The Birth of a Book

A letter from Sarah

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

Fourteen years ago, before we were parents, and when the ideas in these pages were nothing but a glimmer in our eyes – when we still felt like kids ourselves, really – my husband Greg and I bought our first home. It was 2007, a year before the market crashed, Land it was all the house we could afford. It was a fixer-upper, a house with “character” and “potential” our friends said, a funny little Cape built endwise into a hill on the very edge of the Providence city limits.

The best feature of the house was the wooded stretch of undeveloped land immediately adjacent to the backyard – a little forested oasis, about a half-city block long, between our street and the street above ours up the hill. To a reluctant city-dweller, like I was at age 26, these woods were the cherry on top, an undeserved gift from God. But our backyard was hideous. A postage-stamp sized patch of dirt on the edge of the woods, with a steep hill of dirt and rock right smack in the middle. When you stood at the top of our backyard, on the edge of the woods, you were practically at roof-level. It was impossibly small and barren and I hated it. There were days when I would look out the window and cry, overwhelmed by the reality of its ugly, dusty, emptiness and my longing for a decent-sized lawn of flat, green grass that I would never have.

But Greg, ever the visionary, saw potential and set to work. He and his dad constructed beautiful rock walls to frame the hill, and exposed a gorgeous granite ledge right in the middle of it. He built a terrace garden into the hill and filled it with succulents. He imagined wooden stairs rising from the back door to the top of the yard and built them. He planted grass on the flat stretch at the top of the yard and soon the barrenness was replaced by a nice little rectangle of green. And he envisioned a deck, right at the top of the stairs, right at the edge of the woods. A liminal space between our home and the woods. And he built that deck with his bare hands. And that deck has become one of our very favorite places in the entire world.

The deck is liminal space, but not just between city and woods. It’s become a spiritually liminal space as well, a thin place, where heaven and earth seem to overlap easily in the form of spiritual friendship and conversation. It’s a place where dreams and prayers and holy conversations – as well as a whole lot of shenanigans – have been shared on the regular with some of our dearest friends, kindred spirits and co-laborers in the kingdom of God.

It was one such conversation, in the fall of 2015, that was the spark that lit the fuse for this book. Andrew Mook had been a regular on the deck since its inception. One night that fall, Greg, Andrew and I were chatting around a fire on the deck and the conversation turned to discipling our kids. Our boys were 5 and 1 at the time; Andrew and his wife Corrie had a 1-year-old daughter. Over the summer, at an InterVarsity Family Camp, Greg and I had thought more deeply than we ever had about our older son’s spiritual development and ways we could foster an independent relationship between him and Jesus. We shared some of our ideas with Andrew and sought his input. Andrew and I, both pastor’s kids ourselves, reflected on ways our parents’ intentionality had shaped and formed us as kids. I shared about a coaching conversation I’d had with a Sanctuary family seeking some age-appropriate spiritual practices to try with their very young children. The conversation had stayed with me, both because of their desire to disciple their kids and their lack of knowing where or how to start.

The refrain of the conversation that night, a thought we kept coming back to, was that these conversations needed to be liberated from the private decks of pastors and ministry leaders and brought into the mainstream conversation of the church.

A year later, we hosted the Parents’ Table for the first time – an event designed to empower and equip Sanctuary parents to take the lead in the discipleship of their children. And that event was the seed – of vision, of passion, and of urgency to share this material broadly– that eventually took root in my heart and grew into a calling.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that I started writing. That summer I had a dream that my mom, who was terminally ill at the time, was pregnant. In the dream I knew that it would be my job to raise the baby. My parents, neither of whom grew up knowing Jesus, were incredibly intentional about the discipleship rhythms in our home. Dad’s disciplined sacramentalism combined with mom’s creativite whimsy – and mom’s deep intimacy with Jesus combined with dad’s more charismatic spirituality – made them a phenomenal team. Everything I believe deep in my bones about this topic was deposited there by my parents who creatively and intentionally helped me, and my sister Betsy, learn to follow Jesus as children. So as I awoke from that dream and shared it with Greg, we both immediately sensed what God was trying to say: This book is that baby. Mom passed away before I finished the first draft, and while I am gutted that she won’t get to hold it in her hands and read it earthside, I am deeply honored that God would use me to bring these ideas into the world in her stead.

My greatest desire is that this book will become a doorway into your own liminal space where you will be able to meet and engage deeply with Jesus. Mandy Bayton says this about liminal space:

A liminal space is a transitional space, where we are leaving something behind that feels comfortable and safe while not really knowing what lies ahead, a space where we feel as if we are on the threshold between what is behind and what is in front. It can be a place of great tension but also of great grace. It is a place where we can let go of what we’ve been holding and stretch out tentative fingers to explore what’s next.

A liminal space can be a quiet space where we can just be, where we can pause, breathe and live in the moment. It can be a thought-provoking space to ask questions and to wrestle with answers. It can be a challenging space to re-examine faith, grapple with doubts, confront fears, and an exhilarating space to explore hopes and re-imagine dreams.

This is exactly what I’m hoping for, and praying for, as you begin this journey. God has used liminal spaces over and over in the lives of his people to shape them for the journey ahead: Israel in the desert, Greg and I on the deck, you with this book in your hands. I wish I could invite each one of you to our deck, to sit and discuss this deeply over a warm beverage on a crisp New England evening. I wish Mom and Dad could join us so that we could all pick their brains together. But I hope that these pages will serve as an adequate substitute as I bring the conversation into your home and our church instead.

Sarah Cowan Johnson