The Birthday Journal

Every year on my birthday, I write on a special journal that I started on my 16th birthday. I keep other daily journals, but this birthday journal is special. I found it among my parents’ book collection, dusty but unused, with a red hardcover and unlined, mustard yellow pages.

It has traveled from our small-town parsonage, to my college dorm room in Manila and halfway around the world to Los Angeles. It came out only on major occasions and events – whether it be happy or sad ones. I skim, sketch and write on it little-by-little several times a year. But on birthdays I read through it from the beginning and write a long entry.

I don’t overthink the words or even make them particularly pretty (or legible for that matter). I just write whatever comes to mind. I start off with things I have learned that past year. Here are some examples, copied verbatim:

  • “friendship, in its truest sense, is hard to find; takes effort to keep; and takes a lot of courage to let go.” (Year 15 – drama, drama, drama)
  • “growing up = making decisions and living with the consequences” (Year 20)
  • “relationships take a lot of hard work” (Year 21)

Then I state what I plan to do/learn/experience the following year:

  •  “study hard, study harder” (Year 16 – I was about to go into my sophomore year of college)
  • “save money and buy 5 books” (Year 16 – I was about to go into my sophomore year of college and I was broke)
  •  “choose to seek [God’s] face, to find my identity in [God] alone” (Year 17)
  • ”move on” (Year 18 – from what, I can’t even remember)
  • “write, write, write” (Year 19, 20, 21…)

Some of the statements are repetitive as I try to do it every year and fail to do so every year. Some of it got old or forgotten. Some have proven to be frivolous and have been discarded as I grew out of it:

  • finish an album (Year 16, 17, 18 – I had a songwriting phase – yikes)

The entries are a record of my state of mind at that point in my life. It is both satisfying and embarrassing for  me to read these lines every year even though I read them alone (believe me, I spared you the worst ones). It is very likely that for those who have more years than I do, these lessons seem shallow and incomplete. Perhaps they tell you that I’m behind. Perhaps I have some lessons here that I actually need to unlearn. That’s okay. The goal is not to be impressive but to be honest.

Every year, I do this to remind myself of at least three things:

  1. There’s always more to learn. Seeing how much I’ve changed (or stayed the same) remind me that I have indeed grown but I could always grow some more. I love learning – from Scripture, from my own experiences and from the testimony of others. Reading my journal entries tell me that some of my worst life events are really just lessons that I needed got to learn the hard way. This means that whatever I go through, no encounter is wasted. I can choose to see the redemptive value of each one.
  2. There’s always more to surrender.  There are areas in my life that took me a year to surrender to God and overcome. It is always so rewarding to read the entry a year later and be able to check it off as done. But there are also areas that I continue to struggle with, year after year. It’s sad and disheartening sometimes. But reminds me that the fight is in the everyday. My prayer is that I never become complacent and that I never forget that my life is one long and continuous act of surrender.
  3. There’s always more to experience. I’m blessed to have had an adventurous childhood, being immersed in cultures that were not native to me, meeting different people and having a more expanded world than what most other children experience. When I entered my late teens and twenties, it seemed that the rest of my life is bound to be much more routine and ordinary. There are days when everything seems so dull. But reading the journal entries remind me that to know and follow hard after Jesus is the greatest adventure I could ever have. There is more to Him than I can ever imagine. His endless light colors my world year after year. In Him, everyday is an adventure. In Him, I am young and free and ready to conquer whatever lies ahead. In Him, I have hope.

This year, I wrote my birthday entry on the last page of my red journal (great timing). It felt bittersweet. I was sad to have ran out of pages but at the same time, giddy and proud. I made a mental note to find a new, special one for the next birthday.

And then it hit me. I’m not certain I’ll even be here to write next year’s entry. I can’t even guarantee that I’ll be here the next day. Every word I have ever written could have been my last. All the more reason to make each one count for eternity. Just imagine. What if my last entry was “get a car” (Year 18)? Ambitious? Sure. Eternal? Not so much.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Every year, since Year 16, that is one of the words I have written repetitively:

  • “wisdom” (Year 16+)

Our days are numbered. That’s one lesson that never gets old.

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