Maybe you think of someone being annoying about something they don’t want to do but feel they have to do nonetheless.
For instance, I can picture my daughter Karyssa filling the air around the breakfast table with “martyrdom” over having to go to school that particular day.
Or perhaps you think about St. Peter or St. Paul or a Christian missionary long ago or in a foreign land who was put to death for his or her faith. In this sense, the word “martyr” becomes a synonym for death.
But the word “martyr” has its origin in the ancient Greek word for witness. A witness is simply someone who tells and shows what he or she has seen and experienced.
That's it. Of course, that telling and showing can lead to big, even fatal trouble, as was the experience of Peter, Paul, and countless other Christians since then.
I've been thinking about this because recently I was reading chapter 21 from the gospel of John. Among the other things going on in the story, the risen Jesus tells Peter that being a witness to Jesus (aka loving Jesus and taking care Christ people) will lead to Peter's death. So, Peter becomes a martyr in the fatal way we often use the word.
But Peter isn't the only martyr in the story. There is this other guy, someone called the Beloved Disciple, someone who also comes out of the story a martyr, a witness. But, unlike Peter, the way the Beloved Disciples pursues his "martyrdom" is not by dying. It is by telling the stories of Jesus that become the basis for the gospel of John itself.
Why is this important? Well, it's saying to me as I write these words that perhaps I need to relax a little.
It becomes easy to think that the only way to represent Jesus well is to do something huge -- to give away our lives in a dramatic way. To become a martyr in the dying a premature death kind of way. And that may very well be the path forward for any of us.
But that might also not be the martyr's path Jesus has in store for all of us.
Our path might simply be telling and showing Christ’s impact on our lives. It may be more like the Beloved Disciple's path. It might be, to use the words of Mother Teresa, a path filled with "small deeds done with great love."
I remember the legendary 20th century preacher Fred Craddock once saying that growing up he was primed and ready to give his life away for Jesus, to pay out his life for God's glory by writing one big check for the whole lump sum. To be a MARTYR!
Craddock said that as time passed it was tough getting used to the reality of the situation. The path Jesus had for Craddock involved giving his life away, but not all at once. Instead, Craddock said he has given his life away in bits and pieces – 25 cents here and a dollar over there.
It occurs to me that Craddock as a preacher is a master story-teller. He has given his life away, not unlike the Beloved Disciple did, by moving deep into old age telling the story of Jesus and how that ultimate story of God has transformed the story of Fred.
I guess, at least, up until this point in my life, that's kind of how I have experienced things myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire to die (and neither did the sanest among the early Christians), but I long for a big, dramatic, awe-inspiring way to give to Jesus.
Some days I long to give all my money away to the poor or to move across the world to live with people who are on the margins of the world's value, but in the center of God's heart. But instead I have so far been asked to be a martyr of the small payment variety.
Maybe it's best to seek God's will in these things by way of parallel tracks.
Perhaps we should keep our eyes open and aware for the big move that might at some point be in God's will for us.
But, at the same time, may we seek to grow in the smaller acts, and trust that God will use them a little like he used the memories of the Beloved Disciple to give birth to the gospel of John.
Who knows? Maybe one will lead to another.
Maybe you will visit with and hear the story of a homeless person on the street (a small act) and find that it ends up leading to something much, much larger and more dramatic.
So, for you, what is one big act of witness you sometimes wonder about making? Why don’t you?
And what are some of those small acts of true “martyrdom” that you could pay out a little each day?