I am the type that retrieves a water bottle from a trash can and puts it in the recycle bin. Just did it leaving class last night. I often feel compelled to take small actions like that—with a sense that they matter. Once in Honduras I joined neighbors to stop a forest fire from reaching our homes. A trail in the woods was our line of defense. We cleared brush on both sides of the trail so the fire would not cross that line. Then we stood guard in case sparks blew across the trail. As I watched the fire crawl down the hill towards us I looked at the little pine trees in between the trail and the approaching flames. While others stood by, I went up the hill a few yards and began clearing more brush. I made a new line of defense that saved a few of the trees. In the months ahead I would pass those trees and think, “little things matter.” We see this in the Bible—a few loaves and fishes, a mustard seed, a few coins. Thinking of forest fires reminds me that James states it explicitly. The tongue is a small thing, but like a small fire can set a whole forest ablaze so the small tongue can do great harm (James 3:1-12). Little things matter. Big things can come from them. Although I can make a biblical case for this point, I can’t claim my attention to small things flows from reading the Bible. Perhaps it does. Perhaps it is my personality. Whatever the origin of it, I do live as if little things matter.
My conviction that little things matter was reinforced in a number of ways in the last couple weeks. Articles warning of negative consequences of overuse of mobile devices have gone mainstream. I have read and heard many in recent days. An article in Time reported that, since 2010, rates of teenage depression and suicide have increased dramatically. Many believe mobile phone use and social media are a significant reason. (Just one statistic, see the article for more: adolescents who use electronic devices three or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have a suicide related outcome than those who used them two hours or less; with five hour daily use the likelihood increased to 48%.) That article, or news clips like this one and this one from NPR, saddened and sobered me. Yet, little things matter. There is hope.
A student, Matt Vincent, wrote this in a post last week:
A while ago, we "woke up" to the reality that our kids were spending more and more time online—either playing games or watching youtube/video content. We were beginning to notice some behavioral changes like those mentioned in the audio posts--grumpy, irritable, temper, and withdrawn. My wife and I decided to impose a "technology fast" for the kids—taking away phones, computer, etc. for a week. Our kids were not fans of this idea, and tried their best to argue that it wasn't needed and everything was fine :)
Almost immediately, we noticed a change in them. They started hanging out and playing more together; they spent more time outside with friends, and our time together as a family was better. We enjoyed longer conversations around the dinner table, and did more activities together. It was a pretty remarkable change.
Little things matter, and studies affirm what this student observed—remarkable positive change can come quickly. In a New York Times article Sherry Turkle describes an alarming drop in empathy amongst children and youth. Then she writes:
But we are resilient. The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Resiliency is not limited to humans, it is found throughout God’s creation. I saw this in another student’s reflection a couple weeks ago. Eric Miller visited a Kansas farmer as part of an act-observe-reflect-adjust assignment. Eric retells the farmer’s story from a recent seven-year drought.
One August morning he walked out of the house and it was already uncomfortably hot as the sun began to rise. He thought about his 2,000 acres of crops and his ten irrigation pivots which were each pumping 1000 gallons per minute out of the Equs Beds Aquifer. It was in that moment he started to call into question the sustainability of these methods where much of the crops grown in our state are consumed by animals so we can consume the animals. When I asked him about the future, he said without missing a beat, “We’re going to run out of water. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
He is currently in process of transitioning a quarter section (160 acres) back to grass and grazing his cows on it. This is only possible because there is now a growing market for grass-fed beef. He is also planting cover crops all winter and using the cover crops as mulch in which he plants grain in the spring. These methods have allowed him to use one tenth of the water he had been using! The young man who is working alongside him and in process of taking over the farming operation has hired a crop consultant who is helping them move away from monocultural farming methods in order to reduce the amount of herbicides and pesticides needed, which in turn reduces input costs and increases profitability. At one point in our conversation he told me, “Kansas was meant to be prairie. At some point it will need to return to Prairie.” Their crop consultant is helping them consider how to use the natural gifts of the prairie to produce food in the most sustainable ways.
Little things matter. They are worth doing. Of course one could say, “this is a huge farm these are not little things—that is a lot of cover crop.” True, but the huge ramifications that flow from small changes still led me to think, “little things matter.” There is hope.
It is not just in growing food that little things matter, also in eating it. One student described radical life-giving changes that flowed from his avoiding sugar in his diet. Little things matter. They can bring positive changes to our lives. And little things matter not just in what we eat, but also in the setting, the meal itself. This semester a few students wrote of making the commitment to prepare meals at home and eat together around a table for the week the course focused on food and farming. As students have observed other years, this contributes to so much more than intake of healthier food. They describe increased laughter, connection, sharing. The relational impact from this simple change exceeded expectations. Little things matter.
As we seek to name others, little things matter—a question, looking someone in the eyes. Last week a woman told me of a vivid memory from a few years ago. She was sitting with her husband and another man—all three were in leadership roles in ministry. She recounted that her husband brought up a controversial Rob Bell book. She said, “so I braced myself for a long theological discussion where my brain wanders but my face pretends to listen attentively. My husband casually mentioned that I also had read the book and at the next pause in conversation the other man looked at me and asked, ‘What did you think about it?’ This small question spoke volumes. I’ve been in Christian settings and leadership positions for many years, and I remember this as the first time someone specifically and genuinely asked for my thoughts. It was one of those revealing moments that was disappointing because it shed light on how often I’m not asked questions–especially when my husband is around–but it also was an incredibly beautiful moment.” Little things matter.
How have you gained hope and been encouraged by seeing God use little things in your life or ministry? What little things might God be calling you to do?