Monday, July 22, 2013

How God gave me something better than a house

Just over three years ago our family made a big move. We moved from Arkansas back to the Northwest. Greg had been working at JBU, a great school that we loved, but we wanted to be closer to our families. So we decided to move, even though Greg did not have a job lined up here.

In my head I envisioned us living in a cute house, in a good neighborhood, in Portland... a house with a fenced yard where the kids would play, 3 bedrooms, and hopefully a big living room for entertaining. When moving day came, Greg didn't really have any job prospects, and I felt a little worried. Nevertheless, I could still imagine our house and yard. I knew it might be down the road a little, but I was sure that we were at least on the road to buying a house. For the first five years of our marriage we rented a house, and then at JBU we lived in the men's residence hall. We had never owned a house and I was ready.

Well, after a summer of ups and downs in the job hunt, Greg was offered a job at Warner Pacific College as (once again) a Residence Director. Which meant that (once again) we would be living in an apartment in the men's residence hall. And this time the apartment was even smaller... with no dishwasher... no washer and dryer... no bathtub. We moved in with mixed emotions. On the one hand we had faced the reality that we might be living with Greg's mom while he worked as a server at a restaurant (not to belittle being a server... just not Greg's chosen career path). So we were very relieved to have a job that he cared about and a place to live. But on the other hand, there was no house (not only no house, but no prospect of a house anytime soon). We were stuck in the dorm until his job changed again. And part of me was bitter.

I tried to put a good face on it. I mean, like I said, we were very relieved to have a place to call home at all. It was so nice to unpack boxes and have our own space.

But the space was small... I mean, really small. The living room was 10x10, there was no dining room... just a space on the wall between the bathroom door and the front door where we put a drop leaf table that we unfolded for each meal. I think the whole house was about 800 square feet... but that doesn't do justice to how small it really was. The living room, kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom were in 400 of those square feet. Then down a spiral staircase (which took up part of our square footage) was the other half of the apartment... one giant room with a walk-in closet. We used it as our bedroom/catch-all room/storage. At first the walk-in closet was where baby Jonathan slept. Then, when he was sleeping regularly through the night we moved him up to share a room with Elisa.

The "dining room" and kitchen
The dining area from a different angle - shows the front door (right) and bathroom door (left)
The living room
The kids' room
Our bathtub
And there was one other thing: Greg had taken a pay cut and I had stopped working. We already hadn't made a ton of money in Arkansas... but now we made substantially less. And we had just used up our savings moving across the country.

So, on the one hand, I was so relieved and thankful for Greg's job. And on the other hand, I was bitter. I felt like God owed me more than this. It sounds terrible to say it that way, but that's where I was at. I had given God so much. I had done all the right things. Wasn't it His duty to bless me? And shouldn't He bless me in the ways that I wanted? 

One of the things I kept saying during that time was, "The American Dream is not my dream. The American Dream is not my dream." Of course, the American Dream WAS my dream... which is why I needed to say it so much. To remind myself that it shouldn't be my dream. Funny thing about dreams though, it's hard to let go of a dream without something better to grab onto in it's place. 

It was easy to be outwardly thankful for the apartment when people were commiserating with me about how small it was. But whenever someone said something about how it was nice, or not so bad, or how I should be thankful, I bristled inside. And sometimes that bitterness would leak out in my words. Then afterwards I'd think, "Oh, I hope so-and-so didn't think that I'm not a grateful person or that I'm bitter." You see, I didn't quite realize the truth yet. I thought that my problem was what I had said. One day God showed me that the problem wasn't what I said, but my heart. Those words were coming from a bitter heart. And that's what needed to change. 

I realized that if I had to describe me in one word, that word would be "want." That's what I thought about more than anything else: what I wanted. "I just want to be able to decorate this house better." "I want to have a yard with a fence." "I want to be able to have room to have people over." "I want Greg to get a different job so we can move off-campus." And on and on....  All things that I thought would make me happy.

I wasn't happy that my word was "want," but acknowledging the truth of my heart was the first step toward change. I thought, "If there's a word to describe me I want it to be 'peace', or 'joy', or 'contentment'."

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake....
  Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)

The view out our apartment window
I started taking time to stare out our big window and slow down for a minute during nap time. Instead of getting on Facebook or Pinterest, I'd do my Bible study or read other good books.

During this time I started reading the book, "One Thousand Gifts". In it Ann Voskamp challenged me to do a simple exercise: start writing down things I'm thankful for every day. Think of the gifts God gives me, and take the time to write them down. Slowly as I started doing this, my thoughts started to shift.

One rainy day as I was parking our car in the lot after a trip to the grocery store, I found myself cursing in my head. Cursing the rain, the puddles, the slow one-year-old and three-year-old who would be sure to find the puddles and dawdle, the car that took the closest spot, the muddy hillside I'd have to climb, the heavy grocery bags... etc. Then I remembered thankfulness, and just as quickly I started counting gifts. The fact that my kids would have a chance to be outside: a gift. The groceries: a gift. A let-up in the rain: a gift. The biggest gift that I realized right then though, was that God was changing me. Slowly but surely I was becoming a different person. A person of joy instead of bitter cursing. With a smile on my face and my arms full of groceries I urged my one and three-year-old up that muddy hillside. And I felt happy. Or maybe, I was joyful.

I'm still in process. I still fall into thinking that happiness is about fulfilling my list of wants. And I still want to own a house... someday... maybe. But I no longer obsessively get online to look at home listings in our area. I no longer drive down the streets looking for for-sale signs. Not that those things are intrinsically bad, they were just bad for my soul at that time. And they were a sign of my soul at that time. I wanted to buy a house so badly because the American dream was my dream. I had forgotten that what I truly wanted and needed was God himself.

A year ago, right in time for Nora to be born, we moved into a house. Not our own house... a campus house. God continues to provide for us and bless us, not always in exactly the way I have pictured. But always in exactly the way I need.
And it is kind of cute, isn't it?

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16-17)

Now, three years later, I see how that little apartment was a good and perfect gift. It helped me realize my sense of entitlement. It showed me the depths of my wanting... depths that would never be filled... and helped me realize that what I truly wanted could not be bought with money.

"True joy, as it turns out, comes only to those who have devoted their lives to something greater than personal happiness." (From The Life You've Always Wanted by John Ortberg)


Jeana said...

This post is beautiful! Thank you for sharing your heart. I find myself in that want state of heart far too often...even as I marvel at how God provides for every need. Your story really hits home. And your house is adorable! What a gift!

kristal said...

wow. this post was such a gift. thank you, carolyn.

melissa said...

I had no idea you had a blog!! The one sad thing about BSF is that people have these whole big stories to share and we just don't have the time to hear them! I'm so glad I got to have this tiny peak into your life. And I think your campus house is SUPER cute. :)

beccafredo said...

Carolyn this is so moving! I love that you put it all into words so beautifully! Thank you! Love getting to be part of the journey with you!