Is Anybody Up There?


A man was hiking on a large mountain when suddenly he lost his footing, tripped, and went stumbling off the side of a steep cliff. Luckily, he had the presence of mind to reach out and grab a branch half way down. Clutching his branch, he looked down at the jagged rocks below and then at the impossibly steep cliff above. Not knowing what else to do, he looked up at the sky and cried with all his might’ “Is anybody up there?”

Suddenly some clouds parted, revealing a bright shaft of light, and a deep thundering voice sounded from heaven, saying, “It is I, God! You must have faith my child. Let go of the branch and I will catch you.”

The man thinks for a second, looks up at the sky, and cries, “Is there a body else up there?”

This funny little parable has a serious message. Faith is casting your lot entirely with God, no matter what. There is no plan B. The life of faith is letting go when it is not clear that we will be caught. If we knew how everything would work out, it would take no faith. The saying may seem trite but it’s also true: there comes a time in which we must let go and let God. Sometimes it is when we are at our most desperate, not knowing where else to turn that we finally look to heaven. What would our lives look like if we didn’t wait until we were hanging off the side of a cliff to ask, “Is anybody up there?”

The Rooster Prince


A very wealthy King had a young Prince who was to be heir to his entire Kingdom. The prince would wear fine robes and attend elaborate feasts where he would sit at the head of the table and discuss the great issues of the day with esteemed guests from all around the world. Everyone looked to the Prince for inspiration and leadership. 

One day, no one is really sure why, the Prince suddenly decided that he was a rooster. He stripped down to all but a loin cloth and squatted beneath the table pecking at scraps like the rest of the roosters, clucking and crowing as roosters do. At first, everybody thought this was a joke, but it soon became clear that the Prince had indeed convinced himself that he was a rooster.

This went on for weeks and the Prince didn’t snap out of it. He remained beneath the table in his loincloth, behaving like a rooster. The King was greatly disturbed and didn’t know what to do. He secretly had the best doctors in the Kingdom brought to the castle to try and restore the Prince to his former self. One by one, they did their best. Some tried to convince him logically that he was not a rooster with well reasoned arguments but the Prince would just look at them, turn his head sideways and cluck. Others tried to scare his sense back into him. Some even tried feeding him elaborate concoctions but none of it worked. The Prince still believed that he was not a Prince, but a rooster. Finally, the King brought in the local Rabbi.  

“Rabbi, please, I beg you,” said the King, “Restore my son to what he once was.”

The Rabbi looked at the Prince squatting under the table pecking at the scraps and said, “I believe I can do this but you’ll have to give me a week.”

The King agreed and the Rabbi set to work. He stripped to all but a loin cloth and got under the table and squatted. He pecked on the scraps and clucked and crowed like a rooster just like the Prince. The Prince immediately warmed to his fellow rooster.

 After two days of this, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we eat good food from plates. There’s no reason we must peck at these scraps.” 

The Prince shrugged and agreed with an approving, “BUCK BUCK,” so the King ordered the servants to put all the finest foods from the top of the table underneath the the table and for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, clucking and crowing, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork.

After these two more days were up, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know we can still be roosters if we talk to one another. There’s no reason we must cluck and crow.”

The Prince looked at the Rabbi and said, “Sure. That makes sense.” So for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork. 

Finally, on the sixth day, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we wear clothes and sit at the table. There’s no reason we must squat beneath the table in nothing but our loincloths.”

The Prince agreed to this and for the rest of the day, they sat at the table in their robes, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods imaginable with a knife and a fork. On the seventh day, the Rabbi bid farewell to his fellow rooster and the King thanked him from the bottom of his heart. For the rest of his days, the Prince did all the things a Prince (and later, a King) was supposed to do. He was a source of inspiration and leadership to the entire Kingdom and no one knew his secret: that deep down, no matter how he acted on the outside, he was still a rooster.

There is a profound truth at work in this engaging Jewish parable. We cannot bring true healing unless we are willing to get on people’s level. The meaning of the word “compassion” is to “suffer with.” Compassion means getting in the trenches with people and experiencing the world from their perspective. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we’re called to approach our neighbors the way he did. According to pastor and speaker, Ryan Leak, only 8% of Jesus’ miracles were performed in the synagogue. Jesus met people where they were at. He ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them, all the while offering steps towards healing and forgiving. When we come alongside people and help them take tiny steps toward wholeness, we are doing the sacred work of discipleship.  The way of Jesus is the way of suffering with others and bringing them through that suffering into new life. The Gospel is all just lofty talk if we are not willing, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet and the Rabbi ministering to the Rooster Prince, to strip down to our loincloth, get on our knees, and serve.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…


The Little Blue Engine


THE LITTLE BLUE ENGINE

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”

He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

Shel Silverstein

This humorous Shel Silverstein parody of the popular children’s book :”The Little Engine That Could.” Challenges the notion that the power of positive thought is all one needs to make it in life. “Just believe in yourself and there’s no limit to what you can achieve” is the kind of nonsense that sets people up for failure later in life. I do think it’s important to have self-confidence but that alone does not make the difference. There are little things called hard work, natural abilities, and plain old dumb luck that all contribute to success in life. More importantly, for disciples walking in the way of Jesus, the call is not to place our confidence in ourselves but in Christ. This is what Paul really means when he says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. There is real power in believing Christ can.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Star Prophet


A myth was well known among the Cherokee about some hunters who set out long ago toward the land of the sun. Along the way, they came across two large gray birds. Whenever the hunters shot arrows at these birds, sparks would fly off of them. They trapped them in nets and brought them back to their camp. At night, the birds began to glow brighter and brighter until they burned through the nets. At last they flew into the sky shining brightly but getting smaller and smaller until they were two tiny white dots among a sky full of other tiny white dots. This, according to the myth, was how the Cherokee came to know what stars were. 

This myth was probably in the lazy hunter’s head when he wandered from his party and happened on a white settlement. There at the settlement, he laid eyes for the first time on a strange European bird called a peacock. Immediately, the lazy hunter traded his belongings with the white settlers in exchange for the peacock. The hunter then killed the peacock and stripped it of all its strange and beautiful feathers. He took them to an old beaver lodge near the camp that only he knew about, and that could only be reached by diving under a lake. There, in private, he made a great headdress out of all the peacock feathers.

The other members of his tribe began to wonder what had become of him. It wasn’t until several weeks later that the lazy hunter showed up suddenly at a dance night with his new headdress and claimed to have been among the stars. He showed them the “star feathers” from his headdress as proof of his tale and began to tell the people secrets that the stars had told him. The people were entranced by his story. Then just as soon as he arrived, he disappeared into the night, claiming he was returning to the heavens (but really he was going back to his little beaver lodge).

Soon the man came to be known as the Star Prophet and he would show up weekly at their dances and tell more stories and issue more proclamations from the heavens. The people revered him and always sent him gifts of food, pelts, beads, and other offerings to give to the stars in return for their guidance. This went on for many seasons and the Star Prophet grew fat and rich off of the offerings.

One afternoon, a hunting party was out past their normal route when they happened upon a white settlement. There, they too discovered the peacock. It was then that they knew the Star Prophet was a fraud. They were afraid that no one would believe them because the people had grown to love and respect the Star Prophet. So they decided to expose him the next time he showed up at one of their dances.

Sure enough, the Star Prophet returned a couple nights later with a message from the heavens and collected generous offerings from the people before disappearing into the night. After the Prophet disappeared, one of the hunters stood up and said, “Come, let us follow the wise prophet into the heavens so we can worship the stars with him!”

So all the men went from the camp and followed the Star Prophet at a distance. When they saw him dive into the water and not come up, one of the hunters proclaimed that the way to heaven must be through the lake and said, “Let us go find the door to the sky!” So all the men jumped into the lake where the prophet had jumped in and found the opening to the old beaver lodge. There they found the lazy hunter in his hole surrounded by gifts and peacock feathers.

As long as human beings have brushed up against the divine and had genuine religious experiences, there have been charlatans all to willing to take advantage of the faithful. As this playful Cherokee story warns us, it is not always easy to tell the difference between star feathers and peacock feathers. So how DO you tell a false prophet. According to Jesus, you know them by their fruit. By closely examining our leaders and looking for signs of integrity and good works we can judge whether their charisma is the result of the work of God in their lives or something else. A good question to always ask is “does this person’s ministry benefit the world or himself?”  Jesus admonishes us to be on our guard against false prophets. Such people, like wolves masquerading as sheep, prey on the vulnerable and cash in on people’s trust. Today, televangelists smooth talk old ladies out of their social security checks to pay for their extravagant lifestyles and to what end? It is an unfortunate reality that to many of these people are not producing much in the way of fruit, just a lot of peacock feathers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Head Hog


“I’d like to speak to the head hog at the trough!”

“I beg your pardon?” replied the Church secretary, unsure if she had heard the voice on the other line correctly.

“I’d like to speak to the head hog at the trough,” said the voice again.

“Well, if you’re referring to the Pastor,” she said indignantly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to address him with the respect he deserves. You may refer to him as ‘Reverend Jeff’, ‘Pastor Jeff’, or even ‘Brother Jeff’ but certainly we would never refer to a man of God as ‘the head hog at the trough’.”

“Well, I was wanting to give $100,000.00 to the Church budget,” the stranger said.

“Hold on just a second,” the Secretary replied, “I think I hear him oinking in the next room.”

“Where your treasure lies,” Jesus taught his disciples, “their your heart lies also.” A more jaded commenter might say, “everybody has a price.” This joke challenges all of us to think about how much our principles are worth to us. Proverbs says that wisdom is more precious than silver and more costly than gold. Too many people would rather have the gold than be wise. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to fix our eyes on Christ. We can’t do this if our head is down in the trough.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Dying to the World


There was, among the desert fathers, a man who often cried aloud during his prayers: “I have died to the world!” He did so very loudly and very regularly so that the other fathers began to anticipate hearing the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world.” Some were inspired by this and began to cry the affirmation out in their own prayers while others were a little annoyed by it.

One day an older father was walking with a young disciple and they heard the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world! I have died to the world!” 

The older turned to the younger and said, “Let me offer some advice: Don’t be so sure you’ve died until you’re dead.”

To quote Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride”, “There’s a difference between mostly dead and all dead.”  The process of sanctification, dying to the world and becoming alive in Christ, being more and more conformed to his image, is a lifelong one. Christian perfection is something we must ever strive for as disciples but we must always do so, as the Apostle Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sin is always lurking somewhere in the recesses of our hearts ready to mount a comeback and all it needs is a little pride. To walk in the way of Jesus is to constantly be dying to the world and being born anew in him. We are called to walk this way with humility, knowing that as long as we are living, there is always more dying to be done.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman

This classic poem by Walt Whitman is a profound reminder that the knowledge of something and the experience of it are two very different things. It is one thing to listen to lectures about the stars, it is another to look up at them in wordless wonder. A few minor tweaks to this poem and it could be: “When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian.” All description of God pales in comparison to the experience of God. Those of us who are charged with communicating the Gospel must often resist the temptation to tell everything we know rather than relate the experience of being known. Our theology and our arguments may be met with much applause in the lecture room, but if we are not connecting people to the presence of the living God, chances are they may leave our church tired and sick.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…