Instant Flip-Flop

Instant Flip-Flop

I had been unemployed for several months, having gone from overseeing one of the largest soybean research programs in the world to having no job prospects.

The Back Story

My training was in plant breeding and genetics. My first job out of my Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University was in southern Minnesota as a corn breeder, assigned to open a new research station and begin a new program, from scratch, to produce corn hybrids for the upper Midwest. It was a daring venture for my employers, who had sold hybrid corn seed to farmers for generations but who had not had their own proprietary hybrids. But after a tornado wiped out my second-year nursery, and after they got a sense of the expense and time commitment required to produce their own hybrids, they decided to bail. So that job lasted only about a year and a half.

Next job was with a company based in Texas. I opened a new research station in Lincoln, Illinois, where I was station manager and would develop soybean varieties, from scratch, for the Midwest. A corn breeder was also at that station. We started with nothing, working at first out of an abandoned bank building in downtown Lincoln and then out of a large house trailer adjacent to the rented land where we planted our research plots. But then Occidental Petroleum, the parent company of our company’s parent company, needed cash to purchase Citgo Petroleum, so Occidental had a sort of fire sale to raise billions of dollars—and one of the items included in the sale was our company’s parent company. And the purchaser didn’t need or want a research station in Illinois. So we were closed down. But I was able to keep control of the seeds.

Then I moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, working for a brand new company funded by venture capital. I started a new soybean research program, to which I brought the seeds from my Lincoln research. And within a couple of years I was running one of the largest soybean breeding/research programs in the world—thanks largely to innovations I developed, along with my chief technician and farm manager, Terry, that permitted us to vastly lower the costs of running a field program. That enabled us to greatly expand the number of research plots: Plant breeding is a numbers game, and the larger your program, the greater your probability of identifying superior varieties.

But that job disappeared after three-and-a-half years! (It’s a long story.)

Act II

I had been unemployed for several months. I applied for every plant breeding job that came open, any crop, anywhere in the country, but such openings were rare. I especially wanted to work with soybeans. Largely because I love to creatively analyze stuff, and partly because of my considerable experience with start-up programs, I had figured out how to run a full-size research effort for possibly half the financial input that any other soybean breeding program spent. But with equal quality and effectiveness. Yet I had no way to share that valuable information.

In the meantime, even before I lost that last job, for a couple of years I had been meeting twice a week in the early morning (a great sacrifice for me!) to pray with a friend, Liz, for God to pour out his Holy Spirit on the churches of Champaign-Urbana. We met in one of the basement classrooms of the Roman Catholic Church’s Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus, since it was one of the few venues that was open to the public.

Then one morning as we were sitting down to pray, Liz announced that God had told her we should skip praying for “revival” that morning, and should pray instead about my employment. I discussed the situation at length with Liz, and we prayed. I remember nothing about our prayers until the point when I offered a timid petition to God. . .

Here’s the background: As I had explained to Liz a few minutes earlier, the only possible jobs available to me were at Land-grant universities (there’s one in each state, where agricultural research is conducted) or at large seed companies. (Smaller seed companies don’t have in-house breeding programs; they purchase varieties from larger companies that do breeding research, put their own names on the varieties, and sell them to farmers as if they, the small seed company, had actually developed them. Farmers generally have no clue that Happy Leaf Variety 2013 is identical to Yield Buster Variety 2344: They’re both purchased from a large, anonymous third-party company whose aggressive breeding program produces such “private-label” varieties.)

An idea had sneaked into my mind that, given my innovative but very effective research methods, I could help a smaller seed company develop its own proprietary varieties. For a relatively small investment (but still scores of thousands of dollars), I could give them a soybean breeding program the same size as one run by a giant seed company, eventually eliminating the smaller company’s need to pay royalties to the source of their private-label varieties. However, that would require that I become an entrepreneur, and I had zero desire to do that! Absolutely zero. It gave me the willies just to think about it. Not on the horizon at all.

Yet at some point during Liz’s and my prayers, I offered up a challenge that I was hesitant even to vocalize. It was a simple statement, lasting only a few seconds, and it didn’t enter my mind that anything would come of it:

Lord, you know my heart. And I want to give myself 100% to you in this matter of my employment. I guess the only thing I haven’t surrendered to you is the entrepreneur thing. You know how much I would hate that. But I guess I at least need to give you permission to change my heart about that. So you hereby have my permission.

And in significantly less than a minute (I am not exaggerating), there was nothing in the world I wanted more (at least so far as my job was concerned) than to be an entrepreneur! I was excited about it! I knew that I could help many companies develop their own research programs. It could, at least in a minor way, transform the soybean seed industry.

The Holy Spirit totally regenerated—indeed, flip-flopped—my desires, my thinking, my long-term as well as short-term hopes, in seconds!

I was stunned. I felt like a tornado had zooped into my skull and immediately zooped out again, completely scrambling my brain. I told Liz what had happened. She laughed, suggesting (as I knew she would) that one needs to be careful about what one prays for. . .

I was excited! The complete about-face had to have come, could only have come, from the Holy Spirit. I had no doubt about that.

But I didn’t want to run ahead of him. I continued to pray, nearly nonstop, for the next few days.


That first day I did a lot of planning, calculating, analysis of costs, etc. The next day I made a list of all the small-to-medium-sized soybean seed companies that were within reasonable driving distance of Urbana, Illinois, where I lived. I figured that I could handle up to six research programs after a year or two.

And on the third day I began my plan to call all the seed companies and offer my services to provide them with their own soybean breeding program. I would direct it; their own employees would do the hands-on work. I prayed constantly. I was ready to step out in faith. My final prayer before picking up the phone was obvious—I needed an unambiguous sign: “Lord, if this is really you directing me to take the entrepreneurial plunge, you’ll have to provide the clients. If this is from you, Lord, please get me at least one client very soon—because it’s already late winter, and there’s precious little time to get a new program off the ground by spring planting. Getting a client quickly will be your confirmation to me that this is indeed you.”

The first company on my list was located about 80 miles south of me. I called and explained my offer to their CEO. They would pay me just $8000/year, and I would show them how to have a large, efficient, effective research program to produce their very own proprietary soybean varieties. I described how much I thought their out-of-pocket costs would be.

They were very interested. I drove down the next day. They were excited about the idea. They had the resources. They paid me $4000 up front, as we agreed; the other $4000 would come midseason.

I didn’t bother to call any other companies. I had struck gold with my very first phone call! This was obviously God’s doing! He had given me the sign for which I asked. I needed to do everything perfectly for my first client, so I decided to devote all of my time to planning this company’s program: ordering seeds of varieties to put into the breeding nursery, describing the equipment they would need to order, etc.

All went well that first season: spring planting, cross-pollinating, harvesting. Several of my client’s employees proved talented at making hand pollinations between soybean varieties (a difficult operation that requires use of needle-point tweezers, good eyes, and very steady/coordinated hands). The following winter (at my client’s expense, of course) I planted their F1 hybrid seeds in Costa Rica in order to advance them a generation, and then had the F2 seeds replanted in Costa Rica, so that the following spring we were able to plant F3 breeding populations in my client’s fields in central Illinois. All continued to go well.

Until the middle of that second season.

That’s when I received a glum phone call from my client company’s CEO. Turns out that a much larger seed company was going to purchase them. And that large company already had a breeding program. So the one they had started locally would be blended into the larger company’s efforts. I would be superfluous.

IN THE MEANTIME, here’s what had happened in those intervening months: Nothing!

I had been so excited that my very first phone call to a seed company had borne fruit. Obviously, this entire scenario had been the work of the Holy Spirit. Surely other companies would get on board. So I assumed. After all, God had given me a clear sign that he was behind this project. But not a single additional company had expressed interest during those 18 months after my first successful call. I even broadened my potential territory, calling companies throughout the soybean growing region of the country, many of them two days’ drive away. Nada. Zilch. The “entire scenario” was a bust!

And the moral of this story is. . .

Here’s the thing.

I trust God.

That instantaneous conversion from despising the idea of entrepreneurship to desiring it with all my heart—within only a few seconds—could have come only from the Holy Spirit. Yes, of course I know that psychologists could easily come up with ad hoc explanations for what happened, involving repressed unconscious desires or whatever, but after knowing the presence and power of the Holy Spirit for decades, I find it easy to dismiss such speculation. That was God. And that ridiculously easy first phone call that led to a quick contract was obviously God. No doubt in my mind.

Yet my entrepreneurial effort was not to be. I have no clue what was going on. I DO know, both from Scripture and from narratives of many, many believers over the centuries, that just because God starts you on a path, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, or even that the path will continue. Perhaps the most glaring example is the prophet Jeremiah. God called him, likely at the tender age of sixteen, to be a prophet—but God told him from the beginning: “Oh, by the way, you’ll be speaking my word, but no one is going to believe you. . .”

I can speculate.

  • Perhaps this was simply God’s way to keep our family in Urbana, where we have lived now for 37 years, and where all of our children grew up. Maybe we needed certain blessings that would happen only here, or maybe one or more people in our family would touch other people’s lives here in vitally important ways. (This is my most likely explanation, but who knows?)
  • Maybe it was God from the beginning, and it was supposed to work out well, but somehow I screwed up in a royal way. Not unlikely.
  • Maybe it was God from the beginning, and it was supposed to work out well, but certain situations changed either in our family or in other people’s lives, and God decided that I should do something else (see the essay, God Is Flexible—God changes his mind).
  • Maybe none of the above, or maybe all of the above.

I have learned not to second-guess God. In the most important sense, it doesn’t matter what God intended about the entrepreneur thing. Or whether he changed his mind. Or whether I screwed up. Or even whether I mis-heard him at the very beginning; I am 99% confident that is not the case, but I’m willing to admit the possibility.

He has it all covered. I trust that in Jesus, God was reconciling to himself the entire creation, including my paltry employment history (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:20); that he has promised to take everything that happens in my life, and in my family, and even if it’s evil to turn it on its head and make it into a blessing because it will help us to become more like the Messiah (Romans 8:28-29). We can’t lose. As I’ve said in several other places on this website, it’s the only promise in the universe that seems too good to be true—but it is true!

I am sharing this story with you primarily to illustrate three important understandings:

 1. When we are willing to completely yield our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, he is quite capable of changing us in very dramatic ways in absurdly short periods of time.

2. Just because God leads you down a particular path, that doesn’t mean that path won’t disappear or hit roadblocks.

 3. It’s useless to overanalyze your experiences as you follow the Holy Spirit, especially if things seem to fall apart. Our calling is simply to fix our eyes on Jesus and follow the best way we can, leaving the results up to him. That’s true whether we get it right or whether we get it wrong. And if our expectations or our hopes shatter like broken crystal along the way and shards lie dangerously across the path, we must not look down at the broken pieces—for the danger lies in looking down, not in the presence of the shattered dreams. The Father will happily send his angels to sweep up the shards before they cut your feet. In the meantime, just keep looking in the face of the One who loves you and who has redeemed you and who is leading you to glory.