The Break

This spring I was working very part-time at a church while I continued a multi-year search for a full-time, permanent position. I was strapped for cash and hope. As I marked my 250th job application, I felt overlooked and frustrated.

The waiting was the hardest part of those years. For all of the hours I spent searching the internet, applying for jobs, and praying, I spent hundreds more waiting. I learned then that waiting can deplete energy faster than any other activity.

As the waiting stretched on, I began to feel diminished. I joked more than once that I was experiencing brain atrophy, but I wasn’t laughing. I was so emotionally exhausted that sometimes I lost my train of thought and stopped in the middle of a sentence. The worst thing in all of this was feeling like I’d lost touch with the vibrant person I am.

Last winter, during the miserable waiting, I went on a spiritual retreat and spent an hour slowly walking a labyrinth. The path was shaped by mismatched rocks on top of sparse Arizona earth. I was so focused on the rhythm of my steps and my prayers, that I missed most of my surroundings. But then, there was a moment when I looked ahead, saw, and stopped. On the ground along a particularly sharp corner of the labyrinth, was a sprig of pale green topped with a single flower. The petals were an apricot color kissed with sunshine. It was a desert poppy, its presence so cheerful and carefree in the middle of so much dust, that I started to cry.

desert poppy

This is the color of my spirit, I thought. This is the joy I’ve lost touch with.

A couple of weeks after that, I applied for the job in Hawaii and few weeks later the principal called to offer me the job. I’d told God that couldn’t face another month of idling, so even though the job was temporary, I accepted it as a gift straight from Heaven. Working with children had never been on my professional bucket list, but I’ve always loved kids, so I thought — why not? At the very least, it would be a break from financial stress and job searching. I was sure to learn something new. To stimulate and engage my mind again. The change might revive my energy and maybe the youthfulness of the students would slough away some of my calluses.

Now it’s December and my last week in Hawaii. It’s been seven months packed with rich experiences, far too many to recount here. The students did revive me. Everywhere I went on campus I’d hear, “Hello Chaplain Gustafson!” Sometimes it was Gusterson, Guftasin, or Gustussin, but it was always endearing. The children just saw me. They accepted me and loved me. I never felt like I had to prove myself to them or perform for them. I could just be me, offer whatever was in my spirit that day, and that was enough. This is the kind of hospitality that extended job searching had sucked out of my life.

One of the most beautiful things about Hawaiian culture is the tradition of giving a flower lei. Most visitors think this is a cute, touristy thing that only happens at the airport or in the lobbies of fancy hotels. For those who live here, giving a lei is a sign of affection and respect. You give one to mark a special achievement or occasion, but more importantly, to honor the recipient.

For almost every chapel I led this fall, the class helping me would present me with a lei. This ring of flowers always came with words of thanks and a hug that I would have to kneel to receive. Their variety and colors dazzled. Their sweet fragrance circled me all day, everywhere I went. With a lei around my neck, I couldn’t go unnoticed; their scent drew people to me.

Because of my story before Hawaii, lei have spiritual significance to me. Each time someone placed one around my neck, a piece of my exhaustion fell away. As flowers piled up, frustrations lost their weight. Just a few months ago I felt invisible and diminished, but now I feel strong and happy. Receiving these lei was like being hugged by God — there was no chance of staying small. Thanks to God, thanks to this job and a promise of a future job, and thanks to these beautiful, giving children, joy is a regular experience again. I’m in full bloom.

A few weeks ago I walked to work in a downpour. I waded through ankle-deep puddles, got splashed by passing cars and sighed as my umbrella leaked drops of cold rain on my head. I am not a morning person, so walking through a storm at 7am put me in a terrible mood. But as I passed the pool on my way to the chapel, there was a break in the gray clouds above the trees. Behind them I could see clear blue sky threaded with brilliant rays of sunlight.


There I was, waterlogged and grumpy, but God was winking. Welcoming me to a new day. Reminding me that there are good things to come.

Seeing the break in the clouds, I smiled, and hoped.

Life without a Bow

Every life is a story. In the weeks since I announced my new job and my rapidly approaching move to Hawaii countless people have dreamed up epilogues for the next chapter of my life. Many believe this temporary position will somehow become permanent. Others predict that I won’t come back, that another job on the island will line itself up as this one concludes. One man thinks God may be calling me to plant a church on the islands. But the most common epilogue is a romance with a Hawaiian man which will be followed by marriage and cute Hawaiian babies. As I listen to person after person predict what will happen next, I fill with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’ve got a lot of grace; clearly I am well loved and people are excited for me. Meanwhile, the jaded side of me thinks – get real people, this is my life, not a novel!

bow box

Maxine, my creative writing professor in grad school, encouraged us students to resist tying up our pieces in a bow. Using countless examples, she showed us that often the most compelling stories don’t have anything close to fairy tale endings. Yes, great stories always have conflicts that need resolution, but often the conclusions of these stories are messy. Not every tale gets straightened out and wrapped up by the final page. And not every story needs a fairy tale ending – the unexpected return of a hero, rags to riches, marriage and babies – to be great. Sometimes a few tangles and lingering questions make the best ending because real life is messy.

After four years of relentless job searching, the stress of underemployment and an income too small to warrant a budget, the certainty of six months of full-time employment is epilogue enough for me. I’m luxuriating in the freedom from having to look for work for a few months. I get time to reconnect with some dear friends and to make new ones. And let’s be real, the fact that I get to live in Hawaii is a big, shiny bow. God has provided respite. I’m relieved and elated and ready to play in the ocean. I feel satisfied and more whole and hopeful than I have felt in years. So why does everyone else feel compelled to write an epilogue and turn my life into a fairy tale? People are speaking over my life like Simeon prophesied over baby Jesus. But if six months in Hawaii is enough for me, why is it not enough for others? And when I sit back and reflect on this epilogue phenomenon there is one, overarching theme – more. Everyone wants to know more and for me to get more. It’s like there has to be something even better than this.

I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the last four years. To me, the difference between need and want is now as glaring as a glass of water sitting next to a peanut butter milkshake. I know how to stretch money through lean times. Thanks to some early system failures, I’m better able to pace myself emotionally and spiritually in the midst of trial. As I shed some nasty layers off my sense of entitlement, I bulked up with perseverance. Simple nourishment, slowing down, shedding excess: these are the survival skills I learned in the spiritual desert. God wanted me to know that discipleship is about holding on to essentials.

It’s about less, not more.

Trust over certainty.

Waiting rather than self-indulgence.

These are the complexities that make up the Christian life. They are, in and of themselves, both conflict and resolution enough for any story, any life. And here is the most important lesson I’ve learned – the grandest exchange between a human being and God is love expressed through faithfulness.

The most compelling story my life can tell is one of daily faithfulness to God. I’m not talking about big gestures but simple things – apologizing when I speak unkindly to someone I love, extending warmth and welcome to strangers, nurturing friendships, keeping an eye out for others who are struggling, and offering help where I am able.

There has never been a time in my life when God was not faithful to me but his faithfulness has not always meant the provision of things I thought I needed. As days of struggle stretched into weeks, months and years, God’s faithfulness was to abide with me, to console and comfort me, and to give me hope that I could live today and today and today with purpose.

I’ve told many people that my job these last four years has not been to get a job. I discovered that my job is to be faithful. If I can wake up today and invite God in to the rain or shine of my day and make it to evening having loved God, others and myself with any sincerity, then this is a good day, a great story, and a true comedy. This is life without a fairy tale ending or a big crimson bow and it is enough.


Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love. John 15:9


How John Travolta Healed My Image of God

Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

“Why couldn’t God have given me a life like John Travolta or Dolly Parton or Clint Eastwood?”

“You don’t know me well, but if you did, you’d know I’m one of the world’s nicest guys. Real polite. I try real hard to make other people’s days better. I hold doors open for people; no one does that anymore. I don’t say a mean word to anybody, even when they deserve it. I’m a good person. So why didn’t God give me a life like Travolta or them others? Don’t I deserve better than this?”

He looked at me expectantly, this crusty middle-aged man who, the first time I introduced myself as a chaplain, responded with, “A chaplain is the last person in hell I need to talk to!” Our first encounter was right before he lost his lower leg. Instead of helping him prepare emotionally for his amputation, he allowed me only to dial the phone for him before he kicked me out.

He was a handful for our staff that first stay — gruff, demanding, foul-mouthed, a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge — except this Ebenezer, who I’ll call Benny, was constantly counting other people’s money piles.

Several months after his amputation he was back, this time with breathing issues. I reintroduced myself and this time his greeting was a snort followed by, “A chaplain? Well, God hasn’t done anything for me lately!”

I wondered how soon he would kick me out this time, but I was in for a surprise. Despite Benny’s barnacled attitude and thinly veiled religious digs, he really needed someone to listen. For the next hour he spewed a litany of woes. He lived a good life, respectful of others, tried to be a good person. He was an artist with an undiscovered opus of Pulitzer-worthy poetry. He tried hard to get published and when that failed, Benny spent his entire savings to self-publish one of his works. No one ever read it, save Benny’s friends, and they didn’t pay for their copies.

Not many friends left. Family somewhat disinterested. No wife (though he talked about a potential Mrs. with a wistfulness I’d only seen in pining young women). Then he comes down with this disease and that condition and loses his leg and that’s a real pisser. Can’t drive anymore. Dialysis sucks. Rehab was going well and he was getting the hang of his new prosthesis until he got hit with this latest spate of illness. Now he’ll have to start all over with the rehab.

Funny thing about Benny — he was realistic and undramatic about his prognosis. Doc told him he has 5 years tops, and that’s only as long as he can steer clear of infections and viruses. Not much of a chance of that in the rehab centers and assisted living facilities that have become his homes. Though he was matter-of-fact and calm about his future, he raged about his past.

Benny’s life was a soggy and disintegrated mess of should-haves, wished-I’ds, and if-onlys. And to give him his due, there really wasn’t a lot he could have done to change his circumstances. It seemed he never caught the smallest break. I was sympathetic. But then he got back to his schtick about how God owed him a life like Travolta and Dolly and the man who played Misty for me.

I tried to push back a little and pointed out that those celebrities’ lives can’t be as shiny as they seem.  He guffawed. I pointed to Travolta’s son’s death two years ago and to Dolly’s obsession with plastic surgery. Is their wealth and fame really a good indicator that their lives are so great — that they are satisfied? They may have everything they wanted, but do they have everything they need?

When I asked Benny about his faith story he stitched together a vague sentence about the Lord. He believed in God but didn’t really care about worship, or the church, nor did he really live much of his life as an offering to God. When I asked him about what I saw as unreasonable expectations of God, this was Benny’s bottom line:

“Well, he’s God, isn’t he? He owes me something better than this!”

I thought about my visit with Benny for several days. It took me awhile to untangle why our conversation left me spellbound and speechless — which I rarely am. As I burrowed down into my silence, I discovered four reactions.

1. Benny’s arrogance made me queasy. It gave me the shakes. If ever I expected lightning to strike and the ground to swallow someone up, it was then and there. To sit in a bed and rail against the Creator of the universe for not giving you health and wealth and fame, when all you did for the Lord was be nice to other people and occasionally hold open doors!?

2. I was in awe of Benny’s lament. His litany of woes and his calling God to account echoed much of what I read in scripture.  (Check out Psalm 88!) Benny’s words made me uncomfortable, but they were honest. I rarely meet Christians who are willing to be this honest about their lives or their faith, or have the chutzpah to address God the way our biblical ancestors did. Good for Benny. He can teach us (me) a thing or two.

3. In Benny I was startled to see myself. In a previous post “Seduced by Onions” I talked about tumbling off my spiritual pedestal. In too-rare moments of clarity, I realize that I’m just another Israelite whose faith in God frays when the way to the promised land is long, dusty, and desolate. Benny loudly spat out words that I’d been hiding in my soul for years. Somewhere deep inside of me there’s a miser who is constantly taking stock of other people’s blessings, comparing them to mine and realizing that I’ve come up short. I’ve descended to that dank place where all I can crave, reach for, and smell is what God owes me. Seeing myself in Benny made me feel…

4. Shame. Shame is the moment I realize how much I’ve been focused on myself. That I’m holding on with a death-grip to what I feel I’m owed and promised, rather than being focused on God’s goodness.

When I come back to God’s opus, the Bible, I remember that God never promises a trouble-free life, a painless existence, a quick and easy way to the milk and honey. Jesus is not a TV evangelist that flashes a mega-watt smile at you through your flat screen and tells you that if you just pray hard enough, if you believe enough, live right enough, or send in a generous donation, that you’ll be healed, or rich, or happy.

In contrast, if we sit at Jesus’ feet for even a few minutes we would hear him prepare his disciples for a tsunami of woe. Jesus tells his followers to prepare for being hated — by pretty much everyone. To get ready for persecution. For feeling like they don’t belong in this world. For being thrown out of places of worship. For being disconnected from their friends and family. For being killed for their beliefs. For grief. For feeling alone and abandoned by their Savior. (see John 15:18-16:33)

Is this God — who doesn’t make our lives easy, doesn’t protect or heal us from every disease, doesn’t give us wealth and fame like Travolta or Dolly or Eastwood — really a good God?

Yes. I can say that God is good (even when he doesn’t give me what I want or think I deserve) because I believe that God is who he shows himself to be in the Bible.

God’s character is not nullified or lessened when the circumstances of my life go to pot. 

God never abandoned his people even when they doubted him, complained about the food, worshiped idols, disobeyed his commands, and otherwise acted like petulant children for forty years in the desert. Not only did God not abandon them, he renewed his covenant with them, led them through the darkness, provided food and clean water, overcame every enemy, and always, ALWAYS loved them. Presence, provision and love — that is the character of God, which doesn’t change like shifting shadows (James 1:17).

If every good gift comes from God, then why are Benny and I so quick to blame God for the bad things that happened?

Why can’t we, in the sucky moments in life, trust that God has not changed? That he is with us, giving good gifts, and loving us — even when we don’t feel the love for, or from, him?

We pave a road called Pain when we create or entirely reshape our image of God based on our circumstances. If life is rosy and rich and full of laughter, God is good, a righteous savior, the very embodiment of love. But if life is uncertain, riddled with loss, or fraught with bad luck, then God is a dead-beat dad, a slimy politician, an adulterer.

We walk down the road to Peace when we start with, and hold onto the image of God, that God himself paints in the pages of scripture.

Benny and I need to make a U-ie. We need to somehow disconnect our spiritual GPS from the cultural and circumstantial maps that make us think that we’ll find God on Indulgence Street. God never promised to give us everything we want. In fact, Jesus painted a very clear picture of the difficult road believers would travel. But God did promise his people across the ages that he would never leave nor forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:6). He proved his character through thousands of years of history – stories we can read in the Bible. God crowned his character with love when he sent his son Jesus to die for all sins, for every sinner. Even the crusty Bennies and the doubting pastors. And if that weren’t enough, God gives us the gift of his Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter who is with us until Jesus returns.

Presence. Provision. Love. Those are good gifts. That is the Good God who knows our every circumstance, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and laid every grain of sand in the sea. If this God knit me together in my mother’s womb, knows me by name, doesn’t change, is with me, providing for me, and will always love me, then that reality is better than any life that I can ask for or imagine. Even better than Eastwood’s.