This temporary country of ours

For a family of five, it’s allegedly a $150,000 price tag to achieve the type of American dream some feel or hope our forefathers hopped on a boat to gift us.

In the type of story I used to write editorials about at my old newspaper job, USA Today wrote on Independence Day that for most of us the dream of home-ownership, one SUV, college educations for our two kids, a comfy retirement, the whole works — all that makes this a land of opportunity — is really much too expensive. Are these the dreams, though, that we’re really pointing toward? Should they be? They’re not evil in themselves. But for the energy we spend toward achieving them … if this story depresses, maybe it’s because we feel a little misled? Maybe?

It’d be easy to read this article and say “Well, I don’t spend that much on groceries; I don’t have cable. I don’t even have a TV right now. There. I can do it on much less than $130K, or $150K if I spring for the third child. I’d be happy on half that.”  So the kids’ll have to take out loans; so we rent. End of story.

It’s much more difficult to resist that dream that pulls us like a current toward it if we’re not standing firm off shore. It’s much more difficult to walk upstream than chase the jobs that would buy that dream, or the credit it’d take to provide that illusion. It’s hard to live like the sparrows and the lilies when we want better cars and dry basements.

Independence Day, for the churchy, is a chance some Christians and new monastics mark our citizenship in the kingdom of God. What a beautiful example of the anti-American dream; God’s economy and dreams for us are always much richer than the American dream. I could wax about that one, but as I’ve spent the weekend with my mom, and as I’m thinking about my three aging and tired grandparents, my mind’s not on citizenship. It’s on dreams, expectations; the shortness of life. My slow annual-ish walk through the Bible landed me in Ecclesiastes, too. Everything’s meaningless.

Except, a lot remains, you know? My family’s large and Grandpa’s influence on his family and his community stretches farther than we’ll know; but we believe because he first did, and we give because he first did. So, where did he learn it?

“What is our story? Why did our family come from Germany?” We looked over the Grand River and mom admitted we don’t know.

Was it religious freedom? More opportunities? Money? Land? Family? Our memories couldn’t even pull up whether it was Grandpa’s grandparents or his great-grandparents who came over. “I don’t know.”

“We need these stories. No one remembers anymore, and it wasn’t really that long ago. Why didn’t anyone think we might need to know those stories?”

“They were probably trying too hard to just live. Or maybe they didn’t think it was that interesting.”

This frustrates me. We have a book some relative gave us — the official family tree. We have a name, a hometown. But the name doesn’t contain the story, does it. It doesn’t say why. It’s lost. Maybe that’s why the stories Moses wrote fascinate me: we, too, can be a people wondering who we are. What’s our Genesis?

(Of course, our personal stories aren’t as important as God’s story; our genealogies are meaningless once we’re adopted in His family. But identity, well … it tells us about ourselves, right? And it’s OK, I think, to spend a week or a blog exploring the givers of our DNAs.)

Long before us, our imperfect, human great-great-somethings got on boats, said goodbye to family in Germany, and came here. I bet it was hard. I bet they had cold, hard Februarys, too. I bet they had regrets. But I bet their dreams for something else feel a lot like mine.

We can lose that human craving for something else when we look at the status quo. We’ve lost these stories of those before us who did hard things. As a keeper of stories, I mourn that, and wonder if maybe this is one of the many unspoken reasons people walk away from church and the Kingdom of God? Have we lost our courage? Does it all sound a bit too fantastic?

(There’s a chance I’m romanticizing this: I’ve also spent two days reading Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!”, and you must read it right now. Go.)

But there’s also a chance I’m finding a new way of asking an old question: What am I doing here?

OK, generically speaking, if our families came for better opportunities, is this it, this dream of having it all? Maybe. It’s human to want better stuff for less money, less work.

Or did they ever look out over some ripened wheat as the sun was setting and said “This, this is it,” though it wasn’t quite home?  I get that.

I hope the future has the Internet so my great-great somethings will know: this little family got on a boat. It wasn’t a literal one, but we felt the call of the sea and we answered that by pointing our boats toward the life that had more mornings in Bible stories over oatmeal; lazy afternoons with sheets on the clothes line, more books.

May our dreams never rely on money; may our kids’ imaginations be filled with stories they can see their parts in. May we choose the adventure, even when that looks like laundry on a clothesline for a while.

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