Thursday, February 16, 2023

Lives of Significance

      Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (NIV)

Most organizations I know that depend on volunteers are singing the same song: volunteering is down. It’s hard to find people who’ll keep your organization’s wheels turning.

     There might be all kinds of reasons for that. One is that some volunteer-based organizations — churches included — have misused money and people. Maybe that pall has spread until every organization is regarded with the same amount of suspicion. One reason might that people are just too busy these days trying to get by to give time to volunteering. One might be that our instant-gratification culture has made volunteering less attractive, especially when it’s far easier just to send some money.

     But I’ve been thinking lately about another reason volunteers are a rare and in-demand species these days.

     I think it might be that we’re addicted to significance.

     I know that’s a weird thing to say, but that’s been my experience. People have a pressing need to be doing something that “matters” — however we might define that. They're desperate for some kind of metric that immediately shows them how much their contributions matter. I know when I’ve volunteered at our local food bank packaging food for distribution, every work session ends with whoever’s in charge telling us how much food we prepared, in pounds, pallets, items. The food bank, of course, hopes that hard numbers will translate into people coming back to volunteer again because they see how their contributions “matter.”

     We want to see how our actions matter immediately. So we volunteer with organizations that can show us.

     I get that, of course. Again, our time is limited, and we don’t want to waste it doing something that (at least from our point of view) isn’t accomplishing very much of worth. That’s just it, though — how do we know what is “of worth”? Our concern for “significance” can sometimes obscure the fact that we’re not always very good at determining what is significant.

   I think we sometimes tend to confuse significance with activity. To be significant, we think we always have to always be in demand, running from meeting to meeting, juggling phone calls and texts, posting to social media. What matters, so the wisdom goes, is making important decisions, determining policy, setting vision.

     So it seems natural to transfer those assumptions to our ideas of significance in God’s kingdom. The significant things happen in leadership meetings. Or in front of the congregation on Sunday mornings. The important, significant people are the ones who are heard and seen on a regular basis or the ones whose decisions set direction for a church. 

     I think we’re reaping the consequences in the church of placing too much significance on too small a subset of people, letting too few people do too much of the decision-making and policy-setting. But that’s because we think that what those people do is what matters.

     In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul tells the church, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” A quiet life sounds pretty boring and insignificant — if you’re quiet, how do you make a mark? How do you know if your life has made a difference? 

     The fact is that there are a lot of lives that make a lot of noise in our world without offering much in the way of  significance. 

     No, Paul says that we should aspire to quiet lives. He doesn’t mean never to say anything, of course, or that your life should never attract attention, but that if it does attract attention it should be for the right reasons. He means that activity and attention don’t equal significance. He means that there can be value and significance in quiet things that no one pays much attention to.

     I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:42 — “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” The immediate context of that saying is hospitality shown toward itinerant preachers carrying the good news of Jesus. But there’s a larger application: the smallest deed done, the smallest kindness shown, the most seemingly trivial attempt to care for someone in need matters. While those small acts might not attract much attention, they are significant. God knows about them and rewards them.

     When you make a phone call or send a card or text or email to someone in need, it matters.

     When you pack a bag of food to be given to a food-insecure family — or when you use a computer to account for that food so that others may get what they need too — it matters.

     When you pick up someone for church, or take them to a doctor’s appointment — it matters. 

     When you whisper a prayer for healing on behalf of someone — it matters.

     Paul expands a little on what he means by aspiring to quiet lives when he writes that we should “mind [our] own business” — probably with the same implication that figure of speech has in our own time: don’t stick your nose in other peoples’ business. He talks about the importance of work. He talks about a life that will “win the respect of outsiders” — at the end of the day, there’s nothing much more significant than living in a way that most everyone would agree is admirable.  

     Here’s the point, I think — you don’t need to be more influential, greater, busier, in order to live a life of significance. You don’t need to wait until you have a more important job, a more powerful position, a degree, a certification, more social media followers, or a bigger pulpit. What you’re doing right now is significant. It matters because God is there. He sees what’s done and rewards it. And that’s enough.

     How you do your job matters.

     Driving your kids to school matters.

     Making a meal for the people you love, cleaning a house, taking care of a yard — those things matter.

     The hard truth is this: you won’t always know how significant the things you do each day are. I remember as a kid this guy who used to stand in the church foyer and give sticks of gum to all the kids after church ended. He’s long gone now. I’m 45 years or more removed from the last stick of gum. But I remember that. I remember his smile, and his kindness. He made a lasting impression on me. I can still see him, smiling, handing me gum.

     You can’t tell me that small act didn’t matter.

     Don’t waste time looking for significance. Instead, look for ways to serve. To care. To love. Look for ways to channel God’s grace into the lives of the people around you — and don’t downplay the quiet ways that happens. Even a cup of water or a stick of gum are significant when God puts them to work.

     Your life already matters. You’re already significant. Just mind your business.

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