By Sara Elsner
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” – Zechariah 4:10
As I finally began to hand-scratch what God had already put on my heart weeks ago for my first Mommentor article, Hurricane Harvey was making its Cat4 landfall 200 miles southwest of us near my hometown of Victoria. We in the Houston area were “hunkering down” for the slower torture of flooding from Harvey’s weakened state that would most certainly come our way. We also knew from our own previous experiences with both successful and unsuccessful literal 5mph-gridlock evacuations for hurricanes, as well as the flooding from lingering tropical storms, that the instruction from Houston’s city and county officials to “stay home” was the wisest and safest possible recommendation for everyone affected by Harvey due to its unique characteristics.
Difficulty and challenge were imminent regardless.
A page and a half later, which equaled a day or two, due to my inability to focus on anything but rain gauge reports, weather radar images, and rescue stories, I was forcing my pen against the constant background noise of deluge against my window. That sound that would have normally been relaxing was now a threatening taunt of the overwhelming – regarding rescue efforts as well as the massive recovery effort that would occupy us for months or years.
And then I realized that God was showing me how that “threatening taunt of the overwhelming” was exactly the way I should communicate what He had originally put on my heart. So I started over.
“Do not despise these small beginnings………”
During the course of our immediate area receiving its 50+ inches of rainfall from Harvey, many Houstonians had been forced from their homes that were filling rapidly with water, many requiring boat rescues from areas that had very quickly become impossible to flee. Others experienced the entry and exit of a foot or less of water within the course of day, so even before the rains had completely stopped, some people had begun the arduous task of ripping up the wet carpet and flooring. When the flood waters on roads and freeways had finally receded enough for some of our family to reach Charlie’s parents’ home, we were able to begin the removal of wet and smelly carpet, baseboards, and sheetrock, revealing the concrete foundation of their home within each room, as well as the studs within the walls. This type of work was beginning in every home in their neighborhood, as well as in thousands of other homes throughout the Houston area. Some of our family was also ripping wet carpet at the building that our church Grace Houston calls home. (Check out the Grace Houston Facebook page to see the drone footage of the flooding within the church building.)
The tasks before us are daunting, and it really takes discipline to “not despise these small beginnings”, especially when those beginnings are in the form of bare, wet foundations that need cleaning from the smelly carpet that has already begun to mold, and we are so far from our goals of finishing well.
And that is how parenting, and particularly mothering, can feel. At least that is how it has honestly felt for me at times – that “threatening taunt of the overwhelming” that tries to make us question the value of beginning, much less beginning again and again, in order to finish well.
I remember the shock and trauma that accompanied the joy of the first weeks at home with Isaac, our first newborn. I also remember the shock to all of my systems – physical, emotional, ideological, and spiritual – as I experienced the stark contrast of loving and nurturing this real life in my arms vs. cuddling the ideal “bundle” I thought motherhood would be. Those first weeks of Isaac’s life were a rude awakening – literally – several times a night, of my own awareness of how unprepared I was to be the unselfish Proverbs 31 ideal I had dreamed to be, whose “children arise and call her blessed”. Instead, I was a wife who wanted her husband to “praise her” at the day’s end for just succeeding in getting dressed!
As time went by I started to “grow up” a little, and our family continued to grow both in age and in number of children. Charlie and I were heading toward our shared desire to have a large family, with children who would be discipled by us to be Christ-followers and world changers with a biblical worldview.
That was our dream, and I do believe it was a desire that God had authored within our hearts. But the reality of what each day looked like provided an entry to “that threatening taunt of the overwhelming” and a temptation to “despise these small beginnings.”
There were poop spills, ear infections, pediatrician visits, antibiotics, stomach flu’s, phonics, multiplication tables, grocery trips with an increasing number of children and half-hour long potty trips in the family restroom. There were pre-ballet class hair bun battles, wardrobe wars, orthodontics, peer pressure, frenemies, cell phones, crushes, driver’s education, and fender benders.
This reality has created the “taunting threats of the overwhelming” in the “small beginnings” of every season I have mothered. And it is very reasonable, and probably healthy, that my ideals of figuratively photo-shopping my children and myself into the “Few of My Favorite Things” scene of the Sound of Music have all been blown away by the reality of the “small beginnings” seasons. However, I have to guard my heart to keep from deferring the destiny that I have heard God whisper to the high volume of my own understanding and circumstance. I have also had to lean hard on God’s grace when I have seen myself fall so short of the Maria Von Trapp kind of mom I had wanted to be.
“…for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin...”
When “the work began” for me as a mother, it was in miscarriage. By the 10th or 11th week of our first pregnancy we could still not hear the baby’s heartbeat, and an ultrasound was scheduled. The quiet technician said she was not allowed to comment on what she saw. A second ultrasound was scheduled a few days later by my doctor to determine if development had occurred, and to hopefully see a fluttering blink of a heartbeat. In the meantime, other signs began to tell me that we would not. After that second ultrasound that confirmed the miscarriage, we entered the elevator to join a pregnant woman with a plump baby belly. I crumpled and sobbed in Charlie’s arms. We drove to a nearby small town and watched a Little League game played by children we did not know, and wondered about our child we would not know this side of heaven. I wondered if we would ever know the joy of having children.
The “work” of parenting began very small for us. But the work began. And we began again nine more times (we had another miscarriage between our 6th and 7th babies), and for each of our 8 babies we had the joy of bringing home with us, the “firsts” and “small beginnings” and the “work beginning” were new kinds of overwhelming. After our first son Isaac, we had our first daughter, Grace. Our third-born Olivia (named after the college friend who led me to Jesus as my Savior) was the baby who caused Charlie and me to be outnumbered, and the first baby I could not successfully breastfeed. Then our fourth-born Ben was the first Christmas Day baby in the family, as well as the first family member on either side with Downs Syndrome. Our fifth-born Gloria, was the first baby God gave us after trusting God’s promise I heard him speak to me when Ben was born. Then our Noah, our sixth, was born during the first year of the new millennium.
Then we moved from our 1600 square foot house with six kids age 8 and under to a bigger house, but again it became a small beginning, and the work began, and I learned I did not do transition and exhaustion well. In hindsight I was also trying very hard to do people-pleasing well, with a lifestyle that wasn’t exactly mainstream, if you know what I mean. Throw in another miscarriage, my grandma’s death, more exhaustion from homeschooling 4 children since Ben was now kindergarten age and requiring time-intensive interaction due to his special needs….and then a local community tragedy involving a family with a demographic slightly similar to ours….and I cracked.
I hit a “ground level zero” months before 9/11 ever happened. My heart and my mind were hit with fear, anxiety, and depression that fed, and fed on, that “taunting threat of the overwhelming.” I had night-shakes and then woke up to being afraid to begin my day at all, much less with six children. I have to mention here that my husband Charlie was a perfect rock for this very imperfect and broken perfectionist woman to lean on. He prayed for me and arranged for help. He prayed over me, even sang over me in the middle of the haunting night trembles. Then morning would come. And the Lord would rejoice to see the work begin.
There is more to tell of how mornings became less and less dreaded in this broken season of fear, depression, and breakdown, but for now, suffice it to say the Lord rejoiced not only to see the work begin again each day, but to fight the battle for me and repair and equip and arm me to begin the work again…small beginnings to hope and believe again that I could mother with a mission, no matter how imperfect my process. But I now carried within me some equity of God’s trustworthiness because of my complete dependence on God, for I had been broken and carried.
So to finish introducing our family to you, a seventh beginning named Mercy was born about 18 months after my “breakdown/shutdown” and 30 months after Noah’s birth – the largest gap between our children. And less than two years later, God gave us our eighth and lastborn Emma, months after our firstborn became a teenager.
“…to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.”
Who in the world is Zerubbabel? Look no further than the verse prior to the focus scripture for his bio:
“Zerubbabel is the one who laid the foundation of this Temple, and he will complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has sent me.” – Zechariah 4:9
These verses in Zechariah 4 are referencing the effort to rebuild the Temple after the exile of Israel. Zerubbabel had laid its foundation, and a plumb line would be used as the standard of straightness by which the building upon it would be measured. Difficulty and challenge were imminent, regardless of whether or not they had the backing of the human authorities of their time. They also had become very aware of their own limitations in many areas.
Back to the present reality of Harvey recovery and how that relates to parenting. Our family has been blessed in that while we spent days being flooded in within our neighborhood, watching the levels rise and then drain from our street and yard, we were not directly affected by our home being flooded. We do have so many friends and family who were, however. I have prayed, made meals, and sent messages as I have seen the social media posts of too many dear people who have had water standing in their homes, some who have had to be rescued. We received a call just after midnight on Day 2 of Harvey’s extended stay that Charlie’s parents had about a foot of water in their house. Our daughter and her husband had 10 inches and complete power loss in their first floor apartment. We saw footage of the huge intake of water that our church building received. We chomped at the bit wanting to wipe up Harvey’s spills in the homes of our friends, family, and church, partly to begin the work, and partly to silence the “threatening taunt of the overwhelming.” We also watched rescues, realizing each one we saw in the media represented hundreds of unseen rescues that were happening, and many more that needed to.
City and county officials called on private citizens with boats to join in the rescue efforts. We watched story after story of rescues done by “neighbors helping neighbors.” Many people may have been tempted to cynically wonder how one fishing boat owner’s small effort could make a dent in the large numbers of people whose lives were at stake. Our family had just seen the movie Dunkirk the week prior to Harvey’s landfall – incredible parallels exist between this portrayal of this true but terrifying event in history, when each man’s effort, and also in this case, each man’s boat, did count for the saving of lives, as well as the maintaining of a standard.
And a plumb line was again followed – to “do the next right thing,” as my mentor-author Elisabeth Elliott has said. And no matter how daunting and how small the beginning appeared, with each attempt there was rejoicing when the work began.
We are now in the cleanup stages of Harvey’s aftermath. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have had my home flooded, even though I am very close to and helping cleanup homes of people who have. For all of us involved in the cleanup and rebuilding of homes and of life there is that “threatening taunt of the overwhelming” as we pull up and get rid of stuff that will only be harmful if left to mold.
In our flooded church building at Grace Houston, when the carpet was removed in the sanctuary, it was beautiful to see the exposed foundation and the Scriptures that had been written on it.
There can also be the temptation to “despise these small beginnings” as we begin to restore what has been damaged by the storm, knowing some things are too valuable to be given up on.
Likewise, there are storms in parenting and in motherhood. Difficulty and challenge are imminent. When they come, and we do the small beginnings of the “next right thing”, the LORD rejoices to see the work begin. Foundations are exposed, and promises are revealed so that they are remembered. And we can trust the One who rejoices to equip us to finish strong.