Little things mean a lot

I bumped into Jeff (not his real name) on my way to the weekly communion service in the grounds of the mental health care centre where he is living these days.

'Hi, Jeff! How are you? Are you coming to the service today?'

'Well, no, I don’t think so. I've got a cough and sore throat, and I'm a bit bothered about all the stuff in the Bible about war …'

'I'm sorry you've got a sore throat. I do hope it will be better soon. Maybe I'll see you at the service another day …'

A brief conversation I forgot almost completely as soon as it was over. But not so Jeff. Two weeks later there he was at the communion service. What took me by surprise was his deliberately thanking me for having talked to him when he wasn't feeling good, and for understanding why he wasn't coming to the service on the previous occasion.

I'd simply acted out of basic friendliness as I understand it. From my perspective, I hadn't offered him anything much; I certainly hadn't tried to help him find answers to his questions about the contents of the Bible, or entered into theological debate. But to Jeff, other more important things were going on. The hospital chaplain commented to me that Jeff probably isn't used to being allowed to decide what he prefers to do on a given day and then affirmed in his choices.

If my hardly noticed conversation meant so much to Jeff, how many other tiny actions may I be omitting to do, never realising how much difference they might make?

An often-quoted anecdote came to mind. The white Anglican priest, Trevor Huddlestone, doffed his hat in simple courtesy to a black woman. Ordinary in some contexts; trivial even, and possibly dated now. Yet that small act was
so unusual in apartheid South Africa that it caught the attention of the woman's son, one Desmond Tutu. What if that incident hadn't happened? How could Trevor Huddlestone possibly guess how important his gesture of respect might prove to be in a young man's life, in his journey to becoming a Christian, and ultimately in the history of South Africa?

Reflecting on this, I came across this quotation from an interview with playwright Dennis Potter, at the time suffering from severe arthritis:

I have the sense that the world is made every day, second by second, minute by minute, and we, living in this world, give back some of that initial gift minute by minute, second by second; that even the most trivial choice can have awesome consequences; we choose to live in relation to other people in a continual tension of choice; that choice has its origin in a loving creation, and that loving creation is continually in battle and tension with, and in obvious opposition to, the misery, cruelty and crudity of an imperfect world that we have to endure and live in and do battle with.

Jesus was fond of talking about seeds and growth. Small things, simple, everyday things – hairs on a head, sparrows, mustard seeds, cups of water – took his attention and became subjects of many sayings and parables. Maybe as a follower of Jesus I need to learn how to slow down enough to give greater attention to small details and to be alert enough to notice their impact on what happens later.

Trisha Dale