August 12, 2020

But Then …

This is difficult for me to write because it is both humbling and humiliating. My pride is being shattered to admit on a stage before tens of thousands of readers (our stats show more than 80,000 unique visitors come to the iMonastery every month) what I am going to share. But I suppose it’s not a bad thing to have my pride shattered, is it?

For almost 40 years now I have been involved in either broadcasting or publishing, mostly in the Christian realm. I worked at the pioneer Christian FM radio station, one of the first to drop all paid programming and play contemporary Christian music supported by—Gasp!—commercials. I taught radio broadcast at two highly-respected schools for a combined fifteen years. I have been in the Christian publishing world for the last dozen years, serving as senior acquisitions editor for a large Christian book publisher, and then as a literary agent representing many bestselling authors. Up until about 18 months ago I was bringing in a six-figure annual income. But then…

But then the publishing world did what I had been predicting for five years: Because of careless business practices and not being aware of the changing needs and interests of consumers, this world in which I worked collapsed. Bookstore chains consolidated or shut down (Borders will either be sold or will liquidate by the end of July, and Barnes and Noble just announced that they lost $74 million last fiscal year). Mom and Pop independent bookstores, once the bread-and-butter of the retail book industry, closed at an alarming rate. Publishers reduced the number of titles they acquired and published by half, which led to many of my good friends being laid off from their editing roles. Fewer new authors could even get a returned phone call. Publishers stuck with “sure bets”—books by big-name authors who have a high public profile. Who cares if they actually have anything to say or not. If you pastor a church of 10,000 or more and speak at a lot of conferences and are on TV, I could probably get you a contract. (Meanwhile, if you were simply a daily follower of Jesus who happens to have something unique to say and possess great skill as a writer, well, let me introduce you to the world of self-publishing.)

By the end of 2009, the law firm where I worked as a literary agent could no longer afford me. We were placing fewer authors with publishers, and those contracts we did land were for much less money than in previous years. So I was laid off at the end of that year.

I have not been without work since I was 14 years old. In 1973 (ok, using those two numbers you can figure out how old I am) you could stand in my parents’ driveway, look left, look right, and every yard you could see I had cut at least once. Most of them many times. I was the designated vacation lawn-cutter of the neighborhood, as well as the regular keeper of a number of lawns. Soon my friend and I (he had a car and could drive) expanded our business into surrounding neighborhoods. When I turned 15 I started working at a Christian bookstore managed by an elder from my church. In college I worked at the campus bookstore and in the TV production department. My senior year I was working at two radio stations and cutting grass at a retirement village. (I also made the Dean’s list, though I have no idea how or why.)

Since I graduated I have never been without a job—and often worked two or three to make ends meet. (College professors are not exactly overpaid. Nor are youth pastors or magazine editors. Thus I held all three of those jobs at the same time.) I am not a workaholic, but neither do I shy away from hard work. So for me to be without a job was foreign to me. What was I to do?

My first instinct was, of course, to take matters into my own hands. I know how to prepare a resume, I interview very well, and I have a lot of contacts in many industries. There were churches looking for an administrator or communications director. Colleges had announced openings for which I was well-qualified. There were a few publishers actually looking for editors, and the ones making the hiring decisions were friends of mine. So it should have been a piece of cake to land another job, though it would probably mean I would have to move from where I have lived much of my life since the mid-70s. But then…

But then God moved in me. (This next bit will irk those of you who don’t believe God actually speaks to us any longer through anything but the Bible. Deal with it. And isn’t “irk” a weird word?) He spoke very clearly to me as to what I was to do. He directed me to Matthew 6:33:

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Sure, I had read this hundreds of times. And I had mentally accepted this as a good thing. Yet now I was being asked to actually live it. So I brought this before some of my friends.

“Can we actually believe the words of Jesus? Are they really a solid foundation we can live on?”

“What do you mean?” they asked.

“Are Jesus’ words true, or are they just nice things we say in church or repeat to someone with a grin when we don’t know what else to say?”

“Uh,” they said, “I guess they’re true.”

“Ok, then. I’m going to trust that Jesus really meant what he said and I’m going to live by them. I’m going to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and trust that all these things—what to eat, what to drink, what to wear—will be added to me.”

I know the Bible. I know it well. I can take you to passages that show God to us in many different situations. But I had never—not in my (at that time) 36 years of walking with Jesus—actually had to believe what he said was true. I never had to bet my life on his words. I never had to live my life as if Jesus really meant what he said. (I told you this is very humbling to write.) My full-time “job” became seeking first the kingdom and the righteousness of the King. The Holy Spirit helped me by stripping away all I had held dear to me. I began to see myself as I really was: a nice man who thought his niceness actually pleased God. A man proud of being a hard worker. A man who wanted people to see him as a strong Christian through the things I said and through the deeds I did. You say these are not bad things, and perhaps that is so. Yet the Holy Spirit wanted something much more in me, something much deeper. And the surgery he performed in me was excruciating. There were days I didn’t know if I could go another step.  But then…

But then God would come to me with a word from Scripture or Oswald Chambers or Robert Capon. Or from Eagle or Martha of Ireland or JoanieD or so many of you. God popped up to me in movies and in books and in music. He constantly reminded me He Is. He constantly called me to trust him, to believe he has not forgotten me, to know that there is a deeper reality which I don’t understand right now. He called me to not lean on my own understanding, and this is a very, very hard lesson for me to learn.

I had some freelance writing and editing that brought in a bit of money, but not enough. Until this time I had not been in debt other than my car and my house—and in the case of my house, I had more equity than I had debt left to pay, so I felt I was in a good situation there. But now…well, American Express and Visa became my constant companions. Now I was up to my backside in credit card debt. I know all the Dave Ramseyites out there will tell me I should have cut up my cards a long time ago, but then I would be sleeping under a bridge. (And this site would not still be running. Someone has to pay the monthly hosting charges and other associated costs.) I had to lay my financial debts before the Lord and trust him for those as well. Yet God did always provide “all these things.” Bills were paid. Meals were eaten. Clothing was worn. (Those of you who will want to argue that I didn’t rely on God but rather credit cards will get no reply from me, so give it a rest.)

There were days when I got fed up with it all. I decided God was moving too slowly for me and I would have to take matters into my own hands once again. I would get dressed in something other than shorts and a t-shirt and head out to apply for jobs. I never got out the door. The Lord would stop me each time with a strong conviction I was not to do that. I was to seek him, his kingdom, his righteousness. I was to trust him to take care of everything else. And if I was not going to do that, then I was never going to be able to walk farther with him. This was not something I could just skip over. I had to go through.

Sorrow removes a great deal of a person’s shallowness, but it does not always make that person better. Suffering either gives me to myself or it destroys me. You cannot find or receive yourself through success, because you lose your head over pride. And you cannot receive yourself through the monotony of your daily life, because you give in to complaining. The only way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be this way is immaterial. The fact is that it is true in the Scriptures and in human experience. You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you. But if a person has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, having no respect or time for you, only turning you away. If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people. (Oswald Chambers)

Fire. Flood. Wind. Storm. Whatever you want to call it, I went through it. God used this to strip me bare. I had nothing, I was nothing.

Then one night I thought, “I wonder what working at Target would be like?” So I drifted to their web site, expecting the Holy Spirit to forbid me as he had many times already. But he didn’t. So I applied online, hit “Submit,” and went to bed. A few days later I was called in for an interview and was offered a job on the spot in their electronics department. I took it. Still no conviction from the Spirit. But then…

But then I started in on my training. (I told you this is humbling and humiliating. Even as I write this I can feel a hammer pounding away at my pride.) I have a master’s degree. I have the personal cell numbers of the best-known Christian authors in my phone. I … I … I was now being trained to operate a cash register by kids just out of high school. I was being shown the proper way to dust the bottom of shelves. I was being schooled in how to use a walkie-talkie. I had to punch a time clock. All for just above minimum wage. I was crushed. Why had God let me get into this situation? Isn’t being a Christian supposed to mean endless victory?

He reminded me of the story of Joseph we find in Genesis. Joseph had dreams where his father and brothers bowed down to him. He no doubt expected endless victory as well. But then came the day when he was thrown—by his brothers—into a pit, then sold to the Ishmaelites as a slave, then sold to Potiphar. Working under Potiphar, God showed Joseph great favor so that he was given responsibility over all of Potiphar’s household. But then…

But then Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of attempted rape and got Joseph thrown in jail. Things were just not going according to the way Joseph thought they should go, were they? In the jail God once again showed Joseph great favor, so much so that the jailor put Joseph in charge of all of the other prisoners. You know the rest of the story. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, and was placed over the entire land of Egypt. In this position he prepared for a coming famine in which he not only saved Egypt but also his father and brothers. It was not as Joseph had pictured, but it was as God desired.

I have no idea what the future holds for me. Right now, God is granting me great favor at my store. When I started, our electronics department was ranked 76 out of 78 stores in our district. This past week we were number one. It’s not because I have some magic technique for pulling money out of customers’ wallets. It is the favor of the Lord. Will I be falsely accused and thrown in jail? I don’t know. If I am writing the script, that won’t happen. But over this last year I have learned to hand over pen and paper to my Lord and let him write the script he would have me follow.

So, there you have it. You now know that the publisher of your favorite web site (we are your favorite, aren’t we?), one of the most read blogs on the entire internet, wears khaki and red and asks, “What may I help you find?” I am now to the point where I look forward to my days at my store. I am making new friends. I am being sought out by colleagues who want me to pray for them. I have been able to speak encouraging words to customers—“guests”—who come in with heavy hearts. (A guest recently came in to get  GPS unit. She and her husband were moving to Houston as their house in Joplin had been destroyed by the tornado. She couldn’t get the unit at the Target in Joplin, for that was also destroyed. I was privileged to be of help to her and speak a kind word to this wounded heart.)

If you are going through a situation in your life where you think you will not make it, I understand. Now I really do understand. Life seldom—if ever—works as we want it to. If I can encourage you in one thing, it would be this: God orders our circumstances, no matter how hard or crazy or rough they may be. No matter how hard you try to prevent these circumstances from being in your life, it is God who directs the path on which we walk. The best thing you can do is to give up control and float on God’s endless sea of grace and mercy. Stop trying to swim to safety. The only safe place in this world is to be right where God wants you to be. Yes, I know it may look hopeless. I have faced many hopeless moments these last 20 months or so. But then …

Comments

  1. Jeff, thank you for telling the truth about what is happening in the publishing and book selling businesses. In the past few days I talked with one person who is sending their short story manuscripts to some business that for $15 – $20 supposedly reads them and tells them how to get published (so far she hasn’t been published), and with another person who is considering quitting their full time job to write full time, “depending on the Lord” to help them make enough money to support their family. Perhaps you have some advice for them and people in similar circumstances.

  2. Jeff, it would be an honor to be served by you. In all things, do the best that you can – honor God whether you’re a Target employee or a high-fallutin’ preacher. My thoughts are with you during your harder and humbling time.

  3. C K Wong says

    Thanks – I learn from your down-to-earth spirituality:
    1) Go only to where God sends you to serve.
    2) Serve God where you are.
    3) Serve God wherever you will be.

  4. thank you Jeff…seriously.

  5. Beautiful! Thank you for this….I have so found it to be true in my own life.

  6. Jeff – The story you told is very close to what my life has been the past 5 years. Back then I heard God say, “Follow me, I want to challenge you. I want to take you on an adventure.” The past 5 years have been a series of failures and loss of pride and possessions. Often I have wondered if I really heard His voice or if the whole thing has been a huge mistake. More than once, in my despair, I have begged God for death. Better a quick end than to die by what feels like 1000 cuts. But I’m too far down the road now, there is no turning back. All I can do is hope, trust, and do my best to follow. Your story, though unfinished, gives me hope. It think there must really be something very good at the end of our respective roads.