The Blessed Life of the Un-Damned

The photo is of my son, Collin, flying over Lake Powell, doing something he’d never done. I hope you can feel the joy and excitement and life in this shot and that those emotions never leave you.

When I was a girl I tagged behind my grandpa as he irrigated a budding grain field. To my horror, he mercilessly whacked at weeds that I thought were pretty. He flung rocks out of furrows like they were mortal enemies. I watched him in wonder as he wielded his shovel. Then he stopped and explained to me how precious irrigation water had to reach all the way to the end of every furrow in order to nourish every little spout of grain. If not, the crop would wither beneath the sun’s scorch.

He then knelt and showed me how a single weed or rock “damned” the flow of life-giving water.

That’s when I realized that damned literally means: to be stopped from progressing.

Being damned is the worst feeling in my world. It’s harsher than fear or even rejection. And here’s the kicker I’ve discovered—damnation is self-inflicted. God doesn’t damn me. Satan doesn’t damn me. You don’t damn me. I do that all by myself. I do it by accepting life’s roadblocks as something that I can’t get over or go around. I do it by embracing my doubts as truths. I do it when I let fear freeze me in my tracks. I do it by staying stuck in my own muck.

Trust me, I’m not saying life doesn’t stop us. Disappointments bludgeon us. Trials thwart us. Health problems hobble us. I’ve been showered with my share, but I’m weary from the weight of damnation. I’m tired of feeling like I’m not progressing. I want to move forward and I want that for any of you who feel like you’ve been stuck too. So, here’s what I’ve learned in this journey:

  • Give yourself credit for all you’ve accomplished. You’re still breathing. Consider all the things you’ve learned in the past year. Reflect on the relationships you’ve built and the ones you’ve repaired. Think of the service you’ve rendered. The places you’ve explored. The work you’ve accomplished. Don’t discount your desires to do better. They matter. Nothing wrong with patting yourself on the back hard enough to jolt you into giving yourself credit where credit is due. Stop demeaning your own accomplishments!
  • Quit comparing yourself to anyone else. They haven’t lived your life. They don’t dwell in your physical body. Don’t let unforgiveness, or resentment or envy corrode your own happiness when you see that your Facebook friend just danced with penguins in Antarctica. It doesn’t matter that someone else got a promotion or the graduate degree that you so desperately want. Focus first on you. Move toward your goals and don’t get distracted by someone else’s success. When we learn to celebrate the accomplishments of others (especially those we don’t believe deserve all the good things that come their way) life has a way of paving the path for our own successes. What’s the saying? Success isn’t the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success!
  • Don’t you dare give up. Excuses are like feet: we all have ‘em and they all stink! Lack of resources like time, health, money are only excuses. People get what they prioritize. Don’t worry about pace as much as progress. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll get there. Love yourself along the way and savor the experiences along the journey. Learn to look for the good in every situation. Your end goal or destination isn’t nearly as important as the person you become along the route to get there.

I ramble when I get excited. I’m excited. I’m releasing myself. Forgiving myself. Finally moving forward as a risk-taker and an opportunity-maker. There’s wonder in not knowing how my best-laid plans will either come to fruition or come apart. That’s life, but staying stuck isn’t living, is it? So let’s get out there, by small steps or giant leaps, into a world I believe we agreed to enter to experience everything we possibly can cram into a lifetime. The love. The beauty. The truth. The faith. The mysteries. The stories. Oh, the stories! And stories, dear friends, are not cobbled with words as much as they are with freedom. Freedom to choose, to move, to feel, to learn and to grow. So let’s remove the weeds and rocks and clods that clog us from receiving our allotment of life. Let’s un-damn ourselves and help each other to be about the business of fully living!

The Odds of Being Killed by a Duck

It’s 2:30 a.m. and I am wandering through cyberspace reading indisputable facts like: You’re more likely to be killed by a donkey than in a plane crash. WHAT? No follow up. Now I’m awake wondering how a donkey might do it. A stealth kick to the head gets my vote. All this doesn’t lead to nowhere. It leads me to back to an encounter I had with a duck earlier in the day. I was dozing in the sunshine at a local park when I opened my eyes to this image.

It is not natural for a duck to approach a slumbering human being with such audacity. But the duck wasn’t alone. He came with an army of friends, all quaking, all expecting me to have something in the way of food to offer them. Which I didn’t.

They chased my heels part way home, hissing and snapping that I had shown up, given them hope, and had dared to leave without as much as tossing a stale slice of bread. Now I’m remembering another time something similar happened. I was in a third world country offering aid following a natural disaster. When we ran out of food and medicine the people were still hurting. They saw our white foreign faces and had conditioned expectations. Their hands went out. Their voices rose. And when we explained that we were empty…a near riot ensued. Our car got tipped. Machetes came out. There was a lot of yelling and some shoving and groping and helplessness on all sides.

It’s human nature to want to help the hurting and the hungry. Something innate in every child wants to feed a quaking duck. But people are meant to help themselves and ducks are intended to forage for their own food.

So now I’m awake wondering where the invisible line is…the one that crosses into enablement and conditions people and animals to expect handouts and to fume when hands are empty. Now I’m reliving experiences that still hurt because I’m short on resources and ability to meet needs that deserved to be met. And I’m wondering what I wonder as a mother, a friend and a human being…When does my helping do more harm than good?

Fellow writer Erol Ozan explained it much better than I’m doing: “Help someone, you earn a friend. Help someone too much, you make an enemy.”

Does that make as much sense to you as it does to me? There has to be a balance between heart and head, right? Our help is meant to strengthen, not weaken, so finding that line is paramount. But the blasted thing keeps moving!

In the meantime, I’m awake looking up the odds of being killed by an angry duck. I can’t find any stats, but I have run across a post listing animals that are more likely to kill me than ducks. Ants (I’ve been attacked TWICE by fire ants). Bees (my father was deathly allergic to bees). Horses and cows (I’ve been kicked by both). Deer (I’ve been in a car that hit a deer, and once a semi in front of me slaughtered a deer and flung the carcass onto my windshield, shattering it—a lovely experience). Snakes (My brain shuts down when I try to remember those horrors). Jellyfish (had to be rescued by a lifeguard in Santa Monica when a school attacked me).  Mosquitos (I’ve survived malaria and dengue). Hippos (yes, I’ve got a hippo encounter to tell sometime—two, in fact). Dogs and sharks complete the list. I’ve never been attacked by a shark, but I have scars from dog bites. I worked for a vet and wanted to be one oh, so many years ago).

Ducks might not be on the list of most deadly animals…but it’s now 3:19 a.m. and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is playing on a screen in my brain. That’s not all, above the rain’s pitter-pattering on my window…there’s an indisputable sound that I cannot be imagining…quack…quack…quack.

How To Make A Fast Friend

When you’re in the presence of a genuine friend you are in the arms of safety. Of that, I’m certain. I’m also certain true friends are rare, but maybe not as rare as I’ve been believing. This past week I traveled across the U.S. with my 3-year-old granddaughter in tow. The airport was chaotic (trains broke, a ramp collapsed and madness ensued). As we were scuttled about, I got to witness a wondrous lesson over and over. Wherever we went, my little Adelaide found a friend.

The first time was when she spied a child her size and marched right up to her. “Hi, friend.” And just like that the two of them were on the floor sharing their toys.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if adults could do that?

If you know me, you know I tested the theory. I marched right up to the frazzeled, overworked, ticket agent and said, “Hi, friend.”

She scowled, looked at me over the edge of her glasses, and replied, “Take a seat, ma’am.”

I smiled and took a seat, but not before sensing at least a portion of what that poor woman was experiencing as she dealt with frustrated and often angry people expecting her to solve problems that were beyond her control.

Later at our second gate, Adelaide made friends with a little boy. Together, they stood by the window and watched planes land and take off. It was like they had known each other all their lives and couldn’t wait to share an experience.

All this got me wishing that we adult would look to celebrate both the things we have in common as well as our differences. I wish we’d stop building barriers and build bridges instead. That first little friend Adelaide made didn’t speak a word, not a single word, of English. That didn’t stop two little girls from becoming fast friends. That didn’t stop them from learning how to communicate and get along regardless of a language barrier.

Hours later I was cranky and exhausted but lil’ Miss A was still looking to make her next friend.  She found a girl half her size. To me, they looked like they had nothing in common.

“How old are you?” Adelaide asked.

“I’m three,” said the girl.

“Me too!”

And that was that. They’d found a foundation on which to build a friendship.

C.S. Lewis figured it out. Friendship is born “at the moment when one man says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”

Friendship is hardwired into our biology—into our brains. We are created to feel empathy. fMRI tests prove that when your friends are threatened, you feel threatened. Your anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus go into overdrive, the same as if you were in danger. That’s friendship.

So all those hours weren’t wasted in an airport. They turned into lessons to teach me that we are the architects of our friendships. We choose our building materials: fears, judgments and prejudices or understanding, trust and love. Above all—empathy. So today is dedicated to you, my friends. The ones who have my back. Who read my words. Who keep me safe in an unsafe world. I hope that when you’re in my presence you feel safe and loved because you are.

My Most Authentic Job

Don't Call Me Dumb

Creativity is great for the brain and the heart. That made me realize that my lawn looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Dandelions and weeds everywhere—in spite of some very expensive fertilizer stuff guaranteed to kill the bad and nourish the good. Truth is, my life sorta resembles a Pollock painting. There’s nothing linear about it at the moment. I’m circling in a lot of directions, splattering, and making a work of art that some people will love and others will judge as trash.

I’m good with that. So good.

That’s because it’s finally sinking in that I’m here to paint a life that God wants. That’s it. I’m not here to judge anyone—including myself. I’m not here to rant about the unfairness of the world.  I’m here to change my world. That means I love without borders. I give without thought of getting. I can’t worry what others…

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My Most Authentic Job

Creativity is great for the brain and the heart. That made me realize that my lawn looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Dandelions and weeds everywhere—in spite of some very expensive fertilizer stuff guaranteed to kill the bad and nourish the good. Truth is, my life sorta resembles a Pollock painting. There’s nothing linear about it at the moment. I’m circling in a lot of directions, splattering, and making a work of art that some people will love and others will judge as trash.

I’m good with that. So good.

That’s because it’s finally sinking in that I’m here to paint a life that God wants. That’s it. I’m not here to judge anyone—including myself. I’m not here to rant about the unfairness of the world.  I’m here to change my world. That means I love without borders. I give without thought of getting. I can’t worry what others think of me. Odd as it seems, that’s not my concern. My concern is to live a life that serves, restores, creates, appreciates, and grows the good stuff like love, forgiveness, laughter, joy, music, art, relationships, faith and loads and loads of hope.

Unfortunately, I’ve been brutal to myself. I’ve believed the worst that others had to say about me. Living in that deadly shadow has only made me feel insignificant and unwanted. It’s made me sick and weak on the inside, tho I might appear strong on the outside. Now I realize that I don’t have stop progressing because someone doesn’t approve of me. I especially realize that the self-judgement has to stop and the self-love has to flow.

Did you read the story about the teacher who took twin apples and secretly bruised the heck out of one, then set them side by side and asked her young students to speak kindly to one and cruelly to the other? When she cut them open, the apple that had been praised and loved was whole, crisp and juicy inside. The apple that had been mocked and judged and abused was brown and mushy and injured inside. That’s what bullying does. And don’t think it’s just kids who bully.

This Easter weekend as I reflect what it means to be a true Christian, I’ll focus on resurrection of the body and the spirit. I’ll reflect on a life that teaches me how to love and how to live now, so that death has no string. I’ll use my faith and the power of God to resurrect what’s bruised and broken and even dead within me.

I’m so far from the person I want to be. I’m so sorry it’s taken this long to learn that I’m not here on Earth to paint or criticize someone else’s art, I’m only here to create my own. (So sorry for the unwanted splotches I’ve flung at your canvases, my peeps.) I’ll be here if you need to borrow a brush or paint. I’ve got a lot of indigo to spare because that’s my favorite color. The Old Testament says it’s God’s favorite color too.

In the meantime, my hope for you is that joy sneaks up on you and hugs you tight. That sunshine warms your soul from the inside out. That whatever hurts within you begins to heal. I don’t believe I’ve ever been more grateful to be alive. Just alive. So get out there and paint the life that’s in you so you can share it with the world. Trust me, we need your beauty and creativity—every brushstroke matters.

The Wonder of An Imbalanced Life

I’m giving a speech in a few months entitled The Wonder of an Imbalanced Life.

Surely, that’s a typo.

Ellen DeGeneres knows the value of a balanced life: “…life is about balance. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The pina and the colada.”

Ha. The ultimate goal we all want is to live a balanced life, right?

I don’t think so. Not anymore anyway. The deeper I study of the life of Jesus Christ, the more I realize He was an extremist. He overwhelmingly tipped the scales in favor of love. Other extremists I admire include: Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Maria Klawe, Father Abraham, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Buddha, Michelangelo, Nelson Mandela, and my friend Lisa, at least when it comes to her kids. I mean, injure one of hers and she’ll rip your head off your shoulders. I’m in awe of that kind of extreme devotion!

This past little while my tiniest g-baby has been in the hospital very, very sick. In order for the nurses or doctors to keep poking and testing the babe, they have to pry her from her mother’s arms. Literally. Taylor Lee won’t let go, not for a single second. She doesn’t leave that baby’s bedside. In those harrowing hours there is no balance in any of our lives. Every ounce of faith and every good wish we can muster goes to that child’s healing.

Does that mean someone or something else has to be neglected?

Maybe. Probably. Yes. Indeed. (Never fear…little Miss Adelaide is safe and spoiled with Grandma Sandy and Grandpa Bob).

Imbalance is part of life. I’ve got six kids and I tend to run to the one who is bleeding. I think that lets the others know I’d do the same for them. Anyway, it’s the best I can do in that moment, and I’m weary from piling guilt on my shoulders and carrying it around because I can’t be everything to everyone all at the same time.

So I’ve got a new take when it comes the theory of a balanced life—do it all, but not all at the same time. I mean love everyone you can. Travel everywhere you can. Learn everything you can. Be all you can be. But for heaven’s sake, from time to time pick something to go overboard about. Something or someone that makes you teeter to the edge and feel desperately alive!

My friend Sharlee has set our community on fire lately with her impassioned call for ethical government. She’s got people clawing to get on her life raft, sailing out into the high seas, rescuing refugees and causing mighty waves all the way to Washington D.C.

I live among a community of good souls who called, “Enough!” when they realized that over 60 percent of the gay kids here have attempted suicide. Now there’s a place for those kids to gather and feel safe and loved. All because someone went to an extreme.

I’m blessed with friends who taught me that going to an extreme in the wrong direction can be deadly. They’ve got me waking up before dawn to work out and to love the taste of kale and quinoa. That tells me how much we need each other to keep the balance.

Radical change requires radical action.

And yes, I understand the basics of balance. The majority of life is doing the mundane and working to pay bills and tending to the same chores again and again. Rote is a form of balance. Remember though, while everything and everyone has to be tended to, you can’t do it everything at once.

I also understand that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I know that a butterfly with just one wing never gets off the ground. I also know that everything is in perpetual motion. That means you’re always moving and changing. The foundational theory of quantum physics allows for particles to be in two states at the same time.  Guess what? You and I are made of particles. We are only beginning to glimpse our own existence, but we do know that we’re always in motion, even when we think we’re still. That means we’re always doing a balancing act.

I believe it’s how life was intended.

I met a woman named Gerda who is a high wire performer. She calls this balancing act rotational inertia. It means the wire beneath her feet is rotating all the time and only changes from the torque she applies to it as she moves forward.

Forward, friends. That’s our only direction.

If there are days you have to fall back, that’s okay too. Every good warrior knows when to advance and when to retreat. If someone has to be neglected while you tend to someone in need, that’s okay. If everyone has to set aside so you can tend to YOU, that’s more than okay. It’s only for a season. I know because the wisest mortal who ever lived, Solomon, said so: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Please, friends, if you’re feeling stressed and overloaded, know you’re living through a season. It’s only a season. If it’s a good one, savor every second. If people are upset with you because you’re unable to give them all they demand, let it go. You’re walking a tight rope. You’re balancing all that you can. Drop something if you have to. But keep moving forward when you can. I love you. I believe in you. And I think you should celebrate every step.

Thanks for letting me rant. Right now I’m in a season of recuperation and reflection. My next season might be high adventure. Who knows? But while I’m trying my best, and you’re trying your best, let’s let our personal balancing acts be one step at a time, doing our best to do it all—eventually—but knowing we’ll fall, and that’s okay, because we know Who is holding the safety net to catch us so we can climb back up and start all over.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

The photo is of my little Adelaide “wondering” what it would be like to jump into the Gulf of Mexico. I told her not to get wet, but she’s three and raging with curiosity. So I just stood in awe and took photos.

The etymology of the word wonder means of ultimate unknown origin. It also means to magnify or to be astonished. Have you ever wondered why your life has not gone as planned? I mean no one gets married planning to get divorced. No one drives to work planning to be broadsided by a semi. No one pencils “get cancer” into their weekly schedule.

Last week I heard a story about the Children of Israel’s plight when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took Jews captive. What business did “God’s people” have living in a land surrounded by idols? What business did they have living so far away from their beloved temple? The Babylonian king’s strategy was brilliant…let the foreign captives live among his own, and in time they were bound to adapt the Babylonian way of living and thinking, especially the younger malleable generation. The stunned and indignant Jews just knew that God would not leave them in Babylon for any length of time. So, they prayed and planned for their imminent deliverance.

I’ve read the Old Testament a couple of times yet I never realized that these good and faithful people wanted exactly what I want out of life—to live it according to plan. MY plan. The Jews prayed that God would vindicate them and return them to their rightful land. That was their plan, but God had a different plan. He told them to be patient, that their captivity would last up to seventy years, so they should settle in, build houses, plant gardens and eat what they grew. The people, especially the older ones, knew this meant they would never return home. Imagine how they felt. (Jeremiah 29)

For a lot of us, we don’t have to imagine too strenuously. We know how it feels to have our plans come undone. We live with ongoing disappointment. Well, after Sunday’s sermon I realized that faith in our Highest Power means having faith in divine unflawed love, a force that wants us to be happy and successful. Try telling that to the woman who desperately wanted a husband and children, but remains single. Tell that to the spouse who was faithful to an unfaithful partner. Tell that to my friend whose baby, the one they waited thirteen years to have, the son they hinged all their dreams on, was born with trisomy 21, an extra copy of chromosome 21.

My own life has known a lot more dead ends than long stretches of open road. I’ve learned that it’s better to be alone than in a toxic relationship. My friend who was initially devastated to learn that her son had Down Syndrome, now celebrates the fact that the kid manufactures pure joy. He’s taken his family on a wondrous detour they never would have chosen to journey. In the process, they’ve all evolved in a way their original plan could not have facilitated.

It’s fitting that a rabbi said: Man plans and God laughs. It’s time for me to stop complaining and start trusting that when I hit a brick wall there’s an unseen reason. Maybe it’s to make God laugh, the way a parent does when a toddler tumbles, only to spring back up to cheers. He knows that every time I get back up, I’m transformed. Maybe the wall is to stop me from making a mistake, or turn me in a different direction or protect me. No matter. I’m going to rewire my brain’s rutted circuitry and see it as a plot twist in the story that’s my life. What would a story be without an unforeseen plot twist? It’d be boring and predictable. I can hardly wait to turn the next page because the Author and Finisher I’ve come to know does not do boring and predictable. He does wonder.