In our town there are two great houses that sit across the street from one another, each with very different kinds of families. But they have this in common: they take in children without homes.
The Two Houses
The first house is the House of Belonging: the parents have one biological son, and scores of adopted children. This son has the charge of inviting any child without home or family to come live there. If a child came to live there, she was asked if she wished join the family. If the child did, the parents drew up an adoption certificate.
“If you or anyone questions whether or not you are my child,” the father tells them, “ just look at this. You are my child forever. It’s settled in writing.” Every boy and girl living there has such a paper. They keep it in their pockets, some in a wallet or a purse, some put them on the wall next to their beds, some place them under their pillows. Everyone has one.
The second house is the House of Maybe. They also welcome all comers, but when they come, they are not welcomed by the father, and they are told by the older kids they have no right to expect any guarantees. Time will tell if they are part of the family. How much time? No one knows.
The Family Businesses
It will come as no surprise that the houses are very big (and rather old) and there is much work to be done at both. But work plays a very different role at each house. At the House of Belonging, children are charged with taking care of one another and helping those in town who are not so fortunate as to have a loving family or other needful things. The children get paid for their work, the money is held in trust until they turn 21. If they do not work, they do not get paid. Those who work enjoy it so much that, when they see their pay stub, they often feel as if they haven’t earned it, that it was just more of the father’s generosity being lavished on them. Their counterparts across the street agree with them: the Belonging kids should just be happy to not be living on the street. They should work to earn their keep, and not get anything more.
“But that is how our father wants it,” the Maybe kids are told.
At the Maybe House, wages are only a matter of rumor. There are several lines of thought. Some feel that their wages are also being held back, that they they will receive them perhaps at the same time they get their adoption paper. Of those, some think they will all receive the same stipend, regardless of how much they work. Others think maybe the parents are tracking their hours and will pay them according to the time and value of their labors.
Still others think they are merely earning their keep, and they will not and should not get paid on top of room and board.
But everyone in the House of Maybe is too busy thinking about belonging to give wages much thought. Most are sure that somehow the work is tied to their adoption. Our work will prove we are his children, or it will prove we deserve to be. If we work enough, we will see the father, and he will tell us we are his children.
The Fathers Face-to-Face
Every year, a few children will move out of each of the houses. Sometimes they go live across the street. A Maybe child learns of the adoption papers and the wages. Or a Belonging child becomes convinced that Maybe kids work harder, and it’s probably because Belonging kids have it too easy — and what if those adoptions aren’t even real?
One year the defections from the Maybe House to the Belonging House became too much for the Maybe father, and he went across the street to confront his rival.
“Welcome to the House of Belonging!”
“We call it the House of Slack,” Maybe said, smirking. “You give everything and demand nothing.”
“Actually the work is very demanding,” Belonging replied. “But it is voluntary. They are children after all. It’s our job to provide and protect.”
“And you pay them!”
“Well,” the other father said, “it pleases me to reward them for their work. First, when they go out, they do the work that I love to see done in our town. Second, they represent me out there. They bear the name of this family — my family. They hold a light over this house and mark it as place of love and safety and healing. If strangers were doing this for me, I would pay them, but they can’t do it — only my children can. Third, when they work together, and face their challenges and victories together, it is in that they truly become brothers and sisters. And lastly, I have not yet given them everything. One day, I intend for them to govern this house, and others of their own, and this work and the growth and maturity it fosters is the best preparation for them. In the end they will be like me, my grown daughters and sons.
“And they enjoy it because they know who they are. That they have a mother and father at home who love them. They have our name. They sleep easy at night. When trouble comes, we rally around that kid and pour out more love on her.”
“Do you deny that some of your kids are slackers?”
“No. Some may be poor stewards so far of what they’ve been given, but they are still my children. I may disapprove, but I never turn away. And they can reverse course at any time.”
“Well, my kids work harder because I’ve given them more to work for than just pocket change.” He stuck his chest out a little. “I’ve raised the stakes.”
“You sure have. In each of their little hearts, none of them knows but they are still a homeless child with a temporary dwelling in which they might not belong. They work in hopes that you may adopt them, or to learn you already have. But they never know. So they have what to them feels like probation: love conditioned on their behavior. Maybe-love.”
“Its not conditional,” Maybe objected. “It’s completely arbitrary! Kids, they’re all the same to me. Some’ll get that hat tip, some won’t. The thing that counts is, I’m the one who decides.”
“Well, in one important way we’re very much alike: our loyal children will grow up to be just like us.”
“Yes, and mine won’t come to expect what they haven’t earned.”
“Certainly not. At our house we call that grace. And I’m happy to report, many of my children have come to realize they can expect it from me, and they get it every day.”
“And that’s why you end up with the worst kids in town. You can have ‘em.”
Belonging lit up. “Hey, thanks! The worst kids are my favorites. They love our grace. You know, I think you’re starting to get me.”
“No, I don’t get you!” With that he turned and started home.
Smiling, the father of Belonging House called after him.
“Say, tell your kids to be careful crossing the street. When they come over, they always run.”