The Diagnosis


After complaining about a severe headache for weeks, a man finally goes to the doctor. The doctor looks him up and down and can’t find anything wrong with him.

“Are you getting enough sleep?”, the doctor asks, “sometimes staying out too late and not getting the proper sleep can cause headaches.”

The man said, “Yes. In fact, I’m in bed by 8pm every night, just after I’ve said my prayers.”

“Do you smoke?”

“Certainly not. I would never put such filth into my body. My body is a temple of The Lord!”

“Are you a heavy drinker?”

“I resent the accusation! Why I’ve never touched the poison!”

“I apologize”, said the doctor, “It’s just my job to ask… how many partners have you had in the past year?”

“I’ll have you know I’ve remained celibate my entire life, thank you very much! I don’t even allow myself to think of such temptations!”

The doctor scratched his head for just a second then asked, “Where does your head hurt exactly?”

The man pointed to the areas that were causing him trouble and the doctor nodded knowingly. “It’s just as I suspected,” said the doctor, “your halo is on too tight!”

Is your halo on too tight? I fist encountered this humorous parable in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning. When our religion makes us joyless and prone to hold others in contempt, you could say our halo is on too tight. When we Methodists celebrate holy communion we say a prayer of confession in which we confess our sins to God. The prayer ends with the line: “free us for joyful obedience in Christ out Lord.” For the disciple, obedience is a joyful response to the grace that has been extended to us for our failings. If our obedience is not joyful, then we aren’t doing it right. Too often Christians are known for what we are against rather than what we are for. We’re known for being judgmental rather than graceful. We look more like modern day Pharisees than Jesus. Perhaps it is time to loosen our halos and extend a little love.

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 could not feed themselves any of this delicious food. They’d pick it up and drop it over and over and cry out in hunger, powerless 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 guest was picking up food and feeding it to his neighbor.

I love this old parable and I can’t help but think about it every time I take communion. 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…” Disciples walking in the way of Jesus are called to practice this same grace and hospitality.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Caged Bird

CAGED BIRD

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou

This poem, by Maya Angelou, is a wonderful parable about privledge and oppression. It was no doubt drawn from Angelou’s experience in the segregated South, but it’s universal message speaks for all oppressed peoples everywhere. It is also a powerful reminder to those of us who fly freely that the sky is not our own. In fact, Christ promised that it was the poor who would receive the Kingdom of heaven and the persecuted that would be called children of God. It was to the slaves, not the Pharaoh, that God demonstrated His power in the wilderness. To be on the side of God is to sing for the caged bird.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Silver Window


Once there lived a kind and generous man. Every morning he would wake up and look out his bedroom window and gaze on all the townspeople below, saying prayers for them and counting his many blessings. During the day he would perform good deeds to the people he saw below and when he came home he would go to his bed satisfied and smiling.

Now one of the town’s elders surprised him by leaving a large sum of money upon his death, in reward for his kindness. The man decided he would use all of this money to do good deeds and bless the beloved people he saw out his bedroom window each morning. First though, he decided to allow himself one indulgence: he had the edges of his favorite window adorned with pure silver.

Each morning, the man got up and went out to his bedroom window and looked down as was his custom and prayed for the people below, and resolved to do good deeds for them. But each morning, he also looked at the silver adorning the outside of his window and thought, “How much beautiful would this window be, if I added a little more silver!”

Slowly, but surely, he began to spend less of his money on his fellow townsfolk and more adorning the edges of his favorite window. As the silver took up more and more of the window, he saw less and less of his fellow townspeople, so he thought of them less and prayed for them less. Until, at last, one morning the man woke up and looked into his silver window and all he saw was his own reflection.

This lovely Jewish parable reminds us that the process of becoming completely self centered is a slow one that begins around the edges, but will eventually consume us if we let it. To follow Christ means to love others as we love ourselves. To serve Him is to serve our neighbor. These things bring contentment and joy. Serving ourselves and loving ourselves brings only darkness and despair. Perhaps the difference between heaven and hell is the difference between a window and a mirror.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The King’s Pardon


Once Frederick the Great of Prussia was touring one of his country’s largest prison facilities. Word had quickly spread among the prisoners that the king was in the building and their excitement grew at the prospect of receiving a king’s pardon. As King Frederick passed each of the cells the prisoner would call out to him pleading their case. They yelled things like, “I’m innocent!”, “I was framed”, or “Give me justice!”.

Occasionally he would stop and listen to a prisoner’s account of how he had landed in the prison despite his innocence of the crime he’d been charged with and then, unmoved, continue on. Finally, King Frederick passed one particular cell and it was completely silent. His curiosity was aroused. In the back of the cell, in a dark shadow, a man sat on a bench looking down at the floor. The king called out to him, “Sir, aren’t you going to plead your case to me as well?”

The man, paused for a moment, looked up at him, and said, “No, your highness, I’m guilty of everything they said I did. I’m right where I belong.”

King Frederick immediately turned to the guards and cried, “Free this guilty man at once, before he corrupts all the innocents!”

I’m not sure how historically grounded this anecdote is but it serves as a powerful parable about the freeing power of confession. We live in an age that teaches that guilt is unhealthy and that we need to learn to be OK with ourselves. The problem is that we cannot find true freedom if we are only in the business of guilt management. If we delude ourselves into thinking we are merely the product of our social environment or forced into our actions by a series of incidents beyond our control, we never truly come face to face with our true sinfulness and never experience the redemption and liberation that comes from God’s grace. The scripture says if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive them, but until we look the king in the eye and tell him we’re guilty as charged, we cannot receive His pardon. St. Augustine said it best: “Assume nothing; one thief was saved. Presume nothing; one thief was damned.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Babble


Once, before the dawn of recorded history, the whole earth was a single tribe that spoke a single language. Humankind migrated from the east and settled in a plain in the land of Shinar. Through their singleminded cooperation, they quickly mastered the art of baking bricks and mixing mortar and began to set their sites on building a large beautiful city. With one voice they said, “Let us build a city large enough for all of us. In its center let us place a ziggurat so large that its top will be in the heavens. Then we will make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we may be scattered across the whole earth.”

When God came down upon the earth to see the city and tower that humankind was building, he was distressed. “Look at this,” he said, “The whole earth is a single tribe with a single language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they come up with will be impossible for them now!” 

So God confused their languages so that they could no longer understand one another. Then He scattered the people all over the face of the earth and the city was left abandoned. So the city, which still stands unfinished, is called “Babble” because the people there could not understand one another’s babble.

The story of the tower of “Babble” (the pun works the same in Hebrew as it does in English), from the Hebrew Bible, exists not only to explain the presence of languages and abandoned cities, but also as a warning against the ways of empire. The original hearers of the story would have known exactly who the people of Babble represented: the Babylonian Empire. Their presence loomed large over the ancient world. They were feared for their superior armies and revered for their marvelous cities with Zigurats that indeed appeared to reach the heavens. They were the dominant super power of their day and no one could imagine a future in which they wouldn’t be. The Babylonian empire, like the Assyrians before them, practiced a policy of conquering by assimilation. They would conquer cities and then disperse their inhabitants, forcing them to marry Babylonians, practice Babylonian religion, and speak the language of the Babylonians. Then, within a generation or two, the conquered peoples would forget that they were ever anything but Babylonians. Babylonian culture was not only spread by force though. Their way of life was quite attractive to their neighbors. Other peoples willingly adopted their culture and customs, along with their pantheon of  gods. This story would have been understood as a cautionary tale against adopting the ways of the Babylonians. The ideology of Empire was a threat to everything that made the Hebrews distinct: their traditions, their language, and their special relationship with an unseen God. But this radical story makes clear that God’s plan is not that the people’s of the earth should be gobbled up by an oppressive empire, but that they should remain distinct. Diversity, not conformity is God’s will for humankind. This story also makes clear that the fate of Babylon will be just like Babble before it. God will scatter the people and leave their empire in ruins. An audacious unthinkable claim. Yet, that is precisely what happened. The Jewish people remain distinct to this day with their own tradition, language, and relationship with an unseen God. And the Babylonians? You can read about them in history books and visit the ruins of their once great cities. Empires rise and fall but the Word of The LORD is forever!

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Squirrel


A pastor called the children of the church down to the front to join him for a special Children’s Sermon. In his hand, he held a photograph of a squirrel he had printed off of the computer. He had in mind to teach a lesson on “responsibility” using the furry rodent who stows away nuts as an example. When the kids were all seated in front of him, he held the photo close to his chest and said, “I have a picture here and I want you to guess what it is before I show it to you. I’ll give you some clues and see if you can figure out what it is.”

The kids all smiled and the pastor continued:

“The thing I have is gray and it has a big bushy tail…”

The pastor was just sure he’d see some hands shoot up immediately but the kids were all silent. So he kept going:

“This thing has little buck teeth and really likes to eat acorns…”

Still no hands were raised. In fact, most of the kids looked confused.

“It’s small and loves to climb trees…”

Nothing. Just blank stares and heads turned sideways.

“Does nobody want to guess?” the Pastor asked. “I think I gave you all the hints you need…”

Finally a little girl in the back raised her hand tentatively. Relieved, the pastor immediately called on her. The girl looked down at her lap as she spoke.

“Pastor, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but it sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”

There is actually a profound challenge hidden in this humorous little story. How many times do people come to our churches expecting to hear about Jesus and leave confused that we seemed to be talking about everything but? I’m always struck by the polls conducted every four years around election time. While pastors on the left and the right clamor for the right to endorse candidates from the pulpit, polls overwhelmingly and consistently show that’s not what the people in the pews want. If I had to guess, they’d rather hear about Jesus. We who communicate love to chase squirrels, sharing our opinions on the great issues of the day, but we serve people who are hungry for the timeless truth of the Gospel. Disciples walking in the way of Jesus are called to fix their eyes upon him and not look back. We are called to preach Christ and Christ crucified. We are called to seek first the Kingdom of God. Everything else is… well… you can guess.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…