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First Word: Two Rails on a Track

BY CAMERON STRANG CURRENT / ISSUE 58 / OP ED July 15, 2012

Author and pastor Rick Warren tells the story of a remarkable moment that happened to him about a decade ago. In the same year, he got two pieces of life-changing information: His book, The Purpose- Driven Life, had become the top-selling book in the world—bringing him wealth, fame and unprecedented influence. And then, exactly while that was happening, his wife, Kay, was diagnosed with cancer.

Like most of us, Warren had always seen life as a series of ups and downs. You have some good times, then you have some tough times. But having those two things happening at the same time permanently altered his perspective.

“I used to think that life was hills and valleys—you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore,” he says. “Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad.”

The simultaneous existence of good and hard in our lives is something we all know to be true, but it is so rare to see it talked about vulnerably by leaders.

In our cover story on groundbreaking indie-folk band the Avett Brothers, they tell their fascinating journey of faith, making music and achieving breakout success. And then upright bassist Bob Crawford talks about the struggle and heartache they’re going through right now: His child is currently battling a brain tumor at St. Jude’s.

So while the band is in the midst of releasing a highly aniticipated new album, Crawford is having to do media interviews from the hospital where his child is fighting for her life.

Two rails on a railroad track.

“No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on,” Warren says. “And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems.” And that’s the key: In the midst of either season, what is your focus? For the Avett Brothers, the heartache of illness has brought the band—their families—closer together and closer to God. It’s changed them, and their music, forever.

For the Warrens, Kay’s battle brought a perspective to success that grounded the family and forever altered the course of their ministry. (As an update, Kay is in fantastic health today.)

Obviously, the “other track” in the railroad doesn’t have to be something as hard as cancer in your family. We have a Slice on page 12 that mentions the incredibly high unemployment rate for recent college graduates. In one moment, they’re celebrating the triumph of completing college, and in the next they’re stepping into job uncertainty in a terrible economy. (We tackle that on page 62, too.)

Two tracks on a railroad.

Personally, my wife and I have faced a lot of challenges in the last six months as well. While it hasn’t been anything as hard as cancer, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the circumstances. But in the midst of difficulty, some exciting things are happening in our lives as well. The key is keeping the right focus.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had the moments where we questioned God and couldn’t see the greater good in the midst of a hard time. And we’ve all come through those periods and looked back—now knowing what was next—and probably see the situation in a totally different way.

The challenge is always trying to live with a hindsight perspective in the foresight position. It’s not because we need to know what the outcome is, but just knowing that God is good and He is in control. He’s our provider. He’s our healer. He’s our comforter. He’s our strength. No matter what life throws at us, He’s what we need.

Life is never as good or as bad as it seems. So the challenge is, no matter what kind of season you’re in, to realign your focus and get it off yourself.

“If you focus on your problems,” Warren says, “you’re going into self-centeredness, which is ‘my problem, my issues, my pain.’ But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others.”

Warren has lived this. The Avett Brothers are living this. And we’re all living this, to some degree. Life is a journey full of unexpected turns. Thankfully, there are always two rails to keep us on track.