During most of
his adult life, Emmett Kirkland worked for Watkins Realty.
Emmett, my wife's grandfather, was a master craftsman, who
maintained rental properties for the Pittsburgh firm.
As the Great Depression set in, the company's rental income dried up, and Mr. Watkins laid off Emmett. Like countless others, Emmett fell victim to the economic fallout of the times. Like few others, he countered his setback with an unusual response. He informed Mr. Watkins that if the company was unable to salary him, he would continue serving them--for free. He reasoned it was better to stay active and productive, than to sit idly at home bemoaning his lot.
Emmett's decision to continue working without pay proved fortunate in many ways. His positive spirit inspired his wife and five children to be resourceful, and to find creative solutions to the family's needs. His dedicated service to Watkins Realty helped it continue to meet clients' needs and to weather its financial crisis. On occasion, when revenue was more than anticipated, Mr. Watkins shared some of the windfall with Emmett. And when the company's hard times finally eased, Emmett, of course, was the first to be rehired.
Although I was never privileged to meet him, Emmett Kirkland is on the short list of my personal heroes, for I've seen his influence upon his son Glenn--Evie's father--and, through Glenn, upon her. What’s most impressive about Emmett’s response to the layoff is that he took action when the natural response would have been inaction. This magnanimous step of faith brought great benefits to him, his family and numerous others.
Small Steps That Make a Major Difference
We each experience a multitude of setbacks and losses during our own lifetime. So often our instinctive response to them is immobility. We're stunned by the disappointment, and unable to think clearly about what to do.
It’s easy enough to get moving again when there is some radical new beginning we can make--a major change, so grandiose that it fuels our energy and hope. It's typical, too, when we're depressed, to imagine that only a major improvement will solve our problems. We look with contempt upon the small and routine steps we can take to improve our life. Yet often these are precisely what will break the spell of our depression and open us to God's fresh provision for our needs.
My own grandfather, Milton Smith, suffered an extraordinary loss as a young man, when his wife of ten years died. They were both only in their late twenties at the time.
Several years later, while working as a traffic patrolman in Washington, D.C., he stopped a car for exceeding the (yes) eighteen-miles-an-hour speed limit around Dupont Circle. The chance encounter led to a friendship with the driver, Katherine Horton, then a romance, then--marriage. One remarkable moment brought a cherished relationship that forever changed his life and healed the grief of losing his first love. Yet God’s provision came through the most routine of activities for him--a traffic stop.
Undoubtedly, my granddad began that day expecting nothing unusual. Perhaps he didn’t want to go to work at all. Yet he went, plodding ahead with his routine responsibilities. His experience reminds us how simply keeping our life in motion sometimes opens us suddenly to help from God that we dearly welcome.
A New Beginning for Moses
We learn this lesson from an incident in Moses’ early life. When he was about forty years old, he killed an Egyptian whom he caught beating an Israelite. Moses thought he was acting heroically. Yet he soon found that Pharaoh wanted to kill him for his vigilantism; his fellow Jews were also angry at him, for stirring up trouble for them with the Egyptians.
Moses then fled from Egypt to the neighboring Midian (Ex 2:11-25). There, “he sat down by a well.” It is hard to imagine anyone feeling more isolated and helpless than Moses must have at this moment. He had abandoned the privileged environment of Pharaoh's palace, his friends and everything familiar, and now was alone and destitute in a strange land. He may have thought that he had no options for rebuilding his life.
But soon an opportunity arose to do something constructive. The daughters of the priest of Midian “came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.” Shepherds came and chased the women and their sheep away. Moses then assisted these frightened women, brought them back to the well, protected them from the shepherds, and helped them water their flock.
From what we know of Moses' assertive personality and physical strength, this act of chivalry must have seemed second nature to him--simply the obvious response at that moment. Yet the women reported Moses’ deed to their father, Jethro, who was greatly impressed. Jethro befriended Moses, then provided him a home, a job tending his sheep, and a wife--his daughter Zipporah.
One act of kindness on Moses’ part opened the door to his finding a new family, enjoyable employment, a marriage partner and a comfortable living situation for the next forty years. By merely rising to the occasion and doing what was natural, Moses took a step that brought God’s extravagant provision for his needs.
Finding God's Best by Doing the Obvious
What emerges from Moses' experience is one of the most helpful principles of guidance presented in Scripture. To say it simply: we find much of God's will for our life by doing the obvious.
Because God’s providence is operating fully in our lives when we follow Christ, he conveys much of his guidance through the normal responsibilities and opportunities of everyday life, including many routine activities. Martin Luther spoke of God preaching a “daily sermon” to us through these circumstances. He meant that God gives us guidance through them, as clear and vital as if he were speaking to us in an audible voice.
The most encouraging part is that by merely doing the ordinary, we occasionally put ourselves in position to enjoy an unusual blessing from God--the type we might imagine could result only from taking a major, carefully-planned step of faith. We should remember Moses' experience in Midian often, especially when we've suffered a defeat and can't see any way to make a fresh start.
The Benefits of Keeping Our Life in Motion
Appreciating how God guides us through the circumstances of daily life can do wonders to revive our hope, not only when we experience setbacks, but when the pattern of our day-to-day life becomes too repetitive or boring. We can be confident there is purpose in our plodding ahead, for as we are faithful to our responsibilities, God is full of surprises.
Keeping our life in motion is critical when it comes to reaching goals. We are better able to think creatively when we are actively pursuing a goal, than when we are merely considering doing so. As we overcome inertia and move forward, our subconscious rallies, and helps us solve problems that otherwise elude us. Just getting started on a project is often half the battle. Vincent van Gogh advised aspiring artists:
One must not work in a thousand fears, and yet that is what many do who are so anxious to get hold of the right colors and tones that through this very anxiety they become like tepid water. The real artists say, “Just dash the color on!” Otherwise, we reach the summit of wisdom when nobody has any daring left.
Van Gogh's advice applies to each of us, in any endeavor we undertake. We can spend too much time analyzing our options, and wait too long to get started. Sometimes we do better just to “dash the color on.” As we begin moving toward our goal, we are better able to recognize how to reach it.
We also make it easier for others to help us when we are taking clear steps toward a goal, for they are better able to recognize specific ways to assist us. Their incentive to help us is greater, too, when they see that we are serious.
In addition, we present a better role model to others when we're being productive and not merely sitting still. When Emmett Kirkland chose to work unsalaried for Watkins Realty, he made a lasting impression on his children about the value of work, the importance of faithfulness, and the benefits of staying hopeful. His behavior did more to demonstrate to them what trusting Christ involves than any words could ever have conveyed. His legacy inspired them to be optimistic, to work hard, to tackle problems rather than run away from them, and to vigorously trust the Lord to meet their needs.
We each have far greater influence on other people than we imagine. And we do leave a legacy. When we approach life positively, we inspire others to do the same.
How easily we fall into futility. The effort to improve our life just isn’t worth it, we assume, and the prospects of success are too remote to merit pursuing a dream.
Appreciating how fully God is at work in the circumstances of our daily life can give us the heart to press on. It is wonderful when, from time to time, we are able to take major steps of faith. Yet in between such occasions, we can enjoy the same exhilaration of faith in taking the small steps, knowing we’re participating in God's bigger picture for our life.
And sometimes, even the smallest step opens us to an unexpected
blessing from God. This is a basis for beginning each day with the
highest expectations, and for living it with energy and hope.
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