This is our house. Kind of. We have been living here for the past six weeks since we moved from Minnesota to Hampton, VA. We took a flyer on the house, not having the chance to check it out before agreeing to move in. Quite frankly, our landlords took a flyer on us as well.
We arrived on my birthday, a sweaty August afternoon spent unloading our uhaul and putting together our dismantled furniture. Our initial impression of the house was not good. We were used to a luxury apartment in one of the country’s finest cities. This was not it. There were holes in the walls, missing baseboard, and the bathroom door was nowhere to be found. But as I was the impetus behind our relocation to the area, it fell to me to be Mr. Positive. And positive I was as I installed our toilet, previously kept on the front stoop. And positive I was as I helped repaint the living room to cover the holes. And positive I was as I strategically placed furniture over cigarette burns in the carpet. And positive I was as I trapped mouse after mouse. And positive I was as I removed a backyard “water feature” so ill attended that it’s only remaining function was to provide Mosquitos a place to breed, all while smelling strongly enough to knock you out at ten paces.
Positive I was.
But as the cost of renovations added up, and as the hours of my labor ticked past, and as my lovely wife who deserves the world did her best to hide her discontent, I found it difficult to remain so positive.
I began to realize how much I was investing into someone else’s house — a value we would never see. And what’s more, the owners of the home seemed disinterested in, or at least incapable of, putting the work in themselves to make this house livable once more. By five weeks in we still had not seen a lease agreement to sign. We still had not had our locks changed, with known copies hanging on past tenants keychains. We still had no bathroom door.
We were told “sorry” when our kitchen floor was damaged, followed by “just so you know, we won’t be fixing that.” We were told the pile of mouse droppings was “just a bit of dirt.” And we were told that when the old custom fit fridge went bad, it was replaced with the cheapest one off craigslist, explaining the 5 inch gap between the fridge and the walls on all sides.
Finally, I said to Lyra “you deserve better, and we shouldnt be doing all of this work ourselves, paying for it all ourselves. Lets find a new place before we are presented with a lease.” And so we looked, and within 3 days found a beautiful apartment with the same square footage as the livable portion of our house. And to boot it would be cheaper in base rent, and we would have half the utilities on top of that. Needless to say, we applied, were accepted, and then were faced with a very difficult phone call to our landlords. How do you tell someone “Your house isn’t worth half the rent you’re charging, especially if we’re doing all the work around here, so we found a new place and will be out in one week” in a kind way?
Well, I’m not sure you do. But I tried. And the week passed quickly, and with no contact from our landlords, who were understandably upset at the sudden loss of expected revenue. My texts went unreturned as I tried to keep them updated on our expected move out date.
And now the move has arrived. We spent the day loading up, and will unpack in our new apartment tomorrow. We could not be more excited. Yet as I sit here in this house, as unfinished as it is unfurnished, I can’t help but reflect on my interactions today with it’s owners. They left us a note on our door this morning, letting us know we were expected to pay compensation for leaving, that we had five days to vacate the house, and that if we failed to comply they would seek legal recourse.
Frankly, I was pretty taken aback when I saw the notice. It read like a threat, and we had always been cordial with the owners to this point. My initial response was anger. I felt they had no legal claim to compensation, as we have never in six weeks seen a lease contract. I felt it was bold to expect so much when the reality is that they have disregarded this property for years and are now paying the price for not investing in its upkeep. I felt they should be happy we are leaving the house better than we found it. I felt we were showing the same commitment to the house that they were, and that it was fair for us to leave. I felt justified to feel these things.
But now I have to wonder what the proper response, the Christian response, should be. Surely Christ would not have us create conflict with one another. And even more surely Christ would want us to be sacrificial, loving, and selfless, even in this process of leaving. As a follower of Christ, there really isn’t an excuse for cheating someone. I don’t think he would mind us leaving at all. I hardly think it matters. But what does matter is our attitude, our spirit in this whole process.
Our landlords know we are Christians. Heck, they know about my plan to start a ministry (www.stealthforceseven.com). So they are watching us, consciously or otherwise, and judging our actions as representatives of the Church. Woah. Suddenly I don’t feel my anger is so justified.
So what to do, then? We are leaving, that much is certain. We couldn’t be more excited to get out of this house. But how can we handle this situation graciously? We don’t feel we owe all that much to anyone for our stay here, considering the condition of the house and the time and resources we invested in it. But it isn’t our house, and we lived here for six weeks, lease or no lease. Although legally we could most likely move out and never look back without so much as a penny in consequences. But is that right? Is that moral? Does that help to further Gods kingdom? It is this last question, I think, that is most crucial. Ultimately the money we save or don’t save is meaningless. It is our work to further the kingdom that really matters. If our actions save us money now, but hurt the general perception of the Church, it profits us nothing. It does us no good either to handle this with bitter words and resentment. Though to instigate would fuel that inner desire to serve ourselves, it would destroy any good image our landlords may have of Christians. And it is this that should concern us most gravely in our day to day decisions and interactions, yet so often I forget.
How scary it is to realize this outside of a sermon setting. That ultimately, things don’t matter. Money does not matter. People, and the way we treat them, is what matters. This realization became more profound tonight as I watched the movie Contagion. At one point a blogger has people believing this one drug will cure the rapidly spreading disease, so people line up to buy it. Supplies are limited though, and people resort to rioting. A woman catches the sickness and arrives at the bloggers house, hoping to acquire some of the medicine before the virus claims her. He days he has none, so she presses him by offering money. A lot of money. He really doesnt have any, and he turns her away. She dies within 24 hours. What struck me was the realization that, in the face of death, that stack of money is worthless. What will it buy you that you may keep after you stop breathing? It was more important to this woman to live without money than to die with it.
Anyway, this post isn’t supposed to be about money or paying rent. It’s about being in a situation in which it is easier and more desirable to act selfishly, but much more important cosmically to serve others first. In this case I think that means working cooperatively with our landlords to find a workable middle ground that addresses our concerns about the value of the house and the work we did while honoring the fact that it is their property we used, regardless of it’s condition, and that we are leaving them in a tight spot, all while treating them with the love and grace we receive from Christ. And with that thought, I take my leave.