I slid sideways and opened the oven. Its door flopped into our tiny kitchen, blocking the isle like a drawbridge. I grabbed potholders and removed dinner. No one should have to cook in such a small space – especially me, I grumbled, kicking the oven shut again. I was fairly sure God wanted us to move, but my husband, Tom, avoided the issue. I was hoping he’d soften before I lost my mind in the mayhem.
With the dish of bubbling cheese, noodles, and sauce in hand, I turned toward the dining room. “Dinner’s ready, girls. Come set the table.” I called.
I thought about decisions and God. Since my conversion, I had tried to choose God’s will for my life, but I wasn’t always sure how to do that. Several years ago, a friend said all she did was prayerfully ask God for enlightenment, then randomly open the Bible and point. There would be the answer. That didn’t work for me. I always got irrelevant information, like who begat whom.
Several people in my prayer group contended that if I had enough faith, God would answer my prayer. If not, He wouldn’t. That sounded good at first, but over time, I came to realize that such an attitude makes God out to be my personal genie, granting wishes based on my faith. I knew that couldn’t be right either.
Now I believed that to be truly happy, I had to live according to God’s will. That meant I had to trust God to provide what I needed, or even tell me no. But trusting God is scary; His answer might be painful, or (heaven forbid) require me to change. Still, every day for three years I prayed, “Lord, I need more space; I’d like a bigger house, but only if it’s your will.” I felt confident God was on my side; I just wasn’t sure how to convince my husband.
My thoughts were interrupted by the cat. Moons skittered through the kitchen, chased by three-year-old Katy. The cat managed to slip past me. Katy smacked into my legs from behind.
I tottered and warned, “Be careful, honey. This food is hot.”
My daughter lost interest in the cat and plopped down on my feet. She wrapped her legs around mine and hooted, “Giddy-up, horsie.”
I sighed. “Katy, get up. I can’t walk.” But she didn’t budge.
Now nine-year-old Valerie squeezed into the kitchen. “It’s my turn to set plates. Get out of the way, Katy. I can’t open the cupboard.”
Katy stuck her tongue out at Valerie. “No, I’m riding my horsie.”
My oldest daughter, Jenny, arrived to put out silverware. Seeing a chance to dominate a sister, she grabbed Katy around the waist and pulled. Of course, Katy held on tighter.
“Stop, girls!” I yelled. I felt tethered and top-heavy, a captured King Kong ready to tumble. I turned to place the casserole on the counter and smashed my hand on the edge. “Ow!” I yelled. The dish slid out of my hands and careened across the counter like a sled on ice. Thankfully it stopped before it fell, but I wasn’t so lucky.
I lost my balance, tumbled sideways onto Jenny, and hit my head on the cabinet as I plummeted to the floor. Fortunately, I managed to avoid squishing my three-year-old. But my head throbbed; I felt shaken and jittery, and my knuckles bled. “Ahhhh,” I wailed. “This house is killing me!” Jenny managed to crawl out from under me and now sat cradling her arm. Katy sat blinking in confusion.
Tom raced into the kitchen then, investigating my yell. He found all three of us sprawled on the floor. He reached a hand toward me. “What happened?”
When he heard my story, properly embellished so that it focused on the crowding, he said, “Maybe we should start looking for a bigger place.”
I smiled, massaged my head, and winced. Perhaps I’d gotten an answer to my prayer at last. I wasted no time. The next morning I made an appointment with a realtor.
At four that afternoon, Tom met Katy and me at the school district office for Katy’s repeat IQ test. Disturbing memories of how badly our visually impaired daughter performed on this test two years prior accosted me – like Count Dracula popping up in an amusement funhouse. I prayed she’d do better this time, and that we had managed to improve her IQ to at least normal.
The test administrator, Ms. Sawyer, pointed to chairs under the window. “You can sit over there and watch if you like.”
Tom and I sat down on the child-sized orange plastic chairs. Katy climbed into a seat across from Ms. Sawyer.
With her perfectly lacquered nails, the young woman picked up several blocks and placed them on the table. “Let’s begin, shall we? Please build a tower with these…like this.” Ms. Sawyer demonstrated.
Katy didn’t hesitate. She grabbed the yellow block in one hand and stacked it on the blue one. Then she added the red and green blocks.
The examiner looked pleased and a bit surprised. “Very good, Katy.” For the next hour, our daughter performed test tasks with ease. We left hopeful of improvement.
During the next few weeks, I toured several homes. When a two-story house I loved dropped in price, I had to have it. I imagined cooking in its spacious kitchen. I felt all giddy and fancy, as if I were swirling in a chiffon gown. I called my husband.
“I’m in the middle of something,” he said. “Let’s talk about it tonight.”
So I called my best friend, Jan. “Of course you should buy it,” she said. “Why not have the house you want?”
Her question, meant to console me, chewed at my peace. Then a scripture from Deuteronomy popped unbidden into my head. “See, today, I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster.” I felt confused. I tried to ignore the quote; my brain was still twirling in chiffon, now with a frilly apron and hot pads to match.
In the evening after I tucked the girls in, Tom called me into the kitchen. “Let’s make a list of pros and cons for that new place.”
“I’d be glad to.” I squeezed in behind the counter. For me this was mere formality. I had no doubt we’d soon be packing boxes.
In typical engineering fashion Tom drew lines down and across the paper, making two columns and several rows. He wrote “pros” and “cons” at the top of each column.
“I like our current house, and our neighbors, and the location. But this new house is definitely a gem. The price is right, too.” He wrote “nice house” and “good price” under the “pros” column, and jotted “miss current neighborhood” under the “cons” heading.
I pointed to his chart. “I’d miss the neighbors too. And that house would take longer to clean since it’s bigger, but I love the kitchen.”
Our list of pros and cons grew longer. Finally, Tom pursed his lips, leaned back in his chair, and sat quietly for a few minutes. Then he turned and looked into my heart. “I’ve been mulling this over all day and I have to be honest. At first I was willing to just buy that house; I know how badly you want it. But here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s right for us.”
Perhaps he noticed how my jaw dropped all the way to the countertop, and my eyes widened to softballs. He swept his hand in the air and pointed to the dingy cabinets and micro-sized counters. “Of course we need a bigger kitchen. We’ll have to do something about that.”
"You can’t be serious,” I said, incredulous.
Suddenly, two armies materialized within me. The new-house soldiers drew their swords. Their battle cry: “I want! I want! I want that house!” The other army, a guerrilla force, hunkered in the corner of my soul. They had no battle cry. Instead, the guerillas whispered: “Listen… there’s more.” Their voices were so quiet I could barely hear them. And maybe I didn’t want to. “Listen,” they repeated.
I felt annoyed. “Listen to what?” I grumbled.
The reply was almost imperceptible. “God, of course.”
But I was too busy and distracted to listen to God. My internal warring factions attacked one another and my head pounded with the conflict. I stood up and stared at Tom. “I can’t believe you feel this way. That house is perfect for us.” I stomped away.
All evening and throughout the next day my feelings skirmished. Surely God wanted us to have that house. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have come up for sale. And we wouldn’t be able to afford it, right? Wasn’t the kitchen perfect? Wasn’t the location good for Tom’s work too?
I felt exhausted, like I’d been playing tennis on both sides of the net all day. I decided I’d better take my guerilla army’s advice and talk the situation over with Jesus, so I sat down in prayer.
I imagined Jesus sitting on my couch next to me. “I want to do what you ask,” I assured him, “but just this time I want what I want. Can’t you change your mind? How hard would it be to make our owning this house your will?”
I could imagine Jesus shaking his head. “Putting words in my mouth, are you? Trust me on this. Tom is right; you shouldn’t buy that house. But don’t worry; you’ll get what you need.”
“Here’s the thing, Jesus. I don’t want what I need. I want what I want.”
“Hmm. Face it, Ellen. You’re attached – and your attachment is disordered.”
“Huh? What’s that mean?”
“It’s something I explained to St. Ignatius of Loyola back in the 1500’s. It means you’re so attached to owning that house that you won’t let go of it even when it’s wrong for you. Even when you know it’s not my will. Is that house more important to you than I am?”
I slouched down, boneless, jelly-like. “Ah…of course… not! But what if I’m just inventing this conversation and misinterpreting your will? Maybe you want the house to be mine as much as I do.”
“I see. Then why are you in such turmoil?”
I stared at my hands and sighed. “Oh…yeah.” Jesus had me there. “OK…” I knew I had to give up my desire for that house and I didn’t like it at all. “But I can’t let go right now. First, I need to grieve.”
“Take your time.”
The next day I grumbled, whimpered, pouted, and sulked. I mourned losing the house, yes, but I mourned not getting my own way even more.
Finally, I got tired of feeling sorry for myself. I opened the cage and released my attachments. I watched owning that bigger home slink away like a wounded mountain lion freed from a snare. Once it was gone, the soldiers from both armies disbanded.
The letter with Katy’s test results arrived in the mail the next afternoon, but I felt too nervous to open it. Instead, I gingerly laid the envelope on the countertop as if it were a letter bomb. It stared at me all afternoon until I couldn’t avoid it any more. Right before dinner I took a deep breath and slit open the envelope.
The letter read in part: “Congratulations! Your daughter, Kathryn, has tested out of the preschool program with an IQ score of 150…”
I sank onto a stool. Katy’s IQ went from 55 to 150 in just 20 months. As if an orchestra played jubilant music just for me, I felt drenched in delight.
That evening at dinner I said, “We got the results of Katy’s test today. She did really well so we are going to the park on Saturday to celebrate.”
“Hurray,” the girls yelled.
Jenny took a gulp of milk. “By the way, Mom and Dad, did you decide about that house we looked at? Are we going to move?”
I shook my head. “At first I really wanted to buy it. But after Dad and I talked and prayed about it, we decided not to. It just didn’t feel right. We’re thinking of adding onto the kitchen instead.”
Jenny nodded. “I’m glad. I like it here.”
“Yay!” Katy yelled. “I get to stay in my room.”
After dinner Jenny squeezed past me with a stack of dirty dishes. She slid them onto the counter as I poured detergent into hot water. I turned on the radio. A Rolling Stones song was playing. “…You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find… you get what you need.”
I slid a few dishes into the water and began scrubbing. I guess so, I thought. I guess so.