I would offer now a story of ‘making room’ — one where God is working God’s wonders again and again. And again.
A few years back, Dean, a long faithful member of our congregation who was then in his late 90’s, gave us his house. He no longer had need of it as he had moved to assisted living. In this act of generosity, he was but the first to ‘make room.’ And the wonders have not yet ceased.
Now the house was in good shape, although not much had been done to update it in some time. For that matter, even though he no longer lived in the house, it was not exactly empty. It took a team of kind people to go through things and work with him to determine what was worth keeping for himself, what was worth leaving in the house, and what needed to be given away or discarded. After that task was completed, dozens more chipped in their time and their gifts to rehab the entire house, turning it into a home. It was named “The Blessing House,” hearkening back to Genesis 12:1-2 where Abram and Sari were likewise ‘blessed to be a blessing.’ For even then we anticipated this would be so. We decided the best use of the house would be to serve as housing for our intern. And it was so that the first year it served in exactly that way.
The second intern to move into the house decided early on that this was not the right time or place to spend a year with us here in DeKalb. As you can imagine, her decision was met with surprise and with grief, for First Lutheran Church has loved its interns. All this being so, by late September, this much loved and cared for house stood empty. We wondered for a moment if God’s wonders had ceased — at least in connection with this one ‘making room.’ It turns out, they had not.
For this is how it was. In late October, we experienced a tragedy in the fatal car accident of a staff member’s teen age daughter. Heartbroken, members of this congregation cast around for what we could ‘do’ to help in the short term. One among us said, “We have a fully furnished house. What if we were to let her extended family use it for as long as they need it?” Indeed, what if we ‘made room?’
And so we did.
The first night or two the place was full to overflowing and for the next week, the young woman’s grandmother from Iowa stayed on so as to be close. A few weeks later, I heard from her. After some initial reflections on their heartbreak, this is what she wrote. (The names referenced in this paragraph are those of her grandchildren. Her words are used with permission.)
“And now to “the house.” The first night there were seven of us staying. There was sleeping space for each of us and nourishment for us in the morning as we got ready for a most difficult day. We are so thankful for the welcoming accommodations. It wasn’t however, until I was alone in the house that I realized how very special it is. It wasn’t long before I knew I wasn’t staying in just a house – I was home. Even as I was struggling with grief and sadness, I was comforted most when I was in The Blessing House. It was there one evening I shared a pizza supper with my daughter, grandson, and granddaughter. It was there I spent several hours alone one afternoon with Joanna while she swung her leg over the arm of the chair as we talked about some things important, some things not. It was there I spent part of a day alone with Jonathan while he sat in that same chair, his long legs hanging over the arm as we talked with ease about some things important, some things not. It was in The Blessing House that when I was alone, I was not alone. All around me there was comfort and peace. In the home with its bare walls and my lack of many personal belongings, I felt more at home than I do where I live with all that is mine. I was alive in The Blessing House. For me it was a sacred place and I am almost homesick for it.”
I imagine you have experienced this as well — that in the wake of tragedy a whole lot of things which seemed so important before now become mostly irrelevant. And then beyond our imagining we find it to be so that even in the emptiness that follows, where room has been made, even against our will, somehow God finds a way to work God’s wonders.
And oh, what gift it was to hear that this was so for a guest in our ‘Blessing House.’ That in the relative ’emptiness’ of a place which before those days was not ‘her own,’ God worked God’s wonders. Even in a place as unassuming as a house on 7th Street in DeKalb, Illinois.
Indeed, I am reminded through her words that Jesus comes, that Jesus always comes, where ‘room is made.’
But that was not the end of the story. For you see, since November, the house has continued to be used. Twice it has been opened to host members of extended families of congregation members who traveled in for their loved ones’ funerals.
And then this.
Three weeks ago I found myself making repeated calls on someone in the hospital. I was serving as volunteer chaplain and so it was that I walked in as a stranger that first day. The man in the bed was gravely ill. His wife sat weeping in the chair by the window. I sat down next to her and she told me the story of his struggle with cancer. Of how the options were running out. I listened long. We prayed hard. I went back the next day and the day after that. She told me he was moving to a nearby nursing home. I meant to see him there, but before I could, I ran into her in the hospital hallway again, for he had been re-admitted, sicker than ever.
Now this is so. Their home is half an hour away. Day after day, night after night, she was making the drive, often in the dark, in the middle of December, in Northern Illinois. Anyone paying attention could see it was taking a terrible toll.
So last week I went to our church council and asked if we could open the house for them. To my surprise, they didn’t hesitate for even a moment. “Open up the house,” I was directed. It turns out that in one way or another many at the table had lived what our soon-to-be-guest and her family are now experiencing. They didn’t have to “know” them to know this. They didn’t have to even meet them to want to show kindness to them.
And so the next day we met her there and gave her a key to the house. And today, even as I write, their son and his two brothers have traveled to be here as well. They have comfortable beds and a place to share a meal, and space to gather in when they are not keeping vigil at his bedside. More than once his wife has marveled, “And to think you would do this for a ‘stranger off the street.'” And oh, but don’t I wonder now what other ‘stranger’ God might call us to make room for … Indeed, I wonder where God’s wonders will be experienced next…
- Sometimes it is so that on its own life ‘makes room’ in our hearts. Like in the wake of a tragic death or n the midst of the illness of a loved one.
- And God is able to work unimaginable wonders.
- And sometimes it is so that separately and together we are called upon to risk opening up spaces, making room first in our hearts, and then in what we have been given to share.
- And in doing so? Yes, God works wonders there as well.
I don’t know what ‘Making Room’ this Christmas means to you and those you love and those you serve. I do know that this is our call not only at Christmas, but all through the year:
- To pray that we are able to allow our hearts, when wrenched open, to be softened by love and by hope.
- To do all we can to be open to the presence of Christ in unexpected places.
- And to make room for that ‘presence’ whenever and wherever possible.
For this was so. A manger in an unassuming place so long ago was ’empty’ and open to receiving the most powerful wonder of God ever given. Ever received. Room was made. And Jesus was born.
- So what might it mean to make room in the mangers of our hearts this year?
- For the sick or the suffering?
- For the lonely or the grief-stricken?
- For the hungry, the homeless, for those seeking new lives wherever that may be so and whatever human drawn borders are crossed?
- For ones familiar and ones you have not yet met?
Oh, what might it mean to see these one and all as the Christ child seeking a place to be born? In you? In me? In all of us together?
Indeed, what might it mean in this way for you, for me, for all of us together to experience God’s wonders again and again?
- My prayer for you and for all of us together is that we might find ways to ‘make room.’
- And that in ‘making room’ the Christ child might be born anew.
- For your sake, for our sake, for the sake of the whole world.
This is how
Pay It Forward House began. There is a need.
So many times your stories touch my heart. I thank you for the words you share and the courage to share them. They mean a great deal to me, someone who walked by you as we studied together but really didn’t know each other.
Thanks, Michael. God Bless you at Christmas and in the year to come!
I am reading this latest entry in “Dancing with the Word” on Christmas Eve between services at the church in Geneva where I am serving as vicar. I’m so glad to hear that Blessing House continues to be a blessing for all who have need of it. I look forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ child in my home congregation tomorrow morning.
God bless you, Denise! See you tomorrow!
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