Do What You Can

Today is the second of our three-part sermon series dedicated to Rev. Forrest Church. As I noted last week, Church spent nearly 30 years as the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. He was a public theologian who authored twenty books in his lifetime and was a frequent commentator in the public media. After being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, he sat down to write what he thought would be his last book, and the result was "Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow." Forrest Church succumbed to his disease last September, shortly before publication of his final work, entitled "The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology." Ten years earlier, Church acknowledged that he was addicted to alcohol and he joined AA. As part of his recovery, he developed a mantra that he said served him well for the remaining years of his life. It consists of three statements: "Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are." Last week we examined the statement "Want what you have." This week I would like to offer you my reflections on "Do what you can."

"Do what you can." This part of Church’s mantra, he tells us, "focuses our minds on what is possible, no more, no less, thereby filling each moment with conscious, practicable endeavor." [1] In this simple statement Church is at once acknowledging that we have power and control over our destiny, while he is also acquiescing to the limitations and boundaries that we experience as human beings. He is orienting us toward the feasible and the achievable, knowing full well that as individuals we are limited in our reach and our scope. In one of the closing chapters of "Love and Death," Church bemoans "how much wasted energy we spend trying to do what we can’t. And how often we fail to optimize our efforts and thereby achieve the significant goals that do lie within our power." He goes on to tell us that "When we quit trying because we fail to achieve our pipe dreams, we overlook all we actually could accomplish by putting our shoulder squarely to the right wheel." [2]

When Church instructs us to "do what you can," he is calling us to let go of dreams of grandiosity and to focus on the meaningful accomplishments we can achieve within the context of our everyday lives. This statement is reminiscent of the reading found in our hymnal, written by Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale more than a century ago: "I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." [3]

While I was reflecting on this simple statement, "Do what you can," my mind went back to the spring of 1989. The once-monolithic Soviet bloc had begun to disintegrate and the Berlin wall had begun to crumble. Students and other pro-democracy forces in China seized what they perceived to be an opportunity to pressure their government to loosen its iron grip on its people, and protesters flooded the streets of the capitol, Beijing. The Chinese government, as you may recall, acted swiftly and violently to crush the peaceful protests, and hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed. If you are like me, there is one image from the Tianamen Square protests that is burned indelibly into your brain, one of the few images that survives from that time and place. It is the image of "Tank Man."

We call him Tank Man because his identity has never been known, at least to the Western world. In the video that was smuggled out of the country, we see a column of Chinese tanks rumbling down a street in central Beijing. And we see a lone man, carrying what appear to be shopping bags, step off the sidewalk and into the path of the oncoming tanks. Instead of mowing him down, as they easily could, the column comes to an abrupt halt in front of him. Tank Man stands stock still in front of the lead tank, and the tank sits there, idling. Then, the lead tank tries to maneuver around the man. Each time it does, Tank Man moves sideways to block the tank’s progress. Finally, the tank driver gives up and shuts down his engine. The two are at a standoff. This is the iconic image. A lone man standing up for human rights, staring down the barrel of the tanks’ gun, holding it at bay. Eventually, members of the secret police arrived and removed Tank Man from the scene, and the tanks proceeded on their mission of death and destruction. But Tank Man left his mark.

We know, of course, that Tank Man did not bring down the Communist party apparatus. We know that the Chinese government suppressed the student protests with overwhelming force and violence. We also know that China remains one of the most oppressive countries on the face of the planet, severely limiting many of the freedoms that we here take for granted. And while we don’t know for sure, we suspect that Tank Man paid for his actions with his life. I have no idea what triggered Tank Man to step off the curb and to stand his ground that day, but in one stark and startling moment he did what he could. And for a few brief moments, it seems, one man had stopped the oppressive Chinese regime dead in its tracks.

Last week I mentioned the Marianne Williamson quote that has, over the years been attributed to Nelson Mandela. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." This statement is highly inspirational, and I think that it speaks a truth, but it is not entirely true. It is, in some ways, a statement more about the limits of our imaginations and self-perceptions than it is a statement about the extent of our power. The truth is that most of us are not like Tank Man. The truth is that the effort that most of us make is going to be of the "drop in the bucket" kind. But as you heard in today’s reading, that drop just might really matter. Gordon McKeeman warns us against the "unspoken assumptions" of the "drop in the bucket mentality:" "We assume that a full bucket is what we’re aiming for and that until the bucket is full, nothing has been accomplished." And I love that question that hits us right between the eyes: "Why is it that our image is of the first drop in the bucket?" [4] The implication being that our drop may be the last drop, the one more drop that fills the bucket.

In his book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell talks about how little things can make a big difference. Using viruses as a model for explaining social change, he tells us that a small change in behavior can alter the course of society. He writes that "We are, as humans, heavily socialized to make a kind of rough approximation between cause and effect." Viruses and epidemics—both medical and social—do not work this way. In fact, he goes on, often times the effect of a seemingly small cause can be huge. "To appreciate the power of epidemics," he writes, "we have to abandon this expectation of proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly." [5] He encourages us to consider how we might start our own positive "social epidemics."

This "tipping point" theory is dramatically demonstrated by the story of the 100th monkey. While not verified scientifically, the story is at least illuminating as a parable. Back in the 1950’s, scientists were studying the behavior of a certain type of monkey on an isolated island of Japan. They noticed that most monkeys would eat the staple of their diet—sweet potatoes—fresh out of the ground. But then they observed that one monkey took a sweet potato down to the nearby shore and washed it in the water. Other monkeys on the island, watching this behavior, soon began to copy it. More and more monkeys began to wash their meals before eating them. And then something amazing happened. As we are told, once a critical mass of monkeys on this island was washing its sweet potatoes—the so-called 100th monkey—this same behavior began to occur in monkey populations on other nearby islands unconnected to the first colony. When a tipping point was reached, there somehow was communicated to other monkey colonies the message, "wash your sweet potatoes." And they did that without facebook or email!

The point of all of this is to say that by doing what we can we are doing one thing for certain, and possibly another. First and for certain, we are having a local and immediate impact. Whether it is making sure that the homeless family has a roof over its head and meals to eat when we volunteer for the Interfaith Hospitality Network, or it is writing a letter to our representative in Harrisburg to advocate for reasonable gun control measures, those actions have immediate effects and consequences. Secondly, and perhaps less certainly, when we do what we can we are adding our drop to a bucket that may be nearly full, that may be balanced on its edge and near the tipping point. We may be that 100th monkey whose action sparks the epidemic of social change.

With all that being said, I ask you to notice that Church’s phrase, "Do what you can," has a Buddhist ring to it. It does not concern itself with consequences, and it asks us to release ourselves from attachment to outcomes. "Do what you can." A simple imperative to act within the scope of our ability. Don’t worry about the impact. That will take care of itself. While Forrest was eminently practical in his approach to life, he accepted that life is ultimately a profound mystery, and that the impact of our lives cannot be known. In their work "How Can I Help?" Ram Dass and Paul Gorman tell us that "service is ultimately a journey into the unknown." If we obsess over the effect of our actions—whether we’re the first monkey or the 100th , the last drop in the bucket or the first—we may, because of the apparent futility, choose simply never to act at all. Dass and Gorman tell us that we have a choice to make: "We can either be frustrated and worn out by uncertainty and doubt," they write, "or try to find a way to open to the ambiguity, embrace it, work with it, be moved and inspired by it, and thereby come closer to the very heart of service, where true freedom is found." [6] This "letting go" of outcomes is embedded in Forrest Church’s simple statement. And it rings true to the statement of Jesus when, after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he instructed the lawyer simply to "Go and do likewise." Ram Dass says, "We give it all we have…and trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe. We do everything we can to relieve someone’s suffering, but we are willing to surrender attachment to how we want things to be." [7]

On that bright blue day in June of 1989, in a stunning act of courage, the Tank Man did what he could. He stood. He simply stood. He stood in front of a column of tanks, preventing their passage, at least for a time. I doubt he thought he was going to bring the Chinese government to its knees. I doubt, even, that he thought the tanks were going to stop. But he did what he could do. He stood for freedom. He stood for justice. He stood for the oppressed people of his country. Let the image of this one courageous soul stand as the inspiration to us as we heed Forrest Church’s call to "do what you can." Go and do likewise.

Amen and Blessed Be.

Closing Words: (Forrest Church)

Life is not a given, but a wondrous gift. That gift comes with a price attached. One day something will steal it from us. That doesn’t diminish our lives; it increases their value. Fragility and impermanence ensure life’s preciousness.


[1] Love and Death, 34.
[2] Love and Death, 112.[
[3] Singing the Living Tradition #457
[4] Gordon B. McKeeman, Out of the Ordinary, 19-20.
[5] Gladwell, The Tipping Point, ii.
[6] Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, How Can I Help, 202.
[7] How Can I Help?, 210