By Tom Peterson
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” —Shel Silverstein
Does it matter what we try to accomplish? Whether we strive toward something ambitious? Yes, it does!
“My goal is simple,” says Stephen Hawking. “It is a complete understanding of the universe.” Impossible? Sure. But if his goal were less ambitious, how far would he have come? As he has reached for the stars (sorry!) and what they’re made of and all things related and not related, he has stretched his and our understanding of the universe by several leaps.
What we accomplish is directly related to what we’re trying to do. So why try for something mediocre? Perhaps the first sign of a good goal is whether it seems impossible.
Oakhurst: is this task Impossible?
In the 1980s I attended the mission-oriented Oakhurst Baptist Church in Atlanta. In the 1970s the all-white neighborhood it sat in was integrating. Many members worried what would happen if a black tried to join. So the pastor stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning and made it clear that there wasn’t going to be a vote. Any of God’s children would be fully welcomed as members. So when the first blacks joined, most members of the all-white congregation left pretty quickly. The church shrunk from over 1,000 members to around 250.
By the time I arrived in 1980, these remaining members and all the new ones were meeting in a sanctuary with peeling paint. They had leased out some larger buildings to the telephone company and retreated to the oldest building. But with the bold decision, they’d run off the timid, the kinds who weren’t going to do much real world-changing.
As a result, the folks in the new smaller Oakhurst spawned a number of missions: a restaurant for homeless people downtown, a residential (third floor of the church) addiction treatment program for homeless men, a local Witness for Peace group, sanctuary for refugees from Central America. The Baptist Peace Fellowship was founded and housed there.
The church housed the regional office of Clergy and Laity Concerned, founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. And Seeds, a nationally known magazine about U.S. and World Hunger, where I spent almost a decade, started there. These are just a few of the outwardly reaching missions of this small, financially struggling congregation.
(Meanwhile, because we had women ministers—really? this was an issue? still is?—and openly gay leaders and for other reasons we got kicked out of all things Southern Baptist. Of course, we wore these expulsions as badges!)
Oakhurst’s approach to mission was borrowed from the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. To start something new, a member has to first have a “call” to take on some challenge, such as homelessness, loneliness, world peace. Then a second person has to join in the same calling. They then ask who wants to join in discovering a way to address the issue.
After they’ve developed their plan, two questions had to be asked before they could go forward: Is this task impossible? And is it likely to fail? In order to proceed, the congregation had to agree that the answers to both are yes! Oakhurst wasn’t interested in taking on anything that wasn’t impossible and likely to fail.
By the way, many of the mission attempts flopped, bombed! They just didn’t work. We honored those and moved on. But had the Oakhurst do-the-impossible groups waited until they had eliminated all or even most chances of failure, not one of those efforts would have ever taken root.
The Impossible may take a while
Paul Loeb has a great book on people working out of hope. He titled it after some lyrics of a Billie Holiday song that also became the Army Corps of Engineers’ motto during World War II: “The difficult I’ll do right now. The Impossible Will Take a Little While.”
It will take a while. If you are taking on something that’s going to change some part of our world, it probably is impossible. Accomplishing it, or even trying, will take you into new territory, well beyond your comfort zone. And as we all know, that’s where the magic happens!
Bonus: a few Do the Impossible Quotes
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” —St. Francis of Assisi
“Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.” — Paul Hawken
Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years his life in prison and later became his country’s president, said “It always seems impossible until it’s done. ”
Painting: Libba Davis