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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blessed Are the Poor

Rich and I were blessed to be poor when we were first married. I know that sounds a little odd, but we are thankful for our time of relative poverty. It wasn't the kind of poverty that you read about in the inner city, or hear about in far off lands. Rich was a student, I was a part time dance instructor and we were early in our marriage. We usually didn't notice our finances until we did our taxes and realized what in what bracket we fell! When we had Alexander, times got a little tighter, and there were about six to 10 months when things were really tight, but we still never felt poor and always had what we needed. Ever since I read this, it has been on my heart to write on this subject.

That first year with Alexander was hard, we learned a tough lesson about getting promises in writing which resulted in us not having any health insurance during the last month of my pregnancy and Alexander's delivery. We went to the hospital not knowing how we would pay the doctor and hospital for the largest part of the pregnancy expenses. I was no longer working outside of our home and we figured we'd be paying about $50 a month until Rich got a full time job. When we arrived home, we found a letter and check in the mail from some friends who said that since we were so far apart (we were living 2000 miles away from "home" at the time), and they missed the baby shower, they wanted to give us a gift to help with the raising of a new child. The check was written for $1500, which was about half of our hospital and doctor bills. We learned how to give without expectation in a great part from them. We have made it a practice never to loan money to people because of that, and only give if we can fully afford to, but when we do, we give it. We never ask for the money back.

Our first Thanksgiving after Alexander was born, we had a rather humbling experience. Our church had a year round food pantry for the poor, but around holidays would call on the parishioners to put together holiday meal packages for families in need. Rich and I picked up one of the Thanksgiving bags with the list on it and went to the store to buy the things to fill it. We knew we didn't have as much in the way of material wealth, but we certainly could help a family that needed to eat, so we did what we could. The Monday before Thanksgiving, a lady from our home group knocked on our door and brought us one of those meal packages. It was a shock to us, but we thanked her. We were embarrassed that the people of our church thought that we were poor, that we needed help. Fortunately, we knew another family that was having a hard time of it, so we told them what happened and offered to share Thanksgiving with them. We are still friends with that family and with the woman who brought us that package.

Most of what we considered poverty was inconvenience. It was uncertainty. It was pride. We still had a little savings, never went without what we needed, though if our car had gone out, paying for repairs would have been a huge burden. The Lord was so good to us in that time. We had a good friend and fellow student pilot with Rich at school who looked like a little troll, had fat fingers, and could make any mechanical thing run with the skill of a surgeon, using those fingers as delicately as any concert pianist. He would fix our car if it needed it for no other cost than the parts, and half the time he wouldn't let us pay for those. He drove the car with Rich across the country when we moved out here and that mechanical knack was a huge blessing as they drove through snowy places like Wyoming and Rob got out of the car to fix it so it would make it to Oregon. Our mechanic now is similar, though he's French, swears like a sailor and smokes like a chimney. Both of these men felt like they owed us and were repaying our kindness or what they saw as favors to them.

When we moved here for Rich's first flight job, it was just about the worst time to be starting as a flight instructor. The weather was bad, Rich hadn't built up enough students to have instrument students, so when the weather was bad, he didn't work. We moved with something like $4500 or $5000 to our names. If you counted student loan debt, we didn't even have that. We used to joke that our family of three brought the per capita income down, by itself, in our rather small, affluent town. That money we brought was enough to pay the first and last month plus deposit on our rental duplex, get our utilities and phone up and running and for us to pick up groceries and fill up the tank in our car. We had about another $3000 in checks that were supposed to arrive pretty soon after we did, last paychecks, our deposit from our former apartment, thinks like that. They didn't arrive. At the end of our first month month, we had $30 left. We started to worry that we wouldn't have enough to pay our second month's rent and that we'd be using that last month's rent payment as our last payment. Two out of three of our checks showed up on the day our rent was due, along with Rich's first paycheck. We paid our rent, got our bills taken care of and took care of the incidentals we needed to with that money, leaving a little financial breathing room for us.

God provided miraculously in so many ways. It was through that that we learned to depend on Him and that He was our provider, not Rich's job or whatever else, though of course God used that and still expected us to work. It was that knowledge that has allowed us to trust God when we have to make financial decisions. This was a time of great growth and learning for us, Rich and I learned what it meant to willingly sacrifice out of love during that time. My opinion and admiration of my husband grew a great deal during that time, as I watched him give up what he wanted so he could serve and be available to our family, but that is a story for another day.

Most flight instructor jobs do not provide any kind of health care benefits. Rich managed to work at the only FBO which did. This was handy, because it turned out that by the time we moved, I was pregnant with Dominic. Rich had taken a second job at night, one that he hated, but that kept him close to home, so he could come home and see us at dinner, rather than miss out on his family. It turned out to be a huge blessing, since he was also available when we found out I was pregnant, and we didn't need to worry about his being too far away if I went into labor.

When Rich applied for this job, we prayed and did not consider the financial benefit or cost when we were determining if we should take it. That seems odd, as without the job we wouldn't be doing as well as we are now, but it was because we knew money couldn't be the determining factor, but discerning what direction God had for us was. If we had never been poor, I don't think we ever would have learned how to apply that discernment to any decision, let alone financial ones.

While we never were as poor as is described here (please stop to read this, her story puts a lot in perspective), I do remember what it felt like to tell my little sons that something was too expensive for us to buy while we were at the grocery store. Things that we can afford now as a treat or even in every day circumstances, were a luxury we could not afford then. It was the only time I felt poor, telling my sons no when they wanted something simple.

We are rarely inconvenienced now. Each year, we are better off than the year before, each child has brought with him a raise in our paycheck. We run a tight ship, financially, as any family of eight has to, especially if a parent does not work for pay, and even more so if they are paying for their children's education either in homeschooling or at a private school, but we are not poor. I can buy fruit out of season each week if I want, though now I choose not to so we can buy better produce and more that is locally grown. We can afford the little treats and niceties that were once difficult to save for, even. We live in relative comfort and ease. I have not forgotten, though, how we got here, nor how to live should that change.

It is easy to forget that others do not live as well as you do. We notice that when people make comments about how we can afford to live as we do, while we see them spending far more lavishly than we do, but we do it as well. We live, as I have said before, in a rather affluent town and within that, a rather affluent neighborhood. Even the inner city, a town over from us, isn't that tough or poor. God has given us opportunities to serve the poor there and I am grateful for the reminders. We should be pricked in our consciences that it is not enough to provide for ourselves and that others do not have the comforts we do.

I didn't know whether or not to blog about this when it happened, because I didn't want to expose the persons we were blessed to help, but I think enough time has passed that nobody would be able to identify them, and perhaps, God willing, they do not remember that it was us who helped them. Several months ago, someone on an online group I belong to asked for some food. Not money for food, or to help with bills, or anything else. I have always considered that someone who is hungry should be fed, regardless of their decisions which may have brought them to that circumstance. I also thought that if someone was asking for food from strangers, chances were that they needed it. We have a lot of that around here, so I offered some to this person. God got to prick both mine and Rich's conscience through that experience.

I packed up a rather large box of food to give this person and worked out how we could meet. This person did not have steady access to the internet and no phone access at all. So, we arranged a meeting place and time. I packed up the box, my children and drove across a toll road to deliver it. I was stood up. I waited for an hour, stalked the meeting place asking random strangers if they knew or had seen this person and essentially made an idiot of myself. I came home frustrated and annoyed that this person had wasted my time (and the cost of the toll) in that way. I am ashamed of how easily I despised the poor. I called Rich and told him how I had wasted our afternoon (and the toll!) for someone who couldn't even be bothered to be there when I was trying to help.

I came home and e-mailed this person to ask if there was another time or way we could meet, I was at least conscious enough not to let on that I was frustrated. Rich told me he was going to have to be in that area the next day, so if this person was comfortable with a man bringing the food, he could do it. I asked, the person was, and this time I got the home address, since I wouldn't be going with children and possibly trying to either pass off the food with them in the car or try to bring them all into the house/apartment while carrying the box and keeping track of everyone. That day, this person was able to borrow a friend's phone, so I gave Rich's cell phone number and had him call to make sure everything was on schedule.

Now, the reason that Rich was going to be in that area was that he had an important work meeting. This person called him two or three times during the meeting, so much so that Rich got annoyed. He is a man of his word, if he says he's going to do something, he does it, so he was frustrated and found himself thinking "Look, I'm doing you a favor, can't you just wait? I said I'd come." When he arrived with the food, he says God straightened him out right away. The reason the person was calling so much was because of an empty stomach. He said as soon as he saw this person's eyes, he saw hunger. He came home a chastened man.

A couple months after that, another family asked for formula for their newborn child. I said that I didn't have formula, but because of the hospital selling our name, we had tons of coupons and we could bring those if they would help. While we were out shopping, I just had an urging from the Lord to buy the stinking formula and give them the other coupons for formula and diapers and such. We drove to the apartment, which turned out to be a tenement in a rather bad part of town. There were people out front keeping guard or keeping watch for drugs and definitely keeping their eyes on me. I walked in to a dingy, poorly lit, depressing place. The apartment where this family lived was cramped and looked rather squalid. Still, there was the mother and father and their little baby. I wanted to cry when I saw them. I told them about our new little baby and cooed over their child. I walked out thanking God that our children never knew this life, praying for that family and wanting to teach our children never to look down on people who did not have what they had. It had been a long time since I had seen squalor, or thought about it being so close to home, and we have never known it. We have never known real poverty. I still pray for those families.

This month, our Laudate group has taken on several service projects in our area. I was blessed to be able to serve with them on one at the beginning of the month. We did such simple work, cleaning floors and dishes and serving food at the rescue mission. Most of the people there are men, most are alcoholics or drug users, but there were some women and some families. One of the hardest parts was seeing a former neighbor. I saw him in the parking lot while I was waiting for the rest of our group to arrive. We chatted and he made up a story about how he was visiting a friend there, which I knew wasn't true. I know it was hard for him to see me serving in that line. I saw a family with two daughters who seemed too embarrassed to take food for all of them, no matter how much I pressed them to take more. There was a mother with a son, who wouldn't take anything but coffee, until we pressed her to at least take something for her son. I saw a father with a son the age of Amira, both of them so polite. It broke my heart to see them. It should break our hearts. Those brief hours of service reminded me of what our Lord commands us, it reminded me not to despise the poor for their poverty.

It is our job to care for the poor. That does not mean that poor are entitled, or always right, or somehow more noble, but we have been entrusted with their care. Scripture warns against both favoring the wealthy for their wealth and regarding poverty as righteousness. There is many a wicked poor person and many a righteous rich man, but neither state indicates the state of either heart. It is only in caring for the poor (and the sick, and those in prison, and the hopeless) that we can help them grow rich in spirit. God will demand an accounting for our works when that day comes to meet Him. I pray to meet Him having served Him in the least of all men, rather than having to explain how I never saw Him so how could I have served Him.

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Thank you for sharing your and other posts. It truly warms my heart and reminds all of us that are in this struggle that we have much to be proud of.
We are truly blessed...because we have value and the Heavenly Father loves us.
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