Dear friends and family,
Skipping a Christmas letter for a year doesn’t mean nothing happened. It means too much happened. Life was so unstable for so long, we had no context clear enough, no frame of reference solid enough to clearly understand all that was happening to us, let alone explain it to others. We are not unchanged. You can still recognize us, but broach the right subjects or catch us with our Bibles open and you’ll learn God has gripped us tightly since last we wrote, changing our outlook on many things – fundamental things, life-altering things. As our family marches toward the Advent of the Christ Child, we not only celebrate Christ’s birth, but the renewing of our hearts and minds in Christ.
Our lives since our last letter have been a series of trimesters. The first – the winter of 2009/2010 – brought us our second child. Gilead, who is now 22 months, is as much all-boy as his older sister is all-girl. He smiles quickly for the camera, plays the drums on everything, and loves his sister more than she realizes.
The second trimester saw the end of an era: grad school ended in May, less than two weeks before Mercy’s second birthday, and without pausing for breath, the fulltime job search began. But a hundred applications and half a dozen interviews later, there were no prospects, and we knew we had to leave Idaho.
The third trimester brought us to the Portland metro area, where we house-sat for friends who were away on a three month overseas business trip. We went to church with old friends, gave Mercy her first haircut, watched Gilead grow, and applied for fifty more jobs. Interviews came quickly, filled with promise, with opportunities to put down roots in Salem, Tri-Cities, and Boise. And as quickly as the interviews came, they stopped. Our friends returned from their trip, and due to the terms of their lease, they were unable to host us any longer.
We were adrift. Friends quickly showered us with offers of hospitality, and food stamps would keep our plates from being empty, but as we boxed up our possessions and put even more of our belongings into storage, we slowly realized – as if in birth pangs – that we had become something new: homeless.
The first trimester of this new life was by far the most difficult. Our mailing address was the home of friends living just outside the Portland metro area, but between Christmas and a pair of out-of-town interviews, we were never anywhere for more than two weeks at a time. The interviews came from networking contacts, not from the job boards which had gone dry, or from cold-calls which had proved fruitless, and when those interviews brought the end of our job search skin-close before casting it away, we lost hope. We thought about returning to school to try a new field. We thought about joining the military. And then, after reducing ourselves to what could fit in the trunks of our cars and changing our address one more time, there was a phone call.
It was a full-time staff accountant position, with full benefits and a good salary. And so the next trimester brought us to Silverton: ten minutes from work, twenty minutes from Salem, and forty minutes from church. We signed a lease for a three bedroom duplex with a garage and a fenced backyard. We fell in love with the town and established routines. Work was difficult but rewarding.
The first week of work was euphoric, a waking dream. The second week turned darker as the demands of the job weighed down heavily upon the thin foundation laid even by graduate school. The third week was a night-time storm with no coming sunrise and no moonlit breaks in the clouds. The CFO had underestimated the requirements of the job. The accounting manager couldn’t relate to someone with a degree. The open channels of communication so highly valued by the company were closed. We never heard them coming. Less than four weeks after the job was offered, it was taken away.
We wept. And we could do nothing but return to those same empty job boards and fruitless phone calls. Again, friends quickly came to our aid. Though we had no need of shelter, we were in desperate need of cash, and it was here, after hard work, natural talents, the free market, and every tenant of the so-called American Dream had failed us, that we realized the painful, glorious, agonizing, precious truth: it was all Grace.
The third trimester of this second life began with the realization that we were receiving that for which we had prayed, daily, since before we knew one another existed. We wanted to love our neighbors. We wanted to understand love. We wanted to know the roots of compassion. We wanted to be free of every preconceived notion standing as a barrier between us and the poor, the lonely, the downcast, and those who – as Bonheoffer put it – are gripped tight by God. And so God gripped us. We could feel His fingers cracking our ribs, and yet we knew we would never be dropped, could not hope to be dropped. We cried out daily and yet there was joy. It was not the joy found in pleasure. It was joy such as C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy: an overwhelming desire to reach for something wonderful that can only be held for moments at a time, something so wonderful that gravitas trumps giddiness. We could taste Grace in the air.
We were not lifted out of our troubles at this point. But we were given the strength to carry an even larger, more glorious burden. By this point we were well into expecting our third child, due in September. And by this point, Amber’s mother was unable to return to work because of old injuries that recent surgery failed to completely heal. Jan put her house on the market, and she and all that she had were welcomed into our home, for however long we could be in it. There was still no work – not even at Safeway or McDonald’s – but checks continued to come in the mail, some from dear friends, some from friends of friends who had never met us, all of them beloved of Christ. Our third child would be due soon, though we didn’t know what house or city or state he would be raised in, only that he would be ours, and we would do everything we could to teach him and his siblings how to live in God’s good grip.
The only solid job lead at the time came from a friend – a member of Jan’s old church and a partner of a small CPA firm on the other side of the state. An interview followed, and yet, after so many that had seemed so promising, hope was only a background hum, faith only a penlight in the night.
But there was Abel. He was born September 7th, angry at the disturbance, but beautiful. He brought the facial features of distant relatives back into the gene pool, and he was the most tangible act of Grace we had received since the birth of his brother. Less than two days later he was taken by ambulance to a neo-natal ICU in downtown Portland for a breathing problem. The next day, after Abel had stabilized, after we were told the problem would resolve itself after a few days, after a night yielding only three and half hours of intermittent sleep, the cell phone rang.
We were born again.
The job was a full-time staff accountant position with a small but well-respected CPA firm in the very place from which we had just moved Jan. The irony of moving into Jan’s old house did not escape us. It was a strange time, almost a dream-like state as we once again packed up everything we owned, this time mixing Jan’s possessions with our own, moving into a house already familiar, to an area well-traveled on numerous trips, to a church who knew us as frequent visitors, and to a job that seemed too good to be true.
But it was true. And so we start this new life as children slowly waking. We remind ourselves daily of where we have been so we can better understand where we are. We remind ourselves that God’s grip – though sometimes painful – is nevertheless His. We approach Christmas with the lead-footed fear of children frightened by the sudden booming laughter of their parents. We are awestruck by the lowliness of the Christ-child, that He suffered as we have so that he may lead us through suffering. How many kings would do such a thing?
As we walk toward Christmas, we pray Jesus reveals himself to you as He revealed himself to us, though perhaps not in the same way or for the same duration. And yet, our hearts are hard, often requiring many thrusts into the fire and many blows under the hammer. We pray, then, that God gives you a heart of thanksgiving no matter your circumstances, and a joy so wonderful to grasp that it hurts to uncurl your fingers.
Ryan, Amber, Jan, Mercy, Gilead, and Abel