Cross-shaped prayer

iron cross at Westminster

A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey

In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.

But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.

Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:

We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”

He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.

Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)

Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”

I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?

I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”

“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?

“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”

I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.

Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.

So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.

The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”) 

the Love

As the presidential election results came in last night, one of my sons watched with a Mexican flag wrapped around him. He did this in support of his Mexican-American friends. He did this because he loves them, because he doesn’t want them to be seen as second-class citizens, because he doesn’t want them to live in fear for those among them who are undocumented—like some of their parents.

My husband teared up this morning as he got ready to go in and teach his Latino-American and African-American students. “What do I tell my kids?” he said. “A lot of them have been really scared about this. What do I say?”

A few weeks ago when Trump made comments about African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods living in “hell” and how “stop and frisk” would be a possible solution, my children wanted to know what that meant. Then they asked, “Who would they stop? Our neighbors? On the street?”

They knew it probably wouldn’t be their white dad getting frisked on the way home. The gentleman across the street, though, the one they wave to every day and tell where they’re going and how they’re doing—he might.

A couple weeks ago, an ad popped up of a mother whose son has autism. She was offended by Donald Trump’s hand-flapping gesture. She said something like this: “My son isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. I don’t agree with much of Clinton’s stances, but I can’t vote for him.”

_________ isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. You can fill in the blank with a lot of words, all of them representing human beings, generally marginalized, without much voice. I couldn’t vote for him either.

I know some people reading this would say that my husband and I have filled our children’s heads with a lot of soft, pie-in-the-sky ideology.

But in the course of the evening, one of my older son’s friends—who would identify as a Christian—posted a pro-Trump slogan on social media and followed it with the hashtag “#build that wall.”

My son, tears in his eyes, asked me, “Mom, where’s the love?”

Oh, I’m glad for that heart.

Where is the love?

I understand that some at this point—were this a dialogue—would refer to love for the unborn.

And I get that. I really do, but I also wonder this: if we can’t love those right in front of us, those that some in the majority might see as “not-like-me, might-be-taking-my-tax-dollars” folks, then any love for the unborn, who are easy to love because we’re not changing their diapers and footing their bills, seems a little suspect.

And, I might add, what also seems suspect is that Trump has some sense of love and justice for the unborn.

The electoral college just elected a businessman whose entire career is based on success for himself regardless of the cost to others; a man who sees women as little more than sexual objects; a man who seems to view most others as beneath him (and that’s almost automatic if you have a different skin color or ethnicity than his); a man who wants a return to good old days—days when almost all white churches supported or tolerated racial injustice of many kinds.

I don’t think small government and lower taxes were worth that much.

I know I’m simplifying this—that so many will say there were other issues, but I fail to see the biblical, ethical, righteous concern in many of them. I find a lot of “rights” involved, and I struggle with this because I don’t find my rights touted in Scripture, and I do find a lot of statements about standing up for others when they’re oppressed.

At one point this morning, my children gathered around me in the kitchen, “What do we do?”

“We remember who we are,” I told them. “As Americans, President-elect Trump will be our president, but we are not Americans first. We are followers of Jesus. He is our King, and we live first and foremost as his followers, as his citizens. We will love Him, and we will love our neighbors, and when we need to stand with and for them, we will.”

Housekeeping Notes

flower-side*I have a couple of blog/writing-related notes at the end of this post. Thanks for reading!

Earlier this year, trapped in a quiet waiting room while one of my children was doing academic testing, I picked up a book from a shelf and flipped through it. It was a book about Christian missionaries ministering to Muslim women, and it was compiled from the experiences and wisdom of women missionaries who’d served in Muslim countries for many years. I loved reading the accounts, but oddly enough, now there is only one I can recall with any clarity. It was from a woman missionary who felt amazed she’d been asked to contribute to the conversation. She, her husband, and their two daughters had been sent, years before, to a strict society, one in which she had very little freedom even as a Western woman, one in which her daughters had even less freedom.  She said something like this: “I have spent most of my time ministering to only two young women, our daughters. I have been their teacher, their spiritual mentor, and their mother. That has been my ministry. I do not know what wisdom I will be able to share.”

And yet, I remember clearly, she had much wisdom, the kind that comes from humility, quietness, watching, waiting, praying.

I wonder if I have been called to just such a season. My husband’s work is most definitely ministry, and it requires deep attention. It is good, good work, and we know he is impacting young men and women who desperately need good education and good male role models. Many of them need father figures. He is being used.

My children are in the middle of good work as well. They go to schools where they are the racial minority (except for my youngest, of course); they go to an after-school program with kids from our neighborhood; they befriend the three young boys who end up at our house many afternoons.

And I? I get them all out the door to do these works. I do the laundry and fix the meals and help with homework and encourage and remind and pray with and, when belonging seems far away, cry with. I homeschool the oldest child part-time, and my paid work is writing, which most of the time is done in quiet. Most days, I do not feel as if I am doing much of anything that is related to what we feel we’ve been called to here, to the work of being integrated, to the work of equality and justice and being/showing Jesus.

I recently wrote an article on the documentary film made about Lilias Trotter, one of the pioneer missionaries to Algeria in the late 1800s (look for a blog post in the next week or so about this). In the research process, I read this quote from her:

Surrender – stillness – a ready welcoming of all stripping, all loss, all that brings us low, low into the Lord’s path of humility  – a cherishing of every whisper of the Spirit’s voice, every touch of the prompting that comes to quicken the hidden life within: that is the way God’s human seed-vessels ripen and Christ becomes “magnified” even through the things that seem against us.
– 
Parables of the Christ Life

This, too, I am reminded, is good.

This, too, is God’s good work—in me, through me.

~~~

NOTE 1: If you’ve never visited my “freelance writing” page (follow the link here or scroll to the top of the page and click on the link there just under the header picture), check it out. If you have any writing or editing needs, please feel free to contact me. I love to help people get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper in clear and lovely ways. No job is too small!

NOTE 2: I added a donate button to my blog (well, actually it reads “Buy Now,” simply because I can’t get the formatting right for it to say “Donate”–oops!). Please do not feel any obligation to donate; I just wanted to give readers the option of contributing to the work of this blog and, through it, to the pro bono work I do for non-profits and churches.

 

Looking for the image

pilsen-mural

When my niece Anna visited, we spent an afternoon hunting murals. This is a mural in progress in Pilsen.

Before we moved, we held one last yard sale in an effort to avoid extra drop-offs at the thrift store. People asked, naturally, “Where are you moving?” Our response—inner city—garnered a lot of head shaking, puzzled looks, raised eyebrows. A couple people even offered gloomy predictions. “You’ll miss this,” they said, gesturing at the trees and yard. “You’ll get tired of the noise and the people and the dirt.”

I nodded. I was sure they were right. I’m sure now they’re right. I will certainly miss, deep in my soul, the waving trees and open spaces and wooded trails that were a great part of my life in our old town.

But I’ve asked, since even before we moved, that God would open my eyes to see loveliness right here in our new neighborhood. I’ve asked him to gift my eyes to look beyond the trash and poverty and sorrow and see elements of beauty.

He’s answering this prayer, but not in the way I expected. Yes, I do notice the old, turn-of-last-century architecture in our neighborhood—somehow-still-complete stained glass, gorgeous old stonework, intricately carved wooden doors—and the neighborhood gardens and the creativity of things like truck-tires-turned-flower-planters and murals brightening abandoned buildings.

But I’ve been most surprised by the beauty I’m noticing in God’s masterpieces, His people, these fellow bearers of His image. I’m seeing more than the destitution of those who hang out all day at the closest L station—I’m seeing the ways they cram close under the bus shelter when it rains, waving their arms at those outside to join them. I’m taking joy in the older men playing chess at dusk at the edge of the park, just under the rumbling L train, their heads bent low in concentration. I get a thrill of excitement at every baby I see, with face fresh and innocent, at every little girl with her hair fixed just-so, at every daddy proudly walking his kids to school. I’m looking for potential and not threat in the groups of young men sitting on doorsteps or walking, strong and sure, down the streets. I’m noticing the city worker riding on the back of the trash truck, dancing in plain sight of everyone to the music coming through his headphones. I’m thankful for the watchful eye and gentle wisdom of the neighbor who’s lived in the house across the street nearly his entire life. I love that on the same street corner on a Sunday morning I saw a man dressed for church—cane, hat, polished shoes, vest, and tie! so sharp!—and an older woman dressed in cheetah pajamas, hood with cat ears pulled up around her face. They seemed comfortable in each other’s presence. I’m noticing the woman, sitting on the seat of her push walker, earnestly carrying on a conversation with the air in front of her, and rather than feeling discomfort, I’m wondering if maybe she isn’t talking with God, maybe she “sees” more than I do.

Will I miss my regular romps through the woods? Absolutely. That forest spoke to me of the beauty and grandeur and glory of God. I saw God in it. But it’s not God’s greatest handiwork.

We humans are. No matter what brokenness we carry—be it obvious or more subtle (even socially acceptable—like greed)— we are still his intricate, beloved creations who carry the image of God!

And that’s not limited to only the “beautiful ones” among us, nor to the saintly, the brilliant or the gifted. You, me, the lady in cheetah pajamas, those who hang out at the L station all day/every day, the alcoholic who regularly sleeps it off in the alley behind our house…

Made in the image of God.

I’m looking for that.

Father Heart

This past spring, when we felt certain the Lord was moving us into Chicago, one of our first steps was to explore school options for our kids. The search for the younger three didn’t last too long. We visited two schools; one of them felt like a good fit to both them and us; and that decision was confirmed when we attended their back-to-school night this past week. Yes, they will face the difficulties of making new friends and learning new systems, but we know already they will be in a nurturing environment, one in which they already feel comfortable.

This, however, has not been the scenario for our oldest child, Emily. Our first choice fell through. Then she found a magnet school she really wanted to attend. She made it past the first round of selections, but not the second. That was heartbreaking and sudden and late. We scrambled and discovered a charter school option. It wasn’t close; it didn’t have some of the classes she wanted, but we thought it would do. So she started classes there, but we found, after a week of trying to make it work, it simply was too far away.

So late Thursday night, Dave and I discussed, again, her schooling choices. We weighed pros and cons and talked through different scenarios, and then, with exhaustion sucking us into sleep, we prayed a plea of confused desperation.

The next morning I woke before the alarm. As I lay there, quiet, I received an insight into my daughter. I got a glimpse into why the less obvious, more complicated schooling choice might be the very best thing for her.

I looked over at Dave and saw he was also awake. I shared with him the insight I’d received. He nodded and told me what he’d woken up thinking about. The two insights meshed; they fit together; they formed something that was enough of an answer for us to move forward with peace.

But even greater than the answer was this: the Spirit’s whispered insights were not just a reminder of God’s great wisdom, they were even more a reminder of God’s Father heart for our girl, for our family.

In that moment of shared insights I got a glimpse of God’s great, beating heart for my girl, who is, even more and always, HIS girl. He knows her, inside and out, through and through, better than I know her, better than her dad knows her, better than she knows herself.

And He loves her.

He loves her oh so well, so tenderly, so knowledgably.

And that understanding is the best answer of all.

 

Post script: When I opened up the Daily Office on my phone later on Friday morning—just after what I described above—I discovered the day’s hymn was “Day by Day,” one I remembered from my childhood. It was like a loving letter written just for us, but I suspect, in God’s incredible way of loving all his people, together yet so uniquely, it’s for many of us, so I’m sharing the words below.

 

“Day by Day” by Karolina Sandell-Berg

Day by day, and with each passing moment,

Strength I find to meet my trials here;

Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,

I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.

He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure,

Gives unto each day what He deems best,

Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure,

Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day the Lord Himself is near me,

With a special mercy for each hour;

All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me,

He whose name is Counselor and Pow’r.

The protection of His child and treasure

Is a charge that on Himself he laid;

“As your days, your strength shall be in measure,”

This the pledge to me He made.

Help me then, in every tribulation,

So to trust Thy promised, O Lord,

That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation,

Offered me within Thy holy Word.

Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,

E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,

One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,

Till I reach the promised land.

Moving grief–and greed

I wrote this piece a week or so before we closed on our house, but Dave (husband) told me I couldn’t post it till after we were completely out of the house! 🙂 Seriously, though, despite my awful thoughts during the selling process (which you’ll read about later in this post), we do hope and pray the very best for the new owners of our old home. 

I wouldn’t normally consider greed as one of my besetting sins.

But when we decide to move, and we begin the process of selling our home…

the green-eyed nasty comes out.

I get insulted by offers that are lower than the asking price; I want to quibble (I don’t actually do it, but the impulse is there) over the inspection results; I begin to think of the homebuyers as “those people.”

Case in point: Two weeks ago, when we got an offer on the house—and it was a good one and such an answer to prayer—my first response was greedy.

Dave, very excited, got off the phone with our realtor and turned to me. “We’ve got an offer!”

He was ready to rejoice, but I wanted to know the amount. He told me.

My first words?

“That low?”

Dave wasn’t even mildly surprised. He laughed and called me out. “You get so greedy when we sell a house.”

Yes, I do.

And even though I try to fight it, it’s a constant all through the process. When the home inspection report from the city comes back, I say things like, “Shouldn’t the inspection report from when we bought the house have revealed this?” (What I’m leaving unsaid are these words: “…so the previous homeowners could have paid for the repair?”) When, during this current home-selling process, we got the request from the owners to provide two working garage door remotes, I said, only partly joking (I’m embarrassed to even admit this), “Someone told me that if an automatic garage door opener isn’t on the house listing, you can just unplug it and say it’s a manual.” Dave just stared at me after that one.

Every time this greed rises up like bile in my mind or actually vomits out my mouth, I’m appalled, and I try to figure out where it’s coming from (as if it simply can’t be a part of ME!); I pray about it; I try to talk myself out of it; I remind myself how really awful it is. After all, in this current sale, our home was on the market only two weeks—incredible!; the offer was good to begin with; when our realtor countered, the homebuyers accepted it; and their “fix-it” requests have been minimal. Knowing all this, I ask myself, “Jen, what is wrong with you?”

About a week after we sold our house, I was reading the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (fantastic book, by the way) and I came to a line that was so good, so applicable, it made me stop and put the book down. The narrator of the book, John Ames, a pastor, is reflecting on the long, lonely years following the death of his young wife and their only child. In particular, he is remembering when, during that time of singleness, he christened his best friend’s child. He said the correct words, he blessed the child, but his inward thoughts were quite different.

“…my heart froze in me,” he wrote, “and I thought, This is not my child…”

The line that follows that statement is the one that made me set the book down.

“I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”

Oh.

Yes.

There is a grief in moving. I am leaving behind friends whom I love, neighbors whose stories I’ve learned, a house which has been a home, memories of Dave and I and our four children and our two international girls becoming a family…

…and there is a part of me that is flat-out jealous of the new homeowners. This right here is so good, I think, and what is ahead for us is so unknown that I’m simmer-level jealous of these people who are moving into what we are sorrowfully—though willingly—leaving behind.

I am, in John Ames’ words, taking offense at someone else moving into the happiness I’ve experienced here.

To be honest, I think there’s a good dose of penny-pinching, old-fashioned, straight-up greed involved as well.

So confession is in order; repentance is in order; but also in order is acceptance of the forgiveness of God.

Because it is in times like this–when I see some of the twisted nature of sin, its stem reaching deep into self-focus, its branches weaving through hurt and fear–that I remember I need absolution from Another, that there is no way I can ever pluck something like this from out of my heart.

A few days after I read the passage in Gilead, I read a section of Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor, in which she was writing about this very thing. Forgiveness, she said, is not like a dry erase board that we are frantically trying to keep clean so God will be happy with us. Rather, it is freedom from the bondage of self, wrought for us by Christ, who is fully aware of our deep sinfulness, more aware than we ourselves are.

We need to know this truth about forgiveness, she says, and then she writes about the Maundy Thursday practice of individual absolution. In it she lays her hands on each congregant’s head and pronounces, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, Amen.”

Jesus—not my efforts or repentance—sets me free from my sins, so that I may, as the prayer of confession says, “delight in (his) will, and walk in (his) ways, to the glory of His name.“

Amen!

Treasured sons

PJ's preschool picIs lament possible without identification? We white mothers must come to the point of understanding that we cannot say, “This could happen to my son—for no good reason—through no fault of his own—through no action of his own,” and really mean it, BUT nearly every African American mother CAN, and with these words a little surge of real terror spikes in her heart.

That is an example of white privilege.

I know it is, because as a white mother of a black son, I have a hard time really believing those words. Though I know my son’s risk factors are high (he is black, very dark-skinned in fact, and he has pronounced ADHD and high impulsivity), I don’t have the history that makes his danger REAL to me. I don’t have the from-birth distrust of a system, of a majority group that sees me as inferior (though they don’t come right out and say so). My skin doesn’t ripple with a subtle prickle of fear when I see a man in uniform. Even though I am truly “in the shoes” of other African American mothers, my white privilege keeps them loose in the day-to-day. They’re not pinching my every step.

I remember, several years ago, driving through rural Indiana with a Latina friend. As we approached one city-limits sign, I remarked, off-hand, casual, “This is a pretty town, but it was a KKK hotbed until just a few years ago. It’s more hidden now, but it’s still here.”

Her response was immediate, and it wasn’t just emotional. Her breathing quickened; her face went pale, and she was unable to relax until we were miles into the country on the other side. I couldn’t identify, but I “got it.” She’s experienced “difference” her entire life. And I, except for when travelling in Africa (and the “difference” I experienced there brought, for the most part, privilege), have not.

This morning I woke early. We are preparing for a move to one of those very neighborhoods where the other mothers in it live everyday with this fear for their children, where I, too, will experience it more, simply because of location. Because of this upcoming move, our house looks like a picked-over junk shop. It is at the stage when everything formerly “in”—cupboards, closets, drawers—is out, and all knickknacks are off shelves and ledges, revealing hidden dust.

Late last night I moved the verse plaque from the windowsill above my kitchen sink. Behind the plaque I found a picture of my black son taken several years ago when he was in preschool. At some point I’d tucked it behind the plaque and forgotten about it.

This morning, up before anyone else, I read updates on the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I cried. I prayed. Then I went to the sink to fix myself some tea. And there was the smiling face of my beautiful son, like a treasured photo of a lost loved one, placed in a spot where one sees it several times a day.

And for one moment, the shoes tightened, hard, and I remembered the words I’d read just a few minutes earlier in one of the news reports. Philando Castile’s mother, speaking to a group of African Americans mourning the death of her child, told them, “This could be your son.”

If one is truly to grieve, lament, repent, this is what we must understand.

Misplaced trust: the pitfalls of homeselling

family pic

A good family picture, which, for us, is an amazing feat! This was just after Judy’s graduation ceremony. She’s a college freshman now!

When our realtor, a long-time friend, came into our home for our “putting the house on the market” interview, she was complimentary overall, but she also helped us come up with a to-do list for our open house in a couple weeks’ time.

So we did the first “weeding” of the extra stuff we’ve accumulated, and we sold some of it in a yard sale and carted what was left over to the local thrift store, and then realized, as we looked around with critical eyes, there was still much to do

We often have people stay in our house, and I clean in different ways depending on how well I know them. When my sister or in-laws come, I clean mostly so they’ll be comfortable. I don’t go overboard. But when, two summers ago, we told our church pastors they could house some incoming conference attendees at our place while we were out of town, I cleaned like a madwoman. I’d never met these people; their entire impression of us would be based on our house.

I did the same as we prepared our house to go on the market. The dirt at the base of the windows, between the glass and the screen, has never bothered me, but what if it disgusted some potential homebuyer? Two days before the open house, we got a request for a showing. I was still de-cluttering, still cleaning, but we agreed to the showing.

They arrived before we’d even left, didn’t say a word to me, stood outside looking the house over as I piled the kids and dog in the car. Later that evening I got an email telling me their realtor had written an online review of our house. I shouldn’t have looked at it, but I did. “Buyer considered the lack of central AC a negative. House could have shown better.”

Well, the AC was their issue; it was clear on the listing we didn’t have it. But “could have shown better”—those four words haunted me. I went to sleep, late, thinking of more things I needed to clean, more areas to clear out. Suddenly our house—the place where we’ve become family with our international students, the hangout spot for so many of our neighborhood children, our home!—didn’t feel good enough for others.

I woke the next morning still fixated on what I could do to make our house “show better.” I stood in the laundry room, mindlessly folding, while my mind raced from one idea to another. Suddenly I realized I was humming, the same phrase over and over.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

I hadn’t turned the radio on that morning, hadn’t listened to anything on my phone, hadn’t heard that hymn recently. I wasn’t actively trying to get my gaze back on Christ at all! It was a clear Holy Spirit nudge, and I saw my frantic thoughts for what they were, a sandbar eroding beneath my feet.

And I remembered the words from Psalm 146.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
    there is no help for you there.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
    and all their plans die with them.
But joyful are those who have the God of Israel[a] as their helper,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them.
    He keeps every promise forever.