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I turned 50 last November, and even in the weird year that was 2020, there were many memorable birthday moments—a cozy candlelight dinner with my family, a perfect three-layer chocolate cake and fresh flowers delivered to my door.

But as I think back to the birthday I wasn’t supposed to celebrate, what I remember most are the honoring words loved ones lavished on me. From all over the country, gracious sentiments poured in through texts, calls, Facebook posts, and handwritten cards and letters. They washed over me like fresh spring rain, cleansing old wounds and buoying my spirit.

It probably didn’t take anyone more than 15 minutes to write those words, but they seeped down into my soul and caused a seismic shift in how I viewed my life’s significance.

Intuitively, we all know words have power. But do we realize how much power?

The Proverbs say death and life are in the power of the tongue. You can’t get any more powerful than imparting life to - or inflicting death on - another human being.

Words can tear at our souls like a predator tearing the flesh of its prey, or they can protect our hearts like a bulletproof vest. We’ve all experienced this, but as a practical matter, we don’t seem to believe that how we communicate carries consequences.

If we did, we would change our ways.

Shouting our angry opinions seems to be turning into a national pastime, especially after this year of upheaval and instability. We feel out of control (spoiler alert: We are!) and overwhelmed. So, we look for someone to blame, and we oversimplify the solutions to complex issues.

We all live by a set of deeply held beliefs created and curated throughout our lifetimes based on our family, faith, culture, and experiences. These values span across a broad spectrum and will never be shared wholly and equally by any two people, let alone the nearly 8 billion humans sharing the planet.

Opinions typically flow out of our values. But they are not the same thing. Instead of loudly shouting our opinions, let’s try quietly living out our values.

We can start by choosing to speak words that honor.

As each new year unfolds, I carve out some time for silence and solitude for the sole purpose of making space to reflect and refocus. Once a pipe dream in a house full of children, it’s now possible in this empty nest season.

One evening, I picked up Chinese takeout from my favorite place and just for grins, I ate the fortune cookie first. I’m not superstitious, but I always read the quippy “fortune”—for amusement but certainly not for life direction.

But this time, I was more than amused; I was intrigued. When I unrolled the tiny paper, my eyes fell on these words:

“There is never any harm in asking an honest question.”

And it hit me—that’s what I’m trying to do.

I hadn’t framed it that way, but asking honest questions is precisely the point of my cadence in this new year—walking slow in nature, studying sacred text, praying long, and listening hard.

Goodness knows I want answers. If we’re honest, we always want all the answers.

But maybe it isn’t about knowing the answers. Maybe wisdom lies in asking the questions.

Who did God create me to be?

Am I spending my time, energy and relationships in ways that honor that purpose?

What insights is God trying to give me in this season of life?

How can I live, love, and lead well no matter what circumstances are swirling around me?

We are all living in times that could engulf us in a sense of chaos if we succumb. And when you add personal losses or transitions to the mix, you can spiral into despair.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

More than ever, I’m keenly aware that I don’t have the answers to the issues plaguing our nation, or even the ones plaguing my own family. I’m guessing you don’t feel particularly enlightened either.

But even when I don’t have the answers, I can ask honest questions. And listen.

God is everywhere, always speaking. He’s endlessly creative with communication, and He knows how to reach us in our deepest need.

But He’s not going to shout over our busyness. He’s not likely to interrupt our addictions or block our numbing behaviors to get our attention.

God will not hurry to catch up to us.

But there’s good news. He promises to wait patiently for us to slow down to His rhythm and listen to the still, small voice that always guides us toward peace, truth and trust.

Maybe that’s better than knowing the answers anyway.

Today is the day that was not supposed to be—my 50th birthday.

I’ve officially outlived my expiration date. Every breath is now a bonus, every heartbeat icing on the cake.

I don’t know what I expected today to be. I hadn’t given it much thought, what with it being a statistical impossibility and all. But now I’m here, standing in this surreal moment—looking back over the half-century I’ve already lived, still afraid to look too far into the future.

The truth is I have the only thing any of us ever has—today.

Today is just a regular Tuesday. Ironically, very much like the day I received a death sentence in Exam Room B almost 18 years ago. But even a typical Tuesday is a gift, and I vow to treat this one as such.

I will savor the simple pleasures – the flaky perfection of a chocolate croissant at my favorite downtown café, a few silent minutes lost in a good book by a cozy fire, a brisk walk by the lake.

I will surround myself with precious people. My family and friends, the main characters in my life story, embody for me the depth, complexity, and indescribable beauty life offers each of us.

I will find comfort in the simple rituals that anchor my day—making my bed, washing my hair, watering the front porch mums.

I will unearth the buried memories. I will leaf through my kids’ keepsake boxes, adore my grandchildren’s baby pictures, and re-read the love notes from Steve that still make me cry.

I will soak up the solitude. I will thank God for this gift of life, relish in His limitless love, and listen for the still, small voice that reminds and continues to teach me who He made me to be.

In short, today I will live. Because no matter how many days on earth God grants us, life is meant to be enjoyed, not endured.

By God’s providence, my journey hasn’t ended, and neither has yours. We each have an unknown number of hours, days, weeks, and years to invest in living well, loving well and ultimately, leaving well.

So, how do we live our lives? By how we spend our time. It’s that simple and that difficult.

So much of what our culture tells us makes life meaningful is frivolous. Stuff comes to mind. So does vanity. I’m thankful that sickness stripped away what I clung to before, clearing my vision so I could see what really counts for eternity—our souls and our relationships.

Our relationship with God, primarily, and our relationship with ourselves drives how we connect with and function in the world.

If we can't accept God’s love for us and love ourselves in healthy ways (a lifelong journey for me), it’s virtually impossible to love others well. And really, isn’t love the whole point of life?

Living out love will look different for each of us. You might be working in a remote village across the world, caring for the sick and impoverished, or you might be simmering a pot of soup for the single mom next door. Maybe you’re acting as a voice for the voiceless, or perhaps you’re sitting silently with a grieving widow. You might be changing diapers or changing oil, leading a large team, or chasing a toddler around.

The why, not the what, matters most. If love is your motive, you’ll never miss the mark.

God endowed you with gifts only you can give, and we all need the blessings that spill over from your life well-lived.

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