Inhabiting a Word


Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Head Hog


“I’d like to speak to the head hog at the trough!”

“I beg your pardon?” replied the Church secretary, unsure if she had heard the voice on the other line correctly.

“I’d like to speak to the head hog at the trough,” said the voice again.

“Well, if you’re referring to the Pastor,” she said indignantly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to address him with the respect he deserves. You may refer to him as ‘Reverend Jeff’, ‘Pastor Jeff’, or even ‘Brother Jeff’ but certainly we would never refer to a man of God as ‘the head hog at the trough’.”

“Well, I was wanting to give $100,000.00 to the Church budget,” the stranger said.

“Hold on just a second,” the Secretary replied, “I think I hear him oinking in the next room.”

“Where your treasure lies,” Jesus taught his disciples, “their your heart lies also.” A more jaded commenter might say, “everybody has a price.” This joke challenges all of us to think about how much our principles are worth to us. Proverbs says that wisdom is more precious than silver and more costly than gold. Too many people would rather have the gold than be wise. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to fix our eyes on Christ. We can’t do this if our head is down in the trough.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Dying to the World


There was, among the desert fathers, a man who often cried aloud during his prayers: “I have died to the world!” He did so very loudly and very regularly so that the other fathers began to anticipate hearing the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world.” Some were inspired by this and began to cry the affirmation out in their own prayers while others were a little annoyed by it.

One day an older father was walking with a young disciple and they heard the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world! I have died to the world!” 

The older turned to the younger and said, “Let me offer some advice: Don’t be so sure you’ve died until you’re dead.”

To quote Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride”, “There’s a difference between mostly dead and all dead.”  The process of sanctification, dying to the world and becoming alive in Christ, being more and more conformed to his image, is a lifelong one. Christian perfection is something we must ever strive for as disciples but we must always do so, as the Apostle Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sin is always lurking somewhere in the recesses of our hearts ready to mount a comeback and all it needs is a little pride. To walk in the way of Jesus is to constantly be dying to the world and being born anew in him. We are called to walk this way with humility, knowing that as long as we are living, there is always more dying to be done.

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…

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…

The Raft


There once was a man on a long journey. He had been traveling several days when he came to a river. After studying it, the man realized the river was treacherous and he would not be able to cross it without being swept away by the currents. So he built himself a large raft from bamboo and vines. Once he had crossed safely to the other side, he was pleased with his cleverness. He thought to himself, “I worked hard on this great raft. It’d be a shame to just leave it here. I’ll carry it with me on the rest of my journey.” Here, student, is the question:

Can this man be called wise?

This seemingly simple Buddhist parable rewards continued contemplation. What does it mean to be wise? Often, we don’t know when to abandon an idea or a pattern of thinking. Like the man in the story, we fail to realize that what helps us through one stage of the journey can be a burden in the next. As a youth pastor, I have the sacred task of shepherding teens from the concrete faith of their childhoods to the more abstract faith of adulthood. Sometimes this process involves abandoning ways of thinking about God that used to bring security and comfort but are no longer as useful. While some truths are meant to be carried through life, other ideas are better left beside the river. Wisdom is found in a willingness to be challenged and grow. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to have enough humility to accept that we may not have everything figured out and that where we are today is not necessarily where we may be tomorrow. Faithfulness is not stubbornly refusing to let go of our raft but, rather, following Christ wherever he leads.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Problem of the Dead Lion


There was a village that contained three exceptional men known for their great learning. They excelled in many of the sciences and were renown for their intellect. One day, the three learned men got together and decided they were tired on living in the village.

“The people of this village are superstitious simpletons and cannot possibly understand our learning,” said one.

“There is nothing here for us to apply our superior skills to. We have so much to offer the world and we cannot do it in this simple place,” said another.

“And there is so much to see that we have not yet seen. We should go explore and find new challenges to apply our great minds to,” said the third.

They resolved that their voyage of exploration should begin in the forest. So they set about exploring. After several hours, they happened upon the bones of a lion in the middle of the forest.

One of the learned men exclaimed, “Look! We have finally found a problem which we can apply our great learning to… Among my many studies, I have studied all the skeletal structures of all the earth’s creatures… I could easily reconstruct this lion’s skeleton!”

Another of the learned men added, “In my studies, I have studied the muscles and sinews of the earth’s creatures and have learned the art of sewing skin… If you can repair this lion’s skeleton, I can make it new muscles and skin.”

“Oh we make a great team indeed,” chimed the third, “for I have learned in my studies the art of life. If you two can repair this lion’s body, I can concoct a potion that will give it blood and breath!”

So the three learned men set to work applying their great knowledge to the problem of the dead lion. One carefully reconstructing the skeleton, another adding the muscles and skin, and the third restoring the blood and breath, until at last they had brought the lion back to life. The three learned men marveled at their accomplishment.

“Look!,” said one, “A fully restored, living breathing lion! Surely such a thing has never been done before!”

“I know!”, said another, “It is a true scientific breakthrough! Imagine the implications!”

Before the third could speak, the lion lunged at the three learned men, mauled them, and ate them for dinner.

This elegant African folktale is a great parable about the responsibility that comes with knowledge. Just because we have the power to do something does not mean it should be done. We can build machines that can destroy the earth a hundred times over… Should we? Biological engineering, singularity, and advancements in warfare, raise important ethical questions that disciples have an obligation to speak into. We are not called to be neophytes. Rather we are called to engage the great questions with integrity and conscience. It has been said religion without science has no brain and that science without religion has no heart. God requires us to love Him with both.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…