Monday, January 21, 2013

The Stars at Night Are Big and Bright...

People who blog regularly tend to go dark for a handful of reasons, but almost all generally have to do with a major life circumstance which causes them to stop posting because they have neither the time nor inclination to write. Part of this might be motivated by a need for confidentiality, and part might be motivated by desire to process a major life event privately. My mini-sabbatical was driven by both factors.

So I'll just get to the point: My family and I will be moving from New Jersey to Houston, Texas. No, this is not a premature repeat of an April Fool's post, but rather a big-time life change which still currently stands before my family like a mountain to be scaled. And believe me, the path to even make this decision was fraught with spiritual and emotional turbulence, one which continually brings me to my knees in prayer - and I must remind myself that this is a good thing.

My work at my soon-to-be-former employer was going well enough. While broader career opportunities and challenges were lacking, I was well-respected and despite a continual cycle of contractions and downsizing within our company, I was deemed "safe" and worthy to receive lateral opportunities, including a recent move which provided me a role in the Corporate Strategy team. When I received a phone call from my future employer, I make it clear that I wasn't looking to move, but I would be "willing to have a conversation" with the recruiter (which is the common refrain of many headhunter candidates).

Before soon, a phone conversation led to "we'd like the hiring manager to interview you over the phone" which led to "we'd like to fly you down to Houston for a series of interviews" which led to "now, you do realize this job is in Houston; what do you and your wife think about relocating?" which led to the increasing realization that I was really close to getting this job.

And it wasn't as if I had let this process progress simply to stroke my ego and accumulate some free frequent flier and hotel points. I was legitimately interested in the opportunity and the company, but there was suddenly still this sense of "Wow, this is real - we really might move to Texas, and away from my parents, my brother, my friends, my church and a comfortable network within my current employer." And it became all the more real when they flew my wife and I down to Houston for a long "excursion" (sell) weekend and my wife could hardly contain her enthusiasm. The people we encountered with unfailingly kind and welcoming, the neighborhoods we visited were pristine and affordable, and the church that we visited were full of people who were bursting with grace and warmth. These were people, by the way, who before they even met us, spent hours on the phone with Sarah and me giving us advice and tips around neighborhoods and schools in the area. To my wife, she saw opportunity and an exciting new chapter.

Being the rationale and cautious one, I pointed out potential pitfalls. I was quick to acknowledge that "different" doesn't always mean "better". There's a lot about our current life that was enjoyable and good. Good church community? Check. Relatively comfortable job? Check. Family close by? Check. Could aspects of our life be better? Sure, it could, but to me, making a change was sort of like hitting on 14 in blackjack - maybe you could do better, but you could also bust. 

Probably the hardest part of the decision for me - and you can chalk my Taiwanese-American filial piety complex on this one - was the thought of moving away from my parents, both of whom are over 70. I couldn't shake the thought that the general Asian plan in life is to move closer to your parents as they get older and require more assistance, and here I was, trading a 20 minute drive for a four-hour flight. What sort of irreverent and ungrateful son was I? 

And I was also plagued with fear of failure. What if I completely washed out? What if every decision I made in my new senior position proved disastrous? What if I flubbed the cultural component in the new organization so poorly that I managed to alienate my boss, my peers and my subordinates within the first six months? What if my new employer completely missed the mark and overestimated my abilities? And I woke up one day and I realized that I traded a comfortable job which paid me well for a better pay, an impressive title and a job which made my absolutely miserable to the point that my angst seeped in my family life?

By the time we returned to New Jersey, I was a wreck. The only thing that I was reasonably sure about was (1) I was going to get an offer and (2) Sarah and the kids were ready to go if I was willing to pull the trigger. The decision weighed on my like a sack of bricks. The good news is that there was plenty of time to process. The bad news was that the extended time would lead to analysis paralysis and mental gymnastic marathons which would emotionally exhaust me without bringing me any closer to a decision.

In God's providence, this was also the year that I was to attend the Urbana missions conference as an exhibitor for Synergy.Ministries, a non-profit "business as missions" organization on which I sit on the board. The last time that I had attended Urbana was three years earlier in 2009, when interestingly, I was also at a potential career crossroads. At that time, I was in the process of trying to work out a secondment in the United Kingdom while simultaneously selling our house. In a nutshell, what ended up happening the secondment to the UK fell apart, but God provided us another house in NJ and my career continued on quite well after that. 

I had committed myself use the five days at Urbana to seek's God's will specifically in terms of this potential move, and I prayed constantly that God would reveal Himself through the talks, conversations and interactions I had during the course of the conference. Interestingly, as I took my place at the Synergy exhibitor's booth just hours after landing in St. Louis, the first extended conversation I had was with a young man from MIT who was going to be joining a Big Four accounting firm in the fall. We exchanged some talk about our organization and then I asked him, "So where are you from?" to which he answered, "Houston... actually I grew up in Sugar Land (which happens to be the suburban area which my wife and I are focusing on)". Of course, the rest of the conversation was comprised of me peppering him with questions about the Clements High School he attended and how he enjoyed growing up there (he enjoyed it a great deal).

Later on that evening, the 20,000 or so Urbana attendees were herded like cattle to eat dinner, leading us to sit at tables with a random collection of students, exhibitors and staff. I led introductions around the table, and what do you know? Across the table were three young ladies from UT-Austin and the third girl shared that she was from Houston... specifically from Sugar Land where she lived in the Greatwood section. 

Some people might call that just random. But given the global geographical diversity of the 20,000 or so Urbana attendees, to have two interactions with Sugar Land residents within the first three hours of the conference, I'm inclined to believe that God revealed something there.

Urbana always has terrific speakers and great worship, and 2012 was no different. David Platt delivered a great talk that essentially mirrored his book "Radical", which for me reminded me that the Christian life is not intended, and has never been intended, to be comfortable. This talk, along with many other conversations and prayers with people and old friends at the conference drove me to the conclusion that two of my biggest idols are comfort and self-sufficiency. Furthermore, during times where I received prayer (and I received prayer at the exhibitor's prayer room every day I was at Urbana in these spiritually draining but really good intercession sessions), this is basically what I felt the Lord was telling me:
  • "Don't be afraid."
  • "You should stay in New Jersey if I'm calling you to stay in New Jersey. That's a good reason to stay. You should not stay in New Jersey because you're afraid. That's not a good reason to stay."
  • "I don't promise you success. I don't promise you comfort. I promise to be with you and to draw you close, and that is all you and your family needs."
  • "Go. I am with you.
So even with all of this, I returned to New Jersey with a much clearer sense of calling, but not without it's share of angst still remaining. The biggest remaining domino fell when I called my mother shortly after I got back. My beloved mom, who was probably the most vocal in her discouragement and sadness in regards to her youngest son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren moving 1600 miles away said this: "Michael, I think maybe this is a good opportunity for you. You should go if this is the right thing for you." At the risk of appearing unmanly, I fully admit that I didn't want my mom to hear me choking up over the phone when I thanked her for being so supportive.

So there it is. We're Houston-bound. My colleagues at my soon-to-be-former company have been tremendously affirming and encouraging. Our friends in the area, including folks from our two recent church homes, have been abundant in their love and support  offering prayers, advice and help along the way as we begin this journey. 

Thanks for your prayers. More on this (or far less weighty stuff) to come.