One of my realizations over the years is that it’s not always the big problems that can get a person down. Sure, major disasters and frustrations can certainly get in the way, but there’s often an accompanying sense of purpose to get moving past them. When my car is broken down on the side of the road, I have to put off doing whatever else I had planned, get it towed, get it fixed, pray for financial resources. When there’s a fire across the street, hose down the roof, pack up the car, pray for safety.
The little problems are those minor irritations that just keep irritating. If there’s a big spider in my kitchen, I’ll kill it. But if it’s a little fly? I’ll just mostly let it be, even if it occasionally buzzes by my ear while I’m trying to watch tv. Irritant, but not emergency. Enough of that irritant, though, and it disturbs the peace, upsets the serenity of a given moment, takes away from my reserves of patience.
Those are important reserves when I have young kids!
Enough irritations and life itself takes a negative turn. I start seeing frustration in every direction, try to pin it on people who are frustrating me, or plans that get out of sorts, or news that intends to rile me up about frustrations in places I’ve never even been to. Even as, on the surface, life is objectively good, the irritants rob the peace and invoke the chaos.
I call those little nagging frustrations “gnats”. They buzz around simply to be irritating.
I’ve sometimes let the gnats take over my moods, causing shadows and leading me away from what I should be doing. That doesn’t help. The gnats keep buzzing, they certainly don’t care about me or my moods.
That’s why I’m increasingly convinced there’s a theology of smallness: the small problems that distort our hopes, the small sins that lead us down wrong roads, the small discouragements that disorient our sense of purpose. I see that theology of smallness in the Gospels. There’s a big narrative, that’s for sure, but there’s also these particular stories and commands. Jesus didn’t really talk big politics, after all, he doesn’t address Rome, for instance, except to avoid the pointed questions.
He tends to turn the questions around to the asker, saying what they should do, or how they should prepare. Help your neighbor in the ways they need help right now.
Don’t murder, sure. But also don’t even get angry.
That’s a theology of smallness, because how can that fix all the problems in our world? But it’s the smallness that is important.
If every Christian in history actually did that, actually followed that command? Wow.
If every Christian was attentive to those small temptations and initial distortions? Wow.
If I did either of these things over the entire course of my life? Wow.
The quick response is to fall back into a discussion of grace, that I’m forgiven. Yada-yada-yada. But the gnats keep buzzing and the frustrations and self-judgments keep building.
A theology of smallness sees grace as an impetus to change, not a way of excusing the past. The past is past, but what can I do now?
I did two small things this week. One for my own sense of purpose and one for helping others. Neither are particularly important, and I likely won’t send announcements about them in my alumni newsletter.
I replaced the headliner in my 97 Honda Civic. It’s an old car, and I honestly don’t like it very much. It’s not fun to drive. I got it quite used in 2008, and it’s been well-used much more since. I see all the nice cars around, compare myself with people who are much younger who have much better. It gets me down. But, we have no car payments, and I don’t have a long commute. It makes sense. There’s that, but then there’s the gnats of how the interior fabric is falling apart and starting to rub against my head when I drive and drop dust whenever I swipe it away. Irritating!
I’ve gotten more and more negative about my car, tempting me to feel bad about finances, about job security, about decisions I’ve made, about… well that goes down a long road of gnattiness. Bzzz. Bzzzz. I got bored with that irritation, so I bought some fabric, watched a youtube video, and now the roof in my car looks fairly new.
Small, but it is a little bit of delight both in the aesthetic and in the feeling of accomplishing something that had a start, moments of things not going quite right, then finishing. That put me on a better trajectory. I’m not a headliner for a major academic conference or church event, but I got the old headliner out, and a new one in. Now I’m not as irritated with the car that God has given me and I know is right for us now and is a wiser use of our resources.
Small, but it affects how I think about a lot of things. The brain is weird, but it’s the only brain I have.
Second, I finally got to learning some video editing. That’s entirely unimpressive. But for a long time, I’ve recorded audio/video for my online courses, and they’ve sometimes turned out less than good. Add to this the need to make changes with older videos, to fix sound problems, etc. and so on. I’ve neglected posting videos of myself because I didn’t want to deal with the software, etc. and so on. Posted videos I knew had issues, because I didn’t have time to do anything different and neglected posting regular update videos because I didn’t have time.
Then felt irritated at them, got frustrated at myself when students rightfully complained, got to feeling like I could do more, then that I never can do enough, and why did God call me to this, and I don’t know what I’m even doing. Bzzzz. Bzzz.
So, fix some audio, edit some videos, easy tasks that I’m finally learning how to do, all so my students can have as quality an experiences as possible. Add to this helping my dad with his resurging literacy teaching in a group home, and my feeling of contributions grows, and then I see good things that God is doing, and how I’m somehow helping others in their work and ministry.
Being proactive with the small things, things I can do right now, things that are within my scope, invites a new song in my life for this day.
Swat the gnats, and it’s interesting how possibilities start awakening again.
Like writing a blog post again after far too long.