Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Finding Spiritual Growth When the Sun Shines

Even as I continue to plug through my transition, I realize that the concept of some of the greatest blessings coming about during hardship is not unique or new. I fact, I can say fully tongue-in-cheek that Christian songwriters have made millions of royalties on talking about the redemptive nature of brokenness. These are the songs that speak to us powerfully in the midst of our sadness, despair, trials and pain.

I recently met up with a good friend who had a gone through a exponentially greater life change than the one I'm going through right now, which included leaving the United States and becoming a missionary with his wife in a "closed" Middle Eastern country. As he graciously sympathized with the feeling of leaving a life of family and friends behind, I asked him how he processed some of his most difficult "What have I done, and what am I doing here?" moments. His answer included meditating upon some Scripture and rolling up in the fetal position while listening to certain songs over and over while weeping.

I can totally relate with that. He offered up Ginny Owens' "If You Want Me To", with lyrics such as:

So when the whole world turns against me
And I'm all by myself
And I can't hear you answer my cries for help
I'll remember the suffering that your love put you through
And I will walk through the darkness if you want me to

In the past week, God has not coincidentally placed into my path two songs which are similar in that message: Natalie Grant's "Held" and Laura Story's "Blessings", which muses:

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise

But if you ask me, the song which is on the pantheon of the "pain is spiritually redemptive Hall of Fame" and also importantly gives reminds us that our faithful response is to praise and bless God's name is "Blessed be Your Name" by Matt Redman, with the lyrics of:
Blessed Be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name... 
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name
Now here's the thing that I find interesting. As mentioned in my earlier posts, I can look back at the hardest times of my life, and those also correspond with my times of greatest growth - the times that I've felt closest to the Lord.  If we assume that closeness with Christ is paramount, should I actually embrace, even pursue trial? Of course that sounds ridiculous, but I think part of the overall equation needs to includes how God is glorified in how He brings grace and blessing to His people. I think part of it is my own spiritual discipline in terms of drawing close to God (as opposed to complacent) during the good times. Note that in that same Matt Redman song the following lyrics:

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name 
Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's 'all as it should be'
Blessed be Your name
The point being that it doesn't need to be pain and difficulty which draw us closer. Notwithstanding C.S. Lewis' brilliant and completely accurate, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world," I need to be better at hearing God as He whispers and speaks in the midst of plenty and happiness. Otherwise, I risk missing out on far too many lessons and experiences which also emphasize His goodness and faithfulness.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In the Whirlwind

It's been quite a two weeks, and much of what I wrote previously about jumping into the whirlwind has come to fruition. This isn't a good thing or bad thing, per se, but insomuch I had anticipated challenges associated with a major life change, I can safely say that they've been as advertised. The "unknown" can be scary and trying at times, but I still maintain that its within this crucible that there's incredible spiritual growth.

To me, one of the most difficult feelings to have is feeling alone. Now feeling alone is not the same as being alone physically. For example, I've always found it interesting that in New York City, it was actually really easy to feel alone and isolated in a city of eight million people. Why? Because ultimately, loneliness is an emotional state based on interpersonal connection, not on the number of people physically in close proximity to you. In fact, being surrounded by people who you have no relational connection with actually exacerbates feelings of loneliness.

Probably the hardest moment in the first two weeks was coming back from day one into a dark and empty apartment which hadn't yet been furnished. I had finished day one of my jam-packed executive orientation which left my head spinning and was at Wal-Mart (people have their issues with Wal-Mart, but I have to say that there's great convenience in a single store where you can buy a hair-dryer, silverware, an air mattress and groceries) picking up crates of items to make my unfurnished apartment habitable. I was a stranger in a new land and on my own, away from the comfort of family, extended family and friends - and also apart from the security and familiarity of a job and company which I knew like the back of my hand. And it was hard not to think, "What have I done?"

But while that general feeling and struggle continues to wax and wane, I do what Christians do in times of hardship - I clung to Jesus. A recent devotional from "Our Daily Bread" written by David Roper illustrated this very well:

After all these years, I still don’t fully understand prayer. It’s something of a mystery to me. But one thing I know: When we’re in desperate need, prayer springs naturally from our lips and from the deepest level of our hearts. 
When we’re frightened out of our wits, when we’re pushed beyond our limits, when we’re pulled out of our comfort zones, when our well-being is challenged and endangered, we reflexively and involuntarily resort to prayer. “Help, Lord!” is our natural cry.
Author Eugene Peterson wrote: “The language of prayer is forged in the crucible of trouble. When we can’t help ourselves and call for help, when we don’t like where we are and want out, when we don’t like who we are and want a change, we use primal language, and this language becomes the root language of prayer.”
Prayer begins in trouble, and it continues because we’re always in trouble at some level. It requires no special preparation, no precise vocabulary, no appropriate posture. It springs from us in the face of necessity and, in time, becomes our habitual response to every issue—good and bad—we face in this life (Phil. 4:6).
This is pretty much what I was and am still currently experiencing, and while it somewhat hurts, it hurts good, sort of like the way an athlete feels after a hard workout or a match where they've left it all out on the court. Like I alluded to in my previous post before I began the journey, surrender has driven me to my knees and to pray unceasingly, over the phone with my wife, in the car on my way to and from work and sitting down in the gate area waiting for my planes.

But God is good - having an opportunity to fly back "home" (though it's getting harder to define what this actually is, but I'll define 'home' as the location of my wife and kids) and spend time with my loved ones was tremendously rejuvenating. I think what I'm going through has softened and sanded some edges in terms of not sweating the small stuff, and appreciating basic things like health and the company of the people I love. I've also realized that this period has given me renewed respect and appreciation for people who have undergone similar life changes but at a much more difficult level.

For example, it dawned upon me how difficult it must be for the brave men and women in our armed forces. Here are people who separate from family and depart to places halfway around the world, not merely halfway across the country. They go to new unfamiliar environs without the benefit of regular phone calls and emails and if their cost of "washing out" are far more dire than mine. If I this new job "ends badly", I get some inconvenience, professional pride wounded and a chunk of severance to figure out what to do next in my life and my next job. If armed forces individual in their new job "ends badly", they come home in casket.

I also have renewed respect for my parents and all immigrants who spent their life savings on a one-way ticket to the United States, moving to a land where they barely spoke the language with a hope to build a better life for their family. Let's just say that I'm very aware that my father didn't have the luxury of generous cash and stock sign-on bonuses, temporary housing and travel allowances when he left Taiwan for Canada with a single suitcase to study microbiology. He didn't have e-mail, Skype or unlimited mobile minutes.

I cite these not to trivialize what I'm going through, only to give due respect to those whose transitions are far more challenging than mine. My angst, stress and homesickness (for lack of a better word) is real, but God is here. And I am reminded that He's all that I need.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Blessings of Seasons of Surrender

As I prepare for this next chapter of my life, there's sort of this lingering feeling of being out of control, sort of like a man who is falling out of an airplane hoping desperately that (1) he remembered to pack his parachute that morning and (2) that parachute actually works. Fear isn't quite the the word that I would use, but there's has been more than one occasion during the past couple of weeks that I've paused and wondered, "Am I crazy? What am I doing? Maybe I'll wake up and revert to the same (relatively) predictable routine and trajectory of my life. Yeah, that's the ticket. I'll hit Control-Z and things will go back to normal and all the stress and anxiety associated with the unknown will fade away."

Of course, there's a couple of false assumptions there. First of all, it presupposes that my former routine would be maintained without major bumps or twists and that the trajectory of life would be largely predictable and mostly blissful and easy. Also, it assumes that the stress and anxiety is warranted - or put another way, I have good reason to be fraught with stress and anxiety because my vocational, spiritual and relational life is going to be a miserable crucible.

It also fails to recognize the fact that a life out of one's own control and in God's hands instead is a really good thing.

As I look back at the times of greatest transition in my life, it's impossible for me not to see that these periods - while difficult - have also been time where I've clung to the Lord most fervently, and thus these also double as the periods where I have arguably spiritually grown the most. These can be coined "seasons of surrender", when I've realized - like that man airborne - that I'm totally in God's hands of love and mercy.

One of these seasons was right after I graduated from college and moved to suburban New Jersey to start my new job at a management consulting firm. I remember feeling pretty alone, missing friendships from my college fellowship and trying hard to cultivate friends at my new church. The pace and culture of my new job was a bit of a culture shock, and between overaggressive partners and fellow analysts whose social lives consisted of getting drunk and getting laid, I questioned whether I fit in. But over time I found my niche at work and at church and more importantly, my relationship with God was strengthened by a period where God had shown Himself faithful and gracious. I had written something in a journal back then which has always been something that I've shared with Christians in college who are about the enter the "real" working world, and it's something along the lines of this: "When you leave the safe confines of your Christian fellowship at college and are thrown into a new environment where you no longer have support structures such as daily devotional events and prayer partners down the hall of your dorm, you'll quickly find out how much you leaned upon Christian fellowship as opposed to leaning upon Christ. They're not the same thing."

I think seasons of surrender allow us to see things as they really are. For example, even though I might have been under the impression that life was "easy" over the past three years, I'm likely to falsely interpret this as my own mastery over my life, as opposed to God's grace. Or put another way, the routine in my life made me prone to being arrogant and prideful about how smart, capable and self-sufficient I was. Of course, my "self-sufficiency" was just an illusion. Like a toddler who is flown through the air in his father's arms, the toddler is not actively flying any more I have been deftly navigating through my own life.

So here comes another one. I commit myself and my family to God's glory and perfect plan. It's going to be exciting in a scary sort of way. It's going to scary in an exciting sort of way. It'll be an adventure, and I'll look forward to the the pains, joys, and closeness with Jesus that comes along with it.