January. A new year. As much as I appreciate the chance to begin again, I have not always looked forward to these first months of the year.
In recent history, they have been lean days for our family, a time when the work hours reduce and the money stretches but not quite far enough and by early spring we feel like we’re behind and playing catch up for the rest of the year.
This year, the leanness is compounded by unemployment that began on day one of the new year and we find ourselves in an extra state of leanness, one we didn’t predict.
It is easy to want to complain and bemoan these circumstances, to long for excess and security and margin, especially where finances are concerned. To be honest, we’ve never really had those things, and to be more honest, I’m not sure I really want them all that much.
When I think back on our leanest days, including the present, they are some of my favorite times.
Why? I have three reasons.
Lean in. We don’t fight the lean days, not in the traditional sense. We don’t wish them away. Not every day, anyway. We embrace them and ask what these days can teach us. From them, we learn to be more creative with our resources. It was a previous lean season when we discovered oatmeal soup, which we at first thought sounded terrible but is in fact delicious. It tastes like chicken noodle, without the chicken obviously, but it’s one of our favorite comfort foods on a cold night.
The lean days lead us back to the discount grocery where we’re never sure what kind of banged up cans and beat-up boxes of food we’re going to find. Instead of running to the grocery for ingredients, we sort through the pantry to see what we already have. It’s an adventure and makes us think … hmm…what can we make with this? We look for free and cheap entertainment. Movie nights. Game nights. Puzzle nights. Reading. We go to the library more for movies we haven’t seen.
Even though our schedule is wide open, we don’t waste the days. We clean the house, organize the stuff, rid ourselves of clutter. We use the time as if it’s a gift, and in some ways, it is.
Lean on. The lean days could rip us apart. Instead, they draw us closer together. I can’t really explain it, but I love my husband and kids more in the lean days. Maybe it’s because I remember that we are in this together, that we can still create something beautiful in this world just by loving each other well and celebrating the seemingly small things.
In the lean times, we lean on others, too, and this is maybe the hardest thing. We are Midwesterners, my husband and I, born and raised in hardworking families that had enough but never a lot of extra. Asking for help is something we only learned how to do as adults, and it’s still a struggle. When we share with our church family that we are jobless, again, the words catch a little bit in our mouths, and I wonder if they’re thinking how pitiful we must be. But they don’t offer us pity. They give us grace and love. And sometimes they send financial or food gifts our way. This is not why we share these things. We just can’t bear our burdens alone, nor are we meant to. In the lean times, we say “yes” when friends offer to take us to lunch, or give us a turkey that is sitting in their freezer.
In the lean times we remember we are not alone on this journey.
Lean not. The Scripture our minister read at our wedding goes like this:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
He used this verse because my husband and I both have a lot of understanding. We are intelligent people who think a lot, and please don’t take it as bragging when I say so. For us, the challenge as we joined our lives in marriage would be to learn from each other, to accept help from others, and to make room for God’s understanding in place of our own. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to use our brains, but sometimes we want to make sense of something that only makes sense when God is a factor.
In the lean days, we lean not on our own ideas of how this is supposed to go. Nor on how we can fix the problem. In the lean days, I want to shake my fist at God (and sometimes do) and tell Him exactly what I think of this, and then I spend myself trying to be the solution, the answer to our problems.
But in the lean days, nothing makes sense. The numbers don’t add up and somehow we don’t lack. Not really. The plans we had for the future seem like far-fetched dreams and still we hold on to them, still see God moving us in the direction we hope.
I don’t wish for the lean days. Stress levels are higher and we say “no” to some things that would be a definite “yes” in other times.
But I’m seeing how the lean days are good and necessary. If my life was only excess, if it was always enough, I would miss some of the best times. The times when others stepped in to give us support, when God showed up in unexplainable ways.