January 15, 2001
Dare to Dream
 The Power of
Deeply-Held Aspirations
 
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When my father was a high school junior, he locked into a dream: he would become the world's champion endurance bicyclist.

An audacious aspiration for a frail sixteen-year-old with no previous athletic achievements to his credit, we might say.

Not as it turned out.

It was 1927, and, establishing endurance records had become a national craze in the optimistic mania of this pre-depression period. A friend of my dad's, Owen Evens, had set one in golf--playing seventeen hours without a break. A Frenchman held the record for nonstop cycling, at twenty-four hours. The Amateur Bicycle League was urging American cylists to try to top it.

Dad had taken a job as a bicycle messenger that summer. He found that his stamina held up well, even after hours of peddling furiously around Washington streets in sweltering heat. One day he made a simple connection between his experience as a messenger and winning the endurance title. "I can do it," he thought. "I can beat that Frenchman's record."

On August 17, at 9:00 p.m., he officially began his quest for the title, peddling a circular path around the polo grounds of Washington's Hain's Point. Officials from the Amateur Bicycle League were on hand to monitor his progress, and members of the local press as well.

When he finally eased his brakeless, gearless bike to a stop and stumbled off, it was 9:27 p.m.--August 18. He had stayed aloft for twenty-four hours and twenty-seven minutes, peddling 250 miles and setting a new world record.

Local papers featured many articles about the event--announcing dad's intention to try for the title, detailing his marathon ride while in progress, then reporting his victory and follow-up news. The titles of these now barely readable, yellowed clippings, pasted in an ancient, ragged scrapbook, still give me chills to read:

         Youth Will Try for Endurance Record on Bike

         Smith Sure He Will Break Bicycle Record

         Milton Smith, Washington Marathon Cycler, Grinds Along

         Marathon Cyclist Going Strong after 12 Hours

         Bike Rider Nearing Record in Grind at Potomac Park

         Marathon Cyclist Sets New Endurance Record

         Record Is Claimed by Capital Bikeman

         District Boy Sets Bike Record: Milton Smith Rides 250.4 Miles

                  in 24-1/4 Hours

         Courage Helped Smith in Bike Grind

         Smith, D.C. Bikeman, after World Mark

         Marathon Cyclist Aided by Friend in Nonstop Ride

United Press also picked up the story in a feature carried by many papers around the country. The result of all this media attention was that dad became an overnight celebrity in Washington. A shy, barely-known Eastern High School student gained a cherished new identity. Achieving his goal boosted his confidence immensely, and gave him the heart to think big as he moved into college and adulthood. The benefits to every area of his life were enormous. Photos.

Dreams that Work

Two things impress me about my dad's successful pursuit of the endurance title. For one, I'm moved by the fact that he took his dream to win it so seriously. He wanted this prize so badly that he found the resolve and means to attain it.

When we look honestly at why some dreams of ours succeed while others fail, we usually find that only the strong ones survive. It's fundamental to our nature as humans to have aspirations, and over a lifetime we experience many of them. It's just as basic to our nature to lose heart; it takes practically nothing to discourage us and convince us that a dream is impossible for us. Yet when a dream is substantial enough, and our passion to achieve it strong enough, we find a way to beat the challenges and persevere till we succeed. It also seems that serendipities occur: life rises up to meet us and help us accomplish what we desire.

The older I grow, the more impressed I am with what a gift it is to experience a dream at this level. When we see a real-life example of someone who benefited from a dream this powerful, it is always inspiring.

Of course, by today's standards my father's accomplishment, while impressive, doesn't seem that earth-shattering. Cyclists have established and broken countless endurance records in the seventy-four years since dad made his marathon sojourn around that Washington park. What all this history suggests is that there were undoubtedly many--probably thousands--in the United States at that time who could have achieved this same feat. Yet among those who could have done so with a reasonable try, only my father made the effort at that time. The fact that he tried made the difference.

This same dynamic operates far more frequently in our experience than most of us realize. We often hold back from pursuing a dream because we fear "the competition." We assume so many others are vying for the same benefit that we have no hope of attaining it. Yet when we begin moving earnestly toward a goal, we're sometimes surprised: we find that far fewer have found the heart to try for it than we supposed. The mere fact that we have made ourselves available for the opportunity puts us in a position of strength, and makes it possible for us to succeed.

Our personal dreams so frequently are within our reach. My dad's experience is one small example of how passion and availability can tip the scales.

A Lifetime Need

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of personal dreams. The benefits they bring to our well-being, health, productivity, social life and personal growth defy description. If we look carefully at our life, we always find that the times when we have felt most alive, and most hopeful about our future, have been when we've embraced a dream and pursued it eagerly. These also have been the times when our life has been most fruitful and beneficial to others.

We need dreams like the air we breathe. We need them in career, education, relationships, avocations, lifestyle, personal development and growth. And we need fresh dreams throughout our life; when one is realized, it's important to replace it with another, that we remain forever in a growth mode. Major dreams may be realized even at unlikely points late in life. The Washington Post featured an article this week about Henry J. Magaziner, who has just published his first book at age eighty-nine--a coffee-table volume on classic iron works that is getting critical acclaim. Magaziner did not begin this project until he was eighty-one.*

Yet for a dream to be effective--to the point that it propels us to succeed--we must own it so fully that it becomes part of the fabric of our personality. This will not happen unless we are convinced that our dreams are both important and achievable.

David's Exuberance for Life

We find inspiration to both of these ends in the story of David and Goliath. I've often drawn on this incident in Nehemiah Notes, for it has much to teach us about realizing our potential. Yet recently I noticed a critical detail about David's decision to fight Goliath that had never impressed me before.

When Goliath taunted the army of Israel, demanding that a warrior come forth and fight him, Saul offered a reward to any citizen able to meet the challenge. David heard soldiers talking about this prize while he was visiting his brothers on the front line: "Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father's family from taxes in Israel" (1 Sam 17:25).

After hearing this tantalizing description of Saul's reward, David asked two further groups of soldiers for information about it, "and the men answered him as before" (v. 30).

Although I've read this portion of Scripture many times, I had never given much thought to the fact that Saul offered a reward for defeating Goliath, nor to the possibility that it influenced David. It dawned on me that it not only played a role in David's decision, but a substantial one. This is clear from the level of interest that David showed in confirming details about it.

The reward promised several benefits to the victorious warrior: a marriage partner, financial security, political freedom, and--by implication--the chance to exercise leadership and political influence. David obviously had dreams in some or all of these areas, and saw fighting Goliath as an opportunity to take a quantum leap toward realizing them. And his motivation at these points was undoubtedly stronger than that of most of his contemporaries, for he alone mustered the courage to confront the giant.

David, to be sure, also possessed strong faith in God, and ached to see God's glory defended against Goliath's slander (1 Sam 17:26, 36, 45-47). He clearly felt strong compassion for his countrymen too, and longed to help free them from the Philistines' oppression. These were significant dreams in themselves.

Yet we should not downplay the role that David's hope for certain personal benefits played in his deciding to accept Goliath's wager. What this story reveals most importantly is that David had a passion for life. It was reflected in several major longings: to improve his own life in certain ways, to help his countrymen, and to uphold God's glory. All of these desires were important in gaining the motivation to fight Goliath. And it was precisely because they were so strong that he found the strength of heart to do something this supremely challenging.

David's example is so refreshing, for it encourages us both to take our personal dreams seriously and to allow them to become powerful inspirations. Many Christians are uncomfortable giving much attention to their dreams--especially to those for personal benefits--out of fear that their aspirations might interfere with their devotion to Christ. Our dreams can become idols, unquestionably. Yet C.S. Lewis nailed this problem when he noted that we fail not by loving things too much, but by not loving God enough. If I'm attaching too much importance to an otherwise healthy dream, the answer isn't to try to tone down my enthusiasm for it, but to strive to increase my affection for Christ.

It's here that David's role model is so helpful. Because his devotion to God was so strong, his personal aspirations influenced him in a healthy manner. His example inspires us both to strengthen our relationship with Christ and to embrace substantial dreams for our life. David's experience also suggests that within the context of a strong relationship with God, we'll be inclined to live out our dreams in ways that most help others and enhance Christ's mission.

By the same token, we see in David's countrymen the problem that occurs when personal dreams are not strong enough. It's fair to say that if some of them had possessed a stronger passion for life, they, like David, would have been clamoring to fight the giant.

The Availability Factor

Which brings us to another lesson that David's experience with Goliath teaches. It's the fact that others may not be clamoring to accomplish the same dreams we want to pursue.

The lack of competition David faced in fighting Goliath was beyond any belief. His conviction that he could tackle the giant sprang from recalling successes as a shepherd fighting wild animals with a sling (1 Sam 17:34-37). Since God's glory was now at stake, David assumed that God would give victory through this skill already so evident in his life. Yet thousands of Israelite soldiers had also been shepherds or hunters and had confronted ravenous animals just as David did. They had the identical basis for concluding that they could successfully battle Goliath. But none of them made this connection. Not one. David alone was able to see the situation with the eyes of faith.

Why did David see a remarkable opportunity for victory, while others didn't? His passion for life explains it, I'm sure. It was so strong that he was motivated to make connections between his past experience and the present challenge that others didn't bother to try to make.

The failure of other Israelites to see this situation constructively also demonstrates how inherently human it is to expect failure, even when the prospects for success are excellent. Regardless how achievable a dream may be, others simply may not believe that it's possible for them. While it's tragic that people often fail to recognize golden opportunities, it's reason for encouragement whenever we fear that others may crowd us out of reaching a desired goal. We may find, as my dad did in the endurance contest, that the competition is insignificant. And our availability alone may make our success possible, if we just make a reasonable effort. No story in Scripture illustrates this dynamic better than that of David and Goliath.

Follow Your Star

David's encounter with Goliath, then, helps us to think in terms of doors being open rather than closed. And his passion for life, which this incident reveals so vividly, inspires us to take our own dreams seriously. We are encouraged both to dream big and to embrace our dreams with greater confidence. Keep David's experience with Goliath in mind whenever you are entertaining a major step with your life.

Perhaps you will find it helpful, too, to remember Milton Smith cycling endless circles around Hain's Point in August 1927, and persisting till he achieved his goal. His experience inspires me for obvious reasons: because of my relation to him, and because the event is part of our family history. Yet you may find inspiration in it as well because of the timeless lesson it offers--that passion and availability greatly enhance our potential for accomplishing a dream.

Is there a dream you have wished to realize but have lost heart about achieving? To the best of your knowledge, does it fit well with your life as God has designed it? Take heart that God may see your possibilities radically differently than you do. Pray earnestly for his help and direction. Resolve to put your energies into doing what you can to reach your dream, rather than into explaining why it cannot be accomplished. Get the best counsel you can about how to proceed, from people who believe in you and want you to succeed.

Then step out in faith, and enjoy the incomparable adventure of moving toward your goal. Apart from God's giving you a clear reason to change direction, keep persisting till you reach it. Riding out a dream to the finish makes all the difference.


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Photos of Milton Smith's marathon bicycle ride.

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