South Street-Smart: An Urban Ministry Education

While serving in a local urban ministry, I first tried to get to know the kids on an individual basis, laboring to wade through their Ebonics enough to discover their grade level, the nature of their home life, and their interests. I realized how far behind they were in school. The place was teeming with fourth graders who could barely add and subtract, let alone recall multiplication facts they’d obviously never memorized. Their reading comprehension was lamentable: many could read the words aloud but had no idea what the text said. And their homework didn’t require them to do anything more. Often the assignments only called for copying a definition from the textbook onto a worksheet. I was saddened, surprised, and overwhelmed by the pressing and formidable needs. But that was just the beginning of what I learned from my first six months in urban ministry.

Working with Others

In our non-traditional fellowship, we’re used to doing ministry a certain way. So when I joined forces with Jere and Cynethia, from suburbia and the ghetto, respectively, I was in for an education.

Jere, a retiree and fundie, emphasized the Ten Commandments at every opportunity. His teachings meandered mostly through the Old Testament and invariably put the kids to sleep. But I also learned that he meant well, loved the kids, and was earnestly trying to help them. For example, he knew where each kid lived and took them Christmas boxes of food and gifts, carefully taking mental notes about the family situation of each child. His insight into their lives, though limited, was invaluable as we learned to serve kids who acted out as a result of the brokenness, poverty, and chaos of their home lives.

Then there was Cynethia, a convert who left behind her immoral street life for Christ. Between cigarette breaks on the porch, she kept it real with the kids, offering a model of effective disciplinary practices which I sometimes resented but later strove to imitate. She liked to lecture them about not cleaning up after themselves and how it was wrong to swear, but she had a soft spot for them too. Despite all her admonitions that they should do good for God and not for a reward, she couldn’t help but slip an extra treat into the lunch bag of whoever took out the trash.

While the two volutneers seemed worlds apart, they were united when it came to the after school program. They ran a calm, well-ordered two hours that always included a song and a lecture about what I considered tangential issues. I rediscovered the value of musical worship for kids, who learn more than you’d think from those corny worship songs. I didn’t agree with how rigid they were with the kids, but I knew I was in no place to say anything as a volunteer on their territory.

Flying Solo

Then we set up our Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I learned what a blessing it was to have others there with a style that, however different from ours, achieved structure and discipline that was enviable. The kids had their bad days with Jere and Cynethia, too, so it wasn’t just us, but we definitely didn’t have the experience or know-how to keep things running as smoothly as they did. It was so hard to keep them busy and productive, especially when we didn’t have songs and lectures to take up time. We had a plethora of volunteers (at least to start) but we still didn’t know how to dig deeper into the chaos and heartache of their home lives. And we suspected the kids kept lying about their homework because they’d much rather play, so they weren’t getting the academic help they so desperately needed to break the poverty cycle.

Suddenly I appreciated the dull calm of Mr. Jere. As I frantically “organized” the food donations, teaching rotation, and volunteer schedule, I saw just how much it took to run the program. And as I taught the kids, I realized just how hard it was to hold their attention, even with all sorts of gimmicky jokes and interactions. Slowly but surely, we are learning how to tailor the teaching for our squirmy, elementary audience. We are learning to send kids home when they’ve gone too far. We’re learning to keep asking questions even when the kids are more interested in the Jimmy Neutron computer game or fourth grade gossip than they are in talking to us. We are learning how to address different disciplinary issues in appropriate ways, whether they make a mess or get caught in a lie.

We are learning the importance of vision, compassion, and how hard it is to cross even the smallest cultural barrier. I’m finding out just how much I have to learn, that I’m more tribal than I thought, and that I worry too much and don’t pray nearly enough. I’m learning that teaching high school kids only partly prepared me to work with elementary kids. I’m even learning how sacred and precious my marriage is. They kids look at my husband and me with wonder. They forcibly lead us to hold hands. They marvel at the fact that two young people would want to marry. Their parents are not married; their teenage sisters are pregnant. Their fathers are often absent, perhaps in and out of jail. Many are related to each other through the complicated web of sexual relations their parents wove. But from serving these broken children, we have a world to learn.

Compassion

Yanika* is nine years old, but she’s shorter than the other girls her age. She talks with a speech impediment, which is made worse by her crowded, crooked mouthful of teeth which jut out in every direction, yet will never taste the metal of braces. Her clothes always look dirty, as if she’d been playing in dirt all day instead of sitting at a desk in school. She is the youngest of eight kids from several different fathers.

She eats her snack, alone in the middle of a second-hand couch, while the other girls color at the table.

“Yanika , don’t you want to go color?”

“I don’t want to sit with those girls,” she gushes through a mouthful of animal crackers.
The crumbs fall on her dirty, too-short jeans.
“Why not?”

“They’re mean. They told Marcus they wouldn’t listen to his announcement,” she referred to a brown-nosing but good-hearted boy who wanted to tell the kids I brought a treat for his birthday.

I smiled at her demonstration of loyalty. “I’m sorry they did that. But they won’t be mean to you with those volunteers over there.”

“I know they don’t like me. I know they talk about me behind my back. They’re not nice.”

My heart went out to her. I didn’t doubt her suspicions of the other girls, who tried to be cool in typical fourth-grade fashion: putting others down, gossiping, and wearing trendy clothes they would lament later when perusing childhood photos.

“They just think they’re cooler than they really are,” I sympathized.

“Yeah,” she concurred, sending a shower of crumbs onto the couch.

“But you should still do the right thing and forgive them. And you should be able to color with them if you want to. It doesn’t mater what they think of you.” I’m sure it did matter to her, terribly so. Her mom was addicted to crack. Her dad was only an occasional character in the sob story that was her life. She was mostly cared for by two of her teenage sisters, but they were both pregnant, so she would probably receive less and less attention over time, even as she needed more help and love. Maybe the after school program was the only place where she would experience the stable, confident love she needed so badly. And these stupid little girls had to be mean to her to boost their own esteem.

If I’d read about Yanika one year ago, I would have felt briefly irritated at the injustice of the situation. But I would have quickly dismissed it as yet another sad story of kids suffering for their parents’ mistakes.

Now that the story has been lived out before me, I feel compassion in a new way. I still blame her parents, the mean girls, and the harsh world. But I also blame myself. I have the opportunity to show her that I care, to help her succeed in school, and to teach her about God’s impartial love. If Yanika isn’t loved, it is at least partly my fault. I can’t fix her life, but I can try to help. God has called us to be kind to the poor and He will give us the necessary power to obey His call.

Gratitude

On the surface Lacrishia and Shantaya look like any other girls their age. Their clothes are clean and often fashionable. They come into the “Upper Room” each day with a bag of hot fries fresh from the corner store. They talk about Hannah Montana and tease each other about their “boyfriends.” They mention both their parents in conversation.

As I chat with them while they snack on a mixture of hot fries and pretzels, I realize there is more to their lives than first appears.

“My tooth hurts,” Lacrishia announces as she digs around her molar to extract chewed-up pretzels.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.

She pulls back her cheek to reveal an abscessed tooth, with the puffy pink gum bulging around it.

“Ouch, that looks painful! Does it hurt?”

“Yeah, it hurts a lot.”

“Are you going to go to the dentist?”

“I was supposed to go last Thursday, but then my auntie had to borrow the car for my cousin’s court date so my mom couldn’t drive me.”

“Oh. So are you going to get a new appointment?”

“Yeah, but my mom’s gotta wait to get paid because she doesn’t think the insurance covers it, and this paycheck’s gotta go to rent, so I gotta wait like three more weeks.”

I marveled at her awareness of the details of her family’s financial life, which I was completely unaware of at that age. Lacrishia’s math skills were grade levels behind, but she already knew the arithmetic of the ‘hood: this paycheck goes to rent, and the next one goes to the most pressing needs. Her nonchalance at having to wait for pain relief also surprised me. When I was growing up, if something hurt, I went to the doctor within a day and got treatment. On my own now, I still waltzed into the dentist or doctor’s office, handed over my insurance card, and let someone else foot the bill. I didn’t think twice about how lucky I was to have good benefits. Instead I complained that I couldn’t go to any doctor I wanted because we signed up for the limited PPO.

Shantaya veered the conversation from Lacrishia’s tooth. “Are you coming over tonight?” she wondered to Lacrishia, who lives down the street from her apartment.

“Yeah.”

“Do you eat dinner when you get home?” I asked as I watched them devour hot fries and pretzels.

“No, we don’t have dinner,” Shantaya said.

“You need it, girl,” Lacrishia said, gripping Shantaya ’s tiny arm. If she was a teenager, you’d assume she was anorexic. At ten, she just looked unusually skinny, perhaps sickly.

Whether she was skinny or not, she needed more than corner-store snacks for dinner. I couldn’t imagine not having dinner. My mom always had a relatively well-rounded supper on the table by 5:30 p.m. and, despite the fact that there were five of us kids, there was always plenty to eat. Even if it was leftovers, she always added veggies and fruit to round out the meal. Growing up I thought supper time was stressful, as we were likely to fight with each other and get “put on silence,” or spill milk and get yelled at. But looking back I knew the family time was well-spent. I discovered that dinner was another basic necessity I took for granted. God had blessed me beyond what I realized until now. I didn’t deserve a comfortable upbringing any more than these girls, but I got it anyway.

Mission

Mission sounds so lofty, like those statements the elders get together to dream up and then print on the church bulletins. But mission became as much of a staple as bread and bologna at South Street. It all boiled down to the deceptively simple question of “What are we doing here?” It turned out not to be so simple after all.

One month after we starting running two days ourselves, workers were beginning to wonder what our purpose was at South Street. Some volunteers thought we were there to mentor the kids, and felt frustrated by how slowly they were getting to know the kids.

“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to get close to them when I only see them once a week for two hours,” one worker wondered.

It turned out that we didn’t have to decide how close to get to the kids. That was up to them. Some kids would pour out their pitiful home lives to you with the smallest prompting; others answered to direct questions vaguely, perhaps describing home as “annoying” and nothing more. We hope to establish mentoring relationships with those kids who seem most interested and responsive, but we’ll see what time brings.

Those who taught during the Bible time questioned what our goal was in that arena. We were using a curriculum designed for hour-long children’s church classes. It traced “God’s Incredible Plan” from creation to Christ, showing how the Old Testament stories paved the way for the gospel message.

“It’s a great curriculum. I came out of Sunday school knowing little bits and pieces of the story, but never understanding what Noah or Abraham had to do with God’s plan,” I gushed to people when we were choosing the curriculum.

But it turned out to be more difficult than we expected, especially since many of the kids didn’t know the stories in the first place. We were trying to cram a Bible story, personal application, and big-picture perspective into every teaching, along with activities and questions to keep the kids engaged. It was going over their heads, and they were losing attention as a result.

So we decided to aim for fifteen minute teachings, including only the story and one main point. For example, with Adam and Eve we taught them that God gave us free will. In other cases we emphasize applications like forgiveness, grace, and asking for salvation.

Then there was homework. The kids were so behind, but often lied about not having homework. What was our role? We went to more experienced urban ministry workers from a different ministry to get their input.

“It’s an after school tutoring program, so they have to do homework,” they reasoned. “If they really don’t have any, have them work on another academic skill, like flash cards or reading.”

We tried to implement this suggestion as well as we could. Sometimes it worked. Other times, the kids outnumbered volunteers by four to one and it was nearly impossible to enforce since it wasn’t school, after all. We bribed them with candy, pizza, and gold stars; we threatened with loss of privileges and kicking them out. One day when we were short on workers and patience, the founder and leader of the ministry walked into the room while the kids were screaming answers at the top of their lungs. Grouped around a high school volunteer who was flashing math fact cards at them, they were technically practicing academic skills, but I shuddered to think how the situation might look to him.

In the end, we decided to emphasize school work and reward completed homework, trying to target areas of need as best we could in our short and busy weekly time there.

We never came up with a vision statement, but our unspoken commitment was to God’s command to “be kind to the poor.” We wanted to do His will as effectively and strategically as possible, without ever losing sight of the compassion we were so quickly learning.

Humility

It was at South Street that I realized my teaching experience had little to do with serving urban kids. I was probably better off because of my background, but usually felt completely clueless when it came to this ministry. One of the biggest struggles for me was that I had no idea what I was doing.

During our two-week transition from supporting Jere to leading on our own, Cynethia lectured the kids severely about misbehaving for us after she left.

“They might be small,” she lectured, referring to my friend Sarah and me, “but they’re grown-ups and you have to listen to them.”

This made me feel terribly un-grown-up. And the kids were good, for a week or two. But then they started testing us. And maybe they weren’t even doing it on purpose. It was entirely possible that they were just rowdy and sick of sitting at school. Some were behaving badly because of stressful and emotional situations at home. Whatever their reasons, I quickly learned that I didn’t know as much about handling kids as I thought I did.

Teaching was a challenge, too. I was itching to give it a try since Jere was so bland. And the first couple times went pretty well. But on their worse days, when attention ran low and attitude was high, it felt nearly impossible to get through a simple story like Cain and Abel. In the midst of constantly reprimanding them, I could barely get out what I wanted to say.

Mark, our most experienced and gifted teacher, also confronted the same difficulty in communicating God’s Word to the kids. “My effectiveness as a teacher is tied to how much I know about the audience,” he said, “and I’m realizing how little I know these kids. I don’t know what will catch their attention or make them laugh.”

“I can’t say one sentence without them getting distracted,” he continued. “We had to read the same verse three times because they weren’t listening or would forget what it said.”

As a result of these challenges, I started praying for the kids, the program, and the volunteers like I’d never prayed for them before. Even after the worst of days, when I felt like such a failure and just wanted to give up, I found myself imploring God for help, power, and wisdom. I finally understood what it meant to beg Him for souls as I beseeched Him to use our pathetic efforts to impact these kids and bring them into a saving relationship with Him. As I got before the Lord more frequently and intently, I found that it didn’t get any easier. But I was less fearful, more perseverant, and increasingly grateful for the opportunity God gave me. I was doing God’s will, learning new skills, depending on Him more, and growing in love for the kids of South Street. And the journey has just begun.

*The children’s names have been changed.

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

After a rather ungrateful day yesterday, I thought I’d look back to my notes on Keith and Greg’s Labor Day East Harbor teaching. The following is adapted from their teaching, and it helps me get re-oriented when I get ungrateful.

If you’re like most people, you’ve settled into a life of tolerable misery. Joy seems unattainable, as far out of reach as the stars. You know that Christians should “rejoice in the Lord,” but you blame your temperament, your circumstances, or your relationships for your inability to experience joy. Life sucks, you reason, so pursuing a joyful life is futile. Depression or distraction is much easier.

If this is you, consider the possibility that deep-seated ingratitude, not your personality or situation, is what stands between you and a joyful Christian life. The enlightenment of gratitude can transform your relationship with God and other people. Your faith can grow, your character can change, and your relationships can be revolutionized if you are willing to cultivate a grateful heart.

Learning Real Faith
Gratitude is an important part of our faith. Colossians 2:7 says we should walk in Christ, “having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” We will become more grateful as we experience and acknowledge God’s goodness in our lives. Such gratitude will fertilize our faith as we learn to trust God more.

Tapping into the Power of God
As our faith increases, so will God’s power in our lives: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14). The growth cycle of faith and gratitude should spur us to express thankfulness to God for the victory He gives us. This is an important way of glorifying His power, not our own.

Practicing Stewardship
Showing gratitude is also a way of practicing stewardship. When we thank God, we acknowledge that all we have is His, which in turn motivates us to use these provisions for Him. In Colossians 3:15-17 the thankful attitude of stewardship is the refrain: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual sons, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” The words be thankful literally mean “show yourselves thankful.” A mature steward will not only feel thankful, but will also express thankfulness to God and others.

Attracting Others to Christ
Such a grateful attitude attracts others to Christ, which is why Paul tells the Colossians to pray “with an attitude of thanksgiving” before telling them to “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:2, 6). A thankful prayer life will empower us to draw others to God as His grace permeates our lives. When people see that we are thankful to God, from whom all good gifts come, they will want to know more about Him.

Experiencing the New Creature in Christ
Only as we learn to be grateful can we fully experience being a new creature in Christ. If we truly appreciate what God has done in freeing us from the power of sin and giving us a new life in Him, then we can present our whole selves to God to be used by Him (Romans 6:9, 11, 13). Presenting our bodies “a living and holy sacrifice” is the only logical response when we are grateful for our new freedom. We are guilty of a crime that requires the death penalty, but have been acquitted by a merciful Judge. Certainly gratitude and devotion are only natural reactions in this case.

Joy
A life of gratitude is a completely different existence than the ungrateful rebellion we are born into. It is characterized by qualities that are impossible to achieve or imitate without a grateful heart. When we realize that we deserve nothing, yet have been given much, an indescribable joy infuses our experiences. Suddenly, we look around and see that all that we have has been given to us, and we start to appreciate the provisions, abilities, and people we so often take for granted. Certainly this is cause to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Php. 4:4). Finally, we can stop worrying and whining and instead “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Php. 4:6).

Contentment
When we are grateful for everything God gives us, we develop a deep-seated contentment that no experience of temporary pleasures can bring. Paul says that he “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” (Php. 4:12) precisely because he could “rejoice in the Lord always,” no matter the situation. He saw God’s hand at work in the midst of shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment, and continually found cause to give thanks. Too often we adopt the American attitude instead of the biblical view, wishing our car was faster, our home bigger, our clothes nicer, and our technology newer. Our never-ending wish list will only be complete when we choose to be thankful and content for all that we have been blessed with.

Able to Freely Love and Serve
It’s only at this point of contentment that it’s possible for us to freely love and serve others. Once we are no longer consumed with our own desires, we can begin to sacrificially love. Paul urges that “entreaties and prayer, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). One of our first steps in loving others is to pray for them, giving thanks for their role in our lives, for the opportunity to serve them, for the vision God has for them…the list could go on and on because there is so much to be thankful for! And our prayers for others should not be restricted to a close-knit circle of friends. Rather, our prayers should extend to “all men,” even those in other countries.

Edifying
Christ reminds us in Matthew 10:8 that “freely you received; freely give.” God’s love and grace come at no cost to us, so there’s no good reason not to share these riches with others. One good way to “freely give” is to “consider how to stimulate one another on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25). Let your friends know how much you admire their willingness to serve God, or their courage in taking a new step of faith. Such encouragement is edifying, motivating, and much-needed.

Hopeful
Gratitude gives us hope in the midst of sufferings, as we look forward to the perfect eternity God promises. When we realize that we deserve hell but have access to heaven instead, it makes sense to “greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). It is crucial that we learn to rejoice even in trials, so that we are ready “to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Expressing our gratitude for eternal life should begin here on earth, and it is this hope that allows us to rejoice always.

Direction
Even as the world threatens to destroy us, “we exult in hope of the glory of God … and we also exult in our tribulations,” because we know that God can use our situation to develop perseverance, proven character, and hope (Romans 5:2-4). Growing gratitude results in direction: we know God is transforming us in this life and will perfect us in the life to come. We have much to be grateful for in the Holy Spirit, who does this work within us and guides us in the truth (Romans 5:5, John 16:13).

Victory
As God completes his good work in us, we experience the victorious life of freedom from sin and a new ability to love: “thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin you became obedient from the heart…and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17,18). As humans, we are not capable of independent self-rule. By default, we are slaves to sin, but when we choose to come under God’s leadership instead, we are suddenly free to live a life of love. There couldn’t be a better cause to rejoice!

Answered Prayers
Gratitude can transform our prayer life as well. The old shopping-list approach to God can be replaced with a vibrant, pervasive gratitude that seeks to know more of God’s goodness while always giving thanks. The Bible says to “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2), and as we relate to God with this new attitude, we will begin to see life through God’s eyes. And as we pray according to His will, we will see more of our prayers answered.

Giving to God
Finally, only gratitude will enable us to give to God as we should. While He doesn’t need anything from us, He certainly deserves our praise. “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). Our praise is a sign that we know who He is and what He has done. So “praise the name of God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving, and it will please the Lord better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs” (Psalm 69:30, 31). God is more pleased with our thanksgiving than with token sacrifices or acts of duty. He made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross because He wants us—heart, mind, soul, and strength. And when we cultivate a grateful heart, we can know Him in the way He intended, both honoring Him and giving Him thanks.

Why I Never Want to Sacrifice Again

I like to think I sacrifice for God’s Kingdom. Whether it’s giving up a couple hours of sleep, driving someone to a Bible study, leaving my social comfort zone, or studying hard for a teaching, I like to think that the inconveniences I experience in ministry are quite sacrificial. This makes me feel like I’m doing something right; like I’m somehow really entering the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. I know I’ve got it pretty easy here in my middle-class American life, but I do suffer at least somewhat for God’s Kingdom. Or do I?

David Livingstone, an early missionary to Africa, boldly stated: “I never made a sacrifice.”

Come again?

When missionaries headed for Africa in Livingstone’s day, they packed their belongings in their coffins. They knew they’d serve there until death, which often arrived shortly after they did. Between encountering foreign diseases, trying to scrounge up basic supplies, living without the medical and scientific advancements of their homelands, and facing both corporeal and spiritual warfare, these missionaries seemed to sacrifice everything. Not to mention the regular hardships of ministry with which we’re familiar.

David Livingstone, missionary to Africa

At first his statement doesn’t make sense. Next it sounds like super-spiritual or motivational rhetoric. But then it echoes Paul’s words, when he called all the beatings, shipwrecking, and imprisonments “momentary light affliction.” It brings to mind how Paul considered all the status, prestige, and prerogatives of the world “rubbish” compared to suffering for Christ—and that while he was in prison!

Like Paul’s “eternal weight of glory,” Livingstone saw heaven as more than enough incentive for a little so-called “sacrifice” here on earth. “Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in…a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?” Good point: is it really a sacrifice when we’re going to be rewarded and glorified in an eternal future with our Father? Sounds more like a good investment to me.

Livingstone didn’t only look to the future, but also to the “healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, [and] peace of mind” that came during this life. God’s work is also the only way we gain true significance in this life and the next. I often share or teach about how fulfilling it is to have a purpose in life, but do I actually believe this? The question is settled by whether I see God’s work as a sacrifice or a privilege. The Almighty didn’t have to include us in His work. But because He has, we have the opportunity to change the landscape of eternity. What could be more significant than that?

Livingstone’s words, along with the examples of countless missionaries now and in the past, motivate me to “entrust [my] soul to the faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pet. 4:19). There is no reason to hold back if I believe that God is truly good. Maybe this attitude will take me to the missions field one day; for now I hope it revolutionizes my relationships with God, my friends who don’t know God, those I disciple, and my family. I want to be persecuted because of my privilege, not my sacrifice.

Single for a Week

I always said I wouldn’t marry. While friends fantasized about their future wedding days, I buried myself in Paradise Lost or Walden. But my reading was inevitably interrupted by giggly predictions like, “You’re going to be the first to get married, Kalie. You’re going to be like eighteen.”

They were only off by two years. At twenty I said my vows to Neil Brooks, whom I met in calculus on our second day of college.

Obviously I reconciled myself to the idea of matrimony by the time I accepted Neil’s proposal, but I like being married more than I ever expected. So when he left for business (and family) in Arizona, I knew it was going to be a long, hard week.

That turned out to be quite the understatement.

First, my best friend found out she finally got pregnant after trying for nine months. What a cause to rejoice! And we certainly did rejoice, and plot, and plan, and try to figure out what she’s not allowed to eat, and what she’s not allowed to do, and when she was due….It was fun, exciting, and joyful, but at the end of the day, I wished Neil was there to celebrate with me, too.

Then we almost bought a house. Right before Neil left, we saw a house with our realtor. We liked it, more than any other house we’d seen (which wasn’t actually very many). At the asking price, it seemed like a steal…a steal just out of our price range. But we figured we could offer less, so I looked at the house again with his brother and brother-in-law, who are both contractors.

That was the day it snowed eight inches. I hate driving in the snow. I don’t like driving to begin with and by the time it’s been snowing for twelve hours straight, I don’t even want to leave my house. How I wished Neil was there to whisk me around Northeast Ohio like he usually does! But alas, he was on a plane to sunny, 80-degree Arizona and it was all me.

The driveway of the house hadn’t been cleared all day, and we’d already had at least half a foot of that dreaded precipitation. After the realtor, Kim, and I were lectured by Neighbor A, who thought we somehow managed to drive over the foot-tall snow drift and park in his soil, Kim parked in a friendlier neighbor’s driveway and asked for a shovel. While Neighbor B and Kim shoveled, I searched for a parking spot in vain. Capitulating, I opted to slip in circles around Silver Lake until they finished. I held back tears, wishing I could just go home. Lee and Tony (said brother and brother-in-law) arrived and I, shaking and shaken from my slippery suburban sojourn, managed to get up the driveway.

Lee and Tony proceeded to inspect the place, admiring the remodeled kitchen and analyzing the attic, while I measured the finished portion of the basement (complete with a fireplace!), since we’re looking for a 300 square foot room to host a home church. Just as I wrote down the measurements and mentally calculated that it was probably perfect at 299-point-something, there was a knock on the door.

Who could it be? It was Realtor 2 with Prospective Buyers 2 and parents.

“We have an appointment,” Realtor B condescendingly informed Kim.

“So do we,” Kim chirped, maintaining her usual cheerful demeanor.

In the glorious kitchen, where perhaps stiletto-clad Prospective Buyer 2 would cook dinner for her yuppie-looking husband, I pretended to write something down on my notepad. I was still tense from driving, and now this most awkward situation had me further on edge. After finishing her conversation with the less-than-civil Realtor B, Kim let me know we probably shouldn’t take too long since the other party was there. Tony and Lee scoured the basement for signs of potential problems and then we all left.

After talking to Lee and Tony, Neil wanted to consider writing an offer. The next morning saw me searching various web site and file folders for the documents we needed for pre-approval. I got everything to the loan guy on time, but had to cancel my plans with a friend. Next, Neil wanted our best friends to see the property. So I called Mark, Diana, and Kim each a couple of times and scheduled a third showing for five. This required me to cancel plans with another friend. “If we want this house, we have to move fast,” I apologized.

I wasn’t the only one apologizing that day. Kim got into a car accident shortly before five and left me a professional but distraught message saying we’d have to reschedule. Poor thing, I thought, and tried to communicate compassion in my return message. And damn it. Those yuppies are going to buy the house while we’re trying to get a third showing.

I also spent the whole day crunching the numbers—can we afford this house, even if we offer less? How much less? How much are you supposed to spend on your house? How much do utilities cost for a house? I spent each free moment that day drawing on every resource I could think of to answer these questions. Crown Financial, mortgage calculators, bank statements, friends’ Quicken utility records…I wracked my brain trying to figure out the next thirty years of our financial life.

At one point, I thought the house was affordable and so informed Neil. He was excited and said we’d make an offer the next day, as soon as we got preapproved. Later that night, after receiving more input and recalculating our expenses, I realized the house was actually out of price range. I broke the news to Neil, whose hopes were dashed, and I didn’t know what to tell him except for sorry. He still wanted to come in with a low-ball offer. I cried. I didn’t know if this was wise, but after three days of nearly non-stop stress about 3120 W. Edgerton, I collapsed into bed and tried not to think about.

And I tried not to think about the fact that Neil wasn’t holding me as I fell asleep, like he always does. I didn’t want to buy a house without Neil. I didn’t want to go through the process of making an offer if he wasn’t standing in the room with me. But I also didn’t want to disappoint him. I remembered his words before he left: “If we want this house, you might have to do some stuff while I’m gone. But you’re good at doing stuff.”

Yeah, I’m good at doing stuff. And I’m freaking fantastic at obsessing about stuff, too. I tried to pray instead, remembering that God can open and close doors to show us if an opportunity is from Him.

The next day Kim said the listing agent had received an offer and if we wanted to write one, we needed to do it now. She was in Toledo for the day, she said, but she could make it work if we wanted. I got in touch with Neil and he concluded that we weren’t ready to act that fast, even though he “really wished we could make an offer.” At first, tears welled up and I poured out my regrets about getting his hopes up, only to dash them. I mourned my cancelled plans and all the obsessing and calculating I’d done.

“I’m sorry I put you through this, honey,” Neil apologized. But I knew it was my choice to become overwhelmed and consumed, at least emotionally and mentally, by such a matter. It is a big decision, of course, and one that requires discernment and planning, but I knew my stress level would have been considerably lower if I’d trusted God more. Perhaps Neil’s absence revealed my lack of faith in a way that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

I learned a few other things from being single for a week. I saw how much Neil serves me and came to appreciate him more. By collecting his pay stubs, 401K statement, and savings account, my appreciation for his job grew. It reminded me of how he sacrifices for me every day by going to work and providing for us. (Note to work subs: this is not sufficient for a love relationship). I also missed having dinner with him, talking about our days, and planning for our ministry during the week. I missed riding in the car with him, talking or singing or praying.

I also realized how many opportunities single people have to serve others. With no dinner to cook (and no one to eat with), I planned my early evenings with time for friends. On Friday, our date night, I visited my family. During the weekend, I had more time than usual to work on my teaching and Perspectives homework. I hung out with a recently single friend. After CT I didn’t have to figure out who would get the car or whether the girls could come over to the apartment.

I’m not saying it’s better to be single than married, or vice versa. The point is that God can use us whatever our situation. I love being married, but I learned a lot from being single for a week. Now, I want to make sure that I’m trusting God and not just relying solely on Neil in an unhealthy way. I want to continue to sacrificially serve others and be on guard against selfish tribalism in our marriage. I want to trust God with our house hunt. And I want to show Neil how much I appreciate and admire him, because I’m not really single at all.