I am sitting in a bank on East Colfax, helping my friend Alice* open an account—a small thing. She’s clearly anxious, her hands shaking as she fills out forms. I ask myself, Is this love? This is a question I’ve asked frequently since my wife, Diane, and I left behind a church in the suburbs to be street pastors among people who live in extreme poverty.
We met Alice, her husband, Fred,* and her son, Colton,* at one of the run-down motels where we serve. Colton lives with a disability from head trauma; Alice, from abuse. Fred, easily the healthiest of the three, kept them afloat, managing their meager money and navigating motel life. We visited regularly, dropping off food, catching up, and praying.
Fred suddenly died. Diane walked over from our motel to offer support. She found the family grieving and rudderless, the ship’s captain gone. Diane discovered that Alice had inheritance money coming, not from Fred but from her dad. Alice showed Diane a legal document, four pages she didn’t understand. I got a copy and sent it to a lawyer friend.
Alice had several thousand desperately needed dollars coming. I explained the form. The lawyer avoids talking directly with her, so we call him together. They won’t release the money unless she has a bank account.
I ask Alice if she has one. Not surprisingly, the answer is no. Few of our flock do. I offer to pick her up and take her to the bank—a small thing.
So here at the bank I sit, occasionally helping. Again, the question, persistent and penetrating: Is this love? I mean this small act of helping open the account, but also bringing food, praying, copying a document, forwarding it to a lawyer friend, talking to Alice, calling her lawyer, helping her get up into my old truck, and taking her to the bank, all mixed with small prayers—Is this love? As a pastor and communicator, I spent years doing big things. Now I do small things. Small acts, small things, small prayers. Nothing of note, nothing too hard. Is this love?
Mother Teresa, ever my teacher, said this: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” I puzzle on that. My odd journey has been from big to small, a reality now in sharp focus with Alice—one small act after another. How do I do these small things with great love?
I wish Mother Teresa were here. I want to ask her about great love. I guess her answer: “Shawn, as you do small acts, hold Alice in your heart. Value her, treasure her as a gift from God. Look past her poverty and her tics. See Jesus in her; be Jesus to her. Let Jesus’ love flow between you.”
Some days that comes easily. I look at Alice, struggling and anxious, and see in her the beauty of God’s creation, the wonder of what God has made. I feel the great privilege of doing a few small things for her. Small acts, great love. Today that makes beautiful sense.
Other days, not so much. I have small acts to do but don’t want to do them. I might be tired, might resent the demands, might even resent the person. Usually I push through, do the act, and force some cheerfulness. But I feel no great love. Again I hear Mother Teresa: “Do the small act anyway. Love is the act, not the feeling. Don’t worry about an inner buzz. Act!” She herself struggled with years of inner spiritual barrenness, yet served many. Small acts, great love, felt or not.
A phrase comes to capture this: “Loving small.” Loving small means doing small things, helpful things, things not all that striking, but doing them with great love, doing them when we feel like it, doing them when we don’t. Loving small is great love.
If we are to follow Jesus well every day of our lives, we must love our neighbors, often through small acts. No doubt we are called to more than that. Some will love through big things. Some will be called to advocate in a broader arena. All must use our work to glorify God. Our Reformed faith calls us to that.
Yet we are never called to anything less than loving small. I find it easy to miss that, focusing on things bigger and broader in service of Jesus.
The call to love small is under our nose, present in our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. What might happen in our world if each of us daily embraced that call in up-close places?
But we must also love “small” with people who are poor in body or spirit—people like Alice. There is a tension in the Bible. On the one hand we are called to love everyone, wherever we are. On the other, God calls us to a special love for people on the margins, those lost in the shadows.
Diane and I have had an odd yet beautiful journey, moving from a large church in a wealthy suburb to life among people who are poor. Here, much of life is about loving small among our friends. We are learning to slow down, to do small gestures that seek no great outcome, no cosmic change, just befriending the people God places in our lives, showing the love of Jesus.
What if we each took this call to love the marginalized seriously? Here, in our motels, almost everyone lives on the margins. The need is staggering. I pray for Jesus to send more of us to these places. Yet the Alices of the world are everywhere, hidden in the shadows, overlooked and ignored in every community. What if each Jesus-follower found one shadow-dweller and committed to loving them? What if we did that not by treating that person as a project or by trying to fix his or her life, but as a humble friend and servant who is willing to do small things? Things that make you wonder: Is this love?
A good friend who is a student of revivals reminds me that most of God’s great moves started among people living in poverty. Might we be on the verge of another such moment? If so, will Jesus find us on the margins, in the shadows, loving people small in a million ways? Here it is not about our robust theology nor the scope of our accomplishments. Here it is about loving one person at a time in mundane ways. No flash, no dash. Just simple friendship.
Back at the bank there’s a problem: Alice can’t use her motel address to open the account. Another insult. I am angry and let it show, a small act aimed at defending Alice’s dignity. I offer our suburban address, and they accept. Another small thing.
All along, the question roars, Is this love?
Now comes the answer, thundering in my head, pounding in my heart. A chorus of voices—Jesus, my parents, Mother Teresa, others too—rises above this bank, above East Colfax, above a fallen world, and proclaims: Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! This is love, these small things, loving small—perhaps the greatest love we can offer.
*All names have been changed.
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