#TellHisStory: How One Small Act Can Change Someone’s World

September 2, 2014 | friendship, Tell His Story | 35 comments

small

She wrote upside-down on the stationery, and she apologized for the mistake.

But in truth, her upside-down words were the most right-side-up words I had read in a long time.

Her name was Paula. She wrote me the letter more than a decade ago, and it covered two sides of her notecard. I found it while cleaning our filing cabinets the other day.

When I held it in my hands, one long rubber-band of memory snapped me back to the day I got her letter.

Two days before the letter arrived in the mailbox, Paula had visited my home. She and I sat together on the couch, with crushed Cheerios underfoot. I had drawn on lipstick before she came over, but Cover Girl couldn’t cover the dark circles under my eyes. Nor could I hide the postpartum depression that had bulldozed my joy.

I had worn mismatched socks and tried to hide the wardrobe malfunction by pulling my legs under me. I sat on my feet until they tingled and numbed.

Paula was cradling my baby.

My husband and I had been attending Paula’s church regularly, but for me, the liturgy and hymns felt like mouthed abstractions toward an unseen God. I was swimming through a soup of depression and drowning under the hot guilt of my puny faith in God.

For some reason, my doubt felt like failure, like something that needed to be confessed. Like something I should feel terribly sorry for.

So I kept my doubt walled off, and I nodded with the pastor when he preached the gospel, and I closed my eyes when I sung hymns, like maybe I could will myself to believe sometime before the organist hit the final chord.

The wall crumbled the day Paula came by.

She was old enough to be my mother. I didn’t intend to unzip my heart that day. Maybe all of my bone-tiredness had loosened my steely resolve to keep secrets. I can’t say for sure.

I do remember the softness of her eyes. The way she put her hands on my knees, like we were family. How she never swept away the crushed Cheerios with her feet. I remember mostly, how my doubt came up and out, like it was busting out of a prison. Paula was like a parole officer.

And she was like a mother. I kept on talking, and she kept on loving.

A couple days afterward, her handwritten letter arrived in the mailbox at the end of our country lane. I waited until I got back to the kitchen to read it, with my bare feet planted on the wood planks and a baby on my hip.

“Don’t be discouraged by your doubting and empty feelings, Jennifer,” she wrote. “Even after all these years, I feel empty at times.”

A whole decade later, I sat in my office re-reading those words through tears.

I had no idea, until all these years later, how important that letter really was. And she would have had no idea how her small act of obedience—sitting down to write one letter—​would make a huge difference on the trajectory of one woman's faith life.

Before Paula, I had feared condemnation for my doubt. But she held it gently in her hands.

These days, I hear a lot about how the church is failing people. How it’s too stodgy or irrelevant or happy-clappy or judgmental or legalistic or pick-your-favorite-adjective-and-insert-it-here. No doubt, the church has been one or all of those things for many people down through the ages.

But for me on that day? Paula was church, the way church was intended to be, right in my living room, and again in my mailbox. Because she rang a doorbell. Because she picked up a pen.

It didn't cost her more than the gas to our house, and the stamp on the envelope. And maybe a little time.

Mother Teresa, a giant in the faith, once told us all how the little things count for a lot:

"Not all of us can do great things, she said. "But we can do small things with great love."

motherteresa

Small is the new big, which is good news for any of us who think that our small acts of obedience don't amount to a whole lot.

Like Mother Teresa, Paula reminds us of this truth: it really is the little things.

 You want to make a difference today? Go ahead, think small.

Send your kid's teacher a note of thanks. Bake cookies for your church janitor. Listen to the dreams of the woman who lives at the end of the cul de sac. Stop your car at the curb, and help your elderly neighbor pick up sticks. Send the note, and don't fret if you write it on the card upside-down. Make the call. Pray your prayers. It matters. It really matters. 

Look: You don't have to preach in stadiums or go viral or be a bestseller to radically alter the course of another human being's life.

I've sat in many a conference-hall seat, and have been wildly blessed by dozens of books and blog posts.

But Paula's small act of love? THAT was the act that opened the door that let the light in. And if I wasn't writing about it right now, no one would ever know. It was done in secret. Out of love.

That's the power of small. It was a stepping stone.

DSC_0168

After that meeting with Paula all those years ago, I found a way to pluck my bravery out from under my doubt. Later, I became a leader in my church, even in the midst of my persistent questions about the faith. I began to teach Sunday school, to lead our church’s Vacation Bible School program, and to serve as the “church DJ,” spinning tunes from the church’s music library on contemporary-worship Sundays. Later, I led community Bible studies, began a blog about my faith walk, and most recently, wrote a book to encourage other Christian women who are trying to figure things out.

You won’t find Paula’s name on the spine of any books, but she’s built right into the spine of my faith story.

More than a decade ago, she wrote these words to me--

“Obviously, you are searching and studying and God is preparing you through that for what He has in store for you. Hang on—it could be a roller coaster ride but with God in charge, you’ll love it.”

She added a postscript in the corner:

“Sorry I wrote this upside down.”

So, what's your Story?

A #TellHisStory is any story that connects your story into the story of God.

You're invited to tell that story right here, in community with us.

Share your narratives, your poems, your Instagrams tagged with #TellHisStory, ... your beautiful hearts. You are the chroniclers, the people who help others make sense of the world with your words and your art.

Story is how we know that, no matter what happens, we can get back up again.

Visit someone (or two) in the link-up to encourage with a comment. Then, Tweet about your posts, and the posts you visit, with the #TellHisStory hashtag. Come back on Friday to visit our Featured #TellHisStory, in the sidebar.

A final note: This is a safe place to tell your stories. You don’t have to be a professional writer to join us. Story is built into every single one of us. Your story matters, because it’s part of God’s story down through history, not because you punctuated everything correctly. Deal?

#TellHisStory

For more details on the #TellHisStory linkup, click here. Share the love of story by visiting someone else in the community!

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by | September 2, 2014 | friendship, Tell His Story | 35 comments

35 Comments

  1. Laura Lynn Brown

    This is one of the things I am thankful for today. It’s a note in a chorus of affirmations of the small gesture. Thank you.

    Reply
    • dukeslee

      I love your daily lists of gratitude. I love the way you see.

      Reply
  2. Amy Tilson

    Just wrote a note for my son’s kindergarten teacher to let her know I’ll be praying for her throughout the year. HIs classes start tomorrow and this was exactly what I needed to see. Thanks for sharing your story about Paula. 🙂

    Reply
    • dukeslee

      That’s awesome, Amy! I love that!

      Reply
  3. Rebekah M. Hallberg

    These posts are always such a blessing to me – and I don’t think I’ve said thank you very often. Thank you! Praying for you today!

    Reply
  4. Constance Ann Morrison

    How appropriate that Paula wrote upside down for the upside down kingdom of God–the first shall be last and the last first, and the least shall be the greatest and the greatest least. Thanks for reminding us of the power of small things.

    Reply
  5. Mindy Whipple

    Those small things can be so big in our lives. I have been on the receiving end before. Praying I never ignore doing the small knowing that God can make it big. Thanks for all you share with us Jennifer…

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth Stewart

    This post is everything that made me start following your blog years ago. Beautiful, encouraging, real, honest, inspiring. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Abigail Alleman

    Jennifer, so many things, all throughout this. I’d say for many years now the Lord has been purifying my heart for the small. To the point where, now, if things grew ‘big’ and I couldn’t respond personally to that person that reaches out after a post, I would grieve it. So, very much in God’s economy looks utterly different than how I am inclined to see things. I especially love the crushed cheerios as my very curious toddler throws crumbs on the floor right now;) on that note…shalom

    Reply
  8. Devi Abraham Duerrmeier

    Such a great reminder – thanks, Jennifer, and this is a beautiful story. I’ve been that mom with the mismatched socks, too, by the way!!

    Reply
  9. Katie Reid

    This nugget, just one of many, causes a thank you to come forth, “Look: You don’t have to preach in stadiums or go viral or be a
    bestseller to radically alter the course of another human being’s life.” As I get ready to go small today, I hang on to this.:)

    Reply
  10. Kate

    Love the truths you draw out of these otherwise ordinary occasions, like finding a letter. So appreciate your writing!

    Reply
  11. Chandra

    Words are failing me right now, but this is just simply beautiful. Exactly the encouragement I needed today to do the small things. Thank you for this!

    Reply
  12. ro elliott

    I love this story… we do live in an upside-down kingdom… a cup of cold water has value… yes…small is the new big.

    Reply
  13. Lisa notes...

    A thousand times yes, Jennifer! Those small things do make big differences in ways we may never know. I am thankful when someone reaches out to me in that way–it may feel small to them but it feels awesomely and wonderfully big to me.

    Love this:
    “But for me on that day? Paula was church, the way church was
    intended to be, right in my living room, and again in my mailbox.
    Because she rang a doorbell. Because she picked up a pen.”
    Amen.

    Reply
  14. Lyli Dunbar

    I love that Mother Teresa quote This really encouraged me today, Jennifer. Bless you

    Reply
  15. Jolene Underwood

    I live that you shared this woman’s kindness & love to you. I think many women long to hear encouragement from one another. May we all be ready to show love bravely in the moments of today. Blessings Jennifer.

    Reply
  16. Jennifer Frisbie

    This brought tears. So often I feel like my “enough” just…isn’t. As though I’m missing a bigger picture – or I’m left standing on the shore watching that boat sail away without me. It’s an encouragement to me, Jennifer, to see where each small step has brought you. Perhaps I’m trying to widen my stride far beyond my capabilities. Thank you for your continual encouraging words. They have truly been a blessing to me this past year. More than you know…

    Reply
  17. sheila @ LongingsEnd.com

    Paula was church, the way church was intended to be, right in
    my living room, and again in my mailbox. Because she rang a doorbell.
    Because she picked up a pen. — Oh. So. True. If only we all believed this and acted upon it what a powerful difference the church would make. Thanks, Jennifer, for another heart-warming story.

    Reply
  18. Jennifer Camp

    Okay, I’m going to go out my door right now, turn right, and knock on my 80-year old neighbor’s front door. Thank you, Jennifer. xo

    Reply
  19. BlessingCounter - Deb Wolf

    Amen Jennifer. Simple small acts of obedience are the very things God may be using to leave His imprint on a hurting heart. Praying daily for a willingness to obey no matter how great or small. Thanks and Blessings!

    Reply
  20. Eileen

    Beautiful, Jennifer. Your words and your friend.

    Reply
  21. Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    I believe that God uses our small acts of love and obedience and grows them into something much bigger for His glory. Thank you so much for this beautiful reminder of that and for the link-up.

    Reply
  22. Lynn D. Morrissey

    My experience was a little “upside down” from yours, Jennifer. I received a beautiful, short, handwritten letter by author and speaker, Anne Ortlund (You and your readers may know her as the author of Dicisplines of the Beautiful Woman. She’s now at home with Jesus). Anne penned this encouraging note to bolster me at a time I was wondering how I could ever write for Him. She was encouraging about what she considered to be the quality of my words, yes, but moreover, she exhorted me to “go hard after God,” and not write clever words, but words empowered and emboldened by His Spirit. God used that one little note as such a tremendous boost when I was doubting His calling. Years later, when I doubted it again, God gave me the privilege of being mentored and prayed over by Anne for two days in her home. It was life-changing. First the letter, then the visit. In your case, first the visit, then the letter. In each case, small acts of kindness used in big ways by God. And that is what you do here each week . . . offer a post that isn’t necessarily long on words, but long on love. We leave your corner of the blogosphere bolstered in and buoyed up in Jesus. May it encourage *you* to know that what you write here (so eloquently, I might add) truly does make a difference–a BIG one!
    Love
    Lynn

    Reply
  23. Trudy Den Hoed

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful testimony of Jesus’ love, Jennifer. One kind note of love can make so much difference in a person’s life. I love Mother Teresa’s quote. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    Reply
  24. Jennifer

    Jennifer,
    I have such a similar story with my PPD! (Sharing it in the Open Hearts series on Katie Reed’s blog next week!) I am so thankful for these Titus 2 women in our lives! Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  25. marthaorlando

    Thank you, dear Lord, for all the “Paulas” in this world! May each of us reach out in love and understanding as she did to you, Jennifer. We never know how much that seemingly insignificant touch can make a life-long difference. Blessings!

    Reply
  26. Karrilee Aggett

    Oh my friend… you know… you just KNOW I love this so much! xoxo

    Reply
  27. pastordt

    I adore this story!! May we all be Paulas, the church with heart and arms and hands. Thanks, Jen.

    Reply
  28. Kim

    I love, love, LOVE this! Thanks for sharing. When our granddaughter was born 2 1/2 years ago, our daughter and son-in-law had recently moved to a new city and were still visiting churches, trying to find a church home. (They absolutely loved the church where they’d lived before, and they were having difficulty finding a comparable experience.) When Kinley was born, one of those churches arranged for meals to be brought in for several days and brought a cross for the baby’s room. They weren’t “members” yet, but that church treated them like family. It’s where they still go today and where they have now taken on leadership roles of their own. Little things make a huge difference, and it’s always good to have beautiful reminders like the story you shared today, Jennifer!

    Reply
  29. Leah Adams

    What a beautiful reminder to be faithful in ALL things…the small and the great. I hope Paula knows how much she meant to you….I hope she reads this beautiful tribute to her faithfulness!

    Reply
  30. Jerri Miller

    Love this, Jennifer! I’m sure that Paula doesn’t realize she is a hero of the faith, but the acts of obedience and love show that she is. I’m inspired to search for what small thing I can go do. (I love your slogan: small is the new big.)

    Reply
  31. lynndiane

    Wonder-full post! Yes, small IS big and every act of kindness may be a stepping stone for someone’s faith journey. Jesus invites us to LIVE upside down!

    Reply
  32. Nancy Ruegg

    Powerful encouragement, Jennifer. Through your honor of Paula in this post, you have inspired all of us to remember: Small deeds can have great impact. Just DO, and leave the results to God. Thank you for such a memorable example.

    Reply
  33. Becky Keife

    So so good, Jennifer. A beautiful tribute to God’s divine innerworkings in your life and encouragement to be faithful in the little…trusting that “little” to us could be “big” for someone else.

    Reply

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