A Significant Life
Last week I spent some time with a man who took early retirement at the age of 52. He was a successful businessman who wanted to go in a different direction, and so he was taking his time to pray and discern before deciding which career path to take next. I know what you’re thinking . . . it must be nice. But he’s a godly man who is using his resources wisely for the greatest Kingdom impact possible.
Over the past year he said he’s had numerous people ask him, “So what have you been doing in retirement?” He said he’s been frustrated with how to respond, because he feels guilty. He’s not working (at least not to earn a paycheck), and so he’s struggled with emotions of insignificance. He said it’s been difficult to wait on the Lord, and not to have his identity and sense of self-worth wrapped up in a successful career.
Many of us struggle in this realm of attaching identity to career and significance to success. I know I have. With that in mind, let me introduce you to the late Henri Nouwen. You may have read some of his books such as In the Name of Jesus, Here and Now, Intimacy, The Road to Peace, just to name a few. Henri was a priest and had accomplished much of what our culture would define as “significant.” He taught at Yale and Harvard, and was a highly acclaimed writer who was sought the world over as a speaker and lecturer. But he struggled with his identity and sense of significance. He once wrote,
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.
Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.
But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them (Gracias: A Latin American Journal, 147-148; quoted in Unoffendable, 172).
Significance is not defined by what we do but how we see. The Apostle Paul tells us we should see others as more significant than ourselves. We should have the attitude of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5). Significance is not found in projects but in people. We are called to see them the way Jesus does, love them the way Jesus loves, and care for them the way Jesus cares. Truly, there is nothing more significant than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 5:13).
How’s that for doing something significant?