This is the title of one of my books (WaterBrook/Random House, 2001).   Though it has been out of print for some time, at book-signing tables, people will pay almost any price we ask for one. 

Today, we are facing what pundits tell us is the toughest time Americans have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  No one, it seems, can stanch the hemorrhaging – not the President, not Congress, not Wall Street, not the so-called financial wizards – not anybody.  There appear to be no easy answers, no generally accepted exit strategy out of the morass.  Just as was true during the 1930s, we are in uncharted waters – no GPS instrument yet invented can show us the way out.

We have two alternatives: wallow in self-pity and cower before each day’s financial analysis – or, with God’s help, find courage and strength we didn’t know was in us.

It may seem preposterous, but there’s a lot of truth in the contention that good times are bad and bad times are good, for the fact is that we rarely grow much during good times; and the flip-side is that we grow most during trauma.

If we study the lives of men and women we consider great, invariably tough times play a major role in their life stories.  Indeed, the qualities a nation seeks in its leaders vary according to conditions: In good times we’ll elect a Chamberlain, in tough times a Churchill.  Why is Lincoln our most beloved president – by far! – with FDR and Washington the only near seconds?  Perhaps because all three were seasoned in the crucible of anguish, and emerged with such evidence of greatness that when the nation experienced three of its darkest periods (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and from the Depression through World War II), it turned to men who had the qualities to guide it through.  All three appealed to the finest in human nature, and all three achieved the near impossible because they did not even consider failure to be a possibility.

We treat differently those who have been through hell and survived.  I am reminded of students of mine who waited many hours to see Mandela [of Invictus, now playing in theaters], who had been imprisoned for 26 years and yet emerged without vindictiveness.  When I later asked my students what the experience was like, they could come up with no adequate answer – the closest being “I was so awed by the man that I just stood there, looking at him.”  Much of our admiration for Senator John McCain of Arizona stems from his having endured so many years of terrible treatment as a prisoner of war – we can’t separate the man from what he endured.  F. C. Budlong put it best:

“Look into the face of the person who has fought no great temptation and endured no supreme sorrow, and you’ll find little there to arouse your admiration.  Look upon one who has weathered a great grief, like a mighty ocean liner ploughing through a tempest, and you’ll observe strength and grace in ever lineament. . . .  The expression in your eye, the lines in your face, the quality of your smile, the tone of your voice, tell the story, without your being conscious of it, whether your soul has faced its Gethsemane with courage, or with shaming compromise and cowardly surrender.”


Eight years of our family memories have to do with the island of Hispanola in the Caribbean.  Whenever we’d fly to or from the Dominican Republic, invariably we’d stop in Port-au- Prince, Haiti en route.  This is why the sight of the blindingly white iconic National Palace and its ancient cathedral in ruins shakes the very core of my being.

Haiti was overpopulated for its eco-system when I was a child; with over twice that number today, it is an ecological nightmare.  For a tree has no chance of survival when one’s child is starving to death.

Yet somehow, in spite of a long series of ineffective, unscrupulous, or sadistic leaders, the nation has somehow survived.  A failed state that somehow defies that designation through the bullheaded determination of its unbelievably resilient people.  A nation that, of all people in the Americas, ought to be the most depressed, the most beaten-down, instead stuns visitors by its vitality and joie du vivre. 

So Haiti will rise again.  The bells will ring once again.  But so utterly is its infrastructure shattered this time that it will take many years for it to climb back even to pre-quake levels.  This time, so desperate are the stakes that we turn the other way at our own national peril.

It might even turn out to be good for us in the United States.  For so long have we been wallowing in recessionary poor-me-ism that we have failed to realize that by the standards of most of the world, we are all rich.  These images of an imploding nation beamed into our homes by television ought to shock us into (1) an urgent determination to make each of us committees of one in making a difference, and (2) result in a deep sense of gratitude for all we have left in spite of the recession.

For paradoxically, affluence does not loosen up our pocketbooks – hard times do, for we then realize how on target John Donne was when he reminded us that: 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . .  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Up-Side of Being Fired, Part Three

So what happens when we lose a job?  For starters, we come alive again.  It is no hyperbole to declare that it can be like coming out of a dark tunnel into blinding sunlight.  Once again we feel a part of the entire world – not just the claustrophobic four walls that had been our world previously.

Strangely enough, it can be exhilarating to get fired.  As painful as it is, job termination brings with it a species of euphoria: Wow!  At last I’m in charge – not someone else!  At last, I’m free to do anything I choose to do.  I can go wherever I want to go.

If another job does not follow in quick succession, it’s likely that thoughts such as these arise: You know, if I’m unemployed anyway, what do I have to lose if I finally follow that dream I’ve long felt could never be?  I wonder if I have it in me to really make it work?  So . . . if I really bend my mind to it, is it really possible I could pull off such a miracle?

Time after time, in history, it has been failure that has booted people out of their career ruts into pathways of their own making.

Belatedly, I’ve discovered in life that eventually God has a way of utilizing everything that has ever happened to us.  Every success, yes; but more significantly, every failure, every rabbit trail, every dead-end, every box-canyon, every detour, every crack-up, every disappointment, every infliction, every disillusion, every heartbreak – every last bit of it God mixes into the mortar with which we construct our lives.  At the end, we discover that God, behind the scenes, much like an elephant-keeper, has followed along behind us, scooping up the messes we leave behind, doing damage control, making the most of our mistakes, and gently herding us toward the light.

In my case, had it not been for my two firings, it’s extremely unlikely the ministry of our books – 71 and counting – would ever have been.  And it was only through the resulting anguish that I finally could really empathize with the suffering of others:

“It is only through our own sorrow that we come to understand the sorrow of others, only through our own weakness that we learn to pity the weaknesses of others, and only through our love and forgiveness that we can ever comprehend the infinite love and forgiveness of God.”

– Myrtle Reed, from A Spinner in the Sun

The Up-Side to Being Fired, Part Two

Some time ago I read of a study that altered my perception of this thing we call failure: most of the world’s greatest achievements have resulted from being fired, from abject failure.  It seems that we grow in life only during trauma, rarely in good times.  We are so indolent by nature that we revel in our ruts and blissfully sink deeper into them every day that passes.

We are enjoined to “not rock the boat” – and we eagerly comply in order to hold on to that monetary umbilical cord that enslaves us.  Perish the thought that we’d be forced out of our comfort zone into the tempestuous real world!  When problems – even serious ones – arise in our workaday world, we rationalize our way into accepting almost any condition rather than risk losing that precious paycheck.

And not all firings are overt.  How well I remember my second firing.  This one but a year after the first one.  After having cleaned out my office – a species of death in itself –, I dropped by the corporate CEO’s office to say goodby.  He didn’t try to excuse my being fired or to weigh in on the decision to let me go – he was too wise for that.  Instead, he leaned back in his chair and merely sighed, for he and I had become good friends.  You know how it is: occasionally in life we stumble on an individual who proves to be such a kindred spirit we feel we’ve known him or her always.  He was one of those.  And had I remained there we quite likely might have become soul-mates.  At any rate, after the sigh he said, “You know, Joe, I’ve been fired twice, too.”  When my eyes widened in disbelief, he qualified his statement: “but neither ever showed on my record.  Before each one took place, things got so bad at work I couldn’t help bringing some of it home with me.  As each situation deteriorated it began to affect my wife’s health; I’d wake up in the middle of the night because of her weeping.  But so determined was I to hold on to that paycheck that I bullheadedly refused to deal with the problem-person who was making both of our lives hell.  So twice I had to leave my position.  Neither showed on my record.  You know, I’m convinced every last one of us, over time, will experience at least one similar situation.  The world may not call it ‘firing,’ but inwardly it’s just as devastating as though we’d been actually fired.”

That observation provided me with an odd sort of comfort; furthermore I thereby learned that failure is but an extension of success; in life, rarely does anyone experience one unattached to the other.  And my friend reminded me that we are never alone in our sufferings.

Tomorrow we’ll conclude this topic.

 * * * * *

 “In the dark moments it’s always the apparent failure of what you live by that gets you down.”

– Elizabeth Goudge, from Pilgrim’s Inn

The Up-Side to Being Fired

It was almost springtime in the Rockies – but it was anything but springtime in my heart – I had just been fired.

Wearily I rose from the fireplace pit in our Shangri-la of a chalet, our dream house, and walked over to the great window, blindly seeing but not seeing. Would we lose the only house we’d ever really loved? How would we pay our bills? Was it stupid for me to have left the relatively safe cocoon of academia, uprooted our family, and ventured out into the great world? That jungle of a world out there where only the strongest survive.

We did lose our dream-house.

But before that, we had a visitor: the late Milton Murray, grand old man of American fund-raising. He hadn’t come to commiserate, he’d come to dissipate the miasma of anguish that beclouded my vision. He’d come to awaken my fighting spirit, quench the flames of bitterness, stiffen the crumbling walls of my self-worth, and remind me that God loved me. But wisely, knowing full well that I’d relapse after he left, he introduced me to a man who’d also been battered by failure, a failure far more devastating than mine, but had – in no small part, because of it – risen above the wreckage of his dreams and written timeless counsel for people like me. Murray handed me two chapters out of one of that man’s books. Then, after praying with my wife and me, he left.

Murray had been right: I did relapse into poormeism, but each time I did, I’d once again re-read the words penned by that man I’d never met – indeed I’d never meet – for he’d died some years before. But his words had not died. I read them so many times they became part of me. I later tracked down his books and immersed myself in them as well. His name was Harry Moyle Tippett, and he lived from 1891 to 1974. No small thanks to him, I was able to climb out of my lethargy and face the world with resoluteness, determination, a fighting spirit – and a vision of what true success really meant.

Tomorrow, in Blog #5, we’ll tackle Part Two. But first, I leave you with one of Tippett’s powerful statements about trouble and how God brings us through it:

“God’s universal laws never fail, whether it be in the natural world or the spiritual world. He brings the dawn out of the most dismal night. He makes our balmy springs and fruitful summers to succeed the bitter blasts of winter. Out of blustery, tempestuous March He makes way for our singing Aprils and our flowering Mays. Out of ten thousand storms He develops the giant redwood tree, and in the cloud forms His noblest symphony of color, the rainbow. Likewise out of forty years of banishment and obscurity God carved a Moses, out of cruel betrayal into the hands of aliens He molded the statesman Joseph; out of physical, mental, and spiritual suffering He demonstrated the perfection of Job.”
– From Live Happier (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1957)

Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life

   There is something magical in that countdown in New York’s Time Square on New Year’s Eve — when close to a million people, farther away than the eye can see, in a crescendo of multitudinous voices, yell out, “Ten!” — “Nine!” — “Eight!” — “Seven!” — “Six!” — “Five!” — “Four!” — “Three!” — “Two!” — “ONE!” — “HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

    And in that instant, two thousand nine dies and two thousand ten is born.
    Suddenly, the past seems almost irrelevant and the future looms out of the mists: the yellow brick road to OZ.  Surely good times lie ahead.
    But sadly, all too few of us pay much attention to the one time-frame we can do anything about — TODAY.
    In many years of counseling and teaching I’ve encountered again and again men and women stubbornly refusing to relax the death-grip their clutched hands have on their yesterdays or their tomorrows — neither of which they can do a blessed thing about.  For our yesterdays are already written in stone — not God Himself can erase a word of it; and our tomorrows are but figments of our imagination — indeed, they may never come at all.
    It is said that we learn more from our mentors than from all our formal schooling put together.  One such person, in my life, was the late Helen Mallicoat of Wickenburg, Arizona; a woman who, over time, became one of my most cherished friends.  Of her most famous poem, what is usually labeled “The I Am Poem,” she told me once, “I’ve never copyrighted it because I consider it to be a gift from God . . . .  It came to me in the middle of the night – as clearly and distinctly as though God had dictated it. . . .  It has developed a life of its own and circled the globe more times than I can count.  Hallmark alone has distributed it by the millions.  I never know where it’ll go next.”
    I have used it for years to motivate my students and counselees.  It is safe to say that few poems in history have changed — if not revolutionized — lives more than this simple little poem.  It will change yours too.  I guarantee it.  IF . . . you repeat it over and over all day until you have it memorized, post it on your wall, and repeat it over and over for 30 days.  Then it will be yours forever — and your life will never be the same.  Here it is:
I was regretting the past
and fearing the future.
suddenly my Lord was speaking:
“My name is I Am.”  He paused.
I waited.  He continued,
“When you live in the past,
with its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard.  I am not there.
My name is not I Was.
When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears,
it is hard.  I am not there.
My name is not I Will Be.
When you live in this moment,
it is not hard.  I am here.
My name is I Am.”
                        — Helen Mallicoat