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I was raised on fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and the belief that prosperity always comes to those who are willing to work hard. But it doesn’t. Not always.
I was nine months pregnant when my husband, Paul, decided to quit his job in 2009 — right after the economy took a nosedive. The Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its biggest single-day decline in its 124-year history, obliterating more than $1.2 trillion in market value. American and European banks failed. The S&P 500 lost 21.6% of its value in a single week. Housing values plummeted with the subprime mortgage crisis. Millions lost jobs and companies scrambled to find secure footing.
For our entire marriage, Paul had been able to work out of the home, so while his company was based in Laguna Beach, we were able to live in Glendora near Azusa Pacific University, where I taught graduate school. But when the company restructured because of the economy, Paul was asked to work from the office. Not too long after, my daughter Ellie was born and I finished the coursework for my Ph.D. Since Laguna Beach was too expensive for a person with a ministry salary and commuting would add another two hours to the workday, we decided to take the money we had saved over the years and move to Denver where Paul could set up a practice as a therapist and I could write my dissertation, all while being home with Ellie.
In Denver, things technically seemed to go well, but cracks started to show. We lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I worried about things. I worried about how we would pay the rent from month to month, let alone tuition. I worried about the kind of life I was building for Ellie. I worried that she would feel insecure and unstable. I missed things, too. I missed my family and friends, the people who really knew me and loved me anyway. I missed the little deli downtown that made the best veggie sandwiches in the world. I missed my students. I missed teaching. (Who was I, now?) I missed stepping out my backdoor to climb a mountain without worrying about babies or snow. I missed California because, despite being a Texas native, I was, in a very real sense, born there. Paul proposed to me there, we got married there, I earned two graduate degrees there, I finally grew into my own skin there, I became a mother there. It was home, and had we the money, we could have stayed.
I tried to be brave, but I was bereaved.
Then, we lost further, lost faster. For Ellie’s first birthday, I bought a custom cake from the best baker in Denver, as if it would assuage my guilt for bring her into such a volatile environment. The night before her birthday, she was admitted to Denver Children’s Hospital for over a week with a severe, life-threatening case of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It was impossible for her to breathe on her own, so the machines breathed for her. Because of our crash-and-burn insurance policy, that visit drained our savings and we lost everything.
We decided then to move to Michigan, a place neither of us had ever been, but where Paul had a standing job offer. We moved, site unseen, to the town of Holland, a blistering cold, overcast outpost on the shore of Lake Michigan. We were thousands of miles from friends and family.
When you lose everything, the next-to-last thing you lose is hope. The small, flickering flame of hope I’d held since we left California was snuffed out. Psychologists say hope is comprised of two types of thinking: agency and pathway. Agency is the motivation to achieve a goal; pathway is the plan you have to get there. I had neither.
What does God say when the world goes belly up? When whole cities die? When children go hungry? Where should our hope be when we are powerless, when we have neither have agency or pathway to change our future? I racked my bookshelves for someone to teach me about hope, someone to tell me what to do when all seems lost. I read Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment. I read Thoreau and marinated in the poetry of Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop.
When you lose everything, the last thing you lose is faith. Losing everything sifts what you say you believe from what you really believe. I lost faith — not because I tried God and found him wanting, but rather because I never truly tried him at all. Losing everything, as Ellul succinctly put it, caused “everything seemingly established to be placed in doubt, which [drove] a wedge into the world of false assurances.” My faith wasn’t in God, after all, but the Great American Dream.
Sometimes you can do all the right things and still lose everything. Life is not a box of Cracker Jacks — there is no almighty guarantee that your financial footing will always be secure. For anyone. God is not like our politicians. He does not make empty promises about fair weather; he promises a ship sure enough to weather whatever weather comes our way.
Of course, I didn’t really lose everything, though it certainly felt like it at the time. I’m embarrassed, now, at how little it took to unsettle me. Ellie didn’t die that night in that Denver hospital. We paid our debts. We never went hungry. We never wanted for anything, really, but sunshine. I didn’t get a guarantee; I got daily bread for the day. I learned that God doesn’t love the rich any more than the fiscally challenged. He has loved both kings and paupers, his own son a carpenter, born in a stable, buried in a borrowed grave.
I found a faith more sure than my own agency, my own ability to make things happen, a faith anchored to the promise of both manna and mercies new every morning.