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…

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born;

~

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

On all four-footed things.

~

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

~

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

This lovely poem by G.K. Chesterton reminds us that Jesus came to redeem the rejected and despised. It is a telling of Palm Sunday from the point of view of the donkey. Chesterton builds on the detail found in Luke’s gospel that the donkey chosen for Jesus to enter Jerusalem with had never been rode upon. Such a creature must feel rejected. The donkey is a creature considered to be unnatural and a half breed. One beaten and abused. Yet it is this creature that takes place in the triumphal entry. As disciples we are called to see even the most despised creatures as children of God and to be agents of redemption in their lives. Because the truth is all of us were among the rejected when Christ chose us.

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 Special Exception

A very rich man was nearing the end of his life and he began to contemplate the life to come. He was very troubled that he would soon lose everything he had worked so hard for. All his wealth would soon belong to others and he would enter Paradise poor. It didn’t seem fair to him so he prayed fervently that he would be allowed to take all that he had amassed with him. One night an angel appeared to him.

“O mortal,” said the Angel, “All men come into this world empty handed and empty handed they must go to the next…”

The man pled, “I have worked so hard for what I have and I have no family to leave it to… Can there be no exception made?”

The angel thought for a second. “This is highly irregular but I will see what I can do…”

Suddenly the Angel disappeared then just as suddenly, he reappeared and said, “A special exception has been made. You may bring with you what you can pack into one suitcase.”

After the Angel had again left, the man went and found his largest suitcase and packed it full with gold bars and laid it by his bed for the day of his death.

Sure enough the fateful day came and the man died. The man grabbed his suitcase just as his soul was leaving his body and took it with him. There at the gates of heaven, the man dragged the impossibly heavy suitcase all through the winding line to meet St. Peter. When it was finally the man’s turn, St. Peter looked at him and them down at his suitcase and said, “you know you can’t bring that in, right?”

The man confidently replied that he had been given assurances by an Angel that he would be allowed the one suitcase. St. Peter excused himself, and went back behind the pearly gates to conference with one of the Angels. When he returned, St. Peter apologized.

“It seems a special exception has been made in your case. I was, however asked to inspect the contents of your suitcase before letting you through.”

The man happily obliged and St. Peter unlatched the suitcase. As he surveyed the contents of the suitcase there was a look of pure confusion on his face. He shouted back to the Angels behind him:

“All this fuss over a suitcase full of pavement?”

What we value and what God values are often two very different things. This old church joke perfectly illustrates how the things we see as so precious and so worth our pursuit here on earth might be mundane and unimpressive on the streets of gold. Jesus admonishes us to store up treasures in heaven. As disciples we are called to reject what the world values and seek after the things that God values. This means denying our own desires and taking up our cross. It would be a terrible thing if we were to come to the end of our life and all we had to show for it was a suitcase full of pavement.

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…

The Man and the Lion

The man and the lion were walking through the forest debating which creature was superior to the other. The lion argued that lions were clearly greater than men because they were faster, more ferocious, and kings of the jungle. The man argued for his kind pointing out that men were far more clever and were able to fashion weapons. Eventually they came to a clearing where there was a statue depicting a man triumphing over a subdued lion.

“See,” said the man, “look how this man easily defeats this lion! Surely this statue must convince you once and for all of man's clear superiority!”

“No,” said the lion, “The statue proves nothing for it was made by a man! Had a lion sculpted that statue, it might tell a different story alltogether!”

This fable from Aesop is a clever reminder that stories can be vastly different depending on who is telling them. As human beings, we often depict ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives to the point of deceiving others and even ourselves. Pride blinds us from our flaws. As disciples, we are called to walk with humility in the knowledge of our limitations. We are also invited to be a part of the story God tells. The Gospel does not glorify humanity with false flatteries but tells us the truth about who we are whose we are.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…