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.
There is a river, and it has washed my slate clean.
New home. New baby. New friends. New church. New weather. The year is new, and my days are full of new things.
Strangely, not one bit of it feels new. These are déjà vu days, and everything in them feels familiar and comfortable. As if I have already worn deep grooves into this daily life.
My baby daughter looks exactly like her sister, my firstborn. Holding this baby, nine years disappear, and I am a new mother again. I sit in the same rocking chair, she wears the same pink dress, and I sometimes can’t tell who is in my arms, the first baby or the last.
I tuck her into the same blue pram, and we walk beneath maple trees on our way to meet the school bus. I remember this stroller cutting through the icy winds on Chicago’s sidewalks, and I think I must have always known, somewhere deep within, that I was headed to this good place.
It is simply too familiar. I am not surprised by any of it. Only grateful. Deeply grateful.
I once wrote that I was living the first half of this verse: “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down … so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28).
Now I am living the second half.
My firstborn was a firecracker of a baby, and she broke me. In so many good and necessary ways, she broke me.
My fourth is like gentle rain in spring. One fierce and one gentle, they have both been good gifts.
There were years when all was uprooted. Now new things are growing. Both are necessary. Both are good.
I have been hearing this whisper for months, but now it is a shout: “Return! Return!”
I have said, “Yes, Lord, I am coming,” again and again I have said it until this moment, having just tipped over into this new year, I know I have arrived. I have returned.
And every day of this year, I will wake with one word in mind: return.
The poet T. S. Eliot says “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I have journeyed to my own beginning, and there is no surprise in this. Haven’t I always felt most at home with the One who names himself Alpha and Omega?
He is my beginning, and he is my end, and I have come home. I have returned; I am, every day, returning.
“My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
A big house with open doors. Four seasons of God’s glory.
Community. Hospitality. Roots planted deep.
This dream is big, and we’ve dreamed it for so long. Maybe that’s why I imagined fireworks. Cymbals crashing. An arrival announced with lightning bolts.
But even big dreams are realized in little ways. A morning. An evening. Another morning. It seems that trust and faith are still necessary even after the dream’s inauguration.
The old farmhouse on the hill fills up with our stuff. It’s good. Also overwhelming. We visit a local church. It’s good. Also underwhelming. Is this the place? The place to dig deep? It’s hard to say.
Our first Sunday is also the day for the church’s once-a-month family picnic. We hesitate. Potlucks are danger zones for our middle child. But, they’re grilling packaged meat, and we can check the label. There are big slices of watermelon. So we stay.
And it’s beautiful, this place. A playground shaded by trees. Meadow grasses leading down a wide hill. There’s a small, bubbling creek. A fishing net and a bench just to the side. The kids wade and play and can’t believe their luck. This is church?
The man across the picnic table tells me about this place. Native Americans long used this hillside for their winter rests. Returning from summers spent on the plains, they came to this spot. They took a break from their wandering, and they took that break here. By this water.
The creek, he tells me, is no ordinary creek. You can’t see it, but there is a river here.
The creek that bubbles up just below our table is the beginning – the very small beginning – of a big river. A few miles away this water holds barges, he says. But it all starts here. This is its beginning.
Later that same day I read these words: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10).
I haven’t felt like rejoicing. Too tired. Too hot. Too pregnant. Too much to do. But, I know now that our dream has begun. It has taken shape. Made us tired with the work of realizing it. And that is very, very good.
It is the end of the first day, and we sit on the porch. No chairs, yet. Just us, here, on the steps.
There is a full moon high in the sky, and it is God’s joy for us.
Because the work has begun.