Grace and Unemployment

Everything is a matter of perspective.

That’s what I find myself thinking this morning as I sit down to prayer with my journal, Bible and a cup of coffee. Everything is a matter of perspective, and God who is infinite beyond our imaginations is in all of it. I see this in the Annunciation.

“How can this be?” Mary asked when the angel Gabriel announced, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:34,31). Her first reaction to the angel’s appearance must have been fear because he told her not to be afraid (Luke 1:30), but she opened herself to the possibility that God was at work in her life. That was the perspective she chose, and each of us has a similar opportunity when faced with frightening circumstances.

Currently, I am unemployed. My primary source of income — unemployment compensation — has stopped because my former employers appealed the state’s approval. I experience moments of fear. How will I pay my rent? How will I buy groceries?
However, more often I am saddened to see this situation become unnecessarily adversarial and am filled with trust that God is at work. That is my choice.

That trust does not depend upon what can be grasped with human understanding. Only with His grace can any of us experience an opening of the heart and mind which allows us to see the way God works. However, once He has poured His grace into our lives, we can know His love and can see He shows us this love in ways we couldn’t imagine, ways we can only glimpse with 20/20 hindsight. If God also gives us the grace of remembrance after our hearts and minds have been opened, we can learn to trust Him while we traverse difficult circumstances by remembering what has come before.

So many examples from my life come to mind as I write this, but perhaps the most striking is from 12 years ago when I was unemployed for 10 months. I had foolishly allowed myself to be persuaded to take a job I did not want, and learned within the first week I was more unsuited for it than I had known. However, I had accepted the position, so I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. Fifteen months later, I was escorted from the building.

Although I was eventually vindicated, the experience was devastatingly humiliating. The story and my picture in the next day’s paper only increased my shame. I didn’t want to live. Fortunately, God sent me good friends who stood loyally by my side.

But He did more. He drew me to himself in a new way. My practice of beginning each day with prayer and meditation has its roots in that bleak period in my life. Too, my association with a religious order grew out of that time, and through that association, I learned to live my faith more fully.

Having experienced this and many more blessings from that time, I can see the decision to terminate my employment was right for all concerned, though it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time. At the time, my eyes were blind to the win-win aspect because I could only see I was out of work and the situation had been handled in a way which made it difficult for me to get another job. I could not see until much later that God had been working to give me something sweet and precious beyond measure, a heartfelt experience of His love.

Having seen that God’s win-win doesn’t necessarily look win-win in terms by which we commonly measure our life experiences, I find it easier to abandon myself to His will. I can say like Mary in more situations than previously, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) — or, for those of us not gifted with an angel’s presence, “May it be done to me according to your will.”

I am grateful each and every time God gives me the grace to abandon myself to His will in this way, grateful beyond measure. However, I have to admit it wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit if He would choose a different teaching tool than unemployment.

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Chocolate and Peanuts

I dreamed Mom was cutting a decadent, multi-layered chocolate cake. Three moist layers of rich cake. Between the layers, the ganache was formed with multiple thin layers of coconut and fudge. The dark frosting glistened with caramel drizzle.

I was filled with pleasure watching her knife slice wedges from the elegant dessert. And then, with the continuity of a dream sequence, I was cleaning up peanuts. When I tried to put them in the trash, they fell to the floor and I had a bigger mess of chopped peanuts. Pleasure turned to anger.

I stuck my head through the doorway and said to Mom, “You’re cruel. The only thing good about you is your imagination.”

Although in the dream my intent was to wound my mother, I did not say, “You are only good in your imagination.” That was an important point to me when I was mulling over the dream, as is my penchant when I recall a dream. Rather, I said, “The only good thing about you is your imagination.”

Of course, the “working for peanuts” image didn’t take long to decipher. That is pretty much my life. I have always earned below the median income for South Dakota residents, which is lower than the median income for the nation. Over the past five years, I’ve also experienced downward mobility in that each job has paid less than the previous one. With my last job, I was earning what I was paid in 1998. Needless to say, the cost of living is higher now than it was in 1998, so my standard of living has actually declined.

That, being said, I must also say I own my vehicle, have a roof over my head, and there’s usually food in the house. In other words, it could be worse. I probably have more than millions, if not billions, of people in the world. I truly cannot complain.

However, a lack of complaints is not the same thing as a lack of imagination. I buy a couple lottery tickets every week, and at times have constructed elaborate fantasies for spending it. (Yes, I know the likelihood that I will win is slim to none. Yes, I know lottery tickets are called “the poor man’s tax,” which is the reason I buy them. I believe in paying taxes; that is my symbolic gesture.)

The problem is that since childhood I have coped with life’s challenges by indulging in fantasies. When I didn’t have friends in elementary school, I walked home from school lost in the fantasy of being a famous singer. I would sing at the top of my lungs songs I composed on the spot. As a wallflower at high school dances, I imagined one of the popular guys suddenly finding me attractive and becoming more popular myself as a result of his attention.

Sadly, I did not outgrow that coping mechanism. Problems with a boss? I imagined writing a best selling murder mystery in which the victim looked suspiciously like that boss. Financial difficulties? I imagined, as I said, winning the lottery. Of course, I never expected fantasies to pay the bills. More than once, I have worked two jobs to make ends meet, and I am quite good at paring life down to the essentials.

It didn’t take long to realize the cake in my dream was that habit of thought. Fantasies are pleasurable, but they can also be cruel. They can lead to anger and to dissatisfaction with reality, especially when the fantasies — such as the fantasy of winning the lottery — cannot be translated into attainable goals.

Fortunately, I’ve long recognized my fantasies are simply a coping mechanism. They change my emotional response to a situation, which in turn opens my mind to creative solutions — when my actions can affect a situation. Sometimes, a situation is out of my control. Then, I can only consider what alternatives exist for removing myself from the situation. Either way, calm consideration is superior to an emotional reaction.

Still, I have begun to realize another approach might be even better, following the example of Christ’s mother, Mary. The disparity between chocolate cake and peanuts had to have been enormous in her life. The angel spoke to her about having a son to whom God would give “the throne of David,” but she raised him in the workshop of Joseph — in Nazareth, of all places.

Still, Mary didn’t say “yes” to the angel and then (1) try to force things (like Sarah who had Hagar bear Abraham’s son), (2) whine about things (like the Israelites in the desert), or (3) allow her desires to lead her astray (like David). Instead, she allowed God’s promise to unfold in her life with all its messiness — giving birth in a barn, traveling to Egypt, returning to settle in a backwater town like Nazareth. Hardly what she might have expected after being told “the Lord God will give [your son] the throne of David his father” (Luke 1:32).

And yet, that is what she lived. I have long suspected she grew into her “yes.” It must have been a daily renewal of her pledge, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In Luke’s gospel, it says, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). I can imagine her pounding grain, reflecting on her days and her weeks in addition to the stories we know, looking at it all in light of the story of her people.

Like Mary, I need to learn how to live “thy will be done” one day at a time. I need to stop worrying about chocolate cake and peanuts. I need to learn to see my life in terms of my faith, not in terms of worldly success or failure.

And, like Mary, I need to humble myself before God and daily declare myself to be a handmaid of the Lord, embracing his will as it unfolds in my life. It is there I will receive God’s blessings.

Amazing Technicolor Hope

Unemployment has a number of disadvantages.

First of all, money is tight. In my case, I worked four years for the same employer, seeing only one very small raise during that time. When management changed, and it was time for me to move on, I took a 15 percent cut in salary with my next job because I didn’t want to be unemployed at a time when jobs are scarce. That and the move left me woefully unprepared for actually being unemployed.

Second, cultivating a productive daily rhythm which isn’t structured around work isn’t easy — especially for someone with workaholic tendencies. I put together a weekly to-do list and discipline myself to keep regular hours, so I have goals and a schedule, but the temptation to put things off is great. After all, I find myself thinking sardonically, I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. I’ve learned, though, that putting things off leaves me feeling dissatisfied.

Third, and most dangerous for me, negative self-talk finds ways to worm its way into just about everything. The response to being without milk isn’t “I had better put that on the grocery list;” it’s “What a loser! You can’t even keep milk in the house.”

Worse is a thought which is working very hard to become my personal mantra — “What’s wrong with me?” If I let my guard down for a minute, it begins to enumerate the failures in my life, totally overlooking the blessings and accomplishments. Why think of things like awards and friendships and loving relationships with family members when I can think about jobs I’ve lost, dreams I have abandoned and heartbreak I have suffered?

Yesterday, I was sinking for the third time under the polluted water of “what’s wrong with me” when the Black Hills Playhouse came to mind, specifically their production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” There in my mind’s eye was Iah Kinley in the amazing coat designed by Rachel Mathews. There were the brothers plotting against him and Mrs. Potiphar attempting to seduce him. There he is in chains through no fault of his own.

Through no fault of his own.

I know “Joseph” is based on a story from the Bible. I even know where to find it: Genesis 37, 39-45. I first heard it when I was a child. As an adult, I’ve heard portions of it read at Mass. I’ve read it myself. In my own Bible, passages are underlined and I’ve added marginal notes. For example, in Genesis 39, I’ve noted it says five times, “The Lord was with Joseph.”

Considering what the poor man went through, it must have been hard for him to see that at times — which brings to mind a story told about St. Teresa of Avila. Apparently, she was on the way to an important meeting when the mule she was riding dumped her in the mud. She cried out, “Why, Lord?” “It’s the way I treat my friends,” he responded. “No wonder you have so few of them,” she retorted.

Joseph suffered through no fault of his own — at least the biblical account doesn’t report his shortcomings. And in the New Testament, when Jesus is asked why a man was born blind, he said the man wasn’t to blame for this handicap which made a beggar out of him (John 9:1-3). In both instances, God was glorified in the end as the men did their best with the circumstances they were given.

Of course, that’s the lesson. I am to understand there’s nothing wrong with me. I am supposed to trust that God is at work in my life, even if the circumstances are difficult at present. I think I am also supposed to appreciate all of the ways God will be reaching out to encourage me.

The Bible wasn’t the life preserver he threw me yesterday, theater was. I am so grateful the playhouse’s selection committee chose “Joseph” for the 2011 season, so grateful I got to see it twice, so grateful for the amazing technicolor hope the memory of that production gave me yesterday, so grateful for the reminder that the arts are one of the ways God works in this world.

So grateful!

So grateful!

Send me, Lord!

Listening to Desire

Yesterday, I met with a new spiritual director.

Before joining her, I’d had a rich and blessed day — time in prayer (though not enough it seemed), a road trip which led to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Montrose, Neb., (which is truly a little church on the prairie), and an inner sense of peace. Still, I paused before the tabernacle to pray before meeting with her.

For those who don’t know, spiritual direction is like counseling in that you share with another what is happening in your life. However, a spiritual director helps you to discern the movement of the Spirit in your life. The goal is not to “get well” or to “become more productive,” though healing and a more fruitful life may result. Rather, the goal is to respond with love and openness to God at work in your life.

It’s been my experience that spending a few minutes with God, asking him to open my heart and mind, best prepares me for these meetings. Yesterday, I was shaken when some powerful feelings welled up within me. I DON’T WANT TO WORK. I WANT TO GET CENTERED. I WANT TO WRITE A BOOK!

Writing a book has been on my bucket list for a long time. I started a murder mystery when Katie was a baby. I started a young adult novel 20 years ago. I started a modern allegory/romance novel when I lived in Pierre. Just last year, I began a book of reflections in the spirit of Kathleen Norris (author of “Cloister Walk,” “Amazing Grace” and several other awesome books) and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “eat, pray, love”). I don’t think I’ve written more than three chapters in any of these. I could never seem to block out and protect the time needed to write.

That being said, I was still shocked by the intensity of the desire I experienced yesterday. Granted, I’ve been reading about the role of desire in Ignatian spirituality. First, I read “Becoming Who You Are” by James Martin, SJ, in which he wrote about finding God by allowing God to reveal our true selves to us. Now I am reading another of Martin’s books, “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” in which he writes, “Recognizing our desires means recognizing God’s desires for us,” and elaborates later in Chapter 3, writing, “When we tell God our desires, our relationship with God deepens. Desire is a primary way that God leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do.”

Still, to feel that whoosh of desire was disconcerting. I much prefer to keep things abstract with God. For example, since finding myself unemployed, in praying about my future, I’ve been asking for time (since I’ve had some burnout jobs that required long hours), financial resources to meet my obligations and support the church, and companions for the journey (because the single life is not easy for me). God has done an awesome job of answering those prayers every day. I’ve had time to be involved in more church activities so I’ve had companionship with people of faith, and I haven’t needed to pay any bills since using my final paycheck to take care of things. Go God! Great job!

In feeling this longing for something which seemed so impossible — if I was capable of writing a book, why haven’t I done it? — I was filled with compassion for Zechariah. When the angel of the Lord appeared to him (Luke 1:5-20) and announced the birth of his son, he asked, “How shall I know this?” (By contrast, Mary accepted the angel’s message, but wanted to know the logistics. “How can this be?”) Had I been the angel, in response to Zechariah’s question, I probably would have snapped, “The obvious way! Haven’t you ever seen a pregnant woman?” The angel decided not to make Zechariah wait for this, though. He gave him an immediate sign — speechlessness.

My response to yesterday’s surprising moment of clarity and specificity was not inspiration, but — like Zechariah –disbelief. I’m a single woman with no savings. How am I going to find money to live on while I write a book? And who am I, anyhow, that God would give me the desire of my heart? Too, how would I get the book published if I wrote it, so why invest that time?

I didn’t even mention this experience to my spiritual director. Why? What could she say? That I was engaging in wishful thinking? I already knew that.

This morning, though, in writing about yesterday in my journal, I found myself laughing because a couple questions popped into my head. “Why not use this time?” As far as I know, I will be able to collect unemployment, and job hunting is not going to take all day every day. I would have time to write, if I made that choice. Before, I could even begin to make excuses, the second question followed.

“Why not get your office organized and go to work?” I hadn’t had time to finish unpacking after moving to accept my most recent position, and wasn’t sure I should since I didn’t know if I was staying. But, I could. I can put stuff back in boxes as easily as I can take it out. Why not just settle in and go to work? The answer is obvious. There is absolutely no reason why I should not go to work.

In a way, it’s apropos. While there is Scriptural precedent for God doing wondrous things in the lives of the young — Mary immediately pops into mind — he also does wondrous things in the lives of the aging, Elizabeth and Zechariah as well as Abraham and Sarah, to name a couple. So, why not me?

In this moment, I do believe. Lord, help me in my unbelief.

Keeping the Sabbath

It’s not as easy as it sounds — keeping the Sabbath, primarily since I don’t know what it means anymore.

Growing up, it meant going to Mass, eating breakfast together as a family, and then taking it easy for the rest of the day. Sometimes, we visited Gramma — we only had one. Sometimes we visited Aunt Marie, though not Mom’s other siblings, which didn’t seem odd then, but does now. But, whatever we did, Sunday had a lazy, set apart quality about it.

I remember thinking we needed it. Saturday was nonstop housework — 16 loads of laundry washed in a wringer washer and hung on lines to dry, bread and cookies for the week baked, the three-bedroom house cleaned, laundry ironed or folded and put away, and then supper and baths. I remember wondering why we didn’t do some of it on Sunday, but ours was not a house where the order of things was questioned.

We did what we were told, or else — which meant the razor strap across bare bottoms. If you’ve never felt leather strike your bare flesh, I can assure you it’s a major deterrent to questioning parental authority.

I suppose we talked about the Ten Commandments in catechism class. We must have because I know them, and know I didn’t make an effort to learn them as an adult. However, if we talked about what they meant in terms of life, that piece of information went in one ear and out the other. I didn’t make the connection between the third commandment and the rhythm of our home life.

In adult life, I often found myself using Sunday to catch up on housework. I simply didn’t have the energy to do if in the evening after working all day, and Saturday was the day I chose either to pamper myself or to engage in social activities with friends — when I wasn’t working. Too, I liked doing housework in a leisurely manner, and felt prepared for another work week after getting things in order on Sunday.

Because it worked for me, I assumed God understood. After all, he saw fit to give me a life which required me to work, which meant the housework couldn’t be done during the week. Had I married — and remained married to — a man whose income made it unnecessary for me to work, I might not have felt comfortable making that excuse. However, that was not the case.

This past week, when I found myself thinking about doing laundry on Sunday because I’d managed to fill my days without the benefit of a job, an unexpected thought popped into my head. Why don’t you try keeping the Sabbath?

Technically, Sunday isn’t the true Sabbath. Saturday is, and those who practice Judaism begin their Sabbath at sunset on Friday. However, for Christians, Sunday has become the Lord’s day and the day of rest because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. So, in our religious tradition, we keep the Sabbath on Sunday.

But, Jesus taught us not to be legalistic about this by healing on the Sabbath. So I found myself faced with a bit of a quandary. How do I keep the Sabbath now, in the 21st Century?

When the unexpected question popped into my head, about the only thing I knew was I probably shouldn’t do laundry. Initially, I thought about doing laundry on Saturday and going to Rapid City on Sunday to pick up a few things. Then, I realized I would be supporting a system that forces others to work on Sunday, if I did that, so I scratched that plan, too.

The more I thought about keeping the Sabbath, though, the more important it seemed. While I spend part of each day engaged in some activity related to job hunting — which thus far has primarily consisted of figuring out how to use websites — I also am spending part of each day in prayer. In that respect, I am using this period of unemployment as a spiritual retreat. I have time for the first time in years to do more than go to God and say, “Give me, give me, give me,” and I don’t intend to waste it. Keeping the Sabbath seemed to be part of that.

The problem was, as I said, I didn’t really know what that meant — and still don’t, though it’s Sunday evening. For this week, I settled on a simple plan. I attended Mass and then allowed the rest of the day to unfold.

I taught a class after Mass and came home for a simple breakfast. Then, I went back to the church for Eucharistic adoration and ended up staying an extra hour when the individual who signed up didn’t show up. At home again, I went to Amazon.com and located a book on keeping the Sabbath I hope to get in coming weeks. I followed that with a nap and a conversation with my sister-in-law.

Now, I draw the day to a close with a little writing — which doesn’t feel like work — and then I’ll fix supper. This evening, I’ll probably read, write in my journal or watch a movie.

Have I kept the Sabbath? Well, I didn’t do laundry. Beyond that, I am not sure. I have tried. Hopefully, over time, I will get better at it.