By Brian Lowther
I’ve been reflecting lately on the different perspectives I’ve held throughout my adult life about the world and my place in it. Like everyone I’ve been seeking a happy life. Seeking such a thing naturally involves developing a strategy on how to attain it.
In my early twenties I thought wealth was the answer. My philosophy was: They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’d like to find out for myself.
It’s almost too obvious to point out why this perspective wasn’t the best approach. After all, our culture is saturated with stories about the pitfalls of greed. The only thing worth mentioning is that I discovered how misguided I was one fine fall day as I sat under an elm tree reading The Master, a novel-like retelling of the life of Jesus by John C. Pollack. As the elm leaves fluttered around me, I read Pollack’s treatment of the famous Matthew 6 passage, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...” This passage was so compelling that I immediately starting looking for ways to “store up treasures in heaven.”
An Eternal Element
By my mid-twenties this experience had evolved into a full-fledged distaste for the indulgent pretense of consumerism and a cynical disillusionment with the American dream. There are certain advantages to this perspective, namely you don’t feel the constant need to keep up with the Joneses. You have a graceful excuse to avoid what many people call life: “work[ing] long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to earn money to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like.” — Nigel Marsh
My wife and I prayed non-stop during this time for a grand idea, something we could devote our full-time energy to that would utilize our skills and serve the kingdom of God. I had firmly resolved to work in ministry because I couldn’t bear to use the best days and years of my life succeeding at something that didn’t matter. Whatever we did needed to contain an eternal element.
Eventually we found ourselves serving at the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, CA (now known as Frontier Ventures - the RWI's parent ministry). It was a good match. We believed in the U.S. Center’s vision—still do—and they needed people with our skills to work behind the scenes. We certainly weren’t going to get rich working in missions, but living up to our highest ideals was far better.
My new philosophy became: Be content with what you have. Bloom where you’re planted. Find a need and fill it.
However, there were side effects. I didn’t notice them for the first few years; but gradually they became unbearable. Working behind the scenes far away from the frontlines made it difficult to escape nagging feelings of meaninglessness. I was often able to counteract this restless angst by reminding myself that for every soldier on the frontlines, seven people are necessary back home to pack rations, build ships, heal wounds, etc. But a relentless malaise and a pestering desire to fill a more prominent role lurked just below the surface. Not that I wanted to leave the U.S. Center, I just knew I needed to do something more, or more difficult, something that echoed a little louder in eternity.
I realized this for certain in my early 30’s while standing amidst rows and rows of tombstones after a memorial service. (Why do our most profound epiphanies always occur at funerals? I guess it’s obvious.) Some tombstones are ornate or impressive in size, but most are quite modest. No matter the size or the grandiosity, each passed life always seems so utterly insignificant, lost in the endless rows of tombstones. All of a person’s hopes, fears, relationships, talents, accomplishments, idiosyncrasies and pet peeves are summed up with just a few words on a humble slab of stone in a vast and lonely cemetery.
While I no longer had any interest in amassing a large fortune, becoming a famous celebrity, or inventing the next Facebook, I very much wanted to— excuse the clichés—make a difference, change the world, leave my mark. I was willing to sacrificially serve others, but I wanted to see and feel how my deeds positively influenced their lives.
I was haunted by the Horace Mann quote, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” My philosophy became, don’t chase wealth, success or status. Chase significance.
Being a Nobody
Around this time is when I began to seriously grapple with what we in the Roberta Winter Institute call the “Warfare Worldview.” I can sum up this concept with this statement: God is at work reestablishing shalom in a corrupted creation and defeating the enemy who is responsible for that corruption, and he has called us, commissioned us, and empowered us to participate with him in this process. This concept helped me understand history and the problem of evil with bright, new clarity, and fortuitously it gave me a tremendous new awareness about my place in the world.
Unfortunately, I got these very important ideas mixed up with my ego. I felt like I had Biblical permission to pursue my delusions of grandeur and egotistical idealism. Not only was I going to change the world, but I was going to help God defeat evil. While this new way of looking at the world gave me a deeper sense of how to make my mark, one day I wondered, what if after ten, or twenty, or thirty years of sacrifice and hard work I realize that I haven’t made a difference, that I haven’t changed the world? Then what?
That’s when I came across this J.D. Salinger quote:
“All I know is I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting! …We’re all so conditioned to accept everybody else’s values. Just because it feels good to be applauded and to have people to rave about you, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody...”
That last phrase really troubled me. I couldn't figure out why he would write that it takes courage to be a nobody. It doesn’t take courage to be a nobody, it takes nothing to be a nobody, right?
Then, just recently it dawned on me. It takes courage to be a nobody, because being a nobody—being lost amidst the tombstones, insignificant and forgotten—is extremely terrifying.
I realized that even if I do change the world, what if that’s still not enough? Name the last three people to win either the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer Prize. These are rare and gifted people, and yet, they are mostly unknown. On the flip side, most of us can name three teachers who helped us realize our potential in school, or three friends who helped us through a rough patch.
So then what's the right perspective?
I’m sorry to say, I don’t exactly know. I’ve been wrestling with these perspectives for the better part of the past two decades, swinging with the pendulum from one extreme to the other, hoping that a new perspective will suddenly present itself and trump all the others with its elegance. But as of this moment, I only have a hunch.
And that hunch is this: the right perspective is to do something difficult and perhaps scary, something that requires our full attention and great sacrifice, some crucial cog in God’s global machinery of reestablishing shalom and defeating his enemy, BUT—and here’s the really hard part—we probably won’t get any credit for it at all, especially if it succeeds. Such is the life of those who are called to take up their cross daily and follow Jesus.
Which reminds me of something my mentor, Ralph D. Winter used to say, a quote he got from either Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.”
 J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Little, Brown, 1961)
Photo Credit: Lev Glick/Flickr