An interesting question ... for everyone ...
THE ORGAN GRINDER’S STUNT MONKEY
“Make a ‘hot dog doggie’ for my little sister,” a tiny voice pipes up. She’s sick and couldn’t come today.”
Hmmm…a hot dog doggie, that’s a new one. Then again, I guess “dachshund” is a little tough for a five-year-old.
The clown beams at the tiny tots surrounding him. “Tell you what; I’ll make a whole bunch of hot dog doggies, how about that?” he says.
Squeals of delight echo through the air.
Hey, you gotta give it to him, the man knows his audience.
Hi, I’m Tony Baggz. Right now, I’m looking at a six-foot man in a five-foot red polka dot suit, an explosion of curly red hair, size twenty-five shoes, a flower that squirts water, a cowbell and a huge smile. HoBo the clown is making his famous balloon animals. And the little tykes can’t get enough. Just watching the smiles and the laughter lifts everyone’s spirits.
It’s a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon. We’re here at the Mt. Nebo Baptist summer penny carnival. It’s another effort underwritten by the Interfaith Council of Churches … a way to give the kids and their parents a day of fun for a quarter. Everything costs just one penny. It’s a day of blue skies, clowns, cotton candy, rides, games, ice cream sundaes, and the famous dunking booth. I’ll bet every kid under ten on the South side is here.
Several of the local clergymen are here, together with Mike “the Russian”, Uncle Joey, “Hammer” Robinson, “Ace” Martinson, and Vito Spinelli. They’re sitting at the next booth, wrapped in wet towels, watching the fun and working on some ice cream sundaes. You see, these guys are the guests of honor at the dunk tank. An attraction that has gained great popularity since it was introduced and has come to be affectionately known as “Dunk the Monk.” Uncle Joey has just returned from the tank, and now it’s Reverend Mike Daniels turn as the target du jour.
The guys love this event … wouldn’t miss it for anything. Each has been in the tank once, and you can’t’ tell who’s having more fun, the little kids, or the big ones.
Let’s listen in ….
Dripping wet, “Uncle” Joey towels himself off.
“Oops, there goes Mike, John Randall laughs, as a king-sized splash is heard.
Chuckling at John’s remark, Pastor Swanson hands Joey a soft drink. “So, my friend … baptism by immersion … how’s it feel?”
“Great your eminence,” Joey chuckles, popping the top on the can “… gotta be loads of fun in January.”
Overhearing the comment, Father Bob chuckles and looks at the sea of laughing kids. “You know, Martin, I’ve never seen these kids so happy. They are the definition of the word, delight. So much laughter and joy in something as simple as an ice cream cone and a balloon animal. Afternoons like this makes you realize what’s really important."
“As in, 'unless you become like one of these little ones you shall not see God. For such as these is the kingdom of heaven made,'" Mike the Russian says, a mischievous grin on his face.
“Something like that,” the priest says softly.
A reflective look ambles across Billy Swanson’s face. “Makes you wonder if, as a little boy, Jesus ever did something like this?”
Pastor Williams turns to his friend. “Oh, in some way I’m sure he did. Billy. Why do you ask?”
“Well, just last Sunday someone asked me if Jesus ever smiled. It’s a question I imagine we all hear occasionally.”
“I get it four or five times a year, myself,” Martin says. "I’ll bet we all do. After all, scripture doesn’t really show you the informal or casual side of Jesus’ existence … what His life was like in those times … what people did for fun or amusement. I often wish I knew more about that side of our Lord’s life."
The Pentecostal minister nods his head. “Watching these little ones, I wonder who delighted Jesus most …I mean, besides the obvious … parents, little children, kittens, puppies ….”
“How about Martha’s sister, Mary,” Vito offers. “She just wanted to listen.”
Seems the guys have been listening and decide to chime in with their opinions.
Shaking his head, Mike the Russian chuckles. “A woman who just wants to listen? … that’d delight me.”
Mike's remark bring a smattering of gentle laughter.
“Peter,” … comes another reply. “Lazarus … or maybe the one leper who came back,” comes another.
“The Good Thief, maybe,” Ace asks?
Father Bob nods in appreciation. “… all good answers.” Pausing, he looks across the table. “Joey, you’re kinda quiet … any ideas.”
A thoughtful look crosses ‘Uncle’ Joey’s’ face as he finishes toweling his hair. Then taking a sip of the drink, he turns and smiles.
“Me, I’d say a Roman soldier."
Reverend Randall raises an eyebrow. “The Centurion? The one who asked Jesus to heal his servant?”
“Why him, Joey?”
“Well, because to him, Jesus wasn’t just some sort of celestial vending machine … a cosmic jackpot, if you will.”
Vito chuckles softly. “… vending machine … you lost me.”
Joey smiles gently at his friend.
“Ask yourself Vito, how many people see God as a glorified jackpot. They put in a request … pull the handle that is a prayer, and if nothing materializes, they quit on God … say He either doesn’t care, or worse, doesn’t exist. To them, God is little more than a celestial version of Santa Claus, or maybe a slot machine, and their relationship with Him is dependent on what He doles out for them.”
"A good many, I’d say," Hammer says, a subdued yet reflective tone is his voice.
“Right, and from what I’ve read, it was no different back in Jesus’ time. In fact, maybe worse. It was always, show us another sign, jump through the hoops and maybe we’ll believe in you. And make sure to do it on our terms, not yours.”
“Good point,” Billy says softly, nodding in agreement.
“And then suddenly this man of authority appears. He has a request … heal his servant. Jesus agrees and when the Lord moves to accompany the centurion, he says something our Lord wasn’t expecting. ‘Don’t trouble yourself … I don’t need to see … I believe … you just say the word.’ Finally, someone who didn’t demand Jesus turn himself into some celestial organ grinder’s stunt monkey, performing for his satisfaction.”
Laughing, Father Bob shakes his head in amazement. “Celestial organ grinder’s stunt monkey? Joey … was that what I heard? And if it is, next Sunday’s sermon just got a lot easier.”
Joey just winks at his pastor.
“Does that mean Joey gets a cut of next Sunday’s collection?” Vito asks, grinning at the priest.
Shaking his head, Father Bob chuckles and drops his chin to his chest.
Just then Mike Daniels appears, dripping wet. “Somebody please hand me a towel.”
Martin’s booming laughs greets him. “Anybody miss, Mike?”
“Not one. A couple of those kids ought to pitch for the Yankees … I saw some wicked fastballs.”
Sitting down, Reverend Daniels chuckles as Vito’s little girl, Maria, grabs her father’s hand. “Your turn, Daddy.”
Tousling her hair, Vito picks her up. “You want daddy to go for a swim?” he asks, as the little one just beams. Walking toward his watery fate, a hearty chorus of “Wade in the Water” breaks out.
Turning, Vito looks at Billy, laughs and shakes his head …
…“by immersion, right Rev?”
How many of us treat people based only on how useful they are? You know, “what have you done for me lately?”
How many of us treat God the same way?
How many of us base our faith and our actions only on what God does for us … if he performs to our satisfaction … how useful he is in our lives? How many of us pull the handle of prayer, expecting the goodies to appear, and walk away disappointed when we don’t get what we want, when and how we want it? How many of us fail to show God the same patience He shows us?
Or maybe, how many fail to recognize the answer to a prayer, especially when it comes in a manner we don’t expect? We ask for a healing for a dying friend or relative, and when that person lives on maybe six months, then passes on, do we recognize that those six months were the answer? That God granted, not a cure, but rather time to tie up loose ends, love more deeply, mend fences, and enjoy life even more … like that country song of recent memory says, a chance to live “like we were dying.”
How many of us should offer our Creator a little more delight, and maybe demand a lot less proof?
You … me?
Thinkaboutit … I’m Tony Baggz
copyright 2018 Tres Angeli Publishing LLC
PREVIOUS WEEK'S EPISODE
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Wisdom from a teen ... something we all should heed?
“Hey, John, you really outdid yourself … spread looks great tonight."
Pastor Martin Williams and Father John are in the kitchen manning the food table that accompanies every movie night.
“Thanks Martin, but I can’t take credit. Stephanie did this. She knew I had three important meetings this afternoon, so she said she’d take care of everything.”
“Generous and responsible; admirable young lady, your daughter.”
Yes, I’m blessed, and proud of her. It’s funny … at times it’s like pulling teeth to get her to so much as clean up her room. Then just when you figure she doesn’t listen at all; she'll go and do something like this. Shaking his head, Father John chuckles, “teenagers ... it’s a roller coaster ride.”
“And then some,” Martin laughs. “But honestly John, it doesn’t surprise me. Stephanie’s always struck me as a very responsible young lady.”
“Yea ... it’s moments like this that make me understand how right you are. I even asked her if she’d like to join us.”
“Let me guess …” Martin chuckles, “she looked at you and rolled her eyes at the idea of spending the evening with a bunch of old men watching an old movie.”
Nodding his head, again the priest chuckles. “Yea, I thought so too …
… until she said yes.”
Hi, I’m Tony Baggz. It’s movie night and we’re here in the family room of Father John’s house. His teenage daughter, Stephanie, prepared the spread the guys brought. For those of you who might not know, or remember, Father John is a late arrival to the priesthood. He was married for almost fifteen years until he lost his wife to a heart ailment. A former Deacon at St. Kate’s, he has two teenage kids, Matt and Stephanie, and the local bishop rents this house so the kids can live in a traditional family environment.
Unlike the weekly Council financial meeting, aka the nickel-dime poker game, the guys share in the costs of this evening’s fare. And once again, Carmine Spinelli brought of big pan of my favorite, sausage lasagna. Joey brought some of Samantha’s homemade bread, Ace brought a big pan of his wife’s brownies, “Mike the Russian” furnished the salads, and Bobby Pretzels bought a plate of his wife’s famous walnut fudge. Yours truly will be a happy camper tonight.
Tonight’s movie is The Last Castle, starring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini. It’s about a military prison and in it there is a scene that seems to have resonated with Father John, and he wanted to share it. Hence, tonight’s feature film.
Movie’s over, the lights are back up, everyone is getting a drink or refreshing their plate.
What do you say we grab another piece of fudge, sit back, and listen? I think tonight’s conversation should be interesting.
“Gandolfini, didn’t he pass away?”
Carmine nods. “Yea … several years ago. Rest in peace, Tony Soprano.”
“John, you said the movie had a meaning we might want to take to heart,” Reverend Jacobson asks, sipping his coffee. How do you see that?”
A subtle smile crosses the priest’s face. “… right Jake. It was that scene where the General attempts to make the young corporal realize that although he chose a noble and honorable profession – the life of a soldier, a life defending freedom and liberty - he’s now defined himself, not by that life of honor and dignity, but by the worst two minutes of his life. The ones that got him sent to prison.”
Jake smiles. “I think I know what you’re getting at.”
“Father Bob and I were talking about how various influences in the church wrongfully define people,” Father John says. “Especially the kids.”
“Interesting,” the Presbyterian minister muses.
“You know, Father, you have a point,” Ace Martinson says.
Well, last week, I picked up my youngest boy at pre-school. He evidently did something that annoyed his teacher, and he was in tears. Bobby’s four and in pre-school at St. Kate’s and when I asked what was the matter, he said ‘Mrs. Davis told me I was a bad boy.’ Then he looked up at me and said, ‘I don’t mean to be a bad boy, daddy.’”
“Well, the look on his face touched me. I sat him down, wiped his tears, and explained to him that, no, he was a good boy, but in this case, he did a bad thing.”
“Did it work?”
“I think so.”
“And I think I need to have a word with Mrs. Davis,” Father John says, half to himself.
Ace smiles. “Thanks Father. All I know is Kristi and I’ll be more careful with our words. Making sure the kids understand the difference between acting bad and identifying as bad.”
“The bigger question,” the priest says, shifting in his chair, “is how much that idea extends to how we frame our teaching to our congregations.”
Setting his coffee cup down, Reverend Williams looks across the table. “How do you mean, John?”
“Well, we teach man is made in God’s image and likeness, but do those words lose their meaning because we don’t reinforce them enough?”
“Or maybe don’t give them enough emphasis?” Joey adds, a question in his tone.
“… because we dwell too much on sin and people’s moral failings?” Reverend Jacobson adds.
The presbyterian minister sips his drink and continues.
“Take teens for example. As they grow, the opportunities to make bad choices in difficult situations, increases. That’s the time we need to emphasize the good they are, and they do. Sure, we need to recognize their failing, but not in the overly heavy-handed manner we too often do.”
Sitting up abruptly, Stephanie nods and smiles. “Thank you, Reverend Jacobson. I know most of my friends think adults automatically assume because some kids make mistakes and bad decisions, we all do. That somehow, we can’t help ourselves. It’s like their ‘default’ position.”
“Good point, young lady,” John Randall says after a moment’s pause. “We tell our children to ‘be true to yourself.’ But what does that mean when all they’ve heard is years of ‘instruction’ telling them they’re wicked in God’s eyes? Stephanie’s spot on. Doesn’t that kind of attitude, not to mention, teaching, cause people, and not just teenagers, to define themselves by their faults and their sins?”
“And leave,” Father John says.
“Exactly. When all people hear is their own worthlessness or sinfulness, many turn their backs and walk away,” Mike Daniels adds.
“And don’t return,” Reverend Jacobson, says.
Taking a brownie from a tray, ‘Pretzels’, shakes his head. “But can’t that be taken too far? The idea that no matter what we do, we are inherently good, and will ultimately be rewarded regardless of the evil we commit?”
“On one level I agree,” Martin says. “If that realization isn’t grounded in a proper understanding of God’s expectation of us, it becomes simply a glib rationalization for doing whatever we want.”
“The old, ‘I don’t need religion; I’m a good person,’ justification?” Carmine asks, sipping his coffee.
“But, if one has a firm understanding of the goodness inherent in how we are seen by God, wouldn’t it make a person desire not to live in opposition to God’s desire for us,” Ace adds.
“Exactly,” Stephanie says, a look of intensity in her eyes. “I was at my friend Olivia’s the other day. Liv adores her dad and he was upset with her for something she did. He didn’t really say anything, but it was the disappointment in his eyes that Liv said hurt the most. ‘I’d rather he ground me for a month than look at me like that,’” she said. “I know how she felt.”
She pauses, as the men say nothing, simply listening.
“Wouldn’t it then be the same with God? Shouldn’t we be more reluctant to do those things that disappoint Him when we understand and believe He sees us as good, and doesn’t define us by our sins?”
Father Bob smiles; John Randall shakes his head. “Out of the mouths of babes,” the Lutheran pastor says softly, turning to the priest. Then realizing he might have insulted Stephanie; he looks back at her and starts to apologize.
“Stephanie, I’m … I’m sorry ... I ... I didn’t mean…”
“Forget it Reverend, Randall,” Stephanie chuckles. “I know what you mean.”
Then, twirling her long auburn hair, a mischievous look lights up her eyes. “Besides, she says …
…I am a babe.”
And playful laughter rebounds throughout the room.
One must not define others, nor allow oneself to be defined, by one’s mistakes, one’s failures, one’s sins. It is not the way God envisioned us at our creation; it is not the way God sees each of us now.
Yes, God sees the evil, the sin, we commit. He sees it, but he doesn’t define us by it. God defines us as made in His image and likeness. As a loving father sees his child.
Shouldn’t we do the same?
Thinkaboutit … I’m Tony Baggz.