I grew up in a family that existed at or near the Evangelical Poverty Line (EPL). The EPL (my construct) is an imaginary line of acceptable wealth where a family can exist without raising suspicion of having too much, especially if the family is a part of the funded leadership of the church. My father was the choir director so we qualified. I grew up thinking that we were being at all times scrutinized by the rest of the congregation. We probably were. At any rate, we couldn’t look too good, my dad could own nothing better than a Ford, and my mother’s dresses had to come from GEMCO.
When she died, my father buried her in her favorite dress from a discount chain store that had been defunct for 15 years. Actually, it was his favorite dress — boring and frumpy enough that he didn’t have to worry about any judgment coming down on him. The sad part that no one knew was that her closet was hiding gorgeous dresses and shoes that had never been worn.
For a number of years, late in her life, my mother taught a woman’s Bible Study two towns over to a group of 45 well-to-do women. Many of them she led to the Lord, and many of them she counseled daily over the phone. Her memorial service took over two hours as these grateful women lined up to tell their stories about what my mother had meant to them. Most of us in her family, and in the church, were dumbfounded. We didn’t know any of these people.
Turns out these women had been thanking her for some time by slipping her gift cards from fine department stores in the area, and my mother had clandestinely become a regular in these stores, secretly shopping for things she would never be able to wear — things well above the Evangelical Poverty Line. Of course, the women were unaware of the EPL, they were just appreciative, gracious givers. My mother had turned grace outward to them and they had responded by graciously giving back. It’s just too bad all those beautiful items had to end up in her closet.
The reason we know this is because she took my wife with her on one of those shopping sprees, and Marti followed along as my little frumpy mother pulled up in her beat up VW and was treated like a celebrity, from the parking lot valets to the store clerks, it was “Welcome back, Mrs. Fischer!” “Hello Mrs. Fischer, how are you doing today?” “Mrs. Fischer, what can we do for you?” Much to Marti’s chagrin, I refused to believe any of this until my sister unearthed the treasure trove in the back of my mother’s closet.
Where does this unfortunate covert behavior come from if it isn’t from a sinister combination of judgment and jealousy? What it creates is a tight fist and an inability to give or receive graciously. I’m still trying to get in touch with what it might feel like to live outside of these artificial constraints. I know about that fist. I know what it means to try and pry my fingers away from what I hold on to so tightly. I can barely imagine my open hand giving freely; it seems so far away from possibility.
What did these unchurched women have that I don’t have? Is it just that they had more money? Or is it that I’m looking for permission to be a smaller version of myself? And what made them different than me? It’s pretty easy to answer those questions. They simply responded from a sincere heart. They didn’t know or care about any of the evangelical rules. They were touched by the Holy Spirit through my mother’s faithfulness, and they opened their hearts in response. Is that not the essence of gracious giving? It’s not because it’s time for the offering; it’s because my heart has been touched by the heart of God and so I open my hand and give.
I would have liked to have known better that woman who was my mother.