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.”

 
chan2

“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

76 comments

  1. Hmmm . . . I’m soaking this truth up.

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  2. I was just having a conversation with a gent last night, and he was wrestling with this very question–does God love his life even if it’s not extraordinary?

    This is a good piece, M. It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves.

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  3. Yes,yes, yes!!! I love that we can be the voice of this truth to those in their 20s. (Or whatever age!). Sometimes I wish I could lean back into my own 20 yr old self’s life and speak this truth.

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    • Oh, I know, Christine. It’s been hard-earned for me, too.

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  4. Ed

    Our 20-year-old selves had a lot in common. I went to seminary because I couldn’t see how I could be a writer…

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    • I went to law school because I couldn’t see how I could be a preacher. The irony… the irony…

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      • I stayed in the UK becuase I couldn’t see how I could reach people overseas…

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  5. Goodness, Micha, that could have been me on the other end of your phone line, or me at your table thirteen years ago staring down an application for Africa, or me wrestling shame upon shame for following my (God’s?) heart-nudges in ways that would never make the Christian biography bestseller list. The search for significance has defined so much of my adult life and stolen so much joy from my small-story Kingdom life that I can’t help thinking I missed the point of devotion to God a long way back. Something about a guilty religious fervor feels so holy that it’s hard to see anything wrong with it, even when it’s causing spiritual anguish.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective here, for shedding a redeeming light on our worries about success. This is a post to read over and over until the truth sinks in.

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    • I love how you put that, Bethany: “following my (God’s?) heart-nudges in ways that would never make the Christian biography bestseller list.” Exactly. I may be able to write it, but I think I need to read that God is in love with my life over and over to myself as well. Praying the truth sinks into all of us in the midst of our exhausted small lives.

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  6. Yes. It does all matter. (This reminds me of Kathleen Kelly’s musings on her “valuable but small” life in You’ve Got Mail.) Thanks for reminding me that the ordinary is also important.

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    • Yes, I love that scene!

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  7. Such a wonderful post. I hear it so often: “I don’t read human books, I only read God’s word,” “I don’t bother with worldly things, I only care about spiritual things.” While I’m glad that people read scripture, what pains me is their disdain for forms of literature which are not labeled specifically as “Christian.”

    It is too bad that so often Christians section themselves off from the rest of the world: we have Christian musicians, Christian educators, Christian business people. We have created a small secluded niche. Instead, what if we had more musicians who were Christians, educators who were Christian, business people who were Christian. The simple moving of the terms creates not a niche, but allows us to be true witnesses in the world. What good are we if we section ourselves off and never leave churches, or the Christian Music Awards, or Christian Radio, or the other entities which are “Christian-specific” but mirror “secular” bodies or organizations?

    It pains me when people turn away from the passions that God has planted in them, in all of their glorious ordinariness, to pursue something which is seen as “a greater calling” or “something that matters.” I think that God loves ordinary, after all, most of scripture is a story about God using ordinary people doing ordinary things for extraordinary purposes. God is in the process of redeeming and restoring the world, not destroying it.

    Thanks so much for this.

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    • Matthew, you are spot on. Scripture doesn’t tell us to cloister ourselves away from the world. The call is to “go into the world” and love people to the foot of the cross.

      There is a “Field of Dreams” theme in Christianity today – if you build it (huge church, beautiful retreat center, etc) they – “the world” – will come. Sadly, that doesn’t answer God’s call. His was not a call to create human monuments to him, but rather, to embrace obscurity and live daily ordinary lives that look different from the worlds hell-bent pursuit of “success” . . . and in those lives of obscurity allow God’s love to fill us and overflow to those He brings into our lives, if even for only a moment.

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      • Yes, the Incarnation was all about God becoming ordinary! Thanks for that reminder, Matthew and Greg.

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        • JennMomtoThree

          Hi, folks!

          This reminds me of the homily our pastor preached yesterday. The Gospel yesterday was where Jesus gets into the boat with his new friends, preaches and then tells the men to cast their nets. Our pastor said that although he felt tempted to speak of ministry, he thought it was more important to share the message that Jesus GOT INTO THE BOAT. He did extraordinary things, to be sure, with ordinary things. That’s the key, I think. And God will do the same with our ordinary lives, if we allow it.

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  8. Tanya Shenk

    Very, very good. One of the best pieces I have read anywhere in a long time. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Tanya, thank you for the kind words. They mean a lot.

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  9. I needed to remember this. Thank you for the gentle nudge.

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  10. So, so good. Something I find myself often wrestling with as that twenty-something college student with dreams of India and raising babies all at once. Both noble pursuits, yet one perhaps always more “glorifying to God” in the back of my mind. And believe it or not, that quote has made it onto my draw erase board. Thanks for bringing some grey, some middle ground into my very black and white, all or nothing sort of world.

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    • Courtney,

      Glad to see you pondering in these parts. Hope all is well.

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  11. 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.

    Love this and wholeheartedly agree.

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  12. yes. Yes. YES!
    Thank you for truth!

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  13. thank you. i am in tears because i have recently been struggling with these same thoughts. my husband and i recently said “no” to adoption after believing passionately that we were called to. i have been struggling with a lot of guilt and shame. feeling selfish and like i am not “giving enough” for god. your words here are a grace and balm to me today.

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    • Sarah,

      Just so that you know, there are many of us out here who stopped the adoption process for one reason or another. And I can tell you, being where you’re supposed to be is much better than doing the “big” thing. There is great peace in that.

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    • Oh Sarah, I can only imagine that kind of shame and guilt. I pray you’ll be gentle with yourself and when you look in the mirror, that you’ll hear the truth that you are deeply loved by your Creator.

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  14. Thanks for teasing all this out, Micha. This was definitely a struggle for me when I was about to graduate college and again after graduate school. The idea that God had one perfect plan mapped out for my life and I’d better figure out what it was did such a number on me. We often glorify the pastors and missionaries, forgetting they’re people like us and forgetting we can be pastors and missionaries to the people around us. I’ve come to believe one of our greatest callings is relationship. How do I really love well the people in my life, whether friend and family member or acquaintance and stranger? My work may not speak to the Big Important Things but I hope and pray my relationships do.

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    • Yes, Leigh. And relationships go right back to the Incarnation, right? God becoming ordinary. This feels like it ought to be a chapter in a book. Hmmmm, off to sort that out! : )

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  15. i so love the thoughts and feelings expressed in this post. a small caveat, though: yes, everything matters. but some things matter more than others. i’m not talking about some false sacred/secular split. i’m thinking about the amount of time we spend on trivia — real trivia — paparazzi and tabloids and shoot-em-up video games and nonsense like that. there’s a whole world out there to engage. relationships to be built and nurtured. beauty to witness. to paraphrase lewis, making mud pies in the slums doesn’t matter as much as a holiday at the sea.

    yes, we must peel the potatoes and experience God there. and we must also put down the remote control, close the laptop periodically and go have a look around.

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    • Absolutely. Yesterday, on facebook I had some push back from folks who said, ‘But of course there are good things and bad things, things that matter and things that don’t! Like, a man should not ignore his kids in pursuit of his career. Being a good father is more important than being CEO.” And while I completely agree, I think we tend to judge work as being unimportant in the spiritual scheme of things. Can we live like God loves business because he created humans to create and provide services for one another? Can we ask God to honor our pursuit of being a father and being a CEO?

      It all becomes about the heart. Can I read People magazine and honor God? Maybe, if I can hold that and also hold the reality of need in this world. Can I redecorate my home and honor God? Maybe, if I can find joy in beauty and still pursue healing for the broken realities around me.

      It depends on how my heart is ordered. My ordinariness is only worship when I choose to offer it and when I choose to listen to God’s voice in the midst of it, right?

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  16. Thank you for putting all of this into words.

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  17. IIII looove iiiit.

    I was the same way when I was younger, thinking “secular” jobs were something that only lukewarm Christians who weren’t living a “kingdom life” pursued. Ahh, youth. Thank goodness most of us survive it.

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  18. Oh micha – this is brilliant. It also makes me ponder about whether our striving to achieve Big Things for God is actually just the idolatry of our age – our achievements, our fame. It is subtle, but it’s there, I think. When I read the Bible it speaks to me of character change more than anything else – these things that are unseen, these things that are eternal.

    Thank you for this.

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    • Wow, Tanya. I love how you put that: The Idolatry of our Age. I’ve got to ponder that some more. Thanks.

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  19. Micha, you could not have known how I needed to read this, except that I think we are so similar that maybe you do know. Sudden tears and maybe a tiny sob at this: “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?”

    This is truth at its most beautiful, its most tender and lovely. It all matters, indeed.

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    • Kim, thanks for relating…and being a kindred soul. I’m grateful.

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  20. tears for this one. So wonderfully said! Thank you!

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  21. ann

    Yes, yes…. thank you.

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  22. Yes. This. Thank you.

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  23. Next week Tuesday I start my first full-time job, so the idea of not wanting to waste my life has been on my mind a lot. I love this reminder that it is all being redeemed, that there is goodness in being faithful in the small things. Thank you for this.

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    • Oh, Brianna. Good luck with the first full-time job. There was a while there when I was miserably doing admin at a construction company. Talk about feeling small. And I claimed this little verse in Zechariah 4:10 – “Who despises the day of small things?” That’s God talking. It was my reminder that I would not despise it either.

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  24. Brenda

    Thank YOU………..so very beautiful and helpFULL, thank you so very much.

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  25. Micah, how is it that you always seem to write just for me?

    I heard Phil Vischer speak, and he talked about how he gave up on the idea of there being just one big thing. It scared me to hear him say that. But as I have rested in that for the past few months, and read your words, I know it’s true. Thank you so much for this.

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    • Thanks for the encouragement, Brenna. So grateful it resonated in you.

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  26. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES!

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  27. I think you are so right on here, Micah. When done to the glory of God, nothing is insignificant. Worship Him in all of life.
    I do love Francis Chan’s message. I do think we need to be living redeemed lives, and not just a half-hearted attempt to look better.
    The quote reminds me of “What does it profit a man to gain a fortune, but lose his soul?”
    There is a lot of futile striving we can do in this life. The thing is, they are not neatly organized. The spiritual vs. the physical. One can strive after spiritual, missionary success, without having a heart of worship. And one can live a “little” simple life, worshiping through it all. And that is not in vain.

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    • Absolutely, Erin. It’s all the heart, isn’t it? I hope grace comes across a little in my judgement of Francis Chan. There wasn’t room to say how much his ministry has meant to so many people in my life. If any one out there tried to tear apart any one small statement I’ve made, they could have a field day critiquing my theology. I’m so glad to know his message has spoken to you. And yes, we all need to be living redeemed lives, not just pretending. Amen and amen.

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  28. This spoke to me more than you know. http://her.joshandrosemary.com/blog/to-be-held-in-the-ordinary/

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    • Rosemary, I read your post. Then sighed. Then read it again. Then read it to my husband. What grace that God could use any of the words that come out of my broken, beat up spirit and use them to speak to yours. I’m so grateful God can love us in our deepest need. Grace on you…and thanks for sharing.

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  29. Micha, I loved your thoughts–spot on.

    But I will add my tiny voice to say that I believe Francis Chan might be talking about the overwhelming inertia of the American Dream that tends to gobble everything up in it’s quest for more, safety, and security (“what doesn’t really matter”). That quote struck deep chords within me, just like so many great novels (or poems, or movies, or TV series) do. We waste our lives on the outward–the spiritual, yes, but I do believe the material is also epidemic.

    But no matter how you interpret his words, I believe you said it well here. I heard somebody today say something like “we can run after all the rumors of rain that we hear about, when in reality all we need to do is dig deep wells of our own”. I am trying to stop chasing after the rain of God’s approval, and starting to dig deep wells in relationship with him. And for me, that meant the equivalent of going off to Africa :)

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    • D.L. thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do think I come to something like that quote from my experience, not necessarily from Chan’s intention. You are right, the American Dream does chew us up and the pursuit of more safety and security is life-sucking. Truth is that I live in a part of the country where very few people are “pretending” at Christianity. They’re either all in or all out. It’s refreshing.

      As for the American Dream, I think there is a way to approach our culture and all it’s obsessions and sicknesses of the soul and allow God to heal us inside of it. I know that sentence doesn’t make sense. But what I’m trying to say is that if God is redeeming everything, he is redeeming the American Dream as well. Some of us are called to sell all our possessions and go to the poorest of the poor and I’m incredibly grateful for that deep work. But for those of us living the normal American life, I believe our priorities can change in the midst of working a secure job. We can begin to honor God with our choices as they are transformed by grace, even if those choices were made in the pursuit of the American dream. So the evil isn’t striving to move up in the corporate world, it’s not allowing God into every facet of that pursuit.

      Am I making any sense??? : )

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  30. Douglas

    Thank you so much. This is a beautiful post.

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  31. Raising a glass to the holiness being revealed in the midst of the crumb-covered floors, and your good words here, Micah. I’ve faced this tension too, I guess I still do. But I’m grateful for the encouragement to live right here in the present and embrace the redemption unfurling here. Grateful for your voice here, Micah.

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    • Clanking that glass you raised, my friend. Thanks.

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  32. Yeah-I can really see why this took you blood, sweat and three weeks to write. Thank you for taking that time, for making that effort. Because this is such a centrally important message, Micha. We have been seriously misled in this whole regard. Accepting Danielle’s caveat about materialism and the ways in which that can draw us away from center, I still want to stand up and shout, “YES. Everything matters. If we earnestly seek to live a Jesus life, and we hold on tightly to the two great commandments and the great commission – then anything we do. . . ANYTHING. . .matters. From cooing with the baby to talking with the miraculously cured 20 year old and offering wise words. . . it all matters. And God loves us in the midst of the everyday. And we are each called to love God there, too. Thanks for this. Truly important.

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    • Diana, your encouragement is always such a gift to me. Thanks.

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  33. Heather

    You so don’t even know how I needed to read this today. Thank you for your beautiful words. I am right in the middle of all those decisions, yet homeschooling my own 2 littles. I’m more focused on the ‘what next’ than the now, and needed this bold reminder. THANK YOU

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    • Thanks for reading, Heather. And for the encouragement.

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  34. “How much better to heal and prevent disease; feed and inoculate and teach kids; provide sturdy breeds of animals and seeds! But poetry seemed to be his task…” ~ Annie Dillard, The Maytrees

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    • The Maytrees! I read it a few years ago. Now I have to go dig up that quote. Thanks, John.

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  35. ro elliott

    I love this…as an older woman…I see how just living a everyday life is becoming a “bore”…I think social media is a wonderful medium…but I also see how it breeds such discontent…blogs of woman or men doing “the big things”…writing books…traveling to foreign countries…being used by God in big ways… etc…in this FB…Twitter…blogging world…it is so easy to forget…even a cup of cold water…so many are rushing to do the next big thing…they rush right by those who need a “cup of cold water”…we do live in an upside down kingdom…God does not measure like the world…what could look big and successful by the worlds standards might have very little value in the kingdom. Thanks and blessings to you~

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    • Yes, Ro! Yes to the cup of cold water! Thank you.

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  36. Debbie Grace

    Yes.
    Yes.
    Yes.

    I am a 35-year bone cancer survivor and for so many years thought I was meant to counsel cancer patients. There simply weren’t many who could help me as a fifteen year old with cancer who’s parents had just divorced and I wanted to help fill in the aching gaps for those who came after me.

    It was painfully hard when, years later, my favorite psychology professor walked me out of my last undergraduate class, put his arm around me and gently said, “I don’t think you are cut out for the front lines.” I was devastated. I thought it was the one Big thing I was meant to do . . . was saved from dying to do. But. I trusted and respected my teacher’s opinion and if he was saying it, I knew I really needed to listen. Still, I felt that I was somehow failing God by walking away.

    It took me decades really to realize that my teacher was right and God was speaking thru him. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t use me and has. I remain open and willing and while it’s been much smaller than I first imagined, I know (most days! :) that this is exactly the life where God continues to call me. And, yes, love me, too.

    Thank you, Micha.

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  37. Lisa Joy

    Printing this and sending it to all my college-age friends. It’s required reading.

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  38. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am preaching this Sunday, and my sermon is so similar. It all matters! We are not only gifted to fill church slots and sustain church programs. We are gifted to fulfill the purposes of God, period. Those purposes are the redemption of the world. It all matters. We need to both edify the body, but also engage and invest in the people right around us in our communities and neighborhoods, and even in other parts of the world. But ceasing to segregate our lives into ‘sacred’ and secular’. And begin noticing the opportunities to serve, minister and use our gifts and talents in holy ways in our everyday lives. Yes! Our normal, ordinary, everyday lives. In our homes while teaching piano, or cooking classes, or leading a kids’ soccer team, or inviting neighbors over for a meal. And, of course, at church in various ways upfront or behind-the-scenes. It all matters. Wherever we find ourselves, open our eyes and find ways to minister and serve others. Because IT ALL MATTERS!

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  39. May I say that maybe her “big” thing was the healing from Cancer… I don’t know about everyone else, but to me thats pretty big!
    This post resonates with a thought I have been pondering and hidden in my heart… If there is not worship in the mundane, then what’s the point?
    Yes! In Christ, it is all Big! Yes!

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  40. Micha, thank you so much for this. I am preaching at church this Sunday for the first time and my passage is Luke 13, where Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a seed that grows. And I’ve been thinking about how often what I have to bring seems so small and insignificant. And yet in God it is big. This post has spoken so much to me and has been timed so perfectly to help my thinking. Thank you.

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  41. “Learning, perhaps, that my small, ordinary life has been the biggest thing I could have ever done for the God I strived to please.”
    That is something that I try desperately to remember every day. Thank you for some words that help me grasp it a little more today.

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