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…

Beautiful Young Women


There was a priest of a certain parish who had a habit of stopping to talk to beautiful young women. He would approach them in the streets and strike up conversations with them. Sometimes he would even visit them in their homes. Some of the members of the parish began to be concerned by this behavior and worried that it was reflecting badly on them. Finally, they alerted the bishop who decided it was his duty to correct the priest. 

One afternoon the bishop paid a visit to the priest in his home. After some polite talk, the bishop finally addressed the issue he had come to discuss. 

“I don’t know how else to say this,” the bishop began, “but I’ve heard some troubling reports that you may have become lax in your vows.”

“I’m not sure to what you’re referring,” said the priest, somewhat taken aback.

“Well, I’ve heard reports that you’ve been consorting with beautiful young women, and it has given the appearance of impropriety. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to stop this behavior for the good of yourself and the good of your parish. A man of the cloth must be beyond reproach.”

The priest bowed his head and said, “Of course I will respect your wishes, your Excellence, but if I may: I thought it far better to talk to beautiful young women while thinking of God than to talk to God while thinking of  beautiful young women.”

The Bible is clear that those of us who are leaders in the church are held to a higher standard. This is appropriate and just. But as this humorous parable reminds us, the perception isn’t always the reality. As God tells Samuel, “The LORD does not see what people see; they judge the outward appearance but He judges the heart.” Jesus was critical of religious leaders who focused on shining and polishing the outside of the cup while the inside was full of dirt and grime. He often risked the reputation of a drunk and a glutton to spend time with disreputable people who he wanted to show love and grace to. Disciples are called to follow this example. The heart we present to God is far more important than the appearance we present to the world. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The King and the Maiden


Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents.

And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist-no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know for sure? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise – the king took on a totally new identity – He had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win hers.

This, perhaps the most beautiful of Søren Kierkegaard’s parables (I kept his wording intact), is a profound illustration of the greatest Christian mystery: that God would give up all His holy splendor and don flesh and bone– that He would forsake His crown for a cross. The answer is “love.” As disciples, we are called to imitate this same love and humility. As the apostle Paul wrote in the second chapter of Phillippians: “Therefore in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…