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…

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 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…

Three Hermits

A certain Archbishop heard a rumor that on a nearby island, there lived a group of Christian hermits who had been shipwrecked long ago and had taken up residence there. People said that they had lived there since they were young men and had very little contact with outsiders. Furthermore, it was said, their understanding of the Christian faith had fallen into disarray after all their many years of conclusion. It was said that these hermits could no longer recite the Apostles Creed, they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, and they didn’t know a thing about the trinity or the incarnation. The Archbishop felt a burden in his heart for these hermits and decided to search them out so that he might bring them back to Christian society.

The Archbishop set sail for the location where the hermits were supposed to be and, sure enough, he found the island exactly as described. When he came to shore, the Archbishop found a small camp where three hermits lived. They each had long white beards down to their waist. The Archbishop greeted the hermits and quickly discovered that all the stories he had heard about them were true. They knew next to nothing about their Christian faith on account of the fact that they were extremely forgetful. The only prayer they knew how to recite was, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” The Archbishop, offered to take them to the mainland so they could be among Christian society, but the hermits had been in eachother’s company on the island so long that they had become quite happy there and they politely refused.

So the Archbishop decided to educate them before he left. He labored at length to teach them the creed, but the three hermits were so forgetful that they simply couldn’t keep any of the information in their heads long enough for it to sink in. Trying to explain the trinity and the incarnation was even more hopeless so the Archbishop focused his efforts on at least getting the hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Archbishop worked with them well into the night. The hermits were eager students. At first they slipped into their habit of praying, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” But after hours of repetition they finally had the Lord’s Prayer down solid.  Satisfied with his work, the Archbishop blessed the three hermits and went on his way.  He had only been out from shore for about 2o minutes when  he heard noise coming from behind the boat. When he turned to see what it was, his jaw dropped. To his astonishment, the three hermits were running across the water to catch up to him. When they finally made it to the boat, they stood on the waves and called out:

“Archbishop! Archbishop! Teach us the words to your prayer again! We’ve already forgotten them!”

At that very moment, the Archbishop fell on his knees and, looking up to Heaven, he prayed, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.”

Leo Tolstoy gives this old Russian folk tale the short story treatment and it is well worth seeking out. It is easy to have disdain for those that we consider to be less knowledgable about the faith than we. It is a trap that those of us who have been in Church all our lives continually fall into. Some even make sport of critiquing the theology of others and cutting them down to size for their simplistic ideas. The truth though, is that Christ is after our hearts, not our heads. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises that it is the “pure in heart” who will see God. A prayer prayed in deep sincerity is answered even if it is not beautiful or learned. As the hold hymn goes, “Let not conscience make ye linger/ nor of fitness fondly dream/ all the fitness He requireth/ is to feel your need of him.” A faith that knows nothing but that it needs the mercy of Christ is a faith that can walk on water.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Brother Masseo’s Request…

During the first days of the Fransiscan movement, St. Francis surrounded himself with disciples who were eager to learn from him and imitate his life of simplicity. One of these was a man named Brother Masseo. Brother Masseo became very convicted one day after hearing Francis preach on the virtue of humility- so convicted that he resolved to forsake all other pursuits and seek only after humility! Brother Masseo went back to his cell and for days on end he fasted and prayed late into the night, begging God to send him to Hell for his sins. All this was in an effort to cultivate humility. He continued like this until one day in his despair he wandered out into the woods where he was startled by a voice from heaven:

“Masseo, Masseo,” said the voice.

“My Lord!” cried Brother Masseo, knowing the voice was that of Christ.

“Masseo,” said Christ, “What will you give me in exchange for the humility you seek?”

“My very eyes!” Brother Masseo called back.

“But I do not want your eyes,” Christ replied, “Keep them, and have my grace as well.”

From that moment on, Brother Masseo was filled with true humility and unspeakable joy.

This little story from “The Little a Flowers of St. Francis”, one of the earliest collections of tales about him and his followers, is a deep parable that rewards contemplation. Brother Masseo ultimately learns that humility cannot be achieved through effort but that it is a gift of grace. He also learns that Christ has no use of our eyes. In other words, our high or low view of ourself and others is of no value to Him. Masseo was trying to obtain humility by lamenting about his wretched estate. Yet it is this very kind of self involved thinking that is the enemy of humility. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less…” I couldn’t put it any better myself.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Each Day…


Each day as dawn approaches,
the King sits in majesty
and blesses the holy creatures:
To you, my creatures, I speak,
before you I declare—
Creatures who bear the throne of my glory
with all your heart, and willingly with your soul—
Blessed is the hour of your creation,
and exalted is the constellation
beneath which I gave you form.
May the light of that morning continue to shine
when you came into my mind—
for you are a vessel of my desire
prepared and perfected on that day.
Be silent, creatures of my making,
so I might hear my children pray.

-Author Unknown

This anonymous poem, translated by Peter Cole and published in Poetry Magazine, is part of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. This tradition is all about seeking to enter into God’s throne room through prayer and meditation. The Kabbalah tradition has resulted in some captivating descriptions of what that most holy of places is like. I love this beautiful little scene of morning in the throne room as the King of creation blesses the angels who He refers to as “creatures.” It is only those who are praying down below who are called “children.” “What is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou cares for him?” the psalmist asks. The Apostle John adds, “Behold! What great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God!” More amazing to the ancients than the notion that the God of the universe should be surrounded by splendor and majesty, is that He would care enough to listen to our prayers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…