An unexpected cost of our calling

During this blog series on Work Stories, here’s some stream-of-consciousness reflections about our journey of calling/work/vocation. These are reflections in the rough and subject to change as I continue to grow up to be more like Christ and more like the Tamara he’s always intended for me.

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The path to discover our calling has brought us to a place better than anything we’d imagined and has cost us more than we ever expected.

This is the sentence I blurted to my friend over a church potluck. I didn’t know I believed it until the words came out of my mouth. I’m not sure my friend heard me, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I think about it when I’m facetiming with my kids across the country and I realize it’s been months since I’ve been able to give them a real-life hug. I think about it when we try to fit 28 years of possessions into an apartment with two closets and no storage. I think about it when it’s Easter or Thanksgiving and there’s no immediate family nearby to pile into the house carrying pies and side dishes.

It still shocks me.

For generations both Brian’s and my family have lived in the same small collection of towns in the center of New York state. We moved between towns several times as we were getting established, but always within the same county and always close enough to hang out with family at a weekend bonfire. It never crossed our mind we’d need to live anywhere else until my husband’s job was downsized in 2010. Since the early 1980s, the economy wobbled in our little post-industrial part of the northeast, but with Brian’s graduate degree and job experience it never occurred to us we’d have to look anywhere else for work. In fact, Brian had always been offered jobs at new places before even considering leaving another. He’s a sought-after employee with great leadership, team-building, and administrative skills.

Looking back, I’m not positive what came first: Brian’s agonizing vocational discontent or the economic recession that tipped our area’s quaky economy over the edge. Either way, we found ourselves with four kids, ages 12 - 18, and only my part-time church income. After our severance ran out, Brian picked up a job as a long-term substitute high school teacher in the district that had given him his first job back in 1996. It was a backwards career move for certain.

That painful year proved to be invaluable for Brian’s sense of calling and purpose while simultaneously using up the tiny buffer of money we’d saved up to that point. After the economically-backwards way we’d started our family, we’d just barely begun to feel like we’d gathered some security (and by that I mean a tiny amount!).

Here’s where I want to talk a bit about what I mean when I say that pursuing calling has cost us more than we ever expected. Because, of course, I mean that in so many intangible ways: long distance from family and friends, unfamiliar cities, and exhausting cross-country moves. But I also mean costly in a technical way - as in dollars and cents.

For us, the cost has been literally everything we own. That’s not to say we’ve ever been homeless exactly, but we have been often without a home. It’s taken me almost twenty-eight years to say this without even a smidgen of shame: in the course of navigating our calling we’ve had to live within the sheer generosity of other people’s homes at least five times. By this, I mean, we had no other roof to cover our heads than the one offered by a kind friend or family member. On a couple of occasions, even the term friend is a misnomer, more like acquaintances really. To be clear, these were good-hearted people who allowed us (and our ever-expanding family) for a certain period of time to live with them without paying rent.

This is sheer, abundant, undeserved gift. I want it to be proclaimed as part of our family story, rather than hidden in the wrinkled folds of memory.

(This doesn’t even account for the two occasions our mobility muscles were developed when a fire and then a flood evacuated us from our home at short notice and we were housed by our community.)

When I look back on our journey with this in mind, it begins to dawn on me that God seems almost insistent that our family develop the skill of mobility. That’s not to say we’ve never made a wrong move, nor is it to blame our occasional poor financial decisions on God! It is to recognize the unexpected gifts we’ve received along this crooked pilgrimage.

With each move, I’ve tried to get lighter, hold onto fewer things, and to let go of my inborn fear of scarcity. Nothing has weighed heavier, though, than my wish-dream for a family homestead - one that my children and their children could return to every holiday and season of life. Now we have one bedroom for them all to squeeze into and wonder what we’ll do when grandchildren arrive. (and what a blessed dilemma that will be!)

Moving to Connecticut has turned the crank of this deep desire in almost painful ways. Yesterday I drove the long way from Fairfield to Norwalk, through quintessential New England neighborhoods with oak and maple leaves just starting to land on the porch steps, and accumulating in little multi-colored piles around lampposts, mailboxes, and American flags. At one point, a quick glimpse driving by a yellow-canopied lawn surrounding a cedar-sided colonial, actually caught my breath and stung my eyes.

That is what I’d always imagined for my life.

The beautiful, undeserved glory of our lives is that for a couple of years in the middle of all this mobility, we lived in the kind of spacious, rambly, leafy real estate that will always be “home” in our collective family memory. We lived in a place and time when a 3,000-square-foot home with three floors of living space could be purchased for under $100,000.

We do not live there anymore. And we can no longer count that property as an asset to hand to our children as is the American custom.

It’s a good gift to own a home and to be able to preserve that as a financial gift to hand on to the next generation, but it is not the global normative. As our living spaces have become smaller, I’ve been reminded that to live in a completely private home - not attached to the walls and rooms of someone else’s living quarters - is the way of most of the world. (For millions of people, having walls of one’s own is an unimaginable luxury!) I take an odd sort of comfort in knowing this fact every time I want to bang on my bedroom wall to ask the neighbor to please turn down his television. (Despite how it might sound, I actually feel lucky to live in our current arrangement, and I’ll share more about that story another time.)

Without a smidgen of shame, I want our children and grandchildren to know that we have followed God with abandon on this downwardly-mobile path. We have done it badly, at times, always trying to learn what financial stewardship means in each place and season of life. Imperfectly, and sometimes ungratefully, we have depleted every bank account, sold every asset, used up retirement, while simultaneously, and ferociously waging battle against recurring debt. Unless the Lord builds the house, we may never have one.

There are a few items we carry around with us on each move as sort of Ebenezer stones to God’s care, provision, grace, and mercy. One of those items is a simple metal folding chair. It’s a generic fixture, kind of nice as far as folding chairs go, although the padding’s a bit rumpled and stained. Without a story, it would easily be sent to Goodwill.

The folding chair is what my husband received at his father’s death. He helped his brothers clean out his dad’s apartment and they split up the few items worth saving. Brian got a folding chair.

(We save the chair because it reminds us of the mysterious, backwards way God turns sad things into reminders of good things.)

When my mother’s mother died, she left a tiny sum of money to each of her five daughters. My mother used the total of her inheritance to take her kids and grandkids to dinner at one of my grandmother’s favorite barbecue chicken restaurants. One of my most prized possessions is the glass-enclosed bookcase my grandmother’s foster mother left to her. Needing a home is part of my family heritage, it seems.

My dad’s parents are still living, but they have generously shared their resources over the years they’ve been alive, in the form of a tiny, beloved family cottage that now belongs to my beautiful cousin. When my grandparents moved into their retirement home, they invited kids and grandkids to split up their household goods. I have a beautiful, sunshiny-yellow Pyrex bowl on my kitchen shelf that I’ll treasure forever. If you visit our home, you’ll notice these little treasured items, not worth much in economic terms, but priceless in the way they literally connect us to our heritage.

We’ve moved into areas of the United States with ever-increasing (and burdensome) costs of living at the same time our family expenses exploded with four kids entering the college years. It’s a terribly inefficient timeline, and my children have had to navigate the social awkwardness of our downward mobility. Of all the important lessons I’ve learned, I’ve become increasingly aware of the benefits for those able to participate in the American custom of transferring wealth. This means inheritances and other sorts of transferable assets, yes, but also college funds, down payments on real estate, and other sorts of help for the next generation to be able to obtain appreciable assets. It’s a fine custom, and, given the opportunity, one I’d heartily embrace. I’ve lost track of the number of times, in my exasperation, I’ve harumphed “We don’t even have a rich uncle!”

I’ve learned that this is a kind of wealth that a portion of our culture’s population seem to take completely for granted. It’s the bit handed down from generation to generation. I’ve lost count the number of times someone’s mentioned to me in a conversation their anxiety about “tightening their belts” and I nod my head, yes, knowing they mean that one source of available revenue is a bit sluggish and I mean “I’m hoping we can make rent”.

Coming from my financial naïveté I’ve grown a healthy respect for the kind of good this tradition of transferring wealth from one generation to the next can generate. I’ve also had more opportunity to grow in relationship with families who possess this kind of wealth, and to understand the kind of commitment that stewardship requires. When it’s done well, it’s a beautiful thing. God bless and and bring blessing through all who steward their wealth for His purposes.

God has asked us - the Brian and Tamara Murphy family - to the same stewardship in a different way. I’m learning to not only be grateful, but to embrace the abundance of His care for us in the process.

There have been seasons of our journey that we’ve been able to pull a healthy, double income, and seasons when we’ve lived off one part-time income. We’re currently in the part of our vocational journey where we pay for continuing education for me without me bringing in income. This mobility God’s required of us has made us scrappy and resourceful. We’ve been uniquely trained for this work by our industrious parents and grandparents, and we’re grateful for their example.

While we’ve usually had jobs that earned us enough to fit the description of the middlest of the middle class, we haven’t always had those jobs. We’ve also cleaned houses and corporate offices and cars, We’ve delivered pizzas and poured coffee from behind a counter at 7 AM. All of this work was and is good. We also do not take for granted the privileges automatically afforded us at birth by the sheer luck of our ethnicity and family networks. We’ve always been wealthy in relationship and community. We receive these assets with open hands and pray God will expand beyond them beyond just our own children, but also across the socio-economic, racial, and national borders of our lives. (I also pray clear words to God that I’m counting on Him to cover every expense that our particular vocational journey has cost our children and grandchildren.)

In the past few months, I’ve been invited by more than one family to use their home space to study and work, and to treat the property as if it were my own, as in “come and go as you please, and here’s a key to the back door”. Each invitation has been gift-wrapped in the most exquisite simplicity. There’s been no strings attached, and nothing required of me other than to show up and receive unearned hospitality. (By the way, if you ever want to bless the socks off an introvert, offer her the use of your home while you’re not even in it!)

This kind of hospitality is how I ended up spending a couple blissful mornings this summer lounging lakeside in a backyard hammock that was not my own. And this week, sitting in a rocking chair on one of those quintessential New England front porches, reading and praying and collecting a pile of autumn leaves the wind kept blowing onto my book pages. On a regular basis, I’ve accepted rides when our shared vehicle was not available to me, and shared meals I didn’t purchase.

Along the way we’ve also received more care than can be accounted from our community. Brian’s seminary degree, donations made to my tuition, jobs and gifts for our kids, and a massive investment of prayer and encouragement from those around us all belong to the overflow of the goodness of God and his people. All of it unlocked by our own desperate attempts to discover our truest callings.

This is the abundance I’m discovering in downward mobility. It’s an unexpected, unlimited return with an unexpected, limited cost. It is God’s manna for this pilgrimage.

In the meantime, I’ve begun the spiritual practice of thanking God for the homes that other people own. The ones I visit and the ones I drive by as I wander through Connecticut. I believe each pang of longing is a reminder that we are made for homes and beauty, and that one day we will welcome each other across the thresholds of eternal dwellings not made by human hands.

I ask Jesus to please make sure mine comes with a front porch.

I’ll write more on our vocational journey on another day. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about what you’re discovering as you pursue your life’s calling. Drop me a line?