Not important, but significant

By Marshall Scott

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”’ Mark 13:1-2

We are a people of the Book – in our case, as much the Prayer Book as the Bible, for all that we are Biblical. More to the point, we are a people of the Word, a people for whom words have meaning, and meanings are important. I have had for some time been reflecting on two words. They are words that we use similarly, if not interchangeably. The words are “important” and “significant.”

Now, for some full disclosure: my presenting sin is pride. Although I haven’t read it in a long time, I was convicted from the first time I read Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, in which he makes the case that pride is the foremost sin, and the prerequisite for all other sins. For that matter, I don’t use the shorthand “IMHO,” because I can’t claim to be all that humble about my opinions.

So, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on the temptation to be “important.” But one day some years ago I began to think about being “significant,” and how that might be different from being “important.” I began to play with the words, and what they might mean for me.

We are surrounded by examples of what it might mean to be “important.” We hear about VIP’s – Very Important Persons – and often want to be in that category for the better treatment we think it includes. Don’t we all want to be part of the important decision, the important moment? Don’t we want to play the important role, to have the important job?

Of course, to be “important” is to have the capacity to “import.” And this is, to me, potentially problematic. After all, to import is to bring in from outside. It is to bring in, to add on our own, and not to listen, to appreciate what is already there. In my work we speak of meeting the patient without “without bringing an agenda” – that is, to refrain from importing my own stuff into the encounter. It is all too characteristic, however, for the “important” person to do just the opposite, and to come in to bring an agenda, sometimes to the point of taking over. After all, the capacity to import is the capacity to insert – to insert oneself, to insert one’s own purposes.

There are other words that aren’t related to “important” by etymology, and are yet related often in our usage. An important person can also be “imposing;” but that also suggest that the important person might impose upon others. An important person might be “impressive;” but there is more than one means of or consequence of “making an impression.” After all, most impressions happen by force, whether one is shaping pottery or printing a card.

In all these cases there is at least the implication of someone or something applied from outside to a circumstance; and with that there is the implication that it expresses power, if not brute force. It’s no wonder that we can be tempted with the thought of being VIP’s.

On the other hand, there is for me a different connotation to being “significant.” To be significant, and to signify, is to point beyond oneself. To signify is to represent, not oneself, but something or someone beyond oneself. It goes beyond making a sign to being a sign. Of what, of whom am I a sign? Whom or what do I present or re-present? It is an expression of service and humility to signify, for it is an act that points beyond myself toward something or someone else more meaningful.

Of course, you know where I’m going with this. I think we are called as Christians not to be important, but to be significant. We are called not to bring our own agendas, but the agenda of Another, of one who is certainly more meaningful.

That is certainly what we have heard from Jesus. We’ve heard it again and again in the Gospel lessons of these past few weeks. Each time he is confronted with something or someone the world deems as important or impressive or imposing, he calls his followers to a different standard. Whether he speaks of being servants instead of tyrants, of scribes who devour widows’ houses, or of getting camels through the eyes of needles, he proclaims that what is “important” will fall, as surely and as dramatically as the imposing stones of the Temple.

Instead, he calls us to be significant, and specifically to signify him and his work in the world. It is he who calls us and sends us out. He speaks of us acting in his name. He points out that the world will see us in light of him. We are to be visible, tangible signs of his presence in the world.

I’m one of those people who always seem to have a lot going on. I keep trying to convince folks I’m not a workaholic. I talk about setting limits, and then have to admit that it would be easier to set limits on my commitments if folks wouldn’t ask me to do things I thought worth doing. The temptation is always there to be important, to be impressive – in short, to live into pride.

So, I return again to a distinction that I think has great meaning. We are not called to be important, but to be significant. We are called to point beyond ourselves and to demonstrate Jesus. We are called to bring his agenda, and not our own – his agenda to receive and love and redeem the agendas of others. We are not called to import or to impress, much less to impose. We are called to be significant: to signify Christ’s presence in the world, and Christ’s agenda of service and healing, of wholeness and reconciliation for all.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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