Sink, Swim, or Float

God sent me a raft, but I didn’t lay on it. Instead, I stretched my arms across the middle, kept the rest of my body in the water, and started kicking. Because that’s what you do when someone sends a raft to save you, right? You hold on and start kicking because you’ve got to get yourself to shore.

Initially, kicking looked like responding to those queries in my inbox, setting up meetings, and turning proposals into contracts. I made a rudimentary spreadsheet showing the next twelve months and the amount of income I expected when. The reality of being the primary earner and an independent contractor set in. I needed a steady stream of projects and teaching contracts to pay the bills. 

Occasionally I pitched my business to a potential client, but most of the time new clients came to me. By God’s grace, the work kept coming.  But so did the stress and the doubt—like waves crashing into me one after the other. 

I constantly felt overcommitted. Clients didn’t pay me on time. Projects fell behind because of circumstances I couldn’t control. I felt like I couldn’t say “no” to some projects because I had no assurance that more would come. I signed contracts that undervalued my experience and expertise.  

I wasn’t content.

And I was lonely. 

I didn’t have colleagues to connect with regularly. When you work from home or teach online, you don’t have a break room or faculty lounge to find solidarity and support from coworkers. Most contracts don’t yield long-term, meaningful relationships with clients.  

Some Enneagram book or podcast said that Ones may struggle as independent contractors or entrepreneurs. We need the structure and routine a regular job provides. And I’m an extrovert: I need people. 

A regular paycheck would be nice, too. Yes, I know from experience that your employment status can change in an instant. But those twice-a-month deposits would relieve some stress. And maybe I wouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes and so much for insurance. Plus, an employer might contribute to my retirement fund and give me some money for professional development. A girl can dream.

I had been holding on to my raft and kicking. I was miserable. I didn’t want to be a consultant. I didn’t want to be a business owner. I was tired of being an adjunct professor. It was time to kick my raft all the way to shore.

We moved cross-country during the pandemic so that my husband could start his doctorate. Initially I planned to continue consulting and teaching to support our family, but I started scouring the job boards as soon as we got settled. 

I applied for a dreamy job at the university. I didn’t get an interview, and I still haven’t received the automated, “We determined you’re not a good fit for this position” email. Maybe it’s because I misspelled a word in my current job title. (Can I blame autocorrect?)

Then I applied for a job at Home Depot. The Home Depot. “Let’s build something together.” Specifically, “Let’s build some corporate training modules together.” I wonder what my spiritual director would have said about that one. First the faculty development for medical educators. Now instructional design for a big box store.

Well, actually I don’t wonder. Because she said something to me about my quest to find another job. I described all of the stress of owning a business and teaching, of being the primary earner, of managing our household and caring for our kids. I talked about all of my strategies for rest and self-care. And then she asked her question:

“What if you just did your job and stopped looking for other ones?”

This one didn’t take long to sink in.

I had been reading the Pentateuch for Bible study. God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and led them the roundabout way to the Promised Land. And he stayed with them—among them—every step of the way. He provided water when they were thirsty, manna and quail when they were hungry. He was a cloud before them by day and a pillar of fire above them by night. 

He provided as he guided.

In some mysterious way, the Holy Spirit used those stories from the Scriptures and that question from my spiritual director to make me think about my raft a bit differently. Maybe God sent me a raft so that I could float on it for a while. Maybe I didn’t have to kick at all.

Maybe the raft was for rest. 

Maybe that’s what God had provided–a way to rest, a way to trust, a way to experience his goodness and guidance without my having to struggle to get from point A to point B.

Novel thought.

Yes, I still have to map out my projected income regularly. I have to budget my time well. I have to say “no” to some projects. I have to negotiate fair valuation for my work. I have to wait for accounts payable departments to issue checks. I still have to sit at my desk and tackle my “to do” list Monday through Friday.

I still experience loneliness in my work. 

But I’ve felt more at peace since I climbed aboard the raft—fully aboard this time.

He who commands the winds and the waves also commands the currents that carry us to and fro. 

The Raft

God sent me a raft–a red raft (at least that’s how I envision it). It’s one of those inflatable rafts that’s a little bit translucent so that you can see the water below it and the sun reflecting off of it at the same time; one that’s just long enough so that your feet caress the water when you stretch out on it; one that’s just wide enough that you don’t struggle to keep your balance if a wave rolls under you.

My raft came in the heat of summer when I was swimming hard to get somewhere. I had been applying for full-time jobs for months. By my count, I completed nine applications in a span of two months. Eight of them required much more than a resume. If cover-letter fatigue is real, I had it. 

Most of my applications went to their eternal rest in some Human Resources database. (I have zero confidence that anyone actually keeps my application on file in case I happen to be a fit for another position. Once I hit submit, I’m more often than not at the mercy of an algorithm and not an image-bearer.) 

But then I received an email that someone wanted to interview me. It felt simultaneously like a joke and a miracle. I hadn’t made it past the application stage for a regular, non-contract job in ten years. Imposter syndrome and hope competed for space in my mind. 

The initial interview felt like a disaster. My palms were sweaty, I fumbled my words, and an alarm kept going off on my phone. But something must have clicked, because I had an email five minutes later requesting an on-campus interview. I purchased a navy blue suit, prepped an interactive presentation, and brushed up on a few topics that might come up in conversation. I left that interview confident I would receive a job offer.

The week of my interview, a few requests for contract work appeared in my inbox. Someone wanted me to do some writing. Another person wanted me to develop an online course. A friend wanted to chat about how I might help his organization with their upcoming pastors’ conference. 

I thought it odd, the timing of all of those emails. Surely God knew I was applying for full-time jobs. I asked most of the people who had emailed me to wait because I was waiting to hear about the job I was sure I would get. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. 

By the three-week mark, everyone I knew started urging me to send a follow-up email. Patience, I told them. Job offers take time in academia. You wouldn’t believe the bureaucracy. So I waited. And I prayed. I sought the Lord’s direction even though I was sure where he had pointed my compass needle.   

Then my spiritual director did her thing—that thing where, after having listened attentively, she tells you what you just said and makes a statement come across like a question. Or rather, it’s a statement that makes you question…to the point you come completely unhinged a few days later. 

For months, we had been sorting through matters of identity and calling. I sensed that my calling had something to do with being a theological educator, or maybe teaching people about God. I love teaching. I love the Scriptures. 

“Your calling, as best as you can discern, has to do with theological education, and you are contemplating taking a job that focuses on faculty development for medical educators,” she said. 

Yes. 

No.

The halfway point of my walk—that’s when it happened, the unhinging. Those paces up Aurora. “Holy, Holy, Holy” in my ears and on my lips. How could I take a job where I could no longer talk regularly about the holiness of God? If I worked in medical education, theology would have to sit on a shelf. Sure, it could inform my work and shape me as a worker. But mostly, it would become a hobby. And I’ve seen what I do to my hobbies.

I came home and told my husband I didn’t think I was supposed to take the job and that I would turn it down if they offered it. We both thought I was a little bit crazy. But maybe I could start with those requests for work in my inbox and build my consulting business. Maybe I could teach a bit more. Maybe, somehow, with all of that work, God would keep us afloat. 

The next day, the automated email came from human resources. I didn’t get the job. I was surprised but not dismayed. Within days, those requests for work in my inbox turned into contracts. I sought a few new clients and took on a couple new classes. The paychecks came…sporadically.

Didn’t some preacher once tell us a story about a flood, a man, two boats, and a helicopter? If you want to be saved, you have to do your part; you have to climb aboard. When God sent me a raft, I climbed aboard. Sort of. 

Litany of Sadness: A Holy Week Meditation

 

While I finished cooking dinner, my son quietly slipped into my office and sat at my desk with a single sheet of white paper in front of him.  A little while later, he emerged with a picture.  Climbing up into the breakfast nook, he brought his drawing close to me and laid it near my cutting board.  He had drawn a heart.  Not a red heart. Not a pink heart. But a black and blue and green heart.

“Tell me about your picture.”

He pointed to the blue.

“Are you sad, honey?”

A nod.

“Can you tell me what made you feel sad?”

A head shake.

Maybe at five years old, he didn’t have the words to tell me what made him sad.  Or maybe, like me, he couldn’t bear to speak it.  All afternoon I had fought back my own tears, swallowing the pain until I felt sick to my stomach.  How could I cry when I needed to be strong for him? When I needed to manage the afternoon chaos, get dinner on the table, and make it to bedtime so that I could finally share my litany of sadness with my husband?

There was a clear and present sadness.  Sadness that we live in a world in which kindergartners experience stress and anxiety at school; in which their closest friends leave school due to bullying and other issues; and in which five- and six-year-olds mimic the destructive words and actions that they have seen in their own homes.

Sadness that I realize my own complicity in the brokenness, that I overlooked a seemingly innocuous song in a funny movie—a song that my toddler and kindergartner now sing without understanding why the lyrics demean women.

Sadness that I cannot protect my child from the pain of this world.  Pain that is my fault and the world’s fault.

Sadness that I cannot fix it.  I don’t know how.

Lord, have mercy.

There was a past and present sadness.  Sadness that I have seen too much sexual sin among pastors.  Four pastors in three churches over two-and-a-half decades.

I have kept my distance from the #metoo and #churchtoo conversations.  Perhaps I have done so out of self-preservation. But the allegations against Bill Hybels and Willow Creek have been too much to bear, and all of the sadness has surfaced.

Not so long ago, I watched the church we attended nearly fall apart because of the senior pastor’s sin and the elders’ dispensations of cheap grace instead of restorative discipline.

Sadness comes when I think about the destruction wrought in that congregation.  Sadness multiplies when I think about Willow Creek—twenty times the size and a thousand times the influence. Whether or not the allegations are true, the sadness remains the same.

Lord, have mercy.

There was a present president sadness.  Sadness that I could not avoid on the TV monitor as we left the public library—a headline that read “Porn Star Sues President’s Attorney for Defamation.”  We had gone to the library to return a book, to find a new one, to play, and to escape momentarily from our sad, sad day.  But sadness found me there—too much sadness in one headline.  Who can bear to watch the news?

Lord, have mercy.

And that was my litany of sadness.  As I laid my head on my pillow, all I could pray was, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  That’s not a Holy Week prayer, is it?

Before the waves of sadness hit, I determined to enter into Holy Week.  Observing Lent had been so hard, I complained.  I hadn’t been able to attend the Ash Wednesday service and wouldn’t be able to attend the Good Friday one.  We didn’t have a Lenten sermon series.  I stuck with a Lenten Devotional for two days.  I failed at Lent when I probably needed it most, hence my resolve to make up for lost time during Holy Week.

As I read part of the Holy Week narrative and then sat in silence and stillness, I had no idea that, only hours later, I would be drowning in deep sadness.  

The world is too broken.  I want to throw up my hands.  What can I do?

In Visions of Vocation, Steven Garber raises the question “How can we know and still love the world?”  He wonders why we find ourselves implicated in the mess when all logic says we should turn and run away.  How can we press through the sadness when it threatens to overtake us?

Why do I keep my child enrolled in his elementary school where children are mean and his best friends are leaving? Why do I remain committed to this messy project called evangelicalism when many of its leaders make poor moral and political choices?  Why do I continue to reach out to millennials when they are leaving the church in droves?  Why do I keep equipping pastors and ministry leaders in a world that increasingly sees them as irrelevant?

Everything is so messed up.  Why shouldn’t I throw up my hands and run away?

Because Jesus didn’t.  He had every reason to but he didn’t.  My litany of sadness pales in comparison to his.  He wept over Jerusalem, overturned tables in the temple, was betrayed, mocked, denied, and sentenced to a gruesome death.  Instead of running away, he kept moving forward: “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Her 12:2b-3).

Three days into Holy Week and I am weary.  I am tired.  I am reluctant to press through the sadness.  Why shouldn’t I throw up my hands and run away?

Because, in the week that he died, Jesus endured much worse because he knew that joy lay on the other side of pain.  And the hope of that joy for us and for others is why we labor in hard places among broken people.  Jesus’ love compels us to know this messed up world and still run to it instead of away from it.  Jesus’ love compels us to fight for the oppressed, serve the poor, and befriend the lonely.  His Holy Week litany of sadness reminds us that redemption is possible, and it can come through those with black and blue (and green) hearts.