We all occasionally reflect on the larger decisions we’ve made, and on how those choices have impacted us. Like where we decided to go to school, our first and subsequent career moves, and whom to marry.
Today, at age seventy-five, I want to reflect on the decisions I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve followed that, at the time, seemed like no big deal; but then, looking back, have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of my life, and on others, over a long period.
I call those decisions, opportunities and unusual circumstances the Thin Threads that connect and direct our lives in ways that we could never imagine or appreciate at the time—and I frankly find them fascinating.
Warning: these are very personal events and may simply be too boring to read–but here goes.
An early, seemingly small decision for me was signing up for Russian 1 at UNC in September, 1965, at age eighteen. I was no linguist—mostly Latin and one course in Spanish in high school. My mother had been on an early People To People Tour to the USSR, and like most people I was fascinated with our Cold War enemy.
So as my required language course I took Russian 1 instead of Spanish, French or German. And that simple decision has impacted both my life and, I imagine, the lives of thousands of other people, for decades. It led me to language study for a month in Leningrad in the summer of 1969, then to teach the first modern Commercial Real Estate Course in Moscow in 1991, to open a brokerage office there in 1993, to help others jumpstart from scratch the real estate industry in Russia, and ultimately to develop a 600,000 sf office complex in a joint venture with great, young Russian partners from 2007 to 2013. I still have close friends and partners from those experiences.
Without Russian 1 and the following classes, it’s likely that none of that would have happened, at least not as it did, with whatever input I added. I’m certainly not implying that I made those projects any better—but they would presumably have been different.
My point here is how different my own life, my relationships, and the lives of quite a few people would be, but for that seemingly unimportant choice nearly sixty years earlier.
As a footnote to this thread, given my decades of interest in and visiting/working in Ukraine and Russia, I have wonderful friends in both countries who hate what is happening now, but are powerless to stop it.
Another small personal choice with unexpected long term consequences was to attend Cursillo for a long weekend at a conference center on Seabrook Island in the fall of 1984. I was very busy with my Charleston real estate business, and as the Thursday evening start time came up, I decided that I just didn’t have the luxury to take off those days—people needed me to stay at my desk and to solve problems. As I was picking up the phone to call and cancel, my wife convinced me that we should at least go for Thursday evening—I could bail out on Friday if it wasn’t good. I reluctantly agreed.
That small decision literally led to the transformation of my life from a social church attender to a still-imperfect but committed follower of Jesus. Given all that has happened since then, I cannot imagine what my life would be like today without the strong faith that began that weekend.
Another example of a seemingly small intervention by my wife (Is this perhaps also a plug for the wisdom of long-term marriage?) was her quip in 1992, as I prayed about what the Lord wanted me to do for the rest of my life at age 45, that I ought to write a book. I had never imagined to do so. She said that I wrote good letters to the editor, so I should be able to write a novel!
OK, I started adding her crazy recommendation as an occasional footnote to my longer prayers on the subject.
A few weeks later, as I was driving alone on I-26 to attend a business meeting in Charleston, the general outline for a novel suddenly came to my mind—a family making bad decisions and headed for ruin until the husband/father turned his life to the Lord, thereby impacting his wife and their children.
I came home the next day, took my wife to dinner and told her the general idea. She agreed, and that night I sat down at a primitive computer, prayed, and started writing. No real outline. Not sure how it would end. Never done it before. But it poured out of me over the next three months. When I sent the first half to Thomas Nelson without an agent, the fiction editor called back and said, “This is anointed—we’re going to publish it.” I laughed and pointed out that I probably first ought to finish it.
The result is that at least 50,000 people have, over three decades, read On The Edge. While some have understandably hated it, many have told me, and written in hundreds of reviews, that the book saved their life-that it transformed them! This from a real estate guy who had no thought of writing anything until his wife told him he should try it.
The point here is not about my questionable writing skills, but about how God can use the different talents He’s gifted to each one of us, if we will be open to letting Him do so. And how my own unplanned and unimagined writing career only began with the Thin Thread of my wife’s simple encouragement. I think He speaks to us through the words and actions of those who have His wisdom, and who care for us.
Another example is from our son’s life. He had applied and been rejected by one of the nation’s best Med Schools, which he wanted to attend so much that he turned down his acceptance at another good school. He instead started doing research in a health science lab while waiting to reapply. There was a particular research leader at his first choice Med School whom he had wanted to meet on his earlier visit there, thinking their common research might help to win his acceptance, but that day she had been absent, and they never got together.
That summer our family attended Kanuga, where we have vacationed for over forty years. One evening our son was having coffee in the dining hall with one of the couples who had been at the same adjoining table with us for over two decades. He was recounting his travails to get into the Med School and mentioned the researcher whom he had hoped to meet. It turned out that he was talking to her—he had known her married name all his life, but she did her research under her maiden name! A few days later she hired him to join her team—a position had opened up on the day she left for vacation. Our son wound up entering the Med School and being voted the Top Doc in his graduating class, then returning as the Chief Resident. He now is the Program Director at another Med School. All, or at least partly, because of the Thin Thread that for all his life he had been sitting a few feet from the one person on the planet who could start it all happening.
The final example is our move from Charleston to Atlanta in 1986, with three kids and another on the way. Since leaving the Navy twelve years earlier, with the help of many others I had built a successful real estate business and had excellent friends and partners, a beautiful home, and a generally very good life. The focus here is that I would never have imagined to move on my own. I was happy. I wasn’t researching larger markets or opportunities. I was minding my own business when I got a call from a man in Atlanta to whose company I had sold a property in Charleston two years earlier. I had not represented him, but he said on the call that he liked how I handled the entire transaction, and he wanted me to move back to my original home city of Atlanta to become his in-house real estate partner, and to help him invest $40 million over the next couple of years.
Yes, this was something major, and you would think I would have put a lot of thought and consideration into it. At the time I thought I did. But, eighteen months later, having moved to Atlanta, that relationship turned out to be not as advertised, and I was on my own to start over. By the grace of God and with the help of many very good people, we did.
Here’s the thing: The reasons I thought I moved to Atlanta turned out not to be important or relevant. Remaining in Charleston, a great city, would have been wonderful. I would probably have a larger net worth today! And now we’re considering moving back. The difference is not the cities themselves.
But if we had not moved to Atlanta and attended Church of the Apostles from 1988, I’m reasonably sure that I would not have undertaken the work in Russia, nor would I have written On The Edge, or the other novels.
The church sent another member and me to Kyiv in the spring of 1991 for two weeks of short term ministry right after The Iron Curtain came down, and stopping back through Moscow I organized the real estate course for later that same year. And, once the draft for the novel was underway, there was huge support to keep going from the church’s leadership, and from many members.
In short, looking back, the foundation for both of those major chapters in my life happened earlier, but I doubt that they would ever have actually occurred had we not moved to Atlanta. And to get me to do that, it took an offer that had nothing to do with either purpose. I went to the right place for the wrong reason!
What do I make of these small but life-changing decisions, and seemingly impossible connections?
As a person with a strong faith, I believe that God is always in charge and in control. As with other issues at the intersection of faith and knowledge, I believe that God, who is firmly in control and connecting dots in our lives, occasionally raises the curtain just a bit to show us a glimpse of what He’s actually always doing.
Our faith is then strengthened by these seemingly small or impossible examples that lead to unexpected but important outcomes. We can never “prove” that He is acting, but these examples serve to inform our faith with undeniable facts which are hard to explain in any other way. Some might even call them miracles.
While we are surprised, the great thing is that He is not, because He is the One doing them.
And these small outcomes give me great comfort for the next big transition that I do know about—that we all know about. If He has cared so deeply for one very imperfect member of His creation, and orchestrated all these events for His glory through just my short mortal life, it must be a fact that, because of Jesus’ equally inexplicable love and sacrifce for me, the vast expanse of eternity will be even more incredible with Him.
The threads may be thin, but their strength is in the eternal hope which they so clearly proclaim.