In the middle of the week, the Board of Directors at Adam’s new school sends out this beautiful message, and I cry, just letting it settle:
We want to express our deepest, most heartfelt gratitude to our families. Just when the weight we were carrying on our shoulders became too much to bear, dozens of you swooped in to launch our movement forward. The monumental efforts of all the parent committees as well as the monetary support from you and your individual families and friends have turned our dream into a reality. Summer 2014 will go down in history as the time our school transformed from a house made of straw to a castle made of stone. We are so relieved and excited to know that you are team-players and that we’ll be able to work through the inevitable kinks of a brand new school together. We know you’ll help us solve problems and overcome obstacles, you have already proven that! Our shared vision of a school where our children are valued and respected is worth the hard work, patience, and the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve already shared with us. Thank you for jumping head first with us into this big, scary task of opening such a unique school. We couldn’t have done it without you. In just a few days your children will walk into their new school… a school built just for them by all of us. Congratulations and thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
After a run, I prop my foot against the edge of a brick step, pressing into a stretch. The air feels thick, and the heat of the day gathers in my face, and sweat runs down my cheeks, my neck, my arms. I feel the salty wet dripping off of my wrists as I clutch the bottom post with my fingers for balance. I watch as a tiny round darkens on the concrete walk, as I melt into the ground. I imagine that these drips of me also contain the foundational elements of my stress—unbelief, self-absorption, complaint, resentment. In fact, I ask God to draw those things away from my heart, to make it a more temperate place.
Underneath my balanced foot, I suddenly notice a curving line of ants. Only a moment before, my focus had been too wide to see their scrolling march, but now it comes into view like invisible Ink held to a Flame. With my eyes, I trace the path of them from one flower bed across the walk, up one step, and down into the other bed. On the one side, they have found some source of food, because as they travel, they carry microscopic bits of something white, some more, some less. Another line swirls back, returning empty for another load. I stand watching them as I stretch, unable to discover the source of their food after they disappear at the base of a rose bush, traveling on across the mulch. I find their singular effort fascinating. It matters little how large the feast may be. They will manage, in time, to dismantle the entire thing and take it back to their nest. Aside from sighing over the fact that their multitudinous numbers dwell so close to our house, I am captivated by their collective strength and individual weakness. Something echoes somewhere in my heart, where God has been reshaping parts of me, where He teaches me–bit by dim bit—to better understand. It stuns me how creation testifies.
In eleven days, my son will walk into a new school, an innovative place where they fold all the core academic curriculum into the soil of a garden, the structure of a store. His middle and high school will thrive on project-based learning, on pursued and shared strengths, on, well, unity behind a single purpose. Over these last few months, I’ve seen that community is not merely a utopian ideal but is a true possibility if we can agree together on a purpose. Sadly, it’s that last part that often comes to be the sticking point, the barrier, the broken bits of misshapen stone we throw at each other because we can’t quite manage to use them to build a fortress where we can live together. We so often allow our self-centeredness to trump unity and divide us into condemning, arrogant camps. Over the last months, God has written a number of meditations across my soul, many beginning with words like suppose and imagine, things like, Suppose we could become unified in loving each other well, in building, in healing, in laying our own hands as cover over the ripped and tender places in the lives of others?
When I sat in the first meeting I ever attended about Adam’s school, so much still stood undecided. Unknown stretched wide. But through that uncomfortable terrain bubbled a contagious stream of belief in possibility and potential, of love for children with developmental challenges, of driven, even self-sacrificing, purpose. I could not understand, at least initially, how I could know so little of the details—the exactly how it will be—and yet feel so engaged, so excited. Every time we met in those early days, I left carrying home bits of information to my family, with no idea how and at the same time a burning certainty of the possibility. I did what I do in situations like these. I prayed. I asked and asked and asked. Is this…could this possibly…do you want?
I knew that if we enrolled Adam in this school, if by some chance his name actually came up in the lottery (we never get drawn for anything), this would mean more than dropping him off and wishing everyone well. I know I would be involved in raising a school, that I would need to invest whatever equipping, whatever blessing, God has given, especially as we would all be just striking out together on the foundation of two years worth of hard effort on the part of the first few who began offering themselves all the way to personal risk.
I could write so much about how reluctant I was in the beginning to actually hear this yes, live by faith answer to my prayers, how I struggled over the possible risks and inevitable sacrifices involved, how I continued to ask even long after I knew the clear answer and felt it solid and undeniable. I could take you there and peel back the new growth and show you the place in the path where I stood still. This decision wasn’t a light one for us. But He said go.
And so then, we began. We walked right into the water at flood stage. And that’s when the real miracles happened. That is, after all, always when. In the moment of faith, in the being certain of what you cannot see.
We often underestimate the power of our unity behind a single purpose, how a group of single-minded people can push down a wall or bring down a hijacked plane or affect a change the likes of which we might never even conceive of alone. Often in our most important collections, we fail to display the oneness which echoes through some of Christ’s last prayers on this earth, his prayers for us, wherein He asked, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17:21).”
At the first informational meeting for the parents of students chosen in the lottery for admission, I sat next to a lady in glasses with smooth hair—it seemed that not a chestnut-colored strand fell out of place. She had almond eyes the color of amber, and she gave voice to the things that left me speechless. She kept saying, Wow. Wow. I can’t believe I’m here, turning and smiling at me with an ease so many of us have instantly found with each other because of shared experience.
They passed out committee forms, urgently calling for our help—Now that you’re here, we need you, and I thought, Here we go, because I knew. My pen hovered over the line, but I signed, and the water splashed beneath my feet. And later, when we assembled in a familiar sort of room full of therapy tools pushed out of the way of our chairs, I sucked in my breath at the way our various gifts and histories—magazine publishing, writing, media marketing, editing—fanned into a well-rounded set of tools.
At the first family picnic for our school, I turned around to find some of the older students teaching Adam to play baseball. More significantly even, I found Adam learning, watching them, listening, trying. I watched him smile, and I watched these older boys just accepting him, because they understand. And I whispered, “Wow. Wow. I can’t believe we’re here.”
We jumped in, a crowd of challenged families, and our giving felt–still feels– like free flow at high tide. We offer what we have, what we know. We offer little bits of how with open hands and open minds. Bit by bit, our community began to take shape. And then we learned that we would have to raise $100,000 in one month to open on time. It was a formidable challenge given to a community together holding hundreds of other challenges in our hands while we worked. Most of us did not run away. What we felt together—what we feel—is the same flame of possiblity, the flicker of shared strength, even in the moments when we don’t know just how or even if. Many of you know what happened. You heard us asking for your help, for your resources, for your mutual investment in our children, and you responded with your generosity and your belief. And we can’t quite find enough words to tell you how strikingly beautiful it was to see you walk right up and stand with us, offering what you have, what you know, little bits of the how. You joined our scrolling march, our ant lines, our determined and unified procession. Bit by bit, together we dismantled a barrier.
What you don’t know is that behind the scenes we also grew together into something special. We became ever more unified, each bringing something unique. Over the sure foundation offered us, we became the planks, the bolts, the insulation. No one—not for pride or control or glory—asked me not to do what I can, not to offer what I will. No one criticized my offering or told me how to offer it. No one failed to offer respect on any ground. At least in my corner of construction, I heard only building, only gratitude, only grace. And we are not all the same. We are an eclectic assembling of raw materials—different in ages, specific challenges, personality, preferences, faith, and manner. But at the core of who we are is one very important truth: Different is not less. Perhaps it’s this that allows us to receive each other as we are, not wishing for something other. We value quirky as vibrancy, not annoyance or embarrassment, and this is part of our shared purpose, to create a community in which our children will be appreciated and nurtured and challenged and valued not in spite of their differences but because of them.
I read a news article recently wherein a biologist and “ant enthusiast from birth” suggested that “humans are too smart for the functioning of the whole society.” He said that because ants are individually ignorant, they create a smart society. But what God has written on my heart these last months is that humans generally fail at community not because we are too smart but because we are too selfish. For the strength of our society, we must choose to see our unity as something worth protecting. We must discover what brings us together, what besides ourselves can and should be the focus of our living. What is it that’s worth the sacrifice of self? Because the new, the redeemed, the re-shaped rises, living, out of our collective offering.