Several years ago, best-selling author Donald Miller spoke at our church, and told a story featured in his book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life”. This story really stuck with me, because even though our children were no older than 2 and 6 at the time, it instilled in me a desire for our family to live purposefully.
He shared a story about having coffee with a friend who was lamenting the worries he and his wife were having over their rebellious teenage daughter and her questionable dating choices. Miller was prompted to share with his friend that his daughter needed a ‘better story.’ Regarding his friend’s response… “He thought about the story his daughter was living and the role she was playing inside that story. He realized he hadn’t provided a better role for his daughter. He hadn’t mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only being used. In the absence of a family story, she’d chosen a story in which there was risk and adventure, rebellion and independence.” (Donald Miller, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life”)
This story really stuck with me and created in me a desire for our growing family. I wanted my boys to grow up as part of a family who is united in purpose, serving the Lord. And I spent many years in partnership with my husband trying to orchestrate that purpose. This often looked like checklists of must-dos and should-dos, serving together, praying together… even times forced with littles who were much more interested in the stuffed animals piled on the bed we gathered on to pray than the actual prayer itself). My efforts at times had been futile. It seemed the harder I tried to orchestrate it, the harder it was to accomplish. The only ‘family rhythms’ and ‘purpose’ we seemed to successfully hold on to were the grinds of work, school, all the places to be, all the people to meet, all the appointments to get to, and volunteering when and where we could squeeze in. Our family unit often felt like a family divergence, no matter how hard I tried – divided by selfishness and multiple commitments. All the things were being accomplished but we were missing THE thing.
So what did we do? Out of fear that we hadn’t yet ‘mapped out that perfect story for our family,’ I attended seminars, read books, and listened to podcasts about families on mission. I examined what other Christians did. And while I’d be inspired for a hot minute, life would take over and before I knew it, we were back in the grind, living what felt like anything but on mission.
In the fall of 2019, my husband and I attended a weekend conference focused on building family teams. We spent time listening to others who seemed to get it, who were clearly living out a ‘great story’, on purpose and on mission. It was in that weekend space that something clicked for me. In our many, what felt like failing efforts to raise Godly men who love Jesus and others, I was spending a lot of time focusing on where we I felt we were failing to to meet some arbitrary bar I had raised, instead of focusing on how God was the one to do that hard work. He was the one who would orchestrate the things in our hearts. The only thing I was truly failing at was to recognize that God was the one at work in our lives, right where we were, and we were merely to be obedient in our tasks. To be His hands and feet. So instead of focusing on the things we hadn’t done, I knew I needed to look at the seeds we had planted. Those “futile” efforts. Our mission as a family was quite simple. It was to point others to Christ by being an example of what it looks like to follow Him in obedience together. So we shifted our focus to examine the things we had done where we knew we were simply being obedient to a call, and honoring God in our actions while doing it. We actually came up with handful of examples that gave me hope that perhaps we weren’t failing as miserably as I thought. As important as the examples were the actual characteristics we noted when we as a family are bringing our “A” game, when we as a family were united together: Intentionality, Commitment, and Compassion.
Several years ago, we decided as a family to host student summer camp counselors and/or missionaries when we had the opportunity. It was something that just felt right for our family to say ‘yes’ to. It is a joy to witness how excited the boys get in advance of a houseguest coming. Interestingly, the tension that typically exists within our household any given week subsides upon the arrival of a houseguest(s). Simply the act of hospitality not only draws us together, it often dissipates stress and brings us joy as a family.
In my efforts to work so hard to build this elaborate story for our family, I was failing to see the roles we were already playing. I was failing to see that God was at work already writing a beautiful story for our family. I was comparing to other families instead of looking at my own. And one place we were finally able to clearly see that was within the act of hospitality. (How ironic that we spent an entire summer last year with the tables flipped – we ended up being the houseguests of several other families while we were trying to find a new home amidst the pandemic! Another journey we were on that drew us together as a family when discomfort and inconvenience could have pushed us apart. But God had a different plan for us.)
The father in Donald Miller’s story redirected his family’s journey in which the first step was taking them to Mexico to volunteer at an orphanage. I’m not sure if that was done in an effort for him to find something for his family to get passionate about, or simply just an answer to something he felt called to do. Whatever the original intention of the father, God used it as a life-changing experience for his daughter. There was a purpose she recognized in her family serving together, and gave her personal story the meaning it had been missing. He shared, “No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her. She knows who she is. She just forgot for a little while.”
In 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, the Apostle Paul reminds the people of Corinth that we each serve a unique role here on earth. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” He continues, “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
I spent years trying to plant the seeds, water the plants, and make the seeds grow… but that simply is not God’s plan. He’s a co-worker in our family too. The most integral one. We each have a unique role, and when taking the posture of co-workers, while letting God do His work, that’s when the sweetness comes in. One very recent example occurred with our oldest son. This past year, he led a service presentation at his school which made the winning case for awarding $1,000 to a local mission-based organization called City Gospel Mission. All we did as a family was expose him to the ministry serving as a family over the years – when he was as young as 7 or 8. We saw no immediate impact between our kids and the ministry at the time (see ‘futile efforts’). But it sure netted a meaningful response years later, after God did some work in his heart.
It took me years to come to realize that the man in Donald Miller’s story did not ‘make’ his daughter feel a certain way or come to some realization about her purpose in life; he simply provided the environment for it. He planted the seeds and watered, but it’s God who took a hold of her heart. Coming to this realization relieved the stress I put on my husband and myself as parents. How could we simply create environments in which we as a family come together as co-workers, for a common purpose? Sometimes it would be fun work, and sometimes maybe not, but all of the times creating an opportunity for God to do His work, and for the boys to find their sweet spot serving in the capacities that enable them to shine. Creating opportunity invites God to bring His unity and purpose. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
We’ll never get to status of #winning as parents, but our goal is to get to status of #winning in creating opportunities for God to bring our family together. And we will rest assured that we are simply planting seeds that we may not even see come to full growth during our lives here on earth. But without the seeds, there simply would be no growth. And we know that watering them with Intentionality, Commitment, and Compassion is a great start. And we will hopefully take joy in watching God do his work over time.
Lord, thank You that it is not fully up to us to do all of the work to grow together in Your purposes for us. Thank you for the mighty work You do in our lives. I pray that You keep our eyes open to opportunities for us as a family to work together while growing closer to You. Especially during this time of division among our culture, help our family to be an example of your beautiful and perfect unity. In Jesus’ name. Amen.