In the hit Broadway show Hamilton, which frames the story of one of America’s founding fathers through the idiomatic lens of hip-hop, one of the catchiest refrains goes like this: “I am not throwing away my shot, I am not throwing away my shot. I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Emblematic of contemporary cross-cultural America, Hamilton is like a historical reenactment of the American Revolution with the cast of Rent stuck inside an episode of FOX’s Empire. The above lines are rapped by Alexander Hamilton during his salad days as an upstart hoping to leverage the impending revolution against Britain into a name and career for himself. “My Shot” is a great snapshot of what makes the play work so well—its hip-hop swagger echoes Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and countless other hip-hop anthems that celebrate the ambition of the outsider class.
As I listen, I’m reminded of how I felt at that age, out to make my mark on the world. I imagine that lots of young people, especially those in church ministry, approach their calling with a similar sense of passion and urgency. They rightly sense God at work in the world and, emboldened by the rampant injustice in their context, they dive headlong into the fray, heeding Jesus’s call in John 9:4 to work while it is still day.
I applaud them, even as I see myself in them. But now, with the benefit of time and perspective, I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to calm down a little. “It’s good to be passionate,” I would tell 1996-era Jelani, “but don’t worry so much about making your big break, because you don’t fully know what that could mean.”
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to calm down a little.
Case in point:
The bitter irony of Hamilton singing about not missing his shot becomes fully apparent at the end of the show, when—historical fact-turned-spoiler-alert—Hamilton is shot and killed in a duel. As the show proceeds, the recurring friendship between Hamilton and Aaron Burr eventually curdles, first into jealous rivalry and then into murderous rage. And for all the faults evident in Burr, a consummate political chameleon, it was Hamilton’s ambition and arrogance that drove him both into prominence and away from friendship. The pain of being an orphan and surviving a tumultuous past drove Hamilton to achieve, but it also fueled his ravenous sense of dissatisfaction and blinded him to the dangers ahead. He paid with his marriage, his reputation, and, in the end, his life.
Thus, for every admonition to work while it’s day, I also think we ought to inject this admonition from James 4:14-15: “And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, ‘Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.’ You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, ‘If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that’” (The Message).
As I approach forty, my life looks very different than I thought it would when I was in my twenties. Some of the things I viewed as huge life goals at that time are now momentary milestones at best, and at worst, outright distractions.
So as we journey through Lent, it’s important to remember that Jesus called his disciples into the unknown, not with a battle cry or a five-point plan but with a simple call to follow. As our priorities are rearranged, our relationships evolve, our political or vocational goals shift, we are reminded that following in faithfulness is not simply a private aspiration—it’s the best we can hope to accomplish.
Let us hold firm to that, and let our shots fall where they may.