“Coach, I want to be part of something bigger than myself.” Josh Bartelstein, a senior captain on the 2013 University of Michigan national runner-up basketball team, wrote a blog for several years about his experiences as a walk-on at the U of M.
In his last entry of the Bartelstein Blog on April 11, 2013, Josh wrote, “I will never forget the day I first talked to John Beilein. I was walking to the cafeteria at Phillips Exeter, and I knew I needed to make a good pitch to get Coach B to want me at Michigan. We started talking and he asked me ‘Why Michigan? Why turn down scholarship offers? Why turn down guaranteed playing time to come to a place where nothing was guaranteed?’ He thought he got me, but I responded, ‘Coach, I want to be a part of something bigger than myself.’ There was no response, just silence on the phone. I knew I got Coach B and from there a dream, a fairytale for four years, started!”
Advent is a time when we realize our deep yearning to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a longing to believe that our small life is a critical puzzle piece in God’s larger plan for the healing and salvation of our world. Every individual who played a role in the birth of Jesus, from Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary and Joseph, to Simeon and Anna, to the shepherds and the magi, said “yes” to God, convinced that they were part of something much greater than themselves.
This year software developer Brad Lyon and designer Bill Snebold created an immensely popular interactive map of births and deaths in our world. https://googledrive.com/host/0B2GQktu-wcTicEI5VUZaYnM1emM/
You’ll be amazed how you can see in real time where and when people die and babies are born around the globe. Our own life is but a blip in the universe. In our world there is an average of 4.3 births and 1.8 deaths every second. The global birth rate exceeds the death rate by more than two to one right now, and the population of our world is projected to increase by 44% by 2050.
There is nothing more indicative of our “smallness” in this world than the mystery of life and death. Yet our God-given desire to be a player in something larger than ourselves empowers us to participate in God’s work in ways we never dreamed possible.
When our children were small we took them to Radio City Music Hall in New York City for the Christmas Spectacular. The sights and sounds of this magnificent performance transfixed our children. Imagine our surprise, then, when the show ended with the Christmas story and a live nativity scene. The tableau remained as the words of a short essay were read, One Solitary Life, written by Dr. James Allen Francis of First Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1926.
He was born in an obscure village,
The child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty.
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never went to college.
He never visited a big city.
He never traveled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born.
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness.
He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty-three.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing,
The only property he had on earth.
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of humankind’s progress.
All the armies that have ever marched,
All the navies that have ever sailed,
All the parliaments that have ever sat,
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of humankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.
I will never forget how I felt when I heard those words. If Jesus was born to a solitary peasant woman who agreed to participate in something bigger than herself. If the disciples were willing to give up their insignificant lives to follow this man by loving their neighbors. If Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used their small lives to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. If John Wesley, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Thomas Merton claimed the power of the Holy Spirit to convict, convert, serve, and inspire, then perhaps God can use me, too.
What are you going to do with your one life? Do you want to be part of something bigger than yourself? Do you believe that God has a place for you on the interactive map of this planet during Advent of 2013?
Josh Bartelstein and the Michigan Wolverines lost the final game of the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament. He wrote, “I knew I had about five minutes before the media came in, and I sat in my chair with tears running down my face and a towel over my head. I pinched myself one last time, this time hoping I was dreaming, but the moment was real. My story was coming to an end, twenty-three years’ worth of basketball, twenty-three years of my life being dedicated to a sport I loved. Then I remembered this is so much bigger than me, bigger than my whole family contingent, bigger than us fifteen, bigger than our program. This is for the University of Michigan.”
If desiring to be a part of something bigger than ourselves is what drives sports fans, how much more does our life in Christ determine our values, principles, and actions? I pinch myself every day, amazed I that get to represent Jesus as his disciple, just as Mary must have felt after encountering the angel Gabriel. Can this be real? Can God use a walk-on like me? Can my one solitary, insignificant life actually be a critical part of the working out of God’s purposes in the world? Could it be that my life is not about me at all?
How will you choose to be a part of building God’s kingdom during this Advent season? Will you participate by holding the light, keeping alive the dream, living as Christ would live, and allowing the Spirit to guide your life? Are you willing to wait, risk, fear, suffer, and give all? Will you do it by simply showing up and being present to others in God’s frightful, wonderful, dangerous, and grace-filled world?
When you realize that your one solitary life is given to you by God as a precious gift, you can make a difference anywhere you happen to be. You do it by tapping into a power much bigger than yourself: on the basketball court, at Radio City Music Hall, at school, in the soup kitchen, or on the city streets. When you align yourself with God’s purposes, your one solitary life can indeed change the world. All you have to do is say, “Here I am, Lord.”