Little Things

November 26, 1995


Little Things

It was on an unsigned post card, in response to an invitation I made several weeks ago for sermon topics from the congregation. It said, poignantly I thought, “I am by myself and I do such simple routine things that I often get depressed, thinking my life doesn’t count. Can you convince me that it does?” I’m not sure that I can, but I am convinced of the power of unheralded individual lives, and I believe that a good life is built out of a host of little things that seem unimportant at the time. Here are some thoughts:
Some years ago I read about a man who found on Long’s Peak in Colorado a fallen giant of a tree whose rings showed it had survived for more than 400 years, which means it was a seedling when Columbus landed at San Salvador in the Bahamas in 1492. It had been struck 14 times by lightning, and survived. For over four centuries it had withstood avalanches of snow and ice, winter storms and summer drought. It finally fell because it could not withstand an attack of beetles, each one smaller than the head of a match. In a country where millions think Big is Better, I read that story as a parable from nature to remind us of the power of little things.
I remember watching the Gerald Ford-Jimmie Carter political debate one night when it was interrupted for almost half an hour by a technical failure no one could locate. The next evening, on national news, I saw the tiny transistor which caused that monumental gaffe. It was almost swallowed up in David Brinkley’s hand, but it had humiliated three great networks, forced the president of the most powerful country on earth to stand waiting, and interrupted the speech of another man who, though he did not know it then, would soon become the next president — another reminder of the power there can be in something that looks small and insignificant. I remember driving in a Winnebago RV one summer through the back roads logging country of Oregon when all of a sudden, without even a second’s warning, the motor died and everything stopped working. No one could figure it out until somebody went 10 miles deeper into the woods to find a guy named Shorty whose genius as a mechanic was legendary. Shorty lifted the hood, tore into the engine like a man possessed, took stuff apart and bared a jungle of wires until I thought, “This trip is over. No way this guy can find the problem or put all this stuff back together.” But he did find the problem: one wire, deep deep inside that engine and not as thick as a matchstick, but when it shorted out that big old RV and the seven of us on vacation were left completely helpless.
Little things! Sometimes the termites that destroy the house of our hopes, sometimes the tiny building blocks that make life good. In that great library of human experience we call the Bible, it was inevitable that someone would do a little homily on things that appear trivial. Listen to this paragraph from Proverbs, written by some long since forgotten teacher named Agur who watched keenly the world around him and found all sorts of practical lessons in it for his students. Don’t look for it to be profound, because it isn’t, but he probably knew that we have to be reminded often of truth that seems simple and obvious. Notice that he makes his observations as an amateur biologist and leaves you to locate the lesson. “Take a look at ants,” he says. “They are weak — but they store up their food in the summer. And the little rock rabbits: they are not strong, either, and have no defenses — but they make their home in the rocks. Consider those swarms of locusts that plague us from time to time: they have no king — yet they travel in good order. And scampering lizards: so small you can hold one in your hand – yet you find them in the palaces of kings.”
Unlike many of us, he was not much impressed by mere size. He had no way of knowing about the dinosaurs, those ponderous nightmares that moved dully through the Mesozoic, because long before he lived they had vanished — unable, despite all their tonnage, to survive a changing world. But the four little creatures he names, all small enough to be held in his hand, had made it — and to him, they had miniature sermons to preach. “The ants are a people not strong, but they store up food in summer.” He calls them a “people” because he has seen their life in a community which seems organized, but what really impresses him is their foresight. They have a sense of tomorrow. He knew people who didn’t. I had a friend once, in Wichita, who during his bachelor years was a counsellor in a children’s home. One evening he found a boy about 15 trying to sleep under a bridge in Riverside Park. He offered to share his own little house, not far from where I lived, and for about a year on our walks around the river I was kept up to date on how this exercise in ccompassion was going.
The most serious problem was that the teenage boy had no faith at all in tomorrow. He lived only for today. Nothing else was real to him. To be told that he might have something next month was like being told he could never have it as long as the world stood. When he had to wait for something he wanted very much, he would fall on the floor, kick his feet, beat his fists, and cry like a child in a tantrum. My friend understood this, because he had been exposed before to that personality defect. The boy had been switched from one foster home to another until he had lost faith in tomorrows. If you didn’t get it now, you didn’t get it. One day, because he wanted something right then, he stole my friend’s car and clothing and took off for California. True to form, he had so little sense of what might happen next that he made no plans even to avoid arrest, and he was caught somewhere out in New Mexico.
I grant that he was a classic case of living only for the moment, but some of us — still — and most of us when we are young, have a hard time believing that next month or next year will ever come. So when someone begs us to use today wisely, to train ourselves for a productive tomorrow, we see no point in that advice. Springtime is only for picking flowers; it has nothing to do with planting seed for harvest against the winter. So, over and over, with deep distress when we love them, we watch certain young people waste their short and wondrous Spring. They really mean to do something by way of preparation, they tell us. They are thinking about it. But while they wait and consider, the first leaves are touched with red and gold, and one morning the grass is white with frost, and it’s too late. The moment for getting ready to be what they hoped to be passes, and they are trapped forever where they are. As another writer of proverbs says in that collection, they have ignored the parable of the ant: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,” he says, and the things you might have done are no longer possible. “Sow your seed in the morning of life….” We call it apprenticeship, we call it making the most of school, we call it the ability to trust tomorrow if we use today right.
If this ancient naturalist saw the ant as a parable of when to do things, I suppose he saw the rock-rabbit or marmot as a parable of sensible self-protection. The little Syrian cony has no horns or tusks or claws with which to defend itself or dig a den, so it has to find a hole in the rocks . It has discovered where, in critical times, there is security. It had occurred to the old wise man that some of his neighbors had never bothered to locate a safety net. . From the locusts he learned a lesson in mutuality and cooperation. They have no king to make policy, but they move like some vast army under orders — miniature proofs that .no matter how small or weak we are, in league with others and moved by some profound purpose, we can be irresistible. And finally, the lizard — so small he could lift it in his hand and yet he had seen it skittering across the floor in palaces of great kings where bigger and stronger creatures could not enter. This is his parable of persistence, a humdrum power that forever surprises us. Some of my “A” students never did much, despite talent — frittering away their time, distracted by misplaced loyalties. Some of my poor students plowed doggedly up hills too high for them to climb until they stood above us all.
I realize these are almost painfully simple nuggets of truth, not profound because the book of Proverbs is not, when you look at it closely, a profound book. It’s an anthology of ordinary advice, the kind that used to hang on the wall in the kitchens of farmhouses — but the kind that even in our sophistication we may still sometimes need. A Jewish boy, centuries later, had learned the lesson of these proverbs: “One who is faithful in a very little,” he said, “ is faithful also in much; and one who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest in much.” It sounds like Judge Roy Bean philosophizing in Larry McMurtry’s The Streets of Laredo: “A man who’ll steal 50 cents from you will steal anything you’ve got.” Jesus understood that it does not take something big to measure character. He spoke of the cup of cold water, the one talent, the single lost coin, the world of promise in the heart and mind of a small child. We manage to forget such things, and to convince ourselves that only the large events shape life.
A simple test of memory proves this is not true. Each one of us can remember something from childhood which no one else in the whole family can recall. To them it was trifling, quickly forgotten; to us (forgive the overworked phrase) it was “a defining moment.” I once saw on our Channel 8 a little sermon in miniature which I thought must have touched a raw nerve in some parents. It showed a father taking his son to a movie. The boy is clearly delighted to be with his dad, whom he idolizes. After they pay for their tickets, the boy says something about his age which reveals to us that the father has lied to save a few pennies. With hero worship in his eyes, the boy looks up at his father and says, “Gee, Dad, you’re smart. I hope I’m as smart as you are when I grow up.” I wondered how many fathers, hearing that, wished they could undo a couple of moments when they underestimated the importance of some seeming trifle.
I got acquainted, when I first came to Wichita, with a taciturn old farmer west of town from whom I bought fresh eggs. As a friendship ripened he opened up and began to ask about my life and work, and when he heard the part about teaching he admitted he had no idea at all of what high school or college might be like. He was almost 80 then, but he remembered a crucial incident in his life as clearly as if it had happened the week before. Probably everyone else involved on that faroff day had long since forgotten it entirely, but for this old man it had been a turning point in his life and he had never forgotten. He had sat one day, he told me, in a little schoolhouse near Colwich, between a boy and a girl who were passing notes. As the note passed across his desk the teacher saw it, blamed an innocent boy for it and refused to believe his embarrassed denial, and then paddled his hand in front of the whole class.
As he told this story about a mere five minutes in his life, 65 years before, the old man shook his head at me in remembered anger and humiliation, and said: “I went back up there to that school that same night. I got my stuff out of my desk, and I never went back to school the rest of my life.” The old farmer has been gone now for years, but I still remember how he looked when he told me that, and how a whole world that might have opened up for him closed forever because of something no one else that day would have thought important. “Anything happen at school today, Sally?” “No…… Oh, John got spanked for passing notes, and Betty forgot her homework. Nothing much.” When my own children tell me of things that impressed them, that they never forgot, that entered deeply into the shaping of their minds and hearts, I am almost always surprised by what some small act, some chance word thought trivial at the time may have for someone.
Remember the postcard? “My life doesn’t seem to count. Can you convince me that it does?” I’ve been trying… reminders that some word or deed of yours that seems only trivial and routine may be more important to someone than you can possibly guess. If you are here this morning, or anyone else is listening who wonders “How big is one? How would I make any difference?” take this story with you when you leave. Imagine a long smooth beach at Pacific Shores Resort on Vancouver Island, Canada. A man on vacation is walking that desolate beach by himself one cold gray morning when he sees another figure, far in the distance. As they get closer he recognizes a local native he met a day or so before who keeps leaning down, picking something up, and throwing it out into the ocean. As the distance between them continues to narrow, the man can see that the native is picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time, is throwing them back into the surf. Puzzled, the man walks up to the native and asks what he’s doing.
“I,m throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see, it’s low tide right now and all of these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don’t throw them back they’ll die up here from lack of oxygen. “But there must be thousands of starfish on this beach,” the visitor says. “You can’t possibly get to all of them, there’re just too many. And this same thing is probably happening on dozens of beaches all up and down this coast. I don’t want to seem cynical, but how can what you’re doing possibly make any difference?” The local smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish, and as he tossed it back into the sea he said, “Made a difference to that one!”
There is so much to be done, and we have such limits of money and time and energy. When we leave there will still be thousands of starfish stranded on the beach. So we give up and do nothing at all since we can’t do everything, or like that quixotic man on the Canadian beach, we decide to make a difference for lives around us — one at a time. It’s often an effective cure for depression.

Open our eyes, gracious God, to the importance of a small gift,
a loving word, a moment of compassion in the routine of this
week. Amen.