“Do you have a tent?”

Fresh off the plane from Haiti, Genevieve Pearson called and told me this amazing story, and I wept listening to it. I cried hot, streaming, worshipful tears all over again when I read it again, even though two years have passed since that day. I’m thrilled to have her writing this week for the words that changed my world series of guest posts. G is a precious friend and kindred spirit, and this story is remarkable.

(For the Anxious ones.)

After seeing the Haiti trip mentioned in the church bulletin, I penciled in my initials and a question mark, showing it to my husband, Matthew. My excitement swelled for about ten minutes and then was quickly overtaken by the fears and anxieties that crowd out anything requiring of me risk and a departure from the safe and the familiar. In fact, for years I had been quietly, carefully limiting my experiences (and those of my family) to accommodate the growing fear in me of all things uncertain. The following month was filled with prayer for wisdom: should I go? While praying with my sweet friend and neighbor, Donna, she said that she felt compelled to share an “odd verse” with me, one she’d never thought to offer to someone before:

Isaiah 54:2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” I prayed through this verse, finding in it the injunction to go and to see how my fears and doubts might be met with His grace.

On our first full day in Haiti we met a woman named TiFiyel who was living with several of her children and her four grandchildren in a deplorable sheet dwelling filled with mildew and ants. Her three-month-old granddaughter was born in this dark place that had no ventilation and that leaked terribly every time it rained. Our team set to work pouring a foundation for her new home, knowing it would be months–a long rainy season–before her home would be ready. That night as the team discussed the day and prayed for TiFiyel, I turned to Chris, an American intern working in Haiti, and asked: “When we go back, can’t we just bring TiFiyel a tent to use until her house is built?” With irony and gently exposing my naiveté, she said: “Do you have a tent?”

Ah. In a country with such systemic poverty, one can’t just go buy a tent in town. It doesn’t work that way. I felt a bit foolish for having asked. Nevertheless, while we prayed her question rang in my head over and over–and the voice asking it wasn’t Chris’ voice anymore, it was the Holy Spirit’s voice: Do you have a tent? Yes, Lord, I have a tent. A nine-person tent. It’s in my basement at home… And I have a husband who can drive it to my Pastor who is flying to Haiti in a day and a half!

A flurry of international texts and less than 48 hours later, my Pastor arrived with a tent, a tarp, stakes and cord to erect for TiFiyel and her family a dry place to live through the months of rain. Our team hardly had to lift a finger to pull down the old tent, to make the ground level, and to put up the new tent: the village did that with great joy–one woman cried out in Creole “Halleluiah! Halleluiah! I know God is real! I know He is here! I have prayed for Him to help TiFiyel and her children for so long! Halleluiah!”

"Yes, Lord. I have a tent."

“Yes, Lord. I have a tent.”

Storm clouds rolled in quickly, requiring our team to race against the rain back to paved roads lest our bus get stuck in the mud. Our team leader, Carine, yelled, “get in the tent, Genna!” I stepped inside where it was clean, dark, and dry despite the rain; and I saw only TiFiyel’s silhouette, thin, barely covered by her long nightshirt. Carine said to her, “She brought this tent for your family.” TiFiyel wrapped her arms around me and kissed my face. I wept as she blessed and thanked me. Me! The anxious one, so uncomfortable with the idea that this act would get me credit for generosity and ingenuity, when all along this amazing trip I was painfully aware of how deeply I was hoarding and idolizing safety, health, comfort, and control.

As we drove away from the village, Carine held my hand while I wept and grinned and recalled that verse Donna had given to me many weeks before: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” Our sweet Lord gave me a word picture of a tent being erected. I laughed out loud at the beauty and specificity of it. He knew the plans He had for me, for our team, for TiFiyel.

I could leave the story there. It is tidy and beautiful, and it points to God’s tremendous and intricate weaving together of stories and words, just because He can and it brings Him glory. But I wonder if there is more. What does that question, “Do you have a tent?” mean to me today? I wish the answer were as obvious as it was that day in Haiti, when the question was meant to point out the problem and the lack, but prompted creative energy and provision instead. While I sit in my quiet house, kids at school, husband at work, my dissertation languishing unfinished, and my thoughts pleading, “Lord, DO I have a tent? What do I do now with my life? Who needs that thing I happen to have?” Increasingly, I feel as though the only real “tent” I have to give is myself: my anxious, limited, small self who loves a really big God.

I am so afraid to enlarge, to stretch, to lengthen, to strengthen, to NOT HOLD BACK. What if it is scary there? What if I fail? What if I am just too afraid to dare? Those are the questions that keep my tent very small, indeed. And so I remember the stretching times, when God shows up amidst the storm and fills the dark, holy places with tears and embraces and answers to prayers I didn’t even know to pray. And He lets me see how much He loves me.

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Genevieve Pearson is a wife, mom of 2, and a sort-of graduate student working on a PhD in Early Modern British Literature.

(Also, she’s the girl I call when I have a secret or a lament or a silly story to tell. Leave her some comment love, will ya?)

Words that changed my world – Kelly’s Gift

I’m thrilled to introduce a new series on my blog: Words that changed my world.

I’ve been stewing on this idea for quite some time: the notion of telling the stories of little words which changed our trajectory.

As I think back on my own life – there have been a few conversations where someone said something which changed everything. Often their words were just a casual part of the conversation: they have no recollection of having said something significant or profound, but I remember it as being one of those illuminated-signboard-moments as they gave an answer, an insight, a grace, a perspective which I had desperately needed at the time. Like Alan’s casual question: “Have you ever considered going to bible college?” which was the final signpost in a series of little nudges towards seminary. Or Kelly’s off-the-cuff words which began the slow work of rebuilding my teen-damaged self-esteem…. read on to find out what they were.

Of course Alan and Kelly have no recollection of those conversations. But I remember. Their words were so important: I treasured their investment in me. We have great power to do good with the words we say to one another: words of encouragement and care sometimes mean more than you could possibly know. I was stunned, after my 20 year high school reunion and the flurry of facebook (re)connections that brought, to have two classmates tell me that something I had said at high school had made a significant impact on them. I was amazed. Humbled. And more convinced than ever that these are stories we should tell: stories of acknowledgement and thanks to those who spoke kindly to us, stories of encouragement that we should continue to speak good things to each other. Because you just never know which of your thousands of words could be used to change someone’s world.

These are stories I want to tell. And they are stories I want to read– so this is an invitation to submit a story of something someone said which changed your world. It can be a story about how you chose a career, how you came to faith, the little something that made you decide to get married. It can be about how you started a hobby, or forgave a friend, or had an a-ha moment which has brought you great joy. Please, share your story. I’d love to hear it. (Check out the Be My Guest page for more details on how to contribute!)

Old typewriter keys. ©Robin Nelson

So, without further ado – I’ll kick off with the first of this new series: Words that changed my world.

Kelly’s Gift

It was my second year of college and I sat, boyfriendless, with my friend Kelly as she prepared to go on a date. I watched her put on mascara, aware of the pillow I had self-consciously pulled towards my stomach in an effort to hide it. She looked glamorous. I felt gormless. We chatted about this and that: she combed, I coveted. The intercom crackled to life: “Kelly, you have a gentleman visitor.”

“Thank you,” she sang. I took my cue to leave, releasing the pillow I’d been kneading. I said my goodbyes, and was already out the door when her voice came from behind me: “Bron, I don’t know why you don’t have a boyfriend,” she said. “You’re quite lovely, you know.”

I think the world must have stopped spinning for a second. Decades later, I can still remember noticing the checkered black and white floors beneath my feet as I heard those quick, parting words. They changed my world.

black and white floor

Despite years of constant love and encouragement from my parents, despite self-esteem building classes from guidance counselors and accolades-on-paper… the fact that I, in my second year of college, had yet to attract the attention of even one guy I liked, had left me feeling there was something intrinsically wrong with me. If I was prettier, more attractive, less snarky, thinner, more damsel-in-distressish, more smart, less smart… anything other than what I was – surely someone would have been interested in me?

No one was interested. I assumed it was me.

Until that day in the hallway with the black-and-white floors – where a kind friend, who (unlike my mother) did not have to say nice things to me – made an off-the-cuff remark which made me think for the first time that perhaps, just perhaps, there wasn’t something fundamentally unattractive or unlovable about me. Perhaps it wasn’t that I wasn’t the right person, perhaps it was just that it wasn’t the right time. Because if Kelly, who was wearing mascara and a swishy skirt and going on a date, couldn’t see anything wrong with me – and more than that, could use the word lovely to describe me – perhaps I was being a little too hard on myself.

I look back on my 18 year old self now and know that there is no way, looking from the outside, that people might have known how unlovely and unlovable I felt. I worked hard to come across as confident and smart: I wore assertiveness as armor, all the while hoping someone would be brave enough to like the person within. Kelly’s words were a gift: a kindness to a friend who may have made snarky remarks about the dating scene, but could not confess how very victimized I felt by it.

Almost twenty years have passed. When I look at college students now, I wonder how many of them wear the armor I wore: confidence masking crippling self-doubt, snarkiness veiling vulnerability. To those women, especially to those young women who seem to “have it all together” and “have an answer for everything”, I want to leave a sprinkling of kind words affirming that they are quite lovely as they are. I want to give them Kelly’s gift.

photo credit: fiadda.it