- Brad Nelson

She disappeared outside with a roll of tape, a ribbon, a pair of scissors, a straw, and a balloon. Moments later, she called us outside to see her creation. She was ten feet off the ground sitting in a tree. She’d cut the straw into a small cylinder and threaded the ribbon through it so the straw slid up and down the ribbon. She’d tied one end of the ribbon to a bucket on the ground and the other around the branch she was sitting on. Next, she taped an inflated balloon (which wasn’t tied off) to the straw cylinder. “Watch this!” She let the end of the ballon go. Immediately air rushed out, and the balloon and straw cylinder shot down the ribbon to the ground. She’s eight. She has imagination. She sees things in her mind and then builds them with whatever she can get her hands on. She’s an engineer, a visioneer. She’s my daughter.

It’s not the first time I’ve found her up a tree experimenting. Last year I heard screaming from the front yard and ran outside to discover her bungee jumping from a limb fifteen feet off the ground. She’d shimmied up the tree and hung upside down like a monkey to tie both ends of a jump rope to the branch. The jump rope dangled from the limb like a hammock. Then she had taken one of my stretchy work out bands with handles and draped it over the jump rope. She then proceeded to use the handles as stir ups and bungee jump from the tree. I ran into the front yard to see her bouncing up and down screaming, “THIS IS AWESOME!”

That’s how it is with this one. She creates with whatever she can get her hands on. For her, the recycling bin is a toy store. She regularly disappears from the house and returns with an empty yogurt cup, a shoe box, or an empty spinach container. They become homes for her toys, prisons for lizards, or decorations in her room. At first, I thought it was great. Look at how creative she is. My daughter the artist. My enthusiasm began waning as the clutter of recycled goods slowly took over our home. I would subtly try to return a yogurt cup to the recycling and she’d come unglued. She tried to reintroduce a large hideous plastic container into our home, and I put my foot down.

“That is NOT coming in here! Take it back,” I said, pointing outside.

“But, I can USE it!” she screamed through tears.

It frustrates me. I abhor clutter. I don’t understand why she’s so attached to this stuff—this junk. My wife and I talked about it a few nights ago as we did the dishes together. “The only thing I can think of,” she said, “is the pacifier.” 

Years ago, we’d been trying to transition her away from the pacifier, and she was having none of it. Ever the authoritarian, I cut her pacifiers with scissors over the trash bin in a moment of parental rage. She wailed like I’d ended her world. At the time, I was convinced it was the right thing to do, but as I took in what my wife had just said, a wave of guilt and dread blew over me. Is it actually possible that all those years ago I’d destroyed what she loved, and she’s been returning to the trash ever since to get it back?

As a parent, the question isn’t “Will I wound my kids?” It’s “When and in what way?” Maybe I’m reading way too much into it. Maybe her love for junk is totally co-incidental to the murdered pacifier. Who knows? What I do know is this: Making something out of what’s been deemed garbage—and then loving it—is central to who she is. As she grows and the world inevitably fights for her soul, making its case for why she should find her identity in this or that, I want to be the voice reminding her who she has been from the beginning: A redeemer. One who gives something value again. I want to be the one saying, “What you are doing is so beautiful. This is the truth of who you are. This is your deepest self. Don’t ever stop redeeming, whether it’s the recycling bin, or people at school, or broken relationships, or broken systems. This is your gift to the world.”

So, wherever you find yourself as a parent, deal with the empty yogurt cups, whatever that looks like for you. Make peace with the fact that your living room looks more like the set of Sanford and Son than it does a page out of Pottery Barn. Be gracious with yourself when the guilt and dread blow over you for the ways you’ve wounded your kids. Own it. Enter into it. Do what you feel you must to acknowledge it and make it right, and then wait. Wait for the gift children so effortlessly give: Grace. And take heart, because as my daughter so often tells me with yogurt cups and pringles cans, even wounds can become portals to new life with just a little love and imagination.

Brad is currently the lead pastor of Brick City Church in Ocala, Florida. He previously served on the pastoral staff at Church of Hope in Ocala, Florida (2012-2014) and Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan (2003-2012). A speaker, writer, and graduate of Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara. To see more of Brad's writing check out his website bleedingoutloud.com or follow him on twitter@bradnelson19801.  Contact Brad at nelson.bradleyj@me.com