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…

The Special Exception 

A very rich man was nearing the end of his life and he began to contemplate the life to come. He was very troubled that he would soon lose everything he had worked so hard for. All his wealth would soon belong to others and he would enter Paradise poor. It didn’t seem fair to him so he prayed fervently that he would be allowed to take all that he had amassed with him. One night an angel appeared to him.

“O mortal,” said the Angel, “All men come into this world empty handed and empty handed they must go to the next…”

The man pled, “I have worked so hard for what I have and I have no family to leave it to… Can there be no exception made?”

The angel thought for a second. “This is highly irregular but I will see what I can do…”

Suddenly the Angel disappeared then just as suddenly, he reappeared and said, “A special exception has been made. You may bring with you what you can pack into one suitcase.”

After the Angel had again left, the man went and found his largest suitcase and packed it full with gold bars and laid it by his bed for the day of his death.

Sure enough the fateful day came and the man died. The man grabbed his suitcase just as his soul was leaving his body and took it with him. There at the gates of heaven, the man dragged the impossibly heavy suitcase all through the winding line to meet St. Peter. When it was finally the man’s turn, St. Peter looked at him and them down at his suitcase and said, “you know you can’t bring that in, right?”

The man confidently replied that he had been given assurances by an Angel that he would be allowed the one suitcase. St. Peter excused himself, and went back behind the pearly gates to conference with one of the Angels. When he returned, St. Peter apologized.

“It seems a special exception has been made in your case. I was, however asked to inspect the contents of your suitcase before letting you through.”

The man happily obliged and St. Peter unlatched the suitcase. As he surveyed the contents of the suitcase there was a look of pure confusion on his face. He shouted back to the Angels behind him:

“All this fuss over a suitcase full of pavement?”

What we value and what God values are often two very different things. This old church joke perfectly illustrates how the things we see as so precious and so worth our pursuit here on earth might be mundane and unimpressive on the streets of gold. Jesus admonishes us to store up treasures in heaven. As disciples, we are called to reject what the world values and seek after the things that God values. This means denying our own desires and taking up our cross. It would be a terrible thing if we were to come to the end of our life and all we had to show for it was a suitcase full of pavement.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Accountability Group

4 preachers had a weekly tradition of going fishing together. One particular day, they were out on the lake and the boat was unusually quiet. One of the pastors who was usually loud and jovial was hardly saying a word. The others could tell he was troubled. One of them finally asked, “What’s the matter, brother?”

“Well,” the preacher said, “I haven’t told this to a soul but I trust the three of you so I’m just going to be out with it. I have a drinking problem. It started out innocently enough with a couple drinks here and there but now I get drunk every day. I go three towns over to the liquor store so no one will see me. I’m afraid if my congregation finds out, they won’t want me as their pastor anymore.”

The other three pastors offered words of encouragement and challenged him to get help. He looked very relieved to be free of the burden of his secret.

After a pause, a second pastor spoke up. “Brother, your bravery has inspired me to come clean about something. I’ve been addicted to internet pornography for quite some time. I know it’s wrong and I feel awful about it but I can’t seem to control myself. I’m worried that if I don’t get help, it will destroy my marriage and my ministry.” 

Likewise, the other three pastors encouraged and challenged the second pastor.

“While we’re all sharing,” the third pastor said, “I need to get something off my chest as well. I have a gambling problem. It started out as just the occasional scratch-off but now it seems I bet on everything. I go to casinos or race tracks on the weekend and it’s destroyed my finances. I don’t know what would happen if my church found out.”

Again, the other three pastors encouraged and challenged the third pastor. The 4th pastor was silent for a few minutes but finally worked up the courage to speak:

“Brothers, I too have a confession to make. I’m a raging gossip and I can’t WAIT to get off this boat!”

“Whatever is said here, stays here.” This promise is the hallmark of any true accountability group. This joke reminds us of the true damage that can be caused by broken confidentiality and serves as a warning that we should choose our confidants with care. Gossip is a grave sin. Not only does our need to share what we’ve learned (or more often, think we’ve learned) hurt the people we’re spreading tales about, it hurts us. We can damage our friendships with people permanently over the silly compulsion to be “in the know.” Whereas carefully guarding the hearts of your friends and loved ones can deepen those relationships. Next time you’re thinking of rushing off the boat to share the latest juicy bit you’ve learned, you’d do well to remember that loose lips sink ships.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

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…

Rolling the Die

Two poor fools named Joe and Clyde decided to take what little money they had to a casino in hopes of reversing their fortunes. They put all they had together and decided to play a simple dice game. Joe bet a third of their money on 6 and rolled the die. The die came up 3 and they lost the money.

“You idiot!” said Clyde, “You should have bet on 3!”

Undeterred, Joe pulled out another third of their money and bet on 4. He blew on the die, rolled it, and it came up 5.

“Moron!” shouted Clyde, “Why didn’t you bet on 5?”

Frustrated, Joe took the remaining third of their money and bet on 5. He rolled the die, closed his eyes, and when he opened them saw that the die had come up 6.

Clyde snorted. “6. You should have bet on 6.”

The two poor fools walked out the casino sadly, having spent all their money with nothing to show for it. Joe, especially was sad. He turned to Clyde and lamented:

“If only I’d listened to you, we’d be rich!”

Hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. As this humorous parable shows us, it is easy to look back on past decisions and think we know what we could have done or should have done but there is something circular and self-defeating in that kind of thinking. The person who made those decisions does not have the same wisdom and experience as the person who now looks back and regrets them. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and move forward. The lesson Joe and Clyde should have learned from their misadventure is that it is foolish to gamble with all their money. Instead, they decided that their error was choosing the wrong numbers. Wisdom is not looking back and knowing what choices we should have made, it is looking at ourselves and learning the hard lessons that will keep us from making the same foolish choices in the future. As disciples, we’re called to repent of our past failings and to move forward with transformed lives. We are not called to stay locked into the same foolish cycles, choosing different numbers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

“Tell Me What You See?”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip. After a good dinner, they retire for the night, and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes” replies Watson.

“And what do you deduce from that?”

Watson ponders for a minute.

“Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a moment. “Watson, you idiot!” he says. “Someone has stolen our tent!”

This old joke is a favorite of mine and I do think it serves as a wonderful parable about human nature. Sometimes we human beings make things way more complicated than they need to be and we miss the obvious. Religion and theology are supposed to help us connect our everyday experiences to a God that is beyond our comprehension. These tools do help us to make sense of the night sky but if we’re too busy looking up at the sky and pondering to notice our neighbor in need, or that our own tent has been stolen, then we are severely missing the point. If we’re not careful, we can over complicate religion to the point where it is useless. The book of James reminds us that true religion is this: “to look after the orphan and the widow in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.” Pure and simple… One might even say: “elementary”.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Training the Donkey…

There was once a very frugal man who was always looking for ways to cut costs. One day he noticed that his hired hand was feeding the donkey more than it really needed. He called the hand and told him, “We’re wasting money feeding this animal more food than it needs. If we keep this up, the donkey will grow fat, it’s productivity will go down, and we’ll lose even more money! I’m going to take over the feeding of the donkey for awhile and train it properly. I will reduce the donkey’s food supply a little each day and wean him off this excessive diet.”

So the man took over the chore of feeding the donkey and did as he said he would do, cutting back the donkey’s food supply just a little each day. This went on for a couple of months until, finally, one day the donkey died. The man said to his hand, “It’s such a shame. If that donkey hadn’t suddenly died, I think I could have trained him to eat nothing at all!”

Extremes are dangerous. This humorous Jewish parable shows us what can happen when we carry a project too far. Extremism can cause politicians to sacrifice common sense on the altar of ideological purity and it can cause religious people to take good behaviors and boundaries and create a standard no one can live up to. There can indeed be too much of a good thing. As disciples, we’re called to give our best to God. Sometimes we interpret that as pushing ourselves as far in a single direction as we possibly can but more often it means wisely navigating between extremes and setting an example of balance to others. I love what Proverbs 25:16 says: “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” A little less colorfully put: “in all things: moderation…”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…