“The use of these toilets is free. The best thanks you can give us is to leave them cleaner than you found them”
I find myself often wandering through life hoping that I am doing no harm to anyone. “Do no harm” is the first command of many organisations. One of the countryside mantras is “take only photographs, leave only footprints”, the idea being that you leave the countryside no worse than you found it. We do have a horror of picking up litter that other people have left, after all, it might have broken glass in it, we have a strong compulsion to wash our hands after touching any litter that has been discarded by anyone else; it is unclean. Leaving no litter is easier than removing other people’s.
That is why this toilet message surprised me and brought me up short. Not only was I requested to leave the toilets as I found them but, if possible, to leave them cleaner.
So many of our actions lead directly to the degradation of the world and of the conditions under which future generations will live, that it is maybe not good enough to leave places as we find them, maybe we do have to try to improve each scene through which we pass? I am always impressed that discussions about our building program so often centre around the users and volunteers, particularly the young and the disabled users, and the way in which the new building can make life easier for them. Discussion about the building is only relevant in as much as it improves life for people.
The life of Jesus is instructive, as always. I have read the Gospels in vain to find a record of him instigating any national campaign, of him trying to start a mass movement throughout the known world. We don’t think that he ever drew a poster or organised a public meeting. All the records we have are about him trying to improve individual lives, or the lives of small teams of people that he had formed. There are records of him addressing large gatherings and providing refreshments, but generally, he went about from one place to another trying to improve each scene through which he passed. Sometimes, he apparently went out of his way to meet foreigners, apostates, and heathens; sometimes they came to him.
In this week’s lectionary, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, the writer, we are not sure that it is Paul, itemises a number of ways in which we can improve one-to-one relationships. Nowadays, we would include a concern, not just for others known to us, but for those far away and for the unborn generations who will look back at our actions long after we have left Earth’s story, and criticize our selfish actions that led to their poverty.
I am glad that there are people who try to improve the big picture; I am glad that we have national parks; I am glad that we have political parties; I am glad that we have campaigning charities for every issue under the sun; but these are not where it starts. Being a Christian starts with the imitation of Christ, the trying to live a Jesus-Shaped life.
Christian living starts with the next conversation, the next smile to a stranger. It starts with the next prayerful, reflective, challenge to ourselves and to our own prejudices. It starts with the next time we try to explain our beliefs to someone else using the common language. It starts with seeing someone else’s talents and encouraging them. It continues when we become brave enough to challenge authority.
Some of us are given to acting roles that involve large groups, even national groups of people, but we must not forget that the basic elements of Christianity are to improve each situation as we find it. Some of us are confined to act only with small groups and other individuals; this is the calling that Jesus followed; there is none higher. Lucy Larcom summed it up rather well when she wrote:
I learned it on the meadow path/ I learned it on the mountain stairs/
The best things any mortal hath/ Are those that every mortal shares
…and the Last verse
Rich through my brother’s poverty?/ Such wealth were hideous, I am blest
Only in what they share with me/ In what I share with all the rest