When I last wrote, I was sitting comfortably in a Bergstrom dealership, sipping coffee and eating cookies while our ten year old van was getting brand new tires and brakes.
It's been over a month since I wrote and there's a reason. Just two hours after I drove away with hundreds of dollars worth of work, a full tank of gas and a few errands to run, I was rear-ended on the highway by a loaded gravel truck. It was an accident that couldn't be avoided.
Before you worry, I am ok. There are many blessings in the event, such as the fact that the truck that hit me completely demolished the rear end of the van, but left the brand new tires unscathed. I was able to drive off the highway and effectively use the van normally. The kids were not with me (a rarity these days). I had enough sense when I saw the truck about to hit me to accelerate forward, thereby reducing the impact to both the van and my body. The man that hit me was very shaken and apologetic and made sure his insurance assumed full responsibility for the accident. When we learned two weeks later that our van was deemed totaled by the other insurance company, we were greatly saddened. Almost to the day, we had purchased that van three years earlier; our first family vehicle when we were expecting Ethan and about to take a road trip to Colorado. (And visit GRIT!)
But there is a blessing in the van being totaled as well. Instead of a fixed up, high mileage vehicle, we got a check in the mail for an amount just $300 under what we paid for it in 2008 (and 65,000 fewer miles!). Starting at 1:30 pm, September 30th (the time I got hit) and culminating about a month later, God put our family on a lesson-journey into the world of our hearts concerning material possessions, family and where our true values lie.
When I said the accident was unavoidable, I did mean that no matter what, God was going to allow our van to be liquidated. We had just stuck $700 into it and suddenly it was taken away. Yet God did it in such a gentle way. I mean it! The brand new tires, with rims, were able to be salvaged and will likely sell by themselves for a few hundred dollars. Any other vehicle hitting the van would have taken out the rear axle in a crash like that. And then there's my own well-being. God allowed the van to be totaled in such a way that I am only experiencing minor whiplash effects, and my chiropractor care is being funded by the truck driver's insurance.
At the end of September, the perspective of Becky Sell was this: a good van, a nice back-up sedan we bought from our friends in July, a really nice TV, a giant storage unit full of great stuff waiting to fill a home and a great family. And...the treasure of my heart in all the wrong places.
When God allowed me to get slammed from behind, he also laid me open to do some work on my heart and priorities. Let me ask you something. If your home were burning to the ground and you only had ten minutes (I'm being generous) to get all that mattered out of the blaze, what would you grab for? It's a rhetorical question because anyone with a balanced mindset will immediately speak all the names of the people in their home, followed by pets and then, if there's time, the photo albums or computer or home videos. And after that, unless you live alone and have all your personal memories stuck in one easy-to-access box, there would not be time for more.
Or what if you became a refugee for some reason? Flood? Tornado? War? Are you going to lament the loss of the 42" plasma TV or genuine leather sofa-sleeper? Do I need to pound this point home any farther?
Maybe. I know God did for me. Now, rest assured, I am with the 98% of the people who answered "people" not "things" in case of a house fire. There's no question. But my lesson was of a deeper sort. A more everyday application, if you will.
The van was to awaken me to the futility of things. Things can be given and taken away in a moment. So why surround yourself with things? For a sense of accomplishment? Security? Status? Maybe a bit of all of those reasons. Now, to be sure, some "things" are necessary for running a household. I don't need to list what I think is necessary because everyone might have a different idea.
In this season of frugality (in most of our homes), being aware of excess spending and where the money is going is super important. Andy and I have been trying to be mindful of every financial decision we make, even to the point of not driving into town more than needed to save on gas. But it wasn't enough, at least not for our family.
One Saturday after the van got smashed, I went to a women's conference with my mother. She paid for the ticket because she wanted me to hear the keynote speaker. This was the sort of Christian women's conference where you might expect to see the stereotypical, well-dressed middle aged women and their older, even-better-dressed counterparts with bluish hair and giant broaches on their collar. Before I even arrived, I admit that I was skeptical. Blessings on my mom, but I didn't really want to go. I had taken a full Saturday about a month before to attend a free women's retreat, and I got a lot out of that day. I fully understand a person's need to fill themselves spiritually with these sorts of conferences from time to time, but I wanted to be aware of the sacrifice being made on the other end for me to take a whole day "off" and be by myself. And while this women's retreat was only a half day, it still caused a lot of shuffling around of the kids in order for me to go, as this was during Andy's time to sit at a farmer's market for Gourmet Grassfed.
Having preconceived notions of how it was going to be, I came into the mega-church where it was being held and saw instantly the fulfillment of my shallow expectations. Kind looking matriarchs of all shapes and colors milled about the breakfast buffet, daintily picking up mini muffins and fruit slices, placing them onto their tiny plates while secretly hoping no one else thought they took too much. (Side note: One thing I dislike about women and eating in public ... just admit that you are hungrier than you are and go back for seconds! Seriously, no one makes a reasonable breakfast out of one mini-bagel and a coffee. Get over yourself, who cares what people think of you and remember that every other woman in the room is wishing they could run back up and grab the normal sized slice of coffee streusel cake and scarf it down.)
I fully admit that I was also battling with feelings of being wasteful with time and resources. There is a syndrome within the modern church that is probably not addressed very often ... if at all. I call it Conference Addiction. It's when a woman or a man attends as many of the faith-building, Bible-teaching, Spirit-filled getaways as they can and then never do anything to apply what they've learned in their everyday life. I don't know what it is, but the few retreats I've attended have impacted me in deep ways. I always take something from that day and with work, bring it into my daily life. However, I have had conversations with people who have attended the same function who are unable to comment on how they'll make this work "on Monday morning" (when real life hits). These are the same folks who were at the last three retreats and raved about the food and the music.
It just burns me. How much money is spent on these people to attend these very beneficial functions when nothing is learned? How much better that money would be spent helping folks without homes or teens in abusive relationships? How did the church get to this point of self-serving "feel good" conference attendance while people in their own neighborhood go without heat or food this month? Of course this is a generalization and not everyone who goes to a church conference abuses the intent of the teaching within. Not everyone spends frivolously to earn points amongst their peers for annual retreat attendance. And I know for a fact that a lot of lives are changed for the better from going to even a single Bible study.
I just had to vent that and explain my hesitancy for going to another Saturday conference in one month, let alone one that charged what this one did for three hours of worship and learning. And yet, a small part of me was very drawn to the speaker and what she might bring these women and myself. An audience of nearly 400 women is not something I would relish taking on, so I already gave Ms. Speaker credit for that.
I can tell you that the first half of the day, I was praying hardily against the skeptical and "know-it-all" spirit that seemed to be blocking my intake of anything worthwhile. When we returned from a break, I was able to really listen to the speaker and take in exactly what she was saying. Her emphasis, at least in my ears, was the fact that God the Father only desires relationship with his children, and we are more concerned with what the people around us think of ourselves, our lives, our kids, our jobs, our homes, our cars. That's the incredibly abridged form of the message I heard, but it was enough to send me home with a crazy idea brewing in my head.
I greeted Andy that afternoon in a house that we call temporary home, surrounded by possessions not our own, in a neighborhood full of people who are not our neighbors. I asked him if he would be ok if we sold off most of our things in our storage unit. He looked at me with a half smile and said, "Baby, if that's what you think we need to do in order to be closer to God, I'm all in."
God had been cultivating Andy's heart that week as well. A few days prior to this women's conference, he got a phone call that there was a family emergency and he might lose a dear member of his family. For 24 hours, it was touch and go, and Andy began a sincere time of wrestling with the implications of a possible death. In the end, he found that God was so very with him in this time of fear and sorrow, that he no longer feared or wept. He was driving home from work the following day and the sun broke from the clouds of daylong rain to reveal a brilliant sunset on the horizon. A song came on that spoke to his hurting heart and as he came around the corner of our street, he saw his family playing with the wet leaves on the driveway. We had just gotten home from somewhere and instead of rushing the children inside, I let them rake up the yellow leaves from the road since it had suddenly stopped raining. I knew Andy was on his way home, so when he drove up I wasn't surprised. He stepped out of the car and just wept in my arms. It was a beautiful and tender and heart wrenching moment. Our children rode tricycles about our feet and the warmth of an October sunset permeated the landscape. Andy later told me that God was giving him a visual lesson in seeing our family jumping over leaf piles in the street: for so long we have yearned for a home of our own, a place where we can call home and though we are fully grateful for our ability to stay with this friend of ours, we had felt a burden of missing the things that define us. With Andy's family in jeopardy, his perspective was suddenly shifted. Upon turning the corner to the house we call temporary home, God spoke to his heart. Home is wherever this family is. If home is in a tiny apartment or a sweeping vista farm, it is not complete without the people who make it. Suddenly he was at complete and true peace with whatever the outcome in his family's emergency. If he lost that person to death, then it was not in vain. And if the person pulled through, there would be room for more and more love in that person's life brought about by the infinite and abundant love of our Father above.
The family emergency had a happy ending the next day.
Our family, however, was forever changed. Vans being smashed, people nearly dying, a conference speaking Truth amidst complacency. The message was beginning to come loud and clear. We are not the culmination of our things. They do not determine our worth. And even more extreme, the people in our lives are of such prime value to us, but they do not determine our worth or our security. Nothing is secure or of value except our relationship with God. It's the foundation of everything else. By having a clear understanding of the way he loves us, cares about us and disciplines us, only then can we turn our focus to the valuables in our physical life. Our family, our children, our friends, our neighbors. Did I mention the car we drive or the TV we watch? Not so much.
Two Saturdays after the van got smashed and I was meditating on this idea of selling off everything but the clothes on our back and utensils in the kitchen. A two-fold reason for this is that we are paying a monthly fee to hold on to these items that are going totally unused. Obviously we won't be living in this borrowed home for the rest of our lives (it's on the market for sale, so it's only a matter of time), but no matter where we live, God made it pretty clear that it's not the things that make the home. I can live with eating Japanese style and making a bed on a mattress with no frame if it means losing the trappings of this world to focus better on Christ. The second aspect of my growing desire to dump the junk is that Andy and I are enslaved to a credit card debt that we haven't been able to shake since before Elly was born. Throughout our various life adventures, it's been hard for us to devote a large chunk of money to pay it down and with moves, babies, LIFE, the debt has just sat on us, draining us every month with interest charges. I'm not defending any actions that might have caused the debt to get to this size, I just know it started small and grew subtly over the years. Having the card was a form of security and we see now that it took the place of faith. What a price we're paying now. Literally.
And then I see all the nice things in our storage unit, piled to the ceiling doing nothing. A wise sale of most of those items would liquidate the value and allow it to be placed against this enslaving debt we owe. It sounds crazy to many people. I'm sure you think I've gone off the deep end, but that's ok. God spoke to me three more times before Andy and I decided to take action and give this idea a green light.
Three Saturdays after the van got smashed, I took the kids to the last farmer's market of the season in Oshkosh. We just cashed the check for our van and took some of the money to buy our Thanksgiving turkey from one of our farmer friends who raises pastured turkeys. Andy was at his Gourmet Grassfed booth and the kids and I set up shop there. The way the farmer's market is set up this year is that two long city blocks on Main Street are shut down with vendors on either side. Andy and Ben happened to have one of the very end spots on the south side of the market, meaning normal downtown traffic is dissuaded from plunging into their tent by a few orange saw horses and cones. It's a good spot as many people enter and exit the market from that side, but it's also very close to traffic and we have to keep a close eye on the kids when we visit.
At the end of the day, Andy and I were helping a neighboring vendor take down their tents while Liam sat in the stroller and Ethan and Elly played nearby. At one point, Ethan fell on the road and came crying to me about his scuffed hands. I was presently distracted because I saw a man across the street about to pack up his last bucket of beautiful apples and I wanted to grab them. I quickly assured Ethan that his hands would be ok, then grabbed the double stroller, Elly and Liam in tow and crossed the street. We chatted with the man briefly before purchasing the apples and walking the 20 feet back to Andy as he scurried about packing up. At this time, most the vendors on Main Street were already gone and the police officer directing traffic was very close to opening up the street for cars. The urgency was palpable and everyone left packing was doing so in direct-focused haste.
Suddenly I was stricken in my gut the way a mother just KNOWS something is wrong. Andy brushed by me. "Hey," I said. "Where's Ethan?"
Expecting Andy to point to someplace I couldn't see, my heart began to pound when he stopped short and looked at me wide-eyed. "He wasn't with you?"
"No!" I parked the stroller and instructed Elly to stand by Liam and guard the turkey and apples. I walked about our immediate space and found nothing. I called his name and heard no response. I watched Andy run halfway up the block weaving in and out of the few remaining vendors' cars and piles of goods. Ethan was no where to be seen.
It was at this point that something in me started to work in slow motion. I began having thoughts about life without Ethan and other extreme ideas of what happened to him. I noticed silly things going on about me, like the fact that the Hmong family selling pumpkins down the street still hadn't picked up their tarp and the police officer was doodling something in his notebook. One of the vendors had some similar aged children running around down the block and every time I heard them laugh, my stomach tightened. It was like torture hearing the sound of a carefree child when my own was missing and who knows what was happening to him right then.
Andy disappeared into a corner store and I walked over to the policeman to describe what my son had been wearing that day. He began taking notes feverishly and grabbed his walkie-talkie to call in the description. I vaguely wondered how I would be able to drive home that day with Ethan's carseat empty. Would Andy and I divorce over this because I'd heard somewhere that couples frequently divorce after the loss of a child. In a daze, I turned back to see Elly, fully aware that her brother was missing, staring down the street calling his name. I needed to be calm for her. I needed to be calm for the police officer. I needed to be calm for Andy. Andy, unbeknownst to me at the time, was in a dark, dark place. He told me later that he was preparing himself to do anything necessary to get Ethan back. He thought our boy had been kidnapped.
As the police officer clicked on his walkie-talkie, I saw a woman walking briskly toward Main Street from around the corner. Holding her hand was a very upset and confused Ethan. I gasped, "Oh there he is!" and ran the thirty feet to cover the distance between myself and my son. I thanked the woman profusely and grabbed Ethan to my chest, expressing to him how crazy it was for him to run away. He was trying to talk in his halting, two-year-old speech, so I quieted down. "Me not find you, Mommy! I fell down and me not find you!"
I looked up at the woman and asked her where she found him. She said he was a block and a half away, darting through a parking lot when she rushed over to him. "He nearly got ran over," she ended, with a stern tone in her voice that edged on chastisement. Andy came up just then, within earshot of the explanation and just grabbed Ethan to his body and held him close. The lady headed back down the street, calling back, "You need to keep a very close eye on that one!"
Now, really. Did I need to hear that? I'm thankful beyond words that she had the presence of mind to look for Ethan's parents at the nearly finished farmer's market. I'm blessed beyond reason that the person who found our innocent little boy had no ill intent for him. And of course, I'm beating myself up for losing him in the first place. Ethan was not satisfied with my hurried response to his painful fall. When I ran across the street for those apples, I assumed he'd stay put by Andy. He assumed I went back to the car with Elly and Liam. Wanting only his momma to salve his hurting hands, he wandered down the very sidewalk our family had traversed only hours before. Somehow he had a homing sense where the car was parked because he was found within 20 feet of our vehicle.
We finished packing up that afternoon and went about our day as usual, visiting a park and keeping a close watch on the little ones as they played. It looked normal, but hovering over Andrew and I was this solemn sense of near loss. What is a child worth? How can he be replaced?
|The day we lost, and regained Ethan
As Ethan took his turn on the teeter totter, my thoughts wandered to Abraham in the Bible. He waited nearly his whole life to have a promise from God fulfilled: a son. When he finally got this son, Isaac was the most precious to Abraham on earth. When the boy was still young, God asked Abraham to sacrifice the him on an alter (a common practice of the time, though never with people, only very fine animals). God gave him this boy and now he was asking for him back. We aren't given a view on the psychological impact this had on Abraham, or if he wrestled with the idea before going through with it. But if he was human, and he was, I know he struggled with placing God before his family. Here was this promised son. A gift from God standing before his father, innocently helping gather the sticks that would ignite the very fire of his death. What was going through Abraham's mind? Was he saying, "Your will be done," or "I don't understand your ways, but I trust you God?" In the end, God interceeded and gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead of his boy, telling Abraham that he now knew he was "all in" for God.
Is that what I was saying in those minutes-like-hours that Ethan was missing? I'd like to say I felt that odd peace about me as we searched the empty streets. But I don't know if I even thought about it. Later, Ethan safe within our home, I thought long and hard about it. Is my family more important than God? Just like our van, our material possessions, God can take away our family members in an instant as well. And once that is gone? What is left? Who is left?
Only the One who matters most of all.
That night, I had a very specific dream in which the farm (Foxwood Farm, still in my parents' possession) got destroyed by a supernatural storm. During the storm, the kids, Andy and my mom and dad cowered in the basement of the farmhouse. The dream was significant, though, because when we saw the storm coming, we headed for the shelter of the basement, but couldn't get down the steps because the entry was blocked by boxes and boxes of Andy's and my stuff! We couldn't enter the house or the basement because piled from floor to ceiling and several yards wide were boxes labeled "Dishes," "Clothes," "Books," "DVDs," etc. Eventually, as the tornado drew close, Andy and I literally tore through the boxes, whipping them this way and that, clearing a path to the safety of the basement and joined our kids with their grandma. As the storm ripped apart the buildings that had stood for 100 years, I remember distinctly thinking, "Whatever, at least we're safe!" At the end of the dream, we drove away from the destruction and aftermath, every single item on the farm utterly demolished, and me thanking God for the blessing of every member of my family completely unscathed. This is significant because I've had an unnatural amount of dreams involving the home farm since we left last August and all of them were lamenting the loss of it. For the first time, I didn't give a damn about that farm.
I told Andy the dream on the way to church the next morning and reiterated that I felt strongly about selling off our things. He again agreed that it would be wise. The message that morning was on the Prodigal Son and the brother that stayed loyal to the father. Our pastor talked about the father's reaction when the Prodigal returned home, how he ran to meet him (totally taboo in that culture for the patriarch to run anywhere, for anything), how the father sheltered him from a culturally deserved stoning by running to reach the son before anyone in the town did, how the father knew his son had returned because he had been diligently watching for him to come home. All these things spoke to a parents' heart, especially after the incident the day before. I scooped up Ethan from the nursery after church and just reveled in his chatter about all the toys he'd played with during service. How precious you are, Dear Ethan, that we would run to meet you after you ran away. How fleeting a time we have together before life takes us parting ways.
The following week, Andy and I met with our spiritual mentor just to catch up and we ran this idea of selling off our possessions to her. She received it with much thought and prayer, like she normally does, and found the idea to be totally inline with God's Word. In a spiritual sense, we were unshackling from the material things that distract us in this world. In a physical sense, we were liquidating what we had in order to be responsible adults and pay off our debts. There it was. All laid out before us.
Four Saturdays after the van got smashed and Andy and I declared that we would sell off most of what we own and begin living anew for life in its fullest.
And that's where you find me now. Within the next week, we're heading over to the storage unit to find a few items that we need for the winter, the title to the smashed van and then to sort through a 10x20' space filled with stuff. It's just stuff. Of course it holds value, but it's the sort of value that can be transferred. We'll decide what we want to keep, section off the items that have long family history, and then, with trembling liberation, get rid of it all!
On the Fifth Saturday after the van got smashed we'll hopefully have a clear idea of what it is we can part with and what we can keep. Because now, we know without doubt, what truly matters to us in this world.