From the time I was a little girl, all elbows and ears, I imagined myself living in a two-story house one day, pure white, no shutters, and with a wide porch. I spent hours curving my blunt-tipped scissors around pages of the fat JCPenney catalog, clipping out handsome husbands; wives with thick, beautiful hair; a few sweet-faced children; bathroom towel sets in shades of sea-foam and jade; couches and electronics and cozy braided rugs. All of it belonged in my make-believe farmhouse, rooted snugly in my make-believe future.
Across my teenage years and into the start of adulthood and marriage, through a big-city stint in Washington, D.C., even after the purchase of our first home on a small-town corner lot, that elusive white farmhouse was tacked in my mind. It was the end goal—the hazy would-be trophy of my eventual success.
Our oyster year was 2007. There we stood with the keys to our dream in hand, an income we could never have imagined, the reputations that come with high-profile jobs, and the good fortune of two precious children grafted into our hearts through the surprise of adoption.
We were at the top of our game. Responsible. Stable and secure. Well-connected and admired. We were happy. We were living the dream.
Life on the farm was respite care, a sanctuary for being still and beginning to know just how loved we were. Those years were still waters and overflowing cups. They were centering years, grounding Cory and I and our unexpected, beautiful little family. They were healing years, following a time just a few years before when we weren’t sure our marriage would survive.
They were useful years . . . right up to the time they weren’t.
Are We Dreaming the Right Dream?
I am a daughter of the evangelical ‘80s and ‘90s, when good girls like me were nourished with a steady diet of Christian everything, church three times a week, and a universal ban on television shows even hinting at mysticism or sassy talk. On this regimen, spiritual health and wholeness were all but guaranteed.
Though I was denied both Rainbow Brite and Papa Smurf, my childhood mostly clocked undeniable perks. I grew strong and steady under a canopy of spiritual vigilance and concern. I was safe. I was loved. After graduating from the requisite Christian liberal arts college and marrying an exemplary Christian man, the remaining plot points of Christian adulthood were clear: a future gleaming with security and serenity and just enough of the trappings of success to make it obvious we were blessed.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to parse how these messages sifted through decades of ordinary life, becoming the priorities we would one day shove into our pockets for the journey. Like raindrops on rock, the unspoken climate of our youth had shaped us over time. Warnings about rules and sins, blessings and curses, were the undercurrent, pulling us toward the virtue of valuing safety and stability—never slowing enough for us to notice that our measuring sticks only extended as far as others who were just like us.
Right there, on our little patch of paradise, restlessness began its slow simmer. We began to wonder why the fulfillment we felt overachieving our dreams seemed to have capped off. We began to wonder if perhaps we had missed something. With a spiritual desperation our lips had never tasted, we were on the hunt for truth.
Boxing up Our “Good Christian Life”
These words from Jesus hit like a two-by-four across the face of everything we thought we knew: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
Jesus didn’t prize the tenets of the faith that had raised me. In fact, his life on earth went completely counter to the goals I’d developed for living a “good Christian life.” Jesus ditch-dived. He walked his dusty feet straight into the gutters around him and then he just stayed.
Jesus wasn’t calling me to acquire and self-protect. He was locking eyes with me and inviting me to let go.
The trajectory of our life turned incrementally, juxtaposed against the wild thumping of our wimpy, risk-averse hearts. One degree at a time, defying the breakneck pace of the culture we secretly adored, we shifted away from what we had always wanted and toward the life were created to live. Eventually we boxed up our lives and moved to a forgotten neighborhood in the city.
Painful, Beautiful Unlearning
There’s a popular Christian saying: “The safest place is at the center of God’s will.” (It’s possible I wore it emblazoned on a T-shirt at some point during my zealous teenage years.) While I cannot argue the truth of the words, I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to understand “safe” is a matter of perspective. It turns out, in the upside-down kingdom of heaven, security isn’t dealt in crime-free zip codes, blue-ribbon schools, or homogenous church communities where we fit right in. I had learned it all backwards, and the process of unlearning continues to be the fight of my life.
Today, I bear a few more scars; some self-inflicted, others the contact burns of standing near lives that are constantly on fire. Most of the money is gone, along with the farm and our dream of building a screened-in back porch onto its north side. I’ve given up on the idea of serenity, opting instead to simply relish the moments when it unexpectedly finds us. Together, my family is learning to draw closer to Christ as we walk toward pain rather than away from it.
But the hardest change rolls in like the tide here in the land of the broken-down living, where the streets and homes and humans around me rise up as a mirror, and I’m left staring down my own humanity as I bear witness to theirs.
I’m realizing that I’m prone to lording my authority and selfishly taking whatever I can get, forgetting what it might cost someone else. I’m content to pitch my tent in shame and settle for less than what I’ve been called to. My soul loses its home sometimes. I isolate and withdraw. I believe I’m an outcast at times, and my heart lives as if it is true.
I’m chain-link and wild phlox, the best of me getting tangled in the worst, but growing anyway. I’m battle-scarred and locked up. I’m beginning to see the vulnerable beauty of throwing all my garbage smack dab on the porch, where everyone can see it and the ladies can whisper if they want to.
It is profoundly humbling to walk with God into hard places while continually discovering how incapable we are without him, how prone we are to keep reaching back for the idols of middle class, American Christianity that once made us feel so capable and godly.
But the flip-side is all beauty, and it’s impossible to miss. God chooses to partner with us despite the mess we lug around. He invites us to his wide table, where we’re seated next to folks so cracked and worn down that they cannot help but reflect his goodness. With any luck at all, they might say the same of us. In this kingdom, where heaven rescues earth, God’s “more” often looks like “less.” We share full access to a life that leans hard into risk, where safety means ditching our nets and treasure never rusts.
It is all the security, all the peace, all the status we’ll ever need.
Shannan Martin is the author of the forthcoming book Falling Free (September 2016, Thomas Nelson). Known for her popular blog ShannanMartinWrites.com (formerly Flower Patch Farmgirl), Shannan is a speaker and writer who found her voice in the country and her story in the city. She and her jail-chaplain husband, Cory, have four funny children who came to them across oceans and rivers. Having sold their dream farmhouse, they now enjoy neighborhood life in Goshen, Indiana. For more information on how to purchase Falling Free, please visit http://www.fallingfreebook.com/