Post Author: Sara Anne Berger
It’s time to write my sermon, so of course I’m procrastinating online, scrolling past the posts and pictures of other people’s lives. A wide spectrum of life is here: weddings, family vacations, and cute little babies. I like this connection to my friends, and I smile at the photos. I scroll on, but then I see it: a picture of a newly purchased house. The green-eyed monster rears its ugly head now. A house. Weddings and babies barely register, but when someone posts pictures of a house, I come undone.
Even knowing the burden of a mortgage, of constant upkeep, doesn’t quell my initial surge of jealousy. Even knowing that an internet profile is a carefully curated perfection of a much more complex life doesn’t help. Pictures of playrooms, updated decks, and recently rearranged furniture end with me breaking the tenth commandment. This irrational jealousy would be explainable if my living situation were sub-par, if I were crammed into a miniscule apartment or trying to survive in some dilapidated dwelling, but my intense envy doesn’t make sense because I do have a house.
Well, it’s not really mine. I live in a manse.
I’m a proponent of the manse system, noting how it benefits smaller churches that otherwise couldn’t offer a housing allowance, how it benefits young clergy saddled with debt and poor credit who otherwise couldn’t buy a house, how it helps churches in less-attractive areas call pastors because there’s no need to buy a house there. I remain a proponent, when practical, of manses.
I am grateful for the manse I live in, since I serve a small church in a dying town where houses go up for sale almost every day and then stay that way for years. I am young, and in debt, unwilling to buy property which I could never sell, and committed to serving the small church. The manse benefits me.
But this manse, in particular, is a relic of a different time, of a time when my church and this town were bustling with life, when employment was available, and, most important, when the minister was married with children. None of this is the case now, especially that last item. I am single, childless, and living in a manse created for family. My house has ten rooms, some of which are basically barren. It’s not that I’m much of a minimalist, it’s that this house is far bigger than the life I have.
To be clear, I am aware what a blessing it is to have space. I know what other people would give for this luxury. I take full advantage of having work space and living space and sleeping space. But to be honest, it’s also overwhelming. There are so many empty places, so many half-finished spaces, and just one little me. This house doesn’t fit me. This house is made for a person with a different life, for a person with things I don’t have.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the house is half-filled and unfurnished, it feels like my life is half-filled and unfurnished. Sometimes it feels like all this space is taunting me for the things I’ve failed to do, all the things I seem to lack. You still haven’t filled these rooms! You don’t have anyone to share this space! You don’t have any reason for a back yard and a huge kitchen! Look at the big, empty areas of your life! This mild paranoia makes me grateful that walls can’t actually talk.
But fear of what the walls would say also shows that the root of my house envy is something deeper than longing for wraparound porches and the Craftsman style. What I want is what I see in those Facebook pictures—but what I see is a home. Not the place, not the furnishings, but the people who will fill those places and live in those rooms. My friends, posting their new digs, look like they feel at home, like they are home. Offline, I can’t even remember what the houses look like, because the house isn’t really what matters; it’s that sense of home, of comfortable settledness, of shared life that I remember. And no matter what I put in it, this house doesn’t feel like a home to me. It feels too big, and too empty, and I feel lonely and unsettled in it.
In one of my bible study sessions, we looked at the passage where Jesus sends out the disciples. Folks in the group latched on to various parts of the text, but I was taken by these words: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”
For me, the consolation of these extracted verses is that the disciples stayed in houses which were not their own while they did the work of the kingdom. And I bet those houses didn’t always feel right. I bet at times they longed for their own beds and familiar faces. I bet that even when the peace of God fell on them, that not every house felt like home.
And though there’s little I share with those brave disciples, all the same, I am in a house that isn’t mine, and doesn’t feel like home. I remind myself that not only did the disciples live this way, but the Lord who sent them did, too. There’s an unsettledness to the Gospel story that comforts me as I wrestle with longing for the feeling of home. If I feel unsettled, at least I am in good company.
In a more inspirational piece, this is where I would explain how I’ve overcome my feelings of jealousy and longing with that knowledge. But I haven’t yet. I know I can make a good life, just as I am, where I am, but I am still in the middle, hoping for a reason for all this space.
I also know, even when I sense empty places in my life, that I carry gifts that a house, even a big, empty house, can never contain. I’m overwhelmed with space, but also overwhelmed with grace and love. I bear truths that walls can’t hold and am sheltered not just by a roof, but by Almighty wings. And more important, I know my Lord didn’t call me to live a tailor-made life; he’s called me to proclaim the peace of God and the nearness of the kingdom. And, perhaps, he has called me to live “settled” in a way that looks different from many others. As I work through envy and covetousness, I pray that peace will not only fall on the homes and people I encounter, but that peace would also fall on my own heart and my own house, and make it a home.
Rev. Sara Anne Berger is the minister of a small PC(USA) church in South Carolina. She is an MDiv/MACE graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Image by: Russell Lee
Used with permission