Maybe it was growing up in a family where I didn’t always feel heard, or somewhere tucked in the years I felt I was never enough; somehow I managed to equate doing something good with doing something big. When I graduated from high school I was chosen to give the commencement address. My speech all those many years ago was titled: Making A Difference.
In it, I told a story that happened almost 40 years ago now, at the Seattle Special Olympics:
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with the relish to run the race to the finish. And win. All that is, but one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry. The others heard the boy cry and a few turned around and went back. One little girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then they linked arms, and walked together to the finish line.
I wrote that by memory because all those years ago the power of the story tucked itself so deeply in my heart. It’s a beautiful story. An incredible image of compassion, community and truly coming alongside. But looking back on it, I realize that for most of my life I believed that in order to make a difference I needed to do something great. The Olympians who turned around and went back did an incredibly big thing. They sacrificed their own race to help an opponent. They went back for someone who had fallen behind and this wasn’t just any race. It was the Olympics!
As this story settled deeply into my subconscious, so too did the belief that great things equate to BIG things. Not necessarily for everyone, but for me. As though my worthiness weighed on a different scale: I needed to earn it. If there was a problem to be solved, then I needed to fix it.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift from God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10
The older I get the more I see I was wrong. It’s rarely ever our big things that make a lasting difference. Sometimes the big things don’t ever really matter at all. We have nothing to earn and nothing to prove by making ourselves great. So many times I’ve missed the opportunity to help someone because I got so focused on the problem and couldn’t see how I could fix it. In looking for a big solution, I missed all the small ways to love.
We were prepared in advance to do good works, which means they’re going to happen despite us. Despite our inabilities, our insecurities or our weakness. Most likely, they’re going to happen because of them. Perhaps there is far more power in us learning to become small.
More often than not it’s the small, simple things that make the biggest impact. The things we don’t even know we’re doing are usually the very things that have the greatest potential to change a life. The simple act of being aware, paying attention and showing up for our life.
Without question, the story from the Special Olympics was a big thing. These athletes train long and hard for their events and are every bit as committed to winning as any other athlete. But the truth is their story only became big in retrospect. It was exaggerated and publicized because of the small act a few compassionate runners made. The Special Olympics oath is: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I have a suspicion that those who turned back weren’t looking to do something big. They were just trying to be brave with their life.
Something that mattered much more than a race.
It reminds me of how we are called to live. Not looking for ways to be big, but for opportunities to be brave. Right where we are. Beth Moore said: “God has more than random acts of kindness for us. He has appointments. Let’s not miss them just because we can’t fix them.”
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, “come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you” – when you already have it with you.
We’re simply asked to be generous with the gifts and abilities we have been given, right where we are. Right in our own lane. When we have the power to act, to have the courage to do it. To not question and wonder, or delay until tomorrow what we have the ability to do today. Just because we can’t fix a problem doesn’t mean we can’t show up and offer something in love. These will never be great things by our standards, because they’re ordinary. But God does extraordinary things through ordinary obedience.
The greatest things are small things.
All those years ago I made that speech and I’ve never stopped desiring it to be true. But in some ways, I got sidetracked. In my attempt to make a difference I thought I needed to change myself first. I believed that somehow I needed to become more, better, braver or bigger to serve well. I thought I needed to fix the whole problem or not try at all. But all He ever asked was from me was to show up. We don’t have to change the world in order to make a difference. We don’t need to become more or better before we can serve. So maybe instead of thinking so big we begin to learn how to love small – knowing that the things that ultimately matter most, will probably look like the things that matter least.