Squashed, then lifted

Last Thursday, I lost a game of squash. And what a fantastic time I had!

Allow me to explain.

I play at Trojans and I had the privilege of playing the club champion. His name is Kevin Harris and – forgive the cliché – he is a ‘legend’ at our club, having won our club championship . . . not sure . . . many, many times. 14 or 15, I think. Maybe more.

He’s 48 or so now and after beating me, he will probably go on to win another title. At age 48. If you know anything about squash, you’ll realise how remarkable that is.

It was truly an honour to compete against him. But more than that, I was extremely grateful for the way he played. He was a real gentleman. In squash, if you’re significantly better than your opponent, you can make them look rather foolish. Let’s be honest, he could have won in ten minutes.

He could have squashed me, pun intended.

Instead, he played a length, never played a drop shot, always lobbed it to the back to keep the point going. I was 7-5 up in the second game, due to his generosity, and for a moment I thought I might sneak a game. But I was a rusty Ford Fiesta in the middle lane, while he was the Red Ferrari passing me on the outside. He simply put his foot down and purred by, 9-7. Take a breather, mate.

The experience caused me to consider a story in the gospels. You may know it. Jesus meets his friend Simon Peter after a rather frustrating night ‘fishing’ on the Sea of Galilee. After teaching from the boat, he asks Peter to take it out one more time. Come on, let’s have another go. You can tell Peter’s a bit ticked about the request. You can imagine him thinking . . .

‘I get the idea that you’re someone special, not sure exactly what that means, but fishing? You think you know fishing? That’s my job and trust me, there ain’t no fish right now. You stick to the carpentry and give me some respect. I know these waters like the proverbial back of my hand and when the fish don’t bite, they don’t bite.’ Sigh. ‘But because it’s you . . . ‘

So they let down the nets – no doubt with a fair amount of harrumphing along the way – and whaddya know? Fish are practically jumping into the boat. Now, what I like here is Peter’s reaction.

Lord, I’m a sinner.

In the presence of greatness, he immediately recognises his own inadequacy.

There are human beings and then there’s this man before me. I’m not like him.

I am not worthy.

There was a chasm in class between myself and Kevin Harris but there on the Sea of Galilee? The gap was so vast, so enormous, Peter could only bow in worship. I’m reminded of John the Baptist, hugely popular at the time, who told the crowds, ‘I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.’ He is above and beyond me. Far, far greater than I. He is worthy of worship.

(Side note: How interesting that after Lionel Messi’s mesmerizing performance in the Champions League last Wednesday, his coach, Luis Enrique described him as ‘a player from another dimension.’)

Back to Trojans.

When you play someone like Kevin Harris, it’s hard not to be overawed. He is uncommonly gifted on a squash court, and my own deficiencies were quickly exposed. I am not one to worship sportsmen or women – how foolish is that? – but to compete against a top sportsman, it’s hard to avoid expressing this kind of sentiment:

‘It’s an honour to play against you today.’

It was indeed an honour to play squash with someone whose gifts are far beyond my own. But I use the word ‘honour’ because above all, I was treated well. He did not squash me, he let me play. I was not nearly good enough to compete with him properly but he kept the rally going. I was included, even if the result was a foregone conclusion.

I wonder if you’re one of those who has dreamed of meeting a sportsman or woman whom you admire. What would it be like to kick a football around with Ronaldo or Messi? Go jogging with Usain Bolt or Mo Farah?

In my case, I would die to knock a ball up and down with Roger Federer.

And how blessed were those guys who were fit enough to run next to Paula Radcliffe during the London Marathon? One of them held her hand as she ran towards the finishing tape.

Unforgettable. And yes, what an honour.

And there’s Peter who thought he knew a thing or two about fishing. Was he humiliated by a man with powers far beyond his own? Squashed? Maybe a little at first. Who knows? I thought I just told you there are no fish . . .

But for Simon Peter, it was not just an honour to be in the presence of a great man.

His encounter with Jesus brought him to his knees.

In worship.

But the Lord didn’t let him stay there. He showed him kindness. He invited him in. He lifted him up. He kept the rally going and let him play. He showed him grace.

Simon Peter may have felt squashed, but he was lifted up.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

What an honour. What a privilege.

To be invited to join the Son of Man in his work.

Surely Simon Peter would never forget the day when he was squashed, then lifted up.

© Richard Collins 2015

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Charlie bit my finger and now I’ve gone viral!

My video’s just gone viral! How fantastic is that?!

Viral. It sounds very much like a disease.

But who cares, when viral means, well, it means I might possibly become rich and famous. Hurray!

Have you seen Charlie bit my finger? This link takes you to a video watched just over 800 million times. 800 million! It’s extremely funny and when the parents took the video, they couldn’t possibly have known what would happen when they uploaded it onto Youtube. I’m told that the family has been able to generate sufficient income through advertising to live comfortably. From 1 minute of their sons’ antics. Not bad. Let’s hope Charlie sees some of that!

Viral. It’s enough to make one salivate over the possibilities.

In fact, bloggers like myself are tempted to go weak at the knees just thinking of ‘what might be.’ After all, anything on the internet has the potential to reach what . . . six billion people maybe?

‘Viral’ can quite literally change your life within a few weeks if . . . well, it’s a big ‘if’ isn’t it? And every single cyber-entrepreneur is working feverishly to try and work out the answer to ‘If only I did xx.’

So what’s wrong, apart from the fact that ‘viral’ sounds like a disease?

I have a few concerns.

In my opinion, ‘viral’ is code for shortcut. What do I mean?

Well, first let’s dispense with the allure of fame and fortune. There’s no getting away from a sobering truth which lurks in our souls. It’s this one: We tell ourselves that we trust God, but my goodness, that grass over there certainly looks exceedingly green. However, I’m more interested in some Trojan-horse thinking which I believe has entered on the back of technology. On the back of ‘viral,’ if you like.

It’s the offer of the quick-fix. Because both of those, ‘quick,’ and ‘fix’ sound sooo good. A solution to my problems. Right now. Little effort. Massive rewards. And no need to wait. Charlie’s parents’ bank account probably quintupled within a few months. Nice, huh?Maybe, but the attraction of the ‘immediate’ is not without consequences.

Nowadays, in technology-world, we no longer have to wait for anything. TV? Almost anything you can think of, instantly. Often for free. Consumer goods. Just click here. Information? Oh, we’re all experts on the Byzantine Empire now. After all, we have Google. And then we have apps up the wazoo! It’s all so easy. Too easy. Too cheap.

And yet there is an immense price to pay, if you allow yourself to live inside the deceptions of an instant, viral world. One in which everything is cheap (well relatively cheap), accessible and requires little expenditure of effort. And one which holds out the offer of fame and fortune if you could but crack the code.

There is a price to pay. At least there is for Christians.

What is that price? Let me quote Eugene Peterson, writing prophetically over 30 years ago before the vast spread of technology had draped itself across our culture. He writes,

One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently . . . It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest.

How tempting to want to solve one’s problems instantly. What’s not to like about that? But for pilgrims who have walked along a path marked, ‘a long obedience in the same direction,’ (Peterson’s book from which I quoted), different values, beliefs and behaviours are called for.

Not only is the avoidance of suffering anathema to the spiritual life, the Bible is replete with examples of waiting. And the kind of waiting which induced agonizing suffering. I think particularly of my favourite OT character, Abraham.

Promised a son. Now wait 25 years. 25 years!

This was God’s plan. His doing. There is no getting around that. And I don’t think he’s changed.

For all its manifold benefits, technology can teach us nothing about ‘growing in trust and obedience.’ On the contrary, it is often offering shortcuts. It provides tantalizing stories which beckon us to live in a constant state of ‘if only . . . ‘

What did Joseph Goebbels say? If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. 

You may convince yourself that you don’t believe the lies of the ‘instant society,’ but one day you may find you’re living a life indistinguishable from those who do.

So beware the temptation of shortcuts.

Instead, embrace the agony and ecstasy of life lived faithfully and obediently before your Creator.

Learn to wait. Learn to trust.

And don’t, whatever you do, envy Charlie and his parents.

© Richard Collins 2015

Believe it or not

My family and I have just finished watching Series One of an ABC show called Once Upon a Time. We’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. The premise of the show is that there’s a small town in Maine (Storybrooke) full of fairy tale characters who are under a curse. They’re trapped there and they’ve forgotten who they are. A young boy called Henry attempts to persuade his mother that there are two worlds: the world of Storybrooke (and the rest of the U.S.) and the world of fairy tales. He owns a beautiful leather-bound book called Once Upon a Time, which contains dozens of fairy tales, which he says are true. In attempting to persuade his mother that the other world is true, the curse is true, that Snow White and Prince Charming are now trapped in Storybrooke, he spends episode after episode pleading with her. Why won’t you believe? Why can’t you see?

His pleading raises the issue of our beliefs and where they come from. Why do we believe what we do? Can we choose our beliefs? In Once Upon a Time, we watch, anguished, as Emma (Henry’s mum) refuses to accept what we can all see right in front of our eyes. We’re privy to the story of the two worlds, but she isn’t. No wonder she doesn’t believe. Would you? If I came to you and told you that a fairy tale world existed with Rumplestiltskin and Pinocchio and Belle and Snow White, what would you say? As you backed away from me and called men in white coats, what would you conclude about my mental health? In The Matrix, we’re presented with a similar scenario. Morpheus tells Thomas Anderson (Neo) that the reality he sees . . . isn’t real at all. It’s an illusion.

So why do we believe the things we do? A little reflection on this matter is unnerving to say the least.

Try this for size. Take a look at something in the room where you’re sitting. Now tell yourself that it’s a pink elephant. Go on. Try hard. Tell yourself that your pen is a pink elephant. Not possible. Why? Because you can’t simply believe whatever you want to believe. You’re constrained. You’re constrained by your genes, your brain chemistry, your cultural background and frankly, by the worldview which you possess. That worldview – your assumptions about reality and your place in it – is itself . . . well, it’s not really a choice you’ve made. Hundreds of different factors bearing upon you have ‘created’ the belief system which you now own.

So we’re not free, then. Help!

Well, freedom is a complex subject. Yes, you are free but perhaps not quite in the way that you had imagined.

I wonder if you’ve ever seen this bumper sticker: Wise men still seek him.

I don’t like it. First, because it implies that Christians are virtuous due to their decision to follow Christ. Second, because it implies that ‘come on, if you would simply exercise some wisdom, you could join us too! And because you don’t, then you’re not wise. You’re dumb.’ Which, by the way, isn’t a very biblical term. Sinful, yes. Dumb, no. (Yes, 1 Cor 1.23 – foolishness to the Gentiles, but notice, the gospel is foolishness to them. It doesn’t say they are themselves foolish. That’s different.)

So if our beliefs are constrained, then what hope is there? Are we simply victims of our make-up and our circumstances?

Let’s leave aside the ‘magic’ of conversion, the moment when a soul is given new life. I urge most people to avoid pressing the M button for as long as possible. But Mystery is written all over that one. To choose Christ while being chosen, well, that’s a wonder to behold. (Keep visiting this blog for a subsequent discussion of free will.)

This post, however, has to do more broadly with beliefs. If it’s true that we inherit them, that they are influenced strongly by our background and surroundings, are we then powerless to choose them? And why does St. Paul include so many exhortations to change behaviour? Since belief and behaviour are so closely related, what hope is there for us?

As it happens, it’s found in the relationship between belief and action.

Many theologians and preachers focus almost exclusively on the way beliefs affect action. The subject is rich and wide-ranging. What you believe is extremely powerful. It affects how you live your life to a profound degree. I raise my children, love my wife, give, share, work, play . . . all based on what I believe about my calling, what I’m here for. My purpose is grounded in my beliefs about myself, God and others. And those are founded upon what the Bible teaches. So my beliefs influence every facet of my life.

But what about the other way round? What about the way action affects belief?

There is a lot less written about this, because it’s a subject which parts of the church have disregarded for too long. When I look at my beliefs and I desire to change them, develop them, deepen them, I’m immediately aware of how limited my freedom is. Like Henry’s mum, I can’t simply choose to believe merely through the force of my will. However, I can fill my mind with truths which come from sources which I know to be reliable. So, the first step is that I can make it a priority to read books which point me towards God and of course, the one Book which contains more truth than any other.

However, that’s not enough. Because while it’s good to assemble as many correct beliefs as possible, as a follower of Jesus, I want to go further. I want to live consistently with those beliefs. I want those beliefs to be buried deep inside me, so that they change my behaviour.

And to do that, like the heroes in our stories, I can take action. I can fight. I can struggle.

Action affects belief. Action affects the intensity of belief. Action can bring beliefs to life, so that they emerge from the closet and are put to good use. It’s not enough to believe that God is able to bring about holiness in us if we do nothing which brings us before him regularly.

By action, I mean spiritual formation. Can you choose your beliefs? To a limited degree, perhaps. But you can choose to fast. You can choose to pray. You can choose to be quiet before God. You can choose to meditate on the Word. Take a look at that pen. Choose to believe it’s a sandwich. Not possible. Now pick up the Bible nearby. Choose to read it. Regularly. Study it. Meditate on the psalms. Worship. Trust. Love. Those are things you really can choose to do.

That’s where your freedom lies.

It’s a mystery why we sometimes believe the things we do. But it’s not a mystery why we don’t act. It’s indiscipline. It’s a heart which is seduced by other things. It’s a life in which God is not the priority he should be. And that we can choose to change. Gradually. One decision at a time.

Because when you take action repeatedly, you gain a habit. And when you gain a good habit, your beliefs are developed and strengthened and you gradually become the kind of person who loves and gives and resembles your Saviour.

Beliefs affect action, yes. But action also affects belief.

To embrace, deepen and strengthen your beliefs, take action.

Good advice? You better believe it!

© Richard Collins 2014


In the end, it’s all about power.

That’s what I’ve concluded.

Power. Ouch. Nasty word, with dark connotations, inspiring righteous anger and unrighteous envy. Perhaps it’s become a dirty word in part because we ourselves often feel so powerless. We want more but are slightly shameful in possessing such a desire. It’s so much easier and self-satisfying to judge those who use power inappropriately. Shamefully. Sinfully. One thing’s for certain the word ‘power’ triggers . . . you guessed it . . . powerful emotions.

We often ask what makes the world go round. What is it that drives us? Human beings are complex beings and it’s tempting to argue that forces such as Money or Sex or Religion are the things which drive us above all others. What about Family? The push for Freedom and Democracy? And of course, no list would be complete without Love. All important, of course, but towering over all of them is Power.

How so?

Greed is good – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

Well, let’s start with money. Money buys stuff, but to be frank, it’s not really ‘stuff’ which money buys. Sure, if you’re rich, it’s nice to motor down to Monaco in the Bentley and enjoy the sunset from the jacuzzi overlooking the Med, but money’s capacity to buy luxury isn’t the real issue. Money buys status. The BMW is a status symbol, as is the Rolex. What is status? It is a bald statement about power. Nothing more, nothing less. Status tells the world that your earning power translates to worldly power, in business, in politics, in your social sphere. The issue of power surfaces even more clearly at the other end of the spectrum. The poor can’t afford many material goods, but their problem isn’t their inability to buy a bigger and better TV. They suffer from utter powerlessness. There are those who must decide whether to pay for heating on Monday or the bus ride on Tuesday. Lack of financial resources translates to lack of power over a life. Energy devoted to survival rather than opportunity. The choice of future which the middle class take for granted is nowhere in sight.

No prospects. No freedom. No power.

So what about sex? Perhaps sex is unaffected by our longing for power. Sadly, it’s not. At university, two Second Year students I once knew made a public bet with each other in the cafeteria that they would be the first one to bed a First Year. Because they’re idiots? Well, partly. Because they think that they will earn the admiration of their peers by their sexual prowess? Undoubtedly. But why does such behaviour draw admiration? Because it’s a display of power. It demonstrates sexual potency in the crudest form possible. A male’s consummated boast that he is a sexual titan is a form of power play. It tells the women in his circle that he’s sexually powerful and just as importantly, it tells other males that he’s dominant. Due to our history of misogyny, the promiscuous woman is not viewed in the same way. Giving herself away to multiple men signals moral depravity and believe it or not, powerlessness. In stark contrast to the man, whose exact same behaviour leads to high fives among his peers in the pub? What an absurd world we live in.

And then there’s rape, a crime which makes use of sex but which has nothing to do with sex. It is the worst example of a man’s exercise of power over another human being. Repugnant in the extreme.

What about Freedom? Is the human desire to be free a greater force than Power? Well, it’s power with a different name. Power is the ability to exercise the will in a chosen direction. Unless I’m free to exercise my will, then I’m powerless. They’re so closely related they’re indistinguishable. Nowadays, we are worshipers of Freedom. Or at least the personal version known as personal autonomy. In addition, we lionize those who have fought for the freedom of others, like Martin Luther King and rightly so. However, it’s relatively easy to see what the blacks of the Deep South were lacking: Power. They had no power over their lives, due to poverty and racist practices which shame the U.S.A., a nation born from the ashes of British tyranny. (That word ‘tyranny’ was employed liberally by the framers of the American constitution and of course, it’s a word associated with Power.) Freedom is all about Power, the power to determine the course of a human life, or the course of an entire grouping of human lives.

So what of Religion? Our most fundamental beliefs about reality, which form the basis of all religions, are foundational to the way we view our significance in the world. However, the various beliefs associated with each major religion, have little to do with Religion, capital R. The Sunni-Shia divide, which is currently ripping the Middle East to shreds, doesn’t have anything to do with whether Mohammed’s son-in-law was the legitimate leader of Islam. It’s tribal. Religion is more like a historical tag assigned to show whence a particular group derives its provenance and significance. Ultimately, though, religious groups draw their contemporary significance from their projection of power. It’s not religious beliefs per se driving behaviour. It’s raw power. To survive. To defeat the enemy. To dominate a rival group.

Atheists, at this point, would argue that tribalism of this kind is simply a reflection of the underlying force which drives ALL human behaviour: the drive to survive. They have a point. And of course, in order to survive, to ensure not just one’s own survival but the survival of one’s family line, this requires the raw use of power. On this account, Survival and Power sound like two sides of the same coin, inextricably intertwined. Yet mere survival isn’t the whole story. Indeed, atheism’s primary deficit is its lack of a driving narrative beyond mere continuance of a species. As I will argue in the next blog post, that’s where Power comes into its own. Power – properly conceived – is at the heart of all the best narratives and especially the one Huge Narrative which tells the story of All Things.

So what about Family? Well, it is true that our innate human desire to ensure the propagation of our family line is immensely strong. When it comes to our kids, there is very little that we will not do to ensure their welfare. Could it be, however, that this also has to do with Power? On this one, I’m going to avoid the cynical route. I really do believe that Family is driven by Love. Yup. Good old-fashioned self-sacrificial love. Hold on, surely we’re not so virtuous. Well, no, we’re not. Pushing my own little Jimmy in front of your kid so he gets to play Right Wing ahead of your little Tony surely reveals that promoting my own family ahead of yours has again more to do with Power than self-sacrifice. And in a world of limited resources, protecting my family ahead of yours necessitates that I exert power to do so with my credit card and rather self-centred choices. That aside – and I’m somewhat undermining my argument – I think that Love, the good kind, is at the heart of why we live the way we do. Because we love our families. And that’s a good thing.

Ask any dying person, of any culture, what is most important to them as they pass on – their family. Yes, their religion to varying degrees, but above all in this world is the love of family.

So maybe Love is the dominant force in the universe. What of power?

Well, as it turns out, Love and Power are intimately related. And that’s the subject of my next blog post.

© Richard Collins 2014

Whoa, don’t go yet! Please share and share and share.

The power of sharing is a force for good. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

P.S. Time for a little humour? My latest entry called Colour-coordination.

There’s nothing wrong with watching movies


(Started over ten years ago – hence the term VCR – and completed today)

‘There’s nothing wrong with watching movies’ I said to myself as I switched off the VCR and TV after watching a rather gruesome thriller a while back. Not only did I feel dissatisfied with my argument but the movie had left a bad taste in my mouth.  I had a sense that I ought not to have been watching it, that it had damaged me inside in a way I couldn’t readily identify. I felt dirty. The after-effects of watching the movie I could not change, but my poor argument, ‘there’s nothing wrong with watching movies’ demanded more attention. How many times had I used this line of argument, confidently tossing it out there as though it were some kind of faithful talisman that would protect and justify me?

The argument is weak primarily because it denotes a defensive posture. It smacks of Garden of Eden, hand-in-the-cookie-jar reasoning. ‘You didn’t say we couldn’t …’, ‘we thought you might have meant …’ etc is relayed with the look of someone who knows they’ve been caught red-handed and is valiantly trying to justify bad behaviour. Arguing ‘there’s nothing wrong with ..’ simply reveals the inherent guilt that lies within such a person. Why? Because if there were ‘nothing wrong’, then the issue wouldn’t arise in the first place and we wouldn’t be backing into a corner. In addition, it is the argument of the person who is quite simply asking the wrong question about life. Let me explain.

In Matthew 25: 14-30 we read of the three servants who are left various talents by their master. Two of the servants use their talents well, investing their money and earning a return. One buries his. The parable teaches a number of lessons but one is to do with intentionality.  If we are asking ‘what can I do without getting into trouble?’ we are asking the wrong question. This is the position of the foolish servant who said, ‘I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground’. No, we should be asking a different question altogether. It’s found in the name of a famous book by the great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer: ‘How shall we then live?’ That is the question. The master in the parable wasn’t looking for excuses; he wanted to know what his servants had intentionally done with the gifts they had been given.

Now, I have to confess right now, that I simply love the movies. And there’s nothing wrong with watching movies. You see? I can’t stop using that phrase and I’m the one writing the article! But the place of entertainment in a believer’s life requires careful thought. There are two aspects to this which require attention. First, we need to learn to watch movies (and TV for that matter) with a careful eye to its effect on our thinking. I’d recommend a book by Steve Couch and Nick Pollard called ‘Get more like Jesus while watching TV.’ (Try to ignore a horrible use of the word ‘get’ in that title). Entertainment is saturated with worldviews (ways of interpreting the world) and learning to watch wisely requires a little effort. In some cases, a lot of effort.

Second, if we’re honest, most of us probably watch too much while creeping behind the statement ‘there’s nothing wrong with . . .’ The point isn’t that watching is wrong, it’s that we’ve lost our focus. We’re not here for very long. We’ve been given work to do. And often, we’re not doing it. No no, don’t feel guilty. Take a look in the mirror and ask for strength. Strength to make good choices. Those choices involve balancing the need for relaxation and yes, entertainment with the call of God to do his work – love others, serve, care, teach, whatever God has called you to do. And of course, prayer. Self-discipline is not just for uptight people, though the uptight keep a better eye on their use of time than others. (They’re often more judgmental too, which balances things out ;)). The fact is, we’re accountable for our use of time before God.

So, this weekend – this is posted on a Friday evening in the U.K. – go ahead and watch a movie. Watch it wisely. But be careful to evaluate your life and the gifts you’ve been given and lay them before God for his service. Most especially, ask for his help in achieving balance – the need for relaxation and the call to give yourself up for your God and others. He will give you the strength to make wise choices.




Probably a Piece of Sky


Have you ever completed a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle? You know, a panorama depicting a tranquil agricultural or maritime scene? There’s often a lot of sky, isn’t there? And almost every piece seems to be the same shape. Now imagine your jigsaw covers an entire football pitch. Every piece is a person’s life. Yours included. It’s an ocean scene, with the odd tall ship, the size of say, a ping pong ball, bobbing on the water. The vast majority is sky or sea. The pieces that make up the ships, with their colourful sails and elaborate rigging, are famous people: Leonardo, Winston, Adolf, Teresa, Paul and Caesar. You and I? We’re a piece of sky. Or sea.

The fact is, you’re not particularly special. You thought you were? Well, in reality, you’re not. You probably don’t stand out very much. You’re not the brightest or the prettiest. Nor are you the fattest or the slimmest or the fastest or the funniest. If you had never lived, your non-existence would produce no perceptible effect on the flow of human history. You are no Alexander the Great or Napoleon. You won’t ever lead a nation or paint a masterpiece. You won’t win a Grand Slam in any sport. You won’t cure a disease.

Oh, you think you’re special because God loves you? He does indeed love you very much, and he watches your every move.  Something he does for every one of the approximately 6.9 billion people on this planet. He hears your prayers and the prayers of your neighbour as well as the prayers of billions of other people from all over the world who call upon him. You’re no different to every other person on the earth who speaks to the Creator. You ask. He hears. Where’s the special in that?

When you’re gone, it’s highly unlikely that you will leave a lasting impact. Very few people do. Leonardo da Vinci, Watson and Crick, and Columbus are very rare exceptions. Extremely rare. Thomas Edison may never be forgotten, but he’s one of a very, very small group of people who can actually claim to have altered the course of human history. As for you, you will make millions of choices in your life and though you may consider them important, they will leave behind almost no effect on this world. If human history were a pond, the ripples you’re currently making are well nigh invisible.

Sometimes we console ourselves by telling ourselves that when we influence a child, we can change the course of history. Really? That’s a little grandiose, don’t you think? Entire nations have come and gone, each containing remarkable people raised by other gifted people – many more noteworthy and talented than you – yet they are forgotten. Ninth century Germany? Seventh century Mongolia? Twelfth century Spain. What is the lasting legacy of the thousands of villagers and townsfolk who lived and died in these countries? Regardless of the young lives you may have touched, the fact is, four generations from now, you and I will be little more than a line on a genealogical chart buried in the library or tucked away in a filing cabinet. Or worse. Lost in cyberspace. You are living and will continue to live a quiet life that has little effect beyond your immediate family and friends. Even if you have your 15 minutes of fame one day, by appearing on TV for some reason, you will simply join the millions who have experienced short term attention to drop back into anonymity afterwards. So, outstanding you are not.

But have you noticed something? When you’re working on a huge jigsaw – you know, one with lots of sky and sea – if a piece of sky or sea is missing, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Missing coloured pieces are easy to overlook, but sky and sea? They’re easy to spot. You will always notice a missing piece of sky.

So, you may never be famous, but you are completely unique. You are special beyond words. There is no one like you. No one. You possess a completely unique DNA structure and have done so since you were nothing more than a microscopic dot inside your mother. No one laughs like you, sings like you, cries like you. You are the only one who can run, draw, paint and dance the way you do. No one struts their stuff like you do. Your smile produces a unique effect on those whom you love. No one in your family is like you. Even if you’re an identical twin, your twin isn’t you, and that means you’re not identical at all. You’re unique. You’re the only person to possess the qualities you do. And God has no back up plan, just in case you fail. You are his first and last option for being you. There are no extra “you’s” just waiting for their chance. There is just you, living here, right now. You’re it. You produce a completely unique effect on those around you, something that no one else can produce. 6.9 billion other people currently living have no hope at all of replicating you or impacting the world the way you do.

Furthermore, Christ died for you. To save you. And if there were no other people on the planet, he would have died just for you. Almighty God, who formed the universe in a staggering burst of creative power, gave himself up and died for you. Does that make you special? Actually no. Sorry to disappoint. This is not what makes you special. It’s true that God responds to your most profound needs. For reconciliation. For restoration. But he doesn’t start with you. He starts . . . with himself.

It’s sometimes because we think we’re special that we think God expresses himself first and foremost in response to who we are.  He doesn’t. Whereas we are contingent beings, always responding to our environment and circumstances, God is contingent upon no one and no thing. When he acts, he does so out of the liberty of expressing his nature. And so he chooses to act – when he does act – in accordance with his nature and with one primary goal in focus: To demonstrate the wonders of his glory. He always, always starts with himself, because he is sufficient unto himself. He doesn’t need us at all.

We are gloriously superfluous to God. And that’s a good thing.

It is because we are not necessary that God’s decision to create us is all the more remarkable and all the more praiseworthy. God knew the cost and chose to pay it, because of the overflow of his love. We are the recipients of the extravagant love of God, brought into existence in order for our Creator to exhibit his character and share the wonders of his being. We’re special, then, for two reasons. First, because we’re made in the image of our Creator. We’re like our Father. And second, because we’re given a unique part to play in his big story. It’s the story he’s most interested in. The story is everything to him, because it’s his means of showing us who he is. And only human beings, who are made like him, can take leading roles. The rest of creation has a role, to be sure, but as bit parts compared to the central roles set apart for us. All of us. This is where our specialness is found.

It’s not found in being one of those very rare individuals who has left a lasting legacy, like Henry VIII or Galileo or Jane Austen. Neither is it based upon our appearance, our talents, our possessions, our birth or our connections. It has absolutely nothing to do with self-esteem, as though telling ourselves we’re special makes it so.  It’s based pure and simply upon the unique role we play in God’s story.

And no one can play your part. No one. No one can live your life except you. No one cares for Aunt Betty like you. No one listens to Cheryl at church who tells you about all her woes every Sunday. No one sits at the desk by the window next to Billy in class . . . except you. And no one shares their lunch with him the way you do. Except you. You make a difference in other people’s lives in a completely unique way that no one else can produce. Every choice you make, every move you make is significant, because it’s part of God’s story, and your part is essential to the whole. God chose you to be you, so that in being you, you would do a job that no one else can do. No one else has the relationships you do, and no one can love others the way you do, because no one else is you. God is counting on you to learn and grow and trust him, so that he can become increasingly known to those around you. He is in the process of changing you from being you to being “more you!” Becoming like God’s son is a glorious transformation of your soul into the person you are destined to become in relationship with your God.  Self-realization is the process not of becoming what you want to be, but the person God intends you to become. It starts and ends with the work of God.

When you become “more you,” within God’s story, when you learn to trust that God is changing you within a narrative he’s writing, then you’ll find contentment and peace. For whenever specialness is based on extraordinary human achievement – be it good or evil – it is divorced from its true source. Mother Teresa, Benjamin Franklin and Louis Pasteur aren’t special because we can see their achievements more easily than we see the achievements of others. They’re not special because they’re more gifted, brave or compassionate than others. They’re special for the same reason that we’re all special. They’re part of God’s big story. It’s true that their lives burn more brightly than most, but that doesn’t make them more important. It makes them . . . different. Every life that is lived, the good ones and the bad ones – and bad lives find no exoneration in this truth – form an essential component of the tapestry that makes up human history. There is no choice, no event that is unimportant. It is ALL important, for human lives are God’s means of expressing his character. He creates history, enters it, reveals himself within it, and wastes none of it. That so many human lives appear to be “wasted” is an illusion. We are far too close to the tapestry – indeed we are each one of its threads – to see the magnificent tableau he is creating. And yet it exists and grows day by day as he reveals ever more of himself to humankind. That such a profound truth remains largely a mystery to us should come as no surprise. What is more astonishing is that God should choose to include us in his plan at all, given that we’re rebellious creatures, unworthy of the calling he places on our lives.

So, where do you find your significance? Do you go searching for it in the faces of those you control, influence . . . and even love? Is your importance resting on the shoulders of other people? Or do you find yourself drowning in the multitudes who have gone before, aware that you’re nothing but a blip in the heartbeat of history. Whether you think too much of yourself or conversely, lose yourself in the enormity of time and space, perhaps it’s time for you to gain some perspective. Perhaps it’s time to start living in the paradoxes. So here they are:

You’re not that important. You’re not. You’re desperately important. Yes, you are. You’re just one of millions. You’re one . . . in a million. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. You’re average at most things. Yet you’re the only one who can be you. Which makes you unique.

Get used to it. Your story isn’t that important. It’s essential. To the big story. Critical, because no one else can live it, but not nearly as important as you might think. So you’re big and small. At the same time.

Because the big story, God’s story, is the only story that really counts. Not your story. His story. You’re in it. You play a vital role. But you’re not that important. He is. Your uniqueness stems only from his decision to include you in his story. It begins and ends with him. The Writer has given you a role, but he is the one who takes precedence, and you’ll only appreciate your importance, your significance when you come to see your role within the story He is writing, when you come to terms with the fact that you are probably a piece of sky. And that’s okay. For when you do, you’ll find freedom in the knowledge that significance comes not from standing out, but standing up. Playing your part. Doing your thing. Changing and growing, and helping the story along. In the right direction.

Being part of a picture with an awful lot of sky. And sea.

For the glory of the Writer.

© Richard Collins