In 1998, with a newly-minted master’s degree in theology from the University of Chicago (but before I’d gone to seminary to train for the priesthood), I was asked by my rector to teach a new adult Sunday school class. I pulled out all the stops, teaching about every complex and arcane aspect of theology I could muster. The first week I had twenty students. By week three, the only class attendees were my wife Jill and a fellow named Dale who was too nice to quit.
I went to the associate rector to figure out what I was doing wrong. “What are you teaching?” he asked. I explained my syllabus and concluded by claiming, “I’m teaching earth-shattering stuff!” The associate rector looked at me kindly and said, “Barkley, it’s only earth-shattering to you.”
It was an important lesson, and one I’ve not forgotten. Pastors want the bombastic sermon, the eloquent article, and the energetic class to be memorable and transform lives. But mostly they aren’t, and they don’t. Rather, when people recall the positive difference I, you, or anyone else has made in their lives, they usually hearken to much more mundane and fleeting things: the hand-written note that arrived on the lonely day; the visit that occurred so soon after receiving a frightening health diagnosis; the smile or hug that reminded them they are loved. These are the things that have lasting impact and change lives for the better.
In his book The Tipping Point, social theorist Malcolm Gladwell reviews a series of such small things that have had huge consequences in our world, like the stone thrown into the pond whose concentric ripples extend all the way to the pond’s edge. Gladwell looks at how fashion trends take hold, how crime rates fall, and even how diseases spread. It is usually the small event that serves as the tipping point for transformation.
This is true in our individual lives as well. For us, too, often the small and seemingly insignificant encounters become the tipping points for transformation. The right thing, in the right place, at just the right time—no matter how small—can make a world of difference. I call these moments “occasions of grace.” They are the way in which God’s love is spread in the world.
As we enter into the Christmas season, when God is born into our midst, I hope we’ll take extra notice of the way God is encountered in our occasions of grace with one another. They make all the difference.