At Bible Study yesterday, an important question came up about our inability, as a society, to find common ground in solving problems.
In response to the question, I used the metaphor of a pothole on a street. I said that a pothole is like a problem that is not going to fix itself nor would some nebulous force from outer space fix it for us. Indeed, someone has to fix it, but who? We can ask the federal, state, or local government to send money our way to fix it, perhaps, or we can raise funds ourselves to fix it. No matter what we choose, that pothole will still be there until we repair it. In another response regarding the cause of the pothole, I said that we can indeed conduct as many research processes as we want to determine the cause of the pothole, but that the research in itself wouldn’t fix the pothole. Oftentimes, the research into the why of the pothole may even obfuscate or complicate the real desire to fix it.
What can fix the pothole is the collective recognition of the existence of the pothole. This requires accepting that the pothole cannot fix itself and that our common enemy is not the different vehicles that we drive through that huge pothole, but rather our inability to find a common ground among ourselves to actually repair a festering pothole which will only grow larger and continue to destroy our valuable cars.
The same can be said of the often dire situations of poverty, homelessness, hunger, drugs, gang-related killings, and poor schools, among a million other problems. They are like potholes on our streets that need fixing but don't get repaired because we cannot find that common ground among ourselves to fix them. For that reason, the problems keep getting larger and larger.
There is a story of a father who left 17 camels to his three sons when he passed away. The father’s will dictated that the eldest of the three sons get one-half of the 17 camels, the middle son should get one-third of the 17 camels and the last should receive one-ninth of the 17 camels. Recognizing that it was impossible to divide 17 into half, or 17 by 3, or 17 by 9, the three sons started to fight with one another.
In due course, they went to see a wise man to help them solve this seemingly intractable problem. The wise man listened patiently about the dictates of the will, and after giving some thought, brought one camel of his own and added it to the group of 17 camels, thus increasing the total to eighteen.
He picked up the will and read it again, and determined that one-half of 18 is 9, and so he gave the eldest son nine camels, then gave the middle son six camels (one-third of 18), and the youngest son received two camels (one-ninth). Now, the total of 9, 6, and 2 is 17. There was only one camel left - the wise man's. And so, the wise man took back his camel.
There is no way to underestimate or play down the current depth of the problems that many of us face within our own lives, homes, communities, and society at large. For many of us, it is the elephant in the room. Our desire is not to ignore the problems, but the reality is that we do not feel we possess enough strength and courage within us to find the common ground which can move us towards some resolution. For us, they are the potholes on our streets. We feel their impact when we drive through, but for one reason or another, we cannot find that eighteenth camel - that common ground.
A few days ago, I received an email from someone who requested support for a GoFundMe account to help with paying for her dental procedure. This lady has lost all her teeth. I have no idea how she lost them, and honestly, I don’t need to know. But that is the pothole that she has and she needs help with fixing it. As a faith community, we will help in any way that we can so this lady can have the teeth she needs. The reality is that her situation is a symptom of a much bigger problem, which is the inequitable access to healthcare for the poor and minorities. If there’s been one benefit from this pandemic, it is the exposure of the lack of quality healthcare among the poor and minorities in our communities. These are some of the potholes that we have in our society, and in some way, somehow, we are obligated to help in finding the common ground to fix them.
There’s a story in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, one which recounts the Jerusalem Council. The question for the Council was whether a new believer ought to be circumcised in order to be considered a Christian - that was their pothole. This was a very tough issue for a nascent church. After listening to the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas of how the Holy Spirit has been working among them to bring Gentiles to the faith, James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Church in Jerusalem, became the "wise man" and spoke these words: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” That statement, alone, didn’t end the conversation, but at least it provided the kind of common ground on which all could stand and proclaim the good news of God’s salvation in Christ.
Like it or not, we also hold similar obligation to be the wise man or woman who finds that 18th camel, to be the ones who look for the common ground. Not that it is easy; it is often not. But we don’t give up simply because a task is difficult. We keep working at it until we find a solution.
You have the capacity within you to always seek to be the wise person who carries with them the desire to find the common ground in resolving any issue of a pothole.