The Parable of the Street Sweeper

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Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the clarion voice of the American Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated on the evening of Thursday, 4 April 1968, at the young age of 39 years, while standing on the balcony of his room (room 306) at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. He was a man of vision and determination that never stopped dreaming of what could be. As a Baptist minister, he taught Christian values to the community. He was charismatic and had a powerful way of speaking and getting his message across. Having spent thirteen years of his life dedicated to non-violent protest, his voice was silenced by one final act of violence as a sniper’s bullet would claim his life.

The Street SweeperSix months prior to his death, on Thursday, 26 October 1967, Dr. King spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. He began his remarks that day by asking the students what has since proved to be a timely question. The question that was put before the students that day was, “What is your life’s blueprint?” His message was based on the premise that no matter what a person’s lot may be in life, he should always strive to be the best at what he does. He encouraged the students by telling them, “And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better”.

To further illustrate his point, Dr. King used the example of a street sweeper. He said:

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. But be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.

Dr. King’s message was not just for the students at Barratt Junior High School on that particular day in 1967, but the principles that he taught can be applied to our times as well.

For example, there is a person who has a job that he absolutely does not like. He wakes up each morning, rolls out of bed, gets dressed, and complains the entire time about how lousy his job is, and how he is not looking forward to another day at the office. Once he gets to work, he spends the entire day constantly watching the clock waiting in great anticipation for the moment when he can finally flee from his misery and return home. When he gets home he spends the evening complaining about how miserable his day was and the fact that he hates his job. The next morning he gets up and starts the cycle all over again, never seeming to find an end to his misery and woe.

Now compare this worker to Dr. King’s street sweeper. There is no doubt that he may have aspirations of a better job, but he understands that at this time in his life his job is to be a street sweeper. Each morning he wakes up, gets out of bed, gets dressed, and prepares for the day ahead. He is thankful that he has a job and that he is able to make money to be able to take care of his needs. He shows up for work on time every morning and gives nothing less than his best in completing the tasks that he is given. He not only does a good job, but he is so passionate about what he does that he is determined to be the best street sweeper that ever lived. When the work day is over, he goes home with a sense of satisfaction that not only did he do the best job that he could possibly do, but on this particular day he was the best that has ever been at his job. He is happy with his job and happy with his life. He can rest peacefully at night knowing that whatever he has to do, he does it “as if God Almighty called [him] at this particular moment in history to do it”.

The major difference between these two workers is their attitude. The first worker has a negative attitude about everything and thus is a constant complainer. He allows misery and woe to fill and define his life. The street sweeper accepts his lot in life and has a positive attitude that things will get better in time and some day he may have a better job. Although he may not think his job to be as significant as some others, he is determined to give it his all and believes in his heart that “the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better”.

The first worker may end up working at the same job his entire life without ever being promoted to a better position within the company. The future of the street sweeper; however, is promising. One day a manager or supervisor may give notice to his passion for hard work and promote him to a lead position. Because of his passion to do the best job that he can in the new position as well, he may soon find himself being promoted to a manager or supervisor position.

Even if the street sweeper never climbs the economic ladder higher than his self-made position as the best street sweeper that ever lived, he is happy and successful throughout his life because of his positive attitude and the passion to do whatever his calling may be to the best of his ability.

What lessons can we learn from the street sweeper? In the words of Dr. King, “If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. But be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are”.

These principles not only apply to our employment, but also to our family life, and our everyday life in the community as well. Whatever situation in life we may find ourselves in, let us learn to accept who we are and where we are at this particular moment in our lives. Let us develop a passion for everything that we do, and regardless of the struggles and adversities that we may face, never give in and never give up. Let us press forward with the attitude that winners never quit and quitters never win. Let us resolve that from this day forward, no matter what our lot in life may be, we will be the best at whatever we do.

This is an audio clip from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s message titled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 9 April 1967.

One thought on “The Parable of the Street Sweeper

    The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life | Morsels of Bread said:
    Thursday, 5 September2013 at 09:27

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