Dear Joy,

You posted something on Facebook the other day and made mention to “America, land of McMansions and ample parking.” Having traveled just enough to be dangerous, I know the wide parking spots at the grocery store down the street that easily accommodate my large SUV are pretty much exclusive to the US (along with said SUV).

So here’s the thing: People have been telling me that I need to get a bigger house.

I actually don’t consider our house all that small, except once every December when we host a neighborhood Christmas party and people are falling over the furniture and stuffed into corners of the kitchen. But I grew up in a big family with a good-sized house, where my mom could host guests with ease. Her sister, Aunt Nora, was the same way. When we first started looking for a house, I told my aunt and uncle that I wanted to be like them – have a house with lots of rooms, so that anyone who needed a place to stay could come over, pile in, join the family. (For the record, their house wasn’t a mansion – they had one full bathroom, and a kitchen on the smaller side, but that didn’t stop my aunt from throwing her doors open and saying, Come on in.) They always had people staying at their home: college students, missionaries, friends who needed a place to call home for a month or two (or more). This was normal, typical for me to watch, growing up, and I wanted to emulate that in my own life.

So then, we bought a house that we could afford (a dreadful fixer-upper), and I feel like we’re still moving in, getting settled, six years later. I love our house. (I’m still in awe that we could actually buy a house.) We have strange little nooks, odd-shaped rooms, slanted ceilings. I’ve never been in another house like it. And yes, it’s lacking a bit in the “space” department.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we Americans consider to be adequate as far as housing goes. My grandparents had six children in a two-bedroom house, but of course, “that was the fifties,” people will say. “This is modern day America.” And then your comment about the McMansions prodded my thinking along. How much house is enough?

One of my friends is trying to sell her family’s beautiful bungalow. They have dreams of hospitality, gourmet cooking, and community that really can’t fit inside their gorgeous (but compact) house. Someone talking to her might think, Seriously? Your house is great, perfect. Be content. It’s hard to argue with that contentment thing. But I think, when it comes to dreams, God doesn’t demand contentment, in that sense. He doesn’t demand that we settle. My friend’s desire for a bigger home isn’t rooted in a McMansion idealism, but in the dreams God has placed in her heart, and the abilities he’s given her to pursue them. 

I’ve known other friends who desire a house, any house (!!), but finances and circumstances are such that they’re waiting in an in-between phase, moving from place to place without any sense of home, that feeling of This is my own. We all ache to call a place our own, to create something out of it, to welcome people into it.

I get in a lot of trouble when I look around and see all the things I don’t have.

We are currently sponsoring a child through Compassion, a little boy named Lewi from Kenya. We’re told that he lives in a village, and most likely in a mud hut. I tried explaining this to my 5-year-old Charlie, the concept of mud on the walls, a dirt floor. He looked at me, thoughtfully, and slowly repeated it over and over. “Mud… walls. A house… made out of mud.” Charlie is probably wondering where Lewi keeps all of his stuffed animals.

How do I teach perspective? Gratitude?

When I was in college, my family went on a missions trip to Mexico during spring break, to build homes for families living in pretty severe poverty. As we made friends with the children there, and took pictures of all of us together, they wanted to see the pictures. I flipped through the photos we took, and they giggled, staring at the back of the camera. Then, the pictures changed to the last time I had used that camera: my parent’s house on Christmas morning, a few months earlier. The screen flashed with images of glittering lights, torn wrapping paper, a tastefully decorated living room. And there I was, sitting in the middle of a garbage dump with five beautiful little children who owned next to nothing. (Ok, fine. One of the little guys we met had an X-Box in his little house that he and my younger brother played for most of the trip. Still.) I quickly shut the camera off, and jumped up to start a game of soccer.

It’s a constant struggle.

I try to be really honest with God. I pray about poverty, about needy children, and then I pray about this dumb Crate and Barrel cabinet that I really want. I pray I’ll find one at a flea market. Or I pray that I’ll forget about it, and we’re back to praying about poverty. So inside me there’s so much legalism, permissiveness, greed… and then there’s God, who meets me where I’m at and says, Stay humble. I forgive you. Keep those eyes on me. Maybe hold off on that Crate and Barrel cabinet.

Yes, sometimes our dreams aren’t realized. Sometimes someone else gets the bigger house and the space to be hospitable. Someone else gets the gourmet kitchen, or a bedroom for each of their children. Circumstances might be different across the world, but the principles remain the same. We’re all humans, with the same desires. Sometimes we’re called to a bit of slow swallowing, while dreams are recrafted and stories are still in the process of being told. But there is beauty in less, and in waiting. (I feel like I need to take that last sentence and paint it onto a big flag that someone can then flap vigorously in front of my face every morning.)

Joy, I’m smack in the middle of this Great Land of McMansions, still trying to figure out how where I live fits with the rest of the world. You’re back for awhile, too, and I really like your insight. Send some my way, if you get a chance. (It might even be as simple as, “Stop thinking so hard. Enjoy life, and be really generous.” This is Marty’s mantra, and he’s the happiest guy I know.)

Love, Sherah

P.S. I have absolutely nothing against McMansions, by the way. I have told Marty, however, that if we’re ever going to build a big house, it has to be in the middle of nowhere, on a really big piece of land. None of that looking straight into the neighbor’s kitchen stuff… which is what we’ve got going on right now. (They put up curtains, thank goodness, once Charlie was old enough to start narrating to me what they were cooking for dinner.)