The Sheltered Becomes the Shelterer
by Heather Lehman
This article is featured in the current Shelter issue of DOP. To see more content from this edition click here to order a copy.
I received the best birthday present of my childhood when I turned two—a baby doll with a laughing face, blinking eyes, and soft body. I named her Cindy and bonded with her like a mother with her newborn daughter. Cindy went everywhere with me, slept every night with me, and was my most treasured possession. Growing up, my sister and I thrived on protecting flightless baby birds, sightless kittens, and lifeless dolls. We knew when we were needed, and we rose to the challenge—rigging up a nest for the hatchling and hanging it close to the mother bird’s nest, returning kittens to their mother, and making sure the dolly had everything she needed for an outing to the farmers’ market. We were learning to offer shelter to those who depended on us.
At the same time, we had no concern for ourselves. If we took bottles for the baby doll, we never worried about water for ourselves. We knew our parents were more capable than the mother bird who could do nothing for her fallen chick. Supper was always on the table, towels were always on the line, and the car always ran just fine.
My parents taught us to work. We helped put supper on the table and hang out the towels. We helped fill the jars with food for winter and pick the beans to sell. We carried bushels of potatoes, but not stress. Whether or not supper burned, or a thunderstorm blew up, or the jars sealed, we chattered and goofed off and knew everything would be just fine. Sheltered under their protection and authority, we were secure.
My parents gave me Cindy, but they also gave me the gift of work—a gift far more enduring. Confident in my ability to work hard, I thought adulthood would be a breeze.
I never figured in the stress. I never factored in not knowing if everything really would be fine. It is one thing to know how to make supper; it is quite another to be responsible for supper seven evenings a week.
I moved away from home, and it took me three months to gather enough courage to get internet installed. When the bathroom sink decided to come off the wall and the shower started to leak, I placed strategic buckets and warned my visitors about the bathroom’s quirks. I was slow to ask for help, desperately wanting to be the independent adult woman I thought I would be.
Soon after renting my apartment, stress hit. I realized I was not going to get the painting done before I needed to leave to get my belongings. A man from my new church looked me straight in the eye. “You are part of a team, now, Heather.” I gulped. A team? That didn’t sound very independent and adult-like. I painted alone late into the night. But the next day, while I bused home, the rest of my team finished painting my apartment. I did need them. For the next two years, while I lived alone in that apartment, I would learn a thousand times over that I still needed help. I was learning to seek shelter even as a single, independent adult.
In my effort to cope with the stresses of my new adulthood, I lost some of my desire to protect. Once upon a time, I had loved to shelter the vulnerable, but I had done that from a place of security. Now that I felt vulnerable, I found myself closing in to protect myself. I had neighbor girls coming to my apartment nearly daily. I had children who wanted to be my friend. I had immigrant women who wanted to learn English. And yet, how could I pull them all in and love them well when I was still stewing over when someone would realize if I did not come home one evening?
Adulthood brings ironies. We are called on to shelter others at the time we feel most exposed. We may have been doting mothers to dolls in our childhood, but now we wonder, “Who will take care of me?” We may have been carefree teenagers with dreams of working at an orphanage, but now we fear the strain of increased responsibility or sleepless nights.
I’m a few years into this adulting thing, and I’ve decided the only way to be the giving, sheltering woman I long to be, is to remain secure in the protecting hand of God.
Soon after I moved away from home, I was walking along soggy sidewalks to a subway station. Rain pattered on my red umbrella, but I was dry. Warm, cozy fingers wrapped around me there on that cold, gray afternoon. Was I vulnerable and alone? Yes, but I did not feel that way at all. I knew I was where God wanted me; I knew He had opened doors to bring me here; I knew He would not abandon me now. The umbrella symbolized for me the protection of God. Over the weeks and months ahead, my faith in God’s sheltering umbrella would wax and wane, but whenever I could accept the reality of His care, I could live boldly and fearlessly. I could love my neighbors, welcome the girls, tutor the children. Safely sheltered, I could shelter others.
When I got married, another umbrella—a tall, handsome one—bent over me. I am still, most importantly, under God’s protection, but I am learning to love the sheltering of my husband as well. I can resist his leadership, struggle to submit, and push my way through. But if I welcome his authority, it brings a great sense of security. Again, I am safely sheltered, and this gives me great freedom to shelter others.
When I look forward, I can feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities and duties on the horizon. Stress can hit again and cause me to think thoughts of selfpreservation. But if I look up, I remember that God is still above all and still holding His hand over me. He has given me a place of refuge, and I can step boldly forward because I need no other shelter than the one found in Him.
Heather Lehman rejoices in variety. She loves hiking in the mountains, exploring cities, browsing international grocery stores, tending plants, and tutoring immigrants in English. After growing up on a produce farm in Virginia and spending a few years in New York City, she’s made her home with her groom who currently lives in a university town in Indiana. She’s the editor of Light Magazine, a publication for teenage young women. www.lightmag.org.