The Year of Small Things (Or, how Christian teaching gave my dissertation and my life more meaning)

2013 was a year of doing small things. I served as a music minister in a small church, I played concerts in small venues to small audiences, I taught a couple of small classes to undergraduates, and I struggled over the daily small tasks of dishes and laundry and tidying up. 2013 was also the year I finished my dissertation — not a small thing as a personal accomplishment — but quite a small thing in scope and significance and in the smallness of its mundane requirements. Writing a dissertation involves toiling away over small tasks: 1,000 words here, 1,000 words there; hours poring over an obscure book, trying to find that one important piece of information; the annoyance of organizing and re-organizing; the victory of a complete paragraph, a complete page, and finally, slowly, a complete chapter, all culminating in a small volume on a big shelf, in a bigger library of thousands of obscure works that only a handful of people will ever read.

I am not trying to downplay my work here, but in the grand scheme of things, a dissertation just doesn’t seem that important — and all these small things stood out this year against that “Grand Scheme.” Death and loss marked this year, and perhaps because of that death and loss, my mind had difficulty focusing on the small tasks necessary to my everyday life as larger questions about “Life Purpose” and “Eternity” and “Making a Difference” clouded my brain.  I wanted to exchange these small things for big, important ones. I wanted to know that when I died, God would say to me, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

So I turned, as I so often have, to the Bible, searching, frantically for that parable of the good servant, and here is what I found:

“Again, it [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matt. 25:14-21)

The only requirement of these servants was to invest what they had been given — even if it was small. (If you read the rest of the story, you’ll see that the servant with only two bags also received praise). All that was necessary was faithfulness in the small things. I felt my frantic mind calm as I understood that the right thing for me to do that day was to go back to my office and type my thousand words and conduct my research with diligence; for it was that faithful work on the small things to which I had been called and which would give my life meaning.

The importance of these small things became a theme for the year. My “epiphany” came in the summer, during the depths of my dissertation drudgery. In September at church, we did a series on work and faith, where I was reminded of the significance of my daily work for the building of Christ’s Kingdom. And this Christmas, I remembered the small things again, in the prophetic words of Micah:

    But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

I had often heard people comment on the significance of the insignificance of Jesus’s tribe and His poor teenage mother and the dirty manger and the lowly shepherds, but this year it struck me in a fresh way.

Christianity is not a good choice of religion if you value grandeur or status symbols. Instead, Christian teaching points to a God who values the small, the lowly, the insignificant; “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…the weak things of the world to shame the strong…the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

This year I learned that, though it may not feel like it, each tiny, faithful, quotidian act is like a small, messy point of color in an impressionist painting that will, in time, reveal itself as a masterpiece called The Kingdom of Heaven. And you’d think (or maybe only I would think) that each dot would represent the work of a missionary or a minister or maybe a well-known Christian songwriter or author, but I’m starting to believe that those smudges of color comprise, miraculously, faithful music practices for our tiny congregation, a cleared out dishwasher, a painstakingly-graded student essay, a note of encouragement, a paragraph of thoughtful scholarship, a meal, a cup of coffee, a conversation — a blog entry, perhaps.

God takes these small acts of work and service and makes them part of the biggest, most important thing of all, so that no moment, no life can be wasted for those who truly seek to glorify God in all they do.

Here’s to a 2014 of small things.

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