The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. – Matthew 13:31-32
My life is very small. Of course, from my own perspective there is big stuff happening. Making friends, engaging in ministry, marriage, and settling into life in a new city far from my place of birth. I participate in a broader religious community that is in a state of great transition, and I do my best to be of service locally. I often imagine that I am an important figure in history, and that I am making a beneficial impact on the world.
But when I take a step back and look at my life from a broader perspective, my so-called achievements basically disappear. As far as the world is concerned, I am just another average person – a transplant from “fly-over country” living in the nation’s capital. I do my jobs. I volunteer at church and in the community. I love my wife and stick up for my friends. That is about it. Nothing particularly remarkable in the grand scheme of things.
This can feel disappointing. Like many of us, I was raised to believe that I was remarkable. I, too, could be president – or an astronaut or best-selling author. I was raised with the idea that, in many ways, life was about me. If I were not the center of everything, I was at least an important supporting actor in the grand drama of human history. I grew up with an implicit understanding that my life was pivotal, and that I was destined to make a noticeable impact on society.
As I grow older, though, I notice that my ability to affect the world is far more limited than I thought. Is “impact” measured by fame? The ability to influence large groups of people? Relationships with the powerful? Access to great wealth? Judging by any of these standards, I am not leading a very impactful life.
Even by much more modest standards, my life’s importance is questionable. It is hard to gauge what practical effect my ministry has on the lives of others, and my work for economic justice often feels quixotic in the face of massive and well-funded opposition. It is not always clear to me that, in the grand scheme of things, my life makes much difference.
Waiting on God in stillness, I ask, “Why have you called me to this work if I am just set up to fail?” By way of response, the Holy Spirit comes over me and shows me just how small I am, and just how big Christ is. His power is over all. I feel in my body just how perfect God’s strength is made in my weakness. The Spirit reminds me, once again, that life is not about me. The results of God’s leadings are not mine to judge. The question is, as always, “was thee faithful?”
“Well, yes, Lord, I think so – mostly. So why am I unable to see the fruit of my labor?”
“Perhaps there is still a problem with your sight,” comes the reply. “If you will trust me, I have salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”
And I remember Jesus. I see him hanging from the cross, an utter failure in the eyes of the world. I see him dying, leaving nothing behind of any apparent value. Just another failed messiah.
But that is not the end of the story. Like the mustard seed, Jesus’ faithful “failure” allowed the fullness of God’s love, power and grace to be revealed. On the day that Jesus died, the community of friends and disciples that he had gathered was left completely bereft, hopeless. But Sunday came, and that little Seed who had died became the Tree of Life in which all of his friends were able to take refuge. That which was sown in dishonor was raised in glory. Jesus was sown in weakness, but now he is raised in power, seated at the right hand of the Father.
In this, the Spirit lets me know that the true meaning and impact of my life is hidden in the depths of God. One day, it will be revealed for all to see. For now, however, Jesus sets before me a life that embraces smallness, weakness and apparent failure in the service of love. It is a life that places obedience to God before all else, including my own conceptions of success.
Have you experienced this “holy smallness” that I am describing? How do you make sense of the gap between your own expectations and the apparent failure that is so common in this life? How is God teaching you to trust and to love, even when everything feels out of control?