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…

The Ruby Ring

Once there was a King whose most prized possession was a ruby ring that had been in the royal family since before anyone could remember. It was passed from king to king and it was worn on special ceremonial occasions. Whenever the king put on the ring, everyone was truly dazzled by its beauty and perfection.

One day, the kingdom was celebrating a festival and the King decided to make an appearance before the people. The king asked his servants to fetch the ruby ring and they did. When they brought him the small gold box that contained the ring. The king opened the box and gasped. There on the face of the ring was a huge scratch. At first the king was furious and demanded to know which of his servants had scratched the ring. After the king was satisfied that no one knew how the scratch had got there, his anger subsided into gloom. He closed the box and sent it away and decided after all that he wouldn’t be going out.

Soon, the servants were distressed because the king had cancelled all his public appearances and refused to leave the palace. Finally, one suggested to the king that he might send out a call for the jewelers in his kingdom to try their hands at repairing the ring. So the king announced that anyone who could repair his ruby ring would receive a great reward.

The next day, hundreds of jewelers were lined up outside the palace. Each one eager to take a shot at fixing the ruby ring. However, jeweler after jeweler failed. The scratch was so deep and profound that the jewelers couldn’t get rid of it without possibly ruining the jewel further and none wanted to risk the king’s anger. After a few days of this, the king began to lose hope. One by one, the best jewelers in the land left defeated. And each time, the King lost more hope that his ring would ever be repaired. At the end of the week, there was only one person left in the line: a peasant with tattered clothes.

At first, the king’s servants thought the man a beggar and tried to run him off but the man assured the servants that he was in fact a jeweler and was looking to repair the king’s ruby ring and claim his great reward. The servants were doubtful that this rough looking serf would be able to do what the finest jewelers in the land could not but what did they have to lose? So they let the peasant jeweler with the tattered clothes into the palace.

When the jeweler entered the throne room, the king laughed. “Is the situation so hopeless that you’re bringing random people off the street?”

“No my lord,” One of the servants replied, “This is a jeweler and he has come here to fix your ruby ring and claim his great reward.”

The king looked at the peasant jeweler suspiciously. He had his doubts but what did he have to lose? So he had the gold box brought out. Once the box was opened, the peasant jeweler looked at the ring and saw the deep scratch. “It can be done easily,” he said, “I’ll just need a week of privacy to work on the ring.”

The king agreed and ordered that the jeweler should have a special room in the palace which would be guarded day and night. He also ordered that meals should be brought to the peasant for the week while he worked on the ring.

And work he did. Tirelessly for an entire week, day and night, the jeweler could be heard hammering and chiseling and sanding and polishing until finally, a week later, the peasant jeweler emerged from his room with the gold box. He and the box were immediately brought before the king. The king took the box. His hands were trembling. This was his last hope. Was it possible that this poor jeweler had accomplished what the finest jewelers in the land could not? The king opened the box and gasped.

But this time it was a good gasp. The king smiled a great big smile and said, “My ruby ring is even more beautiful than before! As a great reward you are now the King’s official jeweler and you shall live in this palace, you and your family, and be well taken care of.”

With that, the king slipped the ruby ring on his finger and everyone in the room gasped as well. The ruby truly was more beautiful than ever. The peasant jeweler with the tattered clothes had done what no other could. Instead of trying to get rid of the imperfection, he had adorned it with petals and thorns and a leaf. He had transformed that awful scratch into a beautiful rose!

As this beautiful parable shows us: when we focus on imperfection, we miss the possibilities. God in his grace finds the rose in the scratch, the beauty in the scar. How often do we look at our lives and see only the broken places? How often do we focus on the places that have been marked by tragedy? How often do we look at one another and see only what is wrong? We who walk-in the way of Jesus are called to remember the promise of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians, that He who began a good work in each of us will be faithful to complete it. That though the image of God is scarred in each of us, the master jeweler is working tirelessly around the clock to see it fully restored.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Sapphire Tablets

When Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God spoke to him saying, “I am going to give you ten commandments etched on two tablets but you must first bring to me the two tablets.” Then God showed Moses the two sapphire stones the law would be written on and commanded Moses to bring them into his presence. Moses tried to lift the two stones and found that they were much too heavy for a single man to lift. After struggling with the stones, Moses finally gave up and said, “I am sorry. These tablets are much too heavy for one man to lift.”

God answered, “I wanted you to see this for yourself so that you would know the miracle I am about to perform. The words I am about to etch into these tablets have such power that they will lift the tablets for you.”

So God approached the tablets, his glory obscured by the cloud, and he began to etch in the sapphire tablets the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” And each Hebrew word, as it was written by God’s own hand, blazed with holy fire, then glowed deep red. And each letter etched into the stone tablet took on a life of its own and sang a psalm of thanksgiving to the Creator.When God finished writing the commandments on the stone tablets. Moses picked them up and they were light as pillows. It was then that he realized the power that the words had given to the heavy stone.

As Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets in his arms, he heard the sound of laughter and drunken singing. As he came closer to the camp he could see the Hebrews had fashioned for themselves a giant golden calf and that they were worshipping it and engaging in all manner of perversion. When the glowing red letters on the tablets saw the revelry and apostasy, they were truly disgusted and they fled the stone tablets and flew to the top of Mount Sinai back to their divine source.

Suddenly, in the sight of all the people, the tablets once again became too heavy for Moses to carry and he dropped them on the ground where they smashed into a thousand pieces.

This midrashic tale was written in part to explain why Moses smashed the stone tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Hebrews worshiping a molten image. The original story in Exodus 32 sure makes it seem like Moses smashes the tablets in anger but the ancient rabbis couldn’t fathom that a great man like Moses would behave in such a reckless way. They came up with many explanations but this creative story is far and away my favorite. More important than getting Moses off the hook, this midrash teaches us something profound. God’s word has power! It can lift even the heaviest burden but it cannot abide sin. God’s Word, even when etched in stone is living and dynamic. Those who walk in the way of Jesus are reminded by this parable of the Word who put on flesh and dwelt among us and lightens the burden of the law for us in bright red letters. Why would we bow to something manmade when we could follow the living Word back to the divine source of all things?

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…


Majority Rules…


Rabbi Eliezer was famous for his extraordinary powers of persuasion. One day, he was arguing his theological position in front of a group of 10 sages. After Rabbi Eliezer had finished making what he had felt was a logically airtight argument, complete with many eloquent rhetorical flourishes and an overall sense of Holiness, he was satisfied the sages would agree with him. He had shown a mastery of scripture, appealed to all the great Rabbinical traditions, and had brought in the world’s great philosophers to bolster his case. All that was left was for the sages to vote. Eliezer was shocked when, after the vote, all ten sages rejected his position.

“I’m sorry Eliezer, it is 10 to 1. Majority rules and your position has been rejected.”

Rabbi Eliezer was dumbfounded that his great logic and rhetoric had not changed any minds, but he resolved to use more powerful means of persuasion. He said, “If I am correct, let this fig tree uproot itself and move to the other side of the yard.”

No sooner had the rabbi said this than the fig tree miraculously uprooted itself and moved to the other side of the yard. However, the sages were unmoved.

“No proof can be found in a fig tree,” they said.

“Fine…,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “If I am correct, let this stream we are standing by flow backward!”

No sooner had the Rabbi said this than the stream that they were all standing by began to flow in the other direction. However, the sages were still unpersuaded.

“No proof can be found in a stream,” they said.

Undeterred, Rabbi Eliezer bellowed in a commanding voice, “If my argument is correct, let God, Himself, say so…”

Suddenly, the clouds parted and a great shaft of light fell on the rabbi and the ten sages, and a voice, ancient and eternal, sounding like thunder and many rushing waters said, “My servant Eliezer is correct, listen to him!”

“Alright, Eliezer,” said the sages, “Now it’s 10 to 2…”

This humorous Jewish parable illustrates a profound truth: some people will never ever change their minds. Many times we expend a great deal of time and energy trying to win over people who are just not going to be won over. Disciples are of course called to share their faith and try to persuade others to trust in God but sadly some people will never be moved no matter what you say or do. In these cases we must pray that God will do in their hearts what we cannot, and then move on. Jesus, himself, could not convince his critics that his vision of God’s Kingdom was the right one. He was often frustrated with those who were hard hearted and stiff necked. Jesus focused on offering love and healing and sharing the good news with those whose hearts were opened to it. May the way of Jesus be our way as well.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Lettuce


A young monk was in the kitchen washing heads of lettuce for the next meal when one of the elders approached him and asked about morning services.

“Brother, did you pay attention to the homily, this morning?” the elder monk asked.

“Oh yes,” replied the young monk, “I found it to be very uplifting. It was just what I needed this morning. It really ministered to my soul.”

The elder monk could hear in the younger monk’s answer that he was being somewhat vague so he pressed him.

“Brother, do you recall what the homily was about?” 

Embarrassed, the younger monk replied, “I’m afraid I don’t remember what the homily was about but it really did minister to me.”

“How could the homily possibly have ministered to you,” asked the elder, “if you can’t even remember what it was about?”

“Well,” said the younger monk, “It’s like this lettuce. The water flows through it and cleanses it, but it does not remain in the leaves.”

I can remember only and handful of sermons from my childhood. I remember fewer Sunday School and Youth Group lessons. This does not mean that those lessons and sermons were useless. Quite the contrary. I am a youth pastor today because of all the time that my church invested in instructing me and developing my understanding of the faith. The individual lessons just flowed through me like water. I think it’s important for disciples to remember that our words and actions have a powerful impact on those around us. It’s also important to have humility and realize that we have little control over what individual words and actions will be remembered long after. We must trust that what we are doing matters even when it doesn’t appear to remain in the leaves.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Two Mango Trees


A father, wishing to test his two sons, put each in charge of caring for a mango tree. At the outset, both trees were of equal health and stature. The more foolish of the two boys noticed that leaves were beginning to fall off his tree and the flowers were blossoming at the ends of the branches. So he took a ladder each day and spent hours watering every single leaf. Despite all his hard work, the tree continued to die. The wiser of the two boys simply watered the roots of his tree each day and the tree flourished and produced sweet fruit.

This parable from the Hindu tradition, at first, seems to be about that old maxim: “work smart, not hard.” It reminds us that a lot of effort spent on the wrong things is, in the end, useless. Look deeper, and you’ll find a profound spiritual truth about that part of us that is inward and hidden (the roots) and that part of us that is outward and obvious (the leaves). It is care for our inward spirit and not our outward body that leads to true health. The disciple is called to be a good tree that bears good fruit. We cannot do so if we are only attending to our external problems and ignoring their spiritual roots.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…