A Question of Being Misunderstood

Last night we had dinner at a friend’s house. The company was fun, the food was remarkable, and the conversation was a joy until “the question.”

Our host asked, “What do you think Emmanuel House will look like in one year?” Now, I hate that question not only because I felt on the spot, but because it is such a hard question to answer. I have this fear that someone might “hold me to” what I predict. I guess I don’t want to be charged with inconsistency, although I can be very inconsistent. I have a ready answer when someone asks what Emma House has been, and is presently, but I always seem to draw a blank when I try to envision the future.

So I replied, “I don’t know.” Then I turned to Precious and said, “what do you think?” Wimped out. I had just passed the baton of pressure to my wife, only I had upped the ante. Precious muddled through a few sentences of thoughts that were certainly more courageous than my response, though both of us were disappointed in our inability to offer a satisfying answer that made us look like more competent people. I tried in vain to put this scene out of mind the rest of the evening.

When we arrived at home, I unlocked the door, greeted our spaniel, Nellie, and poured myself into the tan La-Z-Boy with a discernible sigh that Precious noticed. She patted Nellie and sat in another lounger.

“I felt so embarrassed when we couldn’t answer the vision question about Emmanuel House, and really felt pressure when you looked to me rather than trying to give an answer,” Precious said. “What was going on inside you when he asked the question?”

Ah! The elephant in the room! I sighed because I couldn’t stop thinking about the question, and was almost praying that Precious would not bring up the issue. Alas, she was asking me a question I now had to answer.

“I guess I felt angry at myself because I hate the question, and I feel like somehow I ought to know how to answer it,” I replied. “Sometimes I wish this was more of a business than a ministry because it feels like I would dream and plan and think about the future all the time.”

Precious finally reclined in her chair. “I actually know what you mean,” she said as she pulled at the handle that raised her feet. “For eight years the reality of what God brings has always looked different than what we thought it would be.” Then she laughed, “do you remember when we thought we were going to be running conferences?”

I felt a sense of relief when she made these comments. I was grateful that the person whose opinion mattered most to me was on my same wave length. I felt like I was ready to disclose all the thoughts that were crammed in my head on the drive home.

“I do remember that, and that’s my point. I don’t know what the Fortune 500 guys would think about this,” I said, “but in ministry we really do have to act upon the opportunities God gives us. I hope we never end up forcing our personal agenda on the ministry.”

Precious smiled a sweet smile, “Thankfully, He knows best. If we were in charge I think we would so want to be liked we would stretch ourselves incredibly thin.” She concluded, “We already have a hard time saying no.”

There was a restful pause. I thought how much I enjoyed our simple home. She must have been thinking about simplicity as well. She continued, “Liam, I get so tired of trying to explain what it is that our ministry is about in simple terms. The more I try to explain it seems like my words all run together.”

I agreed. “Do you remember how long it took people to get the household seminary idea?” I said. I think our love for the idea and our passion really came through, so that eventually we were able to explain it in a few words. It took some time though.”

Part of the difficulty was that the household seminary idea was so foreign to what seemed like the general tenor of education in American culture, that even we did not fully understand it at first. Sure, we believe the idea of small groups of students not only learning but getting in touch with their hearts and stories had, and still has, potential. We saw a high-water mark of this unique model of education in Manhattan, the college town, before we moved to Kansas City. Promote as we might, our version of the alternative seminary has yet to catch on in the bigger city despite what sometimes seems to me like endless meetings and explanations. But foremost in our minds on this late Friday night after dinner with friends was what Emmanuel House looked like now. It was something we could not have anticipated a year ago. Our ministry had become one of spiritual direction, which involved individual meetings with Christian leaders of all kinds, and with “everyday” Christians who wanted to grow in Christ but had hit a wall along the way that left them longing for something more.

And it is still morphing. I can tell Precious loves spending time with her mother and the old people who live at her mother’s nursing home.We often talk about what this new-found passion might lead to.

I got up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. I never worry about the caffeine, even late at night. I rinsed the jug kettle in the sink and filled it with fresh cold water. After grinding the beans, I took down a French Press and poured the grounds into its empty beaker. I had resumed the conversation after the shrill noise of the burr grinder ceased.

“Now God has given us this spiritual direction work and it feels really important, but we have a whole new set of difficulties in explaining it,” I said. “I think if people knew how important it is, not just to individuals but to the whole movement of the Kingdom,  they would really get behind the ministry. It’s just hard to explain sometimes.”

“Yes,” Precious replied. “It seems like about the only people who get it are the ones who have benefited from it–like the people who have sat with us long enough to take the inward look and see how the Gospel continues to address their lives.”

“Uh-huh, that’s it.” I opened a little more of my earlier musings to her: “I think people can support ministries they understand. Everyone gets relief for victims in Haiti or helping folks affected by the oil spill. Most people love to get behind youth projects. But we work confidentially with people, many of whom are already in ministry. We have confidential ministries that help people put their marriages back together and confidential mentoring of people who are being helped back to the mission field.”

Precious asked, “Okay, I get it. Are you emphasizing confidentiality because it prevents us from being specific about what God is doing? Don’t we just have to be content to speak in generalities?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I said.  “I just feel sometimes that folks give us about ten seconds to convince them they should be interested in what we do. If you are not ready with an inspiring, yet pithy answer I feel like they conclude it isn’t very interesting. What we do is–well, complex in its simplicity–if that makes sense. Catchy slogans just don’t do it justice, and may even be misleading.”

I noticed that the jug kettle was off meaning it had finished boiling, and I poured the water into the beaker part of the press and arranged the plunger lid. “What is really hard is when we have a great breakthrough with a person who assumed God was absent…or even encounter a tragedy that requires the prayer support of the community, we can’t tell anyone specifics that make it seem real, but it feels pretentious to say we save marriages, or we help pastors and missionaries get back on track, because we are just servants who bring God to people. The Holy Spirit does the work.”

Precious held out her mug as I pressed the plunger down. I poured brown nectar into her cup. “I’ve been looking forward to this aroma, ” she cooed, then shifted the subject: “I’m so thankful for the encouragement I just got from a past student. You need to hear this, too.” She took a careful sip as if to create my anticipation.

“So, what did she say?” I assumed correctly that she was talking about a woman. I sat down after pouring myself a cup.

“Oh, just that she knew what we do is so important, and that she hoped we would keep doing it,” she said, then wheeled on me. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine.” I was lying. The encouraging comment caused one of those little emotional eruptions where you think you are going to cry just for a second, and Precious has a sixth sense for this. I needed the encouragement, but I think our student brought home the reminder that what Emmanuel House does is important. I now wished I could take back the earlier moment with our friends. I now had something relevant to say about the future of Emma House.

I looked at Precious. I could tell she was looking at my eyes. I thought it was the same look she gave me at that closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, where Harry Bailey raises his glass to honor a beleaguered George: “A toast! To my brother, George: the richest man in town!” Without uttering a word we both knew what her non-verbal meant. I always cry at that very moment in the film and Precious always catches me in a less-than-manly moment she loves, but this time the movie wasn’t on and I gathered my composure:

“It’s just that I can answer the question now.” I said, “In future years Emma House will be all over the world, making a difference for the Kingdom. I don’t know if we will be alive then, or if the organization will still be around, but things will be different because of changed lives that ‘pay forward’ what they have received from us, if you know what I mean?”

Precious smiled that sweet smile again. “Aww! I think that’s it,” she said, and raised her cup, and shifted her voice into a mildly-mocking nasal tone. “To my husband, Liam…who just made the worst cup of coffee he has ever made!” She laughed heartily.

I snatched the over-sized cup from her and stared into a spinning vortex of suspended grounds. This was no laughing matter for a coffee snob like me.

I had forgotten to push the button on the kettle to heat the water.

  • What fun to be invited in to this conversation! Send me a support form.

  • Jessica S

    This sounds like the best kind of vision for the future. I'm grateful for you both, as someone who has again and again receive the “pay it forward” ministry from others who have been blessed by you.

  • Brettyohn

    Love your hearts and VISION. A friend who was in our ministry in the late 70's shared a story with me yesterday of a guy from Mexico who was on campus for just one semester. They became friends, he brought him to Challenge, he shared as best he could about Jesus. They reconnected this summer. The Mexican student became an architect in Mexico and then was called into ministry. He started a church that now has 2500 in attendance. With tears my friend told me he had no idea what his impact was. He just found out this summer that this man credits him with the start of his spiritual journey and his minimal contact with him over 25 years as crucial in his growth. The kingdom of God is about smallness before it is about largeness. Be faithful in the small!

  • Lacoach

    That is one of the many things you two do best…teaching us how to be okay with being misunderstood. Thank you for walking the invisible line between dreams-ministry-and-business. You are paving the way, the pioneers for us who follow in your footsteps.

  • What a great idea! I have sent you a special one.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • I think it is the vision that best ties what is going on in our lives with what God is up to in the world. It is why I love little nested Russian dolls. They picture maturity and joy. I think maturity is contentment with being the smallest doll that is hidden in the middle. Joy is a lifetime of seeing people who God brings across our path become “bigger” than we ever imagined we could be. I think most of that joy is reserved for the eschaton, but there is certainly enough joy to curb despair in this fallen world.

  • Thanks for the reminder. Eternal greatness can only be assayed by the Father. I have to trust him because my perception of my impact is way off.

  • As an historian I know the misunderstanding of pioneers is palpable. We pioneers tend to live in soddies rather than Trump Towers. It causes less confusion when we die. (If I had not banned smiley face emoticons from this blog I would insert one here!)

  • kristengeri

    Your guys' ministry is still “paying it forward” in our lives, and now in the life of our son, as well. Not a day goes by when I don't think about all that God did for our personal lives, our marriage and most importantly our relationship with Christ through our time at Emmanuel House. Thanks for all you do.

  • There's nothing I could say that would state my feelings better than what Kristen wrote below. It's still a long road for us, but our ultimate destination will be a very different place thanks to what God did through you and Precious in our lives.

  • Larka

    Wow, so thankful to have been let in to watch this conversation. I love the genuineness, the admittance of struggles and choices in communication moments. Isn't it amazing how a question can start a landslide? You came out with a pearl though, a clearer understanding of what was jumbled. I have loved and benefitted from what you have offered together in various forms. Glad you are able to transform when called upon to do so. It's true, it's hard when something amazing happens and you want others to be able to celebrate and realize something has happened, and be supportive when it is something that is sometimes only witnessed by one or two and gets lost in translation or has to be generalized.

  • Thank you for joining the conversation, Larka. I was surprised at how I reacted to the question and really had to process what was going on. And I was grateful for the question, regardless of how it irritated (no pun on 'pearl' intended) me at the time. I would like to be understood, though, and that was the purpose of allowing others in on what we were wrestling through. I loved your comment!

  • Paparazzi

    Looks like you took a little break–but I overheard a conversation in your front room just the other day. I make it my business to eavesdrop. My favorite pastime. I am known as “Paparazzi”–a result of an obsession I have with a certain Bavarian clergyman who now lives in Vatican City. Perhaps I can tell you more about that later. But for now, I really would like to hear more about Emmanuel House and the ongoing work of the good “Dr.” and his “Precious” wife. Just the few tidbits I heard last Saturday were inspiration enough for me to begin work on a few communication projects myself. And since I am known to be someone who engages in prayer–I will make it my habit to add you to the list!

  • Thank you. Please add us to your list. I had no idea that you were passionate about eavesdropping. I shall have to think that through for my breviary of godly passions.

  • paparazzi

    A breviary of godly passions….hmmmm. In the Roman Church that is a book with everything one needs for a practice of the Litiurgy of the hours. I will be looking forward to this volume from you–one can never hear enough about godly passion–I think it may be rare in this culture we live in. But maybe it's just shy.

  • But the question is, should eavesdropping be included whatever the collection may be?

  • Carmen

    So, I’m just now reading this post for the first time, and thoroughly enjoyed the window into your lives and hearts. I also enjoyed that I could totally picture your movements and posture in the kitchen as you “made coffee” in the midst of conversation.

    I love where your conversation took you. It’s so true. With the Spirit at work, you and Precious have brought lasting change in so many of our lives. God is most definitely continuing to use Emma House to further his Kingdom around the world. If you need stories of proof, I have plenty. 🙂