A few years after I got my Ph.D., students asked me to start writing them recommendation letters.
This was a new and novel thing for me, and it made me feel like a “real” professor. But recommendation letters are a strange and quirky thing. Students often ask for them months before they’re due, and they quickly fall to the bottom of a long list of tasks. At the time, busy as I was teaching multiple courses, doing a lot of church work and juggling an absurd commute, it was a relief to say “yes” to doing something and realize that I didn’t have to worry about it immediately.
One morning in spring, though, I woke up and – in the middle of the morning – had the sense that I was forgetting something. I couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was until it a sickening realization hit me: I had promised a student a recommendation letter (due by electronic submission to a particular program board) and it was due the next day. I’d almost missed the deadline.
Fortunately I was able to write a good letter for her, and she got into the program of her choice, but the incident haunted me for a long time after. I was aware, even if no one else was, that I had almost failed her – and that, without my letter, she would have submitted an incomplete application unknowingly. Sure, the letter was an administrative task on my end, but on hers, it was a dream. A future. A hope. And my carelessness had almost squashed it.
Small tasks – those little, seemingly insignificant details – make the world go ’round. And nowhere is that truer than in the church.
A phone call. A text. A reminder to get in touch with that one person about that one thing. A promise to check in about something. An errand. A delivery. A note. They’re minor tasks, detritus in the ocean of activities that normally occupy us: our work, our school, our family. They seem small. Honestly, compared to those other things, they are small.
But to other people, they’re huge.
That person who wants to join the small group – who is nervous and feels sort of weird around people she doesn’t know, but reached out to try anyway – is waiting for the phone call to tell her where and when the group meets. And if that call doesn’t come? She’s going to feel like no one cared enough to remember.
That person who asked you to send her the papers about that one event? Everything she’s planning for the rest of the church calendar hinges on you doing what you promised and giving them to her. Right now she’s delaying on making work plans and figuring out her family vacation because she really needs the information you have…that you forgot to give her.
That person whose father died? The one who looks like they’re barely holding it together? The one who is struggling forward through empty days and hoping desperately for a flicker of light in the darkness? They were happy when you promised to text them. They were thinking, maybe, that it’d be a nice distraction. But when you forgot to send it, that hope dimmed, and the days got a little darker still.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that the insignificant tasks we have a tendency to blow off, forget about, or carelessly set aside aren’t insignificant when they’re connected to people we’re supposed to be serving. Grandiose acts of love don’t mean a whole lot if you can’t come through when it counts, but for the life of me I feel like the church has somehow forgotten that.
It pains me to say that, from what I’ve heard from others and from what I’ve experienced myself, it is frequently church people who drop the ball: who forget to reply, who don’t send the information they promised, who neglect to call, who forget to text like they say they will. It’s not out of malice, I’m certain. It’s out of benign forgetfulness, just like my recommendation letter debacle: the day to day chaos of normal life. But it’s alarming that I never expect Christians to call back when they say they will, or get me the information they promised, or do the thing they said they’d do (at least not without being reminded).
We have to do better. The tiny moments are the one that define us, and the ones that win and lose people. They are important because people are important. Those “insignificant acts” are the heartbeat of service and care, and the more we drift away from that the less effective we’ll be.