The 5.7 Billion Dollar Question (the one nobody is asking…)

IMG_5709 (1) When we were young – perhaps our early thirties – we had an excess of money and were picking up steam to make considerably more. Our trajectory was secure. We owned all the pretty things, had a solid retirement account, the kids’ college tuition neatly tucked away, and, should we have died, our offspring would have inherited a rather bulky birthright.

 

Isn’t that the dream? The holy grail for most Americans?

 

We thought so, anyway. We truly believed we were living the dream.

But then, one day we heard a sermon and it all came crashing down. It wasn’t like this was the ONLY thing that changed EVERYTHING for us, but it was certainly a catalyst. I don’t remember the sermon’s title or all the contents, but at one point our pastor asked a question that Paul and I had never been asked before:

“What might we have been blessed for?”

I initially felt outrage: What do you mean, pastor? Blessings tell us of God’s goodness and love toward us and they teach us thankfulness – that’s what they’re for! We’ve worked hard for this wealth and you’re not gonna make us feel guilty for being overly blessed! Every wealthy Christian knows money isn’t the root of all evil, but the LOVE of it! We don’t love it, pastor!

Christians, in general, like to talk about gratitude and its pivotal role in our faith walk. We like to say true joy is found when we learn to identify all the #blessings God has given us and then truly be thankful for them. We name it “contentment” and proceed to enjoy 80 or 90 years of thanking God for being so “loving” toward us.

But is all that just a smokescreen? Is the posture of thankfulness purely a panacea – a way to placate our fears? Are we maybe just afraid to take those blessings one click further…. to dig deep and take just one brave step beyond thankfulness? It’d be a brave step because we just might arrive at the scary question, “But what have we been given all these blessings FOR????”

When Paul and I started asking God that question and earnestly prayed, “Lord, what do you want us to do with this wealth? How now should we live?” the answer wasn’t exactly what young wealthy people want to hear, but we had no doubt we had heard from the Creator of the Universe. He simply told us: “Hold it loosely.” God didn’t tell us “Give it all away”, but simply to let go of our death grip on it.

Before you think we’re some wackadoos who think even the shape of our shower suds is a message from God, it’s not like that. His words to us were not written or spoken, it was just something we both knew – felt in our souls – after a devoted season of specifically asking God how we were to live in the midst of abundance.

Hang with me – this blog is not about me and my husband. Please don’t even glance our way. I only share our story because we HAVE learned that as soon as we “held our wealth loosely”, we were able to let it go. When we prayed for wealth accumulation to no longer be the summation of our lives, we were supernaturally given the courage to release it. We soon discovered we had an answer for that seemingly scary question:

What have we been blessed for? Well, for the sake of OTHERS, that’s what for.

It’s as simple as that.

For us, that revelation led us to flip our spending lives upside down in an attempt to put others before ourselves. We have a long way to go, but suffice to say the opening paragraph of this blog is no longer true.

 

My point, however, is not about personal wealth but how might the same scary question regarding blessings be applied to the wealth of a nation?

When I read Suzanne Collins’ book ‘The Hunger Games’, I was blown away at the resemblance of America to the “Capital” – the district from her dystopian novel which consumes and hoards all the wealth at the expense of all the other subservient districts. The Capital flaunts and celebrates and justifies their wealth with exaggerated exuberance. They make no concessions that they are the biggest, the best, the richest and most, well, #blessed in all the fair land. They do not mind that others are dying around them, as long as they are able to continue to live their opulent and indulgent lifestyle.

I was convicted to the point of tears when those books and the subsequent movie came out. I am convinced Collins intended the Capital to mirror America and, to be honest, I’m still extremely uncomfortable with the ongoing conviction. I don’t think any of us really want to acknowledge how much we have, especially in relation to those who have not. That would be painful and we don’t like pain. It’s better to not think about it – stay busy and preoccupied – we conclude. I know that’s how I keep the pain at bay, anyway.

But I think, if nothing else, ‘The Hunger Games’ should encourage those of us who can identify with the Capital (developed countries) to at least be contemplating:

“For what have we been blessed FOR?”

 

This fall, my husband and I drove across America to bring a car to our daughter in Los Angeles. Something like 2,100 miles. Sometimes we drove nearly 3 or 4 hours without seeing a single building, city, or person. We drove through countless stretches of fields, forests, and mountains – over rivers and around lakes – and couldn’t get over the expansiveness of this country. We are a land and people so rich in resources: fields, food, forests, water, beauty, unoccupied space, strong military, hard-working people, medicine, health and healthcare, research, energy, strength, education, innovation, creativity, and – most importantly – we are predominantly influenced by a faith that teaches selflessness and generosity. We, as a country, have far more resources, I believe, than we could ever expend entirely on ourselves.

If you’ve ever traveled to the third world, you know what I’m getting at. You understand the comparison without me pointing it out. If you’ve been to those places, you’ve seen the other “districts”. You know the atrocity of our wealthy and wasteful ways as those just outside our borders would be thrilled to simply eat from our dog’s dish.

America, WE are like a wealthy relative – perhaps a ridiculously rich, young uncle – who observes his poorer relatives starving, dying of preventable diseases, suffering from lack of clean water, fleeing homes to escape violence or gangs or a dictator who would rather behead a dissenter than being seen as weak, and yet, he mostly looks the other way. We are, indeed, THAT relative (who’s been specifically instructed by his Father to take care of his oppressed and suffering family members) – who finds out a cousin sent their 11 year-old daughter into the sex trade in Mumbai out of desperation to feed his starving family, who knows of a sister in Pakistan enslaved to a lifetime of hard labor for simply borrowing money for her daughter’s medical expenses, who discovers a Honduran niece was forced to flee the country after the small pillow factory she owns was targeted by gangs threatening to kill her if she didn’t pay an impossibly high bribe.

But the wealthy young uncle decides that instead of helping those relatives, he will build a wall around his abundance and choose the culturally acceptable posture of thankfulness. The rich uncle sits in his air-conditioned vacation home sipping fine wine and declares, “I’m so unbelievably blessed. I feel so very safe and comfortable. With all the walls around me, I have no worries, no fears, no suffering. And I’m so glad that I recognize just how thankful I am because that makes the enjoyment of all my blessings okay. Thank-you God for all these #blessings.”

America, there is NO doubt – WE ARE that wealthy young uncle. We can say all we want that it’s not our responsibility to care for the poor and hurting in this world and that they’re really not “our family” or “our problem”, but then we’d simply be skipping right over the question:

What might we have been blessed for?”

Lord, help us all.

 

Will Muslims, Mexicans, and My daughter be forced to wear visible ID badges?

I recently met an Armenian woman. She wore the traditional hijab and jellaba – the head covering and long flowing coat typical for Middle Eastern women and often associated with Islam.   Her skin was dark tan and her deep brown eyes were lined with kohl. She looked strikingly similar to every other Muslim woman I had met while living in Morocco. But instead of following the teachings of Muhammad, she worshipped Jesus.

images-1Selma is a Christian – yet dressed in the traditional Armenian attire encouraged by her Armenian Apostolic church . She educated me on the plight of Armenian Christians from Turkey.  Selma’s great-grandparents fled the country in the early 1900’s escaping a violent genocide under Ottoman rule, making Selma a fourth generation American.

She shared how she is still persecuted here in America. She has been scorned, mocked, spit upon, and even been rejected service in restaurants and stores – and it is NOT because she’s Armenian, it’s because she LOOKS like a Muslim. And today, she wakes up in a country with a president who considers Muslims one of our biggest “problems”, who’s refusing to accept Muslim refugees, and whose inflammatory speech does more to fuel fear toward Muslims than anything else.

She’s a legal American citizen, with a prestigious career. She pays her taxes, lives peaceably in her neighborhood, and practices the same religion that the majority of people in America say they do: Christianity. And yet, because she looks like the people group that American’s are growing to fear the most: Muslims, she is treated harshly – even discriminated against.

She said, “I know it’s just because no one can tell from the outside who I really am.”

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At the inner-city junior high where I volunteer, we watched a film on the life of Corrie tenBoom. Corrie, and her entire Dutch family, were sent to Nazi concentration camps for hiding Jews in their attic during World War II. After viewing the film, I debriefed with three 8th grade girls and asked them, “Do you think something similar – the systematic persecution and extermination of a people group – could happen today?”

A Mexican girl in my group immediately replied, “Absolutely. My parents [who speak very little English] are so afraid of being deported to Mexico. We are not illegals. But how will they know? Since we are Mexicans and immigrants from Mexico are being blamed for many of the problems in this country, it only makes sense that we’ll get blamed, too.  My parents say they already get a lot of dirty looks from white people. They think that someday we’ll have to wear an ‘M’ on our clothes. You know, to like mark us as legal – so people won’t be angry with us and try to deport us.”

I told her I didn’t think she had to worry. After all, her family IS legal.

She said, “Yeah, but how will ‘they’ know that?   No one can tell from the outside who I really am.”

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I shared those concerns from my Mexican-American student at the dinner table that evening. And my Guatemalan-born daughter asked, “What about me? Do you think I’ll have to wear an ID-badge of some sort?”

I told her no way. She was adopted at birth. She’s an American citizen. She is American in every way.

But she replied, “Yeah, but how will ‘they’ know? No one can tell from the outside who I really am.”

I couldn’t answer her. She’s Guatemalan – but could easily be Mexican. She’s adopted – but unless she’s walking beside her all-white family, you’d never know it simply from appearances. I can protect her from being deported, certainly, because she IS legal. But the fear in her eyes betrayed her. She’s awakening to the fact that the “they” she actually needs to fear isn’t the government – it’s those who are looking for a people-group to blame, someone to take umbrage with. And I can’t protect her from that. She looks just like the people that “they” say are the problem.

slovak-jews-with-star-of-davidThe Third Reich of 1930’s Germany forced Jews to wear the star of David badge to not just humiliate them, but to keep close watch over them and to facilitate in their deportation. It was an effective way to distinguish between people groups when judging by appearances didn’t work. 

As the political, ethical, religious and racial divide in this country continually grows; and as more and more people feel their freedoms, their money, and their security are actually threatened by a few distinct people groups; and being that my daughter looks JUST LIKE one of those people groups – I’ve really had to wonder: Is she safe here? Do I need to have my daughter wear an external ID to show the public she is “good”? Maybe a letter on her clothing – something like an “L” for legal, or “A” for adopted, or “S” for safe? How else will people know? How else do I help her feel safe?

Then it hit me:  The only other reasonable solution is to mark ALL THE OTHERS – those from the people groups that we, as a country, have deemed “the problem”.

The absurdity of that thought – and its frightening similarities to 1930’s Germany – is not lost on me.

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She’s an Armenian Christian – but she looks like other Muslims and she has received death threats.

She’s a legal third-generation Mexican-American – but she and her family could easily be taken for illegal Mexicans. The condemning glares already judge them.

She’s my adopted daughter from Guatemala – but she could be any illegal’s child. And she’s afraid she’ll be treated differently now.

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It’s not the government that these women need to fear. Whether we agree or not with the sweeping statements that have been made regarding entire people groups identified as “a problem” – the truth is, if so desired, the government CAN and WILL deport certain people and also create ways to keep other people out.

I’m mortified that my country is doing these things. But that’s not the REAL problem here. The problem is our ATTITUDE to those who are different from us. The problem is that we, the American public, are traveling a dangerous path towards ethnic cleansing. It begins with finger-pointing – “THOSE people over there – THEY are the problem!”

The finger-pointing inevitably turns into actions, “We must build a WALL!” or “We must ban all Muslims from entering!” or “We must make a public list of all crimes done by foreigners!” But those actions will lead us to a false sense of security and so whenever something goes bad in the land, we will only be left to find more people to blame. We’re adopting an “Us” vs. “Them” paradigm and creating a growing chasm between the two.

And all that propaganda leads to fear.   As our president continues to stir the pot of blaming and shaming, he incites more fear. And hate inevitably follows fear. It’s eerie how quickly and easily we resort to hating that which we fear.

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My daughter and my Mexican student and my Armenian friend do not need to fear their government, or their comb-over president, or being deported. What they legitimately need to fear – and it’s already proving to be true – is simply the hate from other Americans.

We have become our own worst enemy.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand.” Mark 3:25.

If I only had 10 more years to live:

The phone finally rang – two days, three hours and fifty-seven minutes later than it should have.  I was a shredded pile of emotions from the waiting.  She took an infinitely long breath, cleared her throat, and dealt the blow:  It is as we feared – lymphangioleiomyomatosis.  I know what you’re thinking:  that’s not a word, it sounds like a kindergartener made it up.  It’s most definitely a word and it’s definitely no joke.  While initially I was relieved that it wasn’t the “C” word – the one disease we’ve all learned to respect – now I’ve come to wish it were.  I remember learning in nursing school that cancer should really be viewed as a curable disease.  Many times people with cancer receive successful treatment and are cured and we need to stop thinking of that diagnosis as the kiss of death.

 

Not so with lymphangioleiomyomatosis (or LAM, its kinder acronym).   It is not curable.  In fact, “they” – those great minds of the medical elite – make no concessions about that.  “They” don’t even know how you get it or how to treat it.  Paul and I have been to multiple physicians and even drove across the state to the University of Michigan and talked to the most special specialist who specializes in LAM.  I have also now read from nearly hundreds of websites – six weeks since I first heard there was an evil in the world called LAM.  Six weeks since “they” first suspected I have it. 

I am 47 years old.  I basically feel healthy and strong, but for years I have wondered if I was more short of breath than I should have been.  Although I can walk for miles, I couldn’t really carry on a conversation while walking, and try as I might, I was simply unable to run for lack of air.  I blamed it on being 20 lbs overweight and vowed that someday, when I finally got in shape, I’d run a marathon.  I was also more tired than I wanted to be – but I blamed that on four kids, multiple moves overseas, middle age, and an affliction that makes me unable to say “no”.  And, apparently, I cough.  It doesn’t bother me any, but I’m finding out my loved ones have noticed it (a lot) and find it rather annoying.  But I would have sworn to you I’m not sick – just, well, a little bit not quite right.  But now “they” have assured me those are all symptoms of a disease which initially lets you appear healthier than you are.  I guess LAM has started to take over my lungs and moved toward my kidneys.  And slowly, I will find it harder and harder to breathe until I simply cannot.  “They” say this takes, on average, ten years.

Where does one even begin to process that?  Before we even started telling family and friends – or our own kids for that matter – I was thrust, unwillingly but entirely necessarily, into a mind-numbing exercise of trying to make sense of all that is life, and all that is death, and how to fully live in every gifted breath.  I hope, and believe, that as my plus or minus ten years progress, I will discover more about the meaning of life and that I can exit this reality with more peace than I have today.  Because today I’m still a bit of a mess.

 

One day, or maybe it was night (they’re all a blur lately), while being swallowed both in self-pity and a sea of snotty Kleenex, I decided someone with a terminal illness should probably make a bucket list.  Ten years is not near enough time to do all the things you thought you had 40 years in which to do them.  My list included many things one would expect to see on a typical bucket list:  see “Wicked” on Broadway, visit Machu Pichu, walk the great Wall of China, run a marathon, see Coldplay in concert, hike the Himalaya’s, learn to speak Spanish, sky dive, etc.   

 

But before I even got to #9, I had a revelation.  I realized that if I really only had 10 years left, I better first figure out the pointto this life and then waste no time trying to get there.  I don’t really have time for pointless activities – unless of course they were done with people I loved – but then, that would be the point.  The more I thought that through, the more I was convinced I couldn’t (wouldn’t) make a bucket list full of typical things one does before one dies.  Because, I reasoned, those typical entries were all deposits made into “ME”.    Places I wanted to go, wonders I wanted to see, things I wanted to do – all of which, are all for ME.  With only 10 years left, why would I only make deposits into ME?  When I die, those deposits all die with me.  The only legacy one can possibly leave behind that makes any sense at all is a deposit into OTHERS.   What I really must do for the last 10 years is pour whatever energy I have left in me into other people. In my less selfish moments, when I’m not grieving over the fact that I will be robbed of maybe 20 or 30 years on this planet, I have concluded I must spend my years sharing the love that I believe can only be found in Christ Jesus my Savior.  I want to live like Him – just extravagantly loving others and pouring myself out for them. 

 

So,  this is my better bucket list: 

 

  • I want to spend as much time with my four children as they’ll allow.  I’m aiming for a melange of Carol Brady, Claire Huxtable, Maria von Trap, Mother Mary, and Olivia Pope – praying that even a sliver of good in me can be majorly multiplied in them growing them into good, kind, compassionate, hard-working, self-less givers who are musical, wickedly smart, and forceful world changers. 

 

  • I want to be spending unhurried time over long lunches with friends who feel like they’re being trampled from the hurried masses, beaten down by the world’s injustices, or crushed by the pressures of a culture run amok  – and simply listen.  We’ve all got crap we’re dealing with – but we don’t often find good listeners with whom we can safely spew our crap.  Dear Lord, make me a big crap loader. 

 

  • I want to walk Buddy, my Holy Spirit she-dog, through the trailer park and let all the children (some who, I fear, are bearing physical and emotional wounds from their tired, over-worked, and underpaid daddies) pet her and play with her and forget their troubles for just a few moments.  

 

  • I want to spend unsolicited coffee-time with my sweet and self-less mother-in-law who is slipping away slowly and barely remembers my name these days. 

 

  • I’m going to be all about letting my 12 year-old daughter climb up on my lap even though she is entirely too old to be doing that sort of thing, but entirely able because she is from Guatemala – a country where they just make smaller people. 

 

  • I want to drink wine with our friends until we’re giddy and foolish and we let some buried things bubble-forth and then we laugh and cry together as we realize this was the very therapy we needed. 

 

  • I want to take longer showers (My husband must be thinking:  is that possible?) – but like most people,  that’s where I get my best revelations.  Often, I feel God reveals to me random people from my past which feels like a prompting to reconnect:  Kathy Henderson from nursing school, Diane Marker from Davenport,  Stephanie Saumon from Aix-en-Provence, Julie Jones and  Stacey Johnson  from Casablanca and countless others – where are you now,  my sweet friends?  And do you randomly think of me as often as I randomly think of you? 

 

  • I want to keep visiting our poorest of poor friends in Morocco and just sit with them, accepting their extravagant generosity, while we wrestle with the pain of how much we have and how much they have not.  And loving them deeply, without necessarily fixing their problems. 

 

  • I’m going to keep a large bag of Snickers in my car at all times so I always have something to give a pan-handler.  Since I am running out of time, it doesn’t look as if I’ll be able to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness in America – or for the rest of the world for that matter.  And that beats the hell out of me because I so wish I could.  But possibly, for this moment, on this day, for this one person, I can at least hope to spread a flicker of sunshine.  Besides, who doesn’t love Snickers? 

 

  • I’m going to work hard at forgiving those who wounded me unintentionally.  Harder yet – forgiving those who hurt me intentionally.  And why stop there?  I want to bless them, too. 

 

  • I’d like numerous fireside chats with our neighbors making time for sharing stories.  But also watering their flowers, feeding their dogs, eating their cherry tomatoes, giving their kids popsicles – so they are much more than “the people with the white car”, but they are fellow sojourners whom we actually share life with on our little cul-de-sac in Hudsonville. 

 

  • I think I’ll watch more comedians.  Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Stephen Colbert (don’t judge) and Tim Hawkins – these will be some of my new friends.  I just want to laugh, in a room full of people I love, because I think laughter is music to God’s ears.  And bonus, I’ve heard a good hard belly-laugh can burn upwards of 100 calories. 

 

  • I’d like to keep working at my job at a psychiatric hospital – because I believe I have been called to serve the marginalized in society.   I feel so honored and privileged to care for these misunderstood people – I’d even be willing to work there for free.  And I now see how the soul begins to die when we stop serving others – which is a much worse death than the physical one. 

 

  • Because of that last one, I think I’ll return to the homeless shelter where I interned last year and start volunteering.  I’ve never felt more alive than when I walked through those doors and breathed in deep the aroma of desperate need colliding with God’s love in action. 

 

  • I want to spend countless afternoons watching the sparkles accumulate on the lake as the sun descends in the sky, and then, because we’re too ensconced to get up and cook a proper meal, we’ll just throw all the food from both of our refrigerators onto the picnic table and feed all the kids left-over chicken wings, string cheese, a head of lettuce and a can of baked beans.  I want to laugh and eat s’mores and drink wine around the campfire until our sides hurt too much from laughing and the mosquitos chase us away. 

 

  • I want to have ice cream for dinner – repeatedly throughout my remaining summers – buying about 20 gallons too many so that we can take all the extra gallons to the trailer-park to spread smiles. 

 

  • I want to spend time at my local nursing home and find out which residents never get any visitors.  And I want to sit with those lovelies and let them talk endlessly about their childhoods, their children and grandchildren, their careers, their legacies – until they run out of stories or break into song with “How Great Thou Art”.  I used to work there – I know how it goes. 

 

  • I want to pull out my memorabilia from high school and college and spend a whole day, or perhaps a whole week-end, with my high-school sweetheart, who both miraculously and graciously married me, and together read through all of our old hand-written love-letters to each other.  And I want to revel in the beauty of 27 shared years.  Twenty-seven.  That’s a pretty big number when you’re talking years. 

 

  • I want to read a ridiculous amount of books.  I know that seems contrary to what I said earlier about investing in others and not myself – but I also believe this truth:  When we live out the life that God destined us to live and we become who He created us to be, He is glorified.  He made me a reader and a writer.  And when I read, I feel His pleasure. 

 

  • I want to plant trees.  Is it just me or have others noticed that the trees are dying?  When we returned from living in Morocco, I was hyper-aware of dead trees everywhere – way more than when we had left 4 years prior.  I think it’s continuing to get worse.  I think I’ll plant at least one tree for every year God gifts me here.  At first, I felt like this one wasn’t an investment into people, but now I think it is.

 

  • I want to hand-write cards expressing: “Thank-you”, “Way-to-go!”, “Congratulations!”, “Thinking of you”, “Praying for you”, “Sorry for your loss”, “Wish you were here”, ‘til my carpal-tunnel screams “No more!” 

 

  • If my lungs will allow, I want to take several trips to Guatemala or Honduras – two countries that are home to many people we know and love.  And on these trips I want to take bunches of people who have never left the USA before, and introduce them to the “real world” and hope and pray that they get it, absorb it, and live differently because of it.  That’s what changed us, anyway, and I’d love to keep paying that forward.  Even though it wrecks you for good. 

 

  • I hope I’ll never watch another reality TV show – perhaps any TV show for that matter.  I don’t find the point in it at all.  Unless, of course, it is “24” with my husband and our two sons and we’re all death-gripping each other’s hands on the couch, or “Downton Abbey” with my two daughters curled up under the same blanket with me. 

 

  • I don’t know, but I think with only 10 years left, I’m going to give up dusting and vacuuming.  Those two things seem equally pointless and just time-suckers – time better spent with people.  I need to be about making a point.  I bet they don’t dust and vacuum in the Congo.  I’m contemplating throwing out cleaning toilets as well – but more undecided on that one.  I still have nightmares about the toilets at Paul’s college residence after just ONE year with no cleaning… I swear I got bit in the butt once by some kind of toilet vermin. 

 

  • And I’m going to write that stinkin’ book.  It doesn’t matter if it is ever published or even gets read for that matter, it just matters that our story gets told.  We all have a story and they are all too good to not be told.  The five reasons this bucket list entry is for others and not for me are named:  Paul, Andy, Josiah, Grace and Yulisa. 

 

  • In fact, I’m going to write everything down on this journey.  And I’m going to share it openly not caring what some negative people may say anymore.  I’m done with letting words hurt me, and I just don’t have time for that anymore.  The only way I can be hurt now is if someone would steal the set of lungs that I might need for a transplant. 

 

  • And then, hopefully, if I still have energy left after all that, I want to devote serious time, money, and creativity in bringing awareness to LAM.  Because it’s so rare, it doesn’t receive the research monies a terminal illness deserves.  It still has no cure, and it is silently killing many women in the prime of their lives with average age of diagnosis around 35.  I cannot possibly understand the mercies of our God – but mercifully, He has allowed me to live this long, well into my 40’s; and hopefully, He grants me another 10 years.  But many other women with LAM do not live long enough to even see their first grey hair or their children graduate from high school.   I want to tell everyone I know about LAM, and trust that somehow, somewhere, someone out there exists who will discover the cure.