Joleen, Jesus and Grace

I’m gonna tell you a story I don’t tell often. Many years ago, I lived in a modest, one bedroom apartment in Houston. I had my second job out of college, but the first in my chosen field, Marketing. And I wasn’t living with my parents. Hooray!

I had the cutest neighbor named Joleen.

Joleen was a short, petite blonde with a very large, very scary, very loud dog I affectionately called Kujo. She had a strong east Texas twang and was just as green around the gills as any high school graduate who moved to the big city trying to make something of her life that had as little to do with her small hometown as possible.

She held two jobs, one was a contract job as an administrative assistant at one of the many large companies HQ’d in Houston, the other was at the mall at some place like Bath and Body Works. She and I got along great. I enjoyed having her over or chatting through the fence of our meager little back patios. I loaned her my foot massager after being on her feet for many hours at the mall job and I think we even enjoyed a bite to eat a few times.

She had a boyfriend from back home who would visit some, she didn’t get along great with her mother, and she was extremely close to her brothers. Somehow, even with two jobs, she managed to make it back home quite a bit on weekends.

I remember one Sunday night, though, after returning from a trip back home, I sensed something was very wrong. It was the first of the month and our rent was due. She had gotten paid on Friday, cashed her check (since she didn’t have a checking account) and headed home to East Texas. She kept the money in her glove box, I believe. Now, we could obviously argue the merits of this type of cash management, but that’s not the point of this story. Anyway, one night during the weekend, she went out and her car was broken into. All her money was stolen, among other things.

She came back tearful because she couldn’t pay the rent. And nobody from back home could afford to help her either. I had just paid all my bills and for the first time in a long time, I had extra. I don’t know how or why, but I did. Because, trust me when I tell you I was not rolling in greenbacks.

In spite of finally getting “ahead” financially, for some reason, I felt so very strongly that God was urging me to give her the money for her rent. So I did. I invited her over, told her my plan and that she was in no way obligated to pay me back, and I wrote a second check to our apartment complex in the amount of her rent (which for a smaller apartment was actually more than mine, for some reason.) It was a lot, but it was the excess in my account. After all that I needed was paid for, I still had enough to help a neighbor in need.

Money does strange things to people. Even though I told her not to worry about it, well, as you can imagine, it still put a strain on our relationship. Not from my side, mind you, but hers. Anytime she’d see me, she’d say, “I’m getting your money, I promise.” To which I always replied, “don’t worry about it.” But it didn’t matter. Because she did. She eventually moved out and I don’t know what ever became of Joleen. I hope she pays it forward someday or at least understands how I was really just being obedient to what I felt God urging me to do.

This leads me to today. Here recently, we’ve had our own financial crisis, if you will. Back in December, my husband discovered he had a herniated disk in his back that badly needed repair. When we saw the neurosurgeon on December 20, she actually said it was bad enough for surgery, and oh by the way since you’re a paramedic, there’s no way you can do your job and you can’t go back to work.  Oh, and the recovery time post-surgery is expected to be twelve weeks. So, yeah.

Jaw. On. Floor.

Surgery was scheduled for January 7. So we’re looking at 15 weeks, more or less, without a full paycheck.

To say I was in shock would be an understatement. How on earth would we pay our bills? How are we going to eat? How are we going to live?  And Christmas? Forget about Christmas! Christmas is cancelled. All the presents have to go back. (I didn’t actually do it, but I thought it.)

I was in crisis mode. I might as well have cashed the check and left it in the glove box.

Panicking, I texted my friend and she immediately went into action. With my permission, she let people know. She helped us formulate a plan to raise money and survive this crazy time in our lives.

Marcus’ parents were able to help us cover the medical costs and our bills for January. Then the strangest things started happening.

First we received gift cards to Target.

Then gift cards to Kroger.

Then people would ask me at church when we were planning the garage sale because they had stuff to donate.

Then we got cards of encouragement in the mail. With cash.

Then we got a big fat envelope full of cash from what people gave to my friend to give to us. She wrote on the envelope, “To George Bailey, The richest man in town.”

And I was completely overwhelmed. I even got a little weepy.

Then I opened the mailbox and more gift cards. More cash. In fact, going to the mailbox in January was kinda fun.

Then we had the most beautiful weather week in the history of January’s to prepare and have a garage sale. I’m talking spring time weather, people. Cool, crisp mornings, high’s in the upper 60’s and bright sun with the bluest sky as far as the eye could see.  And while we originally planned on only having the sale on Saturday, we decided around Wednesday night that we were probably ready to open on Friday, too. So even though the ad in the paper was placed as stating “Saturday only” we decided to share on Facebook and a local garage sale website and just hope for the best for Friday.

And people came. Not only did people show up in droves on Friday, but it turns out that the newspaper ad that was supposed to say “Saturday only”, and was approved that way, left that little tidbit out. People came on Friday, just to see if we were open because the paper didn’t say what day it would be, just listed our address.

I’m so not kidding.

Anyway, with the donations of the many and the tireless help of some friends, we had the biggest best garage sale I’ve ever had in the history of ever. We made more than one of Marcus’ paychecks.

All together, the money we received in donations, gift cards and from the garage sale, was basically enough to cover our expenses for another month.

That’s God right there, y’all.

I’m so incredibly blown away by God’s grace and His obvious hand in all this.

By far this has been the most stressful six weeks of my life. It’s hard not knowing if we are going to have enough to make it. But I have to believe God will provide. Marcus has been able to teach some out at the college, and his boss was kind enough to give him some administrative work he can do from home. So it’s not a lot, but every little bit helps. We plan to have another garage sale in the next few weeks, and I’ve already had people offer to donate.

Anyway, I wanted to share what God is doing in our lives. Because it’s been a crazy ride. I am thankful to watch God move in the hearts of His people. And I’m humbled to be a recipient to their obedience.

It reminds me of God’s overarching love story for us. He sent His son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for our sin. To pay a debt we could never repay. A debt He didn’t even owe.  Just like I didn’t owe Joleen’s rent. And all these people don’t owe us.

It’s our job to just accept it for what it is. God’s unmerited favor. His grace. Poured out onto each of us. Freely given. To not question it. Or feel guilty for accepting it, like Joleen did. How I wish she would have understood that I never wanted or expected to be repaid.

I wonder how often God wishes that of His people.

I can’t even begin to repay what has been given to us. I don’t know the givers. I don’t know the prayers being offered up on our behalf. But I know the One who has a plan and a purpose for it all. As hard as it is. As humbling as it is.

And I can only say thank you.

Thank you to friends and strangers. For opening your hearts in obedience to God. And for allowing us to experience His grace anew.

We’re looking at the end of March before Marcus can return to work full time, unless the doctor suddenly changes her mind. On paper, we don’t have enough to make it.

But God, my God, is the One who fed 5,000 people on the side of a lake with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

I think He’s got us covered.

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***ADDENDUM: So I was thinking this morning that it might be helpful to clarify a few things so you can fully understand the gravity of our current situation. 

1. My husband’s job is guaranteed through FMLA, but FMLA does not pay anything. Many employers offer short term disability which, if I understand correctly, would pay a percentage of one’s salary, but his employer does not. 

2. He is still required to pay something to cover the cost of his healthcare premium. Thankfully, his employer was kind enough to allow him to use his personal leave and sick time for this. So he is turning in just enough time to cover that cost on each paycheck. Ironically, the first paycheck he received after doing this was for a grand total of $7.77. Now, if you are a God-fearing, bible-believing Christian, you ought to get a chuckle out of that number. God really does have a sense of humor.

3. You may wonder why I didn’t go get a job. Well, we considered that option. I even submitted my resume to a couple of places. But in the end, we decided that the best thing for his recovery is for me to stay home and deal with the kids. He isn’t even supposed to lift anything over 5 pounds so that leaves a 30-pound two year old and a 46-pound almost four year old completely out of the question. And that would be impossible for him to do alone.

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