I’m going to celebrate my 50 years as if I own them. This is not my mother’s birthday. Every time I’ve considered turning 50, I’ve equated it with my mother’s 50th birthday — the day she officially became old and “senile” as we so lovingly told her. At 16, I certainly thought my mother was old at 50. Today, my perspective is much different; maybe 50 truly is the new 30. As I reach this half century mark, I own a few more aches and pains, but I’m still the same girl I always was — only wiser, I hope.
And since it’s my birthday and I can write if I want to, I thought I would reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned in life — and some I wish I’d learned earlier. I’m another day older and deeper in debt — to the people and the God who have spoken words of life and wisdom into my 50 years.
Ask any of my employees what my go-to standard of character is and they will say (or they should say, if they’ve been paying an iota of attention) that I am all about FAT: being Faithful, Available, and Teachable. While I want to avoid being physically fat, I want to be Faithful to whatever task God has placed before me, Available to whatever He may want to teach me or have me do, and Teachable, humble enough to learn rather than assume I know it all. I’m sure one of my Campus Crusade for Christ mentors must have spoken that into my life during my college years, and it stuck.
Wherever you are…
Sometimes I think I’ve learned “wherever you are, be all there” too well. Jim Elliot, a Christian missionary who was killed while trying to reach the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956, is responsible for the full quote: “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” I think that could be my life motto, though I was in my latter teens before I “mastered” it. Until that time, I suffered homesickness when away from my family, but when I attended Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri, I learned to say goodbye — first to my home and those there, then to the friends I met at Cottey. I not only learned to say some goodbyes (most tragic, certainly, was the loss of my first husband Bill Olson), but I also learned to move on and live fully where God placed me.
That is because I believe Romans 8:28:
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
When I was a college student on a summer missions project, my group gathered on the beach one night, wrote our favorite Scripture verses on scraps of paper that we slipped inside a glass bottle, and threw that glass memorial filled with hope into the Atlantic Ocean. Until that moment, I don’t think I had considered what my favorite verse of Scripture was, but a friend suggested that little verse in Paul’s epistle, and it has guided my thinking and given hope to my life ever since. In fact, Romans 8:28 graced the wedding program when I married widower Steve Dagen and his four children — evidence of our belief that God can make something beautiful even out of our tragedies.
Man’s chief end
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” While I never learned that first statement from the Westminster Shorter Catechism directly, once I understood that my purpose in life wasn’t, necessarily, to be successful as defined by our society but rather to bring glory to God and, what’s more, enjoy Him, I felt freed to do so. When God led me into journalism, I sought to glorify Him “in the land of ungodly liberals,” as my colleagues jokingly called our workplace, in which I was “its token Republican.” When I became an instant mother of four and eventual mother of one more, I sought to glorify God and demonstrate enjoyment of Him so that my children might see our heavenly Father for who He is. After teaching for 15 years in a school that sought “excellence in all things and all things for God’s glory,” returning to work in the land of liberals a year ago was a bit disconcerting (though I love my work and my colleagues immensely). But just a week ago, I awoke thinking of Matthew 5:16:
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
I left for work again feeling my purpose was clear — doing my work in such a way that it points to Jesus.
You get out what you put in
Something I always told my students — and not just because it took the onus off me if they failed — was that “you get out of it what you put into it.” (Apparently, a lot of people take credit for that idea; I’m not claiming authorship just belief in it.) I knew as a teacher that I could be creative, organized, loving, and downright awesome at teaching and have students who got nothing out of it because they put nothing into it. I could only add so many spoonfuls of sugar to a lesson to make it seem sweet to a student who believed it unpalatable medicine or worse. Teachers need students who take some ownership for their learning. But this applies to every area of life — especially relationships. I am not the best of friends or even relatives — because I tend to “wherever you are, be all there,” but I’m understanding I have to put more into relationships, whether I’m “there” or not. I figure if I’m following the Golden rule or otherwise giving all I have in a relationship and I don’t get out of it what I put into it, I’m still covered. God sees and rewards. I just need to give.
Keep calm and trust God
Finally, I can “keep calm and trust God.” Lately, my 16-year-old nephew and his family have demonstrated this best to me. In the spring, the family was brought back from their missionary home overseas because of a preliminary diagnosis of “brain tumor” for my teenage nephew, who was named after my first husband. Doctors first declared his tumor the worst type of brain tumor — and a week later found it to be the best type of tumor in the worst possible place, the brain stem. The plan was radiation to shrink it, but its rapid growth and complications forced doctors to do an extensive surgery to remove it — and when all was said and done, my nephew was sent home to recover with so much of the tumor removed that all assumed the remaining portion would die and he would live a relatively normal life.
After a month’s reprieve, the tumor came back in full force, and the past three weeks have been filled with dire predictions from doctors and end-of-life conversations and my nephew and his family declaring the goodness of the Lord despite it all. Last week, before my nephew began proton radiation treatments, knowing the therapy could backfire and cause swelling and death, he wrote that he knew he could die, that he was excited to see Jesus but sad to leave his family. I watch my very real sister-in-law and brother-in-law and this precious child look pain and death in the face and declare the kindness of our God, and I learn yet another life lesson: Keep calm and trust God.
For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
And with that, I must close with thanks to God and to all those who have touched my life and encouraged me to grow in wisdom. Today — perhaps because I am 50 years older and wiser — I am thankful for life as I have known it, for the many blessings and the trials and twists and turns that worked together for good, and I celebrate AS IF I own these 50 years. I say “as if” because as a Christian, my life is not my own.
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).
Because Jesus died on the cross for my sins, I chose to die to myself and live for Him. And that is the most important lesson of all I’ve learned these past 50 years. (That plus the thought that “this little light of mine” is now 50 candles strong!) 🙂