Fifty!

 To me celebrating birthdays is like getting a new stamp in your “Passport of Significance” as you cross each border; sweet sixteen, adult eighteen, legal-to-drink-alcohol twenty-one, threshold thirty, every decade following and the years in between.  Each year I commit to celebrating mine for the entire month of October, except on Halloween, and often have different events and outings planned with family and different circles of friends months in advance.

 The office where I worked usually celebrated birthdays with potlucks, and on my birthday I made sure the potluck was over the top!  One year I roasted a whole turkey and brought side dishes; another I baked a different cake every day for the entire week of my birthday, and each year I would make my ‘wish list’ of favorite potluck dishes known to all and sundry because as much I love to cook and bake, everyone knew it would be a win-win situation when their birthday came around.

I turned 50 years-old this past week without any of my usual fanfare or fireworks, and though I felt just as excited about this milestone birthday as I do every year, I deliberately chose not to instigate or plan any celebration.  Instead, it was time to face down the unhealthy combination of fear, insecurity and pride (portions may vary), that says, “If I don’t do it, nobody will”; more specifically, that no one would care enough to celebrate with me and I would find myself home alone watching Jeopardy on my 50th birthday…no new stamp in my “Passport of Significance”.

That did not happen! Instead this birthday will forever remain in my memory as one of the most significant, deeply moving, liberating, and healing experiences of my life, not because of the number 50, but because of the gift God gave me from and through people in my life who cause my toughest challenges, bring my greatest reward, and are my only treasure in this life. 

There was the friend who found out I had nothing planned and on very short notice arranged for a group of friends to meet at a local restaurant for a delicious dinner, punctuated with lots of stories and laughter.  After dessert… and the game two World Series win by the San Francisco Giants baseball team…priorities…priorities,.. it was all business.  I listened with a full heart as each of these people, who had taken time out of their very busy lives to celebrate mine, prayed for a specific area of my life; children, work, relationships, and so on, and promised to continue to pray even after my birthday was over.  Unforgettable!

There were quite a few text messages wishing me a ‘Happy Birthday’ on ‘the day’, and forty-nine people posted birthday greetings on my Facebook timeline, but the first one to make me cry was from a young lady who was one of the teenagers I mentored when I was in my early twenties.

“What would I be today if God hadn’t planted stubborn discipleship leaders in my life like you?  I value the times we shared together. And I pray that as you continue to invest in the lives of those around you God would continue to invest more of Himself and ‘X’ amount ah (of) blessings and favor in your life and your loved ones… I know Michelle, Lavern and I were a handful!”

Affirmation!

Then yesterday my brother made me an awesome birthday brunch, complete with mimosas and my favorite fried plantains, and without any pomp or circumstance the final piece of the 50th birthday puzzle fell into place. It was only last year that we reconnected after being out of touch for thirty-five years; eight of which he spent in a persistent search for me.  We have the same father but each grew up as the only child of different single mothers.  From our first three-hour conversation till today, the connection was deep and immediate, and our similarities are uncanny.   He is a super-smart, totally ‘chill’ version of me and an entirely different kind of stamp in my “Passport of Significance”. 

 For so much of my life I was never able to clearly identify or rectify the nagging, pervasive loneliness that would show up at the most unexpected times in my life; birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas,…no matter who I was with, the minute things got quiet, there it was; like a shroud. We had sat down to brunch with his family and my youngest daughter when the conversation turned to plans to celebrate Thanksgiving together, and suddenly it hit me…the shroud is gone; my heart suddenly feels whole and overflowing with gratitude.  Happy Birthday me!

 That hole in my heart that exacerbated my fear and insecurity has been completely repaired.  Indeed, God has given me the best 50th birthday present; “far beyond what I could ask or imagine”.  He used different people, in different ways to fill the empty space, seal it and make the thing whole again, and now it is up to me to live like Paul:

 “…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” Philippians 3:13-14

 So, here’s the thing, I woke up on my 50th birthday with this song in my head and it has become my anthem:

When I Think about the Lord,

How He saved me, how He raised me,
how He filled me, with the Holy Ghost.
How He healed me, to the uttermost.
When I Think about the Lord,
how He picked me up and turned me around,
how He placed my feet on solid ground
It makes me wanna shout,
Hallelujah,
Thank you JESUS,
LORD, you’re worthy, of all the glory, and all the honor,
and all the praise…

 So, if you come across me and I am humming it, singing it quietly or loudly, with hands raised and body swaying, just smile and nod; this “squirming concoction of misfit parts” has had a life-changing initiation into the Fabulous Fifties club and I’m still…just living the thing.

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My people, my people

Home Sweet Home

If you have never visited the Caribbean island of Jamaica, you have my permission to put that on your bucket list immediately. I may be a little biased since I spent the majority of my first twenty-five years of life on the island, but even after you factor in any ‘alleged’ bias; it is still one of the best places you could visit, especially if you go with a Jamaican, or go to visit a Jamaican.

Most tourists visit just for the WARM tropical climate, or the WARM, clearwaters of the Caribbean Sea, in brilliant shades of blues and greens, or the beautiful WARM beaches, stretching for miles of powdery white sand, or the perpetually lush, green vegetation, or delicious fast food sold in colorful, creatively-decorated shacks along roadsides; all of that you can find on a myriad of other tropical islands…well maybe not the food shacks…those are definitely unusual.

Jamaican Fast Food

On your visit to Jamaica however, you must promise to make every effort to get to know the people, because it is very possible that after God made my people, He broke the mold…on purpose.

Recently I watched a documentary on the history of the slave trade and learned that ship captains headed to America would often drop off their most troublesome slaves on the island of Jamaica…hmmmmmm…you think?!  Jamaica had one of the highest instances of slave uprisings of any Caribbean island, and long before slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, large numbers of slaves were continually escaping up into the mountainous interior of the island.  They established large, self-sufficient, and well-armed communities of people called Maroons, whose resourcefulness and guerilla- warfare tactics gave the British soldiers and plantation-owners fits!

Then, as now, Jamaicans are a fiercely independent people, who feel no compulsion to remain subservient to any status quo that at best makes no sense, or at worst is a travesty.  We are notoriously authentic, so what you see is what you get…at least 99.999% of the time. While we may have our own unique brand of mental health issues, they are rarely rooted in “hiding our true feelings”, “suffering in silence”, or “pretending to be someone I am not”. As a matter of fact, if you do not want to hear the truth about something; your life, friends, or an outfit you are wearing…do not ask a Jamaican.

When I moved to the United States just over twenty-four years, my culture shock had little to do with the way of life, the food, or even the weather at the beaches in northern California…(though I am still a little traumatized by that!).   Instead, it was primarily a reaction triggered when people were always so nice, so polite, and so friendly in the way they treated you…just before they stabbed you in the back.  The lack of authenticity so deeply ingrained in the way people behaved in almost every relationship, even among the Christians, made me confused, depressed and desperately homesick for my crazy, loud, cantankerous, but always ‘keeping it real’ Jamaican people.

Today I have dual citizenship because I love my adopted country as much as I love the island where I was born, and was excessively proud the day I watched my son take the oath to defend these United States of America, “from all enemies, foreign and domestic”, as a member of the Army National Guard. 

Over years I have met people born here who could move to Jamaica tomorrow and fit right in because they have the authenticity thing down pat.  However, I find that I still struggle to walk the fine line between an inherent desire to practice authenticity, and the reality that always ‘keeping it real’ is too often ineffective and counter-productive in this culture, to our detriment.

It is comforting that the word ‘truth’ is so frequently used to describe the character and essence of every member of the Godhead.  The Holy Spirit is described as “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:1, 15:26 and 16:13), Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and told us He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), and Moses wrote about God, the Father,

“He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He.”  Deuteronomy 32:4 (italics mine)

The Bible itself is irrefutable evidence that God ‘keeps it real’, because if His intention was solely to win our acceptance and approval, He would have left out things that ‘god-wannabes’ might find offensive, and ‘fudged’ the truth on some things He left in there. 

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul was adamant that unity, growth and maturity in relationships among Christians begin with “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)

“Therefore, rejecting all falsity, and being done now with it, let everyone express the truth with his neighbor, for we are all parts of one body and members of one another” Ephesians 4:25, Amplified Bible

So here’s the thing, practicing authenticity is risky and takes courage, but where there is not authenticity, there is not love…certainly not the kind of love we need to survive and thrive in Christian community. 

“Rather, let our lives lovingly express truth (in all things, speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly).  Enfolded in love, let us grow up in every way and in all things unto Him Who is the Head, (even) Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One).  Ephesians 4: 15 Amplified Bible.

In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brené Brown quotes E. E. Cummings:

“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight – and never stop fighting.”

So go ahead; start planning your trip to Jamaica, and every day of life have the courage to show up and be real; make the conscious choice to practice authenticity and …just keep living the thing.

Memories

The other day we found an old photograph of my now 23 year-old daughter and her now 24 year-old boyfriend playing in the dirt together back when they were 4 and 5 years old respectively.  Everybody say….”Awwwwwwww!” Since then we have found a few more childhood pictures of them together and, should they ever end up getting married, we will have the coolest pictures ever to show at the reception!

Of course, the nostalgia generated by that first picture sent us searching through all our old pictures, resulting in an evening of unexpected entertainment consisting mainly of hysterical laughter at old hairstyles and clothes, shrieks of “Get rid of that!”, at the toothless smiles and awkwardness of elementary school years, and the usual “Oooo’s”, and “Awww’s” that baby pictures inevitably generate. 

Just so you know, most of our pictures are in one huge plastic bin; not in snazzy Creative Memories photo books, not in cutesy scrapbooks or even old-fashioned photo albums; nope, they are all in a huge plastic bin with a blue lid that I bought on sale, at Target. I know, I ought to be ashamed, but I can explain.

You see the plastic bin full of pictures is part of my retirement plan; that, and my intention to become all of the Golden Girls rolled into one spitfire of an old lady, living in a warm tropical climate somewhere.  I plan to be wise and rational like Dorothy, as caring and loving as Rose, to dress like Blanche…no elastic-waist polyester pants for me, and like Sophia I will say the most outrageous things, just to keep life interesting for everybody. 

Then during the hours when my old body needs to rest so it can catch up with my active, fast-paced retirement life, I am going to bust out the plastic bin with the blue lid, bask in the memories, creatively organize the pictures and take the advice of Charles Hamilton Aïdé, to:

“… pray for wisdom yet; for calmness to remember, or courage to forget.”

An interesting things about memories is that, just like the pictures in the plastic bin, some are true treasures; parts of our history that ought to be preserved and cherished, while others are flotsam and jetsam; also part of our history, but inherently useless and unproductive that just need to be thrown away or set aside while we get on with the business of life. Wisdom gives us the ability to differentiate between the two.

Do you ever wonder why it is so easy to forget the good memories from our past, but the ones that cause so much hurt and pain refuse to just shut up and go away?  And, why is it so hard to define ourselves by memories of good experiences we have had, but so much easier to let memories of horrible things said and done in the past define and direct our present and future? 

The good news is that this is one of those rare situations where the answer to that “Why?” is not very important; what is important is that we have the power to choose which memories we will keep and use, and which ones we will refuse to put in the scrapbook we are creating today.

The Bible is full of examples of the ying and yang of remembering and forgetting.  When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after about 400 years of slavery, he told them,

“Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand…” Exodus 13:3

They should have listened to him, because the journey that should have taken about 11 days took 40 years, because they repeatedly forgot the things they were supposed to remember, and remembered the things they were supposed to forget.

Over in the New Testament Paul talked about his life:

“…this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14

And Paul is one who knew the importance of remembering and forgetting because his past was littered with ignorance, arrogance, and murder.  In fact, when he was still called Saul, he stood by holding the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death, just because he believed in Jesus. How many times do you think that memory came back to haunt Paul as over and over he preached the same gospel for which Stephen had been stoned to death.

Paul went on to become the most effective evangelist, and defender of Christianity this world has ever known because of his ability to forget the horrible memories of his complicity in the murder and persecution of Christians. He chose instead to remember his life-changing encounter with Jesus Himself on the Damascus road, which set Paul on an entirely new path to fulfill his true calling and purpose.

So, here’s the thing, when memories come knocking at you door do yourself a favor and take a look through the peephole first.  If they are the ones that come to condemn: to destroy your faith, crush your hope and leave you too crippled with hurt, guilt and fear to take another step into your future, do not open the door and invite them in for tea and a chat!  No!  Lock the door, turn the deadbolt, slide the chain into place and ignore the knocking till they go away.  This is not the time to be hospitable and entertaining. 

If however, the memories knocking on your door are the ones that encourage and strengthen you, restore your confidence and feed your faith and trust in God, do invite those ones in to sit awhile and reminisce.  They will provide exactly what you need to rise from where you may have fallen, to strap on your armor and courageously take the next step on your journey; to… just live the thing.

A dream…within a dream…

The OLPC XO

Nicholas Negroponte is a man with an amazing dream to put a free laptop in the hands of every child, even in the most remote and impoverished regions of the world. His dream began in the remote village of Reaksmy, Cambodia with its dirt roads, no electricity or running water and 40 miles from the nearest town.  His family had built a school, provided a solar-powered satellite, and given every child a free laptop so they could access the worldwide web.  Soon there was absolutely nothing else going on that was as cool as school.

Back in the United States, Nicholas took a leave of absence from his job as a professor at MIT and founded the non-profit organization, One Laptop Per Child, (OLPC).  His team of engineers and programmers set about designing and producing a laptop that was simple to use, powerful, and sturdy enough stand up to conditions in Third World countries; the result was a computer revolution called the XO; a seriously powerful laptop, impervious to dirt, sand, or water damage.

It appeals to children everywhere because it looks like a toy, with cute little ‘ears’ which are really radio antennas that give it two or three times the Wi-Fi range of most laptops. Batteries provide ten to twelve hours of use and can be recharged with a hand crank, and the screen can be viewed outdoors in full daylight.  You could be in a hut in Timbuktu and as long as there is a solar-powered satellite receiver somewhere in that region, you would be able to access live coverage of any event, going on anytime, anywhere in the world.

So there I was watching this heart-warming story on an episode of 60 Minutes, and getting all emotional about “illuminating the lives of children and their families”.  In some remote areas, the light from the screen on these laptops was often the only light in the house, and because of them, entire villages now had access to life-altering information, learning opportunities, and hope for a better life for their children.

Suddenly, without warning I felt a kind of jolt in my brain, as if something had clicked into place, so strongly I was scrambling to find my Bible so I could look up a story of another man who had a dream about the future, while he was exiled on an island called Patmos.  His entire dream is recounted in the book of Revelation, but I was looking for something specific.

In the beginning of his book John writes:

“Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him.  And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him…”  Revelation 1:7 (Italics mine)

As clear as day, over nineteen hundred years ago, this disciple of Jesus Christ, describes an event where every person in the entire world, “in all the tribes of the earth”, would be able to view in real time, something happening thousands of miles away from their spot on the planet, even in Reaksmy, Cambodia.

Such a thing was not possible when my mother was born and not even conceivable when my grandparents, or great-grandparents were born, yet John saw it. His prophecy appeared implausible and even impossible for hundreds of years, until the invention of satellites, receivers, computers, and now laptops that can be powered with a hand crank.  Once again, science and technology was playing catch-up with the Bible. 

So there I sat watching Nicholas Negroponte who, it is very possible, has never even read the book of Revelation in all his life, describe his own dream, and his determination to see it come to pass. 

“The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.”  Proverbs 16:9

Whether Mr. Negroponte knew it or not, his dream fit perfectly within John’s dream; a prophetic revelation he received about things that would happen towards the end of time.  John was experiencing what was perhaps the loneliest and most discouraging time of his life; most of his friends had been tortured and killed, and he had been boiled in oil and then exiled on this barren island, so he was having a baaaaaaad day, week, year even, and had every reason to doubt all he had seen, heard, and believed.  Then, on one of those very bad days he heard that familiar voice he knew so very well say,

“Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.  Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”  Revelation 1:17-19

The revelation John was about to receive would blow his mind and ours, as he saw things coming in the future which he had no way to describe.  For example, how would he describe Negroponte’s computer if he saw one in his dream, and when he writes about ‘locusts’ made of iron that had “tails like scorpions and there were stings in their tails”, (Revelation 9:9-10), is it possible he was trying to describe an Apache Attack helicopter?  Poor guy! Nevertheless, you can be sure that when the dream was over and he set about writing down what he had seen, he wrote with renewed confidence, renewed hope and new confirmation of the truth he believed.

So here’s the thing, well, there are two things.  First, God does not lie, so everything John saw and wrote down will come to pass, whether it seems impossible or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we like it or not.

“…no purpose of Yours can be withheld from you.” Job 42:2

Second, dream your God-given dreams without fear or favor.  Don’t let loneliness or discouragement stop you from hearing the voice of One who is “alive forevermore”.  Embrace your purpose with confident hope and… just live the thing.