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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tithing and Vegas

*Author's Note: I just retrieved the post below from draft form where it has been languishing for a week or two ... for those of you who have been privy to our struggles with the Vegas house ... IT IS NOW RENTED! Can I get a w00t?!

Have I ever mentioned that we're really rich? What? You say I haven't? Hmmm ... well, maybe that's because WE'RE NOT. At least not in the fiscal sense. But we've been pretending like we are: We've been going around like we're All That and A Bag of Chips and it ain't no thang to pay on two houses -- yes, TWO -- and still keep the shirts on our backs.

It really hasn't been our fault, completely. We’ve had this cute little house in Las Vegas that we bought when we moved there right after 9/11, just the three of us, since this was pre-Olivia and Sean-Peter. And it suited us just fine, this little house, and the Vegas market took off and we were so pleased that we had taken the Homeowner Plunge, what with our lifestyle of moving around making that kind of scary. God Was Good and All That. And when it came time to move, not quite three years later, we decided to rent it out, you know, "just for awhile". The market was on fire and it seemed like there was no stopping it.

Yes, yes, I know. It's easy to hear the fire alarms going off now. Because stop it did, as we all know. And while hindsight is 20/20, I do feel I have to defend our lack of prescience by explaining how we had decided to go ahead and sell, the summer of 2006, at a time that we now recognize would have been the last possible good time to sell. But literally two days after we gave ourselves the nod and contacted our property manager to talk about the next step -- John got his orders for deployment, and we decided to put it off until he got back. Heh-heh. God was chuckling. Or maybe just shaking his head, those poor, poor fools.

Because John got back last Spring and we all know what was happening with the housing market by then, all over the country, but especially in the places (like Vegas) that had seen such tremendous -- and ridiculous -- skyrocketing property appreciation. We should have just left well enough alone, of course. The house was rented out just fine, after all. But as my grandma used to say, "Some people are just meant to learn from their mistakes". So we very naively decided to put it up for sale, "just to see what would happen".

What happened was a big, gigantic snowball effect that started out as a query to a realtor and reassurance to our tenant that he could stay there until the place sold, if it did -- no one was getting booted to the street or anything ... but resulted in an empty house that has steadily been draining our resources ever since.

The amazing thing, really, is that we have been able to financially support that house for as long as we have. A big reason we were able to for so long was because of the additional living allowances that you get when you're stationed overseas, not to mention the financial compensation when you're deployed (which isn't nearly as significant as most people think).

When John got his first pay after moving to Ohio, I was looking at our account and I said, "You need to check your LES, because this can't be right." I had known we were in for a pay reduction after moving Stateside, but I hadn't actually sat down and spelled it out, so to speak.

Indeed, we hadn't been in Ohio long when I spoke to my friend Ruth, who had moved from Italy to the States the same time that we did. How about that sticker shock? was what I clearly remember her saying. Thing is, Ruth and Mark had actually bought a house in Texas while still in Italy. (Yes, it was a headache, but so is house-hunting with preschoolers. I'm still not sure who suffered more.) So they pretty much landed on American soil with their first mortgage payment in hand. Sitting in our hotel, I was still just musing that our pay seemed awful low...

Just to spell it out a little more clearly: John's take-home pay went down almost two thousand dollars. A month. He did bring home an LES, and there was no mistake. Um, living in Italy is more expensive, but...

After we bought our house here in Ohio that whole thing with the house in Vegas started to hurt. Really bad. It was clear that the housing market had tanked. We were liking our realtors but they just didn't have much to work with: no one wanted to buy houses, and if they did they wanted one of the brand-new ones with the free pools and cash allowances and three-years-with-no-payments perks that builders in Vegas are now offering because they can't sell their houses, either.

So we took it off the market, and we got with a new property manager, and we signed a new contract and put it out for rent. And that sentence doesn't quite illustrate the slow and arduous torture it has been to deal with this Vegas house while moving from another country and buying a house to live in and finding our way around a new city whilst unpacking boxes and feeding and caring for three children and otherwise keeping them alive.

(Oh, and have I mentioned that John has been consumed with SOS?)

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after we got everything squared away with our new property manager, John got online and told me that there were many, many (many-many) houses just like ours for rent in the MLS system. I don't remember how many he said because I gave him the wave-off: I really didn't want to hear it because I wasn't worried. Even at the time I wondered if I was just putting my head into the sand, but I simply wasn't concerned. No matter that we had reached the end of our financial tether. What would happen would happen. Fretting about it wasn't going to help, though Lord knows I did throw up many a prayer along the lines of, "Uh, help?"

And thank God, because there really is something I'm trying to say with all of this. Two things, actually. The First Thing is that our house rented!! Hallelujah!! Can I get an amen? And just in time for Christmas! -- can it get any better? And the second, and Greater Thing, is that through all of this we never stopped tithing. And don't think that I didn't think about it. Because I did.

But to the credit of both of us, when we sat down and looked at our mutating financial situation and tried to get a grip on our responsibilities in our new home and were faced with the fiscal reality of the Dollars That Don't Be, neither one of us suggested not tithing for awhile. At least not out loud. And now that I look back, I don't think for a minute that Thing One and Thing Two are unrelated.

This whole tithing thing does freak me out. It's not a word I grew up hearing, possibly because I just wasn't paying attention, and it totally takes me out of my skin and makes me want to hyperventilate. Over the years I have been hearing others' inspirational tithing testimonies, and eventually I realized that they had something to do with me: I already knew what the bible said about it, after all. It took a bit longer for John and me to be in sync, and when we finally took the plunge to tithe, to really tithe, not just "give an offering", it was pretty scary, but ultimately uneventful. The roof didn't fall in and the heavens didn't sing out. But we were being obedient, and it felt good.

My favorite passage about tithing is from Malachi in the Old Testament:

"...Bring all the tithes into the storehouse,
That there may be food in My house,
And try Me now in this," Says the Lord of hosts,
"If I will not open for you the windows of heaven
And pour out for you such blessing
That there will not be room enough to receive it..."

I've been told that this is the only place in the bible where God challenges us to test him. It's like he's saying, "Just try me, and see if I don't take care of you better than you could ever think to take care of yourself". The beginning of the passage starts out with a little fear, by the way, but I'm okay with that: More people could stand to have a little fear of God put into them, what with God Is Love being preached and harped about everywhere you look. God is Love, but He is also Sovereign and Holy and Just, and a little reminder of that is not a bad thing.

But I don’t believe we were testing God so much as simply trusting Him: That He is who He says He is and He will do what He says He will do. At the time the house in Vegas rented we had just reached the point where we were hanging on by a thread and something needed to be done -- we were down to the wire where decisions needed to be made and plans needed to be waylaid. If tithing didn't go, something else had to. I mean, those tithing dollars could sure take care of a lot of expenses ...

But it just felt like, if we stopped tithing, then we would be getting rid of the only thing we could be sure of in this unsure world. Continuing to tithe despite our dwindling balance felt more like we were saying, "Okay, God, we're doing what you told us to ... uh, now what?" I guess this is my little way of shouting out to the world that It's Real and It's True. Now, we were never starving, people: It wasn't a matter of putting basic food on our table. But we decided to be obedient, and I guess we took God up on His challenge as well. And I feel like, a couple of days ago, when we found out our house rented so quickly it was like a little wink with a thumbs up and a nudge in the ribs: Good job staying on track ... it does matter, and it does make a difference.

And if anyone is interested in buying a cute little house in Vegas, just let us know. I'm sure we could work something out.


Cherilyn said...

w00t! Hallelujah! Amen! PTL! All that and more! I love to hear people's inspirational tithing stories!

Mary Alice said...

Amen. I know that fear in the pit of your stomach. We moved in 2006 and our house hadn't hadn't sold when we left. We had only owned it for three years and the housing market was tanking. Boy did we pray....and the day we moved into our new house on a street named for the last base we came from, a couple who share our last name made an offer on the house. It was like everything came together. God is good.

Jerilyn said...

What an amazing testimony to the goodness of God to those who are faithful.

Carmen said...

This is so wonderful! God is good!

Martha said...

Great testimony of tithing...where much is given, much is required! Good works and faith will lead us to more earthly riches than any monetary and materialistic things.