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The Strength of Small

YEARS AGO, WHEN my daughter Elisabeth was little, I was cleaning out a car before trading it in. As I checked under the driver’s seat for any leftover treasure, I noticed a music tape nestled deep underneath. I got on my knees and started reaching for the tape. To my chagrin, I only touched the edge of it, pushing it further under the low-sitting bucket seat.

Undaunted, I pushed my arm deeper into that tiny space. Instead of reaching the prize, my arm was only scratched up further as it tried to traverse the space.

Elisabeth watched me struggle for a minute before she started pulling on my shirt.

“Daddy,” she said, peeking over my shoulder into the car.

“Just a minute, honey,” I responded, intent on bagging my prey.

“Daddy,” she said a little more urgently.

“Hold on,” I said insistently. “I’m trying to get this tape …”

“Daddy!” she said in a near holler.

I shot upright, a bit perturbed and snapped, “What do you want?”

She leaned past me, shot her little arm under the seat and easily snagged what I was struggling to get. After she handed me the tape and skipped off, I remember thinking, “Little fits where big doesn’t.”

SIGNIFICANCE VERSUS PROMINENCE

America tends to think only those who stick out are worthy of adulation. So, the stick-out beautiful, stick-out rich, stick-out talented people are the only ones who matter—and they’re our idols. Somehow, these values tell us stick-out proves worth.

But does prominence mean significance? One could argue there are many significant things that aren’t prominent at all. Our eyes are more prominent than our lungs, but are they more significant? We can live without eyes. My hands are more prominent than my liver, but I can’t live without a liver. What if small, hidden things are as significant as big, prominent things? What if they’re more significant?

The biblical claim is that we were all calibrated by God to fit in this world where He wanted us to fit. Your talents and abilities play into how God fitted you for specific places for specific times to reach specific people. (See Acts 17:26.)

This is great if you’re as good-looking as Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts; or if you’re as talented as Sting or Bono. But what if you’re unattractive by media standards? What if you can’t sing? What if your uniqueness only sticks out after people get to know you? Does that mean you’re some kind of mistake, or is it possible God made you small on purpose? The psalmist claimed God created “small and great alike” (Psalms 115:13, TNIV). What if God intentionally made some of us small?

MIGHTY SMALL

As warfare developed, scientists began building bigger bombs. But some argued the greatest power was not in making bombs bigger but in unleashing the power of the building block of the universe—the atom. When they released the potential inherent in the smallest of things, it unleashed a staggering and terrible power.

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I wonder if the Church is losing ground because we’re looking for the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa—the big bombs. What if the greatest power for God’s Kingdom is found in something smaller: in the building block of the Body of Christ—the ordinary folks in the pews?

What if God’s life was meant to be revealed through ordinary, everyday human life? Dallas Willard wrote, “The obviously well-kept secret of the ‘ordinary’ is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows.”

Was Jesus royalty or a famous scholar or a wealthy merchant? Why pick tiny Nazareth and a splinter-rich carpentry career for the backdrop of His life? Doesn’t a life destined to change the world demand something less common? Yet, commonplace is the way God expresses His life. God loves to use what we call “ordinary” in special, mysterious ways.

DID I MISS SOMETHING?

I’ve been in the Christian church for almost 40 years and have heard many sermons. I don’t recall many ministers relating how to advance the Kingdom of God through ordinary living. Kingdom advancement is usually attached to an encouragement for folks to consider doing something radical. There are people who are called to do things that are great in the eyes of others, but it’s nothing short of folly to universalize the idea that every God-endeavor has to be spectacular. This thinking wiggles its way into our egos, expectations and planning, and makes them monstrous. The commitment to big often produces supersized egos, gargantuan expectations and plans that sound reasonable only to madmen.

Chat with some believers who want to shake the world for God. One or two will have really big dreams, and their plans will involve millions of people, millions of dollars and—of course—a private jet.

But maybe that’s wrong—or at least less right than we think. Maybe the greatest thing the Church has to offer the world is not our big leaders, big buildings or big talent, but the simple, small, everyday people of God.

What if that were true? What would that mean?

 This article originally appeared in Issue 03 of Neue Quarterly.

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