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. 

Trust is Here. Though Strain Remains.

My heart broke for my kids today.

Usually they get more of an “Oh, you’re fine. Such is life!” kind of reaction from me.

But not this. And about this, until now, for some inexplicable reason, I’ve had optimism. But that ended today. My brain could have and should have told my heart weeks ago: it’s just not possible for this to work out. But I hoped for a miracle.

For their sakes.

Today, and it certainly felt an odd thing for me, I quit hoping for them and started crying for them.


A high school junior, an eighth grader, and a fifth, third, and first grader, not to mention a we-have-no-idea grader, will begin school this month in the US of A. And today I admitted to myself for the first time: they won’t be starting the year in the same schools they’ll finish. In other words, instead of one big transition, they’ll have two.

It hurts. In that intimately individualized way other parents will understand.

Don’t get me wrong—there is good news in our life: We’ll be moving into a temporary house at the end of this week and finally, after a month of wandering, be getting our own space. And we have a beautiful vehicle. It was waiting for us when we landed, and we’ll have soon put over 4000 miles on it. And my job search is going fine. Normally. But, unfortunately for my kids, “normal” in the hiring process means time. Procedures and interviews. Phone calls and visits and time.

Did I mention time?

“Lord, we’re grateful for the housing. Thank you. We’re amazed at your provision of an 8-passenger vehicle. We’re thankful for health and fun and families and swimming pools, and cash gifts that have kept us eating at restaurants during endless unpacking and repacking and moving and transitioning. But, Lord, our kids. They’re children, and their understanding is so limited. You know we agonized this past year over them more than anything. You know I would give up the rest if I could exchange it for landing in our new home before they start school.

“Haven’t they known enough trauma, Lord?

“Haven’t we all known enough difficult transition? [This is our fourth move in five years.] Haven’t we gone through enough meltdowns in this month of no routines? [Everett’s latest, though fewer and further between, usually require both of us to get him through them.]

“The adopted 3 are living at the end of their tethers. 

“Because of them… so are the rest of us.”

So it breaks my heart now to have to tell all my kids: “We won’t land before you start school. I am so, so sorry.”

It’s hard to describe just how strongly I wish I didn’t have to.

Sure, for us adults I’m not exactly yearning for yet another difficult assignment, either. Nor would we be excited for any more more attack or resistance or oppression from the enemy. But I’d gladly accept the former or fight the latter if it could mean saving our kids.

But where was I when God laid the foundations of the world?

I am small, and the slice of reality I see is small.

So, just as no one will blame me for not understanding why my children have to suffer, neither is it possible for me to curse God and die. I can’t see what he sees; I don’t know what he knows.

Once again at the end of another rope, we find the only choice is trust. I’m choosing it consciously and quite apart from what I see coming. For when I succeed in looking higher than my fear and and objections and the humorous misapprehension that my ideas are superior, this truth always awaits me: trust doesn’t require “my approval.”

Trust is here. Though strain remains.

It’s the End of the World

As we know it, that is.

Contrary to that seeming like the title for a post on politics that tastes like chicken (Little), it’s not. Nor am I referencing the song. I’m merely speaking of family:

Our family is finished in China.

Big news for some of you, I suppose, though we ourselves have known for quite some time, informed our leadership a couple of months ago, and had many in our various social circles long since pick up the info from various sources (some with alarming speed).

But for those who hadn’t yet heard, this is our official and finalized announcement.

It’s humorous how different from now our family looked when we moved to China—check this out!

2003 goodbye

(I am also humored that we had only ONE family airport-good-bye picture from that day. Tammy is not, but she gave me permission to post this anyway.)

When we came to China 13 years ago:

-Elijah was still 3 years future.

-Adoption wasn’t anything I’d ever seriously contemplated.

-We couldn’t have imagined the sagas that would lead to Lily, Eden, Hope, or Everett. Or a great many other things.

Now our China chapter is suddenly drawing to a close. Far sooner than we’d have guessed.

 

“Why?” 

Probably the first—and quite logical—question to be asked.

The answer isn’t super clear-cut or simple. We aren’t quitting. We aren’t fed up, or angry, or disenchanted. We haven’t thrown in the towel, given in, or decided we don’t fit. We aren’t despising China, or our organization, or our calling(s).

It was a decision we came to very slowly (in tremendous contrast, by way of illustration, to the “decision”* to adopt Everett). We discussed and prayed about this one for months. In the end, it was a combination of many things that led to believing God was finished with us in China. Certainly germane to the conversation were the realities of our children. Somehow we’ve ended up with six of them. That was never the plan. But HE made my life about adoption (against my will at times), and I can’t ignore that.

Or them.

We’ve got three special-needs charges, now. (And may I say that the chaos is sometimes driving the rest of us ever closer to such categories?) There are educational, emotional, and therapy needs that aren’t necessarily going to be best met in far western China.

Everett’s recent coming played a part in the decision, too. Just before moving here to Xining (though while in Xining on a vision trip), God gave me the closest thing I’d ever had to a real vision, and he reassured me that it was “OK for me to be starting over.” (At “my advanced age of then-42” was the idea, even though that wasn’t quite short of Noah’s 601, who was the character-vehicle of the message).

Okay (I could only conclude), my Next Big Thing is going to be in Xining.

It’s only now in hindsight that I can see: there was no Next Big Thing here, at least not—and this qualifier is important— akin to anything I’d imagined.

His Next Big Thing was Everett. (Though I wonder if it’s not right and best to admit that my book likely belongs in the conversation as well. In fact, I will include it here—in spite of my awareness of the annoyances that Gollum-channeling authors often inflict: “MMYYYY BOOOOOK!”—as an exercise in spiritual and intellectual honesty with myself.) Anyway, because of God’s big idea for us (and yes, sometimes along the way I included a “Hey, what’s the…” on the front of that, as in, “Hey, what’s the big idea?”), I find my life changed. Once more it is about holding and hugging and healing and homeschooling and (come hell or high water, and they do) hanging on. I didn’t ask for that or want that, but I no longer resist it. It’s what he’s given me.

God moved my family from one city to another to save one kid.

“What a waste, eh? 

Well, that’s what most of us at least some of the time—or at least some of us most of the time—would say. All that money. All that time. All that effort. All those plans. All that strategizing. All those hopes. All that everything. All come to nothing because of what really happened.

One kid?

C’mon.

Yet there’s no denying it: that’s what he did.

So his list wasn’t my list. His things weren’t my things. They were bigger, and they were better, and, most significantly, they’ve got a future while mine fade to the past. This was his big idea.

So if Next Big Thing wasn’t here…

And if the needs of an eight-person family coloring outside the lines of sense became more and more outside the lines…

And if God was clearly doing something in and through and with our family (and by “clear” I mean: “clear it’s something” not that “the something is clear”)…

And if it was unclear how China continued to fit into that picture…

I guess somehow, and with lots of prayer, “going home” just eventually became part of the logical progression coming out of all that. (Please don’t make the mistake of assuming I’ve communicated all the factors here. The number of “somehow”s and “just”s and parenthetical insertions alone should clue you in to that.)

Next is ahead. Whatever that entails. Next is not in China. It’s at home. Though “home” is a bit of a misnomer because, after all, whose home is it? Our oldest has lived 4 of 16 years in America, just one-quarter (for those who bristle at the idea of reducing their own fractions during discretionary reading) of his life, and half of that was ages 0-2. The second has graced the U.S. for three years, the third for two, the girls for one, and Everett never. Even Tammy and I, though we call it home, will no longer experience it quite that way. We’ve done enough reading, have known enough other expats, and have visited enough to know: we won’t fit in like we used to. We’ll no longer be complete insiders. We’re different. In some ways for the better, and in some ways just changed. We’ll stick out. Won’t always be understood. Won’t always be able to so automatically relate, even to people with whom we did before.

But, for better of for worse, July 1st it is.

We’ll be home.

Home to stay.

 

“OK, then, where are you moving back to? What state? 

“Jobs? 

“What will you do, and what’s next for the Johnson family?”

Phew. Finally some questions I can answer without a blog entry:

We don’t know!

 

 

*Named elsewhere, I believe, “God’s 2×4.”