A Day of Small Things

One of my favorite prayers is by a poet, Christina Rosetti, and here's part of it:

Give us grace, O Lord, to work while it is day, fulfilling diligently and patiently whatever duty thou appointest us, doing small things in the day of small things and great labors if thou summon us to any. Amen.

It seems to me that days of small things are most of the days of our lives, and really days of small things are most of the days of the universe. You know, the scientists say that the universe started as a very small thing, and that the very small thing was there-people of faith believe created by God-between oh, thirteen and fourteen billion years ago as we think of time now. But this small thing was there before there really was even time. And so even before there was time or space, there was just this very small thing about the size of a marble; and in less than a trillion trillioneth of a second, God must have said, "Let there be," and the very small seed grew to a volume larger than all of the observable space in the universe. That's what the scientists are saying, and I believe them. So God did a very small thing with grace and power and great labor; and in the twinkling of God's eye, a universe was born.

I began thinking about this power of small things this spring, oddly enough while I was thinking about The Ten Commandments. During the weeks before Good Friday and Easter in the season of Lent, we say The Ten Commandments in our parish every week as an invitation to faithful and ethical life. And I thought, well, one week we even say them twice, and I thought, well, maybe if you say them loud enough and often enough, they sink in. Really, if I thought that blaring them on a loudspeaker forty times a day or pasting them in huge letters on every possible surface would help this old broken sin-sick world clean up its act, then I would get out my megaphone and my glue gun. But it seemed to me-and I believe I had the mind of Christ on this-that God just doesn't work that way, for in Christ we don't have a God that wrote a huge poster of rules or yelled out the rules so loudly that every person on earth had to hear them. Instead, in Christ we have the God who showed us a small thing, a small mustard-seed life and death and new life of a small, single human being. And from that very small thing came a whole universe of meaning and life and love.

This is an imperfect example of small seeds growing huge new life, but I offer it. In 1997, our son moved to New York to go to grad school at NYU in Greenwich Village. I've been in and out of New York since I was a teenager myself, and I've always loved the pop and the glamour and the energy there, but the incessant crime and the everywhere gritty dirtiness kind of bothered me. I thought, well, that's what growing up is about. Your children make their choices, and Charles wants to live in New York. And so good for him and there it is. And better him than me. But, then, we would go and visit him from time to time. And over several visits, I realized that the city was very, very different from my perception. In a matter of a few years, crime had gone way, way, way, way down-and garbage too. And it turns out that in New York in the late 90's, there had come a new civic culture-not because Mayor Giuliani had decided to put the whole city in jail or even to go after the thousand most horrible criminals-but, instead, month by month he had gotten the city to pay attention to small things, like cleaning up the graffiti and targeting specific dangerous street corners and putting more cops walking beats and getting rid of the garbage piles and going after little kick-back schemes. He even got the cops to go after jaywalkers, which irritated our son, who is a natural jaywalking criminal just like his mother. I don't think that part worked, because they still jaywalk like mad men up there. But paying attention to small things planted small seeds of new community life, and the improvements in just day in and day out quality of life through the small things made people feel better and safer walking the streets. And they cared more about their neighborhoods, and even murder and armed robbery rates have dropped like stones in the city that never sleeps. And then when great labors were called for, the city rose to the moment. It did!

Our son and his wife got married in lower Manhattan four and a half weeks after 9/11. The acrid smell and smoke were still hanging in the air, and the horror, and the pathos-and, God, terrible pain-I can still see the posters with the photographs hanging on the light poles and the sides of building: Have you seen? And in the pictures: My husband, my wife, my sister, my boyfriend, my mother, etc.? In those days of great anguish, the people of the city were brave and kind and of great soul. It was as Mayor Giuliani said, "An unbearable time." But they did bear it, by doing the small things. One foot and then another foot. Random kindnesses to strangers, compassion, shared suffering, one funeral, and then the next.

During the wedding weekend, there was a strange and wholly remarkable welcome and complex joy from the restaurant staffs where we had the parties. At the rehearsal dinner place, it was about 20 blocks up from the blast-an elegant little place-when I had set up the party six months before, I remember being a little shy and nervous talking with their staff person. She sounded so sophisticated and worldly, like New Yorkers do. But when we got there on October 12, 2001, we were just about their first profitable night, and the party planner staff person turned out to be the sister of the chef; and she and the chef gave us a photograph that he had taken of their ancestral fishing village in Italy, a very small place that was home for them. And then we put the picture in our mountain cabin back in East Tennessee, a very small place that is home to us. And they were so kind and so sad and oddly grateful because a young couple did a small, hopeful thing like get married in the ruins of the city. And their families had gotten on planes, and we had come from far away. And the New Yorkers helped us and we helped them in small ways to rise to that small occasion and to celebrate a new beginning.

I was reminded of New York, of that time in New York, over the last months as four different groups from our church, including a youth group, went to work in another ravaged world, the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I believe we were a gift to the people we went to serve. And I also know we met Christ there, and I believe we were Christ to others. And all of that happened in days of small things, small tasks, a tear out of moldy sheetrock here, a roof repair there, a yard cleared of debris, little murmuring conversations and prayers, just small things, tiny seeds planted. And I believe the great labor of reclaiming those communities will be small things done with diligence and patience. Small things, tiny seeds, are the work of Christ. He did not live or heal or teach on some grand scale. He was a small man in a small country with a small reach. But because he did every small thing with grace and power, then the great labor-Christ in him crucified-birthed a new, not just understanding of God, but life in God.

Not to bring up The Ten Commandments again, but…remember that they are very rarely Cecil B. deMille, big-screen, neon-sign events. They really aren't. They are small choices made on small days, over and over and over again. Such as choosing to remember that God made us for freedom and gave us as a gift, not a punishment, rules to live by. Small things such as remembering God made us, so we don't make God. Such as remembering that we had better not put God's name on anything in a vain show of power. Such as remembering that if God made the universe from a little marble and rested, then we are just created and hard wired to let go of our tiny universes and rest too. Little things, like remembering not just to honor your parents when they are old and gray, but also to train your own children to honor you. And don't let them get away with small, crummy, petty things. And don't lie in small things. Then the great truths within you have a shot. And don't strike up teasing, betraying relationships. Almost every adulterous relationship that people bring to pastors like me is when their miserable family is imploding. Every one of them begins with small, careless choices. And don't murder, which may mean more than we want it to mean. And don't steal. I know that means more than any of us want stealing to mean. But if we don't steal in small ways, we won't get all messed up in big ways. And then this last one, which this year I think is the biggest one. Don't covet. Don't waste your life wanting another life. An old friend calls it a case of the "I wants." Whatever "I wants" you have right now-bigger, better, more, different-find little ways of not renting that room in your head. Little ways, like I will not think about this for five minutes kinds of ways.

I follow the God who showed up two thousand years ago in small ways on days of small things. A healing touch here. A compassionate word there. Small things like not giving up on flawed friends. Like praying everyday. Small things like enjoying life. Jesus really enjoyed life. Small things like speaking truth to power. Like giving his small, marble-sized life so that the great labor of the new universe of resurrected, reborn life could be created.

What small things do you need to say and do and refrain from saying and doing?

Let us pray.

Give us grace, O Christ, to work while it is day, fulfilling diligently and patiently whatever duty thou appointest us, doing small things in the day of small things and great labors if thou summon us to any. Go with us and we will go, but if thou go not with us, send us not. Go before us, if thou put us forth and let us hear thou voice when we follow. Amen.