By Nancy B. Kennedy
“Something happened at work today,” my husband said quietly. Too quietly, I remember thinking.
It was late evening, that delicious moment of release when you’ve gotten the kids to bed and put out all the fires you’re likely to encounter for the day. Only on this day, our fires were just sparking.
Fear gripping my heart, I sat down and waited for him to continue.
Twenty years into his career, my husband John enjoyed a management position at a large medical university. An outgoing and personable man, he was well known in the field of government contracting.
But the last year at his job had been tumultuous. The university had been indicted for Medicaid fraud and put under the oversight of a federal monitor. The papers ran stories of corporate corruption at the highest levels. The governor brought in a new president.
That day, the day my husband came home so somber, the university had announced to the press that it was looking to cut costs.
“They’re eliminating jobs in a certain salary range,” John said. “My salary range.”
So began my husband’s — and by extension, our family’s — sudden and unexpected plunge into joblessness.
From Bad to Worse
Sadly, most of our friends have been laid off at one time or another. Many have had to move away to find work. In our circles, we were the most stable family we knew. My husband grew up in the area and had had just two employers in twenty years. I'd moved here in 1981. We'd been married for twenty years and lived in our house for 15.
Yet in that instant, even as my husband’s shocking words died away, my life of carefully constructed security vanished. My first thought, totally irrational but wholly likely to me at that moment: We're going to end up living under a bridge somewhere.
John’s salary was, in essence, the only one in our household. As a writer, my income was sporadic and, at best, covered only the niceties of our life. On top of that, we lived in a pricey area, where ordinary houses go for half a million and the cars on the road aren't domestic.
When the ax fell, we were stunned that John got just four weeks’ severance pay. Unemployment, we quickly discovered, paid just a fraction of his previous income. How were we going to live?
For days after John cleaned out his office, I was overcome by waves of uncontrollable sobbing. It was an agonizing time for us, our fears for the future compounded by the exhausting effort of shielding our young son from the crest of our emotions. In my state of despair, I found it difficult to read the Bible or even to pray.
As John began his job hunt over the following weeks, we suffered new shocks almost daily. Our washer broke, an air conditioning unit died, and our car needed major repairs. Our property was reassessed, and our real estate taxes skyrocketed. Family weddings, graduations and birthdays piled one on top of the other. Once causes for celebration, these events became drains on the family finances.
One day, I hit an emotional low. A friend suggested that I might find steady work to tide us over. She’s right, I thought, I could do some public relations work. Maybe freelance for the local paper.
“I hear they’re hiring at Wegman’s,” she blurted out, speaking of a local grocery store. Is that really what I need to do? I wondered, stunned.
As the weeks passed, though, and I struggled unsuccessfully to find work through my network of contacts, I began to consider it.
Eventually, we came to see that we did have resources. For years, we'd put a small part of John’s salary into a deferred compensation account, which we could tap. And, because our house was once a duplex, we figured we could rent out half again. We began to envision our viability.
Even so, I was angry. Angry that we were being forced to step back. Angry that plans we'd made for our future would be demolished. Angry about this crisis that we didn’t deserve.
I resented the fact that our family was paying for the university’s wrongdoing. John had played absolutely no part in it; his conduct at work was, and always has been, blameless. I know of no one else who applies biblical principles to his job as naturally as my husband does.
While I thought John’s guiltlessness would be apparent to potential employers, it wasn't. The university's name on his resume was a glaring scarlet letter. Interviewers invariably questioned him about his involvement in the scandals. Although he could answer readily and truthfully, he always returned home depressed, weighed down with the injustice of his situation.
In fact, John had just about everything going against him. He was laid off in the summer, when hiring decisions are rarely made. He was in mid-career, competing with an ever-younger workforce. And, as a white male, he was far from a hot commodity in a field that values diversity.
Ironically, it was the very hopelessness of our situation that triggered a turning point for me. One Sunday, our pastor prayed for those in the congregation who needed jobs, and I fled the sanctuary in tears. I hated being counted among that group, one of the needy ones.
Yet at an almost subconscious level, a verse of Scripture reached my heart. I imagine just about every Christian at some time has said with certainty that “with God everything is possible” (Matthew 19: 26). I'd said it myself, though I wasn't sure that I believed it any more.
But one day, after yet another interview came to nothing, I became convinced that if John, with all these strikes against him, ever did get a job, it would unquestionably be God’s working. For me, this awareness transformed our situation from a financial crisis into a spiritual awakening.
A few months earlier, God had brought into our lives a book by Paul David Tripp, Lost in the Middle, in which he examines midlife and the crises it can engender. The book's message is this: God doesn't care one bit whether we're successful, comfortable, stable or happy. All the things I thought I was. All the things I clung so tightly to. The truth of this sliced like a laser through my heart.
Why? I'd been asking in frustration. Why us, God? Because God is jealous for our hearts. He doesn't want us to live with the delusion that anything else — jobs, houses, savings — can bring the security that can be found only in him. God wouldn't allow me to live with that delusion any longer.
Changed by Grace
By God's grace, after six months of unemployment, John was offered a job. Today, he's again working in a government purchasing job that's about as stable as any job can be these days.
Though those bleak six months felt endless, during that time my husband and I learned more about God than we have in our entire lives. Our hearts remain heavy with the suspicion that we will never feel as safe in the world as we once did. Yet our faith has grown in ways it never could have if all our days were secure and our future known.
From our unfamiliar position of total dependence on God, we've read the Scriptures more humbly. We've prayed more urgently and have learned to ask for confidence in God's provision, and for endurance and peace.
We credit much of our newfound knowledge to the love of God’s people. We were upheld by encouraging notes and earnest prayers. We were astonished by the willingness of friends, family and our church to support us emotionally and financially. Now when someone close to us loses a job, we know far better how to help.
While John was unemployed, our route to church was altered by a construction project. We detoured onto a winding road that runs alongside a brook. To cross the brook and get back to the main road, we drove over an old iron bridge and up a steep hill through grassy farmland. One day not long ago, taking this route, I was startled into laughter by the thought that I was passing safely over the bridge, and not living under it!
In that moment, I finally drew a bead on the all-too-familiar concept of grace. We don't deserve the grace we've been shown. It's been freely given and gratefully accepted, yet I know now that everything we have comes as a gift from the hand of God.
Nancy B. Kennedy lives in New Jersey with her husband, John, and their 10-year-old son, Evan. She's the author of two Bible story and science activity books for children: Make It, Shake It, Mix It Up and Even the Sound Waves Obey Him (both Concordia).
Copyright © Today's Christian Woman (2009)