A Dirty Ditch Transformed into a New River – The Power of Vision

August 23, 2012

Vision / Leadership

I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.  –  Isaiah 41:18

He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs                       – Psalms 107:35

When I was a kid growing up, we would often drive by it on the highway. For the most part it was an eyesore. They called it the North Canadian River but the seven mile stretch that ran through Oklahoma City was a drainage ditch at best. Over the years, it had become an abandoned dirty, dusty little ditch that almost no one visited.

But someone had a vision that it could be something more.

Today, where there was barely any water a few years ago stands a river lined with state of the art boathouses and a first class Olympic training facility used by US Kayak & Canoe and Rowing along with other high performance athletes.  In a part of town that people avoided and were once afraid to visit, you will find trails outlining the river where individuals, families and friends are bicycling and running.
And the trickle that you would barely have called a creek much less a river is flowing with water.  At almost all hours of the day and evening you can now see rowers training, kayaks and boats as well as a few people casually fishing along the river.
Last week, I was privileged to have a tour of the main facilities lining what is now called the “Oklahoma River”. One of the guys that runs with the OKC Landrunners, which I trained with for my first marathon last year, is named Joe.  Joe Jacobi is a former Olympic gold medalist (Barcelona games) who is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. He is currently the CEO of USA Olympic Kayak and Canoe.  Joe graciously gave me, along with my good friend and fellow runner Pastor Jim, an enthusiastic tour.  Joe’s excitement for what is taking place along the river is contagious.

As someone who grew up in OKC and lived far away for a number of years, it was honestly almost mind-blowing to see a Maryland man speak in such wonderful terms about the river sports and their future in Oklahoma City.   I mean, you are supposed to see rowers and kayaks in Annapolis, Boston, New York and San Diego but not in Oklahoma. Yet, along with the new river and the investment has come rowers. Oklahoma City University, the University of Oklahoma and others have teams training on the river. I just learned that my own alma mater, Southern Nazarene University, will have a team themselves in the near future. And next month the Oklahoma River will again host a Regatta where Harvard and the best of the best from around the country will compete here in Oklahoma City.

He didn’t say it exactly but I left my tour with Joe last week with a simple idea stuck in my head, “The power of vision”. And as I’ve marinated on that idea the past week, I’d like to share just a few concepts that I think apply to areas in which we all live, work and minister.  Although I’m writing about the OKC River and water sports you should easily be able to make the jump to the applicable principals for life, work and ministry.

Vision creates opportunities that previous didn’t exist and seeks to enlist people in possibilities that they didn’t even know were possible

A sixteen year old Kayaker from Jones Oklahoma was only 20 seconds behind the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and can’t wait to improve for the next Olympics in Brazil. Jones, Oklahoma? Are you kidding me? A decade ago, rowing and kayaking would have been likely been unheard of anywhere in Oklahoma. Maybe he could have been competing at the rodeo or his school’s FFA. Maybe on his high school football team or baseball team.  But a future Olympic contender from Jones, Oklahoma in Kayaking? That’s only happening because someone had vision. As Oklahoma children continue to be exposed to the river, kayaking, rowing and the various possibilities, Joe expects there to be a lot more US Olympians from Oklahoma involved in water sports in the near future who are competing at the highest of levels in the world.

Vision sees what others can’t see and it often begins with a small minority                         along with some loud opposition

The vision for the Oklahoma River didn’t start with Joe.  Along time ago, a handful of people saw potential around the city and in the muddy water bed.  Ron Norick,  an OKC mayor in the 90’s and a few others had a dream to develop projects around the city including the river in a plan they called MAPs (Metropolitan Area Projects). They did their best to convince voters around the city of the possibilities. Many were opposed to raising taxes and fought against the proposal. Even with their best efforts in selling the idea, it barely passed with just over 50% approval. (Yet, any type of new tax getting passed in this red state where the word taxes is often only muttered in the same sentence along with words such socialism and communism was pretty amazing). With momentum and progress, future projects in MAPS II and Maps III passed rather easily. Today you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that they originally opposed the idea. However, the truth is that if they had waited that first time to get 100% or even 2/3 rd’s majority for approval, none of the progress of MAPS would have ever happened.  Fortunately a few had the vision and took the chance at casting it for others to see.

Vision involves investment and risk for those who are willing to “buy in”

The voters had to agree to a sales tax for the initial investment.  That created momentum.  Yet, the World Class facilities that have been built and attracted the attention of the US Olympic teams, only happened as some of the local energy companies bought in and were willing to invest heavily themselves.

Momentum can lead to synergistic results that are sometimes greater than the initial vision.

As big as his vision was, it’s highly doubtful that mayor Norick back in the 90’s would have ever guessed that OKC would host the US Olympic trials and training facilities.  Or that in state known for it’s collegiate football teams, almost ever major college and university in the surrounding area would add new water sports teams competing regularly on the river.  Or that by 2014, there will be five world class boat houses and training facilities, a youth center that includes rock climbing and indoor surfing, along with an external Olympic Whitewater Kayaking course and Center (almost identical to the one used in the very recent London Olympics) built adjacent to the river.

Vision can be a “game-changer”

The head of a major energy company in OKC asked Joe a simple question. How can we invest in a way that will be a “game-changer” for your sport? OKC has hosted the first ever “night-time” competition on the waters. The athletes love it as they can compete in front of crowds of thousands. Next year, permanent lighting will be in place to host night time river races any day of the year. The new four story all glass building and the Olympic and OK RiverSports headquarters looks something like out of Star Trek. In it, is box seating for a great view of the river as well as cameras and video equipment that can host a live feed over the internet for any race.   Joe, says that what is happening in his sport are things that he only dreamed might one day be possible when he was young.

All of this is happening along a beautiful river that was barely a pitiful little puddle only a few years ago.

Lingering Questions

My tour last week has had my head spinning with some significant questions.

The truth is that while I have been blessed to know a few men and women who have had great vision, I’ve also known my share of leaders whom that for whatever reasons seemed content with the ditch and creek in front of them and no longer possessed the ability to see what just might be possible with God’s help and vision. They weren’t bad people. Most of them passionately love God and people.   Whether they were tired and worn out, had given up hope, were just trying to please other people or just too busy putting out fires; somewhere along the way, they seemed to have lost their vision for an abundant life giving river (if they ever had it). Unfortunately, what once was and what is has blocked their ability to visualize what yet can be.

In truth, I know we all have dry seasons where the river and all its potential is more difficult to see.  And my fear is that I’ve had more of those seasons than I would care to admit.

Of course, having a vision of our own manufacturing isn’t enough.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit and a God given vision to see dry beds become rivers and deserts springing to life.  But my hope and prayer is to always be the kind of man with whom God can entrust His vision for what a dying ditch can one day become.

As I look to the next few years and next phase of my life, one of the questions that I want to ask is for vision from God in order to see life giving rivers where there are currently barely flowing and dried up ditches.  To be in a place and have the vision that He can use me.

Another question that I am now is asking is “what are the game-changers”  both in my personal life and in ministry that need to take place?

So, I’ll ask you what I’m asking myself.

Can you see a river?  What apparently dry river beds and ditches might God be calling you to see in fresh ways?  What are the game-changers that could have the most effect in your life, in your family, in your work and/or in your ministry?  

And if you’ve recently experienced a significant “game-changer” whether big or small that has had an impact on your life and/or ministry then I’d encourage you to share and post a comment below.  

 1-2 God grabbed me. God’s Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them—a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain—dry bones, bleached by the sun.  

3 He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

    I said, “Master God, only you know that.”

 4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the Message of God!'”

– Ezekiel 37:1-4

“Where the river flows, life abounds”  – Ezekiel 47

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