"Waybread" is food designed to strengthen travelers on a long journey. This little weekly column is intended to offer reflections that will strengthen and encourage you in your own long journey in following Christ.
IN PURSUIT OF GREATNESS
When I was sixteen I began to dream of greatness. I had no idea what it was or what it looked like, but there was a longing, an intuition, that I was made for “something more.”
Several years later I read a book by Keith Clark, a Capuchin friar, in which he told of the longing each of us has to leave a mark, and that the most lasting and significant ways to do that are to plant a tree, write a book, and have a child. Think about that for a moment–to do any of these three virtually guarantees that some action you take will outlive you!
In contrast to this runs the philosophy I learned while camping: Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints. Leave your campsite just as you found it; whatever you bring in, take out with you. In other words, you might say, leave no mark.
What a contrast! To long with all your heart and soul to make a real, lasting difference in the world, and to leave the world as unchanged when you're gone as the surface of a lake once your wake has passed. Of the two, that last one is virtually guaranteed to be the story of your life, no matter how hard you try–and whether you like it or not.
We really want to "make our mark," don't we? I remember visiting Old Man's Cave at Hocking Hills several years ago and being struck by how many people (lovers in particular) have carved their initials into the rock there. Many of those have lasted for decades, even over a century! But c'mon, I don't know anyone who knows who any of those people were. So even though they have certainly left something of themselves behind, what difference does it make to them, or to any of us? Their wake will just take a little longer to … vanish.
How are we 21st century folk supposed to live in this tension? Could there be a choice beyond carving out a life for ourselves among all the other non-descript souls out there? Have you ever even considered that you and I are just that–ordinary, non-descript souls? What does any of this count for? What difference, after all, do my petty little daily choices really make? Can we really expect anything more than parting the waters before us like a little rowboat for a few decades before passing into emptiness?
Obviously I believe there is, or I wouldn't be a Christ-follower (and you must, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far). I believe the key lies in understanding the nature of the longing that comes to most of us in adolescence, like my intuition of greatness when I was 16. What are the roots of that longing, and how can it be satisfied? And if we really are made for greatness, what kind of greatness could that possibly be? And how in the world is anybody supposed to chase after it? (Especially when Jesus says things like, "The greatest among you shall be your servant?" and "He who seeks to save his life will lose it?" What the…?) How do I try without trying? How do I work without working? How do I become great without separating myself from the crowd, without fading into the great mass of faceless souls that walk the earth in any given generation?
The Apostle Paul provides us with a clue in this phrase from his letter to the Ephesians: “...until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (4:13). Notice first that Paul says that this is a journey that cannot be made alone. As long as my own greatness is all I'm after, I will miss my goal. I need the fellowship of other Christ-followers. Secondly, Paul says our goal isn't so much greatness, but maturity (or perhaps maturity is its own kind of greatness? Or perhaps greatness is founded upon maturity?). And thirdly, what ultimately matters isn't so much my own greatness, but rather the greatness, health, wholeness, and unity of the Body of Christ, the Church. Remove any one of these elements (fellowship, maturity and Church) and we miss true greatness.
Another tantalizing tidbit here is that Paul is inviting us to the maturity of Christ, but he doesn’t tell us what it looks like. How will we know what it looks like? How will we know if we’re on the right track?
I think the Apostle John has some insight for us here. In I John 3:2, he writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” What a glorious mystery this is! We won’t know what we are made for, what maturity or greatness really looks like, until Jesus returns. If all the while we walk through this life our hearts are set on Jesus–and not ourselves or the mark we'll make on the world–we will find that when He returns we will be like Him!
If all the while we walk through this life our hearts are set on Jesus–and not ourselves or the mark we'll make on the world–we will find that when He returns we will be like Him!
And to top it all off, Jesus himself tells us, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Mt. 16:25-6). And elsewhere he reminds his followers that they must seek the kingdom with all their heart, mind, soul and strength.
It all has to do with what we set the eyes of our hearts on. I think it's very much like trying to find a keyhole in the dark: We’ll miss it as long as we direct our eyes like lasers while stabbing with bold confidence at the place where we guess the keyhole to be. Instead, we’ll have a lot better luck by looking aside and aiming gently in the right direction. As long as we're laser-focused on "me" we are bound to fail. But if we divert our focus and fill our minds, hearts, and thoughts with "whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, excellent, and praiseworthy" (a paraphrase of Phil. 4:8), we will find the keyhole of significance (greatness, if you will) almost without knowing it!
None of us can become great by striving for it. It'll happen in a sort of “accidental” way. It will happen when we are not looking for it. Greatness of soul is a by-product, the result of another richer, deeper, more mysterious transformation happening within us. We will only find ourselves to be great souls when we have within us the beating heart of a man or woman who is capable of doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
Be encouraged, friend, for God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who spoke all worlds into being, is both with you and for you.