December 2, 2020

Another Look: Redefining Greatness


Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

• Mark 10:42-44

• • •

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.

small choirI 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.

I 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 is a great post. Well done, CM.

  2. I have done funerals for many great people, though their obituaries listed few “achievements” other than the names of the people who remember them.

    Monuments crumble. Glory fades. But cups of cold water given in love on Jesus’ behalf are remembered forever.

  3. Patches of thick fog,
    on the mountains, in hollows,
    shine with their own light.

  4. Well said & written.
    I was blessed to have grown up where I was completely loved.
    My father was my hero, a man of great personal strength & integrity, who put faith, familty & the greater good of community first,, and, my mother mothered with every breathe, making our home a haven, open to my friends to live with us whose own homes were imploding with dysfunction.
    These are the lessons that showed me at a young age that greatness lies in little, ongoing acts of giving of oneself wholeheartedly.

  5. Undoubtedly, there will be a dearth of comments for this particular post, because it speaks to the heart more than the head; to our souls rather than our opinion and raw emotion. Beautiful, truthful, and well-written. Thank you, CM.

  6. It always strikes me how few people there are at the average funeral. No throngs of adoring fans. Typically 25 to maybe 150 people. That’s it for a life. I’ve been to a couple of funerals for what I knew to be truly great people and realized that the definition of greatness is not measured by the number of people at the funeral.


      When I’ve conducted funerals, I’ve noticed several times just how important grandparents are to children. One young man, through his tears, told me of his grandfather’s continued faith in him through his troubles as a younger person. His grandfather was a person he could go to, talk with, and find new direction from. His grief was real and deep. I’m sure this man will never be recognized in the halls of great men. But for a lost and struggling grandson, he was everything. He was truly great.

      Versions of this story came up again and again when dealing with grieving relatives.

      • Beautiful. So true.

        • My uncle was one such ‘great’ person. Another was a man I knew who was a Korean War vet. He was the kindest, gentlest man you’d ever want to meet. He was always happy to see me and that made me feel oddly special as if I had done something to merit that but I knew I hadn’t. I often felt a need to be a better person after an interaction with him, specialness notwithstanding. I just wanted to make others feel as good as he made me feel but wasn’t sure I had it in me without being phony or sappy. It just flowed from him. He passed from colon cancer with not much fanfare and now he’s gone just like that. No stories in the paper and nothing on the evening news.

  7. If your post receives few comments, CM, it’s because you’ve said it all.

  8. Christiane says

    Imagine your immigrant father working two jobs six days a week and half-day on Sundays, imagine him stopping on trash day to take ‘fixable things’ from people’s trash and repairing them back to good use, imagine him growing an organic garden so his family would eat healthy, imagine him taking his family to mass every Sunday morning, imagine him fixing hot family breakfasts at five a.m. before he left for work, imagine him with one good suit among the old work clothes that were so well-worn . . .
    and then one day you are able to go to university because ‘the money is in the bank’ . . .

    I know what ‘greatness’ is. My father is revered in our family.

  9. A message for the heart this morning. I do think it takes age and time to realize these truths. I watch the young people in my acquaintance and sigh as I see their misguided desire for greatness fed by a culture of celebrity.
    Thank you for a lovely and encouraging note to end my week on.

  10. This is another great post by CM. Thanks for this!

  11. Reminds me of Haddon Robinson’s sermon in which he talks about his conversation with God about Haddon’s “accomplishments”. Haddon points out to God his recognition as a world class preacher, and God responds with more or less a “whatever”. But God then points to some small, kind, barely recognized, helpful action Haddon did for someone, and God talks about how great that was. Haddon stresses the importance of seeing the flaws in his own former perspective.

  12. Great posts can be, like great people, quiet and unassuming, and so you’ll know posts like this mean as much as the ones that garner 100 comments, I’ll add to the voices here telling you, “Great post!”

  13. Ronald Avra says

    Good post

  14. In a loud, obnoxious world the Kingdom of God quietly goes about its business thanks to its humble King.

  15. All this is so true. What do I remember most as l look back over the years? The woman from church, who I barely knew, who sent me an encouraging note when I was midway through a week with sick kids. The neighbor that made a big pot of soup and brought us some for no special reason. The friend who never fails to send me a birthday card (I wish I was that organized!) The clerk in the store who went out of his way to be helpful. The young woman who saw me struggling to carry my heavy suitcase up the subway stairs and without hesitating said she’d carry it up for me and did. Greatness, yes. Yes!

    • Yes.

      And maybe instead of telling people they’re lowly worms and utterly depraved, we should to tell them they’re great in their own quiet ways.

    • Looking back, not only do I remember many small kindnesses, but I’m struck by how often I didn’t say thank you – or never had a chance to do so.

  16. “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thes. 4:9-12

  17. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike, for this wonderful piece. I’m sure Therese of Lisieux, of “the Little Way,” would have loved it. .

  18. I’ve been busy the past couple of days but didn’t want to let this post go by without saying thanks for this.