A year ago, I was at a religious education conference which had as its keynote speaker Maya Angelou, a black woman of considerable talent and remarkable graciousness. Among the many things she shared was this story:
“When I was six years old,” she said, “one summer day on the playground a little boy called me a nigger. Fall came that year, winter came that year, spring came that year and brought with it all kinds of flowers, and summer came in all its splendour and beauty – but, in all that richness, the only thing I can remember from that whole year is being called a nigger!”
Hearing her, I was reminded of a story I once heard from John Patrick Gillese, one of our Western Canadian writers. He tells the story of going home, to the small town in Alberta where he had grown up, for a funeral of an elderly woman. Among the many messages of condolence that were sent to her family there was a note from a family who now lived in British Columbia and who had left that small Alberta district some 30 years before. The note expressed sympathy to the family on the loss of their grandmother and added simply: “We will never forget how kind she was to us back in the 1930s.” Here was a family who remembered a small act of kindness, whatever it was, fifty years later.
These stories, although they make the point in opposite ways, teach the same thing: Small acts, of cruelty or kindness, leave their effect long after the effects of events of seemingly much greater importance have passed away.
There is, I believe, a profound lesson in this. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus assures us, is about mustard seeds, about small seemingly unimportant things, but which, in the long run, are the big things.
Not much in our world today helps us to believe that. Most everything urges us to think big and to be careless about small things. The impression is given us that what is private in our lives is little and unimportant. Likewise what is played out on the smaller stage of life – in the more domestic areas of family, marriage, and our exchanges with our neighbours and colleagues – is also deemed to be of little consequence. The big stage is what is important. What mark have you left in the world? What have you achieved on the bigger stage? What has been your involvement in the great causes? Nobody cares about your little life! Private morality, private grudges, the little insults that we hand out, our many angers and resentments, the small infidelities within our sexual lives, the many little acts of selfishness, and, conversely, the small acts of sacrifice and selflessness that we do and the little compliments that we hand out, these are not valued much in our culture. As a song suggests: “Our little lives don’t count at all!”
I remember a young man, very dedicated to social causes, once asking me: “Do you really think that God gives a damn whether or not you say your morning prayers, or whether or not you hold some small grudge, or whether or not you are always polite to your colleagues, or whether or not you are always chaste sexually? That’s petty, small, private stuff that deflects attention off of the bigger moral issues.”
Well, I believe that God does care, and that God cares a great deal because, in the end, we care and small things, as these stories illustrate, affect a great deal.
I have always found it ironic that we easily forget the big things, the events that seem of great importance. Who won the Nobel prize for literature two years ago? Who won the academy awards last year? Who won the Super Bowl three years ago? Who won the World Cup 10 years ago? Who starred in that Broadway (or West End) play three years ago? It’s funny how quickly we tend to forget these things. It is also curious what we do not forget.
We tend to forget quickly who won such or such an award, or who starred in such and such a movie or play. But we remember, and remember vividly, with all the healing and grace it brought, who was nice to us all those years ago on the playground at school. We remember who encouraged us when we felt insecure. Conversely, we also remember, and remember vividly, with all the scars it brought, who laughed at us on the playground, made fun of our clothes, or who called us stupid.
Falls come, winters come, springs come, summers come and go, and sometimes the only thing we can remember from a given year is some small mustard seed, of cruelty or kindness.