork of prophecy to identify, beyond dispute, Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. No doubt Mary and Joseph (and all of their friends and relatives) were, at one time or another, shocked, ashamed, worried, frustrated, angry, disappointed, overwhelmed, grieved, depressed, and certainly scared—terrified even—by those “random” events but it was because they didn’t understand the full scope of God’s plan.

   God simply wasn’t behaving the way one would expect.

   The Nativity is not just a “nice” story; it’s a powerful lesson as to the ways of God. Our Father in heaven is always doing two things: looking out for us—even when circumstances seem overwhelmingly senseless and/or impossible—and moving in ways that bring glory to him. Why? So that we can believe. So that we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is real and that, no matter how bad things look, he is behind the scenes and causing “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASV).

   I guarantee that 2018 won’t be what you expect. It’ll be better.

 

 

 

The Scrooge Inside

Ghost of Christmas Present

THE SCROOGE INSIDE

   We all know Ebenezer Scrooge. He may not be a filthy rich old man living alone in a cold, dark mansion, but we all know him (or her). It’s the cold, stingy person with a heart the size of a peanut and a bitterness that entombs him like a pall. It’s the person who always has a word of criticism, deserved or otherwise. It’s the person who can always be counted on to prophesy the dark side of any situation. It’s Scrooge—the personification of all that’s wretched and miserable.

   Maybe this Ebenezer, like the original, hates Christmas and all it stands for—worship, love, gratitude, and generosity and giving—perhaps that last most of all. This Ebenezer Scrooge hoards his possessions, money, and time as well as any encouragement, mercy and love that might be lurking in some dark corner of his shriveled heart. His only response to invitations to laughter, fellowship or celebration is a scowl and some venomous version of “Humbug!” 

   We all know Ebenezer Scrooge.

   Ol’ Eb is not easy or fun or comfortable to be around and often, despite our attempts to love him—or maybe because of them—he seems to become more angry, more bitter, and more pitiful over time, just like the original Scrooge.

   But the story doesn’t end there.

   If you’ve never read Dickens’ classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, here’s the one-page: Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley who comes to warn him regarding his path in life. Marley is doomed to drag with him forever the “ponderous” chains he’d forged in life—one link for each evil or corrupt deed he’d done—or good deed neglected. Scrooge is confused as to why Marley is being punished since he was such a “’good businessman’”. In response, Marley screams, “’Mankind is my business!’” To prove his point, he shows Scrooge the poor and suffering of the world and laments that he is condemned to walk the earth for all eternity watching them suffer and yet not permitted ever to help.

“’Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never once raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode…?’”

   He warns that the only way Scrooge can be saved from a similar fate is to change his ways and so, to that end, Marley sends three spirits to “haunt” Scrooge that night…

   Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past.

   This spirit takes Scrooge on a painful tour of his past, exposing some of the reasons for his hatred of Christmas: scenes of the lonely Christmas breaks at boarding school when Ebenezer was the only boy left there for the holiday; a reminder that his beloved sister died around Christmastime; and the scene where his fiancée breaks their engagement at Christmas because she perceives that Scrooge has grown to love profit and money more than herself.  At this scene, Scrooge rages at his younger self to reassure her that she’s wrong but alas, he does not. Scrooge then demands that the spirit leave him; he cannot bear to relive the pain of his past. But even more, he cannot bear the anguish of his sudden regret.

   Next appears the Ghost of Christmas Present.

   This ghost invites Ebenezer Scrooge to “know me better, man!”, insinuating that Ebenezer doesn’t know anything about what Christmas is really all about. To remedy this tragedy, the spirit takes Scrooge on a behind-the-scenes tour of the homes of family and friends to peek in on how others keep Christmas. First they visit a very merry home where his nephew, Fred Scrooge, and his wife and friends are feasting, singing, and playing games—all of which Scrooge was missing, having rejected Fred’s dinner invitation earlier.

   Next Scrooge and the ghost visit the very humble home of his employee, Bob Crachit, where Scrooge sees all of the Crachits (and there are many) celebrating Christmas with the rare treat of a small goose and even smaller pudding cake for dessert. Scrooge is astounded that the Crachits can celebrate Christmas or even find anything to be thankful for, given their poverty. Moreover, for the first time, Scrooge learns that Crachit has a small son, Tiny Tim, who suffers from a crippling disease. He watches in amazement as, despite all of these misfortunes, the Crachits proclaim a toast of blessing upon “Mr. Scrooge!”

   Afterward, despite Ebenezer’s pleas to return home, he and the ghost visit a ship at sea where poor French sailors are celebrating Christmas by singing a heartfelt rendition of “Silent Night”, and then, the next moment, Scrooge finds himself standing inside of a cold jail cell where a solitary prisoner celebrates Christmas by playing carols on a flute. Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, Scrooge cannot fathom how, without money, any of them can be happy or merry or have anything at all to celebrate. Having expressed his disbelief to the ghost, Ebenezer Scrooge abruptly finds himself alone, in the midnight of a cold and shadowy graveyard, watched from the darkness by a pair of glowing eyes.

   The Ghost of Christmas Future.

   This spirit does not speak but rather catapults Scrooge into a bleak future characterized by death—his own and Tiny Tim’s. Scrooge finds that while Tiny Tim’s death is mourned, his own is celebrated…

   The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is a sad one, and one many times played out in the course of history by countless characters who view Christmas simply as a means of profit and/or a waste of time. Perhaps that Ebenezer we all know is one such character.

   In the end, it’s clear that Ebenezer Scrooge’s disillusionment with Christmas and with humankind in general stems back to the disappointments and losses he suffered young. As a result, he substituted money for God and the pursuit of profit for his calling. Still, he found himself more miserable than ever. But the story does not end there. 

   Scrooge learns his lesson—that being that there is much more to life than money and that money can even be a hindrance to real life. He finds, instead, that real joy and fulfillment come with doing the “business of mankind” and so, waking on Christmas morning (and discovering that he was not dead), Ebenezer wastes no time in making up for all the years of despising his fellow humankind; he resolves to “keep Christmas” —that spirit of charity and love and generosity—that day and all the year long.

   Perhaps our Ebenezers will come to know the true meaning of Christmas which the poor, piteous Marley grieves eternally at having missed…

   “’Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never once raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode…?’”

   The greatest message we can learn from Scrooge? That it’s Christ, symbolized by that “blessed Star”, who is the one who saves us from the miserly and miserable Ebenezer inside of all of us—the only one who can save us.

   But there’s one more lesson—one that is exemplified in Scrooge himself: It’s never too late to keep Christmas.

   It’s never too late to change.

    Merry Christmas!  May we keep it well.

Fearless.

Lydia Darragh

FEARLESS

   Most Americans have never heard the name Lydia Darragh but if not for her, the American Revolution might have ended very differently, and we might be paying taxes to the British royal family to this day.

   During the Revolution, Lydia Darragh operated as a member of Washington’s spy network in Philadelphia where she owned a home. Her spying career began when the British took over her house as a meeting place, a move which inspired Lydia to begin hiding in a closet and eavesdropping on their conversations. Afterward, she’d send her son to relay the enemy’s secret plans and strategies to the colonists. One such intel interception is said to have saved the life of General George Washington himself.* Lydia Darragh knew she was risking her home, her freedom, and even her life to spy for the Americans, but she didn’t care; liberty was infinitely more precious than safety.

   There’s power in not caring.

   History has demonstrated that, throughout the ages, there’s absolutely no limit to what a person can accomplish if they simply don’t care what other people think. Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man who had lost election after election—over a dozen at least—and yet still ran for president. He didn’t care that there were many who mocked him, called him a “loser”, and made him a national laughing stock. Then later, once in office, President Lincoln was apparently not obsessed with amassing power or being voted “most loveable” because he pulled the plug on slavery, knowing full well that millions would despise him for doing it. Moreover, he had to know that he was putting his very life at risk. But he didn’t care. He only cared about doing what he knew was right.

   The same is true of King David and Queen Esther in the Bible. David, scorned as a lowly shepherd boy, nevertheless faced down a giant because Goliath had dared to mock the living God. David was so horrified by Goliath’s blasphemy that he was willing to endure ridicule: the jeers of the whole Israeli army and the outrage of his own brothers who accused him of arrogance for having the audacity to believe he could do what seasoned warriors feared to do. Yet David didn’t care what they thought; he did what he had to do.

   Then there was Queen Esther who breached protocol and approached the Persian king uninvited to plead for the lives of the Jewish people (Esther 4:11). And while such an emergency might seem to be an extenuating circumstance and so trump the royal protocol, it wasn’t—one simply did not appear before the court without a royal summons. In fact, such insolence often ended badly for the poor, misguided reprobates who’d attempted it in the past. Still, Esther’s attitude was, “‘If I perish, I perish.’” She didn’t care enough about the consequences of her “presumption” to compromise her mission. And because of that attitude, she saved the entire Jewish race.

   That’s the power of not caring.

   Fear of man and his opinion is the death of many destinies.

   Who is willing to face down ridicule, rejection, ruin and even death to accomplish that thing they were born to do? On the other hand, how many people have caved to the pressure of another man or woman’s opinion and abandoned their destinies?

   We’ll never know because their names have been lost in the dark void of compromise and fear.

   Jesus never caved. Even when the Pharisees called him crazy, a fraud, a criminal, demon possessed—whatever they could conjure to destroy him—he never flinched. In fact, he struck back, exposing them as hypocrites, “white-washed tombs” and even murderers. Why? He simply didn’t care what they thought. As a result, he revealed corruption in the highest ranks of the Jewish leadership and shone a bright light for the poor, deceived people of Israel.

   But what if Jesus had cared about what people thought of him? He certainly would not have chosen to hang naked upon a cross to be spit upon, mocked and humiliated before throngs of people. Moreover, he knew that scripture pronounced a curse upon anyone “hung from a tree” and that that curse included the family of the condemned; therefore, he would never have consented, by hanging upon that wooden cross (tree), to bring shame upon his family—that is, if he cared about what man thought of him.

   Not that that decision was easy for him. Just imagine what his notoriety did to the reputation of his mother, his brothers and his sisters. Did they live in shame forever after? Did his sisters have a difficult time finding men who would marry them—daughters of a cursed family? Possibly. I don’t know for certain but the only one of Jesus’ siblings who is ever referenced by name is his brother, James. But even James was not present at the cross to comfort their mother. None of his siblings were (which is why Jesus entrusts his disciple John to care for Mary). So did the rest of his siblings desert him, renounce him, disown him? I have to wonder because only once are his brothers and sisters ever mentioned in the Gospels and none by name.

   Even so… Jesus could not afford to care about what people thought about him or even about his family; if he had, he would have quit. Thankfully, he did not.

   I daresay that behind every tale of success throughout history from the ancients to this very hour, there comes a moment when a person has to decide which he (she) cares more about: his reputation or his destiny. If he fears the opinion of man and caves to the detriment of what is right, then destiny is lost. But if he moves forward past the “group think,” not caring about his critics or their speculations, then history is made. Fear of man has never inspired anyone to set a new trend or to blaze a new trail but instead, sadly, only to follow behind—even if it’s over the cliff he goes. 

   There’s great power in not caring what others think—and freedom. It’s the freedom to express yourself, to explore all opportunities, and to be who you were created to be.

   It’s the end of fear.

 

  • Kyla Cathey (“9 Women Who Helped Win the American Revolution”)

Lonely—Or Empty?

Piano and Rose (free)LONELINESS—OR EMPTINESS?

   Vanessa (not her real name) had never been without a boyfriend since she was thirteen years old. By all counts, the score was two bf’s in junior high, three in high school (roughly one per year), and a serious three-year relationship in college—followed by a quick rebound relationship in senior year. After college, Vanessa’s trend continued. She dated pretty regularly and by 25, was engaged. However, that didn’t last—Vanessa broke it off—and continued exploring relationships. By 28, Vanessa was married, by 32 she was divorced, and by 35 married again. The one common denominator in all of her break-ups over that 22-year stretch was Vanessa: She was the one who always initiated the break-ups. And why?

   Vanessa was empty inside.

   Unfortunately, Vanessa represents thousands of people in our culture who travel from relationship to relationship looking for someone to fill a void inside of them. Often people believe that if they can just find “the one”, they would finally feel “complete”. And that rarely ends well.

   How many times have we heard that premise—the idea that if we can just find that “soul mate”, that “other half”, then we’ll finally feel complete? Remember Tom Cruise’s famous line to Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary where he stares across the room at her and declares “You complete me!” The problem is that that’s a fallacy—the myth that any person can fill that void inside of us and give us that “happily ever after” that Bridget and her Prince Charming presumably enjoyed. Bridget and the Prince are fiction.

   Does that sound like the rantings of some bitter and jaded skeptic? Of course it does, but it’s not. The truth is that, yes, Virginia, true love does exist and brings great fulfillment and joy. But here’s what a relationship cannot do: fill the God-shaped void inside of us. The fact is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, there’s a huge difference between emptiness and loneliness.

Loneliness results from a separation from people, and emptiness results from a separation from God.

   Feeling empty actually means that we’re lonely for God.

   In Genesis 2, God said of Adam, “‘It’s not good that man [ad-am] should be alone…’” (vs. 18). Adam had, at that point, enjoyed the most intimate relationship with God possible for a human to experience; in the pre-Fall, there were no barriers between God and man. Adam had a spirit-to-spirit relationship with God the Father. Still, Adam was lonely; he desired human companionship—someone to love, both emotionally and physically; someone to share ministry with (ruling over creation); and someone with whom to imagine the future and explore destiny. Adam ached for an “Eve” but he wasn’t empty; he was full of his God and therefore complete. How do we know? Because Adam wasn’t experiencing any of the symptoms of emptiness: an identity crisis—he knew who he was: a son of God. Adam wasn’t questioning what was “wrong” with him because he didn’t have a girlfriend—he was simply wondering when and where he might find one. And Adam wasn’t at a standstill waiting for life to start until he got a wife; he was enjoying his relationship with God and moving in his destiny. Adam wasn’t “lost”, insecure or depressed. He was just lonely. He simply wanted what all of the animals seemed to have—someone to compliment him.

   Loneliness is not a bad thing. Lots of times it’s not fun but that emotion exists for a reason: to remind us that we need other human beings, that we’re part of the family of God, and that we can’t go it alone because we’re not equipped to do that. Loneliness nudges us to create family, community and to engage in interactions, relationships and commitments with other people. Imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t feel the need to participate with others. I can only surmise that far fewer people would populate the earth. In fact, I believe (don’t know for certain because I haven’t asked) that God created the feeling of loneliness so that humans would be motivated to “be fruitful and multiply.” If God hadn’t allowed loneliness, I can only imagine the conversation in Eden:

   GOD: “Adam, would you like a wife?”

   ADAM: “What’s a wife?”

   GOD: “You know, a mate, kind of like the elephants have, only more like you.”

   ADAM (thinks for a moment): “No, thank you. I’m happy with the elephants.”

   How do you know whether you’re empty or lonely? Clue number one: If you don’t have a relationship with God, that part of you that was created specifically for that purpose is going to be empty and you’re going to feel the pain of that. For example, if you have family and friends and/or a spouse and they’re good people and they love you—and yet you still feel “incomplete”, that’s emptiness, not loneliness. Or if there is a relationship with God but you find yourself “too busy” to spend any time with him, emptiness will happen.

   Clue number two: A very telling symptom of emptiness is a feeling that you just don’t belong. You might feel separated and depressed and, in some cases, as if something is wrong with you. This is probably one of the most painful feelings in the world. And it’s dangerous; who knows how many people have turned to drugs, alcohol and/or depression meds because of the pain of it? The good news is that nothing is wrong with you. You just miss God.

    The even better good news is that there’s a cure for both emptiness and loneliness. If you’re feeling empty, get with Jesus. It’s that simple. Allow his love and peace and security to surround you like a blanket. Breathe it in and let it get deep down inside of you. If you’ve never experienced that feeling, that’s nothing that can’t be fixed—all you have to do is to ask God for it and he’ll give it to you. God says, “‘I love those who love me; And those who diligently seek me will find me’” (Proverbs 8:17). On the other hand, if you’re lonely, get with people. My mother used to say, “If you want friends, be a friend.” Good advice. Invite someone over for dinner or call someone to see how they’re doing or join a club or go to a Bible study. It’s not hard.

   Being empty and/or lonely are common feelings. Just remember that if you’re lonely for God, no human relationship on earth can ever fix that. Fill up on the presence of God and then you’ll be ready to give and to receive the love of other people.

   Then you’ll be complete.

 

 

 

DRIVE YOUR VISION.