Mixing Paint with Jesus

A friend of mine messaged me the other day that I should “write a blog entry on what it’s like to mix paint for Jesus.”

Now wouldn’t that raise some eyebrows at my work.

[Work?! Yes, a job! Something I did not have when last I posted here. I’m The Paint Guy at our local hardware store, which also includes straightening shelves, putting in orders, answering the phone, answering customer questions, running the charge desk, processing credits, lifting dirt/mulch/rocks into vehicles, and trying to remember innumerable codes for the products we carry. I also get reprimanded or shamed or exposed for my pure, plain ignorance about those products at a pretty regular clip.]

Now, it’s not that Jesus’ name is unknown where I work—it is a town with twenty churches, and a quarter of them large Catholic ones. In fact, I hear his name (some with “Christ” added) called out a number of times every day, usually with a “!” following it. But mixing paint with Jesus would definitely not fall under expected or normal usage. I might draw less eyebrows by positing I were Sun Tzu reincarnated (my China connection and all) than I would by claiming to be in the back paint room doing that.

But that is largely what I do. I need him constantly there. It’s not always jolly and fun being the new ignorant guy while doing a job not too many levels above my first job ever. The difference is I’m not fourteen now, and all life’s experience between then and now means I get new ideas all the time on how I would improve the running of the place. But those things aren’t what I was hired for. “Serve the customers—you’ll learn as you go!”

It’s a good thing that in my very first week Jesus gave me another phrase which I still wake up with and walk into work with each morning: “Serve your co-workers.” It’s helped me be able to overlook much of what comes my way, forgive the rest, and move on. Keep serving. (Interestingly, I’ve also seen ways I struggled to overlook offense with co-workers and bosses in my past.)

I clock in. I clock out. I work. I sit [oh, if only! I actually never sit, but live for lunch and the morning break when I can rest my poor feet—never have had good feet] and watch a world of broken people go by. As a broken person myself, especially coming off the 2016 we had, I know this job is right where Jesus would have me right now. My “good brokenness” standing in contrast to “bad brokenness” around me. (This phrasing is straight out of Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, which I’ve just recently picked up, even though Ann put it in my hands last October. I have to admit I’ve done a lot more imagining about whether or not she’s read the book I put into hers.)

Not that I always feel great about the whole situation, don’t get me wrong.

I’ve still had times of questioning anguish.

Why even have us come home from China and leave all that was familiar to us all? 

It’s like we’ve lost everything, and for what?

Umm…the Kingdom? The pearl of great price? The field with the treasure? Himself.

OK. Worth it. 

But, still…

How long, then, Lord? How long will our family be unsure of staying here or moving again? How long will I work here? How long can we last?

According to upstate New York’s The United Way ALICE Study of Financial Hardship Fall 2016, we’re already an anomaly:

The average annual Household Survival Budget for a four-person family living in upstate New York is $X [same amount as our salary/benefits during our China life]—more than double the U.S. poverty level for the same size family.

We could easily make a life for ourselves on that amount, even here, and even though we’re double that number of people. But there’s an additional oops: My salary is but half that amount. And half of that goes just for health insurance.* (That will stop once my employer health plan kicks in). In other words, we don’t even speak about making ends meet—we can hardly get them to wave at one another—as the math is so far from sustainable it’s laughable.

Or is it?

We’re eating. God provides. I worked Memorial Day because I was given the choice to and it meant a little extra. Yet the same amount I earned in six time-and-a-half hours, God slipped to me in nary six seconds with a cash gift pressed into my hand. If not via such special people continuing to surprise us with special gifts, he’s also providing for us, really, because for years we had the privilege and the ability to build savings and retirement accounts and make investments (some of which went up and not down). Could I conceivably claim these financial assets as “rights?” God may not touch them? I must have bigger barns and a stockpile to live on when I am old? Even though my culture would say “Absolutely,” and my own Christian culture often acts like that’s true, of course not.

They might be blessings (I say might be), but they are not rights.

Of course, our kids say we’re “poor” because we never go out to eat except Little Caesar’s on a Friday or the occasional bag of twenty-five McDonald’s hamburgers if we happen to be out on the road together. Nor is there entertainment money—we’ve gone to one movie in our one year back and to other places of fun only if others have kindly paid. Even their sports participation has been on the coattails of scholarship generosity. I know what my kids mean, however, and don’t totally disagree with them, and yet—unless I had none of those previously listed assets, I don’t really know anything about truly being poor. Relatively speaking to lots of people around us? OK, sure. But can I say poverty? All I’ve really got so far is a rare opportunity for someone of my background and socioeconomic status to be in a  situation where I’m forced to trust God for daily bread and a privilege to be intellectually and emotionally wrestling with these kinds of questions on a more-than-theoretical level.

Now, before you laud me: I seldom feel the love for such “opportunity” and “privilege,” and I long for breakthrough and pray for greater provision all the time. But I’m not demanding them. They are not pre-requisites (though internally I deeply debated this) to confidence that He’s caring for me. The struggle does get emotional at times, as any of  you who’ve faced financial difficulty, even of a lesser degree, know. But, glory to God, our trust is growing. A year ago, if I could have seen this future, I’d have panicked and had no other word for these straits than “dire.” Yet we’re trusting with a daily, gritty steadfastness I would not have then predicted, either.

I’ve decided: I’m not going to shortchange the process I’m in. I don’t know all that he is up to. I can’t see around the next bend. I do know I have to clock in tomorrow morning, and I know that each co-worker was created by the same Creator who made me. And they will clock in tomorrow, too, and bring along with them their own worlds of problems and burdens and miseries.

And I think I have been put there to be ready. Ready to give an answer for hope that may be found.

Far be it from me to cry out for deliverance from a place like that.

And so, until he says otherwise—and though I may look toward “otherwise’s” arrival—you’ll find Jesus and me in the back mixing paint.

 

 

*Yes, we know about cost-sharing plans. They don’t help with adopted kids’ pre-existing conditions. 

Pay Attention

It’s only eight miles out to Nine Mile Point. Apparently it must have been named for something other than its distance from my house. From my house, however, I can see the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station out the window any time I want, a plume of cloud by day and bright as fire by night, they keep it so lit.

Awhile back, I took my first drive out there to see it in person and up close. Actually, I was there to inquire about jobs, as the plant is one of the area’s largest employers.

Who knows what I was thinking:

“Hey, any open slots requiring a Master’s in Intercultural Studies? Or ordination?”

“Say, do any of your scientists require translation from Mandarin?”

Maybe I was hoping for something janitorial; I can’t quite recall. This was pretty near to the low point of our low Fall. And my mind was bursting to over-full. On the drive out I noted the slate sky and the stiff wind as trees bent noticeably even though bare. But mostly my mind slogged through all of our difficulties over and over again. They’d long since become what appeared to be beyond what we could bear.

Then my day changed.

I was less than a mile from my destination, and suddenly my windshield was filled with the side view of a pickup.

“What the…!? How does this idiot not see me? 

What in the world are you doing! Stop!

Yet he wasn’t stopping. Walzity-do-la-day, merry-as-you-please, here he came, right across my lane.

I jam on the brakes.

Veer left.

Screech towards him and brake harder, veering further left.

I’m going to hit him.

Broadside? No, perhaps I’ll eek out a front fender slam.

I’m still veering.

Whoa, could it be that I’ll possibly get so far left as to only clip his front bumper? Or, even so far that he’ll be hitting me…

Amazing how the mind can engage so many thoughts and possibilities during emergency.

Miraculously––though he never stops––I am (and it feels like finally) around him completely and out of the intersection, barreling towards the far shoulder of the cross road.

As I whip the wheel hand over hand like in those commercials warning such moves are for professional drivers on closed tracks, I continue to be flabbergasted by my friend now behind me:

What were you?! Didn’t your mother ever teach you to?

Directly in my path there’s a support wire for a utility pole, then some kind of brick sign or something, and I know utterly that I am on no closed track, even as my flapping hands sending the steering wheel in the other direction keep alive that niggle that tells me maybe, just maybe, however, I am that professional driver.

I’ve quit drifting left. Just miss the cable.

Fire hydrant! Shoot, now I’ve got to swerve way right. Still everything’s way too fast, and my choked-off questions continue vie for lip space with indignant spittle.

Finally it’s over.

I’m stopped along the gravel edge of the oncoming lane of my original road.

I whip my SUV into Park and whirl around to see the other guy. He’s on the same shoulder with his brake lights on. Obviously he must finally realize what he’s done.

I could have been killed, buddy

I could have killed YOU and had to live with it forever.

I put my hand on the door handle but don’t get out of the truck to go yell at him. I’m not even sure why. It wasn’t wisdom, as I wasn’t even emotionally regulated at the time. I wasn’t being chicken; I was outraged enough to be fearless. And it wasn’t laziness, as nothing can get me exercised like anger. Perhaps, more than anything, it was grace.

It was a matter of seconds driving down to the nuclear plant entrance, and I went through the gate with my heart still in my throat. I checked my rear-view mirror and imaginarily received the commiseration of the driver behind me, who must have witnessed the whole thing.

Dude, can you believe some of these drivers these days? I’m lucky to be in one piece

Hey, you’re lucky I was in front of you!

Then a different line of thinking:

Ooh, maybe God’s going to arrange things so this guy behind me is the head of some department here who has an open six-figure position for a guy with my exact (non)qualifications! And I’ll get the job based on his sympathy for this very incident

My mind sometimes. Tameless.

Shameless.

But my phantom future boss turned down a different side road, and I drove on in search of any building that looked like it had a door for the public. After circling a few parking lots, I saw a couple of guys walking to their cars carrying hard hats and plastic-wrapped uniforms.

New guys!

I drove over and put my window down to ask about applying.

“No idea, man. All jobs are posted on the website. Try that.”

Oh, right. 

He had just, effectively, reduced the experience of having my life put in jeopardy for the noble cause of providing for my family to one of having my life put in jeopardy in a futile exercise of stupidity.

“Uh, use the internet, dude.” I imagined him laughing at me.

Hey, in China we still do stuff in person, pal! I thought I could shout.

Instead, I pulled into a parking spot in order to immediately access the website while my hopeless subconscious conjectured possible bonus advantages for those savvy few who could access the company website from the epitome of proximity in the parking lot.

Alas, I got the same webpage I could have pulled up had I stayed home, and pretty much all of the postings were for people who had studied and worked with science and math and in nuclear facilities. Go figure. None were for people who were ordained, could masterfully order Sichuan meals, or had sat on a yak.

So I left, no less preoccupied than when I’d come.

But I was determined to not let it affect my driving, and I vowed to keep an eye out for crazies. I got back to the intersection of my incident and decided I’d take a picture of my tracks through the grass where life had flashed before my eyes. Instead I saw this:

OH. MY.

Not only did I immediately come to the conclusion that severe mental preoccupation isn’t necessarily all that much safer than more forbidden forms of driving impairment, this harsh truth jolted me: I was the idiot. The danger. The fool who had almost gotten one of us killed.

Oh, dear God, thank you, thank you that I did not jump out of my truck and run over to his to give him a piece of my mind. 

(Obviously it’s apparent by now that I could have ill-afforded it, anyway, but that’s beside the point.)

And, of course, I thanked Him for sparing both of us.

That guy had done nothing. Other than have to watch me screeching toward him as I blew my own stop sign at 50mph.

I stayed pretty shaken up the rest of the day, to be frank, and as more days went by I grew rather philosophical about the thing. For there is no place in life where not watching the signs will pay off. Of course while driving, but I want to pay attention, period.

What do my kids need? What is happening right in front of me? To whom would God like to direct my attention just now? I want to pay attention to goodness and to beauty. To Jesus.

Right this minute. Life’s too important not to.

Thoughts on 45

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

-Luke 18:8 NASB

I lived the waning months of 2016 with more anxiety and fear than ever before. We were recently home from 13 years in China, and three factors conspired to create the perfect storm: our paychecks/benefits would end on December 31, I remained unsuccessful in my search for work, and I was the head of a family of eight.

Previously in my life, “Be anxious about nothing” had, for the most part, been a slap pretty easily delivered onto your face. I, with a personality bent towards “chill out, people, things’ll work out,” didn’t need a biblical command to help me get there.

Then in 2016, nothing, it seemed, was working out. A difficult adoption. An ended career. Transition home. But no home to land in while kids cried, “This isn’t home!” Looming unemployment. A difficult adoption. Suddenly things were “not working out” in what felt like very serious ways. And for panic-inducing long periods of time.

Anxiety grabbed me like it was looking for a new best friend. I couldn’t shake it. My brain never forgot the right statements, the right truths, or the right verses, but still I could not choke down fear. Not for long.

I quit writing in this blog. Went AWOL on social media (granted, not all that different from my normal). And concentrated on surviving. September, October November, December, falling into bed and with increasing frequency only able to say, “We made it through another day.”

I couldn’t imagine what The End might really be like if it actually came. I’d applied at the hardware store and at factories. I’d put in my name for pastorates in my own denomination, then in others. I didn’t even get a call back from the Diocese on my application to be their maintenance man. Weary from crying out to God and wondering when the answers were coming, I quit answering people’s “How are you?”s. Then I had to give that up and go back to saying “Fine” again. There are only so many burdens that acquaintances can help you shoulder. We’d been needy for so long we’d realized that even most friends cannot be bothered with the same troubles forever.

But there is a widow in Luke 18 who does not give up. Though she has no reason to expect anything from a judge who, quite self-consciously, neither fears God nor fears man, she persists. Keeps asking. The guy finally grants her request to get rid of her.

God, I dislike my reaction of you appearing to me as worse than this guy. What am I supposed to think when it says you will help “quickly”? 

Finally, a year and a half after knowing we’d have to come home due to adopted kids, the unimaginable End arrived. Paychecks ceased and I learned just how much our company had been forking out all those years for great insurance (enough to add another decent used vehicle to the stable if you wanted to every couple of months). That burden now fell to us, for we had just found all applicable doctors after months of work (so no plan-switching just yet), and medi-shares designed for healthy families weren’t a viable option for ours.

And then… we didn’t die. Thanks to a few generous Christmas gifts from family, then three astonishing gifts of four figures each by overseas friends [thank you again Cassia, GTG men, and you-know-who: you guys get it!], we found our former monthly needs basically covered by other means.

Oh, just great. Now I’ve got to wait a whole ‘nother month to see how this plays out? How can I shout, ‘Look what’s happened to us! with Him stringing us along like this?

An idiotic reaction, to be sure, however fleeting.

Then I began to see the idiocy of worry as well.

What, my problems are truly that humongous that the God of the Universe has finally been stymied and cannot be counted on to pull through?

Ridiculous.

We had come home depleted and desperate for Sabbatical but instead had found ourselves living through the most frantic era of our lives. Granted, life with Everett would have been traumatic anywhere, any time, but what if the rest (the unemployment, the mysterious landing in a place that we are not from, the enrollment in good schools that our kids like and have not had to switch from so far)… what if all that was gift and I wouldn’t see it? I had been too incapable of trusting God so completely. It was too tempting to fear I was being passive, maybe lazy? Surely I could not expect the world to fall in my lap and just rest with no employment! How was I to know what kind of provision lay ahead? 

I didn’t. Still don’t. But now that “the worst” had come to pass (oh, I know, life could get a lot worse), what good can I say my anxiousness did me?

Why not just choose to trust him, then? (Yeah, sounds easy from one’s chair.)

And so I have.

By the power of the Spirit, I’m no longer a slave to fear. And 2017—so far—has been a year without it.

Or income. Am I insane? Or am I finally reaching the heart-place he has been trying to get me to for months?

I’m still self-conscious about not wanting to live with my head buried in sand, but February, too, has seen us provided for. No big gifts, but lots of unexpected little ones, even groceries. We’re alive. Our family of eight hasn’t missed a meal. And—though we battle it back some mornings—we aren’t afraid anymore.

In the parable of the judge and the widow, the NIV includes the adjective persistent when Jesus asks his question about faith. First he asks three questions of the “C’mon, do you really think God is not going to pull through?” variety, and then:

How much of that kind of [the widow’s] persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?

-Luke 18:8 NIV

Persistent.

If the adjective were never-faltering or exemplary or unwavering I’d be sunk. But the word is persistent, and if it’s okay also to falter, and we don’t have to be out in front leading the pack all the time, if my faith can waver and I can ask hard questions in the low times… I’m still good. If it is persistence in faith He’s looking for, then I can take him at his word today even when I struggled to yesterday. He’s going to step in. He’s going to work justice. (How? I have no idea.) But Jesus says his Father is not going to drag his feet. I choose to believe it. I do believe it. 

I turn 45 today, and those are my thoughts.