On Receiving Charity in the Form of a Convertible

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“I’m afraid to get my hair cut or go on a date with my husband,” I confided in a friend of mine. She smiled knowingly and laughed with me at the reality and absurdity of the situation.

Being the recipient of charity from within our church has been an awkward but important experience for me. Last week I found out that my car (the reliable car that I took out a small but manageable loan five months ago for my new job as a pastor at the church) is going to need about $2,000 in repairs. My husband and I have done a pretty good job at building up our emergency fund to $1,000 but $1,000 isn’t that useful when it’s only half of what we need.

Last Monday when I dropped the car off at the mechanic, he warned us that it might be a gasket issue. 8 hours later, when I picked it up, he confirmed that it was. I don’t really know what gaskets are, or what they do, but I know they’re critical for keeping your car running and not overheating and that they’re buried deep within in the engine and repairs cost about $1,800-2,000 because of labor.

And so I cried. I hate that I cried but that’s what I do with overwhelming car problems and, for me, most car problems are overwhelming. And then I prayed. I prayed really pious (and honest) prayers that God would be glorified in the midst of this crappiness and that he’d help us figure out what was next

Within an hour and a half of getting the news (and crying) the pastor in charge of benevolence at our church walked me out the church parking lot and showed me a car that had recently been donated to the church. It was a 2005 Sebring convertible (a maroon Michael Scott car). He said we could have it and that we could either use it or sell it and use the selling price to repair our Subaru. I thanked him, told him that I’d talk to my husband and let him know within the next day or two, tried to keep my emotions together and headed inside to another meeting.

Here are my honest thoughts about this process is no particular order.

1. It’s just not fun being the one who needs help. It’s not fun to be in your mid-thirties, to be relatively responsible with your money and still struggling with finances. My husband and I have both chosen careers that don’t pay well and don’t offer a strong hope of ever paying well. We’re not in poverty; we have everything we need (except, apparently, the ability to fix our car) and we’ve been getting better at building financial margin. It is disheartening when that financial margin is repeatedly exhausted with unexpected car repairs, medical bills and other financial surprises.

2. I’ve heard that if you can’t accept charity when you need it then you’re probably judging those you try to give charity to without realizing it. If I can dish it but I can’t take it then I’m probably a hypocrite. If I’m judging myself for needing and accepting help, I’m probably judging those I offer help to whether I realize it or not. This is one of the main reasons I believe I have to be okay with receiving this gracious gift of a car even though it makes me uncomfortable.

3. A convertible seems so over the top. The convertible is worth about the same as our (fixed) Subaru is but no one makes jokes about you being all rich and fancy with a 2003 Subaru Forrester. And we have already gotten (lovingly) teased about “upgrading” to a convertible and becoming snooty.

4. There are so many people who need money and a car more than I do. The worst was when we went to pick up the car and ran into a couple of friends. One had just been ripped off in a business transaction and had dropped about $1000 into his own car. The other had recently lost her job and has debt that she’s working to pay off. I don’t know if they needed it more than we did, but they certainly could have used it! Why should I get this blessing when so many other people are struggling to make ends meet? I think this is like survivor’s guilt…I’ll call it blessing guilt. I know that there will always be people better and worse off than more, more and less qualified than me, but it still feels awkward. I have not yet figured out how to reconcile this.

5. I’m afraid of being pitied (and/or judged). I’m a pastor at the church that gave us the car. I’m pretty sure everyone on staff knows that someone donated the Sebring to the church (we all saw it parked in the small parking lot for a week or two and wondered whose car it was) so if they see me driving it then they’ll know it was given to me. Then they’ll wonder why I got it and they’ll assume, rightly, that we were struggling financially and then they might pity us. And being pitied is not fun. They may not actually pity us or judge us because they’re awesome, nice people, but these are my fears. Because of these fears, I’m tempted to drive our ancient Volvo to work and let my husband drive the Sebring. But, let’s be honest, he probably won’t mind driving a convertible around for a little while.

6. I’m afraid of being watched and judged. I’m afraid someone will think, or say, “She just got her hair highlighted? Oh, my gosh, she needs to set her priorities straight. She’s clearly not poor if she can pay for that kind of pampering,” or “I just saw her post on Facebook that she went out to dinner with her husband and friends. It looked like a nice restaurant. Why does the church need to help her out?” I begin to feel like I have to justify how I’m in a bad enough financial situation that I can’t afford a $2,000 car repair but I can afford frivolous things. (I won’t even point out that spending the $25 I had in the budget for a night out would do almost nothing to close the $1,000 gap between what I have and what I need and that that $25 purchased a whole lot of sanity after a VERY busy and stressful week and that, yes, of course, we’re cutting back on expenses because our priority will be rebuilding the emergency fund and being prayerful about what we should do with the excess…or maybe I will begin to explain that because I feel like I need to justify myself, because I’m afraid of being judged).

7. I am Grateful. It took me a while to be grateful. The shock of a really expensive car repair and the frustration of dealing with car issues again had to be fully felt before I could appreciate the gracious gift that the car is to us. I was frustrated that there was a need for us to be given a car. But once that wore off, I was so grateful. I knew that God would take care of us, he always has, but to do so in such a big way in less than two hours? That’s a crazy good gift. On a related note, I’m afraid of people thinking that I’m not appropriately expressive about my gratitude.

8. Convertibles are fun. As showy as it feels to be driving around town with the top down it’s been so much fun. This weekend was unseasonable warm—sunny and mid to upper seventies—perfect convertible weather. It was super fun to drive around Art Prize with our friends, eating ice cream fully experiencing the night air.

Overall, I realize that being on the receiving end of charity brings up a lot of awkwardness and fear for me, which, I think, indicates that I struggle with pride. I’m committed to not live in this fear and to confess and repent of the pride and judgment, but I have to fight for this. I suspect many people on the receiving end of charity feel that way. I also know that owning my own neediness along with accepting the good gifts from God allows me to live a more free and untethered life. Sometimes it takes being “in need” to make us wrestle with our pride so we can come to a place of recognizing that we are not more than or less than others, that we are interdependent (God never meant for us to go it alone and he often mediates his good gifts and his grace through others), and that we all stand before God, and before each other, as equals.