I have a trunk full of medals and trophies from High School and College in storage. I won’t get rid of them and I won’t display them. It’s a conundrum. I won’t get rid of them because they carry memories and hopes in their cheap constructions of celebrated victories. Theater, Speech, Band and even a Fencing trophy from a small tournament I won, they are an eclectic collection and represent a lot of hard work, great camaraderie, and a dash of luck. So they are still around.
I don’t display them because they have voices. No, it’s true, they talk to me, and they do it at the worst possible times. Every time I fail or don’t meet an expectation, they begin to whisper, even from their place of confinement. They drone and wheedle about lost potential and about dashed hopes. They use terms like has-been and lazy and mistake. They sing a perpetual siren’s song of surrender. “You will never….” they say, and, “what a disappointment.” Sometimes they are easy to ignore. Sometimes they are deafening. So, I choose to not give the lying things a place in my house.
Here’s the thing, I have expectations. That doesn’t mean they are correct expectations or remotely realistic, but they are there. I was the golden child. I wanted to be an actor and was considered a smart kid. Everyone told me I would be a smashing success one day. In Junior High School, one of my teachers asked if I was going to pursue theater as a profession. I asked her if she thought I would make it. She told me I was one of the few people she knew that had a choice. That’s heady stuff for a 12 year old. By the time I was 18, I was so sure of my future that I quit worrying about mundane things like grades. When someone called me on it and told me I wouldn’t make it in theater because I wasn’t willing to sell out, I dismissed them as old-fashioned, and most people I knew, even adults, were on my side. When I surrendered to the ministry, the same predictions of miraculous success buoyed my inflated self-concept. I even had an old friend from high school look me up and tell me they constantly expected to see my name in lights! Well, then, let’s talk reality.
Since I entered the ministry I have had varied levels of “success” as defined by the church culture that I lived in. The truth is however, I have never been, by those definitions, wildly or even consistently successful. I’ve never been in charge of the largest or fastest growing church in the area. When we planted, I watched a number of other new churches do very well while we struggled up from the dust, only to have things go terribly wrong just as we were about to make a breakthrough. It was disheartening. I closed my eyes and just pushed forward, repeating, mantra-like, to myself, “It’s not a competition. It’s not a competition.”
I prayed, actually prayed, for God to deliver me from the mess that planting a church had become, and He said, “No, this is where you are to be.” My arrogance and my ego have railed against it. My self-esteem, fueled by an unimaginably inflated view of my own potential, has taken hit after hit and left me gasping for air and encouragement on my knees, no less full of myself than before. Ah, hubris.
Fortunately, God is not silent. I am well aware that part of my lack of ‘worldly’ success is a teaching mechanism and a governor for my inherent self-centeredness, but God is good and loving and He maintains balance in me by pointing out truth. Their goals are not His goals. My sense of self and identity is to be found in Him and His purpose, not in some measurable, achievable goal. And He reminds me that I am earning, by His grace, real medals and trophies.
Some I don’t see immediately, but I know, when I’m sane, that they are there. Every time I choose to love in the face of hatred; every time I stand up, as lovingly as possible, against injustice; every time I reach out to pull some broken and accused sinner out of the mud and recognize my face, and my Savior’s, in theirs, He is watching. Every thought taken captive; every outrage I feel on a heart level for the folks on the outside of the wheel; Every time I look up in gratitude for what He has done for us; every Sunday that my little band of fierce warriors gather together in worship, despite the odds, He is there.
And it doesn’t end with those esoteric, internal things. Everyday I see or hear about my former students and friends who are continuing in the work of the Gospel or overcoming obstacles in their lives, hands outstretched in gratitude, He reminds me that no work done in Him is in vain. When I see these old friends who are still changing on their journey, and challenging themselves with truth, I know that it’s been worth the work.
Watching my own children grow up into overcomers and warriors of light may be the greatest blessing of all. Trophies, indeed, much higher accolades than I deserve or could ever actually earn outside of grace.
We are, all of us, on the field today. No matter where you are or your level of success, be aware of this: real victory comes not from scoring the most points, or looking the best. Real achievement is not about security or the number of toys you have acquired. The truth? The only measure of achievement worth anything at all is how we have loved. If we have loved well, then lives change in our wake, even our own. If we have loved well, then we will have made an indelible mark on the lives we have touched. If we have loved well, we have succeeded. Nothing else really matters. No responsibility or ideal is higher. The Bible tells us that we are essentially trophies of grace for God, and as we walk in the way of Jesus and learn to love as He does, we are rewarded with the same trophies. Love on.