Every year on my birthday, I try to get away for some time with God. It began the year I turned 32, when I already had childcare set up for a class I was teaching, but the class was cancelled, so I dropped my kids off anyway and sat in the park watching leaves fall. Another year, I booked a room in a nearby convent: I spent three hours lying on a hard twin bed in a tiny room, writing in my journal and flipping leisurely through the Bible.
Usually, a theme emerges. In the park, I read the story of Mary and Martha over and over again and decided that God wanted me to slow down in the year to come. At the convent, followed a rabbit trail of Bible references about the glory of God and told Him I wanted to see His glory that year.
Last year, in November of 2015, I told God I wanted to see Him provide.
We had just bought a new house. A house that seemed barely functional in some ways: no dishwasher, carpets damp with cat pee in every corner, ancient windows swelled shut; and extravagant in others: twice as much square footage as the rental we left behind, an impressively columned entryway that makes the house look like it’s the fanciest one on the block. It was one of the cheapest houses for sale in the entire Portland metro area—cheapest among houses I could plausibly conceive of stuffing a family of six into, that is; we still have three boys in one room—and yet it cost $70,000 more than the house we’d sold six months before, when a job change for my husband caused us to move from the smaller, humbler metropolis of Spokane, Washington. I wasn’t sure what the utility bills would look like, but I thought we could just about afford it, if nothing went wrong.
My husband wasn’t convinced. “This doesn’t seem like a good idea,” Jeremy had worried back in October, as we were discussing our offer. “Are you sure we can do this?”
“I think we can make it work,” I replied. “It might be tight for a while, but we can swing it.”
Jeremy regarded my placid face with skepticism. “Well… you’re the one who takes care of the budget…”
This was true. It was also true that I really wanted that house. “I’m sure it will all work out,” I insisted.
So on my birthday, which fell in the middle of the escrow period between negotiating the price and closing the deal, I asked God to provide. God doesn’t exactly promise to pay the mortgage, but there are plenty of verses in Scripture about God’s provision, so I felt like it was a reasonable request to make. I don’t subscribe to the “Health and Wealth Gospel” that says God always blesses His children financially (if you send an offering to the person preaching that particular philosophy, is usually the conditional), but I do believe in asking for specific things and watching how God answers them. I had asked for a house in the first place, when we found out we were moving from Spokane to Portland, and the long, convoluted path full of rejected offers that eventually led us to the electric blue house with the white columns felt like a miraculous sort of a thing. If God was giving us the house, I told myself, surely it wasn’t too much to ask that He would help us keep it.
About a month or two after I prayed that prayer asking God to provide during my thirty-seventh year, I suddenly realized: this year is going to suck.
Not because God doesn’t keep his promises. No, I still believed that God would come through for us, providing everything we truly needed all year long. I just happened to remember that when God wants us to see Him at work, He often takes His time stripping everything else away. Only then are we able to recognize the provision that comes only from God. God let the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years before they found the Promised Land. Jacob’s family starved before they got to Joseph’s God-ordained stockpiles in Egypt. Elijah felt utterly abandoned before he heard the still, small voice of God. Gideon was ordered to send home over thirty thousand troops so he would know it was God alone who fought with the remaining three hundred.
And so it happened. After we moved in, the refrigerator broke. The milk was warm and the ice cream drippy. The washing machine flooded the basement. Three inches of standing water soaked into the boxes we hadn’t yet unpacked. We had to sink a thousand dollars into Jeremy’s car just to keep it on the road. Then the refrigerator broke again, and the washing machine flooded again, too. Each unexpected disaster dinged our savings account, already diminished by the expense of moving in the first place. My thirty-seventh year wasn’t half over before I thought, God is going to zero us out.
It wasn’t just the savings account that felt stretched. I found that with the new mortgage payment and utility bills, the checking account wasn’t quite adequate to put food on the table. The last week of every month was a lean one: beans or eggs or pancakes for dinner. No milk. No fruit. No fresh vegetables. No cheese.
I hadn’t found a job in Portland yet. I’d had enough to worry about with moving twice (first into the rental, then the house we’d bought), and getting my four kids started in new schools (again, twice: one set of new schools for each house). Even though I hadn’t worked outside the home for several years, I was open to it. I just didn’t know where to look. I did apply for a part-time receptionist position in January, but they never asked me for an interview.
At the beginning of February, I looked at my budget for the month and put it to God straight. We need more money to get to the end here, I told Him. What are you going to do about it?
A couple of days later, I was picking my kids up when a woman I’d recently met in the elementary school cafeteria approached me. “My friend just got a new job and she’s looking for after-school childcare for her son,” Debbie informed me, without even saying hello. “I told her about you.”
I was confused. What did you tell her, I wondered. But I smiled and nodded. That evening, I found myself speaking with Debbie’s friend Tanya on the phone. “Can you take my son tomorrow?” Tanya asked me. “I can pay four dollars an hour.”
She hadn’t even met me yet. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
Four dollars an hour wasn’t much, but Tanya was a single mom earning not much more than minimum wage, so it was a lot to her. And the job had fallen into my lap. I didn’t have to arrange other childcare for my own children, I didn’t have to buy work clothes or pack a lunch or even leave my house. And it paid just enough that we made it to the end of February—and March, and April, and May.
Over the summer, Tanya sent her son to live with his dad, so he didn’t come to my house anymore. But another friend paid me to watch her kids every day. God was providing.
Something else happened this year, and in the context of this story you might think I’m a complete and total idiot. But this fall, I went back to school. I wanted to get a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.
I know, what?! This woman can’t afford to buy milk and fruit for her children and she’s shelling out thousands of dollars for a master’s degree in creative writing, of all things? It’s a little bit like buying a big blue house with white columns when you can’t afford the mortgage and utility bills. What were we thinking? Was this a walk of faith, or gross negligence?
Well, for one thing, my mom said she would loan me the money for school, and I could pay it back interest-free anytime before she died. That sounded just fine to me. But then, after I got in to the program, when I didn’t get the scholarship I’d foolishly counted on, Mom hesitated.
“How much money do you need now?” she asked me over the phone.
“Well… I know I told you it would be twenty-four thousand. But it’s actually… thirty-six?” There was no way to sugarcoat this.
“Sarah…” Mom sighed. “I just don’t have that much money.”
“Um… I know.” I really wanted to enroll in that program. “How about this!” I exclaimed. “You pay for the first year. I’ll figure out the second.”
Add it to God’s tab, I figured. If He wants me to finish the program, He’ll provide. If not, then I’ll just walk away.
So, in September, my youngest son began kindergarten, my oldest daughter started middle school, and I embarked on a master’s degree. Our savings account was smaller than it had ever been at any point in our fifteen-year marriage. I had no more childcare gigs lined up. I had applied for an Oregon teaching license back in May, and I figured that once it came through, I could substitute teach once or twice a week. Would that cover the bills, plus grow our savings enough for me to pay for my second year of school? Probably not. But I preferred to look on the bright side. I applied for a magazine essay contest and a women writers’ scholarship, just in case.
In October, the furnace wouldn’t turn on. We ignored it for a few days, but the outside temperature was falling. I spent an hour on hold with the thermostat company, convinced the problem lay there. (Side note to the folks at Honeywell: playing a dumbed-down, jazzed-up version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” over and over and over and over again only makes me want to say just the opposite when you finally pick up the phone.) But Honeywell told me to get somebody out to the house, and when the technician had given our system a good look-see, he broke the news to me gently: we needed a whole new furnace.
The savings account was not up to the challenge. We would have to put the furnace on a credit card. My birthday was fast approaching, and it appeared that the year I had asked God to provide would end in the red.
Still, I remained oddly optimistic. Somehow, I knew God wouldn’t let me down.
“What are we going to do?” my husband asked me as we drove to Bunko night, the week the furnace broke.
A sweet grandmother from church had invited us to her monthly Bunko night, and Jeremy had accepted the invitation. I stalled for a while, intentionally refusing to find a babysitter because I didn’t want to spend thirty dollars on Bunko night. In the end, though, I knew I couldn’t back out. You have to have an exact number of people in order to play Bunko. So we left the kids home alone with a movie and headed to Renee’s house.
“Are you just waiting for your sub license to come through, or what?” Jeremy pressed as we drove through the neighborhood. “I just can’t see a way through this.”
“I know…” I trailed off, unsure how much optimism to reveal to my justifiably anxious husband. “Can I tell you something? I’ve had this one song in my head all week.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows at me, unsure where this was going.
“It’s this song that my mom used to play on a record player when I was really little,” I went on. “It starts with a conversation between two people: ‘I expect a miracle,’ says one little voice—but I can’t remember why—and then the other voice says, ‘what does that mean,” and then the first voice starts to sing…”
“Okay…” Jeremy was listening, but we had arrived. He pulled over and I broke into song.
“I expect a miracle, I expect a miracle!” My voice faltered along the singsong tune. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural, intervention of God. I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle! I expect a miracle. La lala la lala.” I laughed at myself, but I was serious. “Anyway, I just keep singing that song. And I just know that God is going to do something.”
Jeremy turned off the car and opened his door. He shook his head. “Okay.” He wasn’t convinced, but what could he say? “Let’s see what happens.”
Maybe one of us will win Bunko tonight, I thought as I walked into our friend’s house. Maybe that’s why we’re here. Each player had to put $3 into the pot, and cash prizes would be doled out at the end. Then I realized that the grand prize of $40 wouldn’t buy us a new furnace.
Some people like Bunko because you can talk to people while you play. Unfortunately, I can’t. I found that if I tried to converse with the players at my table, I forgot which number I was looking for on the dice rolls. I lost track of how many ones or twos or threes I’d already counted. I forgot to add my score to my partner’s. Bunko is a terribly easy game, but I was terrible at it.
We finally made it to the last round of the night. I’d won and lost, bumping my way up and down the tables scattered all over Renee’s living room, dining room, and family room. As I sat down at the final table, I determined to concentrate on the little dice dots.
But the woman sitting across from me, whom I’d never met before, wanted to chat. “What do you do?” she asked me as the round began.
Ever since I became a stay-at-home mom, I’ve hated that question. “Well… mostly I’m home with my four kids,” I began, not looking up from the dice I was rolling. “And… I just started a master’s program for creative writing.” I felt sheepish about that part, because most people don’t know what to do with that information. But it sounded better than simply “home with four kids,” somehow.
“Oh! My school is looking for a writing teacher,” my questioner replied.
I looked up at my partner for the first time. She was a diminutive woman with a broad smile and rolling black hair. “I used to be a teacher,” I informed her. “What kind of school is it?”
Less than two weeks later, I had a new job.
Oh—and we got a second opinion on the furnace. The old one is working fine now.
This year, we didn’t follow any of the rules. Financial gurus like Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman would have a fit over the way we’ve pushed our bank accounts to the breaking point. I feel like I have to tell this story with a huge caveat: please, please, please do not take any advice from me and follow me to a state of financial ruin.
But although this year has not been easy, we got through it. And I now have a part-time teaching job that feels like it was created for me. It pays relatively well and it leaves me with time to work on my master’s degree. I expect to be able to replenish our savings account, and I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to pay for that second year of my master’s degree.
I turned 38 yesterday, and for the first time in years, I spent my birthday at work. God has provided.