“The language of souls is their desire.” – Gregory the Great
Like every good thing, it can be twisted. Exhibit A may be the wandering Israelites and their golden calf, but exhibits B through Z are not hard to find. No need even to name them.
Well aware of exhibits A through Z, desire begins to look dangerous. It begins to look like fire. Afraid of being burned, we push it aside, we cover it up, we warn our children about playing with fire, and we forget. We forget how much we need that life-giving warmth.
I can remember the day my Sunday New York Times magazine flipped open to a photograph of an old, rambling farmhouse. I sat in my Florida ranch home with its persistently green vegetation, and the desire I felt for that other house nearly knocked me out of my seat.
In the picture I could see trees turning orange, pumpkins on the porch, and a tower room that looked perfect for a writing desk. I imagined children (a bigger crowd than my own three) running across the lawn, while someone (couldn’t be me) watched from the windows. I pictured a henhouse and vegetable garden off to the side, and a woman writing stories in the tower room (of course, she wasn’t me; the only thing I’d ever written was a dissertation and that was an experience I was not eager to repeat).
In that image, I could see an entire life. It looked beautiful, but it could never be mine. I didn’t even consider it. That would have been like considering a trip to the moon.
I was a mother of three (there would be no more), I had recently applied for a tenure-track professorship at a small Florida liberal-arts school, and I was, however reluctantly, mapping out a future among the palm trees.
But those northern maples were blazing in my magazine, and I could feel their heat through the page.
Here is a long story made very short: God was speaking to me, and the medium of communication was desire.
It is a dangerous thing to listen to that voice. One day you are living reasonably, making reasonable plans, and fulfilling every obligation and expectation, and the next? You are on your knees warming your hands over a magazine picture until … you are consumed.
You have played with fire, and your life will never be the same.
Praise be to God.
When I was young, dreams were easy. I wanted to marry that one boy from the church youth group. I wanted to live in the big city. I wanted a PhD. Later, I wanted (desperately) to have children.
In those days, dreams were like stair steps. One after the other, they fell into place. Some were realized easily, some only after the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, but they were all my dreams. I could take full credit for the dreaming, and I thanked God when my dreams came true.
Then the day when I exhausted my carefully hoarded stash of dreams. I had thought I carried an endless supply. I imagined I was Mary Poppins reaching deep into her carpet bag. But mine was only an ordinary duffel.
I remember it precisely. I sat at my desk with one dream heavy in my belly and another being typed out word by word on the screen of my computer. I was preparing to defend my PhD dissertation. I was preparing to give birth to my third child. That day, I opened my Bible and read these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
I knew then that I had come to the end of my own dreams.
I wasn’t unhappy. I had plans, though they were disconcertingly vague. I wasn’t ungrateful, though I was nine-months tired and dissertation stressed. The problem was that I read the phrase desires of your heart but saw only emptiness. I was no longer a dreamer. Had I ever been?
A few months after the baby and only days after graduation, we moved to Florida. There I learned that heart desires are born in God’s own throne room. I also learned that the door to the throne room is usually found in the wilderness.
Florida was my wilderness, my wandering place. It was the place where my own small plans were broken and then burned. And what was revealed in those flames? Of course. Desire.
We Christians profess selflessness (though too often we practice it as badly as anyone might). But in our profession we come to fear desire. Isn’t it wrong to pay such close attention to my own heart? Aren’t desires like sirens tempting me from the Way?
And so, like some foolish Ulysses, we stop up our ears, we tie ourselves to the mast of our ship, and we focus only on our plans. I will do this today. I will do that tomorrow. When always God is calling us to let go of our plans and listen to his voice.
It is so like the beautiful siren song, but it is calling us, not to our destruction, but to life. The abundance of the wide-awake but dreaming life. A life that will look differently for each of us. A life dreamed up for us alone. Dreamed up by Love and planted within us in the form of desire.
It might take getting lost. It might require fire. It might look like a struggle on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. But the thing that is left is worth everything. Every tear. Every question. Every dark, uncertain day.
The thing that is left is a God-breathed, God-given desire. It reveals the self you were made to be. It turns your gaze toward the One who made you.
The realization of this desire is like coming home after a long, uncertain sea voyage. But this is a home you could never have imagined. It is fully beyond your own capacity for dreaming.
I know this is the way of it when I find myself behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Yes, me. The same me who traded the flat fields and cowboy hats of Texas for skyscrapers and snowflakes. Here I am, driving a truck loaded with mushroom compost and baby trees.
Sitting high in my seat, the view through the tunnel of August corn is washed in golden, late-day light. I can just glimpse a far green hill. It is topped by that perfect couple: a white farmhouse and a red barn.
An Amish family clip-clops by behind their horse, and, for a moment, I cannot fathom how I have come to this place. This beautiful, never-before-imagined place.
And that is a heart’s desire. It is a place prepared for you. A place that satisfies your heart like nothing else.
It is a dream come true, though, walking your own way, you would have never dreamed of it at all.
“The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home …”
– Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry
The cherry trees behind our house may be old, but they are scattering yellow leaves like overeager flower girls before a wedding.
It isn’t time yet, I whisper.
But it is time. No matter what the calendar says, it is time. I know because I have seen this once before. On August first, we began our second year at Maplehurst, and this, yellow leaves on green grass, is the first return.
The first year is a surprise. The second is a return.
She is eleven months going on all-grown-up, and I have unpacked some of her older sister’s clothes. Here is the white dress Lily wore in her one-year-old portrait. Here is the rainbow-striped sunhat she wore our first summer in our 48th Street condo.
We no longer live in that city, though it was the first place that ever felt like home to me.
My first baby girl is also lost (replaced by a nearly-ten-year-old whose legs look impossibly long in their roller skates). Of course, she returns in memory, she returns in the soft curve of her baby sister’s chin, and, who knows, maybe she’ll show up again when I unpack this dress for a grandbaby someday.
Nothing good is ever truly lost (which is another way of saying that all is being made new).
Today, I reread my journal. I remember the wandering years. Those drought years when the smoke of Florida wildfires was like a pillar of cloud. Back then, I wrote down the words of Zechariah.
Though I scatter them among the peoples, yet in distant lands they will remember me. They and their children will … return. I will bring them back.
Moving to this place one year ago felt like this return. Once again, we would know the rush of four seasons, the familiarity of a good friend’s face, the comforting rightness of the words this is my home. All this while watching another baby girl grow.
But return is not a one-time thing.
One year in, and I know that life with God is all about return. I am returned. And every day I am returning.
The prophet’s words tell the story of my life. Of my rescue. They also tell the story of the world:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence (Hosea 6:1-2).
We die so many deaths, but we are never lost. The son of God gives himself up but is returned to us on the third day. And every day this world is made new.
If creation sings, then those are the words to her song. It is a song about birth. It is a song about coming home. It is the song of our God and our world.
I have seen these yellow cherry leaves before, yet I have never seen them before.
They have returned. They are new.
At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.
Spring has finally come to Maplehurst, and we are living in a watercolor world. Trees are smudged with the almost-neon green of new buds. The ground is blurred by the purple and white of wild violets. Move your head too quickly, and the brilliant yellow of the dandelions might just look like a lightning strike.
For several days, I have noticed a spot of garish orangey-red near the laundry room steps. I assumed it was a child’s toy. Something awful and plastic. Today, I realized it was a patch of tulips striped orange and yellow. They have large, black polka-dots in their middles. They are the tackiest flowers I have ever seen, more like circus clowns than plants. These tulips, bursting out near the propane tank, prove spring does, in fact, have a sense of humor.
I was twenty-one before I witnessed a real spring, the kind that only comes after a long, cold winter. We were living near Washington D.C.. I had never seen redbuds and forsythia, cherry blossoms and tulips. And the dogwoods. Oh, the dogwoods.
I’d been raised by a farmer-turned-gardener, but I’d never paid much attention to plants. That first spring, something woke up in my twenty-one-year-old soul, and I’ve been paying attention to plants ever since.
On a walk to see the cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial that spring, I noticed a spectacular flowering tree. It looked as if a hundred thousand delicate, pink-winged birds had come to rest on its branches. I took a closer look at the flowers, and I knew they resembled magnolia blooms.
I may not have paid much attention to Texas flora beyond the justifiably famous bluebonnets, but I, like any southern girl, knew that magnolias never lost their dark, glossy green leaves. I also knew that magnolia blooms are pure white, as big (or bigger) than a baby’s head, and they merely dot the tree, like ornaments placed just so.
In other words, this brilliant pink explosion of a tree could not be a magnolia.
But it was. That year, that first spring, I learned the difference between the south’s evergreen magnolias and the deciduous varieties grown farther north. I learned the difference, and I chased it.
After two years in Virginia, it was time to choose a graduate school. I took one look at the blooming pink magnolias lined up against the gothic grey of quadrangle walls and knew I’d be moving to Chicago.
After Chicago, I lived for two years in a Florida house with an evergreen magnolia centered proudly in the front yard. It was lovely, yes, but it reminded me that I was living in an eddy. My life had turned backwards and sideways. For two years, I had no spring.
Nine months ago, we moved to Pennsylvania, to this Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. I knew the old tree planted north of our front porch (a tree that must be as old as the house itself) was a magnolia. A deciduous magnolia. The largest I have ever seen.
And I’ve been waiting.
Waiting for God to keep his promises, waiting for life to get a little easier, waiting for spring – spring like we haven’t seen for three years – to come.
This was waiting as it is meant to be. Waiting with hope. Waiting with full expectation. This, not because I’ve finally mastered the spiritual discipline of waiting, but only because I have lived through a few winters, and I have seen them all end.
I have been waiting with eyes wide open because I could see the tree always outside my window. I knew what it had in store for me because I’ve seen it before.
But never this big.
Never this beautiful.
Never this good.
“Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Song of Songs 2: 12
I want my children to know that God’s love is as real as the cupcakes and green tea we shared on Monday afternoon. It’s as real as this house that shelters us from cold and frames our daily view of the sunset.
But this is actually a hard thing to believe, and my daughter goes straight for the crack in my story: what about the kids who have no cupcakes? What about the student my health teacher just told us about? The one with no money for a visit to the dentist? The one who is about to lose his house because his parents ran out of money to pay the owner?
And I can hear the real question whispering beneath our conversation: isn’t it a terrible thing to suppose God loves one child with a gift of cupcakes while another one is left to starve?
I’ve been listening to this firstborn of mine for years, and one word that always comes to mind is wisdom.
She reminds me that wisdom doesn’t necessarily know the answer, but she does ask good questions.
That is a good question, I tell her. I don’t know the answer.
All I really know are the stories that make up my own life. While I don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces (in other words, a God who makes my life easier and more comfortable with special little favors), I do know that God loves in big ways and small.
Maybe God is loving you right now with cupcakes, I tell her. Maybe he is loving that other child with a bowl of rice from an aid worker.
One time, I tell her, God loved me with a sofa.
It was just over a year ago, and I had this farmhouse dream in mind. It was a dream about caring for an old house and a bit of land and welcoming lots of people around our table. In my mind, it looked like an antique sofa. The kind with a carved wood frame and pretty little legs. I don’t know why the dream looked that way to me, but it did.
But I was very sick that last winter in Florida. I spent every day in bed trying to breathe, trying to avoid the wicked, golden tree pollen wafting through the air.
Until the day, dear firstborn, when I couldn’t take your cabin-fever complaints, your boredom made manifest in bickering. I grabbed you and my inhaler and took off for some thrift-store therapy. I don’t think I ever felt so far away from my dream as I did then – struggling to breathe and desperate for escape. From pollen, from warm winters, from bickering children, from all of it.
We walked into the thrift store – headed for the twenty-five cent children’s books – and I saw it. My sofa. My farmhouse sofa.
But, we don’t have room for another couch, you said. You’re right, I said. We don’t have room in our Florida house, but I don’t think we’ll always be here. Dear God, tell me I won’t always be here. Desperate for breath. Dying to escape.
I bought that sofa. It sat in our Florida garage for a few weeks until I had enough faith to write the check. That’s when I googled upholsterers.
I chose the one with the coupon and the free in-person estimate. He loaded my sofa into his white van, and I went back to my sickbed. Not even a sofa in the garage to remind me of my dream.
Months went by, and there was no reason to think we’d be leaving Florida anytime soon. The sofa wasn’t ready when he said. Weeks went by, and I emailed. Soon! he wrote back. More weeks went by, and I emailed again. Very soon! he wrote.
I tried not to think about my farmhouse (but all I could think was where is it? And when will we go there?). I tried not to think about my sofa (but all I could think was where is it? And did I pick the right fabric?).
June 23. My birthday. 5 pm and there was a phone call. Your sofa is ready, and I’m in your neighborhood. Can I bring it by?
You and I, we don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces. You and I, we can’t ever forget that starving child (which is as it should be).
But I know my own story, and I know God gave me a sofa for my thirty-fifth birthday.
Today, I am sitting at my desk in an old, old farmhouse. I can see my sofa from where I sit.
It was made for this house.
Which is as inconsequential as a parking space. And as miraculous as anything I know.
When you leave the desert do you kick the dust from your feet? Forget what’s behind and look only toward the future?
I’d be tempted to say yes except for the view framed by my metaphorical rearview mirror.
For two years I felt myself to be living in a kind of prison. Not a harsh bread and water only kind-of-prison. More like these words from Psalm 139: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”
Hemmed in by God, prevented by him from pursuing my usual pleasures, my long-held plans, I was given only God himself. Felt only his heavy hand.
Have you felt how heavy that hand can be?
God loves us, but he can weigh us down till we can hardly bear it. Till we can’t bear it.
But, if his hand is heavy, his voice speaks comfort.
I can remember reading the Bible and feeling like those Israelite wanderers. But I worried – maybe this was no desert? Maybe I just needed to learn contentment? Gratitude?
Perhaps this wasn’t a profound spiritual experience – maybe it was only my own bad attitude?
I sat in church and wondered until a young woman I hardly knew (a woman who did not know the question I was asking) turned around and spoke to me. In the brief space between worship songs she said, “I think God wants you to know that he will not leave you in the desert. This will not last forever, and he will lead you out again.”
Ever since I’ve clung to those words: “This will not last forever. He will lead me out again.”
And those words were true. He is leading me out. I know now that not all prisons are hideous.
This is what I see when I look back: something beautiful. A perfect plan. A gracious way.
And this is what I say to the One who led me there: thank you.