"Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him."James 1:12
I have to say I've wrestled for a number of weeks over writing about this. I don't want to sound smarmy or whiny. I am not writing a "please feel sorry for us" post. I would be horrified if people felt that way. Nor am I writing in some underhanded, manipulative manner to get people to give us money out of sympathy. I abhor such writing. I know I am taking the risk of sounding like I'm feeling sorry for myself. I'm not . . . really. I am angry and resolved to hang in as long as I can. I've dug in to the idea that "God will make a way where these appears to be no way."
In reality, when I decided to write this blog a couple of years back, it was for the sole purpose of exploring and documenting what it's like for me, at my age, to be planting a church, no holds barred. I'd never planted a church before, so I wanted to think and report about the experience. Seemed like a good thing to do.
Therefore, it will mean sometimes writing about uncomfortable, even embarrassing things. I see little point in candy-coating the reality of what we're experiencing in the imagine mission, even if I'm the problem. While I hope I do it always in humility and with sensible good taste, telling the truth has to be paramount or I'm merely blowing smoke, as they say.
Because I'm going to write about what many people are going through in these trying, uncertain times, I hope it will encourage them in what can feel terrifying and crushing to their spirits. Hope flows from sharing familiar suffering.
I must say too: Tricia and I have never experienced the extreme financial pressures we've faced since being here in the Pioneer Valley. In over our 37 years of married and family life we've had our share of lean times, but never to this severity. For example: the last three months we have been late on our rent, last month by three and a half weeks. We are having to pick and choose which bills to pay every month. The experience is new to us and very stressful. We've always taken the responsibility of paying our bills seriously.
I'm also writing in the context of someone whose faith is strengthening concerning the goodwill of my Father toward us in this tough place. The end of our struggle appears not in sight. Stress over this is never far away. In reality, while our struggle may get worse, I'm learning to hold fast to the truth that God is our Help and Provider no matter. He loves us with a deep affection, knows our need, and can lead us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But even if we lose everything, (I realize it would be a heart-breaking horror), even our lives (Jesus-followers can, you know), I will trust his will for us. There is no merit in me for doing so; God has given me grace to experience it.
So here are my observations borne from the pain we are experiencing:
As you begin to experience falling behind in your financial obligations, anxiety steals into your thoughts. The peace that accompanies being able to consistently pay your bills erodes gradually. You wonder if this is the way it's going to be. You begin to think about being evicted, having your car repossessed, defaulting on loans, and losing your health insurance. The unthinkable becomes a possibility. Sometimes you awaken at night with stabs of terror, like "This is really happening! What are we going to do?" The fears subsides if the rent or an overdue bill gets paid, but it has taken up residence in a way new to your experience. The only way to kill it is to get back on track financially.
I have felt the stabs of terror in the night, and very real anxiety as each day adds to our lateness. It persists, as does faith. I do not let anxiety get a foothold however. I will not. I hate anxiety because I have seen what it does to people, even people I love. It's a cruel taskmaster, and I will not let it rule over me. Only Christ has that place in my life.
In the midst of things going awry, you wonder how you got here. It's confusing. You ask questions like: has God abandoned us? Did we do something to offend him, so he is punishing us? Did we hear him wrong about coming up to Northampton in the first place? Is this problem just a part of planting a church in a tough place? Things just don't seem to add up. It's not like you've been sitting around drinking beer and watching TV for months. It's not like you don't want to work or haven't been working. It's just that what you're used to, i.e., paying your bills has changed because there is not enough money and some of the mainstays of your ministry have dried up. The question is: Why?
I have wrestled with this confusion, asking all the questions I listed above and then some. Nothings making sense. We know we were called here. Many others have confirmed it since we arrived. I don't let myself wander too long in what seems like imponderables these days. I try to do what the day gives and hope for relief and I try to follow Jesus. My prayer is that of Augustine: "Ask what you will and give what you command." If I need to substantially change what I am doing, I will, as long as I know God is requiring it of me, and gives me the grace/ability to do it.
As a man, although not exclusive to men in this harrowing predicament, you feel enormous guilt and self-condemnation because you're causing suffering for those you love and are responsible for. In my case, it is Tricia, my family and the church. It feels largely my fault for getting us into this terrible shape. What kind of man am I to allow what is happening? Not fulfilling your obligations cuts deep into a man's sense of integrity and authenticity. It is our job to provide what is needed. Anything less is abject failure. In our minds there is no excuse for this. We've been tested and are found wanting. We don't have what it takes. I don't have what it takes . . . apparently.
I feel very guilty about not making enough money, but I resist submitting to self-condemnation. I know the harm it causes. My guilt is that of most men in my predicament: "I got us here and I could be doing more to get us out." Sometimes that's true, but for the most part, it's not. I do need to make more money and will work long days to do so.
Shame is the evil twin of guilt/self-condemnation. Shame says. "you are a joke." Shame says there is something fundamentally wrong with who you are, and you're not fit to be here. Shames makes a person feel small, useless, inadequate at the core, and worthy of the garbage heap. It stings cruelly as one of the most spiritually devastating responses to life experience one can have. It crushes a person's spirit, sometimes terminally. For a man, shame convinces him he is an impotent boy and he disappears. Shame causes a man or woman to hide because if anyone knew how worthless they are, the rejection would be harsh and instantaneous. It creates ghost-people.
I do feel shame sometimes around folks who have the blessing of meeting their obligations. There is a kind of "if they only knew how hard we're struggling and I can 't seem to turn it around" feeling pervading my experience around them. I'm don't feel one of them and I feel small and impotent sometimes. I don't like that feeling, but it's hard to fight when you're not making financial headway.
When you can't pay the rent and everything else for a period of time, people can become habitually discouraged and give up trying. They lose faith believing there is nothing they (or God will) can do to change their lot. They medicate and exist. I see folks like this all the time on the streets of Northampton, and they are everywhere in this world. All people need to feel they have the ability to meet their basic needs and those of their families. When that is frustrated repeatedly or stolen they fall into despair, a much more dangerous state of being. When that happens the game is over and only God can restore them.
I have been working hard not to let that happen because the results are too horrifying to even think about. I know what it means to be depressed - another form of despair - and I will not return. I've been discouraged by this, but I am comforted by the fact that God calls me to be faithful each day and the results are his. I have nothing I have not been given. Hope lingers in this notion of just working to be faithful.
HAVING TO THINK DIFFERENTLY:
This frightening financial battle causes me to think differently about my relationship with God and how I need to persevere . . . a good thing. I'm forced to look for different ways of making a living including going back to things I did before we moved up here such as doing Playmaker Profiles and Listening in Christ retreats, speaking in churches, and playing music. I may find a part-time job, or I may switch careers if disaster happens and we have to leave here.
With God, I'm having to trust him for longer periods of time without seeing an answer to our financial state. God has always met our needs, but he's never taken us past deadlines where we are late with payments on more than one front. When we were younger, my work dried up for a period as I was in a major transition I wasn't aware I was in. Perhaps such is happening again. Whatever God is up to, we're being summoned to believe in his good care for us way beyond any other time in our lives, especially for such a long duration. I can't say I'm enjoying the ride, however, the pain is real and I seem caught in forces bigger than me.
The good in all of this is we've put it all on the line for the redemptive Kingdom mission of Christ. It feels we are trying to walk the walk in a way for more substantial than ever. Will God lead us to relief or the "hard way" of losing everything? We don't know, but we're in this struggle. It's all on the line. I hold fast to God's faithfulness even if his mercy turns out to be severe. Many Jesus-followers over the centuries lost everything for his sake. If that is to be our lot, I hope it has been for his sake and not because of human failure.
We will see.
I'm still betting the ranch on the goodness of my Abba and my Lord. He will be with us no matter what happens. When it's all said and done, may we be found faithful in trusting and serving him regardless of the difficulty of our circumstances, self-imposed or sent from above.