Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Miracle Has Only Just Begun

One of the things I have always loved about my Christmas stocking is that it reflects a warm, welcoming, homey environment. I don't have anything against snowmen... or Santas... or teddy bears... or gingerbread houses... Not at all! But I have loved that my stocking shows a roaring fire inside a warm home, a haven from the freezing weather outside. That is what I always want my home to be... a warm haven of welcome that invites people in.

When we first bought this house, it was a miracle house. Trust me, I don't throw that word around, and I don't use it lightly in this instance. Though I do believe in "ordinary little miracles," this isn't one of them. This was a big-time miracle that placed us in the home that has shaped our family for over two decades. That full story appears below, for those who care to read it, but at this point, suffice it to say that, the Lord took our miracle-house-in-the-first-place and made it a miracle all over again, a second time.

I remember a particular morning that I was praying, bemoaning, "Lord, if you are intentionally keeping us small because we're going to be in a hut in Africa someday soon, thank you. But if this is the kind of ministry you've called us to in this season of life, could we please just have a little more room?" I was having my devotions in my bedroom closet at that particular moment, because it was the only room in the house that didn't have someone sleeping in it.

I'm not kidding, nor am I exaggerating for effect. We had taken in a young, unmarried pregnant woman who was sleeping on the bottom bunk of my son's room. He had moved to the bottom bunk in the girls' room, displacing his sister OG. We had raised her sister EL's crib to the highest level, keeping the side rail down, placing a step ladder beside it, and telling OG that she now had her own "big girl bunk." The littlest one, EL, we moved into a porta-crib, vacillating between our bedroom closet and our bathroom, as we were never quite able to decide which of those two rooms it was more inconvenient to be barred from in the mornings.

Sleeping on the pull-out couch in our den was a young woman from our church who was separated from her husband. He had come home from a Navy deployment and they were working through some real marital difficulties with the help of pastoral counseling with the elder board at our church. Because of the floor plan of our house, I couldn't turn on a light in our kitchen, dining room, entry hall, or hallway without disturbing her, so I was—literally—crouched in our bedroom closet for devotions, begging either for a move to the mission field or for a little more room for ministry here.

I told no one. I didn't really harbor on it. I didn't keep praying it, asking over and over again. It was just one desperate cry of longing, uttered from my bedroom closet and then forgotten in the busyness of daily life with little ones and live-in guests.

Within a month, I found myself talking to my dad on one of the daily morning walks we took around the neighborhood. He had given us, free of charge, some sample pergo-type flooring that had been sent to his company by a manufacturer who had hoped they might choose to carry their product. Since our kitchen was still covered with the original vinyl linoleum, we had welcomed the gift and gladly put it down. Click-lock flooring is pretty easy to do yourself, so we had managed to cover it reasonably well to the edges. I was telling my father that we were out of our league, though, when it came to covering the gap you must leave at the edge of such flooring to allow for expansion and contraction. He told me he would have his business partner come cut some molding for us and help us put it down. ("'Business partner'? What 'business partner'?!" I asked. And that was how I found out that my father had started a business with the man who had helped put the pool-house in his back yard! Though we'd been walking and talking together every morning for years, this was the first I'd heard of it!)

That, my friends, is also how I met Dave. He came over to measure for the molding. While there, he casually mentioned, "You're losing your roof, you know." (This we did know, having certainly noticed that several shingles would blow off each time we had a bad storm!) We told him that we realized this, but that we had been considering adding a fourth bedroom, so we didn't want to replace the roof, only to have to rip it up again if we did.

The next time I saw Dave, a few days later, he was like a kid in a candy shop. Although he had come over to install the molding in the kitchen, he had brought his newest project: plans he'd dreamed up—and actually drawn up!—for turning our 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 1800-square-foot ranch into a 5-bedroom, 5-bath two-story with dormer windows and almost 4,000 square feet. We were stunned. And a little embarrassed. Had he thought we had wanted him to do this for us? Was he going to expect to be paid? What should we even say? We started hemming and hawing: "Um, Dave. Er. We can't afford this kind of renovation! Um.We can't even afford to pay you for having drawn up these plans. Uh. We just meant we might extend the left side of the L-shaped ranch and turn it into a T-shaped ranch. And, um, we can't even afford to do that—but we've been trying to spin straw into gold and figure out how to pull it off—which is why we still have the crummy roof but no addition. What were you thinking?!"

Dave quickly put our fears at ease, explaining that—for him—this was great fun... better than a video game, this drawing up of imaginary dream plans for fantastic house renovations. He didn't expect us to pay him, nor did he expect that we'd ever actually use the plans. He was just excited to share his handiwork. And what handiwork it was! We had fun looking over it, we had a good laugh, and then we went back to life-with-four-kids-and-two-live-in-guests.

Within the next couple of weeks, we were invited to share brunch with my parents after church one day. We arrived at the usual restaurant and were pleasantly surprised to find that Dave and his wife, Janet, were joining us. After much visiting and feasting, the conversation turned to the renovation plans Dave had drawn up. My father asked what we had thought of them. We shyly replied that they were great, but that we couldn't afford anything like that. After a few more minutes of awkward conversation, it became clear that Dave and my father had already talked about this, and that they were jockeying to build this addition for us. They needed a local "show home" in our town, they said, since there were many local folks contacting them about additions, and it was cumbersome to take people to the next town over, many miles away, to show their handiwork. If we were willing to be that show home—letting them take people through the house whenever needed (maybe once a month, but no more than once a week, they conjectured)—they would like to do the addition for us. So, while we paid for things like carpet and paint and ceiling fans, the cost for the bulk of this addition was absorbed by my dad and his company.

We lived in the house during the renovations. When we started—in February—I remember telling Dave, "As long as as it's done by the time we need to start school next September. (Ahem. I had a little to learn about construction!)

I recall my friend Ken saying to me at one point, early on, "You are not doing this. This thing is happening to you... around you." And he was so very right! The Lord had heard my hastily-uttered-then-quickly-forgotten request ("...Could we please just have a little more room?!") and He had chosen to give us "exceedingly above what we could ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).

The renovation took almost a year to complete. I remember vacuuming up the scraps from the newly installed carpeting, the day my in-laws arrived to celebrate Christmas with us. The every-couple-of-weeks unannounced "show home" visits—which were wonderful because they forced us to keep the house tidy at all times!—ended with the dissolution of Sanctuary Builders a few years later. But for the last decade, we have lived and grown in this house, ministering and hosting and housing others whenever the opportunities have presented themselves.

I am so thankful for the incredible gift of this home—ultimately from my Father, the source of "every good and perfect gift" (James 1:17), but also from my earthly father, the first man I ever loved, and one of the dearest persons on earth to me. Proverbs 13:22 says that "a good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children," and my father has done that in so very many ways, both tangible and intangible. How blessed our children have been to grow up within half a mile of their grandparents, loving and knowing them in deep, daily-day ways. Thank you, Heavenly Father... and thank you, earthly Dad!

For those who might care to read about such things, which I'm sure is not many, what follows is the full story of how we came to be in this miracle house in the first place.

When Iivo and I began looking at houses, we quickly realized something very depressing: We couldn't afford anything nice in any kind of nice neighborhood. (Never mind the spiritual crisis it caused us,  wrestling with our feelings about "good" neighborhoods versus "bad" ones... and with deciding what kind of place we wanted to raise our family... and with my thoughts and fears when imagining walking with little ones around a neighborhood where I didn't feel safe... and with wrangling through the realization that mercy and justice and compassion and help are difficult enough concepts to define and wrap your brain around, let alone embrace with deliberateness and purpose... But those are all thoughts for another post!)

At any rate, after looking at all the things we could afford, we realized that the little townhouse we were living in was just fine, and that it would have to serve us well for a few more years, because we weren't going to move across town to something awful when we could stay here. We loved it here, five minutes from my parents' house, the childhood home I grew up in.

One day, as we were bemoaning that we would never be able to afford an actual house in this part of town, my dad casually mentioned, "You ought to look at that house at the front of the neighborhood. We played golf with that guy about a year ago—he was a singleton who joined our threesome—and he was anxious to sell it then. He might be open for an offer."

Well, long story short, we did. We looked at it. It was cosmetically hideous but structurally sound, and we knew some new carpet and fresh paint would do wonders. We calculated the absolute most we could afford monthly without my paycheck—the plan was for me to stay home with our children when they were born—and made an offer. We made the offer through his real estate agent, hoping that the lack of commission he'd have to pay our agent would help with the deal. We had decided to have my father, the consummate businessman, make the offer for us. As we sat with the agent around my parents' family room, my father said, "TM, the kids would like to offer—" and proceeded to name a price that was $1000 less than we had told him was "the absolute most we could afford." We had no idea why he was doing that, but we had decided to let him handle it, so we let him handle it. TM responded with something like, "Well, I'll make the offer, but I think that's what he paid for the house, ten years ago." (Bear in mind that this was long before the "housing bubble" had burst and people had experienced the reality that their house was worth less than they'd paid for it. Houses in our area had steadily risen in value for decades, and this house was undoubtedly worth more than we were offering.)

As expected, the homeowner was insulted by our offer, and countered with a counter-offer of his own. We explained to the agent that we couldn't afford any more than we had offered, and she indicated A.'s feeling that the house should sell for "what it's worth, no what they can afford!" We agreed, and told her that we were sorry for having wasted her time. We had just thought that, perhaps—with the house having sat on the market, unsold, for almost two years—A. might just be willing to part with it for the lesser amount.

We arranged a meeting with TM, the real estate agent, to get our earnest deposit back. That morning, she told us that A. had called her and said, "Keep it alive, TM." The conversation went something like this:

TM: "We could do some creative financing and get you into the house for about $25 more a month."

Us: "TM, we know that this is how this usually works. We make an offer. They make a counter-offer. We haggle a while and settle somewhere in the middle. But we really did offer the most we can afford. $25 more a month and we don't eat one week. We're sorry."

TM: "Can you not offer him anything?"

We proceeded to tell her that, actually, we had originally settled on a figure that was "the absolute most we could afford" and our father had—for reasons he couldn't explain—offered $1000 less than that. We could counter with an offer that was a measly $1000 more, if she thought it would help. She agreed to try once more, and our offer was accepted! We found out later that, in reality, A. had actually paid $10,000 more for the house ten years ago than he was selling it for now. (Again, this was pre-housing-bubble-burst.)

It really was a miracle that we got into this house, one of the smallest in a lovely neighborhood just minutes from my parents...on foot!

For many years, we lived in that house, growing—and eventually outgrowing—the little three-bedroom ranch. When they were little, we had all three girls crammed into one of the tiny bedrooms, while their brother PT was king-of-the-world in the other (tinier) one. We used bunk beds like loft beds and put the girls' furniture beneath them, but it became apparent that eventually—as the actual size of their clothing grew with them—we wouldn't be able to fit it all in one little dresser and one little closet. We began to dream of adding another bedroom, but it was only a dream. We were no more able to afford more per month then, than we had been at the beginning! Where would we come up with the money for anything of the sort?

It was at that point, in the midst of all that hoping and dreaming for one more bedroom, that the Lord gave us the miracle addition... a miracle addition on a miracle house!

I believe the Lord knew that this gift would take my natural, God-given bent toward hospitality and solidify it into a lifetime of ministry in our home. When you live in a house that literally grew around you—happened to you, in response to the prayer, "If this is the ministry you have for us in this season, could I have just a little more room?"—you are all the more likely to open it up to people for ministry whenever you possibly can. We've hosted countless meetings for church over the years: Bible studies, prayer meetings, pot luck dinners, music practices. We've housed hundreds of people, many of whom we haven't known before they came... some for days... or weeks... or even longer, when it's been needed. I'm so grateful for the opportunities we've had to meet people, many of them pastors and missionaries involved in God's work around the world. It's been fascinating to meet them and hear of their work with Bible translation or church planting or ministry in orphanages.

One such dear stranger-turned-friend, Lucy, had come to stay at our house multiple times. The last time she called me, she said, "I absolutely love staying at your house. That guest room is so peaceful, and I get so much work done! Thank you for letting me crash there and for leaving me alone to work!" We got word just this past week that sweet Lucy died last month. Finally, she has gone home to be with her First Love and heard those blessed words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:23). And I know she's enjoying an even better, more peaceful room, prepared for her by her loving Heavenly Father (John 14:2-3).

I'm so thankful to have had the chance to bless her and know her because I was given "a little more room," and I can now keep a guest room, ready and waiting, for whomever the Lord sends to it.

What a gift!
*Entry 11, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge 
The title is a line from the song "The Miracle of Christmas" by Stephen Curtis Chapman.

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