Three Feet

You may have heard the expression "An Earth made fair and all her people one." It comes from a mid-20th Century Christian hymn titled "Turn Back, O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways" and is often used as a shorthand to describe our vision of a utopian future. As we wrap up our month-long theme of "Vision," Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Josie Cressler consider these questions: What is our vision of and for the world? What is our responsibility to help bring that vision to reality? 

Reading: "A Drop in the Bucket"; from Out of the Ordinary, Meditations by Gordon B. McKeeman

What it says about inadequacy, futility, insignificance!
A drop in the bucket. What’s the sense? What’s the use?
We’re no longer in the center of things.
Copernicus removed the earth from the center of the solar system.
Darwin removed humans from the center of the earth.
Astronomy has removed the solar system from the center of the universe.
Well, who are we, then, and where are we?
Physiologists call us “weak, watery solutions, more or less jellified.”
Just suppose that we are the merest drops in a bucket.
There are unspoken assumptions here.
We assume that a full bucket is what we’re aiming at
and that until the bucket is full, nothing has been accomplished.
There is never a shortage of buckets.
The empty bucket litany is long and tedious:
racism, sexism, ableism, authoritarianism, oppression, injustice,
violence, environmental degradation, overpopulation.
You feel like a drop in the bucket?
Who asked you to fill the bucket - especially all alone?
Remember how many there are who share your concern.
We may feel daunted, but we are not one drop.
A sense of isolation is the parent of the drop-in-the-bucket feeling.
Sometimes one can decide the size of the bucket.
Don’t think you can do a large bucket? Try a smaller size.
Even imparting a bit of hope - a pat on the back, a financial contribution,
a few hours of volunteer service - every drop helps!
It might even be wise to remember why you need to help fill this bucket,
possibly to quench the thirst of someone hard at work on a larger one.
That buckets of whatever size are filled a drop at a time.
If you don’t help, it will take even longer.
That your drop may be one of the last ones needed.
(Why is it that our image is of the first drop in the bucket?)
Where we’d be if everybody gave up putting drops in the bucket? –
probably much worse off.
Persistence depends on patience, on keeping at it when there is little to reassure us.
It would be too bad to give up, to sit back, bemoan the sorry state of the world,
and wonder why somebody, anybody, everybody (but not me, thank you)
doesn’t do something about “it.”
After all, the Grand Canyon was fashioned by drops of water,
As ordinary as they seem.

Sermon: "3 Feet"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

I was fourteen years old – a freshman in high school – when I decided what I was going to do with my life. I was going to be a doctor. I don’t remember exactly how it came to me. We didn’t have any physicians in our family. I wasn’t a sickly kid whose life had been saved by doctors. But I knew it was the career for me. My vision for my future was even more specific than just becoming a doctor. I was going to take my medical degree and change the world. Back then, in the early 1970’s, there was an organization called “Project HOPE.” The “HOPE” in their name was an acronym for “Health Opportunities for People Everywhere.” Project HOPE operated a hospital ship that sailed all over the world, bringing medical care to people in what we then called “Third World” countries. I was going to graduate from medical school and join the Project HOPE team.

I spent the next 5 years of my life pursuing this vision. When I turned 15 and became eligible, I began to volunteer in the local hospital. When I turned 16, I got a job as an orderly, doing everything from scrubbing floors to transporting patients. I joined the ski patrol at the ski area where our family went on weekends in the winter and got certified as an emergency responder on the slopes. Because my father was a hospital trustee and he knew a bunch of doctors, I was invited to go into the operating room and watch surgeries. Not from one of those galleries like you see in “Gray’s Anatomy.” I would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the surgeons and nurses. Everything I did affirmed the life choice I had made and fueled the fire of my passion to change the lives and save the lives of children in Bangladesh and Ecuador and Vietnam.

When I got to college as a pre-med student, I was ready to sail through with straight A’s just like I did in high school. Then came my first chemistry test. It probably was at just about this time of year, about a month after college began. I remember sitting in the large lecture hall in the science center, looking down at the test questions, my pencil poised above the worksheet. And it looked and felt like the questions were written in a language I’d never seen before. Long story short, I got a 33 on that exam. And that was out of 110, because there was a bonus question. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. Thus began my long slow slide toward washing out of the pre-med program. I stuck with it for three semesters, getting C’s and D’s in the sciences, until I finally had to admit to myself that my dream would never become reality. The door was closed on my life-changing, world-saving vision of myself.

I was crushed. I spent the next two and a half years of college aimlessly attending classes in the subjects that came easily to me – English, history, political science. I followed the path of least resistance, which took me to law school. Did I have a vision of myself as a lawyer? Far from it. I went to law school because I thought it would buy me some time to figure things out.

Fast-forward about a dozen years, where I found myself practicing law in a firm in Portland, Maine. I had a great life, with a wonderful wife who, thankfully, loved me fiercely, and two delightful daughters. And I was terribly, clinically depressed. There’s a word that fits how I felt, and that word is “alienated.” There was a large gap between who I was and who I thought I would be. I didn’t have a vision I was pursuing. How was helping clients build shopping centers and condominiums changing the world for the better?

During the ensuing years, what I call the “Lost Years,” I tried to regain some kind of vision for my life. I came up with one hair-brained scheme after another, all of them calling for my family and me selling everything we owned, moving to one of those “Third World” countries – which we at that point were calling “Underdeveloped.” We’d pack up and go to a remote village in India and distribute rice to the hungry. We’d go teach English to children in Guatemala. We’d bring flood relief supplies to remote islanders in Indonesia. The only way I was going to be satisfied, the only way I was going to be fulfilled, the only way I was going to recapture the vision I’d had for myself was by doing this grand and outlandish thing, somewhere far from the comforts of everything I knew.

Irene – my rock, God bless her soul – stuck with me through it all. And she would point out to me that there was a large population of Vietnamese and Central American refugees right in Portland who needed help. I could teach them English, three blocks from where I was working every day. And there was a homeless teen population in the city that she was supporting through our church. Couldn’t I just join her in that work? From the fog of my depression, I couldn’t see how doing these things could possibly meet my own need. They couldn’t possibly change the world, or help me to live into the grand vision I had of myself.

Now, I have to pause here and admit that, at this point, that my vision for myself had shifted, and not in a healthy way. It wasn’t just a grand vision, it had become a vision of grandiosity. I knew that I was made for something bigger than serving soup on a Saturday night. That was my ego talking. Somehow my altruistic instinct had been consumed by my need for my own self-fulfillment. I wanted to move to some far-flung place not because that’s where the need was, but because I wanted people to think I’d done something big, something cool, something they’d never do themselves. Instead of the impact it might have on others, the magnitude of the change had become the measure of its validity.

We didn’t sell everything we owned and move to the far reaches of the world. Through intensive therapy and medication and the steadfast love of my family I managed to emerge from my depression alive and relatively intact. And I was able to regain some sense of balance between serving the needs of the world and meeting my own. It’s what led me, eventually, to ministry. Ministry has enabled me to reclaim at least part of the vision I’d had when I was a teenager, the most important part, really. The part that sees myself as a helper and, perhaps in some sense, a healer.

And so, I wonder: What is your vision of yourself in relationship to the world? The world as it exists and the world as we might want it to be? There is no doubt that these are challenging times, times when we might often prefer to bury our head in the sand or pull the blanket up over our heads. But these times aren’t unique. Every time, every age has its challenges. There is no such thing as a perfect world. Just a world trudging, ever so slowly, toward perfection. The beloved community, “an earth made fair, and all her people one,” is a vision that will always be “not-yet.” When we say that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, we know that that arc is long and there’s no pot of gold waiting at the end of it. Which means that there is, in every time and every age, more that we can do. Where, in that “more,” do we fit in? Where in that “there’s so much to be done,” do we see ourselves?

Rev. Gordon McKeeman’s piece reminds us that, although we may be drops in the bucket that our contribution, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is important. “Just suppose that we are the merest drops in a bucket,” he writes.

"There are unspoken assumptions here.
We assume that a full bucket is what we’re aiming at
and that until the bucket is full, nothing has been accomplished.
There is never a shortage of buckets.
The empty bucket litany is long and tedious:
racism, sexism, ableism, authoritarianism, oppression, injustice,
violence, environmental degradation, overpopulation.
You feel like a drop in the bucket?
Who asked you to fill the bucket - especially all alone?
Remember how many there are who share your concern.
We may feel daunted, but we are not one drop.”[1]


The question that the “drop in the bucket” perspective poses is one of hope. Where do we fall on the scale that runs from, on one end, futility, to the other, which is faith? It is oh, so easy to throw our hands up and say that nothing matters, that we’re powerless to change anything. That’s one of the big reasons why turnout at mid-term elections, and even in Presidential years, is so low. Or, worse than just giving up, some turn inward and focus on what they can do and how much they can get for themselves. To not even add their few meagre drops to the bucket.

This past week I listened to a conversation with Van Jones, the political and social commentator, about his book Beyond the Messy Truth. In that interview, he said that we cannot effect social change without undergoing inner change. We must, he said, maintain a sense of equilibrium within ourselves as we face the challenges and conflicts of these times. We must stay spiritually grounded as we engage with others who are different from us, with whom we’re even in open conflict. Jones goes so far as to say that it’s our duty to break out of what he calls our “resistance bubbles,” and to actively engage with those who hold views that might be in violent opposition to ours. He issued a challenge when he said “The goal isn’t to have all your NPR friends, and all your Prius-driving friends and all your Kale-eating friends all sitting around with you complaining about Donald Trump. There’s nothing enlightened about that at all. You should be able to listen to mean people saying mean stuff, with guns in your face, and still be calm like Nelson Mandela.”

And if that doesn’t hit home, he went on to talk about the distinction between “spirituality” and “soulfulness.” To be “spiritual,” he said, risks separating us from others. It elevates us above and removes us from engagement. He said that spirituality carries with it a connotation of fragility. Especially a spirituality that’s found only in retreat centers, yoga studios and even some churches. There’s a small “ouch” in there for us, I think.

What Van Jones says we need in these challenging times, to meet them and respond to them in ways that are productive and effective, is not spirituality, but “soulfulness.” He spoke of soulfulness grounded in the African-American tradition of “Hallelujah anyway.” To be soulful is to see and feel the pain and suffering in the world, but to be able to celebrate, to find joy despite it, or even in spite of it. It’s to say, “Yes, this is awful. But ain’t life grand.” It is to be victimized but not suffer from victimhood. To be soulful is to be resilient rather than fragile. To be fully engaged with life rather than removed from it. It’s to be able to face the harsh realities of life and to sing “hallelujah” anyway.

“Drop in the bucket” thinking is about as far from this soulfulness, this “hallelujah anyway” approach as we can get. It’s based in a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. Soulfulness, as Van Jones describes it, is life-sustaining and life-affirming, while drop-in-the-bucket is soul-sucking and death-dealing, to use one of Parker Palmer’s terms. And so, I ask again: what is your vision for your relationship with the world, in all its magnificence and all its malevolence? Are you a “drop-in-the bucket” kind of person, or someone who’s soulful?

I’m glad that, when I emerged from my depression, I left behind the illusion of my own grandiosity. Since then, and certainly in the last dozen years when I’ve been serving this congregation, I’ve become a starfish kinda guy. You know the starfish story, right?  It goes like this: One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you possibly make?” The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one.”

If the starfish story doesn’t work for you, here’s another image that might. African American Pastor and activist Greg Ellison talks about the importance of having an impact on those closest to us. His Auntie, he says, always used to tell him, “Greg, I may not be able to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me.”

In these trying times, I think that’s a healthy, sustainable, even soulful perspective. Our vision need not be to some far horizon, way beyond our grasp. Our ambition need not be to reach the end-point on the moral arc of the universe, that elusive pot of gold of justice and equity for all, everywhere. In some ways, those distant goals are recipes for futility and drop-in-the-bucket thinking. Let’s all look around and see what the three feet around us needs, and then do that.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

[1] Gordon McKeeman, from Out of the Ordinary

Closing Words

Our closing words today come from environmental activist and educator David Orr. He writes:

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”