Keith examines the various ways one can take the first step to success in everything we do.
A Catholic priest, a Pentecostal preacher and a rabbi all served as chaplains to the students of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. They would get together two or three times a week for coffee and to talk shop. One day, someone made the comment that preaching to people isn't really all that hard. A real challenge would be to preach to a bear. One thing led to another, and they decided to do an experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it and attempt to convert it. Seven days later, they all came together to discuss their experience.
Father Flannery, who had his arm in a sling, was on crutches and had various bandages on his body and limbs, went first. "Well," he said,"I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him, I began to read to him from the Catechism. Well, the bear wanted nothing to do with me and began to slap me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and he became as gentle as a lamb. The bishop is coming next week to give him first communion and confirmation."
Reverend Billy Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, had one arm and both legs in casts and had an IV drip. In his best fire and brimstone oratory, he declaimed, "WELL, brothers, you KNOW that we don't sprinkle! I went out and I FOUND me a bear. And then I began to read to my bear from God's HOLY WORD! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. So I took HOLD of him and we began to wrestle. We wrestled down one hill, UP another and DOWN another until we came to a creek. So I quickly DUNKED him and BAPTISED his hairy soul. And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus."
The priest and the preacher both looked down at the rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body cast and traction with IVs and monitors running in and out of him. He was in really bad shape. The rabbi looked up and said, "Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to start."
It's always the problem, isn't it? How to start? What first step to take. It is not only a technical problem - it's a fundamental, psychological problem. Taking first steps at something new is always difficult. Yet doing something new is so important. I think of a ball thrown up into the air. As soon as it loses its impetus, it starts to fall. It needs a real new impulse to get it rising again. I was discussing with someone the other day the difference for men nowadays after retirement, as compared with in days gone by. When I was a lad, every man had a job or actively sought one. With rare exceptions they retired on their 65th birthdays and were dead before they were 69. Their wives, however, who did not stop work, but carried on just the same (apart from having their husbands under their feet), lived to ripe old ages. The men had no new challenges on a daily or weekly basis and, like the ball, simply fell to the ground. It's good that that pattern no longer holds true. We all work less hard and find ways to keep ourselves occupied which we continue or add to when we retire.
But it is still true that we tend to close the doors on all sorts of possibilities as we move on through life. I used to resent seeing old men in expensive smart sports cars whizzing around when I could only afford an old banger. Now I have no ambition to drive a fast sports car - but perhaps that is a failing in me - why should I be less ambitious and adventurous now than I was when I was twenty? This is the challenge for all of us. To remain open minded, rejecting what is new to us only if logic or common sense or our hearts lead us to do so -not because we are too lazy and closed in our minds to accept that anything new can be good. I don't practice what I preach when it comes to noisy pop music or rap, etc, but I try to do so in other fields, whether it is in politics, sport or technology.
In recent weeks, I have come across preaching against fundamentalism in religion in different environments - in writing, in sermons in conversation. As we tend to use this word, 'fundamentalism' means having a fixed body of received truth, which cannot be added to or detracted from and which must (because it is the truth!) be imposed on everybody else. We are given enquiring minds so that we may enquire, because there are things to enquire into and about. If there is no new way of seeing the truth, then we should (those of us who want to read the Bible that is) still be reading it in Hebrew and Greek (at least the Muslims retain their scriptures in the original language and converts have to make the effort and learn Arabic if they are to read them themselves). We should still be having our Church services in Latin, because that is the way they were always done for centuries.
How far back do we go to find the point in time when our revelation of the truth became absolute and unchangeable? Some fundamentalist Muslims behave in ways that Mohammed would find extraordinary and probably revolting. Similarly some fundamentalist Christians behave to other Christians in extraordinarily unchristian ways. Some of the attitudes on both sides of the religious barriers in Northern Ireland are really quite extraordinary. Their thinking, one has to assume, is almost barren and deprived of life. The ball has almost hit the floor. Some new impetus has to be given to them to open their minds and start to think new things. Maybe that impetus has come with the effectiveness of the peace process.
Maybe we should not always be too concerned about the first step - it seems that sometimes we find ourselves doing new things without realizing it - instead of us adopting a new challenge a new challenge quietly steals up on us and away we go.
The Director of Music, rehearsing the choir to sing Handel's Messiah, a few days ago remarked that if we found ourselves singing comfortably then something was wrong - we had lost the plot - it was necessary that it be a continual and continuous challenge.
If you are not doing a new thing, then find a new thing to do - which may be the same thing, but done with a renewed energy and spirit. That way we keep the ball in the air.
"See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."
Isaiah ch43 v19
Licensed Lay Minister