My First Story…

I have been contemplating the last several months that I might start a blog to share my story – a journey that has taken me from the Central Valley of California where I grew up most of my childhood life to many places around the world as an adult.  As to why I’m writing this story now… Perhaps I’m feeling my age?   Maybe I have some wisdom to share?  …or maybe I just have too much time on my hands?   Well, whatever the motivation I invite you to read on….

Actually, I had been toying with blogging under the title “…A Story Worth Telling” for some time. The spark that made me decide it was time to publish this blog happened during LABOR DAY weekend after I came across in my readings an article from Harvard Business Review titled, “Please Stop Complaining How Busy You Are.”  While the article talks about good “time management” skills, I concluded that the claims people make of being “too busy” spoken of in the article actually mask our true priorities in life.   The fact is that when we tell people we are “busy,” what we are really telling them is how important our personal priorities are, and by inference, that they and their time aren’t one of them.  I have to admit I have said I’m busy for this reason many times throughout life.

The message and conclusion I invite you to draw from this?   I think it is healthy relationships with God and people and NOT just our jobs that are the primary outcome of good time management…

My most important relationship is the one I have with God.   This is a relationship made possible only through His Grace in that he allowed his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for each of us even though we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). My relationship with the Lord has been a story of personal redemption that transpired over a 26 year period of my life.  To keep this first post to just the specifics to my redemption and to entice you come back from time to time, I will leave out many parts of the rest of my story for future blog posts.

This FIRST story begins with my accepting Jesus as my Savior 36 years ago, in August 1977 when I was in grade school in Fresno, California. Things started out well enough. I didn’t seem to have much to be redeemed for at age 11, although I’m sure I was on track to need that Grace — even at that tender age. My family didn’t go to church regularly, so it was providential that I ever found the Lord at all. My brother became a believer a year before I did and because of witnessing his life change I decided I wanted what he had — a joy and peace I had never seen in him beforehand. His mentor, Bob, who led him to Christ, became my mentor as well.  One summer night after dropping off my brother following a Bible study, Bob invited me into his pick-up truck. He shared the gospel with me.  It seemed the “deal of the century!” God’s grace was free and I get redemption and peace that my brother had all by simply accepting that Jesus died on the cross for me? That’s a no-brainer!   I accepted Christ that night and it changed my life forever! I was so overjoyed that I ran into the house, told my Mom what I had done. My Mom is Japanese and was raised as a Buddhist so didn’t really understand the nature of grace;  As I explained what just happened to me, she said she wanted the same “deal”, so I led her to Christ that same evening!

The next several years were generally good as I did my utmost to honor my commitment to the Lord. By age 17, because of Bob’s influence, I was leading small group Bible studies in my home. I felt like I had a good handle on life and was on track to graduate with good grades and SAT scores. I had several college options and I ultimately chose the appointment to the Naval Academy as a member of the class of 1988.

Knowing the honor that comes with attending the Academy and being a family of limited means, my Dad (a retired Navy Senior Chief himself), pushed me strongly to apply.  Being the obedient son, I dutifully complied.  I began this process during the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. Knowing my life was going to change dramatically in the coming year after high school graduation, especially if I got into Annapolis, I decided I should “live it up” while I had the chance. At this point, I remember telling people my goal in life was to work hard so I could “do what I want, where I want, whenever I wanted to do it”. In the process of achieving that goal, I slowly became “too busy” for Church and what God called me to do as a witness to the salvation he freely gave me. My church attendance became sporadic, whereas nights out partying with my friends began to take its place.  When my appointment to Annapolis came in February of 1984, my sense that “time was short” increased dramatically.  I got more adventuresome in trying NEW things I would have normally said ‘no’ to before.  By the time I graduated I had stopped going to church altogether.   This became the start of my 20 year journey into the “wilderness” where my love affair with work and what I wanted to do became priority over my relationships with friends, family and practically everything else.

My Dad use to encourage me in my youth by saying “… anything worth having is worth working for” and boy did I buy into that concept.  By applying this work ethic to the extreme for these ‘wilderness years’ of my life, I found that work did prove to be means to get the ‘good things’ in life or so it seemed.   Many would describe me as a success, at least by the world’s measure during this time.  After graduating from Annapolis in 1988, I had a successful five-year career as an US Naval Officer.   This included wartime service aboard a Cruiser operating in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.  While in the Navy, I married Leah, and after finishing my second tour aboard an Aircraft Carrier stationed in Alameda, I resigned from the Navy and we relocated to San Jose, CA.   A productive 10 year career followed as Engineering Manager with a leading Medical Device Manufacturer in the heart of Silicon Valley.  While in the midst of my civilian career, my Dad had his third and last fatal heart attack in July of 1996.  Prior to his death, I truly believe my Dad had his own reconciliation with God about his own busy career in the Navy and civilian life. He tried to help me understand that work would NOT miss me someday.  It had forgotten him after he had a stroke three years prior and was forcibly retired.   He saw me repeating many of his same mistakes about putting work first over everything.  I was in the “zone”, however, and failed to see the wisdom of his words until nearly seven years later. I’ll share the rest of that story, too, in a future post…

Fast forwarding to 2003… In March, I had a fateful conversation with my wife during which Leah challenged me in a way that only she could. Leah is a person who I know truly loves me unconditionally and understands me better than anyone else I have ever known – she is my best friend and life partner. At that particular moment, I was at a career crossroads and I knew I needed her support – what she gave me was perspective. We both knew I clearly needed to find a better work-life balance; by this time we had two pre-Kindergarten daughters — Elowyn and Gigi – who were both suffering from my neglect, a neglect birthed of self-centered ambition.

At Leah’s encouragement, I interviewed for a job in our hometown of Fresno, where we both had family who she felt she could lean on when I was busy at work. While the interview went well and they offered me the position, I really didn’t want to move back; I felt like every time I saw someone I knew, I‘d be seen as a failure. So, ego firmly in hand, I told Leah I wanted to see how I would fare with other interviews I had lined up. The one position I really wanted was located in Oakland, CA. I enjoyed the Bay Area lifestyle and the feeling of significance that goes with living there, not to mention the familiarity that came from having lived there for more than a decade.  My still misguided instinct told me I needed to keep my work and personal network intact rather than go to what appeared to be career-ending isolation in the Central Valley.  That day in March, my wife had other plans as she gave me an ultimatum that day I desperately needed to hear.  She said, “I’m moving back to Fresno; it doesn’t really matter where you are, because you’ll be at work anyway…”  She further added, “… and I would rather see you work in a ‘gas station’ in Fresno than anywhere in Oakland.”

Her words had done it – I realized finally just what an obsessive and self-centered relationship I had with MY work. That obsession was akin to one with a ‘cruel mistress’ always wanting to know “… what have I done for her lately.” and yet it was never ever enough. In a moment of clarity, I saw something years of being a “closet Christian” had blinded me to:  True LOVE – meaning how God LOVES us — is UNCONDITIONAL.  It is NOT earned by what we DO, but rather is the gift of His Grace ALONE (Ephesians 2:8).  Leah’s words, though bitingly honest in her tone, said something I became deaf to from hearing from God — that SHE loved me for ME and not for what I DID for her. Amazing is a God who will use who WE love, regardless of where they may be at in their relationship with Him, to remind us of HIS love for us.  Valuing Leah more than anything else in my life, I agreed to take the job in Fresno and move our family back to my home town.

Though I finally put work behind my desire to restore the relationship with my wife and children, I felt constantly reminded of just how much I had lost. Those first six months back in Fresno saw me sink into a deep depression, like someone who had lost the most important thing in his life which for me, was my work career in the Bay Area. I began to strategize and even fantasize how I might get back there while my skill set as a project engineer/manager was still relevant. I would describe the experience as the equivalent of an alcoholic convinced he can have one more drink, or an addicted gambler who wants to play one more hand of poker.  As the chance of my getting my old “work groove” back faded, I sank deeper into depression — I was “stuck” in what seemed like professional purgatory in Fresno.  As it seemed that my colleagues at other companies continued to thrive professionally, it made my lost sense of self-worth all the worse. For awhile, LinkedIn seemed a tool my “cruel work mistress” used to torment me with what I lost during this time particularly given my only LinkedIn colleagues were from my former company.

Fortunately, in another moment of clarity, at the same time we returned to Fresno, I felt called to bring my family back to the Church. I figured, at the time, it was perhaps too late for me but at least my kids could find the hope I had encountered back in my youth.   Of course in retrospect, I can say that God had greater plans than just my kids.   Having avoided church since getting married 12 years earlier, however, I definitely felt apprehensive about the idea of going back to church.  I just was not ready to feel judged any more than I was already judging myself. Nonetheless, Leah, though not yet a Believer in Christ, was agreeable to the idea of finding a church for our family.  We tried out a couple of churches that for one reason or another didn’t work out. Then, we saw that a church was meeting down the street from our home   That church turned out to be Clovis Hills, which until 2004 met in the Alta Sierra Intermediate school gymnasium, less than a block from our house. We went as a family and we were smitten by the church the very first Sunday.

The first sermon series we heard that summer in 2003 was given by the teaching pastor at the time. The theme for the series was “Performance”.  The sermons included the premise that we all seek to outperform to impress others so that we can somehow overcome the sense of inadequacy in our lives.  Knowing just how obsessed I was with work, the topic seemed God-ordained. I began the slow painful process of overcoming my “grief” listening to the message of Hope each Sunday   My grief, however, was less about my lost father and more about my lost career (…grieving my father’s loss is a story for another day).  First, there had been denial and isolation as I tried to get my resume back out in the Bay Area believing I still had time to reverse the decision. I would even skip church several weekends and make last-minute plans to visit the beach in Santa Cruz near where we use to live just to feel “normal” again.  Anger and bargaining followed, as I tried to convince myself that bringing my family back to church would somehow earn me back God’s good will after years of neglect. When that didn’t work, I fell into a deep depression that I shared with very few people. Leah was the only one who could carry that burden with me and thankfully she loved me enough to see me through this very dark time in my life.

By October 2003, about 6 months after relocating back to Fresno, things had come to a head; work wasn’t going well, and a change was increasingly looking inevitable.  By then, the clarity from hearing the gospel over and over again at church each Sunday provided a window of hope for me. Then it happened.  It was the 17th of October.  As I reflected on a very moving testimony of a woman who had lost her baby due to miscarriage, I felt the Holy Spirit descend on me, calling me back into relationship with Jesus.  And as I finished that prayer, I looked to Leah and asked her a question for which I already knew the answer — she had prayed that prayer with me! Suddenly, years of not making Christ the center of our relationship was over! The burden I carried for 12 years of marriage of not professing my faith in actions or words was lifted!  With the help of Leah and several key men who entered this phase of my life, I began the slow steady climb out of a pit of despair that brings me to where I am at today, a redeemed and absolutely committed follower of Christ!

So, this past Labor Day 2013, I came to the decision that I would tell you this story of my work-life reconciliation as the first of hopefully many stories, mine and others, on this blog, A Story Worth Telling.  As you see now, my story worth telling is one of lasting redemption only available through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Though the details of my situation are perhaps unique to me, it is my hope that it is similar enough to many to be meaningful, particularly men, who face a similar idolatrous view of work and one’s own personal effort .  I suspect all of us can relate in some way to making something or someone a priority over a relationship God offers to each of us.  This relationship comes at no personal cost to us because He paid a price we could not afford to pay through his Son’s death on the cross.  I hope my willingness to share my own “too busy” for God story will encourage some own personal reflection?

Epilogue:  Much has happened since that day in the fall of 2003.  I am grateful to the very strong Executive management team’s support at my current employer as they helped me transition to my current role as Project Manager in a Healthcare IT department at Community Medical Centers.   This is a role I feel God designed me for.  Though proficient at what I do as a Project Manager, I value less the work I get to do and more the worthy purposes and the wonderful people I get to do these projects with and for.  I am especially blessed in that I found work-life balance that permits me to have time with my family that I neglected in my kids early years.   These are all stories for future posts and will commonly point to the day I recommitted my life to Christ I finally understood that:  Work, much like money, is NOT evil, but it is the love of them that is.   Our Lord wants a relationship with us, not with our job or other priorities.  It is these idols that we put before Him that keeps us from knowing his true nature.

Colossians 3:23 says that “…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men”. When I got over my obsession with work, this aspect of my life was restored to its proper place.  Work is now just another means to demonstrate that I love and worship an all-powerful God who wants all of me, not just my productivity. Fortunately, God chose my wife to teach me that I am loved even when I didn’t love who I had become myself.

Hoping you had a relaxing Labor Day last week and maybe the opportunity to have been reflective as well!

Remember not to work too hard out there and become “too busy” to reflect on the gift of relationship that God offers you freely through His Son Jesus directly as well as through others who truly love you for you and not what you do for them!