A stark moment of reality hit me when I finished tallying up numbers for taxes this year. Staring at the numbers, or the lack thereof, made my stomach sink. Voices of doubt filled my head as I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad; but in a culture of excess that tells you that you and your three children fall below poverty level, it’s hard not to feel panicked. And I did. But through my tears, there was a still small voice that hushed the loud, jarring screams and taunts that I am failing and will never make it. I know that is an absolute lie because, in that moment, I was reminded of all the times we shouldn’t have made it even this far in the past six years, but we did, and I can’t take an ounce of credit for any of it. In the blurry vision of my tears I felt prompted to open my Bible, and what verse did I open it to?:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?…
-Matthew 6:26-27 (ESV)
There it was, in bright red, the words of J.C. himself and here I was crying about a number. A number that took up occupancy in my mind so much that it was all I could think about or talk about, it brought fear and doubt into my mind so fast I lost sight of the truth and my experience of that truth over and over throughout this journey. I may not have a lot as far as income goes right now, that’s my reality, but Matthew 6:26-27 is my higher reality. This isn’t religion or flowery words that make people feel guilty for worrying, this is personal and real and I was so humbled at that moment I read that verse, I just had to share with you. To share with you my weaknesses (talking about money is a little scary) if that means it’s giving glory to the one who deserves it (2 Corinthians 12:9.) So this is where the Bible gets real with me, this is where its words make me a little uncomfortable in the midst of chaos and crisis. Is it possible—REALLY possible to feel perfectly blessed and content when it seems so much is going wrong? It is, I can’t not believe it, because I’m living it. The only catch is that I can choose to recognize it, embrace it and live it, or I can drown myself in self-pity and ignore all the goodness that surrounds me. So I choose to acknowledge my reality, while also acknowledging a higher reality. It’s not easy, I feel like I’ve been dragged along this journey kicking and screaming in impatience and fear, panic and urgency, but I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of allowing my reality to define me. I’m ready to stop the struggle and be held in the higher reality in my life. Here is how I got here, moment of surrender and peace.
I was widowed at age 28 and am a mother of three children under five. My late husband was the sole provider for our household and the sole proprietor of a small seasonal business (which means no company life insurance, no 401K, and very little paid into Social Security after only 10 years of running a seasonal, six-months-out-of-the-year business.) He was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed with cancer and the disease remained active from that point forward, so private life insurance was off the table. When he died, I finally had to move in with my parents for hands-on help with the children, as well as shelter and basic needs, but was faced with the behemoth task of trying to figure out how in the world to run a business (which ended up going under anyway), how to raise three little kids, and find and pay for childcare for the desperate alone-time I needed. Time to not only figure out what I was going to do next, but to seek trauma counseling and honestly, to just check-out and gather all the little pieces of my thoughts. The first few months after I moved into my parents’ home for help exploded into one crisis after another; my mother had emergency surgery and was out of commission for almost three months, I was so ill from exhaustion I ended up in the hospital and my newborn was in the hospital three times each accompanied with an ambulance ride, the last of which landed her in the hospital for a month and a half with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. I was one weary mommy who needed some taking care of herself, but instead needed to take care of so many others whose needs were more urgent. I had to make the incredibly difficult decision to send my two-year-old twin boys to Florida with their Godparents during the month the baby was in the hospital. In between consistent hospital visits, I was left with the task of filing death certificates and fighting the billing companies as medical bills from my husband’s care poured in. I’ve been battling for almost two years now with Social Security because they’re withholding my survivor’s benefits for six years due to a processing error. I can’t afford to work since I can’t afford full-time childcare which means no steady income to buy a home of our own and a little extra to save. In my reality, getting out of this situation looks a little dismal and damn near impossible in the present moment. When I find myself wallowing in my reality, I fix my eyes on the higher reality. It’s there. It’s always been there and now I can see it.
The Higher Reality:
Three years ago a friend was talking about the book “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey*. A friend gave me the book and showed it to my husband and we were fired up. Our reality then was that we were more than $50,000 in debt–car loans, credit cards and student loans– with infant twins, a small business and a looming cancer diagnosis. Looking back now, we were blessed with the opportunity to stay in a home owned by family and without that blessing, the rest of this probably wouldn’t have been possible. From the time we started implementing the Total Money Makeover’s “Baby Steps,” we had paid off most of the debt by the time my husband was moved from palliative care to in-home hospice care. It was an absolute miracle that through all of his chemotherapy, he would get up every day and climb ladders to earn money to throw more at the debt and provide at least something for his family, “Better to feel miserable working than feel miserable lying in bed,” he had said. When he was bedridden and could no longer do the work himself, he found subcontractors and still scheduled work from his bed. In fact, his phone log shows his last business call was the day before he died. To fill in the gap from the lack of income that resulted from his sickness and my being pregnant with our third child, total strangers came to our door with food, help with household chores, financial gifts and grocery gift cards and clothing for my children. There was never a day that went by that there wasn’t food in the fridge, clothes on our backs and a warm, safe roof over our head. We didn’t do anything to deserve it, we didn’t even really know how to ask for help, but the help showed up anyway. The last week of his life, my husband devoted his hours to selling his work truck which paid off our last debt. On the day he died, we were debt-free. By the grace of God, the community held fundraisers for our family. The money from the fundraisers, with careful budgeting and hours of listening to Dave Ramsey’s show, has carried me through for the past two years. If we weren’t debt-free, all the fundraising money would have been eaten up by paying off debt, and I would probably be bankrupt. So now, all because of a book that bases its premise on simple Biblical and practical financial tips ignited a spark in us a few years ago to pay off our debt, a family of four can live on $1500 a month; no credit cards, no borrowing, and coming up with other ways to make or save money by selling stuff, thrifting, cutting unnecessary expenses, cooking at home, etc. Also knowing God always comes through whether it’s generously offered help from other people or humbling myself enough to ask for and seek help (which is really hard!)
I’m not living the American Dream in context of ‘more is better’, but the higher reality has taught me sacrifice, living below my means, giving up a lot of things that media tells us we can’t live without. But in all honesty, the higher reality has provided more than just basic necessities and material things, it provided me with the gift of time. Because we got out of debt, by the grace of God, I don’t need to work three jobs to make ends meet, I have been given the time to work on my heart and the grief I couldn’t address for far too long. Time to spend with my two little boys who need the presence of their mommy after their daddy, in their minds, just vanished one day. Time to see all my baby’s firsts and now she’s two and I haven’t missed a moment.
I know my story isn’t everyone’s. I know how hard people are working just to survive—good, honest, hardworking people. I know all too well that money, especially a life insurance policy, can make practical things a little easier in times of tragedy and crisis, and, yes, most days I wish my husband did have a policy, but the truth is that getting out of debt took the place of that life insurance; starting that process years prior was the answer to a future prayer we didn’t even know we’d need to pray.
I didn’t do anything to deserve this higher reality. It was a gift, and really an absolute miracle we’ve made it as far as we have on so little if I go by society’s standards of wealth. A precious gift I keep in my pocket on the days it feels like nothing is going right and the struggle just seems too hard. A steady gift that when opened and observed, time and time again, helps me to look up instead of down. And every time I look up I see how incredibly rich my family is.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
* Just A Mom has not been paid to endorse or advertise the Dave Ramsey brand or products.