When I completed my seminary training 36 years ago, I was invited to preach to a thriving congregation whose senior minister — in my mind, at least — was the epitome of successful ministry. To me, mega-churches were ultimate signs of achievement, and big was beautiful.
Ironically, my sermon that day was entitled “Small Is Beautiful,” a concept I acquired in seminary that would contend with the other for decades. Big versus small growing side by side like the wheat and weeds of Jesus’ parable: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30). Big, however, had a huge head start on small.
My relationship with big took root in childhood as my parents stressed the value of education. Education rescued my father from life as a gravedigger during the Great Depression and made him a teacher. He wanted an education that would lift me. Alas, their noble efforts were hijacked by a young mind linking perfect grades to parental approval.
A’s were biggest and most desirable. Striving for big in elementary school led me to strive at all levels. I racked up one university degree after another. I wish I could say I wanted to learn. I didn’t. I wanted A’s and other symbols of success: an impressive job title, a flashy list of accomplishments.
Such compulsion is harmful, and for it I have many regrets. Nevertheless, when I left a career in petroleum exploration to follow a call to the church, I came to enjoy specialized ministries such as pastoral counselling and intentional interim ministry, although neither was on my success checklist. My gifts worked best in small one-to-one relationships, not one-to-the-many, but I didn’t realize that.
Thirty-plus years came and went. I retired. Self-inflicted career evaluation followed, using big criteria: Where’s the cathedral? Where are the masses? Is not your life’s work a failure? At first I conceded.
Perhaps it was then that the Spirit began proclaiming the virtues of small through a parade of memories, of small successes, a few at first and then many. I was reminded of minor achievements in counselling and interim ministry, and even traditional forms of church.
Today the parade continues, a late harvest of saving graces. I recall one-to-one successes from my years in oil and gas exploration, as a soldier in South Korea, a student in university, back to the beginning of my education. Things once dismissed as trivial, like making gifts for my parents at Christmas, take on a new light. As anti-poverty activist Dorothy Day wrote in 1940, “What we do is very little. . . . It is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it.”
One thing I see now is that small saving acts are not identical. Each of us has an affinity toward certain small things, but not all: while one finds purpose in writing letters for Amnesty International, another thrives on knitting prayer shawls for the suffering. I’m energized by emotional and scriptural detail, another by the fine points of organizing.
On the day I received my fifth degree, a doctorate, I descended from the platform robed and hooded in big. As I proceeded along the edge of the arena floor, returning to my seat, a young man leaned over the railing from above to shake my hand. In that fleeting moment, he recalled a seminary class we shared and words he said I uttered that “saved” his life.
I do not remember the day referred to or the words so precious to him, but his gesture teaches me that small can even be invisible. Really small belongs in the harvest parade, too — countless good influences unnoticed as life unfolds. What would we do without a late harvest for revealing such truth?
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