Many have heard this story told in different settings and with different characters involved, but I think it has meaning for today:
One morning, a woman was walking on a beach where hundreds of stranded starfish had been washed ashore during a storm the night before. She was picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it into back into the ocean. A man came upon the scene and was overwhelmed by the number of live starfish who would soon die. He saw her throwing a starfish back in the water, and he asked, “Why are you throwing them back? Can’t you see that there is no way to save them all? What difference does throwing one back make?”
At that, she picked up a starfish, threw it back in the water and said, “It makes a difference to that one.” At that, the man picked up a starfish and threw it in the water, and they continued on their journey now saving two starfish at a time.
And my point is that, while her effort seemed small, it was doubled by her sharing with another person who then joined her in her quest.
We are witnessing yet another General Conference caught in a quagmire debating whether to continue excluding homosexual persons (and by implication perhaps those with differing gender identities) from the mainstream of the church. By claiming that the lives of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are somehow incompatible with Christian teaching, I wonder if that exclusion itself might be what is most incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.
We are now raising a generation of young adults, teens and children for whom the reality of differing sexual orientations and gender identities is a part of life and who deem the church as irrelevant when we bog down in this debate. They do so because they themselves see this as something that doesn’t mesh with their image of a Jesus who went way beyond the boundaries without judgment to those who were excluded from the mainstream.
We are frantic. We see this huge mess lying on our shores. We are determined to clean it all up in one fell swoop … one General Conference, but this never seems to effect change as dramatically as we wish it would.
I heard a presentation this past Sunday that talked about using our political connections to effect change. Josh Houston, with Texas Impact, said something that really made sense. He said that we tend to worry so much about national elections where our influence is so greatly diminished, but that our local efforts tend to have both more impact and raise up those people who eventually serve us at county, state and federal levels. Based on typical voter turnout in local elections, when we vote, our one vote can count for thousands of people. His message was to think small on our impact, and we will begin to effect more change than we ever thought possible.
In the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, when Jesus authorized his disciples to continue his ministry, Luke tells us that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Then he taught them what was written about the Christ and that “a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Even Jesus said to start small in order to go large.
Jesus healed one person at a time, even when he was in a large group. The gospels tell us stories about Jesus encountering large crowds, but if you read closely, you realize that most of the stories told are either about his small following of disciples (both men and women who traveled with him) or his encounters with individuals along the way.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us about the disciples as they encountered individuals. Paul began house churches. They were not cathedrals, by any stretch. They were small groups that led to the creation of other small groups. Many of them were underground churches during the time of persecution. Thousands were brought to faith, but it happened through individual relationships.
The interesting thing is that the notion of converting entire nations on a wholesale basis did not happen until after the Council of Nicaea in 325, and that was largely not for religious or faith-based reasons. Emperor Constantine needed to unite his empire, and Christianity had become the tool by which he would do so. Claiming the cause of Christ, people’s lives were in peril if they did NOT convert to Christianity.
In my mind, there is a distinct difference between Jesus and Constantine. Jesus was not about conversion … he was about transformation. Jesus was not about conformity … he was about relationship. And it all began from Jerusalem and moved outward!
In our own time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one who exhibited this practice so well. While she later influenced nations with her addresses and her fame as a Nobel Prize laureate, her ministry, from the beginning, was always focused on one person at a time. She founded the Missionaries of Charity, and her work has inspired thousands of others likewise to care for one person at a time.
So where does this lead us? For us to have the greatest impact on the church, it is vitally important to start with relationships and transformation. It is not a secular political process that involves debate, voting and pronouncements. It is a process of faithful following that brings us into conversation, relationship and acceptance of the other. Change comes with each single encounter and then broadens as those encounters lead to other encounters where love and respect are the norm for our conversations.
At Wellspring, we have instituted a series of holy conversations that are aimed at just such encounters. The model we have used is a model where we agree to a covenant of respect and listening to one another. It is a model where we can talk about our differences without debating one another. It is not about debate and conversion; rather, it is about conversation and transformation.
When we share the love of Jesus one person at a time, we create community. It is in that community that we live out our motto: “All are welcome! All are accepted!” And we always add: “All means all.” One precious soul at a time!