So don’t be afraid. You are worth much more than many sparrows. – MATTHEW 10:31 NCV

The Villagers of Stiltsville

Perhaps you don’t know,
then, maybe you do,
about Stiltsville, the village,
(so strange but so true)
where people like we,
some tiny, some tall,
with jobs and kids
and clocks on the wall

keep an eye on the time.
For each evening at six,
they meet in the square
for the purpose of sticks,
tall stilts upon which

Stiltsvillians can strut
and be lifted above
those down in the rut:

the less and the least,
the Tribe of Too Smalls,
the not cools and have-nots
who want to be tall

but can’t, because
in the giving of sticks,
their name was not called.
They didn’t get picked.

Yet still they come
when villagers gather;
they press to the front
to see if they matter

to the clique of the cool,
the court of high clout,
that decides who is special
and declares with a shout,

“You’re classy!” “You’re pretty!”
“You’re clever” or “Funny!”
And bequeath a prize,
not of medals or money,

not a freshly baked pie
or a house someone built,
but the oddest of gifts—
a gift of some stilts.

Moving up is their mission,
going higher their aim.
“Elevate your position”
is the name of their game.

The higher-ups of Stiltsville
(you know if you’ve been there)
make the biggest to-do
of the sweetness of thin air.

They relish the chance
on their high apparatus
to strut on their stilts,
the ultimate status.

For isn’t life best
when viewed from the top?
Unless you stumble
and suddenly are not

so sure of your footing.
You tilt and then sway.
“Look out bel-o-o-o-w!”
and you fall straightaway

into the Too Smalls,
hoi polloi of the earth.
You land on your pride—
oh boy, how it hurts

when the chic police,
in the jilt of all jilts,
don’t offer to help
but instead take your stilts.

“Who made you king?”
you start to complain
but then notice the hour
and forget your refrain.

It’s almost six!
No time for chatter.
It’s back to the crowd
to see if you matter.

Ah, there it is. There is the question. The Amazon River out of which a thousand fears flow: do we matter? We fear we don’t. We fear nothingness, insignificance. We fear evaporation. We fear that in the last tabulation we make no contribution to the final sum. We fear coming and going and no one knowing.

That’s why it bothers us when a friend forgets to call or the teacher forgets our name or a colleague takes credit for something we’ve done or the airline loads us like cattle onto the next flight. They are affirming our deepest trepidation: no one cares, because we aren’t worth caring about. For that reason we crave the attention of our spouse or the affirmation of our boss, drop names of important people in conversations, wear college rings on our fingers, and put silicone in our breasts, flashy hubcaps on our cars, grids on our teeth, and silk ties around our necks. We covet some stilts.

Fashion designers tell us, “You’ll be somebody if you wear our jeans. Stick our name on your rear end, and insignificance will vanish.” So we do. And for a while we distance ourselves from the Too Smalls and enjoy a promotion into the Society of Higher-Ups. Fashion redeems us from the world of littleness and nothingness, and we are something else. Why? Because we spent half a paycheck on a pair of Italian jeans.

But then, horror of horrors, the styles change, the fad passes, the trend shifts from tight to baggy, faded to dark, and we’re left wearing yesterday’s jeans, feeling like yesterday’s news. Welcome back to the Tribe of the Too Smalls.

Maybe we can outsource our insignificance. By coupling our identity with someone’s Gulliver-sized achievement, we give our Lilliputian lives meaning. How else can you explain our fascination with sports franchises and athletes?

I am among the fascinated: an unabashed fan of the San Antonio Spurs. When they play basketball, I play basketball. When they score a basket, I score a basket. When they win, I dare to shout with the seventeen thousand other fans, “We won!” Yet how dare I make such a statement? Did I attend a single practice? Scout an opposing team? Contribute a coaching tip or sweat a drop of perspiration? No. I would if they asked. But I’m too insignificant, slow, old, uncoordinated.

Still, I hook my wagon to their rising star. Why? Because it separates me from the plebeians. It momentarily elevates me, knights me.

That philosophy motivated my fourth-grade friend Thomas to keep Dean Martin’s cigarette butt in a jar next to his bedside. Dean Martin crooned his way into the heart of 1960s America via television, radio, and nightclubs. He shared thin-air celebrity status with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. We lowborns could only admire such nobility from a distance. Thomas, however, could do more. When Dean Martin graced our West Texas town by appearing in a charity golf tournament, Thomas and his father followed him in the gallery. When the icon flicked his cigarette to the side, Thomas was there to snag it.

Who could forget the moment when we, the friends of Thomas, gathered in his bedroom to behold the holy stogie? We cashed in on the trickle-down principle of celebrity economy. Dean Martin was a star; Thomas owned Dean Martin’s cigarette; we knew Thomas. We were down-the-line beneficiaries of Dean Martin’s stardom.

Connect to someone special and become someone special, right?

Or simply outlive life. When the billionaire realizes that he will run out of years before he runs out of money, he establishes a foundation. No doubt some altruism motivates the move, but so does a hunger to matter.

We have kids for the same reason. Giving birth gives meaning to ourselves. Although parenthood is certainly a more noble reach for significance than showcasing Dean Martin’s cigarette butt, it is still, in part, just that. One day, when we die, our descendants will remember “good ol’ Dad” or “sweet ol’ Mom,” and we will extend our lives via theirs.

Italian jeans. Dean Martin’s cigarette butt. Foundations. Legacies. Forever looking to prove Bertrand Russell wrong. He was the fatalistic atheist who concluded, “I believe that when I die my bones will rot and nothing shall remain of my ego.”1

“He can’t be right,” we sigh.

“He isn’t right!” Jesus announces. And in some of the kindest words ever heard, he allays the fear of the Stiltsvillians. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31 NIV).

What’s more inglorious than hair? Who inventories follicles? We monitor other resources: the amount of money in the bank, gas in the tank, pounds on the scale. But hair on the skin? No one, not even the man with the expanding bald spot, posts tiny number signs adjacent to each strand. We style hair, color hair, cut hair . . . but we don’t count hair.

God does. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

So are the sparrows in the field. In the days of Jesus a penny was one of the smallest coins in circulation. One such penny would buy two sparrows. In other words, everyone could own a couple of sparrows. But why would they? What purpose did they serve? What goal would they accomplish?

In Luke’s gospel Jesus goes a tender step further. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (12:6 RSV). One penny would buy you two sparrows. Two pennies, however, would buy you five. The seller threw in the fifth for free.

Society still has its share of fifth sparrows: indistinct souls who feel dispensable, disposable, worth less than a penny. They drive carpools and work in cubicles. Some sleep beneath cardboard on the sidewalks and others beneath comforters in the suburbs. What they share is a feeling of smallness.

You’ll find a flock of fifth sparrows in a Chinese orphanage for the deaf and mute. China’s one-child policy has a way of weeding out the weak. Males are selected over females. Healthy babies outrank the impaired. Chinese children who cannot speak or hear stand little chance of a healthy, productive life. Every message tells them, “You don’t matter.”

So when someone says otherwise, they melt. Chinese missionary John Bentley describes such a moment. Deaf orphans in Henan province were given a Mandarin translation of a children’s book I wrote entitled You Are Special. The story describes Punchinello, a wooden person in a village of wooden people. The villagers had a practice of sticking stars on the achievers and dots on the strugglers. Punchinello had so many dots that people gave him more dots for no reason at all.

But then he met Eli, his maker. Eli affirmed him, telling him to disregard the opinion of others. “I made you,” he explained. “I don’t make mistakes.”

Punchinello had never heard such words. When he did, his dots began to fall off. And when the children in the Chinese orphanage heard such words, their worlds began to change.

Max Lucado, Fearless (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).

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