“Mom…are we poor?”
This surprising question was posed by one of my sons several months ago. It was not precipitated by a sudden financial catastrophe. We hadn’t lost our home, there was food in the fridge and payday was just around the corner.
“Why do you ask son? Are you worried about something?” One never knows what secret worries may trouble the heart of a child…
“One of my friends said our family was poor. I didn’t know what he meant and I didn’t know what to say. Are we poor?”
I reassured him that he lacked for nothing, that the wealth of love and life that surrounds him everyday is more than most people in the world can ever dream. The answer satisfied him and he rejoined a veritable “treasure trove” of brothers and sisters in play.
It’s a dirty word in the mouth of most Americans, something to be shunned and abhorred, much as the ancients would shun and abhor the leper. Many live as though financial prosperity is God’s ultimate reward and is due us, as long as we remain in His favor. There are some who would insist that the poor are experiencing a bit of divine retribution, that their hunger, homelessness and/or disordered finances are God’s just punishment. I would argue that a degree of poverty is a good thing, that it ennobles, uplifts and was the life chosen by the Holy Family and the Twelve during their earthly sojourn. It is one of the three vows taken by our clergy and religious. The materially poor exist as an indictment upon the world, convicting us of our ease and plenty.
We know that poverty exists in many forms and is defined as:
1. The state of being poor; lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts.
2. Deficiency in amount; scantiness: “the poverty of feeling that reduced her soul” (Scott Turow).
3. Unproductiveness; infertility: the poverty of the soil.
4. Renunciation made by a member of a religious order of the right to own property.
These dispassionate definitions, these mere words on a page fail to show us the reality of poverty.
Poverty has many faces. These faces give us a much more chilling definition: the down-and-out beggar panhandling on the street corner; the emaciated child in the arms of his crying mother; the homeless lined up to receive a hot meal and a few groceries from the local soup kitchen; the shivering man, huddled under a ragged blanket on a park bench. Those are the familiar faces, the ones we remember as we “pray for the poor among us.”
Our family has been fortunate to never suffer that level of poverty. I can’t say that we haven’t experienced poverty, but ours has been a completely different kind. I refer to it as the poverty of inconvenience; it is the closest experience that many of us have ever had with deprivation.
What is the poverty of inconvenience? I’m quite sure some of you could share past or present experiences, but for our family it would be the times we’ve had the empty refrigerator and cabinets. The day we had the realization that there would be nothing for breakfast the following day. A lack of money for gas to get to work and Church. Having no propane this past winter and feeling the bitter cold much more intensely than we have in the past. No medical insurance, weighing the sickness or injury of a child in terms of what you can afford. Ad infinitem…
These inconveniences, for lack of a better word, were all instances of great grace in the life of this family. Shall I share some of the blessings with you?
The night we realized there would be no breakfast the next day, there was a knock at the door. A good friend had stopped by his father’s house and was given several bags of groceries to deliver to our family. Not just any groceries. Breakfast. I remember saying in prayer: “Lord…we have nothing for breakfast tomorrow. The children will need breakfast…” Don’t ask why I didn’t say food or lunch and dinner, I simply prayed for breakfast. What a breakfast we received! Juices, eggs, danishes, fruit, sausage, bacon. A lavish breakfast! This dear friend, seeing the tears of joy and obvious relief of the family, later returned with several days groceries.
I can’t recount just how many times people have given us money for gas or other unforeseen expenses. A dear Protestant friend called me one day and said that it was urgent that she meet with me. Moments later, I’m at her little grocery store and she hands me an envelope. She says: “Don’t ask any questions…I was praying and God told me to give you this, right now. I’m sure you’ll know what to do with it…” There was $300.00 in the envelope. The exact amount we lacked to rent a moving van. This same woman provided our entire Christmas dinner a few months prior. We have many dear friends who continue to provide us with the most loving gifts and support…it is truly humbling.
No propane. The cost of propane has gone up considerably over the past couple years. Last winter we spent several weeks without it. The first week was difficult, as we had no supplemental heat source. How did the children respond? It was actually quite lovely…gathered around the Advent wreath, we talked about how often we’ve prayed for the poor, for those suffering from the elements. One of the children said, “But aren’t we cold, too?” It was then that we realized that our poverty was different. We were merely being inconvenienced, allowed to suffer a bit of deprivation, but with none of the devastating effects of true material poverty. Telling the children that we would offer up our minor suffering, and were even being given the grace to understand a bit better how much the truly poor were suffering was beneficial to us all. We had plenty of warm blankets, warm clothing, a roof over our heads and beds to sleep upon. A week later, we received assistance from our local parish, but a little over a month later were without propane again. We faced the obstacle that time with peace, perseverance and a couple of kerosene heaters to take the edge off the cold. How much more effectively were we able to pray, when we ourselves were allowed to experience a tiny taste of the deprivation that the truly poor suffer throughout the winter months.
“Mom…are we poor?”
There is irony in contemplating those words and writing of poverty as I sit before a computer, hooked up to the Internet, with a roof over my head, healthy children, a garden thriving, and food in the refrigerator and cabinets.
It has pleased the Lord only to allow this family to suffer deprivation as it glorifies Him. He does truly give us our daily bread, shelters us and cares for us as He does all of His creation. Why our family hasn’t faced the rigors of starvation, both physical and spiritual is a mystery that can only be answered by God Himself. Why is it His will that we suffer so little when others suffer so much? I don’t know, I only know that it pleases Him to do as He wills…that our times of deprivation are a means and a way for Him to manifest His goodness. And yes, that applies should the situation change for the worse!
We are providentialists…believing fully that God will care for this family as it pleases Him. That He is truly glorified when the world observes that it is only by Him that we make it from day to day. Looking at our family, no one would ever guess the daily struggles my dear husband has undergone to support us. Only our closest friends have known. It is truly a testimony to the great delight that God must take in showing the world that He is more than capable of providing for His own. Every day is a miracle. Every loss, every gain…He shows us that He’s in control, that we are most surely in His Hands.
We don’t know what the future will bring. Sometimes it pleases the Lord to “bruise” us, to “chastise” and correct us. At present, He is greatly delighted by our “inconveniences” and knowing this makes it so much easier to say:
“It is the LORD; let Him do what seems good to Him.”