Inhabiting a Word

Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that his word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made man small enough to fit inside one tiny word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

Fresh Fish Sold Here Daily

“Fresh Fish Sold Here Daily” read the fish merchant's sign. He had just painted it, hung it above his window, and he was beaming at the sign with pride when a neighbor passed by.

“Why does the sign say 'daily'”, the neighbor asked, “Surely no one thinks you mean to be open once a week selling fish?”

The merchant thought about this for a second and said, “That makes perfect sense!” So he took the sign down and painted over the part that read “Daily” so that the sign now just read, “Fresh Fish Sold Here.”

He was admiring his edit when another neighbor passed.

“Here?”, the neighbor asked, “Where else would you be selling the fish but in your shop?”

After thinking about this, the merchant said, “That makes perfect sense!” So he took down the sign and changed it to read “Fresh Fish Sold.”

No sooner had he hung the freshly painted sign when a passing neighbor remarked, “'Sold?' How silly! Surely you weren't planning on giving the fish away for free!”

Of course this made perfect sense so the merchant took his sign down yet again and made the correction. It now read “Fresh Fish!”

He was merely holding it in his hand getting ready to hang it when another passerby chuckled, “'Fresh?' I should certainly hope so! Surely no one thinks you plan on selling rotten fish.”

“That makes perfect sense!” The merchant thought so, yet again, he took the sign into his shop and removed the unnecessary word. Now the sign simply read neatly and concisely, “Fish.” There it hung in big bold letters. The perfect picture of simplicity.

“We know it's fish! We can smell it all the way down the road!” The neighbor remarked as he passed by.

The merchant thought about this for a second. “That makes perfect sense!” So he set to work on his final edit. So he hung a sign in the store window that read, ” .”

The sign hung in the window for a week and the merchant didn't receive a single customer. “That sign might be bad for business,” the merchant thought to himself, “but at least it makes perfect sense!”

All advice must be received with discernment and just because something “makes sense” doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. This humorous Jewish story reminds us that it is a fool who follows the advice of every passerby and takes every critique to heart. An inward sense of your own purpose can help you sift the good advice from the bad. “What am I setting about to accomplish and for whom? Does this counsel help me achieve what I am called to do?” This story can also have a deeper meaning for followers of Christ. As disciples we can be tempted to edit from the gospel things we think the people don't need to hear or what we assume they already know. But if our communication neglects the essentials, then we're just a fancy sign with no words.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

What More Should I Do?

A disciple once came to Abba Joseph, saying, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind of all evil thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?” Abba Joseph rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

I found this short little story about Joseph, one of the Desert Fathers, in Richard Foster's book “Prayer.” I've kept Foster's wording because it stunned me in my tracks. What a beautiful illustration of a fundamental truth of the spiritual life- that it is about more than just participation, it is about transformation. We miss the point when we think small. The goal of our little prayers, and our little fasts should be to be completely transformed by the one who is the Consuming Fire!

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

 

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…

 

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…

 

 

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 Face of God

Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah had a peculiar relationship with the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Rabbi Joshua would often go to Hadrian's court to advocate for the rights of his people against oppressive policies. Hadrian was not used to being talked to quite so boldly but he tolerated it. In fact, he enjoyed these visits because he liked to make sport of trying to stump the Rabbi with questions about his religion. Occasionally, Hadrian called Rabbi Joshua to his court for the sole purpose of questioning him.

One such day, Hadrian summoned Rabbi Joshua to his court. There in the room he had three statues depicting the Roman gods. He said to Rabbi Joshua, “These are the statues of but a few of our gods. We have many more. Look at their faces! This one, Venus, has a beautiful face that her devotees worship out of love. This one, Mars, has a terrible face that his devotees worship out of fear. And this one, Jupiter, has a regal face that his devotees worship out of respect. The face of a god tells its worshipers who it is. Tell me… what is the face of your god like?”

Rabbi Joshua dutifully responded, “The Torah teaches that no one can see the face of The Lord and yet live. We Jews worship the unseen God.”

Hadrian laughed. “How can you worship a god whose face you cannot even see?”

“Follow me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “and I will give you an answer.”

So the Emperor, enjoying having fun at the Rabbi's expense, obliged him and followed him out into the courtyard. It was a hot summer day and the sun was shining very brightly. Rabbi Joshua said to him, “If you want to see the face of God, you must stare directly into the sun.”

Hadrian's mood suddenly changed. “You fool,” he shouted, “You know very well I cannot look directly into the sun! Do you scheme to make your emperor blind?”

“Of course you cannot stare into the sun,” said Rabbi Joshua calmly, “but the sun is only a servant of our God. If you cannot behold the splendor of one of His servants, how could you possibly hope to gaze upon the face of God?”

Hadrian was speechless. He had once again been outwitted. Without a word, Rabbi Joshua departed to go back to his people and join them in their worship of an unseen God.

There is a whole tradition of Jewish parables that involve Romans questioning the Rabbis about their faith only to be outwitted in the end. The stories reflect the very real skepticism that the Romans had about monotheism and the extent to which Jews (and Christians) constantly had to defend themselves from mischaracterizations about what they believed. It was in this context of suspicion that the writer of 1 Peter told followers to “always be ready to defend your confidence in God.” Modern disciples live in an increasingly suspicious and skeptical world. Some people make sport of trying to make religious people look silly. While God does not call us to be trolls ourselves, we are called to be ready to defend, with patience and humility, our confidence in the unseen God.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

The Third Day of Creation

On the third day of creation, as God was adding the last finishing touches on the trees, giving them sap, leaves, bark, and seed, He noticed something very troubling. The great cedars of Lebanon were towering high above the other trees. They seemed to God to be almost arrogant. God worried that there would soon be competition among the trees and that they might begin to despise one another and threaten His perfect creation. So God in His infinite wisdom decided to create iron. The trees immediately understood that iron would have the power to destroy them so they began to weep.

They cried out to God, “O King of Heaven why have you done this to us? Surely each one of us is destined to be felled by the axe!”

God replied, “The axe is nothing without the wooden handle to lift it! Go, therefore, and live in peace with one another. Stay united and refuse to betray each other and iron will be powerless against you!”

This beautiful midrash tells us far more about human nature than it does about the politics of trees. Unity is a very fragile thing. It only takes a single tree to lend its branch and an entire forest can be felled. For peace to be lasting, each side must trust the others for the limb that is given up to hurt an enemy threatens every tree. Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers. This means living in a posture of humility and forgiveness. We may know some trees that really deserve to be chopped down but let us not forget who it is that created this forest. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Training the Donkey

There was once a very frugal man who was always looking for ways to cut costs. One day he noticed that his hired hand was feeding the donkey more than it really needed. He called the hand and told him, “We’re wasting money feeding this animal more food than it needs. If we keep this up, the donkey will grow fat, it’s productivity will go down, and we’ll lose even more money! I’m going to take over the feeding of the donkey for awhile and train it properly. I will reduce the donkey’s food supply a little each day and wean him off this excessive diet.”

So the man took over the chore of feeding the donkey and did as he said he would do, cutting back the donkey’s food supply just a little each day. This went on for a couple of months until, finally, one day the donkey died. The man said to his hand, “It’s such a shame. If that donkey hadn’t suddenly died, I think I could have trained him to eat nothing at all!”

Extremes are dangerous. This humorous Jewish parable shows us what can happen when we carry a project too far. Extremism can cause politicians to sacrifice common sense on the altar of ideological purity and it can cause religious people to take good behaviors and boundaries and create a standard no one can live up to. There can indeed be too much of a good thing. As disciples, we’re called to give our best to God. Sometimes we interpret that as pushing ourselves as far in a single direction as we possibly can but more often it means wisely navigating between extremes and setting an example of balance to others. I love what Proverbs 25:16 says: “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” A little less colorfully put: “in all things: moderation…”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…