Treasuring Our Debts

“Forgive us our debts,” we pray. But may we never forget them.  There is one type of debt I hold tightly in my mind and heart: my debt to others along my journey.  The past few years, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to honor some debts (I can’t possibly repay them), and the other day I suddenly became overwhelmed with gratitude for the reward of doing so…
I’ve never forgotten Ned, my manager at IBM in 1980, who looked me in the eye one day and said, “I’m not sure this is really where your passions are.” I was young and insecure, so I took his words as a challenge and a character deficit, and I worked extra hard to prove him wrong.  But over the ensuing weeks and months, I also lowered my guard in quieter moments and pondered his comment.  Eighteen months later, I walked into his office and told him I was leaving IBM to join World Vision and serve the poor.  Ned was gracious and understanding, and he even arranged a modest severance to ease my transition into a nonprofit salary.
Ned has been in the “supporting cast” of my life’s story for over three decades now, though we never spoke again; we moved from Kansas City to Chicago for WV, and he left IBM a few years later. But about 5 years ago, I realized that maybe I could find him through social media. Sure enough, I tracked him down: retired and living on Puget Sound near Seattle.  I was thrilled to connect and thank him via email, but a few months later on a trip to Seattle I rode a ferry out to take Ned to dinner.  I told him what had transpired in the quarter-century since his challenge, and how much meaning I’ve found in following my passion. We talked about former colleagues, our families, computers… and I made sure to tell him how transformational his honest-but-difficult words had been for me.  I rode the ferry back that evening and stood out on the deck, gazing at the Seattle skyline, feeling unusually full of gratitude and satisfaction.
During that 18 months between Ned’s stinging honesty and my resignation, one career coaching book played a major role for me: What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. The book exudes a gentle spirituality in reminding readers we are designed by a Creator with certain gifts and passions which we need to discover. I credit that (and World Vision magazine—we were already donors) with helping me realize that living for the Designer and embracing my unique design were critical to finding true meaning and satisfaction.  I recall sitting in a church pew one day, asking God once again for direction and guidance, and suddenly being overwhelmed with the possibility that God might actually tell me–what would I do then!  I realized right there that, if I wanted God to guide me, I had to commit to God beforehand to actually obey the guidance. For me, true commitment to God’s Kingdom agenda started then and there.
Parachute has a wonderful exercise for readers: Write your life’s story, and highlight what you’ve done well or really enjoyed. Then re-read it and look for common threads to discover your gifts, skills and passions based on your actual past choices, not just hopeful thinking. (I can’t do the exercise justice here: buy the book or find the exercise online before trying it.)  As I re-read mine, I realized that even before my teen years I consistently chose jobs in business and sales, yet I was often involved in meeting human need, from UNICEF to hunger walks to volunteering with autistic children. Could those two threads have anything in common? I suddenly had an epiphany: Might organizations that do what I care about deeply use someone with my gifts and skills? I started exploring that question with humanitarian organizations and eventually found myself walking into Ned’s office to resign.
Fast-forward 33 years: In 2014, I attended a very energetic conference on social innovation, and a friend introduced me to Gary, who turned out to be Parachuteauthor Richard Bolles’ son! I gushed how much the book had meant to me, how I’d wanted to thank his dad for 30-plus years. “My dad’s still alive and living here in the Bay Area. He’d love to hear from you!”
I wrote a long email to Dick, thanking him for his book and the impact of my career change.  Would he ever let me take him to lunch? Just a few months ago, I had that distinct pleasure.  Dick is a colorful character and still working actively on new projects into his 80’s. He and his wife were delightful, and I was able to expunge the debt of gratitude I’ve had in my heart for so many years. 
A year after joining World Vision and moving to Chicago, I became lifelong friends with Mark, who died of cancer three years ago. We were both young and intense in our faith, and we fell in love with singer-songwriter Bob Bennett.  Over the decades and miles, Bob’s music formed the soundtrack of our affection for one another.  I never met Bob, but I signed up for his email updates at some point, and as I was planning my final Chicago trip to see Mark before his passing, I read that Bob was now offering “house concerts.” I found myself phoning Bob: Is there any chance he’d be in Chicago soon? No, but he had an extra day during an East Coast trip that actually overlapped with my trip to see Mark. For no charge but his plane ticket and a hotel room, Bob flew over to Chicago and gave Mark one of the surprises of his life, Bob sitting five feet from Mark and playing for two hours.  Mark alternated freely between shock, tears, worship and singing along with Bob. None of us witnesses will ever forget that evening, nor Bob’s kindness.
Some months later, I invited Bob to lunch to tell him what he already knew: he’d given an incredible gift to my dear friend, and to me.  I couldn’t possibly repay it, except that I knew how blessed Bob had been to freely exercise his own gifts for two life-long fans he never knew.
Some “debts” are not burdens to us at all. They are causes for great thanksgiving. They mark a life. To have been able to thank, bless, encourage (why would I ever try to repay?) four men who have played—willfully or unwittingly—such important roles in my life… Priceless.
With gratitude for you,
November 2015

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