I grew up amidst a small, tidy farm in central Illinois. The colors that primarily swirl in my memory are the greenness that stretched in acres of corn or soybeans on every side, or the grass that could only be truly experienced through one’s toes. The affectionately flaking bright red of the barn stands tall in my mind, along with the mottled red of the apple trees. And there’s the white of our ancient farmhouse trimmed neatly with black shutters.
I’d never thought of us as financially struggling. Now, my parents were vigilantly frugal. And it didn’t take long to realize a rented John Deere didn’t harvest much cash. But ours was a richness of quality, of closeness. The way my folks saw it, whatever they had belonged to Someone Else, no matter how many zeros were after it.
My dad only rejoiced about having four daughters, despite our days being more inclined toward books or dress-up than the mysteries from the hog confinement. Only later in life, far after I would have had any chance to develop any insecurity over it, do I remember him saying with a shrug, “I always dreamed that I’d be able to pass on the family business, but God just had other plans!” It was always followed with a genuine, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love having girls!”
But with all the demands that spread with the sunrise across our acreage, it seemed as if my parents had a business on the side. They might as well have replaced that slamming screen door with a revolving one, because there was always someone new who needed help on their car, or biblical advice, or a place to stay.
And our guests, even there in Smalltown, U.S.A., were from places as varied as Japan, Russia, Rwanda, Spain. Holidays, even now, have a “wild card” guest: Who knows who God will bring to the table? The green, wide-open spaces outside only seemed surpassed by the open embrace people would find inside—perhaps walking into one of my dad’s muscular bear hugs (all those pigs and bags of feed wouldn’t lift themselves, you know).
It felt as if someone was always reminding me how great my parents were, and how good of care they took of folks. But it wasn’t till high school that I started putting the pieces together. A mentor of mine remarked, “I think your parents are some of the most generous people I know.”
Really? But they’re, well, poor. (Not by international standards, I know now. But they were not, as you’d say, living high on the hog.)
Still, I started seeing how much they just loved on people: in well-cooked meals with laughs as hearty as the food; in jobs unsung or less so for our local church; or in all those people who’d have tears while they were in our living room, but left with their shoulders sitting a little straighter.
I recalled their years of foster care for the babies waiting to be adopted, not absorbing that my mom was up with a baby throughout the night, then a farm and a family throughout the day. I remember that funeral dinner my mom encouraged me to host with her for the man who died of AIDS; the abuse survivors and post-abortive women my folks gently counseled and held; the meals my mom made for people right out of the hospital.
Fast-forward to my dad’s 60th birthday party a couple of months ago. Two hundred people are crowded into the room. All four of us girls have made it, despite living on four continents: The one who’s a pediatric ICU nurse here in the U.S., the one who helps refugees on the Thai-Burma border, the art teacher in England—and me, surprising him by flying in from Africa. My pseudo-adoptive African-American sister is on stage with us; she’s been part of the family for almost a decade now. The party’s in Little Rock, because my folks sold the family farm nearly twenty years ago—my dad’s first move in his life—to become staff with FamilyLife.
Dad has a garage where he fixes about 100 cars a year, in his off-time, mostly for missionaries and single ladies. My parents head up an e-Mentoring program at FamilyLife, do a whole lot of lay counseling on the side, and they’ve actually had to expand their house to accommodate all the guests at what might as well be their bed and breakfast. That farm pace and farm energy mean my parents still seize the opportunities of every day, and I can’t believe how many people they help.
At the party, the emcee has to call it quits on the party’s open mic time after an hour, because there just isn’t enough time for all who want to share, plus those video tributes.
That’s when I tell my dad—there, in front of everyone, feeling a little nervous—that as usual, God’s vision has been so much bigger than what we’d thought. My dad had been thinking of carrying on the family farm. But God was carrying on the family business: of generosity. And it had gone international.
I suppose we all have a family business of sorts; all those little vignettes our kids are stockpiling away about what’s really important to us, what’s worth our blood, sweat, and tears, our finances when we’re strapped and our energy when we’re sapped. Now it’s my turn to see if I can pass on what’s been rolling on for generations: Generosity. Servanthood. Good old-fashioned loving with your life.
Here’s to carrying on the family business.