“As we get older, our world gets smaller,” the doctor said to my mom. We were at a follow-up appointment, and my mom and I were explaining to him how over the last few years, she’d moved from a large farm to a ranch-style house to a two-bedroom apartment and on and on.
“I guess that’s right,” Mom said. And I shook my head sympathetically. The doctor made another comment about how hard it is to age, and still thinking of the two of them — the doctor is almost as old as my mom — I felt a twinge of sorrow at their shrinking worlds.
It wasn’t until days, or maybe even weeks, later that I recognized the doctor’s philosophy at work in my own life. Though I’m just scratching at the door of 50, I’m one of the 23 percent of Americans known as the Sandwich Generation, caring for children and parents at the same time. I work at home primarily for the flexibility; my car can practically drive itself to two main locations: the boys’ school and my mom’s retirement community; and I avoid unnecessary travel because of the work it takes to prepare everyone for my absence. Even while we anticipate an empty nest in the next few years, we won’t be flying the coop anytime soon while we care for Mom and help the boys launch onto their own.
As someone who married late in life, and in fact, thought I might never marry or have children, I’m still amazed that this is my reality. And most days, I thank God for this small life he’s given me.
There are times I resent it, too, though. I grew up breathing the ether of doing big things for God. Every small effort was preparing me for something big. I was a leader in my high school and church youth group so someday I could lead entire companies or communities or churches. I wrote diligently for my college newspaper so someday I could write for The Washington Post. Short-term missions trips would lead to lifelong calls to the mission field. Small apartments would lead to big houses. Entry level positions would lead to offices with windows. Weekly deposits in my savings account would lead to a big retirement.
I heard sermons about the parable of the talents, encouraging me to use my gifts so that I could one day have bigger and better opportunities. I learned the story of King David, who moved from lowly shepherd to the royal leader of Israel. I was encouraged to see myself in the lives of great biblical characters whom God used to usher in his kingdom on earth, people who started at the bottom and worked their way up. Like Esther, an exiled Jew turned Queen of Persia, who was providentially placed for “such a time as this.” Or Solomon, the son of King David and Bathsheeba, known in some genealogies only as “the wife of Uriah,” whose great wisdom set him apart as much as his extraordinary wealth. Or the Apostle Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees committed to destroying “the Way,” who later brought Christianity to most of the known world and whose letters comprise a good chunk of the New Testament.
Looking at the small boundaries of my domestic, work-at-home life, I see nothing big in what I’m doing for God these days.
But I’ve also realized I’m not alone. The path from small to great doesn’t happen, and in fact isn’t even available, for everyone. Or even most of us. In reality, not every small effort grows into something bigger. Some people are neither leaders in high school or in life. They don’t even want to be missionaries for any length of time and to write for any publications at all. Some people work in low-paying jobs their whole lives, and many have no retirement beyond Social Security later in life.
In my own life, I’ve found the same to be true. Certainly my bank account and my paycheck are a little bigger now than when I first graduated from college, as is my home and my family. Also, as a writer, I’ve seen my small efforts at drafting blog posts and online articles eventually create more opportunity for bigger audiences and larger publications. But to be honest, the growth has been small. And as my sandwiched world grows smaller, so too does my time and energy to commit toward bigger and better projects. You might even say I’m stuck with small efforts for now because that’s all I can handle during this season of life. And unless I want to make myself miserable with unrequited ambition, I have to be okay with small.
But is that really okay?
One thing that’s always bothered me about the parable of the talents is how proportionate it all seems. The person who got five talents and invested them all got five talents back in return, just as the person who invested two received only two in return. The problem with the guy who buried his one talent was not the lavish return he missed out on (though a 50 percent return in any market is nothing to scoff at), but that he was lazy and fearful and didn’t do what the master asked. He was never going to get five talents like the first guy, or two like the second. He was only going to get one. Using this parable to inspire generations to move from small to great kind of misses the point.
Instead, I think the message of this parable is to not waste the opportunities we’re given for their own sake, even if our callings or gifts are very small and stay that way. In other words, we aren’t called to persist in our small efforts just so we can become great one day. We remain faithful because God is faithful, and whatever the return, it’s in his hands.
I think we can find the same encouragement from the life of the Apostle Paul. Sure, some of us will have dramatic conversion stories and be sent on adventurous missionary journeys like he was. Some of us will write letters (or books) that will changes lives for generations, and we’ll be remembered in history, like him, as some of the greats. Absolutely some of us will. Well, maybe a few of us. Or one of us. But the rest of us will lead lives like the people on the receiving end of Paul’s letters. We’re the ones who need to be reminded to love our spouses and not exasperate our children. We’re the ones who need the exhortation not to quarrel so much and to stop gossiping. We’re the ones whose greatest ambition should be to lead quiet lives and to work with our hands. We’re the ones who are leading small lives, and hopefully, we’ll be thankful for them.
If at this point you think I’ve said it’s okay to waste gifts, to squander opportunities, or to be lazy and call it spiritual, please hear me loud and clear that this is not my message. Instead, I’m calling all of us, myself first, to accept that the small efforts God calls us to are valid all on their own. Not because they’ll lead to greatness, not because they’ll double our return, not because we’re biding our time until the real work comes, but because this is the work God has given us to do, and in His eyes, it’s already great.