Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Count It All Joy, My Brothers

I have been completely silent on my blogs since starting my training as a Physician Assistant at Stanford on July 2nd. Part of the reason for the lack of writing has to do with the business of the demanding academic schedule, but more so, I haven't known what I should write about, or lacked the inspiration.

Sometimes inspiration comes from desperation, as would have been the case had I written this blog last week during finals. I was a man of weak faith last week, which is disturbing. I have been teaching Bible study for years to college students, much of the time while I too was a college student (I got a late start). Late in the ministry I was teaching on believing God on His word, and that you can trust his promises. Before starting this program, I wondered if God's promises extended to my completing this program, to preventing my family from accruing a mountain of debt as I left my job and embarked on this challenging faith-testing journey.

In a previous blog, I remarked on my anxiety over leaving my safety net and pursuing this dream I had. This dream, I supposed (and still do) was of God's making and the Spirit's urging me to follow through on this "calling" to missions that I hadn't been able to put aside for years, even after having been told by people who I respect greatly on spiritual matters that I might be making a mistake. The thought never left me, and I assumed wrongly that I'd stand up strong to the test of faith; that I was already full enough with faith and mature enough in my relationship with Christ that no matter what happened, I'd remain strong in that faith.

I really let myself down over the last couple of weeks. I was completely overwhelmed by the prospect of 8 finals in one week, any of which, had I scored less than 70% could have been the end of my education at Stanford School of Medicine, leaving my jobless, in serious debt and with nothing to show for it but a head hung low. I was consumed with anxiety. In my mind, I had already failed, and in this ridiculously depraved mindset was already blaming God for failing me. I had come up with a hundred reasons of how He had turned His back on me when I had gone all in for Him. I was really worried about about what would become of me had I failed. Would I blame God? Would I ultimately blame myself? Would I become bitter? Would I become suicidal? Would I turn to drugs? Would my wife hate me and my kids be ashamed?

I know this all sounds idiotic and probably quite shocking to anyone who knows me, but it is true. God put someone in my life to encourage me every step of the way. I got emails, facebook messages, text messages, phone calls and all sorts of inspirational quotes and verses to help me through. These things came from the most unimaginable and surprising places.

In fact, I had friends whom I hadn't spoken with in years just give my family a large some of money with no strings attached at one point to just help us get through. That was during a different anxiety attack, though; one in which I didn't think I'd be able to continue school because the money was looking like it was going to run out. Don't get me wrong, things have been very tough, and we have never been forced to depend on God's provision so much ever in our lives (my wife and I). My problems kept mounting from about 3 weeks into the program.

First, I ended up having to leave the situation I had been living in as some very generous friends in a city nearby had allowed me to sleep on an air mattress on their living room floor so that I wouldn't be homeless. It was not an ideal situation for either of us, and it became clear that I was really imposing on them, although they'd probably swear to this day that I wasn't. I evicted myself, confident that God had a really cool crash pad lined up for me. Well, I ended up sleeping in my car and in a tent for midterm week (except for the night before my first set of midterms when my dad put me up in a B&B in Half Moon Bay). There was one night I crashed on the couch of a classmate's friend's house while they were out of town but the next two weeks I slept in my tiny little car.

Then, out of the blue, a spare room opened up at my great aunt's house that was only about 35 minutes from Stanford. That where I'm staying now. Its a nice little detached furnished room that adjoins the back wall of her garage. I have a bathroom just a short walk across her patio, and a spa right outside my room. Things were really looking up. Then my car broke down. Not just broke down but BROKE down. Cracked heads, water pump, possibly radiator and a whole host of other smaller problems were the final diagnoses... prognosis: meh, not looking good pal. 

My dad and I towed the car back to Oakdale with a rented trailer. A friend did some of the more minor work on it for me, but the heads, that's gonna cost me. Well, not me personally, because a generous donor has volunteered to pay for the repairs. Not sure how much that's going to be yet, I'll have to come back to that later. In the interim, a friend from school loaned me her car for a week ebcause she lived close enough to ride her bike to school. Now I'm driving the old Jeep wrangler with a break neck top speed of 60 MPH, not that I could ever get up to that speed on bay area freeways anyway. But it is NOT an ideal commuter and was costing me $15-$20 per day to commute. That's not sustainable when you have no income, so I found some friends who carpooled to Stanford from the San Jose area, but that only worked out for about a week. The car pool was already crowded and these tiny little fuel efficient cars are not meant to have 5 people for 45 minutes in stop and go traffic 2-ways. I could tell that this wasn't a viable solution and let them have their comfortable drive back.

Then I discovered the Caltrain. Commuter trains, in case you are wondering, are WONDERFUL! They are relaxing, fun and give me an opportunity to study to and from school each day.

But, back to the academics. Many students in the calss have compared this to program to "drinking water from a fire hose." In a Facebook post, the week before finals I wrote:

Feel like I'm holding onto a tree in the middle of an information river while it all just washes over me. Every once in a while I can catch a gulp of the information and swallow it but about half the time I just choke on it. How am I ever going to get through these finals?

Just so you know that I am not exaggerating, I spoke with some med students about our finals and the volume of material we covered and they were blown away... and I quote: "I don't think they're allowed to make you guys do that." We have several people in this program who have Master's degrees in various fields from Public Health to Physiology who have said that never in their academic career have they been so challenged and overwhelmed. There are foreign doctors in the class who admit that this is challenging even for them after having been through medical programs and working in the medical field for several years.

Almost everyone in the class was a basket case for a week leading up to the final and finals week. I didn't start out that way. I had kept my cool for most of the week, had been extremely conscientious about studying and was pretty confident that I'd make it through when I was suddenly struck by the thought that I, being a simple paramedic in an urban scoop-n-run city in the valley and myself, coming from a po-dunk town and all my science classes having been from a po-dunk school, was more confident than the doctors, nurses with BSN's and people with Master's degrees in Human Physiology. WAS I CRAZY?!

And the anxiety took over. I absolutely studied my butt off for the next 3 days (and had been for the last 3 months as well) but I turned on the after burners, living off of coffee and whatever carbohydrate-rich food source I could stuff in my mouth. I think from Friday until the first final on Monday, I accumulated over 40 hours of study time. By the time I sat down for my first 5 finals, I was fried. It was like a dream where you think you might be dreaming but are not quite sure, then something bad happens and you realize its time to wake up, but can't and keep trying to tell yourself "This isn't real! This isn't real!" But it was.

After the finals I was mentally spent, emotionally drained, and more or less resigned to a fate that I had made up in my head that involved bouncing from one low-paying entry-level job to another for the rest of my life.
I didn't think I'd crumble like that. I had spent three months in preparation for this, staying up until all hours of the morning, studying drugs while brushing my teeth, drinking coffee by the gallon and running to the bathroom to splash water on my face when I'd start drifting off in lectures. I considered faking ADHD to get an Adderall prescription from the VA Hospital. I was depending on anything BUT God to get me through this.

Oh, but the horrible scam of it all is that I thought I was trusting God. I really did. How could I, the guy who'd grown jaded to all sorts of danger on the violent streets of Stockton, who'd been to Haiti on medical missions, who'd sailed on a cutter into a typhoon, who'd voluntarily jumped into rapids to pull frantic near drownings to safety, who'd been the medical person in charge of the most traumatic multiple person shooting in Stockton in 20 years, and, most surprisingly, who'd been teaching people just like myself that they could bet it all on God's promises, not be trusting God?

Well, that paragraph should say it all. Pride. By God's grace, I survived those finals, all of them, without so much as a scratch. I was about to learn a really important lesson though. On Sunday, I had been discussing with some friends at church about the fact that we rarely hear pastors preach on the book of James. If you read the book for yourself, you can see why. It would be a really good way to lose about half your congregation. For some reason, or for that reason, I was drawn to it. So, yesterday, while on the empty train heading to school, I planned to read it. The first half of the first chapter stopped me in my tracks. I'd probably only read the book of James for myself (and not to teach a Bible study) once or twice in my life. Here's the first 8 verses of the first chapter:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
 Obviously, the emphasis is mine. The point is clear: I am weak, but He is strong. Even my little kids could have told me that... in rhyme... with melody.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

New Chapter but the Same Direction

I've bee somewhat absent from my regular blog ZachThinksDeep and have been seriously contemplating kind of ending that blog and picking up on this one. You see, this blog was entirely set up to inform and inspire missionaries and detail my journey to the missions. I am standing on the welcome mat of the door to the first leg of training for my role as a missionary. From here on, this conversation isn't ethereal, it's real. I am about to jump off the preverbal cliff into a realm of what I hesitate to call uncertainty. It makes no sense to many, that I can just leave my job and pursue an extremely expensive education with no plan to pay for it or how to support my family. I've hammered out as much of the details as I can such as how we are going to pay our mortgage and other bills but tuition and other living expenses (like groceries) that's kinda up in the air right now. One thing I know, that has been affirmed, is that this IS God's plan. I do not know how He plans to get us through, but I KNOW He will. I know, now that God permits us and even encourages us to take risks, promising to abound in mercy an grace (2 Corinthian 9:6-15). Of course, it seems to be agreed upon that I need not consider this a risk. Letting money slip through my fingers, trading financial security for a life ruled by faith, these things must seem like foolishness to the faithless reader, and I must admit, I struggle with these things too. I cannot live a life of secure monotony because I'm too afraid to take a chance and do what seems to be what I have been designed to do. My missionary story started half a decade ago, but is really the first time I've made that leap. I refuse to live like a coward or settle too easily for the mediocrity of a dream unfulfilled. I like Kevin DeYoung's words in his book "Just Do Something" in which he writes:
We don't take risks for God because we are obsessed with safety, security, and most of, with the future. That's why most of our prayers fall into one of two categories. Either we ask that everything would be fine or we ask to know that everything will be fine. We pray for health, travel, jobs -- and we should pray for those things. But a lot of prayers boil down to, "God, don't let anything unpleasant happen to anyone. Make everything in the world nice for everyone." And when we aren't praying this kind of prayer, we are praying for God to tell us that everything will turn out fine. That's often what we are asking for when we pray to know the will of God. We aren't asking for holiness, or righteousness, or an awareness of sin. We want God to tell us what to do so everything will turn out pleasant for us. "Tell me who to marry, where to live, what school to go to, what job to take. Show me the future so i won't have to take any risks." ... Obsessing over the future is not how God wants us to live, because showing us the future is not God's way. His way is to speak to us in the Scriptures and transform us by the renewing of our minds. His way is not a crystal ball. His way is wisdom. We should stop looking for God to reveal the future to us and remove all risk from our lives. We should start looking to God--His character and His promises--and thereby have confidence to take risks for His name's sake. God is all-knowing and all-powerful. He has planned out and works out every detail of our lives--the joyous days and the difficult--all for our good (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Because we have confidence in God's will of decree, we can radically commit ourselves to His will of desire, without fretting over a hidden will of direction.
Now pay close attention to this final paragraph.
In other words, God doesnt take risks, so we can. For some this means trusting God enough to let your money slip through your fingers. For others it means holding fast to the Word of God in some difficult circumstances or an unpopular situation. For others it means cross-cultural missions, or more evangelism, or a new dream, or confession of sin, or confrontation of sin, or new vulnerability in a relationship. And for some it means getting off your duff an getting a job, or overcoming your fear of rejection and pursuing a lovely Christian woman. For all of us it means putting aside our insatiable desire to have every aspect of our lives, or even the most important aspects of our lives, nailed down before our eyes before we get there.
(emphasis mine) This or soemthign like it needs to be our battle cry. There is no more room for timidity.