“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

December, 2007

Scientists recently discovered the oldest living “animal,” a humble clam they nicknamed “Ming” because it was alive during China’s Ming Dynasty. Researchers from Bangor University in Wales found the Arctica islandica clam in the frigid Atlantic waters off the north coast of Iceland. The researchers estimated the age of the clam at between 405 and 410 years. The previous record, according to the Guinness Book of Records, was another clam of the same species, aged 220 years, although yet another holds the unofficial record at 374 years. Ironically, the researchers killed the clam in order to determine its age: They cut through its shell and counted the growth rings, in a process similar to the way in which the age of a tree is determined.

“Ming” had, in some respects, an extraordinary life. It was young when the Great Wall of China was completed, when Shakespeare lived and “Hamlet” was seen on stage for the first time, and when Galileo first gazed at the heavens through a telescope. It was middle-aged when George Washington was born and when the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was barely feeling its age when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. It was barely nearing the end of its life when the Berlin Wall was built and later torn down, and when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon for the first time. Scientists speculate that similar clams may be as much as 600 years old.

But it didn’t do anything in all that time. Clams begin life as larvae and drift through the ocean until they settle on the sea bottom and begin to grow their shells. After that, they simply sit and feed on plankton for the rest of their lives. Bangor University scientist Dr. Al Wanamaker remarked, “It’s a mind-boggling amount of time to be sat there [sic] doing that.” Yet in spite of the remarkable length of “Ming’s” life, it didn’t influence the world around it. In fact, it didn’t even notice any of the remarkable things that were happening while it lived because clams don’t perceive the world around them. It never knew about the Great Wall of China, “Hamlet,” the Declaration of Independence, the division and reunification of Germany, the Moon landing, or any of the innumerable wars and other events that occurred during its lifetime.

Humans don’t live to be 400 years old. Most of us consider 100 to be remarkable. But many of us don’t affect the world around us much more than “Ming” the clam. There are exceptions, of course. Abraham Lincoln only lived to be 56 yet he changed the course of the nation’s history. John F. Kennedy is still remembered even though he lived for only 46 years. Neil Armstrong is still living but he was just a few weeks short of 39 years old when he became the first human being to walk on the Moon. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Einstein, and others live on through their works but most of us won’t.

And yet, a life doesn’t have to be long in terms of years to have an impact. Jesus lived for only 33 brief years yet his message, his life, and especially his death and resurrection continue to have an impact 2000 years later. When he was born, “Ming” the clam wouldn’t begin life for another sixteen centuries. Four hundred years is a very long time by human standards but two thousand puts it in a completely different perspective. “Wise men” came from the east to see him (Matt. 2:1). King Herod was so distressed by Jesus’ birth that he conspired to have him killed, even though he was only a child (Matt. 2:3-4; 16). His subsequent life was even more remarkable as he healed the sick, forgave sinners, and challenged the established order. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about his earthly life was its end, when he died on a cross and rose from the dead, bringing salvation to us all.

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we also remember his extraordinary life. You can have a remarkable life as well. You don’t have to live for 400 years or even 100. You don’t have to heal the sick, walk on water, or change the world. But you can tell sinners they’re forgiven. You can tell the good news, and share Jesus’ story with someone who needs the salvation and peace that only he can bring. You can tell how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has changed your life. You can tell them about a life that means something, yesterday, today, and throughout the ages, and help them to have one too.

“‘For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:45 ESV.)

Copyright © 2007 by David Phelps