It was our first date. Zac was unusually cute in his plaid button-up with the sleeves casually rolled up, but it still did not occur to me that I could be eating across from the man I would eat with forever. We had met that summer at a camp where we both were counselors, the same camp where I had come face-to-face with Jesus a few years earlier. I remember cutting my chicken on that date. It was hard to eat because he kept asking me questions, but I was managing.
He asked me what I wanted most in life. It was a great first-date question.
I did not even have to think about it. At that point, my life had flipped toward God. He was incredibly real to me, so I naively but passionately said, “I just don’t want to be normal.”
I realize now that I’d been watching all the families I knew and, I am sure, feeling like a hippie felt in the 60s. I wanted something radical. I had no idea what, but something not normal. I wanted more. Well, Zac loved my answer and drove back up 11 hours to see me again a few weeks later. I married that cute boy, and we started trying to build our not-normal lives together.
Normal felt like a necessity
For a while we felt kind of different. We were young and passionate and adventurous until a few years passed and I took a pregnancy test, and then life changed. Normal felt like a necessity—a mortgage and health insurance and a safe house with a cute nursery. Normal started looking good.
Before our first son was born, we moved closer to family. As I sat with one of my friends from college who was also pregnant with her first, we talked about college and God. We talked about how passionate we had been, how single-mindedly sold out. I said, “I want to stay that way. I don’t want to get numb, and yet I feel myself caring so much more about what stroller to buy than about heaven.”
She replied, “I don’t think it will ever be like college again. We will always look back on those days as our most sold out.”
I was terrified she was right.
I knew that what was happening was common. As real life and responsibilities pressed in, I felt God being pressed out. Religion, church, and Bible study were all in place—but truly surrendered lives, the kind God could use anywhere and in any way He chose, had quickly turned into planned and calculated lives that focused on things like saving for a Suburban or minivan. But was that the way God planned for lives to be lived—people selling out to Him in college or at some point later, only to fondly look back on the glory days while they get on with their expected and ordinary lives?
There had to be more. But there wasn’t much time to think about it—I was due with our first baby and we were looking for our first house and choosing bedding for the nursery. And otherwise, all was well with my soul. To abandon normal seemed scary and uncomfortable, even unreasonable.
Couldn’t I have both? More of God and the life I wanted? I felt Him waiting while I headed into my own little experiment to try.
Lattes and lawns
Not long after we settled in our first house and the baby was born, I went walking with a sweet friend, Aimee, a new mom as well. We had grown up in similar ways, with most of our needs and even our desires met.
As we walked around the neighborhood, it became obvious that Aimee was worked up, even teary. She was broken about this new-found conviction she felt. She wanted more. She believed that her heart had become “entitled.” I was struck by the word. I was afraid I was about to come across the first roadblock in my plan … my plan to have it all and God too.
She talked about her expectations of a cute house, a safe school, and good friends. And while those weren’t bad things, she wondered if those expectations had come from God. Or were we just living, expecting all of it to be there for us? Had our hearts become demanding? If God did not give us and our kids a safe and comfortable life, was He holding out on us?
I knew she was right. Our first little house was located near my parents and only a few blocks from my best friends from college. The nursery was painted to match the bedding and my little baby boy had enough gear to care for five kids. I was on my way to the dream, but I felt the numb God-distance creeping in like a cancer. What if the things I thought He wanted for me, once again, were the very things keeping me from Him?
Before we go on, I should divulge just a little of our current life. I am sitting at my desk in a warm, lovely office in a home that we own—or at least that we make payments to eventually own. I am wearing a North Face fleece and I even have a real, live flower, a white orchid, on my desk—a luxury even in America. (We’ll see if I can keep it alive.) I am sipping Starbucks—the high-maintenance kind with multiple flavors and whipped cream—and outside sits a decent-sized SUV that requires a lot of gas. My kids have a Wii and a trampoline.
Surrender is a process for us. In the years since we completely gave ourselves over to God, our lives have changed drastically, but so far we have not moved and sold all we own and given the money to the poor.
I can’t talk about this subject without transparency. I can’t mislead you into thinking that in order to surrender to God completely you must sell all material possessions or houses or SUVs. But I do want to expose the protected bubble of expectations we have built. Money and a good latte protect us from a lot of things. It is too easy in this country for blessings to become rights, for stuff and money to become what calls the shots in our lives. And before we know it, God’s gifts have replaced God Himself.
But what is normal, really?
If we pull back from our culture for a moment, we realize that the majority of people are dying today because they do not have clean water to drink … while I am watering my grass so the neighbors won’t frown. And even those of us who are struggling to make ends meet—let’s say your family’s annual income is $30,000—are still in the top one percent of the world’s richest people.
Soon after Aimee and I walked together down the lane in front of my new house, I went home to my husband, who was climbing the corporate ladder with very little joy or passion, and told him I was willing to follow him and leave my family and the new painted nursery and my best friends … if God called us to something else. A few months later Zac came to me, feeling a tug to pursue ministry, and a few months after that the house was on the market.
I was certainly not willing to do anything for God back then, but I can say a lot died for me. It was another step in letting go—a step in dying to my picture of normal, my picture of a perfect nursery and a perfect life.
Little deaths always feel like big deaths until you let go. After you let go you wonder, What was the big deal?
A new normal
As my friend Aimee and I pushed our strollers outside my safe, comfy house, she was feeling discontent with a life spent pining for the perfect school and cute house in a safe neighborhood. She wanted more. She wanted to tell God she would give it all up for Him, for any life He had for her, rather than fighting for the normal one she’d wanted. At the time she had no picture of what it would be … just a prayer asking God to be God and her promise that she would follow.
Aimee and I talked recently while her husband and oldest daughter were in Haiti helping with recovery efforts. We talked about God and life and giving ourselves away. She called me from Memphis, where they have helped start a church that is part of reconciling a racially divided city. They live in the inner city, hours from her family, with their three beautiful girls in a small house where gunshots can be heard fairly frequently. They don’t have the perfect school or house or really anything.
They are displaying the gospel, and there is nothing normal about their lives. And every time I get off the phone with her, all I want is to have nothing normal about our lives. She still bleeds God, and her life is being poured out on the neediest and the most broken. She traded entitlement for surrender, and God took her up on it.
What if heaven and God and forever became our normal?
Wouldn’t that change everything?
This article is excerpted from Jennie Allen’s latest book, Anything: The Prayer That Unlocked My God and My Soul (2012, Thomas Nelson). www.JennieAllen.com