“My New Year’s resolution is to be more like Leslie Knope.”
That popped up on my feed today as a “Facebook memory” that Facebook totally “cares about.” I wrote that particular update in the final days of 2013 and it took me a minute to remember what exactly I meant by it.
I know who Leslie Knope is, of course: the fictional deputy director of the (also fictional) Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department, as played by Amy Poehler on the television show Parks and Recreation. But why did I want to be like her? (A certain type of person can just skip the rest of this article and comment, “Shouldn’t you want to be like Jesus instead???” while feeling ironically superior. You know who you are.)
At this point, I’ve seen every single episode of the now-retired sitcom, so I don’t remember exactly what was going on plot-wise in 2013. I do know that, by then, the writers had shifted Leslie from someone who looked up to all strong female role models (from Condi Rice to Margaret Thatcher to Madeleine Albright) without political distinction to an uber-liberal with a crush on Joe Biden. So that wasn’t it.
As far as her values in life, Leslie was largely defined by her conviction that government should be given more and more money and power so as to be able to carry out increasingly large public projects—some necessary, some completely superfluous. So that wasn’t it either.
Of course, one of the character’s most laudable qualities was that she worked tirelessly and energetically toward her goals. As someone who occasionally struggles with this (but always wants my excessive energy to be channeled into productivity), perhaps I was connecting with that aspect of the character. But probably not.
I mean, there are more appropriate role models in that regard for a guy like me: John Piper, Al Mohler (Ted Kluck and I once featured a cartoon of Moehler with six arms, simultaneously blogging, preaching, broadcasting, writing, etc. in one of our books), or the late Billy Mays (if you overlook all the cocaine). Heck, even if I was going to limit myself to the cast of Parks and Rec, Rob Lowe’s character is at least as amped up about his work as Leslie.
Was it about maintaining intensity when things get mundane? That would be an admirable resolution. But I’m more likely to look up to someone like Dave Ramsey if that’s the concern. Not for his fat stacks of cash, but for his unyielding zeal for his message. I mean, seriously, how can that guy still shout “I love it!” with full enthusiasm on the 200,000th “debt-free scream” call? But it wasn’t Ramsey or Mohler or Mays, was it? Nope. It was Knope.
And then it hit me: what I love about the deputy director. Leslie Knope has big dreams—a little over the top, in fact—which is one thing that makes her so endearing. She can see herself one day working in Washington, rubbing shoulders with Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein (spoiler alert: she eventually does), but while she’s running that parks department, her attention, her passion, and her heart aren’t set on that “bigger stuff” down the road. They’re right in Pawnee, right in the moment.
There’s nothing in her character that views her present assignment in the local government of a dinky Midwestern town, known only for its staggering rate of Diabetes, as a stepping stone. The people there are not means to an end and she isn’t doing her work well so that one day she can do something else. She’s where she wants to be, because this is where she is, and this is where she can do some good right now. Some day she might overhaul the entire National Parks program, but today, she’s going to work toward turning that pit into a playground, even if it takes two years.
Sure, many a bureaucrat would endure the “public forums” full of hysterical idiots ranting and shouting, in order to “put in their time.” But Leslie truly cares, because she believes her work is important. She’s even convinced herself that the public truly cares. (“They’re just caring loudly at me,” she says.) It’s worth doing and so it’s worth doing all the way. And that’s what I wanted to emulate, I believe.
And it makes sense when I think about my own situation as 2013 was coming to an end and 2014 loomed on the horizon. My first real novel had been published (to little fanfare) and my second was going through editorial. My world was full of the kind of calculated crass thinking that says, “Spend X amount of time ‘engaging readers’ so that you’ll have more people buying your next book.” “Write a post and promote it broadly, hoping to convert some interactions into sales.”
This came from without (there were at least three people whose job consisted partially of ringing that bell) and within (my own desire to make a name and build toward the ultimate goal of . . . um . . . arriving). But obviously I was not happy with that outlook on life. It was the opposite of satisfying.
Even removing the books from the equation, this is a pretty common way of looking at the world in our day of social media and self-promotion. Even for Christians. Even for pastors. Build this church up so that you look like a hot shot and a bigger church will want to hire you.
Oh, we don’t let ourselves think those words in that order; we just let that impulse sit prominently in the back of our minds, feeding on our sense of calling. Everyone sees the guys with the mega-platforms tweeting and thinks, “I could tweet profound-er stuff than that!” And if we don’t guard against it, the wheels begin turning. How can I cobble together a series of stepping stones to get me from here to there? And just like that, all sorts of people and opportunities to serve them can become stepping stones.
The downside to all of this (besides shipwrecking our souls, of course) is that, even when our eyes aren’t on our cell phones, laptops, Twitter feeds, numbers of likes and comments, etc., they’re off on the horizon, focused on the ever-elusive target of having “arrived.” But here’s the thing: even though it sounds cool when Jack Sparrow says, “Bring me that horizon,” you never really get there. The horizon is always a moving target and chasing it will never satisfy.
When I’m happiest in Christ, my focus is on where he has me now, not where I might be down the road. And certainly not on what finishing touches I might put on the project of Me. Like Leslie Knope, I have big dreams and (probably unlike Leslie) I know that God can (and might) bring them about some day.
But today I’m here. I’m pastoring a small church in a mid-sized city. I’m writing books that people may or may not want to read. I’m preaching at the City Rescue Mission and visiting nursing homes and helping single moms get their water turned back on. And I don’t want to view any of it as a means to an end, unless that end is the glory of God.
About a year and a half ago, we had Joe Thorn on the Gut Check Podcast and discussed his history with this stuff. He said the following: “When my blog was really popular, back in the aughts, my church wasn’t doing so well . . . and since I pulled back and focused on the church, there’s been an incredible difference, not only in my personal life, but in the life of the church and the health of the church.”
It’s easy to see the wisdom in that. It’s even easy to be inspired by the idea, because, at a distance, it sounds like the kind of Jerry Maguire, stay-up-all-night-writing-a-manifesto big statement. But in the everyday, it doesn’t feel big. And yet, I want to be that guy who sees my time in Pawnee as every bit as important as whatever may lie ahead.
I don’t want to see any distinction in importance between an hour in a hospital room with a Alzheimer’s patient and a an hour preaching to a packed house. I want to know that, if this is the last chapter of my story, I’ll have given it everything, not climbed halfway up a ladder.
In fact, I think I might rerun that New Year’s resolution for 2017: This year, I still want to be like Leslie Knope.
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