The night before I got married, my father gave me the wisest counsel of my adult life.
“The world will call you to a larger stage,” he said, “but I counsel you to seek the smaller stage of home and family.”
As I watch yet another series of scandals regarding infidelity and dishonesty unfold in the news, I am reminded of the virtues of that smaller stage.
Years ago, I tackled the entire reign of the kings in the Old Testament. Starting with the rise of Saul to king of the Israelites, I read about Saul, David and Solomon. They were each anointed by God and given remarkable promises because they were good men — the best of men.
Yet in time, each fell prey to the world’s temptations. Saul went crazy. David — who grew from a wise shepherd on a hillside to penning some of the most beautiful passages of scriptures — would go on to commit adultery and murder. Wise Solomon with his magnificent temple fell out of favor in God’s eyes for worshipping false gods.
What went wrong? They were entrusted with too much wealth, fame and power. The Lord had warned the Israelites of this. To carry the weight of a monarchy is to give a person too much prestige.
The pursuits of power, wealth and fame are as old as Eden. They are delicious and so enticing. I don’t think it’s for purely selfish reasons. We each come out of a unique mold. We want to make an imprint — a marker in the wet cement of life that says, “I lived.” It’s natural to desire attention and appreciation on that larger stage. And let’s be honest: We have good intentions. We think that given wealth or fame we will open our arms wide as eternity and give to others, at least once our own thirst is quenched.
The idea of fame has taken on a new meaning in the 21st century. You certainly don’t have to run off to Hollywood to seek notoriety. You can be famous on Twitter, a blog or YouTube. You can self-publish a best-selling novel and upload a personal composition to iTunes. You can live a life of anonymity, and then walk onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and become the next big thing.
It's no wonder that when I ask my kids what they want to be when they grow, they hitch the word “famous” to their dreams: They want to be famous movie-makers, famous rock stars, famous basketball players and famous Harvard professors. Like most red-blooded Americans, they’ve seen that glittering fame is just a click away.
Yet there are few people who run the gauntlet of fame and come out unharmed. Child actor has become synonymous with troubled life. We’re pleasantly surprised when a politician hasn’t been unfaithful to his or her spouse. Time and again we see the “great” men and women of the world fall from grace.
Life’s small stage is not perfect. We all have to fight ego and pride. Yet there is virtue in finding meaning and purpose as a spouse, neighbor, community volunteer or friend. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” the author takes a fictitious bus ride through heaven and hell. In heaven, Lewis sees a glorious procession coming toward him. Giant beings filled with light scatter the path with flowers, followed by children and animals dancing and singing. Behind them is a radiant woman.
The narrator, believing he is seeing someone famous, turns to his guide in excitement.
“’Is it? ... Is it?’ I whispered to my guide.’
“’Not at all,’ he said. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived on Golders Green.'
“‘She seems to be well, a person of great importance?’
“’Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’”
This is the grounding reality. Fame in heaven and fame on Earth are quite different things. My grandparents never graced the cover of Time Magazine, but they were remarkable people, beloved by their posterity. They lived great lives on the small stage of home and family. I would not be surprised if there were indeed great processions in heaven for the good people of the Earth.
The key for this mortal journey is to pursue joy, meaning and virtue on whichever stage we live.