Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Monk and the Strawberry

I first heard this parable many years ago, and I was drawn to it in recent weeks. You may know it. There once was a monk who was out picking fruit in the morning to bring back to the monastery for breakfast. As he was grabbing an apple, he heard a snapping sound behind him – someone or something was approaching. He turned his head slowly and saw a tiger coming into the clearing. He didn’t know whether the tiger had seen him or not so he carefully and quietly began to back up and out of the clearing. The tiger detected his movement and turned in his direction. Soon the monk was running and the tiger was chasing. The monk ran until he had to stop – he had run to the edge of a cliff. He thought that the tiger would end up having him for breakfast. As the monk looked over the side, he saw a vine leading down the wall of the cliff face and began to climb down as he held on to that vine. He figured that he would head down to the ground far below and would be safe from the chasing tiger. But as he went down, the monk looked down as well and saw a second tiger waiting to pounce on him if he went all of the way down. So he stopped. He couldn’t go up, he couldn’t go down – each way would lead to death. As he wondered how long he might be able to hang on to that vine, a small mouse poked his head out of a hole a few feet above the monk’s head and began to nibble and gnaw at the vine. The monk looked around hoping he might find something else to hold onto. As he looked, he saw another vine just within his reach – a strawberry vine. He knew it wouldn’t hold his weight, but it did hold the weight of a succulent strawberry. The monk reached over, grabbed the strawberry, and put it into his mouth. It was the best strawberry he had ever tasted. As I recall, the first time I heard this story it ended right there. It was literally a cliffhanger much as the parables of Jesus often end with all a lot of questions unanswered. But I read a longer version of the story this week which picked up where the other ended and also provided “the moral of the story.” It went something like this: Refreshed by the strawberry, the monk kept searching and found a tiny ledge which would serve as a foothold. He maneuvered to it and managed to put both feet on it just as the vine was nibbled through and fell away. He was able to remain there safely for a long time. After a while, both the tiger above him and the tiger below him grew bored and went away looking for their meal elsewhere. The monk carefully climbed down and made his way back to the monastery where he shared his harrowing tale. The monk said, “I learned something important today. Too often I spend time worrying about things from the past that have already happened – like the tiger above. Or I worry about other things that might happen someday – the tiger below. And I also allow daily concerns to nibble and gnaw away at me. If I stay focused on those things, I won’t take the time to notice and to savor the wonderful strawberries that come my way.” Jesus made the same point many years ago when he said:”Do not worry about your life, what you will eat and drink or what you will wear. Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you. Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” We all have tigers in our lives, don’t we? And we also have gnawing fears and concerns. Don’t spend so much time on those things that you miss the strawberries. Where will you find your strawberry today? Jim

Friday, August 22, 2014

Real Bibles Don't Bend

It was a few days into Vacation Bible School, and I had led my third session of the evening. My video lesson took place in the Lord’s Worker’s classroom which I delightfully shared with Brenda and Fran who prepared and served the snacks. I knew that my lesson would always take a back seat to the snack, and I was ok with that. On Sundays we serve coffee and donuts. In worship we have communion. In church, there has to be food in some form just about every time we meet. So the kids had had their snacks and their lesson, and we were just waiting for the bell to tell us to go to the sanctuary for closing activities. I was sitting in the teacher’s chair at the front of the classroom and noticed an attractive looking softbound leather Bible at the podium. I picked it up, and it opened to the first chapter of the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs). I started to read it somewhat absentmindedly. It begins with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine.” A young girl noticed what I was doing and asked: “What are you reading?” There was no way that I was going to tell her exactly what I was reading so I said, “The Bible.” “Are you sure?” she replied. “Yes, I’m sure,” I said and turned to the front of the book, pointed to the title page, and read “Holy Bible.” “What does ‘Holy’ mean? she asked. I was beginning to think that I should try to get her another snack, but I told her that “Holy” meant sacred or special. She thought for a moment and proclaimed, “That’s not the real Bible.” “Sure it is,” I said. “Nope,” she replied. “Real Bibles don’t bend.” Just then the bell was ringing to end the session. And I knew that I had probably heard the most profound and provocative thing that I would hear all week. At some level, I knew that she was referring to the fact that that particular Bible was softbound rather than hardbound. And I assumed that the Bible in her home was a hardbound one. But at another level, I knew that she had shared an important truth for all of us. And I didn’t have to dig that hard to find the treasure in her words. Many people try to manipulate the Bible to fit their own goals, agendas, and viewpoints. Rather than the Bible informing and shaping their beliefs, they already know what their beliefs are before they open their Bibles. They search for just the right verse(s) to justify their actions. They try to bend the words of scripture into the shape that works the best for them. But “Real Bibles don’t bend,” do they? The Bible does not bend but the Bible is alive. I believe that the Bible is not just a rigid set of outmoded rules but is the living Word of God which brings new life and guidance to every generation of believers. The Bible is both ancient yet fresh at the same time. The purpose of the Bible is to change us and bend us to God’s will rather than giving us ammunition to back up our own self-centered perspective. I always learn something valuable at Vacation Bible School, and it usually comes from the children. Jim

Your Children's Children

I was reading Psalm 128 this morning which contains this blessing: “May you live to see your children’s children.” Since our granddaughter Abigail Joy was born on July 23, this is the first time I had read this passage and heard it as a blessing realized for our family. Abigail is Jacob and Heather’s first child and the first grandchild for Holly and I. Some of you have a lot of experience in being grandparents or even great grandparents, but it is all new to us. One of the things that I am noticing about myself is that I am thinking longer term than I did before. I certainly cannot predict the future – what will or will not come to pass – but the year 2032 has gained a new meaning for me. That is the year that Abigail will turn 18 and likely will be graduating from high school. I don’t know what the world will be like in 2032, but the fact that someone I love will be turning 18 that year makes me feel invested in it more deeply than I previously was. Whether I am around by then remains to be seen – by then most of my future will be in my past – but I want the best possible future for Abigail. I was thinking of my grandmother recently and how she took her husband’s paychecks from Republic Steel in Niles, Ohio and used some of the funds to buy stocks and bonds. She was a strong willed woman, and I am sure that my Pap didn’t have all that much to say about the matter. The regular bills including house payments got paid on time, but funds were regularly set aside for the future. I am not sure how long Grandma Bane invested in the future, but I am certain that it was way before my birth in 1956. When I went to Harvard Divinity School in 1978, funds were available from her to pay my way. My grandfather’s labor and my grandmother’s stewardship of his wages made sure that one of their “children’s children” could become a minister. And when she died, more funds were there to help a young couple cover some of the costs of raising their first child Jacob – one of her “children’s children’s children.” So often there is so much immediacy and urgency in so many parts of our lives that it is really hard to think much beyond the day, the week, or the month. But children and grandchildren and great grandchildren are reminders to us that there is a future to be lived - if not by us then by those we love and care for. This future is in God’s hands yet I know that God invites us to invest what we have to make it the best possible future for others. JIM

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Weighing In On Fat Tuesday

My wife Holly gave me a new set of bathroom scales for Christmas. I love Holly, but I have not yet warmed up to these new scales even though we have a daily up close and personal encounter with one another. Here’s the problem: My old set of scales could be counted on to give me a range of daily readings from which I could choose the number that I wanted. While on the scale, if I posed like Ralph Macchio of the Karate Kid facing down his enemy, I could usually cajole that old scale into taking a few pounds off that we both recognized were there. We both knew it was a lie, but that old scale wouldn’t bring it up and neither would I. It was a lie that friends keep between themselves for the sake of the relationship. But the new scale (a more upscale scale – an electronic version) doesn’t understand my need to have some flexibility in my daily weigh-ins. I stand on it and within a few seconds a number (which I rarely like) is illuminated. If I step off the scale and then on again, the exact same number lights up as if the scale is saying: “How dense are you, anyway? You couldn’t read it the first time? Try me again, Tubby, if you have the guts, and I know that you do.” If the reading on my new scale is too disheartening, I sometimes seek out my old friend who usually gives me at least one lighter option. But I have to tell you that as much as I love that second opinion that I am beginning to understand that it isn’t all that helpful or healthy for me. As hard as it is, I am beginning to accept the new set of numbers as representing the way things really are rather than the way that I want them to be. It is not easy to be confronted with the facts, is it? It is hard to face the truth about ourselves whether that truth is our weight or something else. Most of us prefer to have at least a couple of options from which we can choose, from which we can construct the version of ourselves that makes us look the best. But if we want to be healthy, and if we want to be free, the truth has a way of grounding us in reality and providing us with a clearer sense of who we really are and what we face. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free, and after we get over our shock and denial, we begin to recognize his wisdom. One of the many things that I appreciate about Lent is that it can offer us a daily reality check about how we really stand with God and with one another rather than how we like to portray ourselves. Those who give up something that they value for Lent will be faced with deprivation and denial and the inevitable question: “Do I love this thing more than I love God?” Those who create more silence in their lives for this season will end up hearing voices that they usually don’t hear – either the sound of their own heart or the voice of God. If you are willing to listen and to be open to the facts about who you are and where you stand, the season of Lent can lead you “from the unreal to the real, from darkness into light” as they say at the end of a yoga session. Lent can be an up close and personal encounter with God. Entering into Lent is not for the weak-hearted or for those who love the darkness more than the light or the lies more than the truth. If you allow it to do so, Lent has a way of accurately assessing you even if you are tempted to stand in a Karate Kid position to obscure the facts. So on Fat Tuesday, let us gather as many opinions as we can about who we are. But let us have the courage to step on a set of more truthful scales tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Do you have more than prepared remarks to share? (Thank you Jacqueline Bisset)

The award shows have begun – the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild have already been held. The Grammys are next with the Oscars coming up in March. Award winners who expect to win often pull out a card with their prepared comments – usually a lot easier to do for a man in a tuxedo jacket than a woman with a strapless gown. The words are often mundane and predictable: “I want to thank my spouse and my publicist and all who stood by me when others said that this kind of movie could never be made.” Blah, blah, blah. But sometimes, the award winner (especially if they didn’t expect to win) is flummoxed and virtually speechless or launches into a stream of conscious monologue that makes everyone wonder what words will come out next. The viewer wants to turn away but is transfixed. And the censors occasionally miss a word or two as well. Such was the case when Jacqueline Bisset climbed the stage at the Golden Globes to accept her best supporting actress statue. Actors make a living by channeling a scriptwriter’s words and by faking a director’s intended emotions. But when Ms. Bisset began her ramble on January 12 she was on her own – she had no card, no direction, no one to say “Cut.” And she (like many others) spoke over the music intended to stop her. One of the highlights for me was when she quoted her mother who used to say: “Go to hell and don’t come back.” I am sure that isn’t future sermon material, but I am also sure that most of us have felt that way one time or another, haven’t we? But Bisset contrasted herself with her mother when she said: “My mother was not entirely me. I believe that if you want to look good, you’ve got to forgive everybody. You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment. Forgiveness for yourself and for the others.” I am not sure whether she had a little card of remarks or not, but I appreciated Bisset’s off the cuff speech so much more than any she would have read. There was some wisdom there. Yes, they were a bit scary, but they were also a truer reflection of what she was really experiencing at the time. With the exception of worship services, I don’t carry around a printed text of prepared remarks. But if I was honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I probably carry around a bunch of tiny speeches in my head all the time – the “right thing” to say at the bank, at the grocery store, or in any number of weekly encounters with people. People don’t expect or want a Jacqueline Bisset ramble when they ask: “What’s up, Reverend?” But I hope that my interactions with people aren’t completely scripted. And I hope that my communication with others – especially those whom I love – is more than a series of file cards that we each read from. It would be both predictable and horrible at the same time. I often long for a soundtrack for my life – a song here or there that would tell me and those around me just how we should be feeling. It would just make things simpler, wouldn’t it? We would laugh together or cry together until the next song came on or the director called: “Cut.” There would be a lot less confusion or misunderstanding. The truth, as I see it anyway, is that sometimes things happen to us and to those we love that we just can’t predict or script in advance. We review our mental file cards and we have no speech to share. And the music just won’t come – we don’t know whether what we are experiencing should make us joyful or devastate us. All we can do is be present, take it in, and hang on to one another. The words and the music will come to us later. I am sure that our prepared remarks will serve us just fine in some of the coming events of 2014. But they will also fail us in many other circumstances. It is those unscripted events and how we react to them that will give us the potential for growth and wisdom. (Clue the exit music. It is time to move on.)