Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Ending To This Chapter

My husband lost his job late on a Thursday afternoon last June--not in an enormous impersonal layoff--but in a cold, calculating personal management twist at a bank where he was a hard working Vice President who put the extra hours in 24/7 on the IT side of business here in Raleigh.  We had just slowly begun awakening from the first three weeks of our 15 year old son's knee surgery recovery, (he had a tibial tubercle osteotomy with grafts), after a month's-long nagging football injury never went away.  It was a blow to our talented athlete who had, just a year earlier, been named to his middle's school's athletic Hall of Fame. Now we were pretty aware that football was most likely over, forever.  

Like having the wind knocked out of us, our entire family was devastated when the layoff occurred next. But no one more than Jeff, he was blindsided and felt betrayed by the two who perpetrators of the layoff event.  He was, however, confident that he'd land on his feet fairly quickly because after 17 years in the IT industry, he is highly personable and felt fairly well-connected throughout the Research Triangle Park.  But I had a sinking instinct that this was going to something bigger, more difficult and far reaching, though we had seen ourselves through a bumpy four month layoff with Nortel several years back when the kids were much younger.  To make matters worse, this was our son Jackson's senior year, a year we wanted to relish with him at home.  A year that is expensive with college visits, application fees, announcements, cap & gown purchases, and prom.  

Six months before the layoff, I had made a decision to join the mission team headed to Uganda from our church.  Jackson had expressed interest in going as well.  After initial hesitation, Jeff and I told him he could go if he paid his own way, vaccinations included.  Without blinking, he offered up a large part of his savings from life guarding the prior two summers, deciding in favor of Africa over a used car.  And suddenly this trip that had been months away was just days away for the two of us.  I finally managed to begin calming down in Africa—mostly because I was exhausted, though I even found time to worry why I was even on this trip, for the 24 hours of travel over, in my sleep.  I was entirely focused on my family, on this next setback, on Jackson's soon-to-be high school senior year and what should've been an exciting summer before he began his final year, graduated, and headed off to college.  

Our mission team had a good night's sleep in a nice hotel in Entebbe before heading off and arriving at a very rustic motel we'd call home for the next couple of weeks.  Located at the edge of a town, we were still about an hour's drive from the first of four deeply set Ugandan villages, far down deeply potholed red dust roads.  The first village is where I finally woke up: I was intensely shook up, and no matter where I looked, I felt deeply ashamed.  How could I focus on my 'poor pitiful' self when everywhere I stared I saw devastation and joy holding hands while standing strongly side by side?   

Soon my focus became increasingly clearer.  The people here were brimming with genuine joyful attitudes despite the poverty-like conditions they lived in.  Their singing was powerful.  Their shy kindness was evident.  Their manners were impeccable. Their patience in affliction was palpable.  I simply couldn't wrap my brain around how this could be, but I was intrigued because I wanted so desperately to understand it and grasp it and share in it.  These villagers lived hard lives: they walked miles to collect daily water in jerry cans, wore worn out clothing that were sometimes nothing more than rags, slept on dirt floors, ate one meal a day, suffered from terrible diseases or a mouthful of painful toothaches—even more, death was a close personal friend of everyone I met—so how could they be so sharing of what little they owned and also be so joyful?   It became my little quest to discover that answer.  Somehow I knew these people had a key to living through what I deemed were desperate times, here and at home--where Jeff's new round the clock job became about searching for work. These people were curing me of feeling really, really sorry for myself!

Near the end of our time there, I was working alongside a native Ugandan who had become a pastor.  I really enjoyed talking to him and trying to better understand--or at least comprehend--all that I was seeing.  I decided to just pose the question outright to him.  I cling to the answer he shared today because it is so simple and yet, so true.  When I asked him what he thought it was that made these people amazingly joyful despite their hard lives, he asked me a question in return.  (He knew I was worried about heading home to a heavy stress load which he didn't quite understand.)

It's big. Don't miss this... He asked me if I didn't get up *every morning* and give thanks for all the blessings God was going to share with me for that day, regardless of my circumstances, regardless of my outlook for the day, regardless really, of anything.
Of course, I was embarrassed to admit that I did not wake up each morning giving thanks for whatever would come my way, let alone thinking thankful thoughts at this time in my life – though I lived with SO much, much more than these villagers could imagine.

To sum it all up, he pretty much said that when you give thanks to God before you know what wondrous gifts He has in store for you --every single day-- you sink softly into amazing trust and confidence that He surely does have Goodness and Mercy planted throughout not only this day, but every single day of your life--no matter what you're going through.  (Note that I did not say that suddenly each day would sparkle with rainbows and money trees, answers to deep questions, and sudden miraculous healings.)  Simply, that when you allow God to take over your burdens fresh every morning, you are free to enjoy the people or the moments He daily has in store for you. And there are so many big and small moments we miss every day because we can't focus on them when we're focusing on ourselves.  Please do not misunderstand me: this does not mean having a completely carefree attitude.  God still expects your daily hard work and cooperation, it's just that he expects to handle the stress for you when you follow Him where He leads, or, in our case, wait patiently for Him to work in His time.

Immediately, I started doing this new thing of waking up thankful. Imagine that!  Me, a good Christian mom, deciding that waking every morning and giving simple thanks for everything that would come my way was a new thing!  And then, deciding that I would be thankful not just for the good stuff, but literally for everything that would happen, because I knew He had a daily plan for me.  And then deciding to stick with it.  Every.  Single.  Day.

After the first day, I began doing what I’ve now discovered is called an “Examen” at the end of each day.  Merriam-Webster describes an examen as a critical study or an examination.  The Prayer of Examen is also known as a daily spiritual exercise that St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged followers to practice. It was meant to be a way to slowly become aware of God’s presence in your life and the Holy Spirit’s movement throughout your day. My own "examen" began naturally --without the fancy "e" word or tidy prayer form.  Really, it began while I was journaling nightly by flashlight in a quiet 8' x 8' motel room in a bed covered by mosquito netting, (and lone white lizard on the wall for company), so I wouldn’t forget Ugandan names, moments, or memories on this mission-partnership. My "examen" began simply because I was deeply curious—where were the daily blessings when I reviewed my day—did I even notice them? Were there moments when I felt graciously held, or even the distinct presence of God?   Did waking up and choosing to be thankful cause me to ultimately become more joyful?  

By the time the wheels finally touched down at RDU weeks later, I was mentally and physically exhausted, but definitely thrilled for undergoing some kind of transformation and for discovering myself in a tiny country that I could really wrap my arms around and love.  Despite any shortcomings, there are so many things I hold dear about Uganda!  I was also anything but a calmer, less worried person.  I still had the very distinct instinct that I couldn’t shake--this joblessness was going to be one of the most difficult things we'd had to face.  

I literally challenged myself to continually give it *all* over to God, every single morning, despite this black rain cloud feeling.  My fears, my worries, my what-if’s, my heart-aching stress, my heart-breaking moments of despair.  Wouldn’t you love it if I said immediately I was changed and new?  It’s just not so.  

I became changed ever so slowly, by being stretched to the limits, by having no control, by being on my knees in sorrow over much time and more struggle.  But inch by inch I was moving towards calm and I definitely felt a sense of peace—unless I chose to throw it all in the air and go running back to fear and worry and shallow breathing!  (Which I did occasionally.)  I know that I didn’t get up one morning and feel so dang happy and peaceful I could sing powerfully like my Ugandan brothers and sisters.  But I was walking on those same red dusty roads in search of life-quenching water Jesus offered, and it felt good to be moving toward a destination they had shown me by simply living their lives.

By about the time I felt deeply heartbroken that I couldn't take my twelve year old daughter on a little shopping trip for new clothing items she had outgrown, God came through and I felt cared for instead.  By about the time I felt like God was asking an awful lot of someone (me!) who was having to make do without a lot, God came through and I felt creative and empowered instead.  By about the time we ran through savings, God came through and I felt securely loved.  By about the time we thought we would actually begin the process of losing our home, God came through and we felt Christian community. 

We still had weeks to go before the ending began though.  And I’ll be honest, I still knock on wood and pray, "...This is the ending of this chapter, ...right, Lord??”  After 342 days, Jeff landed a job as a contractor for Cisco.  It wasn't the super exciting Red Cross position that he craved and had been selected for a second interview for, and had deeply hoped that--perhaps, just perhaps-- God had placed in his path after all these long months.  But I will trust that we went through all of this for a reason.  I may never understand why God didn’t just allow Jeff the 3rd interview or the 16th interview or the Red Cross interview he was so excited about, to be the one interview that gave him job security and a paycheck, but I know the good Lord told us to wait on Him patiently and we continued to give thanks every single morning in exchange for God’s full measure of peace and patience – which I found, really does pass human understanding. 

Jeff won’t start at Cisco as a contractor till next week, so we still have a little more waiting time before this is “finally” over—and we begin the tremendous task of digging ourselves out of the past year, but I know I never would've gotten through it, had a dear Ugandan friend not explained peace and joy and ultimate trust in such a simple way:  Waking up thankful every day for everything that's about to come your way.

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