My ongoing struggle to figure out what to do with my life is worsened by seeing “so many others” around me do “amazing things.” There are people writing truly helpful books, running nonprofits, rescuing animals, educating children. One of my good friends even started her own nonprofit; another friend works tirelessly with homeless youth; my own mother was a special ed teacher for 27 years. My alma mater’s motto is “Engaging the Culture, Changing the World” and it publishes a quarterly magazine celebrating students and alumni who are doing just that all over our planet. Especially as a Christian, I feel obligated to do something – something big – about the problems that keep me up at night with worry…and have thus far been unable to affect or really commit to any major change. I’m not exactly sure why, but part of my hangup is likely that the problems are so huge, they’re paralyzing and I often myself rather alone in my desire to do something. Or maybe it’s just that I have a nearly impossible time recruiting help and asking for others to partner with me in my dreaming and scheming to save the world.
I don’t want to let myself off the hook for serving in the ways I’m being called to. That’s why it’s hard for me to believe that (speaking of really helpful books), “The World is Not Ours To Save.” It’s not, however, difficult for me to believe that, as Rich Nathan (senior pastor of the Columbus Vineyard) preached in a sermon I can no longer find, “most of the world’s people live and die in obscurity.” But these days, to describe someone as “just average” (height, intelligence, skilled at soccer or the piano, etc.) is almost an insult. It stresses me out intractably to think of myself as average, but perhaps it’s because I am living in an increasingly narcissistic society (as I mentioned, growing up, the stakes were high to not remain “just average” in terms of grades, achievements, involvement, etc). As a culture, it seems that we deeply fear not being seen as worthwhile on this earth if we don’t impact the it in a major way. It’s rampant in Christian circles with the pressure to serve and do amazing things for God, as if we can build the kingdom of God ourselves right here and now. It’s plaguing the activist community as well: the idea that “service is the rent you pay for living on the planet” makes its way in some form onto nearly every cause and nonprofit’s banner. Being “just average” is a fate worse than death. And it’s killing us. At least, it’s killing me.
So another good friend of mine sent me links to Part 1 and Part 2 of a video essay called “The Long Game.” Though it took me a few days, its message finally sunk in: many people we know as greats in their field took years to get there. They seem like prodigies who made a sudden splash onto the scene only because they spent years – sometimes up to 17 in John Coltrane’s case – being “just average” or even worse! Of course, these people weren’t facing what I and most environmentalists fear is the impending end of the world. So much bad news makes us think there isn’t time to develop one’s gifts, that the world is ending and those of us who don’t stop the systematic destruction of creation will be held accountable before God. But that sort of thinking, at least in my case, is more my anxiety and guilt hamsters refusing to give up their wheels than it is an accurate conception of what God wants. God doesn’t ask us to become famous and, though Jesus does prophesy that we “will do even greater things than [He]” ( inJohn 14:12), His definition of “great” is different than ours. In fact, it’s the opposite: I think we often forget that humble service is a mighty thing in the kingdom of God. As the passage in John tells us, it’s only those who believe in Christ and ask for things in Christ’s name that are said to do greater things than Christ. That’s why it is the Father, through the Son, who gets all the glory (John 14:13). You don’t fail to “get into heaven” by being “just average;” indeed, the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16) in the kingdom of our God.