In Little Things

“Daily Service,” © Lynn Abbott Studios. Used with Permission.

© 2016 Lynn Abbott

At four, I sat down at Mrs. Brown’s piano bench, and tapped out notes which taken together resembled Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Later that afternoon, when my mother arrived home from her part-time position at The Times, I repeated my performance.

I was duly pronounced a child prodigy.

Mrs. Brown recommended lessons forthwith.

Mr. Williams, poor man, was delegated the daunting task of drawing forth genius from a most uncooperative student.

I wasn’t interested in lessons or the required practice; I simply wished to play at Carnegie Hall.

Nevertheless, piano lessons were satisfactorily arranged, and thus began the week by week saga of the tortured teacher.

Teaching me to play that beautiful instrument would require a miracle proportionate to that of Moses striking water from a rock.

Instead of practicing, I applied all my abilities to avoiding the application of any real effort, a talent I would cultivate to perfection throughout my musical career.

Each week, Mr. Williams arrived, prepared to take my musical education in hand.

And at the end of the dearly bought $8.00 per half hour, I was no closer to genius than I had been previously . . .

Yet, my scales and arpeggio book showed signs of the gradual onset of insanity wrought by myself upon that poor innocent man. Large, bold, #2-pencilled words–“READ THE NOTES”–punctuated each musical score in my piano books.

Despite such veiled attempts to motivate and inspire, I could not be bothered. I smiled and flattered my music instructor; I asked him to preview the week’s piece for me so that I might know to what level of excellence I should strive.

Then, I practiced what I committed to memory, the sound of the melody. Precocious, perhaps. Prodigy–obviously not.

George Li, who was playing at Carnegie Hall at age 11, I was not. Nor would I ever rival Mozart, who had originally taken Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to vast heights with his Theme and Variations.

Unfortunately, for my parents’ pocketbooks, practicing scales routinely bored me. And so I quit.  If I couldn’t play at Carnegie Hall, I didn’t think it worth playing at all.

After all,  I preferred vacation to school; weekends to workdays; relaxation to responsibility; mountaintops to valley floors.

In fact, that has been the story of my life.  Maybe, you can relate.

After all, I think most of us would rather scale the heights than slog around on the plains. We live for laurels and in between times, we long for the holidays.

We simply endure the day-to-day.

And whenever possible, I generally avoided the mundane.

My mother, however, always used to remind me that one cannot soar without practice; that the mastery of scales forms the foundation of the symphony.

Nevertheless, I always wished to skip practice.  The daily routine, the repetition of skills, was of little interest to me.  And as soon as any endeavor required persistent practice, I prepared to jump ship.

Of course, as a child I was oblivious to the anxieties I most certainly caused.

However, I can now well imagine my mother’s concern for her meandering child.  Mom knew that I would need a lot more than big dreams to get by in this world.

And she also knew firsthand the beauty and value that can be found in the seemingly mundane.

Mom was a wise woman.

Had I not been so starry-eyed,  I would have recognized it sooner.  After all, as I read Scripture, I see again and again God’s incredible love for the seemingly insignificant… for those who appear to have little to give…

The boy with a lunch of two small fish and a little bread,

The shepherd with a sling-shot,

The widow with only a few pennies for the temple offering,

Rahab–the former prostitute,

Gideon–the fearful,

The starving widow with only a smidgen of oil and flour,

A rag-tag bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and other outsiders…

Did they live their lives at the pinnacle of success?  Hardly.

But they were faithful.

And our omnipotent, omniscient, loving and gracious God looked beyond their circumstances and right into their hearts.

As Mother Theresa so eloquently put it: “‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Yeah, my four-year old self dreamed big.  I looked for significance on the glorious mountaintops. Forget the hard work on the valley floor.

Difficult days?  Time to schedule a vacation.  Walk away from all that frustrated me.

No wonder my mother worried; she knew well that God measures success by a very different scale.

God defines success not by our mountaintop achievements but rather by our quiet work on the valley floor, (Matthew 25:23).

In my middle-age, I recognize this.  I have learned that much of life requires what Charles Ryrie called “routine faithfulness.”

Even so, it remains a struggle.  I’m thankful that God in His grace has revealed that I’m not the only one who has ever had difficulty  persevering through the mundane dailies.

With their eyes on greatness,  the disciples found it difficult to comprehend the importance of “routine faithfulness.”

I’m sure that’s why Jesus spent so much time speaking about the value of a humble, servant’s heart.

A simple survey of their journey with Jesus quickly demonstrates their misunderstanding of success.  Like most of the Hebrews of that day, they longed to escape the rule of Rome.

They evaluated their lives based on their circumstances.

Thus, they prayed for God to change all of that.  Yet, our heavenly Father is more concerned with our internal state.  First and foremost, He longs to transform our hearts.

And while He often does alter our circumstances, His first priority remains rescuing the human soul; Jesus’ first coming focused on preparing us for His kingdom.

Jesus certainly communicated this truth when asked to heal the paralytic whose friends found a way to lower him through the roof.  He stunned the room with His statement, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” (Luke 5:20).

The Pharisees balked.  They well knew that only God has the power and the right to forgive sin.   With that simple statement, Jesus clearly identified Himself as God incarnate.

While He healed the paralytic in order to build the faith  of his hearers, Jesus’s priority was the paralytic’s heart (Luke 5:23-24).

In contrast, humanity tends to value externals.  We elevate the spectacular, the miraculous.  Seeking worldly success rather than authentic significance, we chase fame and fortune.  We honor appearances.

The disciples were no different.  They wished to rise to prominence; to escape the burden of Roman oppression.

To be honest, I don’t blame them.

For this reason, as did many of their contemporaries, they skipped right over the prophecies in Isaiah which detailed suffering of  Messiah.

No room for the Suffering Servant.

Instead, the disciples looked forward to the triumphant King.

I get that.  Who wants to read of suffering?  Or even sacrificial service? Let’s just skip right over that part and jump to the end of the book.

I love to read of Christ’s return, peace and redemption.

I applaud the arrival of heaven on earth.

I adore God’s promise of the happily, forever after.

Apparently, so did the disciples. For this reason, they looked for a political Messiah.

And Jesus’ miracles apparently fostered their hopes.  In fact, their dreams of greatness often obscured their understanding. Initially, they missed God’s first priority.

Although Jesus addressed the condition of their hearts, they mostly embraced all that coincided with their expectations of a political Savior.

But before we are too hard on the twelve, it’s important to note that even John the Baptist puzzled over the fact that Christ did not overthrow Rome.

That’s right.  John, the one who announced Christ’s coming, began to second guess, (Matthew 11:1-2). Imprisoned by Herod, he sent word to Jesus to ask if Jesus were indeed the Messiah.

It seems that John also expected Jesus to first alter Israel’s circumstances. Like so many of us, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” also wished to escape unpleasant events.

Yet, in His grace,  Jesus answered those doubts by noting His faith building miracles, (Matthew 11:4-6).  God understands that His children have limited sight.  And in His great love, He tenderly redirects our perspective.

He uses circumstances; He builds our faith through miraculous grace.

Yes, He can and does transform our circumstances.  But His primary goal is the transformation and illumination of our hearts.

Sometimes, I’m a slow learner.

But so were the disciples.  At least, there’s comfort in that.

The twelve, in fact, argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom.  And Jesus patiently responded,  “‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all,'” (Mark 9:35).

When James and John’s jostled for kingdom prominence, Jesus predicted that the “sons of thunder” would both serve and share in Christ’s suffering, (Matthew 20: 20-28).

God’s plan? Thorns before the crown (Philippians 2: 5-9).   In God’s economy, transformed hearts trump altered circumstances.

One particularly striking contrast between God’s priorities and human perspective occurs toward the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

For three years, the disciples observed Christ’s love and sacrificial service.

Biblical scholars frequently note that Mark’s gospel reflects “Christ, the Suffering Servant.”

It would seem, then,  that the twelve had learned the importance of faithful service in seemingly small things.

But Judas Iscariot just didn’t get it.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and the twelve stopped to see their friends in Bethany, (Mark 14:1-10; John 12:1-8).  Simon hosted a dinner in Christ’s honor and Lazarus, and Martha and Mary helped.

During dinner, Mary took a pint of expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet. Given that foot-washing was a regular part of daily life, the anointing itself would not have been highly unusual.

But Mary, a respected woman in the community, took the role of a servant.  In addition, she used perfume in place of water.

It was a gift from the heart, an act of sacrificial service and worship.

She beautifully served her Savior in the midst of the daily mundane.

Judas grumbled.  He called her gift a waste and compared her service to another: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5).

Seems a simple enough question.  But Jesus knew the heart of the matter.  Scripture tells us that Judas was the book-keeper.  And apparently, he had a habit of pilfering from the till.

Judas apparently followed with expectation of worldly gain.  Indeed, I believe his betrayal grew from disappointment and anger when it became clear that Jesus would not overthrow Rome.

Judas didn’t truly care about giving to the poor.  If anything,  he voiced objections motivated by a preoccupation with religious appearances, applause and mountaintop experiences.  He heard the kingdom message, but the enemy snatched the seed, (Matthew 13:19).

Judas, in fact, never understood.

The Suffering Servant  washed His disciples’ feet in the upper room; yet, Judas’ heart remained hard.   Even so, Judas walked away from His Messiah.

Yes, God cares more about the state of our hearts than He does about our grand gestures.

How could a bottle of perfume be useful to God?

Mary wholeheartedly served her Savior with what she had.

She gave with great love.

And Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her,” (Mark 14:9)

I will never play Beethoven’s fifth in Carnegie Hall.  Nor will my art hang in the Smithsonian.

Mom, however, was right. Patient perseverance produces something by far more valuable:  Christlike maturity, (2 Peter 1:5-8).

You and I may not achieve great fame or fortune.  In this world, it’s likely we will traverse more valleys than mountaintops.

Yet, our heavenly Father treasures our gifts of faithfulness and love, no matter how mundane they may seem.

Abba looks beyond worldly circumstances and delights in the faithful heart of His beloved child.

And that makes life’s valleys worth it all.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward,” ~ Colossians 3:23-24

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him,” ~2 Corinthians 2:14