Once upon a time in Austria there was a young concert pianist, a man who had a father who did not believe that art in any form was suitable as a way to make a living. Unfortunately, that father lost three of his five sons to suicide because they did not want to follow in his footsteps. Of the two remaining, one chose to follow philosophy as a career. The last son became a concert pianist, well known but with no clue that he would become not only famous but an innovator one day. Fast forward to the end of World War I. The young concert pianist had served in that war had been severely wounded in his right elbow. His arm had to be amputated, leaving him a pianist with one arm, the left one. What could this possibly mean to a young man with great promise but a flawed body?
He asked composers to write piece of music for him a few did. Eventually composers like Ravel wrote pieces to be played exclusively with the left hand. Those pieces are still played today, usually by two-handed pianists who voluntarily keep one hand in their laps while the left hand plays beautiful melodies and intricate passages written by composers who believe that a one-handed pianist could still be an artist. Were it not for his injury and his subsequent recovery and determination to remain an artist, we probably would never know the name Paul Wittgenstein.
In 1831, another man, born in Lithuania, went to Germany to study to be a rabbi. He became a Christian instead, and emigrated to the United States where he trained for the priesthood. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church and was sent to serve as a priest in China. There he worked hard to master and also to translate the Bible into Mandarin Chinese. He was made a Bishop in 1877, and he founded the University in Shanghai. He began to translate the Bible again this time in a different style and form of Chinese. And then disaster struck.
Parkinson’s disease is a gradually debilitating disease where the body develops tremors and gradually becomes incapacitated. The Bishop of Shanghai, as the priest was called now, resigned his position as bishop but continued to work on his translations of the Bible. By this time, he had only the use of one finger on one hand. Nevertheless, he continued on with his work, picking away character by character, letter by letter, with his one finger. His translations today are considered authoritative and masterful and are still being used as standard text. If not for his one fingered task so well performed, and his dedication to doing what he believed God wanted him to do, we may never have heard of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky.
What the two had in common was to fight what could have been an overwhelming disability that would have prevented them from doing what they felt they were called to do. Fortunately for them, they were able to follow their passions in a way that set a new standard for dedication. Those pieces written for Wittgenstein are still being played today by artists of both one and two-handed variety. Schereschewsky’s works of translation are still used as standards. Even after death, both men continue to inspire others in their various fields.
We all have heard it said that what was one person cannot really do much to change the course of things. Easier to believe that than it is to get out and do something about it. We expect leaders like Steve Jobs or other captains of industry for statesmen or even people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to get the crowd fired up and ready to do things. Sometimes all it takes is one person, like Malala Yousefzai, to call attention to something of a great need and encourage others to join the struggle to change what is wrong and make it right.
Jesus was one man, and yes, he was a human man, when he walked on the earth. Were he not a human male, the whole focus of his teachings would have taken on an entirely different point of view. If he openly declared himself the Son of God, would people have believed in him? Caesar claimed to be a god, yet he never walked on water or fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, although he claimed a virgin birth. No, Jesus was human and as a human he did things we don’t expect humans to do, yet Jesus used those things to show what a depth of faith can do to make changes, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to look at the marginalized and give them value. Jesus changed the world, not totally by himself, but through his messages and how they were presented, how they influenced those who heard him, and who went about telling others about the wonderful things that had been said and done.
Maybe it’s time for us to start thinking about what we could do, even as single individuals. I think about the woman in Las Vegas who held a dying man and continued to hold him even after his death because she did not want him to be alone. That was so poignant and such a Christlike moment. I don’t think she even knew the man, but she saw a need and filled it. How wonderful is that? One person made a difference — as did the individuals who rushed in where others were scrambling to escape.
One person, one vote. We may not see it as able to change anything, but then no vote equals nothing no progress and no change. One person, one action, one small deed of kindness, one check, one thank you, one smile like all little things, can join together to become a big thing, and the big thing can change the world. Yet every single thing starts with an idea in someone’s head or a calling in someone’s heart to do something to make the world better. That’s what we are taught to do as Christians, so why are we not doing it?
This week I think I will look for little things that I can do in the course of my work and in my ordinary life. I may not be able to solve everybody’s problems, but I can at least let them know that I have heard what they said and have made note of it so that I will know how to best make that need known to someone else who can actually do something about it. I’m already conscious of smiling at total strangers at odd moments, and quite often I get a smile back. That feels pretty nice. I think it can become addicting.
So this one woman is going to try in her own way, small as it may be, to make the world better. Is anybody with me?
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ