T IS, IN THE END, A TRUTH WE CHRISTIANS SETTLE into: our greatest power comes through our anonymity.
A hundred quiet illustrations have made it clear that we often best serve Jesus Christ through our anonymous daily routine of living a Christian life at home, in the workplace, or in the community--without the need for public recognition, adulation, notice, or attention from anyone. Most of the success we will achieve in our lives will result from our excellence in doing anonymous tasks well.
It is not what the world urges on us, for our dictionaries define anonymity as the quality or state of being unknown or unacknowledged. When we look at a hymnbook and see the word Anon., we know that we dont know who wrote the tune or lyrics. We all dislike anonymous letters, and file them where they can do no further damage. We disdain anonymous phone calls, especially from telemarketers who seem prone to disrupt our evening meals even though we dutifully enrolled our names on a Do Not Call list.
Richard Foster, the contemporary Quaker author known for his writing about spiritual disciplines, reminds us of the importance of anonymity in a celebrity culture that prizes getting noticed above all else. Foster rightly describes such self-seeking as nothing more than a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. It is mindless and runs against the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ.1
Why dont Christians need the attention and the recognition our culture teaches us to seek? Because we know that we are loved and valued by Jesus Christ, and that is, in Fosters words, wholly sufficient.
We are therefore free to live our lives quietly and profoundly. We are at ease in our hiddenness. We have no need for attention because we have learned to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.
To be important from a kingdom perspective we do not have to be the biggest, the best, or the most innovative. We simply do our work faithfully with all our might and we leave the rest in the hands of God. (Its a good place to be, you know.)
In my ministry I work especially with and for college students. Im moved by the students who quietly and diligently study without any recognition until grades are received, for they can take a special satisfaction in serving Jesus through the hiddenness of their study. When such students serve others--fellow classmates, a brother or sister, a grandparent, or a complete stranger, they dont require a word of thanks because their satisfaction comes from knowing that they have served Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, through these simple acts. Dormitory students, no longer as accountable to parents for how they live their daily lives, choose service to Jesus Christ without external pressure, and I am profoundly proud of them. When they graduate, many will start in entry-level jobs completely lacking in glamour, sometimes wondering if all the college classes they took and the debt they incurred will yield a good result. Its part of my job to remind them that their faithfulness in the small, unrecognized tasks will lay the foundation for a future of usefulness.
Examples abound in the lives of those already engaged in their chosen careers. Most of us have discovered as we matured and pursued our professional goals that much of our time was not spent in a public role but in the anonymous preparation for entering that arena. In His time God calls on the leadership abilities He has placed in us, and may call us to roles that have higher public recognition. Richard Foster reminds us that if we find ourselves in such a situation, it is a grace to receive, it is a call to serve, it is a cross to bear. . . . We lead only as we follow . . . follow our Master who leads without guile. At whatever stage of life we are, and whatever kind of work we do, our best service is always given to Jesus Christ under the cloak of anonymity.
The apostle Paul had met believers of just this kind in the church at Thessalonica:
We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 1:3, NIV).
Scripture tells us many stories of persons who found such deep security in relationship with God that they didnt require the customary limelight. We know their stories, their work, their witness; we do not know their names.
The unknown Samaritan woman at the well;
The demon-possessed man whom Jesus commissioned as a missionary;
The boy who gave his lunch of loaves and fishes;
The dying thief who spoke such words of faith;
The three Magi who traveled far to find Jesus.
Helen Keller once wrote:
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but my chief duty is to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
Reclaiming Christlike anonymity doesnt mean that we shouldnt feel valued and important when we do the Lords work, or that we shouldnt thank the ones who serve us. As He made clear in many parables, Jesus values honest, faithful labor, and so should we.
How can we foster the power of anonymity? Here are three examples.
Delighted in DallasFive years ago I helped to organize the largest gathering of Seventh-day Adventist educators in the history of our church. Sixty-five hundred teachers, family members, and exhibitors gathered in Dallas, Texas, for the North American Division K-12 Teachers Convention. When our convention ended, the manager of the Adams Mark Hotel, where we were headquartered, conducted an exit interview with our organizing team to review strengths and weaknesses relating to our stay in that hotel.
We had been perfect guests, he told us, and they would like us to stay there permanently. He was particularly caught, however, by the ways in which our stay had helped to build a service culture among some of the most anonymous employees of the hotel--the hourly housekeeping staff and bellmen. Our teachers who stayed in the hotel made a habit of regularly thanking the housekeeping staff for their excellent work. The bellmen also were surprised when an anonymous teacher brought them a plate of cookies (with a choice of chocolate or nuts) in appreciation for the quality of their service.
What Turned Up in Portadown
In 1895 a little-known American evangelist named Pastor Hutchinson conducted Adventist evangelistic meetings in Portadown, Northern Ireland. After preaching for several months, which was common for evangelistic series in those times, he had only four converts. According to the story, he thought himself a failure, returned home to America, left the ministry, and died two and a half years later.
Who were his converts? Two were a local baker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Joyce, parents of a 2-year-old daughter named Rachel. Two years before the arrival of the evangelist an anonymous literature evangelist had sold them a copy of Bible Readings for the Home Circle. Many years after the baptism of her parents, Rachel married Arthur S. Maxwell, author of 112 books, and known as Uncle Arthur for his Uncle Arthurs Bedtime Stories and the 10-volume Bible Story. Among their six children were several who served the church for decades, including their youngest, Malcolm Maxwell, my predecessor at Pacific Union College.2
The other two converts were a Mrs. Keough and her 16-year-old son, George. George became the first Adventist missionary to Egypt, where his son, Arthur, was born, along with two other children. Arthur and his wife, Dora, had four children. Two became pastors, and another, an educator, married a university president. Another child, Marjory, married Bernard Seton, whose long leadership career included serving as British Union president and associate secretary of the General Conference. Of their two children, one served the denomination as a pastor.3
A fourth-generation pastor is among the great-grandchildren of George, the original convert.
Lacking the long view, we may get discouraged with the results of our efforts, and think of either our labors or ourselves as failures. But anonymous individuals engaging in anonymous acts will never know the true results of their labor until they get to heaven.
The Cheerful Toll Collector
Toll collectors are some of the most anonymous people in the world. They breathe car fumes all day long and deal with people who dont like paying tolls. Recently, at Pacific Union College, we decided to honor a toll collector from the Carquinez Bridge, a bridge all must cross on Interstate 80 to get from the Napa Valley to Oakland or San Francisco.
Russ Sweeden, head toll collector for the seven Bay Area bridges administered by Caltrans, came to our campus with James Miller, known among his supervisors as the cheerful toll collector. Perhaps the fact that both of these men are active Christians (Sweeden is a Nazarene, and Miller is an ordained Baptist minister) provides meaning for their anonymous work. Almost 143 million cars pass over the seven bridges each year, with a daily average of 384,000.
When asked how he found meaning in his anonymous job, Miller responded, Its a new adventure every day. I get to meet and greet people from all over the world and all walks of life. Knowing that I carry out a service in helping and interacting with people gives me the satisfaction of doing this work.
Miller suggests that next time you pay a toll, give a cheerful, encouraging word of appreciation for the anonymous work such employees do.
As you read this, you are already thinking of employees who work selflessly behind the scenes in your world--cleaning and maintaining the building, organizing the mailings, cooking the food, typing the letters, or providing security. Have you gone out of your way to thank them for their work?
Ten Ways to Practice an Anonymous ThanksgivingBeyond our work and family responsibilities, there are many things we can do anonymously that will move the cause of Christ forward and bring some joy to those for whom He died. Consider these possibilities:
At the next tollbooth, pay for the car behind you.
Send a thank-you letter to a teacher you once had, letting him or her know the difference he or she made in your life.
Ask an older person to tell you a story about his or her youth.
Order a mail-order gift, anonymously, for a friend or coworker.
Give another driver your parking spot.
Let someone merge ahead of you on the freeway. Smile. Wave at them.
Write a note to the boss of someone who has helped you, thanking him or her for employing such a quality person.
Buy a box of groceries and leave it on a doorstep in a neighborhood where its needed.
Praise the work or attitude of a coworker to someone else in the office.
Write a note to the owner of a house or garden in your neighborhood whose beauty gives pleasure.4
The self-seeking we are born with will not disappear from our lives quickly or without a struggle. In order to maintain satisfaction from anonymous service, prayer will almost certainly be needed.
Mary Gordon has written a prayer for those whose work is invisible.
For those who paint the underside of boats, makers of ornamental drains on roofs too high to be seen; for cobblers who labor over inner soles; for seamstresses who stitch the wrong side of linings; for scholars whose research leads to no obvious discovery; for dentists who polish each gold surface of the fillings of upper molars; for sewer engineers and those who repair water mains; for electricians; for artists who suppress what does injustice to their visions; for surgeons whose sutures are things of beauty. For all those whose work is for Your eyes only, who labor for Your entertainment, or their own, who sleep in peace or do not sleep in peace, knowing that their effects are unknown.
Protect them from downheartedness and from diseases of the eye.
Grant them perseverance, for the sake of Your love, which is humble, invisible and heedless of reward.5
In Gods bright tomorrow the anonymous will be nameless no longer, for God Himself will give them a new name (Rev. 2:17) symbolic of their new status. His name (Rev. 22:4) will be written upon them also, claiming them as His children. Their faithful anonymity will then result in special recognition from the only One whose opinion really matters in the end.
1 This statement and those that follow come from Richard Foster, Growing Edges, Renovare, vol. 11, no. 2 (April 2001).
2 Arthur and Rachel Maxwell had six children. Maureen Maxwell (eldest) was the first Seventh-day Adventist to earn a doctorate in nursing (Columbia Union College [CUC]) and the first dean of the graduate school of nursing at Loma Linda University [LLU]). Graham earned his doctorate at Chicago in New Testament, authored several books, served as chair of the Religion Department here at Pacific Union College (PUC) and as chair of the division of religion at LLU (now retired). Mervyn received his doctorate in Church History at Chicago, wrote several books, pastored several churches, served as chair of the Church History Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (died in 1999). Lawrence pastored various churches, was the first editor of Junior Guide (continued for 18 years), edited Signs of the Times (13 years), edited Primary Treasure and Our Little Friend, wrote several books, and edited the Pathfinder Field Guide (now retired). Malcolm earned his doctorate in New Testament, pastored several churches, was on the faculty of Union College (UC) and Walla Walla College (WWC), was vice president for academic affairs at WWC, president of PUC (now retired). Deirdre started as one of the librarians at PUC, married and raised a family, was employed at St. Helena Hospital (now retired). All graduated from PUC with bachelor degrees; two also earned a masters at PUC as well.
3 Arthur and Dora Keoughs children include Gillian, married to Larry Geraty, president of La Sierra University (LSU); PUC church associate pastor Norma, married to Richard Osborn, president of PUC; and Alger, administrative pastor of the Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, with prior service as the senior pastor of the Atholton (Md.), Lansing, Battle Creek (Mich.), and Hinsdale (Ill.) churches. Normas son, Trevan, is currently being sponsored to the SDA Theological Seminary, at Andrews University to be a pastor in the Potomac Conference. Marjorys son, Gerard, has been a pastor and currently works in the Treasury Department of Rocky Mountain Conference.
4These suggestions come from various advocates that we should practice random acts of kindness.
5 Six Prayers, by Mary Gordon, in God Is Love: Essays From Portland Magazine, Brian Doyle, ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2003), pp. 29, 30.
Richard Osborn is president of Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.