Tag Archives: jesus

Pursuing Your Passion

Years ago I wrote a book and I sold the movie rights to FOX studios.  They wanted a screenplay written. I had never given much serious thought to writing a screenplay for the big screen or the small screen.  After writing a book and being approached about a screenplay, I thought, “Hey, that’s what I want to be in life – a screenwriter!”

They asked me to write it with an Academy Award winning writer.  The writer invited me to lunch at their home.  It was an informal lunch eaten around the pool with the producer of the project and myself.  I was grateful to have the opportunity to learn from successful Hollywood individuals, so I thought the best course of action was for me to keep my mouth shut and take it all in.

I learned the writer, like me, had never gone to school for writing.  I learned the producer had built up an international production company in Scandinavia and sold it for a huge profit, then moved to Hollywood and started a new company in a new country.  Instead of retiring, he started over and continued to work hard.

During my time working with both of them, I was given a crash course in writing for a studio.  It was like a private lesson in screenwriting.  Looking back now I can see that I was already losing interest in writing for Hollywood, the more I learned about the business.  What I thought I had wanted, I was realizing was not my passion.

Even though I was unsure about my next steps in life, I learned valuable lessons and kept pushing forward.   In the end, my show was not picked up by Fox, but I learned enough to write my own western screenplay and sold that to History Channel.

Through my contacts on that project, I was able to secure a writing/consulting job for a movie production company in Stockholm, Sweden.  I grew up immensely while going through this Hollywood period of my writing career. The screenwriting work was a chance for me to work with people from all walks of life.

People like to talk about overnight success.  I learned that successful writers toil away for years before they get an opportunity to shine, and even then, they may end up losing it all.

Projects will come and go, but the people you work with along the way are important, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.  Work hard on every project, big or small, and always go above and beyond.

We each have our own paths with unique wants and needs.  If we follow someone else’s path we may have limited success, but it is fleeting.  We are all on our own journey, and as long as you keep learning from every opportunity and developing your skills, no project is a failure.

Opportunities often come in life when we least expect it, and they often come from unexpected people or places.  Work hard, keep a positive attitude, treat everyone with respect and pursue the passions that God has put in you – and you too will fulfill your purpose in life, even if you aren’t sure what it is right now.

Philippians 2:3

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

Ecclesiastes 3:1

   There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

 

Grateful For My Life

It has been an unusually busy week for me.  Nothing like the go, go go of New York or Los Angeles, but it was more than the regular schedule I have become accustomed to in rural Illinois.

Part of my old world collided with my new world this past week.  On March 31, 2017 my friend King Mo Lawal was coming to town to fight Rampage Jackson in Bellator 175 at the Allstate Arena in Chicago. I first met Mo many years ago at Jokers Wild Fighting Academy one day during a fight class. I was told that day that I would be working with him, which was a huge step up for me. We trained a lot more over the following years.

As his trip to Chicago approached, we made plans to meet up when he arrived in town before his fight.  He had told me to bring my gear because we might train.  I arrived at the hotel and left my gear bag in my car since I wasn’t sure what our plans would be.  Right when I walked into his room he asked me if I had my stuff, so I went back out to grab it.

Soon we were inside the “blue team” training room.  It was nothing more than an empty conference room that had wrestling mats laid down wall to wall.  He had his coaches from American Top Team there, and he had Jeff Mayweather started running him through some boxing drills.  They had him do three minutes of boxing followed by three minutes of wrestling with me, back and forth.  It was a surreal moment for me.  Here I was wrestling with the headline fighter for a Bellator fight in front of coaches from one of the premier mixed martial arts gyms in the world – in Chicago of all places.

It got even stranger for me when I looked up and saw former UFC champion Matt Hughes watching us.  After we finished the training session Mo had a press interview to do and I ended up sitting next to him for the interview.  Dinner came next, where I found myself speaking with the matchmaker of the Bellator promotion as well as Royce Gracie, the man who really brought Brazilian Jiujitsu into the mainstream.

The next day I drove back up to the city again to train with Mo.  This time I brought an Illinois friend who is a casual MMA fan with me.  I was worried that he would be bored, but we ended up having a great time.  When we were hanging out with Mo I was watching to see if he was affected by the upcoming fight – less than twenty-four hours away.  Was he stressed?  He was not.

We sat around talked about old times, people we know and politics.  “King Mo” is the character the fans see in the cage, “Mo” is the guy his friends know.  Mo cares about others and is a genuine person.

Driving home later that evening I thought about my life, and all the old memories of helping other fighters prepare for big fights.  I realized I missed the time I spent hanging out with my fighting friends, but not the life that came with it.  I found myself very happy to be headed home to my new life on the farm and the nearby town of eight hundred and thirty-seven people.

I thought about all the things that fell into place in throughout my life to bring me to this place.  I have been truly blessed in life by being in the right place at the right time.  I was able to recognize that and make the most of my situations.

This past week somebody posted an old picture on facebook and I was in the background. It brought back some memories both good and bad of my past life. While I am not proud of many decisions I have made in the past, I am thankful for where they have brought me today.

The army friend I’ve often written about on this blog posted a picture this past week that was taken when he was deployed in Afghanistan, laying against a dirt berm, geared up with his M4.  He wrote, “You know, I kind of miss this. I remember vividly this moment and being so tired. It seems a lifetime away and I have almost completely disconnected myself from this old me.”  I too have disconnected from my old life. I recognize who I was then, but it no longer seems like me.  I have changed.

I was written about in the local papers this week.  This time, the spotlight was not due to my past.  The article was about what I am currently working on.  It made me realize just how grateful I am for my life.  My past has brought me here, to this place. Training with top coaches and athletes for all those years has prepared me for this important endeavor.

This time I am not fighting for money, I am not training an athlete for a big fight or an actor for a big role. Instead, I am using all those skills to train up a new team of people to fight back against Parkinson’s disease and all the degenerative effects that come with it.

I am so blessed.

Philippians 4:11

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 

Self-Discipline

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Every dream, goal and plan comes down to being self-disciplined enough to get through the rough parts and the ability to stay committed until completion.

Self-discipline is our unique ability to control our urges, wants, desires and our emotions in order to reach our goals. It is a mindset that must be built upon so that we make the right choices daily to guide our lives in the direction that is best.  It means we must give up small momentary pleasure in order to gain lasting happiness.

I was thinking about where I learned self-discipline.  One place I am sure I learned it was when I was at Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California.  The morning wake-up bugle call reveille would sound at 6:15am.  Your bed had to be made, you had to dress with shined shoes, brass for inspection.  I used to get up at 5:30am so I could shower with plenty of hot water and take my time.

I was never in a rush to get ready and out to the quad for formation.  There really is something special about being awake while the world around you slumbers.  I committed to waking up early at a young age, and it has followed me through my whole life.

When I lived in New York I used to walk two miles every morning at 5am, then get two newspapers and a coffee before I came home.  This would set the pace for my day. I felt like it let me get in front of the day before others were awake.  I also feel like I have been able to get more finished in my life with this “extra” time.

People always talk about how they do not have any extra time.  Why not find that time before the day starts?

Many people feel that being self-disciplined will mean that they will have to give up much of what they feel is good about their lives.  There is no doubt that when shifting towards a more disciplined lifestyle your life will change.  It does not have to be bad or painful.  Examine your life and decide what is important to you.  If eating and drinking whatever you wish with no limits is what is important then look at the inevitable outcome.  You get to live with obesity, heart disease, and a host of other ailments.  How about staying up late to surf the internet or binge watch your favorite show? You must accept being tired at work or school the next day, and not performing well.

What if instead, you choose to eat food that is filled full of nutritional value.  Drink more water, keeping yourself hydrated. How would those choices harm you? Eating healthy foods does not mean a diet, it just means choosing the right tasty things to fuel your body. How about choosing to read a chapter of a book each night before bed and get to sleep at a reasonable hour?

Everyone has heard the phrase, “You just have to do it.”  It is much easier said than done for the average person with years of bad habits ingrained in their life.

So start small with something that you can do very easily.  If you need extra time in your day, how about waking up an hour earlier?  If you would like to lose weight, how about starting with a walk every morning before breakfast without fail.

If you make a commitment and stick with it, no matter what, it will translate into other areas of your life.  That means you must throw out all the excuses of the past… the  “I’m too tired,” “I have no time,” “My alarm did not go off,” or “I’m not feeling well.”

Once you make a habit of the first small change for a month, it’s time to commit to another small change. After a few months of these small victories under your belt, you can clearly see the changes that have come from your new found self-discipline.

This is something that you cannot buy.  There is no magic pill.  You have to be committed and work on it a little bit every day.  Think about this for a minute: why does the diet and self-help industry bring in billions a year?  They know that people do not want to put in the hard work necessary for lasting change.  A lot of people are looking for the easy way because we all hope there is a way.

The bottom line is that every journey begins with that first step and then continuing to step even when you don’t feel like it.

You must decide what it is you want in the long term. Once you have the goal in mind it will help you push aside the many distractions that will inevitably arise. You may feel discomfort along the way, but knowing that is part of the process makes it bearable. It is time to make decisions that benefit you for the long term.  Surround yourself with other people who are self-disciplined and cheer each other on.

Hebrews 12:11

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Proverbs 5:21-23

21 For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths. 22 The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast. 23 For lack of discipline they will die,  led astray by their own great folly.

 

Failure

There is no escape, no way to hide.  It will find all of us at one point or another during our lifetimes.  It has been said that a book of failures would be a great book to read, so that we could learn from other’s mistakes.

Have you ever noticed that there are never any “failure seminars”?  There are plenty of speakers on the topic of success.  You can catch a motivational seminar online or in a conference room in a hotel most any weekend.

I have failed at so many things I could not even list them all here.  The good news is, I took a valuable lesson away from each one.  One of the best thing about pushing yourself hard and ultimately hitting your goals, is that our minds tend to gloss over the periods of heartbreak and failure, focusing instead on our successes.

One day I decided to take up a new hobby: prospecting for gold in the mountains and deserts of California.  I really did not know much about it at all, but when my wife and dog and I hiked in the mountains we had seen several people panning for gold in the streams and it got me interested.  I started reading everything I could about gold prospecting and the history of the gold bearing regions in California.

The next weekend, instead of heading off on our usual hike, we packed our lunch, a few shovels, and some tools we had picked up for gold panning.  We headed to the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.   We parked our car and hiked a mile or so up a path along the river.  We found a giant boulder and I started digging out buckets of dirt and passing them to my wife who would pan it out in the water.  We dug for hours and found nothing, not a trace of that elusive gold.  We did have a great time! Our dog fished in the river, we enjoyed the sunshine, cool water, amazing scenery and our hike.

We went back to that river many times.  Each time we dug deep holes and found nothing but black sand and tiny gold flakes in our pan.  One day, an older prospector came by our hole to chat.  He told me where I should dig based on his experience.  Later that day we found a small “picker,” which is what you call a tiny gold nugget that is big enough to pick up with your fingers.

We were doing almost exactly what the 49ers did during the gold rush.  Instead of iron pans, we used plastic pans, and unlike them, we were not trying to make a living from it.

It turns out that most of the gold is still there, undiscovered.  The early miners took the easy gold that they could find near the surface. It is back breaking labor with little payoff to keep digging and looking for the deeper gold. I enjoyed it because it was a challenge and a treasure hunt.

We graduated from panning to setting up a sluice in the water. The next stage was learning how to metal detect in the Mojave desert – which meant getting out there in the early hours before the temperatures rose.  Hunting for gold nuggets in the desert with a metal detector is called “nugget shooting.”  We joined the Prospector’s Club of Southern California, which gave us access to claims all over the region.  Then I graduated to operating a dry washer in the desert.

I learned to love the peace and quiet of the dry, desolate Mojave desert.  We started finding “color” almost every time we went out.

I wanted to find a good sized nugget with my metal detector before I left California, but it was not to be.  On my last attempt before moving, a solo trip early in the morning, I saw some fellow prospectors find a gold nugget just a few yards away from where I was looking.  I guess you could say I failed because I never found that fist-sized nugget I was seeking.  Instead, I would say that I gained some useful knowledge and made some great memories.

Prospecting mirrors so much of what we do in life.  Each one of us is seeking some kind of treasure.  There’s no guarantee you will find that big nugget.  Successes and failures: they all come with valuable lessons.  I look back on the hours I spent digging dirt holes and wandering the desert not as a failure, but as some of my favorite memories.

My friend Mark and I spoke about the topic of failure this past week.  After a successful high school and college wrestling career at Oklahoma State, where he was a two time All-American, Mark began his mixed martial arts career with the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting).  He did well enough to be picked up by the UFC when they bought the WEC.

When I first met Mark, I noticed that he carried himself differently than most of the guys I knew, and he was open about being a Christian.  Mark was not pushy with his faith, but he was setting an example by the way he lived and he was always ready to lend a hand to anyone who needed one.

I trained with Mark for his first fight in the UFC, which he lost.  It was a bad loss, but he was back to training within a week.  Mark Munoz went on to have a long UFC career and while he never won the belt, he always left the ring a winner.  He was voted as “the nicest guy in MMA” by the UFC.  I learned from Mark that in MMA, a loss does not equal failure.  When you keep fighting, improving and moving forward, you are succeeding, regardless of what the outcome of any one fight may be.

Mark told me that if you have a fear of failure you will fall backward.  If you embrace it, you will take away a valuable lesson.  We all fail.  We have to learn from it and keep moving forward.

Resilience, Adversity, and Desire: A real champion in life, whether you are fighting in a cage, prospecting for gold, or trying to get a promotion in your job, is the person that shows resilience even when they fail.  Adversity is something to use to make us better, not break us down.  We will all face it, but how we view it and push past it will define us.  Desire is what will make you get up each day with determination: study harder, work harder, train harder.

Mark also reminded me that what we speak about every day is what we become, so choose your words wisely.

 

Romans 5:3-5

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Proverbs 24:16

For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.

Luke 6:45

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

 

Lessons from a Dojo

Martial arts have been a very big influence in my life.  When I was in sixth grade I heard about Red Dragon Karate, and wanted the chance to learn it.  Instead, I found myself in Military school.  After that, I ended up in Irvine, California. There my father found a place for me to learn Martial Arts.

That place was a Martial Arts Supply company in Santa Ana named Musashi Martial Arts.

The owner, David Miller, was ahead of his time. He was a former kickboxer who had written a book about the business of Martial Arts. He held kickboxing, Kali and Jeet Kune Do classes in his warehouse.  

One of the teachers was a man named Ted Lucaylucay.  He was the first student from Dan Inosanto’s school allowed to teach Jeet Kune Do.  Dan Inosanto was very close to the founder of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee – and he had learned directly from the source.

I loved every class.  I followed Ted from that school in Santa Ana to a place in Huntington Beach, where he opened up his own little studio.  I trained with him until he moved away to Washington.  I have never forgotten any of David or Ted’s training.  My problem was that I didn’t always implement their instructions.

After Ted moved away, I began to train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an offshoot of Japanese Jiu Jitsu, which has been around in various forms since the 1400’s.  It was brought to Brazil in the early 1900’s as “Kodokan Judo”  where it was taught to the  sons of Gastao Gracie by a Japanese man named Mitsuyo Maeda. The Gracie brothers modified it and adapted it to its current Brazilian form.

In the art of Jiu Jitsu there is no immediate payoff. You will get tapped, also known as “submitted” many, many times during every practice.  Unlike other martial arts that teach form against mitts or pads and often without any opponent at all, Jiu Jitsu is always taught against an opponent.  As a beginner, everyone you train against is better than you. This taught me humility, patience and how to relax when faced with crushing strength.

I was already trained to relax when punches and kicks were coming at me – but the oppressive grinding, smothering claustrophobic hold of a Jiu Jitsu opponent is another thing entirely.

You cannot learn one move and expect it to work on everyone you train against.  You have to adapt it to your body style and to your opponent. It is a game of human chess and in order to excel, you must think many moves ahead.

In Jiu Jitsu, technique prevails. I had to learn to let go of my anger, because there is no place for it on the mat. Strength is important, but not as much as technique.  You will always encounter someone bigger and heavier.   It is an art where there is no room for “I know but..” You have to listen to your coaches or you will not progress.  You must be able to perform, there is no faking it on the mat.  Those who do not put in the work fall behind.

When I walk into a gym or a Dojo for the first time, I always look for the best person and that will be who I work with first.  In order to become a better fighter you must go against those who are better than you, and learn from them.

Jiu Jitsu has a belt system of promotion.  Belts are blue, purple, brown and black, each of which represent an advancing stage in your training.  I never trained in a commercial gym where they had monthly belt tests, we always trained until our coach felt we were ready, and only then were we given a new belt.  In a real Jiu Jitsu gym, a belt acknowledges that you have put in the time and hard work necessary to be at a certain level.  Each belt represents years of hard work and daily practice.

I have met many people over the years that I would not have met if not for Jiu Jitsu.  The mat is not about winning a match, it is about you and what you can do to improve yourself. It teaches you that you can overcome any obstacle in life with hard work and determination. I have learned that it does not matter what you do, where you came from or where you are today.  If you are willing to put in the hard work you will see results.

I’ve heard it said before that some Christians believe that martial arts are not compatible with Christianity because of the involvement of Eastern Mysticism in the past.  I firmly believe that God used Martial Arts, and Jiu Jitsu in particular, to bring me back to Him.  I cannot tell you how many Christians I have trained with over the years.  Their words, lives and actions all served as a testimony to me.  Whether it was sitting me down to talk about faith after practice, saying a team prayer before a match, or just being an example in the way they carried themselves.

Now, I am the one one ready to share the Good News on and off the mats.

In today’s instant gratification society it is not normal to commit to training in a sport or an art for many years. For me, Martial Arts has been a lifelong pursuit that has had an effect on every aspect of my life.

What is the special thing that motivates you? What do you have a passion to become great at?  Are you willing to put in the hours, days, weeks and years of training?

1 Corinthians 10:31

Therefore, whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 9:26-27

Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

Decisions & Identity

 

Taking responsibility for your actions is the first step towards changing your life’s path, and yet, after those first few steps, there is life – staring you in the face again.  Tomorrow, next week, five years from now – you alone must continue to make good decisions to stay on your new path.  Along the way, you will face let downs, failures, and setbacks.  Don’t let those times define you or your future.

Life After the Army

My Army friend from the last two blog posts is now retired.  When the structured life of the Army became a thing of the past – his deployments were over, the men he was responsible for were home living their lives – he found himself looking for a new identity in his life. One day, he started looking for that identity in a bottle.

Many people turn to a bottle of alcohol, pills – prescription or not – or even food as a means to numb pain.  The familiar mind dulling power of alcohol was a choice my friend made because it allowed him to temporarily forget the pain of the past and blur out the struggle ahead of trying to return to a “normal” life after his life of service.  The problem is, each day brought the same problems and the same pain.

He explained to me that after his retirement from the Army, he was depressed.  He thought about ending it all at his lowest point.  Statistics show that every single day 20 veterans commit suicide.

Thankfully, his survival instincts kicked in and reality hit him.  He had a loving family, he had lived through deployment, and yet there he was, feeling sorry for himself.  He sat there and was completely honest with himself. He was at one of those places where the next choice he made would again affect the rest of his life.

Looking back on his life, he realized that when he was given things. he always ended up failing in the end.  But, when he worked for something, he always succeeded.  He knew the path to overcoming depression and creating his new identity would be hard, but he knew it would be worth it to recover.

A Champion’s Identity

One day a few years back when I lived in California, I walked into the gym to get a workout in with the fight team.  At the gym, that day was a man named Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter.  He was not well known in America at that point, but internationally and in Japan, he was a big star in the fighting world. My coach told me that I was going to train with him that day.

Mo and I became friends and we used to go get something to eat together after fight team practice. He signed with Strikeforce MMA, and after one fight he was going to fight Gegard Mousasi for the light heavyweight championship belt. He took his training seriously.

He won that fight live on network TV and a few days later we were enjoying a meal together.  I was surprised by his calm demeanor.  He had just won the championship belt in a major promotion, so I had no idea what to expect.  He was the same man I knew before, except he had become a world champion.

Mo lost his championship belt in his next fight, handing him his first loss as a professional fighter. Once again we were out eating a few days later, and he was still no different.

“Losing is no big deal, sure I want to win, but everyone loses. In my life, I have had more wins than losses, so I never worry about it or feel sorry for myself.  Tomorrow is another day.  I think about all those who will never have a chance like I have in life.  When I win I just go to my hotel room and watch TV, I don’t want to be out celebrating. If I lose, I go out and share the time with everyone else.  It is the losses that make you, not the wins.  The wins are easy.  It is coming back and picking up the pieces and getting right back to what you love.” – King Mo

He explained that all those titles he had won didn’t mean anything. He has no idea where any of the belts or medals even are at this point.  What he cares about is the ability to compete, because that is what he loves, that is his identity. And, in the bigger picture of life, what he believes really matters is your family and those who are close to you.  He then went on to say that having compassion for other people is another part of his identity.

He walks it like he talks it.  We had another conversation a few weeks ago, just after he lost a fight to Cro Cop in Japan, and he told me he was already back working on his craft.

My Identity Crisis

While I had wanted an out from the increasing pressure of wearing a wire for the FBI for eight straight years, there was still a part of me that was crushed when the FBI told me I was not going back to Brooklyn, my days undercover were over. The Mob was my identity, I didn’t know who I was without it.

I had a few weeks alone in Canada to really let the reality of life sink into my mind.  I was frightened, not at the prospect of someone coming after me, but because the real world was an unknown. I had not been around regular people much since I was a teenager.

I would then have another two years in protection to really think over my life.  I sat alone for most of those two years, thinking about my past and worrying about my future.  I was determined to take my fresh start and make life work the right way this time.

I have fallen, I have made bad decisions along the way, and I will fall again.  Each time I learn from it and I become stronger.  I was only able to change myself up to a point.  Then the day came that I let God into my heart, and now I no longer have to make the journey alone.  He has the power to change and guide me.  Now I live with faith instead of fear.

Matthew 6:34

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Deuteronomy 31:6

Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

Ephesians 2:10

For we are God’s masterpiece.  He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

2 Corinthians 5:17

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has gone, and the new has come.

God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. – C. S. Lewis

 

The Turning Point

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I wrote about my friend who went into the Army to change his life last week, but how did the first of many turning points in his life come about?

In the 1990’s my Army friend’s mother passed away.  This threw his life into a tailspin because he had largely relied on her for his lifestyle.  With her went the business, the house, the cars etc.  He still tried to live the same lifestyle and it did not work. He ended up with no car working at a hotel where he cashed his paycheck and carried around the cash in his pocket.

One week he was robbed and he couldn’t pay rent to the friend he was living with, and as a result, he was kicked out.  He moved from place to place.  He knew his chaotic lifestyle was not working to get him ahead, and that it was time to make a drastic change or he would end up on the streets.

He faced his fears and took that first step: walking into the US Army recruiting office. He was then forced to tie up loose ends before going to basic training. It was there that he began to understand what his previous choices had done to his life.

Another friend of mine changed his life around completely in the last few years.  He came to this country from the Ukraine with his parents and they settled into the close-knit Russian community in Hollywood. He was soon part of a Russian gang, doing and selling drugs.  He was taking up to thirty painkillers a day along with anything else he was given.

He started doing armed robberies for the rush and to hustle up money.  In his words, “The devil took over for awhile.”  He was picked up on a weapons charge and it cost his parents around a hundred thousand dollars in lawyer’s fees, but he continued on the same path.

The pills and drugs distorted his thought process, until one night at a rave he nearly overdosed on a mixture of strong drugs.  He describes that experience as being in hell for many hours.   When he finally came home he found his mother reading the Bible and crying because she thought he was dead.

Something clicked inside him that day, and he knew that he would be dead unless he turned his life around.  The guy he did armed robberies with had his house shot at one night and disappeared.  Many others in the Russian community had died from drug overdoses.

He knew that he needed to go to school, establish a career and help his parents pay off the debt. He realized that all of his problems were the results of his choices, and that all the pain his family was dealing with was because of his life actions.  A lot of us never take into account how much our choices affect others, both directly and indirectly.

He took the first step and threw away his pills.  He went cold turkey – no rehab, no group, just stopped.  It was a difficult six months, but after he got over the withdrawals he knew that he could accomplish anything that life threw at him.

My friend Andre, on the other hand, has made good choices since he was very young,  but things haven’t always been easy for him.  He grew up with a father that did cocaine and gambled, never paying much attention to him.  If Andre had turned out bad, it would have been no shock to anyone.

There were key turning points early in Andre’s life. One was when he wanted a BMX bike so badly and his father laid out a challenge for him that seemed impossible for him to accomplish.  When he met the challenge, he decided there wasn’t anything in life he couldn’t accomplish.

He made a decision that he would never do anything his father would do or did, so that he would not end up like him. Andre used his father as a reverse role model.  If his father drank, he never would.  If he gambled, Andre would not.

He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and an master’s degree in Social Ecology, both from the University of California at Irvine.  He kept his eye on his end goals, and he uses his story to encourage others and has been a huge encouragement to me personally.

Andre’s Ted Talk, if you would like to see more of his story is here: http://tinyurl.com/TedX-Andre

Regardless of the hand, you’re dealt in life, our current circumstances boil down to our own choices.   It is difficult to accept and many never do accept it, because it is just easier to blame others or bad luck.

My life has had many turning points, and one I remember happened at an Italian Restaurant in Culver City, California. I was at what is called a “sit down” in the mafia world.  It is where two higher ups decide your fate. At the meeting I was told that I was now out of an operation we had going on.

I was so mad that when I left the meeting I was planning revenge.  I felt that I deserved to remain part of the operation and that they were stealing from me by taking it away – nevermind that it was all stolen money, to begin with.  As I analyzed the situation and looked back on everything I was invested in and angry about, I began to see my life for what it was – a series of bad choices that had left me an angry criminal.   I had wasted my life and I knew that I wanted out of it altogether.

It would be only months later that the FBI offered me a way out.  I began to make different choices.

God had another plan for my life, I just didn’t realize it yet.

No matter who you are or what your life has been like in the past, our lives are shaped by the choices we make. Throughout our lives, there will be many turning points where life can become something else.

Big changes in your life can grow out of very small seeds of the choices you make.

Matthew 13:32-32

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Deuteronomy 31:6

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.