Did you watch the funeral of President George H.W. Bush? If so, you saw the importance of named values on full display. From Jon Meacham’s stirring eulogy, to his son’s warm remembrances of him as both mentor and father, the entire event was testimony to a life well lived. Raised in privilege, President Bush recognized the gospel truth that “to whom much is given, much is required” and so lived his life as a courageous servant leader.
The sad reality, though, is that the testimonies offered that day also served as a grave reminder that courage, servanthood, generosity, and civility, are in short supply these days. It is this way because the avalanche of cultural input conspires to enflame individualism, consumerism, pettiness, a sense of personal inadequacy, and victim mentalities. All of these shrink our world down to survival mode, which is far cry from the abundant life Christ came to give, and the “rivers of living water” that should be flowing through us to bring water to the desert that is the 21st century.
The way forward, according to Paul, is that we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, because without such intentional swimming upstream, we’ll be swept into the vast cultural chasm of mediocrity and narcissism that is so evident everywhere. I find that the creation of a personal mission statement provides a huge step toward such intentionality. I wrote about why this matters here, and how knowing your gifts is a critical part of the process here.
More than gifts are needed though. Hitler had gifts of eloquence. Countless leaders have gifts of charisma to motivate, and the political savvy to build coalitions of disparate parties in order to gain power. Gifts, by themselves, are amoral. In order to live the life for which we’re created, we need to commit to investing our gifts in ways that build up and contribute to God’s mission in the world. Needless to say, this isn’t the only way gifts can be used. Our gifts can be in the pursuit of power and pleasure as easily as in pursuit of the common good, actually easier! What’s worse, we can whitewash our ignoble pursuits with noble causes and edifying vision. This happens in church work, politics, and the non-profit world too often, as we all know. It’s at the root of the current climate of institutional mistrust and cynicism, and is why I often hear, “I try to follow Jesus, but the church? No thanks…” and then they share their story of feeling used.
What’s the most important thing we can do to assure that our gifts and mission work towards uplifting, rather than destructive ends? Spend time mining and articulating our values. Here’s why:
Values answer the question: “to what end”?
Why am I running, or sitting on the sofa? Why am I reading and meditating, or calling people and planning events? Why do I give money away, or keep it? Why do I turn the TV off, or leave it on? The thing is, in any given situation, either answer could be right. Decisions between this and that must be based on values, because my values will steer my ship to the desired harbor and bring balance to my life. Otherwise, I might run a marathon, but have children I don’t know, or be culturally literate, but spiritually unable to offer people good food, or “successful” outwardly, but inwardly, as Jesus said of some successful people in his day, “full of dead man’s bones”.
Values offer course corrections
There are times when I withdraw into family life and my gifts of writing and teaching start rusting. I need to get back in the game! There are times when I live a fear based life and close my heart and pocketbook too readily. I need my courage value to guide me back to being a voice of hope. There are times when I try to pretend I’m better than I am, but valuing brokenness enables me to look in the mirror and pursue ongoing transformation. Deeply held values become a sort of navigation system for life, enabling shifts as the winds change, so that we reach the desired goal.
Embedded Values build Character
We all have values, but the sad truth is that without intentionality, we will passively adopt the values of prevailing culture. We likely won’t name them, but they’ll be ours nonetheless: Consumerism, Individualism, Material Security, Pain Avoidance. Our values will define our choices, and our choices will define our lives. Without intentionality, these cultural values will prevail and one day we’ll wake up and wonder where the time went, and why haven’t we accomplished much? The answer will be that we accomplished exactly what our values determined we should accomplish. The problem was simply that we didn’t choose our values wisely .
As I open my “to do list” every day, I read my values. As I do this more and more often these values become more deeply embedded in me, moving from page, to mind, to heart. Over time, this infects decision make – not perfectly, but in some measure. The result, I hope, is that we choose wisely, and so steward our one wild and precious life better, for having taken the time to intentionally name our values.