George Bernard Shaw once put up a monument in the church yard at Windlesham in Surrey, England, in memory of Clara and Henry Higgs, a couple who had worked for him at Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire.
For many years, the monument said, they had kept his home and garden, setting him free to do his work as a dramatist. No playwright, it testifies, was ever better served. Clara and Henry Higgs belong to a great army of people who never do anything big or famous themselves, but whose service is indispensable to others.
The same might be said for the people at Philippi who were the nameless partners of the Apostle Paul, supplying money and gifts for his missionary journeys, and for Epaphroditus, the person who brought their gifts to him while he was in prison. The name of Epaphroditus would have been entirely unknown to history had he not made this visit to Paul in behalf of the people at Philippi.
The names of all the others were lost. Yet Paul looked upon what they had done for him as a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
How often our own lives are sweetened and sustained by the little acts of human kindness performed by people who names will never go down in history or be inscribed on any plaque. Do you remember, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the scene in the courtroom after Dmitri has been sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia? He is so exhausted that he falls asleep on a bench, and, when he awakens, he finds that someone has placed a pillow under his head.
He doesn’t know who has done it, but he is elated. It is a sign of the goodness of life. He will go to prison, he says, and keep God’s name alive there, because he knows that God is in the world. The nameless, selfless act of someone who did him a small kindness is guarantee of that.
Kagewa, the great Japanese labor leader, went to jail for thirteen days during the early strikes in Kobe. He blessed the unknown man who planted a morning glory beside the window of his cell, so that it grew up and kept him company in his loneliness.
Little deeds hold the world together. They may not receive the press that big deeds get, but they are essential to the ongoing of everything.
Paul was an important witness to the Christian faith — perhaps the most important witness after the birth of the church in Jerusalem. He carried the gospel to kings and governors. He planted churches all over the world of that day. But he could not have done what he did without the kindness of all the nameless people in Philippi and Ephesus and Corinth who cared enough to send him gifts like the one brought by Epaphroditus.
I often think of this in our church. We have majestic worship services and operate a large and extensive program and send significant gifts around the world. But we could not do it without the deeds of countless people who perform their services without recognition or remuneration.
Think of the receptionists and flower arrangers and committee members who do their work without acknowledgment or publicity; the cooks and servers and ushers and teachers who work unselfishly from month to month to make things go, to fill the gaps, to see that the kingdom marches on.
It isn’t the ten-talent people that heaven will belong to; it’s the one- or two-talent people who gladly use their talents for God. They are the ones who hold everything together and make it work. They are the unsung heroes.
Last summer I read Anthony Trollope’s autobiography. Trollope, you may recall, was one of the most prolific novelists of nineteenth century England. Several of his novels, such as The Warden and Barchester Towers, were combined in a beautiful BBC television series called The Barchester Chronicles, starring Donald Pleasance.
When he wrote his autobiography, this eminent man of letters paid an outstanding compliment to his old groom. Without this man, said Trollope, he would never have written anything, for it was his task to be up before Trollope, waken his master at 5:30 each morning and bring him his coffee, so that Trollope could get in his two hours of writing before going off to his work in the post office. All those beautiful novels, dependent on that one unseen fellow whose job it was to waken the writer in the morning!
It is people like this man, people who wash and clean and take care of lawns and handle our errands and look after the rest of us, who really hold the world together.
There is something else about little deeds. Little deeds we do give order and meaning to our own lives, as well as to the lives of others.
Have you ever considered that? It isn’t the big things we achieve that matter most in our lives, it’s the little things. They are the things that clarify our existence and say who we are — like the teacher taking time to help a poor child in her class, or a surgeon paying attention to the needs of a nurse in the hospital, or a banker stopping to assist an unfortunate person in the bank.
Epaphroditus may have been an important man in his city. He may have been a professor renowned for his wisdom or an athlete famous for his skills in the arena. Whoever he was, the thing that really gave shape to his life was his faithfulness in carrying out small assignments like this one of bringing a gift to Paul in prison.
Haven’t you always found the same to be true in your life? Isn’t life meaningful in proportion to how careful you are to be a good servant in small things?
Someone gave me a magazine article that says it all. It is the true story of a young man named Kenneth Lundberg, who lives in Riverside, Rhode Island. Every day, Kenneth walks from his car to the university office where he works through a twenty-foot-wide stretch of lawn.
For a long time, the lawn annoyed him because it was littered with cans, papers, and other debris thrown there by students. He thought of writing letters to the editor of the school paper, and even of organizing a clean-up day; but he decided that nothing would be done and he would only succeed in raising his blood pressure.
Then one day Kenneth got an idea: he would take ownership of the plot. He didn’t tell anyone about this, as it was probably against some regulation or other. But he made himself personally responsible for the environmental quality of this twenty-foot piece of lawn.
Each day, going to and from his car, Kenneth picked up the litter. He made a game of it, limiting himself to ten items each way. At first he carried it to a wastebasket in the building or took it to the car and carried it home with him. Then a curious thing occurred: large orange barrels appeared at each end of the lawn. Someone on the maintenance crew had become his silent conspirator.
Finally Kenneth reached the point where he was picking faster than other people were littering. He looked in pride at his twenty-foot lawn. It was beautifully green and free of trash. The rest of the campus was as littered as ever. But that was someone else’s problem. He was taking care of his.
Kenneth has been tending his lawn for years now, and his one-minute walk through it on his way to and from work is the highlight of his day. He begins and ends his workday in a positive mood. He cannot control the whole world in which he lives, but he has carved off a manageable section of it and is doing his bit to take care of it. There is order in his life because of the small bit of God’s earth he is looking after.
I wonder if Kenneth Lundberg’s approach to life wouldn’t be good for all of us. The world is a big place. There is much that is wrong with it. None of us can fix everything that is wrong. But each of us can find a small thing he or she can do and work at that. And think how healthy we are when we are doing something useful and constructive for the world. Even one thing makes a difference in our lives.
There is one more thing: little deeds serve the Lord of all existence. Have you ever doubted it? You remember Brother Lawrence, the author of The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence found that he could worship God as well in the kitchen, washing pots and pans, as he could in the sanctuary of the church. He felt as close to the divine presence while sweeping a floor as he did when kneeling before the altar. He knew that God receives such offerings.
Jesus, you remember, had an eye for little things like lilies of the field and birds of the air. He said that anything done for one of His little ones was done for Him. Even a cup of cold water given in His name would earn its reward.
Epaphroditus not only made Paul happy by bringing him the gift from the Philippian Christians; he not only gave order and meaning to his own life; he performed an action that served the Lord of the universe. Paul said that the gifts he brought were “a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” If the world is a sacrament, bearing the presence of the deity, then any little thing we do for others becomes sacramental too.
The world may not have noted what Epaphroditus and his friends in Philippi did. It didn’t get into the papers in Rome. But God knew. God knew that Epaphroditus and his friends were among those people who are faithful in little things and will one day be made master of many things.
It’s an exciting thought, when you think about it, that when we die and come into the presence of God with all His majesty, it will not be our major achievements that are important — you know, “He was president of a bank” or “She perfected a historic breakthrough in the methods of brain surgery” or “He was the author of twenty-two books” — but small, apparently inconsequential things we long ago forgot, such as “He mowed my lawn when I was sick” or “She cared for my child while I went to visit my mother” or “He sent me flowers when I needed them most” or “She washed and mended my socks.”
These are the little things that hold the world together. They are the small stones that comprise the great cathedrals where God is worshiped. And they shall be remembered like stars in the crowns of all the saints!