Growing up, my dad had some “signature moves.” Every Sunday, as the family hastily piled into the car to head to church, it didn’t matter if we were going to be early, on time, or late. He’d get in the car (usually last), start the engine, get out and drag the garden hose over and spray off the windshield and squeegee it clean. You’ll cut him some slack when I tell you he was an airline pilot, so a clean windscreen makes sense. It’s a safety thing, right? But there’s wanting a decently clear view, and then there was the compulsive cleaning Dad did. You might go so far as to say a dirty windshield was a trigger for him. It triggered the hose coming on. It triggered a comment, statement, or even lecture if he ever rode in my car if my windshield was less than completely clear of debris. It would drive me up the wall how never an opportunity to comment was missed. It wasn’t like a clinically diagnosed thing; it was just a Dad-ism.
He also had a rule. Okay, he had more than one rule, but this one really stuck out, maybe because of how often I heard it growing up:
Leave It Better Than You Found It.
He applied that rule to what seemed like every conceivable situation. Going camping? We spent the last couple hours after packing up the campsite picking up every piece of nonbiodegradable trash within sight and what seemed walking distance (Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point). I remember my brother and I picking up cigarette butts – no one in our family smoked – and broken glass and empty beer cans – we never brought beer on camping trips because my brother and I were kids at the time, and my dad didn’t drink on camping trips. Whatever we unearthed, we picked up. We never seemed to generate that much trash as a family, but regardless, we filled small bags with other peoples’ trash. Neither my brother nor I would have been surprised if Dad pulled a leaf rake out of his backpack so he could groom the campground. I guess that was somewhat of a concession, Dad didn’t just assign us the task, he was right there with us getting his hands dirty every time practicing what he preached.
The same rule applied to pretty much every family outing. Picnics in the park, trips to the lake with the Jet Skis, where ever. I remember day trips to the beach, setting up our towels and beach chairs and cooler of food and sodas. After a fun day in the surf and sand, when we packed up to head home, we police-called our patch of sand and the surrounding 20-foot radius. Let me tell you, there are some strange things left behind on Southern California beaches in the summertime. And this was well before the era of latex gloves and hand sanitizer. But, guess what? Warners always – you guessed it… Leave It Better Than You Found It.
If I’m being transparent here, I wasn’t always all that thrilled with Dad’s decree. It used to tick me off that I had to pick up after someone else who was too lazy or too careless or just too self-absorbed to clean up after himself. I would grumble and sometimes complain (to my brother, not Dad – I’m smarter than that). On a couple poorly thought out occasions I even tried to rebel. But here’s the thing that annoyed me the most about leaving “it” better than we found it: when we finished cleaning up and we began to depart, I always, secretly, felt a sense of pride. I knew what we did wasn’t just right. It was good.
I realize now, some forty years later, that my dad wasn’t just a guy that hated liter. He was showing love and appreciation for Creation. All of Creation. And he was setting an example. Hebrews 10:24 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Dad was teaching us to be stirred, and to stir up one another. He was modeling servant leadership.
Recently, I read in Dr. Larry Crabb’s book, Men of Courage, about how as men, we are “the remembering ones.” Part of our job in this life is to remember and recall what God has done for us and through us. When life is tough, and the outcome looks bleak, we remember how He has never forgotten nor forsaken His creation. We are to look back and recount how we’ve been blessed, how we’ve been spared, how we’ve been shaped and molded. God’s faithfulness never wains, but our willingness to see His faithfulness does when we feel life has us barely treading water and gasping for air. Ironically, we also tend to overlook God’s provision when we are on top of the world. Every morning we wake up and have forgotten all the Lord has done in our lives and need someone to start our day with a vivid reminder. That’s our job, men.
And that got me thinking about Dad and that darn rule popped in my head. Leave it better than you found it. And it suddenly dawned on me that the rule doesn’t need to be about just picking up trash, being good citizens and caring for the environment for the environment’s sake. It’s a metaphor for life, faith and kids.
God gave us the Bible as a blueprint for how to live life and to maximize our impact on this generation and the ones that follow. It teaches and prepares us to do good in this life. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we are told that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (emphasis added). God uses more than just scripture to equip us, He uses people too. He used my dad to teach me, and He is using me to teach my sons and daughters. I don’t know if Dad ever realized the implications of his rule when seen through a spiritual lens, but it’s staggering. What do I see through the lens of Leave It Better Than You Found It?
Leave my wife better than I found her through leading her as a servant leader, by loving her as Christ loved the church – willing to lay down my life for her, to serve her unconditionally, to regard her desires above my own, to love her so extravagantly that the only possible explanation is because of how much I love Christ. Just like how the Apostle Paul told the church of Colossians, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).
Leave my children better than I found them. I’ve recently learned of yet another area in life that I don’t really have control over – my grown kids. I cannot control their decisions and actions any more than I can control the rising and setting of the sun, but I can live in such a way as to earn the right to have influence on them. Now that they are grown and out on their own, having influence is even more important than when they were under my direct care because, now, I am in head-to-head competition with the world for their influence. I don’t always agree with their choices, but I do always have control over my choices, and my choices will either point them towards the Lord, or away from Him. Jesus’s own brother, James, said “…whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Doing the “right thing” will always leave it better than I found it.
I can also leave my community better than I found it. My community is forever changing. Right now, since you are reading this, you are a part of my community. The legacy we each leave has a direct effect on our community. Will that impact be positive or negative? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Dad died back in 2004. And although he is physically gone, he’s very much alive in the hearts and minds of his family, especially me, my wife, and our three kids. You see, he didn’t leave just a good impression, he left a good legacy. I want that too.
We don’t pick up the trash in our ‘campsites’ just so we don’t leave litter. We clean up the ‘trash’ in our lives so that we can point others to the One who deserves to be glorified.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9
About the Author
Jamie Warner, a Marine Corps veteran and credentialed English teacher, is the West Coast Regional Site Facilitator for Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs. He has been witness to many transformations during the five-day programs held at SkyRose Ranch in San Miguel. He plays a vital role in helping us help veterans and active duty military personnel face the struggles of military life, combat deployments, and symptoms of post traumatic stress (PTS) head-on.