Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Small Things Make a Big Difference

I will be leaving tomorrow for trip to Notre Dame University where I will be attending a seminar on "Pastors with Schools." It is a road trip with a priest friend and we’ll visit some places along the way and after the seminar over the next two weeks.
I know I won’t be able to write for my blog on the road so I’m reprinting over the next few Thursdays an article which challenges me (and maybe you) to consider the small things in our lives as important. Each week I’ll share a part of this article.
The Little Way: The Power of Small Things (Luke 13:18-21)
Richard J. Vincent, 2006

He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ (Luke 13:18-21)

When Jesus illustrates the Kingdom of God, he does not use regal images of lavish thrones, glittering crowns, ornate palaces, and invincible armies – images normally associated with royalty and kingdom-making. Instead, he describes the kingdom using small, simple items from first-century village life.

On Planting and Baking

In the two short parables before us, Jesus illustrates the kingdom using two common experiences of planting seed and baking bread.
Like seed, the kingdom is present in a tiny, insignificant form, but will oneday – like a tree – be great and embrace the nations of the earth (represented by the "birds of the air"). The contrast is between the beginning and the end. The beginning is small. The end is glorious.
Like leaven, the kingdom is a very small force that permeates the world and produces effects greatly beyond what one might expect. (Three measures of flour" = very large amount, about 36 quarts) Though the present form of the kingdom is hardly perceptible, it will eventually pervade the entire world.
The similarity in the two stories is that both involve common people who "perform small acts that have expansive consequences." (Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Bible Commentary p. 171) Two contrasts are highlighted: (1) the contrast of small beginnings and powerful results, and (2) the contrast between the hidden and the manifest.

The Power of Small Things

The parables challenge us to never underestimate the power of small things. The power of God may be hidden in – and thus, unleashed by – the smallest act. This has widespread practical significance.
We all aspire to be spiritual giants – people of deep faith, steadfast hope, and great love. But these virtues are not instantly achieved. They take time to develop. Though God is able to use the slightest amount of faith ("the size of mustard seed": See Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6) the slimmest hope ("hope against hope" Romans 4:18) and the smallest act of love ("cup of cold water" Matthew 10:42)  God’s desire is that we would grow to deep expressions of these virtues. The seeds for this growth are contained in our small acts of faith, hope, and love.
Authentic spiritual transformation is slow, incremental, organic, and cumulative. Like human growth – from baby to toddler, young child, adolescent, young adult, middle age, and senior – spiritual growth advances by small steps over a long time. Each step builds upon the previous step. We may speed up the process a bit through various experiences but we cannot negate any step along the way. (We see this principle elsewhere. In mastering a skill we advance in the same way. If we desire to play a musical instrument, we first learn notes, then time signatures, scales, chords, etc. In order to read, we first learn the alphabet, then words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.)

The Kaizen Way

Recognizing that all authentic growth is incremental, organic, and cumulative provides helpful insights for intentional spiritual transformation. It adjusts our expectations away from big innovations and toward progressive small steps. The importance of small steps is greatly increased in this model.
Even business leaders are beginning to see the value of small things. Kaizen is a Japanese strategy for constant small improvements. It incorporates the wisdom that small changes can bring big effects. It is a commitment to "getting better all the time" – a little at a time.
Everything can use a little improvement. In order not to stagnate or drift backwards, the "kaizen way" calls us to continually remain attentive to positive, small acts that may result in big change over time.
Psychologically, kaizen works because the "low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity." (Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, 17)  For most people "big goals trigger big fear." (Maurer, One Small Step, 26) This is the wisdom of kaizen: "Small actions trick the brain into thinking: Hey, this change is so tiny that it's no big deal. No need to get worked up. No risk of failure or unhappiness here. By outfoxing the fear response, small actions allow the brain to build up new, permanent habits." (Maurer, One Small Step, 87-88)
To be continued...