Years ago, in the first years of my ministry, I attended an orientation session for Sunday school teachers, led by a wise mentor. He spoke with the teachers as they began a year of classes, and offered this simple instruction, borrowed from another healing profession. He told the teachers: "Do no harm."
I carried that wisdom with me throughout ministry. It's been important over the years as I have come to hear too many stories of folks wounded by organized religion (or disorganized religion in the case of the Episcopal Church). Maybe you are one of them. If so, I pray you will know healing and blessing.
As a representative of organized religion (i.e., clergy), I am haunted by this verse in the psalms: Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me. (Psalm 69:7) I confess that I've done that.
"Do no harm." In subsequent years, I would apply that wisdom with teenagers when we participated in work trips. Small groups of teenagers would be sent to do home repairs. Very few had construction experience. Many had short attention spans. Some were more interested in, how shall I say, social life. There was no way I was qualified to serve as foreman. So as we would begin our work, I prayed with fear and trembling for the safety of our young people. I prayed for the well-being of the residents. I implored the teenagers, as we were given opportunity to enter these residents' lives, to work on their homes: "Do no harm."
Over the years, that didn't seem quite enough. I added a related bit of guidance. I offered a simple challenge for our efforts: "Let's leave the place better than we found it." It was reassuring to me when I heard that same instruction from a wise guide, Cookie Cantwell, who does amazing work with young people at our church. Again and again, as she gathers, leads and inspires our youth, she teaches them that they don't have to do anything super-human. They simply have to take a step toward something better. They are called to make a difference, even if it's a small one.
That challenge applies to our own journeys of faith, in our homes and churches, in our culture. As we have celebrated the life, ministry and witness of John Lewis, I came across words he addressed to a group of young people: "We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before." Leave it a little better than we found it. John Lewis did that. In the face of daunting challenges, this wisdom provides accessible steps forward. You don't have to do everything. But you can do something. Progress not perfection.
It's wisdom expressed by St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians, an excerpt printed above. Paul reflected on his own spiritual journey. There were things about his past that he regretted, ways he had done damage. He had fallen short. But giving up the hope of a better past, he instead strained forward to what lies ahead, keeping his eyes on the prize. For us, it's the same, keeping our eyes on the prize, language from the New Testament that animated the movement for civil rights in this nation. It can help us take the next steps in our own journey.
I don't know if you're feeling this way, but as I think about our broken world, about the considerable coincidental crises we face, crises of health, economics and race relations, the enormity of these challenges seems daunting. That's precisely the moment to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us this week to maybe just that one thing, perhaps a very small thing, that we can do to make things better, more healthy, more holy, more whole.