Monday, October 5, 2015
Romans 12 (NRSV)
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to
faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I was speaking to one of my work colleagues the other day and she was telling me about a marketing class that she had attended. The instructor asked the class, “What does a four month old baby see when he or she looks around?” The answer is everything! A baby is fascinated by everything because everything is new and requires study by the infant to be understood and retained in his or her memory.
This is backed up by scientific studies of visual cognition in infants. When seeing faces or objects for the first time, babies will study them very intently soaking in as much information as they can. Over time as they have more exposure to those same faces and objects, the infant will spend less time looking at them.
This instinct follows us throughout our lives. Our human brains employ a form of short hand to bypass a lot of processing time that would otherwise be spent analyzing what we deem to be familiar subjects freeing up a limited resource—the brain’s processing bandwidth—to be available to tackle the analysis of new subjects.
Youngsters not only look at things more closely than we do they also ask lots of questions—some of them can be a bit amusing but they do show what it means to look at the world with unfiltered eyes.
Darlene was a little 3 year old girl sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story. She would stroke her grandfather’s cheek and then do the same to her own. Finally she spoke up, “Grandpa, did God make you?”
“Yes darling, he answered, He made me a long time ago.”
“Oh,” Darlene paused, “Grandpa, did God make me too?”
“Yes, indeed He did sweetheart. He made you just a short while ago.”
Feeling their respective faces again, Darlene observed, “God’s getting better at it isn’t He?”
There are probably valuable lessons that we can learn from observing the youngsters in our lives.
Simply letting our brains work they way they normally do may be an efficient way for us to function, but there are pitfalls.
Relying upon old beliefs rather than taking the time to take a fresh look at people, places and things can be limiting and inhibit our ability to recognize changes—new things. You might think that the brain sees what the eyes send it but in reality the eyes only see what the brain allows them to see.
We have all had the experience of looking for something that was right in front of us—if it had been a snake it would have bitten us.
The Apostle Paul in the scripture passage that I just read urges us to “not be conformed to this world” but rather “be transformed by renewing [our] minds”.
One of the ways that I think we are often conformed to this world is to buy into the feeling of cynicism that seems to be so pervasive. To hear many folks tell it we are in a period of accelerating decline and there is little that we can do to avert impending disaster.
Just so you know, pessimism is not just a recent phenomenon. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little”. I will admit to you that I am older than forty-eight and I am an optimist.
Let’s look at just a few of things that have been accomplished over the span of our lifetimes, all of which by the way occurred after Mark Twain made his remark.
Following World War II and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, free democratic governments are firmly in place in many countries formerly ruled by dictatorships such as Germany, Japan and numerous countries in Eastern Europe, Central and South America. More people live in free, self-governed societies today than ever in the history of the world.
Over that same time period, amazing medical advancements and improvement in public health resources have extended life expectancy by about ten years here in the U.S. and about 20 years world-wide.
Breakthroughs in communications--the invention of the Internet, cell phones, satellite television and social media-- have put people living far apart in closer touch than ever before imagined and have made a wealth of information universally available in the palm of your hand. We can see and talk to our grandkids on a phone that we carry in our pocket—something that would have seemed like science fiction not that long ago.
In 2014 an agency of the United Nations reported that over the previous decade the number of hungry people had declined by 100 million and that it was within reach of achieving its goal of cutting in half the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries.
While we still have a ways to go, we have become a society that is more tolerant of those who have been historically marginalized due to race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.
I say all of this not to pretend that there are not significant challenges before us. It would be naïve to say that. The reason that I am taking note of the historic progress that has been made in recent times is to point out that this would not have occurred without the efforts of countless people striving to use their particular gifts to make everyday life better.
As Christians, we need to let the energy provided by the Holy Spirit to move us towards continuing to make our limited time here on earth more like the eternal bliss to come. We can’t do that if we take the attitude that what we do won’t make a difference or doesn’t matter. Everything counts. No deed is too small. We all have a role. And we have a guide as to what to do.
The 12th chapter of Romans speaks to the characteristics of what it means to live a Christian life. It speaks to the transformation in thinking that occurs when one becomes a follower of Christ. They are not easy things to do in all cases. It may require us to break patterns of thinking that may have become bad habits on our part. We may need to cast aside stereotypes and some ways of thinking that may have become ingrained and instead think more like that child for whom everything is news. Let’s take a fresh look at how we think and live with others.
The essence of Paul’s message in Chapter 12 is that we should subordinate our selfish interests to the interest of the larger community of followers of Christ—Christ’s one body. Paul asks each of us to not to think of ourselves but that we should use our own unique gifts for the benefit of God’s one body the church.
We can each take an inventory of our own strengths and special skills and determine what we can do to help others. Certainly something that each of us can do is to treat each other with generosity and cheerfulness.Paul explicitly tells us that we should be genuine in our love for each other, reject evil, hold on to what is good and extend hospitality to strangers.
My guess is that you have new residents coming into this community here fairly frequently. I encourage you to follow Paul’s advice and extend a warm hand of friendship to them and help the newcomers navigate the transition to their new home with kindness and support.
I can tell you that when my wife Libby and I joined the West Des Moines United Methodist Church after having moved to Des Moines from the Chicago area, we did not know a soul at the church and the warm welcome and heartfelt friendship that was freely given was really important and much appreciated by us.
So up to now you may be thinking, “OK, that does not seem to be too difficult. I’m a nice person and can be friendly to others.” Next is where Paul steps up the challenge for us in a pretty significant way. He tells us to bless and not curse those who persecute us and to not repay evil for evil but rather to think in a more noble fashion. If our enemies are hungry we are to feed them. If they are thirsty, provide them with a drink. Overcome evil with good.
This message of extending comfort to our enemies is what really distinguishes the teachings of Jesus from all that came before. Before Jesus’ began his teaching, the rule of society was pretty much of the “eye for an eye” mentality. Jesus told us that the two most important commandments are for us to love God and to love our neighbor with neighbor being defined in the broadest sense of that word.
This core tenet of our faith was so radically new and such a different notion that it demonstratively marked the new Covenant that God has made with each us.
We are to love, not judge. Be kind, not vengeful. Help, not destroy. Think of others, not ourselves. In essence, be servants to others just as Jesus was a servant to us. He served as the perfect role model for us to follow.While I earlier recounted the many good things that have happened in the world in recent times, evil has not been vanquished. We don’t need any clearer reminder of this than the shootings at the college in Oregon this past week and the countless similar stories that preceded it. We also have the ongoing horror of war in Syria which has cost the lives of many thousands of innocent people and driven millions from their homes into a refugee status.
It has been reported that the students in the Oregon college were asked by the shooter if they were Christian and if they said yes he shot them. In the Middle East, terrorist groups target Christians for persecution.
I don’t know if any of us can truly say how we would react if faced with the prospect of immediate death if we truthfully professed our faith in Christ. I’m sure we would all like to think we would stand firm in such a test but it is impossible to speculate. We certainly admire and pray for God’s special mercies on those who were confronted with such an ordeal.
Being a Christian can be difficult but my hope and prayer is that none of us would be in a situation like that experienced by the people in Oregon or the Middle East or other places where admission of faith can lead to death. But we do face a tough challenge nevertheless.
It would be easy for us to hate the perpetrators of such horror. Certainly we can condemn the despicable acts taken and we can take steps to protect ourselves in the future but it is not up to us to judge the people involved. That is God’s job, not ours.
Paul tells us that Jesus expects us to extend a blessing and not a curse to our enemies. Remember Jesus’ words from the cross—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” So let us pray for the souls of those responsible for these acts in addition to extending our love and support to everyone impacted by these tragedies.
Above all, we need to take to heart Paul’s final admonition in today’s reading-- to not be overcome by evil but rather to overcome evil with good.
So let us each act as God’s instrument for good.
Let us recapture that child-like sense of wonderment and look at the world with fresh eyes seeking out ways that we can help others which we may have previously overlooked.
Let us recapture our appreciation and be thankful for the many beautiful and awe-inspiring things with which God has blessed us.
Let us not allow evil to win by ourselves becoming evil.
Let us work to do whatever we can to make our community a safer, more tolerant, kind, loving, fulfilling and peaceful place.
Let us show our love for God and for our neighbors in everything we do.
In doing so we can truly live our faith. We will be following the example that Jesus gave to us and we can in turn serve as a model for others to do the same. Let’s do this and give evil a little less room in which to operate.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
little karma BIG GRACE
by Mike Powers
Sermon delivered July 19, 2015 at Scottish Rite Park in Des Moines, Iowa
2 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2: 1-10)
I would venture to say the category of videos found on the Internet most likely to bring a smile to anyone’s face (with the possible exception of course of those featuring cats playing the piano, pestering frustrated dogs, snuggling up against awe-struck babies or really doing almost anything for that matter) would have to be those in which the tables are suddenly turned on scoundrels who are in the midst of attempting to victimize their fellow humans. Recent examples that I have seen include:
· A man caught trying to rob a farmer makes his escape across a pasture field only to be chased by a bull causing him to run into a barbed wire fence.
· A man driving an expensive sports car on the shoulder in order to bypass a long line of people who were stopped and waiting patiently due to road construction becomes stuck and damages his car when he drives into a deep hole that had been dug in that same shoulder just beyond the crest of a hill.
· A thief grabs the purse of an older lady and while trying to get away he runs into a light pole and knocks himself out which leads to his arrest.
In each of those instances we could with much justification feel that the perpetrator got what was coming to him. We could say “What goes around comes around.” Some would call it karma.
Karma is a concept that is referenced by many people. Some deeply believe in the concept as a universal law and others just relish it when it exhibits itself in examples such as the ones I just cited. So what is karma and should we hope that it is in fact bringing fundamental order to the universe?
Karma is a cornerstone belief in certain religions and is essentially a law of moral causation. Karma explains the inequality that exists in mankind as either a reward or punishment for previous actions taken by each individual—possibly in an earlier life. Such good or bad fortune can manifest itself in varying levels of wealth, health, intelligence, physical strength, talent, looks, power or other factors.
A trust in karma would lead one to believe that every person gets what he or she deserves—good or bad—based upon their prior actions. This concept of life being an orderly process of cause and effect where good deeds are always ultimately rewarded and misdeeds ultimately punished is one that can be on the surface quite appealing.
Karma does seem to be an equitable and rational way of organizing the world. It provides a logical explanation as to why some people are blessed with an abundance of good fortune while others have quite the opposite experience. It has the very alluring advantage of allowing us to avoid the difficult question as to “Why bad things happen to good people?” Karma would say that if something bad happens it is for a good reason.
Let’s think about that one. Can that be true in every case?
The nine people in Charleston that were attending a bible study and murdered in cold blood. They had that coming? In the case of a small child who contracts a deadly disease--is the child being punished for a misdeed in a prior life with no opportunity to redeem herself in this one or are the parents being punished and if so why does the child have to suffer? In World War II, it is estimated that 60 million people or more were killed including 45 million civilians. They all deserved that? And what about the various dictators and despots throughout history--did they obtain their level of power as a reward for good deeds in a prior life? And if that is the case how did they change course so dramatically and disastrously for mankind?
Don’t get me wrong. No sensible person will argue that the actions that we take don’t carry with them consequences. If you don’t take the medicine prescribed by your doctor you may get sick. If you exercise and eat the right foods you are likely to have better health. If you work with diligence and intelligence you have a better chance of achieving the goals that you set before yourself than if you slack off. If you treat people fairly you will likely have kindness returned to you. So I would say that karma does exist to the extent that our actions can strongly affect but not absolutely determine outcomes here on earth. Let’s call it “little karma”.
If karma is not the universal truth, then back to the question as to why do bad things do happen to good people. Why would a God who loves us allow such a system to exist?
A partial answer may be that God gave each of us a free will which means that inevitably we are all at times going to make bad choices and hurt someone—sometimes deliberately but often times without even realizing it. Man’s inhumanity to man is one of the unfortunate side effects of God allowing us to make our own decisions and can explain many of the bad things that happen but not all. Free will choices can explain wars, crime, bullying, emotional abuse, insults and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment but there are still illnesses, natural disasters, accidents and other misfortunes which defy explanation.
Some would say that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, along with that knowledge came a lot of collateral damage in the form of suffering and death which we continue to experience today.
As someone who endured much suffering himself, the Apostle Paul saw a purpose to earthly suffering when he wrote in Chapter 5 in his letter to the Romans, “…we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3b-4)
So perhaps suffering is a fire which we can use to test and sharpen our faith. To further quote scripture in 1 Peter chapter 2 (verses 19-21) “19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
To be fair, Jesus in his ministry never promised that things would be easy for us. He was much more concerned with preparing us for the everlasting life to come rather than making things more comfortable for us here on earth. In John 16:33, shortly before facing his own gruesome human death on the cross, Jesus warned his disciples of the challenges that they would soon face saying,” I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
So let’s accept the fact that at least from our vantage point, life may not always be fair in how the breaks both good and bad are doled out. Similar to the story of Job in the Bible, bad breaks may happen to us not necessarily in retribution for our prior sins but may just be part of an overall plan that we do not have the ability to discern.
Jesus came to earth, assumed a human form and suffered greatly for our salvation. We should view the challenges that are thrown our way as a means to live more like Christ and use our faith to face these obstacles without fear knowing that in the scheme of all things, our life here on earth is but a flash in the pan when compared to the infinite life to come. Any pain or suffering endured here is nothing compared to the ultimate glory of the kingdom of heaven.
So let’s talk about our eternal life. If good deeds are not necessarily rewarded here on earth, do they at least get us into heaven?
You are familiar with the popular imagery of St. Peter sitting up in heaven with a log book that contains a record of all of the actions—good and bad—that we have taken during our time here on earth. On that day when we arrive at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter totals up our score and if we have performed a sufficient number of good deeds in excess of the bad he will let us in. Otherwise, he will point to the elevator that goes to a lower floor where the air conditioning doesn’t work so well.
My guess is that is probably not the way it works. The truth is that because the glory of heaven is so magnificent, so much so that it outstrips our ability to adequately describe or comprehend it, no amount of good works performed here on earth can be said to fairly pay for our admittance. We can’t earn our way into heaven—it is a priceless treasure.
That is what I believe the author of the epistle in our scripture reading meant in writing, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
So what does this mean? Is it totally random as to whom God selects to let in? To whom does He give this tremendous gift? If good works do not gain us admittance to Heaven, what does? Is it a waste of time to do good works if there is no payoff in the end?
Jesus did provide us with an answer as to how to gain everlasting life. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” A little later in John 14:23, Jesus expanded on this saying, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, throughout the early part of his life passionately pursued the performance of good deeds as a means of proving his worth in the eyes of God. He visited the sick, the imprisoned, prayed constantly and frequently fasted all with the goal of proving himself worthy to God. In spite of this remarkable record of performing good deeds, he felt an emptiness in so doing, even going so far as to say that he did not feel that he was a Christian during this time period of his life.
He left his native England and sailed to Georgia to ostensibly bring Christianity to Native Americans but in reality he later admitted that he was trying to “convert” himself. He had adopted a “karma-like” mode of thinking along the lines of “If I do something good, God will love me.”
When he was forced to leave America and return to England due to a situation where he refused to serve communion to a woman for whom he had a fondness but who had chosen to marry another man, he realized that he had reached a low point in his spiritual life.
Then, one evening while attending a prayer meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, a realization came to him that “strangely warmed his heart”. And that realization was that he did not have to prove his worth to God but he just needed to accept the love that God already had for him.
Wesley marked that realization as the point at which he truly became a Christian. While he continued to perform the many good deeds as he had previously, from then on it was not to earn God’s love but rather it was because God loved him and he loved God.
You could say there was a sort of “karma-like” cause and effect at work here but not in the way we may have initially expected. Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley hoped that his good works would cause God to love him. Following his experience at Aldersgate, God’s love caused Wesley to want to express his love by doing good works.
The lesson for us is that God’s gift of grace is freely available to us right now—today. It is a gift with a value beyond measure. We just need to accept God’s love and if that acceptance of His love is sincere and real, our own hearts can be “strangely warmed” and we will be moved to live by His Word by showing our love to both God and our neighbors in our daily lives.
We must not fool ourselves into thinking that merely saying the words that we love God means that we really do. God knows what is in our hearts. If we are sincere we can’t help but express that love in the way we live our lives and treat our fellow humans—helping those in need, comforting those in despair and extending kindness to all.
Life as we all know can be messy and some injustices defy explanation. Bad things happen to good people. However, by embracing God’s love we can help each other out through the tough times and celebrate the good times together while here on earth as we look forward to the everlasting glory to come.
Everyone loves a little karma but it does not compare to the bigness that is GRACE.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
The Lady or the Tiger
By Mike Powers
This sermon was presented at the Vespers service on May 3, 2015 at Edgewater Retirement Community.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for[f] those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
In 1882, the author Frank R. Stockton published a short story which was entitled The Lady or the Tiger. You may be familiar with it but I will provide a synopsis.
In the days of old there was a land ruled by a semi-barbaric king. The king was described as only semi-barbaric by the author in that the king made an effort to enlighten the people under his rule by applying his style of justice in a very open and even-handed manner. Granted, it was the king’s own unique style of justice but he did treat everyone, if not fairly, at least equally.
Here is how it worked. Whenever a person was accused of a crime, they would be brought into a public arena with the king and the public in attendance. The accused would be presented with two identical doors from which he was to select one. Behind one of the doors would be a beautiful woman and the other door would hold a ferocious hungry tiger. The doors were randomly assigned and there was no way to tell which held the woman and which held the tiger.
If the accused chose the door with the woman, it was deemed to be a sign of his innocence and his reward for enduring the “false” accusation would be to immediately marry the woman behind the door. Of course this occurred without regard as to whether the prisoner was already married or otherwise in a relationship and despite the fact that he had not previously met the woman and may not have had a desire to marry her. It also sounds like there was very little consultation with the woman as to her thoughts on the entire matter. You probably have also noticed the lack of the use of evidence and witnesses in this style of justice. But, as you know, when you are the king you get to set the rules.
Conversely, if the prisoner chose the door with the tiger, it was taken as a sign of his guilt and he would be set upon and devoured by the tiger. This would be the barbaric side of the semi-barbaric king being exhibited here.
The crowds, not knowing whether they were to witness a joyous wedding or a violent and bloody encounter between man and beast, were quite taken by this style of “justice”. These public trials were quite popular and well attended. The cynics among us can almost imagine this being a popular television show today.
It so happened that the king had a daughter who had fallen in love with a young man. This man was quite handsome and charming but alas, the king did not think him worthy of the attentions of his daughter. Unlike most fathers who do not care for the boyfriends of their daughters, the king in this case could do something about it and he did. He had the young man arrested.
To the king’s credit, despite the involvement of his daughter in this affair, a public trial involving the two doors was scheduled for this young man. Perhaps the king’s willingness to do this was the thought that either way it turned out the young man would be kept away from his daughter. In preparation for this trial, the king selected the most dangerous and ferocious tiger in the kingdom--an animal that would ensure a bloody and painful death if the young man were to inadvertently choose it. The king also selected a young woman who was the most beautiful in the land to be the bride of the young man if he chose her door.
The princess, driven by her love for the young man, did not take this laying down and set out to find out which door was to hold the tiger and which door was to hold the lady. And, unbeknownst to the king, through an extensive effort using a combination of her position as a royal princess and other extraordinary measures, she succeeded in learning this secret shortly in advance of the trial.
However, that same passionate love for the young man that drove her to unlock the secret of the doors also had the effect of sending the princess into a downward spiral with alternating periods of sadness, rage and despair over the fact that the young man was lost to her forever. She was filled with jealousy over the prospect of her beloved marrying the beautiful woman selected by her father the king and the thought of the young woman enjoying the life with the young man that she had envisioned for herself was an unbearable outcome.
At the same time, while working her way through these emotions, she did not want her young man to suffer the horrors which would be required for her to keep him and her beautiful rival apart. She was hopelessly torn between a choice of pushing her loved one into the arms of a person she had grown quickly to despise or to keep them apart by way of a horrible death in the hopes that she could reunite with her loved one in the after-life.
The day of the trial arrived and the young man entered the arena. Knowing the princess as he did, he had a feeling that she would be able to learn the information about which door would save his life and would be able to give him a sign as to which door to pick. Sure enough, with the king demanding before all that the young man choose a door, the young man looked to his princess for a sign and she at first hesitated but then slowly lifted her arm and pointed to the right. The young man strode forward and selected the door on the right.
The question is, did the lady or the tiger emerge from that door?
Before I answer that I will ask if you were the princess, who or what would come out of that door—the lady or the tiger?
It is a fair question and one not without real life application. While many commentators have said that this story is an example of a conundrum—an unsolvable puzzle--our Christian beliefs would hopefully lead us to the decision that would spare the life of the young man. This in spite of the personal disappointment involved.
But we should examine ourselves and see if we are that magnanimous in real life. If we really want something badly but realize that it is for one reason or another out of our reach, do we take actions such that no one else can get it? Or do we step aside and make it possible for someone else?
We see “tigers” chosen all the time in the news with individuals adopting the attitude that if I can’t have it (or someone) than no one else can either. We see that in domestic violence situations where an estranged spouse will violently lash out at a former loved one. That is perhaps the most serious and vivid example but it can happen to us in other ways in our everyday lives.
When faced with a disappointment, do we let that cloud our judgment and lead us to a path where instead of embracing our neighbor we lash out at them? If someone triumphs over us in a competition, do we congratulate them or do we try to diminish their accomplishment by making excuses and questioning the validity of their victory. Do we use disappointment as a source of spreading misery to others or do we see it as a challenge to overcome and move on as stronger and wiser people. We all know what Jesus expects of us but it sure can be hard at times—right?
So let’s return to the story and although we don’t know, for the moment let’s hope and believe the princess has not chosen to unleash the tiger but instead has opted to save the life of her beloved. From the perspective of the young man, how should he act going forward if he has received the gift of a new lease on life from the princess. What should he do?
Let me suggest that he needs to apply the same basic lesson that would apply to the princess and that is if you have an opportunity to help someone, even if there is no return benefit to you, you should do it. The princess should allow the young man to live despite her own loss. The young man, not being in a position to return the favor to the princess, should look for ways to pay the gift that he has received forward. He should look for ways to help others regardless as to any benefit he might receive in so doing.
Certainly good manners tell us that if someone does us a favor we should look for ways to reciprocate. However, we need to be careful to avoid analyzing situations along the lines of giving something only if there is an expectation of getting something back in return. Such quid pro quo thinking is what happens in a bartering transaction and is not a true expression of love. Once the exchange has occurred both parties may often feel satisfied with no need to take further action. It is a closed loop.
Paying it forward, on the other hand, doing a kindness for someone with no expectation of receiving something in return, is an act of selfless love. Unlike the closed-loop nature of a “give and take exchange”, a “pay it forward” kindness can set off an unending string of wonderful acts of love. The impact can be exponentially magnified if each person receiving a kindness is inspired to perform an unsolicited service or provide a gift to more than one other person.
Of course, the best example of all time of igniting a “pay it forward” string of love and kindness is the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of us in dying on the cross. Jesus made His sacrifice not to help Himself but to benefit all of us. The impact of that gift that Jesus has given to us continues to be felt today some 2000 years later.
But let’s also be honest. We are human and like the princess in the story, we are going to be disappointed in life and we are going to be jealous when others obtain achievements that we want for ourselves. It is natural to have these feelings but we must be vigilant to identify them and to resist the temptation to act on them. We need to be “bigger people”.
In today’s reading, the writer in James cautions us that “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:16) The writer points out that acting out of envy and with selfishness is contrary to God’s expectation and goes on to explain what God does want of us saying, “17 … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for[f] those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)
By the way, back to the cliffhanger in the story, the author never answers the question as to whether the lady or the tiger emerges. He leaves it up to us the readers to decide.
Let’s make that decision in our own lives shall we?
Let’s selflessly look for ways to make peace and extend kindness to others—not out of an expectation of a return favor but out of a pure sense of love. When receiving acts of kindness, let us magnify that impact by paying it forward to as many people as possible. As a matter of fact, even if we don’t receive a kindness, we should still look to help someone else. After all, Jesus gave us all quite a gift of love which He is depending upon us to continue to pay forward. In doing so, we will be showing our love for both God and neighbor and keeping our tigers safely behind closed doors.