Sometimes we all wonder if our lives make much of a difference. We go through the motions of work and home, the same old routine day after day, not really knowing how much of an impact we’re making on those around us.
Do our lives matter? Do they really count?
I was given a rare gift one May afternoon to see just what kind of a difference I was making. Every couple of years my church staff goes on a retreat to pray, plan and celebrate what God is doing in our church. On this special staff retreat, our leaders decided to surprise us with an experience I’ll never forget.
We had gathered in a large meeting room for what we thought was another teaching session when they began to hand out the gift bags. Each of us received one with our name on it, but we couldn’t open it until everyone had theirs in hand.
“Before you open these,” one of our leaders said, “we just want you to know how big of a difference you’re really making with your life. We’ve asked some of the volunteers you serve with, and some special people you’ve touched, to write a letter to let you know how God has used you over the years to change so many lives.”
After this set up, they told us to go ahead and open them up. Immediately, you could feel the emotion in the room swell as people recognized the names on the letters and knew the stories behind each one. It didn’t take long before people started weeping as they read these heart-felt words of encouragement.
Except for me. My bag was empty.
Now keep in mind, I serve at a big church. There were probably 80 staff at this retreat. Every one of them, seriously, EVERY one of them was having this incredible come-to-Jesus moment, and here I was holding an empty bag.
Do you remember when Charlie Brown went trick-or-treating and got rocks while all of his friends got candy? It was kind of like that, only worse.
Glad to see I was making such a difference.
Obviously there’d been a mix up. Even if I’d been the biggest loser on the planet, surely they could dig up someone somewhere to write me a letter.
The worst part, though, was figuring out what in the world I was supposed to do. Should I say something to somebody? I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad, but maybe someone got my letters by mistake. Maybe they were tearing up over words that were meant for me.
I wondered if I should start fake crying just to fit in or maybe just run out of room pretending to be overcome by sentiment. Instead I just fiddled with my cell phone.
Did I mention I was surrounded by 80 people who were coming completely undone over these touching letters? I didn’t exactly want to break the mood. But I also wanted my letters. I didn’t want them to get lost. I wanted to know what my friends had written about me.
Long story short, it turns out my letters had been left behind at the church because my slacker friends turned them in at the last minute. Eventually I got to read them and they were amazing, although it was a little anti-climactic at this point. I thought about trying to get everyone back together to cry around me to recapture the moment, but it probably would have been difficult to arrange.
I realized, though, I’d actually received a much a greater gift that day than anyone else in the room. I’d been given a glimpse of what if feels like to be left with an empty bag.
Sure, most of us will never get physical letters that measure the impact we’ve had on others, but the Bible says that we don’t need ink on paper to prove we’ve made a difference. It says that the people we love and serve are like living letters from God, not written on tablets of paper but on tablets of human hearts.
Even if no one takes the time to let you know how much you’ve meant to them, encouraged them or helped them, it doesn’t matter. Their changed lives are the evidence of your love and effort.
I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I don’t want to be left with an empty bag. I don’t want to look around at see that everyone around me wisely gave their lives away while I was too busy to care. Sure it’s not a competition, but our lives are valuable and they’re given to us to be invested in others, not to be hoarded away for our own selfish purposes. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, the lives we’ve touched will be all we leave behind.
So who has God put on your radar to pour your life into today? Maybe it’s your kids or your spouse, friends, coworkers or someone you know who just needs some kindness or love. Maybe it’s some seemingly random person God has put in your path.
Whatever it takes this week, lets live in a way that earns us some letters. Let’s take time for people. Have meaningful conversations. Be available. Make a difference. If you do, you’ll never regret it. When we give our lives away, the world gets better, our hearts get bigger, the letters pile up, and we will never be the ones left holding the bag.