President Graham Walker delivered the following Charge to Graduates, May 12, at Patrick Henry College Commencement 2012.
It is my privilege to give you a concluding challenge today. Of course you are used to hearing challenges. But today I’m not going to challenge you to do Big Things. Instead I’m going to challenge you to do small things. Yes, small things!
I’m taking my cue from chapter four of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus relates three kingdom parables that are all about seeds: The parable of the sower of seed and the soils, the parable of the farmer and the growing seed in the field, and the parable of the Mustard Seed.
You probably know the parable of the sower and the soils rather well (Mark 4:3-20). Usually people remember the different soils -- by the roadside, on the rock, the weed-filled soil and the good soil. But the most important item in the story is not the soil but the seed. It’s the seed that has the life in it, not the soil; moreover, if the seed is not hindered by the soil conditions, then its creative energy springs up. It’s the good seed that then bears fruit, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred-fold.
Then there’s the parable of the growing seed, which people forget more easily. It reads like this in Mark 4:26-29 (NKJV):
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Then immediately Jesus tells the Parable of the Mustard Seed (verses 30-32):
“To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”
All three parables tell us how the kingdom of God works. All three are about tiny, apparently dead things that have a powerful, inexplicable life in them -- small things that eventually, unpredictably, have big effects.
Well, the world is not interested in tiny, apparently dead little things. We live in a culture that is preoccupied with strategies that can be counted on to produce specific results that are prompt, predictable and obvious. In the media, in business, in government, and even in churches these days, you hear a lot about “measurable return on investment,” “strategic growth pathways with checkpoints and benchmarks,” “leveraging opportunities for specific results,” “strategic calculations for measurable impact,” and of course “growing profit margins” – ideally, exponentially growing – and, in any case, measurable.
In this results-oriented culture, you hear a lot about what they call “Quantified Success,” which is measured in things like: number of touch points; number of web hits; number of Twitter followers; number of elections won; number of gadgets sold; production performance goals met, and quantifiable productivity increases.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for this kind of thinking -- in business management, in the administration of public agencies, even in the management of higher education.
But be wary of letting it become the way you think about yourself, your life and your soul. Even if there is an appropriate place for what I might call the Ideology of Big Measurable Success, the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it creates its own culture -- an environment of ideas and imperatives and even feelings. When you are inside such a culture, it is hard to think otherwise.
But these seed parables should give you pause. They make me think of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Strategic impact seminars led by the latest management guru are not going to renew your mind in this way; in fact, they may have the effect of conforming your mind even more deeply to the world’s obsession with Big Success.
So I challenge you to be a Kingdom person. I challenge you to do the small, good things that are within your reach. Otherwise you may find that your preoccupation with the big things may harden you against the small good things. I know you don’t want to end up like the proverbial fool who swears his love for humanity but is grouchy or dismissive with the man next door.
What are the small good things that are within your reach?
Well, consider these:
- A word of kindness to a friend, or a stranger in a supermarket aisle.
- A secretly breathed prayer of intercession for a coworker.
- A small comment during office chat, urging that somebody be given the benefit of the doubt.
- Letting someone else get credit for something that you could easily claim credit, or at least some credit, for.
- Saying thank you to someone who ought to say thank you to you.
- Apologizing for something that deserves your apology, even though somebody else owes you an apology even more than you owe it to them.
- A small comment that you’re trying to trust God with a work or family challenge.
- Stopping to pray for somebody, right on the spot, when you hear about a need. For example, yesterday I was in a meeting with some of our trustees, and I mentioned that another trustee had a major illness in his family, who needed to be included on our prayer list. Another trustee at the table said, “Why don’t we stop and pray for them right now,” and he did. It only took a minute, and I hope it opened God’s blessing for that family. I know it affected the atmosphere of our whole business meeting.
Zechariah 4:10 warns us not to despise the “day of small things” or “small beginnings.” And rightly so, because you don’t know what the Lord Jesus may do with one small act of self-denial or kindness. He may multiply it, like a loaf of bread and two fish, to feed thousands. He may use it to grow a superstructure of friendship and trust whose “branches” are so sturdy that many “birds of the air” find shelter in them.
In Luke 16:10, Jesus reminds us that “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.” And his three parables of the seeds, in Mark chapter 4, tell us that small things like tiny dead-looking seeds produce big results -- though unpredictable, beautiful and hard to measure.
Certainly you can devise a strategic success pathway, based upon data and past performance, to achieve maximum public impact on a major issue. God can and will bless such efforts. But such a “success pathway” is not like a mysterious mustard seed whose dynamism is inscrutably supernatural; it takes little or no faith. It is not like the farmer whose seed sprouts and “he himself does not know how.” It’s more like a farmer with an advanced degree in agronomy who knows exactly how his crop grows.
You can, and maybe should, be a strategic, calculating farmer in many things. But please be more than that. Be also a supernatural farmer who prayerfully plants the little seeds of Kingdom kindness.
Seen in the longest sweep of time, I’m not really arguing against measurable impact. But I am arguing for a concern with an impact whose measurability exceeds the present season of life, or even the present age. I have no doubt that the “crown of life that the Lord, the righteous judge, will give on that day,” will be a measurable, tangible benefit (2 Timothy 4:8).
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). If you invest in small things that may only be measured and valued at the second coming of Christ, then your heart will surely be secure . . . even while you are doing big things for God!
Dr. Graham Walker in 1988 received the Edward S. Corwin Award from the American Political Science Association for the best dissertation in the nation in the field of public law. His first book, The Ethics of F.A. Hayek, was published in 1986. His second book, Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought, was published in 1990. He has served as PHC's President since 2006. Read full bio.