Sunday, July 31, 2016

I Press On

At 10:40 AM this past Sunday, just one hour and 40 minutes behind schedule, Allyson and I took off on a short vacation to the Texas Hill Country, bound for what we call The Donkey Cabin. We'd stayed in that charming 1840s log cabin exactly two years before on a trip with Ethan and my niece Savannah, and we couldn't get wait to get back there.

Around 2:00, we met up with Allyson's friend Kambry, who'd been on a vacation with her aunt and uncle just 48 minutes from our destination. I took those giddy girls straight to Longhorn Caverns State Park.

When we turned onto the six-mile park road, I was shocked to see a sign for Inks Lake. "Hey, Allyson!" I said. "Remember that lake where we jumped off the cliff into the water that time?"

"Yeah!"

"This is the same road that leads there. What was that? Three years ago? Yes, it was the same trip when we found out we'd gotten the contract on our dream house, right before we watched the fireworks. Wasn't that the best day ever?"

"Yes, it was! Can we go back to Inks Lake?"

"We'll see," I said. "I thought you wanted to go to McKinney Falls this time."


Longhorn Cavern was different from all the other caves I've toured. It didn't have many stalagmites or stalactites, but it made up for that in a fascinating variety of textures due to different mineral content in different areas. One of the rare American caverns cut by a river, it resembled an underground Grand Canyon through most sections. There were also impossibly smooth, wavy rooms that looked as if they were covered in a thick layer of meringue. Best of all, there were rooms studded with dazzling crystals as big as your hand--or even your head. I told Allyson it was like being inside a geode.


Kambry and Allyson, whose smiles could out-dazzle diamonds

But the most fascinating thing about this cave was its incredible history. Over the centuries, it had housed:
  • An outlaw who allegedly hid millions in gold, which was never found.
  • A speak-easy during Prohibition, complete with a wooden dance floor, a stage for a nine-man band (which is still there), and a swanky, candle-lit restaurant. Oh, and a stalagmite "Queen's Throne" where flappers posed for pictures with their dashing dates. 
  • Confederate soldiers who stockpiled gun powder. One of them was found by excavators with his bayonet and rifle. 
  • Comanche tribal counsels.
  • The young daughter of a cattle baron who was held hostage by Native Americans until she was rescued by three Texas Rangers who stealthily descended on ropes and then engaged the Indians in a deadly gun battle. I can just see her starry eyes as she gazed into her rescuer's eyes on the way up one of those ropes. (Probably he was fat and bald, but I like to think he was tall, dark, and handsome... and conveniently single.) 
The Difference Three Years Can Make
Climbing back into the car at 5:30 for the last two hours of our drive, I reflected once again on how nice it is not to travel with a man. Yes, I was tired and there was no one to help me drive, but I didn't feel the least bit of stress over not "making time." Instead, I feasted on the lavish beauty of the trees on both sides of the winding, hilly two-lane road. 

"They don't call this the Hill Country for nothing," I remarked as we barreled down a shockingly steep, incredibly long hill that literally felt like a roller coaster. Both girls shrieked in delight, and I shrieked along with them, though I refrained from lifting my hands like they did. 

As we crested the next hill, I felt I was flying in every way possible. I thought back to the last time I'd traveled this road, with a heart freshly torn after my divorce. My spirits had been lifted by the same beauty then, and at that time I'd thought, "Surely you can't fully appreciate beauty like this except when your heart is broken." 

Now, I thought, "Oh no, Sarah. You were wrong. In truth, you can appreciate beauty like this best when your heart is bursting with gratitude." 

I spent the next five miles or so reveling in thanksgiving as I marveled in the difference three years can make. Back then, it had been hard to imagine ever being happy again after my life had broken into smithereens. Now, I felt more content than I'd ever felt in my life, more surrendered to God's will than ever before. Now, my real life was about to begin, right around the next bend. 

I thought back over the journey of the last few months, during which I'd been actively pursuing a career in teaching. I remembered the endless disappointment of a silent phone after countless applications for positions that would have been just perfect for me. 

I remembered the exhilaration of that first interview call back in May, quickly followed by bitter disappointment when I arrived and immediately realized I was not qualified for the position. But that disappointment had morphed into thankfulness when I recognized this mistake as a divine appointment. One of the teachers and an administrator graciously answered my questions and offered me great advice about preparing for my return to the classroom. This was how I discovered Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This

I relived the agonizing surrender of my will after a serious case of cold feet just a few weeks back. My concerns had been mainly financial, and I'd convinced myself that the prudent thing would be to cut my budget drastically and save for another year before applying for any more jobs. That would also give me more time to prepare, I reasoned.

But then a tragedy took the lives of five Dallas police officers. Two days later, I was deeply moved by perhaps the best sermon I've ever heard. Pastor Mike Hayes challenged us to let go of our need to be comfortable, to be reconcilers and bridge builders, to really listen to those who are angry and broken, and most of all to share God's unfailing, tender, merciful love, His hesed. "This violence is not one group fighting another group," he said. "It's the kingdom of darkness coming against the kingdom of light." He said that we are to be an army of light, to overcome the darkness with love. I felt that the sermon had been written specifically for me. Surely now was not the time to stay comfortable. What better place could I shine in the darkness than in a public school classroom? 

My sister Amy agreed. "Think of all the children you could impact this year," she said in the car, on the way home.

That same evening, I rewrote my cover letter for the 20th time. "To quote a favorite song," I wrote, "'Life is short. I want to live it well.' I want to use my gifts to impact children's lives." Without hesitation, I submitted my application for a high school English position and sent an email to the principal. 

Two days later, she called! I was so nervous for that first real interview, but I had several loved ones praying, and the experience surpassed all my expectations. I actually enjoyed myself! I connected so well with the principal that I felt we could become friends. I was passionate, honest, animated, and articulate, and she eagerly agreed with my ideas about engaging my learners with a blend of high-tech and low-tech interactions. 

When I left, though, I felt more terrified than exhilarated. "Holy crap, I might actually get this job," I thought. For the first time in months, I was up for hours with insomnia as brilliant ideas filled my head. 

The next day, I was crushed when the phone didn't ring... until I saw that my application now showed "processing in HR." I'd never seen that status before. The principal had told me she was not authorized to make an offer, and that I'd hear from HR if I was selected. Surely an offer was forthcoming!

And then the phone rang, and it was another interview, this time for a 9th-grade junior high position teaching struggling readers. The second interview went even better than the first, and I deeply admired this principal for different reasons. Although job 1 would probably have been an easier position, job 2 tugged at my heart and kept me awake for the second night in a row as I pondered how to reach these troubled students. This principal had told me to ask for 24 hours to think if the other offer should come through before he'd finished interviewing the other candidates. He said if I contacted him it would "force a decision." Surely a second offer was forthcoming! 

So I agonized over those two hypothetical offers. There were so many factors to consider! 

Meanwhile, I got a call for interview number 3, a 7th-grade Language Arts position right here in my home district. Oh, it would be perfect!!... or not.  Although this was my best performance yet, and although the principal was laughing along with me at my great wit, I could feel that he wasn't really interested. I figured he'd already chosen someone else, and I was just a formality to meet the required number of interviews. At least he gave me the courtesy of a call from his secretary the next day, informing me that they would "keep my resume for future opportunities." I wasn't too disappointed because I hadn't been all that impressed with him anyway--nothing like I'd felt in the other two interviews. 

After over a week left hanging, I concluded that I must have been choice number two for job 1. This close to school starting, there was no way they'd wait this long to contact me if I'd been choice number 1. I felt pretty disappointed, but also honored that I would be seriously considered after 18 years out of the classroom--and on my first interview.  

When I began to suspect that job 2 had fallen through, too, I felt so humiliated. How could I have agonized over two offers when really I had zero offers? What had made me think that anyone would ever give me a chance anyway? Oh, I was low. To make matters worse, I had to appreciate the bitter irony of giving over my will to love other people's children and be a soldier in the Army of Light, only to be rejected as unfit for the job. How my pride stung! 

But last Thursday evening, God reminded me that His plans for me are so much better than what I could ever plan for myself. For a few blissful days, I ceased my struggling and just trusted Him. I took Him at his word and believed that His plans are to prosper me, to give me a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). I trusted that He purposefully created me to do the good works that He planned in advance for me (Ephesians 2:10). 

That night I wrote thank-you letters to three principals--two heartfelt cards one polite one. As I dropped them in the mail slot at 11 PM, I felt a remarkable peace in physically letting go. I told God, "You gave me this dream, and now I'm giving it back to you. I trust you to fulfill it, in your perfect time." 

This was why I felt that I was flying as I drove down that winding park road, why my heart was full of thanksgiving. I realized that I had no idea what might lie ahead for me, but I felt safe and secure and content and very, very loved. 

Just as I was pondering God's goodness, an old hymn came on the radio, sung by an old-fashioned choir: "Give thanks, with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One. Give thanks because He's given Jesus Christ, His son." 

Tears of wonder rolled down my cheeks at this sacred echo. Oh, what a beautiful life!

I had three more beautiful days with my two beautiful travel companions.
Natural Bridge Caverns,
where we zip-lined and did a "canopy obstacle course"
Snake Farm and Petting Zoo
Allyson with baby goat


Sometimes the goats got a little aggressive.
This one decided to eat my shirt!
Allyson hoped to hold this ball python, which Ethan held in 2005...

...but they only got to hold this little one. 

Only one thing spoiled the perfection of this trip. There was no sign of those cheeky donkeys who'd kept us company each day of our last stay in the log cabin. I was nearly as disappointed as the girls were. Where could they be?  

During bedtime prayers, we fervently asked God to send us the donkeys. But they didn't come. 

On the last morning, my quiet time was bittersweet. I didn't want to leave this serene place where my heart had thrilled to a cardinal splashing in the bird bath just off the porch. I didn't want to go back to my regular life and my very good but rather boring job. I didn't want to give up the dream of being a teacher this fall, but it was time to do that. The night before, I'd logged in and checked my job 1 application for the 20th time. The status had changed from "processing in HR" to "Closed." 

That evening, the rain that rolled down our windows during our very first drive-in movie (the latest Ice Age movie) matched my mood perfectly. It reminded me of the tears I wanted to shed but held back because both girls were in the front seat with me, spilling popcorn and giggling over Sid's antics. 

I can't say why I was so bitterly disappointed. I'd already deduced that I wasn't getting either of those jobs, yet seeing it become official somehow twisted the knife. So that morning, surrounded by bird song and gorgeous trees (but no donkeys), I let the tears come in a quiet storm. I told God how much it hurt to let go of my dreams, especially after I'd pushed past my fears and allowed myself to become so excited. I told Him how confused I was about the way He'd spoken to me through that sermon about shining in the darkness. Why would he urge me not to wait, only to make me wait?? 

When I poured out my heart, there was no anger. I still felt very, very loved, as if my Father were holding me in His lap and brushing the hair off my teary cheeks. "Oh, Father," I breathed. "Please don't let me miss any of the beauty in this last day of vacation. Please don't let me ruin it by feeling sorry for myself. And please, please, could you send us the donkeys?"

Just then, I paused in my sniffling, turning to find the source of a rather ominous buzzing. I caught my breath and sat stock still. It was a hummingbird! Oh, how I'd hoped to see one again this trip, and God had granted my wish. Here was a beautiful thing, and I wasn't missing it. I smiled through my tears as this tiny, exquisite creature sipped nectar from the pink flowers in a planter at my feet. When it had taken its fill, it flew right past me, hovering for several seconds just inches from my face. I took in its tiny feathers, its iridescent wings, and its long beak. What a miracle, so fearfully and wonderfully made!

Reluctantly, I dried my tears and called the girls down for breakfast, and then prodded them to pack up their things so we could make the 11:00 checkout time. As we were carrying out our last loads, guess who walked up to our gate? Yep, it was the donkeys!  




The girls squealed in delight. They petted each one, took selfies with them, and even tried to film them in a musical.ly video, but the donkeys weren't up for that.


Did you know donkeys sniff butts?
Apparently mine was irresistible.


The Difference Three Days Can Make
After about 10 minutes, I managed to tear the girls away, and we said goodbye to our beloved Donkey Cabin and headed back to Inks Lake. Allyson had decided she really had to jump off that cliff one more time.

The trees were just as breathtaking as they'd been a few days ago, though today my heart felt heavy instead of thankful. I decided then that it doesn't really matter whether you're happy or sad; you can always find joy in beauty.

As I pondered these thoughts, Broken Hallelujah came on the crackly station. I thought of last night's text from my cousin Jenny, a fellow teacher: "Consider it pure joy, dear Sarah... and I think that will bring peace. I know this is hard."

Fresh tears slipped down my cheeks. Yes, I could find joy in this moment, with two giggling girls in my backseat and all these trees to keep me company. Though I never opened my mouth, my heart sang a broken hallelujah.

Walking down the path to the Devil's Waterhole at Inks Lake, Allyson excitedly described the cliff to Kambry. "It's pretty high," she said, "but not nearly as high as the cliff I jumped off in Canada."

I figured this tamer cliff would be a piece of cake in comparison. A couple of weeks back, Allyson had had a bad experience jumping off the aforementioned cliff. She'd hit the water wrong, and water had gone up her nose "almost to her brain." I'll let her tell you more about that in a separate entry.

By the time I got up the courage to stumble over the slimy, algae-covered rocks at the water's edge, Allyson and Kambry had already swum across the lake and were scrambling up the rocks. Submerged in the most delightfully cool (but not icy) water, under the blazing sun, I squinted up at the girls on the ledge. From here it didn't look so high, but I well remembered how high it is from that vantage point.

That's Kambry in pink, probably about 20 feet up

Allyson and Kambry
After a couple of minutes, Allyson climbed down to a lower ledge and jumped in. Kambry stayed where she was, and Allyson looked on from below, calling encouragements. This was odd. On our first visit, seven-year-old Allyson had jumped down to her Aunt Amy with barely a moment's hesitation.

After a couple more minutes, I cheered when Kambry plunged into the water. "Allyson!" I called. "It's your turn."

"I know!"

The two girls climbed back up to the ledge and then spent the next 20 minutes or so alternately sitting off to the side while others jumped and then standing on the edge together. It was obvious now that Allyson's bad experience in Canada had taken her nerve.

"Go, Allyson!" I hollered. "You've got this."

"Do I have to?" she called.

I thought back to my own long minutes of hesitation three years earlier on that same ledge, toes curled around the warm granite, heart hammering. How I'd wanted to climb back down the rocks to safety. But I couldn't. I couldn't let my fear hold me back, not while my daughter was watching. In that moment, I realized that this battle was not only about jumping into a lake. It was symbolic of taking a much bigger leap, letting go of my fear and trusting that God was in control of my ruined life. I was so tired of being bound by fears, big and small, and I decided I would not live that way any longer. Oh, but I was scared--about all of it. I said a silent prayer, took a deep breath, and then another... and threw myself off the edge.

"Yes, you do!" I shouted to Allyson. "You can do this."

Allyson wrung her hands. "I know. But I'm scared."

"You can do it, baby!"

"Okay, just don't push me," she called.

So I pressed my lips together and prayed for my daughter. I didn't want her to follow in my footsteps and spend most of her life playing it safe and staying comfortable. I knew that climbing back down those rocks wouldn't make her any kind of a failure, but I didn't want my brave girl to set a precedent of bowing to fear.

I later learned that Allyson, too, was praying. After a couple of agonizing minutes, she finally leapt over the edge. I screamed in triumph, my heart throbbing with pride. "Woo hoo!"

Kambry jumped in right after Allyson, and they swam back across without pleading to stay longer. The job was done, and they were ready to go home.

One More Interview
When we got home, I was shocked to find a voicemail waiting with another interview request, at a junior high just 12 minutes from my house. This time, I was determined not to get my hopes up. By now I had no energy left to be excited, anyway. Still, I felt a tug the next afternoon as I circled the school. Imagining the kids who lived in those run-down houses on all sides, I whispered, "If this is the job you've chosen for me, I say yes." And then I said it louder. "Yes."

The interview felt pretty solid, but not exhilarating like the first two had. I liked the two teachers who rounded out the panel. They were warm and dedicated, and I could see myself collaborating with them.

At the end, the principal said she'd probably make her decision the next day (this past Thursday), and promised to call me either way.

I felt remarkably peaceful most of Thursday. I did feel a little apprehensive at the prospect of teaching 6th graders; I'm more drawn to teenagers for some reason. But this would be a step in the right direction, and I had no doubt that I could love these kids. But was I really ready?

In my heart, I was on the ledge again, ready to take the leap. "If you offer me this job, I'll take it," I prayed.

But the phone didn't ring. By 5:09, I accepted the truth. I was surprised when a few tears dripped onto my shirt. Clearly, I had not managed to keep my hopes down. "Oh, God," I breathed. "I trust you. I do. Please hold me close. I'm just so tired."

Press On
Just as that prayer left my lips, a colleague chatted me to ask about the interview. I replied that I was pretty sure I hadn't gotten the job. "God will have to really help me find favor. I know on paper I look like a big risk after so many years out of the classroom. Nothing is too hard for God, though."

He replied, "Of course. But consider Philippians 3:14... I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

I smiled and dashed away the tears. No, I wasn't giving up. I chatted back that I'd been wanting to do a little substitute teaching on my vacation days, and maybe take a university class for ESL (English as a Second Language).

My friend, a former teacher, agreed that these steps would certainly make me more marketable, and that substitute teaching would help me to solidify the choice I'm making.

So here I am, back to the plan I made a few weeks back. I'm going to do some more preparing and a lot more saving, and get ready to try again next year. I'm glad it happened this way, that it wasn't my fear that held me back. I guess God knew I needed a little more time, and I intend to use it wisely.

It occurred to me yesterday that I can love a lot of kids as a substitute teacher, and teachers, too. I can still be a soldier in the Army of Light.

In the meantime, I will be thankful for my very good job, especially for the coworkers who have been my biggest cheerleaders--but who readily admitted that they're happy to be stuck with me for another year. It's good to be loved.

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