Getting Out of the Box and Playing Your Life

This landscape design was part of somebody’s opus. Thank you.

The way we each individually see the world is fascinating to me. And more and more I am seeing the tiny connections our brains make between everything we see and taste and touch. It is the reason I write this blog—to capture one small view of relationships, things, and events that seem related or relevant in my own mind. And with 7 billion brains on this planet, I can only imagine the strange and beautiful connections others make on a daily basis.

Today as my husband and I strolled around a meticulously designed resort in Florida, our breath was taken away by the landscape architecture and man-made waterfalls. What we were looking at was art. The art of placing three palm trees just so as to capture the rays of spotlights at night. The art of being able to see in your mind’s eye what a finished water feature will look like and then architecting it to become your vision. Art. It is all around us. Inspired by natural wonders and then using natural wonders to do something unnaturally new, yet wonderful.

I’ve been pondering art intensely for the past few weeks and making connections between unconnected things. Recently, I watched the movie August Rush and have been haunted by the notion of “feeling the music” everywhere. August was a musical genius who could hear music in everything.  Without any musical instruments in the first decade of his life, he had to figure out what he was feeling. He had to follow his call. And once he discovered how to use his gift, he just wanted to share it, to play it, to let it fill the world. Not be on stage. Not be famous. Not perform. Just play it.

I also read Station Eleven this week. It is a book about people trying to survive after a worldwide pandemic. A group of musicians and actors traveled the crumbling world, not for the glory or applause, but because there was something magnificent they had to share. Something they needed to share.

One of the things I love about writing, and most recently preaching, is not the act of writing or speaking, but the takeaway people receive. The most incredible part to me is when people tell you what they heard through your message and it isn’t what you thought you were saying at all.  They digest it through their own experience, their own gifts, their own story…and it becomes something even more beautiful. Something you couldn’t even imagine.

As I think about what I desire most in this world, it isn’t much different than August. I hunger to bring joy and life to the world through the gifts I’ve been given and share my version of art. I can hardly stop thinking about it every single day. What am I doing every day? How am I using my gifts?

Occasionally I look around and realize I am in a box again. The world puts me there. I put myself there. You can’t climb a mountain in a box. Mountains are dangerous and awesome and moving. Boxes are not. Sometimes I catch myself decorating my box with other people’s art—pictures of mountains—and forgetting that if I just knock down that flimsy cardboard wall, a mountain is standing right in front of me…waiting for me. Waiting for me to embrace my music on my own climb.

I love all the “mountains” I’ve scaled. I have no regrets. Even the ones I never peaked. Maybe especially the ones I’ve never peaked. It has never been about the performance.

What is this music I’m hearing all the time? I know I need to create something. I’ve been chasing it all my life. There is something always calling me.

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.

People with Rabies

rabies

This guy has Rabies.

A homeless guy called me “cool” today. He said and I quote, “Only cool people appreciate the name of my dog.” His dog’s name is Rabies. He knew how much I appreciated the name by my reaction. I LOVE creativity and a bit of dark humor. And this pup is aptly  named.

Just one day after watching A Dog’s Purpose at the movie theater (spoiler alert: bring Kleenex), today I saw another dog with a purpose. A dog named Rabies loving his master. A master who many people treat like he has rabies, though neither of them do.

I love his sign, too. I think it is a sign we all should carry. Everyday.

Because isn’t that what we are…really? Ugly and broke. We are all imperfect. Yes, we may wash our hair and put on clean clothes in the morning, but let’s face it. His sign is our sign, too.

And aren’t we ALL traveling folks? We journey through this world looking for our next opportunity–whether it be a better job, a happiness fix, a loyal friend, or our next meal. We travel. We journey. We wander. And every now and then, if we are wise, we slow down enough to share in the joy of the struggle and break bread with other ugly, broken people along the way. Cool.

Choosing to Give. Choosing to Receive.

kickball

Kickin’ it with kids. What choice do I have?

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”– Albus Dumbledore

Dumbledore is a man of few, but profound words. October means it is time for my Harry Potter marathon—a Potter movie (or two) every weekend until Halloween. I just finished watching The Chamber of Secrets and the headmaster’s words quoted above have been sticking with me.

His words echoed in my head this weekend as I spent some time playing kickball with homeless kids. As I started my work week, I carried with me the smiles on their faces, the high fives, the laughter, and the excitement from the game. A simple game played in a parking lot with hula hoops for bases.

The kids and their families chose to embrace the moment. To enjoy the company of strangers. To pray for their blessings. To play and have fun regardless of their abilities or their situations. I have nothing but admiration for those kids. They are making the best of their situation—living in cubical bedrooms with tarps for walls. Sleeping on cots. Yet choosing to enjoy life whenever life gives them enjoyable things—not dwelling on what they don’t have, but what they do.

Spending my free time serving others may have some labeling me a “do gooder” trying to earn some Earthly praise or cosmic medal or maybe even work my way to heaven. Not at all.  I do hope I’m helping, but the reality is what I receive often outweighs what I give. The giving and receiving are practically indistinguishable.  The two together make something beautiful, healing, and the closest thing to heaven I have ever experienced—whether I’m giving or receiving. I can hardly ever tell which is which.

This world is a broken mess. We can’t make it whole again. But we can fill the cracks with mortar. Still broken, but patched together–the giver and the receiver—one in the same. We can choose to be together and find joy despite the flaws.

Thanks for the game kids!

It’s our choices that show us who we really are. Indeed.

Happiness at Work? It’s In My Toes.

gold toes

Happiness is gold toes.

My toes are gold. Why? Yes..it’s true…I was inspired by the Olympics. But why gold? Why not red, white and blue? Or silver or bronze?

Gold because it reminds me of where to go. True, only one person can win the gold medal. But everyone..EVERYONE..can run for their gold. Giving it all you’ve got every day.

Today I watched a French hurdler false start in his qualifying heat. His Olympic dream was finished in two seconds. He fell to the side of the track and wept.

He was understandably crushed. But did he run for the gold? I think the answer is “yes.” Because although we only see a few seconds of failure on TV, what we don’t see is his years of daily training pushing himself—the injuries and ups and downs that got him to that race. Did he fail when it really counted? Maybe. But just maybe the years of work was actually the biggest part of his gold medal effort.

This week at work I’m being asked to report in a meeting: What makes me happy at work? What is it that makes work a place I want to come to every day?

With transition and change at the office, there are often feelings of uncertainty, unrest, even failure. Some days we find ourselves wondering “Why?”, or worse, crumpled at the side of our desks weeping after a false start.

When I thought about this question I realized that I usually try never to focus on the word “happiness.” It is illusive. Joy is easier. But as I thought more about it, I think happiness for me IS the gold. Not always obtaining it, but the continual challenge of striving for it.

So what makes work a happy place for me? The answer can be found on my toes.

  1. Gold is the treasure I share. Happiness comes if I can answer “yes” to this question: Do I have an opportunity every day to serve others? This comes first and foremost through earning money. I work so that I can provide for others and be charitable with the fruits of my labors. It also comes from serving people at work in every way I can. Often this looks like helping get a project done right, but just as often it looks like being a mentor or friend.
  2. Gold is the mission, goals, and strategy. Do projects have a mission, goals, and strategy that I can help create solutions for AND can I measure, see, and celebrate the value of those solutions? I am happy when I can say “YES!” Strategies and goals can and should change from time to time. Sometimes from year to year…sometimes even from day to day.  My happiness at work comes from understanding the path forward and architecting how to get there.

I look forward to hearing my coworkers’ answers to this question. As for me, and my toes, it’s all about going for gold. Not judged by someone else’s race, but for the only race I can control…my own. Running hard. Running happy. Running like it matters. Because it does.

My “Free” T-Shirt Has Cost Me Plenty! I’m So Glad.

tshirt

The most wonderfully expensive “free” t-shirt I’ve ever owned.

It happened again. This “free” t-shirt has cost me. Though I shouldn’t be surprised because I practically live in this incredibly soft, cotton-blend shirt.  It is the most comfortable t-shirt I’ve ever owned. It also just happens to say “Live Generously.”

Today, I was driving to get some lunch and pick up a few groceries. Standing on a busy curb by the store entrance was a man, his pregnant wife, and a stroller with a sleeping toddler inside. Something inside me stirred and I stopped and parked in a lonely lot where I could observe what they were doing. They held up a sign that I could not read. I watched as car after car drove past them—but not because people didn’t necessarily care—the way traffic was flowing it was pretty hit or miss whether a car would actually be able to stop long enough to roll down the window and hand them some change.

As I sat in my truck, my heart broke and I looked down. Sure enough, I was wearing my stinky well-worn “Live Generously” t-shirt. I hopped out of the Cranberry Crush and dodged traffic to go meet them.  I introduced myself and found out that they had traveled from California in search of a job. Their names were Julietta and Viorel. They were from Romania originally and were now living in Denver. He tried to answer all of my questions with broken English. He was a mechanic by trade and was having a hard time finding work because his English was not very good. Their smiles, however, spoke volumes.

I asked them what I could do that would be most helpful to them. My mind flashed back to times when I needed help and I remembered that having people ask me what I needed was so wonderful because I could tell them specifically rather than them deciding what I needed based on their perception of my situation or their own judgements. Not too surprisingly, they told me they were in need of groceries and cash to help with rent.

I ran to the grocery store to grab a gift card and some cash. What does “Live Generously” mean, I thought, as I stood at the checkout. $10? $20?  No. I decided today generous meant giving up what I would have spent on groceries.

I sprinted back the curb with my cash and gift card in hand. I gave $40 to Julietta and said, “for rent” and I handed Viorel a $100 gift card and said, “for groceries.” Tears started to well up in their eyes. It was like they had won the lottery. They beamed and we shook hands. I asked again. What else can I do? The language barrier was too much and we both recognized that nothing more could be done today. But today was a good day.

As I ran to my truck and got in, I saw them leave their post and head to their vehicle with a new spring in their step. We smiled and waved at each other. I can only hope we meet again.

I am so grateful for every day I can live generously. And, equally grateful for every day others have lived generously for me. I hope this t-shirt never wears out.

Cancer Stinks, So I Walk

cancer

Luminary bags light up the track honoring and remembering cancer survivors and victims.

Who among us has not in some way been affected by cancer? We all seem to know someone who has or is fighting for their life. This weekend I participated in the Relay for Life. If you have never participated, I highly recommend it.

Cancer is a crazy disease that affects young, old, strong, weak…in its various forms. In the relay your team takes turns walking around a track all night with all kinds of people from your local community…young, old, strong, weak…all in our various forms. But we unite to raise awareness and money for cancer research. It is fun, meaningful, and moving. I am hopeful, so I walk.

In 2010, my husband was diagnosed with a Level 4 melanoma. He had surgery to remove a large portion of skin from his shoulder and his neck. Sadly, the oncologist had  the worst bedside manner of any doctor I’ve ever encountered. On our first visit, before surgery, he showed us a chart indicating that my husband had a 40% chance of survival and that his odds didn’t really go down completely until 10 years have passed without additional incident.  So far, so good. I’m grateful, so I walk.

The best part of the Relay for Life, for me, is the lighting of the luminary bags that surround and light up the track all night. Each bag is decorated to honor or remember someone who has fought or is fighting cancer. The lights inspire me to keep thinking of others and to never forget how fragile life is. And so, I walk.

Salvation Army Census Psychology

salvation army

I’m not Captain McFee, but I sure am happy to carry on his tradition.

In 1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was distraught because so many poor people in San Francisco were going hungry. He resolved to to feed 1,000 hungry people on Christmas day, but he needed to find the funds. He remembered his days as a sailor in England and how at Stage Landing there was a large, iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot” where people would put in coins to help the poor. The captain put a kettle out the next day with a sign that read “Keep the Pot Boiling” and  he soon collected enough money to reach his goal of providing Christmas dinner. His idea spread and now years later we find red  Salvation Army kettles in front of stores everywhere holding money to assist people in their local communities who are struggling to find enough money for food, prescriptions, and rent. Wow. So simple, but so powerful.

Every year in December I take one or two afternoons from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., step away from my office, and stand in front of my local grocery store by the infamous red kettle.  I find it to be an amazing way to press the pause button on my crazy schedule. It gives me a chance to interact with people and find the joy of the season in the eyes of each person I greet.

Two hours standing in the same spot gives you a lot of time to think, and if you are like me, it also gives you a lot of time to categorize everything you see.  Yes, I am a Type A. The list maker.  A “J” on the Myers Briggs test. That strange kid who lined up her stuffed animal collection in taxonomic order.

So, while ringing the bell this year, I sorted. And I decided there are really eight kinds of Salvation Army kettle givers. Here is my assessment:

  1. Loose Changers: These are the people whom you make eye contact with when they are crossing the street and they quickly start digging in their pockets. They drop their change in the bucket. Eye contact does amazing things. Cool, thanks!
  2. Crisp Ones: These are folks, usually over 65, who purposely go to the bank and get crisp dollar bills to put in every Salvation Army bucket they visit during the season. Wow. Thank you planners!
  3. Sweet Toothers: These are the opportunistic children who tug on their parents’ coats and ask to put money in the bucket (knowing full well there are candy canes in my red apron for them). Fun! Thanks!
  4. Giving Teachers: This type of giver is usually female with one kid sitting in front of her cart and the other in tow. She digs through her purse while holding onto the cart with one foot. Patiently she waits as her children put each coin in the bucket one by one. A candy cane is given, much to her surprise (and occasionally chagrin). She instructs, “Tell her thank you.” No, thank you!
  5. Catch Ya Laters: These are the folks who greet you with a smile and say, “I’ll see you on my way out.” At first you think it is just a sneaky avoidance move. But it is not. They actually return. Way to go! Thanks!
  6. Justifiers: These people can’t stand it. They have to come up and talk to you and tell you why they aren’t putting anything in the kettle. “I gave all my change to the guy yesterday.” Or, “I rang the bell here last week.” Or, “I will get some cash and put some in tomorrow.” Thanks for caring and stopping to chat!
  7. Big Buck Inspirations: These people are surprisingly all ages and genders and you never know when one will show up. But when they do, you marvel. They reach in their pockets or open their wallets and pull out large bills: 10s, 20s…I’ve even seen Ben Franklin. Thanks for trusting!
  8. Grateful Receivers: Last but not least, these are some of my favorite givers. These are people who have received help from the Salvation Army before. They give back what they can and tell me their stories. THANK YOU!

One thing I’ve noticed about all the types of givers is that they return the thanks. They are grateful for the time you spend outside ringing the bell, which makes me realize there is one final type of giver I’ve forgotten–Bell Ringers. I guess if we didn’t stand by Captain McFee’s kettle then there wouldn’t be a place to put any money. It takes all kinds of givers.  Each one special. And I wouldn’t miss this part of Christmas for anything!

 

Voices In the Lives of Youth

youth

Try to keep up. Youth move so fast it is like a blur, but their hearts and minds are worth chasing.

Tonight I watched a basketball game. No, it wasn’t the NBA. It was better. It was a level 3 freshman scrimmage. I whistled and cheered like no NBA game I’ve ever attended. In fact, frankly, it was better than any NBA game I’ve ever watched. Why? Because I was there to cheer for someone special. Not my daughter, or cousin, or niece, but another youth whom I adore. And might I say she was awesome! She is just one of the youth I have the privilege of leading every Sunday night.

Each of our lives take us on a journey. That journey often leads us on a mission.  If you’ve been touched by cancer, you might be dedicating your life toward support for finding a cure. If you’ve been suffering from a mental illness or an eating disorder, you might turn your extra time toward helping others in recovery. For me, I’ve come to understand it has always been about youth.

For 15+ years I’ve spent time investing in youth as a leader in scouts, or as a room mom, or as a volunteer teaching kids.  My children struggled in school for a variety of reasons and my volunteering, at first, was a necessity to help them survive and, I hoped, to thrive. I soon came to understand that it was a lot more. I was a voice–an important voice–a voice that made a big difference in every youth I encountered. I had a tremendous power to lift up and inspire with the simplest of kind words or encouragement. Not the fake kind. The kind that is based in real truth. Something that no parent can do. My kids always used to say, “Of course you think I’m great, you’re my mom. You have to love me.”  That is hard to hear as a parent, but I understood what they were saying. There is truth in it. I do love them unconditionally and they know it. Even when I speak the truth about how valued they are, it is masked by parent-child fandom. They needed other voices–adult voices they could believe.

Today, I can picture and remember every child I’ve ever worked with and helped and cared about. It causes my call to burn in me ever stronger. These days I’ve dedicated my weekends as a youth leader at my church. And, I haven’t looked back.

I’ve always liked the Search Institute’s concept of assets. There are 40 assets they have identified as key to helping a child grow up healthy, caring, and responsible.  Nine of those assets are at the core of what I focus on today. Primarily, the first one–Other Adult Relationships. I’ve seen first hand how the lack of these adult relationships or, even worse, negative adult relationships, have really hurt. I’ve dedicated my time to be a positive voice in the lives of youth because I believe so strongly in how those voices can make a difference.

Nine (of 40) Important Assets for Youth

Other Adult Relationships: Receives support from three or more nonparent adults.

Caring Neighborhood: Experiences caring neighbors.

Community Values Youth: Perceives that adults in the community value youth.

Youth as Resources: Given useful roles in the community.

Service to Others: Serves in the community one hour or more per week.

Neighborhood Boundaries: Neighbors take responsibility for monitoring young people’s behavior.

Adult Role Models: Adults model positive, responsible behavior.

High Expectations: Adults encourage the young person to do well.

Religious Community: Spends one hour or more per week in activities in a religious institution.

So, as for basketball, I can’t wait for more games…and volleyball, band, track, musicals, geology museum visits, piano recitals, science projects, and whatever else I get the privilege to attend and add my voice. Youth are amazing and they are the future. I love their energy and their questions and their honest evaluation of what life is dishing out.

The truth is that their voice speaks to me as much as I hope mine speaks to them.

Our Secret Christmas List Uncovered

starbucks

Mmmmmmm. Peppermint hot chocolate and a cheese danish is the perfect complement to secret plans.

My husband and I have a Christmas tradition. It was born out of our lack of money (see post on Hurricane Wilma), but it is my favorite tradition of the Christmas season. Just after Thanksgiving, we go on a date to Starbucks. He orders a venti chai (no water) and a coffee cake. I order a grande non-fat, peppermint hot chocolate (with the whip for once) and a cream cheese danish.

There we sit with our special Christmasy red hot cups and a pad of paper (the kind with the lines on it that real estate agents leave on your door). We write down a list of the people on our hearts. That, of course, includes family members, but also  includes friends, even acquaintances, who are weighing heavy on our minds–especially any that have been hurtful or difficult in some way, whether they know it or not. We consider each name and ask ourselves one question, “What do they need?”

This is a harder question than it sounds. It isn’t the same as “What do they want?”  And, really truly knowing what someone needs is pretty tough. We’ve all been there, right? Where people think they know what we need and it couldn’t be further from reality.  So we are very careful with this question. Sometimes it is really less about what they need and more about what we need to do to be a better friend, daughter, son, uncle, sister, coworker,…..[fill in the blank] to this person.

As we consider each name we try to come up with a gift, often a secret gift, and surprisingly it usually costs little or no money at all. Occasionally, our ideas are actually physical gifts you can wrap and put under a tree. But more often then not, they are special actions we deliberately take during the Christmas season or throughout the year.

Christmas has been tough for me over the past 10 years. It has been hard not being able to participate in the gift giving to the degree I’ve desired. I’m thankful my kids have generous grandparents and have always had a very merry Christmas where toys and games are concerned. I would have been sad if they had missed out on that joy. It is part of the magic of the season and no amount of listening to people harping about how we are all so materialistic will change that. Christmas gifts are fun! There I said it.

At the same time, I’m so glad that tough times led me to thinking about Christmas in a whole new way–a way I look forward to with much anticipation each year. And no matter how much is in my bank account, I’ll never do Christmas without my list again.

Are you on our list? I hope so… and be ever on the lookout for your secret gift.