Escaping the Labyrinth: A Parable

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is well-known. In the story, Theseus volunteered to enter the Labyrinth— a maze-like structure created by Daedalus, in the Minoan capital of Knossos. Doing so was considered a death sentence. Either Theseus would be killed by the Minotaur, a creature who is half-man and half-bull who roamed the Labyrinth, or he would become hopeless lost in its twisted, confusing passages. However, the daughter of King Minos gave Theseus a thread that he could unwind as he traveled deep into its depths to give him a return path.

One can, perhaps, add a tiny bit to the story. One can imagine that Theseus had just killed the Minotaur. As he began to wind the thread to guide his way out, he saw some shapes begin to come out of the shadows. He soon found that there were several others who lived in the Labyrinth. These were other enemies of King Minos who were sent into the Labyrinth as their punishment. They had managed to stay out of sight of the Minotaur, only coming out when he slept, to gather food scraps for their own survival. Their lives were a daily misery, but now one of their great concerns, the Minotaur, was dead. One more remained, getting out of the Labyrinth.

After greeting each other, Theseus said, “Please join me friends. I know the way out.”

One responded, “I don’t know. There is a breeze I have noticed that comes out of the passage near the Minotaur’s sleeping chamber. I am sure that must mean that it is a safe passage out of here.”

Another said, “That passage is heading downward. Escape must be upward not downward. Above us light comes in. Now that we are safe from the Minotaur, I can tie together wood scraps to make a ladder to climb to freedom.”

Yet another said, “That’s dangerous. We need help from others. Now that the Minotaur is dead, all we have to do is leave a note in the lift mechanism that the King’s servants use to lower food to the beast. Once, they know he is dead, certainly they can be convinced to pull us up out of this pit.”

Theseus was frustrated and spoke over the bickering group. “Friends!” he said. “What you all are saying makes sense I suppose. Following a moving air, or light above, or maybe friendly outsiders may work. I don’t know. Maybe there are a hundred ways out of this place. But the one thing I know is that I have the thread and it connects this place to the entrance of this place. I will follow it, and I will get out. If you want out, I recommend following me. Otherwise, all I can do is wish you well and pray your plans work out for you.”

With this, he began following the thread again. How many followed him. I don’t know. Of those who chose their own way, we don’t know how many found their way and how many were trapped there until their deaths.

All we know is that Theseus was saved by a thin thread that led to his freedom..

Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well— Two Parables

The first parable comes from the Judy Canova Show. It was a radio comedy program from the 1940s. The humor, especially little skits that are supposed to be drawn from Judy’s childhood, embrace a certain “hillbilly humor.” This is a story loosely based on a one-off joke in one of these skits. It is funny ONLY because the premise is patently absurd.

The second story is based on a short story written down by Duane Elmer in his book “Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility.” Chapter 3

#1. Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well

One day Judy returned from her work in the big city to visit her family up in the mountains.

She walked straight into the house and called out, “Hey Maw! Hey Paw! I finally made it home., What is new?”

“Good to see you, Judy!” said Paw startled awake on the davenport. “Good to see you, Judy!” said Maw from the kitchen.

Maw continued, “Not much is new. Looks like it is going to be a good apple crop this year. And your sister Emmie has a new beau– new young man down at the sawmill.”

“Don’t forget your brother Clem…” jumped in Paw to Maw.

“What happened to Uncle Clem?” asked Judy.

Maw responded, “Last week, Uncle Clem was splitting wood out back and he got off balance fell down in the old well.”

“Oh dear,” replied Judy. “I hope he is okay.”

Paw reassured Judy. “He hollered up a storm there for quite awhile. But we are pretty sure he is okay now. He stopped yelling a couple of days ago.”

“Yes,” confirmed Maw. “He had us worried there for quite a bit.”

Story #2. The Monkey Rescues the Fish

One day in the rain-forest an especially intense downpour had caused flashflooding. The water rose, the river became turbulent, and many animals were washed away, or were trapped waiting for relief from the raging storm.

One of the lucky ones was a monkey. It had found a strong well-rooted tree and climbed high into tree and found a crook in the branches where it could wait cradled for the storm to subside.

Looking down in the water, the monkey saw a fish. It was struggling against the current that was trying to pull the it downstream. The monkey felt sorry for the fish. It had seen so many, from its safe perch, drawn helplessly along in the flow being pulled to places unknown. But unlike the other animals, this fish was on animal the monkey could possibly help.

The monkey climbed down out of its place of safety and went out on one of the low-hanging branches almost out the end. Straining, it was able to dip his arm into the river and after several failed attempts, the monkey managed to snag the fish and quickly returned to his roost.

The fish struggled in the grasp of the monkey. The monkey held the fish close to calm it down, but the fish kept struggling to get loose.

Finally, it was over. The fish stopped moving. The monkey relaxed. It had successfully saved the fish.

These two stories are opposite to each other in some ways. Primarily, the lesson of one seems to be the importance of doing something, while the other one seems to give the lesson to be the importance of NOT doing something.

But there is a lesson that both of the stories highlight…

NEVER ASSUME THAT SILENCE IS A SIGN THAT EVERYTHING IS OKAY.

Sadly, there is truth that commonly it is ONLY the squeeky wheel that gets the grease. However, Silence does not mean agreement. Calm doesn’t mean compliance. Peacefulness doesn’t mean lack of strife.

The Perfect House… A Parable

The man finally arrived at the address he was given. It was a long trip and he was cold, wet, and tired. This was his inheritance, deeded over to him. He knew he was in the will, that he would get something, but what a surprise it was to find that it was a house on a patch of land a month’s journey. But it would be worth it.

The house was, as he noted as he walked up the stone path, a bit small and shabby. He had hoped for something a bit more… grand, perhaps? Still, he had never had anything that was truly his own before— nothing that he could touch and lay full claim to.

He saw there was a light on in the house. He knocked on the door, and almost immediately an older man answered the door.

“Ah yes sir,” said this man. “It is good that you made it here safely. You can call me Benjamin if you like. Let me escort you to your room.”

Benjamin helped the man settle in. The house was all wrong. It really needed some work, but the man knew not to worry about that yet. He settled in, and slept well into the morning coming down close to the the time most people would have lunch. There was a full breakfast waiting for him. Benjamin, since there seemed to be no other staff must have heard him waking up and getting himself ready to come downstairs since the food was still piping hot. The man thoroughly enjoyed the meal and as he finished the last bit and was wondering what he should do, Benjamin came in. The man asked Benjamin what he does around here.

“Well sir, I pretty much do everything here. Your inheritance comes with my services. Of course, if you find that unacceptable, I quite understand.”

The man jumped in, “Oh no Benjamin, I have no reason to find that unacceptable. I am just not sure how I can pay for your services you understand. I hope, however, that I soon will be in a position to handle the cost of this property as well as its maintenance.”

“My apologies sir. I believe I must have been unclear. The inheritance more than covers my services. It also covers all of the costs of maintaining this house and land. In fact, funds are available to do whatever you desire with the property. I am quite aware that this house is… not to everyone’s tastes.”

The first week, the man became more familiar with the property and the arrangements made for him. He soon realized that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with the house, limited pretty much only to the land it was built upon.

The man dreamed. It occurred to him that the best solution would be to tear down that odd house. It was smaller than he hoped. It had rooms set up in a seemingly haphazard arrangement. Symmetry was clearly not valued in the design, and there was hardly a perpendicular angle in the entire house. Some may call it quaint, but the man found it to be strange and a bit claustrophobic. He began working on designing the house of his dreams. He had studied some architectural design in college. Circumstances led him in a different direction and so he never really used those skills. But now he could.

He threw himself into his work with great passion. He came up with a beautiful design that filled up half of the land and would certainly meet pretty much any desire he could think of. It only took him a month to do the design. And it was perfect.

Well, not so perfect. As he looked at the design, he started to see failings. If money is not an object, am I, wondered the man, dreaming too small? He tried again, he looked at architectural design books, and pictures of the most beautiful homes around the world. It made him chuckle at the foolishness of his first design. He could do so much better. He began to make more and more changes and began to think that he would never get to a point where he was completely satisfied.

That was indeed a thought to mull over. He hardly needed a palace. So many of those beautiful homes are show pieces— created to impress others rather than to be truly enjoyed and lived in.

There was a charm to the basic plan of the house he was in. Oh sure, there were some things to change, but it had good “bones.” He can work with that basic framework and update the house. He can open up the spaces and add more natural lighting. He began to develop a whole new design— tearing down walls, adding additional closet space, expanding windows and so forth. He felt better with this plan. The creativity of the artist is brought out by limitations. Limiting the size and materials forces the artist to truly embrace his imagination and innovation. The man again threw himself into this new design task. Soon, however, he began having the same problems he had previously with the idea of a complete demolition. There were too many options. He began to see why it was good that he did not become an architect. It is hard to figure out what things are actually an improvement and what are only… new and different.

This went on for weeks, and then months. Finally, he began to realize something. He liked the strangely shaped rooms. Some of the design choices in the bedroom and kitchen for example were strange, but suited him surprisingly well. He knew that the house had not changed, but it seems like he had. The house did not need to have things ripped out or added to. There were things that should be done, but they were small things— those sorts of things that can be done a bit at a time. Some paint and spackle over there on one day, and maybe new handles for a cabinet over here the next.

Eventually, the man told Benjamin his plans. Benjamin replied, “I am quite elated to here that. I am ready any time to help with the improvements you have in mind.”

“Why is it that you are elated?” asked the man. Benjamin never shied away from hard work, and funds (as Benjamin had stated) were indeed not an issue.

“Well sir, you see… I designed and built this house specifically for you. I knew it was to be your inheritance and so I worked diligently to ensure it was just what you needed. It is not so hard to make a house to meet someone’s needs. But it is impossible to make a house to meet someone’s wants. Wants change and grow without warning.”

“Oh,” said the man. “I did not know you built this house. I am embarrassed that I spoke so poorly of it early on. And now I feel bad that I am seeking to change anything. I can leave everything as it is.”

Benjamin replied, “No sir. This is not a museum. It is your home. It is yours to change— big or little, it is good that you make this house your own. You should make some changes, and I will help you with that. But I am glad that you don’t want to make big changes. If I may say so, I believe that shows that you now know who you are. People who do not know who they will never find contentment in any place. I believe you have chosen wisely.”

“But Benjamin,” countered the man. “We have never met. How is it that you knew me so well as to make the perfect place for me?”

“Sir, it is not so much that I made the perfect house for you. I suppose I have said it without clarity. Perhaps it is better to say that the house was made for you, and you were made for the house. And in time, you will be perfect for the house and the house will be perfect for you.”

Jonah– a parable

photo of driftwood on seashore
Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

The Woodcarver saw it on the beach.  It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.

 

The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.

It will be worth it… you just wait and see.

Three Clean Fingers– A Mystery

This short story is based on a real event. But the mystery remains unanswered.

c1b2179566bd518459679405f76ec864

Ed went to Oliver’s house shortly after lunch. Both of them were dairy farmers, and Oliver asked for some help in cutting and splitting some locustwood for new posts to repair fencing in his cow pasture. They often helped each other as most people in their community did.

Ed called out, “Hey Ollie. You there?” Ollie responded by walking out of his barn slowly. His hands and clothes were covered with mud and manure. Hardly surprising — one can’t dairy farm without getting dirty. 

Oliver responded. “I was just going in to have a bitta lunch. You are welcome to come in and join me if ya want.” Ed had already had lunch, so he declined. Ed thought it best if he just got to work on the locust while Oliver had his lunch. Oliver shrugged and said he would be out soon to join him.

Ed got to work on the posts. It wasn’t long before Ollie was done and joined him. Ed stifled a bit of surprise. His friend came out of his house with two fingers and one thumb on his right hand perfectly clean while the rest of him was as filthy as ever.

There was no way Ed would consider asking his friend about this. They did not talk much while working. Their favorite talk was about weather and farming, not things that are particularly personal.

Still, as they worked Ed got thinking. Why would Ollie have three digits clean while the rest unchanged. He tried to imagine how this could be.

He pictured Ollie going into the house. He doesn’t clean up but immediately goes to the icebox to perhaps grab a sandwich put together by his wife before going off to a church function, and maybe an apple. As he ate, using his right hand, holding his food with his dirty thumb and two fingers, perhaps they became clean as he ate.

The thought made Ed sick.

But then Ed had a different thought. He pictured Ollie going into the house and walking over the kitchen sink and carefully washed his right hand so that only the thumb and two fingers were clean. At first that was a more comfortable thought.  But then he reconsidered. In the first scenario, Ollie is way too comfortable with mud and manure getting into his mouth. But in the second scenario, it would be so strange to clean his right hand in such a way to make sure that most of his right hand, and all of his left hand remained unclean. It would actually take more effort to do it that way than to simply wash both hands.

Upon further reflection, Ed realized it would have  bothered him less if Ollie came out of his house with fully dirty hands. At least then he could imagine that Ollie wore gloves while he ate, or maybe was especially skilled with using spoon and fork without defiling his food. Or maybe Ollie decided not to eat.

Ed could not figure out which story was correct, but he would never ask. It must remain a mystery.

I don’t know the answer, but the story does remind me of the passage in Matthew 23:23-25.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…”

There are differences, but it occurs to me that there are similarities to the story. The pharisees and scribes were described as people who clean the trivial and missed what was more important.

It sounds a bit like the first scenario…. swallowing a camel as they drank, like Ollie being defiled by his dirty hands. In this sense, their “piety” actually defiles themselves.

It also sounds a bit like the second scenario. Picture the hyperbole– carefully cleaning the outside of a cup while a camel is overflowing the inside of the cup. The behavior is then obeying the details of the law while ignoring the spirit (true substance) of the law, One could argue that it may actually be hard to pick and choose one’s piety to address trivial matters while ignoring issues of true love and justice.

One might imagine Jesus being more comfortable with a person who lives without a fastidious hypocrisy much like Ed preferring that Ollie had come out with dirty hands.

So the mystery remains, but maybe the story is not as strange as it first seems.

 

The Story Wheel (Part 2)

The previous post was dedicated to the illustration of the story wheel. It is based on work by Sacks, as well as Crossan. But it seemed valuable to me to add ‘antimyth.’ The reason is that a myth ultimately establishes the underlying worldview of the culture. In fact all of the story types (the weakest connection is Action Stories) here are bound to their respective cultures. An Antimyth is a myth that challenges the myth that resides in theculture.

Myth and Antimyth

Remember, with this functionalist view of myth, it is not about being true or false… rather its function in a culture. Myths can as easily be true and historical as they can be fictional or legendary. The underlying myths of Christianity are considerably different from the underlying myths of Islam and Buddhism. As such, the myth in one faith would be an antimyth in another faith.

That is why one is left in a bit of an awkward situation when someone says something like… “Don’t Christians and Muslims (and perhaps other groups) worship the same God?” The argument behind that is that we both worship the one true God, creator of all things. If we both believe there is only one God who is god by His own nature and that that that same God is one and only creator of the universe, it seems silly to say that we worship two different Gods. But, in truth, “God” in Christian culture is not a propositional concept but the God of the story of Christianity, revealed mythically in the Bible. “God” of Islamic culture is also not a propositional concept, but of the Quran and the Hadith. The question is actually whether the myths of Christianity and Islam are compatible. If they are not compatible, then the gods of each are not the same since God of Christianity is the God of the Bible, of the incarnation and of the resurrection, while Allah of Islam is the one of the Quran and the hegira. I would argue that the Bible and Quran correct function as antimyths to each other… despite have some common threads at times. After all, it is hard to imagine any two great works that would disagree on everything.

Apologue

An apologue supports or defends a culture. Fables and folktales typically do since they tell stories commonly with morals that are consistent with the belief structure of the culture. Most movies ultimately seek to support the worldview they are in. “A simple, ordinary guy, gets caught in a web of evil machinations. Although not a “born hero” he sees his need to stand up and be counted to help the innocent common people. Despite horrendous odds, the little guy is able to conquer with the help of a few unlikely supporters.” This story could be seen as an American “Action Story” since it doesn’t have a very strong lesson. On the other hand it can be seen as a rehearsing of the Classic American myth of an honest, hardworking, individualistic “David’ who through courage and good American know-how is able to fight off the evil “Goliath.” But perhaps it is best seen as an Apologue in that it defends the American David myth indirectly by perpetuating it through an “action story.”

Action Story

An action story describes the culture without a lot of judgment. One could argue that most stories are action stories. On the other hand, one could argue that there are no true action stories since all stories are linked to the culture and support or challenge them in some manner. That is why Action story covers a region of the story circle both on the supporting and challenging side of stories. Action stories always speak to the culture but do not have such conversation as their main focus.

Satire

Satires poke fun a cultural traits. While some are sharp, they typically lack a strong positive message. They commonly point out something wrong or unworthy through humor or light attack. But they don’t directly point the way to something better.

Parable

Parables subvert culture. They take a myth and twist it to challenge the underlying cultural presuppositions. They don’t seek to replace the culture. Rather, to open the thinking of cultural members to something bigger than their previous views could accommodate. Parables are different from antimyths since they broaden thinking without necessarily replacing old views.

Which of these are the most valuable in Christian Literature? Probably all of them have a place at times. However, when the purpose of the writing  is to change the mind of the reader, a countercultural (rather than anticultural) approach is probably best. Thus parables should have a prominent place in Christian writing.

The Kite and the Clouds (short story)

kite1

Now I know some of you don’t believe kites can think and speak. To be honest, I don’t believe so either. However, let’s just assume that this one particular kite could, to avoid unnecessary arguments later. A family that loved to go to the park owned this particular kite. On a fine windy day, they would go to the park and launch their kite into the air. These were glorious occasions. As you might imagine, the life of a kite tended to be quite dull most of the time. As the wind caught the kite and sent it (seems strange to describe a kite as a he or a she) hurtling into the air, it really felt alive, and maybe in a sense it did become alive.

The kite looked around in wonder and thrilled at the twists and turns it could make while tethered to the ground. The kite was very happy. He was up a couple of hundred feet, yet it seemed like miles. But then he noticed them.

They were big fluffy white things going by above him. As you might guess, they were clouds. The kite thought to itself, “Soaring like this is great, but look at those things. They have nothing tethering them to the ground. They go wherever they like. They do whatever they want to do. I am stuck here as they see the world.”

As more line was let out, it got closer to some of the clouds. It could see that the gusts of wind that would send it twisting would pull off wisps of cloud and fling others together. It soon became clear that the clouds were not things of themselves, but a loose collection of unrelated things. The clouds would change in shape and would grow and shrink based on laws of turbulence and thermodynamics. I am not sure of the kite’s educational experience so I don’t know how much of this it understood.

What a joy it would be,” thought the kite, “to be so uninhibited. Oh, I wish I were so unconstrained. But I have these sticks that force me to stay one shape, and I have this tail that forces me to stay pointing up.”

It watched further and saw one cloud come its way. It was lower than most of the rest. It soon became clear that the kite was going to be hit by this cloud. It did not know whether to be excited by the prospect or terrified. It had hit the ground a few times before, and did not like it. However, what did it feel like to be hit by one of these big white things?

Then it hit. Well, it did not really hit, more passed around the kite. It was amazed to find that it could hardly feel the clouds. It was a wet, yet feathery touch. The water drops just ignored the kite as they moved along however the wind drove them. It tried to talk to the water drops, but got no response. The kite did not know if they could not speak or simply had no interest in speaking

Wow! What a rush!” said the ecstatic kite. “Wouldn’t it be great to be so unaffected by one’s surroundings. I have to worry about trees, power lines and the ground. I am also forced to fly only at the whim of the one who holds my line. But those water drops have no worries like that, they don’t answer to anybody or anything. Oh, I wish I could be like that.”

Wishes are funny things. Maybe they have no value or maybe they do. But sometimes wishes come true sooner than one would ever dream. In this case a gust came along and the knot that held the kite to the string gave out. In an instant it was free. However, before the kite could really begin to appreciate this new-found freedom, it sensed lack of stability in its flight. The wind began to toss and twist it violently and it soon found itself plummeting to earth. However, the kite never made it to earth. It hit the upper branches of a large oak tree. There it stuck with its crossbars broken, tail ripped off, and sail torn.

There it stayed for months as the elements broke its body down. Now, however, it rarely watched the clouds. Rather, it would love to dream as it watched kites dance in the sky.

—————————————-

This is a story I wrote a few years ago. I am preaching on Sunday and the topic is on the call of Jesus to deny oneself, and to take up one’s cross. To me, this includes sacrifice and willingness to suffer. But beyond that it also involves knowing one’s place or role in God’s kingdom. To deny oneself removes pride and covetousness (seeking what others have and one lacks). It also recognizes that constraints, limitations, unpleasant circumstances may actually exist for our own good. I decided not to use this story in my sermon… but it does remind me to appreciate God holding my string as I dance in the breeze.

A Parable: The Pilgrimmage

 

even, dense and old stand of beech trees (Fagu...
even, dense and old stand of beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) prepared to be regenerated (watch the young trees underneath the old ones) in the Brussels part of the Sonian Forest (Forêt de Soignes – Zoniënwoud) in Belgium (Photo credit: Wikipedia

This story was inspired by a poem by Howard McCord (“Ontology”) and by the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Thomas lived in the desert lands as a child. There is much beauty in such barren places, but also many important things lacking. Thomas would ask his father, “When can I see a tree? I have heard of them, but I have never seen a tree.” His father would say, “I am sorry, Thomas. Here there are cacti. There are shrubs, but if you want to see a tree, you need to go to the great forest on the other side of those mountains you see to the East.

Thomas dreamed of a time when he could see a tree… no matter how little he knew about trees. He had some idea that they were alive, came up from the ground and had limbs or branches. Perhaps they were gigantic dwarfing the great rocks that were near his house. Perhaps they moved from place to place as they had the desire. His father’s explanations were not helpful. They were like a shrub but bigger. Some of the cacti were bigger, but apparently they were different from trees in some way.

One day as a young teenager he decided the wait was over. The mountains weren’t that far away. They looked like a short walk would get him there. Thomas could certainly go to the great forest and be back before dark if he hurried. Or so he thought. The mountains were much farther away than he suspected. As he walked towards them, it seemed as if they were drawing away from him as fast as he was walking. But as he arrived at a road in the desert, a truck came up. He had seen trucks before but never had been able to touch one, to say nothing of ride in one. But they stopped to see why this boy was walking so far away from everything. Thomas explained that he was seeking to go to the great forest on the other side of the mountains to the East. The two in the truck said they were driving that way and could give him a lift if he wanted.

What excitement! It was almost like flying. They were moving so fast it was hard to believe. Why didn’t his father have a truck. It is such an amazing thing. Even though the land was moving past them so fast, the mountains were moving much slower. It almost seemed like they were still trying to get away from them like when he was walking, but that they could not move as fast as the truck. Slowly, the mountains got nearer and they started to go up the mountains. The mountains were much bigger than they seemed back at home. It would have been no fun to walk, but it was amazing at how the truck could go up as easily as it went down. One day, Thomas reasoned, he must have a truck.

As they crested the highest point on the road, the driver pointed to a large area of green that seemed to go on as far as one could see. “There is the great forest you were talking about, I reckon. Where do you want to be left off.”

“I don’t know,” said Thomas. “Anywhere I guess. I wanted to see a tree, and my father said I could find one in the great forest.”

The other two laughed. “Yes. Yes,” said the other passenger. “If you go into the great forest and look around, I am quite confident you will see a tree.”

As the great green mass that was the great forest got closer, Thomas was amazed as the road went right into it and seemed to be swallowed up by it. “If this is a good place to see a tree, you can let me out here,” said Thomas.

Thomas left the road and went deeper into the great forest. It was hard for him to rap his mind and senses around it. It surrounded him and covered him. Even though it was noontime, the forest was shadowed. It was cool but also uncomfortable. It was still and yet constantly in movement. It looked the same in every direction and yet each individual part of the forest was unique. It was so very alive and yet was full of decay. The forest seemed so quiet at first, but when one took the time, it was full of strange rustlings from sources unknown.

Thomas stood and stared and listened, smelled and felt the forest. It was too big, too astounding to take in. It took him awhile to even remember why he came. But then it came to him. He was there to find a tree. He looked around and around. All he could see was forest. He could not even see the sun or clouds except if he stood in just the right places and looked up. He could not see the rocks except an occasional one covered with the cool moist green of the forest.

“There is nothing here but the forest,” lamented Thomas. “My father assured me that if I went to the great forest, I would see a tree. The guys in the truck also assured me of the same. They even seemed to think it funny that I thought it possible to be in the forest without seeing a tree. But the only thing here that is not the forest is… me.”

Thomas gasped as he remembered that a tree was bigger than a shrub, coming up from the ground like a cactus with branches. How foolish am I, thought Thomas, and how cruel of the others to play such a joke on me.

I am a tree.

 

Pilgrimages are part of Christianity. They are often done so as to “find God.” And Christianity is not alone in this. In fact, many religions take pilgrimage much more seriously than Christianity. With Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, for example, there is the implication, a least, that a pilgrimage can draw one to the divine. Christianity, unlike these two religions, is homeless. It has no set place that is sacrosanct. I have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to the Wailing Wall, and Gethsemene. These are nice, but God is no more there than in any other place. Some Protestants prefer to go to “The Garden Tomb,” not because of its historical connection to Christ’ burial and resurrection, but because it fits their own style of the Holy.

Christians have chosen other places to have pilgrimages as well. Whether it be Rome, Constantianople, Avignon, or others, pilgrimages seek an experience with the divine. Yet, God is not in those places more than in other places. As the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, asked after being challenged that he was sleeping with his feet pointed towards Mecca (a faux pas in traditional Arab culture), “In which direction is God not?” In Korean Christianity, there are Prayer Mountains in some parts of Asia, including the Philippines. I have never been to one, and struggle to see the appeal, but I did have a friend that went and stayed at one of these places for several weeks. It was never really clear to me whether she got what she was seeking. She is dead now, so she is on her last pilgrimage.

In the parable above, the boy went from a place where trees were not, to a place where he was engulfed by trees. The boy did not recognize this, because he did not really know what a tree was. His logic was a bit silly, yet understandable.

And I suppose that is the problem. If one doesn’t know what one is looking for, one doesn’t know where to find it. And if one knows where to find it, but doesn’t know how to recognize it, one simply will not find it. While we often like to quote the Bible that says that none seek after God, a large portion of humanity does seek connection with the divine. Yet, without help, they can easily create their own image of God– whether concrete or abstract– that ultimately falls short of their quest.

<Another nice “forest” parable in the Related Articles below.>

Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part III

While the David and Goliath story structure may provide a family of stories that resonate with different cultures with different message, there are others. Joseph Campbell noted the Heroes Journey in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1968) as one. Another is the one shown below:

A quick read and one may be tempted to already come up with the details of the story as follows:

While the story of the Prodigal Son from the Bible may be an obvious example of this structure, it is now alone, consider another possibility.

The origin story for Spiderman also fits this structure. It can also be thought of as a story that resonates with culture. We would probably call Spiderman a myth, since it provides a story that supports a regional value system. In this case, “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” In many cultures, this message would not be mythic, but parabolic, particularly in cultures where the use of power for personal gain or even aggrandizement is promoted.  But consider the Prodigal Son… what message would the story as shown above be? Probably it would be that something like “Father Knows Best” or “There’s No Place Like Home” (Wizard of Oz also has a mythic function built off of this story structure). But the lesson of the story above resonates rather than challenges the culture (at least most cultures) so it has a mythic function rather than a parabolic function.

So… should we call it “The Myth of the Prodigal Son” rather than the “The Parable of the Prodigal Son“? No… because Jesus did an amazing thing. He attached a parabolic ending to a mythic beginning. The elder brother promotes a mythic ending… acceptance back into the family but suffering shame and loss. However, the father provides a parabolic ending, magnanimously forgetting, forgiving, and celebrating. It violates our cultural sense of justice.

The example I have given in this post is quite useful in missions. After all, one could argue that the structure is the same as the Grand Narrative of the Bible. Man is living as a created child of God in harmony with both God and Nature. Man gets greedy and decides that God is holding back from him. He rejects God and goes his own way. But going his own way eventually means great suffering and loss. Man eventually realizes his own foolishness and (with the miraculous working of God as Savior) he is able to return, restored into the family of God in harmony. In some forms of Christianity, the concept of “purgatory” is added. Purgatory is the mythic ending. It satisfies our cultural demand for justice… the erring one must suffer. Yet the Bible appears to show that the Grand Narrative is not merely mythic, but parabolic. God welcomes back those who repent with no regard to justice. That is certainly an ending that should shock any of us.

In missions we need to use stories to support the good and surprise and shock the bad. To do this we need to know the culture we work in, know God’s message and tailor our stories to support, shock, and surprise people in understanding the truth.