The room was buzzing with conversations punctuated by occasional shouts of greeting as I entered the crowded ballroom. Important people were hugging other important people. Young people on the move up were shaking hands with those who had “arrived.” It was a power gathering of the rich and famous, and I didn’t know a soul. I had never felt more out of place in my life.
I was attending the high profile charity event simply to fill a chair at the table of a friend. No one in the entire room was hoping to meet me; those who scanned the incoming faces for someone important quickly looked past mine. I felt so out of place that I was about to turn around and leave when I was reminded of the benediction from the sermon that week. “You go nowhere by accident,” the pastor had said. “God has a purpose for you. Wherever you are, be used by Him.”
So I took a deep breath, stepped to the side and prayed, “Lord, show me my purpose here.” And that’s when the room began to look different to me. Outside the buzz of activity in the center, I noticed the people standing alone, those lingering at the side, even a woman sitting by herself at a table. I wasn’t the only one who felt left out. For the next half hour, I was on a mission, not to find the important people but rather the ones God wanted me to meet. My evening suddenly had purpose.
One by one, I approached the people standing alone. In the end it was a life-changing event for me, not just because I met some wonderful people, but because I was reminded, again, of what really counts. When I measure myself against the world’s view of power and influence, I am quickly defeated. I begin to exaggerate my insignificance and believe I have nothing to offer. But when I let God define my role, everything changes.
In a world where influence is measured by numbers of cyberspace “followers” and “friends,” it’s not always easy to remember the true meaning of the word. In God’s economy, influence is not a numbers game or a power trip. It is a connection that grows out of our calling—a divinely opened door that we walk through with confidence and purpose, not because we’re important but because He is.
The woman who most influenced my life never finished high school. She never gave a speech or wrote a book, never ran for office or so much as called in to a radio show to express her opinion. My grandmother lived most of her life in a small town, growing her own vegetables and raising some chickens. When she had a few moments to rest, she pulled out her well-worn Bible and tried her best to understand how to live the words she read. For more than 60 years, she taught Sunday school in her small town, trying to help classes of toddlers through teenagers discover the joy of knowing God.
Eventually Grandma retired to a nursing home. Although I lived half a continent away by then, I tried to visit her whenever I could. When I did arrive, I inevitably had to wait to see her. I’d peek into her room and see her arthritic hand holding that of a teenager or a young father or touching the cheek of a baby brought for her to admire. They were all her Sunday school students who still came to see her and seek her wisdom. Some were now successful businessmen, some still struggling teens. But they were all her “Sunday school kids” as she called them. When I once mentioned how amazing it was that so many different people came to seek her advice, she shrugged. “The Lord brought them to me,” she said matter-of-factly. “I guess He still needs me to love some of them a little more.”
My grandma would have laughed at the idea that she had influence. She was a simple woman with simply extraordinary faith. When God brought people to her, she showed them His love—and changed hundreds of lives.
Sometimes I wish I had faith like my grandma. I am less content to sit back and wait for divine encounters and more inclined to feel I should be “doing something.” I have seen poverty and disease and turmoil in the world, and I feel like I should be doing more to “fix” the problems. And yet I know that unless God gives me the work I am supposed to do, I am at risk of running wildly amok. I can take off on a tangent that leaves me harried and disconnected and end up doing more harm than good for anyone.
On my bulletin board hangs a tattered piece of paper with the words of the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. The paper is tattered because it has been stuck to many bulletin boards over the years, a reminder to temper my need to “make a difference” with the understanding that only God knows what that difference should be. In part, this is what’s on the paper: “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work…. This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise…. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
The words of the martyred priest remind me that influence is only worthwhile if I am part of something so magnificent that my role is both insignificant and frighteningly holy. It is when we try to grasp at influence that we end up ensnared and dissatisfied, missing out on the privilege that only God can offer—a gift that will surprise us with its extravagance.
Written by by Dale Hanson Bourke
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