Monday, August 8, 2016

podcasts, pond water, and an orange cat (kingdom sightings)

Green leaf under microscope
Image from
The significance of the small things is a theme I keep bumping into these days. Here are a few vignettes from the past week.

Vignette one: I have started listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History in which he reinterprets something from the past, be it an event, a person, or an idea, something which he believes has been overlooked or misunderstood. This morning at the gym I listened to Gladwell's take on educational philanthropy. Referencing a book by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally called The Numbers Game, Gladwell differentiates between a mentality which focuses on cultivating superstars and a mentality which seeks to strengthen the weakest team members. Using the game of soccer as an example, Anderson and Sally show that a team which spends money on upgrading its weakest players will score a lot more goals than a team who acquires a star player.

In 1992, businessman Henry Rowan gave a record $100 million gift to Glassboro State College, a small, publicly funded institution in New Jersey which was almost broke. It was the first donation of its kind. It inspired other philanthropists to give large donations to institutions of higher learning, but there was one difference. Almost without fail, the large sums of money ($100 million or more) given after Rowan's landmark donation went to prestigious, well-endowed universities, institutions who had no shortage of cash or resources. Gladwell was particularly critical of Philip Knight's (co-founder of Nike) $400 million donation to Stanford in 2015, earmarked for a new program meant to recruit the best and brightest graduate students. Gladwell says, "I understand the people who give money to those who need money. The people who give money to those who already have all the money they need, I don't understand that. What are they thinking?" And yet, the president of Stanford would never consider turning away a donation in order to benefit another school who really needed the money.

Vignette two: For the past few weeks, I have been reading Annie Dillard's feast of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard spent a year observing and documenting life on a small parcel of land next to a creek. She watched birds fly, bugs crawl, frogs leap, and studied the small specks of life in pond water. She collected chrysalis and looked at leaves under microscopes. She noted the extravagance of minutiae present in nature: "The creator ... churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. That is the point." [1] Indeed. And it is a point we often miss in a culture of capitalism and consumerism. We tend to equate smallness with insignificance, but creation itself defies this simplistic reduction. Bigger is not better, not by a long shot.

Vignette three: Professor Jay McDaniel of Hendrix College in Arkansas tells the following story: "Two years ago I was looking out my window and saw the second coming of Christ. It only lasted fifteen seconds, but was impressive. It came in the form of an action undertaken by my next door neighbor, a fifteen year old teenager named Matthew. Matthew has no readily identifiable religious affiliation. He does not attend church, pray before meals, or read the Bible. If Matthew has a religion it is rock and roll. He once told me music is the closest thing he knows to God; I understood him perfectly. It is one of the closest things I know to God, too.

"Something I admire about Matthew is his belief in kindness. Looking outside I saw a very old orange cat crossing the street in front of Matthew's house. The cat was limping slowly as a car full of teenagers was coming very fast. They would have hit the cat if Matthew hadn't stepped in front of them, put out his hand signaling stop, and picked up the cat, taking her across the street petting her along the way. I know this cat very well because she belongs to my family. Matthew was my cat's savior. ... Matthew's act of kindness missed the evening news. The news that day concerned violent deaths in Pakistan. That night when I laid down I had two images in my imagination: one of blood and tears coming from the fact of a Pakistani woman and one of Matthew saving the cat." [3]

The question McDaniel asks is this: which of the two events he witnessed that day is more significant? The fact that he associates Matthew's small act of kindness with the second coming of Christ tells you which way he leans. In the small act of saving of an old orange cat, McDaniel saw the kingdom of God come to earth. Jesus often pointed out the small things to his disciples, urging them to take note of their significance in the kingdom: seeds, flowers, grass, little children, and sparrows. One day when Jesus was in the temple with his disciples, he observed the wealthy giving large sums of money and a poor widow giving two small coins. [4] He drew special attention to the widow because in her deed, he identified the kingdom of God. The disciples found it difficult to wrap their minds around the nature of the kingdom of God. We with our modern, progressive, "be all you can be" mindsets are no different. We are slow to detect the coming of Christ and his kingdom because we find it hard to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first.

If you look at the context of the widow's story, you see that Jesus is critiquing the religious leaders for increasing their own standing at the expense of the underprivileged, especially the widows. "Watch out for the scribes who act so religious—who like to be seen in pious clothes and to be spoken to respectfully in the marketplace, who take the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at every dinner, who spend widows’ inheritances and pray long prayers to impress others. These are the kind of people who will be condemned above all others." (Mark 12, 38-40, The Voice) This brings me back to Gladwell's critique of philanthropists who give to those who already have more than enough, an act which makes little sense when you think about it. So why do they do it? In large part because they want to be associated with the most prestigious universities, with the superstars, and not with the weak and needy.

I am challenged by this call to strengthen the weak, to glory in the small and seemingly insignificant, to resist the lure of being associated with the best and the brightest. Who wouldn't want a postdoctoral position at Princeton? Who wouldn't want a job at University of Notre Dame or Columbia? And yet, there are small colleges and universities that I have never heard of where I would undoubtedly make a bigger difference, because there I would have the opportunity to strengthen the weak (instead of hanging out with superstars).

Spirit of the Most High God, forgive me for my attachment to bigness, superstars, prestige, winning, and fame. Let me learn to see the kingdom of God in its hidden, mysterious, humble appearances. Let me delight in pond water more than in gold, and may a single green leaf captivate me more than fancy clothes and slick performances. Amen.


[1] Malcom Gladwell, "My Little Hundred Million," Revisionist History, episode 6. Podcast.
[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperPerennial, 1974), 128.
[4] I wrote more on the widow and her offering at my personal blog: The Sound of Two Small Coins

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