Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Hearts and Hope Chests
What is the meaning of life?
The “meaning of life” has been searched out and pondered since long before history found its way into text books. As a matter of fact, Adam and Eve were searching for the meaning of life when they argued over the apple in the Garden. The Apostle Paul realized his entire life had been a search for its meaning while he was walking that dusty road to Damascus. Marco Polo, John Wycliffe and Joan of Arc were all taking a deep look into the past trying desperately to decide on the meaning of life. Sir Thomas More and King Henry the VIII argued until their deaths about what life really meant and countless men and women whom call themselves philosophers have followed in their footsteps. The question in itself has such an elusive nature to it that any sensible answer provided to it seems to expire with the great thinker who was brave enough to whisper the answer. And so, for century after century, humanity has very nearly squandered their existence as they wandered through life aimlessly, void of any knowledge of how to fashion their reality of breathing, talking and crossing things off their lists into something that actually resembles life.
Ah, but life does exist. We’ve been blessed enough to see it with our own eyes if we were wise enough to know what we were seeing. We know that some people do find the answer to the question, because their very lives leave a mark on the heart of history. It seems some people were just meant to live and since wandering and squandering was never meant for princesses, we know once upon a time, someone somewhere must have passed along the secret meaning of life. Perhaps, the true meaning of life was penned with the finest of quills onto the most delicate pieces of parchment and placed behind the seal of an ancient glass bottle to be protected and passed down from generation to generation. Or maybe there is a special code quietly recited to princesses in their infancy by handmaidens who scarcely understand the depth and meaning of the words they speak. It is possible that loving fathers cradle tiny princesses in their arms and while they intend to think loving thoughts about their daughters’ futures, that the meaning of life magically replaces those thoughts. Yes, all those fancy imaginings make for some stunningly constructed bedtime stories and have certainly earned their place on many a pink bookshelf, but where fairly tale and fantasy end, a brave and beautiful truth stands. That truth has given countless, special people the ability to draw a fine line between merely being alive and living a full and momentous life that makes a difference, not just to the person living it, but to all those he or she comes in contact with. That truth has been hidden, sold, twisted and torn a million times since it was first spoken, but it has always managed to remain pure and powerful. It has tucked itself between pages of the very best books, hitchhiked itself across the planet on the most beautiful journeys and found itself in the most peculiar of places. And today, it longs to tell its story, not on a bright marquee or stealing fame from the famous, but instead, by tucking itself away in an old, dusty box and patiently waiting for you to find your treasure. May the adventure of realizing the true meaning of life be a story you tell your children’s children’s children!
The Tale of Two Boxes
Once upon a time, in two very different cities, lived two very different girls with very different lives. In fact, these two young ladies couldn’t have been any less similar if they had actually met each other in person and spent weeks devising a devilish plan to see how different they could pretend to be. And the differences we’re talking about go far beyond hair color and fashion sense. These girls were different in the quiet places of their hearts that nudged their thoughts in one direction or another. They were different types of the same kind.
And yet, as fate would have it, their lives painted pictures that tell of the same story. The story doesn’t seem the same, mind you. Their stories appear to be in sharp contrast of the other, but in reality, they are very much the same tale spelled, drawn and painted out by two very different girls with two very different experiences that started with two very different fathers who each gifted his daughter with very nearly identical boxes.
Elizabeth turned twelve years old the day her father covered her eyes with his calloused, work-stained hands and led her into a room filled with family to surprise her with her very own hope chest. Elizabeth had read about hope chests in her novels about pioneer families, so she knew exactly what she’d been given. In her most precious conversations with her mother, she’d whispered about things she would love to tuck away in a hope chest for her own daughter one day, but she never imagined having one to fill with her very own treasures. She breathed deeply, taking in the sharp aroma of the cedar chest as she slowly raised the lid to reveal that her chest wasn’t empty. A handmade quilt, an antique silver coin and a few ceramic dishes she’d previously admired were tucked away inside.
“Do you love it?” her father asked.
“I do,” Elizabeth replied. “I’ve always wanted one,” she said, rushing to give her Daddy a hug.
“I want you to promise me something,” he asked, looking his daughter in the eye. “This chest is for you to save treasures for your future life as a wife and mom,” he reminded her. “As long as you keep the chest in sight, you’ll always be thinking about, praying and planning for your future. The things you put in this box will be very important to you later and I want you to promise me that you’ll fill it with lovely things. Be picky about the things you save, Elizabeth, so that when your future gets here, you’ll have excellent treasures to unpack.”
That was a promise that Elizabeth meant with all her heart, and she planned to keep it, too! Even though she was just a child, she decided right then and there that filling her hope chest was going to be serious business. There wouldn’t be any dollar store trinkets in her hope chest. A quick survey told her that she didn’t have a whole lot of space to fill in the first place, so she made her mind up quickly that only the best, most beautiful and meaningful treasures would earn a space in the cedar chest she would one day move to her very own house with her very own family.
“Happy Birthday!” rang out from her family as they watched her survey her new gift.
Looking at her grandparents, brothers, and cousins, she couldn’t help but smile. “This is the best birthday ever!”
Twelve-year-old Patty rolled her eyes behind the backs of her guests as they arrived at her home to celebrate her birthday. She was embarrassed that her parents insisted on throwing her a party as if she was four. They refused to listen to her when she told them that she was too old for a party and they had even bought a cake with the same brown and pink polka dots that last year’s cake had displayed. Shaking her head, she could only hope that nobody would notice. Just before she could shut the door behind one guest, another started up the sidewalk. Patty raised her eyebrows in exasperation as Kimberly, a girl she went to kindergarten with, jogged to the front door and held out a gift bag. “Thank you,” Patty said curtly as she moved to let Kimberly in. She always buys the cheapest gifts, she thought as she closed the door a little harder than she should have.
If she could just get through the next few minutes or so of pretending to be a little child, then she would be able to open her presents and finally get the new iPad she’d practically begged for since she’d seen that Naomi from dance class had one. She could only hope that her parents had been paying attention when she said she wanted the pink one with the zebra case. It’s bad enough that one of her classmates got one before her, but to have a generic one without all the latest accessories, well, she didn’t know if she could handle that.
“Patty, did you hear me?” her mother practically sang from across the room.
Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Patty replied. “What did you say?”
“I thought you might like to open your presents before you blow out your candles this year,” her mother offered sweetly as she pointed to an empty chair that would place Patty in the center of attention.
Perfect, she sighed. “Sure,” Patty said as she took her seat with a slight shrug. The last thing she wanted to do was to appear anxious in front of her friends.
“Your dad and I have a very special gift for you this year.” The words were barely out of her mother’s mouth before she started her silent celebration, knowing she was going to get exactly what she’d asked for.
“Yes, Sweetie,” her dad said, nodding his head to Patty’s big brother. “You are growing and maturing and becoming a young lady before our very eyes.”
Patty couldn’t hide the flush of embarrassment that crept up her neck and into her cheeks. Surely, her parents weren’t going to humiliate her on purpose in front of all these people. “Daddy,” she said quickly, trying to send a message with her face that she didn’t like being babied in front of her friends.
Her father smiled and continued as if she was supposed to be happy about her humiliation. “We’ve watched you grow from a beautiful little girl who used to sing and dance every chance she got into a young lady who takes care of herself and appreciates nice things. Before we know it, you’ll be grown and getting married, getting ready to start your own family. Your mom and I wanted to get you a gift that would help you start really thinking about your future and what kind of woman you’re going to grow into.”
Patty was confused. Her forehead twisted as she watched her company shift from one side of the room to the other as her brother carefully maneuvered a massive present into the room. That can’t be an iPad, Patty thought with disgust, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it because her friends were all cooing and eyeballing her gift, waiting for her to unwrap it. She gave her parents a nervous look before she stood to unwrap it. The gift truly was enormous. All hopes that it was a mostly empty box vanished the minute she pulled at the first strip of paper. “A box?” she whispered out loud as she unwrapped what appeared to be nothing more than a wooden box.
“Not just a box,” her mother chimed in. “It’s a special box.”
“Special box?” Patty asked, puzzled before she realized something must be inside the box. She very quickly jerked open the heavy wooden lid, only to find a musty blanket and an old crystal vase. “I don’t understand,” she said, looking at her parents, trying very hard not to let her friends see how disappointed she was.
“It’s a hope chest,” her father answered. “Tradition holds that young women were given hope chests to fill with special things so that they would be prepared for their futures. We know that you’re becoming a young woman now, and part of growing up is planning for your future. We thought that having a hope chest to fill with your own treasures would help you to always be mindful that tomorrow will be here soon. So, we bought you your very own chest and you can fill it with whatever you like, knowing that you’ll take this chest and all its valuable contents with you to your home when you start a family of your own.”
Patty held her eyes open wide as she listened to her father speak. He’s serious, she thought, trying to decide how to respond without embarrassing herself. “I don’t know what to say,” she finally offered.
She watched as her mom smiled and reached for her father’s hand. “It’s okay, baby,” she said. “It’s a big deal.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” her dad told her. “Just promise me that you’ll fill it with the finest of treasures.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Patty said, running her fingers along the edge of the bulky wooden box. “Treasures,” she said, trying to hide the sarcasm in her voice. This is the worst birthday, she thought as she sat back down and waited for the pile of presents her friends had brought. Worst birthday, ever!
And, so began a decade that included two very different girls filling two nearly identical boxes. Although they had never met and knew nothing of each other, Elizabeth and Patty both placed their hope chests at the foot of their beds and opened it every now and then to place things inside. But the things each young lady tucked away within, and the care they took doing so, would make all the difference in their lives.
Patty never grew to understand that love was the motivation behind the gift she hated. For a few years, her chest lay empty at the foot of her bed, gathering dust and dirty clothes. Occasionally, she would open it and toss something inside until she could find a better place for it, but in time, her hope chest became the place she used to hide her secrets. It started out innocently enough when she accidentally broke her brother’s cell phone. Rather than taking responsibility for her mistake, she hid the phone beneath the old quilt, knowing her secret would be safe there. And it was.
Unfortunately, hiding secrets became a habit for Patty and before she even realized it, her hope chest became a hiding place for everything she didn’t want to take responsibility for. An empty pack of cigarettes littered the bottom of her chest before her sixteenth birthday. After getting caught writing letters to a boy that her parents didn’t approve of, she found that slipping things inside her hope chest almost meant she could pretend like they never happened. Year after year, her box became filled with all the things she didn’t want her parents to know, not because she was ashamed, but because she was tired of hearing the disapproval in their voices. Love letters that celebrated disobedience were soon covered up with foul and wicked things that she didn’t want anyone to see, but Patty found security in the fact that she could live two lives: the good one she led in public and the life she hid away in the box she despised.
Before long, Patty walked away from her box of secrets and the family that loved her dearly. She had allowed herself to put such a distance between herself and her loved ones that she was certain she’d never be welcomed back home. Off she went into the harsh and cruel world, unknowingly dragging a haunting truth behind her. Patty had never asked for the cedar chest that would eventually reveal to her parents how bad their good girl had become, but it had faithfully sat at the foot of her bed all those years, whispering a truth that Patty had no desire to hear. She had spent her life saving and hiding garbage that painted a picture of who she had become, and now she had no intention of living her life any differently. As far as she could tell, that old box and her hard heart had a lot in common.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, had wasted no time making a list of precious things she would love to find for her hope chest. By the time she turned fifteen, she had found the last book in a collection she wanted to save for her daughter. That same year, she completed a cross-stitch work that she tucked away between the layers of her quilt with plans to frame it as soon as she could. She had also hidden her small collection of silver dollars in a coffee can that sat on top of her journal where she’d worked on her family tree and the ragged Bible her mother had passed down to her. Elizabeth had left her hope chest at home when she went away to college, but every time she got a chance, she’d bring treasures home to slip inside.
The night before she married the love of her life, she knelt down beside the chest that had faithfully housed her every treasure and allowed it to carry her down memory lane. Very carefully, she unpacked each item and admired them. Many of them were simple, but special things that she planned to use to make her new place feel like home. Some things were truly precious, and she intended to keep them as they grew in value. But the things that meant the most to her were sentimental in nature. A dried flower she’d received from a secret admirer in high school, a letter from a missionary overseas, a journal she’d written her first year in college- those things held her heart and reminded her, not only of who she was, but also who she really wanted to be.
After carefully examining each precious item, Elizabeth had placed all of her belonging back into her chest and sighed. She had kept her promise to her Daddy. She had been wise with her choices and saved room for the most special of treasures. She had even discarded a few items when she realized that they weren’t exactly what she thought they had been when she first saved them. She had protected the contents of her chest as she thought and prayed about her future and now, the night before her wedding, she realized just how wise her father had been. For as careful as she’d been with her treasures, she’d been just as careful with her heart. God had used that old chest to teach her something about life that she might have missed otherwise. Climbing into her old bed for the last time, Elizabeth was overcome with thankfulness. Life truly was what you put into it.
Her Daddy had taught her to be picky about what she put in her chest, and in the process, taught her to be picky about what she let in her heart. “Guard your heart above all else,” he would faithfully remind her of the Proverb. “It’s where life comes from.”
And so, she fell asleep that night knowing that she truly did have a box of treasure to take with her tomorrow on her new journey with her husband. But that was the smallest part of the story. While carefully packing what mattered most into that big wooden box, she’d trained herself to closely watch what she packed into her heart. Tossing out the bad to make room for the precious, she knew that the box wasn’t all she had to offer her new family. She’d grown up taking good care of her “well spring of life” and in doing so, another small town princess learned how to answer an age-old question.
Above all else, guard your heart. It is your wellspring of life!
…to be continued…