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.
A birthday letter for one’s child should be a marker of all that a mother knows. For instance, on the day you turned three you had a scratch on your cheek and a bruise on your forehead. Your legs and arms were somehow both surprisingly long and impossibly tiny. You loved your balloon. You whined for more chocolate cake. You pronounced it so carefully: “choc-oh-lut.”
But you are almost entirely unknown. This doesn’t bother me or frighten me. At least once a day your father or I will laugh at you and say, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Your blonde hair sets you apart in our family. But it is more than appearance. Perhaps it is comparison. With two older siblings whose personalitites and interests have seemed long settled, you are less familiar. We are still getting acquainted. You are still getting acquainted with the world.
Or, perhaps it is a holdover. You were unknown for nine months before your birth. Boy or girl? We chose not to know. You were the little stranger born into the thoroughly familiar, the utterly known: our own bed, in our own apartment, in a city that felt like home.
There has been only one moment when I saw more. One moment when I seemed to glimpse the you that is still buried in your bones.
You were six months old. It was late at night. Your cough was so like a barking seal that we had no need to google symptoms. We could name it. By naming it we felt we had tamed it.
We had done no such thing. In the space between those known, nameable coughs your breath became jagged. Desperate. Each breath seemed just on the verge of not coming at all.
Your father spoke with the nurse on call, and I held you on the floor of the bathroom, your face hardly visible through the steam. I prayed for you.
So often prayer is just a desperate word or two. It hardly seems capable of traveling whatever distance lies between my mouth and God’s ear. But sometimes prayer takes over and I know that it does not come from me at all. It is more like a river, and I’ve just fallen in.
Sitting there, holding you, I was in that river and I saw something. It was as if that rushing river of prayer drew back the veil between known and unknown, seen and unseen. I saw You, the you that is never just a baby or a three-year-old, but the You that is every age, and I recognized how far away from me you would travel. I could see you bringing light into dark places where I would never go. It seemed to me, as I prayed, that there was a great struggle taking place in this ordinary, steamy bathroom.
Later, I recognized that this river of prayer was not my communication with God. It wasn’t my puny request for healing. A simple question to be answered “yes” or “no.” The prayer was God’s own roaring response to the darkness, the utter evil, that would end your life before you could do all that you were made to do. Or, more importantly, before you could become who you were made to be.
God wouldn’t allow it. Yes, the darkness was there with us, grasping at you as you grasped for breath, but God was shoving it aside. Saving you because we needed you. A “we” that includes so many more than just your father and I.
I don’t know exactly who you are or how far you will go. I do know your life will be beautiful, more beautiful even than these first three years. Your life will matter, more than it already has to your family. And I know you are one step closer today to the promise I glimpsed in that prayer.
You are three.
I fear that too many of us approach prayer with a mental picture of ourselves making a laborious attempt to come before God. Or, maybe we have a picture of ourselves trying and mostly failing to get God’s attention. Either way, the effort is all ours. The distance between heaven and earth appears too big to bridge, and our burdens seem trivial. They are dwarfed by God’s vastness, and they are lost in the cacophony of prayers being made across the planet at any given moment.
I’ve learned that prayer is not about little people waving their puny arms in God’s face. Nor is prayer like my own small voice pushing aside all others in order to make its way into God’s ear.
Rather, prayer is like a river. It is always flowing, and we are not its source. Its source is the Christ “who was raised to life,” for we know that He “is at the right hand of God . . . interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
To pray is to step into the rushing water.
Even the words we say are not our own. We pray, like Christ, “Abba, Father.” Instead of distance there is the intimacy of family.
And when we have no words? We groan, but even in this we are not alone. Our groan joins that of creation (and who can doubt that creation groans?). Even better, our groans are echoed in God’s own heart, for the Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). Our pain, our uncertainty transformed by God himself into powerful, purposeful prayer.
Quieting myself, I can just hear the sound of the river. It is the sound of One singing over us, and His voice “is like the sound of rushing waters” (Zephaniah 3:17, Revelation 1:15).
How do we find this river? How do we hear its voice? And, most importantly, how do we jump in?
I’m not sure that I’ve figured it out. All I know with certainty is that the river is there and sometimes it finds its way to me.
This week it found many of us at a monthly women’s worship service focused on the arts. Women sang, women danced, women spoke, and women painted. Yes, painted.
Some of us took Sharpie markers and wrote our prayers on one of several large, blank canvases. Of course, I wrote the name of my boy. I wrote the word Fear. I wrote the word Food. And then the painters began to pray and create, and our words were caught up in swirls of color.
By the end of the service, the canvas I had chosen (or the canvas chosen for me?) was covered in a wild rush of water. The artist’s brush had spelled out across it: “The Healing River Flows.”
How could I ever think that my prayer for healing is mine alone? Or even that I am its source?
The source of my prayer is Christ. The same one who gave me these words when I first prayed for a child: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4). Back then, I read those words and knew that my prayer had been answered.
Now I know that “answered” is not really the best word-picture for what sometimes happens when we pray. Instead, it is less like being spoken to and more like being swept away by water that was always already pushing in the direction we longed to go.
We don’t need to fight to get God’s attention. We do need to remember that our Savior with the voice like water has never stopped praying over us.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb . . .” (Revelation 22:1).