At my spiritual retreat to evaluate my job as Area Director last week, it was St. Ansgar day. The most notable achievement of Ansgar, according to all the readings, was that he completely failed at almost everything he attempted. Although he was eventually credited with the conversion of Scandinavia, I couldn’t tell how his actions even lay the groundwork for mass revival actually. Yet according to everything I heard, what we learn from Ansgar’s life is perseverance, and the hope that our labor, although it feel futile, may ultimately result in huge good. The priest who gave a guest homily quoted Reinhold Niehbur:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
“That’s deep,” I thought, as I listened. But then when I got back to my cell, I started bristling at that first quote. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” Is that true?
Now, as a significance junkie, I’m sure that all my deep-seated sin confuses the matter, and given that all I’ve ever read of Niebuhr are those three quotes, I’m sure I’m getting him wrong. But the more I thought about those words, the more I thought only a man could come up with something that inane.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime. . .” Is that true?
Basically then, everything that is considered “women’s work” is completely useless, nursing, cooking, raising children, changing diapers, teaching children, etc.
What in the heck is worth doing that takes more than a lifetime? What was Neihbur or the priest thinking? Building bridges or skyscrapers? Converting whole countries? Abolishing the sex trade? While all of those are good and noble purposes, and most of them probably take more than one lifetime, it seems to me that it’s far more hopeful to remember that the God who created the universe with its multitude of stars and galaxies and black holes somehow also cares about the smallest most minute things. In Jesus, we see a man who took time from rushing to heal an official’s dying daughter, to talk to an outcast woman who touched the hem of his cloak. We see a man who chastised his disciples who were concerned about big important things like overthrowing the Roman empire and told them to let the little children come to him.
I felt personally affronted by the quote precisely because my hope has been that God cares more about the small hard faithful steps I have made rather than the big splashy leaderish things I could have been doing. For me, that call involved being present to my children as they grew up. 20 years ago, I heard someone referred to me as “the Amy Grant of InterVarsity.” Well choosing to work part-time and cease involvement in national committees and national travel means I’m no Amy Grant in InterVarsity anymore, but then Amy Grant isn’t who Amy Grant was either.
My hope has to come from a God who cares about small things that are worth doing because it can’t come from the results of my decisions. My children are no paragons of virtue.
I don’t feel more hope because nothing worth accomplishing can be done in my lifetime. I live in hope because Jesus said the widow who gave 2 pennies gave more than all the rich men pouring their treasures into the temple combined. I live in hope because each small step he calls me to cannot be measured by worth or accomplishment. I live in hope because He has promised that a tiny mustard seed can grow into the largest bush in the garden, so large and stable that birds can nest in its branches and children can play in its shade.
And maybe that was the gift of St. Ansgar, the total failure. Many small faithful unsuccessful steps that were the tiny mustard seed that grew Christendom in Scandinavia