I was talking to a friend yesterday, discussing what you do when systems are broken. What is the response when what it true about the world is different than what should be true? That gap between reality and the flourishing of God’s world calls for a pause before movement. The pause is an invitation to imagine another way of being. It’s hard to try to envision something new. It requires stillness while others rush forward. It takes time and creativity and courage. Toni Morrison framed it this way in a commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence. She said, “So when you enter those places of trust, of power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live.”1
We have to take time to look at where we are trying to go. Is it where we want to go? Or was everyone else just headed that direction so we went too? Was it simply the easiest choice? We don’t have to do something simply because it’s always been done that way (of course I’m not talking about well-grounded, orthodox practices of the church here; on the other hand, this might apply to how we structure churches). We can reform. We can review. We can throw out what’s not working. But before we know what’s working, we have to know where we’re going.
Occasionally, I still need to go places in town and I don’t know how to get there. I can put the address in my gps (or look at a physical map) and I can plot a route, but I have to know the destination. If I just start driving, I don’t know where I’ll end up. Occasionally, that’s not bad, but on the whole, we want our lives pointed in a certain direction. There’s no starting line without an endpoint. There can be no course-correction without an aim. There is no forward movement without a finish line.
Once we have a destination, we still have to reckon with the reality we live in. We do not have transporters. We cannot snap our fingers and arrive at our destination. We have to take one road and then another and wait at that red light and detour around construction and pause for pedestrians. There’s a gap between where we want to be and where we are. In few scenarios is it practical to throw the whole thing out and start over. That’s easy to do with some sourdough starter and impossible with a school system. Instead, we have to start moving incrementally. What’s a tiny shift in the right direction? Where’s the smallest, sustainable change? How do we take this next step and aim “here” instead of “there”? What road is next if this determined spot is our destination?
Expand to the big picture. Imagine. Question. Play around with your ideas. Then lean into the smallest possible change that orients toward that big picture. Expand, contract. Expand, contract.
The fun thing is this movement out to big picture and back in for small shifts works for most things. 80-year-old me cares about using the Greek I learned last year. 35-year-old me is rising 15 minutes early to add some regular Greek practice to her morning routine. It’s tiny and it’s sustainable. It’s also pointed in the right direction.
I care deeply about our school systems and how public school allows us to throw ourselves in with the lives of our neighbors. The system needs adjustment for both teachers and students, and, for now, I can give two days of my week to fill in a gap. It’s tiny (it feels so small) and it’s sustainable. I believe it’s pointed in the right direction.
We are currently taxing the resources of our planet with how we are living. We are dominating instead of stewarding and it’s breaking down God’s good creation. A part of me stretches all the way back to the beginning and remembers our bond with the earth and our command to care for it. Another part of me looks forward to the future of our children. I started composting. We got a local CSA share. We buy part of our meat locally. We recycle cardboard. We planted a very small garden. It’s small steps. It’s pointed in the right direction.
This work is hard at two levels. System-wide change seems impossible. It’s hard to imagine other ways of doing and being in the world, especially at a communal level when we are such an individualistic society. Some people are obviously more gifted at this than other people are. While we need their help, we can still strengthen this muscle.
It’s also difficult to not toss the whole thing away. Maybe a complete overhaul would work. Maybe. But it’s most often impractical. Instead, we can look for tiny incremental changes. Then we have to fight the belief that those tiny changes are too small to make a difference. Any study of habit formation will tell you the opposite is true.2 In Atomic Habits, Clear writes, “It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.”A few pages later, he reminds the reader, “You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.” A tiny sustainable change will lead to more change. Over time it will accumulate. And the changes it makes to your life or the lives of those around you in the meantime might surprise you.
Here’s to large-picture work and the tiny shifts. Here’s to learning what the kingdom is and imagining the flourishing of humanity, and moving in that direction, every step an arrival, as Eugene Peterson would say. It’s hard but it’s good work. Grab a friend and dig in.
1 The Source of Self-Regard, 73.
2 See Atomic Habits, chapter 1. (Quotes from pp 15, 18).
3 Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words, quoted in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture by Ellen F. Davis.