Have you heard the story about the boy and the starfish? If not, take a moment, scroll down to the bottom to read it, then continue on here.
I recently encountered a man who lived and worked in the downtown area of New York City. We got on the topic of the homeless, and the fact that the people who live and work in urban areas literally step over the homeless on the way to work, school, the grocery store, and practically every where else. This man expressed to me the fact that the “sea of homeless” discouraged him from helping any of them, because “what good would it do?” I, not being from the city, naively shared the “Starfish Story” with this man. I told him that, just because there was an abundance of need doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything at all. I felt like it was received well, and the parallel was very similar. Candidly, I probably experienced a measure of pride when I eloquently weaved this story’s message into the man’s situation.
I parted ways with this man, and went about my life, pridefully satisfied with the outcome of the conversation.
Months later, I found myself in downtown New York City, surrounded by the same “sea of homeless.” As I walked through the downtown area, I realized that the advice I had given, while practical, was completely theoretical. Doubtless, the premise that complete ignoring the need due to the overwhelming number of homeless is a bad policy. I now, however, am experiencing the scenario for which I provided such deep insight, and yet find myself asking the same question. I see drug users, mentally ill, and those who take advantage, among those who simply have found themselves in a hard place due to the economy. Which Starfish do I choose? Which individual will trade my McDonalds gift card for drugs? Which individual will use the money they had saved for food on alcohol since I bought groceries? How will I know who will be the best steward of the money that God has given me, and I am passing onto them?
These “what-if” scenarios began to race through my mind, and clouded my judgment. Discouraged, I walked back to the hotel, not having spoken to anyone.
As I reflected on the events of that evening, I had a moment of spiritual clarity. My “which Starfish do I choose” dilemma was a straw-man. Choosing implies that I have made some sort of logical decision on whom I should invest. This is where the critical error occurred in the process. I knew this was not the way it worked, but even the most veteran Christians have periods where they need reminding of how things do work. I wanted it too badly. I’m a giver–it gives me great joy to help others out, and I suppose I wanted the experience of talking to someone and potentially helping them out (spiritually, financially, or otherwise) more than I sought the one thing that would make it all fit into place: following the Spirit. This is the key to making all of this worth more than simply the experience. Outside of the Spirit leading, it would merely be a “good deed.”
Still a good thing, right? I suppose, but I recalled the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. This woman wanted what Jesus offered–living water–which would result in her thirsting no more. She did not realize, however, that this living water Jesus was offering, was not water in the physical form, but spiritual water, in the form of the words of Christ. Recall that Christ “must needs” go through Samaria. He had a divine appointment with this woman.
As well, Phillip didn’t go out of his own desire and look for someone to share the Gospel with. He was ready to be a vessel, and was led by the Lord to go to the desert. The same with Peter and Cornelius; Ananias and Saul; etc.
While my intentions were pure, my actions were misguided. I was taking direction from myself, rather than from the Spirit of God; plain and simple.
Once I realized the error of my way, I remembered an encounter with a gentleman I met in San Diego (story here). I was led by the Spirit to this man, and what a wonderful encounter this was.
The moral of this story is, listen to the Spirit, and he will guide you to the right “Starfish.”
The Spirit will lead to those in need…
The Starfish Story
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)