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…

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…

3 Stone Cutters

A pilgrim traveling through medieval France happened on a work site where some stonecutters were busy working. Curious, the traveller stopped to ask the stonecutters about the work they were doing. The first stonecutter he approached was muttering under his breath.

“What are you doing?”, the pilgrim asked.

“What do you want to know about it?”, the stonecutter replied, barely looking up. “I do nothing but break my back all day, slaving over these stones with cheap instruments. I put them where they tell me and I go home when they tell me. I do it without any thanks and for very little pay. ”

The pilgrim quietly backed away, so as not to offend the fellow any further. He saw another stonecutter whistling as he worked.

“What are you doing?”, the pilgrim asked the second stonecutter who looked up and smiled. 

“Just working to make a living. I cut these stones all day to support my beautiful wife and family back in the village. It’s not exciting work but it’s honest and it puts food on the table. I know many able bodied men who struggle to find work and this job pays regularly so I feel pretty blessed.”

The pilgrim was about to leave when he saw a third stonecutter. This one was working quietly and intensely. His hands were quick and precise.  

“What are you doing?”, asked the pilgrim.

The third stonecutter was so engrossed in his task that he didn’t even hear the pilgrim.

“What are you doing?”, the pilgrim asked, louder this time.

The third stonecutter looked up to the heaven and whispered, “I’m building a cathedral.”

“There are two types of people,” the trite saying goes, “those that see the glass as half empty, and those that see the glass as half full.” This thought provoking parable, however, introduces a third way of seeing the world: one that is less about how the world impacts us and more about how we impact the world. It is about having a vision that is larger than our selves. Having vision is looking beyond the day to day and seeing the purpose and meaning in what we do. It’s more than merely working toward a goal. As disciples, we are charged with no less than building God’s Kingdom on earth. A monumental task, to be sure, but also a captivating vision that gives purpose to our work beyond how it affects us. When we see our lives as working toward the goal of the Kingdom then it matters not if our glass is half  empty or half full, all that matters is that we seek first the kingdom of God. The good news is that knowing we are part of something greater than ourselves, that we are making the world a better place stone by stone, is truly a cup which runneth over.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Dry Wood

Sometime during the 4th century a man named John renounced all of his worldly possessions and went to live among the Desert Fathers. He was quickly accepted in the community and because of his shorter stature was nicknamed by the brothers, “John the Dwarf.” When he first arrived in the desert, John’s spiritual mentor was a man named Father Pambo. His new spiritual guide took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” The nearest water source was 12 miles away so John had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. John did this faithfully and without complaint for three years, leaving each evening and returning each morning, until the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then Father Pambo took some of the fruit and carried it to the church, saying to the brothers, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

To this day, in the Nitrian desert, in the abandoned monastery of St. John the Dwarf, you can see this tree. It is known as the “Tree of Obedience.” This parable shows us the great value of obedience. Obedience to God demands that we trust His wisdom and His timing. Obedience is faithfully doing our duty each day trusting that in the end it will make the difference. The United Methodist prayer of confession ends with the line: “forgive us we pray, free us for joyful obedience in Christ Jesus our Lord…” Joyful obedience is at the heart of what it means to answer the call of discipleship. Denying ourselves and taking up His cross. We do so in the hope and promise that one day we will sit at that heavenly banquet table and taste the sweet fruit of obedience.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…