Monday, January 5, 2015

Changes for 2015

Hi all!

    This blog has been left fallow for the past couple of years as I've been on an intense period of adventure in my life. Now that a major chapter of my journey is closing, I'm finding the words to start sharing about it, though really that's easier to do in face-to-face conversations. Since there are several of you who I won't be able to do that with any time soon, I'm working on "reclaiming" my blog space as I'm moving forward into 2015. I say "reclaim" because that's the theme of our corporate fast at Cornerstone AG this year. Its a very appropriate focus for me to think about after all the ups and downs since 2013. There are things I have lost, things I've forgotten, things that have been left on the wayside, and things I've become insensitive to without even realizing it. I think sometimes we underestimate the effects of the race on us, and trick ourselves into thinking that if we are "faithful enough", then no matter what comes our way we won't be affected by getting a bit roughed up as we are living for Christ. That is very dangerous to assume. Even our Lord regularly drew aside from His ministry, friends, and family to re-center Himself in His Father's presence and be restored. If I'm going to run my race long-term, I need to do the same, and so do you.

   I am going to start by letting you in on the latest leg of the race I've been running. I sent out my first Christmas letter in 2 years this past December, so pardon me if I borrow from that for the majority of this post. It was hard enough finding the right words the first time!

   Every story needs a backdrop, so: as you know, I’ve been working as a Lab Manager and technician for Dr. William Jeffery at the University of Maryland, College Park since I graduated from college in 2003. It has been a challenging and rewarding job and one I totally did not expect, but God clearly placed me here from the very beginning. One of the things I’ve learned to do in this job is to think 2-3 years ahead. This is because our funding tends to come in lumps that only last for 2-5 years, so we plan our projects according to that timetable. So three years ago I began to ask God what He was thinking about my future in science, since my boss was going to be 67 and would eventually be thinking about retirement. My position is one that lives or dies with a lab, and although I’m very good at what I do, that means that I don’t necessarily have a choice in where I go – I have to go where the science is. Despite this fact, God has kept me in this lab long enough that I’ve been very firmly planted here in Maryland. Both the church family that I want to support long-term and my brother’s young family are here now.

    These apparent contradictions were all things I couldn’t resolve on my own and I was starting to be afraid that I would have to make some very hard choices in order to move forward. But as I began to struggle with this, Cornerstone held its annual month of prayer and fasting with the theme being “Why Not?” We were challenged to ask ourselves what keeps us from asking God for the impossible things in our lives, the things only He can do. If I’m honest, I spend most of my prayers asking God for things I might be able to handle if He doesn’t answer the way I want. It takes a conscious shift in thinking to live in such a way that I will only succeed if He shows Himself to be God in my life. So after spending a year working on that idea in smaller ways, God called me to learn the lesson in a deeper way.

    In March 2013, sequestration made funding for science research in America highly inaccessible. Many grant applications were rejected outright as the bar for acceptance rose to a mere 10% of all applications, with most money being focused on human health or national defense. This directly affected our lab and caused us to fire most of our employees by June. As a result the lab shrunk down to just myself, my boss, and one other post-doc. Then the government shut down right during the week in October when most major grant applications are due, delaying the processing of grant applications by months and draining our reserve funds. In order to stay employed, in January 2014 I took on a temporary position with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA for 7 months. I spent most that time commuting between Maryland and Massachusetts as I split work between the two labs to do research on both fish and sea squirts. While that meant that I had to step down from serving in the young adults ministry at Cornerstone, family life picked up as my brother Tim and his wife welcomed their first child, Lucy Grace, in February (just hours before a major snowstorm). I also became a published scientific author for the first time a few weeks later! ^_^

    My time at MBL allowed me to see a different side of the scientific community. I’ve spent my entire career at a major research university where it’s difficult to get to know people and their work. My colleagues are friendly, but also very competitive because they are expected to be “the best” despite heavy responsibilities at the university and constantly dwindling resources. On the other hand, MBL was started over 100 years ago as a research institute owned by scientists themselves and dedicated to their work and development. Its only 1/10th the size of UMD and has a completely different culture. I really enjoyed getting to work there and experiencing that point of view, even just temporarily.

    In July I returned to Maryland full-time on leftover departmental funds. I co-authored a second research paper, helped rework additional grant applications, and prepped the lab for a major university-wide inspection for accreditation in animal research by AAALAC. In August my Chinese co-worker headed home for a month-long visit, leaving me as only the lab employee. When she was delayed from returning until late October by computer trouble in the State Department, I took on her two undergraduate students in addition to my own work. We soon found out that only one of our grant applications would be awarded in time to save my position with the Jeffery Lab. We had a 30% chance of winning it, but we would not hear until right around December 25th either way. Bill calculated that he would only be able to give me a month to find a new position if I had to. That was tough to hear, but all of my coworkers last year had been in the same position, and I knew from watching them that the best thing I could do would be to handle the situation professionally. That meant preparing my resume, cataloging my resources, and making a plan of attack while continuing to do my best work at my job until we heard. So I kept working and co-authored not only a book chapter but also a paper on research that I had done as an undergrad on cancer cell lines. I also started the planning stages for writing my own book on keeping cavefish in the laboratory. On December 19th we got the news that we did not win the grant, however Bill somehow managed to give me one more month than expected to find a new job and turn my responsibilities over.

    In a way, I’m relieved that the uncertainty I’ve been working under for the past year and a half is now ending. Now it’s a matter of moving forward and finding out where God is putting me next. I am sad to leave something I’ve invested so much into growing and supporting. There will be a lot of changes for me this year, and I’m hoping that as I change, God will answer some long-standing prayers as He shows me where my next race is going to be. For the Christian, its always “the best is yet to come”, not “the best is behind us”. Now it is time to finish this particular race well. I would really appreciate your prayers, both for myself and for the people I will be leaving behind. I know God would not be moving me unless it was the best way He could reach them. Jesus can bring life even into situations where everything is dying. It’s my job to make sure I don’t get in His way.

    So there you have it! By this time next year, I hope to share with you where God has put me next and what He has done in my life. I’m sure it will be more surprising than I can imagine. And for all the difficulties, the last few years have been so worth it. I fully believe that God wastes nothing we do, so even if I have to leave cavefish behind, He’ll do something amazing with the decade I’ve spent working on them. Now to wait and see what it is!

I truly feel that I am just finishing one race in preparation to start another. The whole situation feels more like a graduation than a death of something, which tells me that the Lord is totally in this. So, like graduation, my task right now is two-fold: first, to find the next place I'm meant to serve, and second, to pass off my knowledge and responsibilities to the people I'm leaving so that they can carry on and I can freely focus on my new challenges. Its going to be a very intense 2 months, but I look forward to seeing where I go from here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The "What Are You Up To" Post for Spring 2012 (Part 1)

     Every May with the end of the college school year, I turn around and take a look at how much I have or have not posted on this and realize that life is really full for me. Its a wonderfully complicated feeling.  I know stuff has happened that I should of taken time to absorb and remember, but as soon as I sit down it feels like the next thing comes along to get wrapped up in.  The biggest downside for me to this is that I don't tell other people everything that's going on, even if they want to know.  It's too tiring to keep trying to explain it all.  So friends, here's what's been going on. I'm still in the middle of some of this, and I won't be slowing down for at least 4 more weeks so rather than continue to shut you all out with minimal information because I'd much rather share life with you all, I'm writing it down.

     First off, I'll tell you about work in the lab this Spring.  Some of you may know this, but all last year my boss, Dr. Jeffery, was out of the country on sabbatical from teaching at the University.  He used the time to go do field research on many different cave organisms in the mountains of Croatia.  (Croatia is one of the richest parts of the world for caves and cave life.)  While he was gone, the rest of us here settled into our own rhythms and patterns of work that incorporated whatever else we had going on, like families, starting a business, or church. Then in January we got our boss back.  This is great and hard at the same time.  Its a lot like living without a roommate for a year and then trying to adjust to having one again.  We are all a little different from what we were in January 2011.  Some of our responsibilities have changed, some of our projects have changed.  So this semester as a Lab manager, I've been dealing with how to adjust my own workload and how the lab operates to incorporate having Bill back again.  There's a lot more to all this than I'm saying here on the Net, and it would make for a good cup of tea sometime, but suffice it to say, this has been a lot more work than I expected.

     One of the cool things about having Bill back is that I get to work on new experiments! Unfortunately I can't go into too much detail here until some things are published to the public, but I get to learn new techniques for dissecting tissues from adult fish and I'm going to be playing with some cave planaria (those little flatworms that you grow in Biology class in high school).  The technique I'm best as is staining tissue with specific antibodies that we can then change the color of to look at cellular structures under the microscope.  (Now that think about it, I could put that method up here, I might do that one of these days).  The dissection stuff is all new to me, so I'm studying up on what tools I need and the methods I'll use.  *laugh* Yum, fish guts!

      Having Bill here again is also getting everyone else to focus more efficiently on their own work, so things are also picking up for the second part of my job, being a Lab Technician.  Lab technicians can be one or more of 4 different types:  animal technicians, who specialize in the care and breeding of lab animals;  equipment technicians, who know how to use and maintain every specialized machine in the lab;  technical specialists, people who excel in one particular technique or method and so everyone in the lab relies on them for that specifically; and general technicians, people who make general stock solutions, perform basic tasks at the request of laboratory staff, order supplies, and so forth.  I'm a bit of all four.  I manage all our fish, equipment, and general tasks with the help of a few undergrad students, and then do whatever preparatory tasks Bill asks me to do so he can do his experiments.  When everyone else starts moving quicker on their own research, the amount of support I need to give increases too.  So while its great to have them be so productive (especially since that's how we'll get funding for the next few years), it can get kind of tiring to cover everything. 

     In April and May, the administrative part of my job tends to take over and I spend a lot of time dealing with paperwork.  That's because everyone tries to get things turned in before the end of the school year so they can do field work or specialty classes over the summer.  The end of June is also the end of the fiscal year for the University of Maryland, so there's a fair bit of accounting stuff to do as well.  This May is especially heavy because we need to re-apply for permission to continue to work with fish for the next three years.  This permission is called an Animal Protocol, and it is an extensive document covering all the methods, chemicals, and procedures we use to study our cavefish.  It goes into detail about how we house them, feed them, train people to work with them, how we keep records, what levels of pain we expect them to suffer and how we would alleviate it, the chemicals they might be treated with and their possible reactions, and detailed explanations of our research procedures if we are working with them alive. We are also required to justify why our research is valuable to humanity at large, why we want to use these animals in particular, and why we need the number of animals we are asking for over the next three years.  All this information is then sent to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee here on campus, and they evaluate our proposal for compliance with all federal and state laws.  If we are approved, we are allowed to continue our work with cavefish for the next three years.  If we aren't, our lab essentially has to shut down until we get approved, and we can't publish papers with our results or get new grants during that time.

     I've invested a lot of time over the past 8 years learning all the lingo and detailing our methods, so I'm not concerned about being approved by the IACUC.  Actually, we are a model lab that they like to show off to the rest of the university.  But it is a lot of paperwork all the same, and prayers are always appreciated! This is something I strive to do my best in as much as possible, because it is one way that I can love on these people God has sent me to serve.  Excellence here may be the biggest ways they will know that God does indeed care about them and their lives, something I can't really say to them with words without any action to back it up.

     So that's all about work.  The other major part of my life is all the stuff going on at Cornerstone! I'll put that up in Part 2.

The "What Are You Up To" Post for Spring 2012 (Part 2)

I can feel the coffee wearing off, so I'd better write quickly...

     I would like to summarize all the stuff happening at Cornerstone this Spring that I'm involved in with this photo that I stole from my friend Annemarie:

      *laugh* You are looking at the new and reworked Underground, now called "Doulos"!  The word doulos is Greek for "slave" or "bond-servant".  It could carry the same meanings that the word "slave" brings to mind for us in English, of human trafficking and social oppression, but in the New Testament is it more used of a person who exists to do the will of his master and so is trusted by the master to care for the things he highly values.  In other words it is a position of surrendering one's own will, but receiving a task that implies great trust in return.  When Pastor Mark came to the young adults in January with his vision for a rebooted group, the number one theme was that we become people who SERVE, and do so in practical, tangible ways. In order to develop that kind of outlook on life, we also need to grow both personally and as a body together more like Christ.  So once a month we have a Doulos social event that allows us to connect to each other.  We also have a service event once a month, either for people in our own church or our community outside the church.  (This picture was taken at the latest event, where a bunch of us went to the Crofton Convalescent Center and redid some container gardens for them.)  And lastly, we have small groups to encourage discipleship and fellowship.

     I am now leading one of those small groups.  We're trying something new with it - a music-focused small group where we both study the Word together and train our musical talents in a group setting so that we can be equipped to then go out and serve with those talents as God asks.  Now I'm certainly no music teacher and I've got a long way to go with the guitar myself.  But I do know enough to kind of coach people thanks to being a worship leader last year, and we all have something to contribute to each others' growth so I think we can make our musical talents sharper.  That being said we are first and foremost still a small group, not a band or a jam session (though both of those things may come out of it). We study the same topics at the other small groups do just as intently and the main point is still to grow up together in Christ. My small groupies are encouraged to either serve musically with me as a worship band for the monthly Prayer Vigil or on their own however God gives them opportunity.  However I really hope that this combination of spiritual training and talent training can work, for the sake of making doulos culture a permanent part of how we all live our lives.

     The other place I'm planted is in the choir, and it has been awesome to be apart of it this past year!  God has really used us to bless a lot of people inside and outside of our church.  One of more exciting things to happen this Spring is that our pastor has gotten engaged! His wedding is in September and (perhaps wisely for his sake, since we'd probably prank the heck out of him) it will be held in a different state.  We've all met his wife-to-be and she's a gem of a lady, so I'm really looking forward to "adopting" her into the choir family. Which she will be, even if she doesn't actually sing in the choir.  Pastor Jason has been changing a lot already just in these past few months and I can't wait to see how much more his gifts and leadership will expand when he finally gets his full-time helpmate. ^_^  'Course growth for him means growth for us! We're already working on new songs that really broaden our skills and range.  Thanks to my membership in the choir, I'm also being dragged by my fellow members into a few new things that I won't spoil for everyone ahead of time.  All I'll say about it is "Prepare to be amused!"

    There are the other things I'm keeping busy with as well, like planting my porch garden for the summer and planning out some of my sewing projects for the summer. I'm determined that I will make to the beach this year and at least one baseball game, more if possible! And I'm working on reading some of the books I've borrowed off of other people so I can give them back sooner than a year from now.  But there you have the major things I'm up to.  And I'm going to go back to having my head in the sand for a bit, as much as I love you all.  Give me a hug if you see me but forgive me if I'm not uber-conversational until I get through May.  And now you know why. ^_^

Recommended Reading - "The Excellent Wife" by Martha Peace

Sorry guys, this book probably won't help you out much, since its directed towards women.   

    I borrowed this book from a married friend of mine after having a conversation with them about how easy it is for a woman to become too "independent" in relationships if they live on their own for a while.  And while that certainly was something I needed to think about, that wasn't the greatest benefit I got from reading it. Mrs. Peace has filled these pages with a specific breakdown of what the Bible expects from godly wives and paired that with practical and accurate illustrations of the things we women face when considering or establishing a marriage.  Several of those principles may seem at total odds with our more liberal way of thinking today, but don't allow yourself to be distracted by thinking she's just promoting old conservative stereotypes on today's young women.  The real treasure in this volume lies in how she ties all the specific problems she addresses to a real, biblical solution clearly seen in specific verses.  It works, because those solutions are all rooted in the things we should already be doing to become more like Christ every day.  No other book I've read on this subject has so clearly rooted answers to marriage struggles into the daily Christian walk.   For that reason alone, I'm glad I read this.  I'm very encouraged that even if I don't agree 100% with every guideline the author has set down, I can be confident that if I am chasing after Jesus in everything, I have no reason to fear that my marriage will break down because of either me or things I can't handle.

    The other reason I'm glad I read this book is that this is the first one I've read that promotes a more conservative view of being a wife while realistically addressing that wives may need protection from their own husbands at times.  Growing up I also bought into the false idea that becoming a submissive wife was like giving them permission to beat on you, either physically, spiritually, or emotionally.  I knew deep down that couldn't be right, but somehow that idea that submission meant you never called your husband on his sin or protected yourself from his poor behavior still was beat into me as what was "expected" from a godly wife.  However Mrs. Peace demonstrates clearly from the Bible that a wife's role includes being used to gently reprove a husband's sin and thus build him up in his own faith.  And she shows that there are legitimate protections God puts in place that a wife has responsibility to avail herself of if her husband continues to behave in an ungodly manner.  That's why even though I'm still struggling with some of the guidelines she's outlined as a wife's duty in a marriage, I'm much more willing to accept her discussion as a whole.  Not only has she drawn everything from Scripture and related to the Christian's path, but she has also been incredibly realistic about the problems wives can find themselves facing.  By addressing these very real issues, I'm much more convinced that her conclusions hold water.

   This book is very worthwhile reading for any Christian lady either married or considering marriage in the future.  I would recommend that you read "The Power of Being A Woman" by Michelle McKinny Hammond first, to combat some of the thinking traps we've all gotten into about womanhood and submission if you've been in the church for any length of time.  Just remember to leave your hypersensitivity at the door, and you will find plenty to benefit you in these pages.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Catch-up Post #2 - October & November 2010

October and November is best shared in pictures, I think. The major events were the Underground Masquerade Ball (for which I dressed as an MIB agent with my new friend Betsey Mitchell), the Bowling party, and the Ugly Sweater party. We really ramped up the practicing for worship band and the Christmas play so mostly I was just really busy running around. If you'd like to see more pictures than what I just posted here, the full albums are up on the Photo Archives page.

Underground Masquerade 2011

We ARE the Men In Black.

We had quite the collection of characters this year.

In which two members of an imaginary law enforcement agency protect the public by arresting a gnome.

In which the members of two different imaginary law enforcement agencies protect the public by arresting a key guido from the Jersey Shore.

The Ugly Sweater Party

Yes, it really was that bad.

Catch-up Post #1 - September 2010

I can measure how "busy" my life is by how long I leave my blog alone. Given that the last time I actually wrote anything here was last October, and that it is almost October again, I must of had a crazy busy year! Its been a good, full, hard one; I'm still processing a lot of it. I might post some of those lessons later, for additional comment. But first, here's a seasonal update for those of you who have been asking how I've been for months now.

In September, I started attending a new Underground small group called SLICK (Single Ladies In Christ's Kingdom) led by my good friend Shari Carew. She had a very strong call on her heart that God wanted to reach out to the single ladies in our age group and work healing and growth in our lives. She didn't think she was the leader type, but thanks to her willingness to obey we started meeting on Thursday nights. I had the opportunity to offer my apartment as our meeting place and I was unbelievably grateful to do so. See, even though I had been a regular attender of Cornerstone and a faithful servant in Underground for months, I still felt like I didn't really KNOW anyone well, or that they knew me. Part of that was due to the fact that I hadn't had any of my church friends over to my place for anything. My apartment is rather small for parties and such, but its perfect for small group. Once these women started visiting my home and saying how much they enjoyed being in my "space", I really began to feel like I was more than just "church friends" with people, and that I now had Christian sisters I could walk with in my life. That was the first healing I experienced as a result of SLICK - God used those first meetings in my home to deliver the final blow to the isolation I'd struggled with since my fight with depression began in 2005.

Also in September, our new worship pastor and choir director Jason Rose started to shape the choir into an actual consistent, contributing entity in worship and creative ministry. Can I tell you just how much I've appreciated that this year? When I first came to Cornerstone, we had a small choir for occasional music and then later a sort of "worship chorus". Unfortunately both of those groups kind of lost steam and petered out at time went on, primarily due to a lack of leadership. Since music is one of the ways I connect with a community, I was really feeling the loss of a "place" to fit in the church. Now, however, there was a place to serve in music with community, consistent expectations, and a vision for the future. I love that. Choir has become one of my anchors of connection to the church. Our first major project was to introduce a choral element to our production of "The Christmas Window". I do enjoy a challenge. ^_^

In Underground, I was asked during the summer to take over as leader for the worship band in place of my friend Mike, who got married in June. My guitar skills aren't that great but I had led worship before in college, so I decided to say yes. We really started to gel in September as each of us adjusted to a new practice schedule, new music, and regular team devotionals under Pastor David's guidance. It took a couple of tries before we figured out how to "get out the way of the Spirit", as the saying goes. But it is really true that when you obey and do what the Lord asks you to do, no matter how full of holes your service is, He shows up in amazing ways.

At work we adjusted to the loss of a few of our undergrads to graduation, and the addition of some new people to cover the work. Also my boss informed us that he would be taking a year off for sabbatical and spending it mostly in Europe doing fieldwork in the cave systems of Croatia, so we started working on the details needed for that to happen. The idea behind the trip came out of some data we had been collecting on the pathway L-tyrosine takes to produce melanin in the body, and the reasons why that pathway doesn't work in our blind cavefish. (One of these days I'll be able to talk about this project in detail on the 'net. Its really very cool.)

And that was September for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Lesson From Biology - Why There's No Such Thing As "Status Quo"

Right now at my home church, we're very blessed to have our senior pastor Mark Lehmann and his wife home safe from sabbatical. I knew when we sent them on their well-earned break that we'd have to be prepared to keep up with him when they returned and boy, was I right! Its a good thing. Pastor Mark said last night at Wednesday service that he's found that when he just tries to maintain where he's at with God, he actually starts to lose ground. For that reason its important for all of us to keep moving forward after our Lord. And being the science nerd that I am, it hit me...that's just like the human body.

Most of you probably remember from high school that the body is composed of millions of tiny cells, each with their own characteristics and lifespans. In order for a human to gain mass and size as he develops from a child to adult, the cells in his body must divide and produce more cells at a rate much much faster than they die off. So if the average cell lives for ~1 month, the cells of a child will divide around twice as much as the cells of an adult during that lifespan, giving the child's body more mass.

The interesting thing is that once you become an adult, your cells still have to divide and produce offspring to keep you being you. They don't just sit there and stay the same all the time. Every time you eat, breathe, touch something, think something, or just plain exist with your environment you lose cells due to damage. So if your body didn't constantly produce replacements for those, along with replacements for the cells that naturally die, you'd cease to be a form anyone would recognize as human. This is a major cause of many diseases in the body, such as sickle cell anemia and osteoporosis. In addition to that each cell you are born with has a genetic timecode in it for the number of times it can divide without losing important DNA. Once that limit is reached there is no more cell division from that line. This is the fundamental cellular reason why we all age, we basically start to lose the body's ability to renew itself and maintain its form.

Here's the parallel: our bodies must constantly expend energy to grow in order for us not to die. There's a certain level of energy and effort required to keep us being us. Anything above and beyond that allows us to develop beyond our current state. If this is true for us physically, its certainly true of us spiritually; after all, we are uniquely physical-spiritual beings and many of the rules of physically mirror those of the spiritual realm. This is why there is no such thing as "status quo" for Christians. When we stop running after God, when we stop feeding on His Word or loving His people, when we stop praying and worshiping Him, we cut off our own lifesource. We start to age. We start to die inside. And then we wonder why He seems so distant, why we feel so empty, why we have little joy in our lives.

I'm currently poking at a brand new book called "The Me I Want To Be" from one of my favorite authors, John Ortberg. In it he very honestly talks about the difference between the "status quo" and flourishing in his own life, and why spiritual growth is vital to the everyday Christian. The point he tries to make is that all of us need to be intentional about our walk if we are going to survive as a Christian. It doesn't matter if you are a passionate person or not, a learned person or not, a hurting person, broken person, confused person, whatever. Every time you choose to make an effort with Christ, no matter how small, you are choosing to live. Our bodies make that choice for us automatically so we don't have to think about it much beyond eating the right kinds of foods and getting good sleep. Unfortunately we can't treat our new spiritual bodies the same way. We are saved, we are destined for heaven, and we won't ever lose that, BUT we have to choose: either we cross the finish line on our own two feet as heirs of the kingdom or we get dragged across by God's wind of motion as the kingdom charity cases. Diane Duane puts it like this in "High Wizardry" from her Young Wizard series:

Those who refuse to serve the Powers,
become the tools of the Powers.
Those who agree to serve the Powers,
themselves become the Powers.

Beware the Choice! Beware refusing it!

And its true. There's no such thing as "status quo", friends. Not in this Life.