Monday, October 23, 2006

The Parable of the Grand Ship

Once there was a grand ship. It was the largest in the fleet, with the largest engines and the fastest time across the ocean. It held the most passengers, and scheduled the most activities for the passengers while on board ship. It was mighty and strong, and was able to withstand all the storms that were so regular in the ocean.

One day, the ship was sailing along, and it was said that there was not enough coal in the holds to run the engines. The bins next to the coal furnaces were indeed lower than they should have been, but in the storage areas, there was plenty. Somehow, the coal wasn’t getting to the bins, and therefore not getting into the engines. It seems that there were a few of the coal carriers who had decided not to carry any more coal. “We’re using too much coal, it’s needed in other places on the ship. The younger coal carriers aren’t carrying as much as they should, and we don’t like the places the ship is taking us. There is plenty in the bin for engine #1, you really just need to turn off engine #2. We don’t need two, anyway.”

Since the carriers were insistent on their need to use the coal in other parts of the ship, coal which the ships’ manifest clearly said was there, the rest of the crew decided that it was indeed Ok to continue with just one engine. They turned the other engine off, and they even moved some of the coal from engine #2,’s bin over to #1. The next time they were in home port, they removed engine #2.

Things proceeded well for a while, the grand ship continuing to sail across the ocean. It was going a little bit slower, yes. Some of the passenger’s activities were curtailed, also true. But it was still a grand looking ship, with a freshly painted hull, including a brightly painted red line at the waterline, and bright flags hanging off the smokestacks.

However, as regularly happened, a storm came up. To move out of the storm, they increased engine #1’s speed, and the ship did move forward more quickly. The storm moved even faster, however, and overtook the grand ship. This happened again and again, as the ship continued to sail. The flags were ripped from their lanyards, and blew away in the wind. The brightly painted hull soon became pitted with salt and sand from the storms and the waves. To make matters worse, engine #1 began to miss cycles, began to wear out from fighting the storms. The coal carriers, seeing that engine was slowing down, and beginning to fail, said “we must cut back on the coal intake for engine #1, because it isn’t doing the work for us it needs to. We must keep the coal in the hold safe against waste. See, the storm has overtaken us! It is the engine’s job to power us out of the storm!”

Seeing that the ship was no longer grand, no longer shiny, no longer fast, and had a failing engine, the passengers failed to come aboard anymore. The ship seemed to get caught in a storm every time it sailed, and successive engines could do nothing to clear the ship from any storm it came across. The ship was still floating, but it remained short of coal, because there were now fewer passengers.
To continue to make the crossings, without passengers and replacement engines that took less coal to run, but were weaker, the coal carriers suggested that they cut the ship exactly along the formerly bright red line along the hull, and remove the top half so that the bulk of the ship would no longer overpower the new engine.

This worked well, with the formerly grand ship powering along with great speed, taking very few brave and weather-beaten passengers and its load of coal back and forth across the ocean. Then came a storm. The formerly grand ship, now basically a keeled raft and open to the sky, was quickly swamped by waves that it used to power through with its strong hull and mighty engines. The ship sank quickly, its small engine driving it toward the bottom of the ocean and its hold full of coal giving weight to the descent.

The coal carriers, looking down into the ocean from life rafts floating on the surface, cursed the shipping line that gave them such a bad ship and such a small engine.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Brothers and Sisters?

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2: 5-12
Psalm 26

Last week I was on a retreat. I went to a place called Weston Priory, in south central Vermont.
This was my first experience with monks up close, following a modified version of their daily routine. I attended worship 4 or 5 times a day, depending on what they had scheduled. The first service was at 5 AM, and the last was a vespers at 8:00 PM. I took communion with them, which is very unique—regular Catholic churches rarely allow non-Catholics to receive communion, and never both forms.

All of their worship services are led by the assembled company at the priory, of course all men, who spanned the range of mid 20’s to probably 75 or so. They sing together, accompanied by two guitars played by brothers. It is very gentle song, meditative or fast moving, occasionally with drums.

The songs all seem to have the same outlook, which to me was striking. You see, their lyrics have much less of a confessional “we’re not worthy” aspect to them than what we sing here.

Here’s an example:
When bread is on every table,
all will know that Jesus is risen.
Then the poor of the world will feast,
and their children will sing “Alleluia”


We waited, we waited for you, O God
Then you came to meet us and set us free.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know we have songs that affirm our faith in God, and reinforce our assurance that Jesus died for and saved us.

But I have to say that it is rare to hear an ordinary Methodist believer have so clear and quiet a belief in God in their lives. Maybe it is the difference between living in the world and following God; the struggle that Paul describes as “being in the world and not of it.” These monks are still in the world—they sell music, they make and sell maple syrup and have to go into town for supplies. They wear shoes and pants when they are not in worship, just like anyone else. When it was cold, they wore sweaters and fleece jackets, and when it rained they wore rain gear. They are not self sufficient. But they somehow have this quiet, blessed assurance that God is with them. They seem to have a quiet assurance that Jesus is their brother.

Jesus is their brother. For some of us in the walk with Christ we have chosen, calling Jesus brother seems, somehow presumptuous, doesn’t it?

And yet, we just read assurance in Hebrews, verse 11, that: For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. . .

Yes. If you believe that you are sanctified by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the action of God, then you are one of Jesus brothers and sisters. You are on His level. Or rather, by freely submitting himself to drink the cup that God had for him, he brought himself to be on our level, down here a little lower than the angels. If we believe, He comes to our level, too.
Down to the level of worrying about the next test.
Down to the level of trying to stretch the family budget for another week.
Down to the level of worrying about how to buy prescriptions.

And when you think about it, that changes the way we can talk to him, doesn’t it? Instead of reverential and respectful, we can be plain and clear and honest, even when we cringe inwardly at what comes out of our hearts.

He understands our worries about our children—“Will they go to college?” “Will they make the right choices?” “Does he have a learning disability?”
He understands our worries about our relationships—“Why did he stop loving me?” “Why can’t I get ahead at work?” “Am I too angry for people to get close to me?”

He understands our worries about ourselves—“Why can’t I stop smoking?” Am I depressed?”
He understands our concerns throughout our lives, both the noble and the selfish.
He understands. Because he was human, too.

It is a blindingly positive outlook on life to have Jesus on our level, isn’t it? Some may say, “Well, perhaps that is true and is all pretty and everything, but I do not feel worthy for this. Jesus cannot have come to the level I truly am, the secret me I keep hidden from myself.”

Yes, he can. Yes, he has already. In His love, he met you there. I don’t know how—I don’t have a degree in heavenly fluid dynamics. The Holy Spirit will move where it will, like a wild goose, like the wind, like a nasty 12 to 6 curveball with movement. But I saw that those monks just KNEW that they were Jesus’ brothers, and it affected their whole way of living life, of their way of praying. And I think it affected me a little bit, too.

Those guys can say, and probably with less doubt than we can, that they have trusted in the Lord without wavering. They can ask for God to prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

We are the children of God. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. We have a proud family heritage, and within us is the power to continue to show our inheritance from God, the one we share with Jesus. We haven’t earned it, any more than Prince Charles earned the right to become the next King of England. Jesus was strong because of the way he had faith in God, which means that we can, too.

So, my message is to trust in the inheritance we have received—to trust in the words we read and hear, when we are told that we are God’s children, that we all are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And you don’t have to be a monk in Vermont to live it, either. You can live it in the life you already lead. You see, blood is blood. No matter where you go, you still carry the name. Into the office, into the daycare, into the drive through at Burger King, into the dance club, into the classroom, into the field, onto the court. Everyone you meet is a Child of God and a brother and sister of Jesus.

And when we fail, we are forgiven. And we are still the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Still.