A decade ago, my wife and I and our two boys were driving somewhere I forget–the destination as always being much less important than the moving together in a comfortable, dedicated space. Brennan, our then four year old, had brought his then favorite stuffed playmate with him–it changed every week or so–and made a huge fuss about being sure Elmo had his seat belt on. When he finally got Sean, our then twelve year old, to help buckle him up, the car quieted down nicely.
So I turn around to see this little red guy relaxed and belted and apparently reading along in Sean’s book, and as the smile spread across my face two things struck me: first, I had to get a picture—which took several stoplights—and secondly, how important small things are…
Mother Teresa said that in this life, we cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love.
We spend a lot of time looking for great things. Great things to do that will make great differences for the greatest number of people over the greatest length of time. But great things can be seductive for all the wrong reasons, and we can get caught up in imagined outcomes of relevance, power, and celebrity that have nothing to do with the sheer pleasure of the small things along the way. When people really are writers, they write. Artists draw. Builders build and accountants count. Golfers golf like fish swim. Can’t keep them from it; it’s who they are. They may dream of the big time, but in the meantime, they’ll draw or write on napkins if they have to, and every hallway is a fairway. Or a green.
As people of faith, sometimes we forget that the quality of our love is not based on the greatness of the result, but simply on the irresistible desire to connect. We forget that it’s the connection itself that is the only valuable thing in life. We knew when we were four, but we forget.
What did Jesus remember in the wilderness as he faced a symbolic three temptations during a symbolic forty day journey? Forty is the Hebrew number for trial and testing into rebirth, and three is the number for completion or perfection, so the gospels are telling us that Jesus took as long as he needed to remember all the reasons we humans forget to love the small, herenow process of creatively connecting.
Turning stones to bread, taking control of the world’s kingdoms, being carried by angels in front of a spellbound crowd are great things that translate to our drives for survival and security, power and control, affection and esteem. Sometimes the small things we do every day contribute to these outcomes, and sometimes they don’t. But Jesus remembered that the real value of our actions is always realized in connection herenow, not in anything else eventually.
What Jesus remembered in the wilderness was that if we are driven by our need for great things, we may get them or we may not, but even if we do, we will have trained ourselves to look for threeness, for completion always somewhere other than where we are, always eventually and never now. To focus on great things is to live in the anxiety of unmet expectation, a wilderness of our own creation, but if we can remember what it means to be driven by the sheer pleasure of the parade of small things we do each day, a great thing is experienced already.
What if I really could live as if great things don’t matter, as if process—not outcome—were all this life was ever intended to be about, and that all we’re here to explore, experience, and exhume is only and ever herenow…
What if I could live real life with the abandon of a board game: immersed in the ring of faces around the table, cheerfully willing to risk it all, laughing at losses and gains, knowing that in the end we’ll just gather up all the little dollar bills and buildings and put them back in the box on the shelf for next time–their value existing only in the real-time span of the game.
If we’re really people of faith, we’re never caught waiting for a great thing; you can’t keep us from connecting in every tiny detail of life. From an encouraging word to a smile or a hand on a shoulder at just the right moment, it’s about caring enough, paying attention enough to know when and how. And in that moment, the smallest thing becomes great–even if it’s just belting in Elmo for a concerned four year old.