The River of Life

I was listening to Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem entitled Die Moldau about a river running from the mountaintop down through Prague and eventually to the sea. I have always been moved by the melodic beauty of the song but on that day I just sat and let the beauty of the music wash over me as I experienced the music of the river as metaphoric truth – the truth that our lives resemble a melody.

Listen as Smetana creates his story musically: the Moldau begins as two little springs in the mountain, bubbling and trickling, join together to create a living, moving, growing river. Soon the bubbling develops a voice – a beginning melody, not totally defined, that winds its way down the mountain. Every time the river goes by a city or village, the music and activities of the city hide the melody of the river; then as it gets beyond the activities, the bubble begins again and the melodic song returns. As the river continues on, the rocks in the river create an area of rapids and the melody’s place is taken over by tension and rolling timpani and clashing cymbals. Of course, it’s exciting, and has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not the melody. As the rapids dissipate, the rolling bubble is heard again and its melody erupts in a joyous song. Finally the river gets quieter and quieter, more and more at peace as it approaches the end of its journey – to meet and join with the sea. As the sea rolls in and the river rolls out they meet and the river is united with the whole body of water in a great and satisfying clash of cymbals.

That’s the way it is with life and with us. We, too, have a voice – a special melody that is our own. But sometimes a loved one, or a job, a crisis or a national calamity comes along and our voice gets hidden in the circumstance – and we’re left with just a nagging sense that something is missing. My mother expressed what was missing for her when she talked about remarrying after my father’s death. Her new husband asked her, “Why do you love me?” and she said, “Oh, that’s easy; because you listen to me.” It is such a deep need within us to be heard and yet sometimes the very voice with which we speak isn’t even our own voice – it is the voice of all the people and responsibilities and circumstances around us.

I read a book once entitled, “Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?” It’s a book you don’t have to read – just spend a little time with the title and you’ll know that’s what happens to our melody as we wend our way along the river of life. We give away little bits and pieces of our song – one of life’s barters that takes a heavy toll on who we were created to be – in fact, for many of us, our song may be completely covered over. As Norman Cousins said, “The tragedy of life is not in the fact of death, but in what dies inside of us while we live.”

Another song flowed into my mind from the Gaither musical, Alleluia, A Praise Gathering. The musically accompanied narration depicts the life of Jesus and Christianity as a song – a melody – as the narrator tells us, “It was a … simple lovely song for every man.  Right from the first, some tried to ignore it.  They said, ‘There’s no song!  It simply doesn’t exist.’  Others just tried to change the tune.  They made laws to stop it.  Armies marched against it.   They killed some who sang the song.  They screamed at it in fury, they tried to drown it out.  Finally they nailed that song to a tree.  They said to themselves, ‘There . . . that should take care of that.’” Then a subtle ding, ding, ding, ding, ding grows audibly – the melody isn’t dead – they couldn’t kill the song – the Song Goes On!

There it is again – the truth of life as a melody and not just any melody – your melody. Everyone of us, at one time or another, like the river, has allowed activities or people around us to drown out our song – so much so that at times we may not even remember our own melody. In forgetting our melody, we may hear someone else’s song and think, ‘that’s a pretty song.” For example, I watched a 17-year baritone practicing a solo – the last note was just too low for him. He tried and tried and it just wasn’t there. Finally, he decided to have the choir director, a bass, sit on the front pew with a microphone and when David got to the very last note, George picked up the microphone and sang the low note. But that just won’t do – it has to be our song. I have my melody and you have yours. Make your own kind of music. As Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil said, “Even if nobody else sings along.”

In this river of life, your mission is to uncover your song (not discover it, because it’s been there all along) and once you uncover it, sing it for all you’re worth. When the river of life joins with the sea of eternity – the sea will not be complete without my melody or without yours.

In the Moment

The police tell us, to avoid the risk of becoming a crime victim, we need to be aware of where we are – know where you’re going, keep your purse and packages held securely, have a mental plan in place of where to go for protection. In books from business, to the personal, to the sacred with such titles as “The Power of Full Engagement,” “Be Here Now,” and “The Sacrament of the Present Moment,” we are encouraged to live moment by moment in full awareness.

How many of you have experienced driving someplace and all of a sudden it dawns on you, you can’t remember the specifics of the driving process. Your mind was somewhere else the majority of the drive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to say, “Thank you, God, that I’ve arrived at my destination safely because I certainly wasn’t paying enough attention to have gotten me here on my own.” This is so universal, I assume a 100% response to some similar experience.

Because I apparently live way too much of my life on autopilot, I’ve thought about people who perhaps live more in the present moment than I do and I have extrapolated some keys for living a more aware life. My example is primarily my daughter in a recent shared experience. I wanted to make a trip to the Joplin area for research on a novel I’m writing based on genealogical truth. I wanted pictures in my head to help me visualize the place. I asked Kay if she would like to go with me and she agreed. You need to know, it she hadn’t gone, I would have just hopped in the car the next morning with camera and paper and been back that night. Kay made me make a plan for how to best utilize the time so we spent four fully planned days and reaped benefits I would never have expected. Addresses and property owned from probate files from courthouse records, newspaper articles on the wedding of my grandfather and grandmother as well as a picture of life in the community in 1900 from the genealogical society, and four pages from the library archives of front page news of my great grandfather’s death, services and business community reaction. The information we got allowed us to take pictures of actual home sites and business in multiple cities, as well as photos from visits to their grave sites. We saw countryside and beautiful scenery to incorporate in my novel, but the result was purposeful rather than random, due almost exclusively to my daughter’s ability to live life with awareness.

My great-grandfather's store and home lot next door.

My great-grandfather's store and home lot next door.

Here are my conclusions from the experience:

First, as Stephen Covey said, “begin with the end in mind.” Kay knew what information she had as well as some of the holes she would like to fill in and she had a working knowledge of possible places to go to get answers.

Make a plan – both broad based and specific. My plan was only broad based, but Kay’s included the specific and it was the specific that netted the best results. Keep the whole picture in your mind – if not, you may miss pieces that would fit that you weren’t looking for in the moment.

Stay open to the spontaneous and serendipitous. All of the newspaper articles were serendipitous. Reading the article my grandmother wrote to put in the newspaper about her leaving Missouri to come to Oklahoma to get married was totally unexpected and a great pleasure. It was the taking the time to read newspaper archives that netted that great benefit.

My grandmother's 1902 marriage announcement.

My grandmother's 1902 marriage announcement.

Keep all your senses open – God gave them so use them. Remember there’s more than just the surface to the senses – explore the possible meanings to the sensory input – ask the 5 journalist questions – who, what, when, where and how and allow your mind free reign to explore the answers.

Bring all your education, experience, and skill to the moment – all can be useful. Kay is a librarian and she utilized all those in the service of this trip. She’s also a manager and she used her ability to delegate, plan and implement the details as well as to integrate the information we got into the whole of her research. In addition, she’s also a daughter, wife and mother and she brought all of those experiences and responsibilities with her to maximize the experience in terms of the research as well as relationship building.

Enjoy the moment – if life is just a task to be gotten out of the way, what’s the point?

New Year’s Resolve

In common usage today, the word resolution has more to do with compromise than with the backbone and spine required to make permanent change in our daily lives. We use it to say something like, “We’ve come to a resolution of our differences,” meaning we’ve each given away something of ourselves in order to agree.

Resolve is not a word most of us use often, probably because we have become accustomed to choosing words that allow us an out. To avoid stepping on others’ opinions, we’ve been told to use phrases like “I feel ,” because people can’t disagree with what we’re feeling, though they could disagree with our opinions. That is probably effective when what is meant is something like “I feel hurt when you…” What has happened in our language is that the phrase “I feel” is often not  connected to an emotion but has become more frequently connected to a thought or a belief in order to hopefully stop people from disagreeing with us over those thoughts and beliefs. You can know you have moved away from the true language of feeling when you have to say “I feel that…;” that phrase with the added word ‘that’ will always lead not to a feeling/emotion but to a thought or belief.

That language has so permeated our speech patterns that no one seems willing any longer to take responsibility for his or her thoughts by stating, “I think,” “I believe, or “I know.” I believe it is that unwillingness to take responsibility for our actions, thoughts and beliefs that causes us to make resolutions (hear and feel ‘compromises’) rather than actually resolving (hear choices, backbone and will) to take the necessary steps to accomplish change.

Because of the difference in those words, I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I know those will be forgotten and set aside within a few days of the new year. If something is truly important enough to make me deeply desire change, I must resolve to implement the changes that will be necessary.

This morning I was reading yesterday’s “My Utmost for His Highest” and the opening scripture and Chambers’ comments read like a New Year’s resolve: “My eager desire and hope being that I may never feel ashamed, but that now as ever I may do honour to Christ in my own person by fearless courage.” Philippians 1:20 (MOFFATT)

Chambers quotes Paul, “My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest” [emphasis mine]. He goes on to say, “To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point.”

If I am going to “be my utmost for His Highest,” I need to be aiming with resolve and determination toward all those ideals most of us merely apply the label “New Year’s Resolutions” to. I know resolutions will not be implemented and will be lost to my mind after a few days not to be recalled until I reflect on how I did in 2009. But my daily resolve and determination can guide me to “be my utmost for His Highest.”

Whatever You Do, Inspire Me!

A year or so ago, I watched an old 1940s war movie called “Journey for Margaret.” A young pregnant woman was wounded during an air raid and during an operation lost both the child and the ability to conceive further children. As a result, she began to cope with life with a lot of fake good cheer and alcoholic bolstering. I began to reflect on how any of us maintain our inspiration and motivation to continue in the face of frustration and loss.

In August 2007, I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit held annually at Crossings Church. In Bill Hybels’ last presentation he addressed this same subject as it relates to leaders – how do leaders stay inspired and motivated to continue leading and how do they inspire and motivate the members of their team or organization?

It’s a pertinent question; in different research studies someplace between 40% and 87% of employees leave their job as a response to frustration or lack of inspiration or motivation. Those of us who have been divorced can attest that people also leave marriages and families during those same times of lack of inspiration or motivation. It’s pretty clear that a discouraged leader, employee or family member doesn’t have a lot to draw on to hold the team, organization or family together.

The first question Hybels asked was, “Whose job is it to keep me, as a leader, motivated?” As a Christian leader, he looked to the Bible to find his answer. In I Samuel 30:6, scripture tells us that Samuel “encouraged himself in God.” Hybel’s conclusion – it’s truly up to the individual to keep up with his or her own call to leadership. Some of his suggestions for how to do that are:

  1. Stay clear about why you are doing what you’re doing
  2. Be sure you are maximizing your God-given gifts and talents – Focus on your strengths – Marcus Buckingham in First Break All the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths and in the most recent Go, Put Your Strengths to Work teaches how we are depleted from working in areas of our weaknesses and we are strengthened and excited when we are working in the areas of our strengths.
  3. Make sure the people you surround yourself with are inspired and inspiring – pay close attention to people who are de-motivators to you (even if one of them is you). We can take in so much daily garbage that we can demotivate our own self.
  4. Read great books (although there isn’t anything wrong with reading fiction; Hybels is talking about reading biographies and books on leadership that help you grow in the direction of your dreams)
  5. Rub shoulders with EIPs (exceptionally inspiring people) – take the time to seek them out
  6. Participate in inspiring events. That likely means you’ll need to spend some time thinking about what really does inspire you. That’s why I attend the Leadership Summit as well as the Maximum Impact seminars each year.
  7. Pay attention to your physical condition and to the disciplines that keep you fit, like exercise, proper nutrition, water and rest.
  8. Pay attention to your work environment – decorate it, clean it, organize it.
  9. Have inspiring recreation outside your work time that recreates you.
  10. This is one that generally gets neglected in the corporate world, but it is Hybels’ suggestion and mine – Practice daily spiritual disciplines. Sensing the voice of God speaking to your spirit can inspire you for days, months or even years.

Once we’ve dealt with our own inspiration and motivation, what’s the best way to motivate those around us? Collin Powell earlier in the day had said “Optimism is a force multiplier.” Optimism enhances everything that has to get done in a military or governmental setting. Hybels said number one on the list of how to motivate those around us is to Live a motivated life around them! Avoid negativity. Positivity is also a force multiplier. In addition to your own motivated life,

  1. Connect everyone you lead to a compelling cause
  2. Learn the inspiration language of each individual person on your team and speak it to them.
  3. Identify and reduce every de-motivating thing
  4. Celebrate every sign of progress

Finally, Hybels asked the question, “What would a church look like if everyone were inspired? We could ask here, “What would your business look like if you were all inspired?” Hybels once again went to scripture for his answer and found it in the second chapter of Acts. I won’t quote it in its entirety, but I will list some of the verb phrases:

They were all devoted to

everyone was filled with a sense of awe

the people gave to the poor at unprecedented levels

radical acceptance of one another

the community noticed and wanted to join them.

We all have dreams, goals, places where we serve and lead and we all get tired and frustrated when the results we hope for are delayed. It’s up to each one of us to discover and practice what motivates us so we can live a motivated life around the people we come in contact with – in our businesses, in our churches, in our communities, and in our families.

When the day is dark and dreary
And we know not where to go;
Don’t let your heart go weary,
Just keep this thought in mind…

It is better to light just one little candle
Than to stumble in the dark.
Better far that you light just one little candle,
All you need is a tiny spark.
If we’d all say a prayer that the world would be free,
A wonderful dawn of a new day we’d see…
And if everyone lit just one little candle,
What a bright world this would be.

Go Light your World!

The Land of the Free – Home of the Brave

The last line of our National Anthem that we sing at sports events and for patriotic occasions says, “…O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It’s true, we have so many freedoms that have been won by so many brave people who were willing to sacrifice lives to that end. But sometimes I wonder what I have done personally with my freedoms and have I, in fact, been brave in exercising them, particularly my freedom to be me.

In the book, Leading Out Loud, Terry Pearce says, “…’I called Gary’s house to thank him, and connected with an answering machine. The message was, “Hi, this is Gary, and this is not an answering machine, it is a questioning machine! The two questions are ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want?’” then there was a pause and the message went on, “and if you think those are trivial questions, consider that 95 percent of the population goes through life and never answers either one!”

That hits too close to home with me. At some level, I know who I am – Donna Brown, divorced mother of two and grandmother of three; Christian, self-employed Realtor and small business owner who struggles financially, singer/musician, Toastmaster. But those are mostly roles I play.

And then comes the even bigger question for me – what do I want? Probably for most of us, the first ideas that pop into our minds are things: bigger house, bigger and/or newer car; more money, clothes, furniture, European vacation. But I think we all know that things don’t satisfy us for very long. Just about as soon as we buy that thing we’ve been dreaming of and saving for, a “new and improved” model hits the shelves and we have to start all over again. But if I could really have what I WANT, what would that be?

Many years ago, the Christian humorist, Grady Nutt, wrote a little book called “Being Me.” He wrote it for teens during those insecure years when they don’t know yet who they are and he called on them to not yield their uniqueness to conformity. There is an enormous pressure to “fit in,” to “not rock the boat” or “make waves.” And that pressure doesn’t dissipate after high school. There is the pressure to fit the mold in relationships and in jobs and in organizations.

But remember, this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Why should I stuff myself in the mold of everyone else when I was created to be me? No one else can be me; if I’m not me, there won’t be a me. And if you’re not you, there won’t be a you.

In Psalm 139:13-14 the Psalmist says to God,

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…

And as Ethel Waters said, “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

I did a contest speech called “The River of Life” in which I encouraged people to “sing their own song” and “make their own kind of music,” to, in fact, be themselves and I won three levels of contests with that speech. After all that encouraging others to be themselves (and feeling confident they got the message) a woman who heard the speech asked me to work with her as she prepared a contest speech. Her stated reason – because she wanted to be just like me. Many of us think there is a pattern we can follow or a mold we can fit into and success or acceptance will follow.

Unfortunately, there is no mold to be successful as yourself and you may have to exercise both your bravery and your freedom to accomplish being fully yourself.

In a conversation with my brother and niece, I commented that my brother used to sound a lot like Elvis when he sang. My niece said to her Dad, “Gee, why didn’t you keep practicing – you could have gone to Las Vegas and made it big as an Elvis impersonator.” My theory is, if he had WANTED it, he might have become one of those single-named performers – an original Mickey rather than an Elvis impersonator!

I received an email with an Oscar Wilde quote on it that first made me laugh and then I had to stop and think about it. He said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Obviously, everyone we come into contact with makes an impact on us and changes us in some way and clearly we want to be knowledgeable of other thoughts and opinions than our own, but only if I know who I am and what I want, will I emerge from these contacts still being me.

In this “land of the free and the home of the brave,” who are you, what do you really want, what do you really have to offer, what do you really hope for? Understanding your needs and wants and skills is critical to navigating your way from where you are to where you want to be. You are unique – distinctive – plan to leave some evidence on this planet that you have been here. What a gift you are! Exercise your bravery and your freedom and share the gift of you with the rest of the world rather than being merely a replica of everyone else. Be strong! Be brave! Be free! Be yourself!