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Twenty years ago this year, we had a devastating storm blow through our area that we call the No-Name Storm.
I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but the other day a woman came into the newspaper office and mentioned it. She still lives in one of the hardest hit areas.
When she left, I started thinking about that storm and its aftermath. For many people around here, it was our area’s Hurricane Sandy or a mini Hurricane Katrina, blowing in and surprising everyone, wreaking havoc.
Afterward, people sprang into action to help those whose homes were damaged. I wanted to help, too.
I had learned a dear man from my church, Joe Koch, needed help at his house, so I set out with visions of being Greatly Used by God. I imagined myself ripping out drywall and putting up sheetrock and comforting Joe with “psalms and spiritual songs,” as the Bible says.
However, by the time I got to his house that day, a crew had already been there and finished all the stuff I had wanted to do. Desperate to help, I looked around Joe’s house, but all I could find was a pile of wet postage stamps on the desk and Joe sitting nearby not saying much of anything.
So, I stood next to Joe making feeble chit-chat, peeling sheets of wet stamps apart. As I set them out to dry, I babbled on and on about how he could reuse them with a bit of glue, blah, blah, blah.
Joe continued not saying much, and mostly just nodded. When I finished my stamp peeling, I left feeling like a failure.
I was also a little ticked at God, because I had wanted to be helpful and useful, which, if you know me, isn’t my usual M.O. Since wanting to help comes so infrequently to me, I had hoped it would be something big and showy, but all I ended up doing was playing around with wet postage stamps. How ordinary. How average.
Except — it turned out not to be ordinary to Joe. Weeks later I found out he had told EVERYBODY how much I had helped him that day. That he had been almost in despair, but his turning point came when I stopped to talk to him and peel his wet stamps.
I still think about that a lot, about how what I tend to think is useful and helpful is usually not what God thinks is useful. I think usefulness is being grand and inspiring, preferably with an audience.
But that’s not how God works.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers, “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).
God uses ordinary and common and deeds done unaware to do the extraordinary. A little boy’s lunch of bread and a couple fishes, in the hands of Jesus once fed thousands.
A smile, a kind word or gesture, if God chooses to use it, a simple, ordinary gesture has the power to change the course of a person’s life.
People’s lives are rocked by storms all the time, and people want to help. But as I’ve observed, when it comes to how God works, often the greatest help isn’t always from the biggest, grandest gestures.
That’s because sometimes people want to help in order to help their own image. If I’m honest, I wanted to help Joe by ripping out soggy drywall and speaking awesome words of wisdom because it would feel good and I would look awesome doing it.
I’m exactly who Jesus had in mind when he talked about people trumpeting their good deeds in public.
Instead, God seems to prefer using people most when they’re least aware of it. When they’re just doing ordinary stuff like peeling wet stamps, offering a listening ear, sharing a lunch.
These small gestures, these simple, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy and kindness, if God is in them, if he has ordained them, they are great and glorious.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at email@example.com.