Beginning again, but not from the beginning

It’s been more than five years since I had a first day at work. But here I am: starting my first day at my new job, as a Marketing Director for Thomas Nelson Bibles. And doing the job at my same desk where I worked at my previous job just a week ago.

Starting a new job is a strange experience, especially when doing it remotely. I won’t meet anyone face-to-face, only in a mediated form, through a screen and camera. All the same first-day jitters are there, the imposter complex, everything. It’s a first day at a new company, so I’ve got to give myself grace and expect that I’m going to have a lot of questions and it will take time to get the answers.

As strange as experiencing all this remotely is going to be, and as jittery as I feel, I’m also excited about today. It’s the start of a new chapter for the Armstrongs. It’s not the first time I have changed jobs, obviously, but it is the first time I have as a permanent resident in the United States. Having no legal restrictions, no federally mandated requirements to continue to work for a sponsoring employer, is different for me. It’s like my family is participating more fully in the American Experiment, despite still not yet being citizens.1

So today, along with all the first day jitters, with all the big questions about what I don’t know yet, I’m also thankful for this opportunity that I—that we—have. We are beginning again, but we are not at square one. The journey we started when I accepted my previous role at Lifeway is not at its end. It’s just reached the next step. And for that, how can I be anything but thankful?

  1. We become eligible to apply for citizenship in another 2.5 years for those who are curious.[]

A personal update

Five years, one month, and 24 days ago, I started the job that changed my life: I began working for Lifeway Christian Resources as the Brand Manager of The Gospel Project.

Since 2016, it’s been one of the most difficult and rewarding professional roles I have held. Every day gave me the opportunity to serve the church as a champion for gospel-centered ministry on an international scale. To write content, to occasionally speak, to produce videos—to work with some of the most brilliant and faithful people you’ve maybe never heard of. All for this one goal: to help people of all ages read and study the Bible with Jesus at its center.

Disruptive, stressful, & joyful

It’s the job that I disrupted my entire life for. And not just mine: my family and friends were all affected. Moving to a new country is one thing. Moving smack dab into the middle of the Bible Belt is something else altogether.

We had to learn a new culture, make all new friends, and find a church to call home. We dealt with constant paperwork from the United States government, had issues with the Canadian government, had one crisis that almost sent us back to Canada early on,1 all on top of me learning a new job and new work culture. Through all the challenges the organization has gone through in the last few years, with difficult decisions brought about by changes in buying behavior, leadership transitions,2 and the ongoing effects of this little thing called the COVID-19 pandemic, my job has brought as much joy as it has stress, anxiety, and health issues.3

Why? Because, when it comes down to it, it was the place I was supposed to be.

“I’m here until my time is done”

This is my last Friday as an employee of Lifeway.

On Monday, I start a new job with another organization.

When I started at Lifeway, I didn’t know if it would be a forever thing. I don’t believe in making proclamations about such things, saying “I will do this until the day I retire or die.” I prefer to say, “I will do this until the Lord makes it clear that my time is done.”

In all honesty, I hoped it would be the job, the one where I would be through the end. I believe in the value of The Gospel Project. I genuinely believe that, insomuch as there is a right way to study the Bible, this is the way to do so. That reading it with Jesus as the focus is what makes the Bible make sense (and, after all, he certainly seemed to believe it as well). I care about the people I have worked with for the last five years. And although it might sound like bragging, I’m good at my job (really good).

Even so, through a number of different circumstances, the Lord made it clear that my time is done.

So, I am moving on.

Looking forward to the next phase

Monday starts a new phase in my professional and personal life. I’ll be in a job that is significantly more behind the scenes than my work with Lifeway, but still focused on helping people to meaningfully engage with the Bible. I am excited about that.

But what I’m more excited about is the opportunity this provides for me to better serve my family, my church, and the broader church. The change has some positive benefits for my family (reestablishing some rhythms and boundaries between work and home).4 There are new ministry opportunities in my local church that I can invest in. And I’m starting to have things I want to write about again.

Making the choice to leave wasn’t easy, but it seems to be the right one.


Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

  1. I won’t go into detail about it here and I’ve never spoken about it publicly; maybe someday.[]
  2. For those who’ve never been through one, there is no such thing as a perfectly smooth transition, and it typically takes years for one to be finished.[]
  3. I may be sharing about this in the future; if you’ve seen my Instagram, you’ve no doubt seen that I look a lot different, in a good way, than I did 12 months ago.[]
  4. And yes, that means that I’m staying in Tennessee—being a permanent resident has its benefits.[]

We’ll See What December Brings

December is always a strange month for us in the Armstrong family, but moreso since we moved to Tennessee. It’s one of the seasons where we most acutely feel the distance between us and the rest of our family. But this December brings additional strangeness:

  • Lord willing, we will be taking ownership of our new home in four weeks
  • We will be moving into the house shortly thereafter and out of our apartment

That’s on top of the usual stress with Christmas. But this year brings a new challenge, and a new hope, for us:

In late 2012, Emily began having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. For the majority of the last eight years, her seizures have been kept under control with medication, with only the rarest breakthrough event.

Until 2020.

In mid-August she had a seizure while we were on a coffee date. At the end of September it happened again and resulted in a trip to the ER because we didn’t know what was going on. Since late October, they’ve been an almost daily occurrence. At her neurologist’s request, I recorded one seizure on my phone for him to see what was going on.

“You are not having epileptic seizures,” he told Emily.

That was the end of October.

Which brings us to today, December 1. Today, Emily is checking in for a multi-day stay at the epilepsy monitoring unit at Vanderbilt in Nashville. While there she will be taken off all of her medication so they can confirm whether or not what she’s experiencing is in addition to the previous diagnosis—or if she was misdiagnosed in Canada.

Misdiagnoses are common in this particular area, with some data suggesting between 25 and 33% of epilepsy diagnoses are incorrect. But it can take years—8 to 10, sometimes longer—for that to become clear.

And honestly, that’s what we are praying for here, and are asking you to pray for as well. We want Emily to get the right treatment for whatever is going on. And of course, we want to know for certain what is going on.

December isn’t an easy month for our family. This one looks to be no different in that regard. But perhaps we will come out of it with some good news and a clear plan for treatment. We’ll see what happens.

God’s Goodness in a Dumpster Fire of a Year

I’ve been neglecting written content here for a while. I’ll admit, I’ve been struggling in these “unprecedented” times to do more than just get through podcasting and my regular work responsibilities. But no more. At least not for today.

Okay, yes. 2020 has been a dumpster fire. It’s been more than that, actually. I believe the CNN commentators describing the first presidential debate described it best with their rather salty language.

But whatever.

I’m not going to talk about why 2020 is awful. There’s enough of that out there. There’s also enough generic platitudes about God’s goodness in the midst of awfulness. So instead, here are a few places where God’s at work in my life and ministry that I want to celebrate.

Family

First and foremost, God is continuing to be very kind to us as a family. While I know that many people have had some serious relational struggles over the last seven plus months, Emily and I are more on the same page than we’ve ever been over the last 20 years. This is something God started doing in us pretty heavily toward the end of last year, but we’ve been able to communicate in a really healthy way, achieve longstanding goals and set new ones, and begin to plan for our future here in the United States. Or at least as long as the Lord will have us here, anyway…

Side note, we are both exceedingly grateful that we are prohibited from voting in this election. American friends, we love you and feel for you all.

Church

Second, I was asked to lead a community group at my church. The group of which I was/am a member is multiplying as we try to continue to spread gospel culture throughout our entire congregation (something needed now in this season more than ever for so many reasons). We’re a few weeks into this new ministry season, and while it is early days, I will say that God has been very kind already. Just meeting together in person after several months of primarily online meetings—man oh man! God’s given me a good group of people to call my gospel family.

Personal Ministry

Third, I’m praying that a writing opportunity will come to fruition soon. I submitted a book proposal to a publisher a few weeks back, and should be hearing back within the next couple weeks about whether or not they’re interested. If you’d pray that the Lord’s will would be done there (and that I would rejoice in that either way), I would love that.

I am also hoping to get back to producing content on this blog on a more frequent basis, but only as my professional obligations (and other writing) allows.

Professional Ministry

Fourth and finally, my role at LifeWay will be changing (in a good way). For the last four years and change, I have served as the Brand Manager of The Gospel Project, which I have loved and continue to love. About three years ago, my job changed to include leading the creative team within our marketing group, which has been a great joy.

Over the last several months, there’s been a lot of transition at LifeWay (some good, some challenging because, well, COVID). With all that transition comes a change for me, and no, I am not leaving LifeWay. I am also not moving on from the Brand Manager role. Instead, it’s a bit of good news: On November 2nd, I will be joining our publishing team for The Gospel Project for Adults as its new publishing team leader.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, a big piece of what I’ll be doing is working with Daniel Davis and Josh Hayes, our content editors who have been faithfully developing this resource for years, to help us prepare for the next study cycle that kicks off in September 2021. In that, I’ll be doing a mix of content creation, editing, product development, and author relations & development as well.


Okay, that didn’t end up being quite as short as I had planned. But thankfully, that’s where the -ish comes in helpful. 2020 has been a dumpster fire in a lot of ways. None of you reading are likely to be surprised by that. But you know what? Even in a dumpster fire, God is good.

The bittersweet feeling of not being their sponsor

In March 2006, as a still very brand-new Christian, I did something I never expected: I picked up a packet from the Compassion table at my church, and sponsored a little boy in Honduras. His name is Jocsan (though he’s not a little boy anymore). I met him a few months later, when I went Honduras for the first time. The experience of meeting him was a unique one without a doubt (and amazing). To see the boy from the photo on my fridge and share a meal with him… it was unreal. (I wrote about this here.)

While there, I learned he had a younger sister, Lauren. The circumstances of their family permitted that she could be sponsored too. So I did.

A relationship in letters

For years, Emily and I, then Emily, the kids and I wrote to Jocsan and Lauren. I was able to return to Honduras a few years after my first trip (about 10 years ago). I spent a day with them, and even met their mother.

I never went back to Honduras.

But I never stopped writing.

The little kids we sponsored soon turned into tweens, then teens. We learned about all their interests, fears, and desires. They were introduced to our kids as they were born, and even made gifts for Hannah when she was a baby. They followed along with our journey moving to America. They asked us to pray for them, and we asked them to pray for us.

Then at the end of 2017, we got the first letter—the one I’d been expecting for a while: Jocsan had turned 18 and completed the program. This year, we received that letter again: Lauren, shortly after turning 18, had completed the program.

The end of a relationship

Getting those letters—letters I was already familiar with; letters similar to those I wrote back when I worked for Compassion Canada—it hit me in a way I didn’t expect.

They were done.

Both of them were in college, ready in so much as anyone can be, to begin the next step on their journey to adulthood. To, Lord willing, end the cycle of poverty that was the whole reason they were in the Compassion program in the first place.

I was and am excited for them. But at the same time, it also means something obvious, but still weighty:

Neither of them are our sponsored children anymore.

That part of our relationship is over.

We don’t get to find out what happens next. And that’s more than a little bittersweet. These kids grew up with ours, even if only by paper. They were a long distance extension of our family. So we’re grieving the end of the relationship, even as we’re excited for them, and continue to pray for them.

Taking our time starting a new relationship

When Jocsan completed the program, we didn’t immediately start sponsoring another child. We wanted to wait. And we kept waiting. We now have no sponsored children for the first time in 13 years.

It’s a weird feeling.

We’re planning to sponsor another child, but we don’t want to jump into it too quickly. I could pick a child online tomorrow and get started.

But that feels wrong.

See, this is really the first time that all our family members can engage around choosing who we sponsor. To pray together about the decision. To learn about different children’s needs together.

And that’s kind of exciting for me. But it also means it’s going to take some time. Lord willing, we won’t wait too long.

Saying goodbye to Jocsan, preparing to meet someone new

stack of letters

We’d been Christians less than a year when Jocsan entered our lives.

I went to church one Sunday in March 2006, and was introduced to Compassion International’s ministry. I went back to the table at the end of the service, and started looking at the information of children in need. Dozens of kids from all over the world who didn’t look anything like the images I saw in infomercials growing up.[1. These were for a different organization.] Jocsan’s information was among them, the only boy on the table.

I read through his information and learned a little about his family, what it was like growing up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and how a local church was investing in him and other children in his community. I filled out the paperwork, and brought my photo of Jocsan home to show Emily.

I started writing letters, and eventually received some in return. They were awkward, as any letter from an adult in Canada to a child in Honduras would be. But his were sweet, at any rate. They were filled with questions about life in Canada (and later in the United States), prayer requests, and answers to prayer. A few months after sponsoring Jocsan, I was able to meet him, which was also kind of awkward but a lot of fun.

We continued to write, although we had a season where I didn’t keep up on it well. This season came to an end when I saw Jocsan, and met his mother and sister (who I also sponsored at that point) on my second trip to Honduras. His mother gently scolded me about this (and rightly so).

More than 11 years of writing, of birthday and Christmas gifts, of cards and art and prayers… And then, I got a letter this week. Jocsan completed Compassion’s program this month, and graduated from high school, and will no longer be attending activities at the Compassion Center at the church.

We now have the opportunity to write one final letter, which might be the hardest thing I’ve had to write, ever, because it means we’re saying goodbye to someone who has been part of our lives for a very long time. But it also means we’re going to meet someone new.

When I told my kids about Jocsan finishing up in the program, I asked if we should sponsor another child. Immediately they all said yes. I asked them why. They said:

  • Because kids need to know people care.
  • Because they need help.
  • Because they need to know God loves them.

(Can’t really argue with those answers.)

So I asked them if they would be willing to help choose the next child we sponsor, and if they would be a part of writing. All three said yes to both, even Hudson, which is impressive since he’s still working on this whole reading thing. And that excites me, especially if they stick with it. I’d love for them to be a part of investing in the life of someone close to their own age in another part of the world—and to see how that relationship shapes them, as much as being Jocsan’s sponsor shaped me and the direction of my life from the moment I picked up his information at the back of our church.


Photo: Pixabay

Five quick personal/professional updates

keyboard

The last few weeks have been kind of hectic. I’ve been traveling a lot, working on big plans at work (big plans, I say!), and attempt to take a day off here and there this summer. There are a lot of irons so today, I wanted to give just a few personal and professional updates:

Seminary: Yesterday, I applied to a seminary affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Lord willing, I’ll be starting again in the Fall or Winter, which would be pretty great. I would love to get back to continuing my education.

Podcast: Reading Writers is on a brief hiatus while I record some new episodes. I have one already completed and a few more on the way. Look for that to start up again next week, if all goes well.

Family: The past year has been both amazing and extremely difficult for us for a variety of reasons. We all love being here and definitely feel like this was the right move, but I’d be lying if I said it’s been an easy transition. The hardest part? Developing friendships and dealing with feelings of loneliness for us grown-ups.

Church: This past Sunday, was my first time serving in Kids Ministry since we left Harvest. My teammate and I taught through the aftermath of Elijah’s battle against the prophets of Baal. I loved being able to do this again. Young dudes out there, if you’re looking for opportunities to make disciples, contact your children’s ministry directors today.

Work: We’ve got a big year coming up with The Gospel Project, as you’re going to see in the coming months (nothing more can I say now). We’re entering the final year of the current study plan, which is exploring the formation of the early church, the spread of the gospel throughout the mediterranean, and the promise of the kingdom to come. And then, we head back to Genesis with an all-new study plan in Fall 2018. All the planning for that is what’s eating up a significant amount of my brain power. I love it, but it’s hard.

There’s a lot there and lots more going on besides, but that’s a quick glimpse into what’s been going on lately. If y’all are inclined, I know Emily and I would certainly appreciate your prayers as we continue to make this place feel like home.

 

One year ago today, we stepped into a whirlwind

It was just before 11 am. The call to head to our staff meeting had been given. And then I got a text. “Got time for a call?” It said. Suddenly, my heart started racing. We’d been waiting for word on my work visa. And waiting. And waiting.

Would I get it? Would we starting an exciting new adventure? Was America actually in our future, or was it not going to happen at all?

“Yep.” I responded.

A moment later, the phone rang.

“You’re in. Pick your start date and let’s get you down here.”

And at that moment, I stepped into a whirlwind. We sat the kids down that night to let them know. One was elated. One burst into tears. One didn’t really care so long as his Avengers poster came along. I wrote my official resignation letter. I wrapped up all my outstanding work to the best of my ability. We made sure everyone had up-to-date passports. We hopped on a plane, looked at several apartments, and applied at one.We didn’t find out we’d been approved until moments before our flight back to Toronto had to take off. We experienced the spectacle of the 4th of July for the first time. On July 5th we were able to officially announce the news in a very “us” way.

About six weeks after receiving that text, we were here in Tennessee.

To some degree, I still feel like I’m in the whirlwind. Although the process started much sooner (a year prior, in fact), there are some things you can never truly prepare for until you’ve experienced them. There are decisions you can look back on only in hindsight. On top of that, I’ve been hard at work learning the responsibilities and demands of my job (which I love, for the record). I’ve never been more anxious in my entire life learning an entire new culture and way of living, while simultaneously being the most satisfied professionally I’ve ever been.

This kind of stuff is not for the faint of heart, y’all.

The day I got the call was also the day before our tenth wedding anniversary. Tomorrow is our eleventh. This last year of our marriage has been among the hardest since our first. It’s also been, I think, the best. From the moment I told her the news, she was ready to go. She listened to me freak out over paperwork, and calmed me down when my anxiety left me a mess in our room. We prayed together and cried together and laughed together. Whatever was happening, good or bad, she was right there with me.

When I stepped into the whirlwind, she did, too. And I can’t imagine doing this without her.

 

How we’re celebrating our first Canadian family Christmas in America

It’s our first Christmas in America. Despite what some might expect, we’re not heading back to our homeland this weekend to celebrate with friends and family. We’re hanging out here in the Nashville area, celebrating as the five of us.

This is kind of exciting for us, but I’ll admit it’s also a bit odd. For years, we’ve had a pretty consistent routine:

  • Christmas Eve is our family celebration
  • Christmas Day is with my parents and sister
  • Somewhere between Boxing Day and New Years Eve we celebrate with Emily’s parents

This year, obviously, we’re rethinking the routine. There’s no travel time involved. We’re just… here.

So how are we going to do things differently this year?

We’re going to church on Christmas Eve. We’ve not always been able to do this, as our previous church didn’t have Christmas Eve services until last year (the joys of not having a facility hold it in). Our congregation has a gathering on Saturday afternoon, so it’ll be great to join everyone to worship Jesus together with our eyes on the incarnation.

We’re having a low-key family dinner. Seriously. No turkey and trimmings, this time around. Chicken strips (homemade, of course), something with sweet potatoes, and a green vegetable are the menu for the day.

We might let the kids watch a Christmas movie. Assuming I can find one that isn’t wildly inappropriate (Christmas Vacation), or featuring a violent sociopath (Home Alone).

We’re planning Skype calls with family. Just because we’re not physically present, doesn’t mean we won’t in touch.

We’re still splitting up gifts over two days. This year, we lived many parents’ dream and purchased gifts on behalf of all the grandparents. As a result, there are quite a few packages surrounding our tiny tree. Because we want the kids to enjoy what they receive and not experience present fatigue, we’re splitting it up with about half the gifts being opened on Christmas Eve, and the remainder to be opened Christmas Day.

This is also how we make everyone in the Christmas Eve vs Christmas Day debate unhappy: we do both.

We’ll include at least one bit of Canadiana. Because it isn’t Christmas without Bob and Doug McKenzie.

So, that’s our first Canadian family Christmas in America. Low-key, simple, but hopefully a lot of fun.