My What-I-Am-Looking-for-in-a-Husband List started with just a few basic traits. Christian. Intelligent. Good with Kids. Sense of Humor. And Athletic. Sounds reasonable, right?
But as I moved through my twenties—marked in some way by too many men—the list expanded and morphed. Each failed relationship sent me back to the list with a bright red pen. Christian was amended to Growing in His Faith after one Christian boyfriend decided that drugs and who-knows-what-else were a good idea. Good Communicator was added and then highlighted after a particularly painful two years during which I never knew where I stood. Comfortable with My Disabled Parents became increasingly important with each awkward family introduction. Vocational Ministry rose in the ranks as I felt more and more led in that direction. And Handy around the House was entered as a footnote. Not required, but I did swoon a bit whenever something broke and a boy brought over his tools.
I met Peter one bright September Friday in 1998. I left my office at lunchtime and walked across campus to one of the three temporary dining halls (TDRs), set up while our main dining hall was undergoing an extensive renovation.
By that time, I had been a Bible College Communications Professor for a whole month. Long enough for the initial high to fade. But short enough that I still stumbled around—dumbfounded—wondering, “Who in their right mind thought I could do this?”
That afternoon I had this funny sense that I was going to see someone at lunch. I just didn’t know who. So I entered the first TDR and wandered among the tables, surveying the faces of students and fellow faculty, looking for someone familiar or just friendly. But—seeing no one I knew or felt compelled to approach—I kept on walking, right out the opposite door.
The two other TDRs existed down in the school’s intimidating tunnel system, but on this monumental day I decided to brave the labyrinth. I found the second TDR without too much trouble and peeked in the door. It was virtually empty. No obvious divine encounter waiting there. So I trudged back to my office, resigned to spending my lunch hour drinking faculty-lounge coffee and grading English Composition papers.
But as I unlocked my office door, I felt a stirring. Or a nudge. Or maybe it was a voice. Calling to me. “Go to the third TDR.”
Of course, I could only obey.
I grabbed a book for certain company and headed back underground. To the tunnels. And after bumping up against just a couple of dead ends, I found it. The third TDR. A bustling, makeshift cafeteria, full of folding tables and hungry strangers. Feeling awkward and alone, but determined to see this thing through, I followed the crowd to the salad bar line. And while I was dawdling over the dressings, a kind gentleman approached. Dr. Green was a graduate school professor, who was also new to campus. He remembered me from orientation.
“Are you eating with anyone?” he asked with a smile.
“No,” I answered.
“Would you like to join me and some of my graduate students?” he asked.
Well. Of course I would.
He led me to a long table, crowded with a dozen or so people roughly my age. They shifted and made space for me across from Dr. Green and told me all of their names. A “Peter” was seated not far away.
I spent most of that meal exchanging new professor stories with Dr. Green. Until, suddenly, my keen left ear overheard something remarkable. In his fabulous British accent, Peter told another graduate student that Minneapolis, Minnesota, was his favorite city in the United States. Now, I am a loyal Minnesotan. For a long time, my Illinois license plate read MNESO 10. I still cheer for the Vikings and the Twins. And I secretly love to shovel snow. But even so, Minneapolis seemed like an odd choice for #1. I had to know the story. So I asked.
And that was our first conversation.
Peter explained that his parents had lived in Minneapolis for a year while his dad did a teaching exchange. I explained that I grew up there. And we agreed on her best feature. The Lakes. He also asked me what I taught, and we discovered a shared love of literature and theater. And then, as I told him about the play I hoped to direct the following spring, he started smiling. One of those smirk-y sort of smiles. As if he had some secret joke. As if I had spinach stuck in my teeth. I blushed and faltered and scrambled to recall what stupid thing I must have said. Then he jumped in to rescue me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, all dimpled and brown-eyed and British, “but I just love your accent.”
I floated back to my office, grabbed my lesson plans, somehow found my Speech Communication class, and tried to form complete sentences. Later that afternoon, when I was packing up to go home, I pulled out my journal and jotted a few lines about that lunch. I finished with this: “I think I just met the man I am going to spend the rest of my life with.” Then I added, “I can’t believe I wrote that!”
Minutes later as I left my office building to catch a train, I looked across the lawn and there was—of all people—Peter. Sitting on a bench.
With. Another. Girl.
He waved. And smiled. And I waved back. Forcing a grin. Then I kicked myself all the way to the train.
A week or so after our first lunch meeting, the annual Missions Conference was held on campus. On the first night, I headed to the auditorium early, looking for a student whom I didn’t find. But when I climbed up to the balcony and scanned the rows of empty seats, who did I see? Peter, of course. Sitting all by himself. He invited me to join him. We lifted our voices together in praise songs and brushed elbows during the sermon. Then after the meeting he walked me to my car.
On the way to the parking garage, he told me that he had been a missionary. For six years. In Pakistan and Japan. He even spoke some Japanese to prove it. (I couldn’t help myself. The List appeared in my head. Vocational Ministry. Check.) Not only that, but he had taught fifth graders at the missions school. (Good with Kids. Check.) Not only that, but he had coached their soccer team. (Athletic. Check.) Not only that, but he had come to the graduate school to understand more about the Bible and theology. (Intelligent. Check.) Not only that, but he said all of this with that adorable British accent. (Which hadn’t been on The List. But certainly should have.)
I can’t remember if the subject of The Other Girl came up naturally or if I had to raise the issue with characteristic finesse, but I learned that she was a fellow graduate student. A friend, as far as Peter was concerned, but one who had already expressed her interest in him beyond the realm of the friendly.
Over the next couple of weeks, I frequented that third TDR. Lingering with a student or a colleague until Peter would find me there and join our conversation. Eventually, inevitably, my dinner date would start to feel like a third wheel and would leave us on our own to shut the dining hall down. One Friday in late October, our conversation lasted beyond TDR closing time and all evening long. Finally, I explained that I ought to catch a train, and he offered to walk me to the station.
We didn’t hurry though. He was busy describing and quoting British comedies that I had never heard of and didn’t understand. Of course, I laughed anyhow. And I gave Sense of Humor a tentative check in my mind.
I missed my train that night. We arrived at the station just as it was pulling out. But like a gentleman, he waited with me a whole hour until the next one. To pass the time, he ordered a fish fillet sandwich. When he pronounced it “fill it” and I had to interpret for the McDonald’s employee, I momentarily wondered if he was as intelligent as I had first thought. But in spite of those couple of cultural blips, a romance was sparked, and from that night on, he walked me to the train. Almost every single day.
On one walk, in late October, we stopped for coffee. Neither of us was in a rush, so we found a tiny table in a Starbucks corner and talked. We were a month in, so I thought it was time to tell him about my parents. And cerebral palsy.
But I didn’t lead with that. Instead, I stalled and told him about my day. My teaching. And a sample informative speech outline I had written for my students, based on my experience skydiving. He was impressed. “You jumped out of a plane?”
I didn’t know until a long time later that this was a checklist moment for him. Adventurous. Check. Willing to Take Risks.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to share what was on my heart. To describe my family with all of their quirks. To explain their needs and limitations.
I couldn’t have imagined a better response. Peter looked deep in my eyes. He told me how he understood that if he ever married, he was marrying his wife’s family as well, whatever that involved. It was my turn to be impressed. And I gave Comfortable with My Parents a very hopeful check.
At this point I feel the need to clarify that I don’t necessarily advise this checklist approach to dating. It sounds a bit like shopping for a new car. Good gas mileage. Check. Standard transmission. Check. Air conditioning. Check. My latest must-have: Heated seats. Check.
Or maybe it’s like casting a play. The play of your life. The supporting actor role though—because you, of course, are the lead. You have the plot pretty much figured out. You know how you want the story to go. You can see the whole cast in your mind. The winsome spouse. Maybe a few adorable kids. Some cool people to play your extended family and friends. You can envision the set. A fabulous apartment or a cute little house. Perhaps you have even thought through the costumes and props.
But you’re not buying a car. You’re not even casting a play. You’re living a real-live life. Directed and produced by a real-live God. Who has his own ideas.
Like every dating relationship, ours progressed with exhilarating highs and painful lows. The Other Girl convinced Peter to break up with me just before Christmas by reminding him repeatedly that he wanted to focus on God. We reunited after the New Year and spent a month in focused prayer for our relationship, both believing by the end of January that God had indeed brought us together for good reason. That month I also held auditions for The Importance of Being Ernest and cast Peter as the lead.
As will happen, though, the more time we spent, the closer we got, the more we triggered each other’s fears and insecurities. For example, one evening we went to the theater, but when Peter told me, “You look nice tonight,” I could only hear the “tonight” and dissolved into tears. Or for example, in May Peter took me to England to meet his family, but when his mum and I gushed over The Kitley House as a potential wedding site, Peter clammed up and then protested too strongly, “I haven’t even proposed.”
During the summer of 1999, Peter took a position as the junior high leader at a church day camp. The church hired me as well, as one of Peter’s counselors. And so all day, every day—June, July, and August—we corralled and mentored dozens of sweet and squirrely kids. Bussing them to beaches and waterparks and museums and such. Leading them in games and Bible studies. Refereeing when they got out of control.
One Friday evening in August, at the end of a particularly difficult week, we were relaxing and recovering at Peter’s host home.
“It’s a beautiful night,” I said. “Let’s go for a run.”
Peter needed a bit of persuading. But eventually we went. We had done one lap around the subdivision and were starting around again, when Peter suddenly dropped to one knee on the street corner, and said quite simply, “Will you marry me?”
He didn’t make a romantic speech. He didn’t have a ring. He didn’t have flowers. He didn’t look his best. And I, too, was a tired and sweaty mess.
So my immediate response was certainly appropriate: “Are you serious?” This wasn’t how I had envisioned it when I drafted the script. And then, of course, I said, “Yes.”
Peter explained, after the fact, that he was so nervous about proposing that he just had to do it. Spontaneously. When he felt as if he could. He also explained that—in England—engagements are usually simple like that. No hiding the ring in a fill-it of fish. No hiring an orchestra to serenade. No hot air balloon rides to heaven and back. But he explained that he knew that night that we could make it work. That we were allies. Partners. Better together than we were apart.
So we started to plan for our shared life.
The wedding was to be in England at Christmas, so Peter’s mum acted as chief wedding coordinator. Meeting with photographers and florists and e-mailing me often with questions and quotes.
Peter and I focused on deciding where to live. I was still at Gert’s. And I still loved it. It was in downtown Wheaton. It was cheap. Yes, it was terribly run-down. But it was quirky, and I had made it cute. My two main qualifications for a home. I wanted to stay.
Peter wanted to move. The school where he would be teaching fifth grade was purchasing a home and a stable on a large piece of property in a suburb about an hour north. A bunker-like structure was built onto the backside of the barn, and they were offering that to us for a reasonable rent. It had the quirk-factor, for sure, but it wasn’t at all cute. It had two-foot thick concrete walls and small windows. It had been used as an office space, so it sported a drop ceiling, florescent lights, and industrial grade carpeting. Not to mention, you could hear the horses through the wall. Reluctantly, I agreed. Then the school’s property purchase fell through, and we were back to square one.
Peter lobbied next for a 1970s apartment halfway between his school and mine. The location made sense. And it was affordable. But it wasn’t cute. Or quirky. So I made quite a fuss. We spent the better part of one premarital counseling session duking this out, our pastor and his wife as the referees. Until Peter gave in.
So then, after our Christmas wedding, we squeezed and settled into married life. Upstairs at Gert’s. We unpacked our wedding china and piled it precariously on the sagging pantry shelves. The plates and bowls and saucers and cups rattled ominously every time a train went by.
And while we enjoyed Saturday morning newlywed brunch dates at the corner cafe and long newlywed walks in the nearby Cantigny flower gardens and spontaneous newlywed escapes to fancy bed and breakfasts all around the area, we also realized—with each little rattle—as most newlyweds do—that our Lists were even longer than we first let on.
Husband of Kelli wasn’t supposed to play computer games.
Wife of Peter was supposed to be able to dance.
Husband of Kelli was supposed to enter into home improvement projects with glee.
Wife of Peter was supposed to listen to him read for hours, and then debate him the finer points.
Husband of Kelli got more stuff done.
Wife of Peter wasn’t so uptight.
On our first anniversary, we decided to start a joint journal. A written record of our married life. Peter would write on the left hand pages, and I would write on the right.
We composed our first parallel entries at a bed and breakfast called the English Rose. I wrote about being married for one year, how sanctifying it had been, how much we had grown.
Peter wrote this.
It seems that in marriage the emotions constantly fluctuate, especially when we are in each other’s presence. Yet through these multifarious testings of our strength, we rely on God and we grow. I see how easy it would be to close off completely, harden the heart, pretend that all these things are happening independently of me. Yet I make the choices and I live with the consequences. As a bachelor I was able to deceive myself more easily. I love my wife, but that love is often under pressure. It is a mystery how it grows under pressure and blossoms. It is a further mystery how it is pruned once more so that it yields more fruit. Beyond this analogy a whole metamorphosis has taken place which gives birth to a love that makes what went before look like indifference.
It continues from there. I wrote on and off—on the right-hand side—for the next four years. Peter wrote much less and then stopped.
What is easy to see now, though I had no idea of it at the time, is that we were already drifting apart. Busy and buried in our own lives. Consumed with our own thoughts. Nursing our own wounds. Striving for our own goals. Reaching out to one another. Yes. Trying to bridge the gap. But acting so often in our own, parallel but too individual, plays.
Over the years Peter and I have been asked to put several young couples through their premarital counseling paces. In fact, one adorable young couple is coming over tomorrow night. We have our curriculum all laid out. We always talk about personality types and communication and conflict. Eventually, we’ll discuss finances and family and sex.
But if I had to boil it down. If I were asked to tell them one first and fundamental piece of advice, I think it would be this: Take the time and make every effort to see.
Not the caricature in your head. Not the cast member in your play. But the real-live person that you have been called to love.
I didn’t so often in those early years. And it might have made a difference.
I am a gardening wannabe.
It’s the artistic part that appeals to me. Loading my Home Depot cart with pretty plants. Then arranging them around the garden, according to size and color and shape and texture and blooming time.
However—and quite unfortunately—the science side of gardening eludes me. Oh, sure, I can place the plants based on shade or sun. I can sprinkle a bit of fertilizer here and there. And usually I remember to water. But beyond that—when you start talking about soil, nutrients, bugs, rot, and disease—I’m in over my head.
When Peter and I bought This Old McHenry House, the small back yard was covered in a variety of overgrown shrubs. No grass. Just bushes, rocks, a crumbling brick patio, two dilapidated fountains, a cock-eyed birdhouse, and a pathway running through the foliage, from house to garage.
It looked like a scraggly and neglected mess when we arrived in March. But come spring, I was pleasantly surprised when most of the bushes erupted with flowers and leaves. A jungle of loveliness. And that first summer, I dedicated myself to the task of taming it. Sculpting it into our own suburban oasis. I pruned and weeded. Moved some plants and added others. Filled the old fountains with flowers. And at the end of every long day of gardening, I collapsed in an Adirondack chair with a glass of lemonade and admired my work.
The following spring I was eager to take things to the next level. By then I had researched how to lay a brick patio, and I planned to transform the awkward space between the house and the neighbor’s fence from a mud pit into an additional outdoor living area. I had also investigated native Illinois flowers, various mulch options, and how to hang a hammock.
My enthusiasm waned ever-so-slightly, however, when I surveyed the scene in early May. While most of my perennials had survived the long winter, several of them had not. So before I could press ahead with my elaborate scheme, I had to deal with the casualties. I moved around the garden with shovel and lawn bag in tow, digging up the dead.
Until I came across one particular Potentilla.
At first glance she looked brown and brittle, so I poked in the shovel and began to pry her out. But when I looked more closely, when I parted her prickly branches to grab ahold and pull up her roots, I saw just a little bit of life. Just a few delicate green leaves pushing up through the dirt at her base.
Peter found me, sitting in the mud, a bit teary actually, pushing her back into the ground. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Look,” I said. “This poor shrub reminds me of me.”
See, that spring gardening was more than a home improvement project. More than a hobby for me. It was a distraction. Even a salve. I was smack in the middle of a six-year proverbial “dark night of the soul.” I was brown and brittle. And gardening was going to help get me through.
In my next several blog entries, I will detail that journey. The descent into the valley. The rocky terrain, the long tunnels, the glimpses of light, and the eventual slow climb out the other side.
But here, in this essay, what I want to do is give you a map.
I knew less about Spiritual Growth than I did about gardening when I signed up for the Principles of Discipleship class during my fourth semester of seminary in 1994. As a part of the course, I waded through James W. Fowler’s thick treatise on the subject, Stages of Faith. Fowler based his work on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. And he was one of the first to describe Faith Development in similar terms—specifically a six-Stage process that all people move through in sequence—though the object of their faith and the speed of their journey may widely differ.
Fowler begins by defining faith in broad terms—as “a state of being ultimately concerned.” According to Fowler, then, we all have faith. In something. We are all ultimately concerned “with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to
love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being.”
In later chapters, then, Fowler describes his six Stages in great depth with piles of research to back them up. Here, I’ll try to give you a sort of simple summary.
Stage Number One typically describes children from age two to seven. Fowler writes that young children approach Faith primarily with their imagination. They are powerfully and permanently influenced by the stories and actions and emotions of the adults in their lives. And they express their own “Faith” largely by imitation. They don’t yet understand God, and they may imagine him to be all sorts of fantastic things. But they pray the way their parents tell them to pray. And they recite the Bible verses their parents teach them to recite. This is an important foundation for the Stages yet to come.
When children reach school age and their thinking becomes more concrete, they are ready to enter Stage Number Two. They begin to construct a more coherent and literal narrative for their Faith. Story remains central, but they now work hard to sort out the real from the make-believe. Stage Two children are literal. They are greatly concerned with right and wrong. And they expect God and life to be good and fair.
In adolescence, most children move into Stage Number Three. Here, a child’s world expands well beyond the family, and Faith should ideally provide an anchor and a basis for identity. But this is an insecure and conformist Stage. Children are so concerned with the expectations and judgments of others that they often follow the loudest voice. And unfortunately, when Faith is not a primary influence, these voices can become so loud and so powerful that they impair judgment and jeopardize future growth.
To push beyond Fowler’s Stage Number Three, an individual must reflect critically on his beliefs. Often this transition to Stage Number Four is precipitated by a major life change or a crisis of some kind. The source of authority shifts from the external to the internal—from others to self. And the individual begins to take seriously the responsibility for his own Faith. Ideally, this should happen in young adulthood. But Fowler’s research revealed that some adults don’t move into Stage Four until mid-life. And many other adults never, ever do.
Stage Number Five happens when adults—usually in mid-life—move from the self-confidence of Stage Four to a place where they can appreciate the presence of ambiguity and the power of paradox. By this time, they are well-acquainted with pain, and they are ready to “reclaim and rework” their understanding of the past. They draw close to what is different, embrace the tension, and think outside of the box.
Finally, Fowler describes an exceedingly rare Stage Number Six. Mother Theresa, for example. The person who has reached Stage Six has abandoned the need for self-preservation. She has a transcendent passion to transform the world—not into her own image, but into the image of the Divine. According to Fowler, these people “have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.”
When I was studying Fowler in 1994, I was entering his Stage Number Four. Graduating from college and moving on my own to Illinois had been a major life change. This new independence and my seminary studies were causing me to evaluate my background and my beliefs. But I wanted to do this thoughtfully. To really become an adult. To truly grow.
So I devised a Spiritual Growth plan of my own.
Step Number One: Deconstruct my old beliefs, keeping only the non-negotiable ones.
Step Number Two: Research—both my old beliefs as well as the alternatives.
Step Number Three: Build back a stronger structure on a more sure foundation.
So I got to work. Step One was fairly easy. Demolition usually is. But I got stuck in Step Two. I spent several long Saturdays in the seminary library, tucked in a quiet corner, pouring over theology books that I could hardly understand, wondering if it was supposed to be this hard, begging God to tell me if I was doing the right thing, and realizing that—here too—I was in over my head. If brilliant theologians disagreed about the nature of free-will and God’s sovereignty in salvation, for example, who was I to figure it all out?
So I graduated from seminary in 1996—Magna Cum Laude, and in many ways, mid-renovation.
I didn’t know much about George Barna when he got up to speak at the Re:Write Conference last October. I knew him to be the Christian research guru, and several of his research books lined my shelf. But I didn’t know that—based on his research—he had laid out his own path for Spiritual Growth in his book called Maximum Faith. He describes a Ten-Stop Faith Journey that in many ways parallels Fowler’s work. But I think Barna makes some things even more clear. Here’s what he says.
Stop Number One: We are ignorant to the concept or existence of sin. We all enter the world this way, and according to Barna’s research 1% of American adults remain in this position.
Stop Number Two: We are aware of sin, but indifferent to it. We understand that certain behaviors might be categorized as “sin,” but we are not concerned at all about the consequences. 16% of American adults live here.
Stop Number Three: We are concerned about the implications of personal sin. We begin to ask the “what ifs.” What if there is a hell? What if my sin does offend God? What if the Bible is, in fact, true? Here, we explore possible responses as well. We could ignore sin, reduce sin, hide sin, or seek some way to wipe it out. 39% of American adults exist in Stop Number Three.
Stop Number Four: We confess our sins and ask Jesus Christ to be our personal Savior. After considering our options, we choose the Biblical, Christian path. Unfortunately, 9% of American adults see this as a “one and done” moment and have gone no further on the journey.
Stop Number Five: We commit to faith activities. We read our Bible, memorize verses, join a small group, and pour ourselves into service. This can be an exciting time, a time of rapid growth and change, and 24% of American adults say they are living here.
Stop Number Six: We experience a prolonged period of spiritual discontent. “After years of involvement in the Christian faith, most people slip into a spiritual coma,” says Barna. We are painfully aware that we have plateaued, but we feel helpless to get ourselves unstuck. We become bored or disillusioned with the church. We are susceptible to cynicism, frustration, and doubt. The majority of believers who reach Stop Number Six never move on. The commitment and cost seem too great. So “they retreat to the shelter of the religious games that ensnare most churched people.” This describes 6% of American adults.
Stop Number Seven: We experience personal brokenness. This is when God takes us through a time of “in-your-face confrontation…which prepares [us] for the glorious healing and reconstruction that God has in mind.” This brokenness only comes “after much reflection and meditation, sorrow and remorse, realistic self-evaluation, talking and listening to God, and coming to the end of self…This phase is largely about realigning our spirit with God.” Sadly, only 3% of American adults make it here.
Stop Number Eight: We choose to surrender and submit fully to God and live in radical dependence on Him. We allow God to completely “remake our life,” to heal our past. And we live in the present with a God-consciousness that changes absolutely everything. According to Barna’s extensive study, a mere 1% of American adults have reached Stop Number Eight. The rest of us who have experienced the brokenness of Stop Number Seven have run from it, reverted to previous Stops seeking comfort and ease, become angry with God, or abandoned the faith altogether.
Stop Number Nine: We enjoy a profound intimacy with and love for God. At this Stop, “God blesses us with the ability to know and love Him so profoundly that it is difficult to put into words.” We experience a joy and peace and wisdom that were not available to us before. Just .5% of American adults ever reach this point.
Stop Number Ten: We experience a profound compassion and love for humanity. Finally, loving God as we do, we are able to love people the way He does too. This is the ultimate life, but only .5% of American adults ever experience it.
I sat in Barna’s workshop, staring at my pen and notebook. A bit teary actually. He was articulating so much of what I, too, want to say. What I want this blog to be about.
The importance of healing the past in order to move victoriously into the future.
The role of brokenness in making us whole.
The long, hard, but eternally rewarding journey of Spiritual Growth.
That’s the path before us. That’s the road that each one of us is on—whether we realize it or not. Whether we have stalled by the side of the road, have shifted into reverse, or are slowly making our way forward through a thick fog. I know I’ve traveled in all three ways and then some.
So that’s the developing narrative of This Odd House.
Buckle up. It’s going to be bumpy.
Truth be told…I didn’t want to write this essay.
Oh, I know. List-y essays are all the rage. That’s partly why I balked. The non-conformist in me.
But, too, it feels reductionist.
Because in listing out these 20 points, I am communicating—in an over-simplified sort of way—several of the ideas that I will be unpacking here in the weeks and months to come. I’m spilling the beans.
You could almost call this an outline. A table of contents. A summary. Or worse, the Cliff’s Notes version of this blog. And I’m an English teacher. This just isn’t right.
However, the more I tried to avoid this essay, the more it wrote itself in my heart and mind. The more I decided that it had to be.
When Peter and I meet with college students or recent grads, when we speak on a dormitory floor or invite them into our home, we are often asked: “What is the most important piece of advice you would give to us?” And I never answer well. Dozens of thoughts start swirling around in my head, and I can never grab ahold of what I would deem to be “the most important” one. Instead, I just stutter and stammer and try to say something sensible.
So, for any of you who have ever asked me that question and been disappointed by my answer, or for any of you who prefer using Cliff’s Notes, this one is for you.
Here are 20 things I might have told my 20-something self…
- Examine your foundation carefully. It’s your worldview. Look deeply at what you value and what you believe about God and man and truth and reality. And make it your own. Because it will affect every decision you make. And because life has a way of picking you up and tossing you around. And you always want to nail the landing.
- Seek healing. Don’t imagine that the trauma of your childhood has been left in the past. It simmers under the surface. And it will surprise you at how suddenly it can boil up or suck you under. The work of healing those hard places might involve reading books or finding counseling. (Don’t be too afraid or too ashamed to ask for help.) But ultimately take that trauma to the only Helper, the Counselor, who has a totally healing touch.
- Remain teachable. More specifically, find a mentor. A parent, a pastor, a teacher, a spiritual guide. Or just a person who is living as you would like to live. Spend time with them. Sit at their feet. Look and listen and learn. And, most importantly, be different because of them.
- Choose your community carefully. Your friends will give shape to your life. They will either stunt your growth or spur you on. And when you find good friends, keep them. They are like gold. Treasure them. Invest in them. Spur them on too. Be the kind of friend that you would like to have.
- Feed yourself. Your body, your mind, and especially your soul. When your soul is starving, you can’t see straight. So learn what sort of nourishment you need. A group Bible study? A worship song? A long run? An art project? A prayer with a friend? This is an individual matter, so take the time to figure out what fills you up.
- Foster good habits. As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So don’t wait until tomorrow to get up early, go to bed on time, exercise enough, save money, and so on. The patterns of your life today are the person you will become.
- Learn to rest. Though this could fall under “foster good habits,” for me, it deserves its own point. I am terrible at it. And I can trace this trouble back to my twenties—when I was single and lonesome and (more) insecure. And to distract myself, I filled my days and nights to overflowing. A bit fuller and more frenetic each year. So I would tell my 20-something self that busy is not better. And your worth is not measured by the length of your to-do list.
- Take sin seriously. There is no such thing as “getting away with it.” Even if you don’t “get caught.” Though grace is gigantic and forgiveness is free, sin does still stain. And the spot will undoubtedly spread further and sink deeper than you can initially see.
- Be patient. Learn to wait well. You are used to getting things in an instant and on demand. But life doesn’t always work that way. Neither does God. His timing is rarely yours. But His is always right. He doesn’t rush. And He never delays. Instead, He unfolds a plan carefully designed and perfectly timed to bring Him glory. (More on that later.)
- Don’t worry. It’s a waste. Of time. Energy. And emotion. Worry will tie you in knots. Keep you up at night. Make you cranky and crazy. Nothing good ever comes of it. Worry is fear for the future, but worry does nothing to actually change it. So instead of worrying, make the best decisions you can right now. That’s all you can do. Then let it be.
- Evaluate your emotions. They are tricky. And they can be trouble. Often, they spring up from our triggered trauma. For example, let’s say (hypothetically) your husband says something about your blog. He might mean it innocently, even positively. But (hypothetically) you hear it differently. And you immediately feel threatened, defensive, hurt. All of your (hypothetical) insecurity swells to the surface in an instant. You can go with it. Milk it. Act on it. Hurt him back. Or you can do the better thing and take it back to truth.
- Adjust your expectations. So much of our disappointment and frustration—with people, with life, with God—occurs because we presume that life should go our way. I still remember the Friday night when the light bulb of this lesson first switched on for me. I was driving home from work, mulling over my expectations for the weekend and already becoming irritated, knowing that they wouldn’t be met. So I decided to change them. Simple as that. I made the very conscious decision to rewrite my personal plan for those two days. And I put only one thing on my new agenda: “Love Peter well.” That I could do. That I did. And I was in no way disappointed.
- Take risks. Follow God’s leading boldly into the unknown. Beyond the horizon of your comfort zone. As a wise friend advised me when we were trying to decide whether or not to put our already broken hearts on the line to foster our son Daryl, “Do what you won’t regret.”
- Press into pain. While no one wants to experience pain, you will. Don’t be shocked. Don’t run from it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t fight it. Let it be. Let it burn and melt your heart. But never fear that God has abandoned you to the flame. He is there. His presence is unwavering. He is pursuing you and purging the dross. You are not being punished. You are being purified.
- Realize that your life is not about you anyhow. It’s about Him and His glory. I used to repeatedly recite this mantra to myself when a big project loomed and I feared the outcome. Would I succeed or fail? Would my reputation rise or fall? “It’s not about me. It’s all about Him.” I said it over and over and over again. And if He receives more glory from your failure, so be it. Accepting this takes the pressure off.
- Maintain an eternal perspective. Train your eyes on this hope, this inheritance, that will “never perish, spoil, or fade.” That is “kept in heaven for you.” For it is in this that you are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1). Peter (the apostle, not the husband) said it better than I could. So we’ll leave it at that.
- Embrace grace. Accept it with open arms and open heart. Hold it tight until it soaks into your soul. Then release it. Give it away. To your family, to your friends, to your church. When I was 20-something, my church was falling apart. The pastor left. The leadership couldn’t agree. And the congregation was about to split. I was disillusioned and critical. Sitting in judgment over all of them. Looking down my nose with disgust. But that posture helps no one, and it is not your place.
- Live loved. Wake up every morning and—before you put your feet to the floor—let your mind and heart linger on the fact that the Creator of the Universe loves you passionately, completely, unconditionally, and eternally. Nothing matters more than this. And this one truth can change absolutely everything.
- Never, ever get another perm. (A digression, I know. And yes, it is included because I needed one more point to make 20. But, really, it had to be said. Right? I’m pretty sure you were already thinking it.)
- Finally, prepare to be amazed. Your life may look something like you envision. Or it may take you to places that you never imagined. Regardless. Hold on tight. Because He is in the business of blowing your mind.
Which of these do you need to hear most?
Anything you would change or add?
When Peter and I purchased This Old McHenry House in 2005, we did what most wise home buyers do. We hired a home inspector to go over the place with a fine-tooth comb and tell us what needed to be fixed.
The garage door didn’t close properly. The brick patio was crumbling. Among other things. She was 84 years old after all. But the issue that concerned us most was the cracks in the foundation. Four rather large crevices running from the basement ceiling almost to the floor.
A previous owner had tried to patch them on his own. Had slathered black tar up and down and all around. But this was our foundation we were talking about, so we called in the big guns. One of those fancy waterproofing companies with a website and a reputation and a promise. Their representative spent a long time in our basement, then emerged with a plan. Two, really.
Plan Number One. For a small fortune, the company would fill the cracks in our basement and guarantee them not to leak any longer.
The problem with Plan Number One? The representative explained that the placement and size of our cracks meant that one third of our house was quite possibly sinking into the ground.
So he recommended Plan Number Two. He showed us a slick and scary video to prove his point. For thirty-something-thousand dollars, our right arms and left legs, the company would excavate the entire perimeter of the house to below the foundation. Then they would install piers at regular intervals. These piers would be hydraulically driven into the ground until they reached bedrock. And This Old McHenry House would be gently lifted back to level.
We chose Plan Number One. And the basement has been (mostly) dry ever since.
But sometimes, when TOMH creaks and groans under the stress of bearing our lives, an image flashes through my mind. The image of the front of our house dropping right off. The image of the LOML and me, lying in bed, suddenly exposed to the elements as our bedroom wall falls to the ground.
If this happens one day, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Right there on their website, the waterproofing company says it all, clear as day.
“Many homeowners are unaware of structural foundation problems that are affecting their home. Typically, a homeowner does not become aware of the problem until the symptoms begin to affect the main floor and upstairs living environment. The tendency is to treat the symptoms without rooting out the cause of the problem. Of course, this leads to remedies and patches that create a much more expensive repair later. It is important to know the signs of structural foundation failure.”
“The signs of structural foundation failure.”
Know the signs.
If only I had.
If only any of us did.
Last night I spent some quality time with my 22-year-old self.
I put the kids to bed, made a cup of tea, and curled up in the beanbag chair with several old journals that I found in a bin in the basement.
I admit. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I would find. Or who. Wasn’t sure what memories or emotions those old confessions would stir up. And I wasn’t sure I would like her very much. That 22-year-old me.
It was a roller-coaster of a read, for sure. Up and down and all around. And as I watched her ride—this time from afar—I one moment cheered, and cringed the next. Knowing what I do now. Knowing the tunnels, the hills, the drops, the corkscrew turns. Knowing full well where the rails go next.
When I was 22, I moved into a flat in a decrepit house in downtown Wheaton. A six-month roommate situation had deteriorated, and I needed an affordable place of my own. The second story of Gertrude’s house fit the bill. It was old and quirky and filthy when I first saw it. A tiny one-bedroom with horrible wallpaper, a Pepto-Bismol pink kitchen, severely slanted floors, and—one redeeming feature—a clawfoot tub. Gertrude was only asking $300 a month though, and thankfully she agreed to let me paint. So I did. Every inch of that place. Floors. Ceilings. Walls. Even the tub. My compulsive painting habit was born in that space. I decorated with inherited antiques and flea market finds and made myself a cute, cozy home.
When I was 22, I was enjoying my independence and my fledgling ministry career. I had moved to the Chicago area right after college for an editing job at a Christian publishing house. They hired me to create a new curriculum product for kids, and the project was off to a good start. My boss believed in me, expanded my responsibilities, and gave me space to create.
When I was 22, I was also still riding the high of my first overseas missions trip to Romania. I had seen God work there in new and surprising ways. And I wanted to go back. Wanted to serve the people there. Wanted another adventure. Wanted to do great things for God. And to know more of Him.
So when I was 22, I enrolled in Trinity Divinity School, seeking a seminary education—and, truthfully, a seminary man. I also threw myself into ministry at my church. Sang in the choir, taught Children’s Church, volunteered in the youth ministry. Became extra busy about God’s work.
To the casual observer—to the homeowner unaware—the structure that was my young adult life likely looked strong.
But if I had done a thorough home inspection at that time. If I had allowed God to excavate the entire perimeter of my life. If I had known the signs of structural foundation failure. I might have seen the cracks. I might have drilled down to bedrock much earlier on. I might not have resorted to remedies and patches. Ephemeral fixes. And I might have avoided some of the very costly repairs that had to happen down the line.
We sometimes call it our Worldview. And we all have one. It’s what we believe—sometimes without realizing it. It’s what drives our every thought, every decision, every move we make. It affects how we relate to other people and what we feel.
When we break it down into parts, we can talk about the following: Our understanding of God. Our understanding of Man. Our understanding of Truth. Our beliefs about the Future. What we Value. And what we believe to be Real.
We come by our Worldview quite honestly. We were helped in its construction. By our family, our friends, our teachers, our experiences, our faith.
And, when we are 22, it is upon that foundation that we build.
When I was 22, I knew a lot about God. I had already studied Him for years. And I had Him figured out. My theology was sorted. It had hardly been questioned or challenged or truly made my own. God still fit in the nice God-sized box I had been handed and then set on the shelf. He was holy and sovereign and on down the line, but He was also good and wanted good things for me. If I delighted in Him, He would give me the desires of my heart. On demand. That was the Deal.
When I was 22, I knew a lot about myself. I knew I was a perfectionist. I knew that I had to perform. To keep it all together. To control my well-ordered world because if I didn’t make things happen, no one would. But digging just below the surface, I also believed that I was horribly alone. And horribly unloved. That I didn’t measure up or have anything important to offer. That I really wasn’t good enough. No matter how hard I tried or how many good things I did. I was driven by emotion and full of fear.
When I was 22, I valued comfort over Christ. Activity over intimacy. Pleasure over purity. Ritual over real life change.
Signs of structural foundation failure. All over the place.
The cracks are there, if we know what we are looking for.
I get to work with college students. And I love them. So much. I admire them too. Their passion. Their energy. Their minds. Their creativity. Their authenticity. And so much more.
I get to teach them how to write and how to speak. How to create and express. And when I’m extra lucky, I also get to listen as they tell me about their lives. I’m sure that I too often give them remedies and patches. We rarely have the opportunity to excavate to below the foundation.
And then, every May, I don cap and gown and watch as another five hundred of them cross a platform, accept their diplomas, and walk out into the waiting world. We buckle them in and send them off. On the ride of their lives. I am equal parts proud and nervous. I cheer and I cringe. Knowing what I do now. How life will take them up and down and all around. The tunnels, the hills, the drops, the corkscrew turns.
Of course they don’t know their own structural foundation failures. Few of us do at 22. Few of us do, until the walls are already crumbling down.
But every May I pray that—as soon as the cracks become evident—they will choose the more thorough, albeit more costly, plan. That they will do what I did not. That they will call in the big guns—the experts, mentors, parents—those who can detect what they cannot. That they will excavate the perimeter of their hearts and minds. That they will examine their foundation carefully. And that they will drive those piers all the way down to bedrock. To Him who is certain and solid and immovable.
If you are 22 or so, do you detect any cracks?
If you are, well, older than that, what would you tell your 22-year-old self?
What cracks have become evident in the foundation that is your worldview?
When we first saw This Old McHenry House in December of 2004, she was covered in a dingy white vinyl siding. All of her still-visible trim work was sloppily painted a horrible dark pink. She wasn’t pretty. But I thought she had potential.
My suspicion was confirmed when we received a folder of paperwork at the closing in March 2005. In the folder was a picture of the house just after she was built in 1921.
There she was. In all her glory. Wide clapboard on the first story; narrow on the second. Craftsman details around her base and her middle, on each corner and window. I became obsessed. “That’s all gotta be under there,” I told the LOML. “We have to bring her back.”
I began to plot and plan.
Providentially, a Victorian-home-turned-attorney’s-office just around the corner from us had recently undergone a complete exterior transformation. So one day I suggested that we knock on their door and ask them who did their paint job. Maybe get a recommendation. Peter said that this whole project was my crazy idea and I would have to do the talking, but he agreed to walk with me over to the house.
As we approached, however, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. The poor thing stood there, only a year in her new grey and purple paint, already cracking and peeling and pitiful.
“See? That’s what I’m afraid of,” Peter said. “I don’t want to have to re-paint our house every single year.”
I was momentarily deflated, but I am not so easily deterred. I redoubled my research—determined to find a better way. And poor Peter? He was simply swept along in my scheme.
Eventually, I located a company in Elgin, Illinois, that specializes in the exterior restoration of old homes. They couldn’t do the work for us. They were too far away and too expensive. But I e-mailed the owner for advice. She graciously wrote back with detailed instructions and a guarantee. “Follow these steps to a ‘T’ and your paint job will last seven years, maybe even ten.”
Here is what she told us to do:
1. Thoroughly scrape off all loose paint.
2. Sand every surface smooth with an orbital sander, feathering the edges.
3. Scrub the surface in a circular motion with a brush and a tablespoon of TSP dissolved in a gallon of water. Rinse with running water and allow to dry.
4. Fill nail holes ONLY with Flex-Tech Apoxy.
5. Prime ONLY with Muralo’s Ultimate X-200 Exterior Oil-Based Primer-2200 and allow to dry.
6. Paint with Benjamin Moore Premium paint, using ONLY a brush.
Finally then, in June of 2007, armed with this information, I was ready to make a move. First, I hired a contractor to pull the vinyl down. One Saturday morning, we awoke to the sound of the old siding being torn from the house. We live on a busy corner of town, so all day long people stopped and stared as This Old McHenry House was stripped bare.
By the end of the day, she stood completely exposed. Dirty. Bruised. And broken. Peter and I circled her, assessing the situation. Thankfully, much of the siding and trim was still in place, though one sizable section at the back of the house was rotted through. Pieces of trim had been carelessly yanked off to accommodate the vinyl. Additional woodwork near the roofline was falling apart.
Peter looked concerned. “Now what?” he asked. “Do you know what you’ve gotten us into?”
“We get to work, I guess,” I said. “There’s no turning back now.”
So for many long and exhausting weeks, we spent every available moment scraping and sanding and washing and filling and priming and painting. We started with the garage, then moved to the first story of the house. In early September—with winter looming—we interviewed a few paint contractors, looking for someone to help us get her done. One contractor promised to be the cheapest if we paid him in cash. Another promised to be the quickest because he had a young, energetic crew. But I didn’t want cheap or fast. I wanted a thorough and quality restoration. So I hired the only contractor who agreed to follow each and every one of the Sacred Six Steps.
Following the steps is important, right? And not just in home restoration. But in many areas of life. Cooking a meal. Writing a book. Constructing a toy.
And, of course, helping a human grow up.
Like most parents, I have studied various charts and lists that spell out the steps my children need to take in order to grow. Physically. Cognitively. Socially. The experts tell us, too, that the order of the steps is important. Baby needs to hold up his head before he sits. Creep or crawl before he walks. Run before he rides a bike. A school-age child must learn her numbers before she can add. Her letters before she can read. And so on. In his book Changes That Heal, Dr. Henry Cloud confirms this fact. “We must mature in one stage before we can go on to the next.”
But healthy development through each step or stage doesn’t just happen. Dr. Cloud says three essential ingredients are necessary. The first is Grace. An unearned and fully accepting relationship. The second is Truth. An accurate understanding of the way things really are. Combined, Grace and Truth form an authentic relationship which nurtures development. But this development must also be given the third essential ingredient. Good Time.
Dr. Cloud explains that when parents do their job well, when they speak Truth and ooze Grace, children complete developmental steps confidently and in Good Time. But when parents are absent or withdrawn, when they are abusive or too harsh, when they lack either Grace or Truth, some aspect of a child’s being is removed from Time. “It goes underground,” Cloud writes, “and does not change until it is called out into Good Time, into time affected by Grace and Truth.”
When Peter was about twelve years old, his dad brought home for him a second-hand bike. It needed some work, but Dad Worrall was handy like that. And in no time he had it up and running. Peter was thrilled.
One day, though, Peter brought the bike home with a flat. He very much wanted to learn from his dad, to be able to fix his own bike. So he convinced Dad Worrall to show him how to change the inner tube himself. Then—surprisingly—Dad Worrall let Peter give it a try. Peter struggled to follow the instructions though. And before too long, Dad Worrall stepped back in.
“Just let me do it, Mr. Engineer,” he said.
Dad Worrall used that nickname often from that point on. Even spread it around the family a bit—to cousins and uncles and aunts—the people Peter respected most. And it has stuck with Peter all of these years. That lack of Grace.
But mechanical projects weren’t the only thing that Dad Worrall took out of Peter’s hands. He was a “control freak” by his own admission. Filling out Peter’s forms. Holding onto Peter’s paperwork. Making Peter’s plans.
And a part of Peter—the part that might have gained confidence about household repairs and paperwork and plans—that part of him went underground.
Just a few months ago it peaked out from under a rock. Peter decided he should finally start the process of becoming an American citizen. He’s been putting it off for years. It involves paperwork.
So one afternoon he went online and found an application. He gave the website his credit card information when they asked for $200, then he spent a long and agonizing time filling out the forms. When he came to the end of the process, though, he realized that something was wrong. What he thought had been a legitimate government website wasn’t.
I was running errands while all of this was happening. So I arrived at home just in time to find him wide eyed, scared, self-loathing, and twelve.
The adult Peter did make some phone calls and get his money back. But twelve-year-old Peter is so powerful that he hasn’t revisited the process again.
I have a twelve-year-old self too. I’m guessing most of us do.
But while Peter’s twelve-year-old likes to retreat and avoid, mine likes to control. It makes sense. While responsibility was taken away from Peter as a child, it was thrust upon me. While twelve-year-old Peter is terrified of what might happen if he does step up, the twelve-year-old me is terrified of what might happen if I don’t.
You might call us a perfect match. The LOML and me.
Or perhaps a perfect storm.
Remember our big painting project? Here she is.
Certainly our twelve-year-old selves surfaced a lot that summer. They don’t always get along. But with a bit of Truth and a whole lot of Grace, we are slowly bringing these things back into Good Time.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago Mr. Engineer fixed our toilet. For the second time. And I didn’t say a word. He watched a video online. Made a trip to the hardware store. And successfully replaced a broken part.
He stepped forward.
I stepped back.
And lo and behold, we both grew up.
What parts of you went underground?
How have they been brought back into Good Time with Grace and Truth?
And…I’m back after a holiday break, hoping to post each Tuesday now until I see this project through.
Thanks for joining me on the ride. Buckle up. Here we go…
I grew up in a Fundamental Baptist world. Fundamental Baptist home. Fundamental Baptist church. Fundamental Baptist school.
I know what you’re thinking.
Okay, actually, I don’t. But I imagine a handful of common responses. Defensiveness is one. Maybe you know some Fundamentalists, and they get your back up. Or maybe you are one, and you are now afraid that I’m going to rip them to shreds. If you’re not defensive, maybe you feel pity? Or curiosity? Incredulity? Empathy? Or disgust?
This label leaves few of us completely indifferent.
Perhaps a little history is in order.
According to Stefan Ulstein (Growing Up Fundamentalist), the term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the early twentieth century. “In 1910 Lyman Stewart, an oil magnate from southern California, commissioned a select group of Bible teachers and evangelists to pen a response to the modernist influence within the evangelical coalition. The result was a series of twelve paperback volumes, known collectively as The Fundamentals” (13). Ninety essays by sixty-four different authors were included. And they covered a wide range of topics—from the Virgin Birth to Socialism to the Second Coming of Christ.
Early Fundamentalism, then, held firm to the beliefs spelled out in these books. It stressed orthodox doctrine, intentional evangelism, personal piety. And followers rose up quickly to the call.
Within just a few years, however, a marginalization of Fundamentalism began. The Scopes Trial of the 1920s pitted Fundamentalists against Modernists in a very public debate around the issue of evolution—and Fundamentalists were painted as “anti-science” and even “anti-intellectual.” Later, when some Southern Fundamentalist voiced support of the Jim Crow laws, the movement as a whole was also labeled “racist.” Then, as American culture experienced the sexual revolution and Fundamentalists clamped down on their progeny with strict dress codes and an uncompromising list of rules, Fundamentalists were often viewed as “reactionary” and “old-fashioned.” The movement became increasingly fraught with fear. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” became their major refrain.
Rightly or wrongly, this “image problem” has plagued Fundamentalists ever since. And many of us who grew up in the movement have done everything we could to shake this identity loose. We’ve run. We’ve rebelled. We’ve renounced. Much to our parents’ dismay.
On the other hand, though, I have to be fair. For me, the experience of growing up in the Fundamentalist world was certainly not all negative. My Fundamentalist church and school—like many others—faithfully preached the Gospel and taught us to take the Bible seriously. They provided a sense of belonging, security, commitment, and community that is difficult to replicate.
Ulstein wrote his book to give a voice to ex-Fundamentalists. To help those who are still struggling with their Fundamentalist heritage. To encourage communication between Fundamentalist parents and their estranged children. But ultimately, he says, to draw all readers closer to Jesus Christ. According to Ulstein, “our place in the body of Christ is usually guided by the way people around us live their lives and by the ways that they help or hinder us in our own journey” (21).
But this is true—no matter what your religious heritage, right? Whether you grew up Baptist or Catholic or atheist or something else—your understanding of God and your relationship with him was not so much learned as absorbed.
Certainly, I learned much from my family, my church, and my school. But I absorbed even more. Certainly, I was both helped and hindered by my Fundamentalist upbringing. Here, then, is just a bit of how.
When the movie opens, the following verse fills the screen to the sound of an ominous ticking clock.
“Keep a sharp lookout for
you do not know when I will
come, at evening, at midnight,
early dawn or late daybreak.
Don’t let me find you sleeping!”
Then the clock comes into view. It’s 10 a.m. The radio turns on, and the news anchor is already describing a universal state of shock. “The event seems to have taken place at the same time all over the world,” he reports. “Just about twenty-five minutes ago, suddenly, and without warning, thousands, perhaps millions of people just disappeared…millions who were living on this earth just last night are not here this morning.”
In the middle of his account, Patty Jo Myers—young, blond, beautiful—bolts awake. She has been sleeping!
After taking a moment to rub her eyes and listen to the report, she calls out to her husband. “Jim. Jim? Jim!” Hearing no response, she rushes to the bathroom and finds Jim’s electric razor. Plugged in. Buzzing loudly. Lying in the sink. Jim is clearly gone. Patty Jo screams.
She stumbles back down the hallway, into the bedroom, and collapses on the floor as the news anchor reads from Matthew 24. Some church leaders are speculating, he says, that this could be an event called the Rapture, spoken of in some branches of theology. “And I quote. ‘Even if it is something like the Rapture, we need not panic. The very fact that we are here and able to discuss it is sign enough that it is not all inclusive.’ End quote.”
Thus goes the opening sequence for the 1972 movie A Thief in the Night. The first time I watched it, I was eight years old, sitting with my family on the hard pews at Grace Baptist Church. It was probably a special Sunday night evangelistic event. For an already anxious child, a child who kept a tearful vigil by the window every time her parents left the house, this movie wrecked me. For months, every night, I begged Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart and take me up to Heaven, too, when he came for my mom and dad.
I believed the movie was true. I was a child. Of course I did. I believed that Jesus will come again in the clouds. That it can happen at any time. And that my salvation depends on my confession of Him.
But this, too, I believed. That God is, above all, terrifying. That He is unpredictable, unapproachable, uncompromising, and even cruel. That He keeps us in fear. And that He would not think twice about tearing my fragile family apart.
This I believed.
When I was in fifth grade, our family left Grace Baptist Church and joined a smaller Baptist congregation closer to our home. We were quickly integrated into the little community, attending every time the doors were open. Sunday School. Morning Church. Sunday Training Time. Evening Church. Thursday Prayer Meeting. Saturday Pre-Teen Club. And Social Events.
This church didn’t have a building of its own. We met in the Richfield Community Center and the pastor’s home. For a couple of years, my parents hosted the Pre-Teen Club in our basement. Using primary-colored tape, our leaders laid down an AWANA-like circle on the concrete floor. And every Saturday morning, with a dozen or so other kids, I ran relays around the course. Played Steal the Bacon. Tug of War. Crab Soccer and more.
Every week we also recited memory verses, completed worksheets, and had a “sword drill” for points. Our leader would ask us to hold our Bibles high in the air, making sure that no one had a finger tucked between the pages. Then he would call out a Bible reference and say, “Draw your swords!” We would all bring our Bibles to our laps and feverishly whip through the pages.
I was good at church. As a kid who always felt she had something big to prove, I was as fiercely competitive at Pre-Teens as I was on the softball field. I did church to win. So quite often, I would be the first one to jump to my feet and start reading the sword drill verse aloud. Quite often, I grabbed the beanbag out from under a smaller child’s nose and ran like the wind. And quite often, I recited the most Bible verses for the most points and the most pats on the back.
This I believed. That the Church and the Bible are important. That I should be committed to this Community. And that I should know the Scriptures inside and out.
But this I also believed. That my performance was important too. That I had to win to be worthy. And it was not a good option to be weak.
From the people at this little church, my parents learned about a Baptist school across town, and they sent me there—much against my will—when I started seventh grade. Once I got past the initial transition—only vomiting once in an assembly because I was too timid to ask for help—I thrived there in many ways. I made life-long friends. Excelled in school. Participated in extra-curricular teams and events.
But success in this setting also meant adhering to a long list of rules.
No walking on the left side of the hall.
No long hair for boys.
No pants for girls.
No popped collars for anyone.
No music with a drum. They said that the beat appealed to our baser side.
And so on.
Every morning during homeroom, in the midst of prayer and announcements, our home economics teacher and the school administrator came by to check on us. The administrator carried a comb. If a boy’s hair touched his collar or his ears, he went with the administrator for a trim. Meanwhile, the girls had to stand up next to our desks while the home economics teacher passed by, looking for visible knees. If a skirt was too short, the offender was whisked out of homeroom and taken to the office, where she had to don one of the “office skirts,” an unflattering polyester A-line.
I made it through junior high and high school with only one mortifying detention. And I never, ever wore an office skirt. That doesn’t mean that I never broke a rule. It just means that I got good at the game.
This I believed. That God’s standard is pure. That sin carries consequence. And that followers of Jesus Christ should live a different sort of life.
But this I also believed. That rules matter to God more than relationship. That sin must be done in secret because the discovery of it brings shame. And that guilt is more powerful and more prevalent than grace.
For my first two years of college, my parents insisted that I attend a small Baptist Bible school not far from home. In addition to my major in English Education, I was required to take many Bible and Theology courses.
During my first semester, my friends and I had a 7:30 a.m. Old Testament Survey class. We put long johns on under our skirts, trudged through the snow drifts across campus, and sat shivering in a drafty old auditorium. Our professor had given us a thick set of notes, complete with an extensive outline, some diagrams, and blank lines for us to fill. Each long class period, then, he displayed countless overhead slides, while we copied down the missing words.
This I believed. That truth can be known, and the Bible is its primary source.
But this I also believed. That the Fundamental Baptist idea of truth is always right. It is not to be questioned or contradicted. And memorizing it is all that is required of me. Not learning. Not changing. Not thinking. Just parroting it all right back.
I talk often about these things with the LOML. Though Peter didn’t attend a Christian school—they are rare in England—he did attend a little Plymouth Brethren Church not unlike my Baptist one. We have that similar background. Similar helps and hindrances.
We talk often about how we want to give our children the same Biblical grounding that we had. We bemoan the fact that some kid and youth programs these days emphasize the Fun. But not much of the Fundamentals. So yes, we teach the Bible at home. But we also try to create opportunities for them to study it with their peers.
We talk often about wanting to invest our lives in a committed community of believers that is pursuing hard after Jesus. We long for deep relationships with fellow followers whose faith is central to their lives. Whose faith changes everything. Demands everything. Costs everything. And we hurt. When we go to church and leave again, not having a significant conversation with one soul. Or when we see fellow Christians settle for a version of faith that is easy and comfortable and cheap.
We also talk often about our own junk. The lies we have believed. Yes, still believe. And we try to work it out. Where were we helped? Where were we hindered? Where do we go from here?
A couple of weeks ago we had a houseful of family and friends staying with us for Christmas. I love that. I love the camaraderie. I love the conversations. I love everything about it, except the inevitable mess.
When we weren’t out doing something fun or I wasn’t busy in the kitchen feeding the many mouths, I was scurrying around the house—tidying toys, piling pillows, wiping windows. But with the population of our house doubled, there was no way I was going to win that war. And it felt like a war. Me against everyone else—my two kiddos with their Christmas booty and my two teenage nephews leading the enemy charge.
Peter could read the stress on my face one afternoon and stopped me in my tracks. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“It’s the mess,” I said. “I have this involuntary physical reaction to it. My chest gets tight. I find it hard to breathe. I panic almost. I know it’s crazy. I’m sure it’s an issue of control. But it feels like it’s me against everyone else. And I’m losing.”
“If Jesus were here, what would he say about the mess?” he asked. (If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll start to see a theme here with him. Drives me crazy sometimes. But I know he’s right to keep bringing me back to Him.)
I slowed down and filled my lungs with air. Released a long, slow sigh as I asked myself. If Jesus were here? What would he say about the yogurt on the walls? The muddy boots by the door? The pine needles piling up on the floor? The dust settling on His own nativity?
I said, “As silly as it sounds, my gut reaction is that I need to apologize.”
I know I don’t, of course. But there they are again. Those old beliefs. The old need to perform. The old shame when I can’t.
But praise God that He keeps bringing me back to Himself. That I don’t have to clean myself up before I come. That He sent His Son to a dusty and messy stable. To love and redeem a messy and lost lot like us.
This I believe.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours?
This month I’m taking a break from my This Odd House writing project. Instead, I’m sharing a few little Christmas-related stories, linked up to “Tuesdays Unwrapped” at Emily Freeman‘s chattingatthesky.com. Go to her website to find the links to many more tales of Grace from her community. My plan is to pick back up on the This Odd House writing the first week in January and to post every Tuesday from then on. Feel free to keep me accountable.
In the meantime, here is a little peek at Our Cock-Eyed Christmas.
A couple of years ago we bought a new Christmas tree stand. The sign said that it would save our marriage, so of course it was worth the $29.95 investment. It is one of those foolproof sort of stands. After you cut down the tree, the gentlemen who bundle the tree also drill a hole up into the trunk. That way, when you get the tree home, all you have to do is slide the trunk down onto the stand. And presto—the tree stands straight and tall.
This year, however, the tree-bundling/hole-drilling gentlemen threw us a curve ball. They drilled a cock-eyed hole into the trunk of our tree. Of course, we had no idea, until we got the tree home, set it onto the stand, and saw…this.
It sat there then. Crooked and bare. For two days. While we regrouped and considered our options.
We thought about returning it. Strapping the tree back onto the car, driving it back to the farm, marching it up to the desk, and demanding our money back. We thought about trying to fix it. Taking our own drill and saw to the thing, but we envisioned all the ways we could make it worse.
So we choose option number three. Embrace it. Go with it. Let it be.
Maybe this is a new version of Worrall. Maybe now we are just that chill. Maybe now our marriage is just that strong.
And maybe this crooked tree fits in This Odd House. Perfectly. Maybe it is a suitable reminder of what 2013 has been about. Sharing more of our cock-eyed lives in this space. Leaning heavily into Brokenness. Acceptance. Surrender. Receiving a greater measure of Grace. And extending it.
Some friends have expressed concern. Understandably. The tree could fall over. The ornaments could break. It is a risky business. Existing so openly off-balance.
Then, as if a crooked tree wasn’t enough, our tree-topper gave us trouble as well. The LOML climbed the painting ladder and settled the illuminated star onto its precarious perch. No sooner had he returned the ladder to the basement, than the silly star swung open on its hinge. Yes, we left that as well. Is that a problem? Another irritation? Or an expression of Grace upon Grace shining down?
It’s all in the perspective.
How is God giving you a fresh perspective this Christmas season?
Last Tuesday I was a bit strung out. I had to make an unexpected trip into the city to help direct a rehearsal for the Christmas production I had written. Opening night was Friday, and the final scene wasn’t coming together. The pressure was on to sort it out. To make it meaningful. To pierce twelve thousand hearts with the truth of God’s Greatest Gift.
I picked up Daryl from Kindergarten and took him with me. On the way downtown, we stopped at the mall to get lunch and some dress shoes for his Thursday Christmas program.
Near the exit of the mall, Daryl spotted one of those candy machines. Put a quarter in and get a handful of Mike and Ike. I usually say, “No.” But he was being such a good sport, I gave in.
As his little hand filled with the fruity bits, he said, “Mama, can I save TWO candies for Daddy and eat the rest myself?” I had explained to him that we would be picking up Daddy at his office and taking him to the rehearsal with us. I needed all the support I could get.
“Of course, Daryl,” I said. “It’s very loving of you to think of Daddy like that.” He beamed.
We put his candies into the front pocket of his hoody, buckled up, and set out on the long drive. He sang me the Christmas songs from his Christmas program and told me about his day. Then when we were approaching the city, he piped up from the back, “Mama, can I save ONE candy for Daddy and eat the rest myself?”
I smiled. “Yes, Daryl. They’re your candies. You can make the decision about what to do with them. It’s loving of you to give even one to Daddy.” These acts of spontaneous generosity are rare, so I’m afraid I go overboard on the encouragement when they happen.
A few minutes later we pulled into the parking garage. Daryl could hardly contain himself by that point. “I can’t wait to give this candy to Daddy!” he said over and over again. I parked the car, got out, and opened his door.
There he sat, proudly pinching the slimy white center of a Mike and Ike, smiling from ear to ear.
Before I could stop myself, I blurted, “Did you suck on it, Daryl?” His face fell, and I tried to recover. “It’s okay, honey. Daddy will still love it. That was loving of you to save the middle for Daddy. That’s the best part.”
He climbed out of the car, took my hand, and we went to find Daddy. When we arrived at the office, Daryl said, “I have something for you, Daddy!” Then he reached into his hoody pocket and pulled out the gooey middle of the Mike and Ike—now covered in navy blue fuzz.
Daddy gave me a quizzical look, but then played along. “Wow, Daryl, thank you so much!” And not missing a beat, he popped the fuzzy offering into his mouth.
That Tuesday night rehearsal was still rough. I just couldn’t get it right. Some people were frustrated. Some were anxious. All were exhausted.
We decided to give it a rest and try again on Thursday—one hour before dress rehearsal. In the meantime, I prayed hard and listened.
Praise God, He gave clarity for the final scene. Praise God, He gave our talented cast the patience and giftedness to adapt to last-minute direction. Praise God, the Christmas production was more beautiful and meaningful than I could have imagined.
And Praise God, he keeps us humble and dependent. We sometimes think we have to do great things for God, don’t we? That it depends on us. And on the one hand, I am a firm believer in excellence. Our God deserves no less.
On the other hand, though, I realize more and more that all I have to offer of my own accord is slimy blue fuzz. I am nothing without Him. It takes the pressure off when we’re okay with that. And it focuses the spotlight back where it belongs, back on our Father who tenderly takes our sticky gifts, savors them, turns them into whatever will give him glory, and says, “Wow, child! Thank you so much.”
I’d love to hear how you are savoring his abundant gifts this season!
It’s been called an epidemic. And rightly so. The statistics are staggering. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of children in America now live without their Father. And that number continues to grow.
Research abounds on the possible effects of this reality—connecting Fatherlessness to everything from high school dropouts to substance abuse to incarceration. But more difficult to quantify are the internal effects. The decreased self-esteem. The fear of abandonment. The struggle to manage emotions. The need to control. The hesitancy to trust. Many Fatherless children grow into pleasers who fail to set boundaries. Many become perfectionists, keeping their external world in order, covering their internal chaos. Others become overachievers to prove to others and themselves that they are somebody.
Minus the high school dropout, substance abuse, and incarceration, this was me to a T.
In many ways, though, I am not qualified to write on Father Loss. My Father didn’t leave. He didn’t die when I was young. And he treated me well. He was ever-present. Ever-positive. Ever-praising the littlest thing. And he really tried—in many ways.
For example, he tried softball. He bought himself the biggest mitt he could find. The oversized glove hung on the end of his arm like the target on a dunking booth, and we played catch. When I didn’t hit the mitt square-on, I had to fetch the stray ball from the fence behind him, so out of necessity or laziness, I developed one of the best arms on my little league team and won the honor of playing third base. As it turns out, Dad was a pretty good coach.
He tried affection too—when I initiated. If I went toward him, arms open, he lifted his. If I wrapped myself around his slender frame, he drew his limbs around me and tapped them against my back. It was more like being caught in the branches of a lilac bush than in the arms of a manly embrace. But it was something. I sometimes followed up these hugs with a kiss on his cheek. And if I put my cheek right in front of his lips, he puckered and reciprocated. If I said, “I love you, Dad,” he would nod and say, “I love you too.”
He also tried to be positive. I remember zipping his coat for him one cold day not too many years ago. As I tucked his scarf in around his neck, he nodded profusely and beamed and muttered, “Incredible! Incredible!” Peter and I joked that it was as if I had just metaled in an Olympic zipping event or descended from the heavens, a superhero with zipping powers. I suppose, from my Dad’s perspective, I had just accomplished a super-human feat.
However, as positive and present as my Dad usually was, his Fatherly skills were limited—hindered by cerebral palsy and the resultant insecurity. To my young and immature eyes, he wasn’t a Real Man. Not the strong, take-charge, fix-it sort of Man I wanted him to be. He couldn’t pick me up, carry me, chase me around the yard, climb with me at the park, teach me to ride a bike, repair a broken faucet, stain our old deck, landscape our yard.
But if his physical limitations were a bitter pill, his silence was far more so. His thick speech often rendered him mute. And the Real Man remained out of reach. He was so insecure that at any restaurant he would simply say “same” and order whatever I was eating. He was so afraid of being a bother that on family outings he would sit in the car for hours to “save us the trouble” of taking him along. His affirmations were so abundant and indiscriminate that they never felt true. He very rarely gave me guidance—and then, only when I asked. And I rarely asked. I might go to him for help with an algebra problem or a budgeting issue. He worked as an accountant and was most comfortable in the world of numbers. But when it came to more momentous matters, I was on my own.
Consequently, when I arrived at the age of sixteen—the official “old-enough-to-go-out-with-boys” age as deemed by my parents—I stumbled into the world of dating with no knowledge of protocol and an insatiable desire for affection.
My first real boyfriend was the seventeen-year-old Soccer Captain at my school. He was tall, outgoing, opinionated, funny, and—to my young eyes—a Real Man. Our first date was on a stormy October night. Since my parents preferred group dates, we had Godfather’s pizza with friends. And since my ability to go out with boys was contingent on my adherence to a strict curfew, we left the crowd in the restaurant and dashed out to his rusty Civic hatchback, the rain falling in sheets.
Soccer Captain had spent the night before preparing his car for our date, working on the electrical system to be exact. And I was impressed; he fixed things. He was an athlete and a mechanic. Everything my Dad was not. My own Sir Galahad. The only chink in his armor that night was that he hadn’t reconnected the windshield wipers. We crawled down Hwy 55, unable to see ahead more than a few feet. Afraid that a breach of curfew would cut short our budding romance, Soccer Captain concocted a brilliant plan. He pulled the Civic under the cover of a First Federal Bank drive-up teller. Watching him dash through the rain to a neighboring 7-Eleven, I reveled in a new-found security. A Man—a strong, capable Man—was taking care of me.
He returned, armed with a coat hanger. His nimble fingers twisted the wire, wrapped one end around the passenger-side wiper, and pulled the other end out straight. As we drove the rest of the way home, I operated the wipers—pushing and pulling the coat-hanger handle—with my soaking-wet right arm. When he dropped me off, Soccer Captain thanked me for being a good sport. I didn’t mind a bit. I wanted to impress him. I was hooked on his strength.
I introduced Soccer Captain to my Dad one evening a few months later when he came to pick me up. Dad was in his wingback chair, reading glasses low on his nose, U.S. News and World Report on his lap.
They shook hands—one palsied, the other powerful—and said, “Hello.” That was all, but I could tell that neither one was impressed. I was afraid Soccer Captain might break up with me after that meeting. I was afraid cerebral palsy might frighten him off. But he stuck around—for three long years.
Over those three years, Soccer Captain taught me to change the oil, the tires, and the brake pads of my car. He taught me to drive a stick shift. He went biking with me, played hockey with me. Did many things my Dad could never do.
Over those three years, he also took advantage physically, started drinking, borrowed my money, and unleashed his temper. Not that I was an innocent victim. Not at all. I was a desperate and willing participant with my own low self-esteem and fear of being alone.
Over those three years, my Dad liked Soccer Captain less and less. I could tell because he furrowed his brow and pursed his lips at the mention of Soccer Captain’s name—but he never said a thing. Nor did I.
I finally broke up with Soccer Captain after a particularly brutal series of arguments during my sophomore year of college. But the pattern of my dating life was established—strong, but conflicted Men; a silent, but disapproving Father; and my resulting broken heart.
There was the Volleyball Player/Accounting Major from California. I had dreams of him and my Dad bonding over the intricacies of internal auditing. But on our first trip to “meet the parents,” tax laws were not enough to spark their friendship. And Accounting Major broke up with me during our senior year of college when he was recruited by a Big Six firm.
There was the Furniture Mover/Fellow Seminary Student. He met my Dad when he helped me move a couch back to my parents’ house. Seminary Student was kind to my Dad, albeit a little patronizing. But again, I could tell Dad didn’t like him. I remained hopeful until Seminary Student reconnected with an old girlfriend, lied to me, then wrote about it in his journal, which I found and read. Bad news, all around.
Then there was the Opera Singer/Home Builder who deftly danced around commitment. I put off introducing him to my parents for a full two years. I did call home once, though, to cry when Home Builder was having second thoughts. It was after that phone call that I received my first Fatherly dating advice at the age of twenty-seven. It came in the form of a letter in which my Dad told me about the kind of Man he hoped I would find and how I should expect to be treated. At the time, I resented it. It was way too little, way too late. Besides, Home Builder had apologized and things were better. In the end, though, it took only one weekend at my parents’ house to send Home Builder running for good. It wasn’t me, he said. It wasn’t my parents, he said. It was him.
But really—at least in part—it was my parents. It was my Dad—who wanted to be there for me but had no idea how. Whose distance left a black hole in my heart.
And really—it was me. It was my white-knuckled grip. My desire to control. My emotional neediness. And my frantic attempt to fill that black hole, a space only fillable by a divinely infinite sort of love.
By the time I met Peter in September of 1998, I had little confidence in my own judgment or relational ability. One of his professors introduced us in the cafeteria of the school where I was teaching and he was studying. We talked briefly over lunch—about Minnesota, drama, and traveling. He didn’t fit the profile. He didn’t fix cars or build houses. But he had been teaching elementary school in Pakistan. He seemed kind, intelligent, interesting, definitely intriguing. And his British accent didn’t hurt.
We got to know each other over daily walks to the train station and increasingly long coffee stops along the way. Before we knew it, Christmas was approaching, and Peter could not afford to fly home to England. So I nervously invited him to Minnesota to meet my parents. He accepted.
Just a few days before the trip, however, Peter appeared on my doorstep with an announcement. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” He thought he needed to focus on God.
I was dazed and devastated. But I was determined to handle it differently. I wrote Peter’s name on a piece of paper. On another piece I wrote “marriage.” On another “love.” I laid the strips in a metal dish, a makeshift altar. Then I struck a match and watched them burn. For me, it was a symbolic sacrifice. A release of control. An exercise in trust.
I kept those ashes in a glass bottle on my kitchen table. Thankfully, Peter didn’t run out the door when—after we got back together—he asked me what it was and I said, “That’s you.”
Peter spent the holidays alone in Chicago. He thought and prayed and asked if we could try again. We spent the month of January praying in earnest for our relationship. And in February I had another chance to introduce Peter to my Dad. In spite of our history, in spite of my fierce independence and Dad’s detachment, this meeting mattered.
My nephew was turning two, and the family was gathering for a party at my brother’s home in Tennessee. Mom and Dad flew down from Minnesota, Peter and I from Chicago. And there in the Nashville airport, they met for the first time.
They shook hands and said, “Hello.” Then Dad smiled.
“I can push your wheelchair for you, Jack,” Peter offered. Dad nodded, and they were off. It was an image that brought tears to my eyes, an image I enjoyed seeing again and again as Peter found his way into the heart of my family, the image of these two men who were each—in their own way—teaching me about love.
Ten months after that first meeting, Peter and I were married in Plymouth, England. Although it was a struggle, Dad made the trans-Atlantic journey with us—his first ever. On the flight over, we discussed the final details of the ceremony. There was one matter that I had been putting off.
“You don’t have to walk me down the aisle,” I assured Dad. His walking had been getting worse and worse, so he almost always used the wheelchair. I knew his nerves would make it even more difficult for him to balance. “One of the ushers could push you down the aisle next to me. Or you could just be waiting for me at the front. I don’t mind walking down on my own. Honestly.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll walk.”
“Ok, well, we can even just wait and see how you feel that day.” I thought perhaps when he got there and saw all of the people, he’d feel differently.
On the morning of our wedding, an old silver Packard transported my Dad and me to St. Mary’s Church. In England, the bride and her Father are the last to arrive, so the 13th century stone sanctuary was already full of people when we entered the foyer—me holding my dress up around my knees to keep it out of the puddles, my Dad being pushed in his wheelchair by my brother, the usher. The photographer snapped a photo of us and we took our places.
“Are you sure you want to walk?” I whispered to Dad and received the familiar nod. He was already trying to stand, rocking back and thrusting forward to gain momentum. After a few tries, he was up. He took my arm, the “Bridal March” began, and we proceeded down the long aisle, pausing only a few times to wobble and regain control. It wasn’t a graceful or stately processional. But there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The tears prompted—not by my bridal beauty—but by his bravery.
When we finally reached the front of the church, the curate whispered to my Father that he could sit if he wished. But Dad insisted on standing.
The curate smiled and proceeded. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
“Her mother and I,” my Dad proudly responded in his slurred tongue.
Then the curate indicated that Dad could give me a kiss. I lifted my own veil, leaned over and put my cheek right in front of his lips. He tightened his grip on my arm as he tipped forward and pressed his puckered lips on my face.
As I held him up and he tottered to recover his balance, I whispered, “I love you, Dad.”
He nodded and muttered, “I love you too.” And—although I still struggle at times to accept love, to enjoy the outpouring from my husband and my God, to relax and soak it in and let it penetrate my soul—I do remember that moment. I remember the “I love you.” And I have no doubt that he did.
What was the most important lesson you learned from your dad?
If you lost your dad, what has been the effect?
My mom loved to tell the story of when I was almost three and her belly was bulging with my brother and we were doing the laundry in the basement. Evidently, I climbed to the top of a mountain of dirty clothes and issued a decree. “Mommy, let’s name our baby Kenny.” Undoubtedly, it wasn’t my first bossy proclamation. But it was my first act of power over my brother. Naming him.
Baby Kenny arrived nine days after my third birthday—a month early and colicky. A screaming bundle who struggled to eat and spent way too much of his time in my Mommy’s arms. He changed the whole world.
As he grew, Baby Kenny became both my plaything and my rival. I was both fascinated by him and horrified by his imposition. And so, while we built tent cities together in the living room and read Little House on the Prairie sitting on either side of Mom, while I dressed him up in Daddy’s clothes and instructed him to feed my dolls, we were also locked in a bit of a battle. A sometimes subtle, sometimes scrappy fight for my parents’ limited resources.
My main weapon was control. So I bossed and blamed. I picked and provoked. I did everything I could to maintain my privileged position and fend off his threat to my universe.
Sibling rivalry is as old as time, of course. And our tactics haven’t changed much.
It started with Cain and Abel. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to know how that turned out. Jealousy. Murder. The “no fair!” claim. The “you-liked-his-offering-better-than-mine” line. And the wide-eyed feigned innocence. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Then there were Jacob and Esau. They were doomed. Already fighting in the womb. Their parents played favorites. There was the bribe. The barter. “Give me your birthright, and I’ll give you some stew.” Then came Jacob’s deception. His disguise. And the stolen blessing. After which he was sent away. Running for his life.
Then there were Joseph and his many brothers. Daddy Jacob didn’t learn from his own father’s mistakes, and he played favorites himself. He gave Joseph a special robe. Were Joseph’s brothers jealous of his handsome coat or their father’s love? Probably both. And Joseph didn’t help matters, did he? Flaunting his dreams of power and control. His brother Judah did campaign to save his life. But still, Joseph was sold as a slave.
In recent years, many researchers have sought to describe and quantify the sibling rivalry phenomenon. One study found that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times every hour. In addition, only one out of every eight conflicts was resolved in a mutually satisfying way. In the other seven altercations, the siblings merely withdrew—often after the older sibling intimidated the younger (Dr. Hildy Ross).
Another study compared how four-year-old children treat their younger siblings versus their best friends. Not suprisingly, the kids made more negative and controlling statements to their sibs. Seven times more. Children understand at a very young age that friends can leave them. Siblings cannot (Dr. Ganie Dehart).
A third study measured the level of the older sibling’s jealousy when the younger sibling was sixteen months old and found that this was a surprisingly accurate predictor of the quality of the relationship for several years to come .
In a related study, Dr. Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, followed thirty families for fourteen years. She concluded, “Sibling relationship quality was remarkably stable over the long term. Unless there had been some major life event in the family—an illness, a death, a divorce—the character of the relationship didn’t change until the eldest moved out of the house. For the most part, the tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.”
This was certainly true for Kenny and me.
In some ways, we had the same childhood. In some ways, we rode the same waves. We shared in the responsibility of caring for things. The house. The yard. Our parents. We both knew we were loved, but we also lived in the same vacuum—a world with little parental advice. Little instruction. As Kenny puts it, “Few navigational tools for how to handle life.”
But in other ways, from a very young age, our childhood was different. In some ways, we were rivals and our tone was established. Me, the bossy, overachieving, often detached sister. Him, the quiet, affectionate, sometimes angry son. While I overcompensated with activity and attention, he sought companionship with animals and flew under the radar. When I wanted to remake him in my own image, surprisingly he resisted. We fought. And we withdrew. And we were never given any effective guidance on how to do otherwise.
“You disowned me when you reached junior high,” Kenny says now. I don’t remember it that exactly, but maybe I did. In those awkward, self-conscious years, I probably wanted to disown everyone and everything.
What I do remember is that as soon as I could, at the age of seventeen, I left home and Kenny behind. Went away to college. Then moved to Chicago. Not running like Jacob to save my life. But, I suppose—like many young adults—running to find it.
When he was seventeen, Kenny ran too.
Describing and quantifying the sibling problem isn’t enough though. We have to dig a bit deeper to understand what it is all about. Why is it that these people—who usually know us the best—often bring out our worst?
Is it a jealous battle for our parents’ love? Jacob and Esau might have thought so. Joseph and his brothers too. Sigmund Freud certainly agreed. And he popularized this theory early in the last century.
In their 2009 book Nurture Shock, however, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman present a slightly different take. They claim that this understanding is incomplete, citing a survey on which siblings were asked to rank the reasons that they fight. “Possessions” was far and away first. While “parental affection,” actually, ranked dead last.
While they admit that siblings might not be aware of the deeper motivations behind their actions, Bronson and Merryman also cite Dr. Kramer. In her studies, she has seen that even in families where each child gets plenty of love from the parents, young siblings may fail to develop a healthy, positive relationship if they are never taught how. She concludes that an absence of relational guidance—rather than jealousy or competition—is the real cause of sibling rivalry. In other words, sibs often don’t get along because no one has shown them how.
And so Kramer has developed a sibling training program. “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers.” Using games and activities and discussion, encouraging positive cooperative play and providing emotional coaching, Kramer hopes to transform children’s relationships “from sibship to something more akin to real friendship.”
In December of 1999, Kenny and his family flew to England for my wedding—with Peter and me and Mom and Dad. It was a huge and hard trip for everyone. But the wedding was like a fairytale.
A few days after the ceremony, Peter and I flew to Greece for a weeklong honeymoon. Ken and his family stayed in England with Mom and Dad and saw the sights. The plan was for us to meet them at Heathrow Airport and fly back to Chicago together. But as our flight from Athens was landing in London, the steward announced over the intercom: “Peter and Kelli Worrall, please see our agent for an important message.” I was sure that someone was dead.
When we finally deplaned and found a phone, we heard the story from Peter’s mum. The night before, Ken and his family and Mom and Dad had checked into a hotel near the airport. Mom and Dad had specifically requested a handicapped room. And by the grace of God, Ken and his family were in the room nextdoor.
That morning, Mom climbed into the dry bathtub—her habit since a slippery wet tub was hard for her to navigate. She sat down and struggled to turn on the tap. When she finally wrenched it on, scalding hot water came gushing out. She couldn’t turn it off. Couldn’t turn on the cold. Couldn’t jump out. She could only scream.
My dad, of course, was frantic and helpless. He could only make his wobbly way to the hotel room door. By the grace of God, my brother heard the screams and came running. As soon as Dad could let him in, Ken pulled Mom out of the tub, took her in his arms, and laid her on the bed. Saved her life. Her skin was falling off. Third degree burns on 8% of her body.
Peter and I met the rest of the family at the burn unit of the local hospital. The tiny waiting room became our home for the next several days. We spent hours talking to doctors, calling the States, negotiating with the insurance company, trying to fly Mom home for treatment. We also spent long, quiet, scary hours staring at the TV. In one of those moments, Ken looked over at me and asked the question, the bigger question, the one I had been too frightened yet to voice, “What are we going to do about Mom and Dad for the long haul?”
At the time, Mom and Dad lived in a retirement complex in Minnesota. They were able to get some of their meals in the dining hall and the occasional ride to the grocery store. But they were clearly going to need more help than that. Peter and I were in Chicago. Ken and his family in Tennessee. What were we going do? Ken and I were twenty-seven and thirty at the time. Young to be facing this question. But considering how prepared I felt, we might as well have been six and nine.
Ken’s question was the beginning of a twelve-year journey. A journey full of elaborate schemes and false starts. Brave moves and big mistakes. Moments of anger and moments of healing. Somehow we found our way. There was no one, big, dramatic scene. No huge turning point. No tearful reconciliation. It wasn’t like Esau, who ran to meet Jacob and hugged him and fell on his neck and kissed him. It wasn’t like Joseph, standing in front of his estranged brothers, unable to control himself, weeping so loudly that the Egyptians and the household of Pharaoh all heard. It was more like a million tiny moments of us working it out. Learning to talk. Learning to trust. Learning, finally, what it means to be brother and sister.
In August of 2005, Mom and Dad moved into This Old McHenry House with Peter and me. They had their own bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom on the main level. Everything was renovated to make it wheelchair accessible. And we were settling into a new way of life.
Ken came up from Tennessee for Christmas. And for Mom and Dad’s Christmas present, we planned a project. Together Ken and I gave their paneled bedroom a new plastered finish. Ken spread the joint compound, and I used the joint knife to add the texture. Ken rolled the paint, and I did the cutting in. Mom and Dad liked their new walls. But the real gift was us. Working together.
Two little sibs live in This Old McHenry House now. Though they share no blood and were born on opposite sides of the globe. Daryl’s adoption process took three years—working its way through the foster care system. Amelia’s adoption process took six. Our paperwork stuck in the logjam at the CCAA (China Center for Adoption Affairs).
However, by the grace and providence of God, their adoptions were both completed on the exact same day. March 26, 2012. On that day, we were in China at the US Consulate for our embassy appointment, obtaining Amelia’s passport so we could bring her home. And on that same day, a judge in Chicago was stamping our Judgment for Adoption papers, and Daryl became a Worrall. We say, siblings by divine design. But I suppose we all are.
That doesn’t mean that they always get along, of course. They are definitely siblings.
A few months ago I was putting away the laundry. Daryl and Amelia were playing on the floor. And Daryl was singing as he often does. This time it was the James Taylor ballad, “Our Town.” It’s a part of the Cars movie soundtrack, so he knows all of the words. And he was singing with mournful conviction.
“Long ago, but not so very long ago, the world was different, oh yes it was.”
“Do you know why I’m singing that, Momma?” he asked.
“No, Daryl,” I said. “Why?”
“Because when Amelia came she changed the whole world,” he said. “And I didn’t really like it.”
So we had a little talk. A talk about sibs.
I would like more for my little sibling pair than I had with Ken back then. Truthfully, I’d like to control it. The bossy big sister still exists in me. I’d like to climb to the top of my laundry pile and just issue a decree. “Love each other. Be kind. Don’t take each other for granted. Be friends.”
But instead I get the hard job of teaching them every day what it took me too long to learn. Encouraging them to show mutual respect. To enjoy one another and their differences. To laugh together. To play together. To work out their problems in a mutually satisfying way. To stay connected no matter what.
As I think about these things tonight, I am standing at the top of my painting ladder. Brush in hand. We’ve just taken This Old McHenry House off the market. Our family is staying put for now. And I’m finally able to transform the old guest room into a more useful space. A playroom for the kids. A place for them to become sibs.
And so I paint. Charcoal and white horizontal stripes. A neutral space. Not his. Not hers. But theirs.
What was your sibling experience like?
How do you help your children learn to be friends?