Reading an article on libraries today, I was astonished to learn that library patrons in San Jose, California, owe the library $6.8 million in fines and fees for 97,000 lost or damaged items. 6.8 million! The author of the article goes on to explore the ways in which libraries are trying to get their books – or their money – back.
But as I read the rest of the article and the debate over whether fines or amnesties work better to help librarians make up for lost items, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those 97,000 lost or damaged items belong to Christians, or what percentage of that 6.8 million Christians owe. Maybe none. More likely, some. At least a little.
I know, I know. It’s just a library book, right? There are more important things to worry about, like loving people and serving people and saving souls. We should be about the big business of faith, and not about the little business of fretting over forgetfulness and fines and library books.
But what if the big business of faith does involve the little things?
When I was younger, store cashiers would occasionally miscalculate the change and overpay my mom – not by a lot, usually, but by a handful of change. I always rolled my eyes when my mother insisted on turning around and driving back to the store to return sixty-three extra cents. It didn’t seem that big a deal to me at the time. What was the point, I often wondered, of going out of your way for something so small?
I suspect more Christians share this attitude than they’d care to admit. Run an inventory of your life. Have you ever borrowed something and forgotten to return it? Do you have someone else’s books or CDs or study materials lingering on your shelf? Been overcharged – just by a little – and pocketed the change? Taken off work a few minutes early or gotten in a few minutes late? Used an image or a quote or a text passage without proper attribution?
I have lent out copies of Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? to believers twice and never received them back. Same with a Charles Spurgeon book I once gave to a believer two whole cities ago. And, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I still have on my shelf a book I borrowed from a fellow believer eons ago – and a key to a church building I now no longer attend!
None of these forgettings or acts of carelessness are malicious or mean or even purposeful. I don’t think my fellow believers decided to themselves that it would be nice to steal my books, just as I don’t have any intentions of breaking into the church building to which I currently have a key. We just forgot, or got caught up in our own lives, and succumbed again to a shared philosophy: it’s not worth the trouble to make a big deal over something so small.
But that’s what Christianity is all about. Jesus went out of His way for Zacchaeus and took an inordinate amount of time from his main mission of saving the world to heal people and hear them and serve them. He praised a widow who gave a comparatively miniscule amount of money. He made sure that His disciples paid their taxes (Mark 12:17). And the apostles in the New Testament constantly exhorted believers to be good citizens, to mind their affairs, and to live with an eye toward the integrity of their actions.
It’s not that sixty-three cents will make or break someone’s salary. It’s not that one missing library book will tar your name forevermore. In and of themselves, these matters aren’t that big a deal. But they are a sort of practice, if you will, at caring about things that don’t matter. At minding ourselves, at living with honesty and integrity and grace. At being the kind of people who are dependable and reliable and who care about their reputation because it isn’t ours any more, but rather Christ’s.
We take care of the small things as practice for taking care of bigger ones, and because as believers we ought to never lose sight of the impact even a small gesture might have.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to put that key and that book in the mail.