Thursday, March 27

Don't Be Afraid to Be Poor

Dear Jacob,

A few years ago when we lived in Vancouver, we received a wedding invitation from a young man who had been in Dad's youth group. He had gone off to college and met the woman of his dreams and they were getting married in Northern California.  We thought over the invitation for quite a while, thinking the distance and expense and timing of the wedding might not work for us.  But one day Dad said, "I'd like to go anyway." And so we rsvp'd late, plopped the three of you in the car and drove.

Samuel was just a toddling baby at that time and I spent a good portion of the wedding in the foyer with him, babbling -- you know how he is.  But when he was quiet I sat next to your dad and listened as the minister read off the couple's reasons for wanting to marry.  Their lists were adorable, sensitive, loving.  When the minister quoted her excitement that her groom was her ticket to a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby everyone chuckled. But then I did a silent gasp at the profundity of her next reason: She said she wanted to marry him because, "I'm not afraid to be poor."

At that point your dad and I had been married for a dozen years and had worked for two churches.  We were currently underemployed, had three children we were homeschooling, no college savings plan and no prospects for a ministry we knew we'd love. I had purged my desire to shop-for-no-reason years before. I cut everyone's hair, save my own. We went out to eat minimally, passed clothes down from boy to boy to boy and Dad drove a truck Grandpa had given him. We had learned, during our life together, to live poor.

We knew what is was to be poor. But we'd been doing it so long that it didn't feel like we were missing much. I did wish for things: for better dental coverage, for more expensive curriculum, for a way to get help for you and your explosive tendencies. But we had to make do.  We learned to be content with what we had.

On this day, however, I thought this young bride's strength was naive. She hadn't been in a place where she was providing for someone, anyone, else.  She'd never been on a church staff that couldn't pay her husband, or been unemployed with two kiddos, or been homeless. She'd never packed everything up into storage and left it there for six months while she waded through the unknown. She was just out of college and her biggest thing looming were the loans she had to pay back. What did she know of poverty, of scarcity, of drought?

Yet, on this most sacred day with flowers in her hair, she vowed that no matter what happened in her new family she would not be paralyzed by the fear of not having enough. And in that moment I wished I'd had her posture on my own wedding day. I wished I'd had the foresight to know that in the process of following a certain calling that there would be less than enough and God would make up the difference. I wished that on my own wedding day that I'd known how not to worry about the teeth that needed crowns, the brother that needed more rent, or how to pay for the hotel room we were in for her wedding.

This was a bearing I had to learn over time and through hardship. After being suffocated by the tentacles of grief, pulled under by its penurious predicaments I did rise again to know that abundance was available even if it tasted a lot like salt water. Abundance is a stance toward a life that gives us all the same stuff.  We know that God brings rain on the just and the unjust, his sun rises on the evil and the good.  How often we look and say, "There's not enough" in the cupboard of life that has all the ingredients we need for cake.

We have two choices, maybe more.  One posture toward life believes that everything is limited.  And when we travel into onerous positions we grasp onto everything and hold it tight, crying foul at the walls that threaten to bury us.  Trials are given to us in order to take something from us. Expenses alarm us when our value is based on what we have, falsely assuming that it was our great skill that achieved it in total.

Alternatively, we can face life with the attitude that there will be enough; that quantities can be redefined and resources re-purposed.  We can enter a time of trial with open hands and wonder what the trial will give us.  We can look at the impossible in front of us and throw our best at it and determine to be satisfied with the outcome. We can choose not to be afraid.
The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions.  -- Parker J. Palmer
When you're not afraid to be poor, you're not afraid to risk. You'll look at the resources you have and build a life with them. You'll see a community of friends and build it into a church. You'll stay away from places that tempt you to covet and you'll press into the inherent value that God has given you as his capable child. When you're not afraid to risk it gives evidence to one solid, tested belief: that you are loved unconditionally and freely by a God who created you with wonder.  A God who gave you the same blood he gave everyone else who not only loves life but demands it too. When you're convinced of and have experienced God's great love for you, nothing is bleak or scarce or impossible.

Maybe our ideas about scarcity and abundance actually arise out of our experience of love. Maybe that young bride, so entranced by the love of her groom, looked in his eyes and saw the unconditional love that motivated and ensured and established the very courage of her heart. Together they would risk everything to see the limitless supply of God's love for them. Perfect love casts out fear. Rain or shine, they would move into abundant life.

A favorite author of mine wrote, "All fear is really the belief that God's love ends.*"  In the end, it doesn't come down to skill or control or stewardship; it all comes down to love.  Do not be afraid.


*Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts