Blessings in the Rubble

Last week marked the ten-year anniversary of the massive fires in San Diego that took our family home. When Margie and I reflect on that time, we try to focus on the good things that came out of it. You might not think that makes sense. Of course, it was a tragedy—but there were many positives. One of our biggest blessings was realizing the difference between the value of people and the value of stuff.

Only a month before we lost our house, I received a copy of a new book called When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box written by my friend John Ortberg—a wonderful author and the senior pastor of Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California. I was so taken by one section of John’s book, I sent everyone in our company a voicemail about it. John wrote about how in life, some things are forever and some are temporary—and how easy it is for us to get the two mixed up. He suggested everyone do the following exercise.

All you need is a pen and two pads of sticky notes. Write TEMPORARY on each note on one pad and FOREVER on each note on the other pad. Then go around during your day and distribute them. Put a TEMPORARY note on your car, your house, your furniture, your checkbook, things in your closet, your TV, your cell phone, etc. Put a FOREVER note on people in your family, your friends, your boss, your coworkers, the stranger behind the counter—and don’t forget to put one on yourself. Because everything else is just temporary stuff. No one will remember what clothes you wore, your bank balance, or the kind of car you drove. When the game is over, all that’s left is love—who you love and who loves you. Everything else goes back in the box.

A week after the fire, we decided to have a memorial celebration for our house—so many people in our company had been there for get-togethers or holiday parties. And over the years a number of our salespeople and consulting partners and other friends and colleagues had come to stay with us, sometimes for days or weeks for various reasons. And even though there was nothing left of the house now, all of those memories remained—so about 100 people gathered and shared their memories with us. It was a wonderful, healing experience.

One of the blessings we hadn’t thought of—and one of the biggest laughs—came at the end of the memorial celebration. Our daughter, Debbie, said, “I’ve been having a lot of mixed feelings about the house burning down. Of course it’s very sad. But I remember not that long ago walking through the house and seeing all of mom and dad’s stuff in the garage and the closets—they never threw anything away. I had the thought that if something ever happened to them, it would probably end up being my job to clean the place out—to go through everything and figure out what to do with it. Now I won’t have to do that!” Everyone laughed but they had to admit that Debbie had a point.

Shortly after the fire, a wonderful friend of Margie’s and mine named Tom Crum told us about a sign in his home written by a Japanese poet. The message on the sign translates to “Now that my barn is burned to the ground I can see the moon.” It was yet another reminder—there’s always something to be thankful for.

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