I was in fourth grade when I first experienced the beauty of community. It was the start of the school year, and, being September, also the month of my birthday. With the fresh scent of newly-purchased shoes and erasers still in the air, a warm summer-like day was welcome. I attended the Catholic school down my street in a tight neighborhood, so running home on a warm day afforded me optimal time to play.
The phone rang shortly after I arrived home. “Hi, Natalie… want to come over?” My friend, Karen, was one of the most thoughtful people in my class; however, the introverted half of my young self longed to play alone, as I’d begun to do more frequently. In the past several months, Karen had called many times inviting me to come over. I had always declined. Yet, her compassionate heart drove her to be persistent. Earlier that year, my father had died suddenly of a heart attack, a shock that whirled me, as well as my older siblings, my mom, and our close-knit community.
“Why don’t you go this time, honey,” my mom encouraged, as I held my hand over the phone, eager for a permissive excuse. She had seen me slowly withdrawing and she trusted the group of friends trying desperately to reach out.
I sighed, pulling my hand off the receiver. “Ok… be there soon,” I said, somewhat resigned. I jumped on my bike, and chose the longer ride to her house down the familiar streets. I’d grown accustomed to meandering on my bike, enjoying the sound of the clickety-clack rhythm of riding the cement sidewalks. I would get lost in thoughts such as why God chose to take my Dad and what heaven might really be like. Even at that young age, I was acutely aware that life was not easy, and faith was not like the mythical stuff of Santa Claus.
When I reached Karen’s house, I noticed a huge pile of bikes, haphazardly leaning on the side of her house. Strange, I dismissively thought. I parked mine on the opposite side and made my way to the door where her mother greeted me, as if waiting for my arrival. “Karen’s downstairs,” she said, indifferently. I made my way to the basement but before reaching the final step, heard a loud shout of “Surprise!” It was only when I looked up, I realized the surprise was a birthday party for me – a band of about 10 girls from my class squealing in delight at their victory! Brightly colored, poorly-hung decorations, draped the basement and a pile of gifts awaited me. They were gathered there for me! I took in the depth of their affection. Karen’s mom glanced my way. “The girls all planned this themselves, completely on their own,” she assured me. Then, Karen signaled her to go upstairs – such a typical thing kids do, as I look back today.
Clearly, weeks of planning and much thought had gone into this party, with little parental involvement. To this day I still have the one collective gift that sat on the pile for me that day, a Holly Hobbie charm with the word, Friendship, engraved on it, along with its now-rusty chain. I promised myself after the party to never lose it or forget those whose thoughtfulness was behind it. I never have. On darker days when I feel like an orphan, I recall that day in Karen’s basement and how easy it was to embrace the celebration.
When did we lose the ability to inhale delight on our behalf?
When a dear one looks us in the eye to bless us, why do we so quickly shrug it off or repel it like we wear impenetrable armor? Scripture gives us examples of people who craved blessings.
We must learn to believe that God longs to restore us as we dig deep into the pain of our stories. The abundant life Jesus promises requires stepping away from the temptation to dismiss a celebration on our behalf and embrace the truth that we are worth it. How often do we pray for healing from wounds of our past, but miss the numerous ways God tries to answer through the blessing of others? As John Eldredge puts it:
“You are not the orphaned child, sitting out in the hall hoping your busy Father will see one of the notes you have pushed under his door… You are a son or daughter of the living God, a friend and ally…” (John Eldredge, Moving Mountains)
Why should we be surprised that he answers through others? Only now, many years later, do I realize the depth of my 9th birthday party in Karen’s basement. God jolted me to see His celebration and delight over me at a pivotal time in my life when withdrawing was already my temptation. Over the decades, and even today, when given an affirming word by another, I try to swallow my instinct and embrace the blessing instead.
Natalie Sum thrives when someone she knows has an “Ah-hah” moment, whether in a classroom, through an online class she’s created or just talking with a friend. She feels most alive cruising on her bike and relishing in God’s creation. She lives in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago.