Being a theologian is like any other job. You have certain tools that you make use of, a certain place that you do your job, and a certain product that you are expected to put out. You have a need of experience and a body of knowledge out of which your conclusions can be made. A theologian uses his mind, the Bible, the laws of logic and other appropriate research methodologies. A theologian, like anyone else, has certain presuppositions that color his approach. In my case, a belief in the existence of God and, following the words of Jesus in Matthew 22, a belief that any interpretation I come up with must be compatible with both a love of God and a love of people.
In doing my theological task, sometimes I make use of large swaths of the Bible. Other times I wind up looking at a single sentence. In either case, my conclusions and explanations are going to grow out of my overall knowledge of my field.
Recently, I was pondering a single small section of one of the minor prophets from the Old Testament, Zechariah 4:10 which reads, "Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel."
In context, the author was speaking about the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple following the Babylonian captivity, a period of seventy years that had started about 605 BCE. The Zerubbabel of the passage was the governor of Persian controlled Palestine at the time the prophet Zechariah was writing his prophesies.
The "day of small things" refers to the limited progress then apparent in rebuilding the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. As I thought about that, I decided that “the day of small things” can also, metaphorically, be a reference to any time when little progress is apparent. After all, most of life is a matter of small things, of incremental steps. The writing of a novel does not happen in a day. Instead, it is like building a wall, brick by brick, or like eating a cow, something all of us have done, but it's been one hamburger at a time.
The average novel is about 90,000 words. That sounds like a lot, if you consider that a ten page paper of the sort that you might have had to write in college is only about 2500 words long. And how hard was it for you to come up with ten pages? Did you try to narrow the margins, maybe increase the size of the font? Or if it was in the pre-computer age, perhaps you had to make sure your typewriter used pica rather than elite. But a novelist does not sit down one day and in eight hours pound out a novel. Instead, a novelist works on one or two or five pages in a day. And if you write even one page a day, in a year you have your book—all 90,000 words of it.
When we set out to accomplish something, it is very easy to get discouraged along the way. We want to see overnight success; we want our business to blossom into the next Wal-mart within a year and if it doesn't we wonder what we're not doing right. But is there anything that we do that doesn't begin small and perhaps remain small for a very long time? Look at our children. It takes them a full eighteen years at the very least before they might be ready to live on their own. Twenty-two if they go on to college. For the first two years we have them they can't even use a toilet or dress themselves.
Each morning when we arise we go about doing whatever it is that we have to do for that day. Mostly, what we do always seems so small and petty. We have bills to pay, cleaning to do, stuff to mend. And every day it seems to be a repetition of the same old thing, with nothing changing at all. I add a page or two to the new book I'm working on and the computer file changes from 32 kilobytes to 36 kilobytes if I'm lucky. Back in the old days, I used to actually print out what I'd written thinking that I would have some measure of accomplishment in seeing the growing stack of paper day by day. But that is actually more like watching your own children grow. You simply don't notice since you see them every day. But then their grandparents show up on the next holiday and gush about how much they've sprouted.
And you can't see it.
That's the way of small things. And why we can too easily despise them. They are what we don't see because we're too close to the process. But people on the outside, people not so intimately involved, can look at it and marvel on the progress, grow excited, as the people of ancient Israel did, when they saw the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
All we can see as we work through each day, is the task in front of us that seems of no significance. The project seems to be going nowhere. Nothing is improving, nothing is getting better. The world is actually getting worse, isn't it? The best days are now behind us.
It is easy to feel that way as we grow older, as we begin to become aware of our own physical deterioration, when we discover our hair is thinning, and there are wrinkles and our strength and endurance just aren't what they used to be. And why can't I pull an all-nighter anymore? Or worse, why do I not even want to?
But the sense that nothing is improving, that nothing is happening, that nothing is getting better, is just an illusion.
Whatever it is that you’re doing, just keep at it. Perseverance over time is the key. Don't despise the day of small things. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was just one more tiny infant born to unwed parents, a speck in the vast teaming mass that made up the Roman Empire. But in the fullness of time, he changed the world.