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Mark Twain was on top of the world. 

In 1861 he officially became a riverboat captain on the Mississippi. 

Piloting a steamboat combined adventure, danger, and the sheer romance of chugging up and down the longest river in North America. It was lucrative, too. Historians estimate that riverboat captains were the third highest paid professionals in the country.

Twain’s own name was an expression of his affection for life on the water. Born as Samuel Clemens, he learned the skill of measuring the river’s depth as his boat approached a potential docking site.

Heavy rope, which was calibrated in fathoms (about six feet), was let down into the water.  If the mate called out “Mark One!” it meant the boat was floating in only six feet of water. Everyone on board would groan. A fathom wasn’t deep enough for docking.

But if the rope went down 12 feet, the mate would cry “Mark Twain!” (that is, two marks on the rope). Excitement would grip the crew. The river was deep enough for docking, which meant it was only a matter of minutes before they could charge ashore and hit the saloons. 

As literary historian Elliot Engel points out, Samuel Clemens took for himself a name that essentially meant Good Times Ahead.

Becoming a riverboat captain was no easy task. Candidates literally had to memorize every detail of the Mississippi. That’s because about half the deliveries at river ports took place at night. Steamboats couldn’t use lanterns, because sparks might ignite the lightweight, highly flammable timber that was used in their construction. 

Without ambient light, the river was dark. “You weren’t legally blind,” Twain once said. “You were totally blind.” At any given moment, a captain motoring in pitch blackness had to know exactly where he was, give or take a few feet.

Therefore a riverboat captain wannabe had to study and memorize, yard by yard, all 2,357 miles of the Mississippi River.

But that was literally just the half of it. The river has an east bank and a west bank. They are not at all the same. The pilot competency test required an intimate knowledge of both sides, or a total of 4,714 miles. 

Twain meticulously studied the river for two years. He passed the test on his first attempt. He was now on his way to living out a lifelong dream, and to be richly rewarded for his diligence.

His maiden voyage was April 10, 1861. Two days later Rebel troops began shelling Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. On April 14, President Abraham Lincoln declared war on the Confederacy. 

The South immediately closed the portion of the Mississippi River that ran through their territory, banning travel of any kind. Lincoln responded by closing the rest of the river which ran through the North.

Just like that, Twain’s dream died.   

Our dreams can end just that quickly, too.

Someone who promised to love you announces a change of heart.
Without warning, your job vanishes.
Your doctor says, “We’d like to run some more tests. As soon as possible.”
An irreplaceable person dies.
The project to which you’ve given years of your life hits the wall.
You have to empty your savings account to pay this month’s bills. 

Your life just got tougher.

But your life isn’t over.

Mark Twain lost his chance to make his living as a riverboat captain, for which generations of book lovers have been profoundly grateful. Otherwise we might never have experienced his literary brilliance.

It’s astonishing how often jarring redirections mark the lives of the Bible’s “heroes.”

Abraham must start over in a new land at age 70.
Jacob, in terror and shame, flees home for years of personal exile.
Joseph is sold into slavery and unjustly abandoned in prison.
Ruth is widowed and forced to glean fields just to survive.
David, chosen by God, must run for his life from King Saul.
Jeremiah is jailed for delivering God’s warnings.
Daniel is exiled and forced to serve a pagan king.
Jesus’ disciples are whiplashed from joy to sorrow to grief, then back to joy.
Saul of Tarsus, knocked flat, discovers he has been on the wrong path.
Mary and Joseph parent a child whose origin their neighbors and families will never understand.

Not one of those women and men ended up living the lives they thought they were going to live. But they all ended up in places that God used to bless the world.

Can you be absolutely certain that there are Good Times Ahead in your near future?

No.  But you can know this:

Wherever you are going right now, God is going ahead of you. 

And sometimes we have to lose our deepest dream so that God’s dreams for us can come true.