Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Little Things You Do

The little things you do really do matter. How do you feel about what you did yesterday? Did your actions make any difference? Did you feel like a small cog in some gigantic machine, wondering if the whole contraption could run quite well enough without you? Almost everyone has episodes of feeling small, insignificant, and unneeded. But truth be told you, your words and actions, and your service to God and others all make a difference.

A Mother Goose nursery rhyme supports this important theological observation. I have long loved this simple and profound nursery rhyme, “For Want of a Nail”:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

About the size of a small upholstery tack, a horseshoe nail seems to be insignificant. Not so! If the absence of such a small thing could have monumental consequences, the positive presence of an item or action also can have great impact.

A new field in science and mathematics recognizes the importance of small actions. Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, was experimenting with weather computer simulations in 1961. When he rounded his numbers – entering only three digits to the right of his decimal points rather than taking the fraction to the sixth digit – the results of his calculations appeared to go haywire. He published articles about a new notion he called “chaos theory.” Later findings in math and various sciences confirmed that apparently random data often produce recurring patterns. What looks chaotic at first actually becomes a significant outcome. The most familiar illustration of the chaos theory principle is the “butterfly effect.” In Lorenz’s computer weather simulations, the change in the data due to dropping the last three digits was similar to the amount of air current caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. That small change in atmospheric conditions created by a butterfly in China flapping its wings today – the theory proposes – might cause a tornado to develop or not to develop a month from now on the coast of Indonesia. Just a small change in the initial conditions can drastically change the long-term behavior of a system. Science and mathematics journals are full of articles on “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” offering proof that small things matter!

Of course the principle is not news to the Bible. Saul, the first king of Israel, hastily dismissed little shepherd-boy David’s offer to meet the battle challenge of Goliath: “‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Saul replied. ‘There is no way you can go against this Philistine. You are only a boy!'” (1 Samuel 17:33 NLT) We all know how that one turned out! A small shepherd with a small river rock defeated the fearsome giant, and David became God’s anointed leader and hymnist. Jesus uses the twin parables of the tiny mustard seed and some yeast to illustrate the growth of the Kingdom of God: “Jesus told another story: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field. {32} That seed is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows, it is one of the largest garden plants. It becomes big enough for the wild birds to come and build nests in its branches.’ {33} Then Jesus told another story: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in a large tub of flour until it made all the dough rise.'” (Matthew 13:31-33 NCV) From almost imperceptible beginnings, the mustard seed grows to be a home for roosting flocks, recalling Isaiah and other prophets speaking of God’s people becoming an expansive kingdom with abundant resting place for all nations who respond faithfully to God’s grace. Active yeast spores, with adequate time to allow the dough to rise, yield quantities of bread sufficient to feed multitudes of hungry people. In the Kingdom of God small things matter. The generous action of the widow giving her two small coins, inconspicuous to the hustling crowd thronging the Temple court, was noticed and praised by Jesus, and gave Jesus the opportunity to teach a timeless truth about what really matters in life (see Luke 20:45-21:4).

Getting back to your day and words and actions, the small things you do really do matter. Worldly wisdom says that the actions of highly placed, important, powerful, rich people make all the difference. The apostle Paul, however, points out that the worldly wise powerbrokers failed to recognize the wisdom of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. So God has chosen to work more like the “butterfly effect,” through the words and actions of ordinary people whose counter-cultural imitation of Christ can change the world. Paul reminds us, “Brothers and sisters, consider what you were when God called you to be Christians. Not many of you were wise from a human point of view. You were not in powerful positions or in the upper social classes. {27} But God chose what the world considers nonsense . God chose what the world considers weak . {28} God chose what the world considers ordinary and what it despises–what it considers to be nothing .” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28 GWT) To many self-important people the way of Jesus looks and sounds like nonsense. But each word or action we undertake as we live by God’s grace in Jesus Christ has power to change the world. Paul concludes that what a follower of Jesus does really does matter, since,” You are partners with Christ Jesus because of God. Jesus has become our wisdom sent from God, our righteousness, our holiness, and our ransom from sin. he is Christ, God’s power and God’s wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 1:30, 24 GWT)

A small act of grace, an individual righting of an injustice, a brief word of witness or praise for Christ may seem insignificant. But think what God has done with the many small demonstrations of his love and grace you have received from others. Don’t fret over the big events you may or may not have a role in today. What little things will you do today to extend God’s grace wherever you are? Remember. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost..”

J. Edward Culpepper

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