Read an Excerpt
Making Life Matter
Embracing the Joy in the Everyday
By Shane Stanford
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
If I Break It, I Buy It
Several summers ago, my wife and I took our small children to the Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Fourth of July. It was a wonderful time as we celebrated Independence Day in our nation's capital. Just a few years after the events of 9/11, security, as you can imagine, was very tight. Being the dutiful tourists we are, we obeyed every rule. Well, almost every rule.
It was incredibly hot during July in Washington that year. It was the middle of the summer, and the heat absorbed on the granite, stone pavement, and structures intensified the already scorching situation. Some estimates put the temperature at over 105 degrees. And did I mention it was crowded? Other than the inauguration of a president, there is no larger attendance on the Mall than for the Fourth of July celebration. Of course, it is worth it. The party begins on the grounds of the west front of the Capitol with music and entertainment from across the country. Then there is the cannon salute (rather loud, but very impressive), and finally, the majestic fireworks display. By that time, however, you are toasted.
Anyone attending the event is looking for opportunities to stay cool during the day. If you have small children, it is even worse. We looked for every opportunity to cool off. This included visiting every one of the museums and facilities of the Smithsonian Institution. On one such occasion, we stopped in a gift shop located in the National Gallery of Art. If you have never been in this gift shop, you are missing a real treat; it is no ordinary gift shop—it is more of a specialty shop filled with treasures and very expensive gifts. I would be nervous by myself walking around the many treasures, but when you throw a nine-year-old, a six-year-old, and an eighteen-month-old into the equation, you are begging for disaster.
Just as we unbuckled our youngest children from their strollers, my wife and I realized where we were and, worse, what we had done. We had been so quick to find any entrance with a cool breeze that we did not pay close enough attention to where the door led. As soon as their little feet hit the ground, the kids, who were just being kids, immediately began to ooh and aah and touch. My wife and I began a furious process of grabbing, replacing, and protecting the beautiful objects, many of which cost more than our entire trip to D.C. Within minutes, I felt like a juggler on a really bad day.
After a few harried moments, my wife and I corralled our children, re-strapped them into the strollers, and made our way out of the store. Once outside, my wife turned to me and said, "Do you realize what almost happened in there? We set loose a tor-nado with absolutely no way to control the damage!" We both smiled sheepishly as we realized that we had been spared (and so had the store) from destruction—well, at least on our small scale. We were horrified at what damage could have been done.
But what about the damage we do each day with our attitudes, words, and actions that point to everything as a value in life except the one value that really matters? Many times, we worry much more about the damage our children will cause in a fine gift store than how we affect our everyday world. I am sure I am not the only one who does this.
What if every word, deed, or thought came with a relational price tag that outlined not only the effect in that moment but also how that interaction would affect others for years to come? Would that change how we speak to, work with, comfort, and guide one another? I daresay it would. And the effects might surprise us.
However, they shouldn't. I learned early that "if you break it, you buy it." In fact, pretty much everything does have a price tag, including the relationships we claim are so dear to our lives. I have been the best of friends, and, unfortunately, the worst as well. The same goes for my role as husband, father, and son.
Not long ago, I did a relationship audit in my life, and I was shocked to discover how many of the most important people to me felt left out or inconsequential against the other responsibilities in my life. I learned that while I was out doing good, important, Christian things, I was missing the most important relationships for me in Christ. I had been walking through the valuable places of my life for years, knocking over the important artifacts and gifts that God had given me. Worse yet, in most cases, I didn't even know it.
The first principle to making life matter is to appreciate the beautiful and valuable people and places in your life. Just as we walk through fragile areas physically, we must also take note of the fragile places spiritually, relationally, and emotionally. God has given those places to us as gifts that we might handle them with care, with respect, and with the understanding that how we treat these things in our journey determines, ultimately, what we value of God.
Recently, in the October 2011 issue of Chicago magazine, the newly elected mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, discussed what it meant to be back in the Windy City as leader. It is his longtime home. He grew up there and went to grammar school in Chicago. Mayor Emmanuel started his political career working in the machine of Chicago politics, eventually serving several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. And it was in Chicago that he met an up-and-coming activist named Barack Obama. Years later, when Obama became president, Emmanuel became his chief of staff, a job that has been dubbed the second most powerful position in the country.
But, during the middle of the president's term, Emmanuel returned to Chicago to run for mayor. Conditions in his home city had deteriorated over the last ten years, including a staggering rise in crime, poverty, and most other markers where an increase is undesirable. As much as Emmanuel loved working for the president, he loved his hometown just as much, and with its fractures beginning to show, he decided to "own" it by going back home and helping it.
In the Chicago magazine article, Emmanuel details "going home" and serving the city he loves. It is more than just another elected position or another job. If everyone takes responsibility for the parts of our world that are going well—but also not so well—we can change the conditions and circumstances for the future.
Several years ago, I wrote a book entitled, You Can't Do Everything ... So Do Something. The theme of the book is that every one of us has been given a gift, a passion, and a place to put our best skills to work. Although none of us are created to meet every situation, all of us have something we can do to make a difference in our world. And, if all of us are doing our somethings, anything becomes possible. The point seemed simple, especially at the beginning. But, as I continued to watch it unfold, I realized that an even deeper theme, just past responsibility, was that of accountability. The nature of accomplishing the something we were meant to accomplish unveils itself in our willingness to take credit for its success and also for its failure. Therefore, in being faithful to "own" the world in which we work and live, even life's more difficult turns can teach us valuable lessons.
There is more than one biblical account that validates this principle. How many times did God change a mistake into a victory through a person's willingness to "own" the broken place, person, or purpose? Remember Abraham, Jacob, David, Zacchaeus, Matthew, or Paul? In many assessments, their mistakes would have been too big to forgive. But God convinces them to own the broken places of their journeys and uses their redemption to restore some part of a broken world.
When we refuse to go home, take up the mantle of our mistakes, or face and own the brokenness of our journey, the brokenness does more than distract us, it defines us as well. Careless conditions lead to broken hearts, bad decisions, and unhealthy patterns that result, as the Bible states, in one generation after another of misguided intentions and mangled people. When asked if anyone would choose to break the most valuable items in a nice store, no one would make that decision. The same is true for the relationships and commitments that mean the most to us. Yet, in both cases, we stumble through—sometimes by accident, other times through frustration—and the breakage begins. The result for both situations is the same—tears, guilt, accusation, "should haves" and "if onlys." We then pay the price, steep as it may be, and move on, usually with very different circumstances, most certainly with different attitudes and states of mind.
Throughout Scripture, God encourages the reader to slow down, take an inventory of our surroundings, and proceed with caution. It is good advice.
Today, my wife and I have a different policy for our children and specialty shops. We make sure on the front end that they understand the risk they take when acting out in such a place. We tell them that they will have to use their own money if there is a problem. We insist that the best medicine against any problem is to act appropriately and mind your manners.
Our advice and rules for our children is not too dissimilar from what God tells us about those same valuable places throughout our personal walk. Living this principle does a couple of things for us. First, it forces us to take in our surroundings—all of them, not just the views we like or feel comfortable with. Life matters when we understand the full measure of it, how it affects others and how it ultimately will affect us. Let us at least not become our own worst enemies by being ridiculous and irresponsible.
But second, living these principles makes us accountable.
I love the story from the Depression when New York Mayor Theodora LaGuardia served as municipal judge because of the city's inability to pay people for the job. One day, an older woman with small grandchildren was brought before his court. Her charge was that she had stolen a loaf of bread from a local bakery. The fine was ten dollars (a huge sum in those days) and ten days in jail. The woman pleaded against the charges, saying how her husband had died and that she was simply trying to put some food on her table. However, the bakery owner would not relent and forced the charges.
The mayor had no alternative but to find her guilty. After levying the fine and suspending the sentence, the mayor then fined the entire courtroom fifty cents each. When asked why, he convicted them for allowing a community where the "least of these" must steal loaves of bread in order to survive. He made the woman pay; he made the people accountable.
Remember, "If you break it, you buy it." Everything has a price.
TOO HIGH A COST
The story of Judas's betrayal is often told from only one angle, that of the effects on Jesus, the central part of the story. But Judas's response and remorse is also an important part of the story. After he learned that Jesus was condemned, Judas sought to undo what he had set into motion, but to no avail. The act of betrayal cost Jesus his life and Judas his life as well. Every action has a cost.
It is easy for us to forget that Judas was an important part of Jesus' ministry. He had served as the financial person and as a major voice in Jesus' role as Messiah. Judas, in so many ways, believed in Jesus as much or more than any other disciple did. It is just that his faith cast a different shadow than what Jesus intended.
Judas was brash and quick to act. He was the proverbial bull in a china shop. And, when his act of betrayal was over, for whatever reasons he undertook it, much was broken, and he was unable to put it all together again. Judas bought pain that day from the broken wake he left, and he gave his life for it.
Every part of life costs something—good or bad. We invest ourselves in the lives of others and should realize the intentionality and effect that such investment requires and yields. The interdependent nature of human relationships insures that our lives impact one another. There is simply no getting around it. The very best of our qualities is being made in the image of God. But it is also the most volatile. We hold it gently, knowing that how we treat one another, how we interact in this dance of human relationships, is the most distinctive way that we testify to our faith in God. Yes, we are to love God, the Bible says, but equally important is that we love like God as well. And, centerpiece to that love was how God loved us. For all that God expected, God gave back even more, even to the point of Jesus, God's own son.
God did not break it, but God bought it anyway. Should we not be as responsible for our relationships with one another?
I learned early that every person's words and actions have power. "If you break it, you buy it" has power because it not only makes us accountable, it makes us family. And, family matters. That is why God calls us his family and insists the same be true when we think of each other. The saying "if you break it, you buy it" doesn't just refer to objects or goods but to people as well.
In today's world of individuality and personal needs/desires, accountability and responsibility often become catchphrases when describing how others affect us, representing a self-centered approach even to community. But real community works when we realize how our lives affect others. In the process, we discover the authentic sense of our own personal value and self-worth.
A pastor friend of mine likes to say that we all have it in us. I remember when I first asked, what in us? He would reply, John or Judas. For we are all, at any given moment on the journey, just a hair over the line from being the beloved disciple or the betrayer.
MY GLORIOUS BURDEN
Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist from the Washington Post, tells the story of the first days of the Iraq War. President George W. Bush gathered his primary military and foreign advisors to discuss the possibility of invading Iraq. Previously, the United States had retaliated for the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by invading Afghanistan. The oppressive regime of the Taliban, a militant, fundamentalist Islamist government, represented the very worst of humanity. Their treatment of women, children, and those who disagreed with their virulent reading of the Koran made Afghanistan one of the worst places to live on the planet. It seemed almost inevitable that the United States would invade.
However, the invasion of Iraq was different. The evidence, which so easily and specifically connected the Taliban to those who had committed the unspeakable acts of 9/11, did not translate to Saddam Hussein's government—even with Hussein's dictatorship, human rights abuses, and continued disobedience of UN sanctions, the cause for war was not easily proven.
Thus, the president spent a great deal of time with his advisors discussing the qualifications for his next decisions. In one of the famous exchanges, President Bush asked the opinion of Secretary of State Colin Powell about invading Iraq. Secretary Powell warned the president by elaborating on the so-called Pottery Barn rule that "you break it, you buy it." It was a stunning response, in both its vernacular and in its straightforward appeal.
This exchange has been told and re-told now for many years, and I am sure that neither President Bush nor Secretary Powell intended for the discussion to have such a powerful life of its own. But that is what happens when our words from one context seep into another situation or circumstance. Regardless, the rule Secretary Powell quoted was important because it framed not only the context of the dilemma in question but also the primary value of our decisions to face it. Everything costs something—it is just that we find it easier to pay some things than others.
When we break something, particularly of value, we take ownership of it. Actual ownership? Not always—maybe not even most ways. No, this is certainly true in principle if not in practice. Thus, we may try to downplay our responsibility for the situation at hand, but that does not relieve us of our duty. And, it was duty that caused Secretary Powell to clarify his opinion about the situation in Iraq. As a former military officer, Secretary Powell knew the importance of being held to account for his decisions.
Did it change much about the process? Bob Woodward says, ultimately, no. But that is the risk we take when we step up for what we believe, when we seek to protect our view of the truth. It is that fragile. So, not only do we own that responsibility, we must be willing to live into it if necessary.
Excerpted from Making Life Matter by Shane Stanford. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.