When I was fighting cancer I began planning for my fortieth birthday. I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain and thanks to Pippi Longstocking the mountain I set my mind on is Kilimanjaro. When you’re lying in bed and feeling like life couldn’t get much lower, there’s something quite cathartic about planning to make your way to the top of a mountain, stand with braided pigtails, and belt out, “Standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, watching the sun rise, the wind in my hair.” So that was my plan. I had exactly four years to grow my hair long enough for braided pigtails. And…I couldn’t die at thirty-six if I had a mountain to climb at forty.
I thought about my mountain climb to the point that I began to vividly dream of being there. In my dreams I had a team of people with me. Some I knew and some I did not (but in my dreams they were always very familiar to me). By the time I turned thirty-nine the identities of the unknown people in my dreams began being revealed to me. They were all women who would celebrate a decade birthday this year. Some turning thirty. Some turning forty. Some turning fifty. It was no longer just my dream.
Deuteronomy 1:3,6,8 “But forty years after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses addressed the people of Israel, telling them everything the Lord had commanded him to say…When we were at Mount Sinai, the Lord our God said to us, ‘You have stayed at this mountain long enough…Look, I am giving all this land to you! Go in and occupy it, for it is the land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to all their descendants.’
If you read all of Deuteronomy 1 you find that the forty years the Israelites had spent on that mountain was a piece of a journey that should have only taken them eleven days. 2 “Normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir.” Hmph. Guess they were just about as hard-headed as yours truly. I’ve stated more than once that I never again want to spend forty years making any journey that should only take eleven days. If God has created a clear path from point A to point B I really want to be on that path. With that in mind, as the months leading up to my fortieth birthday began to dwindle away it became evident that I would not be climbing a mountain for this birthday. At least not Mount Kilimanjaro. Going back to Serbia became not only my focus, but the very clear path that I was supposed to be on. As exciting it was to watch God provide for every single detail of my Serbia trip I have to confess that in the weeks before I traveled I experienced some disappointment. I knew that there was absolutely no way I would be traveling to Africa in June after traveling to Europe in May. I would not stand on top of my mountain on (or even near) my fortieth birthday with braided pigtails. I would not pause on the side of that mountain and marvel at the beauty of Tanzania or try to spot every Acacia tree in view and marvel at the fact that my name comes from the word acacia. Acacia wood is very strong and it just happens to be the wood used to build the ark of the covenant.
Acacia trees are also thorny and can cause some serious harm to living creatures that get too close, but I had no plans to look for significance in that area on my day of reflection. I would not begin my descent with a reading of Deuteronomy 1 and my declaration that I “had been on that mountain long enough.” And then something very unexpected happened….
On my first Sunday in Serbia I sat with my new friend Anne and marveled at how I could feel so familiar with someone I had just met. We knew very little about each other before that day, but she summed up our first day together in a short email….. “Well, I have to say that I feel as if I’ve known you for a long time and today was just a good ‘catch up’….which is a lovely blessing from the Lord…. ” The next day I sat having a conversation with my lifelong friend Lisa, Anne and our hotel manager Richard. Richard has managed hotels all over the world and Lisa asked him about his favorite hotel. At some point in his reply he mentioned a hotel in Tanzania. Lisa and I laughed. After Anne asked about the laughing and I told her about my plan, she informed me that she had lived in Tanzania for several years. The day after that I discovered that one of the other gifts to our team (Granny Annie ;)) had also lived in Tanzania. At some point before I returned home Anne reassured me that I was not supposed to climb Kilimanjaro this June because I needed to go to Serbia first and make all of the divine connections there before I travel to Tanzania.
This past Wednesday, on June 15th 2011, I turned forty. The only mountain I climbed was made of laundry. Matthew 17:20 “You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” With this verse in mind, I looked at that mountain of laundry, walked to my laptop, and announced on Facebook that I would welcome anyone who wanted bless me on my birthday by making that mountain move. Guess what? By the end of the day it was gone 🙂
Some say that I’ve crossed the proverbial hill. That June 15, 2011 was the half way mark, or the pinnacle, of my life. As I went through that day surrounded by friends and family and reflecting on just how amazingly and richly blessed my life has been thus far, I came to a realization. I haven’t crossed a hill. I’ve climbed a mountain. Maybe the dream to climb Kilimanjaro was necessary for me to realize the significance of the journey the Israelites took to get to the promised land. That journey was broken up into forty-year segments. Throughout the Bible the number forty signifies the end of a probation or test period. Wanna know something really cool about what comes after the number forty in the Bible? It is always followed by a fulfilled promise or a period of revival and renewal. How exciting is that!?!
The Israelites were hard-headed and rebellious for the forty years they spent on the side of Mount Seir. All I can say about that is that I wish I didn’t relate so well. The first forty years of my life have been filled with more trials and tests than I could possibly recollect or document. In the years since the onset of my Kilimanjaro dreams, I’ve come to see how so many of those trials were absolutely necessary in order for me to embrace the life God planned for me. Would the Israelites have appreciated or even cared to occupy the promised land if it weren’t for all the trials and tests they endured to get there?
So….instead of looking for acacia trees in the Serengeti, I spent this week looking at the strong little people God has allowed me to parent. Instead of trying to catch my breath as the air thinned out on my ascent, I have spent the last few days taking very deep breaths and enjoying a little down-time. Instead of braiding pigtails, I stood in front of a mirror and smiled as I confirmed that I still do not have a single gray hair. (In Tanzanian fashion, I’m quite certain that I resembled a chimpanzee searching for fleas in this process) Instead of singing lyrics borrowed from an out-of-control-latchkey-kid, I’ve sung worship songs and lullabies to God and my baby girl. And…instead of marveling at the beauty of a sunrise from the top of an African mountain, I watched the sun set over the Potomac River surrounded by people that I am blessed to walk through life with and marveled at how God’s love for me (and you) is truly immeasurable.