We try so hard as Christians. We think such long thoughts, manipulate such long words, and both listen to and preach such long sermons. Each one of us somewhere, somehow, has known, if only for a moment or so, something of what it is to feel the shattering love of God, and once that has happened, we can never rest easy again for trying somehow to set that love forth not only in words, myriads of words, but in our lives themselves. And when, as must always happen, we sometimes give up this trying either because for a moment it seems unreal or because we are tired or bored or because we forget or choose to forget, we cannot even enjoy our moment’s release for the sense of failure that chokes us. This is of course as it should be. Fruitless and destructive as so much of our trying must always be, and tormented as we are by knowing this and by beholding the shallowness and duplicity of our motives, we have scarcely any choice but to go on trying no matter what, and there is much that is beautiful and brave and true about it. Yet we must remember this other word too: “Unless you turn and become like children. . . .”
-Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
The morning was uncurling, the fingers of dawn loosening their grip on the blanket of dark covering the night sky. I was in the woods near my home walking softly through the undergrowth checking out the damage from Tuesday’s microburst. So many stately trees, evergreens and hardwoods, felled by the sudden fury of an afternoon storm! An upended circle of roots caked in red dirt cast an umbrella-shaped shadow on the patch of ground near my feet, and I moved closer to examine the tangled life support of this elder of the forest. As I did, a formation of brown-grey house sparrows divebombed me, frantically warning me, “Watch out! You’re about to step in our home!” A weave of sticks, dry grasses, and crisp brown leaves lay at my feet camouflaged by the golden heads of ragweed dipping protectively over the nest flung from the branches of the falling tree. Fascinated by this little teacup of a home, I pictured a season of care and nurture and love that shaped this family of creatures that fill a summer sky with chirps, chatter, and churrs. How delighted God must be with these flying soloists, I imagined! Scripture tells us that not a single one falls without His notice.
When I was young I used to comb the shelves of my second home – the public library – for old books. One Saturday I found a dusty book nestled on a lower shelf in the young adult section entitled, Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties. It was a book for boys written in 1914, and it gave them step-by-step instructions for building a tree house. In order to build a tree house that would withstand the summer blows and winter storms, a boy had to allow for the movement of tree trunks. A good tree house, the author pointed out, helped a boy to realize that there was another life possible for him. I wanted that possibility, too, so I took the book to the check-out counter only to be stopped in my tracks by the disapproving glare of the librarian. “You do know that this book is for boys?” she sniffed. “Why would you even think of reading it?” “Because I want to build a roof over the treehouse in the apple orchard near my home,” I replied. We neighborhood children had stumbled on this half-built structure years earlier and over time did an amateurish “extreme makeover” of the flimsy structure that involved a lot of hammering and sawing that spoke volumes about the love we invested in a house we used as a base for spying on the man who tended the orchard. Little did we realize that our mothers, who claimed to have eyes in the backs of their heads, also had the miraculous ability to see through clouds of sawdust as they watched our top secret comings and goings. I imagine God was pleased to play second fiddle to our mothers in keeping an eye on us!
I watch the children in our neighborhood work together to build palace out of cardboard for the dwarf hamsters my grandchildren have named and tamed. Standing in the doorway, I can see that they are a rambunctious group of friends who are growing up in homes in a world of hammers and saws, drills and tape measures, duct tape and hot glue. They are eager students in a makeshift classroom that began at their fathers’ and mothers’ elbows, a classroom filled with unspoken expectations that a house without love is not a home.
Later that evening I notice that one of the hamsters, Nibbles, has gone AWOL. His paper bedding-filled cardboard palace criss-crossed with plastic tubes and branches is empty. I send an SOS text to my grandchildren’s GIZMO watches, and they run downstairs to help us search every nook and cranny of my office for the missing hamster. No luck! Hours later two grief-stricken children head upstairs. The older grandchild channels her grief by facetiming her best friend who is a fan of Nibbles. The other grandchild buries his sorrow by penning a blog, “When I Lost Nibbles”. He recounts the details of the day and imagines a scenario where Nibbles makes her break for freedom. “On Monday when I was done with my homework we put Nibbles back in her cage. When my friend closed the door, the tube SNAPPED! off the cage. Nibbles went to the tube and she fell out of the cage and onto the table. Then she jumped onto the floor and survived the fall.”
That night my husband and I hear both grandchildren crying themselves to sleep. Heartsick, I place a bowl of hamster food and treats near the door of the cardboard palace hoping to entice a hungry pet home. The struggle to answer a stream of unanswerable questions over the next few days quickly wears on me. When, hallelujah!, three days later, my husband eyeballs a frightened Nibbles scurrying across our bathroom floor, we label the find a miracle. My grandson writes, “Wednesday we found Nibbles, but we will get back to that later. So it was my mom, dad, grandma, Ingrid, and me who were sleeping. My grandpa was watching TV, and he got up to go to the restroom. When he found Nibbles he threw a towel over her and picked her up and put her back in her cage. The next morning I woke up and my sister told me that Grandpa found Nibbles in the middle of the night. I WAS SO EXCITED TO HAVE NIBBLES BACK!!!!!!!!!!!”
Everyone who has ever “built” a house – cardboard, wood scraps, or bits of twigs and pinestraw – knows that there is no blueprint for the love that transforms a structure, flimsy or well-built, into a home. More than skill, more than grit, more than determination, builders of all ages must believe that hearts leaning into one another to create a home, a bit of heaven on earth for the weary ones – winged, four legged, and two legged – is an act of the highest love. It is an act that lifts the other and affirms the worthiness, the belovedness of that one. I watched the young builders of Nibbles’ cardboard palace, and discovered that the words of the prophet are true; there is something so beautiful, so brave, so true about caring deeply about working together to “home” a lost creature. Unable to hold back their joy, the neighborhood children danced around the room, clapping, laughing, high-fiving each other. Standing in the doorway, I imagine the God who makes his home in every heart, cradle an exhausted furry explorer, and with a twinkle in his eyes, caution the giggling, overjoyed children, “Watch out! You’re about to step in our home!”
Rev. Dr. Rindy Trouteaud, retired Presbyterian Minister
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