May 2006


With graduation this weekend here at MSU and the student group on hiatus until Fall, I’m taking a break from The Connection.

Check back around the middle of August.

Thanks for reading!

(c) 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Please read Genesis 37:1-4, 12ff

“One is the loneliest number.” So goes the old song by Three Dog Night.

But if one is a lonely number, it is also a powerful one.

You can’t be serious, someone might object. What can one person do, especially against gigantic, faceless bureaucracies; overwhelming odds or rampant evil?

What can one do? There are plenty of negative examples that ought to convince us of the power of that number. Ask the Jews of the Holocaust whether Adolf Hitler, one man, was a force to be reckoned with. We know their answer. What about the bully who made or makes your life at school or work a living nightmare? The criminal whose actions changed someone’s life forever by victimization, fear, and even death. One person can make a big difference.

If one is such a powerful number to do evil, why is it not for good as well? Do we believe evil is stronger than good?

What can one do? Reuben knew. Do you recall the story? Jacob, Reuben’s father, did not love Leah, Reuben’s mother. He loved Rachel, but where Leah was fertile, and bore many children, Rachel was barren. At long last, though, Rachel did conceive, and bore a son whom she named Joseph, which means “the added one.”

Joseph was doted on by Jacob, loved because he was Rachel’s first-born, loved because by the time he grew into his teens, Rachel was dead, departing this world during the birth of Benjamin, the youngest and last of Jacob’s sons. Joseph was a reminder of all Jacob had with Rachel.

As a sign of his affection for the boy, Jacob made him a coat with long sleeves, traditionally but wrongly known as the “coat of many colors.” It was a long, impractical garment, not made for working. It looked like something a king would wear. And the brothers, in their short tunics with no sleeves, resented their brother not having to toil as they did.

Joseph had a dream, in which his brothers, symbolized by sheaves of wheat, bowed down to Joseph as to a ruler. Foolishly, he told them about it, and they hated him all the more. Another dream came, in which the whole family, Jacob included, gave him homage, and the brothers were jealous. Jacob’s feelings were ambiguous. He resented the idea of his bowing to his son, but he also believed there was something special in store for Joseph.

One day, Jacob sends Joseph out to check on or check up on his brothers, pasturing the flock some distance away. Joseph has a bit of trouble finding them, but when he does, they decide to kill him. Only Reuben as this point stands up for his flesh and blood and urges the other boys not to do Joseph mortal harm. “Throw him into this pit here, but don’t kill him,” he says, planning to come back later and get him out.

Now that is a rather unusual course of action for Reuben to take. As first-born, he had the most to lose if Joseph became the head of their family. But also as first-born, Reuben was the responsible one, both in the way that first-borns are always responsible—and if you are one, you know what I mean—both in the way we are always responsible, and also responsible to his father for the good of all the family. He acted against his own self-interest out of duty to family and the right. Reuben at least tried, not successfully as we will see, but at least tried to use his position and influence to keep another person from harm.

How many of us are in the same circumstance? Does not each one of us have influence in some way with someone in some context? Could be you are popular or thought of as a role model, and thus have the ear of your peers to sway them to do right, to think a little more clearly and completely about their actions. Do you believe in your own power, the power of one, the one being you?

Reuben’s power of one was, as I have said, not effective in the way he envisioned. Perhaps he should have been more invested in the outcome, hung around, tried harder. It seems even the best-laid plans go awry.

But even if Reuben failed to stop the hurtful actions of others, he managed to influence his brother Judah just a little. Judah is motivated mainly by profit. But he prevails on the others where Reuben could not. Joseph may now be a slave, but at least he is alive, and the dream of God embodied in him is not dead.

The power of one. Have we not been struck by it, affected by it, even if we ourselves have never exercised it? Who is not touched by the child’s face staring out as us from the TV screen, a gaunt, hungry, frightened, though nameless, face? What about the inspiration provided by a hero or a mentor?

The late Rosa Parks was only one woman, and she never intended to be the catalyst for a movement. I have heard her, seen her. She was slight, quiet, not an impressive figure as we judge such things. She was simply tired that day on the bus, and didn’t want to give up her seat to a white man. The power of one.

Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Uhura on the classic “Star Trek,” was ready to quit the series. But one night she met someone at an NAACP meeting. She was talking to a friend about her plans, and she heard behind her: “You can’t quit.” She turned around to see Martin Luther King, Jr. She was too important, he said, as she presented an image of dignity and competence. And she didn’t leave. One woman influenced by one man. The power of one.

John Buchanan, a Chicago pastor, and editor of the journal The Christian Century, once wrote in that magazine about the death of JFK, Jr. Those musings led him to reflect on the influence of John F. Kennedy. Buchanan notes: “He did something his predecessors had difficulty accomplishing: he inspired ordinary people to want to serve their nation and their community. He spoke to something dormant in people’s souls, and he made public service appealing….[H]is efforts on behalf of civil rights were…crucial—they were the reason many of us became vocal about and involved in the civil rights movement.” The power of one.

I was floundering around in life, not knowing what I wanted to do. Maybe I would go into law and give up ministry completely. My first experience had certainly not been a positive one. I was teaching the Bethel Bible Series leaders at Government Street Church in Mobile, just to make a little extra cash, and went one night to the home of one of the students. There was a minister there, Tom Walker, who somehow sensed my plight. He took me under his wing, got me a new connection with the church, took me out most Sunday evenings for pecan pie and coffee, rode with me to Atlanta to talk to the president of Columbia Seminary about the Doctor of Ministry program, saw something in me I couldn’t see, so great was my despair and my grief and my self-deprecation. Gave me hope and direction. The power of one.

My wife Susan was teaching Sunday school in our church in Alabama. She decided to invite her small class of elementary school students over to our home to bake some M&M sugar cookies. A simple thing to do, really. A gesture of kindness, a way of showing affection. Just one woman including some children in something she enjoyed doing. Years later, one of those kids, grown to be a teenager, still talked about that day in the kitchen and those cookies. The power of one.

One person, who takes the time to talk to someone sitting alone or who believes in a teen everyone else sees as a slacker and a nuisance. One person, who offers a smile or a helping hand, who acts with courage and even sacrifice. One person who still believes in a cynical world where the odds of success are not good and not to try is infinitely easier than to try, one person who still passionately holds on to the belief that he or she can make a difference, if only in a little corner of creation.

American myth has glorified the lone ranger, the isolated outcast, the self-made individual with only a faithful companion to trust and help him. The power of one I am speaking of this morning is not of such a one, but of an individual engaged with community, family, with conscience, with duty, with the Creator who calls him or her by name and summons to service. It is the power of One like Jesus, who set his face toward the cross and did not look back, but saw his journey through to the end. Or as the band U2 once put it: “One man come in the name of love.”

The power of one.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.