Several things that crossed my computer screen lately have overlapped in interesting ways.

First there was an anecdote from sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s autobiography It’s Been A Good Life:

When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me.

(It didn’t mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP – kitchen police – as my highest duty.)

All my life I’ve been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I’m highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too.

Actually, though, don’t such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests – people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was.

Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles – and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test.

Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I’d prove myself a moron, and I’d be a moron, too.

In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly.

Consider my auto-repair man, again.

He had a habit of telling me jokes whenever he saw me.

One time he raised his head from under the automobile hood to say: “Doc, a deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter and made hammering motions with the other hand.

“The clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted, and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he asked for them?”

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring motions with my first two fingers.

Whereupon my auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, “Why, you dumb jerk, He used his voice and asked for them.”

Then he said smugly, “I’ve been trying that on all my customers today.” “Did you catch many?” I asked. “Quite a few,” he said, “but I knew for sure I’d catch you.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “Because you’re so g–d— educated, doc, I knew you couldn’t be very smart.”

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.

Reminds me of the law that, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The standard we are using to measure the data can blind us to what the data actually is.

My Facebook page brought up an old posting I had done a few years ago. I had introduced it by saying I had discovered

How the devil gets you to not notice Jesus: “People think it’s about distracting someone by making them look away but it’s actually about directing the mind towards something,” says James Brown, a stage pickpocket and hypnotist based in the UK. “If I wanted you to stop looking at something on the table it’s much easier for me to give you a good reason to look at something else. If I give you two or three things to focus on and the one I want you to avoid isn’t one of them, then that’s even better because now you have the illusion of choice.” Oh, wait. This article is about pickpockets…

And I linked to a story I had found at the BBC. It was more on the idea of missing what was important even if it was right in front of you. These two items were especially interesting to me because I had just been reading a devotional entry I had written for the current issue of The Journey  about the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven starting out like a tiny mustard seed.

…where is this Kingdom of Heaven Jesus kept talking about? Why is it not obvious and visible? Shouldn’t we expect it to be just as visible as other great works of God?

In this parable Jesus tells us that God is using an approach He has used before: starting small. In fact, there was even uncertainty about where Jesus had come from. Because Joseph had taken his family to Nazareth and raised him there when he came back from Egypt, the Pharisees thought Jesus was from Galilee (John 7:52). The birth at Bethlehem was hidden initially even from Herod.

Small, seemingly insignificant beginnings are recorded all through the Bible. Abram walks to the future Promised Land even before he has children. Youngest son David is not invited to join the welcoming family dinner when Samuel comes to visit.

Jesus tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is also small and easy to miss when it begins. But the beginnings are not like the final results. Those are huge and obvious. Jesus wants to reassure us that, even if all we can see of his work, both around us and in us, is small and unimpressive, that is not the whole story. If we are patient and allow God to fully reveal His plan, things will look quite different, both around us and in us….

Another reflection about not being mislead by the standard of measurement you are choosing to use. It’s almost like God wanted me to get the point.

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Reacting to storms

Usually, I don’t start to write one of these blogs until I’m pretty sure how to end it. This post is different. So far. I’m going to ask for help.

I do know where I’m starting. I began to wonder about the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee. Jesus goes to sleep and a storm breaks out that nearly swamps the boat. We have two accounts of this episode.

Mark 4: 37. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
38. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39. He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 

Luke 8: 22. One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out.
23. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
24. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.
25. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.  

How should the disciples have acted in that storm? How should I act in a storm to avoid being rebuked by Jesus? I‘ve been trying out different scenarios in my mind.

A few years ago a popular meme was the abbreviation WWJD? What Jesus was doing in this case was taking a nap. He was tired. I don’t think it’s helpful to complain about him sleeping on the job. He woke up when the disciples woke him and saved the day all right. Should the disciples have let Jesus sleep? He was tired. It was reasonable for him to grab the chance for a catnap out on the water away from the demands of the crowds.

Should the disciples have done what Jesus was doing? Was his example the right one to follow then? My wife, Melanie, likes to point out that Jesus had said they were going to the other side of the lake and, by God, that’s where they were going! What could there be to worry about? Should they all have just gone to sleep once they pushed off from shore?

I think about how that might have turned out. The boat finally bumps up on shore somewhere. They all stretch and wake up and look around.

“Thanks for letting me get some rest, boys,” Jesus says. “Where are we?”

No one knows. They were sleeping and left the boat to drift wherever the storm winds took them. I don’t think this improves things much over the original story. Instead of WWJD perhaps the acronym should be WDJTMTD — “What did Jesus tell me to do?” Jesus assigns jobs that differ from servant to servant, even at the same moment. He clearly expected these experienced fishermen-sailors to do the job of handling the boat while he slept.

Joining him in a nap is not the answer.

So, they all stay awake and do their job, hanging on for dear life when the storm comes up, but letting Jesus sleep. After all, he’s tired. And, somehow, they make it to the other side of the lake.

Jesus stretches and wakes up. “Thanks for letting me get some rest, boys,” Jesus says. “How was the trip?”

“A little rough,” they say, all of them looking like Jonah after the fish spit him up on the beach. “We weren’t sure we were going to make it. But Melanie thought for sure we were going to where you intended, and we knew you were tired, so we let you sleep.”

I can imagine Jesus staring at them. Maybe he is even without words at the moment. But I still don’t think this is an improvement on the original. It’s true, the Three Hebrew Children stayed calm while facing the fiery furnace.

Daniel 3:17. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.
18. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 

But should the disciples have left Jesus to sleep just to avoid a scolding? Were they not justified to be afraid of the storm? Was the solution for them to do all they could, all they already knew to do, and take care of the problem by themselves without bothering Jesus? It seems clear this storm, this problem, was one that was exceeding their ability to deal with it. Their fears of drowning were justified. So what should they have done?

One friend I talked with said, “They should have prayed.” But in terms of the story we have, this would mean waking Jesus up and talking to him and that’s what got them the rebuke.

Maybe the problem lies with what they said when they woke him up. Suppose they said, “Lord, we know you are tired, but we’re in a situation where we need every available hand to help. We’ve gotten through storms like this before. We’ve got a routine prepared. Here’s what we need you to do….”

That might work. But who’s in charge in that scenario? The disciples, or Jesus? That is to say, God? I might try to argue, “Of course it’s really God Who is in charge! He’s the One Who taught us how to handle emergencies like this the last time…!”

But the thing about emergencies is one is hardly ever exactly like another. Do I really think last year’s successful battle plan will perfectly defeat this year’s enemies? Waking Jesus up so I can be in charge and tell him what to do does not seem like the answer. If I am going to wake him up, it ought to be because I need help, I need him to do what I cannot do alone. That means putting him in charge.

It is worth remembering how Blessed Mother Mary handled the problem at the wedding at Cana. She saw the problem. She recruited servants to help. And she put Jesus in charge. She didn’t try to second guess a solution for him.

John 2:5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus never sought any credit or attention that day, but he solved the problem once he was put in charge.

Just as he solved the problem for the disciples once they woke him and put him in charge. So why did he rebuke them?? And how can I avoid a similar rebuke when I have an emergency and need his help?

Mark and Luke have slightly differing details of the moment. Mark has the more confrontive, accusative question from the disciples. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” In other words, “You’re not acting like we want God to act. We know how we think God should act. It would be in a way that makes sense to us and pleases us, giving us what we want right now! And you are failing to measure up! Either that or you don’t really care about us. Maybe you can’t really save us or help us. It sure doesn’t look like you can.”

I can see how an attitude like that, a heart full of acrimony and impatience, would earn a rebuke from Jesus. One would be justified and well earned. Note to self: at the next emergency, refrain from accusing God of not caring. Because, where else am I going to find help?

Luke reports a different appeal from the disciples. “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” This is more than an expression of fear, although it is that. The disciples are making a flat declaration of fact. It is a conclusion they have drawn from knowing how other sailors died in similar storms. This is the same situation, so they expect the same results.

But it is not the same situation for them. They have Jesus in their boat. That will make a difference for them. It is a difference they should have included in their calculations from the start. His question, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” comes because they have failed to remember he is there and that makes a difference.

Note to self: it doesn’t matter how anything looks as long as Jesus is in the boat with me.

If I can remember that, I should be able to avoid any rebukes by Jesus. Heck, I might even get a “Well done.” At least, that’s what I’m thinking is how to avoid the disciples’ mistake.

But what do you think?

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My book: Kingdom Parables

Today a series of daily devotionals I wrote on the parables of Jesus begins in The Journey. After I had turned in the manuscript to the editors two years ago, the topic stayed on my mind. It eventually got me writing a book on the subject which I published last year. Except for three or four lines from the devotionals, I found myself writing a completely new take on them. You can read the first several chapters in a sample from the e-book edition at Smashwords. The book is also available at Amazon and other online retailers.

When I was still writing the book, I posted the chapter on the prayer parables here at my blog. Read that post here. Today, I am posting the opening chapter. If you find the parables as interesting as I did, I hope you’ll get a full copy of the book!


Psalm 78:1 Hear my teaching, my people.
Turn your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable.
I will utter dark sayings of old,
3 Which we have heard and known,
and our fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children,
telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh,
his strength, and his wondrous deeds that he has done.

My thanks to the Bible Reading Fellowship. They invited me to write a series of daily devotionals on the Parables for their summer 2017 issue of The Journey. When I finished writing these I realized that there was more I wanted to say! Herewith.

While I was working on this manuscript, I saw a picture of two young friends who have been praying for me. I hear they were lighting so many prayer candles for me that their dad was afraid they would burn the church down. Then they entered a walk-a-thon on my behalf. They represent what being part of the Kingdom of Heaven means to me. I trust that, as they grow up, they will want to be permanent residents with Jesus in his Kingdom. With thanksgiving for all their prayers, I dedicate this book to Mary Clare Spake and Kathryn Spake.

Deacon Rick
Pentecost 2016

What Is A Parable?

I started work writing this book on Christmas Eve, 2015.

As that day began, I was thinking about the different circumstances in my life on that day over the years. My thoughts quickly turned to a Christmas Eve 42 years earlier, which had been the last Christmas I was still living at home with my parents.

My parents always had my two younger brothers and me open our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. This year I had invited my fiancé to join us around the Christmas tree. When Melanie opened her gift from me, she found another gift ribbon and tag. She didn’t know what it meant but I took the ribbon and slipped it on her wrist. Then I slipped the engagement ring on her finger. The tag on the ribbon I’d placed on her wrist said, “To My Family.”

As I sat down to begin writing this book, I realized I had made Melanie into a parable that night. I was saying she was like a Christmas gift to the rest of my family. She was much more than just that, of course. Over time, we would all learn and add further labels to the rich threads of blessing we would all share in our new relationship. But saying she was like a “gift” was a truth that held the other blessings in promise right from the beginning.

Mark 4:30 He was also saying, “How can we show what the kingdom of God is like, or what parable can we use to describe it?” (International Standard Version)

Bookstores carry Bibles in all sorts of translations. For English readers this is necessary because the manuscripts that make up the Bible were originally written in other languages, mostly Hebrew and Greek. Translators who offer an English translation must make a number of decisions. One of the first is whether they want to provide, on one hand, a “word for word” rendering of the text, or, on the other hand, a “thought for thought” version. Either approach can be valid. Still there are difficulties a reader needs to be aware of. A translation that is extremely literal may still introduce confusion to those not familiar with the original language. This is because the original language may make use of words in figures of speech that are not intended to be taken literally. There may be poetic images that are familiar to the speakers of the original language but are mysterious to those living in another culture or another time. The translator may need to resort to substitute images and figures of speech in order to convey the thought and message to the new audience.

Missionaries translating the Bible face this challenge all the time. If the missionary is speaking to people who have never seen a sheep, will it mean anything to these people to say Jesus is a “good shepherd?”

Jesus faced this very challenge when he tried to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. He wanted to convey an understanding of something that was, in many ways, hidden from us. He chose familiar images framed in parables in order to indirectly draw our attention to important points we could not see or might misunderstand. It was an act of “translation” for us.

Parables had already been used by various teachers in the Old Testament. In II Samuel 12, Nathan the priest addressed King David with a parable before accusing him of his sin with Bathsheba. The prophets, including particularly Ezekiel, often used parables in their messages to the people. So the method had been well road-tested as a way to address the nation by the time Jesus appeared.

When Jesus began his public ministry, his proclamation was that “the Kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1:15) When it came time to say more, he resorted to parables. In this book I will look at more than 30 of the parables he told.

What was Jesus doing by constantly framing these lessons into parables? I have wondered why he didn’t speak more plainly. Was he playing games and teasing us? If he had come to make his kingdom known to us, why hide it in these curious stories? Well, as I suggested above, his subject was already hidden from human eyes and understanding. The challenge was to make it understandable by starting with something familiar.

I have come to believe he chose this way of teaching because it is effective. And it is effective in a way that, at first, surprised me because it initially seems to obscure the subject.

It is commonly recognized in sales and communications that people don’t hear you the first time. They need to hear something several times it before it sinks in. The teasing mystery inherent in a parable almost guarantees a “Huh? Say that again…” response from listeners. And that guarantees greater attention as the teaching gets repeated.

It is similar in effect to a technique used by Moshe Rosen, the founder of Jews For Jesus. When witnessing to someone about Christ, he would pick a moment to deliberately change the subject and begin talking about something else entirely. If the other person let the conversation wander in the new direction unchallenged, Moishe knew they were not interested or weren’t paying attention to what he was saying about Jesus.

Teaching with parables can produce the same information about the hearers. It is a way for the teacher to directly measure the interest, if any, that the listener has in the subject.
I wonder if this wasn’t also something Jesus was watching for. When he cited Isaiah’s prophecy about people who would hear but not understand (Matthew 13:14ff) maybe he was actually recognizing this fact. People who were too wrapped up in their own agendas were not going to want to take the time to understand his. In fact, on one occasion, Jesus rebuked the crowd following him, saying all they were interested in was getting more bread to eat (John 6:26).

The disciples passed this test. They asked Jesus to explain what he was talking about. They got the extra commentary, the keys to the symbols, so they could unlock the meaning of the parables.

It will help our understanding of parables is we begin by recognizing what they are and what they are not.

Let’s start with the obvious. Parables are not the subject, the thing itself. They are symbols pointing to the subject. Any individual parable or symbol will be incomplete. That is a reason Jesus used so many of them. Each one allowed him to highlight one part or another of the Kingdom he had come to proclaim. That Kingdom had a depth and richness that could not be comprehended all at once. Each parable was intended to focus attention on a single facet. The point was, finally, not so much to understand the parables as to understand the Kingdom they were about.

When you are traveling down a road to a city, you don’t see the city right away. The first things you see are the signs pointing the way. In this book we’ll be looking at those signs.
What is a parable? It is a language form categorized as an analogy or simile. The simile talks of one thing being “like” another (similarity). It differs from a metaphor, a statement where the assertion is that one thing “is” another (equivalence).

Thus, when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl of great price, or like a tree, we know he is not saying the Kingdom IS a pearl or a tree. But there is some quality that is common to both. The parable is meant to draw our attention to that common quality. We know a pearl has a unique value. Jesus is saying the Kingdom of Heaven likewise has a unique value. By giving us a great many parables about the Kingdom, Jesus wants to teach us some of its qualities before we are able to see it fully and directly.

At the Last Supper, Philip burst out with a request. “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) Jesus answered by saying they had already seen the Father when they saw him. What I note here is that Jesus did not deny their desire to see. He only pointed out that they did not understand what they had already seen.

In the parables we have a similar situation. It is not that God refuses to let us see His Kingdom. We have trouble understanding what we do see of it. Jesus says we are surrounded with things that we could also recognize as traits of the Kingdom. That is what he points out over and over in the parables.

One of the things I recognized as I studied and prepared to write this book was that no single parable unveiled all there was to say about the Kingdom of Heaven. The different facets required different parables, although sometimes Jesus stressed some aspect by talking about it in more than one parable. I must admit that reading them altogether, one after another, gave me a greater vision of the whole than I had before.

In this book I have sorted the parables around ten of the major themes that I saw.
To begin with, God is quite content to start small. Things will end up much bigger. This is the Kingdom of Heaven we’re talking about. But God has the patience to wait for it to grow to full size. We must be patient, too.

Several parables describe a search. In fact, this theme is one of three that Jesus returned to most often while teaching about the Kingdom. At first I thought these were statements about our search. I have changed my mind about that.

God is a generous God. This theme is taken for granted in a number of the parables. This, by itself, is a fascinating statement and revelation about God.

Several parables display this quality of generosity by describing invitations being sent out to join a celebration. Oddly, this generosity is not always well received.

Other parables describe rewards given out for work that has been done. This is one of the three themes Jesus returned to often. Sometimes the rewards themselves, as well as those who receive them, are a bit surprising.

God apparently identifies closely with His children and how they are treated. Observers, suffering from limited vision, have questions about the closeness of the relationship Jesus describes. This limited vision, verging on blindness, is a third theme that Jesus returns to frequently.

Jesus tells at least three parables that discuss how prayer affects the relationship that is offered to us. They speak to the new order and bond that is intended to be the norm in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus tells parables that focus on the responsibilities of stewards entrusted with a master’s property. These speak to the order of things now, before the Kingdom is fully revealed.

I will wrap up with a fascinating parable that tells us, even after all Jesus reveals to us in the parables about this Kingdom, that some mysteries will remain.

But clearly there are things we are meant to know and need to know. So let’s begin with some of the things we can understand.


Get a paperback edition of Kingdom Parables here or you can order the complete e-book edition here.

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Someone in a tree

I want to make a confession. And I’ll get to it in awhile.

First, let me tell you about a writing assignment I’m working on. It is a set of short daily devotions on the Gospel of St. John to be published in The Journey in 2019. The editors ask the writers to make use of personal stories to help find common ground with the readers. I was thinking about the next passage I had to address, one that began at

John 8:13. The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 

I was praying, asking the Lord where to begin, when the memory of an old song came to mind. It was from a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. It was not one of his great successes, running for barely 100 performances when it opened in 1976. It was called Pacific Overtures. I’d never seen it, but, being an admirer of Sondheim’s work, I had, along the way, picked up the cast album and the published script.

It told about the 1853 arrival of American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry to open trade negotiations with the formerly closed and isolated empire of Japan. The story was told from the Japanese point of view. In Japanese Kabuki-style staging. As you can guess from my description, it presented little competition for audiences accustomed to The Sound of Music or Cats. But it is a Sondheim gem.

The song that came floating back to me as I prayed was called “Someone In a Tree.” It is a droll testimony by an old Japanese man who, as a ten-year-old boy, had witnessed the meeting of government officials with Commodore Perry and his delegation. The young boy had climbed a tree so he could peek in the window of the Treaty House where the meeting was going on. He couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t really understand what was happening. In the musical, the Old Man and the Young Boy up in the tree talk back and forth, correcting each other’s account. But both take great pride in just being there for the moment.

I saw everything! …
Where they came and where they went —
I was part of the event.
I was someone in a tree!

Without someone in a tree,
Nothing happened here.

If I weren’t, who’s to say
Things would happen here the way
That they happened here?

Sondheim has great fun playing with the undeserved pride of this witness to history, while it is clear to the audience that more was happening than this witness could grasp then, or, in memory, now.

The humor lay in the assumption by the witness that he could see all there was to see. Sondheim is slyly inviting the audience to realize there was more going on than could seen, or comprehended, by someone — a ten-year-old boy, at that — limited to peeking through the window.

And I realized that John was describing the same approach by Jesus’ critics. They ask for witnesses to back up the incredible claims Jesus has made. But they are expecting only a certain category of witnesses. They want witnesses of a familiar sort, ones they can own and control. They want to exclude Jesus, himself, from offering testimony. They are certain that if “no one else is in the tree” to say what they saw, then “nothing happened here.” If there was no one else who was “part of the event,” then there was no event.

Jesus confounds them when he calls his own Heavenly Father as a witness. It is confounding because, Jesus says, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19) Here is a witness the Pharisees cannot control or box into a corner.

After I wrote the devotional commentary, I kept thinking about Sondheim’s song. The logical flaw he has exploited in his clever song made it a perfect rally cry for atheists, I thought. They, too, want to limit their list of acceptable witnesses on the God question to narrow categories they can own and control. If you can’t see all you need through the “window” of natural human reasoning, then “nothing happened here.” That’s a simple enough argument that any ten-year-old can understand.

I said I had a confession to make. Several years ago, in a chapter meeting of the Order of St. Luke the Physician prayer team at my church, the chaplain invited team members to speak briefly about why they had committed to that ministry. At the time, I had a very clear reason for my interest. I believed Jesus still manifested works of healing and miracles today. And I wanted a front row seat from which to see them. I told the group that was why I was happy, eager, to pray for the sick. You have not because you ask not. I wanted to see Jesus do his stuff, so I was ready to step up and ask in prayer with as many people as I could.

In the years since, I’ve had that opportunity to ask for others and for myself. Hallelujah, I have seen Jesus do his stuff many times. And I’m grateful. If I hadn’t asked, who’s to say things would have happened here the way that they happened here?

But I have come to think I shared a poor motive at that OSL meeting back then. Jesus is not here to heal people for my satisfaction or entertainment. One of the things I learned from listening to John Wimber was, after asking people what they wanted Jesus to do, to then ask Jesus what HE wanted to do. And then ask for that. Sometimes — most of the time? — there are things going on that can’t be seen just from looking through the window while climbing some tree. If Jesus isn’t answering my prayers in the way most satisfying to me, maybe it’s because this boy needs to grow up a bit more.

And anyway, when it comes to how things look from a tree, Jesus is the one who can really tell us something. The words resonate more deeply than even Stephen Sondheim is likely to have anticipated.

I saw everything! …
Where they came and where they went —
I was part of the event.
I was someone in a tree!

Without someone in a tree,
Nothing happened here.

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Good Eats

I spend lots of time online these days, both writing and surfing subjects of interest to me. Some are serious, like various Bible teachers and devotionals I read and listen to. Others are ways for me to pass the hours with nostalgic memories. Now and then, I’ll be surprised by a serious theological subject popping up in the midst of something frivolous.

One web page I’ve spent time exploring is the Archive of American Television. Since 1997, they have been collecting and posting interviews with famous people who were on screen as well as the greater number of off-camera people who collaborated in producing television programs. I’ve watched interviews with people who made my favorite shows when I was a kid, like Buffalo Bob Smith, who created Howdy Doody (turns out Buffalo Bob led his church choir after he retired), and Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo.

Most recently, I was watching the interview done with Alton Brown, whose cable show Good Eats ran for 14 years on the Food Channel. Alton was bored with the cooking shows he had seen on TV. His idea was to create a show that was one part Julia Child, one part Mr. Wizard, and one part Monty Python. It was certainly something completely different.

The Mr. Wizard part of the show was one of the most ground breaking elements — and the one that most often drove his consulting chefs crazy. On the recipe form Alton created, after every ingredient and step listed came a question: why? Alton said this was a particularly aggravating question for French chefs who just wanted to give directions and hurry on with finishing the preparations so the meal could be served on time. Alton wanted to know why an iron skillet might be better than aluminum, or why you should hold off adding all the ingredients at once.

He explained that viewers won’t taste the finished meal he demonstrated until they make it for themselves. Until then, he considered his job was to keep viewers watching his show. And that has nothing to do with cooking. It’s all about entertaining and fascinating the minds of the viewers. His shows certainly did that. Whether the viewers’ stomachs ever got any benefit was a whole different issue.

That discussion was where the spiritual lesson popped up for me. In church, there is lots of time and effort devoted to intellectually exploring and explaining the theological framework for the Christian faith. Can you recite the Ten Commandments — in the right order? Do you know why the virgin birth of Jesus is important? Can you explain the significance of Jesus promising to “baptize us in the Holy Spirit?” If so, that’s wonderful.

But Jesus also warned that some who thought of themselves as “in” would find themselves left “out.”

Matthew 7: 22. Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
23. Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 

Learning the right words is different from having the right relationship. Hearing the lessons counts for nothing if you don’t live the life. Making disciples calls for more involvement than making students or gaining viewers.

I always enjoyed watching Alton’s show. I was curious to learn why meals were put together the way they were. But I never tried a single recipe for myself.

I try to make my books and blogs interesting to read. But nothing in them will matter if you are not responding to the Holy Spirit’s nudge to follow Jesus and listen to him for yourself.

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Today is our 43rd anniversary. 40 of them were “normal.” The last three have been different for both of us. I had a stroke. Melanie contracted Lyme disease. In different ways, each of us has experienced a serious loss of energy and stamina. And you don’t find young people celebrating their 43rd wedding anniversary, so there’s that.

Until these restrictions crashed into our lives, we had enjoyed living in Florida, especially on vacations. Like my dad, we loved heading for the beach. Along the way we got to know people who already lived at the beach. When a hurricane was heading the Gulf coast, and a single mom who rented rooms at her waterfront beach house where we had stayed needed somewhere to flee for safety, we invited her, her two children, and their Labrador, to come stay with us in Lakeland for a couple of days. She never let us pay for a room again when we could get over to the water for a day or two.

By the time her children were off to college and our friend sold her place, we had made other friends who generously invited us to hang out at their homes close to the water. These beach vacations began to turn into private retreats for us, where Melanie and I would read spiritual books to each other and pray. Eventually we began writing our own books on these retreats.

This week, we had been remembering those days. I am hesitant to expect that we can ever leave the house like that again. I am too fragile and cannot eat a meal without special preparation from Melanie. Any vacation like those we used to have would not be vacations for her.

But I went back to look at pictures I had taken on these getaways. I had not looked at them since the stroke changed things for us. With the pictures, I looked through a window on those happy days.

And I rediscovered a picture that has become my favorite of my dear wife. I took it one night in the house where we were staying. The only light we had on was one above the kitchen counter. Melanie was across the room, sitting at the dining table with her computer. Writing.

I can’t express how proud I am of her and books the Lord has given her to share. I was thrilled to be her technical helper getting them published and listed online. These days in our daily devotions (during my long mealtimes) she often includes pages from her books written so recently, so long ago. We often shake our heads at the words of counsel and exhortation that strike us now as prescient. The fruit from our times of retreat now reminds us to hold on to our trust in Jesus. [See a listing of her books at her blog. The photo on the cover of her first book, Listening For His Voice, was taken on one our first visits to Anna Maria Island.]

Since my stroke, Melanie’s writing time has been largely taken over by the care she gives me. I love you, Melanie, and I hope you will be able to return to this ministry and gift from the Lord. I  am delighted to think you still will be able to touch lives and encourage hearts, even if you do it behind closed doors while watching out for me.

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A friend and I were discussing events in our lives that we did not like or want.

After he left, I went internet searching for something on the Ignatian idea of “indifference.” I found this blog by South African chemistry professor and spiritual director Margaret Blackie on the subject. She offers an interesting reflection on the admittedly difficult concept.

Didn’t Jesus tell us to ask, seek, and keep knocking at the door with our prayer requests? Didn’t he often ask those who approached him, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) Of course, there were times he got answers  to that question and responded, “You don’t know what you are asking.” (Matthew 20:22)

When his mother tried to stir his concern for the friends running out of wine at their wedding party, Jesus responded that it wasn’t their business to interfere. (John 2) Mary stopped asking for his help — but she told the servants to do whatever he told them to do. She became “indifferent,” but only about trying to figure out the solution herself. She left that in Jesus’ hands.

When Peter pressed Jesus, giving him his best advice on Jesus’ future ministry, Jesus (who had just finished affirming something Peter said) bluntly rejected his counsel. “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) Clearly, there are times when the Lord has no interest in listening to what we have to say.

Jesus highly praised the centurion who had a firm understanding about how authority worked between a master and a servant. (Matthew 8:8, 9) When the master says, “Go,” the servant doesn’t ask for explanations. He just goes. Both parties assume the master knows what he is doing, even if the servant does not.

If Adam and Eve had had this principle down pat, the conversation with the serpent would have gone differently. “Yes, this tree and its fruit look just as good as all the others we have permission to eat. But He said to leave this one alone. Yes, that’s what He said. Which of those words is not clear to you, snake?”

What that tree looked like should have been a  matter of “indifference” to them, having no impact on their decision. God had already made the decision.

This is not to deny what they saw. And the principle of “indifference” that St. Ignatius taught does not deny the way things may look to us. It’s simply that “the way things look to us” is the wrong channel for us to focus on when God has already spoken. In his prayer that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is clearly aware of strong signals on two channels. Paul discussed those two channels.

I Corinthians 2: 12.  We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
 13.  This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
 14.  The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 

Paul speaks elsewhere of the level of flesh and the natural man being servants of “the stomach god.” (Philippians 3:19) Anything more significant than the hungers of the moment cannot be understood at this level, by this god. If God Almighty has some other goals or plans, there is going to be a struggle in our will over which master to follow. The struggle was so strong inside Jesus that night in the Garden that he was sweating blood.

St. Ignatius is saying we must practice being “indifferent” to the desires of this lesser, limited god. There is no suggestion it is ever easy (see Jesus in the Garden again).

In her blog, Margaret observes “I believe that the experience of that kind of indifference or freedom is grace.” In other words, both the Word from the Lord and the ability to obey it are His gifts to us.

I Corinthians 10: 12.  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!  13.  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. 

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