Crossing the Midline – Life Act II

My friend, Gretchen, left us all this blessing on her bathroom mirror. “You’re going to be OK”

Our lives are our stories. If 50 is the end of Act I and the next Act is about to begin, then these short moments right now are my intermission and I’m pausing to reflect on my first Act. Typically, Act I introduces the characters and setting and then leaves you hanging with a problem.  Act II is usually shorter and ends in resolution (and often a pretty good song and dance number, too).

Yesterday was my friend’s funeral/celebration of life. It reminded me that our world is broken as evidenced by her tragic death, and by the numerous bumps and bruises we all experience in our lives.  In the Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, my favorite part is when Marlin is lamenting  that he didn’t do his job to protect his son.

Marlin:   I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

It is so true. Good and bad things happen to us and other people…and we have no choice sometimes but to let them. I loved the message at her service …be joyful, enjoy every beautiful moment, give your life to the things that matter, and use the gifts you’ve been given.  She did, despite the harder things that happened in her life. Her legacy speaks volumes. Act II for her was 7 days. Was there a resolution for her second Act? Yes.

She left us all with the blessing (above) for our lives. (It figures it would be from a book called Numbers. Math teachers!)

And now here I am. I’ve made it across a line…I’m not sure if it’s actually my true midline, but I do know one thing…. I’m going to be OK.

What We Do Matters: A Revelation

Move over Justin Timberlake. This lady can out dance you any day of the week…even Super Bowl Sunday.

Revelation isn’t a book in the Bible most people look at with fondness. In fact, it is one of those books more likely to elicit nightmares, good sci-fi, or wild, fear-driven testimonials.  It is also a book frequently misunderstood. But this week, as I listened to a Revelation sermon in the car (having missed church), I heard its meaning loud and clear. The message: what we do matters.

How we treat people. How we treat our world. How we respond….it matters. Not because some set of good works saves you from a fiery pit in Hades (because it doesn’t), but because what we do each day matters or can matter in the life of another. And that….that is what life is all about.

Today I had a conversation with one of my bosses. After almost nine years working in an office next to mine, I am amazed how little she understands me—who I am and what I care about. I told her I could care less about climbing the corporate ladder. And so, she asked me, “What do I care about, if I don’t care about my career?” I told her…helping people. It is that simple. Helping people on our team. Helping our clients. Helping people in our center. Helping people in our company. Helping people in our world. Like circles forming ever outward from a pebble thrown into the lake.  Tiny pebbles matter. Details matter. Little things matter because big things matter.

I missed the sermon on Revelation this Sunday because on my way to church, I pulled over to help a stranded driver. As I towed his broken car to a nearby parking lot, I noticed he wasn’t alone in his vehicle. His wife was in the passenger seat. It was 12 °F. And, come to find out he had three kids under the age of five in the car, as well. No repair shops were open and they were miles from home (Canada). Stuck. I invited them to stay with us and we helped them get their car running again. A new battery, an alternator fix, seven grilled cheeses, and some long games of “pirates on trains” later, they were ready for the road. By morning, the family was on their way to Arizona, as planned. We will likely never cross paths again, but our stories will ripple out and out and out. How we treat people…it matters.

What do my kids’ old Fisher Price pirate ship, Brio train tracks, and Playmobil miners make? One very big adventure for these two little Saskatchewaneans.

It also happened to be Super Bowl Sunday this weekend, and as is tradition, our youth group made 200 lunches and spent the day handing them out to homeless folks downtown—people sleeping outside, without nachos or big screen TVs. We also handed out hand-knitted scarves and hats. My favorite gift was to an older lady who was elated to get the chicken hat. I don’t think she was homeless, but it didn’t matter. She loved that hat. She started doing the chicken dance with us. No Super Bowl commercial could have competed with the smile on her face. People….they matter.

As I walked down the street, one of the high school youth turned to me and said, “This makes me happy and it makes me sad. The last guy I gave a lunch to said he hadn’t eaten in five days. I gave him two lunches! Can you believe we thought it was hard to go a whole day without food?”

I nodded in agreement. Speechless. I couldn’t have said it better. Walking downtown with youth, contemplating how fragile life is….it matters.

I am so grateful tonight for my warm bed, my family, my life, and the chances I’m given every single day to live out my purpose. What a revelation.

Hunger Pains

Lesson for the week: Hunger can be good and bad.

Are you hungry? Many of us are on new 2018 “diets” and we know the deep rumble in our stomachs. It’s the bad kind of hunger. The kind that hurts and nothing can quench it (at least nothing that won’t make you feel bad about yourself for failing). Or the kind that is unquenchable because your cupboards are bare. Hunger isn’t always about food, but after running a 30-hour famine retreat with my youth group this weekend, I can tell you sometimes it has everything to do with food. For 815 million people around the world, hunger is a way of life. Malnutrition is responsible for half of all deaths of children under age 5. Sobering. Are you hungry?

Many people around the world walk several hours a day to get water just to quench their thirst, and when they return, there is only water for dinner.

Hunger can also sometimes make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. Last week I was hungry for a nap. After late nights of working and a long plane flight for business, I hungered for just a few minutes of sleep. While waiting for the front desk to text me that my room was ready, I fell asleep by the pool of my fancy hotel. The security guards thought I was a homeless person and put me under “house arrest” until I could produce an alibi. Once I did, they left, with no apology. The front desk heard about the incident and when I finally got to my room there was a bottle of champagne, macaroons and a handwritten apology from the manager. The range of emotions was broad and deep. (I actually wanted to take the champagne outside and share it with all the homeless people.) Hunger. It makes you do things you normally wouldn’t do.

Hungry for rest? This is a nice place to lay your head. Or maybe not.

Hunger sometimes makes us do things we shouldn’t, too. Jean Valjean can tell you that. So can my son. He knows hunger this week. He desperately wanted to go to college after taking a semester off to heal from a herniated disc–one that prevents him from sitting for any reasonable length of time. He thought he was better enough to go this semester, but it was just his hunger talking.  It only took a week in class to realize the pain was too much to take. Sometimes we do things because of hunger that we shouldn’t.

Sometimes you just hunger to sit down for a meal on campus like everyone else.

Hunger can also be good. It can make you try things…challenge yourself. I also did that this week (it’s been a busy week). It was the good kind of hunger. The type that makes you realize there are opportunities to feel full again. And just peeking in the bakery window at the macaroons is sometimes enough to motivate you to change. I’ve seen the pastries. I’m ready to change. My son has tasted the pastries and now he wants them even more. Hunger can be good.

Hunger to change.

Hunger to solve problems.

Hunger to heal.

Hunger to feel better.

Hunger to serve the world.

It’s 2018. The start of something new. Are you hungry?

Sugar Cookies at the Pentagon

Flowers floating beneath one of the benches at the Pentagon Memorial.

“Get over being a sugar cookie.” That’s what Admiral William H. McRaven says in his book, Make Your Bed. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL and his simple book of truisms about living rang in my ears this September 11 as I stood in front of the Pentagon staring at the point of impact from Flight 77.

An American flag marking the point of impact on the Pentagon.

Life isn’t fair. In SEAL training you are “called out” for no apparent reason and required to dive into the ocean and then roll on the beach until every inch of your body and uniform is covered in sand. Then, you spend the rest of your day with those annoying grains itching and poking at you. That’s a sugar cookie.

On business trips to Washington I always take the Metro from Reagan International to downtown D.C.  I hear the Pentagon stop announced over the speaker each time, never giving it much thought. I gave it a lot of thought as I rode the train this September 11. And I got off.

Life is short. And it’s not fair. So I stopped.

The date and time of of the plane crash mark the zero line. The first bench is for the 3-year-old that died on the plane.

The Pentagon Memorial is a collection of swooping benches. One for each of the 184 people that died that day. The benches swooping toward the building are for those that died on the plane. The benches swooping away from the building are for those who died in the building. Fresh flowers adorned the seats and floated in the small pools of trickling water beneath each bench.

The fanfare of the morning ceremony was being cleaned up when I arrived. Workers were wheeling away speakers and stage gear. I wandered among the age lines marking the year of birth for each victim. The youngest was 3. The oldest, in her 80s.

A woman approached me and asked if I could help find Hilda Taylor, a sixth grade teacher, and her friend, who had died on the plane that day. I asked her what year Hilda was born and we walked to the appropriate age line to begin our search.

As we sat together on Hilda’s bench, her former teammate dug in her purse and pulled out an article written about Hilda for me to read. She filled in between the lines and told me about the real Hilda…the one with spunk…the immigrant from Sierra Leone who always spoke her mind…the one who loved her students.

As I heard her story unfold for the next 30 minutes, the benches around me all became people–each with a story and a life worth remembering.

All the survivors I saw and met that day had to roll in the unfair sand and move on, just like we all do when tragedy strikes. They have to live with being a sugar cookie, as those annoying grains poke at them again today on September 12…and every other day.

Communing with Goats

I hear the term “communing with nature” a lot. But I never really thought about what it meant until last week when I had a conversation with a mountain goat. My walks and bike rides in nature are more than exercise for me. They always have been. They’re spiritual. But I’m not sure I can say I commune with rocks,  mountains, and trees. I would call that more deep awe and appreciation of the world, as I commune with God.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone or something), especially when the exchange is on a spiritual level.

But last week on the top of Peak 9 in Breckenridge, Colorado, I communed, with nature itself. As I neared the summit, a mountain goat was also ascending. He took his place at the summit and stood his ground.  Though at the top, I was not at the true summit. He stood where I needed to be to finish my goal. About 12 ft from me, we stared at each other along the ridge. He began moving toward me. I put my head down, acknowledging it was his mountain and stepped to the side of the ridge, offering him a path to walk by me. As if he knew my intention, he walked right by and stood at the other end of the ridge, waiting for me to take my turn at the top.

My new friend “Bucky” standing at the summit of Peak 9.

After a couple pictures and a look around, he looked at me again and made it clear it was time to switch places and time for me to leave.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife. Studied them. Watched them. But never talked to them. Never had a friendly conversation and a civil exchange of intentions.

My new friend waits on the other side of the ridge while I take my summit photos and claim my prize.

In those moments I remembered this wasn’t my first experience with goats and high places.  I was reminded of my trip to Greece many years ago, where my journey led me to the highest heights in Crete. While backpacking, I was left dehydrated and tired one night only to awaken to the what sounded like fairies singing. The fairies were actually the bells jingling around the necks of  goats, and unbeknownst to me, I was asleep in their pen. The water I drank from their well that morning saved me.

My goat herd alarm clock in Crete (1992) , leading me to water (left). Standing at the summit (right) now hydrated and able to find a way down.

There’s something incredible about being so close to the sky. So close to heaven–heaven on Earth. An Eden, where the lion lies down with the lamb. Or in this case, the human with the goat.

After my time at summits, I sadly must always descend. It is over all too quickly.  The reality of the fall hits me hard…back down the mountain I go. Still communing, but with a harsh reality facing gravity and its less than gentle push forward.

But I’m so grateful for my time at the top. Thanks for the peek at heaven, my fluffy friends!

Embracing Failure

basketball

The hoop of life looks a bit like this after you’ve been shooting for so long. This is a good hoop.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
                                                                                                   –Michael Jordan

Failure has followed me around. And as I wallowed around in it again the last few days, I came across this quote from Michael Jordan and realized it was so true. Really true. When you take the risk to shoot the ball 9000 times, you are sure to miss quite a few. The more games you play the more chances you have of failing…but, on the flip side, the more practice you get, the more you learn, and the more you grow.  Growth is success. Not necessarily a job well done. Not always a swish. Instead, a backstop bouncing miss with five rebounds before you get it in the net.

I’m playing so many games right now that some shots are just going to be air balls. And I have learned this week that I need to give myself a little grace in the missed shot because I can’t stop playing. The stakes are too high and people are too important.

Crepuscular Moments

Sunrise over the Salt Valley in Arches National Park.

One of my very favorite science words is crepuscular. Being a “word person,” I tend to remember when and where I was when I learned a word. While sitting in Mammology class, my college professor described nocturnal animals (yawn), diurnal animals, and then POW…there it was…crepuscular. The word for animals active at dawn and dusk.

Some crepuscular species:

  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Rats
  • Jaguars
  • Ocelots
  • Lemurs
  • Wombats
  • Hyenas
  • Bobcats
  • Quolls
  • Chinchillas
  • Moose
  • Me!

Bonus words: matutinal (only active at dawn) and vespertine (only active at dusk).

Since then I’ve used the word as often as possible. It is fun and surprising to say.  And over the years I’ve found it is even more fun and surprising to be crepuscular.

My soul is filled in crepuscular moments. Those quiet moments when you are joined by only a few other crepuscular living things. You need not speak to them. You silently give them a nod as you pass by. Crepuscular moments cast dynamic shadows and fleeting colors making everyday objects exude magic and majesty.

Only a few people saw the sun hit these rocks on Saturday morning. Glad I was one of them.

Our lives are pretty full.  Yet we still have two chances everyday to be crepuscular.  Most of us can’t recall our dawn and dusk moments each day, even though we are often “active” during these times—actively helping kids with homework, actively making dinner, or “actively” sleeping. When we actively seek crepuscular moments it is a rare and beautiful choice. It goes against the norm. It makes life feel less crowded. It gives your soul space. It slows down and extends time. Sharing the sunset with your spouse. Watching the light turn mountains into golden monoliths. Sharing a glance with a white-tailed deer. Seeing the open petals of a Morning Glory. We get two crepuscular opportunities every single day. That’s 730 possible incredible soul moments a year.  Awesome.

Sand Dune Arch is crowded with visitors all day. But at dusk, when people pack themselves into restaurants, you can find yourself sitting alone in the soft sand enjoying the moon glow.

Be Still My Heart

It’s a beautiful morning to be free.

Eastertime has a special place in my heart, but not for the actual holiday of Easter Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I like ham and chocolate eggs as much as the next person, but I find this time an opportunity to carve out moments for quiet reflection in the days and sometimes hours leading to that Easter sunrise.

There’s something big in something small and quiet.

Just a couple of weeks ago we played a game with our youth group at church. Adult leaders dressed as a Roman soldiers and the youth pretended to be Christians and ran around the church trying to escape our capture while they looked for the “secret place of worship.”  It was all in good fun, but when we finally all gathered in the small candlelit back room, we discussed the reality of the need for this type of “secret” worship space for early Christians in Rome. Sadly, it still remains a reality in many places all over the world for Christians as well as for people of other faiths.

Just this week my cousin in Africa sent me a picture via email of a small group of people  sitting on her floor in a circle worshiping and studying together. I’d love to share the picture, but for security reasons I cannot. I’m grateful to live in a country where we are ensured the freedom of religion, but even so, like many others, I have still felt the sting of persecution right here.

When we were playing the game, we asked the youth (in our best authoritative Roman soldier voices), “Are you one of those Christians?” They all denied it to escape…for them…all part of the game.  But their “game day” reaction isn’t all that far from reality. It is difficult to share your faith when it could cost you your life, your job, your working relationships, or your friends.

This Easter I quietly climbed a mesa top in the dark and waited for a small group of people to join me —  strangely reminiscent of another gathering long ago in Galilee– and together we watched the world awaken, welcomed the sun, and declared what I believe to be the only true hope there is for this world.

There is something big in something small and quiet.

May we humbly be the love of God in a world that desperately needs love.

Seeing Thestrals

candle

Seeing something there that wasn’t there before.

As I’ve watched my friends grieve the death of those closest to them over the last several years, and more recently just this week, the idea of seeing Thestrals (Harry Potter-inspired magical creatures) suddenly became a lot more “real” to me.  According to the “wizarding world,” Thestrals (scary-looking flying horses) can only be seen by those who have been touched by death.

So is that a good thing or a bad thing? An honor, a blessing, a badge, or a curse?

Definition of a Thestral, according to J.K. Rowling: Manifesting as black, skeletal, bat-winged horses, but invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death, Thestrals have a somewhat macabre reputation. In centuries past the sight of them was regarded as unlucky; they have been hunted and ill-treated for many years, their true nature (which is kindly and gentle) being widely misunderstood. Thestrals are not marks of ill omen, nor (their spooky appearance notwithstanding) are they in any way threatening to humans, always allowing for the fright that the first sight of them tends to give the observer.

Today, a friend of mine preached a sermon on love where he told about the seasons of loss in his life (past, immediate, and future). Those losses were, are, and will be painful, yes, but they can also be an opportunity…an opportunity to give, recognize, and receive love in a deeper way than ever before. The more pain we experience, just maybe, translates to the more love we have the opportunity to experience as well. Strangely true.

Isn’t that just like a Thestral? The fear we have of pain and loss tends to give the pain a bad reputation–a reputation that it has nothing to offer but something evil or scary. Yet something kind and gentle is hidden beneath that scary exterior. And it isn’t until we experience great pain or loss that we are able to see something we’ve never seen before. When we open our eyes and hearts to it, we just might get the opportunity to deeply understand some of the greatest love of all and, in turn, be that kind of love to the world.

Solomon’s Moon

moon

Solomon: Forevermore this is your moon. Thank you for your story.

As I hailed a taxi at the Indianapolis airport on my way to a conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Solomon, my taxi driver. Though he moved to the United States from war torn Eritrea in 1991, his English was still rather broken.

Looking out of my window I spied a gorgeous orange full moon setting just below the horizon. I squealed with excitement, trying to remember the name of this month’s full moon. I finally remembered it was the Worm Moon and I told Solomon about the Algonquin Indians and why they named it so. He told me that in Tigrinya, the name of this kind of full moon was something that sounded like fortuna…which I translated as fortune (in Greek).

My short, mustached driver spent the better part of fifteen minutes explaining how the moon phases worked, using hand movements where his words failed him. He told me that a full moon, like this one, meant rain is coming. I imagined him growing up in Eritrea with his family and the stories of the moon and its weather patterns passed from generation to generation. (Of course, I looked it up when I got to my hotel and found out that scientists have studied the stories and found that there is actually a shred of truth to this lunar weather predictor.)

After the weather report, I told Solomon about our friends the Bahta family who were refugees from Eritrea back when I was in high school and college. Eritrea, a postage stamp of a country in East Africa, endured a horrible civil war.  I told him about Tigisti Bahta, their daughter whom I tutored in English. Tigisti means patience. And she needed a lot of it having me as an English teacher.Solomon said he had also fled to the United States for the same reason. He told me he started out in Washington D.C. and it was difficult because of the crime there. He said to me, “Black, white…it doesn’t matter. Color doesn’t matter. Crime is crime. Wrong is wrong. And I didn’t like it.” He was extremely grateful to meet his sister in Indianapolis and for the peace he has found here. Solomon means peace.

I’ve learned that Eritreans have a different system of naming from most Western countries. Among Christian Eritreans, children are given two names: a secular name at birth and a Christian name when the child is baptized.

I never learned Solomon’s Eritrean name, but I have decided to give him an honorable one —Werḧi, meaning moon. So together his name would mean peace of the moon.

I woke up the next morning to a precipitating sky. Solomon’s moon was right. And I am better for knowing him…. even if it was only for a 30-minute taxi ride.