Dream Big

When I was a boy, I had one simple goal: an easy day. That’s why I didn’t want the academic rigors of college and why, when I finally decided to go to college, I didn’t actually go to class. It’s also why I racked up a terrible amount of credit card debt in my early twenties. It’s also why I stayed in a predictable job for too long.

It took me seven years to finish my four-year degree. I took Accounting 1 three times. If I woke up on the morning of a final and didn’t feel like going to class, I wouldn’t, which meant I’d have to take the course all over again the following year. This was the downside of having my parents fully fund my education. I took advantage of their generosity. I was a boy who had no skin in the game, so I didn’t care about the consequences of my behavior.

I didn’t have a vision then for how an education could open doors for me. I didn’t have a vision for how the discipline formed by simply showing up to class would teach me how to show up in the rest of my life. I didn’t have the ability to project forward that an education meant more money, which could fund more meaningful pursuits. I didn’t have a vision for saving money to fund something of lasting value in the future, instead of things that would quickly go out of style.

The book of Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18 KJV). Boys live only for today. They wait for inspiration to strike or for someone to hand them their big break or for the perfect woman to walk through the door. Men dream of something bigger, define it, and then work toward it.

Somewhere along the way, I began to see the power of vision. That’s when I started to get manly. I decided to start working toward something significant, something bigger than what I was currently experiencing, something bigger than me.

At twenty-two, I had a vision for what a great marriage could look like, and I committed to Libby that I would work toward that, for better or worse, no matter how hard it might get.

At twenty-five, my first amazing daughter was born. Lib and I had a vision for what an authentic family could look like. Even though we were very imperfect people, we committed to sacrifice for each other and our kids in big and small ways to build a familial team that would stand the test of time.

At thirty, Lib and I were working full bore on the vision to start a church (Crossroads) for people who had given up on church but hadn’t necessarily given up on God.

And we all lived happily ever after. Well, not quite. The decades since I first envisioned these amazing things have been an unpredictable, sometimes excruciating mix of wins and losses, wind sprints and exhaustion, and celebration and grief.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a completed mission. I’m not done. We’re not done. We’re still in the middle of a struggle, and some days I get my posterior handed to me on a platter. It’s not all pretty but there are periodic payoffs, and I’m thankful for every one of them.

One of the more significant rewards I experienced recently was my oldest daughter’s wedding; she’s the first of any of my kids to marry. Walking her down the aisle and giving her away was traumatic. I rarely cry but on that day the tears flowed. Then came the father-daughter dance. It was to the song—brace yourself for cheese—“Butterfly Kisses.” That old song might make a red-blooded man roll his eyes. But you tuck your six-year-old daughter into bed and give her butterfly kisses and a memory is welded to the frontal cortex. I have that picture of us dancing framed and displayed in a place that ensures regular reflection on the mission.

I’m still working on my vision in an endless series of small daily choices, with a big dose of God’s grace and a slew of awesome people around me. But I can tell you that even though I’m still in the middle of the journey, I’m in a season in which I’m tasting some of the sweet fruit of having a vision bigger than me on the long walk toward it:

  • Lib and I just celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary on a camping trip with some of our closest friends. This incredible woman continues to make me a better man every day.
  • My kids don’t just love me, they like spending time with me. We would all say that our most fulfilling recreational and relational times happen with each other.
  • The church vision we shared with a handful of dreamer friends when I was thirty has spiraled out of control (in a good way, mostly) to tens of thousands of revolutionaries going hard after God’s work in the world, resulting in, among other things, ten traditional Crossroads sites across two states and pockets of online attendees in all fifty states sharing God’s love with our neighbors. We’ve seen the establishment of the CityLink Center, which helps the working poor in Cincinnati and has become a model for work around the country; six aftercare homes in India, which care for girls rescued from sex trafficking; and the largest privately funded AIDS hospice in South Africa (which later failed and was one of those posterior moments).

If you had told my twenty-one-year-old self that I’d get to experience all these things and more, I’d have thought you were nuts. Me? Undisciplined, “been in school long enough to be a doctor” me? No way.

However, when you begin to understand and experience the blessing that comes from stepping into manhood, it changes you. And God often gives you a vision that seems far beyond your present capability.

Sounds good, right? It is. But here’s the fine print: it’s hard. Get ready for resistance.

Our world loves big dreamers. Steve Jobs declared Apple’s goal was to “put a dent in the universe.” Young Theo Epstein had the audacity to dream of breaking the World Series championship drought for the Boston Red Sox. And then did it. Twice. And then again for the Cubs. Elon Musk dreamed of electric cars, private space travel, and hyperloops.

These mad geniuses got headlines and high fives all around. Our world loves big dreamers. Great! So, what’s the problem? The problem is our world loves big dreamers from a distance. Up close and personal, not so much.

The same crowds who applaud those big, audacious goals can often be the same people who are quick to bring you down to earth when you share your own big vision. This seems especially the case in religious circles. For some strange reason, it’s considered a virtue to keep your dreams small and manageable.

Like a crab crawling up the wall of a pot, big dreamers quickly find themselves getting pulled back down by the other crabs. If that’s been your experience, don’t listen to the voices that assume if you’re going after a big or bold vision, then it must be about you. But do remember that just because something is wrapped in spiritual language doesn’t make it a God thing. So long as you are asking the question “Is this about me or about God?” then you’re probably in a healthy place.

The world and too often Christians are cynical of success and big dreams. I don’t know why this is because big dreams, big visions, and grand ambitions are sprinkled throughout the Bible. Consider Nehemiah. This manly man is an Old Testament hero who dreamed big and sought to rebuild the protective walls around Jerusalem. The walls used to be a source of national pride, but now they were indicative of their national disarray. In the midst of his attempt and eventual success, he was able to keep it about God and not himself. Yet there were critics who tried to get him off track or, specifically, off the wall. His detractors were distractors who attempted to get him to stop working toward the vision.

One day some boys called him out and accused him of not doing good work. He was working; they were criticizing. He was on the wall in sweat-stained clothes; they were on the ground in religious garments. He shouted down to them, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3 ESV).

In fact, the giver of dreams says the problem is actually the opposite: we don’t dream big enough: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20, emphasis added).

I’m not talking about a self-serving dream so we can pound our chests as bigger, faster, or stronger. King of the Hill is a boy’s game and the source of many of the problems in our world, not to mention some of the more annoying cocktail party conversations we’ll ever get stuck in. If I’ve just met you and within five minutes we all know the Ivy League school you attended, your kid’s SAT score, or the fact that you’re a scratch golfer, you’ve got issues. I once heard comedian Brian Regan say he wishes he had been one of the early astronauts. Not for the adventure, but just so he could nip all those kinds of conversations in the bud with “That’s great. I walked on the moon . . . after cruising in my looo-nar rover.”

We’re all susceptible to self-serving dreams. In pastor circles, we even find ways to wrap them up so they sound spiritual. “What’s God doing in your church?” has often become a way for us to measure ourselves against one another. Sooner or later the attendance number question comes up, and someone ends up feeling like a winner and someone like a loser. (Specifically, I end up feeling like a winner or a loser. . . . I know, I have issues.)

As human beings, our motives in any endeavor will probably never be completely pure and altruistic. So what do we do? The answer is simple—but not easy. We keep going after big, God-sized visions and humbly walk with our God (Mic. 6:8).

There was a time in my life when I viewed every opportunity for advancement as a temptation to be selfish. It’s easy to feel that way when only other people are getting bigger opportunities. If a friend relocated for greater responsibilities or opportunities, I felt abandoned. I was indignant that they couldn’t be content where they were. Like Nehemiah’s detractors, I tried to keep them from building a wall. The boy in me didn’t want anyone leaving me for bigger things. In reality, I was threatened by their manly move for more. I was the crab trying to pull them back into the pot. When you have no vision, you don’t understand people who do.

I had another shot at this scenario not too long ago. Kirk is a great friend and was a star performer at a local company. He had the opportunity to change companies and take a senior position with Google. My old boyish ways wanted him to stay put with me but the man inside of me knew not to listen to that old voice. Today, Kirk is a force inside of Google and in the Silicon Valley. He’s a man with a vision who can impact culture in ways that I can’t, and now in a new position. He’s an example of a godly man going after a vision.

Don’t be afraid to dream big. What does that look like? How about launching a great company that puts a dent in the universe? How about turning the group of twelve-year-olds you coach into a band of solid young men? How about being the first person in your family to have a great marriage so that your great-grandkids can toast your love at your fiftieth wedding anniversary? How about buying some property in the country and building a log cabin with your own hands? How about all of the above? Immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

We can do this. It’s not easy, but it’s good.

Excerpted from The Five Marks of a Man. Copyright 2023. Printed with permission of Baker Publishing Group.