Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chasing Greatness



It was only a moment. Such is the way when it comes to regret, and if we're not sure about where we're headed or what God wants for us, it is often enough to steal whatever reserves of joy we have, and set us back further along the path. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I...


...It was cold, the sun peeking out from the clouds to shimmer off the snow, the wind howling in icy bursts as I trudged along behind the plaza carrying three bags of garbage in each hand. My co-worker walked beside me, laughing and talking about the future. He was excited as he told me his plans. At nineteen, the world held enormous promise, and I did what I could to encourage him.

The garbage area was littered with old cups and pieces of cardboard, foul smelling remnants of the restaurants that lined the plaza next to my Starbucks. As I threw the last of my bags in the bin, one of them caught on the metal siding and opened up. Old coffee dribbled onto my jacket and pants. I stared at the emptied bag of garbage and sighed before bending down to clean up each piece and throw it into the bin.

"Hey, Steve, did you know my friend works for Sportsnet? She's like, 30, and is already making forty three a year."

Forty three thousand dollars a year. I swallowed and nodded and listened as he told me about his own plans for schooling, about saving so he could buy a house at twenty-five.
"Sounds awesome, pal." I said.

I meant it too. There was no better day than when my colleagues or housemates, all of whom I considered to be friends, talked to me about their plans for their lives, knowing that I was a safe place, a safe person, to dream with and be encouraged. For some reason, however, I couldn't get his comment out of my head.

Forty three thousand dollars a year.

I'd never been good with money; it was a continuous struggle for me to manage the little I had. And most of the time, it didn't matter. I was content in my life. Content with my choice to move down to a job that paid a third of what I'd been making. Content to live intentionally in a house with nine other people.

"Hey, is it okay if I take my break?" I asked my supervisor, who also happened to be seventeen years my junior.

"Yeah, sure, Steve. Can you do a quick bus, first?"

I nodded, grabbed a rag, cleaned and filled the condiment stands and checked the bathroom before heading outside.

Forty three thousand.

By most North American standards, that wasn't a whole lot of money, was it? And yet that figure burned in me. It wouldn't let go. I walked along the sidewalk away from my store, past the other shops and restaurants. What was I doing here? I thought about the verse that had brought me here to Toronto... to save my life, I must lose it for God... is that what I was doing? Or was I just running, making excuses for not entering the adult world that made decent money and raised regular families? I stopped at the end of the walk and looked across the field towards Highway 7. Cars whipped past, important people headed to important adult destinations. BMW's and Mercedes and SUV's, people making real decisions about governing or the stock market or the latest news and how it would influence this country or the countries around us.

That was the moment.

I have all these gifts, Lord, that you've given me, I thought. Shouldn't I be more important? Shouldn't more people be listening to me? Don't you want that? There was no answer but the howl of the wind. I jammed my ungloved fingers inside my coat. I could see the coffee stain from the garbage run out of the corner of my eye, still there though I'd tried to wipe it off inside.
I started to pray, not because I felt especially holy, but in a selfish way, because my life made no sense without God in it. That had never been more true than now, and I rarely felt it as acutely as I did at that moment, staring out across a vast highway, my thoughts bouncing between my small pay check, the stain on my coat, and my seeming 'regression' at thirty-five years old to an even leaner existence.

As I prayed, I started thinking about Jesus. And about greatness. No one questions that Jesus was great. You may not believe He was the Son of God, but you cannot dismiss the impact He had on the world. I believed, of course, that He was the Son of God. That He was also human. And that He came from glory into a peasant life.

It says in the Gospels that in the mornings Jesus often went out to a solitary place to pray. I wondered if he ever thought as I did. Like many do. Is this it, Father? I have twelve guys...
The people tried to make Jesus a king, they tried to involve Him politically (Judas certainly tried to do that, spur Him into declaring a revolution). Yet Jesus rejected their offers, and traveled the countryside as a popular but poor Rabbi, living in the same lean manner he grown up with.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that glory had little to do with greatness. That in fact, glory was at the opposite end of the spectrum from true greatness. Our society measured success and greatness together, and it was difficult not to get caught up with it. Sometimes it was difficult to overlook all the 'stuff' -- the expensive suits and cars, at the 'important conversations' I overheard every time I was at work -- or to ignore my apron every time a customer left their cups and crumpled napkins on the table for one of the baristas to clean up after them.

The sun had dipped below a cloud, and I rolled up my hood at the sudden drop in temperature. I checked my watch. Five more minutes. I thought about my dreams for the future, about my hopes for a family one day. I'm still not sure why, but as the sun finally pushed past the cloud, I was able to let it go. The truth, even as I examined it, was that I was happy, as happy as I had been in a long time. I loved my job, my coworkers, my housemates. I enjoyed my schoolwork. My life did not fit into the normal trajectory of Western success, and yet it didn't matter.

I won't lie; I have always wanted to be great; to be a great leader, even as a kid. But perhaps there is a difference between wanting to be great and wanting to be heard. Perhaps we have forgotten that greatness is not about our standing or position, but our character before God and the people we try to serve around us. Jesus gave up glory (Philippians 2) to walk with us. Why was my life such a sacrifice, especially considering how content I was?

Greatness is not success, at least not how we often define 'success'. Too often, we consider them the same pursuit, but they are not. Our circumstances cannot prevent us from being great. No matter how poor we may be, no matter how often people seem to step on us or walk over us, God does not judge us the way the world does. He's not interested in our fancy cars or big homes. Neither is he impressed by our long hours that rob us of our soul. Rather, he wishes that we would find a place of peace, of rest, of eternal perspective.

Most of the time I am at war with myself to put down the pen, to get off the computer, to stop working towards greatness with the hammer of 'worldly success'. Greatness, as Jesus has shown us, is something altogether different, and the secret lies in the manifestation of God's love in your life. The way we serve those around us. The way we walk, arm in arm, no one person greater than another, humble before God and willing to walk the extra mile with those who need it.
The path to true greatness lies in our willingness to wash one another's feet, as Jesus did with his disciples, and to rest in the provisions of God's grace. (Which means to appreciate yourself, too, the way God does.)

My prayer this week is that you will take a moment to examine your life, to see if you are in pursuit of success, or greatness, and to encourage you towards greatness. God has given us all we need to be the difference in our world, no matter how many people that entails. And while people may try to discourage you, to tell you or infer in other ways that you don't matter, my prayer is that you'll see what I see, that God has called you to something better, to a life that matters, to a life of greatness.

-Steve