I enjoy reading the inspirational quotes that appear on church marquee signs. They are often entertaining; one caught my attention last week. It said, “Let your life be guided by greatness.” It’s a very compelling quote. It reminded me of a recent news article about an elementary school that was recognized for its accomplishments.
Shamrock Gardens Elementary is in a poor section of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District. It had a long history of poor performance, high turnover of staff and failing grades by students. Recently, it was recognized by the business group BEST NC for its tremendous success at improving the performance of the school.
The President of the business group wrote an article praising the school for its “core business principles,” which made the school a success at “developing employees, creating clear career paths for leaders, and adapting their delivery of services based on data to meet ever-changing needs.” (1) The business group was very impressed by the school administration’s commitment to being guided by greatness (as the inspirational quote instructs).
The article praising the school left out one, important aspect of the school’s successful effort to improve the quality of education provided to its students. The major influence in the school’s success story was parent involvement. Several years ago, a few parents decided to create a sense of close community among the families whose children attended the school. After a long process of encouraging parental involvement, the school’s administration was able to implement the practices praised in the business group’s article. (2)
The involvement of parents and grandparents had a direct impact on the variety and quality of educational experiences. The sense of community, and the parental involvement it engendered, has continued even after the original group of students and parents have aged out of the elementary school program.
The school’s success was not entirely the result of best business practices, or a commitment to greatness. Rather, it was the result of a socially diverse group of families who committed to working together for a goal greater than their own self-interests.
The author of the Second Letter of Peter had this same idea in mind when he wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:16)
The ancient world was full of “cleverly devised myths” that pagan religions used in order to promise people greatness in life. The Gospel message promises none of this. Jesus’ teaching, his life and death, are not examples of the usual definition of greatness in life. The Gospel instructs us to give up our self-interest, our pretensions to greatness, and give ourselves over to something greater than ourselves.
Today’s feast, the Transfiguration of the Lord, is an illustration of Jesus’ preaching. On the mountain Jesus appeared transfigured. Moses and Elijah appeared as witnesses to his vocation as God’s chosen one. God’s own voice declared Jesus to be beloved of God and the source of salvation for all people. (Matthew 17:5) The disciples would never have recognized this on their own. Only God’s voice could reveal that Jesus was much more than anyone imagined him to be.
The truth proclaimed by the Gospel is illustrated in Christian community as well. On a fairly regular basis the parish office receives calls and letters from people who express deep gratitude for the Ministers of Holy Communion who visit the hospital, the homebound and the nursing homes. Bringing Holy Communion to someone who is sick or homebound might seem like a small thing, but for people who feel isolated by illness or infirmity, those Ministers to the sick are a living connection to the wider Church community. The mutual support that church members provide to one another is a clear example of what it means to serve that which is greater than oneself.
Jesus never promised greatness to anyone. (Matthew 20:23) Nor did he instruct his disciples to aspire to greatness. (Matthew 23:10-12) According to Jesus, real greatness results from putting God’s will above all else (including, and in particular, above one’s self). (Matthew 18:4) Those who follow Jesus are distinguished by their commitment to what is greater than themselves.
In the last analysis, each of us makes a choice. We choose either to serve our own greatness or to serve that which is greater than us. The first choice takes us no further than our own wants and needs; the second choice brings us directly to God.
Serving others, even in simple acts of charity, always leads us to God. This is the case because any act of charity to benefit another person is an act that moves us out of ourselves, out of our self-concern, and into a place where we can hear God’s voice and know God’s will. Real greatness in life is not an aspirational value; rather, real greatness in life results from pursuing God’s will above all else.
(1) Brenda Berg, “Shamrock Gardens Elementary School: A Blueprint for Educator Innovation,” https://www.ednc.org/2017/07/17/shamrock-gardens-elementary-school-blueprint-educator-innovation/ (July 17, 2017).
(2) Valerie Strauss, “The real story of how a North Carolina school became a success story,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/07/25/the-real-story-of-how-a-failing-north-carolina-school-became-a-success-story/?utm_term=.a1f0ce37aa85 (July 25, 2017).