She calls me at 8 on a Tuesday night. Chris is in the other room getting August to bed. I’ve just finished my song and prayer with Brooksie and he is tucked in tight. This is my favorite time in the kitchen. In the quiet with the water running and the pans clanking.
She says she needs to talk, this sweet girl of nearly 20 years, a sophomore in college, who studied the Bible with me once a week last year in Austin. For three years she has battled cancer and during our short time in each other’s lives last year, we talked and prayed through some of those deep questions I had no words to answer: how to find joy in the suffering, how to rest and receive, how to face the possibility of death.
In October, she called with news, news I’d never believe. I sat down. “It’s all clear,” she said. “The doctors don’t know how. They can’t explain it. The cancer’s gone.”
And like that she was laughing in Austin and there in our temporary apartment in San Francisco I was crying real tears. A miracle. It was a miracle.
Two months later, still clear, still healthy, she is facing the very real questions 20-year-olds must face. What now?
She has gifts and passions. She’s an actor, a dancer, a musician. She has dreams of performing. She has always had those dreams. So when she tells me on the phone, as I’m drying the pasta pot and setting it into the deep back of the cabinet, I hear her say, “I just feel like God has given me my life back and now I have to do something big with that.”
“What do you mean, big?” I ask.
“I mean, I should be a missionary. I should take care of orphans. I can’t just go to L.A. and try to be an actress…Maybe God has saved me for something big, something important.”
“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Though these words are attributed to Francis Chan in the image above, they’re not really his. In his book Crazy Love, Chan is actually quoting Tim Kizziar. The chapter, “Serving Leftovers to a Holy God,” is not too different from sermons I’ve heard over and over in my 33 years of life in Evangelical America, a sermon warning about the half-hearted following of Jesus.
Chan has a passionate stance to take in this chapter, one he confesses he’s had a difficult time writing: That lukewarm Christianity is not true Christianity, that people who have not given themselves entirely to God may not be true believers.
Here Chan warns about giving God leftovers: Cain’s offering which God “did not look upon with favor,” or the offering of lame or blind animals on the altar in Malichi. He compares the way we offer our lives half-heartedly to following Christ—being churched people without changed lives—as offering God the least impressive parts of our life.
Once upon a time, a statement like this one would have wrecked my gut with fear. I would have read Chan’s words as a call to fervor, whether or not he intends that to be his meaning.
To succeed at something insignificant is to fail. I would have written it on a sticky note, stared at it as I brushed my teeth, applied mascara. I would have begged God to help me choose the Holy Thing. Then I would have snapped on my shoes and walked out the door into a life that Really Mattered.
I did. I did my everything to matter.
What does Francis Chan mean when he talks about “succeeding in the things that don’t really matter?” In his book, Chan does not pull the statement apart or elaborate beyond saying that what matters is love. I agree wholeheartedly. God is love. Loving well honors God. What I wish, though, is that he were willing to elaborate on what doesn’t matter. There is a bit of an assumption that his readers will get what he means.
So I read his words in light of what 20-year-old Micha would have read: The spiritual matters. The physical does not. There is good success: It is ministry, the miracle of being part of God’s work in another’s life. What matters is self-sacrifice, giving up ourselves for the sake of another. It is “Kingdom Work,” bringing hope to broken people. We could probably all agree that these are beautiful successes.
What I fear this statement does is negate every other beautiful success that is not so outwardly spiritual. Work and art and family and small acts of love, true friendship. Thirteen years ago, I would have said God did not really care about business, about my dreams of writing poetry, about a really good novel that doesn’t have overt spiritual overtones. Is that what Chan is saying here? What is big? What is small? What will make God proud of me?
I was sincere as a college student, completely earnest in my love for Jesus, in my plans to graduate and jet off to a life in Africa. I was going to give up everything: the idea of a husband and kids and a three bedroom house, the longing to live near my family, the secret unsaid dreams that I would one day write. Under all of my plans, there was a deep-aching hope that I could make God like me. Somehow, in my spirit, being extraordinary was tied to being loved by a demanding God.
The story goes this way: I sat at the kitchen table in my college apartment, holding the application in my hands, my ticket to a life of fierce Christianity, a life where I’d never regret succeeding at the wrong things and begged God to just let me complete the form. There have been few moments in my life where God has made his physical presence known. But that afternoon, there in my kitchen, God pressed hard on my hand until I released the pen.
I laid it down on the table and wept. I could never complete that form; I could never complete my life plan.
The weeks and months and year that followed were a delicate spiritual retrieval of what was in the depths of me, a repressed longing to write words, to tell stories, to make something beautiful. I finally let go of the missionary plan. In shame, in deep-planted guilt, I went to graduate school.
And so has gone the story of my adult life. Striving and letting go, believing and doubting in the same breath, learning to trust that God might have actually wanted me to put the pen down on that application form, learning to believe that God might have actually given me the love for words because I was called to write them in a small, ordinary life. Learning, perhaps, that my small, ordinary life has been the biggest thing I could have ever done for the God I strived to please.
On the phone with my college-aged friend, I ask her again: “What do you think it means to do something big for God?”
She’s not sure but she longs for it. I understand.
“I want you to consider this,” I say. “What if God cares more about the depth of change in our hearts than he does ‘success’ as we measure it? Maybe God is calling you to rescue orphans. Or maybe God will make you a famous actress. And it’s even possible that your life will be completely ordinary in every way.”
She laughs. “Yeah, I guess it’s very possible.”
“And if it is, do you believe God will be absolutely in love with the life you’ve lived? Not because of how impressive you are, but because of how desperately God loves you?”
What makes something valuable? What makes anything in this tender and cracked world more important than anything else? I am called to a spiritual work that runs deep and fine. Your calling may be wide. You may dig the wells that save the lives of thousands. Or you may lift the small plastic cup to the one mouth in your care. You may be doing the great work I dreamed of once, the brave work in the most broken places. But, you may also be living the most ordinary kind of life: one of laundry and dishes and children who scream at your attempts to raise them well. All of us are knit into the fabric of Christ; all of us are living in holy time.
So if my life does not seem spiritually spectacular, perhaps it’s because you aren’t noticing yet. Keep looking and you’ll find the holy here in my crumb-covered floors, in the miracle of the grace-shaped patience God is building in me when my son won’t get into his carseat, the self-control taking root when I don’t scream at my kids even though I really want to, in the ways I’m learning to notice God in all the most beautiful places, and carry food in my bag for the homeless guy who stands at 9th and Clement.
This is not about one sermon, or quote, or Francis Chan’s book. This is a moment I’m taking, here in the middle of my very insignificant day to say to the evangelical world: Be careful. Be careful.
Real failure is not succeeding at things that don’t matter.
All of it matters. The work, the art, the soggy diaper and the ladle dipped into the soup pan. The laughter and the comfortable bed and the sweet breath of children snuggled close in the morning.
In Christ, it is all Big. It is all being redeemed.
Image Credit: Pinterest via Selina Goodwin