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From his column A Minute with Don

minute-with-don-05-14-1Like many persons who visit the great state of Minnesota, I had the privilege of viewing the headwaters of the Mississippi River this past summer. After winding our way through roads of the Itasca State Park, my wife and I came to the designated parking area. We then followed the marked footpath to take us into the woods to a small stream flowing out of a clear, cold Minnesota lake.

Like nearly everyone else visiting the site that day, we couldn’t resist the chance to wade in the chilly waters. It only took a few steps to walk across the ankle-deep flow of what would become the Mighty Mississippi. We took photos and video. I sent one of the pictures to some friends, but didn’t identify the location. They all thought it was a nondescript stream in the woods where they knew I’d been bike riding.

According to the “Great River” website: "The Mississippi River forms the 3rd largest drainage basin in the world. Its system of 29 locks and dams stretches 669 miles between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Granite City, Illinois, controlling nearly two-thirds of the nation’s watershed. It is the home to 241 species of fish, and nearly 60 percent of the nation’s birds follow the Mississippi River Basin in their migratory flyway.”

Though I was able to walk across the shallow flow at the headwaters, to do so at the river’s end in New Orleans, where depths reach 200 feet, would be quite a challenge.

The experience had me thinking about the scripture in which Jesus spoke of small things becoming great. In Luke 13:18-21 we read:“Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’Again he asked, ‘What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.’”

Down through the centuries, we see the Kingdom of God has certainly had the kind of growing, permeating influence of which Jesus spoke. From its beginnings in the obedience of the patriarchs, down through the lives of millions of people like you and me, it has grown. Its influence on the collective history of culture would be impossible to calculate, but I’ve been thinking about how it develops in the lives of individuals.

In truth, most of us started our journey of faith with what might be described as a trickle of trust in response to the great ocean of God’s grace. We took faltering, well-intentioned steps which doubtless appeared to some as dubious attempts with significant probability of failure. To most outside observers the likelihood of us having lasting influence seemed minimal at best.

But let me meander a bit here. In thinking about small beginnings leading to significant consequences, one has to wonder how it happens. How does a small stream become a surging river?

As far as I can tell from my reading (at least when it comes to the Mississippi) it is because of one thing—gravity. Gravity pulls the rain from the clouds to the ground, and eventually draws that moisture on the ground to sea level. The countless billions of water droplets that join together to create the river all respond to the pull of gravity. At moments of flooding or high winds it may appear they are breaking free, but in the end, gravity wins. The water simply does what it is supposed to do, run downhill. The elevation of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca is 1,475 feet above sea level. It bottoms out to sea level at the Gulf of Mexico. More than half of that drop in elevation occurs within the state of Minnesota, and once that momentum begins, it is increasingly difficult to stop. At the headwaters of the Mississippi, the average surface speed of the water is about 1.2 miles per hour. At New Orleans, the speed of the river is about 3 miles per hour.

The oldest catechisms of the Church ask a simple question: “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is clear and easy enough for even a child to understand: “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” And just as that single drop of water has its greatest potential in responding to the simple purpose of flowing downhill, so each life fulfills its greatest potential when pursuing its chief end.

A wavering life following its own attractions will likely have little impact. But a life committed to consistently responding to the pull of the Master, even if appearing to meander, will have significant influence for the Master’s Kingdom. The tug on the heart of every human is toward the ultimate end of enjoying God forever. Often it is hard to identify and articulate in this age which has been labeled “postmodern,” but it is spiritual gravity.

Small beginnings and humble endeavors should not shame us. Doing seemingly small things is nothing to be embarrassed about; however, futurist Alvin Toffler reminds us, “You've got to think about big things while you're doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

In this age of multiple appeals for our time, money, attention, and loyalty, it is not difficult to do lots of small things, sometimes many of them at once. So rather than a small, plodding stream growing in cumulative influence, we become hyperactive lap dogs chasing our tails. We’re tired, but we show little true progress for our expenditure of energy.

Most of us spend our time engaged in what observers see as small tasks. We may even yield to the temptation to measure ourselves by comparison with the lives of others and assume what we do is of limited value in the grand scheme of God’s Kingdom. And if we remain in that place, we will soon be ripe for the temptation to follow our own course, our own purposes, and our best ideas of what is good for us. Our own happiness and success become the measure of our agenda, and at this point we fail. The breakdown is never in our inability to master the magnitude or multitude of the tasks that consume us, but rather in the dissipation resulting from countless small tasks. We lose our eternal influence and thwart our ultimate potential when we move away from the gravitational pull of Kingdom purpose for lesser agendas.

When those multiple drops of water begin the journey toward the Gulf of Mexico they are doing one small thing—flowing downhill. That never changes. They never add an “and” to their agenda. They never opt for “or.” They do just one thing.

It isn’t about how straight the path may appear to observers. The Mississippi is not a straight line from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; but it is a consistent path which, when followed, reflects a constant response to the resolute tug of gravity.

Regardless of your age or season of life, these are not days to be discouraged or distracted. The wisdom of our Lord has never been more applicable, “Seek first the Kingdom.” Don’t be distracted by the promise to add “all these things.” Remain focused. Tackle the small tasks and the great campaigns with equal focus and energy. A lifetime of seeking first the Kingdom in all things will have an ultimate impact beyond any other course we might pursue. And if you’re reading this, you’re not done yet!

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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