Father Antony’s Visitors

During the 5th century a group of Christians retreated to the desert to devote their lives to fasting and prayer, living their lives free of the temptations of the world. They have become known to history as the “Desert Fathers”. One of the most revered of the desert fathers was a man named Father Antony. Stories about his holiness and devotion spread far and wide. It was not uncommon for other Christians to make a journey out to the desert to see Antony and seek his wisdom. There was one particular group of believers that made a habit of traveling every year to visit Father Antony. There were three of them. Every year when they arrived to Father Antony's hermitage, two of the three would spend the day questioning Father Antony. They would ask him about the scriptures, the life of holiness, and seek his advice on all matters of faith. Father Antony enjoyed these visits and was always patient with the seekers. It always puzzled him, though, that one of the three never asked anything. Years passed and the three believers faithfully made their pilgrimage again and again. Two of the three always asked questions and the third continued to remain silent. Finally after many years, when Father Antony was getting old and the three travelers were advancing in age as well. The visitors came for what Father Antony thought may be the final time. At the end of their stay, after which the visitors continued their custom of two asking questions and the third remain silent, Father Antony spoke to the silent visitor:

“Brother, I have enjoyed your visits these many years, but I don't know how many more years God will grant me, nor do I know how much longer you will be able to make this journey. Your companions have sought much wisdom from me over the years and yet you have remained silent. Was there nothing you have wanted to ask of me?”

The third visitor smiled and said, “Father, it has always been enough just to see you.”

Far more important than the advice we give is the life that we life. Saint Francis of Asisi famously said: “Preach the Gospel always; occasionally use words.” As disciples we are called to help others in their journey toward holiness. Often this requires, patiently listening to their questions and sharing from our learned wisdom. More often, it requires setting an example through your actions. Even if you feel like you aren't eloquent enough to disciple others, perhaps for them it is enough just to see you.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

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Creation of the Butterflies

When the Great Spirit watched his creation, he became sad at the thought that someday all the children would grow old and die. He knew they would be like the flowers of the field and would bloom for only a while before losing their beauty and wilting. Still, it was autumn, and all the colors of the trees and the fields gave the Great Spirit an idea.

“I will create something beautiful for the children,” he said.

And so the Great Spirit gathered the colors together. He took gold from the sunlight, blue from the sky, white from the cornmeal, gray from the shadows of the running children, green from the leaves of summer, yellow from the leaves of autumn, black from a girl's long hair, and red, purple, and orange he found in the petals of the flowers in the field. The Great Spirit mixed these together in his bag, along with a few songs that he had gleaned from the birds.

The Great Spirit then walked to a meadow, placed his bag on the ground and said, “Come, children. Come and open the bag. I have a present for you.”

The children ran to the bag, opened it, and thousands of bright, beautiful butterflies fluttered into the sky. The children were so happy, seeing such beauty. Suddenly the butterflies began to sing, and the children sang with them. All the songs of laughter filled the air and the world was a happy place.

Just then a songbird flew by and lighted on the Great Spirit's shoulder. The bird whispered in the Great Spirit's ear: “It isn't right that you have taken our songs and given them to these new creatures. After all, they are lovelier than we are. Isn't it only right that the songs belong to us?”

The Great Spirit thought about this and then agreed with the songbird. “It is only right that the songs belong to you,” he said.

And so the Great Spirit took the songs back and gave them to the birds. That is why they sing. But of the butterflies the Great Spirit said, “Look at these. For they are beautiful just as they are.”

This version of this beautiful Native American story was found in Todd Outcalt's wonderful collection of parables: “Candles In The Dark.” I couldn't possibly improve on his prose, so I kept his wording of the story. God in His wisdom has given us all unique gifts. Beauty for the butterflies and songs for the birds. We are created to bring joy to one another and to bring praise to our creator. There may be times when we are jealous of another person's gifts. We do well to remember that our creator has given us our gifts for a purpose and that we are, in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made!”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

 

Brother Masseo’s Request

During the first days of the Fransiscan movement, St. Francis surrounded himself with disciples who were eager to learn from him and imitate his life of simplicity. One of these was a man named Brother Masseo. Brother Masseo became very convicted one day after hearing Francis preach on the virtue of humility- so convicted that he resolved to forsake all other pursuits and seek only after humility! Brother Masseo went back to his cell and for days on end he fasted and prayed late into the night, begging God to send him to Hell for his sins. All this was in an effort to cultivate humility. He continued like this until one day in his despair he wandered out into the woods where he was startled by a voice from heaven:

“Masseo, Masseo,” said the voice.

“My Lord!” cried Brother Masseo, knowing the voice was that of Christ.

“Masseo,” said Christ, “What will you give me in exchange for the humility you seek?”

“My very eyes!” Brother Masseo called back.

“But I do not want your eyes,” Christ replied, “Keep them, and have my grace as well.”

From that moment on, Brother Masseo was filled with true humility and unspeakable joy.

This little story from “The Little a Flowers of St. Francis”, one of the earliest collections of tales about him and his followers, is a deep parable that rewards contemplation. Brother Masseo ultimately learns that humility cannot be achieved through effort but that it is a gift of grace. He also learns that Christ has no use of our eyes. In other words, our high or low view of ourself and others is of no value to Him. Masseo was trying to obtain humility by lamenting about his wretched estate. Yet it is this very kind of self involved thinking that is the enemy of humility. In a recent blog post, “Science Mike” McHargue wrote, “humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less…” I couldn't put it any better myself.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

The Dry Wood

Sometime during the 4th century a man named John renounced all of his worldly possessions and went to live among the Desert Fathers. He was quickly accepted in the community and because of his shorter stature was nicknamed by the brothers, “John the Dwarf.” When he first arrived in the desert, John's spiritual mentor was a man named Father Pambo. His new spiritual guide took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” The nearest water source was 12 miles away so John had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. John did this faithfully and without complaint for three years, leaving each evening and returning each morning, until the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then St. Pambo took some of the fruit and carried it to the church, saying to the brothers, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

To this day, in the Nitrian desert, in the abandoned monastery of St. John the Dwarf, you can see this tree. It is known as the “Tree of Obedience.” This parable shows us the great value of obedience. Obedience to God demands that we trust His wisdom and His timing. Obedience is faithfully doing our duty each day trusting that in the end it will make the difference. The United Methodist prayer of confession ends with the line: “forgive us we pray, free us for joyful obedience in Christ Jesus our Lord…” Joyful obedience is at the heart of what it means to answer the call of discipleship. Denying ourselves and taking up His cross. We do so in the hope and promise that one day we will sit at that heavenly banquet table and taste the sweet fruit of obedience.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

 

The Child’s Drawing

There was a kindergarten teacher who made a habit of giving her class free time to draw. She felt this encouraged her students to use their imaginations. She made a practice of going around the room and asking the kids about what they were working on. On this particular day, one of her students had a very serious expression on her face as she drew. The teacher could tell she was drawing something that meant a lot to her. When she came around to the little girl's table, she asked her what she was drawing.

The little girl looked up, smiling, and said, “I'm drawing God!”

The teacher was a little surprised. “No one knows what God looks like…”, she reminded the little girl.

The girl, not looking up from her intense art session, replied, “That's because I'm not finished yet.”

Of course God is unseen. He is bigger than our human categories. How do we present a picture of this God to others? For Jesus, the answer had to do with the way we live our lives. Christ lived his life in such a way that the character and nature of God was unmistakable and he challenged his disciples to do the same. “Be therefore perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect…” Being made in God's image gives us the responsibility of bearing that image to others. As disciples, we are called to live in such a way that people come to see God in us that through the power of the Spirit we are conformed more and more into the likeness of Christ each day. You may think that impossible but I, for one, am not finished yet.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

There is nothing to be afraid of…

Solomon Rosenberg tells this story from his time in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He, his wife, his two sons, and his mother were all arrested and relocated to a labor camp. The rules were simple: As long as you can do your work, you are permitted to live. When you become too weak to do your work, then you will be exterminated. The conditions were harsh and inhumane. The prisoners were given little to eat and the weak among them would begin to waste away until the inevitable day they could no longer work and they were taken to the gas chambers.

Rosenberg watched his mother and father being marched off to their deaths when they became too weak. He knew that his youngest son, David, would be next because David had always been a frail child. Every evening when Rosenberg came back into the barracks after his hours of labor, he would search for the faces of his family. When he found them, they would huddle together, embrace one another, and thank God for another day of life. But each day, David looked just a little bit more frail and Solomon always feared the next day would be the day he was taken away.

One day Rosenberg came back and couldn’t find his family. He stormed through the barracks in a panic until he finally discovered his oldest son, Joshua, in a corner, huddled, weeping. He said, “Josh, tell me it’s not true.” Joshua turned and said, “It is true, Poppa. Today David was not strong enough to do his work, so they came for him.”

“But where is your mother?” asked Mr. Rosenberg, “She is still strong enough to work!”

“Oh Poppa,” he exclaimed. “When they came for David, he was afraid and he was crying. Momma said, ‘There is nothing to be afraid of, David,’ and she pulled him close and held him. Then she took his hand and went with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone.”

This true story from one of the most horrific times in history is a powerful parable about the meaning of compassion. Compassion, literally translated, means “to suffer with”. This portrait of a mother’s willingness to suffer with her son, on this Good Friday, can’t help but remind me of God’s willingness to suffer with humanity. Jesus was not exempted from the ugly side of humanity. He saw, first hand, what barbarity unthinking mobs were capable of. He saw, first hand, what cruelty an oppressive state could perpetrate against those they saw as less than human. He knew forced labor and the dread of death. And he felt the pain of a man losing everything, resorting to a little bit of psalm he learned as a child to express what he alone could not express: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He did it all so we wouldn’t have to be alone.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Heaven and Hell

A monk was deep in his prayers when an angel appeared to him and offered to reveal to him any of the divine mysteries. The monk said to the Angel, “show me Heaven and Hell.”

Suddenly the monk and the Angel were in a large banquet hall. There was a large table filled with every good food you could imagine. There was succulent turkey, fresh from the oven, hot bread and butter, any side you could want, and delicious cakes for dessert. All the guests looked pale and sickly. The monk noticed that they were chained to their chairs and that they each had large metal rods shackled to their arms. Unable to leave their chairs or bend their elbows, the monk watched in horror as the guests at the banquet were unable to feed themselves any of this delicious food. They'd pick it up and drop it over and over and cry out in hunger, unable to get any of the food to their mouths.

“This,” said the Angel, grimly, “is Hell.”

“I cannot bear to watch their suffering any longer,” said the monk, “please show me heaven.”

Just as suddenly the monk and the Angel were in a differen banquet hall. There was also a large table filled with every good food you could imagine and all the guests here too were chained to their chairs and they each had large metal rods shackled to their arms. But these guests were not crying out in anguish. To the contrary, they were singing and laughing. They were not pale and sickly like the guests in the room before. These people were happy, healthy, and content. The monk watched closely and suddenly realized the difference between the two rooms. In this room each was picking up food and feeding his neighbor.

I love this old parable and I can't help but think about it every time I take communion. Especially on nights like tonight when Churches come together to celebrate that new command: “to love one another…” This particular Maundy Thursday, I'm struck by the irony that there is a national debate centering around the question of who Christians should have to serve. The legal issues involved are above my pay grade but it is hard for me to imagine that the Christ who welcomes all to His table would not want His disciples to do the same. In the Gospels, Jesus set aside his right to exclude people from his table and was criticized for the company he kept. This parable reminds us that it is our humility and our service that makes Heaven out of Hell. In the early Church, our self sacrificing love was indeed our defining characteristic and one of the chief ways we patterned our lives after Christ. The same Christ whose outstretched arms are marvelously depicted in the words of the old hymn: “Come Ye sinners poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore/ Jesus, ready, stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power…”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

The Water Bearer

Once there was a water bearer whose task it was every day to go up and down the hill from the master’s house to the river where he would retrieve water to supply the entire home. He did this each day in the traditional method. He had a large pole he carried on his shoulders with a clay pot hanging from each end. Every morning he cheerfully went out and made several trips to the river to gather water singing all the way.

“Some of us are beautiful,

Some of us are strong,

All of us are wonderful,

All of us belong!”

He loved his job so much that when he was done fetching the day’s supply of water, he would go back out and gather flowers from along the path which he would then take back to his master’s house and set in vases. Singing all the while:

“Some of us are beautiful,

Some of us are strong,

All of us are wonderful,

All of us belong!”

As much as the water bearer loved these daily trips, his pots loved them even more! Clay pots are never happier than when they are being used so the fact that they got to be filled and then poured out several times a day made them so happy. Most days they would smile (yes, pots can smile) and they would sing along (of course pots can sing) the whole trip up and down the hill to the river and back:

“Some of us are beautiful,

Some of us are strong,

All of us are wonderful,

All of us belong!”

There was one problem though. One of the pots was cracked. The cracked pot when filled would steadily drip water all along the path. This eventually made the cracked pot very sad. He would notice how as they travelled along the path, the water bearer had to work extra hard to balance the pots because one of the pots was heavier than the others. He also noticed that the water bearer had to take a lot more trips than he would if he had two whole pots. One afternoon, as they were making their daily trip, the whole pot began to tease the cracked pot. It bragged about how much water it could hold and told him that nobody wanted a useless leaky pot. Later, when the water bearer began to fill the cracked pot, he noticed that the cracked pot was very sad. Good water bearers are in tune with emotions of their pots.

“What is the matter?”, the water bearer asked.

“I’m useless,” said the cracked pot. “I used to love making these trips every day but now I just hate them because I know I’m letting you down. I drip water constantly and I make your job twice as hard. Why don’t you just get a new pot and you can fill me with flour or something.”

“You know what would cheer you up…”, said the water bearer, “When we walk up and down the hill to the master’s house, why don’t you admire all the pretty flowers!”

The cracked pot did as he was told and the whole journey home he admired the flowers. They really were beautiful. There were roses, tulips, daisies, morning glories, violets, any flower you could think of. There were big flowers and small flowers, and they were all different colors and each one smelled prettier than the last. The cracked pot gazed at these flowers and smiled and thought of nothing else the whole time the water bearer journeyed back, singing:

“Some of us are beautiful,

Some of us are strong,

All of us are wonderful,

All of us belong!”

But when they finally got back the cracked pot was sad once again. When the water bearer poured the cracked pot out, he noticed that he was still sad.

“Why are you still sad, friend. Didn’t you look at the flowers like I told you to?”

“Yes I did,” said the cracked pot, “and they were very beautiful. I almost forgot about my sadness but when we got back and you poured me out and I saw how much water my companion poured and how little I had, I was reminded of my crack and how I daily disappoint you and I was sad again”

The water bearer smiled. “Did you not notice when you were watching the flowers how they only grow on one side of the road? I knew you had a crack. That’s why I chose you. Every day, you’ve been watering the flowers along the side of the path with each drip that falls out of your cracked clay. All those beautiful flowers are there because of you.”

The cracked pot suddenly realized how important he was. He was filled with a joy that never left him. Now everyday he was once again excited to go out on his daily journey and each time he dripped water on the path he would give thanks for his imperfection that brought such amazing life into the world and he would gladly sing the whole way:

“Some of us are beautiful,

Some of us are strong,

All of us are wonderful,

All of us belong!”

This is my elaborated version of an old parable from India. Sometimes it is our very imperfections that God can use to bring beauty into the world. We often are sad because we feel we cannot contribute the things that others can, and we miss out on what God has in store for us. As disciples, we also see in this parable the great Christian paradox that brokenness brings wholeness. It is through our wounds that God can use us to bring healing to others. We are called to stop comparing ourselves to the people around us and to begin looking for the ways God is already at work in us. For we are, as the Psalmist declares, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…