When I attended P.S. 33 and 24 in Jersey City (1945-1953) I remember the teachers telling us “you can be anything you want to be if you work and study hard enough. You can even become President of the United States. ” They were trying to give us kids, in our pre-teen years, a vision of greatness for ourselves. I never once had any interest in becoming President of the United States, but over the years I have had other visions of greatness for myself.
My first vision of greatness for myself came when I was about to graduate from Lincoln High School. My plan was to become a U.S. Navy Musician. In my high school year book, printed under my photo, was the collective prediction of my classmates that my destiny was to become the – “Conductor of the Navy Band”. Now that sounded like real greatness. I mean, that was the ultimate in greatness for those in the Navy music program. As it turned out, I did became a Navy Musician, but that prediction and that first vision of greatness for myself was never fulfilled.
When my Navy enlistment was over, I went to work in the civilian world. In less than a year I was employed in the export shipping business and attending Rutgers University at night for a B.S. degree in Management (today usually called Business Administration). That’s when I had my second vision of greatness. With my military and civilian work experience, along with the degree I would achieve in a few years, I was sure that one day I would become the president of the company I was working for. I remembered what my grade school teachers had said – “work and study hard and you can be anything you want to be.” So I worked and studied hard. And I was rewarded with very good college grades and a degree, and promotions, pay increases, and a great place to work, in the New York offices of The Honolulu Iron Works Company in downtown Manhattan. I was on my way to fulfilling my vision of greatness as president of the company in the corporate headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii. However, this vision of greatness came to an abrupt end about four years later. The corporate hierarchy decided to close the New York office and consolidate everything in Honolulu. The problem was that they didn’t invite me to join them there. In fact, I don’t think they even knew who I was.
Finally, about 20 years later, I had my third and last vision of greatness for myself. For a good number of years I had been hearing God calling me to change careers and become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. During those years, while I did change careers and was heavily involved in the church, becoming a pastor was the last thing I wanted to do. So I kept saying no to God. But during a time of unemployment, I finally said yes to God. I served four years as a part time student pastor, graduated from seminary, was ordained, and became a full time pastor. As I worked and studied through ththis process, I had this last vision of greatness for myself. However, this was different from the previous times. My previous visions of greatness were about becoming an important person in the hierarchy of military and corporate organizations. Important in the sense of holding a high level position in an organizational hierarchy. The difference in this latest vision of greatness was that it was not about becoming an important person in the hierarchy of The United Methodist Church. This time I saw myself as being called by God to be a pastor of one or more small to medium size local churches, in order to play an important part in changing the world. And the way I was to do that was to change the church.
I was sure that this time I would achieve greatness for myself, because I was sure that this was what God wanted me to do. Change the church to change the world. Not change the whole world or the whole church, but just my little church in my little corner of the world. That’s how I would achieve greatness. That’s what would make me a great pastor. But after about 12 years as a pastor, it became apparent that, while I was effective in introducing some degree of change in the church, there was little change in the overall life of the churches I had been serving, let alone the world outside the church walls.
During those years , especially my early years as a pastor, I sometimes felt depressed, disappointed, and hopeless. But eventually I came to understand that with God there is always hope, even when all seems hopeless. I realized that the problem was that my well-meaning childhood teachers left something out of their pep talks. They left God out. The truth is that neither I or anyone else can be whatever we want to become, simply by hard work and study. One thing more is needed, and that is to first and always discern what God wants us to become and to do. To comply with whatever that is. And then leave the rest to God.
Yes, it is true that the world needs to be changed, but it is not me or anyone else who will do the changing. God will do the changing – where, when, and in whatever way God decides. One of the ways God has always gone about the business of changing the world for the better has been to call upon human beings – including ordinary people like you and me – to participate with Him in the work He is doing.
That realization came to me about ten years ago, when I was preparing a sermon, and God directed me to a Bible passage (Jeremiah 45:5), where God tells Baruch to say to Jeremiah, “And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them…I will give you your life.” It was as though God was speaking directly to me. And so He was. I then understood that greatness, as defined by most human beings most of the time (power, authority, control, fame) is not the life God wants for you or me. Instead, God wants us to catch His vision of His fully established kingdom of total and eternal peace, love, and joy among all people, on earth as it is in heaven. Then He wants us to catch His vision as to how He wants us, individually and collectively, to participate with Him in changing the world so that His ultimate vision will become a reality.
We then have to discern specifically how, when, and where God wants us to join Him in fulfilling that vision. And then just do it, whatever “it” is. No excuses. Whatever God wants you to do and to be, He will assure that you have everything you need to do your part. Then go through that process again – and again – for the rest of your life. And yes, that will require hard work and study. That’s where my grade school teachers got it right.
If you do that, especially with a small group of people who are commiting themselves to seeking and doing God’s will, you will overcome any feelings of depression, disappointment, and hopelessness about the way things are. In the end, What most of us hope and pray for every week in church “Your will be done. Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” will be fulfilled. That hope will be fulfilled because it is God’s hope. And what God hopes for, will always be fulfilled. When your hopes are in agreement with God’s hopes, they too will be fulfilled.
I have learned that the only One who is truly great is God. But if we discern His will and participate with him in changing what needs to be changed, He will share His greatness with us. True greatness is not about standing out from the crowd and changing things. True greatness is discerning and doing what God give us to do with Him in His work of changing the world. True greatness is cooperating with God by inviting Him to change you, so that you become, not simply what you want to become, but what God wants you to become.
Thanks for your attention. We look forward to hearing your comments about our web-site. We also invite you to send us stories of your experiences and observations of present hopes and hope fulfilled, so we can spread them around the world via this web-site. This is one way we can all join together to help keep hope alive.
May God be with you,
Patty and Ray