I keep describing the last four months as a wild ride of trying to trust God, getting it wrong (or right for the moment, and then wrong, and then right again, for now *crazy eyes*), and questioning the mysteries of God’s will, my will, and the conflation of these two things into one mushy pile of conviction and desire, surrender and alignment.
What on earth am I talking about?
Back in June, Brandon decided it was time to go back to seminary and finish the degree he started over a decade ago. To do that well meant leaving his full-time job, which also meant leaving behind insurance benefits and the stability of his income. As you might know, I’ve been a freelance writer the last year and a half, a job shift I chose so I could hopefully recover from long-Covid (which mostly I have… mostly, most of the time), which has turned into my most favorite way to live ever. The freelance life has been a gift of flexibility, healing, and full operation of my gifts as a writer. It has also given me so much space to serve in my local church, answer nudges toward various ministry opportunities, have coffee and conversations with new friends, teach adult Sunday school classes, offer a writers workshop at the local library, make dinner (which feels sacred to me these days), and be fully present for my family when they come home, with no brain fog and exhaustion.
I’ve been living my best life, which for me comes with a side dish of guilt. Why should I get to do exactly what I want to do, and be relatively successful at it, when so many other people aren’t able to do that? Is this a Midwestern thing? A Protestant work ethic thing? Shouldn’t I be more miserable, as a consequence of the Fall and all that?
Instead of trying to figure out a way to keep living my best life while Brandon pursued a degree in practical theology (essentially, how do you live out what you believe about God), I decided the best solution would be to see if the local university, the one I used to work for almost a decade ago, was hiring. It turned out they were, in fact, hiring, and in a job that I could actually imagine myself liking, maybe even loving, again. The interim dean custom-designed a job description for me, gave me the 11-month contract I wanted (so I could keep writing), and before I knew what was happening, I said yes, I’ll start August 1, when I come back from my three-week Out West adventure that I’m giving myself for my 40th birthday.
I haven’t written here or sent a newsletter or any of those things the last four months. I began to view my Out West trip as a farewell to the freedom, independence, and recovery efforts from the last 18 months, the marker of a job accomplished, but now it was time to put on my big girl pants and get back to the Business of Work. Enough messing around, doing things I love all of the time as if that’s allowed and even encouraged. Real People work at Institutions and earn Insurance and Retirement. By the end of my (amazing, awesome, once-in-a-lifetime, stunning, incredible) trip, I felt ready.
I started my new job on August 1 as the program coordinator for the MFA, MA in Communications, and Honors Programs. It was hard. Harder than I thought it would be, not because the work itself is hard, but mostly because there is a part of my brain that is apparently still not as functional as it used to be after Covid. I was a kick-ass administrator once, y’all. I used to be able to exercise strategic thinking, answer email, tweet updates, create newsletters, update databases, and build spreadsheets with the joy and delight exhibited by Toula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when she goes to work at the travel agency.
This is not so anymore. I’m rather sure that the frontal lobe of my brain has lost the neural function required to do this work with ease. It literally hurts my brain now.
I hate that this is true.
Despite these complications, I still had on my big girl pants. Suck it up, buttercup! Headaches and exhaustion are a part of life; deal with it. Get some desk lamps, kill the fluorescents, open the windows, go for a walk, take a break, drink all of the water and Liquid I.V. You can do this!
Several weeks into my new job, where I worked with lovely people and supported wonderful students and did the things I used to do with ease but now apparently sucked at, I told Brandon I would give it three months, and if I was still grumpy and irritated and unable to keep writing while doing this job, I would quit and go back to freelancing. I kept my clients, but just at a reduced level. Unlike my day job, which drains the energy from me, writing gives me life—after hours of writing, I have vim and vigor! I want to tell you all of the things I’ve learned, all of the things I’ve discovered, what fun twists and turns happened while I was writing. Even when it’s marketing content for someone else, it’s exciting. The world is so big and beautiful and bold, and I get to pour my curiosity over it, and then report on what I’ve found.
I had this ultimatum in mind, when all of a sudden, God showed up about six weeks into my new job. I was even settling in at work, feeling better—not great, but better!—making long-term plans for grant writing and certificate programs and conferences and international travel. Here I come to save the day!
And then LOOK WHO WALKED IN.
The jerk. He totally disrupted my timeline.
I’ve been participating in a meditation class with my friend, George Shunk, at church this fall. One Sunday, he had us be quiet and meditate for six minutes on a simple passage of Scripture that had nothing to do with vocation or calling or God’s will or any of that stuff. I don’t even remember what it was about. What I know for a fact is that while I was sitting there, thinking about peace and love and God’s provision, I “heard” in my mind this word from the Lord:
Sarah, I gave you all of these opportunities to do what I made you to do with joy and with freedom. And you chose stability and insurance.– God
I burst out in tears. Uncontrollable, ugly sobs. If you’ve ever been scolded by God, maybe you can relate.
Let me interrupt myself for a second to say that I really struggle with admitting this to you. I have had a hard time believing that God has a particular plan and purpose for each individual, this job, or this spouse, or this house, or this wallpaper. That just seems overly manipulative and controlling for the God of the Universe who certainly loves us, but maybe doesn’t have time for choosing wallpaper?
But Brandon and I have never been able to wrestle into submission anything we wanted to happen. We’ve applied for hundreds—hundreds!—of jobs, jobs we were plenty qualified for, but never received a callback. So when jobs like the one I was offered at Ashland fall into place so easily, it feels like God’s Will, God’s perfect and pleasing will, a sweet gift from the Lord, just for me. I start to play a lot of “Maybe this happened because…” and determine the cause and effect of circumstances as if I am just along for the ride with God, reading the tea leaves to discern what he’s doing and which way he’s going to turn next.
But we aren’t just along for the ride. God has given us freedom. He has promised us life and life in abundance. When God “spoke” to me during my time of meditation, his tone was gentle, but firm, loving, but direct, and if I didn’t do something about it, I knew I’d be living in disobedience to whatever God has for me.
That felt both icky and impossible.
Throughout the last two months, you can see the progression of my thought life and prayer life as I’ve scrambled to make sense of all of these changes. They are hidden in my devotional entries written for Root & Vine:
R&V In the Word: When God’s Plan Stinks: (apt title!) Written in mid-August and published in mid-September, this is when I was wrestling with how much I did NOT like the path I had chosen, which had been given so generously to me, which felt like God’s plan for me. “Sometimes God’s plan stinks. This is uncomfortable! I hate this! Why did you call me into this?! Our temporary frustrations and unmet expectations feel like a reversal of the peace God promised.” You can read more about how I worked through all of that.
R&V In the Word: When God Calls Your Name: Written in late-August and published in late-September, this is when I was trying to figure out why God was sending me so many different messages about vocation and calling. Were they to encourage me to stay in the job, or were they calling me into something else? Were they even from him, or had I done an amazing job of conflating all of the coincidences of my life into God’s Plan again? (It can be difficult to live inside my brain.) At the end, I wrote, “When God calls my name, I don’t want to mistake his voice for someone else.” (Well, hold onto your hat, Sarah-of-the-Past! God is about to call your name!)
R&V In the Word: Fish and Sheep: Written in mid-September, shortly after the Gentle but Stern Disciplining Voice of the Lord Sobfest, this word came to me out of nowhere (or the very real Somewhere). It was the reaffirming answer I needed from the Word after hearing the Word in my head. After the resurrection, and after Peter denied Jesus three times, Peter went back to the work he had done three years earlier. After three full years of ministry, working alongside the Real Life Actual King of the Universe, Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” After feeding him a breakfast of fish, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”
“The footnotes say “more than these others do,” as in, more than your brothers, more than your disciples, more than these other guys love me, but I like to think that Jesus is asking about the fish.
Do you love me more than these fish? Do you love me more than sustenance? Do you love me more than provision? Do you love me more than comfort? Do you love me more than a safe life? You are a good fisherman, Peter. You could make a good living with my miraculous hat trick of overflowing nets.
But if you love me more than what these fish can give you, I have a different mission for you.
Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus, then followed each of Peter’s answers with new instructions, “Feed my lambs… take care of my sheep… feed my sheep.”
Once you’ve taken that leap and walked with God, it’s hard to go back to the life you once had.”– Me
At the end of all of this meditation and reflection, here’s what I know: I never have the slightest idea what God is doing, but I do know that he’s always doing something and the something he is doing is a new thing. It is never the same thing twice, or the same way, and even what worked before may not be the way it will work this time.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19 RSV).
I love the richness of the different translations of this one verse.
God is always doing something new. I want to perceive it and know it, I want to give heed to it, pay attention to it. I want to witness the way in the wilderness, the streams in the desert. I want to be there to see the work God is doing, whatever it is, wherever it is.
So, I resigned from my job at the university, six weeks after I started, and I am back to this writing life, holding this writing life out with an open hand, trying to trust that the Father, who knows how to give good gifts to his children, will provide what we need. He has proven himself faithful, time and time again. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich: https://www.pexels.com/photo/green-leafed-trees-572688/