On the Road to Success

We were on the road to Success.

Literally, I mean. We were driving along route 62 East across Arkansas when we crossed a junction with a township sign pointing to Success. This prompted the conjecture you might expect: How many people do you suppose live in Success? How long does it take to get there, and is Success hard to find?

Before long, we had pulled a U-turn (legally, of course) and were on the road to Success.

Road Sign to Success
Turn here for Success! (Photo by Janet Beagle)

This prompted a great deal of conversation on – you guessed it – success.

“What’s your definition of success?” my friend asked.

“Well, my interview answer is to be in a position where I can constantly learn new things.”

“And your non-interview answer?”

“Probably the same thing,” I admitted.

“I don’t think we can ever really be successful. Success is like this perfect ideal we strive for but never really achieve,” my friend commented.

We talked about work and whether work-in-progress could be deemed successful or whether an event needed to be completed before it could be labelled. We talked about relationships and successful people. We talked about the difference between success and contentment or success and happiness. We concluded that success was not an easy word to define. Apart from being a very small town in Arkansas.

Despite our meandering conversation, it turned out Success was only a few minutes from where we had started. (And to think we almost missed it!) Very few people live in Success – only 180 according to the population sign. It seemed like a nice enough place, but for us, Success was fleeting. We had miles to go before we slept, so we captured a few photos on the edge of town, and then continued on our way. I wonder how often the Successians look out their windows to see crazy tourists snapping pictures of their population sign?

In the weeks since I’ve returned from our detour, I’ve often pondered the term. So often “success” is associated with fame, monetary wealth, prestige, or power. In today’s culture, it seems to be obtained in a winner-take-all rush for the top with little regard to the methods used to get there. Yet the Bible gives us a very different definition. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8) In God’s design, we become successful when we follow His commandments, not the whims of the world. Again and again the history of Israel shows us how generations who were obedient to God thrived, and how those who turned away from God were overthrown. In God’s design, success is not a location to drive through and snap pictures; it is a way of life walking in obedience with Him. It is a journey we take with Him securely at our side.

Town of Success Sign
You never know when God might take you on a detour through Success. (Photo by Janet Beagle)

I encountered my favorite definition of success just the other day embedded in one of those email forwards I usually delete. In it, a little girl asked her grandmother for her definition.

“Success,” she replied, “is when you look back at your life and the memories make you smile.”

What kind of memories are you building? Are they the kind that will bring a smile to both your and God’s face? It is a new day and a new opportunity to start your journey. Take the time to reach out to others, to work hard, to spend time with those you love. Listen to God’s guiding voice. He may just send you on a little detour through Success.

This blog was originally posted May 10, 2016 at http://www.inspireafire.com/on-the-road-to-success/. 

Advertisements

Waiting

I recently found myself in the midst of a possible house purchase.

I don’t remember ever thinking, “Hey, I think I’m ready to go look for a house.” I just woke up one day and discovered I was already looking. Despite my years of happy renting, I was suddenly staring at a potential purchase. Exciting. Terrifying. A little too sudden.

Then just as I was working up the nerve to put in an offer, my realtor went incommunicado.

Who does that? What realtor that close to an offer suddenly shuts down? What if this is my dream house and it’s sold out from under me while I wait? Worse, what if this is a sign that I should back off because it’s actually my nightmare home, and I could end up owning it?

Finally in desperation one night I prayed, “God, I give you this house. Do with it whatever you want…” And then I added, “But if you want me to do something, let me know. Because I could send the realtor another email. Or I could call. Would you like me to call? Or maybe I should see if there’s a different house I should look at. Maybe there’s a reason this is suddenly being put on hold. Maybe there are concerns with this house. Let me think about the possible concerns…”

Two hours later I still wasn’t asleep.

The next day my verse of the day was Psalm 27:14: Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

The following day a song on the radio reminded me, “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord. We will wait upon the Lord.”

I was starting to feel a bit like the lead character in that movie (Was it Bruce Almighty?) that was driving down the road calling out, “God give me a sign!” And all while he was pounding the steering wheel, a giant truck was weaving in front of him loaded with constructions signs that read “Wrong way. Do not enter. Danger.”

So okay, then. If I am supposed to wait upon the Lord, here is one conclusion I have come to: I’m not very good at it.

I have handed that house to God at least 217 times in the last several days, and every time I snatch it right back. I spasmodically check for messages from my realtor. I find myself re-routing my errands to drive past the house. I walk my dog through the neighborhood. I browse listings to see if anything has changed. I have done everything I can possibly think of… except actually turn it over to God.

I’m honestly at the point where I don’t even care what the outcome is so long as the outcome happens so I can stop thinking about it. You’d think that would make waiting easier, but it does not. Because while I don’t care which answer is the right one, I want the right answer to prevail. And what if I’m supposed to be doing something? What if God is waiting on me?

Hahahahahah

It’s laughable, isn’t it? To think almighty God needs something from me before He can act. And yet, in these terrible moments of indecision, isn’t that what it comes down to? Isn’t there some part of us that is scared that we are going to screw it up? As though there is something we could do that could possibly thwart God’s good plan for us.

Now that I think about it, God probably is waiting on me. I suspect He’s waiting on me to let go, and to let Him. He’s waiting on me to demonstrate my trust not just through my words, but through my actions.

God is waiting on me, to wait on Him.

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).

Easy

Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy?

That’s what it said on the back of the cereal box. It said some other things too, but my eyes stopped right there.

Wouldn’t it be great? Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy?

I used my pocket knife to cut around the words, and then, to save the coupon printed on the inside of the box, I peeled it. Or at least I tried to until someone with fingers more dexterous than mine took it from me and stripped it like a piece of tape. The irony was not lost on me. It was hard just cutting those simple words out.

So maybe the real lesson was something more like this: sometimes the things most worth doing are the hard things.

That seems like something my father would say. Succinctly and tossed out light as a fishing line to reel in years later. It sounds like something my heavenly Father would say, too. “Those hard things, pay attention. They are teaching you something.”

Like forgiveness being born out of hard relationships. Like humility being born from hard struggles. Like perseverance being born out of fear.

Think about it: When we have choices and no clear answer we learn patience. When we have too much to do and not enough time we learn acceptance. When we have to say good-bye we learn to keep going. When we are at the end of ourselves, we are most likely to look out and see God.

I think of Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt. (Hard.) Or Moses, trembling before Pharoah. (Hard.) Or Jonah, sent in no uncertain terms back to Ninevah. (Hard.) How about Noah building an ark, or Abraham walking away from his home, or Ruth following her mother-in-law into an uncertain future? (Hard, hard, hard.)

What do you think about Jesus’ disciples? Do you think they had it easy? Have you ever really thought about what it would be like to follow the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head? Amazing, yes. Easy? Doubtful.

And isn’t that the path we are also called to? Oh, we are in a different time and a different place to be sure. But God is calling each one of us to be remade in the image of Christ. That doesn’t sound easy to me. It sounds like there are a whole lot of hard things I need to learn. And relearn. And relearn again.

Maybe the reality is like that song I heard while driving home the other day: the trials of this life may in fact be God’s blessings in disguise. Jesus said that His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but He also said the way is hard that leads to life. The truly easy path may in fact be the one that looks the most challenging right now. After all, Noah got to his rainbow only after going through the storm.

Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy? Yes. But sometimes what we want and what we need are two very different things.

Sometimes we get to the easy only by going through the hard.

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few… Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 7:13, 11:29-30).

Part of the Picture

Not too long ago I attended a retreat for work.  An hour of the day was designated for “Team Building Exercises.” (Everybody groan.)

Actually, I’m one of those rare people who likes team building exercises. Such exercises lack the benefits of organic conversation, but the larger and more segmented an office becomes, the more helpful forced interaction can be.  Otherwise you can go months and barely know more than the name of the person two cubicles down. (Sad, but true.)

I had my concerns about this particular team building exercise when I saw hoola hoops and a rope and a small stuffed pig.  But my concerns were quickly laid to rest.  The rope was merely placed in a pile in the middle of the hoola hoop and we had to discuss, without reaching beyond the edge of the ring, whether pulling an end of the rope would produce a knot.  I never did see what the pig was used for.

At the conclusion of some introductory exercises, we embarked on the grand finale.  Each person was given a picture that was part of a larger story board.  Without showing our picture to anyone, we had to identify where in the larger story we fit and line up in order.  With close to 50 people in the room, this was no small task. Conversations erupted as we began grouping ourselves into related clumps and growing our line.  The story began to take shape until we were all in order and did our “big reveal,” turning the pictures around to see the whole story.

There are several lessons that can be taken from this exercise.  The importance of communication, the idea that we are all part of a larger story, the understanding that we all had to work together in order to see the big picture.  But perhaps one of the strongest lessons for me was one of trust.  We each had to trust that others in the line were doing their part.  I could not be everyplace at once.  I could not be filling in some other part of the story; I had to focus on my own part.

This is a wonderful exercise for the office, and an even better one for the Church.  Our lives are like those individual pictures, each part of a larger story.  We will never see all the pieces in our lifetime, but our job is not to worry about all the pieces; it is to worry about our own.  God has given each one of us a place in the body of Christ and a specific job to do (1 Corinthians 12).

There may be things we don’t understand, but we have to remember that our perspective is only one tiny slice of the larger picture.  We need to trust that God is orchestrating the big picture, even when we don’t see how our piece – or someone else’s – fits in.

There are plenty of times things just plain don’t make sense from our perspective.  That’s okay.  Remember, it didn’t make sense to the disciples that Jesus was crucified.  That didn’t fit into their picture of Israel’s Messiah at all.  And yet Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection have made it possible for all of us to be brought back into fellowship with God.  God knew what He was doing, even if his disciples didn’t.

All around us there are pieces of the larger picture that do not make sense to us, but we have God’s promise that He is still in control.  Someday Jesus will return, and when we are joined with Him in heaven, there will be a “Big Reveal” unlike anything we can imagine now.  We will suddenly see how God used our tiny little sliver as part of the larger picture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:18-19).

The Trail

Take a moment and think about a trail.

What comes to mind?  I immediately think of a wooded hiking trail, but when I stop to think about it, that’s only one small facet of the term.  There are a lot of note-worthy trails.  In the United States alone there are trails shrouded in historical tragedy, like the Trail of Tears.  Or trails commemorating pioneering challenges and triumphs, like the Oregon Trail.  Or trails established to display the natural grandeur of our country, like the Appalachian Trail.

And in the state of Indiana, there is a trail of…. Are you ready for this?

Garfields.

Yes, Garfield.  You know, that irascible and nap-loving cartoon creation of Jim Davis.  Apparently Jim Davis was born in Indiana, and in commemoration there are, scattered throughout his home county, a dozen Garfield statues.  The tourism bureau has put together a map so that easily entertained tourists like me can drive along the Trail of Garfields.  Even better: there is a cell phone tour along the way.

Three Garfield statues

 

This got me thinking about trails.  The fact is our path through life covers a lot of different trails.  There are happy trails, scary trails, sad trails, fun trails, hard trails, easy trails, and yes, even Garfield trails.  Trails can be both exciting and scary, and for the exact same reason; you never know what you might find.  Some trails are clearly marked.  Some trails are so elusive we might wonder if we’ve lost our way completely.  But every trail we travel has one thing in common: We are not the first to travel it.

The very definition of a trail indicates that someone went before us to mark it out.  And the existence of a trail suggests a purpose.  After all, no one puts forth the effort to create a trail to nowhere.

The Trail of Life is no different.  Our trail has both a purpose and a destination; it’s leading us ever closer to God.  God himself marked out our trail, and He knows everything about it.  He knows every twist and turn, every unforeseen adventure, and every peak and valley.  He may allow us to be surprised by the circumstances of life, but He himself is never surprised.  He has walked this trail already.  He created this trail.

Whatever section of life’s trail you may be travelling, know that you are not alone.  The Creator of the universe Himself also created this trail you are walking.  He will guide you through.  He will guide you home.

And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it.  It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray (Isaiah 35:8).

A Tale of Two Mountains

In 2010, I made my first trip to Alaska. More than six years in the planning, it was more than a vacation.  It was a celebration with two friends to culminate the end of my Ph.D. program.

Needless to say, by the time I finally arrived in Alaska I was nearly uncontainable with excitement.  With 20+ hours of daylight to burn, we’d tour an area during the day and drive most of the night to our next destination.  “This is so cool,” I would say.  And two minutes later: “This is so cool.”

We had planned our trip so the final few days held the thing I was most looking forward to: Denali.  At 20,320 feet, Denali (or Mt. McKinley) is the largest mountain in North America.  In the years leading up to our adventure, Denali had taken on near-metaphysical proportions in my mind.  I knew only 1/3 of the visitors to Denali actually got to see the mountain.  Denali is known for creating its own weather pattern and hiding itself in broad daylight behind a screen of clouds.  But I didn’t care.  I wanted to stand in the presence of the mountain even if I couldn’t see it.   I was so excited that just the thought would set my heart to thumping.

It was nearing midnight when we finally pulled onto the Talkeetna Spur Road towards our campground.  Just ahead of us, someplace, was Denali.  I will never forget driving down that road, straining to look ahead.  It was dusk and the clouds were glowing.  Off on the horizon it was nearly impossible to tell: was that a cloud?  Or a mountain?  Mountain?  Cloud?

And then we came around a corner and it was THERE, hovering above the clouds like a mystical floating island.  After six years, I was staring into the face of my mountain.

My Mountain 2010

 

This past fall, I had the opportunity to travel back to Alaska for work.  I added a vacation day onto my trip and headed north from Anchorage along the now familiar route.  I was going to visit my mountain!  It was crystal clear and cold and the moment I turned onto the spur road, Denali was visible.  Its massive white face loomed shining against the dry blue sky.  That was too easy, I thought.  Where was the mystery, the anticipation, the straining to see it?

I stopped the car and got out to marvel at it.  And then a horrible thought suddenly occurred to me: that is not the mountain I have hanging on my wall. 

Wait…

Denali

I scanned the horizon.  Surely not!  Had I really taken a picture of a different mountain on my first trip?  That mountain that had burned itself indelibly into my memory – was that not even Denali??

When I got home I compared photos, and sure enough “My Mountain” was not Denali.  As near as I can tell, it is actually Mount Hunter, the next tallest mountain to Denali’s south.  Denali, on that first night, must have been hiding in the clouds.

You know, there are times when God hides mountains in the clouds.  Sometimes physically.  Sometimes metaphorically.  This is probably good.  If I knew the size of every mountain looming in the mist I’d probably never set foot outside my bedroom door.  Instead, God has a way of showing us just the path ahead, just the mountain we need to contend with right now.  When we peak one, no matter how tall, there is always another.  Even among the tallest mountains in the world, climbers will argue which one is the toughest, which route is the most technical, which face is the hardest. There is always bigger.  There is always tougher.

Hunter vs Denali

 

Sometimes what we think is the highest mountain we’ve ever seen is really just a foothill to something more.  Praise God we do not have to climb it alone.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalms 121:1-2).

Good Samaritan

There is a philanthropic sales strategy that goes like this: Ask for a very large donation, and when they say no, ask for a smaller donation.  They will be so relieved at the opportunity to clear their conscience of saying no the first time that far more people will say yes to this smaller donation than if you had asked for this smaller amount in the first place.  Sneaky, but effective.

I have found that on occasion, God uses a similar strategy with me.  This shouldn’t surprise me.  After all, God created the human psyche.  He, more than anyone, should know how to put it to good use.  Take, for example, this evening as I am going for my walk.  My route takes me past a parking lot, and I happen to notice in passing that someone is sitting slouched down in the front seat of a car with the door ajar.  As I walk on by, my imagination takes over.  He or she is probably just waiting for someone who has run into the store, but I can’t help but wonder – what if it is someone who needs help?  What if they are ill, or passed out?  Maybe I should have looked closer.  Maybe I should have asked if they were okay.

I keep walking, but I am listening now.  Tell me what to do, God.

Around the corner, I spy my second opportunity.  There, in the middle of the road, is a turtle.  His legs are tucked into his shell, but his head is out and looking around.  I walk over and look at it.  This isn’t a terribly busy road, but busy enough.  If he hangs out here much longer he is going to be crushed.  He also appears to be heading in the wrong direction – away from the wetlands.  But then, what do I know about turtles?  I look at his shell.  It is jagged along the back.  Doesn’t that mean it’s a snapping turtle?  I can’t just pick him up, then, can I?  What if he bites my finger off??

As I am standing there pondering the turtle, I am reminded of a time not too long ago when a bird got trapped in the stairwell at work.  I was coming down the stairs when I saw him, and without a second thought I snatched him from where he was beating himself against the window and tossed him outside.  My colleague was standing with his mouth agape.  “I can’t believe you just did that,” he said.  “He could have bit you!” 

I just laughed at him.  “It’s a sparrow, not a velociraptor!” I said.  And I laughed the whole rest of the afternoon.

Now, as I stand in the middle of the road looking at the turtle, I hear my own taunting voice.  “It’s a turtle, not a velociraptor!”  But the fact remains, I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know how to pick him up.  I don’t know if I should pick him up.  “I don’t know, Lord,” I say.  And when I do not hear an answer, I turn and walk away.

I keep looking back, though.  At one point I think he has moved a little.  A few cars go by, but thankfully swerve around him.  And then, an amazing thing happens.  A car pulls over and a man gets out, picks up the turtle, and returns him to the grass near the water.  Relief washes over me.  I am too far away to call out to him, but I just keep thinking: There.  A good Samaritan.  Thank you.  And secondly: I guess I could have just picked him up.  Now I know.

I continue my walk with a much lighter heart, but I am fully expecting it when I see the third noteworthy item on my walk.  A piece of trash.  “Okay, God, okay,” I say as I bend down to pick it up.  “This is a donation I can give.  Probably your plan all along.”

As I pass back by the parking lot (toting an accumulating fistful of trash), I look to see if the car is gone.  It is.  So it had indeed been someone just waiting.  All three dilemmas are solved.  I bend down and pick up another piece of trash.  My contribution, for today, towards a better world.

 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters (Collossians 3:23).