To Do One’s Little Bit

The Reverend Elijah B. White

Quinquagesima

March 1, 1987 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Driving along the partially-plowed streets and roads last week I found myself in an old habit:  when there was a pile of slush along the center-line, or toward the edge of the pavement, I’d aim my wheels on that side at it, rather than avoid it.

Of course, l wasn’t foolhardy − I picked smallish slush-piles, and left alone any that looked too solid, or too big.  But it’s a good feeling to hear the tires go “squoosh” and know that there’d be one less pile to freeze solid at night, one less piece for the next driver to have to cope with.  I can’t solve Loudoun County’s snow removal problems − but I can make just that one little bit of road just an infinitesimal tad clearer, safer, maybe even “better.”

I didn’t kid myself that I’d done much good − but, by Jove, as I flattened each pile I felt good because I knew I’d done some good, at least I’d sped up the melting process.

Thinking about this as I drove along reminded me that, when I’m walking down a sidewalk or toward a store, there’s often a bit of rubbish lying there.  If it is manageable, not too sticky, I pick it up for the next trash container or even stick it in my pocket − and as I do so I say to myself, “That’s one less.”  It’s a good feeling, and when we get good feelings from doing something, we’re each time more likely to do it again.

Here’s a suggestion:  Doing something good or useful is especially valuable if we’ll consciously label it as such in our minds − positive reinforcement strengthens any good habit.

(That’s a pragmatic way to tell sin from good, by the way: doing good feels progressively better each time; but sin gives less kick each time, to suck us in to more and bigger transgressions trying to get the same feeling.)

Then I got to thinking about these little, useful acts (breaking up a slush-pile or picking up a bit of litter), as paradigms of our situation as Christians in this cold, slushy, littered world. I mean, don’t you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this world’s problems, matters whose scope seems beyond you or anyone doing anything about?  Well, so do I, at times − but then I remember, that Despair is always of the Devil − I remember squashing slush-piles, and picking up trash − and I suggest to you this morning that you and I can make a difference!

Granted, you or I can’t tip the universal balance from evil to good − but what we do or don’t do does affect the amount on both sides of the scale: and you know how a balance-scale works:  moving one feather from one side to other makes two feathers’ difference.  The decision we have to make is not whether to make a difference, but whether (by action or inaction) to make our little difference on the good or the evil side. Every single slush-pile I choose to avoid, every bit of litter I pass by on the other side, is one more for someone else to deal with – just as each single piece I take care of is (good feeling) “one less!”

Do I sound like a cock-eyed optimist?  I hope you know me better than that:  I’m no Pollyanna − but I try to be a realist, and I can count to one:  I know that if I give 25 cents and it feeds even one hungry child, one meal, then that’s one meal where there might have been none − and I think I remember from math, that one is infinitely larger than zero.  So I do what I can; I consciously say to myself “one less” hungry child (or, “one more” meal) − and it feels good.  God means it to feel good, for He made us to enjoy the good.

Remember away back in 1980, when we began our Mission Outreach giving, I admitted that the little bit we could give to help would be just a drop in the bucket of this world’s needs − but by Jove, it’s our drop − and it’s God’s bucket! We can’t solve the problems of this world − but we can help some specific problems of some real live human beings.  (That we can’t do it all, is no excuse for not doing what we can!  My picking up a candy-wrapper in front of 7-11 won’t Keep Loudoun Beautiful − but if my doing it moves others to do likewise: and they inspire others: and pretty soon a lot of us are picking up trash − then perhaps we’ll be noticed by those who throw trash, and some of them might stop making mess.  Who knows?

In the same way, you or I can’t “stop” wife or child abuse:  but we can help specific wives, individual children, through our Mission Outreach to the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter.  We can’t “end” poverty in Haiti: but we can ease the conclusion of life for a few aged indigent women through our nuns at the Foyer Notre Dame.  We can’t “eliminate” the cesspool of Times Square:  but we can help a few children escape it by aiding Covenant House there.

Besides, as one of my favorite hymns says, “If with honest-hearted / Love for God and man, / Day by day Thou find us / Doing what we can . . . .”  You see, God never calls us to be successful − He only calls us to be faithful. “Do your best, trust God for the rest” − for that stanza continues, “Thou who giv’st the seed time, /wilt give large increase, / Crown the head with blessings, / Fill the heart with peace.”

Who knows what seeds He may be sowing in this our “seedtime,” in the lives of those around us or through our Mission Outreach, of which God may give some glorious future increase about which we may never even know.  You remember the information about Saint Christopher’s Home in Fiji, where we few are helping one 12-year-old Indian girl, our Parish Godchild Anita.  Who knows what influence for good our caring and helping may have on her in years to come?  And through her life, how many lives might we influence for the better?  We’ll never know − but that’s all right.  God knows, and it’s Him we serve – and every little bit helps, every slush-pile dissipated, every candy-wrapper picked up, every child helped.  I am enormously proud of our Parish’s missionary spirit, not only for your generosity but also for your faithful perseverance, your refusal to be dismayed into passivity by the magnitude of the problems of this fallen world.  There’s an old saying something like, “I cannot do everything, but I do something. What I can do, I should do, and by the Grace of God I will do:  I can do no more.  I will do no less.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

I’m spiritual, but not religious

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I’m spiritual, but not religious

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, November 10, A.D.2014 – Rev’d Elijah White
First please read Psalm 78:1-12; Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Matthew 25:1-13

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“I’m spiritual, but not religious” – how often have you heard or read that? Ever wondered what those words really mean? Let me approach what Churchill would call “the soft underbelly” of that attitude through the discipline of the readings appointed for this Sunday. One thing they have in common is that all three of them presuppose and refer to a Law, God’s Law, as a given, with standards of right and wrong, do and don’t do, that are known to the hearers but ex-ternal to them, not coming from them but given to them by and from an authority independent of, different and separate from them, to which – get this – to which they are accountable and answerable.

Thus Psalm 78 begins “Hear my Law, O my people” – my Law, not yours… then Joshua 24 verse 19 warns the faith-professing people who solemnly swore that they would keep God’s covenant, that “If you forsake the Lord He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good…’ then in Matthew 25 (lest we think that Joshua’s warning was just primitive Old-Testament stuff) Jesus presupposes His hearers’ understanding of the rules for guests invited – note, invited, not entitled – to a wedding feast, including the rule that those who disregard these rules will find that in verse 10 Jesus Himself declares “the door was shut” … “and the door was shut!” What a fearful sentence, a fearsome sentence in both senses of the word…

What’s this got to do with “being spiritual but not religious?” Quite a bit. Think for a moment: how do you define the word “spiritual?” ‘Having to do with the soul?’ But what does that mean? Often vaguely defined by what’s it’s not, ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘material’ or ‘materialistic?’ I knew a couple in Berkeley, the husband had played football at Stanford, he’d found or devised a form of Buddhism in which only the spiritual mattered, only the spirit was eternal, material physicality was temporary and transient and so didn’t matter – including whatever his mere non-spiritual body did with the utterly irrelevant bodies of various other women… His wife didn’t see it that way – she wasn’t spiritual enough.

Yes, ‘spiritual’ is a rather vague term – ‘religion,’ however, is quite specific. My big Oxford English Dictionary favors its root origin as religio, which my Cassell’s Latin dictionary translates ‘to bind, tie, fasten, secure’ as when St. Patrick’s great hymn begins “I bind unto myself today / The strong Name of the Trinity.” To believe, to believe in, to be in a religion involves being bound by certain doctrines, beliefs, teachings, ethics, morals, rules… which is the very last thing that any aspiring would-be-“free” spirit wants to hear or accept. I can’t speak for you, but I am a sinner, one definition of which in wish and action is “I want to do what I want when I want and I don’t want anyone telling me what to do or not do – I’ve got to be free, I am free!”

Which freedom, so defined, is at the heart of choosing to be spiritual rather than religious – and it is a choice. One great attraction of spirituality-without-religion is the cardinal sin of Pride with a capital P, ‘cardinal’ because it’s the primary root of all other sins, primary because one’s spirituality is always precisely and exactly that, one’s OWN individual personal feelings about, stemming from and rooted in… oneself, one’s Self – which suits me, sub-jective – whereas such ‘organized’ religions as Christianity and Judaism are ob-jective, given, givens, revealed faiths whose message and requirements come from outside human origin, agency or control, revealed by some external and (dare one say it, admit it?) a higher Power – higher than me? Rubbish!

Revealed religions all include specific ‘Thou shalts’ and [worse] ‘Thou shalt not-s’ that are the last thing my ego wants to hear – ‘religion’ takes away my precious freedom! But being ‘spiritual’ has no ethical or moral code from any ex-ternal source, such matters being left to one’s own in-ternal guiding light [feelings? desires? lusts?], whatever term one chooses to describe such subjective jurisdiction – check out the etymological roots of “autonomous.”

Which leads us right back to the perhaps-divinely-inspired truth of what was the effective operative key to man’s Fall from Eden, the paradisical life God wanted and still wants us to enjoy, the Serpent’s subtle seductive hiss-whisper that “Ye shall be as gods, knowing {better translated as ‘determining, deciding [for yourselves]} good and evil.”

Hubris, Pride, Superbia, call it what you will, the central permanent ongoing temptation of the Self is always and ever the exaltation – deification? – of itself, the Self… to be as, like unto gods? Our first forebears fell for it then and, I don’t know about you, but I fall for it all the time. I’d love to be as god, deciding for myself what was good and what was evil – wouldn’t you?

Freudian theory may be outdated but some of its terminology can be useful: in working to guide human decision-making, organized religion functions as the Superego attempting to exercise control over the Ego, but the Ego does not like that at all, preferring the freedom-autonomy of the Id, the libido, those basic human drives struggling to erupt from what some theorists call the reptilian core buried in our brain – think rape, murder – our most basic human drives by which we’re so embarrassed that we call them sub-human.

But what of the much-beloved theory tacked onto the end of The Diary of Anne Frank that “All people are good at heart?” We love that notion because it makes us feel good about ourselves, and we’ll gobble up anything that makes us feel good about ourselves, however contrary it is to the evidence of human history, every evening’s news headlines, and our own observations – a remarkable inability, refusal, to draw conclusions from irrefutable evidence.

This pleasant notion comes from claiming that what remains in our Western societies’ collective unconscious morals (which originated and are distantly rooted in 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian religion), claiming these remnants of ethical instinct to be innate, inborn, natural to all human beings, as if intrinsic and permanent rather than derivative and fading. We are capable of tender thoughts and occasional unselfish acts, but our Western moral and ethical heritage is now too watered-down, we have forgotten its origin in religion, we have lost interest in it and are now expending and living off its capital – which can have only one outcome: the ruin of every great fortune begins with confusing capital with interest-income.

Recall today’s appointed lessons: feeling spiritual, being spiritual, has room for none of the eternal-permanent-punishment penalty provisions of which Joshua and Jesus warn – a covenant with no enforcement mechanisms is worthless paper. Holy Scripture is consistently clear throughout, “Do right or go down” – whereas feeling spiritual by today’s or any given day’s societal standards is fleeting because cultural behavioral norms are inevitably impermanent, local, transient, merely here-and-now for now: just think how what is socially or legally acceptable has changed just in your brief lifetime…

Only organized religion claiming ex-ternal, supernatural, divine origin can (if accepted and believed, however imperfectly practiced by imperfect practitioners) effectively exercise authority over Pride’s in-ternal self-satisfying desires. Therefore religion has to go, so that the spiritual can reign and the Self be supreme. Objective religion must go so that the subjective spiritual can rule.

So you see, being religious can be very difficult, whereas being spiritual can be very easy — because being religious means obeying someone else or Someone Else’s standards, which are set givens, but being spiritual means obeying only one’s own standards, which are easily changeable.

“I’m spiritual, but not religious…” Please, good Christian people, in evaluating any assertion follow the Ego, follow the Pride, ask Qui bono? Who benefits, who is being served by this ‘new’ theory, theology, ‘liberating’ discovery, latest modern thinking? Can you not hear behind it the Serpent’s beguiling, ongoing, so-seductive whisper, “Ye shall be as gods…?”

Whom flee, as ye would an adder fanged,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen, Amen.

The Lord is my Shepherd

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The Lord is my Shepherd

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, October 9, A.D.2011 – Rev’d Elijah White
First please read Psalm 23, Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:4-13; hymns 433/2, 247, 345/2

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

George Will has an excellent column in praise of what some disparage as “old war horses” like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Will declares that we don’t enjoy them because they’re familiar, but that they’ve become familiar because they are great.

So it is with the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd” – these words speak to us on a deep level: what tenderness and strength these few six verses promise us of God, what needs and fears they answer, what hopes they rouse in us and what blessed assurance they give our highest hope… Think about, ponder, this short Psalm’s right great-ness – not least of which is its brevity, which doubtless have helped make it (together with the equally-brief Lord’s Prayer) the best-known two passages of Scripture.

Though I’ve been exposed to all manner of ‘academic’ ‘literary’ opinions, I find that ordinary people, over the years and in the aggregate, are very keen judges of literature – and the 23rd Psalm, like Beethoven’s Fifth, is most rightfully beloved not because it is familiar but because it is great – beloved by Jesus as well, for surely He couldn’t say in John 10:11 that “I am the good shepherd” without conscious awareness of this Psalm, and awareness that it resonated with his hearers.

In connection with this teaching image of His, and of the psalmist, you’ve heard me about sheep: sheep are dumb beasts, unable to find their own way safely, given to straying, easily lost – dirty, smelly, simultaneously recalcitrant and bewildered – at times eager to follow anyone even off a cliff, at other times refusing to be led even though it be to needed water and nourishment. Sheep must have a good shepherd just to survive, even as you and I must lest we wander to grief amongst the cliffs and pitfalls, the barren wastes and ravening beasts in this world from Genesis 4:7 to First Peter 5:8.

Therefore to say that The Lord is my shepherd is both a statement of trusting fact and a prayer: fact, to admit that I am but a sheep and therefore in desperate need of good-shepherding; prayer, as we just sang, “Saviour, like a shepherd lead us / Much we need thy tender care.” Much indeed – the glory is, we are offered that care.

Think deeply, ponder the words: The Lord is my shepherd (a tremendous affirmation of humble trust) therefore can I lack nothing – I prefer that translation to I shall not want because these days we use ‘want’ to mean ‘desire’ rather than ‘lack’ – as a sinner I want all manner of things I don’t need and shouldn’t for my soul’s sake have. The point is that with the Lord as my shepherd I will not lack anything I need for salvation – the rest is transitory.

Note the realistic details: He shall feed me in a green pasture – not true to the Hebrew original, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, but we need feeding as well as lying down, spiritual nourishment as well as repose for our weary souls mercifully proffered us as a respite and refuge amidst the pathless wilderness of this naughty world – in the very midst of which perils He leadeth me beside the still waters, an image of God’s peace as a clear and limpid pool, and a reminder of the ongoing nature of thirst: we may drink off a quart of water at one time but soon we will thirst again, our physical thirst must be quenched continually even as our spiritual health requires the continual refreshment of God, leading right into verse 3, He restoreth my soul – the stresses we endure in human life, stresses from outside us and from within, constantly drain our energies like batteries in a flashlight left on – thanks be to God for continually offering us his recharging restoring power, even as the good shepherd gives his sheep the sustaining blessings of food, water, and rest by leading them in the right paths, in the Hebrew implying the paths that lead straight home. We need guidance, leadership: our own shortsighted desires can lead us astray, we need the good shepherd’s right guidance to find and to persevere in the right straight path in the right direction, home to God.

Not that the right path is trouble-free: on the contrary, the psalmist knows, as Jesus later told His followers, that finding the one safe way through this torturous life is very difficult — precisely why we need a good shepherd. This is no Pollyanna-psalm all sweetness and light – it faces facts: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The first three verses depicted comfort and safety, but verse four reflects life as we must face it including certain physical death, though the Hebrew here shows broader dark vistas by saying the valley of deep darkness so that we know God’s comfort and strength is with us through all kinds of ‘darkness’ of which death is but one.

God is with us through times of depression and of temptations to despair, through serious illness of our own or others; God is with us through alienation from loved ones, through inner devils whispering that we’ve missed our chances and wasted our lives, through the horror of confronting the disloyalty of others and of our own hearts; God is with us though all these darknesses and more, through every valley however deep, every gathering shadow clouding our future way, every dark in which we stumble and every defile in which we lose our way – yet God Himself is with us, our good shepherd still shepherds, Thy rod and they staff they comfort me, the shepherd’s staff with which he gently disciplines and steers us, prods us back when we stray too near the edge, and his rod, the stout stick with which to beat off the wild dogs and wolves that would gleefully savage us if we give them half a chance…

And then, with breathtaking poetic audacity, the psalmist envisages the good shepherd as the gracious host, verse five, Thou preparest a table before me [now it’s individual, personal, human: sheep don’t eat at tables] in the presence of mine enemies – I prefer them that trouble me, because all manner of people who aren’t actual “enemies” still “trouble” us, don’t they? Here God takes on the sacred responsibilities of a host, which even today in the Middle East requires full protection of a guest who has eaten one’s salt, and here goes beyond the basic rites of hospitality to provide a sumptuous feast, foretold in today’s reading from Isaiah 21:6 “the Lord of Hosts shall make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined,” a feast foretold by Jesus in Luke 6:38 “well-filled, shaken down, running over,” far exceeding our needs in his total, giving, welcome, prefiguring Jesus’ final Messianic banquet in Heaven, Revelation 19:9, where “The angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are they who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.’”

Even you and I are all invited, the Master of the Feast wants us all because He loves us all, but His invitations are always R.S.V.P., we must either accept them or have the bad manners not to respond at all – may the Good Shepherd give us Grace to accept His personal invitation, that each of us may know that Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the House of the Lord, for ever! Wherefore, as today’s Second Lesson exhorts us in Philippians 4 verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always – again I will say, Rejoice!”

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.