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…

Acts 2:38


Returning from Bible study one evening, an elderly woman was surprised to find a burglar in her living room holding a burlap sack filled with her belongings. Not knowing what else to do, the woman recalled the Bible verse they had been discussing earlier at Church. It was Acts 2:38 which says: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so your sins will be forgiven.” So she called out to the burglar, “Acts 2:38!”

The burglar looked up startled with wide eyes. Feeling that she had struck a nerve, the woman repeated, louder and more forcefully this time, “Acts 2:38!”

The man’s hands began to shake and he dropped the sack at his feet, slowly backing toward the door. By this point the woman could tell that she had really convicted the burglar so, emboldened, she cried out at the top of her voice, “Acts 2:38!”

With that, the burglar ran out the door and jumped into his getaway car without touching the ground the whole way. “Drive! Drive!” He yelled to his partner as soon as he was in the vehicle. As they peeled off, the partner saw that the burglar was white as a ghost.

“What in the world happened in there?” he asked.

“I’m never working this street again. I thought I was alone in that house then suddenly there was this crazy old broad in the living room screaming at me that she had an axe and two .38s!”

Some of the funniest jokes are based on miscommunication. When the speaker is saying one thing but the hearer is picking up something else, hilarity can ensue. Abbot and Costello made a career of this kind of humor. But it is important to ask ourselves whether we are fundamentally miscommunicating with the world around us. Those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus have been called to share the good news of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness and yet that good news is often translated into bad news by the hearer. We’re miscommunicating. Often we blame this on the hearer. We deride them and say they are rejecting the truth when really the fault lies with us. We’ve run them off instead of letting them in. Jesus came into this world not to condemn the world but to save it through Himself. God loved the world so much that he gave his only son. This is the Gospel. Everything else is noise in the way of good news.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Not Waving but Drowning

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

According to Thoreau, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I don’t know if this is true, but I do know too many people in my own life who appear happy on the outside but on the inside are violently struggling to keep their head above the water. We all have been shocked at marriages that looked perfectly happy seemingly fall apart over night, suddenly discovered that a friend or neighbor had a drug problem that they had managed to conceal for years, or been saddened to hear of the sudden suicide of someone everyone described as “always happy.” In all these cases, we look back and ask: How did we miss this? All the signs were there. How did we not know? The truth is that we see people every day without truly seeing them. Far too many people feel alone in their suffering because their pleas for help go unrecognized. They are not waving but drowning. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to be sources of healing and forgiveness- vessels of compassion. We cannot do this if we do not take the time to see the struggles of others. We cannot rescue the hurt and lost if we simply wave back at them on our way to something else.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

There’s Nothing to be Afraid Of


Solomon Rosenberg tells this story from his time in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He, his wife, his two sons, and his mother were all arrested and relocated to a labor camp. The rules were simple: As long as you could do your work, you were permitted to live. When you became too weak to do your work, then you were exterminated. The conditions were harsh and inhumane. The prisoners were given little to eat and the weak among them began to waste away until the inevitable day when they could no longer work and they were taken to the gas chambers.

Rosenberg watched his mother and father being marched off to their deaths when they became too weak. He knew that his youngest son, David, would be next because David had always been a frail child. Every evening when Rosenberg came back into the barracks after his hours of labor, he would search for the faces of his family. When he found them, they would huddle together, embrace one another, and thank God for another day of life. But each day, David looked just a little bit more frail and Solomon always feared the next day would be the day he was taken away.

One day Rosenberg came back and couldn’t find his family. He stormed through the barracks in a panic until he finally discovered his oldest son, Joshua, in a corner, huddled and weeping. 

“Josh,” he said, “tell me it’s not true.” 

Joshua looked up and said, “It is true, Poppa. Today David was not strong enough to do his work, so they came for him.”

“But where is your mother?” asked Mr. Rosenberg, “She is still strong enough to work!”

“Oh Poppa,” he exclaimed. “When they came for David, he was afraid and he was crying. Momma said, ‘There is nothing to be afraid of, David,’ and she pulled him close and held him. Then she took his hand and went with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone.”

Human beings are capable of unspeakable cruelty. But as this true story from one of the darkest times in human history shows us: we are also capable of unspeakable love. I always struggle with sharing holocaust stories. Part of me feels as though they are not my stories to tell. In some sense, sharing any parable from a faith not my own could be seen as an act of cultural appropriation but, at the same time, I truly believe stories are meant to be told. I believe Mr. Rosenberg meant for the story of his son and his wife’s sacrifice to be told as well. The meaning of the word compassion is to “suffer with.” This is what a mother cannot help but do for her own children and what both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament claim is true of God. We cannot break the dark and brutal cycle of history until we learn to see others sufferings as our own. The way of self-sacrificial love calls us to take one another by the hand and refuse to let them face the dark alone. When we do this we, ourselves, are candles shining in the night. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Walk Out


Once a new Pastor decided after much prayer to preach a dicey sermon on a hot button issue. He felt really led to speak on the topic but he didn’t want to offend anyone in the congregation so he spent the entire evening before crafting his language to make sure he worded his position in a way that might be least offensive to the parties involved. He also made sure he pulled every scripture he could think of to support his position so there could be no doubt that his sermon was Biblical. Furthermore, he peppered the entire sermon with quotes from contemporary theologians as well as the great Christian thinkers of antiquity. When the young pastor went to bed, he felt good about the sermon he had prepared.

Sunday morning, however, his nerves were getting the best of him and he was really second guessing himself. He had only been the Pastor of this congregation for a few months and he really didn’t know what side they would come down on. When the time came to preach, though, the Pastor powered through. As he spoke, he gained his footing and started to feel more and more at ease. Until, halfway through the sermon, a man named Frank abruptly stood up, left his pew, and marched straight down the center aisle and out the door. Frank was one of the pillars of the Church, a man whose opinion everybody respected, so the Pastor was nervous and flustered through the rest of the entire sermon.

After Church was over, the pastor stood at the back door and shook hands with members of the congregation as they left. Each one politely told him it was a good service and went to their cars.  At last, Frank’s wife came through the line and shook the Pastor’s hand. Pale, and hardly able to speak, the pastor managed to get out, “I hope I didn’t say anything to offend your husband.”

The woman smiled and said, “Oh dear. No one must have told you. Frank has been a sleep walker ever since he was a boy.”  

This is a funny joke but it contains a serious question for us to ponder: are we ever so worried about offending people that we put them to sleep? Those of us in ministry are always caught between wanting to challenge the faithful and wanting to promote unity. Being decisive without being divisive. I personally think this is a healthy tension and that one can be pulled too far in either direction but there does come a time when we are called to clearly and forcefully state the truth. If we spend all our time worrying about how every little thing we say may be perceived, we risk making sleepwalkers instead of disciples. 

Velocity


VELOCITY

In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,

but there was nothing to write
about except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.

I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously—
things you see once and will never see again.

But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile—

for no reason I can think of—
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.

I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face

the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make

before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,

the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,

as we rush down the long tunnel of time—
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,

speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,

speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.

-Billy Collins

Billy Collins is, without a doubt, my favorite living poet. His poems are simple and imaginative. VELOCITY, reminds us that life is short and fleeting, that from the perspective of eternity we are all moving quickly towards our inevitable destination. Even in the stillest moments, time passes too quickly. As a father of three, I can attest to this. My oldest daughter has gone from being a baby to a teenager in a matter of weeks it seems. Some times I look at her and I swear I can see the speed lines coming off of her. If it is true that a thousand years is like a day from the point of view of God and that we are like grass that grows today and withers tomorrow, then we must make the most of the time we have on this earth. When I read the Gospel of Mark, I can’t help but see the speed lines flying off of Jesus as he packs more life into a year than most of us pack into our lifetime. Jesus gets such a head of steam that the grave doesn’t even stop him. We too, according to the Apostle Paul, are called to run the race. So as a disciple running in the way of Jesus, may you have speed lines coming off of you in every direction and in the words of the old Irish blessing: “may you get to Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Clay Bowl


Once, on a far off mountain, there lived two hermits. They spent their days worshipping God and they each one knew nothing but Christian love for the other. There on the mountain they had only one possession: a clay bowl, which they shared. 

One day, an evil spirit entered the older of the two hermits. He approached the younger hermit and said, “I can no longer stand to be on this mountain with you! Let us divide our possessions and I will be off at once!”

“I will be sad to see you go,” said the younger hermit, “I’ve treasured our time on this mountain together and it has truly ministered to my spirit to see you each day and learn from you, but if you truly believe this is best then blessings be upon you. As for dividing our possessions… All we have is this clay bowl we share. It’s an extravagance really. I can eat out of my lap. Here. It is yours.”

The older hermit pushed the younger’s hands away. “I don’t need your charity! You insult me and scheme to make me indebted to you when I only want what is rightfully mine. Let us divide the bowl in half so I can leave and be done with your wicked manipulations.”

“Now brother, you are being unreasonable. If we were to divide this bowl, neither of us would be able to use it. What good would that do? Why don’t we cast lots for it. Then one of us will win it fairly and neither will be indebted to the other.”

The older hermit stamped his foot. “Fool! I ask only for what is rightfully mine and you would leave it up to chance. Divide it now, so I can be gone from this wretched mountain where you do nothing but pervert justice.”

The younger hermit was grieved by the older hermit’s words but quietly forgave him. “If this is what you desire then it is what I desire,” he said before dashing the clay bowl against the ground and breaking it into two equal parts. “I’m sorry I have offended you. Take what is yours.”

The older hermit grabbed his half of the bowl and said, “I will not stay for a second longer on this mountain with a coward who won’t even fight!” With that, the older hermit began his descent into the valley.  

This parable from Kahlil Gibran is a sad and humorous reminder that some people can never be made happy. There are people in the world who only want to quarrel and they cannot be pleased. It is important though, not to change our own nature to accommodate theirs. Jesus’ way of self-sacrificial love makes us vulnerable to the world but that is not weakness, it is strength. For those who seek to save their lives will lose it and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted. I once worked at a job where I was constantly criticized and it seemed I could not do right. A mentor of mine told me at the time, “all you can do is be reasonable and reasonable people will see that.” This advice has stuck with me. Jesus might say, “all you can do is be loving and loving people will see that.”  The Way of Jesus is the way of self-sacrificial love. This does not change because the person we are showing love to is difficult. Were we not difficult when Christ tried to freely give his love to us?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…