Ten cardboard boxes, two stuffed backpacks, and a whole lot of enthusiasm was all my pregnant wife and I had when we walked through the front door. Sounds like a moving story, and it was. We had moved halfway across the world.
As we caught our breath on the landing after hauling our belongings up three flights of stairs, the door to our private room was opened for us. It was ‘private’, because it was the only part of the apartment exclusively for us. The rest of the house was shared with two men, one an American and one a Nigerian. As we walked inside, we noticed with optimism that it was clean. The floor was smooth concrete painted the color of red bricks, the walls were finished concrete painted bright green, and a single light bulb hung in a bare plastic white socket from the ceiling. There was a wooden cupboard for our clothes, a foam mattress on the floor, and a fan for the hot nights and hotter days under the corrugated tin roof that covered us. It was our new home, well, our new home until we moved into our own place.
I thought about that word home a lot the next few months, especially when I walked out on our balcony. I thought about it because when we moved to Africa we had moved to the urban jungle.
I was from a small town with woods and open fields and places to be alone and be quiet. We now lived in a sprawling maze of buildings and roads, where the telephone poles and electric lines replaced the images of stately trees and vines that might be in your mind. For as far as I could see from our tiny perch of private space, we were surrounded by the tightening confines of modern African life. Here I was on my third-floor balcony and yet at any given point of the day or night there was a buzz. There were ‘local bars’ around us on all the points of the compass.
I say ‘local bars’, but it will not hold the same meaning for one that has not yet experienced it. Here, a local bar is like this–a structure of a sort to sit under (because of the hot sun or strong rains), seats or benches to sit on, a profuse amount of things to drink, and large, enormously large, speakers to listen to. The speakers are the key point of this description. There must be African proverb somewhere that says, “Where there are people, there must be noise.”
This noise, this hum of millions of souls going about their daily lives in a cacophony of sounds produced a rhythm that I could not appreciate. How were we going to find a home here? How could we have a space while having nothing, knowing no one, with little that we saw as normal at our disposal? What I did not know then was that homes can be made. Atmosphere can be created even in the most unlikely of places. It does take work, but building a home as a haven, that gives a foretaste of heaven, is always a possibility. I would learn that building a home can be a life-giving ministry.
It did not start with the massive house and the private yard that we were tempted at times to rent, but with a small apartment; the same apartment that we have lived in for over twelve years now. When the building started it wasn’t with big things, but intentional choices–a choice to buy a table and to eat around it, a choice to buy a bookshelf and fill it with what books we could find, a choice to learn to play the guitar and sing, play, and dance together as a family, a choice to make time to fellowship together no matter how bone-tired we were. Though the choices were small, each choice made a place, and each place added space for the atmosphere we wanted.
Now we are fifteen years in, and I have realized something. It happened the other day as I was walking through our front door. That was when I saw our sign. Yes, our house has a sign and a name. We have christened it Rivendell. As I read the words on the plaque, the ones carved right below the name, that say, “the last homely house east of the sea”, the truth of it all came flooding over me. We have our haven. We have our place. We have a home that welcomes us, that allows us rest, a place where we might be made strong to go out and fulfill His purposes and complete our journeys.
Last night I reread the words that Tolkien wrote about the real Rivendell:
“They asked him where he was making for, and he answered: “You are come to the very edge of the Wild, as some of you know. Hidden somewhere ahead of us is the fair valley of Rivendell…”
“Here it is at last!” he called… Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell. The air grew warmer as they got lower…the trees changed to beech and oak, and there was a comfortable feeling in the twilight…”
“The master of the house was an elf-friend… His house as perfect, whether you like food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.”
Rivendell was not built in a perfect world. In fact, it was built in the most unlikely of places. It was built in a world filled with darkness. It was not practical, likely, or normal, but it was necessary. It was not for everyone, but it would bless all that made the choice to enter it. Rivendell was a choice, a choice to hold and have higher things, and it is an ideal that I am so glad that our family embraced step by step.
Your Rivendell does not have to be surrounded by wide open spaces or established in a perfect majestic house. It might just be hidden in the midst of an endless glut of cookie-cutter houses, or on top of a soaring apartment hi-rise, but location does not have to determine atmosphere. Let us make the choice to pick up the stones. Let us lay the foundations for our own Rivendells.