It was the Christmas right after the economy collapsed of 2008. People is Florida were hurting, and entire families were losing their houses left and right…
…including my family.
We had done what thousands of families in Florida had done – invested everything in our home. The way it had been explained to me, owning your own home was the best investment you could make. Take the money you’re spending on rent and instead make house payments. One day, you’ll end up with something to show for all those monthly payments instead of just throwing money away paying a landlord.
Sounded logical, responsible, even fiscally conservative.
So we followed the advice and invested everything. We were “all in”.
And then suddenly, seemingly overnight, the houses lost half their value. People were now paying a $400,000 mortgage for houses worth only $200,000. Suddenly all their investments were gone.
Sure, some people had been unwise. We knew regular folks who’d bought two or three homes. They’d found someone who’d lend them the money with nothing down. They were going to sit on the houses for a while, maybe rent them, and then “flip them” for a profit.
Now they were stuck with all those payments for houses no one would risk buying.
When you owe more than a house is worth, they called it being “upside down” on house payments. But upside down was the perfect description for what it did to many families in Florida and elsewhere. The financial crisis tipped us over like a bully, shaking us down for every last coin in our pockets and leaving us on the ground bruised and broken.
Our story was a little different, but the outcome was the same. A major source of income had been drying up for me for a while. Coincidentally (or not), the stock market took a nose dive around the same time we realized we could no longer pay for our home.
We wanted to do the right thing, so we told the bank what was happening with us. We’d heard stories of people gutting their homes before they’d walked away, taking every last appliance just like the Grinch had stripped the Who’s Christmas trees. We didn’t want to do anything like that, but we could see the end coming and wanted to be as honorable and honest in the process.
I obviously did a lot of praying, too. Much of it was about God saving our house or what we’d do if He didn’t. But some of it was just for my wife and how this would affect her.
You see, Dawn is a tremendous wife, mother, but so much more. She is the last of the old-fashioned home-makers. Her home was her pride and she kept it looking spotless, even with a bucket-load of children inhabiting it. Her cooking was awesome, her decorating fashionable without being showy, her taste impeccable. And she didn’t just do all this for herself or for us – she loved being a hostess and making our many guests feel valued.
Now everything she’d invested to made it so warm and welcoming was about to go away. How can I expect her to be contented when the center of all her activities is about to be lost in a short-sale?
I watch her as she deals with it all. Specifically, I watch her face a lot for clues to how she’s really doing.
Dawn’s actually incredibly strong emotionally. Sad to say it, but I’m the one who cries at the end of The Notebook. She just smiles and says, “That was sweet”, then moves on. So I worry whether she might be psychologically falling apart (like some around us) but just trying to hide it so I won’t worry.
Finally one day as we were looking at the inevitability of having to move out, I confronted her.
“So…how are you with all this?”
“Moving away, leaving all our investments behind and the house you’ve loved, and cramming all of us into some rental house?”
She thought for a moment, then looked me straight in the eyes.
“It’s just a house. We are what makes it a home.”
Wow. More truth right there than in most sermons. Yeah, I know. I’m pretty lucky…and incredibly blessed.
So we packed up and moved across town, leaving everything in place the way the bank would have wanted.
Later, I finally asked God that classic question we’ve all asked one time or other: “Why me?”
Why did He let us lose our house? I was in the ministry trying to help people. In addition, I was trying to survive in a toxic workplace environment at the time, so things were tough all over. Later that year it would get even tougher when my church cut all our salaries by 10%.
But God’s answer was clear as a tiny Christmas bell.
“David, you say you want to help people and heal their hurts. So how could you understand them if I insulated you from all the pain everyone else is going through? You’re people are hurting, and would never trust you to understand their pain if you remained untouched by hardship.
You ask why you? I would ask instead, ‘Why NOT you?’”
I’ve never asked God “why me” again.
As Christmas approached, I started thinking of our annual musical production. We put a significant amount of the music budget into pulling out all the stops to make our Christmas program very entertaining, as well as inspiring. Months of rehearsal and thousands of dollars would go into it. And best of all, I received quite a few compliments each year for my creativity and hard work.
I truly loved our Christmas program – it was one the highlights of my year. But as I tried to plan for it, something seemed terribly wrong.
I had been watching reports on how our immigrant population of migrant farm and construction workers were affected by the crisis. So many jobs had just disappeared in such a short time. Now Christmas was just around the bend, and many families couldn’t even pay their bills, much less pay for Christmas gifts for their children.
As I prayed, I felt God ask, “Are you really going to spend all that money having fun in the midst of all this suffering?”
The answer was obvious. I simply couldn’t. But what to do instead.
Then as I watched some kids riding past laughing on their bikes, I got an idea.
That Christmas, our church had no Christmas production. People were stunned, since the production had gained a reputation in our city. But instead, we decide to take that money we’d have spent on the Christmas production and buy bicycles for the underprivileged kids in our area.
This photo you see to the right was from the beautiful day we gave them all away. We had a gathering at a local park where I got to tell the families how much Jesus loved them. Many accepted Christ, and some later became part of our church.
But then I got to be part of giving away the bikes. One by one, the kids came up with a parent. I got to see their eyes light up. I also saw several parents tear up as they realized we really were giving them the bikes with no strings attached.
Their children really would have a Christmas after all.
Seriously, if people only understood the high you get when you’ve actually helped people, they’d stop wasting their lives trying to make themselves happy. We search for so many things to entertain us, or we just try to buy that happiness during the holidays.
But once you watch some little insignificant thing you do make a difference in someone’s life, you’ll never settle for anything less.
In the end, the Christmas I feared would be my families worst turned out to be one of our very best. We celebrated in our new rental house across town, with few less gifts than in years before. But we learned an invaluable lesson that’s so simple, it sounds cliched to even put it in writing here…
Christmas is truly not about us and our family. It’s about loving others sacrificially, the way Jesus loved us…enough to give himself away as a gift.
So if your life has been turned upside this year, don’t worry.
…sometimes an upside-down Christmas, with no house and nothing much you’ve asked for under the tree, can be the best Christmas ever.