The Hands

Once in a small village in Germany, during the 15th century, there were two brothers. Both loved to draw and paint and when both were older they wanted to study to become artists. The brothers knew their parents wouldn’t be able to afford to send them to art school so they reached an arrangement. The younger brother agreed to work while the older brother went to school. Then when the older brother graduated an artist, he would work while the younger brother went to school. So it was that Albrecht Dürer went to art school for 5 years while his younger brother worked tirelessly in the mines to pay for his education.

When Albrecht returned home from his studies, everyone in the house greeted him warmly and was excited to see what great art he would produce. But he said, “No, I have made a promise. I will work until my brother has gone through school.” Just then, Albrecht noticed his brother crying.

“What’s wrong?”, he asked, “Are you not excited to begin your studies?”

Albrecht’s younger brother held up his hands. They were swollen and crooked from years of hard manual labor. “Brother,” he said, “I have worked my fingers to the bone so you could study art under the great masters. So much so that my hands are bent and arthritic. They can no longer hold a paint brush or a pencil without shaking. You will have to make great art for the both us.”

Albrecht Dürer would certainly go on to make great art, but the piece he is perhaps the most famous for is a drawing he did of his brother’s hands: swollen and bent, held palm to palm in a posture of worship. He titled it “hands” but to the world, they are known as “the praying hands.”

There’s an old Irish blessing that says, “May you bear the wounds of love…” In the case of Albrecht Dürer’s brother, those wounds were physical… literal marks of self-sacrificial love. What follower of Jesus can hear this story and not think of Jesus’ own scarred hands? True love is an act of self-sacrifice. In ways great and small, we deny our own desires and ambitions to make room for the desires and ambitions of those we love. To be a disciple is to walk in the way of self-sacrificial love after the example of Christ who emptied himself and took on the very nature of a servant. When we do this, we bear upon our selves the wounds of love and discover the blessing and healing that does from being marked by grace.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Putting the World Back Together

Once a father was wanting to entertain his little girl on a rainy afternoon so he pulled a magazine out of a basket and flipped to a page with a giant map of the world. He carefully cut the map into tiny little squares. Then he gave his daughter the pieces and said, “I’ve made you a puzzle of the world. See if you can put it back together again.”

The father smiled and left the room figuring this would keep the little girl entertained for a good long while. So imagine his shock when he came back in the room a couple minutes later to find the puzzle assembled perfectly on the table.

“How on earth did you do that so quickly?” the father asked, amazed.

“Oh it was easy,” the girl said, smiling. “on the tip side was a picture of a man. If you put the man back together then the world is put back with him.”

“If you put the man back together then the world is put back with him…” Great words of wisdom from a little girl. Wisdom that can be found in all the great faiths. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and radically insisted that any person you encounter in need is your neighbor. Rabbis through the ages have affirmed this basic truth in the Jewish faith. Rabbi Hillel famously insisted that the entire Torah is summed up in the phrase, “Whatever you would not like done to you, do not do to your neighbor.” There is a verse in the Quran that says, “Whoever saves one man’s life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” As universal as this wisdom is; it is also universally ignored. There are zealots in every major religion who would seek to fix the world by tearing apart the man in front of them. But that is always the opposite of God’s plan. Those who follow in the way of Jesus should recognize the supreme irony that rather than tear down others, God himself in Jesus Christ, consented to let himself be torn apart so the world may be healed. In light of such grace, the disciples of the crucified ought to be the first in line to help a neighbor in need.

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 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…

Karl’s Answer


The Swiss theologian Karl Barth was one of the most highly respected theological writers of his generation and has gone on to be considered the greatest protestant thinker of the 20th century. He wrote volumes upon volumes of important exegesis and biblical commentary and influenced countless schools of thought with his systematic approach to the Bible. Karl Barth appeared on the cover of Time Magazine twice! Something not many theologians achieve. Barth’s retirement was actually a pretty big deal. He participated in a lot of interviews asking him to weigh in on spiritual matters once more before retreating into his retirement. During this time, he was asked by a reporter to share the most profound and important thing he had learned in all his years of study. Karl’s answer was simple: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”

Sometimes, we Christians can make things really complicated. Doctrine is important. Praxis is important. But neither are the main thing. The love of Jesus and the love of God revealed in Jesus is the main thing. That’s the thing that transforms lives and gives people hope. That’s what the whole Christian thing is all about. The rest is merely academic.

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…