Small Wins

August 7, 2005


Dr. James Rhatigan, 8/7/05
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University Congregational Church — Wichita, Kansas

The thesis of the ministry of Dr. Gary Cox is to find ways to bring his congregation into a closer relationship with God. He recently gave a series of sermons in which he described the process. First, one wrestles with the issues of faith, surrenders old ideas, and in a final step, achieves congruence, the place where heart, mind and behavior all come together toward the most complete relationship with God of which we are capable.

There are reverses we will face in life, so I think of the three steps less as one set of occurrences but instead as endless cycles of interplay between faith and doubt. In the issues we encounter, we doubt because circumstances come into our life that we did not anticipate. So we pray, think, resolve and then inevitably doubt again. I derived some comfort from the insight I got from Paul Tillich, a prominent theologian in the 50s, who argued that doubt and faith go together, in fact, both are essential to Christians. There would be no need for faith if we had all the answers. The challenge is to have faith overcome doubt.

We also must face the fact that in Christianity there are over 300 different denominations with varying theologies. Many have staked a claim on the validity of their own approach. Controversies abound, and certainly I am not the person to talk about them. We will learn of Christian scholarship and Christianity controversy throughout our fellowship in this church.

We will need to study, pray, reflect and hold our minds open to the truth as it comes to us, and to share in the principles that are a part of the life of all Christians as they practice their faith.

Sooner or later, though, our faith has to lead to action. Being a reflective Christian is only half the task. We read in the Book of James that faith without works is useless. We will need to be recognized as Christians for what we do. This morning I am going to suggest that small wins are one way to approach that challenge.

Small wins. What are they and what do they have to do with moving closer to a relationship with God?

I think we all have a general idea of what small wins are. If you need an exact definition, call a small win a concrete, implemented outcome of an idea. By itself, a small win may seem pretty unsensational, even unimportant. Nothing could be more wrong. One of their characteristics is that they easily accumulate, and become something quite important. One good thing leads to another which produces an outcome that was not anticipated at the beginning.

Perhaps an illustration from the secular world would be useful. Consider the police officer in 1980 who asked Chief LeMunyon if it would be okay for his unit to develop a relay team to run a torch for the Kansas Special Olympics from the police station to the stadium site as a way of demonstrating support. He had been watching the world games and loved the torch relay. The Chief gave his blessing and his approval resulted in positive publicity for both the police department and the Special Olympics. This is an example of a small win. It was a concrete idea with a real outcome. Maybe you are thinking that by itself it does seem pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.

In the next year of the Kansas Special Olympics, the Governor’s office endorsed the torch run and relays of police officers carried the torch from Kansas City through Topeka to the stadium in Wichita. This time the officers asked for pledges (by the mile) and several hundred dollars were raised for the Kansas Special Olympics. Soon, police officers across the state joined in the effort, a series of small wins here, building on the original idea.

The popularity of the run surprised the Chief and caused him to introduce it to the Board of Directors of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where he was a member, because they were looking for a project. The Board adopted the idea. Since the mid-80s, the torch run for the Special Olympics has spread to all 50 states and to 35 countries. Some 25 million dollars a year to the present day have been raised by law enforcement agencies worldwide, contributed with virtually no charges for administration or other costs. Let me ask the obvious question: If the idea expressed by the officer in 1980 had been rejected by his Chief, can one say with certainty that someone, somewhere else in the world would have come up with the idea?

Now we consider an example from the Bible, from the Book of Luke that was introduced by Cris Kelley. We are told that a privileged lawyer stood up and in what appears to be an insincere manner asks Jesus a question…”Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with his own question: “What did Jewish law have to say on the matter?” The lawyer responded: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Christ responds: “Thou has answered right.” Not one to let something go, the lawyer then says: “And who is my neighbor?”

One would think at this point that we should be prepared for a weighty discourse about what heart, soul, strength and mind entail in the Torah. But we don’t get that; instead we get a simple story, the story of the Good Samaritan. As Cris read, a man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by thieves, wounded and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest happened on the scene, saw the man but passed by on the other side of the road. Then he said a Levite saw the situation and acted similarly.

But a certain Samaritan, on his own journey, saw the man and had compassion for him. He treated the man on the scene, put him on his own beast, brought him to an inn and took care of him there. The next day, upon leaving, the Samaritan picked up the bill for the room.

Christ then asked the lawyer who was the better neighbor. The answer: The Samaritan. Christ tells the lawyer that he should go and do likewise.

At its most transparent level, this story reveals a small win. The Samaritan did a good thing. Well, how does this small story merit being in the Bible? Most people understand a good deed.

We have to remember that the original question was “How do I inherit eternal life?” When Christ tells the story we read that the man has compassion, a generalizing word beyond the story. We see that Christ believes that compassion is not passive; compassion requires action.

In commentaries about this story, we learn that the Jews had very little respect for Samaritans who were seen to be a lesser class of people. We gain the impression that in choosing a Samaritan, Jesus was making a special point to a privileged insider. Anyone, regardless of status or circumstance, can inherit eternal life by following the great Book, the Torah, and this story is an example of what is meant.

For me, the story is a perfect example of a Biblical small win. Maybe the Samaritan is not a perfect man, but he can help a fellow man in his desperate need. We see in the moment how compassion moves a person to good behavior, toward the ideal self of which all of us fall short. Edward Everett Hale, the Civil War lawyer who gave the other speech at Gettysburg once said: “Because I can’t do everything doesn’t mean I can’t do something.”

Small wins have some very attractive qualities in living a Christian life. First of all, they are readily available to all of us no matter the circumstances. One time I was visiting my friend Josephine Fugate in a nursing home after she had broken her hip. She was a few months shy of 100 years of life. A nurse’s aide came in. Mrs. Fugate proceeded to tell me about the young woman, the aide’s presence, extolling her work and the warmth the woman showed. As I glanced at the woman, I could see that she was deeply moved by these words of praise. Even a frail patient in a nursing home can make a difference in a life. What might this difference be? We don’t know for sure, it is not our destiny to know. But sometimes a sentence in just the right time and place has consequences beyond itself.

Small wins have been characterized in the world of problem solving as a way of approaching issues by breaking them down into smaller, more understandable parts, and of course this is true. But any tangible act that moves us toward desirable behavior and away from less desirable behavior is a small win. We need to look for these opportunities in our everyday Christian life because if we do, we will surely be rewarded. There are many ideas in the world of faith waiting for our discovery; waiting for the action that only discovery (insight) permits.

Some of you may have run across an informative book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point. This is the biography of a very simple idea that might be important to us as we face our frustrations and limitation as Christians. Gladwell points out that the key in getting people to change an idea or a behavior sometimes lies in the smallest detail of a situation. Until we see that, he says, we fail to see what is really going on.

Tipping points are underlined by a simple but powerful belief that change is possible, that we can – or others can – change their behavior if they find a way to begin. Tipping points on any scale are the consequences of small wins first.

In working with students over my lifetime, I found a very useful construct. As I explain it, you will easily see its efficacy.

Counselors call it “locus of control.” This is just a fancy way of saying that some people feel that their life, in every practical respect, is in the control of others, while other people feel that can make things happen, that destiny is in their hands.

Look at it this way – over here – “point A” we have those who feel governed by others, who know they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Over here, “Point Z” are the movers and shakers. They believe they can make things happen, and they pay attention to choice points along the way because they know that decisions they make influence outcomes.

Of course, in life, we can never get to “point Z” because there are circumstances beyond our control, but moving from the continuum A to Z is the direction we seek.

Anyone working with others understands their inability to successfully move people from A to Z. Why? We do not have access to them every hour of the day, do not have the relationship in depth needed for major changes, and cannot control all of the other forces working in their life. But because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

I looked for small wins to move a student from A to B. Until that happened, students could not readily see points C and D just over the horizon. C and D were nothing more than distant ideas that made no practical sense to them.

It is in this uncomplicated way that a good many people learn that barriers can be taken on as they come into view. Every hurting person, every one of us, wants to confront and defeat the barriers that subtract from our life, to move toward the belief that in any life change is possible. Do we get to point Z over here? Probably not, because there are circumstances we cannot control. But can life improve? Yes, demonstrably and often permanently, one step at a time.

I don’t think our religious life is any different. Over here (Point A) we see the starting point of faith, the beginning of a journey each one is making in our own way, our search for understanding, probably a point in life that goes way back to our childhood.

Point Z is a oneness with God, perfect understanding and revelation. Only Christ, as far as we know, achieved this oneness, the remainder of us, inheritors of sin, settle for imperfection, we know that. It is important though, very important, that we take personal control in our quest for faith, moving away from an older life of sin toward the possibility of something better, an effort that encompasses a lifetime. Gary Cox calls this moving toward a closer relationship with God. I believe that every real insight we gain moves us closer to God.

What do small wins mean for us, collectively, as members of University Congregational Church?

First, there is the good we do on our own, the personal time, energy and creativity that we give to things we value. This would include family, work, or whatever we do in our private life. If there is congruence in our life of faith, everything we do should move us toward desired behavior and away from lesser behavior.

If I could survey our behavior this past week, I would find people who volunteered for a worthwhile organization, wrote a note of encouragement, visited a neighbor, offered a word of sympathy, bought a magazine subscription from a young neighbor even if you didn’t need it, the list would be long over the past week and when we add the past 52 weeks, and the years before that, we are witnessing the accumulation of small wins. These were not strategic, but simply a consequence of living in the shadow of Christ. What do they mean? We never will know because in their accumulation they gain a power and momentum we simply cannot recognize.

Multiply this by a city, state, and nation and we see the power of small wins. No example will be more dramatic than September 11, 2001. After the collapse of the Trade Towers, we saw the unselfish behavior of thousands of New Yorkers; those supposedly cynical, hard-nosed people who responded with compassion and the ripple effect soon touched hundreds of thousands, then millions and eventually the world entire from people of all religious faiths.

This response was our best self at work in humankind. It didn’t last, sadly not. But when we see the best of ourselves and others, we see the possibilities life holds. We know that people can respond in unselfish, natural goodness.

Some of the good things we have done are known and appreciated, but the bulk of what people do in their lifetime might pass unnoticed. This is not important. As C.S. Lewis once put it, our names, faces and voices one day will be gone, and even the things that we did. He said it didn’t matter; the fact is that we have done them so the later telling is no longer important.

There is a second set of small wins that we employ as a church, as part of our congregational life. It is found in the care we show for each other, not just in the bad times or days of celebration, but all of the time, the ordinary days of our life together. Our mutuality makes us a church. We gain insight from each other, not always positive but always instructive. We serve on committees, help with the church property, attend services regularly, greet each other, write notes, serve on the Women’s Guild, serve coffee, and more.

There is a set of small wins in our congregational life though, that I feel need to be visible, and that is in our outreach. Yes, people support their private charities, but we need to do so also as a Christian congregation. Giving is an expression of our values as a church. The small wins we provided last year as our annual church pledge produced $50,000 worth of support for people and projects in need, and these activities reflect that purpose of this church and its covenant. We did not give to boast about it later, but we want people to recognize that we will not walk by on the other side of the road, that compassion in this church means action.

Of course we do not come here merely for good works. We come to build a closer relationship with God. This is the message of Gary Cox. Members will study, pray, reflect, and listen to the message of music as they come here. Every time we have an insight in our common worship, we move just that much closer to a relationship with God. C.S. Lewis was right when he said some people upon their death realize they have been in Heaven all along.

Once we have been baptized into the church, I think the responsibility in our lives changes in the direction of what we do. In their accumulation, and in combination with others, we may be surprised at the end of our days to see what those efforts have achieved. Then we hope that a merciful God one day will greet us, and say to each one of us, “well done thy good and faithful servant.”