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The Beauty of Pentecost: The Power of One

Reflections from Dr. Howell

   I suspect that when most of us ponder what’s going on out there in the world, it’s simply overwhelming. Numbing. You might have a rabble-rouser, change-the-world bone or two in your body, but it’s so massive, the mess. No wonder we just feel adrift, or useless. No wonder so many just withdraw. Like the woman in Alice Walker’s Temple of My F amiliar who had been “a whirling dervish of doing good” around the church, but then just gave up, sat down, and stared out her back window for three years: “She gave up trying to improve the world and, instead, declined to notice it.”

I showed up at a meeting of city leaders the other day. The mask I was wearing was one of optimism; inside, I was pretty weary and cynical. A friend started the meeting by pointing out that if you can turn a ship by just one degree, it winds up at a very different destination. I’d gotten bummed because making a 180 degree turn seemed impossible. But could we turn this thing one degree? Or even 3 or 7?

The plot of the Bible turns on the small, the unlikely, the unpowerful, just the one. Little David felled the giant Goliath. Gideon went into battle with 32,000 soldiers; after the Lord told him he had too many, he won a shocker with just 300 (Judges 7). Jesus was a vulnerable infant in a manger, and then a grown man crushed by politics and deserted by his friends, and he saved the world. St. Francis transformed the church of western Europe.

God’s way? Israel, the chosen people, were always Lilliputian, never a great power to be reckoned with. How odd of God to choose the Jews! But why? Moses explained in Deuteronomy 7:7: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you are the fewest of all peoples.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teases this out, “The Jewish people are small but have achieved great things to testify in themselves to a force beyond themselves… Israel defies the laws of history because it serves the Author of history. Attached to greatness, it becomes great.”

To get this ship of our world into a different harbor, to turn it a degree or two, we have to notice, get out of our rocking chair, engage – and attach ourselves entirely to the Author of history. And trust in the one, the small. Mother Teresa, another lone, diminutive person, was once invited to speak at an international hunger conference in Bombay. She arrived late, and noticed a hungry man outside on the steps. Instead of going in and lecturing, she fed this one man. Someone said “That’s just a drop in the ocean!” But she replied, “What is the ocean but a drop, and another drop, and another drop?”

Do you feel small before overwhelming odds? Good. God, and God’s world need you just where you are. Does even the church seem small before the towering flood of the world’s issues? Of course we do. Good. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this divine principle when he decreed that in The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth would be saved, not by the mighty warriors or wizards, but by the diminutive hobbits, Frodo, S am, Merry, Pippin. Little guys like us, one, two or three, together.

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