My mother died recently, the week before her 87th birthday, and I flew to Chicago to join my siblings in conducting her funeral service. At the ceremony my brother shared a story I had not heard before about how my mother had made a lasting impression on him through a wise and loving act at a critical moment in his life.
The story is a powerful testimony to the impact a mother can have on her children and, indeed, the impact each of us can have on others when we choose to love intentionally. But the story goes beyond this. It illustrates how, when we offer our small efforts to God, he graciously takes them up into something vastly greater than we could ever imagine. In these moments of faithfulness, God is allowing us to play a small but significant role in a drama he has been unfolding since the beginning of time.
My brother explained that as a young boy he went out to play with his friends as he would have on any ordinary day. On this particular occasion, however, he discovered that a new boy had joined their company and had evidently been crowned the group’s new leader. When my late-comer brother sought to join the group, he inexplicably became the target of this new boy’s mean-spiritedness.
The boy promptly passed out a candy to each of the children present except my brother. Then he announced, “I want to play with all of you – except (pointing directly at my brother) for that boy.” Jim assumed his friends would rally to his defense, but the new boy had them in his thrall. No one stepped forward to help. My brother returned home dejected and overcome with emotion.
Redemption vs. revenge
At our kitchen table, through profuse tears, Jim shared the story with my mother. She listened patiently and spoke soothingly. Then she took out a bag of candy and said, “Jim, I want you to go out there and give one of these candies to each of those boys.” A picture instantly sprang to my brother’s mind of how he would get his revenge by giving candies to each of his friends, but not to his new enemy. Perhaps suspecting my brother’s designs, my mother continued: “And Jim, Jesus says we should turn the other cheek. I want you to give a candy to the boy who hurt you.”
My brother reluctantly returned to the group to hand out the treats. He went around the circle placing a candy in the hand of each of his friends and, when he came to the ringleader, he placed a candy in his hand too. The boy was visibly surprised, and apparently shaken by the gesture. He mumbled a few unintelligible words, turned and walked away. He was never seen in the neighbourhood again.
What happened to that boy, and how this act of forgiveness might have impacted his life, we do not know. We do know, however, that the experience significantly changed the life of my brother Jim. God used my mother’s wisdom, at a critical crossroad in his life, to help him choose a redemptive path rather than a destructive one. The story is impacting other lives, as well, as my brother continues to recount the episode even now, 50 years later.
As special as this story is when considered as a straightforward example of love and wisdom, there is another, more profound dimension to the story when it is seen within the context of my mother’s whole faith journey. You see, if you could ask my mother today, she would tell you that she was not actually a Christian at the time she counselled my brother in this way. While she was a church-going person (Catholic) and devout in her own way – she insisted we all go to church – she would tell you that she had not yet personally encountered Christ.
Her conversion occurred a decade later, and only after everyone in our family, including she, had abandoned church-going altogether. (It came during a “mini-revival” that swept through our family and saw eight out of nine family members come to faith within just a few years of one another, and then go on to join various evangelical churches all over Mexico and the U.S. where we had been scattered.)
So while my brother’s story, on one level, is about how God used a woman, who was being faithful to what she knew, to touch the life of her young son, the larger story is that God was using a woman who knew him only by reputation to touch the life of a young boy in anticipation of a day when both mother and son would come to know him as the living Saviour.
Small but significant
Viewed in this way, the story describes how my mother’s action was a tiny link in the history-long and cosmos-wide story of God’s redeeming love and stands as a testimony to his grace. God’s plan for the world is bigger than anything we could know; yet, out of his infinite goodness he lets us play our part, multiplying the loaves and fishes we offer him.
This way of looking at things is humbling because it magnifies God’s grace and highlights how small our actions are in the big scheme of things, but at the same time it is exhilarating because it means that our small acts of obedience are being used of God to accomplish his eternal purposes. It endows our actions with eternal and cosmic significance.
How exciting to think that today, during a moment of ordinary faithfulness, God may use you to impact a life and change the world in a significant way that is beyond anything you could imagine.
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