Sunday, October 30, 2011

Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses

Yesterday, I had the honor of toasting two of my heroes in the faith as they venture into the next phase of life... retirement. Dr. Dick and Millie Bransford have spent the last 35 years on the mission field in Kenya. They have taught me so much about loving others and giving myself away. As I watched them yesterday holding hands, laughing and crying over memories and photos, I couldn't help but think how thousands upon thousands of children in Africa would have never received help or heard about the Lord had these two not said yes to each other and yes to God. What an awesome picture of God's providence for our lives.


2009 BethanyKids documentary trip (Kijabe, Kenya)

Dick and Millie-

It's hard to believe we're toasting to your retirement. To the "lazy" days ahead of you watching your grandchildren grow and play, reading books on your deck at sunset, and YES, Millie, even having your very own dishwasher who is not a Kenyan woman named Tata.

I was thinking about all that I could say to you. All that I could thank you for as you've invested in my life over the last almost 15 years now. I am overwhelmed with memories and life lessons you've taught me. So I thought I would narrow it down to three.

Life lesson number one: You've taught me humility.

Whether it was sweet Millie who was able to laugh at herself every day when she would go looking for her coffee cup only to find it in the microwave where she had left it three hours earlier. Or whether it was good ol' Dr. B who still greets me at the breakfast table every time I stay in their home with a "Glad you could finally join us…" as if I had slept the day away by waking up at 7:30am.

You two have been the definition of humble. Constantly giving. Never expecting applause. Always loving. Never asking for anything in return.

Life lesson number two: You've taught me how to love.

I spent a summer with Dick and Millie when I was sixteen. I don't think I was in Kijabe 24-hours when they started trying to set me up with Rift Valley Academy boys. And, I'm pretty sure they're still working on finding my future husband.

Although they could use a little help on their match-making skills, they do know how to love each other without ceasing. During some very formidable teenage years, I watched these two pray for each other, support each other, and raise their children with such incredible love and wisdom. I will never forget the first time I joined them for family devotions. What an example of what a God-fearing family could look like. Dick often tells me that choosing my spouse may be the most important decision of my life. He always says don't choose the wrong person. No pressure. I have learned the importance of being matched with someone who shares your passion, your vision, and God's calling on your life.

Life lesson number three: You've taught me how to give.

Some of my greatest memories in life come from following Dick around Kenya. Going to clinics and telling patients that he didn't think he could help them… but he would find someone who could. I used to love going with Millie to a Kenyan school called Matathia. She would teach those kids about Jesus. And sing such beautiful songs. And they loved her. I think about the babies that died and how it would have such an affect on Dick's spirit. It grieved him--like he lost his own child. And I think about the BethanyKids staff and how these folks have learned to give because they had such strong leaders who gave themselves away every day.

So Dick and Millie. Here's to "lazy days" that all of us know won't ever be lazy. Here's to all that God has for you in this brand new chapter. While there may be a little less swahili to speak, He's not done using you.

Thank you for the faithful example you've set for all of us. May we all strive to be more Jesus and in doing so be a little more like you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Check Your Eyes

I have terrible road rage. I will be the first to admit this. Granted, the fact that I hate the sound of swear words coming out of my mouth, my rage may be interpreted as talking nicely and waving politely to other drivers around me. But trust me. It's rage.

Last week I was pulling out of the office when I noticed a major back-up on the interstate. (I can easily see I-75 from my office window.) I considered taking side roads home, but feared I would be late for a dinner date. So I decided to brave the parking lot formally known as the freeway. I braced myself for the impatience and anger that would soon spew from my mouth. I told myself it would be okay—that I would be okay—and I turned on my right blinker and merged my way onto the ramp.

As soon as I looped around, I noticed traffic was flowing smoothly. In fact, I hadn't seen the interstate so clear at 5:30 in my year and a half in Knoxville. I quickly made it home and made my date on time.

My perspective from inside my office was completely different than my perspective up close. Or there may have been a momentary hold-up that shifted a few minutes later.

Either way, it turned out to be a great decision. My perspective changed and so did my attitude.

I made one of the best decisions of my life back in April. I got LASIK. In ten minutes, that doctor whisked me in the room, numbed my eyes, made me stare at a blinking red light, and before I could finish the story of how I ended up in Knoxville, he was done. And, I could see.

Those first few days of being able to see without glasses or contacts were mind-blowing to me. I stared at every blade of grass, every leaf, every bird. I had never been able to see so clearly and I was in awe.

My first trip back to the eye doctor went great. I told him I loved my eyes and I thanked him for this awesome gift. (To which he in turn thanked me for paying the mortgage on beach house for the next 5 years.)

He gave me a glowing report. My eye-sight went from 20/400 to 20/15.

As I was considering changing my career from TV producer to pilot, I noticed something changing in my eyes. The leaves started to blur. Not blur as in I couldn't see, but blur as in they just didn't look as sharply as they had in those first few hours.

I stopped paying attention to each blade of grass.

I woke up in the mornings and didn't feel that sense of awe I had at the beginning. Well—not without a cup of coffee first.

Something had changed. Did they screw up my eyes? Was I going blind again? Should I hire a lawyer to sue the pants off of them if I lost my eyesight for good?

Concerned that my eyes were deteriorating at a rapid rate, I scheduled an appointment. The assistant did all the usual eye tests and sent me into the exam room. When the doctor walked in, he turned off the light and stared into my eyes. The light went back on, he made a few notes and he turned to me and said, "Everything looks great."

Hold on. Things aren't as clear as they once were. I have to focus harder. I can't see the individual blades of grass. Everything is not great. Something is wrong.

He asked me to read the letters on the wall. The smallest line.

"Yep," he said. "Your vision isn't just perfect, it has improved. You're now 20/10."

The problem wasn't my eyes deteriorating. The problem was my perspective. At the beginning, everything was new and fresh. I couldn't help but notice each beautiful green leaf on each beautiful tree. I hadn't ever experienced such clarity. As time passed, I got used to the trees and the grass. My eyes hadn't lost the wonder. I had lost the wonder.

I think the same is true in life. We spend our days keeping up with schedules, work deadlines, meetings, family time, and dinner engagements. We pack our weekends with as much as we can. We get stressed. We get rushed. We have road rage. We lose perspective.

I have a new alarm that goes off at 2pm every day. It's my "check your perspective" alarm. It reminds me that this moment, in the spectrum of eternity, is fleeting. It reminds me to take off my earthly eyes and put on my kingdom eyes. It reminds me that the stress doesn't matter. The work will get done. The day will end in success.

Be present. Notice the brilliant colors. Be aware of the vivid picture the surrounds you. Despite the chaos of the day, your vision is perfect. Adjust your eyes. Change your perspective. Live.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy All The Time

***I wrote this essay three years ago in grad school. It's funny how quickly things change: blackberry's (who still uses those?), jobs, cities, perspective. Despite the datedness of this piece, it's still a good reminder that I'm not in control of life, but I am in control of how I respond to it.***

Happy All The Time

The best part of my day is coming home. I put my silver key in the lock of apartment number 200 of my Arlington, Virginia condo, and I can already feel the excitement building inside. In fact, if I’m on my blackberry I usually have to hang up for fear of mentally abandoning the person on the other end once I get inside. I step in the front door and I hear a soft shuffle on my bed. With my purse still in hand, I fling open the bedroom door and with wide eyes and a huge smile shout, “Tater!”

Without hesitation, the seven-point-two pounds of apricot fluff leaps from the bed and lunges toward my arms whether I’m ready to catch him or not. My one-and-a-half-year-old toy poodle kisses my freckled face with his thumb-sized slobbering tongue until I laugh so hard I’m forced to set him on the carpet—that just so happens to swallow him up in its matching color tone.

That is our routine—everyday.

Tater Tot is an anomaly. When I walk in, whether I've left five minutes ago or five hours ago, he lights up when he see me. He epitomizes happiness—quick to love, ready to play, and always with a smile plastered across his doggy face. When I think of happiness, I think of Tater.

Why can’t humans express the same unconditional happiness? It’s a question I’ve pondered for years.

Growing up, I lived for Sunday school. Each week I would wake up, pick out my cutest outfit, brush my teeth, comb my hair, grab my Precious Moments first communion bible, and yell at my two brothers to “GET IN THE CAR!” I refused to be late. When we arrived, I would race up the steps of the church atrium and quickly, yet very collectedly, rush my little legs into children’s church. I loved it. Maybe it was the cute boys or the latest gossip from the girls, but I think the real reason stemmed from the desire to be someone else, if only for that hour. In public, no one could see the stress of home.

In the first few minutes of church, we were allowed to greet a few hundred of our closest friends. Then, we would stand up from our chairs while Aunt Peggy, as we not so affectionately called the children’s church emcee, gave directions in a loud, whiney, over-modulated voice through the microphone. Aunt Peggy stood about five-foot-three, weighed in well over two-hundred pounds, and sported a short brown bob. The woman laughed like the Wicked Witch of the West and was rumored to have turned little kids into ice with just a glance. She had three kids of her own, and on Sundays during church she would send them around the building scouring for little children hiding out in the bathrooms or the church kitchen. And if one got caught, he or she might not have made it out alive. She was brutal.

One Sunday, I snuck out to a bathroom with some girlfriends and a big bag of candy fireballs. Scared one of Aunt Peggy’s bounty hunters would find us, we all sat in separate stalls, feet on the toilets, in complete silence sucking on our candy.

Known for her harsh tone, this lady made the room fall silent when she spoke, and when she sang, we had no choice but to join in.

“I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time,” she would belt out on a tone-deaf note. “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time," she sang while clapping off beat. “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.”

I sang that song like I really believed it. I had asked Jesus into my heart at just about every summer camp for as long as I could remember. Since I truly loved Jesus and he really lived in my heart, I should be happy—all the time. Maybe that’s why I got so good at saying the sinner’s prayer. Deep down, I wasn’t happy. I was in hell.

Our household was a war zone, and the general of this army had to have been the devil himself. My parents split up before I ever knew they fought, and my father’s departure had a horrible effect on our family. Mom struggled to put food on the table each night, dad cancelled court-appointed weekends on a weekly basis, and my youngest brother, Chris, was in and out of the mental hospital for a bipolar imbalance. Hostility brewed in our home, and I could feel the heat of the battle each time I walked in the door.

It’s interesting to look back and think that that was my life. Here I am, now grown and living the life I had only imagined in daydreams as a child. I’ve traveled the world and have achieved every career goal years faster than I thought I would. I am comfortable and have all that I need. Like my dad’s favorite t-shirt reads, life is good.

Good doesn’t always equal happy though. Life is messy and painful and real. It’s not humanly possible to be happy all the time. Even the apostle Paul spent time in prison and was beaten for his faith, yet in his suffering he chose to rejoice; he didn’t say he chose happiness. Instead said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Last November I flew home to Omaha for a much-needed Thanksgiving vacation. I had taken on more responsibility at work, was enrolled in a full load of courses in my Masters program, and I was tired. After a restful three days with my family, I woke up early Sunday morning to fly back to Washington, D.C. Before I left, I made the decision to leave Tater with my mom until Christmas. It would be easier as I finished up the semester. Maybe because of lack of sleep or lack of coffee, I started to cry. Tears streamed down as I said goodbye to my best friend, my dog. I held him and wiped my eyes. I didn’t worry about leaving Tater as much as I worried about being alone in a lonely city.

I tried to sleep on the plane. As the minutes ticked away and the distance to Washington D.C. grew smaller, the stress piled right back on—my work, my school, my social life, my nonexistent dating life, worry for Tater, worry for my family, worry that life was passing me by. When the 727 landed at Reagan National, dark clouds loomed around me.

Waiting in the freezing downpour for the train, I prayed it would clear up before I walked home. It didn’t. Three minutes down the bike path, with drops of rain pelting my face and my apartment faintly in the distance, I had a terrible thought: my house keys were in Omaha. The cold rain somehow felt more painful mixed with the hot tears soaking my cheeks. How could the day get any worse? Emotionally drained, I didn’t have energy to think, but, like a default song playing through my mind on repeat, I felt my lips subconsciously mouthing familiar words, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” I started to laugh. When I got to my door, I wiped the tears from my face, pulled out an old credit card and jimmied my way inside. The only real loss turned out to be a broken fingernail.

Life isn’t always happy. Life sometimes is really painful. And even worse, I have little control. Three years ago, my youngest brother, Chris, held up a convenience store with a BB gun. He terrified the clerk behind the counter and got busted when the police showed up in time to watch the entire heist unfold. I didn’t sleep for weeks after his arrest. I lay in bed night after night imagining how I could get him out of this unthinkable situation. I spent the next three years vowing to help him change his life when he made parole. I flew home for his release, poured hundreds of dollars into helping him set up a new life, and returned to D.C. praying it would be enough. That was eight months ago. Last week he landed himself right back where he started, this time, on a much more serious charge.

The older I get the more I realize my limitations. I can’t control work, and I can’t make good choices for my brother. Shoot, half the time I can’t even get Tater to listen. I’m learning that life isn’t measured by the game I talk, the level of success I achieve, or how fast I get there. It’s about rejoicing through the journey—despite the journey. Live in the moment, I now tell myself. It's the only one I know I have for sure. On this day, life is good. I have all that I need.