Yes! Finally--Finished! Technical difficulties overcome!
Oh, how I am praying that God's Spirit will indwell my fingertips like never before and write this story. You see, this is His story--this journey we've been on, this 'ultra marathon' that we have lived, breathed and endured over the past year. It's a glorious testament to His realness. I am begging Him to knock me out of the way and to put pen to prose, to leave absolutely nothing out and give His story the justice it deserves. So (deep breath), here we go...
2011. We rang in the new year with a few of you. Those of you there may have remembered the goofy video our family made as part of a white elephant gift. I have to say, it was hysterically funny--I still get a stitch in my side thinking about it. The video was poking fun at the fact that Eric had recently lost his job, a subject not very funny to say the least. Yet we were coping with it the best we knew how, and one of those ways was to stay light-hearted about it and laugh as much as we could. After all, laughter is the best medicine, right? Little did we know, we were going to need to draw on that reservoir many times over 2011 and that reservoir was going to need to run deep. But we were going to need more than surfacey laughter; we were going to have to dig deep into the well of Living Water and ask for joy. This unemployed season was going to require an endurance of supernatural proportions and only the 'joy in all circumstances' that comes form Him and Him alone would be able to sustain us.
Let me back track a moment for a few of you whom may be in the dark. In November, 2010, Eric lost his job. Thus, we entered the Christmas season with a new and unfamiliar title--unemployed. God led me to purchase a journal at this time to record all that we were going to experience in this season. I vividly remember dragging my feet up to the check-out counter at Michael's and almost not buying it. You see, I had a little nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach--that ominous sense that if I was going to purchase a journal than it was going to have to be filled with prose. Prose of the difficult kind. Ironically (yet of no surprise to God), the front of that journal was covered with the words 'Jump for Joy'. Yes, He knew. He knew we were going to need joy by the heapfuls and the only way to unlock the reservoir of unending joy was through praises of thanksgiving. One of the first verses I memorized after becoming a Christian was 1 Thess. 5:19: 'be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.' God asks us to memorize His Word so that we can carry it with us wherever we are, coming to our aid whenever it's needed. Over the following months, that verse, along with Nehemiah 8:10, 'the joy of the Lord is my strength', became the mantra of my mind, playing like a broken record over and over again--keeping me grounded, keeping me sane, but more than anything, giving me a supernatural 'fill-up' whenever I needed it.
With the beginning of a new year, we were hopeful. Surely, a job would materialize before long, right? Right, God? Right?!?! Unfortunately, God doesn't always answer our prayers with a 'yes'. Sometimes He says 'no' and sometimes He says 'wait'. Strangely, in the months to follow, every time I got frustrated with God's silent waiting room, the words of a song would immediately come to my mind:
'I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden.'
I know, weird, right? Those words may be from a song of a different era, but they are true, nonetheless. God doesn't promise that things are always going to be rosy and perfect. What He does offer, though, is His hand to hold onto tightly in the midst of the trial.
We prayed. We hoped. We thanked Him. We prayed. We hoped. We praised Him. All the while, Eric interviewed. Yet, God said no to this job, and no to that job, while simultaneously extending His hand and providing for needs. Need after need after need, He provided. Journal entry after entry after entry, we recorded.
Then, as if on a divine timer, problems and breakdowns of epic proportions began occurring. Murphy moved into our back bedroom and wasn't about to budge...not one inch. I think many of you started calling us the Bad News Bears hehind our backs. I wouldn't have blamed you. It was true. Yet it was all in His timing, because impossible situations are His specialty. Gigantic problems set the stage for the grandest of entrances and He was about to make a scene, causing quite a stir that would leave no denial--absolutely no denial--that His involvement was all over this thing.
Enter problem numero uno. Our washer died. As much as a family of seven needs a functional washer, we felt clearly the Lord saying, 'Don't go buy a new one on credit. Pray and wait'. So we prayed and waited...and dragged ten loads of laundry to the Laundromat. Fourteen days later, a friend just 'happened' to move into a new house where the prior owners just 'happened' to leave a washer. And not any old washer, mind you. The exact brand we would have bought had we went out and purchased a new one! You bet we recorded that one! Journal entry #64 to be exact.
Next, our sewage backed up into our home. We had to move out of our house for four days AND figure out a way to come up with a couple of thousand to fix it. Some suggested we borrow the money and get it fixed. The washer still fresh on our mind, we were determined more than ever to rely on the Lord, pray, and wait...and to roll up our sleeves and do whatever we could ourselves to fix it. Eric pulled together a team of faithful friends, rented a backhoe and began digging. They dug until it got too dangerous.... We prayed. We waited. And wondered... Just as we were about to throw up our hands in surrender and put it on credit, a group of anonymous givers (many of them being you!) went in together and collected more than enough to fix it. Recording Journal Entry #94, we were beyond humble and grateful. Oh, but God wanted more glory than that. Just as we were about to cut a check, the city informed us that it was their bill to pay. Thus, they fixed it for free. Journal Entry #95! We were thrilled beyond reason! We praised Him up and down! Yet, we couldn't help but wonder why. Why, God, did it end up costing nothing when you provided the funds to cover it? Maybe because His foresight is 20/20...
...Because two weeks later our transmission blew. Yep. There we sat, on the side of the interstate with a busload of kids in tow. Being responsible Triple A membership owners, we smugly pulled out our Triple A card and called them up to collect on our free tow.
'We're sorry,' they said, 'but your large van is over the weight limit for towing. To get that service you need the upgraded 'RV membership'.'
'Can we upgrade??!!'
'No. But we'll get you a tow back to Louisville for a mere $300...'
Crickets chirped in the background....along with all of the children complaining and whining, asking what we were going to do. So I sent them down in the ditch to play on the side of the interstate. We stood there, our heads spinning. The weariness from the past several weeks began to turn to anger. I WAS SO DONE--COMPLETELY DONE--and I was going to let God know it! I stomped. I cried. I sulked. I yelled. I had a tantrum of the grandest sorts while those eighteen wheelers sped by. And when I stopped to catch my breath, I heard ever so clearly and quietly:
'I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden...What I do promise, though, is to walk with you through the landfill.'
The part of me that is His knew that these words, as hard as they were to hear, were truth. The part of me that is pulled by, taunted, and anchored to this world and luring promises continued sulking. That battle between flesh and Spirit raged for the next few days...until one morning in sweet surrender I finally stretched out that hand. And a supernatural 'fill-up' of the tenderest kind occurred, resulting in His peace, His joy and His strength despite the present circumstances. Gratefully I recorded Journal Entry #110: 'transmission paid for in full for van with money collected for sewage problem'.
As the first half of the year ticked away, jobs presented themselves that seemed too good to be true--perfect fits if there ever was such. Perhaps an excerpt from an email I sent to several vested prayer friends paints the picture best:
'Whether we win or lose, we will praise the LORD'--my favorite line of Facing the Giants--favorite yet most difficult, too...
Yesterday, we got a 'no' on the job...now through our 'tunnel vision' and our 'world lense'... we automatically think this is a 'loss', not a win. And rightly so--we have been praying, focusing all of our energy on this company for the last several weeks and 'going for it'...doing so because circumstance after circumstance kept lining up that this was 'the job'--interview after interview made everything appear as if this was 'the one'. It 'appeared' God was working behind the scenes, lining things up, etc., etc., the manager was pulling for him, all of the other sales reps were pulling for him but in the end, God's answer was no.
God closed the door with a resounding thud...
We know He closed it because we have been seeking Him, pursuing Him, and had every inch of this covered in prayer--so, so many people praying for this... so we can be assured God's purpose and plan is in the no. We can rest in it. Thank you, Lord, for the 'rest of faith', the resting in the shadow of your wings...
God is upside-down, topsy turvy and works outside our neatly pressed, slick suited interview system. Unimpressed with impression, His ways are not our ways because our identity is not in a job, it's in Him alone. Thankful that we are learning this on a field trip and not in the classroom--so thankful.
He said no to the future yes.. and faith of the holiest sorts is built in the waiting room of God.
Well, God did not make us Grogans runners for nothing. So yesterday we thought we were in the 25th mile, coming up on the finish line...but today we realize we are on the sixteenth mile with ten more to go. It's okay. We've been here before. We know what to do...our training is going to kick in , our fans on the sidelines have made sure we've got plenty of water and gel packs :), and we are going to push through this race...there will be some pain but it's the good, stretching kind of pain...when we get tired, our Father is going to whisper in our ears that we can do it...our friends will be right there on the sidelines, cheering us on...no, no--I must change that. With the kind of friends we have, they are going to jump into the race, run with us, and then carry us over the finish line. I'm sure of it...'
Summer emerged. As the sun beat down and scorched everything in its path, our family was experiencing a drought in more ways than one. Job opportunities...dried up. Job leads...dried up. We were tempted to let our hope...dry up. While Eric continued to do menial work to make ends meet, I baked bread to provide extra income (you can read a funny post about that here :) ) , and God creatively filled in the gaps. We now had over 120 journal entries to date.
Sports. We love them. It's what our family does together for fun. Our boys' smiles are biggest when they are competing. Our two favorites are baseball and running. And--truly--God used these two things to keep us 'up' during a very down season. With four boys playing baseball--well, for a couple of months out of the year, we are totally, 100% immersed. This past season we went to approximately 872 baseball games (that number might be a little high, but not by much :) ). As much as we love baseball, and as much as it helped keep our spirits up, running is what kept us sane. So much so, that Eric and I decided to spend our summer training for a marathon. As we trained our bodies to endure the pain of a marathon, God trained our minds for the marathon of our circumstances.
Some days we hit the road full of frustration (a polite word for anger) with God. Venting and complaining, we'd lodge our arguments. Mile after mile, He would diffuse. His Spirit would minister. Mile after mile, He would share His perspective and enlighten us with His promises:
'....Wait...strength will rise as you wait upon me...My ways are not your ways...My power is made perfect in weakness...A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold...Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk (run)...So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (emphasis added), and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own...'
And so we waited, and we ran. Day after day, through His Word, a devotional, a song, or a podcast, He sustained. And on the run, He ingrained. He turned fears into faith, He turned sadness to joy, He turned complaints into thanksgiving and He turned strife into peace.
And through the discipline of running,
we found His rest.
And as summer came to a close, our circumstances hadn't really changed. God had chosen to remain silent in regards to our many heartfelt cries of employment. He chose to say no without an explanation and without direction. Just simply 'no...and wait.' In fact, we seemed further away from an answer than ever.
And yet, by the route of the road He had supplied Himself...quenching our thirst along the parched path. Yes, we had experienced Him as more than enough. As tears and sweat slid down and off, converging together--paining and training colliding into a stream--along the route of the road in the desert of discipline, He gently and firmly established that: 'For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.'
God often works behind the scenes, strategically arranging events and circumstances to accomplish His plans. Unbeknonst to us, He was about to make a climatic alignment...
One August day, Eric got a call from the local Area Representative of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). He asked Eric if he could become the Huddle chaplain for the North Oldham High School cross country team. Because he didn't have a job, he was able to say yes to this weekly afternoon commitment. One thing led to another, and soon he was also leading a FCA Huddle group for our children's cross country team. As I reflected upon our past year, God may have closed door after door to job opportunities, but he had opened door after door to be 'fisher of men' (Matthew 4:19). I had spent the first part of the year as the prayer coordinator for Deeper Still. Now, Eric was spending the last part of the year as a FCA Huddle group chaplain. Neither of these jobs could have been accomplished had Eric been working. As I stood on the sidelines, watching my husband combine sports and Jesus, I watched something start to come alive in him.
In our family, the fall means one thing: CROSS COUNTRY! We live, love and breathe it. We spent Saturday after Saturday traveling to cross crountry meets and cheering our children on. As proud as we were of their running accomplishments, we were more proud of them leading their team members in prayer before a race, more proud of the moments they chose to represent Jesus to those around them.
While our childen hit the prime of their training, us marathoners began to taper. The Columbus race loomed on the horizon and all systems seemed a go...or so I thought. Until my knee injury ten days prior to race day. I'll admit, I did not handle this news gracefully at first. Remember that temper tantrum beside Interstate 64? Yep. I threw another one.
You see, at this point, God, Eric and I--we had some mileage going on. Along the route of the road--day in, day out--it had become so much more...so much more than a marathon.
We were a team.
I just had one question on that lonely Monday, one question to His 'no' that was the straw breaking the camel's back:
Why--why are you kicking me off the team?
One question followed by a few more:
'All summer long, your answer has been, 'No, no, no...no to this job, no to that job'...all summer long... and now you are going to say no to this too? This, this way of worshipping, this thing we got going on, this really good thing--you are saying no??!!!'
His retort came quietly the following day through my Oswald Chambers devotional, befittingly entitled 'Getting Into God's Stride':
'It is painful work to get in step with God and to keep pace with Him--it means getting your second win spiritually. In learning to walk with God, there is always the difficulty of getting into His stride, but once we have done so, the only characteristic that exhibits itself is the very life of God Himself. The individual is merged into a personal oneness with God and God's stride and His power alone are exhibited. It is difficult to get into stride with God, because as soon as we start walking with Him we find that His pace has surpassed us before we have even taken three steps. He has different ways of doing things, and we have to be trained and disciplined in His ways....It is God's Spirit that changes the atmosphere of our way of looking at things, and then things begin to be possible which before were impossible...Getting into God's stride means nothing less than oneness with Him. It takes a long time to get there, but keep at it. Don't give up because the pain is intense right now--get on with it, and before long you will find that you have a new vision and a new purpose.'
...And suddenly, I felt small. And my wailings, they felt small...
'Oh forgive me, God, for once again making my life and circumstances all about my wants and my desires. Forgive me for not trusting you even when things don't go my way...help me to remember it's not about the results, it's about the relationship.'
My rebellious spirit submitted. As we bowed our heads during our family prayer time, I chose to thank Him for this newly aquired difficulty. I chose to thank Him that He might be delivering another 'no'. As I did, His Spirit of Peace filled me with sweet surrender to a marathon Sunday that might or might not involve me as a participant.
As Sunday approached, my knee slightly improved. I decided to go forward by faith, run it and give it my all--until I couldn't.
Thursday before the marathon, Eric interviewed for another medical sales job. It was really weird, but I was not excited about the interview; Eric was not excited about it either. He needed a job (with exclamation points!!!), yet it felt like we were just going through the motions. After the interview that day, Eric went to lunch with some friends. One of those friends asked him if he had ever considered trying to combine sports with ministry. Over the past year, several friends had asked him that same question. We just never knew how to make that happen--it seemed like a pipe dream. Now that he had gotten involved with FCA, this question got his wheels turning. When he got home from that lunch, Eric got on the FCA website and saw a job posting for an Area Representative in Western Kentucky--where he had grown up, where we had went to college (Murray State), where we had met.
I had felt with everything in me that this race was playing a significant part in our employement trial, that when we crossed the finish line and finished this marathon, our jobless marathon was also going to be over. As I reflected on the timing of this job opportunity and our race day, somehow--I really can't explain it--but somehow, I knew. I knew that this job with FCA was going to be God's answer. I told a friend that day, 'This is it...this is what we have been waiting for. This is what God has been preparing us for.'
Sunday. Marathon Day. We prepared that morning before the race with some time in God's Word and prayer. My Jesus Calling devotional stood out as a bright light:
'Look to me continually for help, comfort, and companionship. Because I am always by your side, the briefest glance can connect you with Me. When you look to Me for help, it flows freely from My Presence. This recognition of your need for Me, in small matters as well as in large ones, keeps you spiritually alive.'
My mother-in-law had given Eric and I a bible verse to pin on ourselves during the race. The verse she had chosen for me was Isaiah 41:13: 'For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand.'
Companionship--this is what our journey, our race, had been all about this past year--choosing to grab hold of his hand and walk with Him whether the terrain was tough or easy. As we chose to do so, He infused us with the ability to keep going. Today I was going to have to do the same and look to Him when it got painful.
It didn't take long for the pain to set in. Eric said my face at mile seven said it all. I told him to go ahead as I wasn't sure that I would be able to finish. As I slowed down, I watched he and our pace group run ahead, my dream of a 3:45 finish disappearing with them.
I had all intentions of quitting. I really did. But every time I was about to stop I got a little more strength, a little more stamina to keep going. It was as if Jesus was literally running this race beside me, squeezing my hand every time I needed a boost.
My performance that day didn't even compare to my prior two marathons. I had to completely walk miles 22-24. Throughout the entire race, people past me left and right. Two perky girls in bright pink blew by me, the back of their shirts sporting, 'this is my first marathon and I'm beating you!' I thought about accidentally spitting on them, but they were too far in front of me.
My performance may have been less than par, but what I experienced along the way that day was more than enough. His companionship. Him and Him alone. It was more than enough.
As I hobbled along that day on the race path, I saw clearly the path divinely forged for us in 2011. We, too, had been thrown off the peformance train. We, too, had been forced to hobble along, forced to watch people pass us left and right. Yet His companionship had been more than enough. Strangely, while he had never promised us a rose garden, we had been forced to move slowly through what we had initailly considered a landfill. Forced to linger in the landfill, we had found roses in the most unexpected places, yielding the most unexpected blessings. Beautiful blessings, over 200 recorded, so many more that had never even made it to paper. And I realized He does promise a rose garden...we just have to be willing to stop and smell the roses, His divinely planted roses.
From the world's perspective, my marathon was not a winner. From the world's perspective, our family's 2011 wasn't a winner. Yet, could it be that the winning was really in the losing? Losing pride in a job, to gain humility in our Savior's identity. Losing the grasp of the allure of riches, to gain eternal treasure. Losing our desire to trust in ourselves, to gain the faith to trust in His provision. Losing our self imposed plan and purpose, to gain His. Yes, I could see it now...The winning had been in the losing.
We crossed the finish line that day. That finish line represented the end of an aimless wondering in the wilderness. The end of a long season of waiting. In the weeks that followed, God unfolded His plan, a plan to take us to Western Kentucky--Paducah to be exact--to spread His Word among coaches, athletes and students.
We can look back now and realize that He has been right beside us every step of the way, preparing us all along. The year of preparation, that's what 2011 has been. A preparation that occurred through recording and remembering. The journal purchase last December was not a mere chance occurrence, but rather a divine appointment to build faith, to build trust, to infuse peace .
The verse He has continued to put on our heart is Matthew 9: 38: 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.' We ask, as we prepare over the coming months, that you pray for us. Pray for His grace, His help, His plan, His purpose. Pray for the harvest field in Western Kentucky, for workers to emerge, for a plentiful harvest. Moving and leaving Louisville is going to be the hardest thing our family has ever done. We will go with tears streaming, but we will go with excitement brewing. Excitement over the adventure the Lord has us on...we are pumped about following His lead and 'running with perseverance the race marked out for us!'
Yes, just as 'the Shepherds returned, praising and glorifying God for all that they had seen and heard' (Luke 2:20), we too stand in awe of the year behind us...and in awe of a God who invites us to participate in what He is doing. As I flip through our 'Jump for Joy' journal, I realize there are still so many blank pages yet. This adventure, this reliance on the Lord--oh, it's only just begun. With divine ink and hand, He is writing His story...my heart pumps in anticipation just thinking about what's to come.
As you enter 2012, we pray that you would grab a hold of the hand of the One and Only, the sweet Savior of this world--Jesus--and let Him write your story. We promise you, you won't regret it.
With Much Love,
Eric, Maria, Joshua, Sophie, Jeremiah, Wes and Owen