The other day, I got together with a pastor friend who is feeling discouraged and overwhelmed by the extent of the Gulf oil spill and his inability to respond. He is in the midst of teaching a series of sermons on a Christian response to the environment and confessed that he is feeling discouraged because the problem is so big that there is no way that he can solve it. The small steps he is able to take seem insignificant and inadequate in the face of the environmental disasters we are facing, so his tendency is to sit and do nothing. On top of that there are other overwhelming challenges that just don't seem to go away -- AIDS, malaria, poverty, child slavery. The enormity of the task defeats him and, like many of us, he wants to turn away and ignore them.
Western society thrives on the belief that all problems are solvable and that we personally can find and implement solutions. We want to see instant success that wins us applause and means we can then move on to the next problem that needs to be solved. But our world is not like that, and God is not like that either. Otherwise the time between the Fall and the new creation would have only been a few weeks or maybe the transformation would have happened overnight.
There are two scriptures that I find very encouraging when faced with enormous problems like this. One is the story of the mustard seed:
Here is another illustration Jesus used: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32 NLT)
The other is the story about giving a cup of cold water:
"Then these righteous ones will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?'
"And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!' (Matthew 25:37-40 NLT)
God not only works through the small and insignificant, but God also notices the seemingly insignificant things that we do. Building the kingdom is about lots of people doing small and seemingly insignificant things together.
When I feel overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable problems of AIDS and malaria I remind myself that in the 1950s polio killed 5 million people a year yet it is now virtually unknown primarily because a lot of people were mobilized to immunize kids around the world. Most of them only immunized a few kids, but together their efforts made an incredible difference -- like cups of cold water given to one child at a time.
And when I feel discouraged by the extent of the environmental crisis I am reminded of the community garden movement that is sweeping across America. Mustard seeds are growing into huge plants and providing a place for birds to nest.
God is at work in our world, but so much of what God is doing is hidden, below the radar, seemingly small and insignificant. In the face of intractable poverty and environmental disasters it takes faith to believe that God is indeed transforming and renewing our world, but I do believe that is what is happening.
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1)
So don't give up on those seemingly small and insignificant steps that seem like a drop in the ocean. God does notice, and God is indeed using them to build a new world of justice, peace, and abundance ... but it is God not us who is building.
Christine Sine is executive director of Mustard Seed Associates and author of several books including GodSpace: Time for Peace in the Rhythms of Life. She describes herself as a contemplative activist encouraging a way of life that interweaves spiritual practices with concern for justice and environmentalism. She blogs at GodSpace.