The Power of Little by Little

If you hold a single garden seed in your hand, it is a rather unimpressive thing. But the power is not in its first impression; the power is in its remaining under the ground where, little by little, it grows until it becomes a thing of prevailing influence. Such is the way of the kingdom of heaven.

The world demands that we are only significant when we make a big impact. To even get a chance to make such an impact, we often have to make a great first impression. Such a way compresses time. It requires haste. It pressures us to find methods that tempt us to reduce people to substances that must be converted into conformity with our agenda. Having reduced them to a factor in the socio-chemical equation, we now look for “catalysts” that will spark the chain-reaction of change for them to come in line with our compelling vision.

Such a method has the appeal of brevity, especially if our goal is a noble one, but it is often at direct odds with the way of the kingdom of heaven, which Christ describes this way:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Matthew 13:31-32 (ESV)

To be sure, earnest, even fierce, effort is permitted, along with audacious prayer (Matt 11:12. Luke 11:8). But once every effort has been made, once we have broken down the door to the kingdom’s treasury, what we are likely to find there is not a once-for-all-time trophy, but a sack of mustard seeds and the law of the farm to guide us.

Since the coming of the effects of the virus to my city in March 2020, the richest relationships I have cultivated outside my family — by far — have been with the garbage men and the yard men. Why? Because of the mustard seed principle of little-by-little. Tuesdays and Fridays I am likely to see Juan, José, Pickens, Harrison, Michael, Emmett, Earl, Mario, Javier, Justin, Roy, or Anthony. (Not all at once; the garbage crews for normal waste and recyclable waste work shifts on their trucks.)

Each interaction is brief but authentic. Most interactions are light but sincere. There is an occasional prayer or encouragement given one another. Is it awkward sometimes? Of course. Do we go deep fast? No, though there was that one day I rode the side of the garbage truck briefly to help out until an auxiliary crewman arrived. (It was our common fear of lawyers that made my shift a short one.) Later, they gave me a crew hat. They call me “Papa,” I whose world has very little in common with theirs, and yet, on the other hand, everything in common. The mustard seed has taken root.

Or take my friends Dave & Karen Eubank of Free Burma Rangers in the jungles of Southeast Asia at present, where they walk with — and sometimes flee with — the tribal ethnic minorities whose villages are being bombed by jets. Houses are burned to the ground. Crops perish. People too. “We are mice among rhinos,” they say, and that is true. And yet what do they do? Do they cry out in despair, “The task is too great! There are thousands of refugees, a large army at their heels, and only a handful of us helping!” They might think those thoughts, but they are not the guiding ones. Instead, little by little, they serve in the name of Christ one displaced villager at a time, helping a husband dig a bomb shelter while Karen holds his grieving young bride, helping a mom bury her grandmother killed by shrapnel, helping stitch up the torn body of a child.

And one day, when all suburban garbage has been collected and all wars have ceased, what will remain will be what was done, little by little, in love. This is why, I am convinced, heaven will look so very different than what we may imagine. For it will be comprised of a million mustard seed moments that have taken root to become a great Narnian forest, each unpretentious deed more important than we ever realized; the influence longer lasting than we ever dreamed; a vast mountain slope of little loving acts remembered; the ascent to further up and further in.

© Kurt Mähler

Photos: (1) Mustard seeds scattered upon Christ’s parable about the power of “faith like a mustard seed,” Mark 11:22-24. (2) A field of mustard plants in bloom beneath a tree in Dalat, Vietnam.

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  • Billy Ray says:

    That’s so good, Kurt. Thanks for sharing that.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      You are welcome. Coming from a man who labored little-by-little for 12 years in the Middle East to build a lasting good thing for the community where you lived, it means much to be that you would write that! ~ km

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