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To live and die great

Learning to surrender ambition and follow Jesus day-by-day


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There’s something unsettling yet utterly ordinary about memorial services. Everybody dies: Young or old, rich or poor, one day we all meet death. Death is the last chapter of our story here on earth, which people who outlive us retell and memorialize.

Such were the thoughts in my mind after attending two memorial services in one week. One was for a 21-year-old woman named Esther Ybarra who died of cancer. The other was for a 74-year-old man named Steven Weller who also died of cancer. One died way too young, and the other also died too early but with more chapters in his life book. Both experienced the wondrous yet familiar hardships and delights of humanity: family and friends, grief and loss, marriage and children, crisis and testimonies of faith. And because of the way they walked those seasons, people gasped at the beauty and grace of Christ.

Esther Ybarra was a college student and aspiring athlete in Salem, Ore., when she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She lived the last two years of her life vowing to “live as long and fully as possible and give the most possible glory to God,” and accomplished that by demonstrating supernatural joy even in the midst of great suffering. At her memorial service, 600 people showed up, many sharing how this young woman had blessed them with her faith and trust in God.

Steven Weller was a pastor and chaplain doing front-line ministry to the homeless in Los Angeles, and he continued to help place 68 homeless individuals into housing or rehab even while nauseous and weak from cancer treatment. He died at his church still tending to the needs of others. Hundreds attended Weller’s memorial service as well, including Los Angeles Police Department officers who wept openly with other mourners and said Weller forever changed the way they do their jobs.

Sinner that I am, I went back home deeply moved and convicted, then began to feel insecure and anxious. Each day toward my 30th birthday ticked like a timer to a midterm exam, promising a progress report that would come up short. I started questioning my accomplishments: How often have I faced my own trials with joy and thanksgiving? How many times have I shared the gospel, how many people have I helped? How many people will show up at my memorial service?

So needy was I for reassurance that I texted my father, asking him what I was like as a child, fishing for affirmations that yes, indeed, I displayed signs of greatness and superior intellect even as a thumb-sucking baby. When my father refused to cooperate, I then revealed my real fear: “Do you think God will ever let me be an average person? Not do anything noteworthy? Just live an ordinary, mediocre life and then die?” My father sent back a long, sermonlike text that boiled down to Matthew 23:11: “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

I texted my father back with “OK, amen.” But in my heart I grumbled: Fine, but can’t I also be someone great with an exclamation mark? I was like Jesus’ disciples when they asked Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Of course, they (and I) weren’t truly concerned about being great in the kingdom of heaven—like some gossamer, faraway place we can’t begin to fathom—but the kingdom on earth, where accolades are audible, awards are tangible, and fame is measurable.

‘People who knew Ybarra and Weller all talked about Jesus, as though He was the main character in their life books.’

And then I thought back to the two memorial services that had moved me to tears. Ybarra never fulfilled her ambition of becoming a Division I volleyball player or a doctor. She crafted her body into a fitness masterpiece, starved herself of anything deliciously fried and sugared—and she still lost to a destructive disease. Weller was a Green Beret and a ham radio guru, then his first marriage fell apart and he struggled with alcoholism. Neither Ybarra nor Weller made mainstream news, went viral on Twitter, or fixed a systematic injustice. But they knew Jesus, experienced Jesus, talked about Jesus, and lived out Jesus, just as “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). And so people who knew Ybarra and Weller all talked about Jesus, as though He was the main character in their life books.

The Apostle Paul was in prison, cold, isolated, and forgotten, when he wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Death may seem easy and comforting to the suffering Christian who believes in a place where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain. “To live is Christ” may be more challenging—that daily, self-dying act of pursuing, imitating, and enjoying Christ.

And that’s where the magic happens: Ordinary people do extraordinary things. The seemingly invisible, everyday acts they do—praying for a friend, swallowing pride and anger when mistreated, noticing someone who usually goes unnoticed—all are precious because they reflect the most precious of all, Jesus Christ. He’s the only one who died and rose again forever, who experienced both sides of life, before and after death. So when Jesus teaches us what being “great” means, I’ll take His word for it.


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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