Friday, September 5, 2014

Living in No-Man's Land: From Job Hunting to Joy Hunting

No-Man's Land used to be a term that sounded romantic and wild to me. The idea of a place in between countries that belonged to no one... free from war and conflict and subjugation, free space for any creature to roam without being regulated or watched... this may be a far cry from the actual meaning of the phrase but this is how I imagined it should be as a child. I wanted to live in No-Man's Land!

A good friend texted me something along these lines the other day: "I feel like you and I are both living in no-man's-land... not yet where we hope to be but trying to find meaning in the place where we are now." She was exactly right! Both of us are in different states but similar worlds... living with our parents (or parents-in-law, in my case), looking for work to get by, but longing to find our callings. No-Man's Land no longer feels like an adventure, but like a dry, pointless rut in between where I was and where I should be.  For months now, I've been praying for this stage of life to be over and to know where God wants my husband and I to go. We knew that it was time for us to leave Beckley and pursue other things, but where we are supposed to go and what we are supposed to do is still in shadow. Tim and I have applied to about 30 different jobs across the country. But so far, nothing has panned out. Nothing. It's been a nine-month rollercoaster of hoping, praying, getting hopes up, and having them fizzle out. Over and over and over again. I am weary of being in-between and desperate for an answer that has been eluding me for what feels like a lifetime.

Weary of the job hunt and weary of life in general, Tim and I finally had to make a decision when both of our jobs in Beckley were coming to an end. We felt that if we stayed in Beckley, we would be stuck there and have even more difficulty getting out of the no-man's land rut. So we got rid of half our junk, packed up the other half, and moved to Chattanooga to live with my wonderful in-laws. The plan is to find short-term jobs here while continuing to search for more permanent positions. Things have been better here than I could have imagined... we have much more space for our stuff than I anticipated, free time and low expectations, and our dog is even getting along with the dog who currently dominates the house. We could have been homeless and instead we are living in a beautiful house with a beautiful family (and air conditioning!)

And yet, with these blessings surrounding me, I fight discontentment moment by moment. Part of me is whining, "I want to be settled in my own house (preferably out West) with my own kitchen and my own goats and chickens in the backyard! I want a good-paying job doing what I love! I want Tim to find a good-paying job that he loves and be able to pursue his dreams!" Every complaint is eroding my faith and working against the very thing that I am thirsting for. While reading Ecclesiastes the other day, I realized that what I have been thirsting for all along has not been a job at all, or a new house, or even security. What I am thirsty for is joy. 

I have been letting the "waiting game", the dusty clouds of No-Man's Land, steal my joy. Looking back on this year, I can't remember many moments of true joy and peace in the memory of the job hunt rollercoaster. I have squandered so many days longing for the future and missing out on the beauty of the present.

Two days ago, I was sitting on a rock by Chickamauga Lake reading about the Preacher's search for meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is famous for the word vanity, but I was struck by how many times I read the word joy. For example:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?  Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.

Whether I find a new job today or two years from now, whether Tim and I buy a house or live out of our cars or live with our parents, whether I become a director of a camp or a cashier at Aldi, this is all from the hand of God. Joy is not generated by circumstances or surroundings, but by the loving and sovereign hand of God at work in your life. The poet David reminds me in Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. 

I firmly believe that God wants us all to have space to dream... and courage to make those dreams big... but I am learning that until those dreams become reality, I need to open my eyes to the joy in my current reality. God is lavishing so much on me, and when I ignore the beauty of today I am dishonoring His gifts. I am here in No-Man's Land for a reason, and until the dust clouds clear and God reveals the way out of this rut, I am going to do my best to find the wildflowers that have been growing here all along, praising the God who planted them there for me to discover.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sink Your Roots

I've seen a lot of blog posts, videos, articles, and pins on Pinterest about healthy marriages. It's great to see how many people are committed to making their marriage work, and putting effort into this most difficult and intimate relationship here on earth. However, lists of "Top 10 ways to Keep Your Husband Coming Home" and "100 Things to Do to Stay in Love Every Day" or even "Keys to a Godly Marriage" are not always healthy for me. As a goal oriented person, I tend to see these lists as checklists. I diligently read through all 100 suggestions and rather than feeling inspired, I feel defeated. When I measure my marriage by these lists I see that Tim and I fall short.

However, since marriage is all about being a picture of God's grace, and a practical way to extend God's grace, the faults and failures I see in myself, my husband, and our life together should be spaces where I can see God's grace shine through rather than elements that keep me from having the "perfect" marriage.

I loved listening to this sermon today because Dr. Piper didn't give a list of tips, techniques, or date night ideas. (I'm not saying that date night ideas or the like are a bad thing, I'm just recognizing that when I measure my marriage by them, it is unhealthy for me. I'm sure that is not the intention of those who write them!) He took us to Scripture and reminded us that even carrying out God's "list" of things to work on: compassion, kindness, meekness, etc., is only achieved by sinking your roots deep into the gospel.  It is only as God's chosen ones, holy, and beloved, that we can extend grace, love, compassion, and forgiveness to others. It is only when I daily sink my roots deep into Christ that I can see change and growth in myself and my husband.

I especially love the analogy that he gives at the end of the sermon of the compost pile.  I know an hour may seem long, but if you have some time to spare or even just listen to this while cleaning like I did, you will be glad you listened to the end. Please take a moment to listen to the sermon, be encouraged, and sink your roots deep into the truth of the gospel.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Half Thoughts and Whole Marathons

Have you ever had a half-thought? You know, those thoughts, ideas, or even hints of insight that you seem to see with the periphery of your mind? For me, these half-thoughts float around my ears like ghosts, whispering that they have something important to say but I've got to turn around and chase them down to be able to catch what it is. Over the past year, I have had dozens of half-thoughts flit by me, with hopes of becoming blog posts, but I never took the time to pin them down and find out if there truly was any substance to them.

So that is my excuse for my silence on this blog. Pure, utter laziness that chooses to mindlessly scroll through Facebook for the billionth time rather than chase down a thought that might be worth pursuing.
For over a month now, I've had a half-thought about writing a blog post about the marathon I ran in November. It's still undeveloped, but I've decided to write about it anyway and maybe the thought will take color and form as I process the experience I had.

In January (actually, the same day I wrote the last post on here!) I set my New Year's resolutions as I always do and one of them was to run a trail marathon. At that point, I wasn't really sure if I would accomplish my goal, but at least it would hopefully encourage me to run more. Around July I started to get a little more serious about this goal... there was a 50K in October that I wanted to run and everyone told me that 5 more miles (a 50K is 31 miles, a marathon is 26.2 miles) wouldn't be that much harder than a marathon. I made a customized schedule for running in the 12 or so weeks leading up to the race... and promptly failed to follow the schedule. Excuses... both real and contrived... kept popping up up and hindering me from running the mileage each week I was expected to run. To make matters worse, my shoes began falling apart at the seams...literally. It seemed that my marathon dream was becoming more of a half-thought that was quickly escaping me.

If it weren't for my husband, the marathon dream would have very likely been shelved for "next year" along with so many other aspirations that I have given up on once they became too difficult or complicated. I can vividly remember one day that my running schedule told me to run 14 miles. I wasn't able to get to the trail until almost dusk that evening because I had to squeeze my running in after work. With some confusion of trails and backtracking, I ended up running almost 17 miles, with at least 4 of those miles by the light of a weak headlamp. The run was mostly flat and easy footing (except for the copperhead I nearly stepped on!) but it kicked my butt and I dragged myself home, feeling like if 14 miles (as I originally thought the distance was) was this hard, and if all my runs had to be in the dark like this, I'd never make it in the 50K. Besides, it turned out that I had a work obligation the day of the 50K anyway. Here was my excuse!

I dragged my sore body home, fully ready to tell Tim I was done with the marathon half-thought and I'd just do something "next year". When I got home, he made me dinner, let me shower and go to bed, cryptically asked me what my shirt size was, and went back into his study. When he came to bed he told me he had needed my shirt size because he had been filling out my application for the Bobcat Trail Marathon in November! I couldn't believe it. We didn't have money for the entrance fee, not to mention the new shoes I would need, and besides, didn't tonight's run prove that I didn't have what it takes?

Apparently Tim thought otherwise. He wanted to help me make the marathon dream become a reality and wouldn't let me back out of it. He worked out our tight budget so that we could afford the expenses for the race, the trip, and a new pair of shoes (that we miraculously found for half price online!)

Tim took down every barrier he could to make sure I would follow through with my goal. But the one thing he couldn't do for me was train. So I had to commit myself... and virtually every weekend until the race... to preparing myself. For the next month my free time was consumed in running. During the week I got up before the sun to run a few miles before work, and on Saturdays I committed the whole day to packing for the trail run (I tend to take a lot of snacks and water), driving to the trail, running, and then crashing at home and sleeping. It's a good thing we didn't have any house guests because I don't think the bathroom got cleaned all month and I only kept up with the laundry when my running clothes needed to be washed.

I was getting sick of running, it was becoming a chore. But amazingly, the training was actually working.  It was amazing to see that when I stuck with something and kept pushing through the difficulties that tried to get in the way, I actually began to get stronger and more comfortable with running long distances.

It's getting late and I want to finish this thought, so I'll save a recap of the race for another post. But on November 3, when I finally crossed the finish line of my very first trail marathon in 5:46:22, feeling tired and full of adrenaline all at once, I realized that finishing the marathon was so much more than just running 26.2 miles. To me, the actual race was not as hard as the commitment and perseverance it took to train for the marathon. The race ended up being the icing on the cake, the reward for all the miserable and wonderful miles I had put in leading up to that day. There's a lesson in there, somewhere, but it's bedtime so if you made it to this point, see if you can find a way to finish my half-thought about the challenges and rewards of commitment. You may even find yourself finishing your own marathon while you're at it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Year of Faith

On New Year's Day the four walls of my house and the lazy feelings in my soul were smothering me, so I took a trip to my secret spot at the New River Gorge. I've probably mentioned this place on my blog before, because it's one of those sacred places where significant things always seem to happen. I've been there on piercingly beautiful blue-sky days, starry nights, hushed snowy mornings and storm-clouded summer afternoons. This day, the Gorge was hidden in fog and my spot was a dripping gray blanket of melting snow and hovering water vapor. The fog obstructed the view before me and softened the lines of the trees behind me.

Before I ran away to my spot, I had been trying to put into words the events that have shaped me over the past year and a half.  My mind was jumbled with images too beautiful to explain and memories too sharp and painful to share.  But the fog of distance is already blurring my history, and wrapping both the harsh and the beautiful memories in a soft gauze of forgetfulness, so that only the significance of each event stands out like the dark boles of the trees at my spot. 

My spot plays a role in many of the most important events in my life.  In July 2011, my best friend Timothy Huguenin and I visited the spot for the first time as a dating couple.  We were both experiencing tragedy that we didn't know how to deal with and the spot was a refuge for my hurting heart. I remember the feeling of peace creeping in with the dusk as we watched the sunset on that summer evening.

Seven months later, Tim and I returned to my spot on a brilliant and warm February day... my birthday. My old friends the chickadees and possibly a far-off vulture watched as I accepted a diamond ring from my best friend and future husband that perfect afternoon.  I remember the colors all around us as winter seemed to be melting away and hope made the world look like it was in high-definition.

I can't remember the next time I returned to the spot, because spring and summer 2012 were an exhausting marathon of wedding planning, working at Alpine, and working on the masters degree I had started in May 2011.  (Side note: by God's grace I graduated with a Master of Science in Environmental Education from Montreat College in December 2012.  I don't think my spot had much to do with the accomplishment of this task, although it did provide the occasional reprieve when I was wise enough to take a break!)

In midsummer 2012, I had the awesome privilege of spending two weeks in Alaska with my masters' cohort. This trip was a mountaintop experience in my life, but I returned to West Virginia to have to make the heartbreaking decision that my beloved dog, who was my constant companion and dearest friend, was no longer safe to live with (she had become unpredictably aggressive).  Anyone who has ever loved a dog can understand the pain and guilt I am still dealing with after having her put down. Anyone who has not experienced this cannot understand what I am saying, so I won't try to explain further.  But the reason I share this story is because it marks one of the deepest moments of my life in understanding faith.  In January 2012, I had determined that I wanted to understand--by experience--how to walk by faith.  Over and over again, God brought difficult decisions into my life that spoke the same message to my reluctant heart:
"Faith means daily obedience, even when obedience contradicts your own will." 
The decision about my dog was the hardest and most clear example of this.  I begged God to show me another way, to relieve me from this pain, and He simply said, "Obeying Me is walking by faith."  The day my dog died, Tim took me to my spot and shared my grief.  I barely remember this visit to my spot, because my eyes were blurry with tears, but I do remember knowing that walking by faith--obeying God no matter the pain--was my only option.

Hearts do heal and joy does return, and on August 25, 2012, Tim and I stood in the rain at Blackwater Falls State Park and read our wedding vows to each other.  Walking by faith is not always painful, and sometimes it is a thrilling adventure.  We've been married a little over four months now, and the adventure of learning how to grow in Christ together has been a joy. The busyness of married life, finishing my masters, training for my first half marathon, and working kept me away from my spot for a long time... until January 1, 2013.

This New Year's Day is enveloped in fog. I don't know exactly how God wants me to live out this day, let alone this year.  I don't know what He has in store for Tim and me, how He will want to use us, or if we'll be faithful to the task. But as I watch the fog creep in and hide the snow-covered rocks, I can feel the anxiety and restlessness that was plaguing me at home disappear into the mist.  This is a sacred place because it is where I intentionally slow myself down and set myself apart to hear God. And today, He is telling me: "Fog is nothing to fear.  I enclose your path ahead and behind with fog out of my gracious love towards you.  You can rest in the fact that I hold you even though your past may not make sense to you and your future is a mystery.  I can pierce through the fog and I know all that is to come in your life, but I protect you from knowledge that is too wonderful for you.  It is high and you cannot attain it.  But what you can do is rest, here in my blanket of fog, as I guide you toward My goal for you, which is your goal too: Conformity with Jesus Christ."

The path ahead is often foggy, and the path behind is shrouded with questions.  Rather than fighting to clear the fog, can we truly say that we rest in the knowledge and guidance that God has given us, without begging to see more than He allows?  Someday... when we're ready for it... all will be made clear. But for now, let's walk this year through the fog in the faith exemplified by daily obedience.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What's Your Tree?

I have recently been inspired by the story of Julia Butterfly Hill, a woman who, at my age, climbed nearly 200 feet in a redwood to live there until a logging company would promise to leave it alone (it took two years).  Her dedication and passion to her cause would put most evangelical Christians to shame.  On this video: Julia Butterfly Hill: What's Your Tree? she asks all of us to find our "tree", our inspiration that motivates each one of us to make a difference in the lives of others.

Would I live in a tree for two years?  Sounds like an adventure, but I'm not sure if that is the statement God wants me to make.  Would I sacrifice all earthly comforts, all my rights as an American citizen or even as a human, to stand up against what I know to be wrong and to serve those less fortunate than I?  I pray that I will have the strength.  I want to emulate Julia Butterfly Hill in her passionate determination, but for the cause of a different tree.  My "tree" is the one who hung on a tree for a day for my sake: the Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Spaghetti Sermon

This morning Tim and I were talking about the "men are waffles/women are spaghetti" analogy.  Have you heard of it? If not, google it now :) It's a good fit, at least for me, because I haven't met a more spaghetti-minded person than myself.  If you trace my wandering thoughts through these posts, you've probably picked up on that.  But I do always circle back around to the truth through all the saucy mess.... most of the time anyway.

Normally, at least on this blog, I try to sort out my spaghetti and make it coherent for readers.  But today was such a strange journey that I want to publish it, sauce and all.  If you're interested, read on.  If not, go back and google  "spaghetti and waffles" and have fun with that.

Today was designed to be a to do list day.  My life has been so out of balance for the past few months that it felt good to have a day to just tick things off the list and regain a shred of sanity.  So I started out well... breakfast? Check. Bible study lesson? Check. Take the dog for a run? Check.

But it was during the run that my spaghetti which I was trying to keep all nicely knitted and organized started to unravel just like the hat I made Tim for Christmas.  Looks perfect until you put it on and then all the ends come loose.  Listening to Keith Urban on the mp3 player had me singing along with "You're my Better Half" then literally crying just because he told me to in "Cry".  Ridiculous!  Sometimes the logical half of me just steps out of myself and shakes her head in disgust.  Emily, pull yourself together! Why are you such a girl?

The rest of the morning continued in the same painful rollercoaster... soaring moments of happiness and satisfaction followed by plunging moments of disappointment and despair.  Am I ever going to be the person I need to be?  Am I ever going to get it together?  Will I always make mistakes and let down the people I love?  I felt weary, like I had wandered deserts and mountains, only to end up where I started... and I never even left my house.

Finally I decided to stop trying to figure myself out, stop trying to answer all the questions and stop listening to the sermons I was preaching in my head from the Book of Emily (which is not inspired Scripture and should be thrown out!) and listen to someone who knows what he's talking about.  So I filled my mop bucket, soaked my rag and began scrubbing the floors to the insight of John Piper and this sermon:

It's called "What is the Recession For?" and really has more to do with financial issues than emotional issues like mine.  But I am spaghetti, and so I make connections and applications to everything.  Here are three of the  main points of the sermon, and how they connect and apply to this messy journey of understanding I've traveling on for the past few months.

In God's plan the recession is a golden opportunity for us that we must not waste, with these main purposes.

1. To Expose Sin and Give Repentance
Piper used the illustration of a beaker full of clear water with sediment on the bottom.  One bump and the sediment stirs, clouding what looked so pure and holy before it was unsettled.  In the same way, hard times "bump" us and reveal to us what is really lurking in the dark corners of our hearts.  And praise the Lord that they do!

This is the biggest lesson God has been teaching me lately.  It is mind blowing and possibly worthy of a blog post all its own. I am more likely following God when my sin is evident and ugly to me.  When I feel like I have everything together, I am deceiving myself (1 John 1:8) and God cannot work with me.  But He is near to my broken, contrite heart that is acutely aware of its own depravity and immensely grateful for His atoning grace.  When my life looks dirty and cloudy it is because God is hard at work cleaning me up.  He will not abandon His work!

2. To Awaken Us to World Poverty
My troubles (really just trifles) are NOTHING in comparison to what Christians joyfully face every day around the world.  I whine when someone disappoints me, while another sits alone in prison, rejected by the world but rejoicing in God.  I stress about taking out a loan to pay for my school while another rejoices as she savors the one bowl of rice she will eat today.  Piper said he is more inclined to pray for sick people when he is sick, and my failures and "afflictions" should remind me to pray all the more fervently for others in the same boat.

3.  To Relocate the Roots of Our Joy in His Grace Rather Than in Our Goods
This is what it boils down to.  My biggest struggle these days is not discontentment with my circumstances as much as it is discontentment with my foolish, failing, falling flesh. But this is because I want to look to myself and feel satisfied, and to have others look to me and feel satisfied.  What a false desire!  The only path to joy is the path to Jesus, and if I were perfect I would rob myself and others of the joy of depending on Jesus.  May I rejoice in my failures because through them God's grace is magnified.  May I rejoice in my inability to please people because through my inability, God's tremendous ability shines through.  May I rejoice in my poverty because to the poor in spirit belongs the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).  

I came away at the end of the sermon with a clean floor and a refreshed spirit, reminded that sometimes it's important to stop trying to sort out all your spaghetti, figure yourself out, and interpret life from your own lens.
 Sometimes it's important to slow down and listen to someone else's voice for a while.  Especially when that voice is speaking the Word of God.

Friday, November 25, 2011

the facts of life

September is one of my favorite months.  The crisp air seems to deepen the intensity of the sapphire sky and every leaf on every tree stands out in sharper definition than in the blurry, hazy summer.  But even in this beautiful season, no matter which window I look out or which forest path I walk, I cannot close my eyes to the evidence of the curse all around me.  The trees I love are afflicted by destructive beetles, fungus, or parasites.  The hawk I admire as it surveys its kingdom is searching for a defenseless rodent to kill.  Even the soil I tread is layers and layers of death.

I go outside to enjoy creation and I am bombarded on every side by reminders of God's curse on the earth (Genesis 3:14-19).  I spend time with God's people and find myself disheartened by their earthly priorities and selfishness. I try to retreat inside myself to escape the sorrows and sins I see around me... and it is there within my heart that I see the Curse manifested most fully.  I can't even scratch the surface of my own wickedness (Jeremiah 17:9), yet when I catch a glimpse of even the edges of my ways I am overtaken by horror and unspeakable shame.

I was rescued from the penalty of my sin at a very early age, during those years of my history that have no place in my memory.  I can't remember life without a hope of heaven and knowledge of Christ's love.  And yet, I read passages like Romans 1 about the unregenerate heart and its description eerily beats in time with the rhythms of my own.  Covetous, envious, striving, gossipping, proud, boasters? Disobedient to parents? Undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful? (Romans 1:29-31) This doesn't sound like the description of a lost soul as much as it sounds like a description of myself.

Sometimes I can ignore it, but at other times the Curse and Consequences of sin weigh on my soul like a heavy, stinking breath of death.  Every part of me is diseased with this curse in the same way that every ash tree outside my window is being ravaged by beetles.

But there is a difference between me and that tree. The tree is being killed as a byproduct of man's sin: the Curse of Death that blankets the world.  I was born killed by this Curse, but my Rescuer, Redeemer, and Resurrection has raised me to life. And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.  (Ephesians 2:1)

I have been forgiven, made new, resurrected.  Yes, I am still trapped in a cursed body of death, but within this body is a new heart, hidden in Christ until Christ who is my life appears (Colossians 3:3-4).  And beyond the worldwide evidence of death is a higher, transcendent reality of LIFE that exists even now!  When time is stripped away the ash tree, the hawk, the rodent, and I will all understand who we were truly created to be apart from the curse's chains.  We all groan together with pain and impatience for our true reality that awaits us, but not without hope (Romans 8:22-23).  We must look beyond the present evidence and remember the facts of LIFE.
  These simple words from an artist I admire sum up the hope that I am trying to express.

Ashes, ashes, we fall down
It always feels too soon
But when we walk on golden ground
All will be made new
[ Lyrics from: ]
Life is but a dream at best
Morning's coming soon
Kingdom come will bring us rest
All will be made new

All sorrows and sighs
Will fade away into the night
And all will be made new

All will be made new

"Kingdom Come", JJ Heller