Begin with the Family Mission Statement — Not Strategies


As a Family Wealth Planner I find that my clients share at least one common attribute and that is where to begin the process of estate planning. Too often they mistake a strategy for a plan.  I generally find that they have called their attorney and gotten the process going via a will and trust or even a family limited partnership without first having the main thing figured out. 

Where then do you begin?  The answer I believe is to begin by putting first things first.  That is to say by Developing a Family Mission Statement.  The Family Mission Statement is the process of exploring what your family is all about.  It focuses your attention on two things: Vision and Purpose.  As part of The 7 Habits Family Leadership Series, Stephen R. Covey developed a wonderful cassette guide entitled “How to Develop a Family Mission Statement.”

Experience suggests that too often in life we are climbing the ladder of success so fast and furious that we seldom check to see if the ladder is leaning against the right wall. We call this Hurry Sickness!  The results of having a Family Mission Statement are many. It helps clarify your purpose from which springs your vision. The process of developing the Family Mission Statement is as important as the actual Mission Statement as it requires us to develop good listening skills as we enlist all members of our family toward committing to a shared mission. It requires us to seek first to understand others before we seek to be understood. The process is key to building better unity and communication within the family. It  requires us to get in touch with our feelings and emotions as we seek to develop a meaningful purpose and identify principles that we will live by.

A Family Mission Statement helps focus on the sense of future versus the baggage of one’s past. Covey states “My study has absolutely convinced me that seeing a positive future for yourself and your family makes all the difference in the effectiveness of life.” Because the entire family is involved in the creation of the Family Mission Statement staying on course becomes much easier. This is the process in which the family determines it highest-priority goals. The family writes the script for what kind of a family they want to be. The alternative is that circumstances write your family script for you. “This has the potential for making the greatest impact for good on your family,” states Stephen R. Covey.

Covey uses the analogy of the airplane that takes off in Detroit with a destination of London and finds that almost immediately it is off course and the autopilot comes on to make a course correction. In fact over the course of the trip the autopilot is correcting the flight pattern around ninety percent of the time spent in the air — yet the plane lands on time and at its destination. Our families are like the plane, they tend to get off course over time without a Family Mission Statement. The Family Mission Statement provides our destination which enables us to tell when we are off course. Otherwise we become like Alice in Wonderland when she stopped at the fork in the road to ask the cat which road she should take. The cat asked her where she wanted to go. Her response was I don’t know. The cat then told her that either road would take her there.

Gary Spicer an attorney in Grosse Pointe, Michigan wrote a delightful book entitled “Surviving Success.” The book suggests that getting there is one thing, but surviving our success is another. He goes on to describe how often those that reach the top of the ladder arrive only to find that surviving success is much more difficult than climbing the ladder in the first place. Too often things distract us from the main thing in life and we lose track of our mission.

Our planning process offers new paradigms that open up many new options. Covey states that we have four basic needs “to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.” We find that too often people assume that their objectives cannot be accomplished and give up and settle for too little. In our experience people buy into at least 7 myths:  death and taxes are certainties, they must lose control to do good planning, the family must lose in order for charity to win, they must be charitably inclined to use certain strategies, the focus should be on the financial aspect only, I’ll get to it when things settle down and if I just had a little more it would be enough.

One of major paradigm shifts comes when clients learn that Capital Gain and Estate Taxes are voluntary. Another paradigm shift comes when they realize that beginning with a specific strategy is the wrong place to begin the process!!!  The process begins with the Family Mission Statement and from it we develop objectives and then our action steps. The end is the Family Mission Statement and the means are how we go about achieving those ends.

Imagine that you could pass your entire estate on to your children and grandchildren without paying any estate taxes, any capital gain taxes, while receiving enhanced income and current tax deductions and becoming a substantial philanthropist out of dollars (social capital) that under the conventional approaches would be going to Uncle Sam. GOOD NEWS YOU CAN!

In one of Stephen R. Covey’s many books he asks us to think about going to a funeral to pay last respects only to discover after arriving  that it is our funeral. Stephen then asks us to imagine not what comments that will be said about us but what comments we would like said about us. In other words how would we like to write the last chapter of our life while there is still time.

In 1995 John Ortberg a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington Illinois delivered a speech at the Foundation Conference which I found to be very meaningful entitled: IT All GOES BACK IN THE BOX. I hope you will find Pastor John Ortberg’s following comments meaningful as well.  (Reprinted with permission).


It All Goes Back In The Box


Anybody here but me notice that the pace of life seems to be accelerating, that what it takes to keep all the plates spinning in your day seems to be getting faster and faster and faster? Citicorp became the number one lender in America when it cut in half the number of days that it takes to let people know whether or not their loan got approved. Denny’s restaurants experienced a huge explosion in business when they had a campaign that said they would serve lunch to you in ten minutes, and they actually brought a little timer to the table so you could keep track of whether or not the person serving you had lunch there in ten minutes.

Domino’s became the number one seller of pizzas in the United States because they guaranteed they would serve your pizza to you within 30 minutes. The CEO of Domino’s said, “We don’t sell pizza, we sell delivery.” And if you’ve ever tasted a Domino’s pizza... There was an article in the newspaper with a guy who drives for Domino’s, and he said when he’s in his car driving for Domino’s Pizza (he puts that little sign on his car that says “Domino’s”), he’ll go down the road and cars actually pull off to the side of the road to let him go through, like we used to do for ambulances. We don’t do that for ambulances anymore, we do it for Domino’s pizza drivers, because we are a people in a hurry.

USA TODAY had an article about a hospital in Detroit. This is USA TODAY. Taking a cue from Domino’s Pizza, a Detroit hospital guarantees that emergency room patients will be seen within 20 minutes or treatment is free. So far, Doctors’ Hospital has delivered. “Since the offer was first made,” it says, “business has been up 30 percent.” The mortality rate has been up 120%... You know, win a few, lose a few. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out.

There’s a nationwide grocery store chain that’s experimenting with shopping carts that they have put video monitors on, because people complain about it taking so long to go up and down the aisles and trying to search for all the foods they want. So they have computerized video monitors on the shopping carts. You can find where you want what you’re looking for. They still can’t get the wheels to work on the carts, but they’ve got video monitors on them. It’s all computerized.

People have fax machines, ATM’s or prolific microwave ovens. Pert Plus became the number one seller of shampoo. You know why? Shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle. Remember all those years when you had to shampoo and then rinse, then condition and then rinse. Now it’s just all in one bottle. “Wash and go” is their slogan. Number one.

In 1967, expert testimony was given to a committee of the United States Senate, and they said that technology—labor saving, time saving technology—was going to change the way that Americans work. that within 20 years people would be working 32 weeks a year on average, or they would be working 22 hours a week on average, or they would retire by the time they were about 40 years old, because we would be saving all of this time through our technology and so on. They said to the United States Senate that in 20 years the number one challenge Americans would face with regard to time was what to do with their excess time. Now it’s a little over 20 years later. Let me ask you, is that your primary challenge when it comes to time, what to do with all of it that you’ve got left over?

About that same time, a new kind of restaurant became very popular in American culture, a restaurant that for the first time in human history sold food not on the basis of its quality, not on the basis even of its price, but on the basis of the speed with which it is served. And we coined a phrase for those kinds of restaurants. We called them “fast food.” Fast food. Not good food, not even cheap food. Just fast.

But even with fast food restaurants, you still had to park the car and get out of the car and walk all the way inside and order the food and sit down someplace and then throw the stuff away. And all of that took time. So we invented drive-through lanes, so that families could eat in vans as God intended them to. And the beautiful thing about this arrangement is when you’re in the van and you haven’t got time to go to the fast food restaurant, the kids can just scrounge around in the cracks underneath the seats for french fries and gummy bears. I’ve seen your vans. Don’t tell me you don’t do that kind of thing.

Now my guess is in a room this size, there’s probably at least a few people that suffer from a disease that might be called “hurry sickness”—rushaholics, workaholics and so. So here’s what we’re going to do this morning. We’re going to do a mass confession of hurry.. a mass confession of hurry. What I’m going to ask you to do is actually show of hands thing. You’re just going to raise your hand and confess. If you’re really convicted about this, you might actually want to stand up. Just kind of get if off your chest. It’s good for the soul. I’m going to ask you, if you ever experienced hurry, to actually physically go ahead and raise your hand. No, not yet.. hang on. See, this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about right here. People saying, “We know where you’re going with this. Just don’t waste our time. We’ll just get it over with.” Just indulge me a second here, folks. Let me describe it for you, then I’ll cue you.

If you suffer from this sickness, this hurry sickness, for you there’s not enough hours in the day. When you come to a stoplight and there are two lanes, and there is one car at each one of those lanes, if you have this sickness you find yourself calculating which car is it...? You know, you try to assess how recent is the model and the make and all that kind of stuff, who’s going to pull away the fastest, and that’s who you get behind, if you have this disease.

When you go grocery shopping and you’re all finished with the stuff that you want to buy and you look at the checkout lines, you count how many people are in the lines. Who has got the shortest line. And you calibrate how much stuff’s in all the carts and so on. Which one are you going to get through the fastest? And if you’re really sick, if you’re really sick, then when you get in this line, you keep track of who would have been you in the line next to you, and you kind of watch as you go through the line together which one’s going through fastest, and mentally you pressure the people in front of you. And if the person who would have been you in this other line gets through first and is out the door and you’re still standing there, you go away kind of depressed. You lost.

If you have this sickness, you are what’s called “polyphasic.” Polyphasic, that is, you have to be doing more that one thing at the same time. You’re driving a car, drinking coffee, listening to the radio, talking on the car phone, signaling and making emotionally cathartic gestures, all at the same time.

All right now, mass confession time, show of hands. How many of you would say, “I suffer from hurry sickness. I’ve got this disease.”? Raise your hands, would you? A few people standing here, that’s a good thing.

I want to ask you this morning to consider the possibility that your greatest need in life might not be for someone to come along and say, “We can help you move faster.” A guy comes home from work every day, and he always brings his briefcase. And his son notices this, day after day. So finally his son says to his dad, “Dad, how come you bring your briefcase home every day?” And the dad says, “Well, son, it’s because I can’t get all my work done during the day at the office.” And his son says, “Well, Dad, can’t they put you in a slower group?” I want to invite you this morning to do a rather radical thing, to consider the possibility that maybe you need to get put in a slower group. Maybe.

Jesus is talking to people who are tempted to just throw their life away on stuff that doesn’t matter and won’t last, and so in typical fashion He tells a story. What I want to do now is to try to retell it the way that I think it might get told to us in the 90s. It’s a story about a guy who is a busy guy. He was committed and he was willing to do whatever it would take, and it would take everything. So he finds himself, this guy who’s in agribusiness, consumed by his work. This entrepreneur, he puts in 12, 14-hour days, works weekends, joins professional organizations and boards of directors to expand his contacts.

And even when he’s not working, he finds his mind drifting towards work, so that work becomes not just his occupation but his preoccupation. His wife often tries to slow him down, to remind him that he’s got a family. And vaguely he’s aware of the fact that his kids are growing up and he’s missing it, and from time-to-time they complain about books they want him to read or games of catch they want to play, but eventually after enough books not read and games not played they stop complaining because they stop expecting. And he says to himself that he’ll become more available to the important people of his life in six months or so, when things settle down. One of his favorite phrases, “When things settle down.” And although he’s a very bright guy, this man in Jesus’ story, he never seems to notice the fact that things never settle down. “Anyway,” he says to himself when he’s feeling guilty, “I’m doing it all for them.”

He woke up once at one o’clock in the morning, he feels this twinge in his chest, and his wife makes an appointment with the doctors, and they tell him he has actually had a slight heart attack. They warn him all the symptoms are there (elevated blood pressure, cholesterol levels and so on), and he has got to make some changes in his life. And for a while he does. He starts working on his health. He gets into an exercise program. He stops eating so much red meat and Twinkies and learns how to do biofeedback and so on. But when the symptoms go away, his motivation for change goes away too. He says to himself, “I just don’t have time to do all that stuff.” He says, “I’ll get around to it when things settle down.”

He recognizes that his life is out of balance. His wife tries to get him to go to church with her. And he intends to do it, but when Sunday morning rolls around, it feels to him like that’s the only time in the week that he can crash. “Besides,” he says, “The church is so big, and parking is such a hassle getting in there, and the pastor’s always talking about these sailing analogies and so on at this church.” And he says, “Besides, I can believe without the church.” He says, “There will be time for that when things settle down.” When things settle down.

One day a comptroller of his company comes to see him and tells him, “You’re not going to believe this, but business is booming such that we can barely keep up with it. We’re on the brink of a miracle. This is our chance to strike the mother lode, and if we catch this wave, we’ll be set for life. But it’s going to take major changes. We’ve got inventory headaches like you wouldn’t believe, and demand is outstripping supply, and our software’s outdated, and if we don’t overhaul this whole company top to bottom, it’ll be a disaster.”

Now from that moment on, this guy is like a man consumed, and every waking moment is devoted to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And then it hit him. He’ll put the company through a technological revolution—modems in the car phones, fax machines in the employee washrooms, 24-hours-a-day on-line service capability to all the clients—completely rebuild the company. And that night he goes home to his wife and he’s all excited, and he says, “You know what this means, don’t you? Once I get through with this project, we can relax. Our future will be assured. We’ll be set for life because..” he says to her, “I know the market. I’ve covered every base. I’ve anticipated every contingency. We will finally have financial security, be able to take those vacations you’ve always wanted to be taking...” and so on. But she’d heard that song before, and she’d learned not to get her hopes up.

Eleven o’clock that night she said to him, “I’m going to go to bed. Do you want to come up with me?” And he said, “I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’ve got a little more work that I want to do, but you go ahead, and I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Three o’clock in the morning she wakes up and she’s alone in bed. He’s still not there. And she says to herself, “This is ridiculous!” She goes downstairs to drag him up, and he’s sitting still at the table in front of the terminal, his head resting on the table, and she says to herself, “It’s like being married to a child. He would rather fall asleep down here than come up and go to bed.” And she touches him on the shoulder to wake him up to bring him upstairs, but he doesn’t respond, and his skin is cold to her touch. She goes to the phone and she dials 911. She has this panicky feeling in the pit of her stomach, but by the time the paramedics get there and check him out, they tell her that he had had a massive heart attack, and he’s been dead for hours.

His death is a major story in the financial community. His obituary is written up in BUSINESS WEEKLY and FORBES and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and it’s too bad he was dead because he would have loved to have read what they wrote about him. And then they had this memorial service for him, and because of his prominence the whole community comes to it, and they all file past his casket, and they all make the same stupid comment that people always make at funerals: “He looks so peaceful.” Rigor mortis will do that to a person. It’s just what happens. We used to have a saying where I grew up: Death is just nature’s way of telling you to slow down.

People get up to eulogize him at this service. “He’s one of the leading entrepreneurs of the day,” one of them says. “He was an innovator in technology and delivery systems,” says another. “He was a man of principles,” said somebody else, “and he’s a straight-arrow guy. He would never cheat on his taxes or his expense account or his wife.” Another person said, “He had all kinds of civic achievements. He was a pillar in the community. He knew everybody. He was a networker.” And then they all got together and they had a memorial constructed for him, and they wrote inspiring words on it, words that they would choose to try and summarize his life—entrepreneur, innovator, leader, visionary, pillar, success. And they buried him, and they put up the memorial, and then they all went home.

But then, when it was dark and there was no one around to observe, then unseen, unheard came the angel of God to this cemetery and made his way through all of the graves to the grave of this man and there traced with a finger the single word that God chose to summarize the meaning of this man’s life. You know what the word was? Fool. “You fool,” God said.

Now you have to ask yourself, “Why did Jesus use such strong language?” That’s a strong word. What I want to suggest for you to consider is that Jesus here is not engaged in name-calling, but He’s making a tragically accurate diagnosis. That for all of this man’s entrepreneurial acumen, for all of his ability to run cost/benefit analyses and cashflow projections, there’s one scenario that he had forgotten to account for in his forecasts. You know what it was? It was death. He forgot to consider the possibility that somewhere along the line he might die. And God stands amazed at the folly of a human being who painstakingly prepares for every contingency, covers the bases of every eventuality, however unlikely, and forgets the one inevitable certainty that stares all of us in the face from the moment we were born, which is we’re going to die. He neglected to plan for the most obvious and predictable event of human existence. “So what other word,” Jesus asks, “can you use to describe behavior as irrational as that?” So busy building up his little kingdom that he had no time for the kingdom of God. So busy making a living that he didn’t have time to make a life.

Two great illusions prop up the lives of rich fools like this guy and like a lot of us. One of them is contained in his little phrase, “when things settle down.” The illusion is that someday life will slow down and there will be time to get around to the things that are important. Listen, friends, do you know when things will settle down? When you die. Things will settle WAY down when they put you in the ground. But until that day comes, it’s not likely that things are going to change in your life so that all kinds of time becomes available for you to get around to important things.

A month or so after I had been on staff here this last fall, I called friend of mine, about the smartest guy I know in terms of spiritual life and spiritual health. And I said, “If you had to give me one piece of advice, one thing that I need to watch to make sure that I stay spiritually vital, what would it be?” And this is what he said to me. He said, “You must eliminate hurry from your life.” And there was a long pause. And then I said, “Okay, yeah. I got that. I wrote that down. I got things to do, so go ahead and tell me. What else? Come on, it’s a long distance call.” He said, “Nothing else. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” If you look at the life of Jesus, you will see a person who was never hurried. He was often busy. He had many things to do. But as He went through life, He arranged His life in such a way, He carved out time for solitude and prayer and so on in such a way that He was always in every moment available to His Father, able to be led by the Spirit. And He was always able to love the people that came into His life. He was never hurried. Things are not going to settle down. You may want to chant that one a few times to yourself. “Things are not going to settle down. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

There’s a second illusion that props up the lives of rich fools, and it’s this: That someday more is going to be enough. That someday more is going to be enough. This guy kept thinking, “If I just get more.. bigger barns.” The Bible says an interesting thing about contentment. It says that contentment is a learned skill. It’s an attitude. In other words, it’s not the case that eventually someday I’m going to have enough stuff so that I will be content. If I’m ever going to be content, I must learn to be content in what I’m living in right now.

I don’t know if any of you read the cartoon strip “Peanuts.” Charlie Brown? But in one of them, Snoopy is sitting on his doghouse. It’s Thanksgiving, and Snoopy is upset because Charlie Brown and his family are celebrating Thanksgiving with a huge turkey dinner, and Snoopy is stuck on the doghouse with dog food. And then he reflects on this a little bit, and he says to himself, “But it could be worse. I could have been born a turkey.”

Now if you don’t take anything else away this morning, I want you to take away those four words: It could be worse. I want you to remember those, so I’m going to ask you to do kind of an unusual thing. I’m going to ask you to say those four words out loud, together with me, so that you’ll remember them. All right? “It could be worse.”

Now when you leave here and get in your car in the parking lot, you’re going to be tempted to think, “If I had somebody else’s car that I’m looking at out here—a bigger car, a nicer car, a newer car, a more expensive car—then I would be content.” But today at least, you’re not going to think that, because today when you get into your car you’re going to say to yourself with great passion, “It could be worse.” With great passion, “It could be worse.”

When you drive to wherever it is you live, your apartment, your house, wherever it is, you’re going to get to the door. When you put your hand on the doorknob, you’re going to be tempted to think about somebody else’s home. You’re going to be tempted to think, “You know, if I lived in another place that was bigger, nicer, newer, more expensive, then I would be content. Then I would have enough.” But today at least, you’re not going to do that. Today when you walk through the door you’re going to say to yourself with great passion, “It could be worse.”

Tomorrow morning when you wake up and you roll over and you look at your spouse, you’re going to say... No, don’t do it. Don’t do it. It could be worse.

I learned how to play Monopoly from my grandmother. She was a wonderful person. She raised six children. She was a widow by the time that I knew her. But she was the most ruthless Monopoly player I have ever known in my life. Imagine if Donald Trump had married Leona Helmsley and they’d had a child, and you get some picture of what my grandmother was like when she played Monopoly. She understood that the name of the game was to acquire. When she played and I got my initial money from the bank, I would just try to hold onto it, because I didn’t want to lose any of it. She spent everything, bought stuff she landed on as soon as she could, and she’d mortgage it to buy more stuff. And eventually, of course, the way the game goes, eventually she would accumulate everything. She would be the master of the board. She understood that money was how you keep score in that game, that possessions were a matter of survival. And she beat me every time. And at the end of the game she would look at me and she’d say, “One day you’ll learn how to play the game.” She was kind of cocky, my grandmother. “One day you’ll learn how to play the game.”

When I was about ten, I played every day with a kid that lived in our neighborhood, and it dawned on me as we were playing every day all through that summer the only way to beat somebody in Monopoly was a total commitment to acquisition. That summer I learned how to play the game. And by the time fall rolled around, I was more ruthless by far than even my grandmother. I went to play her, and I was willing to do anything to win. I was willing to bend the rules. I played with sweaty palms. Slowly, cunningly I exposed the soft underbelly of my grandmother’s weakness. Relentlessly, inexorably I drove her off the board. The game does strange things to you. I can still remember like yesterday. It happened at Marvin Gardens. I looked at my grandmother. This is the person who taught me how to play. She was an old woman by now. She was a widow. She had raised my mother. She loved me. And I took everything she had. I destroyed her financially and psychologically. I watched her give her last dollar and quit in utter defeat. This was the greatest moment of my life.

And then she had one more thing to teach me, my grandmother. Then she said to me, “Now it all goes back in the box. All of the houses and hotels, Boardwalk and Park Place, all of those railroads and utilities, all of that wonderful money. It all goes back in the box,” she said. I didn’t want it to go back in the box. I wanted to leave the board out permanently—bronze it maybe, as a memorial to what I had achieved. See, when she said, “It all goes back in the box,” it was kind of a way of saying to me, “None of it’s really yours. It doesn’t belong to you. You don’t own any of it. You just used it for a little while, and now it all goes back in the box. It was a childish illusion and next time it’ll all belong to somebody else. That’s the way the game works. So when you play the game, don’t forget this one lesson. When the game comes to an end, and the game always comes to an end, the stuff all goes back in the box.”

He was a shrewd guy, this man in Jesus’ story. He learned to play the game, and he played it well. He was the master of the board. But he forgot this one thing: the game would end. The game always ends, folks. Sooner or later, it all goes back in the box. A businessman is jogging and he feels a sudden pain in his chest, and in an instant it all goes back in the box. A teenager’s driving in a car,,, and somebody misses a stop sign, and in an instant it all goes back in the box. The doctor says it’s malignant, and you’re lying in a hospital bed, in an instant, it all goes back in the box—house, car, title, clothes, toys, they all go back in the box. Filled barns and bulging portfolios, even your body goes back in the box. “So you have to ask yourself,” Jesus says, “what is it that matters? What is it that’s worth giving your life to?” What is your purpose? Do you know what you’re mission statement in life is?

This story that Jesus tells gets lived out millions of times every day. You don’t even have to believe in the Bible to see it. All you have to do is look around you. Here’s an article I came across some time ago, it was written by Bill Hybels. It was about another person, and this is what he says, describing this person: “All he ever wanted was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a film maker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed and built and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise.” And then he goes on to describe how this man concludes his life, “...Emaciated, colorless, sunken chest, fingernails in grotesque, long corkscrews, rotting, black teeth, tumors, innumerable needle marks from his drug addiction...” You know who he’s talking about? “Howard Hughes died,” he wrote, “believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards.”

Now here’s the question I want you to consider: If Howard Hughes had pulled off one more deal, earned one more million, experienced one more thrill, would that have been enough?

She was the most adulated of women. Every woman envied her. Every man wanted her. She had beauty, money, fame and power, but she died alone. She died at her own hand. Let me ask you a question. If Marilyn Monroe had had one more hit movie, one more magazine cover, one more sexual relationship with a powerful man, would it have been enough?

We moved out here from southern California this fall, and as I mentioned, we’re kind of adjusting to the area. In that process of adjustment, if my wife Nancy were, for example, to get a credit card for Neiman-Marcus, and if I were to say to her, “Nancy, I want you to go to Neiman-Marcus for one hour of unlimited shopping. Every dress, shoe, hat, necklace, piece of jewelry you can buy, I want you to acquire it.” Do you think that would be enough? Do you think that would make her more happy? Well, we’ll probably never know, will we?

“How far do you have to walk down that road,” Jesus says, “before you see where it leads?” “Surely you understand,” He says, “that it will never be enough because it’s all going to go back in the box.”

Jerry Seinfeld had a book that came out about a year ago. He wrote, “To me, life boils down to one significant thing—movement. To live is to keep moving. Unfortunately, this means for the rest of our lives we’re going to be looking for boxes. When you’re moving, your whole world is boxes. That’s all you think about. Boxes, where are the boxes? You just wander down the streets, going in and out of stores, “Are there boxes here? Have you seen any boxes?” It’s all you think about. You could be at a funeral. Everyone around you is mourning, crying. And you’re looking at the casket. “That’s a nice box. Does anybody know where that guy got that box? When he’s done with it, do you think I could get it? It’s got some nice handles on it. My stereo would fit right in there.” I mean, that’s what death is, really, the last big move of your life. The hearse is like the van, the pallbearers are your close friends, the only ones that you could really ask to help you with a move that big, and that casket is that great, perfect box that you’ve been looking for your whole life.”

You see, all of this rushing and accumulating that our lives become oriented around involve a form of denial, Jesus is saying. And the fundamental reality that we all deny is that we’re going to die.

There is a simple, two-word question that people tend not to ask. The question is, “Then what?” That’s the question that the guy in Jesus’ story never asks. When I finally have enough, when my barn is finally full, when I am financially secure, then what? You have to ask yourself, when you finally get the ultimate promotion, when you’ve made the ultimate purchase, when you’ve got the ultimate home, when you’ve stored up financial security, when you have climbed the ladder of success to the highest rung that it can be climbed and the thrill wears off—and it will wear off—you’ve got to ask yourself, “Then what?” What do you do with a cold marriage or one that has failed altogether or with children that learned early on that they’re not as important as a briefcase and a meeting and a barn full of stuff? What do you do with people who should be your close friends who don’t even know you, not really? What do you do when you discover that your life has had no vision and no meaning? How important will all that stuff be then? “Don’t you know,” God asks, “how quickly life passes? Don’t you understand that it all goes back in the box?”

Every once in a while, something happens that pierces all of our denial and defenses. When I started studying to get involved in ministry, the person who mentored me in speaking is not only about the best speaker that I have ever heard, he’s one of the most gracious and humble people that I have ever known. And if I had to come up with a short list of people who to me are about as close to Jesus as anybody that I know, he’d be one of those people for me. So he is not only my mentor. Over the years, I was very fortunate in our being able to become good friends.

And this summer, when we were thinking about leaving southern California and coming to Chicago, because that was such a big move, and it involved distance and winter and a lot of things like that, I got together with him to talk about the move. And then this unique thing happened when we were together. A time arose when it became possible for the two of us to talk about how much we meant in each other’s lives. We’d felt that for some time, but this was a chance to express it that we’d never had before, and to see me for him and him for me the kind of love that we have for each other.

I mention this because I got a phone call the week before this week that he has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and the prognosis is that he will live somewhere between two months and a year. And I started thinking immediately, “What can I do? What can I do that will help?” And then of course, the thought came back in this situation, really nothing. I can call and write and get together and do what I can, but ultimately now my good friend is facing a moment that every one of us will one day face.

Ultimately, the question is, “Then what?” My friend is one of the most gifted and educated and well-connected people I know, and he has used none of this for himself. He never became rich, although he could have. He never accumulated much in the way of power. He just devoted his life to knowing Christ and to growing like Him, and to telling other people about Him. And I think that, as far as it’s possible to know this about another human being, that when he faces God that his word from God will be “Well done. You lived your life wisely.” I think that’s what he’s going to hear.

Now I don’t mean to be melodramatic about this, but I think there’s a greater danger in our society of avoiding or denying ultimate reality. So I want to ask you, if tonight was your night, if this was the day that your soul was going to be demanded of you, which it will one day, if God were going to write a single word to summarize your life, what would it be? Because, friends, you don’t want to get to that point and realize that you’ve wasted your life on stuff that doesn’t matter. So just remember the guy in Jesus’ story. Remember that things will not settle down. Remember that more will never be enough. Remember that it all goes back in the box.

    John Ortberg

    (1995 Foundation Conference)