I attended the funeral of a close friend’s father yesterday. His name was Ron. Although I only spent a small amount of time around Ron, he was one of those men that a small amount of time was all you needed to know for certain that he was, in fact, a great man. By “great” I don’t mean famous, or rich, or a business tycoon. He wasn’t surrounded by models, or fancy cars, or cameras. He wasn’t loud or boisterous and didn’t live in a mansion. His greatness wasn’t the world’s greatness. And yet, as I squirmed in my uncomfortable folding chair in the back of the near standing-room-only service, the largest attended funeral in recent memory according to the preacher, I was overcome by desire to be a great man like Ron.
The world wrongly equates greatness with success-excelling in sports, stellar academic credentials, fancy colleges, high-paying jobs, fat bank accounts, successful businesses, trophy wives, powerful friendships, and the like. Kids are pressured young and early to excel in everything they do. They are pressured in athletics as if they will become professional athletes. They are pushed academically in order to become doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business owners. They are brainwashed into believing that personal possessions, wealth, power, popularity, professions and achievements are what make people great. This is a great deception, one that often leads to stress, long work hours, unhappiness, discontent, broken homes, and unfaithfulness. More is never enough. Ends begin to justify the means. The world’s greatness tears at the fabric of man.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Although Ron was successful according to many of the world’s standards, those successes were not what defined him nor were they what made him great. Two of Ron’s close friends, including the preacher from his church in which he served as a deacon, led a tear-filled memorial service that evening in the crowded, country gospel-themed venue. As the frenzied rush hour faded outside, the world hastily retreating from its daily pursuit of success, these two friends, with dampened eyes and anguished hearts, shared Ron’s greatness to reverberating Baptist “Amens.”
Many men love to lead but few truly know how to serve. Ron was both a leader and a servant. He served the Country in the Air Force. He served his wife and two children faithfully. He served his church and its members, filling firewood boxes, giving rides, caring for the sick, and scheduling tee times with friends. He led and served the church as a deacon and most recently was leading the church building campaign, including wrestling with time-intensive finance documents. He was the spiritual leader of his home, which is reflected by the powerful faith of his wife and children. And yet even these are not what made Ron a great man.
Ron’s preacher friend, with his thundering Baptist cadence struggling against emotion, eloquently and rightly described Ron’s greatness as Ron’s unwavering faith in Jesus Christ. Ron did not serve out of compulsion, nor did he lead out of any desire for power or prestige. Ron led and served because he loved Jesus, and the love of Christ filled him with love and compassion for those around him. The Spirit filled him with such happiness that his smile was ubiquitous and infectious and at all times genuine. When you were in his presence, you felt like a friend, even if you were with him for only a short time. Those around Ron were able to glimpse Jesus in their midst.
I don’t mean to over-glorify Ron. He was, after all, just a man. And, as the preacher said, all men fall short of the glory of God. But as I sat in the back of that crowded room listening to the personal stories and reflecting on my short time in his presence, I thought about my own death and wondered how I would be remembered. The preacher remarked that the important part of our lives isn’t the beginning or even the middle but is how we finish. When we get to the end, will we have lived our lives to the point where God responds, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” Matthew 25:21. Ron reached the end and there was no doubt in the room that he received that very reception. And that is what made Ron a great man.
The Lord blessed me with a long solitary ride home from Ron’s funeral, during which I quietly reflected on the fragility and fleetingness of life and what immense responsibility exists during it. When we spend the flicker of time we have chasing after the world’s greatness, the opportunity of true greatness slips away silently. Ron did not miss that opportunity, and my hope and prayer is that I don’t either. And I’m thankful for those brief moments in the presence of greatness, moments in which God reveals Himself and says, “Come, follow me.” Matthew 4:19.