Shel Silverstein was a well known artist, author, playwright, songwriter and poet from New York City.
Now, Shel was something of an over-achiever: He was a well known cartoonist for Playboy Magazine, you know, that magazine we all read for the great articles and interviews? He won Grammy awards as a songwriter (amongst others, he wrote Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"), had plays produced on Broadway... And all sorts of other things. He also published several volumes of some of the finest poetry ever written for Children.
When I was 7, I was given a copy of his book, "Where the Sidewalk Ends", and from it memorized my first (and longtime favorite poem): Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Shel Silverstein's epic work: "My Beard"
My Beard Grows
Down to my Toes.
I never wears no Clothes.
I wrap my Hair
Around my Bare,
And down the Road I goes.
Thank you very much.
Steel was born and raised in a Jewish family, and was a pious and faithful man. He had a great interest in comparative religious studies and was always up for a chat about faith and philosophy. One day, he had a long conversation with a Christian Minister in a New York Park about the nature of Jesus, and the way that Jesus asks people to love.
Following that conversation, he returned to his apartment and wrote a story, that became a book. It's not particularly long, so I'd like to read it to you.
There is a story. It's a story about a tree. And it's a story about a little boy the tree loved.
Every day the boy would come by the tree and play, Picking up the tree's leaves, playing make believe, climbing the tree's trunk, and enjoying the tree's shade. All of this made the tree very happy.
But time passed. The tree was alone and it was sad. One day the boy came by and the tree tried to get the boy to stay and play. But the boy asked the tree, "Can you just give me some money?"
The tree said "I'm sorry, I have no money. I only have apples. Take my apples and sell them in the city and then you will have money. Then you will be happy," So the boy climbed the tree, took all the apples and sold them in the city. And the tree was very happy.
One day the boy came by and the tree once again tried to get the boy to stay and to play. The boy said "I'm too busy. I want a house to keep me warm. 1 want a wife and a child. So, I need a house. Can you give me a house?"
The tree said, "l'm sorry but I have no house. But you can cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy." So the boy cut off the branches, carried them away, and built a house.
And the tree was very happy.
More time went by. Again, the tree was alone, and it was very sad. One day they boy came back. The tree once again tried to get the boy to stay and to play. But the boy said, "I'm too old and sad to play. 1 want a boat that will take me far away. Can you give me a boat?"
The tree said, "I'm sorry but I don't have a boat. You can cut down my trunk and make a boat." So the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy...... but not really.
After a long time, the boy came back again. The tree this time said, "I am sorry, Boy but 1 have nothing left to give you. 1 wish I had something to give you but I have nothing left." The boy said, "1 don't need very much now. I am old and very tired, I just need a quiet place to sit and to rest." The tree said "Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, boy, sit down and rest."
The boy did. And the tree was happy.
I must admit, I wasn't sure I liked the story of the giving tree the first time I heard it. It seemed to me that the boy had problems. As he grew older, thou ght he became self-centered and greedy and that he as<ed too much of the tree. And then I though of my kids, and I said.... Yup. I see what's going on here.
And, the tree well -he seemed to problems, too. I thought she suffered from what we, in our modern vernacular might refer to as poor self-esteem and/or the inability to set healthy boundaries.
To give up parts of herself until she had nothing but a stump left seemed like the ultimate sacrifice to me . . and perhaps more than she should have agreed to do.
Reading The Giving Tree myseif years later, I still wish the boy hadn't asked the tree to give up so much, and I still wish the tree had learned to stop trying to fix the boy's sad feelings.
However, f also recognize that The Giving Tree a story about selfless love . . and encountering it again has caused me to wonder about the nature of such love.
Selfless love can seem superhuman, irrational, and exhausting when we are examining it from the outside. "How does she do it?" we may wonder of the young mother who has multiple small children in tow that require her constant and undivided attention. "He has a heart of gold," we may say of the husband who is caring for his wife whose health is in serious decline.
These instances of giving are likely not the times when we are keeping score and expecting a favor in return. Rather, when we give from the heart and in a self-sacrificing way as the Giving Tree did to the little boy, it seems that we're giving from a primal place within one that may not be easily explained by human kindness or a sense of duty.
Physicists, neurologists and psychologists are just a few of the scientists who have attempted to explain selflessness, or what we understand as altruistic behavior.
Albert Einstein, for example, argued that selflessness is a dynamic found in existence itself. Selfless acts of integration had to occur for the universe to evolve from chaos into stars, planets and galaxies and atoms to merge into molecules, molecules into compounds and compounds into organisms.
Some social psychologists believe that selflessness is a prosocial behavior, meaning that it is a behavior that is intended to help other people. And, some neurologists explain that altruistic behavior activates pleasure centers in the brain. But then, hey, science can ruin anything, right?
Whatever the underlying reasons are for selfless love, it seems to me that the central message in Shy: Silverstein's story is that those who give love selflessly do so from a place of abundance.
While the Giving Tree may have once had an abundance of apples, branches and wood to share with the boy, her heart it seems was abundantly full of cherished memories.... memories the tree had of loving a boy who visited her, played with her, and slept peacefully at her side. It seems that the boy gave the tree an abundance of joy she had never known before or since, and that this abundant joy was the wellspring from which t he tree acted so selflessly.
What are we to make of such a story? Perhaps we can start by asking ourselves, What in our lives gives us abundant joy? And, how might this abundance enable us to give to others with humility and a sense of gratitude?
There's a famous prayer, often but mistakenly attributed to St.
Francis of Assisi............................................................................
At this precise moment of the meditation, a vision appeared leaving everyone in a state of shock............ Something was flying low between the rows of church benches and was only stopped from hitting a member of the choir because she let out a great screeching scream and lifted her hymn book in front of her face, at the exact right moment.......
and then after twirling around a few times, the bat returned to the belfry...... where another member of the congregation closed the upstairs door.......
After a few minutes where everyone regained their composure, we continued on another shocker....
There's a famous prayer, often but mistakenly attributed to St.
Francis of Assisi. A version of it goes:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
0 Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
Note from the webmaster : the prayer wrongly attributed to St Francis originated from another source : www.monasteryicons.com/product/Who-Wrote-the-Prayer-of-Saint-Francis/did-you-know
It seems to me this prayer of selfless giving is contained within the story of the Giving Tree. While there may be limits to what we are able to give (as there were even for the Giving Tree)there are never limits to living lives characterized by a spirit ofhumility and gratitude.
And don't forget, in just a couple of weeks, we' begin ourjourney of renewal as we begin the Church year with the Advent Season. Well hear a reading from the Prophet Isaiah that will talk about a stump in the wilderness, and a shoot that will grow into a great tree. Maybe we can take a little time during the frantic season to some to spare a thought for the Giving Tree that we heard about today.
Humble lives, and grateful hearts; gifts given, and received in selfless love: As we go from this place this morning, let's go with hearts fur of the all these gifts we've given and received this weekend the gifts of friendship, Nature's beauty, children's laughter, sweet rock and roil jams for some of us) and the peace of the beautiful country in which we live.
Let's live our lives with the courage to give selflessly, trusting that we can do so from a place of abundance deep within. And may we find happiness, every one of us, as we bring a spirit of gratitude to our days.
MESSAGE: “There But for the Grace of God Go I”
This is a phrase that most of us will have heard several times at least in our life-time. We see someone in a bad or difﬁcult situation, and say basically, yeah that could be me, except for God’s intervention in my life.
It was apparently said by a John Bradford in 1500’s England, as he watched a group of prisoners be led away for execution. Bradford lived during the time of the reign of Henry the VIII of England, became a protestant convert from Catholicism, and began preaching and teaching not only around the country, but also as chaplain to Edward the VI. When Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and who was Catholic like her Spanish mother, ascended the throne and tried to reverse the movement of the Reformation, John Bradford was arrested on a trumped up charge, tried and burned at the stake. His was one life given up for his faith, a man martyred for what he believed. And he left these words for posterity, for us to ponder today, 500 years later.
What kind of faith inﬂuenced John Bradford to go to the burning stake? It is reported that even while waiting for his death by ﬁre, he asked those around him for forgiveness had he hurt them in any way, and offered forgiveness to anyone who felt they may have wronged him, so they could live on with a clean conscience.
Where did this kind of faith come from? Why did he believe? Why do any of us believe actually? And what did he mean by saying “there but for the Grace of God goes John Bradford”?
What is faith? What is Grace? Why do we even believe?
1John 4: 10 says “…not that WE loved God, but HE loved US, and sent His Son as an atoning sacriﬁce for our sins. Verse 19 says “We love because he ﬁrst loved us”
So from this we understand that we actually did not take the initial step into belief, but rather God did, by sending His Son. But how did we get to that place of belief?
In Matt. 9:9-13 Jesus called Matthew. He was a tax collector and NOBODY liked him! He was scum to most people. But Jesus CALLED him to come to him and follow him. And Matthew actually dropped everything and did. When questioned about his decision to call such a one as Matthew, Jesus replied “I came to call sinners, not righteous ones”
John 1:23 says “I am the Voice of the One calling in the desert…”
By these examples we realize that it is God who ﬁrst did the work, and He calls EVERYONE- all humans are living in darkness and the “wilderness” or “desert”; that is, in lives without God. So God’s voice goes out to all the world, he calls everyone, not just a select few.
You may ask, how will all humans know there is a God? Those who have not heard sermons or missionaries, or who live in paganism etc. God has His ways!
Psalm 19:1-4 is a familiar passage, but very important. Though humans in their scientiﬁc pursuits come to various conclusions, the words of David are “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
David is reminding us here that every person in the world has access to the message that there is a God. We just have to look around us, lift up our eyes, and think.
John 10:3 says he CALLS His sheep by name. Not only does he call everyone, but he knows the name of each person.
God’s voice is ALWAYS calling, and, He is always LISTENING. Isaiah 65: 24 says “Before they call I will answer, while they are still speaking I will hear”. He is calling EVERYONE. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle is saying that the message went out to all, but not everyone accepted it. The ones who chose to obey were “called out of the darkness, into His wonderful light”
So we see by this that WE did not take the ﬁrst step to belief, GOD did. It makes us realize that we are so hopeless, so in darkness, that we absolutely need God to take that ﬁrst step to call us
out from that wilderness.
So this is where GRACE comes in. Grace is the offering of a gift to someone who is not worthy of it, with no strings attached.
GRACE is demonstrated by the sacriﬁce of a loving God to rescue us from darkness. This act of Grace led the Son of God to the cross to actually die for us, even calling us by name, that we may come out of the darkness into His wonderful light. For this place we enter into is not a place of moaning and groaning and pain, but rather a place of love and joy. God is love, and wants us to live in His love today and always. Contrary what so many may think, belief in Christ is not a burden, but rather true freedom. Things can get clouded by religion, which can unfortunately sometimes act as a screen hiding the real message of God. That message which is : come to me and I will give you rest.
John Bradford heard the voice of God calling Him, and he answered “Here I am God, send me”. When he said “there but for the Grace of God goes John Bradford” he was saying “if God had not called me, giving me the opportunity to hear and answer His call, the propensity for great evil that is in me could have led me to the place these criminals are today. So he thanked God for that Grace, but also acknowledged that it was not his work, but God’s work, that had put him in a different place than those criminals that day.
So God calls us by name. He then makes it possible for us to hear His voice. He offers us his love in action, an act of grace.
So, now: a problem. we all know people who have heard the message, who have had many, even years of opportunities to answer God’s call, but who have rejected that call. What about them? I had a long telephone conversation this week with someone who is really struggling with some issues. It is creating serious unhappiness in her life. I reminded her that Christ did come so we would never be alone, that He would always be with us, never leave us or forsake us, that He is our one true Friend. We just need to surrender and answer that call. But she said, I tried Christianity and it just doesn’t work for me. So, has she really heard the call? Did she ever answer the call? Why has she decided that Jesus is not for her?
Why is it some people hear and respond to the call, and others do not? How is it we can even hear the call? The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent into the world when He left it, is not inactive and waiting for Halloween to be freed for action. The Holy Spirit is always there, whispering and nudging us to open our hearts to His call. We need to come to that place of surrender first. Some of us ﬁnd that easy to do, others take longer. Paul tells us to count all trials and problems as blessings, because they lead us to surrender, as otherwise we may never get there, and we would be lost. Sometimes we even have to hit bottom before we surrender and give in to His eternal love. God is interested in an eternity WITH us, not without us, so he will allow whatever is necessary in our lives, up to a point (as he said He would never allow anything that we cannot bear) for that to happen.
So when we hear that call and answer it, we actually haven’t seen anything with our eyes or experienced anything that we can touch. We accept Christ by Faith. We heard, we went for it, without knowing the future.
What is Faith?
I heard a radio interview the other day, with an American country singer who had made some big changes in her life. When she was asked by the interviewer how she had had the faith to make the decision, she said “Faith is trust based on experience”. Think about that. Sounds quite good right? Sounds correct. Nice. Faith is Trust based on experience.
So I then compared that with what the Bible tells us Faith is.
There’s a very well-known verse, though I don’t know if we really understand it, being human and such…
Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see”.
Paul reminded the recipients of this letter of many historical acts of faith. Such as:
-Moses leading the Israelite people across the Red Sea. They had no real idea what they were doing. There was a Sea in front of them for goodness sake! But God had told Moses to lead the people to the Red Sea and they would cross over on dry land. So off they went.
Another example is:
-Abraham taking Isaac up to the mountain to sacriﬁce him. WHAT?? How can a parent even think to do that?? But Abraham did it. He had faith that no matter what happened, it would be okay because God was in charge.
Then again, there’s:
-Daniel who went into the den of lions. He may well have thought “this is it, I am going to be eaten by lions.” Wow. But in he went, having faith that again, whatever happened would be the best thing, because God was in charge and God is Love.
-Shadrach Meshack and Abednego. who went into the ﬁrey furnace. They did not “know” the outcome of their obedience, they simply had faith in God.
As it turns out, ALL of those acts involved doing something without knowing the why or the wherefore, or the outcome at all.
None of those persons, Moses, Abraham, Daniel or the 3 boys in the furnace, had any previous experience whatsoever before they launched themselves into obeying the call of God. Daniel had never before been in a lion’s den and come out unscathed. Human knowledge would tell him actually that lions, especially hungry lions, would just eat him
So it seems Biblical faith is not the same as “trust based on experience” at all. Trust based on experience is more like knowledge, not faith. Almost the opposite of faith really.
So how do we live an everyday life of faith?
Paul says, what we do is “Fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”. He encourages the recipients of the letter to think about all these examples, especially the example of Christ Himself, in order to remain strong and not give up or lose heart. Because, he says in Heb 12:18-19, we don’t have a physical thing to touch or go to, like a mountain or loud sounds or voices telling us to be afraid, (like pagans do) which actually lead to a place of punishment and darkness, but rather we have come to, in Heb 12: 22-24 “ Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the ﬁrstborn, whose names are written in heaven; you have come to God”
Romans 10:17 says “faith comes from hearing the message, and the messages is heard through the words of Christ”. So we can encourage the growth of our faith, by reading, and hearing in our spirits, the words of Christ. Words such as, I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes unto the Father except by Me.
Faith reminds me that I am not in charge, but rather God is, and it is His will that no one should
perish, but all should have eternal life.
So I can pray that those who have not yet answered the call, will one day actually HEAR that call and will be unable to resist the whispering of the Holy Spirit, and enter into the place of love and peace that we are all really desiring.
We can all echo the words of John Bradford, who 500 years ago recognized that without God’s loving intervention in our lives, we are all lost forever in the wilderness.
Now may the Lord of Peace Himself give you peace at all times, and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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