The Cliff

A man was traveling along a treacherous  mountain path when a tiger suddenly leapt from the bushes. He was so startled that he lost his footing and began to tumble down the side of a steep cliff. As luck would have it, a climber had left some rope fastened to a tree at the top and the the man was able to grab hold of it halfway down the cliff. Looking up, he saw the tiger waiting for him at the top,  gnawing on the rope. Looking down, the man saw jagged rocks sticking out of a violent river. The man realized his situation was hopeless until he looked forward and saw, growing out of the side of the mountain, fresh strawberries. They were juicy and ripe so he reached out and grabbed them.  They were the sweetest strawberries the man had tasted in his entire life. 

This Buddhist parable demonstrates the importance of living in the moment. We cannot change our past and our future, this side of the veil, is certain. But if we pay attention to the moments we are in, there is so much beauty and wonder to be had. Buddhist call this “mindfulness.” When the Apostle Paul famously instructed the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” I doubt he meant that they should spend their entire lives on their knees speaking to God (though, there are way worse ways to spend a life). I think Paul was telling us that we need to be constantly mindful of God’s presence throughout the day. We spend so much time distracted by guilt and worry that we often miss what God is doing right here and now. In the last months of his life, musician, Warren Zevon, knew he was going to die soon of his terminal cancer. When David Letterman asked what he had learned from the experience that he wanted to pass on, he simply said, “Enjoy every sandwich.” May we not be so preoccupied with our circumstances that we forget to see and appreciate the blessings God has in store for us every day. It would be a shame to miss all those wonderful strawberries.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Raft

There once was a man on a long journey. He had been traveling several days when he came to a river. After studying it, the man realized the river was treacherous and he would not be able to cross it without being swept away by the currents. So he built himself a large raft from bamboo and vines. Once he had crossed safely to the other side, he was pleased with his cleverness. He thought to himself, “I worked hard on this great raft. It’d be a shame to just leave it here. I’ll carry it with me on the rest of my journey.” Here, student, is the question:

Can this man be called wise?

This seemingly simple Buddhist parable rewards continued contemplation. What does it mean to be wise? Often, we don’t know when to abandon an idea or a pattern of thinking. Like the man in the story, we fail to realize that what helps us through one stage of the journey can be a burden in the next. As a youth pastor, I have the sacred task of shepherding teens from the concrete faith of their childhoods to the more abstract faith of adulthood. Sometimes this process involves abandoning ways of thinking about God that used to bring security and comfort but are no longer as useful. While some truths are meant to be carried through life, other ideas are better left beside the river. Wisdom is found in a willingness to be challenged and grow. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to have enough humility to accept that we may not have everything figured out and that where we are today is not necessarily where we may be tomorrow. Faithfulness is not stubbornly refusing to let go of our raft but, rather, following Christ wherever he leads.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Monk and the Scorpion

There was once a monk meditating beside a stream. He was finishing his prayers when he noticed a scorpion trapped on a rock in the middle of the stream as the waters were steadily rising, threatening to drown the creature. Moved with compassion, the monk waded into the stream and tried to rescue the scorpion. Each time he picked up the scorpion, it stung the monk and he dropped it back in the rock. Another monk, passing by, witnessed the exchange and called out to him, “you fool! Do you not know it is the scorpion’s nature to sting?”

“Yes!”, replied the monk, “but it is my nature to save!”

This Buddhist parable has a profoundly Christian message. In Christ we have been shown God’s nature is to save. He will keep picking us up and picking us up no matter how many times we sting Him. God does not walk away from His creation. As disciples, we are called to take on the nature of Christ, loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, giving to anyone who asks of us, forgiving 7 times 7 times, and taking up our cross. Like the monk, we can become weary of being stung. Consider the two inevitable endings of this parable… Eventually the waters rise and the scorpions last sting results in its being drowned, as it falls into the flowing waters where his rock used to be. The monk walks away satisfied that it did everything in its power to save a creature who simply would not be saved… OR… maybe the seventh time, the scorpion overcomes its nature and allows itself to be rescued. This hope is what makes the nature of the monk stronger than the nature of the scorpion.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…


There was once a man who had only one son and no daughters, for the boy’s mother had died in childbirth. He loved his boy deeply and they shared a small home together. One day, while the man was out of town selling his wares, the village where they lived was attacked by marauders. In the chaos, the homes were burned down and many people killed, but the boy was among a group that was taken away into slavery.

When the man returned that evening, he was heartbroken to see his village destroyed. He was even more heartbroken when he found a charred body that was the exact size of his son. Convinced that these were the remains of his boy, he had the body cremated and he kept the ashes in a jar that he carried with him wherever he went. Years later, when the village had been rebuilt, the man still held on to the jar of ashes and never let go of them save at night when he placed them beside his bed.

One day, about ten years later, the boy found an opening and he fled his captors and ran back home. When he approached the village where he had spent his childhood, it looked completely different. When he reached the location of his old home, that looked different too. The boy knocked on the door and there came a gruff reply:

“Who is it?”

The boy instantly recognized the voice. It was ten years older and a thousand years sadder but it was the voice of his father.
“It is me,” the boy replied, “Your son! I have fled my captors and come home!”

The man on the other side of the door did not recognize the boy’s voice because it had deepened with age. The man thought this was a teenager from the village who had come to play a cruel trick on him. So, clutching tightly to his jar of ashes, he called back: “Leave! You are mistaken! My son is right here with me!”

The boy called back, “Father it is me! Please open the door!”

But, clutching the jar of ashes, even tighter, the man angrily threatened the boy. The boy plead with the man for an hour before giving up. In the end, he thought he must have been mistaken. Perhaps this wasn’t his childhood village after all. He must have got turned around somehow and here he was pestering some sad old stranger. So the boy left in search of his village and his father. As for the man, he continued to carry that jar of ashes with him wherever he went, never letting go of them, save at night when he placed them beside his bed.

This beautiful Buddhist parable, is meant to illustrate how we must learn to let go of error before we can embrace truth. But this parable takes on a special significance to disciples walking in the way of Jesus on Ash Wednesday. Today is a special day of penitence in the church calendar that marks the beginning of the 40 day period leading up to Easter called “lent.” The season of lent is all about letting go of the things that hinder us from receiving Christ. When I read this parable today, I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.” Also, the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To all who grieve in Zion, He will bestow on them a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”  As we prepare our hearts and minds during this season of lent, we are called to let go of the things to which we so desperately cling so that we can receive the gift of Grace that God offers: The very presence of Christ. What are the ashes to which you cling? What hurt and despair do you carry around with you? What secret sin sits in a jar by your bed at night?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Prince and the Monster

Once there was a young Prince schooled in all the ways of war. He was taught martial arts by a great ninja master, he was taught to shoot arrows by an expert marksman, to use the lance by a brave soldier, and he was taught to wield his sword by a mighty Samurai.

There came a time when the Prince’s kingdom was under attack by a monster with impenetrable skin. The prince rode out to meet the monster. First he shot his arrows at the monster with the precision of a great marksman. Those arrows which landed on his hide, near his vitals simply bounced off. Even the arrow which landed on his eye rolled off. The monster roared and advanced on the Prince, snorting smoke and drooling.

The Prince, still on his horse, charged the monster with his lance which splintered into a thousand pieces on the monster’s skin as if it had been made of bamboo. The monster, with a mighty thrash of his tail, threw the Prince off his horse, and the Prince used his martial arts training to land without breaking a bone. Before the Prince could unsheath his sword, the monster grabbed him and raised him to his mouth about to eat him with his sharp jagged teeth.

“I would not do that if I were you!”, shouted the Prince.

“The fool speaks!” The monster sneered, cruelly, “I have beaten you, no weapon can penetrate my skin! Now do you wish to bargain for your life?”

“No,” replied the prince, “I wish to bargain for yours! I was trained by an enlightened monk in the art of internal warfare. If you let me into your body, I shall have the opportunity to strike you with my sword where you are weakest and your skin will not be able to protect you!”

Startled by the Prince’s confidence, the monster dropped him and ran away. Many days later the monster approached the Prince, bowed to him, and asked to be taught the art of internal warfare.”

This Buddhist parable at first seems like a simple story about “seeing a problem from another angle” but like all great parables, the more you chew on it, the more insight it yields. Evil must be fought from within not without. With wisdom and cunning, the Prince humbles the belligerent monster. The irony of course being that he does succeed at a kind of internal warfare that changes the monster’s outlook. In his letters to the Ephesians, Paul reminds fellow followers that their war is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers of darkness. We must remember that the impenetrable hide of evil cannot be pierced with the weapons of war but must be fought internally. Thomas Merton once said that before we can overthrow the dictator across the ocean, we must dethrone the dictator in our own hearts. That may be as good a place as any to begin our internal warfare.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…