The importance of a crowbar: the story of Monticello

When I was a boy, my grandparents took me on a weeklong trip to the eastern United States. We visited many interesting locations, including the site of the Battle of Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. We also visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson – a place I didn’t properly appreciate at the time. (Hey, I was in elementary school.)

Several years later, I heard a sermon illustration that piqued my interest in the historic plantation. The speaker noted Jefferson’s lifelong quest to mold Monticello into the house of his dreams.

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Photo by Martin Falbisoner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s the story.

Jefferson inherited approximately 5,000 acres of Virginia farmland was he was only 21 years old. The future Founding Father spent the next six decades developing the property into a plantation that one day would be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Jefferson took up residence in the original Monticello in the early 1770s, a few years before he changed history by writing the Declaration of Independence. A decade later, Jefferson left Virginia to serve the fledgling United States as minister to France, which proved an equally important task. (The French eventually helped the U.S. secure independence from Britain, thereby insuring that Jefferson and his fellow patriots didn’t end up swinging from the gallows for treason.)

That stint in France also gave Jefferson an opportunity to immerse himself in French architecture. (Jefferson was the embodiment of the word “polymath.”) When he returned home to Virginia, he set to work remodeling Monticello in the neoclassical style that was popular in Europe.

Throughout his long and illustrious life, Jefferson continued renovating Monticello. He kept at it even while serving two terms as president of the United States. Only his death in 1826, at age 83, could bring the work to an end.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Jefferson biographer B.L. Rayner quoted his subject as saying, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”

We usually associate architecture with “putting up,” but, as Jefferson alluded, “pulling down” can be an equally important part of the process.

That’s also true in life. You and I may not own a massive plantation on a Virginia mountaintop, but we are in charge of constructing our individual lives according to the guidelines God has laid out for us. And sometimes that project includes “pulling down” old stuff so we can build something better in its place.

The preacher I previously mentioned used the story of Jefferson’s obsession with renovating Monticello to make the following point: “In life, never underestimate the importance of a crowbar.”

There are moments when we step back from what we’ve built and realize that it needs improvement. It’s not quite as good as it could be – or even should be. Hopefully we’ve learned some things as we’ve traveled through life, and what we constructed in the past doesn’t always reflect our present values.

Pulling out the crowbar isn’t easy, especially when we’ve invested a lot of time, energy, or money into the construction. There are “sunk costs” in life which cannot be recovered.

If that’s you, take heart. All of us are a work in progress. None of us are everything we could be. Hopefully, we are not yet what we will be. In Sunday School we used to sing, “He’s Still Working On Me.” Years later, that song still rings true.

So put a nickel in your pocket as a reminder that it’s alright to start over. (Jefferson’s likeness is on the front, and Monticello is on the back.)

Then find your crowbar and get to work.

(Virtual tours of Jefferson’s historic home are available at Monticello.org.)

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