Saving Starfish, One at a Time (#327)

A parable is told of a writer who rented a cottage on a hill overlooking the sea. As he sat writing each morning he saw a man on the beach who looked to be doing an elaborate dance. After a week of watching this daily ritual, he went down for a closer look. When he got to the beach, he saw that the man wasn’t dancing at all. Rather, he was picking up live starfish that had washed ashore in the night and hurling them back into the water. The writer saw thousands of starfish on the beach, so he said to the man: “You can’t save them all. Why are you doing this?” The man smiled, bent over, picked up a starfish, and threw it into the sea. He turned to the writer and said: “Saved that one, didn’t I?”

This parable reminds us that while we can’t make a difference in everyone’s life, we can make a difference for some, possibly more than we realize. Last week, I ended my eCrozier about Charity’s Cheap Absolution by offering my own confession of failure to help someone, metaphorically, “get back into the sea.” I ended it there, without further thoughts, because I wanted readers to struggle with their own memories of “things left undone,” as our Prayer Book confession puts it. You see, charity involves making sure the “starfish” is comfortable that day, but it’s still going to die on the beach. Making a difference for a “starfish” requires a long-lasting effort beyond offering immediate comfort. It takes determined action and focused commitment. Like the effort of the man in the parable, he couldn’t save them all, but he could save some.

All parables fall short (except for Jesus’, which never seem to). From my reading of the Gospel, Jesus never just “fixed” the presenting problem of someone he encountered. He also helped them go to a new place in their lives. In other words, Jesus was going after the whole enchilada, if I can use a theological word. So, while ministry that provides food or clothing to people is truly Gospel work, it doesn’t make a lasting difference in people’s lives. A coat or a meal provide short-term help. Jesus was about more. He was about transformation. So, I ask: How might we go further and partner with God in people’s transformation? Or as St Paul might say: How might we help them “work out [their] own salvation in fear and trembling?” (Philippians 2:12)

Going further would demand that we partner with people on a way out of their current condition. I envision a community-living house with skilled staff, life coaching, the Daily Office prayed, community support, job placement/development (when needed), the whole deal. Residents would contribute a percentage of their income and/or do in-kind work to cover operational costs. We’d respect their dignity too much to give them a handout. So, nothing free, except for God’s (and our) grace-filled acceptance. This will demand from us lots of forbearance and love, the determined kind that Jesus brings.

We need some “angel investors” to fund the upfront costs. Who might those people be? Can you help us find them? We need the right property to start. Who knows of one? Who will help us raise the money to initially staff this self-sustaining ministry? We could have a ministry like this in every town in south Georgia. We may fail a bit more often than we succeed, but when we fail, it’ll be a magnificent failure!

The Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase
Bishop of Georgia


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