I knew nothing about running a coffee shop. In the first few days after opening, I came home with brown paper lunch bags sloshing with scrambled mounds of coins and paper bills from the day’s take. After eating dinner I would pour out the waterfall of money on the dining room table. It’s about as interesting as counting leaves on a tree when it comes to sorting and counting every coin and bill, then recording the amount for each currency type in an Excel spreadsheet. I could hear my inner voice chanting “Am I out of my mind for starting this business?”
The queue of tasks to plan and implement was never ending. Select a coffee roaster, tea provider, bakery, salads, food ingredients, menus, furniture, and on and on. We were fanatics about training our staff to make espresso drinks that could compete with the best in the coffee industry. Believe it or not we even sent our lead barista to a multi-day latte art class in Oregon. She then trained the rest of the staff, and most of our baristas would learn the art. Some would practice on their own time and created remarkable designs while trying to master this small and very difficult craft.
We created an experience that was pretty cool, at least that is what Lauren and I thought. We were encouraged that guests would tell us this as well. We called our patrons guests, because we wanted them to feel like they were visiting our home, where they would be welcomed and feel at ease. Leather chairs, sleek tables, a wine bar, salt water fish tank, art on walls painted in sage and yellow. I would spend an inordinate amount of time curating quotes to pair with photos I felt matched the context. These small, framed image accents were placed around the store for guests to happen upon them. One of my favorite quotes was from Jeanne d'Arc: “I am not afraid, I was born to do this.”
We named the cafe “Yellow Wood Coffee and Tea”, which was inspired by the poem “The Road Not Taken” by the American poet Robert Frost. In the poem he ponders a divergence in a hiking trail that morphs into two paths leading through a forest. He calls it a yellow wood because of the brilliant color show sprawling from the dense display of autumn leaves in the forest before him. One of the paths beneath his weathered leather boots is wider than the other, and well worn because of its inordinate use. Presumably that is the trail that most people take at this particular fork in the trail. I don’t think that this is the first time he has pondered this segue.
The adjacent split in the trail leads down a much narrower path that is overgrown with foliage. He concludes that the latter path is the one not many people take. Yet why not go down that path? Certainly it must be riskier, more uncertain, and perhaps dangerous. It definitely is not the “sure thing”, since obviously everyone is going the other way. The well worn path is probably the way to go. In the end he takes the the former, less traveled path, and declares that this is the one that made a markable difference, and he was glad for it.
Walking through the Yellow Wood in the poem depicts how Lauren and I have been walking through life together. We have never desired to do anything because “that’s what others normally do.” Taking the less worn path doesn’t have to be something big. Most often it is something quite small. It can be approaching someone at an event that no one else seems to want to talk to. Or becoming a friend to someone that isn’t “cool” in the eyes of others. Or giving time or money to serve others in need. Or investing yourself in areas that build relationships instead of buying more things for yourself, or upgrading your car, or working every weekend on your home. Yellow Wood became the name that would capture this spirit.
There was a lot riding on the success of Yellow Wood, so it seemed. What if we no one likes our coffee? What if we go bankrupt? What if it takes too much a toll on our family? The financial investment would turn out to be more significant than I anticipated. For our children, they were able to experience the excitement or starting and running a business, as well as the graphic details of setbacks and periods of discouragement.
Forging down a path that fewer people have ventured is a scary endeavor. Nothing is in plain sight. It’s like using a large stick to clear the dense forest in front of you for no more than a few feet. Step by step by step. Like walking in a dense fog, you are not sure where you are going as you let forward motion reveal an evolving story. The more steps you take, the more you realize the commitment.
Strangely enough, after being in the midst of the unknown for a while it doesn’t seem as daunting. Experiencing the vivid scenery flowing at you becomes something you now want to rush towards, rather than tread in timid hesitation. You can’t wait to see the story unfold faster. That is how trusting God often deepens - you have a front row seat to watching how He will shape your life, and you haven’t even seen the plan.
Taking the easy path is almost like choosing to just watch life pass by. Yet Lauren and I want to be in the game, to feel the coarseness of difficulty and elation with every victory. Each day I would remind myself to cling to God’s confident presence in the midst of our Yellow Wood journey by meditating on these words:
Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
God is giving the Israelites a command and a promise during times of turmoil and uncertainty. The command is not to be afraid and anxious. The promise is that he will help those who seek Him with the care of a loving Father. It is also a reminder of God’s power and the ocean of good that he has in store for us. Still, even with mediating on this truth each day, my gravitation towards anxiousness sometimes makes it challenging for me to take those next steps into the fog of life. Yet like a child who is helpless on his own, I am overwhelmed and grateful beyond words to have a God who reminds me in the most distressing times: “Do not be afraid, I am here too, I will give you the strength you don’t have, and I will help you.”
Lauren and I were moved by two desires with Yellow Wood. The first was to create an experience where people could enjoy being around each other in a cool environment. It would be a place of buzz and joy. The human interactions that occurred in this community would be completely given over to God, and that it would be the Holy Spirit, not any plan or production of our own that would lead to life changing events. We prayed that many lives would be changed by introductions, by conversations, by observations, by whatever God had in store. Like reclining in a movie theatre to watch the artistry of an epic movie that seems larger than life unfold, it would be a privilege to watch God work in this environment. We also desired to generate income for ourselves and a return for our own investment and that of our investors.
There are times when God places something in your heart and you can’t stop thinking about it. This was how Lauren and I felt with Yellow Wood. We felt prompted to create something beautiful and tend it. Over time, Lauren became the leader of Yellow Wood and I continued to work at my job at a software company. Concurrent with the startup of Yellow Wood, we also opened a upscale gift and home decor store called Sage. Sage was connected to Yellow Wood through french doors, and was a natural channel for people to wander between the two stores.
Talking with Lauren is like feeling the quiet ease of an oceanside drive with a horizon painted in silky soft hues overlooking the sun resting over the ocean, with a grandeur that is impossible to comprehend. The scenery is beautiful and you feel God’s peace and confident presence. The staff of thirty young adults (which included two of our kids) loved to be around her. She had a daily team scrum meeting to talk about goals for the day and to ensure any outstanding issues were addressed. She would also assign books to read, and then meet later to talk about what key lessons they observed.
Seeing Lauren weeping in the corner with one of the staff was not an uncommon site. Many of the team had never experienced this type of mentoring and love before. They were diverse in beliefs, boundaries, and backgrounds. Yet because of the culture that Lauren established, they supported and loved on each other.
Yellow Wood had an aura of freedom. I remember loving the morning experience. One of our baristas was an opera singer, and about 10 AM in the midst of crowds of guests that had filled the store from one end to another, Margaret would stand silent and still in the middle of the cafe with her stunning smile. The murmurs of a buzzing coffee shop would then give way to the sweetness of an entrancing melodic libretto. Her virtuosity was obvious, as all but the song became silent. Almost in a trance, Yellow Wood guests would listen to every note, and then when the aria was complete, they would erupt to applause and persistent coaxing for an encore. This was pure joy being lived out. I’m convinced it could have been the only joy experienced that day to many who were despairing and happened to walk in the doors of Yellow Wood.
There was this one guy who was a retired pastor named Ken. He was writing a book, and would come in to Yellow Wood every day and sit at the same table. He would work on his book, drink coffee after coffee, and eat breakfast and lunch at Yellow Wood. One story I remember talking with him about how was when he was writing and a complete stranger sitting next to him leaned over to ask him what he was doing. He said he was writing a book.
Then the person asked what kind? He would find out he Ken was a pastor, and soon this person would be gushing their life onto Ken, explaining how his marriage was falling apart. This scenario would play itself out many times, and Ken would end up counseling many people through no agenda other than sitting at a table writing his book. He would tell Lauren and I that he was always just sitting there minding his own business. That’s how the Holy Spirit works. There was no preaching or forcing words. It was God leading these people to talk to Ken, and Ken making himself available to be pulled out of the concentration it takes to write a book by being tapped on the shoulder by a stranger.
In many ways we grew the businesses significantly over five and a half years. But when our lease was up at the same time the economy went into a massive recession, our financial position led to the sad decision to to close the doors. The landlord was continuing to raise the rent, and the largest anchor tenant two doors down moved out, which resulted in a significant loss in foot traffic revenue. It was excruciating to shut down the businesses. The sacred community that called Yellow Wood their home literally mourned with us during that last month. One frequent guest even produced a video to appeal to the landlord to give us a break on rent to help ride out the recession.
We decided to throw a huge party in the final days to help bring closure with our Yellow Wood and Sage family. Turning out the lights for the last time was painful, as our whole family felt like one of our own had died. We continued to mourn. It was arduous at first to move on. But we have, and our hearts are at peace to this day. Yellow Wood and Sage were a painting of beauty that God used for a season. We are so grateful that God put this on our hearts and included us in this journey.
To remind us of this walk in the fog with God, we bought a large, framed picture from a local artist. It’s a scene of a endemic Oak forest in the midst of an extremely thick fog. We placed this picture in the entrance to our store so that we could be reminded of our journey into the unknown with God each time we walked in. Many of our guests have commented how much they liked the art, and we’ve shared the meaning of it to people of numerous faith and life experiences. The picture is now displayed in the family room in our house, and not a day goes by where I don’t look at that scene and think of how God has repeatedly led us through experiences where we could not see what was in front of us.
The story of the Israelites finally entering the Promised Land is one of many Old Testament accounts that demonstrate trusting God to lead them into the unknown. After wandering in the wilderness for forty years and coming to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses passed away, and Joshua was put in charge of leading the people of Israel. God told Joshua that the immense, abundant land just across the river from where he was standing would be given to the Israelites. But in the process of seizing this land, they would encounter confrontations with the current inhabitants.
Planning and entering into many battles was an unfamiliar, daunting, and formidable mission, but God said that He would provide victory if they trusted Him as they went into clashes to take the land he had promised for the Israelites. God could have supernaturally moved the inhabitants into submission and avoided any conflict, but He wanted His people to enter into situations that would give them opportunities to trust Him for the victory.
Joshua led the Israelites into a fog. The outcome was known to God, but unknown and extremely intimidating to the people. But when they trusted God for every step, every battle, and every situation where they were not sure what to do, they were successful. The times they did not trust, but instead tried to shape their own way, they suffered defeat and loss.
This is a model of the life available to us today if we trust the Holy Spirit. God does not just snap His fingers and give us a great life fashioned by our own design. Rather, as we trust the guiding of the Holy Spirit, we experience an abundant, joyful life that only can be comprehended through a relationship freely given to us by God.
Here are God’s words to Joshua, instructing him on how to enter the unknown:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
It’s hard to be courageous when we can’t see or be in control. Sometimes you just want to walk away. Sometimes it’s easier to wander. Yet we have a Lord who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.” So then we can travel boldly down untrodden paths in the fog with our Lord. Perhaps that is why I have come to love the sight of it.