The purpose of influence is to “speak up for those who have no influence.” (Pr.31:8)

It’s not about you.” ―Rick Warren

I remember sitting at the cold hard desk tucked away in an historic university building. We were studying the impact of visual media on society. We watched and debated everything – and always came to the conclusion that even the best could have been slightly better, if only. And we were always included in that “if only” piece of the conversation. We with the big dreams and the unique perspectives, we with the lessons learned from the mistakes of those who went before us, we with the plan to make a true impact on the world.

Careers would soon be launched, and we would find ourselves living out the reality of those dreams and lessons and big plans. For most of us, the road wouldn’t be as straight as the map we had drawn and the acclaim wouldn’t be as great. In fact, few of us would become famous by the standards of our culture, despite our bullet-proof plans and hard work. Our “if only” thoughts about impacting the world would turn inward. If only I had a platform, or if only I could get my ideas in front of the right people, or if only I lived somewhere else or did something else or knew someone else.

If I could, I would hold that college girl’s hand and walk with her to little known places to meet little known people who are doing amazing things most of us will never witness, and I would tell her these two essential things:

1. Big does not equal significant – but significant always equals big.

The statistics are pretty dismal when it comes to global fame. Only about 1 in a million people in the world will rise to that status. The rest of us might experience some form of notoriety at some fleeting moment in our lives – but few of us will ever know what it’s like to be known by everyone.

But do we really need to be big to be significant, to be a change-agent, to influence society or culture or people groups?

In Texas, hundreds of kids have received college educations and established successful careers because of the work of one woman. She advocates tirelessly on behalf of the disenfranchised, donates daily to the poor, and has been invited to sit on boards for local charities because of her road-tested wisdom. She’s quietly cleaned up low-income neighborhoods, working to have crack houses shut down so kids will be safer. Awards are displayed on the shelves of her library, and she smiles at the thought of being honored for her work. “This is what God has put on my heart to do,” she says. “and I’ll keep working until the day I take my last breath.”

Yes, there’s a woman in Texas who is doing significant things. But to meet her, you’d have to drive to her home. You see, she doesn’t own a car, so she relies on the kindness of others (and a moderately decent public transportation system) to get her from one place to another. That neighborhood she’s cleaned up? It’s her own – the only place she could afford to live when she moved from Illinois years ago. She doesn’t have a degree or hold a steady job, and most of the items she uses to raise funds and care for the people she serves are things others might easily toss in the trash. “People throw away perfectly good things, just because they’re not fancy enough or not new enough. They’ll even throw away brand new things because they got a bigger brand new thing,” she shares. “But God knows how to take all things and make them beautiful for someone. He’s just waiting for us to let Him show us how to use them right.”

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2. Fill the space you’re in.

“I could have moved from this place a long time ago,” the woman from Texas smiles and says. “I’ve had people promise me all sorts of great things or tell me that I could make something more of myself and never have to worry again about where the money will come from to care for the kids and pay the bills. But this is where I’m most useful.”

I’ve learned a great deal from the woman from Texas. She’s taught me about poverty and systemic oppression in society. She’s taught me about the importance of giving, even when I think the gift is too small to count for much. And the most important lesson she’s taught me is this: fill the space you’re in. Rather than filling her time with “if only” wishes, she lives her life fully in the midst of her circumstances. “There’s a purpose in us being in this place for this time,” she says. “If I am going to trust God with my life, that means I trust Him with where my life is right now. And it means I make sure I’m doing the most with this life right now.”

That 20-something woman who wanted to change the world would have looked at the woman from Texas and said, “Just think of how much MORE you could do if you would just build your platform and leverage your expertise. You could make a REAL impact on this world, you know.”

And that woman from Texas would gather up the hundreds of kids with the degrees and careers who would then gather up hundreds more kids with degrees and careers. The countless homeless men and women who have found respite in her home would join those kids. The elderly in her community would be there too – the ones she has fed and clothed and kept warm every winter. Law enforcement officials would stand by her side, along with folks she has influenced for the good over the years.

She would look at the 20-something me and say, “I’m doing just fine, thanks.”

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”  – Robert Kennedy