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.’
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can all do small things with great love” – Mother Teresa
I don’t know when it started. I have some ideas of how it started, but that’s a different story for a different time. At some point, I convinced myself (or allowed myself to be convinced) that I had to save the world. I didn’t necessarily have to do it alone. And of course there was the tacit theological understanding that it was Jesus who had already saved the world… whatever that means…
None of that mattered.
My job was to save the world. Or as much of it as I could.
My definition of “saving” changed over time. At one point, it looked more like evangelism. Everyone must get saved! At a later point, it looked more like service. Serve everyone and the world will be saved.
I’ve always imagined that I would work myself out of a job. Isn’t that funny? I’ve always imagined the world’s problems were solvable by the right mixture of logic and compassion. The plan, unspoken and unwritten as it was? Save the world. Retire. Write about how I saved the world.
It’s laughable, right? Absolutely hysterical.
And yet, these thoughts have been a driving factor in my work for more than a decade and a half. And as I look around the landscape of 21st century American Christianity, I don’t think that I was alone. We’ve created a culture around the church where talented individuals are given platforms just like in the rest of the dominant culture. The goal many of us had/have is that if the right people (or right number of people) hear our sermons, read our books, support our non-profits, listen to our podcasts, or yes, read our blogs, then our ideas will change the world. Technology means that we have the capacity to broadcast the right theology, share the best practices, and ultimately create the beloved community in a digital realm… thus saving the world. We all bought into it, to some extent, but I’ll admit that perhaps my ambitions were more grandiose than others. I wanted to be a hero.
Yesterday in therapy I uttered three statements that my therapist then had me repeat. They came out of mouth, having been buried in a place so deep inside of me that it’s taken the better part of four years to unearth.
“I can’t save the world”
“nobody expects me to save the world”
“these things are okay”
It doesn’t seem like much. Three pretty simple, and incredibly obvious statements. Saying them aloud, however, revealed that I have believed the opposites of these statements to be true.
“I could save the world”
“Everybody expects me to save the world”
“The fact that I haven’t yet saved it is not okay”
Imagine walking around with that inside of you. I don’t have to imagine. Let me tell ya’. It sucks! No wonder I have suffered with anxiety and depression for so long. No wonder I’ve had difficulty feeling like I have a place in the world. No wonder why I’ve constantly felt like I’m letting everybody down. It’s amazing that I’ve stayed as sane as I have.
The supreme irony of all of this is that I have always preached the opposite of this to everyone else. The parables of the mustard seed and yeast are among my favorite passages in scripture. They speak to the Kingdom of God being about small things that have multiplying and positive effect. Our goal is to steward and nurture the seed, to cultivate and distribute the yeast.
Mother Teresa says it best. Our job is to do small things with great love.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not an easier task. Doing small things means putting aside pride and ego. Doing small things means there may be no gratitude or validation coming your way. Doing small things means going unnoticed and unappreciated. You can’t brand small things. You can’t capitalize on small things. You may get lost in the shuffle. Does the yeast ever know when it’s bread? You may get broken apart. The actual mustard seed doesn’t fair so well in the mustard-making process. (let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that mustard seeds don’t actually grow into trees, okay?). There’s no glory in small things.
But there is peace. Ridding myself of the burden of saving the world helps me to have gratitude at the small acts of love of which I do get to be a part. It helps me to rest, knowing that the world is not my responsibility. It helps me to be more present, looking more attentively at where the small things that need doing might be found.
I can’t save the world. I don’t have the capacity. Never did. I have neither the abilities nor the patience. I not wise enough, brave enough, or strong enough.
No one expected me to save the world. Well, maybe some did, but they were as misguided as I was. Most people, those who think about me at all, just think I’m alright, a nice guy capable of what nice guys are capable of. Which ain’t much.
And it’s okay. If I do the little bit that I can do, that will be enough. And I can rest. And I don’t always need to be “on”. And the world will continue spinning on its axis. And, with any luck, the people around me will know I love them. And that’s enough.