The sucky starfish story.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 September 2016

I grew up Christian, as some of you know. As a result I’ve heard hundreds of sermons.

Seriously, hundreds: I grew up Christian, and never took any longer than three-month break from attending a church. (And during that time, I was going to daily chapel, which was mandatory in seminary.) So, since I grew out of the childcare program at the age of five: One every Sunday, and sometimes two. One during many a midweek evening service. One every time I went to chapel, both in school, and when I taught school. Three to ten during conferences. At least one every time I listen to preacher radio, or download a church’s podcast. I listen to my own pastor’s sermons twice: Once on Sunday morning, and once again as I scrub the audio for podcasting. So no, I’m not kidding when I say hundreds. It’s possibly thousands.

Since many of these preachers tap the very same sources for sermon illustrations, the result is I’ve heard thousands of clichés. Some of these preachers haven’t been Christian as long as I, so they don’t know these stories are clichés, and even if they do, they inflict ’em on people anyway. Sometimes they love these stories, so if they weren’t clichés already, by golly these preachers would make them their own personal clichés if they could. They’ll trot ’em out over and over again, like a dog breeder who loves to show off his prize-winning poodle, and doesn’t notice the poor thing is 15 years old, covered in bald spots, and limping.

About a decade ago I was obligated to listen to some Christian radio, and the announcer decided to tell the starfish story again.

If you haven’t heard it by now, your church attendance sucks. It’s a mainstay of maudlin preaching. Goes like yea: Starfish washed up on the beach; there’s a kid throwing them back into the ocean; an adult notices this and comments, considering the number of fish, how futile this activity is, and “what difference will it make?” The kid, undeterred, states, “It’ll make a difference for this one,” and flings that starfish into the sea. And this is a parable to encourage us to plug away at any impossible-looking task. We may not change every life, but we may change one.

Now all it needs is to be made a poem, and people will put it on posters. Well, I beat y’all to it.

With a bit of a twist. See, when I tire of things, or grow irritated with them, I deal with them by parodying them. If you were expecting my poem to warm your heart… that’s not gonna happen today.

A thousand starfish on the shore.
Beyond them lie some thousands more.
They washed up when the tide went out.
It left them scattered all about.
An older man was there that day
to take his grandson out to play.
But once the lad beheld this sight
he quit his play. With all his might
he strove to take each starfish there
and toss them in the ocean, where
the wouldn’t dry; they wouldn’t die.
To which the older man said, “Why
waste all your time to rescue these?
You could do anything you please,
but if you try to save them all,
you can’t succeed. You’ll only fall.
What difference could a lone boy make?”
To answer this, the lad did take
a starfish in his hands, and threw
it out into the ocean blue.
He said, “At least I saved that one.
It’s no waste when it’s partly done.”
In this way worked the lad all day.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t play.
He saved a thousand starfish plus.
The older man concluded thus:
Perhaps perfection we can’t reach;
the boy could never clear the beach.
But we can play what part we can.
“And this is wisdom,” thought the man.
Until a wave crashed on the shore,
and put the starfish back. Plus more.
The starfish which the boy threw in
would have to be thrown in again.
The lad, exhausted, didn’t see
this nature-caused atrocity.
He was a thousand feet away.
On seeing this, the man did say,
“I now repent of foolishness.
In fact, Ecclesiastes says:
‘What does a man gain from his work?’
I’m such a sentimental jerk.”
He thought he shouldn’t tell the lad
until a better time. He had
worked so hard to accomplish naught.
His “rescued” fish would dry and rot.
The boy was tired, sore, and wet.
He’d take him home. Let him forget.
Alas, the boy remembered all,
thought it profound, and when the call
came for the boy to preach the Word,
he used this tale. I think you’ve heard
about the starfish and the beach:
About the goal far out of reach.
And yet we’re urged to struggle on,
because at least we’ll rescue one.
Alas, the story ends not there,
as painfully you’re now aware.