In my hour of deepest need, grace led me to an atheist.
Mike Kami is a strategic planning consultant.
He is brilliant, demanding, and intuitive.
He slices through all the pretense and posturing, and hones in on the core.
A top resource consultant for the American Management Association, Kami was, at one time, director of strategic planning for IBM, serving that company during its years of rapid growth.
He was then hired away by Xerox for a seven-figure bonus to do the same thing for them.
He is independent, iconoclastic, and ruthless in his analysis.
He does not believe in God, but I can testify that—at least in my life—God worked unmistakably through Mike Kami.
I was accustomed to putting together periodic strategic plans for my business.
These plans served as a yardstick by which those of us in the company could measure our effectiveness in bringing our common dreams to fruition.
They were easy to flesh out and, most of the time, fun to execute.
But this was substantially different.
Now I needed to draw up a strategic plan for me.
So I spread out my jumbled dreams and desires, lists of perceived strengths and weaknesses, professions of faith, projects begun and half begun, things to do and things to abandon.
It was a quagmire of both complementary and conflicting ambitions, a cacophony of noisy themes and trills of the sort one hears when symphony orchestra musicians are warming up for performance and seeking their pitch.
What should I do?
How could I be most useful?
Where should I invest my own talents, time, and treasure?
What are the values that give purpose to my life?
What is the overarching vision that shapes me?
Who am I?
Where am I?
Where am I going?
How do I get there?
In this blizzard of wonderment, Mike Kami asked me a simple and penetrating question:
"What's in the box?"
When I asked him to explain, Mike related an experience he had had in the 1980s with a group of Coca-Cola executives and their plan to introduce "New Coke."
The corporate leaders told Mike that the mainspring and driving force of their business was "great taste."
They conducted numerous taste tests, found a new formula that tasted better than the original Coca-Cola, introduced "New Coke" shortly thereafter—and promptly stepped into one of the biggest marketing debacles of all time.
They called Mike back in for another planning session.
"You must have put the wrong word in the box," Mike told them.
"Let's try again."
After several hours, they found something else to put in the box:
The executives had recognized that pulling Coca-Cola from the market was akin to tampering with an American institution like motherhood or apple pie.
Finding the right word to put in the box—identifying their core mission—enabled the company to recover its momentum quickly after a monumental blunder.
For my part, as I was searching for the right word to put in the box, I explained to Kami that I was open to fresh endeavors and new possibilities.
I told him that I had gradually come to see that I really didn't have to be a religious professional or an ordained minister to live out my Christian convictions, and I warned him that I was serious about shifting at least some of my energy away from business pursuits into the direction of some unspecified realm of "service."
It was probably a warning to me as well.
Well, Kami took me at my word.
He announced that we could not put together an honest plan for my life until I identified the mainspring.
"I've been listening to you for a couple of hours," he said, "and I'm going to ask you what's in the box.
For you, it is either money or Jesus Christ.
If you can tell me which it is, I can tell you the strategic planning implications of that choice.
If you can't tell me, you are going to oscillate between those two values and be confused."
No one had ever put such a significant question to me so directly.
After a few minutes (which seemed like hours), I said, "Well, if it has to be one or the other, I'll put Jesus Christ in the box."
It was an act of faith, and it was a daunting challenge to me to be open to change and adventure.
Even more than that, it was a commitment to do something about the faith I already had.
By acknowledging Christ as my guiding light, I had invoked the promise that he would direct my paths, no matter where they took me.
Our planning session was conducted at a beautiful spot in California.
My wife, Linda, was with us so that she could be involved in the discussions and planning.
Neither one of us knew fully what we were getting ourselves into, and both of us were considerably apprehensive.
Kami pushed us hard—and successfully.
To put Christ in the box, I found, is actually a sign of contradiction, a paradox.
To put Christ in the box is to break down the walls of the box and allow the power and grace of his life to invade every aspect of your own life.
It follows the same wonderfully inverted logic as the ancient assertion that it is in giving that one receives, in our weakness we are made strong, and in dying we are born to richer life.
I had chosen to make Christ my primary loyalty but not my exclusive loyalty.
That was an important distinction, for I still had loyalties to Linda, to work, to friends, and to projects.
Christ is the center of all that, but he would not stand in the way of those other things that give me balance and wholeness.
For me the logic of this allegiance led me to stay involved with my business, functioning as a rear-echelon chairman of the board and devoting about 20 percent of my time to setting the vision and values of the company, picking key executives, setting standards, and monitoring performance.
The remaining 80 percent of my time was given over to an array of other things, most of which center on leadership training for churches and nonprofit organizations—serving those who serve others, helping them be more effective in their work.
Let me be honest about this:
I still have a penthouse in the city, a country home at the East Texas farm, and a new Lexus.
I do not believe it is in keeping with my "calling" to assume a diametrically different lifestyle from the one I have enjoyed throughout my life.
Many people avoid taking the risk for a better second half because they mistakenly think it necessitates a drastic change.
But I believe God gave me a gift to create wealth and enjoy its benefits, including the joy of using it to help others.
Related to this, what we do with what we believe grows out of our own history, and my history was neither missionary nor monastic.
I truly believe that God uses people in their areas of strength and is unlikely to send us into areas in which we are likely to be amateurs and incompetents.
I realize that not everyone can afford to devote only 20 percent of his or her time to a career.
I am fortunate in that respect.
But don't let the fact that you have to work for a living limit the grace God has in store for you during your second half.
Don't allow the second half of your life to be characterized by decline, boredom, and increasing ineffectiveness for the kingdom.
Listen carefully to that still, small voice, and then do some honest soul searching.
What's in your box?
Is it money?
Remember, you can only have one thing in the box.
Regardless of your position in life, once you have identified what's in your box, you will be able to see the cluster of activities—surrounded by quiet times for spiritual disciplines, reading, and reflecting—that put into play your "one thing" and keep you growing.
But be careful.
Growth is not always easy.