Friday, 22 February 2013

Jesus and Bob Vila

Who'd have thought it would take me so long to get to my first Friday Phil of the year. Thanks to Cassy for philling in (couldn't resist), carrying the weight all this time, and speaking so kindly about the vow art I made her for Christmas (and the vow art that I spent hours on only to see fail miserably).

Today's post has been on my mind for a while, and I hope I can do it justice. It's a little more theoretical than what we normally talk about here, but no less relevant to renovators and DIYers.

Jesus and Bob Vila: The Ethics of Renovating Homes in a Broken, Needy World

Cass likes to comment about our renovations that "we spent $15,000 replacing our HVAC and windows and nobody can notice. But next thing you know, we throw a $30 can of paint up on the wall and everybody oohs and aahs." It's mostly a comment about the discrepancies between the cost of a job and their impact on others perceptions. But on a couple of occasions, it's hit me on an even more fundamental level: we've spent more than fifteen thousand dollars on renovations? That must be wrong.

The good news is, that IS wrong.
The bad news? It's much higher.

Can I let you in on a bit of a secret? We've budgeted $25,000 for this round of renovations, every cent of which we got from selling our condo for more than we bought the house for. Right now we've blown through about 85% of that, with the remainder to be spent on the bathroom, spare bedroom, and window coverings.

But this is not Cass and Phil's financial report. (We've talked about budgets and balance sheets before.) This IS about how we think about renovations and the money we spend on them.

What's the problem, you say?

The problem revolves around a trio of questions:
  1. Where does our duty of care for our fellow human beings end?
  2. How do renovations serve the greater good?
  3. When have we spent too much on renovations?

It's Our Duty to Love our Neighbours

The first question has haunted me most of my adult life. I've asked it of a few people, and nobody has given me a satisfactory answer. In a world with great need, where every dollar we donate could save a life, how do we justify anything that could remotely be considered a luxury?

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to call us out on the carpet.
Found at

As a Christian couple, Cass and I have chosen to follow the words and example of Jesus as we pursue a relationship with God. And when Jesus told people to love their neighbours, he was asked "who is my neighbour?" And this led him to the story of the Good Samaritan. And in this story we find both our comfort and challenge: that we believe God has called to us to some minimum levels of engagement (tithing) and will bring people/issues/causes into our path where we are to serve and offer our talents and yes, even our money.

Now, that is little solace for the idea that a child might die of a preventable cause while everyday you can turn on the TV to see an ultrawealthy North America spends boatloads of cash building a supermansion. And it's even less solace when I take the plank out of my own eye and realize that I, relatively speaking, might as well be that ultrawealthy North American building a supermansion, when you consider how much of the world lives off less than $0.50 a day. (Answer? 162. Million. People. Almost 5 times the population of Canada.)

For this reason, our tithe will never be optional, and I am glad it goes to a church that invests heavily in supporting the poor both locally and internationally. For this reason, Cass and I strive to be sensitive to where God is showing us we need to get involved, whether with our time, advocacy, or finances, or all three.

But that far from absolves us from being able to use our money recklessly. I believe what we do with it needs to serve a higher purpose than simply satisfying our wants.

What are we doing for the world when we renovate?

What value are we adding to those other than just ourselves when we sink large sums of money into our home? This is the crux of the second question.

To answer, I'll defer the beautiful lyricism of Sara Groves, a songstress whose work has repeatedly challenged and encouraged me since the RELEVANT Podcast clued me in to her four years ago. (Download her acoustic album free at Noisetrade!)
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold
Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are
And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside
It comes in small inspirations
It brings redemption to life and work

-Sara Groves, "Add to the Beauty"
The idea is that we are not always able to subdue all the darkness in the world, but in spite of that, there is value in simply adding to the beauty in the world. That's a basic reason we are renovating Grandpa Joe's House: to have our home add to the beauty in the world.

Additionally, working on the house is helping us learn about the things we use and how we use them. Before moving into our condo I'd never so much as put a nail in a wall. Now I've become someone who's still hesitant to put nails in walls (go 3M Command Strips!), but has torn a few out and has even refinished a few whole rooms. In the process, I've learned a lot about how houses are built, how we use energy, where hot water comes from, and a bit of what it takes to keep those critical pieces in working order. I'm a smarter, more ecologically-conscious consumer and have grown to be a handier homeowner as a result.

Beyond that, we have a dream of making our home a form of sanctuary, not in a "reclusive monastery" sense, but simply a place our family and friends can gather at any time and feel at peace. Right now, with our bathroom under construction, our spare bedroom a de facto storage room, and the basement gutted, there's a lot of time when Cass and I don't even feel at peace. But that will come, and being at peace is as much a decision as it is a situation you find yourself in, which is why we already have guests over as many days as not.

How far is too far?

The final question to ask is, at what point have we spent too much on our house? I'm not sure there's a number, but here are a few guidelines:
  • When God calls us to put that money into other things.
  • When the amount we spend on our house prevents us from being able to tithe.
  • When we lose sight of our house's purpose and start spending money on it because the money is there.
I know this last point is a little fuzzy, but it's a guideline, a general rule, and as Coach K has famously said, "People set rules to keep from making decisions." I hope we always live in the tension of "are we doing enough to help the less fortunate?" because I don't believe we are truly alive unless God has brought that tension to life inside us.

So where are you at? What are your answers to the three questions posed above? Let us know in the comments!

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