Pushed over the edge

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Part thirteen.

We were happy together in our house in the trees, yet our minds and hearts remained restless.  We were brimming with questions.  We wanted to find our “calling.”  We’d wonder, “How could this be all God has in store for us?  Working, raising a family, being involved in our church.  There must be more.”

This was not helped by the fact that I continued to read books and listen to sermons on the subject of missions.  One book that particularly influenced me at the time was Francis Chan’s Crazy Love.  He made me want to do something out of the norm.  Something that required risk.  This theme of “taking a risk for the kingdom of God” was repeated in many of John Piper’s online sermons that I listened to.

I have never been on a “missions trip.”  Rachel went on a good many, both in high school and college.  What she loved most about these was the common sense of purpose, working together with others towards a common goal, whether it was caring for orphans or building a structure or moving dirt.  She would come home from those trips feeling unified with her teammates.

Here in the suburbs it felt like just the opposite.  We felt isolated and purposeless.  We longed for a deeper and richer sense of community.  Play groups with the kids, small groups with other couples, and even accountability groups within the church did not seem to be meeting our needs for friendship and community.  These groups felt separated from real life.  There were abstract questions and conversations to “dig deep” into one another’s lives, but never time to cultivate the soil that deeper relationships require.  This was perhaps where much of the discontentment stemmed.  I would hear Rachel’s reminiscings and we would talk about our philosophy of community.  It seemed that only one thing could consummate our communal longings: full time missions.

I vacillated though.  Deep within I wanted to just settle down, but Rachel was not excited about the prospect.  She wondered if I was merely going along with the flow, doing what I saw my friends doing, or that which I felt others were expecting me to do.  And there was some truth to that, because that is what I mainly saw – friends and family, settling down, working, loving, teaching and training their children, being committed to their church for a very long time.  To me, there seemed to be something special about such a long term commitment.  Rachel valued such commitment, too, but only if it led to growth in community and a common sense of purpose and mission.  And that is precisely what we were not experiencing.

To complicate matters, we were newly married and adjusting to life together on a grand scale.  Rachel still felt that I was too connected to my old life.  That is, my life before I was married.  She wondered if she married me and my family.  Me and my friends.  Me and my interests.  And I, on the other hand, subconsciously expected things to continue as they were.  The same family routines, the same friends, the same pursuits and interests.

So there were two things at play.  One, a need to get away from all that was comfortable to me, so that we could be more unified in our marriage, and two, this desire for purpose in our new life together.

With these thoughts ruminating in the recesses of my mind, I listened and read.

On a Friday afternoon in August I was on my way home from work, listening for the second time to John Piper’s sermon “Proclaiming the Excellencies of Christ Among the Nations, Not Prosperity.”  As he spoke, I felt like he was speaking directly to me:

No, it isn’t for lack of money that there are 1,568 peoples with no missionaries.  It’s because we have so much.  The comforts of the West have made us soft and cautious and fearful and indulgent and self-protecting, instead of tough and risk-taking and bold and self-controlled and self-sacrificing.

Was I being pushed over the edge?  In such moments it is hard to discern all of the inner-workings of the mind at play against the outside influences of conversations, books, articles, and sermons.  But here I was.  Questioning if indeed I was called to become a missionary.  “When I die, what do I want people to remember me as?  What do I want my children to remember about me?  My grandchildren?  What kind of legacy will I leave?  I don’t want to be remembered as self-indulgent.  I want to be remembered as a risk-taker.  I don’t want to be ruled by the love of money.  I want to be free from money and give all for the sake of this great cause.”  I said that I felt a burden for these unknown peoples to know Jesus.  Surely if I pursued this great mission I could protect us from falling into self-indulgence.

At that moment, I decided that we would not pursue the image of the “American Dream” that I had in my head.  No.  Instead, we would pursue this Great Call.  We would be Risk-Takers.

There was only one path to take.  Move to St. Paul, join John Piper’s church, and become missionaries.  I resolved to tell Rachel as soon as I got home.

Part twelve.

The Treehouse

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Part twelve.

We stayed in the hospital for two nights, taking advantage of every moment of rest when the nurse took Micaela after feedings at night.  I was only able to take two or three days off work.

After answering a hundred questions from the nurse about Micaela’s health, everything from vaccines to car seats to Pediatricians, we stepped out into the bright sunlight.  I pulled the car around and cautiously strapped Micaela into her car seat for the first time, wanting to make it as secure as possible.  Her head seemed so delicate, and I feared that any bump might send her head flying upwards from her body, severing her neck completely.  Rachel took the extra new-mom precaution of sitting in the back with her on our way home.

Somehow, we managed to get the apartment painted and half-unpacked during our those few days with newborn Micaela at my parents.  I know we had plenty of help from friends and family, Mr. Miller  painting “Nurture” in our bedroom, and “Dynasty Celadon” in the living room.

* * * * *

The evening light shone bright in through the tall windows.  For the first time, we were on our own.  Money was tight, but that didn’t seem to matter.  And as the light shone into our home, so it did into our marriage.

It is hard to remember anything hard, dark, or difficult from those precious four months.  That is to say, even the hard things now seem like faint and distant memories.

The sun is slowly rising, not yet risen
Silhouettes of tree branches slowly
Deepening into their true form.
I perceive, also, hints of color.
Is color held in the leaves or by the sun?
Surely, without the sun there would be no green,
Yet at noon, we know and bow beneath
The holy whiteness of its blaze.
But within white, all other colors lie.
My daughter’s eye has yet to learn
Their distinctions, my fallen eye
Can only worship the hands
That made the sun
And painted color with its light
Onto every living thing on earth
And all yet unearthed.

Every time it rained harder than a drizzle, rain would stream and splatter into our little sunroom, which we had hoped would be a cozy reading nook.  So we set up our desk at the edge of the room, and it became a deep frame to sit at and look out into the trees, to sit writing or reading at the desk.  Three steps up into our yellow kitchen, we spent many hours preparing many meatless dinners.  Through the door behind the refrigerator, we would hear the landlord yell at his family, anger breaking hearts.  His empty promises of things he would fix also echoed in our ears.

There were the hot nights, sprawled on the third floor, all windows open, both ceiling fans running full speed, and a fan in the window, trying  to suck some freshness into the steaming jungle of our bedroom.  Rachel slept sporadically, between feedings which seemed to last for hours, sometimes falling asleep on the wooden rocking chair.  I would get up at four, sometimes three in the morning to prep for work.

Rising in darkness to take a seat,
Though you cannot see His feet,
Everyday you wait and long to meet

And stare at His radiant face.

We were tired, but for the first time, we were truly happy together.

It seems like each period of our marriage brings with it particular meals.  Almost every morning it was Greek yogurt, sliced apples, bananas, chopped dates, and pepitas.  On the weekends it was french toast made with Ezekiel break, with Greek yogurt and berries dolloped on top.  For dinners we regularly resorted to a bed of arugula with black beans, tomato and goat cheese with a lime dressing.

We did a lot of walking at that time.  Just about every evening we’d head out after dinner, admiring the architecture of the homes in our neighborhood.  We’d talk about the things we did or didn’t like about each house, already taking mental notes for the day (if that day ever comes) when we would be able to afford a house.  Regardless of the course we’d set out on, we usually managed to end up in front of a brick house with a slate roof, and every manner of nook and cranny, windows looking out in every direction.  A trove of delight and imagination for children, and space to read in front of a window while the rain pattered.

On Saturdays we would often walk to the local Farmer’s Market for produce, eyeing up all the food too expensive for us to buy.  I always had a particular ache for the baked goods stand, and it was near torture to walk by the apple cider donuts without picking up a fresh bag to-go.  Instead, we’d fill the bottom of our stroller with huge portobello mushrooms, a loaf of bread, and arugula. Splurging for us was purchasing a basil plant which we sat on top of the board which covered our kitchen radiator.  In the evening we’d pluck leaves off and cut them up with scissors to blend up in our salad dressing.

One night we were watching Good Will Hunting when a few innocent spiders rappelled down from the ceiling.  The first few swiftly met their death, but then there were more and more.  Soon we paused the movie to track down the source.  There was a faint trail on the ceiling, leading to the bathroom.  It was like a scene out of a horror movie.  I turned the light on, and their they were, pouring out of the light.  I panicked.  I wanted to scream.  Rachel ran and grabbed the hand vacuum.  “Use this!” Rachel yelled, shocking me out of my frozen stance.  Vroom!  I swept those poor critters right into their oblivion.  From that night on I feared they would creep out of the vacuum and show up on my face in the middle of the night.

It was also the first time we had written music together.  One afternoon I sat on the floor with my guitar, plucking out some simple chords, while Rachel wrote lines inspired by a story we had recently read from Mark 2.  Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain, while the Pharisees looked on in disgust, condemning them for doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.

On the sabbath day
Jesus – walking through the fields of grain
As they made their way
They plucked some heads of grain

The grain in their hands
Into their mouths
Something to eat
In the quiet heat
Of the afternoon

Looking from afar
The eyes of the pharisees
Saw their hands
Rubbing grain
The standing grain
The falling chaff
Busy fingers
Busy fingers
On the sabbath day
We rest today
Why do you pluck?
Why do you rub?
The standing grain

This day of rest he gave
To know by whom you are made
And how you are sustained
The Lord of life is here

Rest now in me
Freedom I bring
Every need I meet
In all I give
Rest in who I am

This grain from my hand
All this I give
Rest in who I am

Living in that apartment, we had come to what felt like a period of our own Sabbath rest.  I see myself looking at Micaela, propped up in the corner of our love seat while I played guitar, singing hymns to her.  Rachel takes a break from the stove and walks to the doorway framing the kitchen above the living room.  She leans against the frame, smiling as she looks over at us, then starts to sing along.  We are happy together in our house in the trees.

*Poems by Rachel

Part eleven. Part thirteen.

The Memo on the Mount

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Dear _________ PA Office:

As we enter the final quarter of this year, let this serve as a friendly reminder that PTO days are given to you as a gift.  Just as you expect a bi-weekly paycheck and benefits from us, so we expect you to show up on time, everyday.  Going over your allotted PTO days is unacceptable, and grounds for immediate termination.

Happy Fall!
HR

* * * * *

Happy fall, indeed.  I have made it.  Vacation is just four days away.  Nine days away from my cube.  Eight days at the beach.  Five PTO days burned.  Five of my six remaining, that is.  After next week, I am hoping for smooth sailing till Thanksgiving.  Then, another coast through till Christmas.

One day.  One precious golden day.

What shall I use this day for?  Shall I save it for the week of Christmas?  Will I make it that far?  I must decide now under what circumstances I would squander this one, precious phial of PTO.

The standard head cold will not do.  Fever?  I think I can bear a low-grade fever at work.  Besides, they say rest is the best thing for such an illness, and working in a cube is fairly restful.

What if I’m sick to my stomach?  No.  I suppose that’s why there’s a trash can under every desk.  For a quick grab, bend, and release.  (It certainly wouldn’t do to carry one around all day.)

A virus?  The air is so dead and sterile at work, I doubt a virus would survive the trip from me to a co-worker.  No risk of contamination if that’s the case.  But maybe I should do my research first.  May depend on what kind of virus.

I know.  What is the one thing I absolutely need to do at work?  Type.  A hangnail?  I suppose I can still hunt and peck.  Maybe if I accidentally punched through a window and had tiny shards of glass stuck in my hand, with a massive bandage wrapped around it.  No.  I can hear them now.  “You could have used your nose.”  Then they’ll pull out their HR Bible and turn to the Memo on the Mount: “And if your right hand causes you to miss work, cut it off and throw it away.  For it is better that you lose one of your hands and keep your job than that your whole body go into unemployment.”

The Birth of Micaela Jane

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Part eleven.

At four in the morning, May 7, 2009, we were both up on the dime.  I, to go to work, and Rachel, because she was in labor.  “It’s nothing,” we thought.  “They say these things progress slowly.  It could be a false alarm.”  She was pacing my parent’s family room, moaning through the contractions.  We still had not been able to move into the apartment.

“Call me if you need to.”  I kissed Rachel and drove off to work.

At seven o’clock, the classic rock was interrupted as I was breaking down boxes and stacking packages of meat in the open refrigerator.  “Telephone call for Mr Stix.”  (As skinny as I am, it didn’t take long to acquire that nickname.)  I picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“I’m not sure if I should go to the hospital,” she said timidly.  Then some moaning.

“What?”  It was hard to hear her over the music.  After some time I gathered that she was in significant pain.  “Can my mom take you?  I’ll meet you there.”

I attempted to tie up some loose ends at work, but I was told by my co-workers to move it.  They would take care of it.  I stepped out into the morning sun, squinted, and hopped into my Protegé.

* * * * *

We got to the hospital at the same time, and were quickly admitted.  Before I could say “Good morning,” Rachel was in a gown and lying back in a hospital recliner.  The nurse left.  We were alone.  Rachel groaned through a few sets of contractions, then, a different nurse casually strolled in, as though she was looking for something that she may have left behind.

“Well now, let’s have a look.”  Some sort of measurement was taking place under the gown.  The nurse’s movements quickened, as did my heart.  She jotted down some notes.  “She’s 8 cm dilated.  We have to get her into the birthing room.”  Why this particular room was not sufficient for the purposes of birthing, I did not know.  But I dutifully followed.

The next three and a half hours were somewhat of a blur.  All I remember is that Rachel and I were alone in a large room.  She, strapped to a machine measuring vitals, and me pacing nervously, reciting scripture verses to her through the pain.

One must understand that up until then I rarely heard Rachel raise her voice above the volume of a refrigerator hum.  So to hear her groan deep and loud was a very alarming experience.  I imagine, to the nurses outside our room, it probably sounded just the opposite.  I can still see them sitting in front of their computers saying, “Oh, she’s got time.”

It wasn’t long, though, before Rachel cried out, “Can someone come help me!  Where’s the doctor, Jos?  Can you get the doctor?”  This was more than I could bear, so I went out to plead for help on Rachel’s behalf.  They looked annoyed.

The next contraction or two, a nurse came.  Gown up.  Another look of alarm and quickening of movements.  The doctor was paged.  Another nurse came.  More moaning as the caverns of her body shifted and opened.  Contraction.  Broken water.  Instruments lined up on a side table.  Swaddling cloths laid out.  Contraction.  A scrunched head meeting the chill of the sterile room.  Another contraction.  A purple head popped out, face scrunched, eyes tight.  “She looks like a girl,” I thought, holding Rachel’s hand.  Contraction.  Body slips out into the hands of a doctor that I do not know.  “She’s here!” I cried.  Rachel’s body trembled while they cleaned and wrapped Micaela.

“Can… I… I… ho… ho… hold her?” Rachel stuttered.  Our Micaela Jane was laid on her breast.  Her whole body relaxed, and a joyful smile swept over her.

Part ten.  Part twelve.

Moving out

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Part ten.

A week after Rachel’s sobering letter to me, we found out she was with child.  (We agreed before getting married that we wanted to have children early on, if possible.)  Our emotions were mixed, but we were predominately joyful.

I wish I could say that things changed for us immediately after that letter, but it remained challenging.  We at least knew it would be good to move out of my parent’s basement before the baby was born.  We called it “Pakpao” (which means “Kite” in Thai) before we knew the gender.

Through a co-worker I found out about a vacancy in an apartment in nearby Collingswood.  We had already looked at a few apartments, but finding the right combination of price, location, and space was challenging.  We knew we liked the area, and the price was reasonable compared to other one bedroom apartments, so we decided to take a look.

Rachel was seven months pregnant at the time.  We were getting a little desperate.  On top of that, we had never lived in our own place, so we didn’t know very well what we wanted, or what kind of questions to ask, or how to gauge what a prospective landlord would be like.

The apartment was situated on top of a two car garage, and was two stories tall.  We met Charles (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) at his front door.  He looked frazzled and out of breath.  His dog barked restlessly at the door.  “Get back, Teddy!” he yelled, pushing him back with his foot.  We greeted one another and he led us around back of the garage.  It was a narrow passageway, and we soon found ourselves at an old, forest green door that looked like it could have been a bit more secure.  He wrestled with the lock.  A sweat stain grew on the front of his shirt.

The lock finally came loose and the door quickly flung open, only to bang into a ladder that had been propped up inside the door.  “Sorry about that.”  He gave a nervous laugh, and squeezed in through the opening.  He managed to move the ladder just enough to swing the door halfway.  We filed in and made the narrow ascent to the first floor.

“I’ve been meaning to take this down,” he said as he rubbed his hand against the fuzzy wallpaper in the entryway.  The pattern was a pale gold, raised up from a background that used to be white.  Rachel and I looked at each other with a smile.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “It’s kind of vintage.”  He led us into the living room.  It was strewn with dusty, old childhood toys, stacks of paint cans, boxes of knick-knacks, tools, and a broken air conditioner.

“I’m in the middle of remodeling,” he told us.  As he showed us around, his pits began to soak through his shirt.  He went on to explain all that he intended to do.  As he took us through the bathroom, kitchen, upstairs bedroom and bathroom we saw potential.  We knew we wanted it.

“How soon would we be able to move in?” I asked.  His eyes grew and he shifted his stance nervously.

“April 1st.”  Perfect.  At least a month to settle before the baby comes.

“Is there a deposit?” I asked.  His eyes raised to the ceiling as he prowled through a barrage of numbers and unpaid bills in his head.

“First, last, plus one month.”

Having lived in my parent’s basement, we had saved a few thousand dollars easily.  I didn’t even try to negotiate.  “We’ll take it!”

* * * * *

A week before the move-in-date, I called Charles to make sure he was expecting us.  He sounded surprised and said, “Can we push it back?  I didn’t get to paint.”  Some excuses were given.  So we pushed it back to the middle of April.

After two weeks, I called again.  He wanted to know if May 1st would work instead.  May 9th was the due date.  So I told him we had to be in before then.  He assured me that all would be completed and that I had nothing to worry about.  I remained optimistic.

We scheduled the truck, and asked friends to come and help with the move.  On May 1st we pulled into the driveway of our house in the trees.

* * * * *

When I knocked on his door his son answered.  “Dad, some people are at the door for you!”  Charles was watching TV.  When he came to the door and saw our small crowd, the cars lined against the street, and the moving truck in his driveway, he looked at us the way an old high school friend does when you stop him dead in his tracks and say his name, but he doesn’t remember for the life of him who you are.

After a moment his memory ignited.  The apartment?  Right.  He went and grabbed the key.  I was anxious to see the miracle he performed since I last saw the apartment, so I followed behind him as he unlocked the door and ascended the stairs.  To my surprise, the junk was gone.  But to my dismay, the walls were not painted, and painting supplies were shoved in the corner.

“It’s alright,” I re-assured him.  “We can just put all our stuff in the middle of each room and paint around it.”  So that’s what we did.

That night, with all of our worldly possessions locked up in our new apartment, covered in drop cloths, we slept in the guest room of my parent’s house.

Part nine. Part eleven.

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