Are you visiting from J.R.’s Love is What You Do? Welcome.
I write about the kingdom of God. About motherhood. About books.
I pray that the kingdom comes down to my own bit of Pennsylvania countryside.
I try to pay attention when it does.
J. R. Goudeau is a PhD candidate in English literature. When I was a PhD candidate in English literature, I used my spare time to lounge senseless on the sofa while my husband bathed and bedtimed our young kids. J.R. also has young kids, but she has used her spare time to found and direct Hill Country Hill Tribers, a nonprofit helping to support the skilled artisans of refugee communities in Austin, Texas.
Yes, she’s amazing. I’m blessed to call her a friend. I’m blessed to be sharing this story at her place today.
Our refrigerator is a typical mess of grocery lists, crayon drawings, and expired coupons. In the middle of the mess is something more precious: the photographed faces of three young children. They are not family, not even friends, exactly. They live on three different continents, and we do not speak their languages. They are our sponsored children.
My daughter is writing a letter to the oldest girl. They share a birthday. This child has written to us that she loves to play ball. Also, the rains have been plentiful.
My daughter stops writing, looks up at me, and I see something like guilt in her eyes. “I’m glad we’re not poor,” she says.
I believe in the work of this sponsorship program. I believe in holding wealth with open hands. I believe in giving it away. But I worry about the unintended message these three photographs may be sending to my children, children who know their own faces appear on no one’s refrigerator but Grandma’s.
I wonder if these images in our kitchen are bridging a wall or building it up.
A wall distinguishing us from the poor.
A wall separating us from the poor.
A wall we only cross with dollars, cents, and the occasional letter.
Because we, thank you Jesus, are not poor.
You can find the rest of my story here.
A good friend of mine just returned from a trip to India, and she came by recently to share her stories. Stories of hopelessness. Stories of darkness. Stories of Jesus in the midst of it all.
In addition to her stories, she gave me another gift: a gorgeous, hand-sewn bag covered in the faded colors of vintage sari fabric. The label inside says it was sewn by Shamoli.
My friend told me about visiting Shamoli and her coworkers at SariBari in Kolkata, India. She described the laughter and happy conversation that fills the space where they sew blankets, pillows, bags of all sizes, and (this I’m really excited about!) baby blankets, changing pads, and diaper bags.
These women have been rescued from slavery. Their happiness testifies to the truth of another label tucked into my bag. This one says: “making life new.” And yet, for every woman given hope and a new livelihood, so many women and girls continue to be trafficked into the darkest forms of suffering. We wonder together, my friend and I, if it’s enough. What is a little happiness when set against so much ongoing evil?
Is Jesus enough? Is Jesus enough, even when the darkness remains dark and happiness is unimaginable? I think we should all be asking this question.
For me, it took being bedridden by asthma, pregnancy, and various nasty cold bugs (not to equate these three but, physically at least, none is a walk in the park) to acknowledge that I haven’t been happy in a long time.
Happiness. Maybe you prefer a different word, but I’m talking about that it-just-feels-good-to-be-alive rush. I’m talking about those days when we wake up singing “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I’m talking about the days when we’re still singing that song as the sun goes down.
The truth is, I haven’t been really, truly, all-day-long happy since we moved to Florida two years ago.
My confession isn’t a complaint however. My Florida life is packed with blessings: a few friends, a good church, a comfortable home. But I’ve been living this verse: “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down … so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28). Well, I’ve been living the first half, at least.
For two years God has held me in his hand while uprooting old dreams and plans, while tearing down old joys and comforts. In two years I’ve gone from pursuing an academic career to staying home with my kids and stealing hours to write a book that may never see the light of day. I’m content with that trade, but it hasn’t been easy either.
For two years I’ve lived without almost every single thing that used to make me happy: my city neighborhood, my university, my large circle of friends, the apartment in which I hosted dinners and parties nearly every week.
I’ve missed winter, the city skyline, bumping into friends on every sidewalk. I’ve missed apple picking, drives through rolling corn fields, and long summer evenings when it seems that every neighbor you’ve ever known has come down to walk by the lake.
I know that happiness is possible, but I’m not sure that it’s a promise. Or, even, that it’s always in our best interest. Which is why it took a few months of being imprisoned near my bedroom air-purifier to tell God how much I wanted to be happy again.
I accept that the uprooting and the tearing down have been good things, but, oh Lord, am I ready for the building and the planting.
A few hours after my friend’s visit, I carried my new bag to the library. I had one book to pick up and the big bag was overkill, but I was eager to carry it around. Standing at the librarian’s desk, I saw her struggling my way under a tower of books. I expected one book, but it seemed that every book I’d ordered in a month had arrived this day.
I filled my beautiful bag with these long-anticipated library books until the bag overflowed. I stood, considering my bounty, and was suddenly bathed in warm, delicious light. I was standing beneath a skylight, and, I don’t know, maybe a cloud had just blown away from the sun, but it felt like a shower of grace.
In an instant, my heart was filled and overflowing with happiness. My bag – my cup! – overflowed. And then, I remembered the words that come just a little higher on the page: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
I knew then that Jesus is enough.
I don’t have the authority to speak that truth on my own. Honestly, I haven’t suffered enough. My own troubles are small.
I speak it because others who have suffered say it is so. They have shared their stories. The shepherd David. The Indian seamstress Shamoli.
Before giving me the bag, my friend told me story after story of Jesus’s presence in the darkest places. In my friend’s own words, this Jesus is enough because he “steps into our suffering and brings love, joy and peace where it just doesn’t make sense to have it.”
It’s true in the valley of the shadow of death. And, to my surprise, it is even true in the library.
We all know babies in need of welcome gifts, mothers in need of mother’s day presents, and nesters who would love a pretty pillow. The equation here is actually quite simple. The more items sold by Sari Bari, the more women will gain their freedom from either the reality or the threat of human trafficking and forced prostitution in Kolkata, India. Our dollars are one way we get to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a suffering world.
You can find more beautiful products made by women freed from Kolkata’s sex trade at Freeset and at Love Calcutta Arts (I can personally attest to the beauty of their handmade paper journals).
It’s another dinner conversation with the little people, and you never know where it will take you. This night the middle child suddenly recalls the Christmas boxes we filled months ago.
Who opened those boxes, he wants to know. Who’s playing with those toys? I don’t know, I tell him, but I’m sure it’s a child far away who might not have opened anything else on Christmas Day.
He absorbs my answer and says, “I’m glad we’re not poor.”
Oh, honey. I’m glad too. I can’t imagine facing dinnertime with an empty cupboard. Every time I dole out another of the boy’s pink asthma pills ($100 for the bottle with good health insurance!), I wonder how some parents do it. I imagine them holding out for the really bad wheezing, hording those pills like gold.
Oh, honey, I’m glad we’re not poor.
But there’s something I don’t like about his comment. Something that doesn’t feel right. Am I sensing a bit of “us vs. them”? As in, we are the ones who fill the Christmas boxes (thank you, Jesus), and they are the ones who open them? Yet I know that when it comes to Jesus’s kingdom, we’re all in it together. No “us vs. them.”
What did Jesus say to the rich young ruler? Give it all away, then come follow me. But, he couldn’t do it. Can I? Will my kids?
I’m not asking my kids to give it all away. I’ll keep on giving them gifts as long as there’s still money in the bank. But, there are a lot of ways to be poor, and maybe it’s time to teach a few of those?
To be poor is to know that you don’t have what it takes.
To be poor is to know that you’ve got nothing worth standing on.
The poor in spirit give it all away because they know it was never really theirs. The poor in spirit willingly let go of everything in order to stand on the Rock. They know that money, good looks, good health, good behavior, none of it is as strong and steady as that Rock.
Oh, my little boy, I’m afraid you’re wrong. We are poor. Maybe not in our bank account (though who knows what tomorrow holds), but we are poor. We aren’t good enough. Or strong enough. We’ll never have it all together. But, there’s One who was and is and always will be.
He is our treasure. Our pearl of great price.
I’ve always had a tendency to let the mail pile up unopened (which means that we have realized, on more than one occasion, that we’re driving a car that may no longer be insured).
We put systems in place. For instance, a basket for recycling junk mail sits by the front door just beneath a tray for bills. I vow to do a better job, but I never quite keep up with the flurry of paper.
One particular unopened letter had been troubling me for weeks. The return address said Compassion, and “a message from your sponsored child!” was splashed across the envelope. I knew as soon as I pulled it from the mailbox that it was a note from our new Compassion child (I picked him from the lineup because he reminded me of my middle boy). He isn’t the only child we sponsor, so I knew the drill. I would need to write a letter introducing him to our family, and I remembered that it was customary to include a family photo.
It’s the photo’s fault. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.
As soon as I open this letter, I told myself, then I’ll have to add “take and print a family photo” to my to-do list. I felt tired just considering my to-do list, yet my perfectionism wouldn’t let me send a year-old photograph (because our baby boy has changed so much).
And so, I let the letter sit.
I kept spotting it. I noticed it every time I added a few more bills to the now-teetering pile in the tray. The guilt grew with the pile, but I couldn’t get past the need for a photo.
I shook my perfectionist, procrastinating self and opened the letter. Immediately, I noticed a small box with the prompt “Please pray for my family.” Within that square were these dictated words: “Please pray that my father finds a job and stops drinking.”
I was devastated. My chest hurt.
A heart-cry in a handful of words: how could I have let it sit unread?
Adding another Compassion child to our monthly giving was a financial stretch for us. However, I’ve found that opening my eyes just a little bit to the rest of the world makes it much harder to justify the ease with which I buy books. Or new boots for my daughter. Or another weekly dance class.
It’s about money. God has his eye on the poor, and I see them too. We both know that He’s given American Christians more than enough to wipe out mountains of misery, if only we would share what has never been ours to begin with.
Yet, believing it was just about money made it easier to leave that letter lying on the tray. Now I know: it’s about money (I say I care about the poor, so I better put my money where my mouth is), and it’s about so much more.
It’s about a small boy. One precious life. Only five years old, and yet he knows things that my own kids have never even imagined. I’m still trying to figure out how to share this prayer request with them. I don’t think that they have ever even heard the word drunk. Let alone seen it.
But this boy . . . oh how my heart aches when I consider what he has seen. What he is seeing even now as I type.
So, I’ll keep writing the checks. But now my checks go out dripping with prayer. Simple, nearly wordless prayers:
Jesus, Carlos, Jesus, Carlos’s daddy, Jesus, Carlos’s mommy, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.