Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Ambition Can Color the Big and Small
She's probably the most famous evangelical woman from the 20th Century that you've never heard of.
Henrietta C. Mears was a partially-blind woman from Minnesota who became head of the Sunday School department at prestigious First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California. This was back in the 1930's, of course, when Sunday morning Christian education programs were still called "Sunday School." This was also a time during which women were not encouraged to pursue employment outside of the home, let alone hold positions of authority and leadership in Christian ministry like Mears' eventually did.
Indeed, Mears was no ordinary woman of the 1930's. She became one of the most prodigious authors of Christian education curriculum our evangelical community has ever seen. She conducted classes for students from elementary school through college, and she was given free reign by the pastors at Hollywood Presbyterian to develop whatever material she needed.
At first, she worked just for the people of her church, but as the material she created became more and more popular, she was soon in charge of a sprawling educational empire, including a publishing house, and even a retreat center in the Hollywood hills. Among her students were Bill and Vonette Bright, founders of Campus Crusade for Christ. Several Hollywood producers who came to Christ during Mears' classes would go on to work with the multi-media department at Billy Graham's organization. Even Graham himself was personally encouraged by Mears during his early ministry, and at her funeral in 1963, he described her as the most influential woman in his life, after his mother and his wife.
Speaking of influence, it has been said that Mears' influence on the Kingdom of God can be counted in the billions of souls, if you extrapolate the many people who have been reached by Campus Crusade and Billy Graham.
As exceptionally ambitious people are wont to be, Mears was known to speak her mind. One of her more famous quotes was "there is no magic in small plans. When I consider my ministry, I think of the world. Anything less than that would not be worthy of Christ nor of His will for my life."
Does that sound a bit pompous to you? Perhaps a bit self-aggrandizing? Well, apparently, Mears never suffered from low self-esteem. As a precocious 5-year-old, she purportedly scoffed at conventional kindergarten, saying she wanted to be educated, not entertained. In sunny California, she drove a car she'd had custom-painted green and canary yellow. She deliberately wore ostentatious hats, rings on every finger, and gaudy clothing, justifying her peculiar taste and habits by saying she wanted to appear extraordinary for God.
A lot of gregarious, Type-A people like to think big, and Type-A Christians like to say God wants them to think big. But in terms of Mears' quote about "small plans," what exactly is "small" to God? And what is big? To us success-oriented Americans, it seems obvious that small plans are inconsequential, whereas big plans can change the world. To a certain extent, it wasn't remarkable for a confident teacher like Mears to be convinced that her work could have broader influence beyond her classroom. But for a woman, particularly at that time, to declare that Christ's will for her life wasn't small was considerably provocative.
And it remains provocative today, regardless of one's gender, because it's the basis of a lot of teaching in our evangelical ghetto. We've gotta be doing big things for God. We've gotta be thinking big, to win the world for Christ. Be bold, courageous, always climbing, building, winning, conquering, achieving... sometimes, it's hard to tell if you're listening to a Christian sermon, or a motivational speaker, or a political speech, or a business development specialist.
Meanwhile, what does God teach us about ambition? For one thing, we know that He gifts His people differently, like we see in the Parable of the Talents. We know that God has a different view of what's big and what's small, from learning of His favor for the Widow's Mite. We know that God is not a respecter of persons. We know that vain rivalry is unGodly, and that whoever exalts himself will be humbled.
So, what does God have for you to do? For me to do? Do those things seem to pale in comparison to what God has other people doing? Or are we not even doing those things that God has already presented to us? Are we afraid, or doubtful, or simply lazy? Does God's work conflict with the goals we've already set for ourselves? Will it require a lot of hard work that won't score us the grand house or the comfortable retirement we think we need?
Personally, I don't take sweeping assertions of ambition like Mears' with a lot of seriousness. Type-A evangelicals with charismatic personalities say that kind of stuff all the time, but even heathen unbelievers can be incredibly successful in their altruistic pursuits. In Mears' case, it could have been she particularly felt she had to speak like that to make herself heard by men who couldn't understand why she didn't want to get married and raise her own kids. Nevertheless, whatever the context of her quote, it's obvious that God gave her the skills, opportunities, energy, and personality to carry out what she believed He wanted her to do.
But that was His work for her. Not somebody else.
Meanwhile, the question for the rest of us is the same as it was for Mears, even if she didn't necessarily frame it this way. That question isn't whether God has given us something "big" or "small" to do for Him. The question is this: Whatever God has for you to do, are you doing it?
No matter where you or I happen to be at this specific point in our faith journey today, right now, as you're reading this; are you doing what God has for you to do?
Can any of us say we don't know what that thing might be? Usually, when we don't have some world-changing task before us, we tend to assume that we don't know what work God has for us. But might that simply be our pride at work, as we're dissatisfied with the level of importance we've associated with whatever we're supposed to be doing?
Okay, so maybe you don't drive a green-and-yellow Ford, or wear big hats with feathers in them. Maybe you're not running your own publishing house, and watching scores of young people in a ministry you run trust in Christ as their Savior.
What's another major component of the Christian life that often gets overlooked when we talk about ambition?
Not laziness, or procrastination, or ignorance, or fear, or immaturity, or irresponsibility. But contentment.
Maybe God wants you to work for His Kingdom by being content with what He's given you. At least, what He's given you to do right now. Today.
Right after you finish reading this.