When our daughter Deborah, aka Peanut, was 16, we had one of those father-daughter kitchen conversations. Amid the mealtime mess and clamor came this declaration: “Dad, I want to be able to do what I want to do … with whoever I want to do it with … whenever I want … for as long as I want.”

I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly. “What did you say?”

When she repeated her statement, I smiled and said, “Peanut, what if your parakeet came to you and said, ‘Deborah, I’d like to go do what I want to do, with whoever I want to do it with, whenever I want to do it, for as long as I want to do it. And right now, I’d like to go on the porch and play with the cats!’”

Deborah loved her parakeet, affectionately named Sweet Pea. “Would you let Sweet Pea go play outside, Peanut?”

She quickly dismissed my fatherly attempt to reach her. “That’s a silly illustration, Dad.”

I said, “No, it’s not. There’s a cat on the porch right now. Sweet Pea is in the cage right now. The cage is actually a protection for Sweet Pea, don’t you agree?”

Feeling uncomfortable, Deborah attempted to change the subject … and I let her. I knew she had heard.

Lost and returning home

Not long after that conversation, we went on a trip as a family and asked a friend to take care of Sweet Pea in our absence. After our dawn departure, she and her son drove to our house to take Deborah’s parakeet home for the week. As 12-year-old Tate was carrying Sweet Pea in her cage to their car, the bottom tray dropped open and Sweet Pea, being the free spirit she was, fluttered to freedom. Before flying the coop, unfortunately, Sweet Pea somehow failed to consider it was January in Arkansas.

Horrified, both mother and son tried for hours to coax the parakeet from the branches high above. Eventually they gave up.

A couple days later, we got the message that Sweet Pea had escaped and was forever lost. The news of her feathered friend’s defection ruined the rest of the trip for Deborah.

Like all parents do, we attempted to soothe, to understand, to provide possible solutions. “We’ll go buy another parakeet when we get home,” we said, hoping a replacement would eventually calm her heart. She remained unconvinced.

When we arrived at the airport, our friends messaged us to say they’d bought Deborah a new parakeet. But the new bird was no Sweet Pea. Deborah chased that wild and untrained bird around her room for hours. More disappointed than ever, she rejected the replacement and we returned the fool fowl for a refund.

Beyond belief

Our home is in a very wooded neighborhood with only one neighbor in view amid hundreds of square miles of a greenbelt forest. Two days after we arrived home and bought and returned the new bird, our next-door neighbor, Bob, called to tell a beyond-belief story.

“About a week ago,” he said, “I was watching TV in the living room and something kept hitting the window. Thump, thump, thump … So I asked my wife to go see what it was.”

Joann dutifully got up and went outside. When she didn’t return after a few minutes, Bob made his way to the deck and found her watching a green parakeet flit from tree branch to window and back again. Bob stuck his finger out, and immediately the bird flew to his finger, which Sweet Pea was trained to do. Bob just happened to have an old, empty bird cage in his basement, and that became Sweet Pea’s new home.

Later that day Bob went to town for canary food, and then stopped to get a frozen yogurt. Standing in line, our ever talkative neighbor started a conversation with the guy next to him. Small talk first. Then Bob said, “Strangest thing happened. We found a parakeet in the woods, so I came to town to buy feed.”

The stranger asked, “Where do you live?” Bob named our neighborhood west of town, and the stranger said, “Is that near the Raineys?”

Bob said, “They live next door.”

“I’m their kids’ youth pastor. I think they have a parakeet.”

The mystery appeared to be solved, so Bob was calling to ask if we were missing a parakeet!

‘He really loves you’

Barbara and I marveled at how God cared about this bird and set in motion the circumstances to bring it back. It was so improbable that it seemed a divine declaration of love for our daughter. We wanted to make sure she heard loud and clear how much God loved her.

We kept the news to ourselves for the big reveal at dinner. Seated at the table with our two girls who were still living at home (the other four kids were off to college or married), I started talking about how much God loves us. I looked at Deborah and said, “I’m sorry about Sweet Pea, but I want you to know three things: First, it’s not wrong to be sad over the loss of something you loved. Second, it’s okay to question God—He can handle it. Third, God loves you, Peanut.”

Deborah was unmoved by my words, so I repeated them: “Peanut, you don’t understand … God really, really loves you.”

Her younger sister, Laura, was bored to death and asked, “Do I have to listen to this?” We said yes. Disgustedly, she rolled her eyes, leaned her head back on her chair, and pulled her napkin over her face! She couldn’t leave physically, so she escaped the conversation behind a mask.

For a third time I said, “Peanut, look at me. God really loves you!”

I paused, waited for eye contact, and then said, “Sweet Pea is alive. Mr. Nagle found her, and she’s at his house!”

For just a moment, Deborah’s face was stoic—not a glimmer of a change. But not Laura! She jerked the napkin off her face, sat bolt upright, and yelled, “WHAT? MR. NAGLE HAS SWEET PEA?! YOU FOUND SWEET PEA?”

Slowly Deborah thawed, let it soak in; a sweet grin emerged. Minutes later all four of us walked up the hill to get Sweet Pea and bring him home.

God knows what He is doing

That night before bed, we reminded Deborah, and Laura, too, how God longs for us to know and experience His limitless love. Circling back to how this drama all began, I reminded them both that what kept Sweet Pea safe, his cage, was also what kept danger out. God knows what He is doing.

No one will ever convince us that the circumstances surrounding a 16-year-old girl’s pet parakeet was orchestrated by anyone other than the God of the universe. He reached out to our daughter, who really needed to see His love for her at that moment in her life.

God wants to use the hard moments in your child’s life to demonstrate His love, which is far greater for your child than yours. Paying attention to God and praying constantly will open your eyes to His wonder-working involvement in the details of your family.

Of all the stories about raising six children we’ve told over the years, that is probably our favorite. It reveals so much about parenting—the difficulty, the heartbreak, the effort to point our children to Christ, and the joy of watching God work in His own mysterious ways to help the helpless parent.

Excerpted from The Art of Parenting, copyright © 2018 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used with permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.