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Occasional letters: You in your small corner

D Newell, Glasgow

As one gets older, Sunday School choruses often come back to the mind. Here’s one:

Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle, burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, here let us shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

As a child I took the language quite literally, although I found it hard to understand why I had to shine in a corner when the only time I ever found myself in one was when my primary school teacher sent me there in disgrace for misbehaviour in class. Those were embarrassing moments. Metaphorical small corners of course become frustratingly cramped as one grows up and we yearn for wider spaces in which to stretch our intellectual and spiritual limbs. Yes, it is entirely natural, indeed laudable, for the believer to long for greater opportunities in which to serve the Lord. And yet we must bear in mind that, because the flesh remains within us, our motives will never be spotlessly pure. It is so easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I may desire a wider sphere for my ministry as much for self-esteem as for the glory of God. I suspect that the larger the sphere of service, the greater the temptation to self-congratulation and self-sufficiency.

So what about that small corner? I recently came across this World War Two song (inimitably sung by Gracie Fields):

I can’t pretend to be a great celebrity,
But still I’m quite important in my way;
The job I have to do may not sound much to you
But all the same I’m very proud to say:

I’m the girl that makes the thing that drills
the hole that holds the spring that
drives the rod that turns the knob -
that works the thingamabob.

In the song we never find out exactly what the "thingamabob" is, but we do learn that it is so essential it is going to win the war. Perhaps this anonymous worker laboured in one of the many Spitfire factories which sprang up across the face of England in the 1940s. In a time of national emergency such people, willing to stoop to obscure menial work, were sorely needed. And in local assemblies today they still are. Sometimes the misleading impression is created that the only service for God worth mentioning is high-profile public or platform ministry. But it doesn’t take much reading of Scripture to discover that the famous men and women of the Bible, the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles, were in fact a tiny minority among the people of God. My purpose therefore is specifically to encourage the vast majority – those many quiet, uncelebrated, inconspicuous saints of both sexes who, week in week out, faithfully pull their weight in the local assembly where God has placed them. There is no glamour attached to such service, no report meetings, no magazine write-ups. But God sees it all. And what is truly done for Him the Lord rewards in His own good time. "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly" (Mt 6.1-4).

I find it heartening to discover that God’s Word gives an honourable mention to servants so insignificant that not even their names are recorded. Take, for example, a girl who used her lips. We all know the story. "The Syrians had gone out by companies, and had brought away captive out of the land of Israel a little maid; and she waited on Naaman’s wife. And she said unto her mistress, Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! for he would recover him of his leprosy" (2 Kings 5.2-3). We have little information about this slave girl, but she certainly knew about Elisha and the gracious character of the God he served. As Matthew Henry puts it, "Children should betimes [early] acquaint themselves with the wondrous works of God, that, wherever they go, they may have them to talk of". A little girl spoke up for God – and so can we. Ordinary believers who after Stephen’s death were scattered from Jerusalem "went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts 8.4). In daily life, regardless of age or gender, we can, as God gives the opportunity, put in a word for the Saviour. At the gatherings of the saints all the males are responsible to lift their voices in prayer and praise, and who shall say that this means less to God than preaching to thousands? After all, the Father seeks worshippers.

Again, take a widow who gave her living. "He looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had" (Lk 21.1-4). Watching wealthy Israelites place their gifts in the Temple treasury, the Lord Jesus singled out one widow. Her reduced circumstances are emphasized by three distinct words. She was "poor" (v.2), translating penichros, "penniless"; she was "poor" (v.3), ptochos, "conspicuously poor"; she was in "penury" (v.4), husterema, a situation of deficiency and shortcoming. Yet her sacrificial giving elicited a divine commendation, for what escapes man’s eye is known to God. The Lord’s comment reminds us that all spiritual service, great or small, is ultimately for Him. Many who serve faithfully and scripturally all their lives in their local assembly die in obscurity, unknown outside their tiny area. But the Lord Jesus fully assesses and appreciates what goes into "the offerings of God". The clear differentiation between the many rich men and the one widow ("all these...but she") highlights the value of the individual. The measure of our ministry is not its popularity or apparent success but its acceptability to God.

Finally, take a boy who loaned his lunch. "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?" (Jn 6.9). Without indulging in speculation (and John is noticeably reticent in his account) I think it is fair to say that the boy was willing to give the little he had to the disciples, who then gave it to the Lord. And a little in the hands of Omnipotence becomes much! I use the word "loaned" because the lad immediately got it back with interest, as he undoubtedly shared in the food miraculously produced by the Lord.

These ordinary folk did what they could. And such people are the backbone of local assemblies. Local assemblies across the world are kept going by men and women who are not and never will be in this dispensation well-known names. Local shepherds stay at home to feed and tend the flock, local men and women offer up (audibly and silently) their appreciation of Christ at the Breaking of Bread, and praise and petition at the prayer meetings, local believers teach the Sunday School, maintain regular evangelistic activities, invite folk to the gatherings, take an interest in the spiritual and physical well-being of fellow-saints. Local parents raise godly families. There is so much for the ordinary believer to do. And – mark this – what we do for Him becomes extraordinary because it has eternal consequences. Sticking to the small corner may also in some measure help to preserve the child of God from that temptation (which of course comes to us all) to "think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Rom 12.3). Be grateful to God for your own small corner, and do what you can while you can.

To be continued.


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