The Measure of Success

My senior year of high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’m not sure what that meant to most of my classmates, but it was both an honor and a burden to carry. While I was honored by my classmates’ faith in my ability to become some sort of “success,” I was also daunted by the mantle I felt I had to bear. Would I become famous? Wealthy? Important in public affairs or business? My immediate and modest goal was to become a teacher. But I had visions of becoming a well-known author. I also dreamed of becoming a wife and mother; of having a loving, happy family, and a nice home.

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God’s plans are not our plans. God has placed many opportunities in my path– opportunities to serve myself and “get ahead,” and opportunities to serve others. I can say from experience that serving others brings more satisfaction in the long run, but it doesn’t feel like “success” as defined by most of our society. I’ve never achieved what most would consider “success.”

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Some days, I feel wistful and even a bit resentful about some of life’s circumstances– children I was never able to have, or jobs I might have pursued with more ambition. But then, I think of all I might have missed– friendships, victories over certain struggles, lessons learned. My life isn’t finished– God may yet give me the opportunity to do “great things.” But already, He has given me the privilege of doing small things for Him over the course of many years. And it is more than enough.

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One of the greatest measures of true success is to look at the life of Christ. After all, His life, death, and resurrection changed the entire course of history! Time is measured by His arrival on this planet– everything happened either before or after His birth. Billions of people have called themselves “Christians” after Him, and lived their lives in His service. But what did He actually accomplish in human terms? He was not a ruler or political powerhouse. He never owned a house, let alone villas and mansions. He never wrote a book (even though thousands of books have been written about Him). He didn’t invent anything, or found a corporation, or make a monumental scientific discovery. He never led an army. He healed several people, but He didn’t cure cancer or wipe out leprosy, or put an end to blindness. He didn’t rid the world of poverty, hatred, greed, or injustice. At the time of His death, He owned only the clothes on His back– and they were taken from Him! His friends deserted Him as hundreds shouted for Him to be crucified. He was nailed to a cross between two nameless malefactors, and died. He was placed in a borrowed grave. People who had expected great things of this Messiah ended up turning on Him and thinking Him a failure and a blasphemer.

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Jesus did not pursue worldly success. He told parables. He dined with sinners and saints alike. He laughed. He cried. He prayed. Jesus served others, and yet He challenged authorities. He drew crowds, and performed miracles, but He died alone. Jesus did not come to show us how to “get ahead.” He came to show us how to live more abundantly, not more successfully. (See John 10:10)

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2: 1-11
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God can use our worldly success, if we achieve any. But He delights in our humble prayers, our small acts of service, and our obedience. Jesus lived a humble life. He could have done anything He wanted, fulfilled the loftiest of ambitions, and crowned Himself King of the universe. But His success came from the unlikeliest of lives, and the most humiliating death. He lived the perfect and abundant life He offers us.

I don’t live a perfectly humble life. I chafe at my own weakness, sometimes. Yet it is when I stop chasing “success” and perfection that I find it –in Christ.

My prayer today is that someone reading this will be encouraged. If life feels like a series of missed opportunities to find success and fulfillment; if you feel like your life has let you down, and that God cannot use you for some great purpose– take heart! He loves to pour His love and holiness into broken vessels and exalt those who are humble and weary and “not enough.”

The Sweetest Frame…

I have several friends who are really great at photography– some have made it their profession. One of the hallmarks of a great photograph is “framing.” I’m not talking about choosing a frame for a printed photograph, but choosing natural elements that draw the eye to a focal point. It include perspective, focus, lighting, and even composition– which elements make it into the picture, and which ones are excluded. After all, photos, by their very nature, only show part of the whole reality. Even a panoramic picture cannot show everything at once, and the photographer chooses where s/he wants to place the focus and framing.

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We have a tendency to “frame” our lives in a similar way. We focus on only part of the whole reality of life. We choose to “frame” our present situations, our past memories, and our future hopes– even when they are out of focus! We can do this in both positive and negative ways. At one point in my life, I felt I had found “the perfect job” as a youth services librarian at a local public library. It was pleasant work that made use of my skills, talents, and interests. It included a mixture of social interaction and self-directed projects. I loved the job, my co-workers, our patrons, the work environment–it was a pleasure and an honor to work there.

Library Story Time

But I was viewing my job (and myself in that job) through a frame. There was more happening in the wider picture of my life and development. After more than a dozen years there, things had changed. I still loved the work, and while some co-workers retired or moved, and the staff changed a bit, the work environment was still mostly peaceful and friendly. I still found the job challenging and rewarding, and I had gotten to know people in the community over the years who truly felt like family. But, as my role changed, so did some of the relationships. As new leadership came, so did new directions and new priorities. And I had become “comfortable”– and somewhat complacent as well.

In time, it became clear that my “perfect” job was not only not perfect, but becoming a source of frustration, stress, and unhappiness. And there were other things happening that demanded my focus. I was preparing to become a wife, and move to a new community. My mother’s health was deteriorating, demanding more of my time and energy (though my Mom remains feisty and independent in most matters!). My future husband wanted to open a shop– someone would have to work there, and we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, even part-time. That meant working a second job at the shop while trying to maintain my efforts at the library.

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As the “frame” of my life shifted, I felt confused, even angry, with God. Why would He allow something so good to turn sour? Why did I feel like I was losing myself? Didn’t He want me to be happy and fulfilled? Didn’t He want me to use my talents to help others?

Now, after a few years’ perspective, I can see some of the “rest” of the picture. I had begun to see myself through the lens of my job, and I was depending on that vision, rather than focusing on what God was doing in, around, and through my life. There was nothing “wrong” with my job, per se, but God needed me to be willing to let go and move in new directions.

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I write all this, knowing that there are people going through much more traumatic “shifts” in their lives– the loss of a job, and a change of career is a disappointment, but it is not the same as the loss of a spouse or child; or the sudden loss of a home to fire; or an unexpected diagnosis of cancer or other health issue. But the principle is not so different. God’s ways are eternal. Sometimes, we see the trauma in front of us, or surrounding us, and it becomes a frame for all of our thinking and emotions. But the “picture” is much bigger than just our immediate situation. God calls us to trust Him in all circumstances, knowing that His love for us is not just for this life, but for all eternity. Whatever we (or our loved ones) go through here is but a snapshot– one of millions that God will put together in a Glorious and Perfect collage.

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Moreover, God gives us the privilege of listening to us when we call out to Him. We need not be afraid to ask, “Why this?” or “Why now?” or even “Why me?” But when we ask, we need to be willing to shift our focus, and remember where our Hope is Built– On Christ the Solid Rock. Even the sweetest “frame”– our career, our relationships, our identity, our happiness in this life– cannot compare with His faithfulness and eternal Sovereignty.

Missing Pieces

My husband and I run a shop. He sells new and used amateur radios and supplies; I sell antiques, collectibles, and resale items. The nature of our business means that we often get merchandise that is “incomplete.” We have used radios– occasionally, there is a knob missing, or a component that needs to be replaced or repaired. We have used games and jigsaw puzzles, packs of playing cards, sets of dominoes, old silverware and buttons and dishes–mismatched, incomplete, and sometimes damaged or chipped. I spend many of my days surrounded by items that some would consider “junk.”

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But what some would consider junk, others consider treasure. Collectors come in looking for specific items– old tobacco tins, embroidery samplers, antique kitchen tools, wooden toys, fishing rods, or costume jewelry. Crafters come in looking for old buttons, clothespins, linens, or keys. Some people come in to browse, and end up finding an old book, or a doll that catches their eye. And most items create conversations, spark memories, or inspire curiosity.

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Ours is not a busy shop. We don’t sell convenience foods or new shoes or cell phones. We don’t offer fancy coffees or tea “bombs,” or expensive hand lotion. We don’t sell sporting goods (other than really old skis or the occasional tennis racket). We sell a few new batteries and antennas, and we offer a few local packaged food items (honey and maple syrup, craft sodas, etc.). We don’t make a lot of money at our shop–but we’ve made some friendships, and we’ve had the joy of seeing our customers find unique and useful items. We’re part of something bigger than just making a sale: like so many others with small businesses, we’re making a difference.

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God created each of us to interact– to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Each of us has a need to find “missing pieces”– friendships, experiences, conversations, ideas, even old chipped dishes– that help us discover where we “fit” into a larger picture. As we interact, we make a difference, for better or for worse. We smile or we scream, we create unity or division, we spread hope or we spread hatred, we destroy or we build up. And we search for meaning and fulfillment. Ultimately, we are searching for God, who has promised to make all things new and bring wholeness, completion, and life to our “used” world. There will be no “junk;” no missing pieces or chipped plates or broken antennas in God’s perfect plan. Each of us is treasured by our creator. Even if others see us as filthy, broken, rusted, or worn out, God can says we are priceless and worth redemption. He has a place for us.

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10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

(Romans 5:10 via biblestudytools.com)
Colossians 1:20-22 NIV

I Can Do All Things..

I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.

The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.

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In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.

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And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.

But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.

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So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”

Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.

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May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!

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