3 Huts

A pilot was flying over the South Pacific when he noticed smoke coming from one of the many deserted islands below. The pilot flew closer and, sure enough, there was a man there with a great huge beard and tattered clothes sending the smoke signals. He looked like he had been on the island for years so the pilot made an emergency landing. When the pilot landed, the man was overjoyed.

“I’ve been on this island all alone for eleven years and I was beginning to lose hope! So many times I’ve seen planes fly by without noticing the smoke signals and here you are!”

“So happy I could help,” the pilot said, “Why don’t we gather your belongings and get you out of here.”

So the pilot followed the man into the leafy jungle and then to a clearing. In the clearing there were three huts. The man went into one of the huts and came out with a modest armful of belongings and announced that he was ready to return to civilization.

“Did you say you’ve been alone for eleven years?”, asked the pilot.

“Yes,” the man replied, “I’ve not seen another soul for eleven years!”

“Then, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you have three huts?”

The man smiled. “It’s simple really… the hut I just came from is obviously my home. This one next to it is my church. I go there every seventh day to worship God.”

“That’s very touching,” said the pilot, “How about that third hut?”

Suddenly the man’s facial expression got very serious and in a quiet voice he said, “That’s where I used to go to church…”

It’s pretty comical to imagine a schism of one and this old joke has made it into many a sermon about Christian unity. As the old saying goes, “it’s funny cause it’s true.” In most towns in the United States there are more churches than could possibly be needed to adequately seat all the worshipers on a Sunday morning. Too often these churches are not marked by a spirit of cooperation and common purpose but of competition and exclusive claims to God’s favor. Of course there are genuine theological differences between different churches and or course different worship styles speak to different people but how many churches are truly necessary? Far too often these are not the things truly dividing churches. Pride, history, and fear all stand in the way of unity. This parable reminds us of of the absurdity of having two huts when one should do.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Question…

There was once a monk who was famous for speaking only in questions. Anytime someone would come to him needing advice, he would pray deeply then give them a question to meditate on. One particular day, a Priest came to him and said, “I am here on retreat and I was wondering if you could give me a question to meditate on while I am here.”

The monk prayed very deeply for a moment then whispered, “What do they need?”

The priest though about this for a second and said, “that is indeed a very good question to ponder but I was hoping for a question having less to do with my vocation as a priest and more to do with my own personal spiritual quest for truth…”

The monk prayed very deeply for a moment then whispered, “What do they really need?”

What do they really need? As a person in ministry, this parable really resonates with me. Sometimes there is a difference between the lesson or message we long to give and what the people need to hear. All of us, as disciples, are called to minister to the needs of others. We cannot easily separate our interior life from our exterior acts of service. They are deeply intertwined. We certainly need to find times to retreat from the world and recharge and reconnect with God. Sabbath is commanded of us. However, that time is spent so that we can come back ready to meet the needs of others. When Jesus asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” After Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you!” Jesus replied, “feed my sheep.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

In Heaven


In Heaven, Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind
Presently God said:
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered: “Oh, my lord,
“Memory is bitter to me
“For if I did good deeds
“I know not of them.”
Then God in all His splendor
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass,” He said.

-Stephen Crane

This parable in poetry, by the famous Naturalist, Stephen Crane, rewards a little meditation. On first read, the poem is about humility. It calls to mind Jesus’ own words that “he who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” On further thought, though, we find a second, more central insight: the little blade of grass was not filled with any kind of false humility; the little blade of grass was the only one that saw itself clearly. It is important that Stephen Crane uses grass for this illustration because of the sheer absurdity. What can a blade of grass really do to distinguish itself from another blade of grass? Are not all blades of grass exactly alike? And what can a blade of grass do in the way of good deeds? Do not all blades of grass live in the same fashion? Only the little blade of grass saw his existence clearly. There are countless more insights to be gleaned from this deceptively simple poem, but the one I settle on is this: true humility is found in seeing ourselves clearly, not as the triumphant heroes deserving of what good comes our way, and the victim in every misfortune, but as simply another blade of grass made special only by the attention of a gracious creator.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Standing on One Foot

During the period of the second temple, there was a gentile man who decided to devote himself to becoming a Jew. He had heard that the two greatest teachers of Judaism living in Jerusalem were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The man was unsure of which Rabbi to study under so he devised a test to choose his teacher.

First, the man knocked on the door of Rabbi Shammai. When Shammai came to the door, the man said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Shammai replied, “What a ridiculous request! Look at all my students studying inside! They have devoted their entire lives to reading Torah and you propose to learn it in mere seconds? Begone!”

So the man continued on to Rabbi Hillel’s house and knocked on the door. When Hillel opened the door, the man again said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Hillel thought for a second, then said, “Alright.” As the man stood on his one foot, Hillel spoke these words: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This sums up the entire Torah and the rest is just commentary.”

When the man put his other foot back down, he entered Hillel’s home and became one of his most devoted disciples.

Most of the world’s religions have some version of the “golden rule” and yet the world continues to be rife with conflict. For Christians, loving God and loving neighbor ought to be the twin poles that keep us oriented and yet we too often fail at the latter out of our zeal for the former. Loving others is the essence of loving God. Doing good is the essence of serving God. The Torah (and indeed the Christian scriptures) are summed up in the call to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” The rest, as Rabbi Hillel reminds us, is just commentary.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Starfish Thrower

A man was walking along the beach one morning after a big storm had been through the night before. All up and down the shore, as far as the eye could see, there were starfish drying out in the sand. As the man walked further, he noticed a little girl, several yards away, stooping down, picking up starfish, and throwing them back into the ocean. Just as soon as one starfish landed in the water with a plop and a splash, the girl would stoop, pick up another starfish, and toss it back out into the water. The man continued to walk in that direction, watching, amused, as the girl did this over and over. When he finally reached the girl, he chuckled. The girl had picked up another starfish and when she heard him, she looked up.

“Why are  you wasting your time?”, the man asked with a grin. “There are starfish along this beach as far as you can see. Thousands of them! Here you are tossing them one by one into the ocean. How can you possibly make a difference?”

The little girl quietly stood up and flung the starfish in her hand as far as she could. At the end of a smooth silent arc, the starfish landed with plop and a splash out in the ocean. She turned around and smiled.

“I made a difference to that one.”

The man stood silently for a moment, pondering this response, then he stooped beside the girl, picked up a starfish and flung it into the ocean. The two continued silently together throwing starfish into the ocean where they landed, one by one,  with a plop and a splash.

This parable, first told by writer Loren Eiseley, in his 1969 book, “The Universe”, has been told and retold many times in the decades since. It is a beautiful illustration of making a difference in your own corner of the world. It is easy to be discouraged by the enormity of a problem and use that as an excuse for inaction. As disciples, we are called to be ever faithful to the task before us. One person may not be able to solve poverty or world hunger, but one person can help someone in need. The beauty is that by acting, we inspire others to action. They in turn inspire others. One person really can make a difference, but it is always one starfish at a time.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

King Solomon’s Judgement

King Solomon was famous the world over for his wisdom. It was a gift that God had granted him to rule fairly and justly and to make good decisions on behalf of Israel. When he sat as judge over the people, they were confident that his rulings would be wise and compassionate. One day two prostitutes approached Solomon for a ruling. They had a dispute over a baby. The one who approached Solomon first explained:

“O wise King, judge between me and this woman I live with. We both gave birth to a baby boy in the same house, three days apart from each other. This woman’s baby boy died last night because she rolled over on top of him and he was smothered. At midnight, when she awoke and realized what she had done, she got up and switched our sons. She put the dead child next to me and took my son and placed it next to her. When I awoke, I was horrified to find the dead boy sleeping at my breast but once I looked at the child in the morning light, I saw that it was not mine but this woman’s. O King, we live just the two of us in that house so no one can judge between us.”

“Liar!” Shouted the other woman, “You are so stricken with grief over the death of your own son that you are trying to steal mine. Tell our King the truth about what you have done!”

And so the two women argued back and forth about who was the true mother of the living child. King Solomon finally silenced the two women and issued his verdict: “Both of you claim to be this child’s mother and yet, because you live alone and there are no witnesses, it is impossible for me to render a verdict.”

The king then called for a sword to be brought to him. “Because I cannot judge between the two of you, the only fair thing left to do is to cut the child in two and give each of you half.” Then he laid the infant on a table before him.

“No!”, screamed one of the women, “I relent! Give my son to this other woman! It is better that he should be alive and with her than to die on that table!”

The other woman said, “O King your judgement is just. The child shall be neither of ours. Continue.”

Just then, Solomon laid down the sword and picked up the child, cradling him in his arms and soothing him. He handed the baby to the first woman who had relented. “Here, boy, is your mother.” All Israel heard of King Solomon’s ruling and they were amazed at the wisdom of God that was within him.

Though this version of the “Two Mothers” parable (found in 1 Kings 3) is most familiar to Western readers, a version of it exists in many cultures throughout the world. In the Indian version, the wise ruler commands the two mothers to each take the baby by an arm and have a tug of war over a line. In the Chinese version, the mothers are told to compete to pull the child out of a chalk circle. In every version, it is the mother who relents and refuses to participate in the barbaric ritual that is determined to be the true mother. Whether these versions are all retellings of an original historical judgement by King Solomon, or whether the writer of the book of Kings placed this popular story in his history to demonstrate Godly wisdom, is really beside the point. Either way, this parable teaches a profound lesson about the true nature of parenthood. True parentage, according to the wisdom of this story, is not simply biological, it is rooted in compassion and concern for a child’s welfare. Anyone who would split a baby to make a point is not a true parent. As disciples, we can find deeper meaning in this parable about the true nature of leadership. I’ve known, in my own life, pastors who were willing to split a church in two rather than admit their failings. I’ve seen lay people purposefully divide closely knit small groups because they didn’t get their way. This kind of behavior is not spiritual leadership. A disciple walking in the way of Jesus would rather be split in two than to see or be the cause of division in the church. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Where is Paradise?

A man was fast asleep when he was awakened by the soft heavenly glow of the Angel Gabriel. After the man was convinced that he was truly awake and not dreaming, Gabriel said to him: “I have come to you from the Lord of Hosts! What would you ask of Him? Inquire anything and you shall know!”

The man gave this a moment’s thought and then said, “All my life I’ve wanted to know the location of Paradise so that I may go there someday.”

The Angel took the man by the hand and they flew out the window, zig zagging around stars until finally landing outside in a modest looking garden. “Is this paradise?” the man asked.

Gabriel took the man by the hand and lead him to a small house and brought him inside. There they saw a few old men drinking coffee and studying the scriptures. “This,” said Gabriel, “is Paradise!” The man looked around confused.

Gabriel smiled. “I know why you are puzzled… see, you were under the impression that the saints are in Paradise while all this time Paradise has been in the Saints.”

This old Jewish legend teaches something very profound. While we do believe in the hope of Resurrection as Christians, we must not lose sight of the fact that eternal life begins in the here and now. Whenever we gather with one another to search scripture and pray, we are creating a little piece of paradise in our hearts where God can begin to dwell. A far better teacher than I once said “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.” God calls us into loving community where the most ordinary of tasks, through his grace, is transformed into heavenly light.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…