The Curse of the Bigger Picture

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The homeless shelter in the church basement had been opened less than two weeks and the stories of destitute people were already circulating through the various fellowships and Sunday school classes. There was the heartrending account of one family who had lost their home due to a series of tragic misfortunes. And a story of a former executive who had lost everything to a drug habit and ended up on the street. Even though the shelter could house only twelve people, it seemed to be making substantial differences in the lives of some of the guests. It was certainly having a positive impact on church members who prepared food, mopped floors and extended hospitality. During an evaluation session at a church board meeting after several touching stories had been reported, one of the elders raised the issue: "Yes, but what about the behavior patterns that landed them on the street in the first place? What will keep them from ending up right back here a few months from now?" His questions had the effect of throwing a cold, wet blanket over a small campfire. A group of excited urban neighbors gathered for a strategy session in the home of one of their newest community association members. Their earlier appeals to the police precinct captain had resulted in the assignment of foot patrolmen to the corner where blatant drug trafficking was being conducted. Police presence had produced immediate results. Some of the dealers had left the area while others had pulled back inside houses where they could conduct their business less conspicuously. Tonight's meeting was called to devise a plan to pressure landlords into monitoring their houses and evicting those conducting illegal activities. For the first time in many years these neighbors were beginning to feel empowered to take back their streets and restore safety to their community. A visiting seminary student who had been invited to sit in on the meeting then asked: "But what about the drug dealers? Don't they need treatment for their addictions?"

You could feel the energy in the air on the opening day of school. Children from the surrounding urban neighborhood, all dressed up in their new uniforms, filed like little ducklings after their teachers. The walls were covered with brightly colored decorations, the work of creative educators whose love was nurturing little spirits and inspiring young minds. Several parents were busy preparing juice and cookies for a special celebration while others assisted teachers passing out books. Though all of these children were entitled to attend the nearby public school free of charge, their parents had enrolled them here, some at considerable sacrifice, so that their little ones could receive a high quality education in a caring Christian environment. Meanwhile, upstairs in the school office, a community activist interviewing the headmaster asked: "But what about the children who don't have the opportunity to attend a private school? Isn't it unfair to them?"

"But what about..." are three of the most disheartening words in the English language to people who are sacrificially giving of themselves in service to others. These are the introductory words to the spirit-chilling curse of the bigger picture. They are followed by probing questions designed to expose the inadequacies of an effort and to display the enlightened perspective of the questioner.

The bigger picture raises the really important issues, big universal issues such as root causes and systemic oppression, and can miss the significance of the human touch.

The bigger picture sees all that is yet to be done, recognizes the depressing deficiencies, and often overwhelms visionary zeal with the enormity of the problem.

The bigger picture focuses on issues rather than on persons and subtly diminishes the significance of personal acts of compassion.

The bigger picture is the champion of justice, insisting on fair play and equal treatment for all people everywhere... and the unwitting saboteur of individual, person-to-person ministry.

It would be quite naive, of course, to assume that the bigger picture is unimportant. Indeed, global thinkers are vital players in our highly complex world. Some are gifted with remarkable abilities to see and understand the dynamic matrix of systems that interconnect the peoples of our globe. Others are positioned to effect change, create laws, and implement policies. And who would diminish the importance of the vote, or petitions, or letter writing to impact the larger causes that affect our lives? Bigger picture issues are hardly inconsequential.

But there is another picture behind the bigger picture. Like a tapestry whose hidden side is discovered to be even more magnificent than its public side, there is a seamless plan of Divine design that may be glimpsed only through the eyes of faith. It is woven of small, often spontaneous, deeds of kindness offered by seemingly insignificant people in seemingly uncoordinated ways. Its beauty derives from acts of the heart - selfless and sometimes anonymous. It portrays a cosmic economy in which no loving act is ever wasted, regardless of how modest the gift or unworthy the recipient. While the wise toil to assemble comprehensive and just strategies for life in our complicated world, an unseen Hand is also at work fashioning orderly patterns from the simple kindnesses of countless ordinary, unsuspecting people. Perhaps this is why our Lord said so little about good planning and so much about compassionate acts like loving our neighbor, giving to the poor and caring for children. Perhaps He had seen the picture behind the big picture.

I recently heard a story about a man, just home from a hard day at work, who settled into his easy chair with the sports section of the evening newspaper. His relaxation was interrupted by his five-year-old son who bounded into the house and climbed up into dad's lap for a hug. The child had a full day of stories to relate and an endless series of questions. The father, trying diligently to be interested but longing for a few moments of peace, spied a colored picture of the world on the cover of a magazine. A plan formed in his mind. "How would you like to play a game?" he asked his son. Taking a pair of scissors from the desk drawer, the father cut out the world and then cut the picture into several dozen small pieces. "It's a puzzle," he said to his intrigued little son. "See how fast you can put it together." Satisfied that he had creatively bought himself half an hour or so more rest time, the father went back to his paper. In no time at all the five year old was back at his chair tugging at his sleeve, claiming the puzzle was finished. Sure enough. The reassembled picture - a task that should have been quite a challenge for a five year old - lay pieced together on the table. "How did you do it so fast?" asked the father. "It was kinda easy, dad," the little boy said. "There's a picture of a man on the other side. When I put the man together, the world fit together."

Bob Lupton

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