July 5, 2020

Another Look: Redefining Greatness


The older I get, the more my definition of “greatness” changes.

For many of us who grew up in the age of mass media, great has often equaled “famous” in our minds.

The great are those with public celebrity. Whose faces are seen in print and on screen. Whose words are captured in sound bites and interviews. Whose stories are chronicled in memoirs, biographies, and documentaries.

Household names.

Many of them have earned the respect of acquaintances and audiences far and wide. Their prodigious talents and gifts, and their impressive achievements and awards speak for themselves. They work hard, with tireless dedication and lofty ambitions. They reach for the stars, and give off their own glow in the process. We call them heroes and examples — “Person of the Year!” — and reserve places of honor for them on walls and in halls of fame.

In religious circles, these are the “stars” who write the books and articles everyone reads and quotes. They lead the large churches and mission organizations. Reporters seek out their opinions on the state of the culture, for they are the “face” of the faith in the world’s eyes. You’ll find them headlining at all the top conferences. They are the trend-setters and pacesetters. The phrases everyone likes to use were coined or popularized by them. They can answer the hard questions, unravel the conundrums, make the mysteries of faith seem simple and straightforward. They inspire people to copy their style and methods in hopes of finding the same success. They are the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the visionaries. They were made for the spotlight, and the camera and microphone love them.

  • The older I get, the more I appreciate many of these remarkable people. A number of them are truly “great” people.
  • However, the older I get, the less desire I find within me to have any part of their world.
  • For I have seen, year after year after year, other kinds of “greatness” that are much more attractive to me.

I have seen the greatness of women who lose their husbands unexpectedly, and then devote themselves for the rest of their lives to caring for others less fortunate.

I have seen the greatness of parents, who show relentless concern and care for their children.

I have met countless great people whose claim to fame is that they made it through the Great Depression, survived World War II, built a simple, honest life, and provided for their families the best they could.

I’ve seen the greatness of coaches and mentors, who give of their time so that children and young people can have fun learning skills and playing sports.

I have seen the greatness of new Christians in a small village in India. They were the first believers ever in that ancient place, just a few humble folks who will likely never travel far from there. We met together in one of their houses, and I sat on the bed while they sat on the floor and listened to me teach them about being baptized.

I have seen the greatness of a young man who kept his courage and sense of humor while battling brain cancer for a year and a half, his family who suffered with him with unwavering support and dignity, and a community that lovingly walked with them every step of the way.

I have seen the greatness of small church choirs, who practice week after week in order to bring a blessing to congregations that are sometimes smaller than the choirs themselves.

blog_you-need-a-collaboration-championI have seen the greatness of those whose bodies are confined to wheelchairs or beds, whose minds are locked in the mysterious worlds of autism and Down Syndrome, whose interaction with others is limited by cognitive or speech impediments; those who live in regular dependence on others for assistance, yet who give so much love and joy in return.

I have seen the greatness of pastors, who stay in small churches and small towns and serve faithfully for their entire careers.

I have seen the greatness of young families who heard God’s call to foreign missions, who moved around the world at great sacrifice and experienced the adventure of sharing the Good News there.

I have seen the greatness of those who are unmarried and of infertile couples and of widows and widowers who keep coming to churches that neglect them as they build their programs around our culture’s idea of family.

Attorneys, doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, storekeepers, business owners, tradesmen, farmers, realtors, and those who run restaurants — I have seen all of them and many others use what they gain through their hard work to give back to their neighbors and communities.

I have seen the greatness of families who learn that a loved one is terminally ill, who sign up for hospice, and roll up their sleeves to provide care for them day and night.

I have done funerals for many great people, though their obituaries listed few “achievements” other than the names of the people who remember them. Perhaps their greatness is simply found in the fact that they could live seventy or eighty years in this hard, hard world and find a bit of love.

I am learning the greatness of a Savior who was born and raised in obscurity, whose life was confined to a dusty outpost in the Roman empire, who died naked and falsely accused, who didn’t even make a big “splash” when he rose from the dead, but instead revealed himself to people weeping in gardens, walking along roads, and eating in upper rooms.

The older I get, the more my definition of “greatness” changes.


  1. This reads like the beatitudes.

  2. The epitome of I Thess 4:11-12 – “(M)ake 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…”

    A lot more of this, and a lot less being shouty and culture warriory, please.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “And stop screaming. Nobody lkes a religion with people screaming.”
      — The Original Internet Monk

  3. It has always been a thought in my mind. Expressed in endless drips of sweat. Somewhere long ago digging ditches by hand just trying to make enough money to eat for the man who had a business building himself a nice outside bar b que. All the stone gathered from mountain tops by hand and cut by hand. Mind you I was grateful to eat and my hands learned pain as I missed the chisel. You should see my hands and the knots of years of abuse have them worn and twice as big when I started. Those much better than I deserve the merit.

    The players on the field are the heros. No not really. The heros are the ones who sit in the stands. The ones who have to get up everyday and go do what in most cases they have to do just to live. Rome wasn’t built in a day. All those that time has forgotten and even their craftsmanship that worked on such adventures of hardship. Pathways to peace.

    We think of the Saints or even those in the monasteries but never to be remembered were the ones who gave up a piece of their time in an offering to help. A very piece of their being. In this way connected to each other. I have a piece of this Seraphim in Russia. Thank you for adding that to me here. Here is my offering back to you nice people worthy of my appreciation. I am just an old mason who has worked hard his whole life but loved so by God in Jesus Christ my truest of all heros. My champion. Lord have mercy upon us with all my heart.

    Oil for the lamp
    I went to the marketplace to buy some oil
    I have need for the lamp to see
    The press for the liquid was ripe for the spoil
    Yet grace came to me as it’s free

    Still came the price of the time that I spend
    For somewhere in the seeking it was paid
    Now how I’ve grown on what I depend
    In a foundation before the world was laid

    I have wish that such light would surely be seen
    In this world where darkness wearies the soul
    Where blackest of night by dawn is made clean
    News of mercies giving back what was stole

    Now here basking in the Morning’s Star’s light
    I can save the oil that was given the lamp
    The world took my virginity but not in thy sight
    In becoming a prince instead of a tramp

    So I’ll make the trip to the market place
    Becoming prepared to find hidden treasure
    Somewhere deep in a love full of grace
    This oil’s light that goes without measure

    I have become the wick drawing the oil
    Now being lit by this Holy flame
    Now is the light making me royal
    Inside a book of hand written names

    In the hour where end turns to start
    Having a way by which I can be
    Burning deep within my own heart
    Flame of the oil by which I can see

    • W,

      This is marvelous. Thank you for blessing us with the words God gave you today.

  4. amen Chaplain Mike

  5. You have beautiful eyes with which you see others; I’m thankful to have met these people as well! “So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” Matthew 20:25-27 MSG

  6. Radagast says

    Amen. A lot on your list resonates with me. I am not a hero worshiper. But I have much admiration for those who are humble without calling attention to it, who are deep without being condescending, who are strong because they were left with no other choice and simply had to be for the sake of others.

    When around them I like to be a sponge, hoping to soak in some of those good qualities that I may be sorely missing, or a good listener so I may hear something that might take me one step further. In a world of vainglory, pedestal pushing and attention seeking, it is good to stumble onto the subtle hero, easily missed if one is not looking much past oneself.

  7. Two things come to mind.

    I recently participated in a small conference on expository preaching. About 30 people involved. Perhaps the statement that struck me most forcefully out of the two days was something like this: “The finest expository preaching is taking place in churches where you will never hear it. No name pastors in little churches in out of the way places get up every Sunday and open the Word of God faithfully to their congregations. They do it without flash or flourish, no one else ever hears it, but they do the work with competence and from a loving shepherd’s heart.”

    Second, it reminded me of the passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce about Sarah Smith. For those who aren’t familiar TGD tells of an imagined journey from Hell to Heaven, and of the people met there.

    “First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

    I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.

    But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

    “Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
    “Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
    “She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
    “Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
    “And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?”
    “Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
    “And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
    “They are her sons and daughters.”
    “She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
    “Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
    “Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
    “No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
    “And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
    “They are her beasts.”
    “Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
    “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
    I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
    “Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

  8. “Growing older you’ll find
    That illusions are bought
    And the idol you thought you’d be
    Was just another zero”
    – Steve Taylor