Saving the starfish

There’s a story that one day a boy was walking along the seashore. A lot of starfish were being washed up by the waves. They were slowly dying because they were being exposed to the air. He started picking up the starfish one by one and flinging them back into the ocean. A man comes walking by and he sees the little boy doing this. He says ‘Look at all these other starfish. You’re not helping them at all. You’re not making a difference in their lives.” The little boy said “I just made a difference in this one’s life.”

“What we focus on expands”, Oprah Winfrey says. It is very hard when you’re a compassionate or empathetic person. We tend to notice all the people we weren’t able to help. And while it is important to acknowledge loss, it is also important to not focus on just the bad. We have to open ourselves up and intentionally and consciously point ourselves towards that which we are doing which is helping.

We can’t save them all. We can’t help them all. But we are just one part of a huge ocean of people who are helping. We are not alone. We can’t all be Mother Teresa. But she didn’t do it alone either. She had hundreds of nuns working with her whose names we don’t know. Each one of them helped who she was given to help that day. Each one of them did what she could to make that person’s life better. She didn’t do it all but together they did.

If we focus on what we can’t do or who we haven’t saved then we lose energy. If we can help one person, it makes a difference in that person’s life. If we don’t help, locked up in our worry about all that we can’t do, then we’ll do even less.

Help who you can. Leave the rest for others to help. That gives them the joy of helping. By leaving something for others to do, you’ve actually given them a gift. Each of us wants to feel needed. A lot of people feel needed by helping others. When you do it all, you are taking away someone’s task. So you are actually doing a good deed by not doing it all.

Jesus in disguise.

Mother Theresa suggests that we try to see Jesus in every person. She said that it was her privilege to wash Jesus’ festering wounds and to feed him as a tiny abandoned child with AIDS. Essentially, we should serve each person as if they are Jesus in disguise.

I’ve tried this for the past few years at work and it is pretty amazing, and yet very difficult. Every now and then I want to say, hey, Jesus, can you stop being so weird?

It isn’t all weird. Mostly, there is a lot of good in this practice. Because I have changed how I approach people, they have changed towards me. I used to have a lot of people yell at me. They would come in already loaded up with problems, and they were ready to share. Anything and nothing would set them off. It always seemed random when a person would yell, and I began to get very hesitant around everyone. I expected to get randomly yelled at, and they would read my fear and oblige me.

So I tried Mother Theresa’s approach, with a little bit of “The Dog Whisperer” thrown in. Work with me here. People are animals. We are civilized animals, mostly, but we are still animals. We forget this. We respond to the same cues that animals respond to. So showing calm, positive energy is going to result in better results than showing fear.

Being interested in and calm around every single person I help is honestly overwhelming to do for hours at a time. I am a huge introvert. I like people and am constantly fascinated by them, and I like serving them. But I need a lot of quiet and calm to recharge after a day at work.

The difference in patron’s reactions to me is amazing, though, so it is worth it. It is as if I’m playing a “hide and seek” game. I’m looking really hard for the good, the light. I’m trying to see their soul, the spark of God that is within them. They respond to my curiosity by opening up. Their light may be buried under years of abuse or self-hatred or illness, but it is always there. Where there is life, there is light. Just searching for it can bring it out and make it brighter.

Jesus in disguise can be really overwhelming, however. Gender and age are illusions. She can be lonely and I’m the only person she’s got to talk to. He can be a new widower and on the brink of tears while he is signing up for his library card. He can be really smelly because he walked to the library on a Tennessee summer day because his car broke down and he doesn’t have air conditioning at home. She can be a young mother with more children than she has patience for.

Jesus can be a real pain when he is like this. I want to say, hey, Jesus, can’t you show me your nice side sometimes? Why do you have to be cranky and smelly and mean? Can’t you just be normal for a change?

And then I pray again. I ask him to show himself to me again. I ask him to work through me. I ask that my words be what this cranky, smelly, mean person needs to hear. I ask that I’m able to offer them a bit of healing in the time we are together. I try to be mindful and fully present.

It is hard. But it is everything. It is what each of us is made for, this reality, this presence, this moment when we stop being machines and we start being human. It is beautiful and real and aching and sad and overwhelming and everything we need to make this place we call Earth a home. Because ultimately it is all about a connection between people. It is about incarnate love, this love made real and tender and fragile and beautiful.

But it sure would be nice if Jesus would take a bath and use a breath mint every now and then.

Unclean!

I’ve heard a lot of testimonies about people who have become Christian. They say that their lives have become easier. They gave their lives over to God and it all got easier.

I don’t know what they are talking about. I think it gets harder.

In my opinion, when you become a Christian, you become awake. You are aware of the awesome responsibility that you have to be a force for good in the world. You switch from being passive to active.

Yes, there is a sense of your “Higher Power” as they say in AA. You aren’t in charge (and you never were), and you know that God is in charge. You can relax in that sense. And there is the sense that once you are saved, you are then set for when you die. You know where you will go.

But what about in between now and then? Do you just get to sit back and be smugly happy that you’ve got “it” and others don’t? Is being Christian some ugly game of musical chairs, where the loser gets condemned to an eternity in Hell? That doesn’t sound very nice. It also doesn’t sound very Christian. Not really. Not in the true sense of the word.

It does sound like the modern brand of Christian, unfortunately. There are plenty of folks who wear that name like a shield against the rest of the world. They use it like a “get out of jail free” card. They feel like it means they are set – they will live forever. But they then are arrogant about it. They lord The Lord over people. But life isn’t a game of Monopoly. It really isn’t about getting and buying more stuff and about screwing over other people on the way.

When I became Christian I didn’t get a full grasp of what it meant, and I suspect that I still don’t know the full depth of what my responsibilities are. I certainly don’t feel like I do it right all the time. I feel like it is a process, and instead of “Being” Christian, it is more like I’m “Becoming” Christian. It feels like every year I grow deeper into my faith and closer to understanding what the Bible means. I still find the idea of Jesus as “The WORD made flesh” really interesting and I think I have no real clue what that means. I think I have a glimmer of a hope of understanding it.

I feel like the most important thing about being a Christian is that it isn’t a free pass to Heaven. It is marching orders to the front lines of Hell. We are called to be Christ’s Body in this world. Literally. We are His arms and His legs. When folks say “How could God let that happen”, the real answer is “How can we, agents of God, let that happen?” We are to be a force for good. We are to bring forth God’s love. We are to let God work through us.

Jesus didn’t hang out in the swank part of town. He didn’t buy a huge mansion and wall himself off from the world. He was a man of the people. He walked out among average, everyday people who were lost and hungry and sick. He got right in the middle of the tangled knots of life and untangled them. He was a hands-on kind of guy.

He touched lepers. Nobody did that. Lepers were “unclean” in all the ways possible. They had an infectious skin disease that meant they had to live outside of the camp with other lepers. They didn’t get to see their families. They didn’t get to hang out with their friends. It was a lonely existence. They had to wear bells to announce they were lepers to anyone who might come near. If you touched a leper, then you too were considered “unclean.”

But Jesus didn’t care about that. He not only associated with lepers, He touched them, and He didn’t catch leprosy. He healed them.

It makes me wonder, how much of their healing was just being acknowledged by another person? How much of the healing was just being noticed AS a person? Every single person Jesus healed was precious to Him. He violated so many rules that were in place at that time – touching lepers, dead people, women who had menstrual problems. Any one of these conditions would render a person unclean in those days. None of these rules stopped him.

Jesus not only showed us what to do, he empowered us to do it. He showed us that we are to heal others. He gave power to heal to His disciples and through the power of apostolic succession we have that power too. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we have it. Be assured – if you are Christian, you have that power.

So what is our modern day leprosy? What are the conditions that people find themselves in that make them excluded from society? What conditions make people pariahs? What conditions create invisible social walls that make people “unclean” in our society’s eyes? Thus – what places are we called to break down those walls and build bridges?

How about mental illness? How about being a single mother? How about AIDS? How about being gay? There are others, but this is a good start.

If you are a Christian, you have the power to heal. You have within you the means to bring forth God’s mercy and healing. All you have to do is let it happen. You don’t need special training. Just pray, and Jesus will show you how. It is that easy, and that hard. It is terrifying at first. It goes against all of our social rules. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t get involved. Don’t make a scene. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world. The rules of society no longer apply. Jesus broke rules all the time. We are called to do the same. This often means getting out of your comfort zone. This often means taking a risk. It isn’t easy, but it is essential.

Now, it isn’t about passing judgment, and it certainly isn’t about passing laws against people. These actions create separation. We are called to bring together all the lost sheep. We are to show love and kindness and mercy to everyone. We are not to tell others that what they are doing is wrong in our opinion. We are to love them. By loving them, we are healing them. We are healing the rifts that divide people into “us” and “them”.

How do you bring forth healing? One way is to treat every person as if they are Jesus in disguise. This is how Mother Theresa acted. She felt that it was her honor to wash Jesus’ wounds when she washed a leper. She held Jesus in her arms when a frail elderly person died. You don’t have to work at a non-profit to do this. You can do this in your everyday job. Treat each person fairly and kindly. Don’t gossip. Be patient. Show actual interest in each person. Give each person your full attention and your time. When you start doing this you may find it is a little overwhelming and exhausting. Keep it up. It gets easier. It is just like exercise – you get stronger the more you do it.

We are given two commandments – love God, and similarly, love your neighbor as yourself. Every person is a child of God. Every person has within her or him a spark of the light of God. So, treat every person with kindness and respect and love. In Matthew 22:37 we hear these words from Jesus – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” We, as Christians, are called to show the same focus and intensity to “the least of these”, to the “unclean”, to everyone.