This article is adapted for print from a sermon preached by Michael Ryan. —EDITORS
At 28 years of age Earl Weiss was dead, his body riddled with machine gun fire administered by one of Al Capone’s hit men. He’d taken his own one-way ride.
What Motivates Us?
There comes a point where each of us must define for ourselves what it means to “live big.” What are our dreams, our values? What drives us? What consumes our time, our thoughts, our energy? Whom do we hope to become? And at the end of our lives, what accounting will we give for the ways we used the opportunities we had?
Not long ago, Seventh-day Adventists identified three key values that help define who we are as a worldwide movement: unity, growth, and quality of life. These values describe our collective identity, and they help shape our plans and our use of resources—both at the local church level and internationally.
Unity: we are one family, bound closely by our faith in God, our love for His truth, and our hope in His soon coming.
Growth: we are committed to sharing with others the joy and security we have found.
But what do we mean by “quality of life”? Of these three concepts, this is the one that perhaps requires the most definition. It’s certainly not meant in the usual “consumer” sense—of accumulating the newest and best, of being “comfortable” in a material sense. Nor is it exclusively concerned with how we feel—our health, education, or personal sense of well-being.
For a Seventh-day Adventist pursuing quality of life—“living big”—means something unique. It has its roots in the fundamental principles that shape our lives—those inbuilt, often unconscious guides for how we live, which drive both the large and small decisions we make every waking moment. For an Adventist, quality of life means living with an eye toward the big picture, that cosmic drama between good and evil in which we are all players.
The prophet Micah describes God’s definition of “living big.” “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8).
Living big—pursuing quality of life—at its most basic level means a life of service. It means thinking of others first and putting their needs above our own. It means looking around us with compassion, becoming a participant in the most basic concerns of our communities. Most important, living big means placing our hearts and lives in God’s hands.
A Practical Example
Jesus told many stories about living big. One of my favorites is found in Luke 10—the story of the good Samaritan. It’s a story with which we’re familiar: a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by thieves and left for dead at the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite pass by without offering help. Then a Samaritan—a supposed “enemy”—stops and binds up the man’s wounds. He takes the man to an inn and pays for him to receive medicine and care. Through this story Jesus gives us a vivid and practical example of “living big.”
I often wonder, though, about the priest and Levite who passed by. What took them to Jericho? Why did they feel their agenda was so important that it could not be interrupted? These were not “bad” men: they were pillars of the community, important spiritual leaders. Perhaps the priest had been called on an urgent mission to minister to someone’s spiritual needs. Perhaps the Levite was on his way to fulfill some important task associated with his Temple service. But whatever it was that took them on the Jericho road, they each had priorities that kept them hurrying forward, past the bleeding, dying man. They walked past, rationalizing their actions, reminding themselves why their mission was so important.
It’s possible to be a Christian, to be a scrupulously observant Seventh-day Adventist Church member, and yet fail to fully understand Christ’s plan for “living big.” The last few verses of Matthew 5 from Eugene Peterson’s Bible paraphrase, The Message, read: “If all you do is love the loveable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
What a prescription for living big!
The pioneers of our church understood this approach to life; their stories are marked by sacrifice and service. I think of people such as Jorge Riffel, pioneer lay missionary to Argentina, and Abram LaRue, another lay member who was our first missionary to Asia. And today, throughout the world, Global Mission pioneers, missionaries, and volunteers continue to illustrate lives that are focused outward rather than inward.
When we meet someone “living big” for Christ it makes an impact. On Christmas Eve 1944 my father was a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp. As he and his friends sat together, longing for home, the door opened and one of the guards entered. The prisoners’ first instinct was fear: a visit to the barracks during the evening was unprecedented. The guard stood for a moment and began singing, in English, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.…” At the end of the song he said, “I am a Christian. Merry Christmas.” He laid a small bag of hard candy on the step and walked out the door. My father never forgot the kindness of this man who, at terrible personal risk, had tried to bring comfort to those who were his enemies.
Today, it’s not Earl Weiss’s definition of big living that counts. It’s not even about how our church defines quality of life. It’s not about the person who sits in the same pew as I each Sabbath. Each of us, individually, must define “quality of life” for ourselves. We must decide how we will use our time and resources, and how we’ll respond to the needs of people around us. Will we choose to live big only for ourselves, until we finally take that inevitable “one-way ride”? Or will we choose to live big for Christ, for eternity?
Michael Ryan is a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.