Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the US, and I'm thinking about heroes. People who take extraordinary measures, overcome odds, change the world, and are remembered forever. Do you want to be one of those men and women? Why or why not?
Americans are raised to think they can make a difference. The generation one up from mine - the Baby Boomers - are sometimes defined by their search for significance, their desire to change the world.
It's not universal. Few have as much sense of personal power as Americans do; most people don't really believe their lives can be anything special. Many in my generation and the one that follows are a little skeptical about Boomer ambitions, or that we, ourselves, can accomplishing things that will really last.
Yet still I find this deep desire to make my life count for something - and a fear that it will not.
The other day some friends and I were talking about the Moravian missionaries who sold themselves into slavery in order to reach out to slaves.
It's easy to admire such behavior from a distance, but when it comes down to it we don't live like that, do we? Our ministries tend not to be so extreme. "It's hard to answer your cell phone when you're chained to an oar," my co-workers and I joked. "If you sold yourself into slavery how would you get your newsletters out?" we said.
The other problem is that you never know if your heroics will actually work. If you knew that by doing this, you'd rescue a child, or that, you'd save a village, maybe you would do it. Probably you would. Especially if it was your child, or your village. But it's seldom so unambiguous. There may be a good chance that your sacrifice could just make things worse, or be simply wasted. What do you do then?
One of the guys mentioned Patrick Fung, the international director of OMF International. He spoke at the recent Urbana conference. Patrick wrote a little booklet called Live to Be Forgotten. It's a reflection on the life of D.E. Hoste, the second director of the China Inland Mission, whom Fung says "lived to be forgotten that Christ might be remembered."
This guy led the CIM for 35 years. Bet you've never heard of him. I hadn't, and I'm a CIM fan. Hoste wasn't the obvious pick to succeed Hudson Taylor, the founder of the mission (and yes, an uncle by marriage. Hoste married Amelia's oldest girl).
But the man being grooming for the position had just been killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Taylor's admin guy might have been given the job, but he really didn't have the people skills or strategic ability for it. So Taylor, sidelined by a stroke, appointed 39-year-old, 15-year-veteran D.E. Hoste as acting director, eventually handing the reins over entirely. Hoste tried to reject it, only reluctantly accepting that he might be the right choice. But once he did he poured himself into it, leading the ministry through some very difficult times (both in China and in the West) into growth and stability.
He was a very humble man and never became famous, as some of his friends did. He was one of those who are faithful to their calling but not so much remembered. Everyone wants to be like Hudson Taylor (his predecessor) or C.T. Studd (his one-time teammate, a famous cricket player, and later the founder of WEC International). Everyone admires the pioneer. The Martin Luther King or the Nelson Mandela. Being one of the nameless group who also served doesn't sound so romantic.
Are we willing to pay such a price? It seems a small thing to ask: serve but never get the credit. And yet, it goes against the grain, doesn't it?
As Jim Collins says in 'Good to Great,' it's that approach to leadership, a self-effacing, open-handed, empowering of others, that brings so many groups of people gathered around a cause (any cause) from doing good work to doing great work.
What do you think? Can we serve without reward? Can we live to be forgotten? In Hoste's case his motivation was that Jesus get the glory for everything. He didn't want to get in the way of that greater good.