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Archive for the ‘Stewardship’ Category

Storage for the Long Haul

At times in our wild journey of the last decade, we’ve had a substantial amount of our household stuffed in a storage unit.

It only made sense, when we were roving in our RV, but knew we’d be setting up housekeeping again within a year or two.

But what makes sense when it’s longer?

Things have shifted in such a way that we are more seriously considering taking an overseas contract job. This would likely be for a period of five years, and could extend to ten.

When you get to thinking about the cost of renting a storage unit for ten years, the perspective on everything changes. The cost to store something for ten years just about can’t help but being more than the cost of shipping it overseas, then back home again, don’t you think?

Not to mention that in long a span things will degrade and decay, no matter how carefully stored. And hey, what if the storage center goes out of business while you’re an ocean away?

Before a move like that, you’d obviously go through and pare down your belongings to a bare minimum. But really, in this case, that needs to be even bare-er.

The cost to store something for ten years just about can’t help but being more than the cost of shipping it overseas, then back home again, don’t you think?

We are book lovers. That will be the first hurdle.

We’ve pared down the books over and over again… And I still can’t even shelve them all on seven full sized bookcases (and that doesn’t even include the kids’ books!). But really. Surely, in some cases, if I was ever going to read them, I would have by now, right? And I could always get another copy if I really decide I need it later? I keep telling myself that…

But something I can’t even conceive of is what to do about our vehicles.

Nick and Wolf drive old beaters, which we would simply sell in advance of our departure. But that’s only half the story.

Wolf also has a classic Volvo. It’s a derelict, non-driveable old monster at this point, but he does hope to have it driveable within the next year. Still, is it worth it to ship over there? He certainly doesn’t want to get rid of it…

My vehicle is another situation entirely. You might consider it unremarkable – a 1999 Suburban. Surely we could sell it off and obtain a comparable vehicle when we return. Yeah. The trouble is, there are a number of features about the vehicle which have been changed, and in some cases discontinued, in later models (and other makes) leaving it uniquely suited to our needs and preferences.

So then what? How do you store a vehicle for that long?

Surely it involves either draining all the fluids and putting it up on blocks, or finding someone to store it and drive it periodically.

In either case, ten years is (once again) a long commitment. Aside from the cost, even. What if the storage facility goes out of business, or the person has a change in their life situation?

Any advice?

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Seeing the Right and Wrong in Used Curriculum

DISCLAIMER: You may not agree with me. Surprise, surprise. I have no problem with that, and I hope you can simply accept it, as well. If that is the case, please know that this post is not about you, so there is no cause to feel alarmed, insulted, “judged,” or any other negative reaction – unless such should be spontaneously generated by the action of the Holy Spirit in your heart. My purpose here is simply to explore a choice that we made, and share my thoughts for the consideration of others.

Several years ago, I purchased two “complete” years of Sonlight curriculum second-hand. For those not familiar with Sonlight, this means I received two big boxes full of not only the lesson plans and guides, but many, many reading books. (The photo is from the Sonlight website; one Core + Readers set).

Those levels weren’t what we needed at that moment (I just couldn’t pass up the deal!), so I crated them up, labeled them, and tucked them away in the storage room.

I was delighted when I realized that the Core I wanted to purchase for our 2013/2014 school year was the first of these years that I had stored away!

The Science books lined up with the Science we are just finishing up from this year (wish I’d known THAT earlier!), so I went ahead and re-sold them.

Sorting through the Read-Alouds for the Core, and the Readers for Miss J’s Language Arts, we found that we had most of them, so I only had to purchase the missing pieces.

I (read “we”) decided, however, to purchase the Core Instructor’s Guide new from Sonlight. (There is a re-purchase discount if you have previously purchased a Core, but that applies only to the original purchaser).

Why do that instead of using the perfectly functional one that I have in the box?

Here’s the reasons that immediately occur to me, roughly in order from least to most important (not ignoring the overall factor of prayer and debate):

  • The Core guide that I have is put together for the 4-day rather than 5-day schedule, so would require some re-working. It also has writing in it, lessons checked off by the previous user, etc. Certainly, it would be nicer to have my own fresh copy.
  • Purchasing the Core entitles me to access the online forums, registers me with them for Customer Support, etc., etc.
  • “Core 1″ is actually a number of years old, and predates a pretty significant revamp they did a couple of years ago. The currently-named “Core B” has a lot of improvements.

But the far-and-away main reason?

  • Because it’s the right thing to do. Because I adore Sonlight, and they deserve compensation for their product – this is how they support their family, remember!

Now, do I wish this hadn’t happen right now, when were’re suffering under a 20% pay cut thanks to Congress’ bright idea that furloughs were better than doing their job with the budget? For sure!

But right is right.

**

This is not in any way a “sponsored post”, but we sure do adore Sonlight (I can’t decide whether I’m more impressed with the incredible products, or their top-notch customer service and guarantees…). If you’d like to give them a try, you can get $5 off your first order by clicking through my affiliate link: sonlight.com/rewards/TH20214672.

Reaching Out

This is not something I would normally do, and not something I hope to ever have to do again… But over and over again it is pointed out to me that there are people out there who would be happy to help others, but they are not aware of the need.

Because, after all, we are the Body of Christ – we are His helping hands.

Well, it’s our turn to be in need.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, let me summarize the recent events as briefly as I can (I’ll probably have any number of posts about individual aspects of this nightmarish journey coming up):

The one sentence back-story: We only recently came through a period of several years of unemployment and underemployment, followed by a cross-country move here to Mississippi, so we have no savings or cushion.

The recent history: Nine months ago we moved (from the tiny place next to the railroad tracks) into a rental with a bigger yard and definite potential — but it turns out it has mold in the walls, or some other toxic quality. Within a month everyone was getting sick all the time. I had bronchitis in the fall, and everyone except Wolf went through a bout of antibiotic resistant strep throat in the winter. Nick nearly didn’t graduate from High School, and Jewel has still not completed her 1st Grade work, due to health issues. I suffered from daily migraines for over seven months, until a desperation treatment (Botox injections) gave me some measure of relief (down to 3 or 4 a week, with a headache most other days).

It took a while to put it all together, but it seemed clear when someone pointed out the dates that the house was almost certainly the cause of our malaise. So, on very short notice, we prepared to move, still not knowing whether we will get our deposit back from the old house (since we are breaking our lease – another long story!). We were strained to the breaking point trying to pay the (large) deposit required at the new place, and moving expenses.

The past two weeks:

  • Sunday: Nick (not quite 18) set off on his first solo trip, driving two days to a writing workshop at a college in Kansas. He broke down in the way there, and much stress and drama interrupted my frantic packing, trying to get him some help. This includes a lot of drama because (as a minor) he could not simply rent himself a hotel room.
  • Monday: After having his radiator replaced, Nick made it to his workshop. (I had to purchase the radiator online for him to pick up there, since he had only enough money scrounged up to pay for his gas for the trip!)
  • Tuesday: While packing, I sell our gas dryer, and buy a used washer and electric dryer. The seller explains that the washer needs a belt, which costs $8 and is widely available. Maybe I was foolish to believe this, but in my defense, Wolf agreed to the deal as well. Naturally, the washer does not work, and the belt is fine.
  • Friday: Nick calls and he’s having car trouble, as well as being lost (since his GPS was stolen out of his car at the workshop). He finally breaks down completely in Lowell, AR, which looks like the exact middle of nowhere on a map. More “minor needs a hotel room” drama, more “how to get him help” stress. He does get checked into a hotel, thanks to local law enforcement and a kind elderly desk clerk. But the head gasket is blown, so he’s not going anywhere.
  • Saturday: Moving Day. Most of our friends had prior commitments, and I had a migraine. We were blessed with the help of a few valiant friends at various times, or we’d never have made it at all. Three loads with the Penske truck, then loading Wolf’s (non-running) project car on a trailer and hauling it over here, plus returning the borrowed trailer. Wolf didn’t get to bed until after midnight, and I was actually worried about just how over-extended he was.
  • Sunday: We dropped off the Penske truck, switched the car seats around, and Wolf took off in my Suburban to rescue Nick – an estimated 14 hour drive. He only got as far as Harrisburg before the truck broke down, and he spent the day (and almost $500) replacing the fuel pump in the parking lot of an auto parts store. He is still healing from the chemical burns across his back from laying in gasoline for so long. Needless to say, he didn’t make it to Nick.
  • Monday: Wolf drives the rest of the way to Lowell. U-Haul didn’t bother to tell us that the tow dolly was not, in fact, at the location where I had reserved it, nor at the one that dealer sent him to. After wasting an hour in being shuffled around, they finally found it (and paid almost $250!). Nick’s vehicle’s steering wouldn’t lock, so they had to tie off the steering wheel to make it even marginally tow-able, and the U-Haul dealer didn’t have the magnetic tow lights that would have made the procedure actually safe. But they started driving. Naturally, the Air Force Inn in Little Rock, where they had had reservations the previous night, was booked up.
  • Tuesday: Wolf and Nick make it home about 2:00 pm! HOORAY! After parking Nick’s vehicle we hurry to return the tow dolly, get Wolf a haircut, switch the car seats back, and send him on his way. He has to drive 4+ hours to Columbus Air Force Base for three days of Reserves duty.

Meanwhile, we continue frantically packing up the seemingly endless amount of “odds and ends” that are left at the old house, since so many factors contrived to limit our packing and preparation. We also have to find a way to mow about an acre of yard (we only have a push mower!), some of which is quite overgrown (we had been nurturing the wild-growing dewberry plants, but the landlord doesn’t want them there).

The landlord is anxiously looking for a way to keep our deposit, after apparently grudgingly allowing us to break the lease (they never have said for sure one way or the other, even after we provided the letter they demanded from our family doctor!). So I’m personally quite overwhelmed with the amount of packing and moving left to do, plus the cleaning (including cleaning the carpets with my little Bissell carpet cleaner), the impossibility of the yard…

All without Wolf here for the rest of the week.

All done by this weekend.

And meanwhile there is the additional financial stress – we did what we had to do to get our son home, but now the rent and other bills are due, and the money is gone.

I am stepping out of my comfort zone, in faith, to ask the Body of Christ to help us bear this burden.

Angels could come in many forms at this point:

  • PRAYING for us!
  • Locally: Mowing the lawn, or at letting us borrow a riding mower
  • Locally: Bringing your truck or SUV to haul a load to the new house
  • Locally: Cleaning one or more areas of the house – bathrooms, kitchen, carpet cleaning, or ?
  • Making a financial contribution to help repay the “Nick Rescue Safari” expenses, which totaled out at over $2,000!
  • SHARING this story and the “Chip In” information (below). This is SUCH a simple, vital gift you can give! Please spread the word, and give others the opportunity to help.

If you would be able to help, however much or little you feel led, you may click the link below to “Chip In”. Every mite is seen by the Lord, and will add us to an overflowing measure of blessing for our family in this dark hour.

THANK YOU!

Budgeting: A New Beginning

As I mentioned in my Envelope Budgeting post, we’re on a quest to make another step forward in our finances.

We have been having success with our efforts to reduce waste, reduce our utility bills, reduce our automobile costs (including gas), and so forth. But we haven’t actually made

A Budget

Well thanks to the Mvelopes free account (mentioned in the post above), we’re hard at work making that a reality. We’re setting up digital envelopes for all our financial categories, to track every penny and keep ourselves in line.

And do you know what else I did last week?

When I (well, the kids and I, of course) went shopping on Thursday (Farmer’s Market day, so we schedule around that), I went to the bank as usual. But instead of getting out just what cash I needed for the Farmer’s Market (for our milk, eggs, and produce), I withdrew the entire two-week grocery budget.

Since Wolf gets paid every other week, I am running budgeting on two week cycles.

Not everything has a physical cash envelope, but groceries seemed an obvious place to start.

And it does feel different, shopping with cash. I’m more reluctant to part with each bill. And knowing how much is left in that envelope is a “hard stop” – unlike the debit card, where there’s such an ease of “well it’s just a little bit…”

What else is really better with a cash envelope over a digital one?

Image from NoThirst, a website I know nothing else about.

Envelope Budgeting

Most people have at least heard of an “envelope budgeting” system.

It’s been around pretty much since envelopes were invented, probably, and has been popularized by Dave Ramsey.

You can stash your cash in regular paper envelopes, or you can pick up something like this nifty cloth envelope set I found on Etsy.

There are also various online budgeting programs to help track spending. The one that most closely mirrors this system, though, is Mvelopes.

I’ve wanted to try using Mvelopes for a while now, but couldn’t get past the idea of paying a monthly fee. (Their “free version” is so limited as to be pointless).

But the wise and wonderful Mary Hunt of Debt Proof Living got together with the Mvelopes folks to offer a totally free basic account. Read about it on the Debt Proof Living Blog.

It still has limits, and they still offer the upgrade to the Premium membership – but this is a fully functional account. It even includes a “jump start” phone coaching session to help you get started.

This is not a sponsored post, and I have no affiliate interest in any of the products mentioned. Just sharing a good deal I found on a tool I am beginning to use myself!

Earn by writing about what you know!


As I mentioned, I have recently begun writing articles about Gluten Free products for a website called Examiner.com.

Today, I want to invite you to consider what YOU might write about!

Even if you don’t think of yourself as “a writer”, and whether or not you blog… There are no rules as a freelance contributor! You’re not required to write on a schedule, or write a specific article assigned by someone else.

You just pick a topic that interests you, then apply to be an “Examiner” for that topic, either locally or nationally.

They have Examiners for every topic under the sun – from sports, hobbies, food, new mom, and homesteading, to entertainment, news, politics, you name it!

You will be paid a commission based on a variety of factors, including the number of people who read your articles, the number of subscribers you have, etc. Even if it’s not much at first, it can add up. And every little bit of “stay at home” income helps, for many of us.

Can’t hurt to check it out, right?

Click on over to join Examiner.com!

That link also has a referral code, so they know I sent you.

Image from a website called Passive Income Shortcut, about which I know nothing (but it doesn’t look like my kind of place, really…)

A Taxing Problem

We file our income tax returns on time. We are scrupulously honest. We pay the taxes we owe.

Up until last year, I have always done my taxes myself, at home on my PC.

Last year I was attracted by the idea that several places online offer free use of their online system, and free eFiling, for members of the military.

I chose TurboTax from among the options, since it was the software with which I was familiar. And everything went smoothly, so I never gave it another thought.

This year, I went willy-nilly to the first place I ran across with that program, and started preparing our return on the TaxSlayer website.

Even though I didn’t have all of the documents yet, I went ahead and put in what was available – Wolf’s income from his “day job,” from the Reserves, and a 1099-R from a Life Insurance policy we had cashed out (long story not relevant here, but while it might sound odd on the surface we believed this was the proper stewardship action in this matter).

I was really exasperated when I saw how things were shaping up. TaxSlayer showed that we would owe the IRS a bit, but would owe Mississippi considerably more – over $600!

Looking through the online payroll information, I was able to determine that we were having the wrong amount withheld overall – since Wolf’s last pay increase, and Nick’s 17th birthday, we have lost ground in several areas.

I never even thought that the withholdings needed to be adjusted – let that be a lesson you can learn from my mistake!

But it also turns out that Mississippi is not the most pleasant state in which to live, in this regard (we’ll leave “in other regards” for another day!). That Student Loan Interest deduction you can take on your 1040? Not a deduction in Mississippi. And so on…

I had to change the withholdings additionally for Mississippi, to account for their, erm, rigid policies.

So, our house will be in better order when the time comes to file our 2012 taxes. But in the meantime, I shared my woes with my Facebook friends.

Several commiserated about Mississippi. But one friend said,

Yeah, I always do it on several of those online sites, to see who gives me the best return!

Um, wait a minute. The tax law is the tax law. If you put the same information in, you absolutely should get the exact same result.

Skeptical, I went and input the identical information at H&R Block and TurboTax.

All showed the exact same number for our Federal Income Tax.

But Mississippi?

TaxSlayer = WE OWE $600+

H&R Block = WE OWE $300+

TurboTax = Refund of $54

Clearly, the tax code for Mississippi is not as clear, or not as clearly implemented — or both — as its Federal counterpart.

But which of those is right?

Beginning at the beginning, I printed out the blank tax forms from IRS.gov and the MS Dept of Revenue, and worked through the whole process by hand.

As you might expect, the Federal return went smoothly, and I, too, arrived at the answer all three sites had delivered.

STRIKE ONE

One item that came quickly to light was that TurboTax had told me about a deduction that was missed by both other programs — pay earned while serving in the National Guard or any branch of the Reserves may be deducted up to a certain amount. Wow!

TaxSlayer had a mention of this, but stated that it was only for National Guard pay, so I did not believe that we qualified.

H&R Block has no mention of this what-so-ever.

I tried contacting customer service. After chatting, talking, transferring, and teeth gnashing, I was told the matter was being escalated and I would be contacted within 48 hours.

I never heard back from them.

Since there was no way to claim it in their system, they were disqualified from the race with a pointed letter to customer service.

H&R Block, you’re fired! A company honoring the military by offering free filing should give them that deduction, for sure!

STRIKE TWO

Soon I uncovered the second problem:

The Life Insurance income from the 1099 form was reported correctly on the Federal return by all three programs. But only TaxSlayer was showing that income on the Mississippi return.

So the big question: Who is right?

Was TurboTax (and H&R Block, but they’re already fired) simply missing this income in the Federal-to-State transfer? Or did they know something TaxSlayer did not know, making the income not taxable in Mississippi?

After reading through all the information easily accessed through the DOR website (short of starting to sift through the voluminous code itself), it seemed that it was clearly taxable income in Mississippi.

Bad news, TurboTax.

STRIKE THREE

I wanted to give TurboTax the benefit of the doubt, here, since they had been kind enough to show me the deduction for Reserve pay.

After the in-program-chat representative determined that I was not an idiot, they had me call and speak to a “tax adviser.” I worked with a woman in that department for some time, and she agreed with my assessment that the income should be taxable.

She had me call another department, giving me an “Incident Number” so they could find my case. This was the “Working On My Return” Department, who should be able to either explain the situation, or provide a work-around solution.

I called. The Incident Number didn’t work. I walked through a bunch of nonsense again. They finally figured out that I was not an idiot.

I was told that it would be escalated to “Tier Two Support,” and that someone would get back to me within 48 hours. (Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar?)

I never heard back from them. (Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar?)

TurboTax, you’re fired! Not only is there potentially a glaring error in your software, but your Customer Service is worse than nothing!

IN THE HOME STRETCH

So, that leaves the undisputed champion as TaxSlayer!

Except, wait… I’m still not really sure whether that 1099 income is taxable. What if, in spite of all their other issues, TurboTax and H&R Block got this part right (they are the majority opinion, at this point)?

Someone with two clocks never know what time it is.

And apparently someone with two tax programs never knows how much they really owe.

Creative Theft is Still … Yeah, Theft.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, let me share with you the highlights, as posted by a dear friend.

I have a very sweet friend that I’ve never met “in real life” (she is one of the founders of a wonderful cloth diapering message board that I joined while pregnant with DangerGirl) but I consider myself blessed to know her. She’s one of the brightest and giving souls I know.

She’s the mother of 4 beautiful girls. She is so very in love with her husband (and he with her) that you just can’t help but adore and admire them. Especially when you find out that he–a brave and honorable military man–was recently diagnosed with cancer.

My friend is also a talented designer and seamstress. She sells patterns for home sewing adorable, functional children’s clothes and beautiful, unique accessories to help support her family.

When her husband was diagnosed, friends rallied around her family immediately. An auction was arranged on their behalf…and being the truly thoughtful and caring people they are, my friend and her husband pledged to donate a portion of those proceeds to help others who find themselves facing the unimaginable.

Given all that…you can imagine the disgust and anger I felt yesterday when I found out that a sewing blogger purchased my friend’s passport wallet pattern and then turned around and released a copy as her own. Not only did she use several of the *exact* pattern pieces from my friend’s design, she even stole the “Thank You” note that my friend sends out to customers.

You can see her full post over at Mama Pensées.

Have you ever really thought about creative theft?

This is actually the same category of theft as downloading pirated music or movies.

But it’s easier to see it, in this case, because of the smaller scale. Because we can see our friend’s hurt, and her family’s need for that income.

Right and wrong are the same, regardless of how much we may feel the artist “needs” or “won’t miss” my $10 purchase, though.

Sadly, people purchasing the stolen pattern have no way to know. But we do!

In this particular case, I’d like to ask for your help — something you can do totally for free.

Visit my friend’s Etsy shop, Birdiful Stitches.

She will get some benefit just from having more traffic click through to her site. And better still if you browse around a little, and spend a few more clicks there.

If you’re feeling generous with your mousing, you might also consider these activities on the lower left sidebar:

  • Add the shop to your Etsy Favorites list
  • Like her on Facebook, and share to your Facebook wall
  • Tweet about it

And of course, if you can make use of anything from the shop, her family would appreciate your support.

How’s that for mashing together a general topic and a very specific post? Hmmm. Ah, well…

Swap Kids’ Clothes at ThredUp

You probably know by now how much I like PaperBackSwap, a resource no bookworm should be without…

Well, I recently found a similar site for swapping kids’ clothes: ThredUp.

It’s free to join, and simple to use.

You sort your kids’ clothes by size and gender, then cram as many as you can into a Medium Flat Rate Box (as soon as you sign up, ThredUp will automatically order some for you!) – and there are plenty of tutorials to help with every step of the process.

You’ll be surprised just how many items of clothing you can get in there – and just remember, that’s about how many you’ll be *getting* on the other end of the swap!

Once someone “picks” your box, you just click to print out a pre-paid label, and leave it out for the mail carrier… And now you’ve earned a pick!

You sort through the boxes looking for whatever you want… gender, size, season, and even some specialty choices.

Be sure to read descriptions, look at photos if links are provided, and check out the sender’s rating. Not every box listed is the perfect one you might wish for!

Mamas have started boxing up lots of other goodies besides clothes – everything from diapers, to Boppy pillows, to nursing clothes, to purses… There’s even talk of an official ThredUp Toy Swap being organized for the holidays!

When you find one you like, you click to pick it, and pay $5 plus the shipping ($10.70). In just a couple of days it will show up on your doorstep.

Make sure you leave a review on the site. A lot of the mamas are very active in the ThredUp community, and the ratings mean a lot!

There are also some special benefits for military families, so make sure to check the appropriate boxes when you sign up. Sara, the resident Military Mama also keeps track of the friendly rivalry to find out which service, and which base, has the most members!

Well, what are you waiting for? Head over to ThredUp and check it out!

Now through December 15th, you can get a free “PRO” membership for two months. Use the code pro253 at checkout to take advantage, and access some extras like early access, the “compare” feature, etc.

Too Much Help

Picture the scene, if you will…

Our Lord, Jesus, is out among the people with His disciples. He blesses, He comforts, He heals, He forgives sins.

Then someone else approaches and pleads for help.

Jesus looks her over carefully, and finally He responds:

Well, you sure do have a lot of needs.

Listen, I can either forgive your sins, fix your crippled leg, provide for your family since your husband died, or heal your sick daughter.

There are a lot of people who need My assistance, you know, so you can only have so much help.

What’s that?

You can’t imagine our Saviour saying that?

Hmmmm.

Neither can I.

So – since we are the Body of Christ – why is that the attitude of so many people who are in positions of authority in ministries specifically designed to help others?

Imagine that you are in charge of a direct people-helping ministry. For this example, let’s assume it’s something like a “Family Assistance” program at your church.

The ministry collects donations of money, goods, food, clothing, etc. Plus you receive a budget out of the church collection.

People come to you when they’re in a bind. Sometimes you can offer them food off the shelves, or winter coats, or shoes. Toys for the kids at Christmas. You also get Gift Cards for gasoline and groceries at nearby locations.

You offer counseling on getting the electric bill pushed back, and reducing the phone bill. And, when push comes to shove, you can help by directly paying some utility bills.

Of course you screen the folks that come to you for help. You want to make sure they aren’t just feeloaders, and that they aren’t out buying booze with your grocery cards.

But what is your long-term view?

After a few visits, do you tell someone that you have “helped them enough”?

All too often, it seems that people in this type of role feel the need to “play god” in the lives of the people who come to them for help, and also have a finite view of what they should do before they have “helped enough” and that person should be on their way.

A while back, I posted a great lesson from a travelling revival team on giving, illustrated with a fun story about sharing M&M’s.

His main point – quite obvious in that lesson – was simply that if you had the resources to help a brother or sister, you needed to help them.

Jesus said (in Matthew 26) that we would always have the poor with us, and (in Galatians) that we should bear one another’s burdens (in love, no less). James specifically instructs us to care for orphans and widows, and Deuteronomy even adds “strangers” to the list!

Nowhere in Scripture do any of these commands have exceptions, time limits, or qualifications.

So why are we hoarding our M&M’s?

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