Making peace with smallness

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“Who dares despise the day of small things?” God asks the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4:10).
“Ummm . . . I guess I still do. Sometimes.” I whisper, not really wanting to be heard.
The days of writing—or deleting—a single paragraph. The days of small choices made a million times to turn my thoughts back to gratitude, to God, to how he wants to meet me in the present. The days of asking forgiveness when I haven’t turned my thoughts to him and receiving the grace to begin again. Again.
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Being okay with smallness: this seems to be a theme God is wanting me to hear again these days.
In last week’s sermon, the challenge rang through the little prophet Haggai:

“Who of you is left who saw this temple in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:3-5)

In yesterday’s sermon, it was Zechariah who reminded me:

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ declares the Lord Almighty . . . . ‘Who dares despise the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Photos courtesy of Brian Whitacre
Photo courtesy of Brian Whitacre

The pastor (who had, he confessed, felt very small while preparing this sermon), reminded us that God accomplishes world-transforming things, but always through the small:

  • Israel, the fewest of all peoples, chosen to be God’s special nation.
  • Gideon, the least man from the least clan from the least tribe of Israel, (the one whom God called while he was cowering in a winepress), called to defeat the Midianites—but only once God had reduced his army from thirty-two thousand to a mere three hundred, armed only with trumpets and torches inside clay jars.
  • The young boy David with his slingshot chosen over trained, experienced warriors to defeat the biggest, meanest giant.
  • And of course the little boy’s lunch which fed five thousand, and the tiny embryo in Mary’s womb, the lonely figure hanging on the cross, and the small group of followers who became three thousand in a day when the Spirit of God fell on them.

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I continue the list:

  • A caterpillar forming a cocoon.
  • Character forged by years of moment-by-moment decisions to stay true in the small things when no one is looking.
  • A forty-year-strong marriage made of little, daily choices to love the other.
  • A scientist working in a top-notch research lab on projects my brain can’t begin to comprehend who has learned to persist through a whole list of ideas not working to find one that does. And who started out once upon a time with someone else not despising the days of dirty diapers and 2 a.m. feedings, toilet training and sounding out letters.

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A lot of things start flashy and fade, but doesn’t everything that turns out to be anything start small and grow through thousands of baby steps?
Perhaps it has to be this way, for everything that lasts is rooted in God, who gives himself to us in each small moment. This small moment—the only place we can meet God and be joined to him, filled by him.
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“Spiritual formation,” says Mulholland, “is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things.” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 33)
Perhaps making peace with smallness is one of the greatest challenges—and greatest steps—in our discipleship. Maybe, in our culture obsessed with bigger, better, faster, discipleship is a lot about becoming smaller, learning to release our attempts to prove our significance and cling to our control, and rest instead in the love of our strong God who delights in working with smallness.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)

___________

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“Be still and know that I am God”: One of the practices that is most helping me make peace with smallness is to simply sit in silence before God. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The words call me to stillness. When I realize that my mind has wandered off (again) to try to solve another problem, I let the thoughts go and return (again) to the words that keep calling me to prayer. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

 

When it’s hard to trust the promises

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I get Zechariah’s struggle. I read the promise, hear it, but when the time comes to step into it, I hesitate. “But how can I be sure?”

The man stands there, startled at the brightness of the angel, his heart not daring to hope. Did he doubt his own eyes and ears, wonder if his mind was playing tricks on him, when he heard the angel give the promise he had so longed to hear?

“You will have a son. . .”

“How can I be sure?”

The angel answers, gives his credentials, but also the verdict:

“And now you will be silent and unable to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words . . .” (Luke 1:20)

The words feel like judgment on my own struggle to believe. Whatever happened to “faith as small as a mustard seed” being enough to move mountains?

“When our believing runs out, God’s loving runs on.” (Ann Voskamp) I know this. So where’s the grace when Zechariah’s belief runs out?

I start again at the beginning of the story, hunting for the grace that is always there somewhere.

There’s God’s declaration through Luke: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both “upright in the sight of God.” (Luke 1:6) (That doesn’t sound like condemnation!)

Then there’s the way God, through the lot, chose Zechariah, inviting him to come close and serve Him in a special way (v. 9; cf  Acts 1:26; 1 Sam 14:41-42; Prov 16:33; Is 34:17; Jonah 1:7.)

God sent a special messenger, one of the head honchos of the angel hosts, straight from his own presence to bring Zechariah the special news.

“Do not be afraid.” The angel spoke to Zechariah in his fear, acknowledging his human fragility, reassuring him.

“Your prayer has been heard.” The faith which drove them to pray was accepted. And it was honored, not with just any son, but with one who would have surpassed the deepest longings of this righteous couple who ached for God’s kingdom to come: a son who would turn many in Israel back to God, and who would be the forerunner of the long-awaited Messiah, going before him in the spirit and power of Elijah. (Don’t miss that! Zechariah would have known Elijah as the prototypical prophet, the one who raised the dead, single-handedly took on the prophet-killer Queen Jezebel and her army of idol-prophets in a prayer contest, and kept the rain away for 3 ½ years with his prayers.)

I wonder if God knew that the miracle birth would be easier than raising a son like this? That Zechariah’s faith needed space to grow before he stepped into this role?

Was it grace that sent the angel to bring Zechariah’s small faith into the light so it could be grown? And grace that helped him believe by giving him an undeniable reminder to carry in his own body until he could touch the promised son? For the next nine months, every time he opened his mouth to speak, he would remember the angel’s promise. I imagine it’s harder to doubt that the promise is true when your own body reminds you every few moments of an angel’s visit. As Elizabeth’s body stretched and grew with the life of their son, Zechariah’s heart, secluded in silence, grew to match.

The angel brought not one promise but two. Zechariah would get to be a dad. John’s dad. And God would prepare him for it. He hadn’t chosen Zechariah for his great faith or quickness to learn. (I am so glad!)  Nor did He dump him because he needed a little extra help to learn to trust. Instead, He graciously gave him a physical reminder for a while, a gift to keep bringing him back to the promise and prepare him to step into his part of the plan.