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AO Parables from Nature Paraphrases AmblesideOnline.org

Margaret Gatty's Parables from Nature, Paraphrased

Paraphrased by Leslie Noelani Laurio

These paraphrases are provided for those who might be put off by the Victorian language and writing style. Providing a paraphrase will, hopefully, make it possible for those who might skip these Parables to be able to enjoy the stories and the lessons provided within them. These stories and the ideas they contain are worthy enough to be read in whatever way they can be assimilated. You may read these, print them out, quote them, utilize them for your personal use, but the paraphrase versions are copyrighted and may not be re-posted or published. The original book, Parables from Nature, published in 1893, is here. This paraphrased version can be purchased as a paperback book, or in Kindle version.

Scheduled in Year 1
        A Lesson of Faith
        The Law of Authority and Obedience
        The Unknown Land
        Training and Restraining
        Waiting
        The Law of the Wood
        Daily Bread
        Cobwebs
Scheduled in Year 2
        Knowledge Not the Limit of Belief
        The Light of Truth
        A Lesson of Hope
        The Circle of Blessing
        Active and Passive
        Not Lost, But Gone Before
        Motes in the Sunbeam
        Red Snow
        Whereunto?
Scheduled in Year 3
        Purring When You're Pleased
        The Voices of the Earth
        The Master of the Harvest
        The Deliverer
        Inferior Animals
        The General Thaw
        The Light of Life
        Gifts
        Night and Day
        Kicking
        Imperfect Instruments
        Birds in the Nest

___________________________


A Lesson of Faith

"If a person dies, will he live again? All my days . . . I will wait until my change comes." (Job 14:14, NCV)

"Can I hire you to watch over my poor little children?" a butterfly asked a quiet caterpillar who was walking along a cabbage leaf in her slow, blundering way. "Look at these helpless little eggs," continued the butterfly, "I don't know how long it will be before they hatch, and I'm not feeling very well. I feel weak and tired, and if I die, who will take care of my baby butterflies? Will you take care of them, kind, gentle green Caterpillar? You'll have to be careful about what they eat; they won't be able to eat the rough stuff you eat. You'll have to give them dew in the early morning, and nectar from the flowers. You'll have to make sure they fly around only a little way at first, since they won't be able to use their wings at the beginning. Oh dear, it's too bad you can't fly yourself! But I don't have time to look around for another caretaker, so I hope you'll do your best for them. Oh, dear. I don't know what possessed me to lay the eggs on a cabbage leaf! What a place for baby butterflies to be born! But you'll promise to be kind to them, won't you? Here, you can have this gold dust from my wings as payment. Oh, I'm so light-headed! Caterpillar, you will be careful about their diet, and remember not to--"

And with these words, the butterfly closed her eyes . . . and died. The green caterpillar hadn't even had a chance to say yes or no to her request. She was left standing alone beside the butterfly's eggs.

"I'm hardly fit to take care of her babies, poor lady!" exclaimed the caterpillar. "This is not going to be easy. She must have been desperate, or else she never would have asked a poor crawling creature like me to bring up her dainty little children! They aren't likely to listen to me when they feel their lovely little wings on their backs and discover that they can fly away from me whenever they want to. Oh dear, some people have no sense, in spite of their beautifully colored clothing and gold dust on their wings."

But the poor butterfly was dead, and there were her poor abandoned eggs laying on the cabbage leaf. The green caterpillar had a kind heart, so she decided to try to do her best. But she was so anxious and worried that she couldn't sleep that night. Her back started to ache from walking all around the little eggs all night to make sure no harm came to them. In the morning she said to herself--

"Two heads are better than one. I'll get some advice from another wise animal about this. How is a poor crawling creature like me supposed to know what to do without wise counsel?"

But there was still the question of who might be the right person to ask. There was the shaggy brown dog who came to the garden sometimes. But he was so rough! He would most likely whisk all the eggs off the cabbage leaf with one brush of his tail if she called him over, and then she would never forgive herself. There was also the cat who sometimes sat under the apple tree, warming his fur in the sunshine. But he was so selfish and unsocial. He would never bother about the care of butterfly eggs. "Who is the wisest animal I know?" wondered the caterpillar anxiously. She thought and thought, until she remembered about birds. Since birds fly so high in the air and no one knows where they go, they must be very clever and know a lot. The caterpillar's concept of perfect glory was going up very high. Since she couldn't do that herself, she had great respect for anyone who could.

There was a lark living in the corn field next door, so the caterpillar sent a message to him, begging him to come and talk to her. When he arrived, she told him all her concerns and asked him what she should do, and how to feed and raise the little babies who would be so different from herself.

"Might you perhaps inquire about it the next time you go up high, and bring back an answer for me?" she asked timidly.

The lark said he might be able to do that, but he didn't give her any advice. A little while later, he went singing and soaring upwards into the blue sky. Gradually his voice died away in the distance until the green caterpillar couldn't hear him at all any more. Of course, she couldn't see him, either. She could never see very far even in the best of times, and it was hard for her to look upwards at all, even if she reared herself up as carefully as she could. She tried it now, but it was no use, so she dropped back down on her legs again and continued walking around the butterfly eggs, nibbling a bit of cabbage leaf as she went.

"The lark sure has been gone a long time!" she cried at last. "I wonder where he is now. I'd give all my legs to know! He must have flown up higher than usual this time. I would dearly love to know where it is he goes to, and what he hears on his travels. He's always singing about going up and coming down, but he never shares where he's been to or what happens there. I hope he comes back soon."

And the green caterpillar walked once more around the eggs.

Finally, she could hear the lark's voice again. The caterpillar almost jumped for joy, and in a few minutes, she saw her friend descend with quiet chirps to the cabbage garden.

"I have news, glorious news, friend caterpillar!" sang the lark. "Unfortunately, you won't believe what I have to tell you."

"Oh, I always believe what I'm told," said the caterpillar quickly.

"Alright then. First of all, I know what these little creatures eat. You'll never guess!"

"Dew, and flower nectar, I suppose," sighed the caterpillar, wondering how she would ever manage to get that for them.

"No, that's not correct. it's much simpler than that. Something you can get yourself quite easily!"

"But I can't get at anything but cabbage leaves," murmured the caterpillar in distress.

"Yes! Good guess!" cried the lark in excitement. "That's correct! You're supposed to feed them cabbage leaves."

"I could never do that!" said the caterpillar indignantly. "It was their dying mother's last request that I feed them dew and flower nectar."

"Their dying mother didn't know anything about it," persisted the lark. "But why even bother to ask me if you aren't going to believe what I say? You don't have either faith or trust."

"But I always believe what I'm told," insisted the caterpillar.

"No you don't," replied the lark. "You don't believe what I just told you about the butterfly's food, yet that's only the beginning of what I have to tell you. Caterpillar, do you have any idea what those little eggs will hatch into?"

"Butterflies, of course," said the caterpillar.

"Nope--caterpillars!" sang the lark. "But you'll find out for yourself in time," and the lark flew away. He didn't care to stay and argue about it with his friend.

"I always thought the lark was wise and kind," thought the gentle green caterpillar, starting her walk around the eggs again. "Instead, he has turned out to be sassy and foolish instead. Maybe he went up a little too high this time and it addled his brain. It's unfortunate when people who have the advantage of soaring up so high end up rude and silly in spite of it. And yet, I'd still like to know where he goes and what he does up there."

"I'd be happy to tell you if you would believe me," sang the lark, flying down to her again.

"I always believe what I'm told," the caterpillar reminded him, with a serious face. Evidently she still believed this was true.

"Then I'll tell you something else," cried the lark. "I still haven't told you the best part of all. You yourself will some day be a butterfly!"

"How dare you tease me!" cried the caterpillar. "You're making fun of my inferiority. You're not only foolish, you're cruel, too! Go away! I'm not going to ask you for advice ever again!"

"I told you you wouldn't believe me," said the lark, just as irritated.

"I always believe what I'm told," insisted the caterpillar. "At least," and she hesitated, "I believe whatever is reasonable to believe. But you're trying to tell me that baby butterflies are caterpillars, and that caterpillars end up with wings and become butterflies! Lark, you're too smart to believe such ridiculous lies yourself; you know it isn't possible!"

"I don't know that," cried the lark angrily, "Whether I hover over the corn fields near the ground, or go up high into the sky, I see so many incredible things that I have no reason to doubt other amazing wonders. Oh, Caterpillar, it's only because you crawl and never get beyond your own cabbage leaf that you can call anything impossible."

"That's nonsense," shouted the caterpillar. "I know what is and isn't possible because of my personal experience and ability, just as much as you do. Look at my long green body and endless number of legs, and then try to tell me that I'll some day have wings and a colored feathery coat. Only a fool would believe that!"

"On the contrary, you who wish to be wise," cried the indignant lark. "You're the fool! You're attempting to make sense of things you can't understand. Can't you hear how happy my song is, and how I rejoice as I soar upwards into the mysterious world of wonders above? Oh, Caterpillar! Why can't you receive the knowledge that comes from there with trust, like I do?"

"That's what you call--"

"I call it faith," interrupted the lark.

Just then the caterpillar felt something at her side. When she looked down, almost a dozen tiny green caterpillars were moving around and were already chewing holes in the cabbage leaf. They had hatched from the butterfly eggs!

The caterpillar was filled with shame and amazement, but she was soon filled with joy. After all, since the first impossibility had happened, why shouldn't the second? "Oh, Lark!" she would say, and the lark would sing to her about the wonders of the earth near the ground, and about the wonders of the heaven above. And from then on, the caterpillar spent the rest of her life telling all her relatives about the wondrous day when she would be a butterfly.

But none of them believed her. Nevertheless, she herself had learned the lark's lesson about faith. When it was time for her to go into her chrysalis grave, she said, "I'm going to be a butterfly someday!"

Her relatives thought her mind was wandering, and they said, "Poor confused thing!"

And when she came out as a butterfly, and her time came to die, she said,

"I have known so many amazing wonders. I have faith, so I can trust even now about whatever is going to happen next!"


___________________________


The Law of Authority and Obedience

"Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" (Acts 7:27)

[In this paraphrase, the gender of the bee was changed from a "he" to a "she" because worker bees are always female; males are drones.]

One lovely summer day, a strong young worker-bee left the hive to gather nectar from the flowers. The sun was shining brightly, and the air was warm, so the bee flew a long, long distance away. Eventually she came to a beautiful, cheerful garden. She roamed around in and out of the flowers, buzzing delightedly, until she was so loaded with precious pollen that she couldn't carry any more. At that point, she thought she would return home. But just as she was beginning the return trip, she accidentally flew through the open window of a country house, and found herself in a large dining room. There was a lot of noise and commotion because it was dinner-time and the people at the table were talking rather loudly. The bee began to get frightened. In spite of her fear, she tried to taste some sweet desserts that lay temptingly on the table. All of a sudden, she heard a child cry out, "Oh, there's a bee! I want to catch him!" The bee rushed quickly to try to get back out through the window and into the open air. But, unfortunately for her, she discovered that she had flung herself against an invisible wall. It was actually the glass from a closed window, but the bee was so alarmed and confused, that she couldn't see the difference. This surprise distressed her. She tried desperately to find the opening she had entered through until she was worn out. Finally, she started to walk up and down the wooden frame at the bottom of the window, hoping to gather her wits and her strength.

As she was walking back and forth, her attention was caught by the half-whispers of two children who were kneeling down watching her.

One child, a little boy, said to the other, "This is a working bee, sister. I can see the pollen bags under her legs. What a nice bee! Look how busy she's been, collecting pollen."

"Does she make wax and pollen herself?" whispered the little girl.

"She gets them from the insides of flowers. Remember how one time we watched the bees flying in and out of the crocuses? We laughed at them because they were so busy and fussy, and their dark coats looked so nice against the yellow leaves. I wish I had seen this bee loading herself today. But bees do more than that. They build a honeycomb, and do pretty much everything. She's a working bee, poor miserable fool."

"What is a working bee? And why is she a 'poor miserable fool,' brother?"

"Well, Uncle Collins says that anyone who has to work for other people instead of working for themselves is a miserable fool. And that's exactly what this bee does. There's a queen bee in the hive who does nothing but sit at home giving orders, and cuddling the little baby bees. All the other bees have to wait on her and do whatever she says. And there are drones--lazy boy bees who lounge around all the time. And then there are working bees, like this one here, and they do all the work for everybody else. Uncle Collins would laugh at them if he knew!"

"Uncle Collins doesn't know about bees?"

"No, I don't think so. It was the gardener who told me about bees. Besides, if Uncle Collins found out that they couldn't manage without a queen, he'd never stop teasing them and talking about them. I heard him say only yesterday that kings and queens were against nature. He said that Nature never makes one person a king and another person a shoe-maker; it makes them all alike. He says that proves that kings and queens are unjust and unfair."

"Bees don't have enough sense to know anything about that," said the little girl softly.

"No, of course they don't. But all those worker bees would be really mad if they knew what else the gardener told me!"

"What was that?"

"Well, he said that the worker bees are exactly the same as the queen when they're first born. There's no difference at all. It's only the food that's given to them, and the shape of the cell they live in, that makes the difference. The bee nurses take care of that. They give some of the bees one kind of food, and some bees another kind, and they make the cells different shapes. So some baby bees turn out to be queens, and the rest have to be working bees. It's just what Uncle Collins says about kings and shoe-makers. Nature makes them all alike. Oh, look! Dinner is over, we have to go!"

"Let me set the bee free first," said the little girl. She coaxed the bee onto her handkerchief, and then looked kindly at her and said, "You poor miserable fool. You could have been a queen if only they had given you the right kind of food and made you the right kind of cell. What a shame they didn't! But since they didn't," and she began speaking in a joking voice, "since they didn't, my good friend, you'll have to toil and work away your days for your whole life, making wax and honey. Now, go home, and good luck in your labors!" And with these words, she fluttered her handkerchief out through the open window, and the bee found herself once more flying in the open air, free.

It was a beautiful evening! But the freed bee didn't think so. The sun was still shining, although it was lower in the sky. The light was softer, the shadows were longer, and the flowers were more fragrant than ever. But the poor bee felt like a heavy cloud was over her little heart. She had become discontented and ambitious, and she wanted to rebel against the authority she had been born under.

Finally, she reached her home--the hive she had left with such a happy heart only that morning. She rushed in, and in a hurried and angry way, started unloading the precious contents of the pollen baskets under her legs. As she did, she cried out, "I am the most miserable of creatures!"

"Why? What's the matter? What have you done?" asked an older relative who was also working nearby. "Did you eat a poisonous kalmia flower? Or did you discover a michievous wax moth laying eggs in our honeycombs?"

"Neither of those," answered the bee impatiently. "But I've travelled a long way, and I heard a lot of things about myself that I never knew before, and now I know what a miserable fool I am!"

"Tell me, who has been telling you that, when you know better from your own experience?" asked the older relative.

"I have discovered a truth," answered the bee indignantly, "and it doesn't matter who told me."

"No, it doesn't matter, but it does matter that you should imagine that you're miserable just because some silly creature told you so. You know as well as I do that you were never miserable until someone told you you were. I think that's ridiculous, but I won't say any more to you about it." And the older relative returned to her task, humming pleasantly as she worked.

But the traveller bee refused to be rebuked out of her misery. So she gathered some silly young friends around her and told them what she had heard in the dining room of the country house. They were astonished. Most of them were even angered. The bee was so pleased to discover that she was capable of creating such a stir that she got more ridiculous every minute. She made a long speech about the injustice of things like queens, and she talked about nature making them all equally alike with a passion that would have impressed even Uncle Collins.

When the bee finished her speech, there was a silence. Then there were a few buzzes of anger, and grumbled desires for equality. Admittedly, their ideas for improving the evil they had just learned about were pretty confused. Some of them wished that Uncle Collins would come and manage all the beehives in the world. He'd be sure to let all the bees be queens, and then they'd have much better lives! The older relative popped her head around the corner of a cell she was building and said, "What would be the fun of being queens if there were no workers to do the feeding and building?" The little group of bees buzzed and said she was a simpleton. Naturally, Uncle Collins would turn the tables on the tyrant who had been lording it over them--he'd make sure the queen and the royal children who were maturing in their special cells, would be forced to do the work for them.

"And what happens when they've died?" asked the older relative, laughing.

The bees only buzzed, and the older bee didn't say anything else.

Then another bee had a plan--she suggested that it might be very awkward in reality for all of them to be queens. Who would make the honey and build the honeycombs and care for the baby bees? Maybe the best thing would be for all of them to be workers, with no queen at all.

Then the meddlesome older bee popped her head around the corner again and said she didn't see how that would benefit any of them. Weren't they already working bees? At that, there was an indignant buzz, and the older bee returned to her work.

It was a good thing night finally came. The day's work was done, the bees went to sleep, and the hive was quiet. But as soon as morning came, the agitated thoughts came back. The traveller bee and her companions kept clustering in little groups to complain about the wrongs they had suffered, and to suggest plans to change things. The rest of the hive was too busy to notice them, so their idleness wasn't discovered. But after a while, some of the more impulsive younger bees started disagreeing about their different opinions. They lost their tempers, and a noisy fight would have broken out, but the traveller bee flew to them and suggested that since it was too late for them to grow into queens, they should go out and try life as working bees without a queen. With that charming idea, they were easily persuaded to leave the hive. They swarmed out into the open air, and flew around the garden, enjoying the early breeze. But a swarm of bees with no queen to lead them is only a helpless crowd. They gathered together to decide what to do, and thought the best thing to start with was finding a new place to live.

"A garden is the best place, of course," said one. "A field," said another. "There's nothing better than a hollow tree," said a third. "The eave of a house is good for when it rains," thought a fourth. "The branches of a tree would leave us the most freedom," cried a fifth. And all of them shouted, 'I refuse to give in to anyone!"

How's that for decisiveness in settling on a new home?

"Well, this is frustrating!" cried the traveller bee; "half the morning is already gone, and we can't agree on anything!"

"Anyone would think you wanted to be our queen from the way you talk," cried the other bees. "If we decide to spend our time arguing, what business is that of yours? You go and do what you want and leave us alone!"

So she did, because she was ashamed and unhappy. She flew to the extreme end of the garden to hide her frustration. When she saw a clump of beautiful jonquils, she dived in to soothe herself by gathering pollen. How she enjoyed it! She loved the flowers and the pollen-gathering more than ever, and started humming delightedly. She entertained some serious thoughts about going back to the hive as usual, when she came out from the flower and met her older relative coming out of another blossom.

"I'm surprised to find you here alone," said the older bee. "Where are all your friends?"

"I have no idea. I left them in the garden."

"What are they doing?"

"Arguing," admitted the traveller bee sheepishly.

"What are they arguing about?"

"What they should do."

"Well, that's a nice thing for bees to do on a lovely sunny day!" said the older relative with a sly expression.

"Don't laugh at me. Please--tell me what to do," said the confused traveller bee. "What Uncle Collins says about nature making us all alike sounds very logical, but somehow, when we try to be alike and equal, all we do is argue."

"How old are you?" asked the older relative.

"Seven days old," answered the bee, with youthful spunk and strength.

"And how old am I?"

"You're very old--months!"

"Yes, I'm an older bee. So, my friend--let's argue!"

"I would never do that! I'm stronger than you, and I'd hurt you."

"Why would you want advice from a weaker creature?"

"What does strength or weakness have to do with wisdom, my good relative? I'm asking you because I know you're wise. I feel humbled myself, and I feel like a fool."

"Hmm. Old and young, strong and weak, wise and foolish--what happened to all of us being alike and equal? But, never mind. We can manage. Let's agree to live together peacefully."

"I'm happy to! But where should we live?"

"First of all, let's figure out which of us should decide in case we have two different opinions."

"You can, since you're so much smarter."

"Okay. And which of us should go out and collect pollen?"

"I will, since I'm stronger."

"Okay, fine. You've just made me a queen, and made yourself a worker bee. That's silly--won't the old queen and the old hive do just as well? Can't you see that if even two people live together, there has to be a head to do the leading, and hands to do the following? Imagine how much truer that is when there's a whole multitude living together!"

The traveller bee sang happily as she flew in a celebratory circle over the flowers, joyfully agreeing that what her relative had said was true.

"Now let's go and tell my friends," she said. And both bees flew away together, looking for the little group of discontented young bees in the garden.

The bees were still arguing, but they had no energy or spirit left. They were hungry and confused. Many had flown off to do their usual work, and planned to return to the hive as usual when the day ended.

Very soon afterwards, a cluster of happy buzzing bees, being led by the older relative and the traveller bee, were seen returning to the hive with pollen packed under their legs.

As they were about to enter the hive, they were stopped by one of the sentinels whose job was to guard the door.

"Stand aside," he cried. "A royal corpse is being carried out."

And it was true. A dead queen was seen, being dragged out by worker bees on each side. When they had carried her to the edge of the hive, they threw her body over the side.

"What happened? What's going on?" asked the traveller bee in an anxious, emotional voice. "You don't mean our queen is dead?"

"No, not that," said the sentinel. "There was some accidental confusion in the hive this morning. Unfortunately, some of the cell-keepers were not around, and a young queen bee broke out of a cell that was supposed to have been kept blocked up for a few more days. Naturally, the two queens fought until one was dead. As expected, the weaker one was killed. Without that new queen, we won't be able to send out a second swarm as soon as we had hoped this year, but it can't be helped."

"But this might have been helped," thought the traveller bee to herself. She remembered with a pang of regret that she had been the cause of the harmful confusion.

"There. You see?" said the older relative, coming up to her side. "Even queens aren't alike and equal! There can only be one ruler at a time."

The traveller bee uttered sadly, "Yes, I see."

And in this way, the instincts we see in nature confirm what people work out in their minds with their reasoning.


___________________________


The Unknown Land

"But now they desire a better country." (Hebrews 11:16)

It didn't matter to the sedge warbler whether it was night or day.

She built her nest among the willow trees, weeds and long thick plants that grew along the edge of the big river. In her sheltered hiding place, she sang cheerful songs of rejoicing both day and night.

"Mama, where does the river go to?" asked her baby birds, peering out of their nest one lovely summer night at the moonbeams rippling on the river as it flowed along. The mother sedge warbler didn't know where the river went to, so she laughed and said they should ask the fast-chattering sparrow, or the travelling swallow the next time one of them came and perched on the willow tree. "And then," she said, "they'll tell you stories like these--" and she made her voice sound so much like the sparrow's that her babies thought the sparrow was actually there. Her song sounded just like his. It was all about towns, and houses, and gardens, and orchards, and cats, and guns. But the sedge warbler's version was rather confused. She had never had the patience to sit and listen to the sparrow, so she didn't really understand what he said about these things.

But even her imperfect version entertained her little ones, and they tried to sing like it. They sang until they fell asleep, and when they woke up, they burst into singing again because the eastern sky was beautifully red in the early light of dawn, and they knew the sunshine would soon send its warm beams of light slanting through the reeds and grasses that sheltered their cozy nest.

The mother bird would sometimes leave her babies in the nest below while she perched on the branches of the willow tree to sing alone. As it got later and later in the spring, she did this more and more often. Her song was wistful and delicate then because she would sing along to the rhythm of the river tide as it rolled away--she didn't know where, and she would be thinking about the day when she and her husband and children would be hurrying onward in the same way the river was hurrying onward. In the same way, she didn't know where they would be going, either. They would be going to the Unknown Land where she had come from. Yes, although she had been born there, it was an Unknown Land because it was so long ago that only glimpses of faint images remained in her memory.

At first she would only sing these little snatches of song when she was alone. But little by little, she started to let her children hear them sometimes. After all, they would be going there with her, so it was good for them to get used to thinking about it.

Then her little ones would ask her where the Unknown Land was. But she smiled and said she couldn't tell them because she didn't know herself.

"Maybe that's where the great river goes as it hurries along all day," thought the oldest child. But he was wrong. The great river was hurrying along to a busy city. There, it would flow through the arches of bridges, and carry boats from many countries. It would be restless and crowded during the day, but gloomy, dark and dangerous at night. The changes from day to night in the city were so different from the changes from day to night in the sedge warbler's home. There, the changes were from one kind of beauty to another.

"Mother, why do you keep singing songs about another land?" asked one of her children during the fledgling stage one day. "Why should we leave the reeds and willow trees? Why can't we all build nests here, and stay here forever? Let's not go anywhere else. I like it here, I don't want to go anywhere else. We have tiny islands in the great river, and we can live on them. Nothing in the Unknown Land can be more pleasant than the reeds and willow trees here. I'm so happy here! Please quit singing those unsettling songs about some other place."

The mother bird had many thoughts, but she didn't say anything. So the little bird continued--

"Think of the mornings, with the red glow of the sunrise, Mother. Think of the soft haze, and then the warm rays of sunshine lighting on the water. Think of the delightful noonday glare, when the reeds and rushes smell wonderful with the heat. Think of the evenings, Mother, when we can perch on the branches of the willow trees, here and there, wherever we want, and watch the sun go down. Or we can fly to the tiny islands and sing in the long green grasses there, and then come home by the light of the moon and sing ourselves to sleep, and wake up singing again if some noise wakes us up, such as a boat paddling by, or those strange lights that shoot up from distant gardens. Even when it rains, we enjoy ourselves as we huddle into our soft, warm nest together and listen to the raindrops pattering on the reeds and leaves overhead. I love this dear home so much! Please stop singing those disturbing songs about some other land!"

Then the mother bird said,

"Listen to me, my child--I'm going to sing you another song."

And the sedge warbler sang something different. She sang to her children about the days when she was young, when she had been as happy as she was here, even though she was in a different place than here along the river. She sang about how she had lived and rejoiced in that other place for months until a yearning seemed to rise within her, whispering to her, "This is not your rest!" She had wondered and tried to ignore it, and tried to focus on where she was and enjoy it. But the whisper came more and more often, and felt more and more compelling. Her mate had felt the same thing, until they finally left their home together, and came here and settled down in the reeds along the banks of this river. And how happy she had been here!

"Where is the place you came from, Mother?" asked one of her children. "Is it anywhere near here, where we might go and see what it's like?"

"My child," said the sedge warbler, "it's the Unknown Land! All I know about it is that it's far, far away. I don't know where it is. But that whisper that called me from there is starting to whisper to me again. I was obedient and hopeful to that voice before, and it brought me to this happy place. Should I be less obedient and hopeful now, after it has brought me to such a pleasant place? No, my child, let's go onward to that Unknown Land, wherever it is, trusting joyfully that it will be a good place."

"Since you'll be going with me, then I will go," murmured the little sedge warbler in reply, and before he went to sleep, he joined with his mother in singing about that Unknown Land.

The next day the parents flew off to the shrubs of a nearby stream. One of the little birds flew up to the highest branch of a willow tree. Delighted with being up so high, he started singing merrily [listen] as he swung back and forth on the branch. He tried all kinds of songs, and he did them pretty well for his age. At last, he decided to try to sing the song about the Unknown Land.

Unfortunately, a troublesome magpie happened to be flying through the area just then. He heard the little warbler, and his mischievous spirit made him stop to have a little fun by showing off what he considered his "superior wisdom" to this young bird. "That's a sweet song, and a sweet voice, and you're a very sweet singer," he began.

"I've been to many places; in fact, I was once caged in the house of a human creature, so I know a good bit about singing," continued Mr. Magpie, cocking his tail as he balanced on a branch near the sedge warbler. "But I don't think I've ever heard a prettier song than yours. But I wish you would tell me what the song is about."

"It's about the Unknown Land," answered the young sedge warbler innocently, blushing with pleasure.

"Did I hear you right, my friend?" asked the magpie, pretending to be very serious. "Did you say the Unknown Land? Oh, my! I never imagined I'd find such a profound philosophy among this wasteland of marshes and ditches! It's quite an unexpected treat! Indulge me--what can you tell a strange old bird like me about this Unknown Land? I'm always interested in improving myself by learning something new."

"I don't actually know anything about it, except that we're going there some day," answered the young sedge warbler, a little perplexed at the magpie's manner.

"That's rich!" said the magpie, chuckling with laughter. "I just love simplicity, and you're a perfect example of it, little Sedge Warbler. So, you're thinking about making a journey to this Unknown Land, assuming, of course, you can find your way there, which, just between you and me, I have some doubt, since the place is unknown. Goodbye, sweet Mr. Sedge Warbler! I hope you have a pleasant journey."

"Wait, wait!" cried the young bird, distressed by the magpie's ridicule. "Don't go yet! Tell me what you think yourself about the Unknown Land."

"Oh, you little smart-aleck, are you making fun of me?" asked the magpie. "What can anybody, even someone as clever as yourself, possibly think about something that's unknown? I suppose you can think anything you like about it. So could I, if I wanted to waste my time. But you'll never get any farther than guessing about it because it's unknown. I can't even pretend to know anything about it."

"You mean, you're not going there yourself?" asked the little bird, completely overwhelmed.

"Certainly not! First of all, I'm happy where I am. And, secondly, I'm not as gullible and ready to believe anything as you are. How do I know there's even such a place as the Unknown Land?"

"My father and mother told me about it," answered the young sedge warbler, with a little more confidence.

"Oh, your father and mother told you, did they?" sneered the magpie scornfully. "And like a good little bird, you believe everything they tell you. If they said you were going to live up in the moon, would you believe that, too?"

"They've never deceived me before!" insisted the young sedge warbler firmly, ruffling his feathers indignantly.

"Well, aren't you high and mighty, weak little braggart! Who said they ever deceived you? I'm not deceiving you, either, when I suggest that they might be completely ignorant. I'll leave you to decide which is the truth. I tried to be friendly to you, you backwards country dweller, but all the thanks I get is aggravation. You aren't fit to talk with a bird of my experience and wisdom. So, once and for all, goodbye!"

And the magpie flew off and was gone before the little sedge warbler had even half recovered from his frustration.

The weather changed that evening. It was late in the summer, and a sudden storm brought rain and cooler wind with it. The young birds were bewildered and sad when they saw the dark sky, and the river getting higher. Where was the warm sunshine that always dried the wetness after the usual midday shower of rain?

"Why is the sky so gray and gloomy? Why is the river so deep and dreary? Why isn't there any sunshine?" asked one of the little birds.

"I think the sun will probably shine again tomorrow," comforted the mother bird, "but the days are getting shorter fast. The storm has made this day even shorter, and the sun won't be able to get through the clouds this evening. But never mind. The rain hasn't hurt the inside of our nest. Get into it, my dears, and keep warm while I sing to you about our journey. Silly children, you didn't expect the sunshine to last here forever, did you?"

"I hoped it would, and I used to think it would, but it seems to be changing lately," answered the bird who had talked to his mother so much before. "I don't really mind, Mother. When the sunshine is gone, and the rain comes, and the river looks flooded, and the sky is dark, I just think about the Unknown Land."

The mother bird was pleased to hear this. Perched on a tall reed beside the nest, she began to sing a hopeful song about the Unknown Land, and the father joined in, and then the children--all except one. He, poor little bird, couldn't sing. When the rest of them stopped, he muttered to his siblings in the nest--

"This would all be very comforting and pleasant if we could know anything about the Land we're talking about."

"But if we knew too much, we might not ever be satisfied here," laughed the sweet little bird who had been distressed before about leaving.

"But we know nothing about it," said the other bird. "In fact, how do we know that such a place as the Unknown Land exists at all?"

"We feel in our hearts that such a place exists," answered his brother. "I myself have heard the whispered longing that Mother tells us about. Surely you must have felt it, too."

"You mean you think you've heard it," said the young bird, "because she told you about it. It's all imagination, wishful thinking--there's no knowledge. I could imagine I heard it, too, but I refuse to be so gullible and silly. I'm not going to sing about such a place, and I'm not going to go there, either."

"This is not your rest," sang the mother bird from her perch outside the nest, and the other little birds echoed together, "This is not your rest." Even deep in the heart of the doubting warbler's heart echoed the words, "This is not your rest."

"This is not your rest," repeated the mother bird. "The river is flooding, the clouds are hurrying onward, the wind is blowing past--because this is not their rest, either. Ask the river, ask the clouds, ask the winds, where they go, and they'll answer: to Another Land! Ask the great sun as he descends over the hill where he goes to, and he'll say, "to Another Land." And when the time has come, let us also get up and go there."

"Oh, Mother! I wish I could believe you! But where is that other Land?" cried the doubter in distress. And then he opened his troubled heart and told his mother everything that the magpie had said. His parents listened in silence, and when he was done, his mother said,

"Listen to me, my son, and I will sing you another song."

And she began to sing again about the land she had left before. But now the focus of her song was that she had left it without knowing why. She had "gone out, not knowing where," in blind obedience, faith and hope. As she had travelled over the wide waste of waters, there was no one to explain to her why she was going, or to tell her what would happen when she got there. If she had met that magpie, would he have been able to tell her? But it was not true that she had been deceived. No, the longing whisper that had beckoned her and led her away and to this place had been a whisper of Kindness. When she had arrived at these reeds, she knew it. Then a strong desire had risen inside her, a desire to settle. So she and her mate had settled here. And then there had been a strong urge to build a nest. If the magpie had seen her then, building a home for children who didn't even exist yet, he would have made fun of her! He would have asked her what she could possibly know about the future. It was all nothing but guess work, wishful thinking, and foolishness. But had she been deceived? No! It was that whisper of Kindness that had told her what to do. After all, hadn't she become the happy mother of children? And now she was able to comfort and advise her little ones in their doubts and troubles. No matter what the magpie said, it wasn't likely that the whisper of Kindness would deceive them now, was it? "No!" she cried, "So let's obey the whispered yearning in joyful trust, even though we don't understand why yet. Maybe when we have obeyed and had faith, then knowledge and explantion will be provided." And the mother bird's song ended. The young warbler never had any more doubts again.

During the next few weeks, the autumn weather was changing everything around them, and the chilly mornings and cold nights made the sedge warblers sing even louder and more cheerfully near the river. They knew it, they felt it, they had confidence, and there was joy waiting for them in the Unknown Land. One dark, cold morning, when they were busy doing different things, there was suddenly a loud sound. The young ones stopped playing and hurried home, confused and scared. The old nest looked loose and messy now because some water had made its way in through the worn-out bottom. But they still huddled into it, like they always had, for safety. Soon they discovered that neither Father nor Mother was there. After waiting for them to return for quite a while, the frightened young birds flew off to look for them.

It was a weary search looking for their beloved parents. The suspense was terrible, but the sad reality, when they knew it, was even worse.

On a patch of wet, brown grass covering a mud bank lay their parents, shot by a hunter. The father was already dead, but the mother was still alive. As she heard her children's cries and wails, she murmured one last final song of hope and comfort.

"Fly away, my darlings! Go to the Unknown Land! The whisper that has called to all our ancestors, and means nothing but kindness, is calling to you now. Obey it! Go forth in joyful trust! Quickly, quickly! There's no time to lose!"

"But Father! And you, Mother!" wailed the young birds.

Hush, my sweet ones! Hush! We can't go there with you. But maybe this leads to another Unknown Land where we'll be together again." And the mother bird's head dropped down against her wounded side, and she died.

Before dawn the next morning, the young sedge warblers woke up for the last time in their old nest in the beloved reeds, and flew away--"not knowing where."

They had a vague and dim hope that they might find their parents again in the Unknown Land where they were headed. They may have had a pang of grief when they arrived and discovered that their parents weren't there, but it was only for a moment, because the brother bird who had doubted said,

"Maybe there's some other Unknown Land, even better than this, where they've already gone."


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Training and Restraining

"Train up a child in the way he should go." (Proverbs 12:6)

"There's so much fuss made over you, my little friends!" said the wind one day to some flowers in a pretty garden. "I can't believe the way you submit so patiently and compliantly to all the annoying things that are done to you! I've been watching your friend the gardener for awhile. Now that he's finally gone, I'm curious to hear what you think about the unnatural way you're being brought up."

"Is it unnatural?" asked a beautiful morning glory from the top of a wooden pole she had crept up. Her purple flowers hung suspended like violet gems.

"Your question makes me smile," said the wind. "Surely you don't think that in the natural world, you would be forced to climb up a tall, bare stick like you are now. Not at all! Your cousin, the bindweed, who I saw in the field this morning, does no such thing. She runs along the ground, and climbs up however she feels like. Sometimes she turns sideways on the terrain, sometimes she wanders into a hedge and plays peek-a-boo with the birds in the thorn bushes, twisting here, curling there, and finally, maybe coming out at the top to hang over the hedge with a canopy of green leaves and pretty white flowers. That's such a different life from yours, with a gardener always trimming you in one place, fastening a stray tendril in another, and fussing at you all along your way. He enforces a sort of 'don't go here' and 'don't go there.' Poor thing! I feel sorry for you. Still, you make me smile--you look so proud and aware of your beauty all the time. I'm surprised you don't know what a ridiculous, dependent position you're in."

The morning glory was taken aback by the words of the wind, because she knew she had been feeling very conceited that morning after hearing the gardener say something flattering about her beauty. So she hung her lovely flowers a little lower than usual and didn't say anything.

Now the carnation spoke up. "What you said about the morning glory might be true, but it doesn't apply to me. I don't think I have any wild relatives in this country, and I personally require the kind of special pains that the gardener takes with me. This climate is too cold and damp for me. My young plants need extra heat, or they would die. The pots we're grown in protect us from wireworms [larva of click beetles] who love to kill our roots."

"Well!" said the wind, "our carnation friend is very profound and educated in what she says. I admit, she's right about the damp and cold and wireworms. But . . ." and he gave a low whistle as he took a whirl around the garden, "my point, my dear, is that once you're strong enough and old enough to be planted in the ground, those gardeners ought to let you grow and flourish however Nature prompts you, like you would if you were left alone. But they don't! They're always clipping, trimming, and twisting up every leaf that strays away from the precise pattern they've decided you should grow in. Why not allow your blossoms to thrive in a natural manner? Why does every single flower have to be tied up by its delicate neck to a stick as soon as it begins to open? With your natural grace and beauty, I should think you might be trusted to grow in your own way a little more!"

And the carnation started to think so, too. Her color turned deeper as a feeling of indignation came over her because she had been treated as a child. "With my natural grace and beauty," she repeated to herself, "they ought to trust me to grow in my own way a little more!"

The rose tree pointed out that there must some good reason for the gardener's care. She was very aware of her own superiority to all of her wild relatives in the country. They were so different in size, color, and fragrance.

Then the wind assured her that he never intended to deny the advantage of living in a garden with rich soil. But there was a natural way to grow, even in a garden, and he thought it was a shame that gardeners should force the rose tree into an unnatural shape, restricting all of her inborn energy. For example, what could be more abnormal than seeing a rose growing in the shape of a bush on top of a trunk? "Just think of the pruning it takes," cried the wind, "to keep the poor thing in the round shape they admire so much. What's the matter with the beautiful straggling branches? Why do they cut them off as soon as they appear? Why not let the healthy rose tree grow gloriously and freely? Why thwart it when it wants to droop gracefully, or grow higher? Can a rose be too large, or too abundant? Can there be too many roses? Oh, rose tree, you know your own virtues--you know that I'm right."

And so she did. A new idea seemed to dawn on her as she remembered the prunings she had to endure every spring and autumn, and how many little branches were removed from her every year, and carried away in a wheelbarrow. "I think it's a cruel and savage system," she said.

The wind took another whirl around the garden, and came up close to the large white lily, and whispered into her refined ear. He wondered whether it was truly necessary for her strong, thick stem to be propped up against an ugly old stick. It made him sad just to see it! Did the lovely lily imagine that Nature, who had done so much for her that her beauty was famous throughout the world, had left her so weak and feeble that she couldn't hold herself up in the position most comfortable and satisfying to her? "They're always tying up and restraining!" said the wind, with an angry puff. "Maybe I'm prejudiced, but being deprived of freedom would be worse than death to me, so my very soul fights against every kind of tyranny and slavery!"

"And so does mine!" cried the proud white lily. She leaned heavily against the tape that attached her to the stick, but it was no use. She couldn't get herself free. The wind shook his head and laughed spitefully. Then he left her to go share the same shallow way of thinking with a honeysuckle that was trained up against a wall. No flower in that garden escaped his troublesome suggestions; he talked to all of them. He laughed in scorn at the trimmed box hedges, teased the sweet peas by asking whether they enjoyed growing in a circle and up a lot of crooked sticks, and told the flowers in general that he was going to tell everyone he met about their unbelievable submission and passive obedience.

Then the white lily became angry with him and said he was misrepresenting their characters. They only submitted to these humiliating restraints because they couldn't escape from them. But if he would use his power to help them, they'd be able to at least free themselves from some of the unnatural shackles that imprisoned them.

And the wicked wind saw that his temptations had succeeded. He replied in great glee that he would do his best to help them, and then he went away, chuckling about the discontent he had caused.

All that night the silly, pretty flowers grumbled and complained about their sheltered condition, and longed to be released and free. They started to wonder if the wind had only been teasing them. Maybe he wasn't really going to come and help them like he promised. But they were wrong. Just before dawn, there was a sighing and moaning heard in the distant woods. By the time the sun was coming up, the clouds were moving fast across the sky, and the trees were bending in all different directions. Yes, the wind had returned, only this time he had come in his roughest, wildest mood! He was knocking over everything in his path. "Now is your time, pretty flowers!" he shouted, as he came near the garden. "Hooray! Now is our time!" echoed the flowers, quivering in fearful pleasure as they waited for him to approach.

He worked the whole thing out very cleverly. He made a whirl around the garden, knocking over the morning glory pole, tearing the lily loose from her stick, removing all of the carnations from their fastenings, breaking down the rose tree, and levelling the sweet peas to the ground. In one half hour, he destroyed the entire garden. Then, when his work was accomplished, he flew off to brag about his destructive deed in other regions.

Meanwhile, how were the flowers doing? The wind had scarcely left before a sudden heavy rain poured down, so it was all confused for a while. But in the afternoon, it began to clear up and the flowers ventured to look around them. The white lily was still standing somewhat upright even without the help of the pole, but it took a painful effort to keep herself that way. The wind and the weight of the rain had bent her stem so that it had a slight crack in it, which meant it was only a matter of time before she would fall over and lay on the ground. The morning glory fared even worse. The garden sloped towards the south. When her pole fell and she had fallen to the ground, her lovely flowers were covered by dirty water that drained over her. She could feel the muddy weight soaking into her bell-shaped flowers, and she felt like crying with grief. She would never be able to free herself from this mess. If only she was still climbing up her friendly wooden pole! The honeysuckle was also destroyed. And the carnation was ready to die of shame when she discovered that the freedom she had wanted so badly had levelled her to the dirt.

Before the day was over, the gardener came whistling from his farm work to see how his flowers had done in the storm. He expected to find one or two fastenings come loose. But he was not prepared for what he saw. He was so surprised, he couldn't speak at first. He kept lifting up the heads of fallen, dirtied flowers, one after another. Then he broke out in words of sadness, "Oh no! My poor mistress and her little girl are coming home soon, and there's no way I can fix this. Nothing can be done for these poor flowers for the next two weeks because of the corn harvest! It's all over for them." And the gardener went on his way in sorrow.

It was too bad, but what he said was true. In a few days, the carnations were rotted from lying on the wet ground. The white lily was drooping and discolored on her broken stalk. The morning glory couldn't even be recognized under all the mud. The honeysuckle and sweet peas were all tangled together and couldn't shake the dirt from their heads. The broken rose tree managed to send out a few straggling branches, but they were too thin and weak to hold up any flowers. They could barely hold up themselves, so they didn't make her any more comfortable or beautiful. Meanwhile, weeds sprang up, and a depressing confusion replaced the once orderly and lovely little garden.

Finally, two weeks later, the dog was heard barking, and the servants were bustling to and fro. The lady of the house had returned, and her little girl was with her. She hurried at once to her beloved garden, running and bounding delightedly towards her favorite spot. But when she reached it, she suddenly stopped short, and a minute later, burst into tears! Then, with sad steps, she walked around the flower beds, crying again at every one she looked at. Then she sat down on the lawn and cried, with her face buried in her hands. And there she stayed, until she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"This is a sad sight, my darling," said her mother.

"Never mind about the garden, Mama," said the little girl, lifting up her tearful face. "We can plant new flowers, and maybe even tie up some of the ones that fell. What I've been thinking is that I finally understand what you've told me so many times about the need for training, and restraint, and education. In a fallen world, it's as necessary for flowers as it is for us. The wind has torn away these poor things from their fastenings, and now they're growing whichever way they want. At one time, I would have argued that their natural way of growing ought to be best. But now that I've seen the results, I can't say that any more. The flowers are doing whatever they want, unrestrained, and the result is that my beautiful garden has become nothing but a wild jungle.


___________________________


Waiting

"It is good that one should hope and wait quietly . . ." (Lamentations 3:26)

It was a sad life for the house cricket before houses were built and fires were kindled in the fireplaces. There was no warm hearth back then, where he could sit and sing his cheerful song, and come out every now and then to bask in the glow of the firelight. Instead, the cricket who was so fond of warmth had no place to take shelter except in holes in hollow trees, or cracks in rocks, or some other place just as damp and dreary. In addition, he had to put up with the teasing and ridicule of other creatures who were living in comfort, so they couldn't sympathize with his unhappiness.

"Why don't you go jump around and sing in the fields with your cousin, the grasshopper?" asked the spider, irritably, as she spun her web in a hole where the cricket was hiding. "Your legs must be long enough, if you'd only make the effort to stretch them out. It's your sulkiness and discontent that keeps you and your family moping around in these out of the way places. You ought to be using your jumping legs to hop around and enjoy yourself. And I'll bet you could sing a lot louder if you tried."

The cricket thought that might be true, but he'd have to feel a lot differently than he did now before he could muster up the spirit to try. There was something very, very wrong with him. But what was it? He didn't know. All the other birds, insects and animals seemed so untroubled and happy. The spider, for example, was snug and content in the same hole the cricket had found so dismal. The flies, the bees, the ants, even the mole who sometimes came up from his burrowing to tell wonderful stories of his underground delights, the birds who chirped merry songs, the big animals who walked around like giants in the fields--every one of them seemed satisfied with his life, and quite happy. Every one of them had a home he liked, and no one envied anyone else.

But with the cricket it was so different. He never felt at home! It always felt like something was missing, like he was looking for something that wasn't there, looking for a place that couldn't be found, looking for some condition where he could rise out of the depression and anxiety that seemed to weigh him down, even though he couldn't understand why. Poor cricket! As it was, he felt like he had to hide in holes, even though his legs were designed to be energetic. Hardly anyone ever heard his song, even though his voice was pleasant and worthy of something more beautiful than whining.

Sometimes a group of house crickets would get together and discuss the matter. They looked at their long, folded legs and couldn't help recognizing that their legs were very much like the grasshopper's. Yet the idea of following the grasshoppers into the cool grass and jumping around all day was not appealing to the crickets. One time, a brave, self-denying cricket said he would go out into the fields and find one of the grasshoppers and ask him about it. Maybe he would know why the grasshopper life was so distasteful to crickets, even though they were so closely related. So he actually went. When he was able to get the grasshopper to sit still for a few seconds and listen, the grasshopper was very concerned for the crickets. He had a soft heart from living so close to the grass and having a musical soul. The grasshopper said he would pay a visit to his cricket cousins and see what could be done for them. Maybe he'd be able to discover a physical issue, or a chronic defect from bad parenting, that could be corrected.

With this in mind, the grasshopper went to the hollow tree where all the crickets were staying. It didn't take long to reach it because he took long jumps all the way. The last jump landed him right in the middle of the group of crickets. He landed rather abruptly and startled the crickets. He steadied himself, and then started examining all the legs and knees of the crickets who were there. He called them out, one at a time, and looked them over carefully. "After all," he thought, "there might be some kind of flaw in the way their joints are put together." But everything looked fine. The crickets had legs and bodies just as well put together as his own, except they didn't have his energy or enthusiasm.

What did he think about this puzzling discovery? No one knows. At the end of his examination, he suddenly had an attack of restlessness. "Excuse me, cousins," he cried, "I have a cramp in my leg, I must jump!" And he did. He jumped once, twice, three times--and by that time, he was out of the tree and bounding away. Whether he did it on purpose, or was just forgetful, he started singing as he bounded away, and he didn't pay the crickets any more visits.

It's a discouraging, restless feeling to yearn after something better that you can't define, that will come in some undetermined future. It's disheartening to see the perfection in everything around you, and be the lone exception looking at everyone else's happiness. It's a difficult position to be in. The struggle between the lovely vision of hope, and the cold, hard reality is overwhelming.

One day a plodding old mole poked his head out of the ground to see how the upper world was doing, and he heard the crickets complaining. "My poor friends," he said, "what's the use of all this complaining and wondering? You've admitted yourselves that every other creature is perfect in its own way and quite happy. Well then, you must be perfect in your own way, too, though you haven't found your own way yet. You'll be quite happy some day, too, even though you aren't now. The world is well-designed; do you think the Creator would spoil its perfection with one minor exception of imperfection, just to tease and harrass something as insignificant as yourselves? That doesn't make sense; it's not at all likely. But you shouldn't assume that everything goes perfectly at first for anyone, not even for the best of us. I've had some first-hand experience, and I know it's true. For example, have you ever considered how difficult it is for a baby mole when he first starts burrowing underground? Do you think he knows what he's doing it for, or what the result will be? No, not at all. He's working completely in the dark, without any idea where he's going. If a young mole stopped to reflect on what he was doing, it would seem like a waste of effort to drive his nose hour after hour into unknown ground, for some unexplained reason that wouldn't be apparent until much later, and with no assurance of ever coming out at all! But everything works out fine in the end. I remember what that felt like from my own childhood. I drove the dirt away and outwards, until the space I cleared turned out to be an absolute palace! By the way, you really should come down and see my place--it will cheer you up, and teach you a useful lesson. So, you see, we finally discovered what we had been digging around for--"

"That's true for you," interrupted the cricket, "you were working and working for some purpose the whole time. If I had some kind of work to do, I could hope to find a purpose in it later. The problem is, I just sit and do nothing but mope . . . and wait."

"That's nonsense to say you have nothing to do," said the mole. "Every creature has something to do. You, for example, always keep a lookout for the sun. You know how much you like the sunbeams and warmth he sends down better than anything else in the world, so you should be in the sun as much as you can. And when the sun goes down, you should seek out the snuggest holes you can find. In that way, you can make the best of things for now. For the rest, you'll just have to wait. Waiting is sometimes just as important as working. There's a young ox in the plains near here. As soon as he was old enough to run around, he startied ramming his head against everything he could find. No one could figure out why. He just fussed and banged his head all day long. Some of his friends were offended by his behavior. Others laughed. The dogs were especially amused by it. They would bark at him constantly, even going right up to his nose sometimes as he lowered his head at them. Well, finally, the mystery was solved. Two magnificent horns grew out of the ox's head, and then it was clear why the ox had been ramming his head. One of the rude dogs who kept playing the barking game with him was paid back by being tossed for his mischievousness. So you see, everything fits and works out in the end. No cravings and yearnings are there without some reason. There's always something in store that explains them, you can be assured of that. But you might have to wait a bit. Some will have to wait for a long time, and some for less time. But please wait. You'll see--everything will fit in and be perfect at last."

[Note about the ox: 'The bull calf butts with a smooth forehead; he has no horns; no prior assurance that is confirmed to a whole species can be a delusion.' (very loosely paraphrased from Coleridge's Aids to Reflection)]

It was a good thing for the crickets that the mole gave them this good advice, because a naughty monkey had recently been suggesting to them that, since they were completely useless and so unhappy, they should just starve themselves to death and rid the whole world of their miserable race. But the mole's good sense gave them a whole new perspective. It gave them a sense of hope. And hope is such a natural, pleasant feeling that when they started to encourage and nurture it, it flourished and grew in their hearts until it created its own kind of happiness all by itself. In a nutshell, they determined to wait, and while they waited, to keep a lookout for the sun, just like the mole had advised.

There aren't many records about the early history of house crickets, but they probably travelled around a lot, preferring the warmer countries. There are stories of a few straggling cricket families who discovered a kind of cricket paradise at the mouth of volcanoes. But it's hard to know whether those stories are true. If they ever did get there, it seems like they would have have been swept away when the first volcano erupted, so it's no wonder the story can't be confirmed.

Meanwhile, several generations of crickets died, and things stayed pretty much the same. But the mole's words were passed on from one generation to another. Those words became a proverb that comforted the crickets: "Everything fits and works out in the end. No cravings and yearnings are there without some reason. There's always something in store that explains them, you can be assured of that. But you might have to wait a bit. Some will have to wait for a long time, and some for less time. But please wait. You'll see--everything will fit in and be perfect at last."

There were glimmers of hope during the time of their waiting. Whenever humans would kindle fires, whether they were wanderers in the deep forests, or people who lived in tents, the crickets who were in the area would be excited with rapturous expectation. But, alas--when the human travellers moved on, or the tents were moved to another place, the disappointment afterwards was intensely bitter for the crickets.

There were also some evil hints from some troublesome creatures that are found everywhere, saying that this would be the crickets' life forever, and there was nothing else for them. So they would go from extreme joy to cruel teasing. Would this be their fate forever?

"No, we refuse to believe it!" cried the crickets in the midst of their heartbreak. "Everything will fit in and be perfect at last," they sang as loudly as they could. "No cravings and yearnings are there without some reason." They kept singing the same song until the mischief makers finally got tired of hearing it, and left them alone to sing and weep by themselves. It took a good bit of strength of will and determination to resist the mockery when it looked like this would, indeed, be their life forever.

It took a long time, but the day of their deliverance and joy did come at last! With the first fire on the hearth around the chimney of the first ancient house, the reason for the crickets' cravings and yearnings were finally answered! When fires burned every night in men's homes, all the sadness and doubts of cricket life were over. Those doubts and questions seemed to pass away like the bad dreams from a restless night that fade away in the cheerful reality of daylight. How happy the crickets were! They shouted loudly, and jumped so high! "We knew it would be like this! The good old mole was right! The mocking animals were wrong! Everything is perfect at last, and no one is as happy as we are!"

And now, listen to the little child sitting with the blind and deaf old woman on the bench: "Grandma, what kind of creature do I hear singing in the corner by the fire?"

"I don't hear it, my dear, and I don't know," she answers. "But if it's singing, my dear, then it must be happy and enjoying this warm fire as much as I do. 'Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.'"

There may be lots of happy voices laughing and chattering around our warm, friendly fires, but no voice is louder or more grateful than the voice of the patient cricket. He has waited through doubt and discouragement. He has hoped through uncertainty and confusion. And now his home glows with warmth and light. Yes, he received good advice from a creature who seemed more simple and blind than the cricket himself, but that's not the first time good advise came from a humble source.

And now we know why so many crickets come into our houses and thrive beside our cheerful fires. They sing so loudly and so long that, sadly, some housewives get tired of the noise and try to shoo them away. But there's an old saying that crickets bring good fortune to the family whose hearth they share. And they do! They bring a recital about a promise fulfilled. They sing a song about hope come true. Even though their chirping song has no words that we can recognize as speech, we can still hear the voice of the cricket singing the sweet harmonies and deep truths of nature for anyone who loves to listen with reverent delight.


___________________________


The Law of the Wood

"Each of us should please our neighbors for their good." (Romans 15:2, NCV)

"Never!"

What a word to hear in the woods on an early summer morning! The sun had just broken through the mist, and the dew was still on the flowers. Nature was passing through all the changes that it makes when it goes from night to day, adapting herself to what was needed for the daylight hours.

"Never!"

What a word to hear from a young creature! It was a spruce tree, and he was so young that he didn't know much more of what had happened before his lifetime than he did about what would happen in the future, so he wasn't qualified to make an accurate judgment about much of anything. Yet it seems like it's always the young and inexperienced people who are the most confident about their views, and stubborn about their opinions! The young spruce tree wasn't thinking about the lessons that Nature was teaching. He wasn't thinking about how unqualified he was to make such a decision, either. He stuck his pointy branches around in all directions in everybody's face, and said it again:

"Never!"

It startled a squirrel who was sitting in a nearby tree, happily picking seeds out of a fir cone. The squirrel dropped the fir cone to the ground and sprang from branch to branch, getting as high up as he could. Then he looked down and said timidly to himself, "I wonder what's the matter with the spruce trees?"

Nothing was the matter with the spruce trees, but this is what was going on with them: They were growing in the woods with other different kinds of trees. There were oaks, elms, beeches, larches, various types of firs, and a silver-barked birch here and there. There was one particular silver-barked birch tree who had been watching the spruce trees all spring. He noticed how fast they were growing, and what an annoying habit they had of always getting in everyone else's way. They never bent to make way for the convenience of anyone else.

If he had looked, he would have seen the same thing fifty years ago. But he wasn't very observant, and didn't usually notice other people's affairs. It wasn't until the spruce tree next to him got close enough that its sharp branches scratched off little pieces of his delicate paperish bark one windy day that he noticed the spruce trees.

That's the way it usually is--people only take notice of others when it interferes with their own comfort. The birch didn't care much about what the spruce tree did in general, but he absolutely didn't like being scratched in the face. He felt the spruce tree scratching him, and he decided, therefore, that the spruce trees were in the way.

At first he tried to bend aside and get out of the spruce tree's way, since he had a naturally yielding, good-natured personality. But it didn't help. He couldn't bend and move as fast as the spruce branches grew. No matter what he did, the spruce branches kept pushing and poking against him, irritating him all day long.

So it was very understandable that the poor birch tree started looking around to see whether it was fair and right for the spruce trees to be so much in the way. His conclusion was that it was completely unfair and wrong of them.

"After all," he said, noticing that there was a little grove of them growing very close together right there, "if they keep on growing like that, extending their branches every which way, they'll get too hot and crowded. No air will be able to blow through them, and that will be very bad for their health. For their own sakes, as well as mine, I'm going to give them some helpful advice."

So, on the morning of our story, after being scratched and poked more than usual, the birch tree decided to have a talk with his friends.

"If you'd just give way a little and stop sticking your branches out so stiffly in all directions, I think you'd be a lot more comfortable, and you'd be more pleasant to all your neighbors. Please try."

"You're very bold, to give advice we never asked for!" cried the spruce tree who was closest to the birch tree, in a rude tone. "We're comfortable enough the way we are. And who are we supposed to give way to, anyway?"

"To me, and to all your neighbors," said the birch, a little angered by the brash response.

That's when the young spruce tree cried, "Never!" in a very firm tone. The spruce trees next to him repeated his reply: "Never!" Soon all the spruce trees were yelling together, "Never, never, never!" And that startled the poor squirrel so that he dropped his fir cone. All the hairs on his beautiful bushy tail trembled with fright as he peeked down from the top of the tree, wondering what was the matter with the spruce trees.

There was one thing wrong with them: they were stubborn. And, since nobody can be stubborn without also being selfish, there was more wrong with them than they suspected themselves, because stubbornness and selfishness are bad qualities to have. But they were so unaware of their own character that they were proud of the rude way they had answered the birch tree's gentle suggestion. In fact, they were pleased with themselves for showing a strong, independent spirit, so while they shouted the word, "Never!" they also held out their branches as stiffly as they could so that they crossed each other, and their branches crossed and twisted around each other so that they were interlaced together. "Look what a nice pattern we're making! Our branches fit so neatly with each other! We'll look so pretty when our branches are all twisted together, covering us in one wall of green all over! If the pigeons had known we could do this, they would have wanted to make their nests here! Too bad they didn't, poor things. I can hear them cooing over in the elm tree--they're at a very inconvenient height, and they're very exposed there."

"Don't worry about us," cooed the pigeons from their nests in the elm tree. "We're happier here, where we are. We need more breeze and more leafy shade than you can give us with your thick, closely growing branches."

"To each his own," said the young spruce tree, a little annoyed by the pigeon's aloof response. "If you'd rather have wind and rain instead of real shelter, then you're better off where you are. But don't talk about leafy shade, because you don't have any of that where you are now compared to what you'll find here when we turn green all over."

"But who knows when that will be?" asked the pigeon gently. "My friends, don't you realize that spring is over? It's early summer, and the buds in the forest have all already turned to leaves. Look at yourselves--you're green on the outside, with evergreen colors and new green summer shoots, but not inside, on your inner branches."

"Well, that's because we're evergreens. Our sprouting doesn't happen regularly and evenly like it does with other trees," suggested one of the spruce trees. But he felt a little insecure about his foolish response. But the other spruce trees thought it was excellent reasoning, and they were relieved for any explanation to the mystery of the uneven coloring that had been puzzling them.

So they all cried out, "Yes, of course!" with definite confidence. And one of them even added, "Our outer branches have been green and growing for awhile; no doubt we'll soon be green all over!"

"No doubt!" echoed all the other spruce trees, because they usually agreed with each other's opinions, and were proud of their family loyalty.

"We aren't going to argue with you," cooed the pigeons. "Life is short; there's not even enough time for love. How can there be time to quarrel?"

So things went on in the same way, and weeks passed by. The interlaced branches of the spruce trees didn't get any greener. But lovely little cones hung among the outer branches. From the outside of the grove of spruce trees, they appeared to be healthy and flourishing.

Unfortunately, everything inside was brown and dry. The brownness and dryness spread further and further instead of getting green. And it was no wonder, because it was an unusually dry summer. The confined air in between the spruce trees became stale and unhealthy. After some heavy rains, a damp mist hovered near the ground, and no fresh breezes could get in to blow them away.

Nevertheless, the spruce trees stayed as stubborn as ever. They kept growing in the same way, and tried hard to believe that everything was all right.

"What difference does it make," they argued, "whether we're green or not on the inside? We're thriving and healthy everywhere else, and the dry branches underneath don't mean much, as far as I can see. I do wonder, though, why some branches are more green than others?"

"It's ridiculous for you to wonder," said the birch tree, who was more irritated about being poked and scratched every day. "No tree in the world could thrive and do well if it insisted on growing the way you do. But it's no use talking to you. You must feel your branches poking and be aware of the way you're in each other's way every time you move. You're in everyone else's way, too--especially mine!"

"Birch tree," retorted the young spruce tree, "your bad mood is making you very unfair. We make a point to never interfere with each other, or with anybody else! Our law of life is to go our own way, and do our own thing, and let everyone else do the same. We claim this as our right."

"Yes, we claim this as our right!" echoed all the other spruce trees.

"Never mind about your 'rights,'" said the birch. "What's the good of having the right to make yourselves and your neighbors miserable? If all of us lived solitary lives, off in a field by ourselves, that would be fine. Everybody would be able to go his own way and do his own thing without disturbing anyone else. But cooperation and making allowances for each other is the law of the woods. If we didn't live by that law, we'd all be miserable together."

"Birch tree," said the young spruce tree, "You're one of those people who thinks weakness is really only agreeableness. You think a bad trait is a positive characteristic. But I disagree! We spruce trees are free enough to have our own ideas and form opinions that are different from everyone else's. And we're brave enough to pursue the plans and habits we've chosen, even if we have to fight to do so."

The spruce tree bristled all over stiffly as he said this.

"Even if it costs you your own comfort, and the comfort of everyone around you?" asked the birch tree in an amused tone.

"You're asking us to give way, and that's absurd and impossible!" answered the spruce tree, not really answering the question. "It's not wrong or unreasonable for us to grow however we feel like it, so how can it harm anyone else? I refuse to lower myself and change the way I do things just to please someone else. But some people would compromise their most cherished principles just so they can get along with their neighbors!"

"That's not what I'm saying," said the birch tree. "Don't misrepresent me. On the contrary, some people hang onto the most ridiculous stubborness, and the most cruel selfishness, by calling it strong character, or unyielding principle, or something else. What principle is it that makes you insist on your stiff, troublesome way of growing, unless it's the principle of doing whatever you want even if it hurts the feelings of other people?"

"Rude!" cried the young spruce tree. "We grow the way Nature tells us to. Since Nature makes us grow like this, we have an obvious right to grow this way. We also have our own unique personality; we're not like other trees who can alter their behavior into senseless submission so their neighbors will like them."

"I shouldn't waste my breath talking to you," said the birch. "And yet, I wish you would listen to me a little longer. Do you think the beech tree sacrifices her own own personality and character when she bends her branches gracefully so that the friend beside her will have room to grow, too? Look how magnificently she grows. She seems to be stretching protectingly among the other trees, and yet, nobody is more accommodating and yielding than she is."

"It's her natural personality to be subservient. But it's our natural personality to be strong-minded!" cried the young spruce tree.

"It's her natural tendency to grow branches out in every direction, just like it is for every kind of tree," insisted the birch tree. "But she controls what her nature makes her want to do for the benefit of the comfort and convenience of her neighbors."

"I reject that example," cried the spruce tree. "The beech tree is the weakest and most pliable of all the trees in the woods. I completely disapprove of the submission that you value so much. You will never see us spruce trees bending out of the way like weaklings, and contradicting our own character, not even for the purpose of thriving in the woods!"

It was useless to talk sense to the spruce trees, so the birch tree decided to give it up, muttering to himself, "Just wait. You'll soon see the results of your refusal to cooperate."

That made the spruce tree curious, and he waited to hear more. But the birch tree didn't say anything else, so finally the spruce tree answered himself in a snobbish, nonchalant tone: "I don't know what you mean by 'results.'"

"Oh, you'll know soon enough," muttered the birch tree indignantly. It was windy, and the waving spruce tree's branches were scraping his bark painfully. "And when that happens, I won't have to deal with any more of your annoyances."

"At least explain what you mean clearly so I can understand you!" cried the spruce tree, getting a little uneasy.

"You want me to tell you in plain, simple language? Okay, I will," said the birch tree. "All of you are dying."

"Never!" cried the spruce tree, but he quivered with fright as he said it. And when the other spruce trees echoed the word in agreement, they were trembling as much as he was.

"Very well. We'll see," said the birch tree. "Everyone is blind to his own faults, and it's no fun to tell some truths to stubborn people. But every bird who hops through the woods has noticed that your branches are all turning into dry sticks. In a few years, the outside of you will be as brown as the inside. The flies and gnats that swarm around in the stale air between all of you know it. The squirrel doesn't dare jump onto your brown, crackly branches. He knows they would snap under his weight. The pigeon hinted about your condition a long time ago. But you didn't pick up the hint. And it's too late now for you to be helped."

It was too late, and a shudder passed through the spruce trees when they heard these words. They tried very hard not to believe them. When winter came, it was easy to disbelieve them because when all the trees were covered with snow, nobody could tell a live branch from a dead one. Then when the snow fell off, the trees who had evergreen on the outside (like the spruce trees) looked alive while the other trees looked dead. They weren't bothered and harrassed by the other trees now, because the leafless trees were half asleep during winter, and in no mood to talk. So the woods were silent. The evergreen trees were the only ones who had enough spirit to say anything.

One day, the spruce trees decided to ask their distant cousin, the Scottish pine tree, about the subject. The Scottish pine tree lived among his own kind, in a large grove of all Scottish pine trees, on a hill in the woods. But first the spruce tree had to figure out how to get a message to him. Finally the squirrel agreed to ask the Scottish pine whether he ever gave in and yielded to make way for others. The squirrel returned with the answer--"We must when there's no helping it." The spruce trees decided that their cousin had lowered himself even in his own eyes, and they refused to take any advice from someone so weak.

Then the spruce trees whined to each other about how disagreeable the world was, and tried to convince themselves that the birch tree had exaggerated and misinterpreted their condition just to aggravate them. They told each other that, in reality, they had nothing to fear. But they were very anxious and unsettled nevertheless. After another spring and summer, all the other trees had regained their leaves and the woods experienced a general re-awakening. Then the spruce trees became alarmed. The brown dryness had spread even further! There was less greeen even on the thicker branches.

If they had only listened to advice, even then, they might have been fine. The smallest birds said it was difficult to hop around among them. The squirrel said he felt smothered when he ran under them to get a cone. But the spruce trees had gotten it into their heads that it was good to have an independent spirit and not listen to what anybody else said. They had decided that it was right and acceptable to go your own way and do your own thing, as long as you allowed others to do the same. Live and let live! But, although they were living by their own law, they forgot that abstract theories only work when you live alone. They seldom work when you live with others in a woods full of trees.

So they kept on in the same way they always had. The birch tree didn't talk to them any more, not even to complain about poking and scratching. Maybe the silvery peel had come off his trunk and hardened him. Or maybe he had learned to put up with an unpleasant fact of life that he couldn't do anything about. At any rate, there was no more argument from the birch tree. Nobody said anything about the condition of the spruce trees any more. That is, not until one spring a few years later. The whole woods was startled when a new owner arrived to visit his new property.

There was an occasional sound of an ax, and a lot of talking, because the owner was with his woodsman. At last he reached the grove of spruce trees.

He exclaimed in surprise when he saw it, and no wonder. Almost every spruce tree had suffered for his selfish mistake, and gradually died. They still stood as tall as ever, but they were dried, withered, dead reminders of a stubborn fallacy. The owner and the woodsman talked together for quite a while, and said to each other that half of those trees should have been removed years ago. They were clustered too closely together to thrive, and because of the awkward way they had grown, most of those that were still living were sure to die.

In the whole grove, there was only one spruce tree who had enough life left to hear those words. All of his other spruce tree friends were cut down one by one in front of him. He happened to be standing a little outside the grove, so he was still alive, and the owner spared him in the hopes that he might pull through just enough to be cut down for a Christmas tree.

He passed a sad, lonely summer, even though the air was finally able to blow around him freely now. He rallied and grew, and felt refreshed by the wind. Little birds perched on his branches and sang about happiness and love. But all of his friends who had thought with him and sided with him were gone and forgotten.

He was sure there had been a mistake in his way of thinking somehow, but it didn't make much difference now to figure out where. His neighbors didn't make fun of him or say, "I told you so," not even the birch tree who was finally freed from the spruce tree's scratching, poking branches. The trees in that pretty wood had a gentle spirit, and they didn't rejoice in other people's misfortunes.

So it wasn't until Christmas time when all hope was gone and he had been cut down that the spruce tree finally learned the lesson from his fate.

As he stood in the house, covered with beautiful decorations and presents, crowds of children rushed forward, pushing and shoving, and practically falling over each other in their effort to reach his branches. Each of those unruly children was going his own way, doing his own thing, not paying any attention to anyone else's comfort or wishes. When the parents intervened and held back the quarreling children, telling them to give way for each other, 'giving each other more honor than they'd want for themselves' [Romans 12:10, NCV], thinking of the happiness of the whole group rather than of only the individual--suddenly the spruce tree understood. The answer to the confusing issue of the purpose of life, and rules about living with others finally dawned on him, and he repeated the birch tree's words to himself--

"Cooperation and making allowances for each other is the law of the woods. If we didn't live by that law, we'd all be miserable together."

That was the last thought he ever had.


___________________________


Daily Bread

The robin in this story is a European robin, (also here) which is associated with Christmas in England. The American robin is actually a thrush.

"Your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." (Matthew 6:32)

"I wish your cheerfulness had better timing," said a tortoise who lived in the garden in the suburbs to Robin Redbreast, as he sang merrily from a thorn bush in the shrubs.

"I'm sorry," said the robin, "I didn't know it would disturb you."

"Then you must not be very observant, my friend," said the tortoise. "I've been poking my head under the leaves and sticks all morning trying to make a comfortable hole to take a nap in. And now, every time I'm just about to fall asleep, you start up with that racket!"

"You're not being very polite, sir," said the robin, "to call my song 'racket.' And criticizing me for not being observant is unreasonable. This is the first year I've lived here in this garden. I've been singing all spring and all summer, and you never complained about it before. How could I have known that you wouldn't like it now?"

"I shouldn't have to tell you, you should have been observant enough to have seen me and you would have known," said the tortoise. "I realize that singing is what comes naturally to you, and I didn't mind hearing all you little birds singing when there was something to sing about. It's cheering. When the weather starts getting warmer early in the spring, and the plants are starting to grow and get juicy, and it's almost time for me to wake up from my winter's sleep, then I don't mind being woken up by bird songs. But now it's a miserable time of year. The fruits and flowers are gone, the few leafy plants that are left are dry and tough, the dandelions aren't fit to eat, and it's getting colder and damper every day. Right now, your pretense at being cheerful is ridiculous. You're a hypocrite! You can't possibly be happy, and it's deceitful to pretend you are."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I do feel happy, even if you think I don't," answered the robin.

"Do you mean you like cold, damp weather, and trees with no berries left on them?"

"Well, I guess I do prefer warm sunny days," replied the robin, "if I have to think about it and make comparisons. But why should I do that? I'm comfortable enough like I am now. Maybe the variety of food isn't what it was, but at least there's enough to eat every day, and everyone knows that 'enough is as good as a feast.' I personally don't see how I can help being content."

"Content! What a dull concept, to be merely content! You might say I'm content, in a way. But you're trying to pretend to be happy, and that's quite different from mere contentment."

"But I am happy," insisted the robin.

"That must be because you don't know what's coming," said the tortoise. "Right now, the weather is pretty mild, and there are worms around for you to eat. But what will you do when the ground freezes and gets so hard that the worms can't break through, and your beak can't get to them?"

"Are you sure that will ever happen?" asked the robin.

"Oh, yes! It will happen at some point during the winter. In fact, it could happen any day now. That's why I'm so anxious to be asleep and out of the way."

"Well, if that does happen, it won't bother me," said the robin. "There are still plenty of berries left."

"But what if it happens after the berries are all gone?" asked the tortoise, who was getting a little frustrated that he couldn't worry the bird out of his cheerful singing.

"If it comes down to 'what ifs,'" cried the robin, "then what if that doesn't happen? I'll assume that it won't, so I'll still be happy."

"But I think there's a good possibility that it will happen," insisted the tortoise.

"And I say there's just as much possibility that it won't," said the robin. He was just as determined as the tortoise.

"It's impossible to tell," said the tortoise. "Nobody can know exactly what will happen with the weather, or with the berries before it happens."

"Then why should anybody worry about it before it happens?" persisted the robin. "If something could be done to prevent it, it would be different. But since there's nothing we can do, the only thing there is to do is to be happy for whatever comfort and blessings each day brings." And the robin started chirping one of his favorite songs, but the tortoise interrupted him.

"Then at least allow other people the opportunity to be happy by not making so much racket. Your singing would be understandable if the branches were full of haws and berries, but since they're all withered or eaten, you have no reason to be singing in that specific bush. So why don't you go somewhere else and do your singing?"

"Alright, I will," answered the robin politely. "It makes no difference to me where I sing. I hope you have a nice day and a refreshing sleep, if that's what you want."

And after saying this, the robin flew to another part of the garden where he could amuse himself without being interrupted. The tortoise started digging himself under the leaves and sticks again in order to take his nap.

But after a few hours, the morning mist and chill wore off. The sun came out for three or four hours, like it usually did in the early afternoon, and it turned into a beautiful day.

The old tortoise saw what a fine afternoon it was. He hadn't created a perfectly satisfactory hole to sleep in yet, so he came out from under the shrubbery and warmed himself in the sunshine.

"This is quite a surprise!" he said to himself. "It's so pleasant and warm, but I doubt it will last. It's too bad. Still, I don't think I'll go to sleep quite yet."

And he waddled along to the vegetable garden. One of his favorite places to bask was under its brick wall. He tilted himself sideways against the warm brick and sunned himself there for an hour. It was pleasant to warm his shell in the sunshine. He didn't dare do that in the summer because the sun was too hot then.

Meanwhile, the little robin continued singing in a quiet corner of the garden, where no one was bothered by his cheerful song. It was a small garden, with a grassy circle in the middle, where a lovely fountain was going all night and day.

When he took a pause in his singing, and especially after the sun came out, he wondered to himself about all the strange unpleasant things the tortoise had said. To think that the tortoise had wanted to go to sleep and be out of the way, when now it was so sunny and the garden felt like springtime. If he hadn't thought the tortoise might think he was rude, he would have gone back and woken up the tortoise and told him how pleasant it was, but he didn't dare.

And yet, when he thought about it, he couldn't help noticing that he wasn't hearing any other songbirds in the garden besides himself. How very odd. What could be the reason? It used to be that you could hear a nightingale every night, right in this very spot. But now, come to think of it, he hadn't heard the nightingale's beautiful voice for months. When he asked those around him why, nobody seemed to know.

The robin became very thoughtful, and even a little uneasy.

And what about the blackbird? Why was he so silent? Could it be that the whole world was just as the tortoise had said, thinking it was wise to go to sleep and get out of the way?

The robin almost became alarmed. He got so fretful that he flew around until he found a blackbird he could talk to. He asked this blackbird why he had stopped singing.

The blackbird looked at him in surprise.

"Who can sing in this dismal autumn and winter weather?" he said. "Really, I hardly know of anyone who is bold and thoughtless enough to sing now, except you. The larks sometimes sing, it's true, but they lead strange lives flying in the sky and living off by themselves. What they do isn't common for anyone else. Your own persistent chirping is, in my humble opinion, very out of season with the time of year. In this weather, every wise creature is anxious and worried about the future. The only excuse I can think of for your singing is that you must be ignorant and simple, and you don't know how to change that."

"It would be more polite for you to attribute my singing to being cheerfully content, no matter what might happen," cried the robin, ruffling his feathers as he spoke. "I accept each day's blessings joyfully as they come, and I never wish for more than what comes. But those like you who wish that the present time was better than it is, and always fearing that the future will be worse, are losing all the enjoyment of the moment they're in right now. You think you're being wise, but to me it seems foolish and ungrateful."

And after he said this, the robin flew away as fast as he could. To tell the truth, he felt like he had been a little bit rude in his last comment. He was a rather young bird to be telling other people how to live. But robins are always bold, and they also can have hot tempers, although they're kind at heart. The robin knew he had been insulted, but that was no excuse for impoliteness. If people know they're right, there's no need for them to get their feathers ruffled and respond rudely.

And the robin did feel like he was right. But it's so hard to resist the influence of negative suggestions, even when you know they're harmful and you try to turn away from them. They tend to steal into your heart when you aren't aware of them, and threaten the principles that seemed so steady. To a certain extent, this is what happened with the robin. Before you think too badly of him, remember that he was young, and couldn't be expected to go through his life without ever making a mistake.

As the winter got colder, his spirits drooped. He continued to sing every day, and he would have stuck by his opinions if anyone had disagreed with him, but within his private mind, he was unsettled and anxious. He worried about what the tortoise and the blackbird had said, and it disturbed his peace and comfort.

The colder it got, the more depressed he became. It's not that the cold bothered him, but he was worried about how much colder it might get. As he hopped on the grass around the fountain picking up worms and other food, he was ready to cry as he thought of the future, when the ground might be too frozen and hard to get the worms.

If this had gone on much longer, the poor robin would have wanted to go to sleep like the tortoise. If he had done that, there would have been no more singing in the garden that year.

But robins are brave-hearted little birds, as well as bold and sassy. One bright day the robin thought to himself that he'd like to talk it all over with an old woodlark someone told him about who sometimes visited a thicket a little way off. So off he went to find him.

On his way there, he heard some larks singing high up in the sky over the fields. By the time he got to the thicket, the singing had lifted his spirits, and it seemed like his melancholy mood had been left behind.

It's a good thing, too, because as he approached the thicket, he heard the woodlark's voice. It was so mournful and low that it would have made anyone sad to listen to it. When the robin praised the woodlark for his excellent singing, the woodlark didn't seem especially impressed with the compliment. He confided to the robin that although he thought it was right to sing and be thankful as long as there was anything to be thankful for, he wasn't as happy as he sounded because, in reality, he was always expecting to die at any time from not having anything to eat!

"But I thought you had lived here for a few seasons," said the robin. He was more cheerful and secure now, so he was thinking more reasonably now.

"Yes, that's true, I have," murmured the woodlark, with a sad sigh.

"Yet you didn't die of having nothing to eat last winter, did you?" observed the robin.

"It doesn't look like it," said the woodlark, as gravely as possible, and with another sigh. At that, the robin's eye twinkled with amusement. He was a creature with a sense of humor and fun, and he couldn't help smiling to himself at the woodlark's solemn way of admitting that he was still alive.

"And you didn't die the winter before?" asked the robin.

"No," murmured the woodlark again.

"Or the winter before that?" continued the sassy robin.

"Well, no, obviously," said the woodlark, a little impatiently. "After all, I'm still here, as you can see."

"How did you manage to stay alive when the snow came and there was no food?" asked the robin.

"I never actually said there was no food in those winters," said the woodlark, a little snappily. He didn't like having his views challenged. "Little bits of things would always happen to turn up accidentally. But that's no guarantee that it will happen again. It was just chance."

"Oh, my noble friend," cried the robin, "don't you have any confidence in the kind, caring chance that has helped you so often before?"

"But I can never be certain that it will help me again," murmured the woodlark sadly.

"But that same kind, caring chance has brought you one beautiful day after another. Why should you ruin all those beautiful days with worry for what might happen in the future?"

"It must be a personal weakness," said the woodlark. "I'll make an effort to enjoy myself more. You are very wise, little robin. That wisdom will keep you happy all year round."

Then the woodlark rose up into the air, and made a few circles in the air, singing vibrantly the whole time. The same melancholy tone was still in his voice, but that might have been simply habit. At any rate, his song was more sincere and eager.

"You sound better already!" cried the robin happily. "As for myself, if I'm ever tempted to get discouraged, I'll remember what you told me about the past winters--that little bits of things would always happen to turn up accidentally. That is such a comforting thought!"

"Imagine me being able to comfort somebody!" cried the woodlark. "I should try to take comfort myself!"

"Yes, indeed!" cried the robin sincerely. "It's no good to give advice if you don't follow it yourself."

After saying this, the robin sang out a pleasant farewell and returned to his shrubbery in the garden. He had found a snug little winter home for himself there in an ivy covered wall.

During the next week, the robin was in his happiest mood and he continued singing, undisturbed by any sad thoughts. He was simply rejoicing in whatever comforts came his way every day. That's when the tortoise approached him again.

When the robin heard his voice, he was startled and wondered if he was going to be scolded again. But that's not what happened. The old tortoise was sitting by a hole he had scratched out of the ground with his claws. It was in a corner among some stones that had been lying there for years. There was one especially large stone that hung over the entrance to the hole. The wind had blown a lot of leaves in that direction. Some of them had even blown down into the hole, so that it looked like a warm underground bed.

"Hop down and visit me, little bird!" said the tortoise in a surprisingly friendly voice. The robin hopped right over. "You don't have to be afraid," continued the tortoise as the robin hopped down near him. "I'm quite happy now. Look what a comfortable place I've made myself here in the ground. Go ahead, put your head in and take a peek. Did you ever see anything so snug and comfortable?"

The robin peeked in with his sharp little eye. He was impressed with the tortoise's skillful work, and he told him so.

"Hop in," said the tortoise cheerfully. "There's plenty of room, isn't there?"

The robin hopped in and looked around. He was surprised at how big and comfortable the place was. He admitted that, yes, it was as comfortable and roomy a place as anyone could wish for in winter.

"Who wouldn't want to go to sleep with a place like this?" asked the tortoise. "What do you say, my little friend? Would you like to stay here with me until spring? You don't have to answer, I can see it in your eyes. You don't care to sleep through the winter. Well, I guess we all have our different ways of doing things. And your way is actually a pleasant little way, I suppose, when it isn't disturbing other people. And you won't disturb me any more this year, because I've finished my bed at last. Soon, I'll be fast asleep and I won't hear any more of your singing. It's a nice bed, isn't it? It's not quite as nice as the warm sands of my native land, but the ground here is warmer than you surface dwellers would think. If it wasn't, how would the snowdrop and crocus be able to live through the winter? Well, anyway I only called you over here to say good-bye and to show you where I am and ask you to remember me in the spring--if you survive the terrible winter, that is. I hope you don't mind how cross I was the other day. I have a tendency to get irritable sometimes, and you had disturbed my nap. Nobody can bear that! But you'll forgive me, won't you, little bird?

The kind-hearted robin said of course he would, and insisted that there were no hard feelings.

"Then, don't forget me in the spring," said the tortoise. "Come and sit here on the laurel bush and sing me awake then. But not until the days are warm, and the plants are juicy, of course. Any time after that. And now, good-bye! There's a strange feeling in the air. In a few hours, there will be snow and frost. Your foolishness is lovely and pleasant, but I hope it doesn't cost you your life. Good-bye!"

Then the old tortoise went into his hole and disappeared from sight. Soon afterwards the blowing leaves completely covered and choked up the entrance to his hole. No one would ever have suspected he was there if they hadn't seen him go in. He was right about the weather. A heavy, gray, chilly evening was followed by a bitterly cold night. Towards morning, it started to snow. As the day wore on, the flakes of snow got bigger and heavier, and there was no sunshine to melt them. A harsh frost set in, and the whole countryside was soon covered with a blanket of white snow. And now the robin's patience and hope were severely tried. It's easy to be encouraging and confident when the sun is shining, even if it's only shining a little. But it's when the storm comes that we find out what we're made of.

"There are still some berries left," he said with cheerful tranquility, when he went looking for food and found a holly bush by the garden gate with red berries. After he ate some of them, he sang a song of joy and thankfulness into the cold wintry sky. Then he rested under his ivy bush for the night, as happy and content as ever.

But that terrible storm lasted for weeks without letting up. The few times it slowed down a little, it was only to thaw it enough for the night frost to freeze it all into solid ice that was even harder than the snow.

The robin wasn't the only bird who came to the holly tree for berries, and the berries disappeared pretty fast. But the robin continued to sing. He sang his little song of thanks after every meal. That was his way. Sometimes other birds made fun of him, but he didn't care about that. He had bravery and patience and hope, and that would support and sustain him against whatever hardships there might be. A little bit of teasing couldn't distress a spirit that was so strengthened by cheerful endurance.

Many times he would hover around the tortoise's hole after giving thanks for a meal of holly berries. "I'll live through this winter and wake the old tortoise up, see if I don't," he would say to himself, and then he would think of the spring that would come some day, bringing warm days, juicy plants, and lots of pleasant delights.

It was a distressing ordeal to the robin when he let his little mind wander to the sunny days of spring, only to be snapped out of his daydreams by feeling unusually cold and stiff. He had to hurry to his home under the ivy bush to keep from freezing.

The variety of changes in winter were also challenging. The long winter storm finally ended, and there were a couple weeks of clear weather. It was still cold and wet, but it gave all the birds an opportunity to stretch their wings by flying around, and there was a little more food. The robin was able to hop around on the grass by the fountain again and find a few worms and seeds. He was so happy with the change that he half hoped winter was over. He sat in the laurel tree by the tortoise's hole and sang in delight. But the worst storm was still to come--and that was the storm of disappointment in his own heart.

Why does it seem like heavy clouds hang so darkly over the earth just before Christmas? Why do fields become so hard and white with snow, and the trees so bare and lonely, and the river so frozen and icy just at the time people want to rejoice and be happy? Like the darkness that comes just before the dawn, maybe those heavy clouds come to awaken our sympathy and compassionate love as we wait to welcome the birth of the Savior with hosannas of joy. It helps us to remember the scripture that says, 'anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me.' [Matt 25:40] Maybe that's what we should think of when we endure the bitter cold of a biting, snowy Christmas. That's the best time to clothe the cold, feed the hungry and comfort those who are suffering.

Snow fell in the garden. For two whole days, the robin couldn't leave his ivy-covered shelter. But he finally got so hungry that he ventured out to the holly bush by the gate. Its prickly leaves were covered with snow. Was he only imagining that the holly bush was smaller than it used to be? He hopped from one snow-covered branch to another. It seemed like some of the bush was missing! He looked under it, over it, shook down some of the snow--but he couldn't find a single berry anywhere on the bush.

The robin flew around, very distressed. As he did, he spotted a pile of holly, laurel and bay branches that had been collected to carry into the house as Christmas decorations. The robin picked a few of the holly berries from the pile. They were ripe and red, just like the ones he had been gathering lately from the bush. Then the gardener came and carried the whole pile away. The robin flew after the gardener as he walked away and followed him until he disappeared into the house, taking the holly with him. The door closed behind him, leaving the bird outside. Nobody ever knew about the hungry little eyes that had watched sadly as his food was carried out of sight.

"Well, at least I had a few berries to eat. I should be thankful," decided the robin as he flew back to the holly bush that was now stripped and bare of berries. And he sang out a glad little song of thanksgiving for the little he had eaten.

There was no wind blowing. Not even a leaf moved. The only movement at all was when snow fell off a heavily laden branch onto the ground. And the hungry little bird's song rose up into the air on that cold, silent winter afternoon.

What was he singing about? His clear, bell-like melody with its exquisite musical tone was saying something. It was saying something besides the tale of a desolate little bird whose food had been snatched away and who might not find anything else to eat.

No, those lonely notes of joy sung in the midst of a deep gloom were like an angel's message, coming with a promise of peace and hope right at a time when peace and hope seemed to have left forever.

Just at that moment, the owner of the house was coming home from work. It had been a sad day for him. It had been exactly one year since his wife had died. And after she died, two of their little sons had also gone to heaven, putting a barrier between them and their father, who was left on earth. So it's no wonder that the owner of the house had a look of sadness and grief on his face as he approached the house. Not even the thought of Christmas coming, and the children he still had left, could take away the cloud of sadness from him.

In the same way that autumn comes to the earth, people can have an autumn in their lives. Sadness and tears might be mixed with whatever happiness they experience, just like clouds and chilly wind can be mixed with a bright autumn day.

But suddenly his vacant look of sadness was startled. He heard something! As he passed the garden, and walked by the gate near the holly bush, he paused. Then he stopped and looked up with his troubled eyes. A healing tear dropped down his cheek. The unseasonal song of the robin swept over his heart, as beautiful and touching as a cuckoo's voice in the early spring. Keep singing, little bird! Sing from your desolate branch, little robin of cheerfulness and hope! Sing out the music that God taught you about being content in the here and now! If a little bird can be so sure of God's protection, then surely people won't be abandoned by God! If a robin can have joy and peace in the depths of winter, then surely people should look beyond their present troubles.

The poor little innocent bird sang his song, and then he flew away. It's understandable that, when he remembered the holly berries that had been carried into the house, he hovered around the doors and windows, with anxious and curious looks. He might have seen a tempting cluster hanging down from the middle window, it's hard to say. But then the window was opened! A hand reached out and scattered something carefully on the ledge. Then the window was closed and the person at the window retreated back, away from the window.

The robin watched all of this from a rose bush.

Soon he smelled something--something he didn't recognize, but it smelled good! Was there any danger that he should avoid? Everything looked quiet and still. Should he go closer and see what it was? Oh, that smell again! He couldn't resist it.

The next minute, he was on the window ledge. Boldly, as if he had been personally invited, he devoured the bread crumbs that had been scattered there.

A burst of laughter startled him from his rapturous joy for a moment, and he flew back to the rose bush in fright. But nothing happened, so he went back for more crumbs.

The children inside were delighted at the little bird that their father had tempted with bread crumbs. They laughed at his bold hop, his eager pecking, his brilliant bead-like eyes, and his bright red breast. But their laughter was kind, not teasing.

"I guess little bits of things do always happen to turn up accidentally!" thought the robin to himself that evening, as he crept into his ivy-covered shelter. That night he dreamed of the window ledge and the delicious food! And the next morning, before anybody was awake, he went to visit the magical window ledge again. But there were no children, and no bread crumbs. (He was only a bird, and he didn't know anything about social customs like breakfast hours!) It almost seemed like the meal from the previous day had been a dream, something too good to be true. Or, at any rate, too good to happen again. But no summer bird song could be any sweeter than the song that robin sang to greet that early morning, which happened to be Christmas day.

He told the tale of the previous day's feast to the tortoise, who was still sleeping in his hole, and he promised to tell him more when he woke him up in the spring.

And he kept his promise. Whether the tortoise had patience to listen or not, the robin had plenty to tell him. There had been a meal of bread crumbs every day, scattered by his new friends. Those daily meals had never failed. And a tiny birdhouse was put up for him beside the window ledge. It was covered inside with cotton and hay, and was almost too warm for his sturdy little body!

But he wasn't able to put into words everything he had felt that winter. He couldn't explain the mysterious friendship that had developed between him and his human protectors. He couldn't properly describe the friendly faces that he could see sitting around the breakfast table, where he was allowed to hop around when he wanted to!

But he did tell how he used to sit on the rose bush every morning of every day and sing to welcome his new friends as they woke up. And he told how, in the late afternoons, the father would sometimes open the window and sit there alone, listening to the robin's song.

"Oh, come on, my friend!" said the tortoise when he finally did wake up and came out of his hole and heard what the robin said. "I've been asleep for a long time and had lots of dreams that I could tell you all about if I could only remember them. I suspect that you had a nap and dreamed all these things. But, never mind--I'm very glad to see that you survived the winter and are still alive! You don't even look half as starved as I expected! But all that about you singing every day, and having plenty to eat every day, and being so happy all the time--don't try to make people believe such made-up nonsense!"


___________________________


Cobwebs

I cannot make this subject clear,
But I will try to say something about it,
Even though it might not help.
(loosely paraphrased from The Two Voices by Tennyson)

Twinette was a young, hungry and busy spider. Her mother had said, "Weave yourself a web, my dear, and catch some flies. You already know how, so I don't have to teach you. But don't spin your web here in the corner where I am. I'm old and I have to stay in corners, but you're young and you can go wherever you want. If you were here, you'd be in my way. Why don't you scramble along the rafters until you're a little distance away, and then spin your web. But make sure there's nothing underneath you where you make your web. If there isn't empty space under your web for the flies to fly around in, you won't catch anything in your web."

Twinette was obedient, and did what her mother said. She scrambled along the wooden arched groin of the vaulted ceiling of the church where she and her mother lived, until she thought she had gone far enough away. Then she stopped and looked around. That was pretty easy, since she had eight eyes. But she wasn't sure what there would be under her.

"I wonder whether this would be considered empty space underneath me?" she said.

Rather than stay there wondering about it, she decided to ask her mother what she thought about it.

"What do I think about it?" said her mother. "How can I think about something I can't see? There didn't used to be anything there when I was a young spider, as I remember. But you should find out for yourself. Let yourself down with a strand of silk--you don't need me to teach you how. Then you'll be able to see for yourself whether there's anything there or not."

Twinette was an intelligent spider, very capable for our modern era, so she thanked her mother for the advice and was just about to start again when she had another thought. "How will I know if there's anything there once I get there?" she wondered. And she went back to ask her mother.

"What? If there's anything there, you'll see it, of course!" said her mother, getting annoyed at her daughter's many questions. "After all, you have eight eyes!"

"Thank you, now I understand," said Twinette. Then she scuttled back to the end of the rafter and began to prepare her silk.

Her silk was exquisite. It was so thin and light that it was almost invisible, so elastic that it could be blown around without breaking, such a perfect shade of gray that it looked white against black things and black against white things, and so easy to handle that Twinette could make it and slide down it at the same time. Then, whenever she was ready to go back up, she could climb it and roll it up at the same time!

It was an amazingly wonderful kind of rope for somebody to be able to make with no training. But Twinette wasn't conceited about it. Making silk rope came to her as easily as eating and playing and fighting do to intelligent little boys. She didn't think any more about that than we do about chewing our food.

How she did it is another question. No matter how intelligent we might be, that's not an easy question for us to answer. We know this much: there are four little spinnerets near the tail that the silk comes out of, and the silk rope was a combination of these four twisted together into one silk rope. But the individual thread from each spinneret was a combination of even finer threads twisted together. It's hard to say how many strands there were in one of Twinette's silk ropes. It's enough for us to know that Twinette made her silk rope the same way that generations and generations of spiders have been making it, and it doesn't look like the process will be changing any time soon.

The general idea was to glue the ends of a silk rope to the rafter, and then lower oneself down. Then the threads would come out of the spinnerets, and the threads would twist, and the farther the spider lowered herself, the longer the rope would become.

Twinette prepared herself to get started. She turned over on her back and started descending.

The glued ends of her threads stuck nicely, the four strands twisted closely together, and down went the silk rope, with Twinette guiding it at the end. She descended down into the front of the church [the chancel]. There were beautifully carved oak panels on three sides, and carved oak seats below, with carved oak statues at each end.

Twinette was about halfway down to the stone floor when she stopped spinning to rest and look around. She balanced herself at the end of her silk rope with her legs curled around her.

"What an amazing place!" she cried. "It's good to travel and experience the world, and see things like this! It's nice right here in the middle. It's an open, empty space--very nice for flies to fly around in. They must have a pleasant time here! But I'm pretty hungry. I'd better go back and start spinning a web."

But just as she was preparing to roll up her silk rope and set off, a ray of sunshine streamed in through one of the windows. It shone right on her body, which was still hanging from the silk rope, and startled her with its dazzling brightness. Everything seemed to be in a blaze all around her, and she turned around and around in terror.

"Oh dear! Oh dear!" she cried. She didn't know what else to say, but she couldn't help crying out. She made one burst of effort, gave a strong lurch, and, even though the sunlight was blinding her, she scurried up to the vaulted ceiling as fast as a spider can go, rolling up her silk rope into a ball as she went. And then she started to complain.

But it's no fun complaining to yourself, so she ran back to her mother in the corner.

"Are you back again so soon?" said her mother, not very happy at being disturbed again.

"It's a wonder I'm back at all!" whimpered Twinette. "There is something down there besides empty space!"

"There is? What did you see?" asked her mother.

"Nothing! That's what was wrong," said Twinette. "I couldn't see anything because of the dazzle and blazing radiance. But that's what I saw down there: dazzle and blazing radiance."

"That's what's wrong with young kids today!" said her mother. "They're so annoying with details about what they've seen. If the rule about finding empty space by sight didn't work, try something else. How about this: did the dazzle and blazing radiance push you and make you move out of its way?"

"No," said Twinette, "I left myself."

"Then how can they be anything?" asked her mother. "Two things can't be in the same place at the same time. I'll show you--you try to get into my place while I'm also here. See if you can do it."

Twinette knew that wasn't possible, so she didn't even try. But she sat very silent, wondering what dazzle and blazing radiance could be made of if they weren't anything at all. This was a puzzle she might have been stumped about forever! Fortunately, her mother interrupted her by suggesting that she go find something to do. "I can't afford to share what I catch in my web with you," she said.

"Alright, but you'll be sorry if dazzle and blazing radiance kill me," said Twinette, in a complaining tone.

"Don't be afraid of dazzle and blazing radiance," cried the mother spider. She was getting angry. "I'll bet they're merely a little more light than usual. Even up here, in the dark corners, the light varies more or less sometimes. You're talking nonsense, my dear."

So Twinette scuttled off in silence. She didn't dare ask what "light" was, although she dearly wanted to know.

But she felt too frustrated to spin a web. She was more interested in the search for truth than in a search for dinner. That proves she was no ordinary spider! She decided to go down below, but in another place, and see if she could find a place that was really empty. If she did, she would spin a web there.

So she moved a whole six inches eastward, and this proved to be a very successful journey. When she descended, her mood brightened. "It looks good so far! I do believe I've finally found nothing! This is wonderful!" As she said this, she hung dangling at the end of her silk thread, enjoying herself immensely. Suddenly, the door at the south side of the church opened and a strong gust of wind blew in. It was a windy evening, and the draft swayed her silk rope, with Twinette at the end of it. She was swung back and forth in the air until she was giddy.

"Oh no!" she cried, "Now what should I do? I thought there was nothing here but empty space for flies to fly in!" Finally, in despair, she struggled against the wind and managed to coil up her silk thread and get back up on the rafter.

It was lucky for her that a lazy, half-dead fly happened to be creeping along up there just then. She pounced on him, killed him, and sucked out his juices before he knew what had happened to him. Then, after she tossed his carcass aside, she scrambled back to her mother and told her what had happened, although not very clearly. Her own opinion was that her mother didn't know what she was talking about when she said there was empty space with nothing in it.

"You said dazzle and blazing radiance were nothing," she cried, "even though they blinded me, because we were able to be in the same place at the same time. You said they couldn't be in the same place as me if they were anything. Now you're telling me that this new thing is nothing because I can't see it, even though it keeps blowing me out of my place. I don't like your rules! What good are they if I can't depend on them? I don't think you know very much about what's down there, that's what I think."

If Twinette's head had been dizzy and confused from being blown around by the wind, her mother's head was dizzy and confused with Twinette's reasoning.

"What difference does it make what's down there," said her mother, "as long as there's room for flies to fly around? I wish you'd go back and spin your web."

"I don't know what difference it makes! That's what I want to know!" said Twinette, but she scuttled back to the rafter. She wanted to be obedient and spin her web. But she dawdled, and thought, and wondered, and procrastinated, until the day was nearly gone.

"I'll go down one more time," she finally said to herself, "and have one more look around."

So she went down, even further this time than she had before. Then she stopped to rest as usual. After she had rested for a bit, she felt a little more adventurous. "I'm going to find out what there is here by going all the way to the bottom," she thought. "I'm going to see how far empty space goes." And she started her spinnerets again and descended further.

Her silk rope certainly was a wonderful thing to be able to take her all the way to the ground without breaking. In a few seconds, Twinette was on the cold stone floor of the church. But she didn't like the way it felt, so she ran across it as fast as she could. Then, luckily, she came to a wooden step. She hurried up it and crept into a corner of it to take a breath. "What a strange place!" she thought. "You just never know what to expect! I'll rest for a bit and then go back, but I'll have to wait until I can see a little better."

But it was almost night, and the light was fading. She got tired of waiting to see better and stepped out from her hiding place to look around. The whole church was dark.

It's not so bad to be in the dark when you're snug in bed, but it's scary when you're a long way from home, lost, and don't know what might happen to you the next minute. Twinette had been in the dark corner with her mother before and thought nothing of it. But now she was afraid, and she wondered what this dreadful darkness was made of.

Then she thought about her mother's rules and got frustrated.

"I can't see anything, and I can't feel anything," she thought, "yet there's something here that's frightening me out of my wits."

At last her terror made her desperate and bold. She felt around for her silk rope. There it was, safe and sound, so she made a jump. The rope rolled up, and she went up, higher and higher, through the dark air. She couldn't see anything. She couldn't feel anything except the terrible fear inside herself. By the time she reached her rafter, she was exhausted, and she fell asleep.

It must have been late when she woke up the next morning because the sound of organ music was heard through the church. The sound vibrated pleasantly over her body, rising and falling like gusts of wind, swelling and sinking like waves of the sea, gathering and fading away like mist in the sky.

She let herself down on her silk rope to observe. She couldn't see anything that could have made those sensations. But as she hung there, suspended from her thread, she had even more new sensations. It was autumn, and there was a harvest festival in progress. Large white lilies were combined with evergreens and wrapped around the slender pillars of the oak panels. The air was filled with their strong scent. Yet nothing disturbed her or moved her out of her place. Sunshine was streaming in through the windows. It felt warm on her body, but it didn't seem to be interfering with anything else. At the same time, she heard music and prayer, in whatever way spiders can hear those kinds of things. Maybe she experienced it like deaf people can experience sound by feeling vibrations. A door opened and a breeze swayed her silk rope, but she hung on. Thus, music, prayer, sunshine, breeze and scent were all in the same place at the same time. In fact, Twinette was there with them, and she could see flies buzzing around overhead.

That's all she needed to know. She went back to the rafter, picked out a place, and started to spin a web. Before evening, her web was finished, and she had captured and eaten her first prey. Then she cleared the remains from her web and sat down to reflect and think. Twinette was now a philosopher. She had figured out what it all meant while she was spinning her web. As she crossed and glued the threads, her ideas became clearer and clearer--at least, they seemed to, which was just as good. Each thread she fastened brought its own thought, like this:

"The concept of empty space is just an old wive's tale," and she glued a thread down. "Sight and touch aren't very precise guides," and as this thought crossed the first one, she crossed one thread with another. "Two or three things can easily be in the same place at the same time--" that thought was vague until she clarified it with another thought at the same time she tightened a loose thread: "Sunshine and wind and scent and sound don't move each other out of their places," and then it seemed more firmly in place. "If you feel something, it's because there's something causing it, whether you see it, or feel it, even if you don't figure out what it is;" this thought was as wonderful as the thread that was winding around the whole web and fastening it secure in several places. "Light, darkness, sunshine, wind, sound, sensations, fear, and pleasure--none of those fill up space so that flies can't fly around." The little interlacing threads looked very pretty as she glued them down, and her little thoughts were just as satisfying. "There are so many things I don't know much about!" and the web got thicker every minute. "Maybe there's even more beyond--so much more, a lot more--beyond." And she kept repeating those words until her web was finished. When she relaxed and reflected after her first prey had been eaten, she started repeating those words again. She couldn't think of anything wiser or better to say. But that's no surprise. After all, when her thoughts were all put together, they made nothing but a cobweb!

Much later, when a broom had swept that web away along with others from the ceiling, Twinette was no longer there. She had died, and a new generation of spiders had inherited her cobweb wisdom. But it was only cobweb wisdom, so spiders are still only spiders, and they still weave their webs in the ceilings of churches without ever understanding the mystery of things they can't see here below.


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Belief is Not Limited to What we Know

"Can you figure God out by searching?"--Job 11:7

It was only the wind blown in from the open window and banging the door shut that made such a great noise, shaking the room so much.

The room was the library of a naturalist. It was a pity that some folders of specimens had been left near the edge of the big table because when the door banged shut, the folders fell off, and many samples of plants and seaweeds and such were scattered on the floor.

"Do we meet again?" said a sea anemone to a red coral into whose company he had been tossed in the fall. "Remember me? It's great to see you again! What strange things have happened to us since the waves flung us on the sand together!"

"Is that you?" replied the red coral. "Yes, and this is a strange place we've ended up in! Well, well, it's nice to see you again! How are you this morning, after all the rinsing and drying and squeezing and gluing we've undergone?"

"Physically I feel okay," said the sea anemone, "but I'm very, very sad. There's a lot of difference between you and me. You have no reason to be sad. You're basically unchanged now that you're here, except that you can't grow any more. But me? I'm nothing but a skeleton of what I used to be. All the happy little sea creatures who used to live in and among me are all dead and dried up now. They died by the hundreds soon after I left the sea. Even if they had survived being lifted out of the sea, the bitter fresh water we were soaked in by that horrible being who picked us up would have killed them immediately. What are you smiling at?"

"I'm smiling at you," said the red coral. "Imagine calling our new master a horrible being! And I'm smiling at the way you speak so fondly of those little creatures who inhabited you."

"Why shouldn't I speak fondly of what I know so well?" asked the sea anemone.

"It's fine to speak fondly of what you know," said the red coral. "But I wonder if we know as much as we think we know? People can get stubborn about things they think they know, and then, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that what they were so sure about was a mistake."

"What makes you say that?" asked the sea anemone.

"I learned about it from a very interesting creature I met here--a bookworm. He walks through all the books in the library whenever he wants and picks up quite a bit of information, and knows a great deal. And he says he's nothing compared to the creature who picked us up--that 'horrible creature,' as you call him. My friend the bookworm says that the creature is a man, and he says that man is the most wonderful creature in the world. There's nothing like him anywhere. The particular man who picked us up is a naturalist. A naturalist is someone who knows all about living creatures, and plants, and rocks, and all kinds of other things. Wouldn't you agree that it's a great honor to belong to such a creature, and to be friends with his bookworm?"

"Of course I would," said the sea anemone, "and I do."

"I thought you would," said the red coral. "And yet, would you believe, this naturalist and his bookworm are just a couple of examples of what I meant. They think they know everything, and get extremely stubborn about the most absurd mistakes."

"My friend," said the sea anemone, "are you any kind of intellect to be able to judge in matters like this?"

"You think not?" responded the red coral. "Let me give you just one example. Do you know what the bookworm and I have been arguing about all morning? Whether I'm a plant or an animal! He swears that I'm an animal full of little living creatures like the ones you used to live with, and he says there's a long article about it on the other side of the page I'm glued to!"

"What nonsense!" began the sea anemone indignantly, yet amused. But he was interrupted by the red coral.

"I'm embarrassed to tell you what he said about you. He told me that for generations and generatons, you and all your family and relatives were considered plants! It was only recently that naturalists figured out that you're an animal. Aren't I correct then when I say that people get very stubborn about what they think they know, and then it turns out to be all wrong? As for myself, I confess that I'm confused with all these blunders."

"That's disappointing," murmured the sea anemone. "I thought we'd fallen into the hands of some brilliant and fascinating creatures. I'm sorry they're so dim-witted. It was so pleasant to think that some wonderful and wise beings existed who spend all their time finding out about plants and animals and things, and keep us categorized in these beautiful books so carefully. I loved that thought, and now I find that these wonderfully wise creatures are wonderfully ignorant instead."

"Yes, they're very ignorant," laughed the red coral. "But our learned bookworm would tell you otherwise! But he gets muddled and confused when he talks about them, poor fool."

"It must be easy to make fun of those who are superior to you," said a strange voice, and the bookworm, who had just eaten his way through the back of a book (Lord Bacon's 'Advancement of Learning') suddenly appeared to them. He had been listening to their conversation. "I'll regret ever telling you a thing if you misuse the little bit of knowledge you've acquired so far."

"I beg your pardon, my friend," cried the red coral. "I didn't mean any harm. You see, it's a new experience for us to learn anything. If I laughed, you must excuse me. I didn't mean any harm, only I happen to know for a genuine fact that I was never truly alive with little creatures in the same way my friend here the sea anemone was. And he happens to know from first-hand experience that he was never a plant. That's why it made us smile to think of a wonderful creature like your man making such silly mistakes."

The bookworm smiled at first, but then he shook his head seriously and said, "Whatever mistakes man makes, he can always find out and correct later. I mean, he can discover and correct mistakes he makes about creatures who are inferior to him that he learns about through first-hand observation. He might not observe carefully enough on some days and so he makes erroneous conclusions, but he can fix those when he looks more carefully next time. I never take back something I've said when I know without a doubt that it's true. So I'll tell you again--you can laugh if you like, but in spite of his mistakes, man is the most wonderful and most clever of all the creatures on the earth, hands down!"

"I'll bet you aren't clever enough to prove that!" cried both the sea anemone and the red coral at the same time.

"Imagine! The very idea of thinking that I and all my living inhabitants are a plant!" scoffed the sea anemone.

"And thinking that I, with my plant interior and lime-covered exterior, am an animal!" laughed the red coral.

"Go ahead and laugh," said the bookworm. "But then listen. If you had worked your way through as many books as I have, you would laugh less, and know more."

Oh, don't be so offended, Bookworm!" said the sea anemone.

"I'm not offended," said the bookworm. "I know exactly why you're making the mistake you're making, so it's easy to excuse you. I'm just trying to figure out a way to prove what I said about the superiority of man in a way you'll understand."

"Aha!" said the red coral. "Then you admit that it's not so easy to prove! You just said you were having a hard time figuring out how to prove it."

"Yes, I am," admitted the bookworm. "But the difficulty isn't what you think. I don't like to say it, but what prevents you from understanding how superior man is, is your own enormous inferiority to him. No matter how many mistakes he might make about you, he can correct them with some more diligent observation. But no amount of observation can make you understand what man is like. You are within the grasp of his ability to understand you, but he is beyond the reach of your own understanding."

"For all your learning, you're not very polite," said the red coral.

"I promise you I don't mean to be rude," said the bookworm. "You're both very beautiful creatures, and useful, too. But don't flatter yourselves that you know everything, or that you're even capable of knowing everything. And most of all, don't challenge the superiority and abilities of another being simply because you don't understand them."

"Are you saying, then," asked the red coral, "that I should believe whatever fantastic stories anyone chooses to tell me about the superior abilities of other creatures? And when I ask what those superior abilities are, I'm going to be told that I can't understand them, but I should believe them anyway?"

"That's not what I'm saying," said the bookworm. "Don't believe them unless their abilities are proved by equally superior results. But if the results are there, then you should believe them, whether you understand them or not."

"But how am I supposed to believe something I don't understand?" asked the red coral.

"Then don't believe it," said the bookworm. "Remain an ignorant fool your entire life. The truth is, you can't really understand anything except what falls within the narrow limits of your own intellect. But if you want to make that the boundary of what you believe to be true, good luck. At least you won't be burdened with lots of knowledge."

"Well!" exclaimed the red coral. "It's easy for you to be scornful to your inferiors, Mister Bookworm! Your time would be better spent trying to explain to me man's wonderful abilities, so you can thus remove the difficulties that prevent me from believing."

"Even if I tried my hardest, I couldn't do that," said the bookworm. "You can't even understand my own superiority, much less man's."

"Oh, now you're getting conceited!" cried the red coral.

"I promise you, I'm not," said the bookworm. "But you can decide for yourself. There are many things I am able to do that you aren't capable of. For one thing, I can see."

"See?" said the red coral. "What's that?"

"I knew it," said the bookworm. "I knew I'd confuse you right from the beginning. Seeing is something I do with this interesting apparatus in my head called eyes. But you don't have eyes. Therefore you can't see. How can I make you understand what seeing is?"

"You can try describing it to us," answered the red coral.

"How can I do that?" asked the bookworm. "I can simply tell you that I can see. I can say, 'I'm seeing now, as I walk over you. I can see the little bits of you that come in front of my eyes;' I can tell you what I'm seeing, but how can I make you understand what seeing is? You have no eyes, so you can't see. Therefore, you can never understand what seeing is like."

"Then why do we need to believe that such a thing as seeing exists?" asked the sea anemone.

"I don't care whether you believe it or not!" said the bookworm. "Don't believe it if you don't want to! There's no harm in being ignorant and narrow-minded. I'd rather you drop the whole matter altogether. You're both annoying and easily offended. And it's all because of your pride and vanity. You want to think you're higher up in creation than you are, and no good ever comes from that kind of thinking. If you'd be content to learn amazing things in the only way available to you, I'd enjoy telling you more."

"The only way available to us?" said the sea anemone. "And what way is that?"

"From the results," said the bookworm. "By the effects that result from man's abilities. Like I said before, even though you can't understand man's wonderful abilities themselves, you might have the humility to believe that they exist because of their wonderful results."

"Tell us about some results, then," said the red coral. "What are some results from this thing you call seeing?"

"In man," interrupted the bookworm, "the results of his seeing are that he gets to learn everything about you. And not just you, but all the different creatures and plants and rocks he looks at. He gets to know your shape, how you grow, your color, all about the cellular structure of the little creatures that live in you. He learns how many feelers those tiny creatures have, what they eat, how they catch their food, how their eggs come out of their egg cells, where you live, where he can find you, what other anemonies are related to you and which ones have the most in common with you. In other words, he can find out the most intricate details. Then when he adds you to his collection, he can categorize you with those who are most like you, not some strange creature. He can describe you, and draw pictures of you, and give you a name so that no matter where you're found, everyone will know that you're the same creature all over the world. And now I'm all out of breath from telling you about all these amazing results from man's ability to see."

"But he mistook me for a vegetable," muttered the sea anemone.

"Yes, I know," said the bookworm. "Like I said, he hadn't observed you closely enough. He hadn't invented the odd instrument that lets his great big eye see tiny little creatures like the ones that lived in you. But he invented that instrument, and it let him look more carefully, and that's when he saw more about you."

"But he still thinks I'm an animal," protested the red coral.

"I know," said the bookworm. "But he won't think so for long. If you're a plant, I'm sure he'll figure it out when he examines you a little more closely."

"Those are some strange things you expect us to believe," observed the sea anemone.

"Yes, and there are plenty more things even more strange that I could tell you," laughed the bookworm. "Whatever you can't find out for yourself, you'll have to take on faith from those who are superior to you. There's no other way. Observing things and hearing revelations are the only ways there are to get knowledge."

Just then, the door opened and two gentlemen walked into the room.

"Oh no! My brand new specimens are on the floor!" said the Naturalist. and he bent over to pick them up. "Never mind; here's the one I wanted to show you. It will do quite nicely for my purpose. I only need a tiny branch of it, though."

The Naturalist cut off a bit of the red coral and laid it in a dish. He poured some liquid from a bottle over it, and it bubbled and began to wear away some of the lime coating from the red coral. The gentlemen sat watching the result.

"Do you see that?" whispered the bookworm to the sea anemone. "Those two men are looking closely at your coral friend. They're doing what they call 'experiments' so they can figure out what he is. If they don't figure out that he's a plant, then I'll admit I'm wrong about man's abilities, and concede in despair."

But the men did succeed!

The gentlemen kept watching until the lime coating was completely dissolved and there was nothing left in the dish but a delicate reddish branch with little round things on it. They looked like tiny apples.

"That is obviously the fruit," remarked the Naturalist. "Now let's see what it looks like under the microscope."

And they did.

After about an hour, the bookworm and his two friends became sleepy. They had waited to hear what the Naturalist would say until they were tired. Therefore, they were startled when he suddenly exclaimed, "It's impossible to doubt! If I ever doubted, I am certain now--the Coralinnas must be removed from their classification of animals, and moved back to the plant category."

The naturalist laughed as he loosened the glue from the specimen. He reglued the specimen onto a fresh sheet of paper, and filed it with the corals. Then the two gentlemen left the room again.

"So he really did discover the truth about the red coral!" cried the sea anemone. "He was even right about the fruit! Oh, bookworm, I wish I could know what seeing is!"

"Oh, sea anemone, don't waste your time struggling after things that can't be had. You know what it means to feel; I can tell you that seeing is sort of like feeling, but different. Will that do?"

"That doesn't make sense. It sounds like nonsense."

"It is nonsense. There is no other answer but nonsense if you want to truly understand abilities that are beyond you. Try explaining to that rock you're growing on what it means to feel."

"How could I do that?" asked the sea anemone. "It has no sensation."

"Right. No more than you have sight," said the bookworm.

"That is very true," said the sea anemone. "I'm satisfied, bookworm. Humbled, I confess, but also satisfied. And now I'll just be happy for where we are now, and glory in our new master, and admire his amazing abilities, even if I can't understand them."

"I'm proud of you, student," smiled the bookworm kindly.

"I'm a student, too," chimed in the red coral. "But tell me now, does man have any other strange abilities?"

"Several," said the bookworm. "But to really understand them, you have to have them. A lower ability can't fully comprehend a higher ability. But limiting what you believe to only the boundaries of your own small abilities is like tying yourself to the foot of a tree and denying the existence of its upper branches."

"I guess there are no other abilities beyond the ones that man has," mused the sea anemone.

"I never said that," replied the bookworm. "On the contrary--"

But no one knows what he would have said, because the door opened again. The Naturalist came in alone and spent the evening putting the specimens in their proper volumes on his shelves. It was a long, long time before the bookworm saw his friends again, because the volumes they were kept in were made of good Russian leather, whose smell he disliked, so he was never able to make his way to them for a friendly chat after that.

Red coral: Seaweed/Corallina
zoophyte-sea anemone (animal that looks plantlike) (eh NEH moh nee)


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The Light of Truth

[Will-o'-the-wisp, also called jack-o'lantern: phantom lights resembling flickering flames. In English folklore, they are said to flicker over swamps, they recede as the traveller gets closer, luring him farther and farther into danger.]

"We know that all things work together for good." Romans 8:28

"Hateful ghost!" cried the travelling politician, as the horse he was riding sank into the muddy bog. "You've led me to a miserable end with your treacherous light!"

"It's the same story," sighed the Will-o'-the-Wisp in response to the traveller. "Always blaming others for troubles you brought on yourself. What more could I have done for you, pathetic creature? All through the weary night, I danced on the edge of this swamp, trying to save you and others from catastrophe. If you've rushed in farther and farther, like a rash fool, in spite of my warning light, who is to blame but yourself?"

"I am a pathetic creature indeed," answered the traveller. "I thought your light was a friendly lamp, but you deceived me, and lured me to my death."

"I did not lure you here," said the Will-o'-the-Wisp, anxiously. "I plan my appointed task carefully and diligently. My light is a friendly lamp to the wise. It only misleads rash, ignorant fools."

"Rash! Ignorant!" exclaimed the politician. "You have no idea who you're talking to! I am an important statesman, trusted by the king himself! I am honored by my country, and a leader in the country's meetings. Oh, my country! My poor country! Who will take my place and guide you after I am gone?"

"You? A guide who can't even guide himself? You are a misjudging fool, misled, and ignorant of the glorious laws of nature and Truth in spite of how wise you are about the imperfect laws of society. Who will miss you, you presumptuous fool? You mistook the light that was warning you of danger for a star guiding you to safety. How sad for your country if you're the best leader it can find!"

The politician never spoke again, and the Will-o'-the-Wisp danced back to the edge of the swamp. As the Will-o'-the-Wisp flickered up and down, he mourned his hopeless fate, always trying to be helpful, but so often blamed as a villain, and so frequently misunderstood. "And yet," he said to himself as he danced and flickered through the dreary night, "I will keep trying. Who knows? I might save somebody yet! But what an ignorant world this is!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Cruel demon!" shrieked the beautiful maiden in wild despair, as her feet stuck in the swamp, and she struggled in vain to climb onto firmer ground. "You have betrayed me to my death!"

"I tried to tell you there was danger here," cried the poor Will-o'-the-Wisp indignantly. "It's always someone else's fault, never your own, when pretty fools like you deceive yourselves. If you thought I was a demon, why did you follow me into a swamp?"

"I thought my fiance had come out to meet me," wailed the girl. "I mistook your evil light for his lantern. Oh, you cruel devil, I know you now! Must I die so young and pretty? Must I be torn from life and happiness and love? Go ahead, flicker and dance! Dance on in your savage joy over my fate!"

"Even though you are a fool, I have no joy is seeing you perish," answered the Will-o'-the-Wisp. "It is my appointed duty to warn and save whoever will heed my warning. I guess it's my appointed sorrow that reckless and ignorant people like you continue to ignore my warning, and turn good into evil. I shone as brightly as I could, trying to keep you away, begging you to be warned. But in your stubbornness, you pursued me into this deadly swamp. What kind of mother raised you and never taught you to know the difference between a steady beam guiding to happiness, and a wandering, flickering brilliance that warns of destruction?"

"Oh, my poor mother!" wept the girl. "Don't speak badly of my mother! You, in your evil task, don't know anything about what she's done for me. I was her only child. I am accomplished in everything that impresses and delights high society. Even a slight comment or a coy smile from me makes people in the world do my bidding!"

"Perhaps you are accomplished in fleeting and gaudy things that leave no legacy behind. But you don't know anything about the solid beauty and purposes of the real world around you. They work from age to age, patiently and silently working for good goals, and they shame the kind of frivolous work that has no aim and no end. If only you had known the law that I live by!"

The girl said nothing, and then she stopped struggling. The Will-o'-the-Wisp danced back one more time to the edge of the swamp. "After all," he said, "I might save somebody yet. But what a foolish world to live in!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"The old squire should mend these roads," complained old Hobbins the farmer to his son Colin, as they drove home from market slowly in a rickety old cart that shook and jerked so much that little Colin tried without luck to stay curled up in the corner. It was hard to say whether the shaking and jolting were mostly because of the roads, which were admittedly full of ruts, or the old pony who stumbled along from side to side, or the drunk farmer driving the cart. He didn't seem to be able to tell one rein from the other. He kept giving sudden jerks, pulling the pony first one way, then the other. But through all these difficulties, it made the farmer feel better to blame the squire's bad roads that led across the swampy moor. Little Colin didn't spend much time considering the matter. Suddenly a more violent jerk threw him almost sprawling on the bottom of the cart. He jumped up, grabbed the plank sides of the cart, and started looking around to see where they were. At last he said, "She's coming, father!"

"Who's coming?" shouted Hobbins.

"Mother," answered Colin.

"I wonder what she's coming out here for," said Hobbins. "We've got enough to drag in the cart without adding her weight, too."

"You're going away from her, father!" shouted Colin, almost crying. "I can see her with the lantern! She'll lead us home with her lantern! You must not see her, Father. Let me have the reins." But Hobbins refused to give up the reins, even though he was too drunk to drive. As they struggled, however, he caught sight of the lantern that Colin thought was Mother.

"Is that where you'd take us to?" cried the farmer, pointing with his whip to the light. It's lucky for you, son, that it wasn't you driving us home tonight, although you must think you know everything. Some home you'd have taken us to--right to the bottom of the swamp! That's where you'd have taken us to. That light is the Will-o'-the-Wisp that always tries to mislead people. He's bad luck! I followed him halfway to the swamp once when I was young, but an old neighbor who'd been stuck in the swamp once before was passing by just then and called me back. That Will-o'-the-Wisp is nothing but a villain."

With these words, the farmer hit the pony harshly with his whip and twitched the reins sharply at the same time as he remembered that incident. Poor little Colin was tossed up and down, and the cart bumped along in and out of ruts so quickly that Hobbins got home to his wife sooner than she usually saw him on market evenings.

"Ah, they're safe!" sighed the Will-o'-the-Wisp, as the cart rolled away. "That's one disaster averted! Yet it's sad to hear them call me a villian. In their ignorance, they hate the very friend who's trying to help them. Nevertheless, I will continue warning people. Maybe I'll save another life. But this sure is a rude, ungrateful world!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Papa! I see a light at last!" shouted a little boy on a Shetland pony, as he rode along with his father on the moor. "I'm so glad! It must be a cottage, or a friendly man with a lantern who will help us find our way. Let me go after him; I'm sure I can catch him." And the boy touched his pony's side with his whip. In another minute he would have been running after the light, but his father laid his hand suddenly on the bridle.

"Don't go a step father that way, Arthur," he said firmly.

"What, Papa?" queried the boy, still looking towards the light.

"I see the light," smiled his father. "It's a good thing for you that I not only see it, but I also know what it means. That light is not the gleam of a cottage window, nor is it a friendly man with a lantern, though it is a friend to those who understand it. It shines there to point out a dangerous part of the swamp. Hello, old Mister Will-o'-the-Wisp!" said the father, raising his voice and calling into the dark distance. "Kind Mister Will-o'-the-Wisp, we know what you're trying to tell us! We'll stay away from deadly swamps. I'm an old naturalist, and I know you very well. Good night, and thank you for the warning!" And then the naturalist turned the reins of his son's pony in the opposite direction, and they both trotted along, keeping to the old worn road as best they could in the dim light.

"But it looked more like a lantern than that nasty old Will-o'-the-Wisp, Papa," murmured the little boy, reluctantly urging his pony on.

"That's not a nice name to call our friend," laughed the Father. "You remind me of the poet Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote, 'That phantom only exists to lure you to your doom.'"

"Yes, Papa, that's what he does," said the boy.

"He does no such thing, son. On the contrary, he spends his life shining brightly to warn travellers where the most dangerous parts of the swamp are."

"But the light seems like it's beckoning us to follow it, Papa."

"That's only because you want to think that, and you aren't stopping to consider any other possibilities. Does a sailor think that a shining lighthouse is beckoning him to approach the dangerous rocks on which it's built?"

"No, Papa--but the sailor knows the lighthouse was built there for the specific purpose of warning sailors away."

"But he only knows that because he asked and was taught that, Arthur. By asking, you will learn that this Will-o'-the-Wisp was made to shine for us in the swamps as a beacon to warn us of danger. The laws of nature that God created work together in this case for good ends, as they do in all things. We each have the privilege and pleasure of searching out these laws and using their help, while we admire the wonders of the great Creator. Can you think of a better way to spend your time?"

When they got home that night to the bright fire and their warm, comforting tea, they joked with mama about what kind of tea they might have had, and what kind of bed they would have slept in if they had followed Will-o'-the-Wisp as little Arthur had wanted to do.

For a few days after this event (not more, since children's wisdom seldom lasts longer than this, which is right and proper), Arthur would stop and reflect that, however much it might appear the opposite, Nature's laws were always working for some good, helpful purpose. He wisely and seriously reproved his little sister for crying during a storm by saying, "Even though we can't go outside today, the storm is doing good for somebody somewhere."

That was a wonderful thing to believe, though it took some determined effort to always believe it while the thunder rumbled in the distance, and the dark clouds hung over the landscape. When someone remarked, "that was a terrific storm!" he agreed, but thought that it was even more terrific to think that these laws of nature (which are God's created will) continue to work night and day, in darkness and light, whether acknowledged or ignored, for some wise, helpful purpose.

And someday, when he was older, he would try to learn more about these helpful purposes. After all, was there any better way to spend his time? Perhaps, many years later, when the storms and clouds that gathered around him were harder to look through because they were mental trials, maybe he would remember the shining Will-o'-the-Wisp with comfort. This student of nature who had traced mysterious signs to their helpful purposes never let go of the humility and faith from his childhood. Even when his mind was not able to find the purpose, he was satisfied to have faith and believe that its purpose was good and helpful.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Meanwhile the Will-o'-the-Wisp had heard his father's kind good-night as Arthur and his father went the other way, towards their home that night. His light shone brighter than ever as he said, "Finally! Now I am happy. I have saved the life of someone who is not only thankful for it, but recognizes who saved him." And with these words, the Will-o'-the-Wisp cheerfully flickered and danced back to his assigned post.


___________________________


A Lesson of Hope

'Yet we trust that, somehow, good will be the final result of bad things that happen.' (from Tennyson's In Memoriam.)

"Wow, that roaring wind is driving right through that old forest! What a dismal roaring sound it makes among the pine trees! What a sharp clattering sound it makes among the half-dried poplar leaves, and what a sighing sound among the beech trees! This is a wild, mysterious hour, full of strange fantastic allegories of human life!"

This is what I said when I had wandered out one gloomy autumn night to reflect on nature and the laws of nature during a time of grieving, and I had found myself deep within the woods during a violent thunderstorm. I paused and leaned against an oak tree, lost in sad thought. I looked up at the sky, trying to gaze into the deep black clouds, when suddenly the rays of the October moon shone down upon me.

The light came suddenly, and broke in upon my gloomy thoughts. In my grief I had been thinking that people's troubles and trials of existence are like the turbulent storm and the heavy clouds. But then the lovely, radiant light shone down into my eyes, and I heard a voice say, as if answering my thoughts, "This is the moon that shone in Paradise!" It was the owl, the Bird of Night who spoke. He was quite near me, in the hollow of a tree. I looked around to see where the voice had come from, and I saw his serious, thoughtful eyes staring at my face in the moonlight. Then I heard the voice again: "The moon that shone in Paradise!"

What a surprising thought to intrude on that dark, troubled hour! The moon that shone in Paradise! The moon, to whom countless generations of people have turned to gaze, from the full moon, like new, innocent youth, to the slivered moon that is like the sorrowful end of life. The moon's constant, steady presence draws us to gaze at it. It is like a calm, eternal sign of the promise of peace. Then I heard another sound over the howling of the storm. It was an old croaking raven, swinging on a branch beside me. His dark form came between me and the moon, blocking the light, and he kept opening his wings as if he was preparing to fly away.

"Poor deceived fool," he muttered. "You and your endless myths! That's what you get for living in the dark all day, spending your time guessing about things. Look! Your precious moonlight is gone!"

"No, not gone--just hidden," was the owl's answer.

I didn't hear any more than this. The frightful wind got louder, roaring in fury, scattering leaves from the trees, as if he hated any reminder of the gentle summer. Many of the trees bowed their heads, and some even moaned in grief.

"Have you come to bring some tragic news from faraway?" the Pine tree seemed to ask the wind scornfully, as he tossed his branches in the storm. "Is that why you bring so much confusion with you? You are a messenger of evil tidings. Who sent you here?"

"Can't you learn more gentle ways from the moon?" the Elm tree asked the Wind, as he stood majestic in his sorrow and despair.

"Our hour of doom has come," cried the Beech tree. "My leaves are scattered on the ground. My life is coming to an end. I stand here, stripped of my leaves, forlorn, in the midst of the ruins of the past summer."

"Is this some kind of cruel joke?" yelled the Poplar angrily. "We were planted here in this peaceful place, clothed with sweet, beautiful leaves, nurtured by gentle dews and warm sunshine--and now we're left here to be the victims of this reckless fury. All our glories have been ripped away! I wish I had never grown up out of the ground!"

"You ambitious fool," croaked the Raven. "Wasn't a few months of summer splendor enough for you? You ask for too much. Ambitious thoughts are all well and good, but if I were you, I would simply face the cold, hard facts. Existence is like a short spring, and an even shorter summer, and then you die. Ha! And here comes my worthy old friend, the Wind!"

And another gust broke in with fury on the forest, and some strong branches cracked and fell to the ground. I could hear the wailings of nature's suffering above the howl of the storm.

"Isn't there some refuge from this violent kind of end?" asked the oak. "What was the point in living at all?"

"Because destruction is the way of the world," croaked the raven fiercely. "What good is destruction without some kind of life to destroy? What a glorious law!"

"It is not a law, it is only an exception," said the wise Bird of Night.

And as he spoke, peace streamed out from behind the clouds again--the Moon that shone in Paradise. She let her silver light fall like a blanket over the naked branches of the trees. They were wet from the rain, and still waving in the wind, but it seemed as if they were shining gloriously in their robes of moonlit glory. What blessed promises seemed to be streaming down with the moon's sweet light!

The calm-eyed Bird of Night began to sing, "Lift up your heads again, you trees of the forest. The fury of the storm doesn't last very long; only love lasts forever. Things that destroy are temporary, but order is eternal. The wild powers of cruelty may rage in the world, but they don't last very long. The clouds may darken the blue sky, but beyond those black clouds, unchanging and calm, is the Moon that shone in Paradise."

"There you go, with your myths again, you hateful Bird of Night! But here comes the wild Wind to the rescue!" said the raven.

And the Wind blew again, louder than ever.

"It doesn't matter," cried the owl again. "The stormy wind can't last forever, it has to end. The clouds have to pass away, and then the moon will shine, telling of harmony restored.

"You are a silly fool, to talk about hope when death is all around you and in front of you!" groaned the raven. Then there was a crash, and the oak tree fell to the ground. I was startled by the shock.

"When will that day ever come?" I asked out loud, as if I was talking to some mysterious friend. "Will the day come when storms and sadness will be over? It seems like the world is meant to have peace and order, but instead, there is death and ruin."

"You sad doubter, why do you ask?" said the owl. "Must dumb beasts and mute earth try to provide an answer to your fears? Look at the heaven above, and look at the earth below, and in the depths of the ocean. There is only one real law, and that is the law of order, harmony and joy."

"But that law is broken so often!" I cried.

"But those disturbances are not a law, so they cannot last. Disorder, death, destruction--their very nature is temporary. They are rebellious powers that struggle for a little while, and temporarily frustrate the gracious purposes that were meant to be. But they don't exist by themselves, and they don't have any law or existence by themselves. They only exist to disturb an ordered plan whose foundations are too deep to be overthrown. Life, order, harmony and peace are the proper ways to achieve the intended result, which is universal joy. This is the law. Believe in that law, and go on living!"

The voice grew silent. The peaceful moon shone over the whole scene again. The wind died down and the storm moved on, and the brilliant moonlight streamed over the entire forest. The moonlit trees were bright with the moon's rays, and happy murmurs took the place of loud complaints.

"We have been irresponsible and foolish, gracious moon," cried the Beech tree. "We doubted all the promises and hopes you tried to remind us of as you shone down on us. Please forgive us; we were terrified by the storm."

"I agree with my sister," said the Oak. "That heavenly power, the moon, which is beyond the reach of the wind and the storm, will have pity on us troubled souls, we who live in the midst of storms on the earth. She will forgive us. In fact, it looks like she has already forgiven all of us. Look how she has clothed us with silvery robes even more brilliant than the summer leaves we love!"

"These are silvery robes of promise," said the Poplar. His branches trembled with delight, and starlight seemed to be falling all around.

"I am so ashamed that I gave in to dark despair," wailed the Elm. "I should have remembered the past. We are never deserted in our need. Winter storms do rage, and they are terrible. But the bright moon returns from time to time to shine down rays of hope and promises of glory. Still we doubt and fear, but the moon continues to remind us of hope. And every year, the spring and summer return, and life and joy come back with our beautiful leafy green robes. How weak we are, to keep forgetting!"

And so it continued through the rest of the night, with murmurs of comfort sounding through the forest. I finally returned to my poor lonely cottage home, and cried mixed tears, both of sadness and of joy. My father and mother were both gone, they had died suddenly. I was left alone, with little money, to struggle on my own through the world. I stood before my desolate fireplace like a person who was suddenly awakened from a dream, or a vision (which it must have been, out there in the forest). Here I was, exclaiming in despair like the Beech tree had, "I stand here, stripped of everything, forlorn, in the midst of the ruins of the past." But I saw the moon through the window. Its blessed rays shone on me--the same Moon that shone in Paradise, the moon that reminds us of the promise that, some day, Paradise will be restored.

And always after that, throughout the struggles of my life, I would return to that old forest where I dreamed the dream whenever I needed wisdom and hope. As the years passed on, and winter snows came and cold, deathlike sleep seemed to lock the trees in ice--still, at the proper time, the moon would come out and light up even the snow with robes of light and hope. And the springtime would burst the cold chains of winter that held all of nature in a prison. Green leaves and beauty returned again. As I listened to the breezes that whispered soft music through the trees, I thought, "If I could have that dream again, I'd be able to hear exquistely beautiful songs of the wind." But that never happened. Still, I was able to enjoy the comfort of the sight, and see the moonbeams glittering triumphantly through the green tree branches, as if they were romping and playing among the shadows of the leaves.

Spring didn't just come to the forest. Spring came into my own life, too! The winter passed away from my life, and its chill left me. Now I have children of my own, and I take them and their sweet mother, my wife, to these same woods. We tell each other stories about nature and her ways, and how the poor trees moan when storms come, and how the wise old owl reminds people of his philosophy of the laws of order that will prevail someday, and how the patient moon never gets tired of her task of shedding rays of promise and hope down on the world. While we tell these stories, my children clap their hands for joy, and say they'll never despair, no matter what happens because, above their heads shines the Moon that Shone in Paradise!


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The Circle of Blessing

"Freely you have received, freely you should give."--Matthew 10:8

"Come back to me, my children! Let's not be separated!" cried the sea to the misty water droplets that rose from its surface. They were drawn upwards by the heat of the tropical sun. "Come back to me, and bring your share of water back to preserve my greatness and volume."

"But the only real greatness is in spreading out in order to distribute blessings," replied the mist. "Look at us! We're bringing your cooling influence to the hot air all around. Leave us alone, Sea. Our work is good and necessary."

"But you're doing it at my expense," grumbled the sea. "I'm your parent, not the air. Why should you care about cooling off the air, while you neglect my needs? How can you be so ungrateful to me, when your very existence comes from me? You're such foolish children. By diminishing my power, you're sapping the very foundations of your own life. Your very being depends on me."

"Whether small or great, whether great or small, we all depend on each other," sang the mist as it hovered in the air. "Mighty sea, please release a little of your abundance for those who need it. It's so little we ask."

"But dividing one's interests is the way fools destroy themselves," muttered the resentful sea.

"But extending one's interests is the way to be wise," replied the mist, continuing to rise. "Look, haven't we done the same thing we're asking you to do? We've left our salts behind with you, for those who need them."

"But those salts are a useless burden. I've cast them aside and left them to sink to my lowest depths," cried the sea indignantly. "I have enough salt! I'm not going to thank you for something I already have too much of!"

"But maybe down in your lowest parts, those salts are as welcome as we are to the air above," persisted the mist. "That's always the way it is, and everything will work our for the best in the end. Whether small or great, whether great or small, we all depend on each other forever."

"Oh, fine then--go ahead and leave. You're willing to sacrifice something you know is good for some whim you know nothing about. Good riddance, and become the first victims of your foolishness. The breezes that are blowing you forward across my surface will rise to a violent wind and blow you into nothingness as you go along. You'll be lost among the stormy gusts. Then what will happen to your usefulness to others? How will I be repaid for losing you? You won't even be around to be sorry for this crazy decision to abandon your home. Good riddance, good-bye forever, be gone!"

"Good-bye, but not forever," answered the mist as it dispersed in the breeze.

Perhaps it wasn't the best way to leave. Too many times, as their species had made its journey around the earth, there hadn't been an opportunity to explain what happened on their travels to their mother, the sea, who was resentful about them leaving. But the mist had begun its journey. It was carried onwards by the steady southern tradewinds to the calm regions near the equator, where it's warm and humid, and where the breezes travelling from the north met them. Here, the southern and northern breezes lingered before going on their way. These two opposite winds, carrying mists from two different hemispheres, had two different missions, and worked under an appointed law.

It was the wind's job to carry mists from the north and the south up into the cooler upper sky so they could travel freely around the world. Once they were lifted up like this, though, the mist was in cooler air, and its water particles expanded. Part of them clung together in droplets. That had never happened while they were in hotter air. They became heavier than before. In fact, they got too heavy for the wind to carry them upwards.

"You can't carry all of us," said the mist to the wind as it struggled. "So some of us will return to the mighty sea and report that all is well."

So they came down as torrents of rain, back to the sea. But even then, the sea grumbled. "At least part of what I lost has returned." But she didn't know what had become of the rest. And she didn't care.

But the rest were happy and doing quite well. They were high above the earth, too high to interfere with the winds blowing down below. They were carried along by the upper air currents that were travelling to the north to help and do good.

It must have been delightful to drift along on a steady breeze high up in the sky, undisturbed by worries, without a care in the world, relaxing and living a life of ease. But this was only part of the journey of the mist from the sea. At the next stop, a little away from the tropics, they met other travellers like themselves, only they had come from the opposite direction. There was a fresh pressure from the two opposing breezes, then a lingering, and then the mist came down and left the higher regions forever. From now on, they would be spread by surface winds on their mission of usefulness to mankind.

The mist droplets might have forgotten their mission before, when they were floating leisurely high over the tropics, but there would no possibility of forgetting it now. The various breezes that drift over the northern hemisphere took up parts of the mist with triumphant delight. There was nowhere that part of the mist couldn't be found now! Some was needed here, some was needed there. The snows in Iceland, the vineyards in Italy, the orange groves in Spain, the river that pours over the mighty rocks of Niagara Falls, all had to be fed at their proper seasons, and their food--water from the mists--was on its way to them right now.

But if you looked around for them, your eyes would get tired because you'd have to look all over the entire globe! It will have to be enough for us to follow the mist through only a few of the stages on its journey of love.

Gorse and heather usually bloomed together in abundance on the side of a mountain summit, but now the ground was dry. The sun was hot during the day, and there was very little dew at night, so there had been a summer drought for weeks. The buds of the flowers were shrivelled, and the leaves were parched. The little mountain lake was almost dried up. The sundew plants on its banks that usually revelled in the damp moss around the lake didn't look normal, and no longer delighted passers-by with its sparkling crown of water droplets.

The lovely tumbling waterfall that refreshed travellers lower down and collected water from the streams uphill was nothing but a tiny trickle. The village children had to go so far to fetch water that they sat down and cried on the way. The farmers looked anxious and worried, fearing for their crops and cattle.

But even while they were anxious and troubled, rescue was on its way! It was coming from far off, travelling on the wind. Mists from tropical seas, mists that had left behind the saltiness they didn't need, were collecting as clouds, to fall as gracious rain and dew on the thirsty northern mountain.

The winds that blow over the northern hemisphere are wild and unpredictable. They aren't steady on their course like the tropical tradewinds, and they aren't calm and lazy, like the upper air currents far above the tropics that carry the mists to the next level of calm air. No, the winds that blow over the northern hemisphere are wild and unpredictable. We can't tell for sure which day they'll arrive. Sometimes we can't even know which month they'll arrive! But we can depend on them arriving at some point, and waiting in patient expectation teaches us a lesson of quiet faith.

Just as the farmers, and village children, and the earth, and its flowers and streams had all sunk into a depressed mood of distrust and anxiety, their deliverance came to them as they slept!

The local inhabitants had noticed some slight changes in the wind for days, but the weather hadn't changed. Then one night, a steady breeze came from the southwest and blew for hours. Soon there were clouds gathered in the sky, though it happened at night when no one could see them.

Those clouds were a gracious blessing! They were the mist droplets from the sea. After much wandering, the mist had finally found its way here, on its mission of love. And listen! The sound of water could be heard again on the dried-up hills, and sweet, heavy rain showers fell to the delighted earth. All night long it continued to rain. Water streamed down the hills like tears of joy. All day it rained, and all the next night it drizzled off and on.

"Welcome, welcome, you beautiful showers and dew!" shouted the earth at first. And then, "Stay here forever, don't ever leave again!" it said afterwards.

"Poor earth," murmured the mist, which had condensed into dew drops that trembled like sparkling diamonds on the leaves and flowers in the sun on the second day. "Poor earth. Why won't you learn the law that brought us here? You received us freely; you must freely give us back. Let us go on our way."

"No, stay with me awhile," begged the earth. "Let me store you up and hoard you for my own use later. I don't know what will happen in the future. I can't be sure that the unpredictable wind will bring rain when I need it again. I can't afford to think of others; stay here. Don't leave me."

"It's not right for anyone to hoard for an uncertain future when so many are suffering right now," replied the sparkling misty dew. "But a message of comfort will come to you after we've gone."

When the sun came out, the sparkling droplets were drawn upwards from the leaves and flowers, up into the air again. Only the sundew plants kept their sparkling crowns of dew through the day, which was their nature, although it's hard to say how they do it.

Maybe their own natural juice is so thick and sticky that it mingles with the dew and holds them there longer.

"You are our prisoners!" the sundew plants cried triumphantly, as the dew glistened in their liquid gems.

"Why are you keeping us here, selfish flowers?" asked the mist.

"We'll let you go, but gradually, as the moisture within our veins is replenished. That's how we live. But we want to hear all about your travels! Mostly, we want to know why you waited so long to visit us. We almost died in that terrible drought!"

It was a long story the mist told about their erratic trip to the cold Polar seas, and how they spent some time there as snow, and then drifted southwards on top of floating icebergs, and then evaporated back to the wind as mist.

"There is no place in all our stormy journeys where we haven't left some blessing behind," said the mist. "In fact, in some places, people think they've had too much of us, and in other places people think there's not enough of us. But, delicate sundews, believe us, we are faithful and true to our mission around the world. We drop to the earth as rain, or drift to it as fog, and the soil sends its own nutrient-rich gases into our care, and the roots of plants take us in together and feed on it and grow and flourish. When that useful deed is done, and the sun shines on our work, up we go again, evaporating into its warm rays, to be carried on again and again to other helpful deeds. Please don't blame us if we've had to turn aside to attend to some other need, and in consequence, arrived a little late to your hills. Admit that we didn't forget you altogether!"

"That's true," confessed the sundew. "But remember that we pine and wilt and even die without you."

"Dear little sundews. there is no plant in all the swamps as dear to us as you are. Look now how long we're lingering to talk to you. There's enough water in your mountain lake to last you for many weeks. As some of us evaporate away, your moisture will be replenished from below, so your leaves will continue to sparkle with their gleaming gems of droplets."

The sundews were content and no longer feared after that. But as moisture evaporated from the ground, and the water level sank lower and lower throughout the day, the earth began to worry. Would the rain return again in time? But in the coolness of the evening, the mist descended as refreshing dew, and the earth was somewhat comforted. But she grumbled in her greedy anxiety like the sea had done, "At least part of what I lost has returned." And, like the sea, she didn't know what became of the rest of the mist, and she didn't care.

But every portion of the mist had a mission. The rain droplets sank through the saturated ground, amid stones, roots, and soil, drenching them as it went, and restoring the springs that ran down the hills.

The tumbling waterfall had despaired and given up hope during the drought. Its tiny trickle was a mockery of its former self. But suddenly, some force was at work. The distant springs gushed forth, coming nearer and nearer, and then water was flowing over the rocky ledge. More, and more, and finally a rush of water was heard!

"Welcome, welcome you springs and floods!" cried the waterfall as it once more tumbled in its beauty along its course, cascading down and scattering spray on the surrounding moss and flowers along its edge. "Oh, please, stay in the mountains forever so I'll never be thirsty again. Stay here--don't ever leave me again!"

"You live by giving and receiving," cried the mist as it flowed down the stream. "Do you want to stop our good work on its gracious journey of blessing? Shame on you!"

And then, as if making fun of the request, a playful gust of wind blew some mist from the waterfall's glittering spray and tossed it up into the sunshiny air, and it dispersed and disappeared in a light mist. But it would return again when it was needed.

Down in the valley there were nice mansions with beautifully manicured parks. There was a lovely lake fed by a stream which came from the waterfall a few miles away. The stream entered the lake, and escaped at the other side in a quick-flowing creek. On the smooth surface of the lake, majestic swans swam by proudly, enjoying the water as it filled from the springs higher up the mountain.

A little boat was floating lazily on the lake. A youth was moving it forward with an oar. A cousin about his own age and an old man reading a book were in the boat with him.

The cousin was lounging in the bows of the boat, gazing at the old Baron's Hall. Its ancient turrets, long terraces and beautiful gardens faced the lake slightly up the hill, and it had trees around it.

"If that was my house," said the cousin, as he looked at it, "I know exactly what I'd do. I'd forget about all your agricultural schemes for improvement. I'd leave all of that for those workers whose job is to look after the place. I'd enjoy myself and live like a prince while I had the chance."

"And then you would die in poverty!" exclaimed the youth who was rowing. He rested on his oars and looked at his cousin. "Not only poor, but with no friends, too. You can't hang on to anything, even comfort, in stagnation. Even this very pond only stays pure because whatever it receives from the stream at one end, is given back out by the creek at the other end."

"And the stream that it receives from," said the old man, looking up from his book, "is like God Himself. The creek that it gives back to is like the human race. People who receive God's blessings from the divine fountain but don't give back to the creek, are working against the laws of nature and of God."

The rower moved the boat away. But the old man had spoken truly. Those who can recognize the wisdom of God in the secrets of Nature are blessed.

The summer evening sank softly upon the park and the old Baron's Hall. The mists and dew hung heavily over the woods and gardens and flowers. Everyone was glad all over the country when that rain was followed by even more fertilizing rains. Fertilizing rains--it's easy to say those words, but only those who have worried over their crops during times of drought can really understand the full meaning of those words. We take a lot for granted in this world. We expect everything to happen the way we want it to, and when we want it. It's only when we're faced with some danger that we suddenly realize that the controlling reins are held by God, whom we had practically forgotten during the times life was going smoothly.

"If it hadn't thundered, the peasant wouldn't have prayed," is a simple proverb from a distant land. But the saying is true of kings as well as peasants.

"Ah, it's all right now!" said the farmer as he returned home in the evening, after observing his fields drenched and dripping after the rain.

And it was all right. Long after the farmer had fallen asleep and forgotten his worries, the circle of blessing was still at work, enriching his fields. The condensed water droplets sank into the soil, which added its nutrient-rich minerals and salts. The tiny rootlets of corn and grass drank in the enriched moisture that made it stronger and brought growth to the plant. Then, slowly but surely, the stunted ears of corn began to fill out, and the farmers said it would be a good harvest that year.

"Stay with us forever," the corn begged the mist, as it felt itself growing with the rain's delicious influence. The mist didn't answer. It didn't like to talk about death, but it kindly indulged the corn and stayed until the corn was ripe and ready to be harvested. Then it no longer needed the mist's help, so the mist evaporated back into the air to carry on its mission somewhere else.

A little boy stood by a water pump, looking sadly at the heavy handle. He couldn't lift it. It was obvious to see what he wanted because he had a watering can in his hands. Someone passing by saw him, and smiled and gave him some help. Just a few strokes from the handle brought up the water from below. The little watering can was filled, and the little boy ran away. He had his very own garden. He had planted a few kidney beans, sweet peas, and a scattering of mustard and cress. It wasn't a traditional mixture of plants, but it served its purpose, which was to keep the little boy busy and happy.

He hoped to eat the kidney beans some day for dinner, and they were currently his priority. He soaked them again and again with water from his watering can, but only sprinkled a few drops on the other plants. He was clueless about the long journey of the water, from the time it started as mist from the sea, to the springs that fed the well over which the pump was built. And he knew nothing about what happened to those water droplets after they watered his kidney beans, and returned to their journey on the wind.

The little boy felt his shirt after watering his plants and found it was soaking wet. Later, when he had hung it near the fire, he sat down and passed the time by watching the steam as it rose up from the cloth as it dried near the fire.

It seems trivial to talk about--an everyday thing that isn't even worth recording. Yet there was a law even for the steam coming from the child's shirt in front of the nursery fire. Nothing is lost of whatever God has ordained for good. The mist was soon on its mission again. It escaped through the chimney and from the window into the cooler air, and returned to its work, which never ends.

"Give us some of your salts," the droplets finally asked the earth as they percolated through the ground to join the mighty rivers as they ran towards the sea. "Give us some of your salts and lime and enriching minerals, please earth. Then we can take them to the sea, where we came from."

"Can't the sea take care of itself?" asked the jealous earth.

"No one can completely take care of themselves, stingy mother earth," answered the droplets as they joined the water streams along their way. "Whether small or great, whether great or small, we all depend on each other. How will the shells and coral reefs and sea anemones continue to live and grow if you don't give them the goodness from your soil? Give us some of your salts and lime and enriching minerals from your soil, mother earth, so they may live and rejoice."

"Do you have anything to offer in return?" asked the earth, still hesitating.

"Don't you realize that we've already left a blessing behind us everywhere we've been?" asked the water droplets. "But never mind the past. How about this--we'll do the same thing we're asking you to do. We'll leave some of ourselves behind, binding ourselves in the caves of your region, making them beautiful and staying with you forever."

So, as they journeyed on their way, carrying away some riches from the earth, some of the water droplets turned aside. They sank to the depths below the earth, oozing with lime through the ceilings of caverns and sides of rocks. They hung, suspended, as graceful stalactites, or shone out in multi-sided crystallized formations.

"I'm satisfied," said the earth. "I see the evidence before me. The water droplets have left behind something to repay me for what they are taking away."

"We are satisfied, too," cried the rest of the water droplets, as they poured into the rivers and were carried out to the sea. "We have returned to the sea with blessings and treasures."

And so it continues. From age to age, ever since the first mist came up from the earth and watered the Garden of Eden, its great work has gone on, and continues to this day. The mist didn't return to the sea to live a life of ease and idleness, but to start its journey of love all over again. Always rejoicing as it goes, through all kinds of adventures, climates and locations, whether in the form of snow, hail, rain, dew, flood, spring, river or sea, the mist is still obediently fulfilling God's word. God called the mist into being, and the mist still carries its circle of blessing around the world.

"You rain and dew, you winds of God, you snow and ice, you seas and floods, truly, even when mankind forgets and neglects to thank God, you bless the Lord. You continue to praise Him and glorify Him forever!" (from the Book of Common Prayer)


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Active and Passive

"Those who only stand around and wait are also serving."--Milton

"What a restless life, always busy!" grumbled the Weathervane on the tower of the church beside the sea, as he felt himself suddenly spun around by the wind. He creaked dismally, "What a restless, weary, life, and everyone is always complaining about you. The old woman said about me, 'There's that everlasting weathercock, pointing east again,' as she hobbled up the path to church last Sunday. 'No wonder I've got rheumatism in my back again.' Then a day or two later, a farmer came by on his pony and stopped by the churchyard to chat with the grave-digger. 'That looks ominous, Mr. Tomkins,' he said. 'If that troublemaking Weathervane can be trusted, the wind's going to be blowing from the wrong direction; it means more rain.' But it wasn't my fault that he found out what direction the wind was coming from because of me. What does he mean by 'wrong direction,' anyway? Every direction is going to be wrong for somebody. Is it my fault? Did I choose this job? No, I didn't. If I had my choice, I wouldn't want to go swinging around, backwards and forwards, around and around all my life. I would much rather lead a quiet, peaceful existence, like my friend the Sundial, down there on his stand. That's the life!"

"Listen to him chattering away up there!" said the Sundial below. "He makes me laugh, though I've had no reason to even smile lately with no sunshine falling on me at all for days. Sometimes I wonder what he finds to talk about. I suppose his exciting life gives him lots to say. What wouldn't I give to be like him! But my life is so different. It's funny, I thought I heard my own name mentioned just now. I'll ask . . . Hey! Hello up there! Did you call me, my lively friend? Is there something new happening? Please tell me if there is. I get so tired of hour after weary hour of darkness and uselessness, and that's all my life seems to made of these days. What have you been talking about?"

"Nothing productive this time, my friend," replied the Weathervane. To be honest, you caught me grumbling."

"Grumbling? You??"

"Yes, grumbling. Why not me?"

"Why should you grumble in the midst of such an exciting life of fun and activity?" asked the Sundial. "It seems hard to believe."

"Exciting? Fun and activity? That does sound wonderful, but it's nowhere near the truth. Just look at me--swinging loosely with the whim of every gust of wind that blows by. Turned this way, shifted that way, whirled every which way. I'm the plaything of every passing breeze. I never have even a moment to rest unless the breezes decide to rest themselves. Exciting, fun activity indeed! I call it a restless life of never ending toil, and all to serve a world that never thanks me for it. In fact, everyone criticizes my usefulness. But you, my old friend, get to enjoy calm and undisturbed peace. You remain steady and unmoved in the most violent storms. You have no idea how tired I am of my work. You can't understand my troubles from your paradise of blissful rest."

"You call this a paradise?" exclaimed the Sundial. "That's an interesting way to describe my reality, which is not much more than a stale, stagnant existence. My life is dull, empty, useless, and I'm at the mercy of the clouds during the day, and darkness at night. It's impossible for me to do my job unless the weather cooperates, and there are only short seasons of consistent sunshine. And even when the time is right and the sun is shining, and I do what I was meant to do, it's rare for anyone to come near me to learn the lessons I have to teach. I'm tired of the dark night, I'm tired of the gray clouds, and I'm tired of footsteps that pass right by me without stopping. I wish I could be promoted, even for just a few hours, to a meaningful, exciting life like yours!"

"This is a tragic irony!" creaked the Weathervane in reply. "You, in your serene tranquility, longing for the restless activity that I'm tired of! And me, with what you call exciting and fun activity, longing for the quiet that you don't like!"

"You only long for it because you don't know what it's like to live it," groaned the Sundial.

"I could say the same thing about you, my old friend. Only someone in complete ignorance would long for a position like mine."

"If that's true, then every position is wrong," remarked the Sundial in return," but the Weathervane didn't hear it. At that moment, a bell began to toll in the church tower. A funeral procession was approaching, and in the bell's vibrations, the Sundial could not be heard.

As the bell's vibrations gathered in the air, they grouped themselves together into a sad and solemn funeral song. It seemed like it was rising to contradict what had just been said.

It seemed to be comforting the mourners who were following the body to its final earthly resting place with the message that every position was good and blessed for some specific purpose.

It seemed to say that all positions were appointed by God, and everything God planned was good.

It seemed to say that it didn't much matter whether the life of the person who had died had been a busy one or a quiet one, or one filled with hard work, or of endurance. If that person had done the thing he was meant to do, and done it well, then all was well.

It said, too, that every time and every season was good and blessed for some specific purpose. The time for dying was just as good as the time for being born, whether it happened to the child who hadn't lived long enough to do much, or to a grown person who had done a lot.

Because, it seemed to say, times and seasons were appointed by God, and everything God planned was good.

It seemed to say that it made very little difference whether a person lived a long life or a short one. As long as whatever time they had lived was used rightly, then all was well.

These tolls came from the bell tower, echoing and re-echoing in the air, comforting the mourners and telling them not to be sad because positions in life and times and seasons were all appointed by God, and that everything God planned was good.

But the mourners continued to weep in spite of the bell's tolling. Maybe that was just as well. After all, outbursts of repentance are more sincere, and resolutions to live a better life are more earnest when they're prayed over the graves of people we love.

So the mourners continued to weep, the body was buried, the preacher left, and the crowd went home. Then the churchyard was quiet again.

Undisturbed quiet, except for the times when the wandering breezes turned the Weathervane around one way or the other with a dismal squeak.

But then there were footsteps in the old churchyard again. The footsteps paced up and down along the gravel path, first westward towards the sea, and then eastwards towards the entrance gate.

It was an old, weather-beaten fisherman. He had once been a sailor and now he sometimes used the churchyard as a place to walk for exercise and for reflecting, now that old age and its infirmities had made it difficult for him to do the hard work of a fisherman. Now his fishing business was carried on by his two grown-up sons.

He could do some of the work on good days, but good days were more and more rare. Now he had many leisure hours to think about the past and look forward to the future.

And a churchyard is a very appropriate place to think about such things! The place where he walked was only a few feet from his own wife's grave. From this graveyard, with its bitter reminders of man's mortality, he could look out over the boundless sea, which seemed to stretch away into the eternity we all believe in.

Maybe the old fisherman felt this vaguely, although he would never have been able to put it into words.

Up and down the path he strolled, always lingering a little when he reached the point where he looked out to the sea. With his telescope tucked under his arm ready to use, he stood for a couple of seconds looking out to the sea in case a strange ship might come into view.

The groundskeeper came to the churchyard to finish shaping the new grave. He and the fisherman nodded to each other as he passed, but they didn't speak to each other because the groundskeeper was used to the fisherman being there and he had his own work to do.

But after a while, halfway to the entrance gate, the fisherman suddenly stopped, turned around quickly, and faced the sea. He put his hand on his head because the wind was about to blow his hat off, and was blowing in his face. He looked up into the sky, looked all around, looked up at the Weathervane, and then just stood still, as if he was uncertain, for a few seconds.

Finally he stepped over the gravestones and went to the stone pedestal where the Sundial sat waiting for a few gleams of sunshine on this cloudy day.

"If only the clouds would part for a minute," the old fisherman thought to himself.

And soon after that they did, because the wind had started driving them across the sky. For a few seconds the sunlight shone down on the Sundial's plate and revealed the shadow of the gnomen [the part of a sundial that sticks up and casts the shadow]. It showed three o'clock.

The fisherman lingered by the Sundial for a few minutes after he had figured out the time. He examined the figures, the inscriptions and the dates. There was a little motto etched onto a brass plate attached to the pedestal. It said, "Watch, because you don't know the hour." It was hard to read because it was blotched and tarnished from age and neglect. In fact, most people didn't realize there was an inscription there at all. But the old fisherman had been looking very closely, so he spotted it, and he figured it out word for word.

Hopefully the man who engraved the motto there for the benefit of others had followed its advice himself. It had been almost a hundred years since he himself had gone to give his final account. His appointed hour had come, whether he had watched for it or not, and he had died. (His name was Thomas Trueman.)

Maybe these kinds of thoughts crossed the old fisherman's mind because after he deciphered the motto, he fell to thinking. Not for long, though. He was interrupted by the voice of the groundskeeper. He had his hoe over his shoulder and he was heading for home. He had called out to the fisherman to greet him.

"Good evening, Mr. Bowman," he said to the fisherman. "There's quite a change in the wind, isn't there?"

"Aye, there is," answered Mr. Bowman. He seemed pleased to have his own opinion confirmed. He stepped back to the path and joined the groundskeeper.

"It's quite a sudden change, and an awkward one, too. The wind came around at three o'clock, just when the tide turned. It might keep up for hours and hours, and an all-night gale is an ugly and dangerous thing, Mr. Tomkins, when it blows ashore."

"I hope you're wrong, Mr. Bowman," said Mr. Tomkins. "But that's not likely. But they say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, so maybe it will bring some good luck to me," and he laughed.

"You're young, and strong and healthy," observed the fisherman, looking at the groundskeeper scornfully. "What can you have to wish for?"

"Being strong and healthy is fine in its way, Mr. Bowman, I agree. But rest is a good thing, too. I wouldn't mind an idle afternoon like you have once in a while, just walking up and down the path, watching which way the wind blows. That would be a nice change of pace, I think."

"I guess we don't know much about each other's lives," reflected the fisherman vaguely. Then he added, "You won't wish for idle afternoons when you're old enough to have them forced upon you, Mr. Tomkins. But you don't know what you're talking about yet. Just wait till you're old, and then you'll realize that I have more reason to envy you than you have to envy me."

"I'm not sure I believe that, Mr. Bowman," insisted Mr. Tomkins, turning to leave. "In my opinion, you're better off than I am. In any case, we're both in an awkward position because neither of us is pleased with our lot in life."

They said no more, but with a friendly good-night, the two men went their separate ways and the churchyard was empty again.

When the fisherman sat at the dinner table an hour or two later with his sons, he said, "Boys, we need to keep a sharp look-out tonight. The wind changed at three when the tide changed, and it's blowing straight towards shore. I've been to the Hall to visit the Captain and he said we could use his boat if needed. If the wind doesn't slow down with the next tide, and I don't think it will--we might have some unpleasant work. At any rate, boys, let's watch."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"I knew it," muttered the Sundial as the last footsteps receded from the churchyard. "It's just like I said. Everything is wrong, because everybody is dissatisfied. I knew it. We're right to grumble. It's the only thing we're right about. At least, I know I'm justified in grumbling, though I'm not so sure about my friend, the Weathervane. Hello? Can you hear me, my lively friend? Did you hear them? Wasn't I right? Everything is all wrong for everybody."

The strong west wind continued to blow through the churchyard, sweeping away the Sundial's words. Meanwhile the Weathervane was muttering away to himself.

"Yes, I knew it. It's the same old story as before, only this time it's the west wind that's wrong instead of the east wind. I wish somebody would tell me which is the right wind! But they're complaining that this wind, naturally, is an ill wind, and an ugly wind, and that they're afraid it will blow all night. And that seems accurate; it seems to me like it's blowing steadily and very well. Then they shake their heads at each other and look at me and frown. Why should they frown at me? I'm doing a great job going around! It's a fine, warm wind, a good steady wind, although I have to admit, it takes one's breath away. It if didn't howl so loudly, I might be able talk about it with my friend below, who's probably sitting as calm and steady as a rock down there, in spite of the wind. There's one thing that does make me a little anxious. What if this strong wind blows even harder than it is now? Would I be in any danger of being blown down? I'm not crazy about living way up here, I admit, but change isn't always for the better, especially if you don't get to choose what that change will be. And I wonder--if I was blown down, would people miss me? Or would they be glad I was gone? And I wonder--"

But the wind gusts got too violent for wondering, or talking or doing anything except silently hanging on. The wind was picking up fast--so fast that by midnight, a hurricane was driving over land and sea. It raged and stormed so loudly and whipped the waves so high that nothing else could be heard.

White foam that looked like snow on the waves crashed over the shore with a noise like thunder and could be seen even in the dark of night.

Hour after hour the storm raged on. Hour after hour the church bell rang, although nobody could hear it over the storm. The Weathervane pointed due west, hardly moving. The Sundial lay firm and composed on its pedestal. The old church stood steady on its foundation, as if it was mocking the turbulence of the weather by staying solidly, immovably calm.

In the village up on the cliff, many people woke up from the noise. One or two people, as they lay awake listening to the howling wind, forgot their trivial problems and worries, and prayed that no ships would be driven onto the rocky shore during the storm.

But those prayers were in vain. As those people fell back to sleep on their soft pillows with their children asleep around them in serene security, a ship out at sea sent up blue distress signals with trembling hands and agonized hearts. Would anyone see their signal? Would anyone come to help them?

In that wild storm, it could very well be that no eye caught sight of their distress signal, or might see it too late to do anything about it, or might see it but not be able or willing to come to their aid.

But if that had been the case, the Weathervane would have pointed the direction of the wind that afternoon, and the Sundial would have shown the hour, and the fisherman would have looked at both of them earlier for nothing.

But somebody was watching, and saw their distress signal.

The next morning when people woke up they heard that a ship with people on board was headed for the rocks. From cottage windows and from houses up on the cliffs people saw the wrecked ship without its mast rolling helplessly on the water, drifting slowly in front of the village. It looked as black as the shadow of death.

Dainty women who weren't used to such tragic scenes saw the ship. They shuddered at how helpless they were to help, and fell on their knees to ask God to have mercy. Old frail men who were once strong and brave saw it. They were frustrated to know they couldn't help the ship avoid disaster, and they turned away from the terrible sight. Mixed in the crowd of people who slowly gathered on the cliff to watch were children who kept prattling on, asking why some good person didn't go help the poor people who were drowning in the ship.

"Young one, it's easy enough for you to talk," grumbled an old man who was looking on calmly through a telescope, "and I don't blame you for asking, but who would risk their life in those waves to bring a boat out to them? It would be foolish to throw away more lives to save those people who are doomed to die."

"Listen to you, Jonas!" cried a woman in the crowd. "One lady here fainted when she heard you say that. You don't know what's going to happen. While there's life, there's still hope. My husband went down to the shore hours ago, while it was still dark."

"Did he bring coffins?" someone shouted out, and everyone laughed because the first woman was the wife of Mr. Tomkins, the groundskeeper [who dug graves], but many people told the joker, "Shame on you" as Mrs. Tomkins turned to help the lady who had fainted get home.

Time wore on, and there was no change in the ship's situation as far as the people watching from shore could tell. But it was hard to tell since the ship was a mile away from the shore. Even with a spyglass it was hard to tell how the ship's crew was doing.

At one point it became clear that the ship had stopped drifting and was staying in one place. Those watching from the cliff suggested various reasons for why it had stopped moving. The most generally accepted and dreaded answer was that the ship was gradually filling with water and would sink.

Old Jonas suggested that this was why some of the crew was in the smaller boat that was being towed along behind the ship with a rope. When every other hope was gone, the rest of the crew might be able to join them in the lifeboat and make a last desperate attempt to save their lives.

But more time went by, and nothing changed. The ship didn't appear to be sinking any lower, although every now and then a wave would break over the ship's broken decks and the crowd of onlookers would shout, "She's sinking! It's all over now!" The man steering at the wheel was still at his post. Those in the smaller boat were still there. The few men who could be seen on board the ship looked busy, although it was hard to say what they were doing.

After a while one of the onlookers reported that they were raising a jury-mast. Was it a signal to another ship that was in sight? Or was the mast for their own use? Nobody knew. Then they could see a sail. Then they saw that the ship had resumed its course! It was no longer drifting out of control, it was being steered! Now it was obvious that the ship had stopped moving before because they had lowered their anchor. The crew had not given up hope! They were trying to navigate the rocky bay and get into the nearest harbor.

Old Jonas turned away and let someone else have a turn with the spyglass. True, he said, the ship wasn't filling with water, but it was battered and rolling on the rough sea. Could it stay afloat long enough to get all the way through the bay? Jonas was doubtful, but he was the skeptical type.

Others were more hopeful. Many who had been trembling in their suspense sighed, "Thanks to God for His goodness!"

The villagers gradually began dispersing to get to their day's tasks when a couple of boys who had been watching from down below, by the shore, came running to report that Mr. Bowman, the old fisherman who lived in the only house near the shore, was gone. The house was closed up, the key was gone, and nobody was home. This bit of news was welcomed by the village people as a bit of a mystery to fill the lull after their great excitement from watching the ship in distress. The women of the village huddled together wondering and speculating more about Mr. Bowman's disappearance than about the ship that was still in danger. Then it was discovered quite by accident that Mr. Bowman wasn't the only one missing. Mr. Tomkins, the groundskeeper from the church, had also disappeared! A neighbor on the way home had stopped by to visit and found his wife sitting by the fire, rocking back and forth and sobbing.

"Go away, woman!" Mrs. Tomkins had shouted to her neighbor. "Go away! I don't want to see any one! I don't want to hear it! I won't listen to anything you have to say until I know whether that ship has gone down or not!"

"You're beside yourself; you don't know what you're saying," the neighbor had said. "The ship doesn't look like it's going to go down now. It has a mast and sail now!"

"Yes, but it how is it ever going to brave that wind and make it through the bay?" cried Mrs. Tomkins, rocking back and forth in despair.

"It can make it, some of the people are saying it has a good chance. It was only Old Jonas who said he doubted it would make it, and you know how he is. You're just stressed from watching them for too long. Where's your husband?"

Mrs. Tomkins almost shrieked, "He's out there--with them! I saw him when I looked through Jonas's spyglass!"

The neighbor was shocked. This was unexpected news. But she didn't ask any more questions, thinking that Mrs. Tomkins was probably so stressed that she didn't know what she was talking about. So she soothed her as best she could and then left her to see what others in the village thought about it.

But Mrs. Tomkins did know what she was talking about. She had been one of the people who got a peek through Jonas's spyglass and, to her horror, she had recognized her husband from the way he was dressed. He was sitting in the small boat behind the ship. The sudden shock and terror made her unable to say anything, so she had quietly slipped away and gone home to consider what it meant and how it could have happened. But she had been in the crowd long enough to hear Jonas doubt that the ship could stay afloat long enough to get all the way through the bay. When she reached her own home and sat thinking by her fireside, all her thoughts and worries merged into the one fear that her husband would go down with the ship.

The news about Mrs. Tomkins's breakdown spread throughout the village, and people were thinking all kinds of strange ways to explain her behavior, but Mr. Bowman's daughter arrived and the account she gave explained why Mrs. Tomkins was so distressed.

Mr. Bowman and his sons had not all gone to bed the previous night. As planned, they took turns keeping watch, walking up and down in front of their cottage, which was high enough to give a good view of the shore. It was old Mr. Bowman who happened to be watching a long time after midnight when the first blue signal lights went up.

"What a mercy!" was the first thing he cried out. Then he hurried inside, and told his sons to follow him to the Captain's Hall. He said again, "What a mercy!" and clenched his fist and raised it into the air, full of emotion. His sons didn't know what he meant. They stared at him in surprise for a moment, but there was no time to talk. The old man, when he saw the signal lights, had remembered his observations about the weather from earlier when he had been in the churchyard, and the startling inscription on the Sundial, and his own determination to watch and provide help, if needed. He had also thought of the future, and what might happen to those on the ship, and he had gotten a flash of hope and determination that came like inspiration. As he considered what would need to be done, his mind could see it all already done--the daring deed accomplished, and the crew rescued. His cry of, "What a mercy!" encompassed all of those thoughts together.

Mr. Bowman knew from the position of the signal lights that it would be best to push the boat off from the place where it was usually moored. He locked the door to his cottage because the servant girl was afraid to stay home alone, and then went towards the Hall where the Captain was. But then he remembered that the groundskeeper, Mr. Tomkins, had said to call on him if any disaster needed his help, so one of the Bowman boys had gone up to his house on the cliff to let him know.

Before he had even gotten halfway there, he had run into Mr. Tomkins himself. Mr. Tomkins had been restless and worried by Mr. Bowman's anxiety and the terrible weather, so he had been on his way to ask whether everything was okay. So he had left with the Bowmans to the rescue while his wife was still in bed, as unaware of what was going on as the rest of the village.

The Captain at the Hall was a fine old sailor who had distinguished himself during the days of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. When asked about the boat, he had made it clear that if his boat was needed, he could also be counted on to help, and he was true to his word. So, as the first rays of daylight dawned, five men could be seen up to their waists in water, struggling against the waves to push the boat off from the shore with an energy that only the bravest resolution could given them. Few words were spoken. One of them gave orders, and the other four obeyed promptly, willingly, and without question. They worked as if they had been a team for years. With life and death at stake, they rowed over the stormy waters with silent courage, and a hope that never blinded them to the real danger they were about to face.

And that's how it happened that, while the whole village was fearing for the disaster they could see out at sea, help and comfort had already reached the despairing, bewildered crewmen on the wrecked ship.

Of course, plenty of people said afterwards that anyone should have known that the man who had been lashed to the wheel and never changed his position for an instant had to have been the Captain who had fought so gloriously in the wars!

Plenty of people also said that old Mr. Bowman was constantly on the lookout, and therefore it was no surprise that he should have seen the distress signal even if he couldn't manage the rescue himself. And Mr. Tomkins was well-known for helping out in any kind of job, so it was no surprise that he should have had a hand in the rescue.

The ship did get across the bay and get safely into the harbor. Half the village went with Bowman's daughter and Mrs. Tomkins, who was still weeping, but for joy now, to meet them when they landed.

There was so much to say! Everyone bowed to the Captain. He was dripping wet and cold, but still managed to have a joke for everybody. He even made Mrs. Tomkins smile by saying that her husband, the gravedigger, had only come out with them looking for a job, but they had not needed his services! But he had still done his duty with the rescue manfully.

Then the wet rescuers had to be dried and taken care of, and the exhausted crew-members had to be tended and comforted. There wasn't time to talk any more about the excitement until people's minds had settled down later.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The weather cleared up and was beautiful after that terrible storm had passed over. The next Sunday was a brilliant, sunny spring day.

As they were all leaving church, the Captain saw Mr. Bowman standing by the porch, as if he was waiting for the crowd to pass. Mr. Bowman looked taller and straighter than usual, and he was smiling more than usual. The Captain called him over to come and talk with him, so he did.

"This adventure has made a man out of you, Bowman," said the Captain with a smile.

"I have to admit, it has comforted me," answered Bowman.

"I hope it will teach you as well as comfort you," continued the Captain, half sternly, but half good-naturedly. "You've been going on and on about old age, and weakness, and being in the way. But what you've been doing with all that talk is complaining about your position and lot in life. We may not always know what purpose we're needed for, and it's not our job to ask. But nobody is useless as long as he's allowed to live. You can't have a shipwreck every day to prove it, Bowman, but this adventure ought to teach you this lesson well enough to last for the rest of your life."

"I hope it will, Sir," said Bowman.

"And yet, I don't think you can take credit even for that," observed the Captain, with a sly smile. "You said yourself that if it hadn't have been for your friends here," and he pointed with his stick to the Weathervane and the Sundial--"you might have gone to bed that night and slept comfortably the whole night through, never wondering how long the storm might last, or what it might do."

Mr. Bowman touched his cap to acknowledge the joke. He slowly remembered that, as they were bringing the ship into the harbor, he had told the captain the whole story about noticing the change of the wind at the exact time the Sundial pointed to the hour of three. He had emphasized nervously and with great detail how important every link in the chain of events had been, and told about the half-erased inscription whose words had never left his mind from the time when he got into the Captain's boat to the time they reached the harbor safely.

Thinking of these things but scarcely knowing what to say, Bowman began again,

"Well, Sir, that's the truth. If it hadn't been for that--"

"Yes, I know, I know," laughed the Captain. "Now, let's go take a look at those two friends of yours. I'd like to have a look at that inscription myself."

The old fisherman led the way over the graves to the Sundial, and showed him the words, which were almost illegible.

There was silence for a few minutes while the Captain bent his head over to read. When he raised his head again, he looked very serious. If it hadn't been for the mercy that had spared their lives in the perilous rescue, the hour might have been over for all of them.

"Bowman," said the Captain finally, in his familiar good-natured way, "these two friends of yours should be rewarded for their part in the rescue. Before this week is over, you must make sure this inscription plate is cleaned and polished so that the whole church can read what it says. As far as the Weathervane, I'm going to have him bright and shiny before next Sunday. That's enough work for you for a week, isn't it? And making sure this gets done won't leave you any time for grumbling, will it?"

Mr. Bowman bowed in great respect. He liked the idea of this improvement project.

"And while you're taking care of them, don't forget the lesson they teach," said the Captain.

Bowman smiled again and listened.

"By that I mean the lesson that everything, as well as everybody, is useful in its appointed place, at the appointed time. But neither we nor they can choose or know the time."

The next Sunday, the flashing Weathervane was almost as bright and shiny as the sun himself. It hovered gently between two points on the old church tower by the sea, as if showing off his splendor to the world. He didn't creak at all as he moved because all grumbling was over, and he was attached nicely on his well-oiled pole. Below, the Sundial was basking in the sunlight, freshly cleaned and brightened up, marking the fleeting hours one by one. The motto underneath clearly spelled its warning in letters brightly illuminated. Many of the villagers hung around the inscription plate that had once been neglected and took its wise words to heart:

"Watch, because you don't know the hour."

Many people glanced up to the Weathervane, which monitored the wind and storms, and echoed what Mr. Bowman the fisherman had said: "What a mercy!"

The Sundial asked the shiny Weathervane above him, "Are you silent, my bright friend?"

"I'm just a little confused and overwhelmed," answered the Weathervane. "I have a great responsibility, you know. I have so much to do, and the whole world is watching me right now."

"Yes, that's certainly true," said the Sundial. "Things are coming full circle in a very interesting way. Everything is right after all, but under that cloud we were under not so long ago, it wasn't easy to see."

"No, and our mistake was quite understandable. People, who have so many more advantages than we do, fall into the same mistake."

"That is so comforting," the Sundial smiled as he glowed in the sunshine. Then he added, "But that was a good idea the old gentleman suggested. I'm going to try to remember it in the future, because it really seems to be true: 'Everything is useful in its appointed place, at the appointed time.' Isn't that what he said?"

"Yes, that's it. And now that I feel so aware of my own responsibility, I could almost add this, but just between the two of us, my friend: I have a kind of feeling that everything is useful in its appointed place, all the time, although people don't always figure it out."

"That's just what I think," was the Sundial's last remark.


___________________________


Not Lost, But Gone Before

"Won't any of you share the secret, for the sake of those you left behind?" --from Blair's Grave

"I wonder what happens to the frog when he climbs up out of this world and disappears so completely that we can't even see his shadow? And then, plop! There he is, back with us again when we least expect him. Does anybody know where he goes? Please, somebody tell me!"

This is what a dragonfly grub was saying, as he darted around under the water with his friends, in and out among the water plants at the bottom of a pond, searching for food.

The pond was in the middle of the woods, with tall trees around it that reflected on the surface of the water as if it was a mirror. Reeds and forget-me-nots on the banks were reflected so perfectly that there seemed to be two of them.

"Who cares what happens to the frog?" answered one of the little creatures who heard the grub's question, "what difference does it make to us?"

"Take care of looking for your own food," said another, "and don't worry about anyone else."

"But I'm curious," said the grub, "I can see all of you when you pass by me among the plants down here under the water. Even when I don't see you anymore, I know you've gone a little further on. But I followed a frog just now as he went upwards, and then he suddenly went to the side of the water and started disappearing, and then he was gone! Do you think he left this world? What can there be beyond?"

"You lazy chatterbox," cried another little creature, zipping by, "focus on the world you're in, not some world beyond, if there even is such a thing." And the creature caught an insect that was flitting right in front of the grub.

The grub forgot his curiosity a little after hearing these kinds of remarks, and continued chasing and eating insects for a while.

But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't help thinking about how the frog had disappeared. Soon he started pestering his neighbors about it again. "What happens to the frog when he leaves this world?" is what he always asked.

The minnows gave him a funny look and passed by him without speaking. They didn't know any more about it than he did, but they didn't want to admit it. The eels wriggled away in the mud. They didn't want to be bothered.

The grub began to be impatient, but he got some other grubs wondering about the frog, too. He and his grub friends scrambled around together asking everyone they ran into the same unreasonable question.

Suddenly there was a loud splash in the water, and a large yellowish green frog swam down to the bottom of the pond where the grubs were.

"There's the frog; now you can ask him yourself," suggested a minnow who was darting higher up in the pond, and he glanced mischievously at the grub. That sounded like a good idea, though it wasn't an easy thing to do. The frog was a large, dignified animal, and the smaller pond creatures were awed and intimidated by him. It took a good bit of confidence to approach someone so important and ask where he'd been to and where he had come from. What if he thought it was rude and nosy to ask such a personal question?

But the grub couldn't pass up this opportunity to satisfy his curiosity. So he went around the roots of a water lily to gather his courage, and then he approached the frog as humbly as he could and asked,

"Will you let a miserable little creature say something?"

The frog looked at him with surprise in his gold-rimmed eyes, and answered,

"Miserable creatures should be quiet. I never talk unless I'm happy."

"Well, I'll be happy if I'm allowed to say something."

"Talk all you like," said the frog. "Why should it bother me!"

"Respectable Mr. Frog," replied the grub, "what I have to say is a question for you."

"Go ahead and ask," said the frog, although his tone wasn't very encouraging. Still, the grub had permission to ask, so he did.

"What's out there in the world beyond?" he asked, in a voice barely above a whisper because he was so awed.

"What world do you mean?" asked the frog, looking at him with his goggly eyes.

"I mean this world, of course. Our world," said the grub.

"You mean this pond?" Said the frog, with a contemptuous sneer.

"I mean this place we live in, whatever you might choose to call it," said the grub a little rudely. "I call it the world."

"Do you, clever little fellow?" said the frog. "Then what is the place you don't live in, the place you call 'beyond' the world, huh?"

"That's what I was hoping you would tell me!" said the grub, in an offended tone.

"I see, little fellow," cried the frog, rolling his eyes with an amused twinkle. "Alright then, I will tell you. It is dry land."

There was silence for a few seconds. Then the grub asked, in a more subdued voice, "Can you swim around there?"

"I should think not!" laughed the frog. "Dry land isn't the same as water, little fellow. It's something totally different."

"But I want you to tell me what it is!" persisted the grub.

"Of all the curious creatures I've ever met, you're the most pesky," said the Frog. "Let me see . . . dry land is something like the sludge at the bottom of this pond, only it isn't wet because there's no water."

"No water?" interrupted the grub, "then what is there?"

"That's the trouble," explained the Frog. "There is something there, of course--they call it air, but I have no idea how to describe it. The best I can explain is that it's the closest thing there is to nothing. Does that make sense?"

"Not really," replied the grub, hesitating.

"That's exactly what I was afraid of. Listen, take my advice and stop asking silly questions. No good can possibly come of it," urged the Frog.

"Oh, Mr. Honored Frog," cried the grub, "I quite disagree! I think a lot of good might come of it, if only my restless curiosity might be satisfied by getting the information I seek. That would make me content, which would be something. Right now, I'm miserable and restless because I don't know."

"You're a very silly little creature," said the Frog, "who won't be satisfied to take the advice of those with more experience. I'm telling you, this isn't worth troubling yourself about. But I do admire your spirit, which is astonishing, since you're such an insignificant little thing. I'll tell you what--if you don't mind sitting on my back, I'll carry you up to dry land myself. Then you can judge for yourself what's there and how you like it. I personally think it's a silly experiment, but it's your call. I make this offer just to please you."

"I accept your offer!" exclaimed the grub with enthusiasm. "My gratitude knows no bounds!"

"Alright, then, drop yourself onto my back, and hang on as best you can. Remember, if you slide off, you won't be in the right place when I leave the water."

The grub obeyed, and the Frog swam gently upwards and reached the reeds by the edge of the pond.

"Hold tight!" he cried all of a sudden, and then he raised his head out of the pond, and clambered up the bank and onto the dry grass.

"Now then, here we are!" cried the frog. "So, what do you think of dry land?"

But there was no answer.

"What? Are you gone?" continued the Frog. "That's what I was afraid of. He's slipped off my back into the water, silly little fellow. How unlucky! But it can't be helped. Well, maybe he'll be able to make his way to the edge of the water, and then I can help him out. I'll wait around here and see."

And the frog leaped along the grass by the edge of the pond, glancing every now and then among the reeds to see if he could spot the dark little figure of the dragonfly grub.

And what was happening with the grub all this time? He had not slipped from the frog's back out of carelessness. He had hung on with all the strength of hope, until the moment came when his little face began to rise up out of the water.

That sent him reeling off the frog's back into the pond, panting and struggling for his life. A shock seemed to have come over his body, followed by a feeling of deadly faintness. It took a few seconds before he could recover himself.

"How horrible!" he cried, after he had gotten some of his strength back. "Beyond this world, there's nothing but death! The frog deceived me. Even he himself couldn't survive there."

And with that, the grub went back to his old life. His burning curiosity was somewhat stifled, although his spirit was not discouraged.

He satisfied himself with talking to his friends about what he had been through, and where he had gone. They were all enthralled by his tale. It was new and exciting, full of mystery and danger! It almost had a fatal result, yet the mystery of what became of the frog was still unanswered. The whole affair was adventurous and thrilling, and the grub soon had quite a few grub followers who questioned, chattered and speculated at his heels.

By this time, it was almost evening, and time to stop chasing food. As the inquisitive grub was returning from his ramble among the water plants, he suddenly saw his friend, the greenish yellow frog, sitting thoughtfully on a stone at the bottom of the pond.

"Hey--you there!" cried the startled grub. "You never left this world at all, you deceiver! You lied to me. That's what I get for trusting strangers. I was a fool!"

"I'm confused by your offensive remarks," replied the frog seriously. "Yet I forgive you. You're too clumsy and ignorant to reasonably expect civility from. Did you ever wonder what I must have felt when I landed on the grass this morning and discovered that you were no longer on my back? Why didn't you hang on, like I told you? I guess that's how it is with you foolish little critters who think you can understand and investigate everything. You're overwhelmed and thrown over by the first real difficulty you encounter."

"Your accusations are unfair!" cried the grub indignantly.

They were just on the point of quarreling when the frog, with unusual generosity, asked the grub to tell his part of the experience and clear himself of the accusation of clumsiness, if that was possible.

So the grub told him. The frog stared at him in silence with his great goggly eyes while the grub went over the details of his terrible adventure.

"And now," the grub concluded, "it's clear to me that there's nothing beyond this world except death. All your stories about how you've been there must be lies. Unless maybe you have some secret place you go to when you leave this world that you won't tell me. I suppose you have a right to keep your secrets, but I don't care to be made a fool of by any more tall tales, so I'll bid you good night."

"No, don't leave until you've listened to my side as patiently as I've listened to yours," said the frog.

"I guess that's only fair," said the grub, and he stopped to listen.

The frog told him how he had waited by the edge of the pond, vainly hoping to catch sight of the grub. He had hopped around in the grass, and peeked around the reeds. "Finally," he continued, "although I didn't actually see you, I saw something that will be even more interesting to you than it would be to any other creature in the world." And he paused right there.

"And what was it?" asked the inquisitive grub. His curiosity was revived, and he was no longer angry.

"On the polished green stalk of one of those reeds," continued the frog, "I saw one of your own race slowly and gradually climb up until he was out of the water, clinging to the support he had chosen, exposed to the full glare of the sun. I was curious about the sight, knowing how all of you are so fond of the shady bottom of the pond, so I continued to watch. After awhile I saw--though I can't explain how such a thing could happen--that your friend's body seemed to rip, and slowly, little by little, and with a great deal of struggle, something came out of it! It was one of those radiant creatures who fly through the air that I told you about, dazzling those who catch sight of them as they pass. It was a glorious dragonfly!

"Then, as if he had barely awakened from some confusing dream, he lifted his wings out of the shell of a body he was abandoning. His wings were shrivelled and damp, but then they stretched and expanded in the sunshine, until they glistened as if they were on fire.

"How long this strange process continued, I couldn't say. I was transfixed in astonishment and admiration. Finally, the beautiful creature poised himself in the air for a second or two before he took flight. I saw four gauzy wings flash in the sunshine. I heard the noise they made as they struck the air. I saw his body give out rays of glittering green and blue as he darted along, and then away over the pond in circles that seemed to never end. And then I plunged down into the pond to look for you, rejoicing in the news I was going to bring you."

The frog stopped here, and there was a long pause.

Finally the grub said, "That's a lovely story," with less enthusiasm than the frog expected.

"Yes, it is a lovely story," repeated the frog, "but I want to know what you think of it."

"I'd prefer to hear what you think about it," said the grub, politely.

"Good, you seem to have grown more accommodating, my little friend," said the frog. "Well, what I believe is that what I saw explains your strange curiosity, and your tiresome craving to know about the world beyond the pond."

"Possibly, if your account can be relied on," said the grub doubtfully.

"Listen, little fellow," said the frog, "your distrust can't do me any harm, but it might deprive you of something that could comfort you."

"Then, you really think that the glorious creature you described was really once a--"

"Quiet," said the frog, "I'm not going to describe anything. Good evening! Night is coming to your pond, and I'm returning to my grassy home on dry land. Go rest, little fellow, and wake up in hope."

The frog swam close to the bank and clambered up its banks. The grub returned to the other grubs, who rested from their activity and pursuit of food during the darkness of night.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Do you promise?" asked an entreating voice.

"I promise," was the sincere answer.

"Faithfully?" asked the first speaker.

"Faithfully and solemnly," promised the second speaker.

But its voice was tired and weak, because the dragonfly grub was sick and anxious. His legs weren't so nimble, and he felt strangely heavy and oppressed.

The tiny creatures he used to chase and eat flitted by him unnoticed. The water plants he used to scramble over so easily felt uncomfortable to his feet now. In fact, the very water he had been born in, and where he used to propel himself so skillfully, felt almost suffocating with its weight.

He felt compelled to go upwards. Up! Up! It was a strong craving that overshadowed every other feeling he had. He felt drawn to submit to it, as if it was some inevitable law he must obey. And then he remembered the frog's story of what he had seen, and he had a trembling suspicion that his time had come, and he would finally find out what was beyond the pond.

His friends and relatives were all gathered around him. Some were his own age, some were a season younger. All of them were followers of his, who had been inspired by his enthusiastic hopes. They wished they could help him now, in his hour of weakness. But there was no help for him now, only hope. And he had more of that than they did.

Then came the heartfelt request, and his solemn promise that if his hopes turned out to be true, he would return and tell them so.

"But what if you forget?" cried one of the younger ones, who was fearful and worried.

"How could I forget my old home?" cried the sick grub. "How could I forget my friends, the life we enjoyed here, the fun of chasing our food, our clever strategies, the triumph of catching our prey? Can I ever forget the feelings of hope and fear that we've all shared? I've promised to relieve your fears if I can. Forget? That would be impossible!"

"But what if you can't come back to us?" suggested another young grub.

"That's even more unlikely," murmured the listless, exhausted grub. "When I'm in my exalted state, what will possibly be impossible for me to do? Farewell, my friends! Good-bye! I can't stay here any longer. Before long, you'll see me in a new, glorious form. Until then, farewell!"

His voice was so tired, and his movements were so weak. He rose upwards through the water until he got to the reeds at the edge. Two of his closest brothers and a few of his friends who were more adventurous than the others, went with him as he rose up, hoping to see whatever might happen above. But, of course, they couldn't.

As soon as he emerged from the pond into the air, clinging to the stem of a reed, he disappeared from their sight.

Their eyes were only fit for the water. They were unable to look up and through the water to see beyond the pond. So the little group of grubs went back to the bottom of the pond, heartsick and sad.

It had been the middle of a bright, sunny day when the grub had left his friends. They waited through the long hours of that day for his return. First they waited in joyful hope. Then they waited in great anxiety. As the shady night deepened, they continued to wait in gloomy fear, and finally they despaired. "He has forgotten all about us," cried some of them. Others said, "He has been overtaken by a death he can't awaken from." And a few held onto hope. "He'll return to us yet."

Messenger after messenger went up towards the reeds and to different places in the pond, hoping to find some trace of their lost friend, but with no luck. Each one who went out looking came back disappointed from the long, fruitless search. Even the most optimistic started to lose heart.

Finally night came, and that brought a temporary relief from their sadness. As soon as the sun was up the next morning, it filled all of nature with joy and hope, but the little grubs woke up and remembered their bitter disappointment. They were indignant at what seemed to be a cruel joke played on them.

"We were doing just fine before we ever thought about such things," they said, "but it's cruel for someone to hold out hopes like this, and then to be deceived after all. It isn't fair, and why should we accept it patiently?"

And they did not bear it patiently. They went all over, viciously chasing their prey with a fierceness that nothing could hold back. They carried their terrible vengeance in all directions of the pond.

That's how they spent the second day. Before the sun went down, they all agreed to stop mourning for the loss of their beloved friend and the uncertainty of their own destiny. So they spent the night in gloomy, bitter silence.

But on the third morning, one of the grub's favorite brothers came sailing into the midst of a group of grubs who were just waking up, ready to start the routine of their day.

His eyes were unusually brilliant. They shone more than they ever had before, startling everyone who looked at them. Even the most oblivious, unobservant grubs couldn't help stopping and attending to him when he started speaking.

"My friends," he said, "as you know, I was one of our lost grub's favorite brothers. I trusted him as much as I trust myself. I would have pledged myself a thousand times over to prove the truth of what he said. You can imagine, then, how much I have suffered from the disappointment of not seeing his promise fulfilled. It's tragic that he still hasn't come back to us!"

The grub brother paused, and a little group off to the side murmured to each other, "How could he come back? The story about the other world isn't true."

"I admit, he has not returned to us," continued the grub brother, "But, my friends, I feel that I am going to him, wherever he is--either to that new life he talked about, or to death, from which there is no return. Beloved ones, I am leaving the same way he did--upwards, upwards, upwards! I have an irrestible yearning to go upwards. Before I go, I will repeat the same promise he once made to you. I promise for myself, and for him. If the great hope is true, we'll come back and tell you. If I don't return . . . no, never mind. You can depend on me. Keeping my word means more to me than my very life. Farewell!"

The grub rose upwards through the water. The third grub brother and a couple of the younger grubs followed, but when he reached the edge of the pond, he latched onto a forget-me-not, and, clinging to its firm stem, clambered up out of the water and into the open air.

The grubs who had followed him watched as he left the water, but after that, there was nothing for them to see. The emptiness of his leaving was all they had left, and they sank back down to the bottom of the pond where they lived, sad and anxious.

The rest of the day passed just like before: not a trace of their departed friend was found. They tried to take comfort in remembering what he had told them, but it didn't help. The hope he had reawakened in them died out with the setting sun. Many grubs complained about his betrayal and lack of love for them. "He let us down," some of them said. "In his exciting new life, he forgot all about us, just like his brother." And the little group who had been murmuring off to the side said to each other, "The story about the other world isn't true." Only a very few grubs said, "We won't despair."

The only thing for certain was that he had not returned. The disappointed grubs took out their frustration and disappointment the same way they had before: in fierce, angry destruction everywhere they went.

Another day went by. In the early dawn of the fourth morning, the third and last brother crept slowly to where a little group of his favorite friends were sleeping and woke them up.

"Look at my eyes," he said. "Do you notice a sudden change has come over them? They feel swollen to me, almost bursting, and everything looks cloudy and blurry. I'm sure it's the same with me as it was with our dear friends who left us. I feel heavy and oppressed, like they did. It's as if some invisible power was driving me upwards, the same way they were driven. Listen to me: when I leave, you can count on me keeping my promise. No matter what that other world is like, even if it's gorgeous beyond anything we can imagine, and more blissful than we could even hope, my heart towards you won't change. I won't forget you. I can't promise you any more than that. If it's at all possible, I will return. But remember, that other world may very well exist, but we in this world may be misjudging what it's like. Farewell, I know it's not possible for you to stop fearing, but never stop hoping. Farewell, my friends!"

And he, too, went upwards, through the cool water to the plants on the edge of the pond. He rose from the leaf of a marsh marigold from his familiar home in the pond to the airy world above, where a water-grub's eye could never go.

His friends lingered for awhile near the spot where he disappeared, but there was no sign or sound of their friend. There was only a dreary sense of sadness to remind them that he had once been among them.

Then there were the same hours of expecting him to come back, their renewed disappointment, bitter doubts, and their hope struggling with despair.

After this, other grubs went up in their turn, one after another. The time came when the dazzling eyes of a different creature shone through the grub's mask, and it was his turn to pass upwards and fulfill his destiny.

But the ones left behind had the same experience. Some doubted and feared, some didn't believe and ridiculed, and a few believed and looked forward to the future.

If only they could have known, poor things! If their eyes, which are only suitable for the limited confines of their watery pond, could have had the ability to see into the purer element beyond, into the air above the pond, they would have been spared a life-time of anxiety! Then they would have had rest and comfort.

But if they had been able to see it, they would have had to believe, there would have been no other alternative. There would have been no need for hope.

Meanwhile, what about the dragonfly? Had he really forgotten them, as they thought? When he burst out of the prison of his grub body by the side of the water and rose on glittering wings into the air, did he really have no memory of the dear ones he had left behind? Didn't he care about their sadness and fears? Did he forget the promise he had made to them?

No! Far from it; he thought about them even in the joy of his wildest flights. He continued to return to the pond which had once been the only world he knew. But even the pond had its own law he had to obey. He had to submit to it. He could never again return to the world of water.

Even the least touch on the surface of the water, as he skimmed over it hoping to enter the pond, sent a deathly shock over him, just like the shock the grub had received when he emerged into the air. His dragonfly wings brought him back instantly from the unnatural contact with the water.

"How tragic! In ignorance and presumption as a miserable grub, I made a promise that I cannot keep," he cried bitterly, over and over again.

So, divided from his dear ones, yet so close, they were separated and yet love united them. He hovered along the barrier that lay between them, perhaps hoping that something might allow him to catch a glimpse of his dear ones.

And his faithfulness was rewarded. No matter how far away he roamed, he continued to return to the same spot, so he was there to welcome his own brother when he emerged only a few days after him.

And after that, on bright sunny afternoons, the breezy air by the pond would be filled with the sound of dragonfly wings as they darted backwards and forwards and side to side over the pond, delighted in their new life.

Perhaps on those occasions, some freshly emerged friend from below would add even more joy to the life they were living now. It was such a sweet assurance to each newcomer to come out into the world beyond and solve the riddle of his fate, and find that his new world was not strange and friendless, but a home with dear ones he had known in the pond who were already here to welcome him!

It was also sweet, yet strange, to know that the whole time they had been fearful and anxious in their ignorant pond below, the glittering rays of light they had seen reflected on the surface of the pond had been gleams from the wings of their departed friends, reflected here and there as the sun shone on them. If only they had known!

How lovely it is for us to linger by the pond ourselves, to observe and reflect. The pond is filled with mysterious kinds of life, and we barely know anything of their secrets. The beech tree spreads its graceful arms, and the sunlight shines through and is reflected beautifully underneath. The innocent birds sing their joyful music. The blue forget-me-not tells its old tale of romance, and the long grass bends and makes long shadows. There, the dragonflies still hover on the surface of the pond, longing to reassure their dear friends who are still hoping and fearing in the water below.


___________________________


Motes in the Sunbeam

[Motes are specks of dust. When a shaft of sunlight falls on them as they drift in the air, they can look magical. One more note: Undine is pronounced unDEEN. The name comes from a story about a water sprite who marries a knight in order to gain a soul.]

Once upon a time, on a bright, sunny day around Christmas, two little girls were sitting on their mother's bed. One of the little girls was very young, barely able to talk. She was sitting on the bed, leaning her curly little head against the bed-post. The other girl was two or three years older, and she was sitting on a pillow near her mother. The little girls weren't talking much because there was a new baby in the house, and although everybody was very happy, they were being quiet so the baby could sleep. The two sisters of the newborn baby were being allowed to see their mother, who was recuperating after the birth, as long as they promised to be very good and very quiet.

But active spirits of young creatures can't be restrained for very long! A gleam of winter sunshine came in through a half-opened window shutter and landed right in the middle of the bed. It attracted the eyes and attention of both little girls, because lots of sparkling motes danced in this narrow shaft of light. The older girl, Kate, had a little box open in her hand. She stretched it out, waving it up and down in the beam of light, and whispered with a delighted giggle, "I'm catching stars!" Her mother looked at her and smiled to see her little girl amusing herself. Kate pretended to catch the shining motes in the empty box, and then she pretended to be surprised and disappointed at finding nothing in the box when she peeked inside to see. Meanwhile, she kept up a little chatter: "There's one. Oh, isn't he a beauty! I must have that one for my collection!" and then she waved the box into the stream of light again.

This game and the mother's smile were irresistable to Undine, the toddler leaning by the bed-post, and she said very gently, "Give me some, too."

"Give you some what, my little Undine?" asked her mother. "What are they?"

Undine glanced at her mother, and then at the motes. Then she said, "Stars," but she had an unsure look on her face as she said it.

"They're not really stars, are they, mama?" asked Kate, who was a little wiser. "They're nothing but dust!" and she waved the box around in the beam of light more than ever.

"They're not dust," pouted little Undine, offended, "they're stars!"

"Alright, then--here. You can have a whole boxful!" cried Kate, and she thrust the box onto Undine's lap and covered it with her pinafore. "But take care of them, or else they'll all go out."

Very carefully and slowly, Undine uncovered the box. She examined it both inside and out with a serious, questioning face, looking for the stars. Then, in an impulsive change of mood that is typical for children, she burst out into a delighted laugh, threw the box into the air, and cried out, "Dust! They're nothing but dust! Yucky, dirty dust! There they go!"

And Kate echoed, "There they go!" and then both little girls started jumping and squealing until their nurse came to remove them from the room.

"But, mama?" asked Kate, in a serious whisper before she left the room, "why does the dust look so much like stars?"

"Because the sun sent his light on it," answered her mother. "Sunshine is like love, Kate. It makes everything it touches shine with its own beauty. You and Undine," she added as she kissed her little girl's cheek, "are stars in my eyes because I always see you in the sunshine of my love."

"But we're not 'yucky dirty dust'--not really," observed Kate, very knowingly as she led her little sister out of the room.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Those who have lived in northern England may remember the old Christmas hymn (by John Byrom) that used to be sung there. They'll remember happy, snowy Christmas eves when they went to bed, delighted to hear that hymn in the night. They'll remember the peculiar thrill of pleasure that came over them when they were awakened by the beautiful, solemn song:

"Christians awake! Salute the happy morn
Whereon the saviour of mankind was born. . ." YouTube

It would be sung by a group of village carollers, usually members of the church choir. Remembering these things, I can almost hear the grand old melody. I can imagine some little boy, bolder than his siblings, creeping out of his cozy, snug bed to peek from behind the curtains at the old men and girls he knows from the village. They're all bundled up in coats and cloaks to keep warm from the icy December night. I can imagine the little boy, feeling very chilly as he stands at the window in his bare feet, going back to his warm bed, telling his siblings how cold those poor carollers must be! And, between whispering about the carollers and listening to the music, those children would spend one of the happiest hours of the glad Christmas. Then the carollers would move away, with the song reviving and dying away down the street, and the children would fall asleep as easily as tired laborers after a hard day's work.

Are you wondering what this Christmas hymn has to do with my story about Kate and Undine? Just this: one of the verses of the song starts like this:

"Oh may we keep and ponder in our mind
God's wondrous love in saving lost mankind."

"Keep and ponder in our mind" comes from the Bible, where Mary "kept and pondered in her heart" all the wonderful things the shepherds said about Jesus. Other people might have talked about them, and made a fuss about them, and then promptly forgotten all about them, but Mary "pondered them in her heart." That's a practice that has sadly gone out of fashion. These days, everybody is so busy learning or talking [or on Facebook?] that there seems to be no time or inclination for "pondering things in the heart."

Mothers seem more apt to ponder than anybody else. They're constantly pondering in their minds all the things their children say, or things people say about them. Sometimes they might ponder foolishly, but I hope that's not very often, especially if they're pondering in the depths of their hearts, and not just their heads.

Kate and Undine's mother was a great ponderer. Just then, she had nothing in particular to do, so you can imagine how she pondered over the charming little episode of her two little girls chasing motes in the sunbeam. And she had to admit, as she lay looking up at the light, the dust did look a lot like stars.

And she thought to herself, "Sensible Kate felt so wise at her own superior knowledge. How proud she was to recognize dust for what it really was, even with the sunshine showing it at its most beautiful. And yet, in the years ahead, I pray she doesn't make the same mistake Undine made, and mistake unworthy dust for stars merely because the sun shines on it."

And here the mother uttered a short prayer that God would help her to instill good principles into her children's minds so that Kate and Undine would recognize dust for what it is wherever they saw it, no matter how brightly the world might shine on it.

Then she looked up at the sunbeam as it shone across her bed, until it reminded her of so many allegorical things that she started to get confused.

It was like love, as she had told Kate. Yes, but it was also like cheerfulness, and good-temper, and Christian charity. After all, don't the most common things of life, and the dullest of routine duties, shine like stars under the rays of those things? Yes, but the sunbeam was most of all like "the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding," because that lights up the dark years of earthly existence, and leads the soul upward along its bright path, until the soul reaches the eternal home where the light itself lives.

"Yes, of course," thought the mother, looking again at the sunbeam. "We are like motes in the sunbeam. We are nothing in ourselves but miserable dust and ashes. But the light shines down on us and changes us. When we follow the light upwards, we become children of light ourselves."

She was becoming confused by all the metaphors and reflections and speculations. But before she could sort it all out in her mind, she had fallen asleep.


___________________________


Red Snow

'And who do you think you are, to sit on the bench
And judge things that are a thousand miles distant
When you can only see a few inches away?'
     (very loosely paraphrased from Dante)

Little Siegfried, the widow's son, climbed up the hill above his mother's cottage every day and wandered around on top, chasing birds and insects, and gathering the beautiful wild flowers that grow on the Swiss Alps.

There were dark blue gentians [Gentiana clusii], and the Alpine rose [Rhododendron ferrugineum], and campanulas [Campanula raineri] and salvias [Salvia pratensis; Meadow sage]. Those are almost as common there as cowslips and daisies are in England's fields. Their bright colors make the hillsides look more like gardens than wild uncultivated land.

Siegfried's father had died in battle before Siegfried was born, so as a newborn, he was cradled with tears instead of joyous smiles. It's no wonder that he grew up more thoughtful and serious than other boys his age.

It was his mother who showed Siegfried the path to climb the hill, and the best places to find flowers. She had encouraged him to look beyond, to mountains that were even higher than their own, and which circled their own valley. She pointed out Mont Blanc in the distance, looming like a shadowy giant in the sky.

During the few happy months of their marriage, her husband had shown her all these things, before he had been called away to the war. On the same high place where Siegfried now roamed around looking for flowers, his parents had sat together in quiet summer evenings, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, and always praising God for the happiness He was allowing them to enjoy.

After Siegfried's mother had led him to the spot that was so dear to her and encouraged him to enjoy the sights and sounds of Nature and told him about the God of goodness who rules over everything, she went back alone to her cottage to cry in private over the grief she was reminded of. Siegfried, in the meantime, amused himself among the field of flowers. This was his new playground. After he had picked a handful of flowers that his mother had asked him to bring her, he lay down on the soft grass and looked around at the hills and at the snowy sides of Mont Blanc. He could see so much more of the mountain from way up here! Mont Blanc became in his mind a grand, wonderful thing. The flowers at his feet were bright and beautiful, but the mountain above him surpassed even them.

From that day on, when he was done chasing and wandering, he would lie down in the same place and look at the hills in the same way, trying to feel the same awe he had felt at first.

He never got tired of the sight. Sometimes clouds would move up from the mountain, or come over the mountain, but they were never quite alike. The shadows that passed over it had different shapes and moved in different directions every day. The sunshine that streamed over it had a slightly different hue and lighted it in different ways. One day it might look like it was covered with a silvery mist. Another day the air would be so clear that Siegfried could see the particles of snowflakes glittering individually as they danced around the air like stars in the sky.

Siegfried never got bored watching the huge mountain. In fact, he loved it more and more. His love was mixed with a respectful awe. He felt like the mountain was a conscious living thing.

One day when his mother was handing him his empty flower basket so he could go play on the hill as usual, he asked if he could climb to the top of Mont Blanc instead, and if she would show him the way.

His mother smiled in amusement and told him that neither of them was able to climb such a monstrous mountain. She saw how flushed his face was, and figured it was because he was so disappointed. So she kissed him and said, "you have to be a strong grown-up man, Siegfried, before you can climb to the top of Mont Blanc. Even for strong men, climbing up is very dangerous. And even if you got to the top, you wouldn't find much there besides cold and snow and misery. Nothing lives there, not even flowers. Our own hills are much more pleasant."

So Siegfried went off with his basket. But instead of running around and picking flowers, he laid down on the ground and looked up at the mountain, crying because of what his mother had said. But after a little bit, he wiped his eyes and looked again, and then sprang up and stared in surprise! It was a bright, sunny day, and the air was clearer than usual. He could see a round, rosy colored patch on the far-off snow on the mountain. He had never seen it before; what could it be? He had an idea, so he ran down to the cottage, threw the door open, and shouted delightedly, "Mother! There's a rose on Mount Blanc!"

Siegfried's mother wasn't smiling in amusement now. She could see how excited he was, and she knew it couldn't be a rose up there. She was sad for him. The poor child had only one parent, so she would have console him the best she could. She knew he was different from other boys, and remembering this, she took him on her lap and tried to explain that what he had seen must be the light shining in such a way that it made a rose-colored light. No kind of plant could possibly grow on the side of that snowy mountain. There couldn't be any roses up there. Although it often looked pink in the evening sun, it wasn't evening right now.

Siegfried was quiet for a few seconds with his head hung down. Then he murmured, "But why?"

"Oh, Siegfried," cried his mother, "isn't it enough to know that it's because this is the way God made it to be? God is the one who sends the snow up there, and the flowers down here."

"I feel so sorry for the mountain," said little Siegfried, sadly. He was so sad, that his mother grieved for her imaginative little boy. She asked whether he'd like her to go look at the mountain with him so that she could see the rosy patch herself. Siegfried smiled, and they went up the hill together very happily with the flower basket since, as his mother said, "You came back empty-handed today, Siegfried, with no flowers."

But by the time they reached the spot, a heavy mist had covered the landscape. Neither Mont Blanc nor the rosy patch could be seen. Even Siegfried laughed because they had walked so far for nothing. They filled the basket with flowers, and Siegfried was content to go home. As they went back, he started talking again.

"If we had less flowers, Mother, we'd be just as happy--and then there would be some to spare so that the mountain could have some, too. I wish God would make things equal."

"Hush, Siegfried!" said his mother, in a half whisper. "God has a right to do whatever He pleases, and we shouldn't argue about it, or even wish for it to be otherwise. God chooses for there to be empty, desolate places as well as pretty places in the world. He makes abandoned ends of the earth that nobody seems to care for, as well as happy valleys. Unfortunately, it's the same with people, and that's even worse. There are many sad outcasts, abandoned people who have been deserted by God, as well as mountains that God has made deserted. But you're too young understand such things."

She sighed as she spoke. The truth is, she didn't understand such things herself. She, too, felt like a sad outcast, abandoned and deserted by God.

So they walked on a little farther, and Siegfried started again.

"At least the top of the mountain is closer to heaven than our hill, Mother. It goes way up into the sky!"

"No, it doesn't!" cried his mother passionately. "It only looks like it does. It isn't any closer to heaven than we are. If it were, I would have climbed up there a long time ago, even if I would have died in the attempt."

Siegfried looked at his mother in surprise. Her tone was so different than usual. Seeing how sad her face looked, he wondered if she was also worried, like him, about poor Mont Blanc being so miserable and forlorn.

He snatched the flowers from the basket and threw them as high in the air as he could, exclaiming, "There you go! I wish you had wings so you could fly up to the mountain and make it beautiful, too!"

Nothing more was said, but after little Siegfried had said his prayers and gone to bed, his mother was sitting downstairs and heard someone crying. She went upstairs and found little Siegfried in tears. All he could tell her was that he couldn't stop thinking about the poor, outcast, God-forsaken mountain.

His mother had never called the mountain God-forsaken. That must have been his own fanciful idea, something he had gotten confused about what she had told him. But it was so hard to explain! It was unpleasant to discuss something that unsettled the natural hopes and faith of her son's gentle heart.

It was difficult for her, who had experienced the severe reality of sorrow, to talk him through his own immature imagined sorrow.

He was gradually comforted, and after she left him, she started reflecting on his grief for the desolate mountain, and the struggles of her own heart, which felt desolate and forsaken.

The next day was Sunday. Siegfried was old enough to walk to the church, which was a bit of a long walk, and he could even repeat a few prayers and listen to bits of the sermon here and there when his mother drew his attention to something she thought he could understand.

But on this particular Sunday, she didn't need to draw his attention to the sermon. In fact, she wished she could have prevented him from hearing any of it. But he couldn't help listening when the pastor asked the congregation whether anyone there, young or old, hadn't gazed hundreds of times at the huge, snow-covered, unapproachable heights of Mont Blanc?

Siegfried and his mother looked at each other. Siegfried was excited. Finally he was going to hear something about his mysterious mountain friend! He grasped his mother's hand and listened to every word.

But he was dismayed at what he heard. After describing the mountain's magnificent size and shape, the pastor said it was a region of hopeless desolation, a place of everlasting lifelessness and despair. It was cold, hard, unfeeling, and nothing could rouse it from its death-like slumber. Although the warm, life-giving sun shone upon it ever day for ages and ages, it couldn't break through that mountain's frozen heart. The rain watered it, storms burst over it, but it did no good. The mountain was unmoved. It lifted its gloomy top to heaven as if it was defying God Himself and daring Him to touch its deep stony rock, and melt its frozen ice, or warm and soften its snow into life and gladness.

Siegfried was in tears by this time, but it got even worse. The pastor asked the congregation if there was anything in the world that reminded them of that unfeeling mountain, and then he gave the answer himself: a hardened human heart. A wicked heart like Pharoah's, where even the sunshine of divine grace and the storms of divine wrath made no difference.

Yes, the pastor said, 'offenses must come,' and he knew that the kind of hearts he had just described were meant to be cut down as 'vessels of wrath doomed to destruction.' But he hoped none of the members of his flock would be one of them! He hoped they would all heed the warning, and remember it every time they looked at the mountain and that they would therefore 'flee from the wrath to come. . .'

By this time Siegfried's sobs had gotten so loud that people were becoming disturbed. His mother thought it would be best to leave the church with him.

It was useless to argue with him. He was too young and too upset. Besides, she was as distressed by the pastor's harsh words as he was.

She could have cried herself to think of 'vessels of wrath doomed for destruction.' She had a secret longing to return to the world of happiness and other people. She had very little interest in the physical world because she didn't know much about it, and she didn't realize that 'God's mercy is over all His works' applies to more than one class of creatures, or even more than one kind of life.

So she didn't discuss it with Siegfried. That evening at home, she tried to distract him by reading him pleasant stories about good people who lived in God's favor and died full of hope and peace.

Yet, as Siegfried fell asleep, his last thought was not of comfort and joy in righteous lives.He was thinking of pity and something like love for all the wretched things that seem to have no hope.

The next day, his mother hoped to persuade him to stay below in the valley and find something new to do. But Siegfried refused to give up his favorite place, so she sighed and gave up. After his little chores were done, he climbed the hill as usual.

It was a good thing he had promised his mother not to pester her about it anymore, otherwise he would have made a big fuss about it: when the sun was at its highest, he saw the rosy patch again on the distant snow! It wasn't confined to a small patch anymore. It had spread in broad areas of delicate color that looked like it might cover the entire mountain with its delicate tint.

A couple of times Siegfried almost broke his promise not to ask his mother about it, but in the end, he held out manfully and did not ask her. Instead, as he returned home to his cottage in the valley, he asked a neighbor boy who was driving his father's cattle home why some of the snow on the mountain looked pink. At first the boy said he didn't know, but then he said he thought he had heard that red snow sometimes fell from heaven. That was probably what it was, although he had no idea why it did that or what happened to it after it fell. It just seemed to disappear as mysteriously as it came. Nothing seemed to stay on that mountain except the snow that was always there.

When Siegfried heard this, he didn't even want to tell his mother about it. She would only say it was because the mountain was so cold and hard that no good thing, even if it came from heaven, could stay on it.

So a day or two passed, and the rosy patches faded and finally disappeared, just like the farmer's son had said. Siegfried never mentioned it again. He just sat on the side of the hill every day, wondering and dreaming to himself.

But one day he was interrupted. It was morning, and the snow looked colder and whiter than ever against the blue sky. He had been sitting for awhile with his face hidden by his hands when a strange voice called to him and asked him what he was doing. When he looked up, a stranger was standing between him and Mont Blanc.

"Nothing," said Siegfried. Children always say that when they're asked what they're doing, because they never feel like 'just thinking' counts as doing anything.

But the stranger wasn't satisfied. He smiled and asked again.

"Well then, what are you thinking, little boy? A person has to be either doing or thinking while they're awake. I really want you to talk to me. I've come from such a long way off, and I'm really tired."

Then the stranger sat down next to Siegfried on the grass.

"First of all," he went on, "I want you tell me, if you can, whether I can get to the next town through the pretty valley at the bottom of this hill. And then I'd like to know who you've picked this lovely basket of flowers for. And why are you here all alone? And then tell me what you're thinking about when you cover your face with your hands. So, how about the first question; can I get to the town through the valley?"

The stranger's voice was so good-natured, and his face was so kind, that Siegfried was won over. He looked at his new friend and smiled, and nodded yes, one could reach the town through the valley.

"Does your nod always mean yes, little boy?" asked the stranger. He was amused.

Siegfried nodded again.

"Good. Then we understand each other. Now will you answer my other questions?"

Siegfried nodded again, and they both laughed. The stranger went on.

"Who are the flowers for?"

"They're for my mother."

"And why are you here all by yourself?"

"I come here to play."

"What? All alone? Why?"

"I don't have anyone else to play with."

"And what are you thinking of when you sit with your face covered?"

Siegfried's heart melted with sadness inside him. He pointed sorrowfully to the huge mountain and said, "I think about it."

"About the mountain? What can you find in a mountain to think about?"

"I feel so sorry for it!" cried little Siegfried with passion. "I'm sorry that it's so miserable and deserted, and that God won't let anything grow there, while we have all these flowers down here!"

And he threw the flowers out of the basket roughly.

"Oh, little boy," said the stranger, putting his arm around Siegfried kindly and moving closer to him. "I have another question for you. Who put such a strange idea into your head? Who told you that about the poor mountain?"

"Everybody says so," muttered Siegfried. "The pastor preached about it on Sunday, and my mother says so, too, and the farmer's son, and everybody. Am I'm so, so very sorry for it."

And the little boy's voice died away in regret.

"Why do you care so much about the mountain, little boy?"

Siegfried looked up, puzzled by the question for a minute, but then uttered his simple, child-like answer: "I look at it so much when I come up here to play."

The stranger's eyes got teary to think of the solitary child sending out his heart into the inanimate mountain above him.

This piqued his interest, so he asked more questions, and little by little, he was able to understand a part of what Siegfried's pastor and mother had told him about outcast places and God-forsaken people. Siegfried's account was mixed up, but the stranger was able to get the gist of it.

The stranger smiled, and said, "I'll tell you a secret, little boy. I doubt the pastor, or your mother, or the farmer's son have ever been up the mountain, so they can't know very much about it."

"I wanted to go, but they wouldn't let me," said Siegfried. "They said I wouldn't be able to climb it."

"They were right," said the stranger. "But, you see, I am older and stronger, so I'm able to go--and I have been up there."

Even though he said it quietly, it had a great effect on Siegfried, as he had expected. Siegfried jumped up! Then he sat down, then he started to get up again, and would have liked to run down the hill and tell this to his mother instead of staying to hear more. But he controlled himself, and his new friend went on as if he hadn't been interrupted.

"The mountain is neither lifeless, nor deserted. God sends it the beautiful red snow plant instead of flowers. I've been up there gathering it for the last few days."

As he spoke, he unfastened a small metal box from a leather strap that went across his shoulders. He opened it for a moment and let Siegfried peek at a bright crimson-colored mass of something inside.

Siegfried was speechless with admiration and delight, and then he cried out, "Then that's what I saw!" And then he added softly, "And it really came down from heaven, then?" He was remembering what the farmer's son had said about red snow falling from heaven.

"All good things come from heaven--at least, from the God who is in heaven," answered the stranger. "This is a plant--just like the Alpine rose beside you. It didn't actually drop down from the sky. It grows in the snow itself, and covers miles and miles of the mountain you thought was so desolate. God sends good things everywhere, although not the same good things everywhere."

That was good news! Even the smallest child could understand that and be glad. It was all clear now--the rosy patch, and the large areas of color. Siegfried was happy now that he knew the mountain was happy, too. He hugged his new friend and tried telling him, in blundering details, what he and his mother and even the farmer's son had thought the rosy patch might be. The stranger laughed and laughed, and finally said, "Now you see that you were all wrong. Never mind; take me to your house, and we'll tell your mother all about it, and I'll show it to both of you. You haven't seen it properly yet."

Siegfried's mother gave the friendly stranger her little boy brought home a hearty Swiss welcome. She was even more pleased to find out that the stranger was an English traveller on his way to a neighboring town to visit an officer there who had lost his limb in the same battle that Siegfried's father had died in.

The town was only a few miles away, and the summer evening was long, so the stranger was easily persuaded to spend a few hours in the cottage and tell Siegfried and his mother about his adventures on Mont Blanc, and the red snow plant he had brought back from it. But that wasn't enough, because there was nothing beautiful or wonderful-looking about the red, jelly-like mass when seen with the naked eye. But the stranger had more in store for them.

He took some time unpacking a microscope and then said, "I'm going to show you that God has sent more wonderful things into the world than our natural eyes are even able to see. Are you happy to know about that, Siegfried?" and he turned to the little boy.

Siegfried nodded vigorously, and his mother said with a smile, "You should have asked that of me. I am the one who didn't believe because I couldn't see. Siegfried has sensed the truth all along."

"Well then, good lady," replied the stranger, "You shall see and believe something that I think will comfort you for life: you will see that God makes even the most barren wilderness burst forth and blossom like a rose. There are no outcast parts of the earth, or places that God doesn't take care of. There are no desolate corners where His goodness isn't shown."

He finished the final adjustment of the microscope. Then he took a fine-tipped porcupine's quill and took a tiny bit of the red jelly from the metal box. He put it on a glass slide with some drops of water and called Siegfried to have the first look.

Siegfried's mother was amazed at what the stranger had said, but she had doubts that there was anything to see. There hadn't been enough on the porcupine's quill to even detect. But she kept her doubts to herself. Then Siegfried gave a delighted shout, proving that there was something, at any rate, to be seen.

And there was! It was a very pretty sight. Four or five bright little red balls and a couple of colorless ones were lying like gems in the water that had been added to keep them separate.

Siegfried believed right away, but when his mother saw them, she could hardly believe what she was seeing. It was amazing to think that this was the same shapeless stuff she had seen in the metal box.

Now the stranger began to explain. He said that each little red ball was a separate, perfect plant in itself. [Protococcus nivalis or Chlamydomonas nivalis; an algae] It was a tiny colorless bag, thinner and finer than anything, filled with a red substance that could be seen through it. As soon as it was fully grown, the red substance inside it divided into four, eight or even sixteen separate balls. Of course, they were extremely tiny balls, and they grew and grew very fast until the little clear bag they were in burst and the red balls fell out.

"The red balls that drop out," he said, "are the young plants. When each of them is fully grown, the same thing happens again. The red substance in each of them divides into more balls, and they grow and burst out of the parent bag (it's actually called a cell), and they begin a new life for themselves. So there's a new generation of these ball-like plants, and another, and another. All of this happens so quickly that in a few hours, millions of them have sprung from a single cell. That's why, Siegfried, when you saw the rosy patch a second time, it had spread into big areas of color. They actually covered several miles of snow with their beauty. It's no wonder the area had grown, wouldn't you say?"

No, that was no wonder. But what was a wonder that Siegfried's mother couldn't get over, was that these kinds of amazing things could exist and so many people were not even aware of them! Imagine even the pastor not knowing about them, and making such a mistake about the mountain being desolate.

Siegfried hadn't lived long enough to see why he should be surprised about the red snow plant. Really, it was no stranger than the growth of an Alpine rose, and that didn't astonish anybody. He was more delighted than surprised that the mountain had something lovely to make up for it not having any flowers.

"And now," said the stranger, "is there anything else you'd like to ask?"

Siegfried's mother was about to say something, but she hesitated. She knew so little. She didn't want to appear ignorant and foolish.

But the stranger reassured her, so she begged him to tell her how the plant could live in the midst of nothing but snow. How could it come up, and produce a thousand-fold more, with nothing to nourish and support it?

The stranger repeated the word "nothing" and smiled.

"You mean nothing, because we see nothing?"

"Ah, I see what a bad habit it is to acknowledge only what we see," said the mother. "I had already forgotten! So you think there may be things I don't know about in the snow we think is so cold and barren?"

"Oh, yes!" said the stranger, "there are elements of life, hidden and buried for years, perhaps. It could be seeds scattered from who knows where, and salts and chemicals that only need a bit of sunshine or dew or type of air, to make conditions just right for everything to work together, and the frozen surface to become moist, and the red snow plant to spring up by the millions."

He paused here. Then he saw little Siegfried looking at him wistfully, as if he was trying hard to understand. The stranger took him up in his lap and said, "That microscope is a very interesting thing, isn't it?"

Siegfried nodded heartily, and then leaned his head contentedly on the man's shoulder, while he went on talking.

"Yes, it's very interesting. It shows us lots of things we wouldn't be able to see without it. But the best lesson it teaches us is that there can be a lot more than we see; more even than the microscope can show us. There might be a limit to how much of God's works we can see with our eyes, but no naturalist ever dares to think he's seen the limits of the works themselves. In this life, we can't hope to know even a hundredth part of the creations all around us. Do you believe this now, good lady?"

"With all my heart," she answered.

"And now you can see," he added, "that even of the things we can see with our natural eyes, there are many of them that we'll never know the truth about without some kind of help, such as the help of a microscope. What did you think the red snow was at first? A blob of shapeless jelly? But when you saw it with the enlightenment of a microscope, you realized that it was a living thing, clearly created by the hand of God. It has a system of life, and maybe even a kind of enjoyment, all its own. That's something worthwhile to discover! But we still haven't discovered everything there is to know about it! There is so much more to be known, all we've done so far is to take a tiny step or two out of complete ignorance into a little bit of knowledge. 'The rest remains hidden.' Yet when we think of the world beyond our five senses, a glory comes into our own hearts. It's like the reflection of lightning as seen from the earth. It ought to build up our faith and hope."

Siegfried's mother didn't say anything.

"I have one more thing to say," added the stranger. "I hope you don't mind me saying it, and that you'll forgive an old traveller for preaching as well as teaching. I've shown you something of how God works in the physical world, and it's given you comfort and hope. The same thing is true of His mercies. There is no limit to His physical works; suspect and believe that His mercy might also be just as infinite--far beyond our ability to grasp. Will you try to take this lesson to heart?"

The poor mother's eyes filled with tears. She had been trembling through life in her sorrow, and desperately needed this good advice.

After a short pause, the stranger continued, firmly but very kindly.

"You've seen how weak and short-sighted your human eyes are. Our spiritual eyes are just as limited and can't fully show us God's purposes and what he's doing. His works are infinite; His mercies are just as infinite. Nobody can ever point to the limit of His mercy and say, 'This is where God's mercy ends--from this point, there is no hope, there is nothing but everlasting lifelessness and despair.' Oh, dear woman, God has entrusted you with the care of a very tender plant. Be careful what you teach. Nurture more than anything else the charity that 'hopes all things,' and will then be able to believe and endure."

The lesson had a good effect, and it was never forgotten. Siegfried continued to grow, and the stranger came to visit the cottage many times. After a few years, he even helped to educate the little boy he had met in such an unusual way. And when Siegfried grew up, he became a teacher himself--a pastor, although not in his own country.

But through his long life, he never forgot his early hopes and fears and ideas about the desolate mountain, or the lesson he learned from the stranger. Whatever situations of darkness or ignorance he had to deal with, wherever he had to deal with sin or sorrow, however often he was confused, or discouraged, or disappointed, he never despaired. He would remember the past and take comfort by thinking, "It may yet be God's will that beauty will spring from desolation, like the red snow plant bursting into life on the cold mountain-side."


___________________________


Whereunto? [Whereunto is an archaic form of whereto, which means "for what purpose, or end?"]

I see, in part,
That everything, as if it was a work of art,
Is working together for a purpose.'
(loosely paraphrased from Tennyson)

"This is terrible! What can I do?"

"Well, follow me, of course! Here, quick! Over to the side. Go more left! Now into this crevice of rock! There! Okay, now it's alright," said a crab.

"It's easy for you to talk, when it's so easy for you to skim away lightly. But look at me! The ground slips away whenever I try to get hold!"

"Keep coming, it's alright," said the Crab again, from his crevice in the rock.

And everything was alright, at least as far as he was concerned. But it was all wrong for the poor lilac starfish, who was left on the sand. He was much too hot, and no wonder.

It was low tide--spring tide, in fact. [Spring tide is the lowest or highest tide; it happens during a full moon.] Even for a spring tide, it was an unusually low one because there was hardly any wind, and what little wind there was, was blowing offshore.

So even the rocks that were usually under water were completely out of the water now, and the oarweeds [brown algae] that usually swayed under the water were laying flat on the sand, unable to hold up their own weight out of the water.

It was a rare, peaceful day without a cloud in the blue sky. The sea was so calm that it was easy to believe that nothing could ever ruffle its surface. The white-sailed boats in the distance looked as if they had nothing else in the world to do but float contentedly from one lovely end of the world to the other. And yet, as wonderful as it was for some, it was uncomfortable for others. The many starfish, for instance, who had been stranded on the sand by the gently retreating tide, couldn't rejoice in the beautiful sunshine because it was shining hotly on their helpless arms, and scorching them with its dry heat. The jelly-fishes had also been stranded and died almost at once from the shock as the waves cast them onshore, so they knew nothing at all about how lovely the day was.

Of course, not all the creatures suffered. The crab who had given such good advice (although his starfish friend wasn't able to follow it) was doing very well. He was as much at home in the air as he was in the water, so being left high and dry on the shore from time to time didn't bother him at all. He could scuttle away and hide in a crevice in the rocks whenever he wanted to, or he could take shelter under large seaweeds. Since he had a hard shell, he was even able to take a short walk from time to time to see what was going on, and how far the tide had gone out. If the sun got a little too hot, all he had to do was run off into a pool to cool off, and then he'd be as fresh as ever.

Now, while the tide was at its lowest and likely to stay that way for awhile before the tide changed, two large two-legged creatures appeared on the sand, to the very spot where the starfish was laying in distress, and near where the crab was hidden. There was a ledge of rocks here that would have made a nice place for dozens of humans to sit, and from the front of it, a whole forest of oarweed was growing.

One of the creatures said, "Here's more of it, just like I said. Wasted life, and wasted death, all within a few inches of each other. Here are these useless, clumsy plants that are only seen a half dozen times every year, and these helpless, miserable sea creatures, dying in the middle of their healthiest, strongest time of life, and there's no reason for it."

The creature who was speaking lifted up two or three tangled fronds of oarweed with a stick, and then put them in his hand. Then he let them drop down to the sand. After that, he used the stick to flick the starfish into the air. Luckily, it landed under the shelter of the oarweed fronds and was hidden from sight.

"That's the same way we ourselves go up, and then down again," went on the speaker, "a whole lot of us, with no more purpose in life, and no more usefulness that anyone can see than these dirty useless seaweeds. In fact, their only purpose for coming into the world is to go out of it in some horrible way, such as being scorched in the sun."

And the speaker kicked three or four more stranded starfish across the sand until he had practically kicked them back into the sea, muttering, "What did you come into the world for, anyway, starfish? How about you? And you? Life with no purpose, and then death with no purpose--that's the fate of thousands. And I'm as useless as any of them. At least I'm refined enough to acknowledge that the world would get along just fine without me! Why? For what end? To what purpose? Answer that if you can!" And the creature finished speaking, and moved on with his companion, so the sea creatures never heard what the companion answered in response, and they began to chatter amongst themselves.

First the crab popped his head out from the crevice he'd been hiding in, and he looked around with his stem eyes and started talking. He always had something to say, and was surprisingly bold when there was no danger in sight. "Did he say 'helpless, miserable sea creatures'? I suppose he was including me in that insult. Hey! Where are you, lilac starfish? Did you manage to crawl away after all? Come on out from your corner, or wherever you are, for a little while. Who was that creature who was talking just now? Just let me at him, that's all I have to say! Helpless and miserable, indeed! I'd like to see him hide in a rock crevice as nimbly as I can. He'd better not come within reach of me, if he knows what's good for him!"

It was all very well for the crab to sit outside the crevice in the rock looking fierce and brushing his mouth boldly with his feelers now that there nobody around to fight with. But if the creature had come back, he probably would have scuttled away sideways, back into the crevice to hide!

"You're lucky," answered the humble lilac starfish. "You can afford to joke about everything and do whatever you want. You have so many things in your favor--a stiff shell, jointed legs, large eyes, and claws with pincers at the ends. Such advantages! But I have an advantage, too. It's a great advantage over the rest of you, so I won't grumble and complain, especially now, since I'm in a shady place. That sun sure was unpleasant! I felt like I was somewhere between scalded and baked. It was terrible! But I'm sheltered now. And do you know how that happened?"

The starfish paused and waited for a response, but the crab said he wasn't very good at thinking, and had no time for thinking, anyway. Thinking was too inactive and slow for him. So the lilac starfish told him how she had been flicked into the air with a stick, landed in the middle of the tangle of oarweed leaves, and fallen underneath them, out of the sun. "So you see," she concluded, "you were right when you said the creature was talking nonsense. He said that he was as useless as these filthy useless seaweeds, and came into the world for no purpose, like the seaweed. But, don't you see? The creature did have a purpose--he came into the world to save me, and that's something worthwhile to be born for! And so did the dirty useless seaweeds. With my advantages, I could tell them both that!"

"You're talking in and out and around everyone's remarks, making me completely confused," said the crab. "And you keep talking about your advantages," he continued, whisking his feelers backward and forwards conceitedly as he spoke. "I can't figure out what your advantages are. I wish you would just say what you mean."

"Oh, you want to know about my advantages?" said the lilac starfish. "I have one advantage in each of my legs, near the end, and that enables me to--I don't think I can describe it. You have a few advantages yourself. In fact, we have one or two advantages in common. For example, losing a leg isn't a big deal for either of us, they grow back again pretty quickly. Still, I have to admit, there are times that I am helpless, like now when I'm on the sand, it's too soft for me to move in. The more I try to grab it, the more it slips away. But the advantage of my legs makes up for that. At least I know my own strengths, and there's some comfort in that. I can't explain it, but you can trust that I'm correct when I say that, with my advantages, I know more than you think I do. For one thing, I know that the poor ignorant creature who flung me here shouldn't feel like he's useless since he was the means of getting me here under shelter. And these seaweed leaves haven't lived for nothing--they're fulfilling a purpose in sheltering me."

"Some people sure are conceited about their advantages," murmured a silvery voice from one of the oarweed fronds. "If the seaweed leaves had come into the world for no other purpose than sheltering you, that would have been a lot of fuss for very little purpose! Don't your advantages tell you that there are other creatures in the world who are just as important as you are, or maybe even more so, you poor helpless lilac starfish? Do you even know who's talking to you? It's me, the blue-rayed limpet [patella pellucida; a mollusk]. I have a couple of my own advantages! My shell is even harder than the crab's, and it's studded with a row of blue spots, as bright as turquoise. That's something worth thinking about when you're alone! The oarweed fronds are our home and food. Yes, the creature was ignorant when he said the seaweed was useless, but you were no more clever in thinking its purpose was to shelter you. To be the home and food for lovely creatures like us is a very worthy purpose for any plant to exist for. And, in return, as long as they live for us, our blue-gemmed shells are their most beautiful decoration and pride. The whole system is perfect and complete. Anyone with an ounce of understanding would know that!"

"People who live under a shell are so narrow-minded," murmured a lot of whispers together, from another tangle of seaweed fronds nearby. "You limpets are always moving. You're so assured about your home, but you move first to one leaf, and then another--you never settle anywhere! How can you call it a home? It's not much of a home when you can fall off at any moment, or be picked off. Your vanity would be disgusting if it weren't so ridiculous. You're like a traveller calling a hotel his own home, as if it rightfully belonged to him. That's so silly, and wrong! We are lacy crust bryozoans [Membranipora membranacea; a mat of mossy animals] and we know what we're talking about. The oarweed fronds are far from useless; they are our very support. The creature who called them useless certainly was ignorant! He had no idea that it is the foundation of life for millions of us. He knew nothing about the silvery network we spread over it every year, or the countless numbers of us who make up our beautiful web--we are like a fairy land of tiny beings. We're so tiny that even the crab can hardly see us, yet when we work together, we spread our mat very far, and accomplish so much. We never argue like some critters do--such as the crab over there in the crevice. We cooperate for one unified purpose so that we can be sure of staying strong. The seaweed is certainly not useless! It has been the foundation of colonies like ours since the beginning of the world. It's obvious to anyone who looks into it. Anyone who knows anything about us knows what the seaweed's purpose is!"

"Listen to them talk!" murmured a different species of mollusk [patella laevis; a variation of a limpet] who lay hidden among the twisted roots that the oarweed used to hang on to the rock. "Those poor scaly creatures talk as if there were no one else in the word besides them! Anyone who has millions of mouths can talk, I suppose. I have only one mouth, and I could say a lot about myself if I wanted to, but I don't care to share my secrets with just anyone. I'd rather keep quiet than let other hungry animals know I'm here. I don't care to be devoured by starfish, or picked out of my shell by a crab's claw. I know what this seaweed is for as well as anyone. While they're all debating about the leathery leaves, I'm sitting safely in the very heart of the plant, nestled in the roots themselves. I know what's important better than any of them. That creature said the seaweed was useless. Maybe it looked useless to him. But he only looked at the long, loose, trashy leaves. Anyone who wants to know the truth has to look a little further and find out what's going on at the roots. They'd soon see what the tangle of seaweed is for! And I don't speak just for myself. I know one very good reason why the seaweed is in the world, although I don't care to join the conversation. Am I right, Silver-tuft [Scrupocellaria scrupea; a bryzoan. It looks like coral but is actually an animal.], in the corner with all those elegant doors to your house?"

Silver-tuft the bryzoan was very proud of her intricate doors guarding the front of each of the tiny cells her family lived in, so she was flattered by the compliment and had to admit that he was mostly correct. Yet she thought, "the rough fellow forgets that he's only a lodger here, just like the sea-mat said about the blue-rayed limpet. But everyone knows that I'm a genuine permanent resident, although I have a bit more freedom of movement than the sea mat. My fibers are so interlaced with the roots that I'm here forever. Limpets can say what they like, but anyone with any sense knows that the seaweed didn't come into the world just to house chance travellers like them, even if they do sometimes spend their lives here. I guess vanity blinds a person's judgment. Roots and plants have to grow so that I and my other silver-tufted cousins have a place to live. There's purpose in that--we have a need, so they exist to fulfill that need. It seems obvious to me, and should be clear to anyone with sense enough--"

He was interrupted by a wave as the tide returned and splashed over the oarweed. The wave went back out to sea, but the plants and animals were rejoicing in the wonderful wetness, and for a few moments, that's all they could think about. Just then the two creatures came running back along the narrow strip of sand that was still exposed.

Before they got back to where they had talked before at low tide, another wave was seen coming. To avoid it, the two friends jumped up on the ledge of rock and watched the water from there as it crashed over all the seaweed. More waves kept coming, and they stayed and watched, and observed the seaweed fronds surging up like struggling plants as the waves rushed in below. Slowly, the tide rose higher and higher, and their stems straightened out back to their normal position until they were bending and bowing gracefully with the motion of the water as usual.

"Look at them!" cried the companion. "I could give you a hundred reasons why these poor plants exist in the world, and I think there are even more that I don't know about. I could show you a hundred instances as evidence. Any one of those plants gives shelter to the helpless, food to the hungry, a happy home to all who want it, and life and strength to the water it lives in. How can you talk about a life with no purpose? No such thing exists anywhere. Come on, I'll tell you all about it. But we'll have to walk as we go, because the wind is picking up as the tide comes in, and we don't want to be caught. Let's go quickly so we won't be missed. Besides, it's wrong to shirk one's appointed share of work and good acts before one's time. If even the dirty seaweed is able to do good in the world, shouldn't we also--"

But the roar of a breaking wave cut him off, so the rest of what he said couldn't be heard.

People talk about 'the angry sea.' Was the sea angry now at what he was hearing? Is that why he roared? No, it was just his nature to be loud. He and the wind probably planned together to drown out the chatter of the creatures near the oarweeds. And the sea gave his own opinion on the subject. He cried, "You foolish creatures, all of you! What is all this nonsense about? Who dares to say the seaweed is useless while I'm here to loudly throw their foolishness back in their face? You, poor little miserable critters, you've been throwing around your opinions as if you had the ability to grasp the least idea about anything that's even an inch away from you! Well, I won't bother to correct your misconceptions. Believe whatever you want about yourselves and your trivial little comforts and lives. But if anyone is sincere and really wants to know what seaweeds are in the world for, and what good they do, I'll be happy to roar the answer all day long for them. The reason they exist is to keep me healthy. The seaweed keeps the great sea pure and sweet. And that's the answer! The seaweed takes in my used-up gases as food, and breathes out enriching, life-supporting gases in return. That's not dirty or useless! What kind of fool would call seaweed dirty and useless? I'd like to see him say that to my face!"

And the wave came down with a roaring crash. But it did no harm. It didn't even dislodge the crab from the new crevice he had squeezed himself into. The lilac starfish was spreading herself out in the water, enjoying her freedom to move again, and telling all her friends about her narrow escape, and about the creature who had been born into the world for the purpose of saving her life.

It was a thrilling story, and the more she repeated it, the more dramatic she made it, until no one could hear her tale with a dry eye.


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Purring When You're Pleased

"The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart." Matt 12:34

Two kittens had been licked and tended by the same mother, drank the same milk, lived in the same house, learned the same kitty lessons, heard the same kitty advice--and yet they were so different! No two kittens were ever so unlike! One had an open, loving nature that couldn't contain its joy without purring it loudly for the whole world to hear. The other kitten hardly ever purred at all, and when he did, his purr was as quiet as its breathing, no matter how happy or affectionate he felt.

Perhaps it was partly the Mother Cat's fault. She modeled a reserved, stand-offish attitude. She rarely purred herself, and when she did, her purr was quiet. But the poor cat had many excuses, for she had plenty of problems, as cats usually do. Their kittens are taken away from them, they get pushed aside when the people of the house are busy, children pull their tails and annoy them, and dogs chase them--that would irritate anyone. It's really a wonder they ever purr at all!

Nevertheless, the fact that she didn't feel much like purring herself was no reason to discourage others from purring when they were pleased, but that's exactly what she did. She and her purring daughter were always having little disagreements about it.

For example, when the sweet curly-haired little boy brought the kittens a saucer of milk from his own breakfast, there was some dispute over the purring issue: before the saucer even reached the floor, little kitty Missy was right there, with her tail held high, her head upright and eager, purring as loudly as she could. Even her throat vibrated visibly. Little kitty Master, on the other hand, lapped the milk willingly enough, but said very little about it. If he was ever tempted to express his natural delight by purring, he did it so quietly that you'd have to put your ear right up to him to hear it.

The Mother Cat considered this "keeping one's dignity and self-respect," so you can imagine how irritated she would get with her daughter. "You're pathetic!" She would say to poor kitty Missy as she lay purring happily by the fire after the meal. "What in the world are you making so much noise and fuss about? Why must you lower yourself by thanking people for doing things for you, as if you didn't deserve it, and had no right to expect it? It's only proper that they should feed you and keep you warm. It would be unacceptable if they neglected to give you food or fire. It's shameful for you to lower yourself by showing gratitude for every little thing. For goodness sake, have a little pride and stop groveling and acting ridiculous. Look how well your brother behaves. He takes everything as if it was routine and only to be expected. He has enough sense to keep his feelings to himself, and that will make people respect him that much more. It keeps your friends more intrigued when they're not quite sure whether you're pleased or not. But you, with your blatant enjoyment--you're too obvious. People will get tired of you too soon. Please, have a little dignity. What would happen to self-respect if everyone purred every time they were pleased with something?"

Little kitty Missy didn't know what would happen, but she thought it must be something dreadful. She was ashamed of herself for doing anything that might put an end to self-respect. She made lots of promises to herself to keep her dignity and save self-respect from certain doom by not purring any more.

But it was all in vain. As soon as something happened to make her happy and comfortable, her little throat would start vibrating as naturally as flowers bloom in the springtime, and there she was, in trouble again! And there were so many temptations. The little boy's cousin, a somber and quiet little girl, would put little Missy on her lap and pet her for a half hour at a time, stroking her so gently and kindly. How could anyone help purring?

Or the boy would tie a toy to a string and hang it from the handle of a drawer so that the kittens could bat it, swat it, and leap at it if they felt like playing. It wasn't possible to hold back one's delight during this kind of game, when the toy was swinging from side to side right in front of them, inviting them to pounce at it.

Even when there was nothing else to be pleased about, there were their own tails to chase. That was irresistible and well-deserving of a purring song.

But little brother kitty rarely committed himself to purring. That was odd, and it made little Missy wonder more and more about it as time went on. In fact, one time when they were alone together, her curiosity got the better of her judgment and she boldly asked him about it: "Why don't you ever purr whenever you're pleased?" as if purring was the natural and proper thing to do. He seemed to be surprised by her question, but after some thought, he answered her. "Mother says it's so weak-minded. I'd be ashamed of myself to purr as you do. And besides," he confided, after a little pause, "to be honest, but don't tell anyone--every time I start to purr, something chokes a little in my throat. Don't ever tell anyone! I don't want Mother to be disappointed in me. She likes us to keep our dignity, as you know."

If Mother Cat had heard these words, she would have been somewhat startled that her teaching had this kind of effect. But she didn't hear, so she remained blissfully unaware that her son was influenced by something besides her own advice. And yet, to tell the truth, she sometimes felt that same choking in the throat herself.

One day something happened that changed their lives. Their friend, the little boy with curly hair, came running delightedly into the kitchen where Mother Cat and her kittens were sleeping. He was followed by his somber, quiet cousin. She was as silent as ever. The boy rushed over to the kittens, picked both of them up in his hands, and laid one on top of the other for fun. Then he said to the little girl, "Cousin, they're going to let us each keep a kitten for our very own! Be honest, and tell me which you like best. I'm afraid you won't say which one you really want when they ask you, and then I'll have to decide, and I won't know which one you really prefer. And I truly want you to have the one you like best--so please tell me now."

"I like both of them," said the little girl, in the same indifferent tone she usually spoke in.

"I like them both, too," said the boy, "but even so, I know which one I like a little better than the other. You must know which one you prefer, too, why won't you say? Honestly, I wonder if you even want a kitten at all!" He looked at the girl doubtfully. Then he put both kittens right up to her face so she could kiss them, and whispered, "My dear cousin, I wish I could tell by your face when you were pleased. I know--give me a smile when I let your favorite kitten pass by your face. Please? Can't you show me, just this once?"

But it was all in vain. He passed both kittens in front of her face, one after the other, so she could look closely at their markings, but she continued to insist that she liked both of them, and said that of course she was happy to be getting a kitten, and so on. Finally, the little boy became discouraged and gave up.

Some people are very distressed when their friends won't "purr" to show how happy they are. As the two children went back to the parlor together, the little boy was sad, although he couldn't have told you why.

And then it happened just like he said. The little girl was offered first choice of the kittens, but instead of accepting first choice as a favor and saying "thank you," and being delighted as she should have done, she refused to say anything except that she liked them both and it didn't matter which one she had. In fact, if you had looked at her face, you would have thought she didn't really care about having either one of them!

So why didn't she see her aunt gaze sadly at her as she spoke, with a sadness that went beyond this incident with the kittens?

But the little girl didn't see, and presently her aunt said that since she didn't have a preference, the little boy could have first pick. The little boy's face turned red with frustration. He tried to get the little girl to look him in the eyes so he might get some hint of what she really wanted, but she wouldn't look at him. So, he suddenly picked up little Missy, and cuddled her against his cheek, saying, "then I'll take this one! I like this one better, Mommy, because she purrs when she's pleased!"

The little girl picked up little Master and kissed him kindly, but went away without saying a word.

A week went by. The children both took care of their kittens, but they never again discussed which one they liked best because there was an awkwardness about that subject ever since the day the choice had been made.

But one sunny morning a week later, the boy was out with his father, and the little girl was alone in the house. Her aunt suddenly came into the schoolroom and discovered the little girl kneeling by the sofa, weeping silent tears over the furry coat of little Missy, who was purring loudly. Meanwhile, her own kitten, Master, was lying asleep by the fire, completely ignored.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The somber, silent little girl had lost her parents almost two years ago. Her mother and father had died within a few weeks of each other, and, up until recently, she had been cared for by a guardian who was married but had no children. The guardian was well-intentioned, but more strict than kind or understanding. Between the loss of her parents, and the intimidation from her guardian's strictness, along with her natural shy, timid nature, she had unknowingly shut herself up in a sort of defensive armor of self-restraint. Until now, neither her aunt, nor her uncle, nor even her loving cousin had been able to break through it.

But they had patiently waited and given her space. Now the time had come, and the incident regarding little Missy made the little girl aware of her own reserve. With her aunt's loving arms around her, and a sense of her aunt's comforting understanding creeping into her lonely little heart, she admitted that she had been secretly upset all week because--well, actually, it was because it was so miserable to take care of a kitten who wouldn't even purr to show he was pleased!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

You can imagine how delightful it was ten minutes later to see the little girl, with a face still showing signs of her crying, yet smiling through her tears at how much like the unpurring kitten she had been herself. You can imagine, too, how excitedly the little boy insisted on exchanging kittens with her at once so that she could have little Missy for her very own. He, on the other hand, determined with resolve to make little Master fond of him in spite of himself. By bestowing little kindnesses on him, such as giving him kitty treats, and frequently scratching him under the ears, he made the kitten so comfortable that you could feel and even see the vibrations in his throat, even if they weren't quite loud enough to hear.

They were a very happy group. Little Master accepted Missy's friendship, and she became his trusted confidante and advisor. He became so loving and affectionate that he couldn't help showing his pleasure in a thousand sweet little ways. Even the Mother Cat relaxed little by little, partly because her kittens weren't taken away after all, but also because little Missy's open-hearted nature finally won over her own heart and gave her a sense of comfort. At any rate, she stopped scolding and lecturing, and would not only watch their playful romps, but would sometimes join in them herself. It's true that she and her son didn't purr as loudly as some cats, but that was only because of that annoying choking in the throat.

The little girl herself mentioned having something like it herself during the two years before her kind aunt had made her happy again. She said it always used to come on when she wanted to say what she was feeling.

And who knows? Maybe there's always something that chokes in the throat when other people don't "purr" when they're pleased. Let's hope so!

[Editorial note: Some people "purr" less when they're pleased, not because something chokes in their throats, but because their temperament is naturally more reserved.]


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The Voices of the Earth

"Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." Psalm 6

"If only I could pass away and not exist anymore!" murmured the Wind, as it went on its daily journey around the earth long, long ago. "If only I could not exist anymore! Ever since man was created, existence has become unbearable!"

"You're crazy!" cried the Mountains and Valleys, whom the wind was passing over as it complained. "Isn't man the glory of the world, the favorite of Heaven? You must be crazy! Or maybe you're jealous because something else is greater than you--you're jealous of man, the masterpiece of God's creation. You are ungrateful and foolish! You have the privilege of refreshing the earth and all who live on it; why should you stoop to judging and condemning? Isn't it enough for you to fulfill your appointed duty, and by doing that, to exist for the glory of your Creator?"

"Wait--just be patient and hear me out," wailed the Wind. "It is because of the honor of man, and the glory of God, that I'm so troubled. That's what's making me so miserable! I, who don't know of any other rest besides God's will, used to go on my way full of joy, but now I am the most miserable of all creatures. Listen to me, Earth, with your mountains and valleys, and forests, and fast-flowing rivers and seas. Be fair and hear me out. You know I wasn't like this before, when I was first called into being. You know how joyfully I blew around your woods and fields, and saw the beauty that was everywhere. You remember how tenderly I whispered through your flowers, how happily carried their fragrant smells as a thank offering to Heaven, how merrily I used to romp and blow over the hills, and how I taught the tall trees to bow as if honoring God who made them! You know that I never failed to obey God when storms were needed, whether to drive stagnant fogs out of the air, or to whip the sea into lively waves. Have I ever failed? Haven't I always obeyed God and done my duty? Even now, when I'm so miserable, I still carry out God's orders without fail. I still carry along the warm, fresh breezes from tropical seas on endless journeys around the world all the way to the cold north, in the form of dew, or rain, or snow. I continue to do my work. In fact, I love to work the way I was made to. But, woe is me! Another burden besides my work has come upon me! Woe for the ugliness I have witnessed ever since the earth was inhabited by the wretched race of mankind! Woe for the civilized places I have to pass through! Woe for the cities and towns and villages where men live! I can't avoid them! How terrible it is to have to bear from those places all of the blasphemies of so many people! I'm weighed down under the burden of their ungratefulness, their denial and their doubt! Woe for me, that I have to spread the filth of men's misguided reason from the north to the south! Woe that I have to carry the taunts of scorners, and the curses of drunkards, as gifts from mankind to his Maker--from man who was formed in God's image and brags about how smart he is! I wish I could pass away and stop existing, and that the results of evil hearts and unbelief would pass away with me!"

"Those are indeed troubling," muttered the Mountains and Valleys in reply. "How terrible that such things should contaminate you, who are such a messenger of blessing. But take heart; that's not the only thing you carry. You convey other utterances, too--you carry other voices up to heaven. You spread other sounds from north to south. Have you considered that, besides the words of the rebellious, you also carry the prayers of the faithful, the innocent, and the pure? You carry the wholehearted vows of the martyrs, the daily thanksgiving of saints, and their songs of holy praise and joy."

"Yes, but those are no more than what they owe to God--and more than owe. If men gave God ten thousand times more praise, it still wouldn't be enough!" cried the angry Wind. "What credit is there in those things? How can you strike a balance between those praises and men's unnatural sin that says, "There is no God"? All of God's works everywhere have always praised Him. Man is the only one of God's creation that stays silents or doubts. Should the few who are faithful be credited for not taking part in those sins? The rocks and plants and animals have never strayed from their loyalty. What reason does man have to brag? Has he done any more than they have from the beginning of the world?"

"But of all creation, man is the only one with a free, intelligent will," responded the Earth softly. Its words drifted like harmony into the air. "Man is the only one with a free, intelligent will. You're correct, there is no credit in his praise, but it is acceptable. Where else can true praise be found except in the freely offered worship of a being who has free choice? And if he has choice, then he has to have the freedom to choose wrongly. Alas! That's the everlasting struggle between right and wrong. But why should I say 'alas'? Obeying a law that can't be resisted isn't the kind of service that can be given from the heart, and that's the kind of service that pays the highest honor to God's glory. Perhaps it's much more precious to God when man has to struggle to yield his will so that it's in unison with God's divine will, while he waits in anticipation of that day when all of its wisdom will be made known. So have patience with man's struggle between good and evil, as long as what good there is, is accepted by God. As long as that's enough for God, be content to do your work and let it be."

"But just listen to me again," sighed the Wind. "It's true, I have been jealous for the Creator's glory, and distressed for man's honor. But I'm also sad for myself. Oh, Earth! The Creator has made his beloved men such weak mortals! The mountains stand in the same place forever, the hills can't be moved, even the trees survive from generation to generation. But man, God's chosen favorite, dies and passes away like a shadow. No sooner does he sprout up and grow than he's cut down like grass. I blow over his old home, and there's not even any memory that he was ever there. I'm doomed to share this misery! The breath of people who are dying has been passing into my very soul for ages! I feel death in every breeze of mine, it stains every wisp of my air. I'm filled with the bitter agonies of death and it makes me loathe myself. I wish I could fade away into nothing, as if I had never existed, so that I'd never have to feel the vile dishonor of death again."

"You're jumping to conclusions about things you only know in part," said the Hills in a soothing voice. "Maybe those dying breaths that reach you with such sadness are releasing spirits that are higher than yours from the prisons of their bodies. Maybe there's an essence more subtle than you can detect, and you're conveying that to God's mercy seat. Don't you think the almighty Judge of the whole earth will do the right thing? What if that last sigh of a dying person that you're grieving over is also the first breath of a freed immortal soul on its way to its real home? Why mutter against death if it's God's way of bringing a soul to everlasting life?"

"Listen once more and see if I'm right," the Wind persisted. "It isn't just the breath of dying people that overwhelms me with a desire to be done with my job. The breath of people who are suffering is even worse. There's the sigh of grief, which is understandably sad. There's the moaning of those whose bodies are in pain and whose souls are anguished or who have lost everything. There are the outcries of people who are abused or being taken advantage of. There are shrieks of insanity, and screams of people who are hurt, and despairing groans. I hear and carry all of these. Those dreadful voices haunt me wherever I go. The multitude of human suffering rots my very soul. I hear it in the most humble homes, and in the fanciest mansions. I run from the battle field to the monastery, but it does no good, because even seclusion doesn't keep sorrow away from people. No matter where any of God's beloved people are, I find voices of grief that I have to carry, because man is meant for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. I wish I could disappear and not have to know about misery that I can do nothing to prevent!"

"But wait," whispered another voice from the Earth. "Maybe there's an answer to the puzzle of man's guilt in suffering. Maybe in the midst of its most tragic cries, you're carrying the prayer of sincere regret and repentance to God's throne. Can you weigh all the temporary grief of earth against the overwhelming joy in heaven when a single sinner repents? Or when one of God's righteous ones is suffering some kind of agony, the victory songs of true faith grow louder and stronger, and the angels, hearing it from heaven, rejoice around God's throne to hear God's faithful praying, 'May Your will be done, whether it's to do something for You or to suffer.' Would you remove suffering from the earth, knowing that you would also be removing that kind of hard-won faith? Take note of the ratio between suffering, and the faith that results from it. As long as this kind of faith is acceptable to God, you should be content to continue your task, and be glad to do your work and exist."

"And yet man, who is God's favorite, is the most miserable of all God's creatures!" moaned the Wind. "He's the only one who has to pay for his happiness with suffering."

"That's just not fair," rebuked the Earth. "You seem to be keeping such a detailed record of men's sighs and groans, but aren't you aware of their unceasing sounds of simple, natural joys? Maybe you can describe thousands of instances of sorrow, but I could respond by telling you about tens of thousands of men's joys. Men enjoy peaceful years of health without a word of thanks and take every breath for granted for years. I'll bet you couldn't even count them! Try counting each breath as it floats up to you during the night while the sleeper passes a restful night. Count the breaths in a single morning, when the sleeper awakens to the dawn of a fresh, new day. Count the laughs of a child as he plays. Count the sweet expressions of happy lovers. You might be able to count the stars in the sky, but you could never count the daily evidences of routine earthly joys. How tragic to judge life only by its most jarring moments, and not hear the still small voices that tell about God's grace hour after hour."

"Indulge me just one more time," cried the Wind. "You haven't heard the worst thing. The sounds of sin--oh, Earth, where the glory of God can still be seen by everybody, you are so innocent--it makes me sick to even remember all that I've heard, and what I wish I didn't know about. The disgusting words of sin--the deceit of lies, the prattle of fools, the conniving of evildoers, the lewd shouts of drunkards, the perverted songs of scoffers, God's gifts of speech and intelligence misused for evil--these voices are horrible to both God and man."

"Let them be like dust, and you be like God's divine worker scattering and blowing away that dust," shouted an indignant voice from the Earth. "Yes, be patient and keep waiting. Continue to be satisfied to do God's work and to exist. Are you wiser than God Himself, the righteous judge? Are you going to run out of patience while God still bears with it? No! Keep an eye on the balance as you've been doing, and keep weighing the evil and the good. As long as the prayers that faithful people pray outweigh scorners' words, as long as repentance comes after sin, as long as devoted submission to God accompanies sad trials, as long as you carry up daily prayers of thanksgiving to counterbalance blessings that are unappreciated and unnoticed, as long as death continues to bring souls of God's people to their true home--as long as these things continue, you should be content to be patient and do your work, and exist."

But the Wind shouted back, "But what if the day ever comes when the balanced is reversed, and sins which are merely tolerated now triumph over holiness? What if sin is commonplace even in churches and nobody puts a stop to it? What if the worship of good people is so drowned out by the mocking of scoffers that I can't carry it to heaven, or wretched people curse God and die in their misery, and people forget to be thankful--if that ever happens, will you admit that I'm justified in my complaints and help me die away? Just promise me that, and then I'll be content to continue watching the struggle, and do my work, and exist."

And the earth paused--and agreed. The Wind was satisfied and went away to continue its work.

And the Wind is still blowing around the world, still carrying the "voices from the earth" to heaven, and still watching the struggle between good and evil. When we're out walking, he meets us face to face. In the rooms of our houses, he's still with us. There's no place so hidden that he isn't there, and no whisper so quiet that he can't hear. So we should remember to be careful that some thoughtless word or sin doesn't add weight to the wrong side of the balance. Because if the balance ever tipped over so that evil outweighed good, and the Wind stopped blowing--what would become of the world?


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The Master of the Harvest

"The things you don't understand when you read them, you will understand on the day you experience them. Religion has many secrets that can't be known until they are felt, and can't be felt except in a time of great trial." (paraphrased from The Golden Grove, by Jeremy Taylor, 1613-1667)

The Master of the Harvest walked beside his field of corn early in the year with a gloomy look on his face. There had been no rain for several weeks and the ground was so hard and dry from weeks of winter's bitter east wind that the young corn plants had not been able to come up.

As the farmer looked over the long rows in front of him, he was frustrated and started to grumble, saying that the harvest would be late and nothing ever worked out. Just the thought of this made him frown even more, and he complained against heaven for not raining, and he grumbled about the hard, dry ground, and he rebuked the corn because it hadn't come up yet.

The man's frustration was heard all over the field, and repeated all along the rows of corn seeds. When it reached them, they gasped, "How cruel of him to complain! We're doing the best we can! We haven't let a single drop of moisture pass us by without drinking it in, or a single moment of warmth to go by without using it. We've made the most of every opportunity, and tried hard every day to be ready when it's time for us to break out of our seeds. Are we lazy? Are we stubborn? Do we not care? Aren't we always waiting and ready? It's not fair for him to complain!"

But the farmer, of course, heard none of this, so he still looked gloomy. In fact, he took his frustration home with him into his comfortable house and repeated his complaints to his wife--that everything was going wrong, and the drought would ruin the harvest because his corn wouldn't come up.

The farmer was still thinking of all his worries when he went to bed and fell asleep.

But his wife sat up in bed for awhile. She opened her Bible and read, "The harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels."

She copied that verse on one of the blank pages at the end of her Bible with the date and this comment: "Lord, You are the Planter, waiting for the precious fruit you have planted, and you wait with such patience. Yes, Lord, Amen!"

And then she knelt and prayed, and she wept as she prayed because she knew she was very sick.

But what she prayed that night was only heard in heaven.

A few more days went by, and the house was gloomy with the master's dissatisfaction. But one evening, the wind changed. Clouds filled the sky, and before midnight the rain came. When the Master of the Harvest came in from checking his corn fields the next morning with wet boots, he said it was a good thing the rain had finally come, and his corn had come up at last.

At this, his wife looked at him with a smile and said, "So often the things we've been so anxious and disturbed about come out all right in the end!" Her husband didn't answer her. He turned away and talked about something else.

Meanwhile, the corn seeds had been ready and waiting for their opportunity, just as they had said. Soon there were rows of tiny sprouted shoots, turning the whole field a delicate shade of green. Every day the Master of the Harvest checked on them and was satisfied at their progress. But since he was no longer frustrated and his anxiety was gone, he talked about other things and didn't even think to rejoice.

Then the corn started murmuring, "Shouldn't the Master have given us a joyous welcome when we sprouted forth? Only a few days ago he was angry because the seed he had planted hadn't come up. Now it has come up, but he doesn't seem very happy about it. What more does he want? Haven't we done our best? Aren't we still doing our best, hour by hour, day by day? We're taking in food, strength, warmth, life, refreshment and joy from the morning and evening dew, from the dampness in the ground, from the breezes that freshen the air, and rain from the clouds. Some day the valleys will laugh and sing because our good seed will bear forth an abundant crop. Why isn't he rejoicing?"

It was the same as before, though--the Master heard none of their words, and it never occurred to him to consider the struggle of the tiny young corn plants to survive and grow. In fact, when his wife happened to ask him how the corn was doing, he only said, "Well enough," and nothing more. But she, because it was a pleasant evening and the sunny weather had revived her weakening body a little, said she wanted to take a walk by the corn-fields and see for herself.

So they both went out to the corn fields.

Together they looked at the rows of corn and watched the tiny blades of leaves quiver and glisten in the breeze that came up as the sun was setting. They walked together, and they looked together. They saw the same things with the same kinds of human eyes. In this same way they had walked and looked and lived together for years, but it seemed as if an entire world divided their hearts, and what could ever unite them?

Even now, as they strolled along, she murmured half out loud, half to herself, thinking of the farmer's anxiety that had disappeared, "You visit the earth and bless it; you make it very plenteous." (Psalm 65:9)

And the farmer answered, if it can be called an answer, "Why are you always so serious? Why must you quote Scripture about such common things?"

She looked at him and smiled, but she said nothing, and he couldn't read the meaning behind her smile, because the life of her heart was as hidden from him as the life of the corn in the fields.

So they walked home together and neither said anything because, as they turned around, the sight of the beautiful sunset and the rows of fresh green blades of corn brought tears to her eyes.

She knew she might never see a corn harvest again. For her, the other kind of harvest was coming soon--the harvest where the reapers were God's angels.

When she opened her Bible that night, she wrote down the verse she had quoted to her husband along with the date, and this comment: "Bless me, yes, me, Father, so that I might bring forth fruit patiently!"

The next few weeks were very peaceful. All of nature seemed to be rejoicing in the weather, and the corn blades shot up to almost two feet high. The Master of the Harvest had no complaint against them.

But at the end of those weeks, the earth started to get hard and dry again from lack of rain. Slowly, the plants began to droop from too little water and nourishment. They lost their strength and color, and became languid and yellowish. And, once again, the farmer began to fear and worry. Once more the Master's face had a gloomy look of frustration. And as the man got more and more worried about how his crops would fare, he got more grouchy and negative, and complained as he had before, only even louder, against the sky because there was no rain, against the earth because it was so dry, and against the corn plants because they had grown weak.

In fact, once when his sick wife had gently reproached him, reminding him of how his worries had been turned to joy before, he criticized her for sitting in the house pretending to talk about things she knew nothing about, and suggested that she come out and see for herself that things were all wrong and would turn out badly.

Although he was only giving her a hard time because of his bitterness, and she was very sick, she agreed to go. And she went.

So, once again they walked out to the fields together, and looked over the corn plants. When he pointed to the long rows of corn stalks and she saw how shrunken and yellowed they were, she was dismayed, and turned aside and cried over them.

Yet she didn't dare to stop hoping. After all, a single hour of rain could change the entire face of the earth if God willed it. And she wouldn't dare complain, either, even if the harvest failed.

Hearing her refusal to give up, the Master of the Harvest turned, amazed, and looked at his wife. Her soul was growing stronger as her body grew weaker. She was daring to say things she would never have had the courage to say before.

But he didn't understand. As he listened, what he thought was that she was weak in mind as well as body, and what he said was that a person who didn't complain when he saw his food being taken away from him right before his eyes must be an idiot.

And his grumbling and her tears sent a shudder along the rows of listless corn plants. They asked each other, "Why is he grumbling? And why is she crying? Aren't we doing as much as we can? We never slumber or sleep; we never let opportunities pass by without taking advantage of them. We're always watching and waiting for times of refreshing, and when those times come, we'll be ready. Why is he grumbling? And why is she crying? Is she also fading and waiting, as we are? Does she also have a Master who has lost patience, as we have?"

When she opened her Bible that night, this is what she wrote in the back: "Why should anyone complain when he is punished for his sins? Lam 3:39" and the date. And then she added this comment: "When You turn Your face away from us, we are troubled. But, Lord, how long?"

After a while, the times of refreshing did come, but so slowly and irregularly that the change in the corn was hard to see. Nevertheless, it was obvious at last. Little stems pushed up through the blades, and flowers bloomed at their tops, and the flowers gradually turned into ears of corn. But it had been a struggle, and it continued to be a struggle, because the rain was scanty, and the air wasn't as warm as it should have been. Yet, by struggling and trying, the young corn had grown little by little. It had prepared itself for the great day of the harvest minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, as best it could. Wasn't that enough for the Master? Sadly, he still found something to criticize. When he looked at the ears of corn, he saw that they were small and not very good. He grumbled and said the crop would be less than it should be, and that it would be a poor harvest.

The same weather continued for some weeks, and the corn grew very slowly. The farmer voiced his frustration constantly--at home to his wife, at the market to his friends, and to any passing farmer who stopped to chat about the crops.

His discontent was heard by the corn field, all along the rows where the plants were laboring, and waiting, and watching. And the plants shuddered and said, "How cruel for him to complain! If we had been lazy, or negligent, or didn't care, we would have simply faded away without bearing any corn at all. How cruel for him to complain!"

Another dry week or two went by. As people glanced around at the land, they wished that a few rainy days would come and give a good soaking to the land so the corn ears would fill out. And, what do you know--while they were still wishing for rain, the sky became covered with clouds, it got dark, a strong wind rose up, and the rumble of thunder announced that a storm was coming. And what a storm it was! People hid in their cellars, and closets, and dark corners as if the thunder reminded them that God is real, and they were afraid of that fact--you'd think they weren't able to discover Him in sunshine and blessings, but only in His tempests and anger.

The blast of rain and wind beat down of the rows of corn, and they bent down before it and rose up again, like waves on a stormy sea. Ears upon ears of corn bowed down, and ears upon ears of corn rose up. They bowed down as if they knew they would be destroyed if they resisted, and they rose up as if they knew there would be hope after the storm. Only here and there, where the winds were the strongest, there were a few plants that fell down and could not lift themselves up again. So there was very little damage done, and the rain had done a lot of good. But when the Master of the Harvest saw patches of over-weighted corn here and there dripping from the thunderstorm, he was angry about losing them, and forgot to think about the long rows of corn stretching across his fields with swelling and rejoicing ears of corn.

He came home with a gloomy look on his face, just when his wife had been hoping that now, finally, everything would be okay. She took one look at him, and the turmoil in her own soul spun out of control. As he sat down moodily, she knelt down in front of his chair, threw her arms around him, and cried out, "It's only because of the Lord's mercies that we aren't utterly destroyed! Oh, my husband, pray for the corn, and pray for me, so that it might be alright with both of us in the end! Carry me upstairs!" His concern for her overshadowed his frustration, and he carried her upstairs and laid her on the bed, saying that the storm must have shaken her nerves. But did he pray for the corn, or for her? She never knew.

And soon there was a new worry. After the rainy days had done their merciful work and everyone was satisfied, the rain did not cease. In the same way that cries had gone to heaven praying for rain on the fields, now men's heart were sick with worry that the rain would continue to fall and mildew the corn, and the crops would all be lost.

The Master of the Harvest walked out by his corn fields and his face looked darker than ever. He ranted against the rain because it wouldn't stop, and against the sun because it wouldn't shine, and against the corn because it might die before it could be harvested.

"Why does he do nothing but complain?" moaned the corn plants as his rants were heard over the corn field. "Haven't we done our best from the very beginning? And hasn't mercy been with us every time, sooner or later? When rain was scarce and we only grew a little, why didn't he rejoice over that little, and wait for more rain, like we did? Now that abundant rain has come and we're swelling up, joyous in strength and hope, why can't he share our joy in the moment, and wait and trust for the changes that will ripen us in the future, like we do? Why is he always grumbling? Does he himself have a master who reaps where he hasn't plowed, and gathers where he hasn't planted, and who has no pity for his hard-working servants?"

But the Master of the Harvest heard none of this. Days of rain turned into weeks of rain, and then months of rain, and then it was autumn, and the corn still stood in the rows, all green as if would never ripen. Even the boldest and most hopeful people began to be uneasy. The Master of the Harvest was in despair.

Meanwhile, his wife had never left her bed. She lay there, sick and in pain, yet patiently trusting. She watched the sky from the window that faced her bed, looking for relief that always came just in time. At the last moment, when hope seemed gone, and people were bracing themselves to submit to the bad harvest they expected to come, the cloudy days began to be broken up with a few hours of sunshine here and there. Even though the sunshine didn't last, and the clouds and rain came back again, yet the clouds and rain didn't last, either. Once more, the sun shone.

The poor wife watched and commented to those around her that the weather was gradually changing, and that everything would be alright at last. She sighed a prayer that it might be alright for herself, too. She asked for her Bible to be brought to her, and she wrote this on the back page: "Some plants made a hundred times more, some made sixty times more, and some made thirty times more," and the date, because the sun had been shining steadily almost the whole day. And then she added this comment: "Those who have been given much, from them, much will be expected. Yet, Lord, if you are exacting in keeping records of sin, who will be able to stand before You?"

Day by day, the hours of sunshine were longer and longer, and the rain and clouds decreased. Slowly the green ears of corn ripened into yellow, and then gold, and the harvest was ready--and the laborers were plenty! The beautiful, bursting corn broke out into songs of joy, crying, "We have not waited and watched for nothing! Surely goodness and mercy have been with us every day of our lives, and now we are crowned with glory and honor! Where is the Master of the Harvest, to come and claim his own harvest with joy?"

But the Master of the Harvest wasn't there. He was with his wife, who lay in bed dying.

She whispered, asking for her Bible to be brought to her. He brought it, and she said, "Open it to the blank pages at the end, and write this: 'It is planted in curruption, but it is raised in incorruption. It is planted in dishonor, but it is raised in glory. It is planted in weakness, but it is raised in power. It is planted as a natural body, but it is raised as a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:42).'" And she asked him to add the date, and the words, "Lord, in Your mercy, say this about me, 'She has done what she could!'" And then she laid her hand in his, and fell asleep forever, with hope in her heart.

The harvest was gathered into the barns, and then the joyful harvest day was over. But the Master of all of it sat alone by his fireside, with his wife's Bible on his lap. He read her quotes and the dates and her comments and prayers, starting from the day when the little corn seeds were delayed by drought. As he read, a new spirit seemed to burst out of his old one. The Lord of the other Harvest was softening his heart, and He would bless the harvest that came from it.

From that time on, whether he came in or went out from his field, the Bible quotes and dates and comments were always on his mind. Sometimes they even rose to his lips. He never grumbled or complained again, no matter what the seasons were like, or how worried he got. The thought of the late-coming springtime to his own heart, and the unwearying patience of God, who is Lord and Master of everything, stayed with him night and day. He prayed more and more for help so that his weary struggle would be blessed, and the newness of his watching and waiting wouldn't be in vain. And more and more, he began to yearn for that other harvest--where he, and his wife who had gone before him, would be gathered in together.

And in this way, in the single hope of their calling, their hearts that had been divided for so long, were united at last.


___________________________


The Deliverer

'Wise men, forget about your contemplations; there are brighter visions beaming from afar.' (paraphrased from the Christmas hymn, 'Angels from the Realms of Glory')

For years there had been a whispered rumor heard throughout the earth that a Deliverer was about to rise up--a Deliverer who had been promised since the beginning of the world. Perhaps it would be a powerful man, or a great king, or a wise man or mighty conqueror. He would return justice to the world that had been unfair for so long, and begin a reign of peace that would last forever.

The hearts of everyone who heard the rumor thrilled with excitement. After all, who is so dense that he doesn't realize how wretched he is? Who doesn't look around and see that things should be better than they are? The people on the earth were only too aware of this. Death, sickness, endless hard labor, work done in vain, love that's not returned, stronger people triumphing over those who are right, wars, troubles, divided families, and a thousand other miseries of life--in every era, these things had plagued everyone from year to year. From one generation to the next, each person, as he became conscious of reason, came to realize the bitter, tragic fact that something was wrong with the world of his own time. At the same time, some strong instinct in his soul told him that it hadn't always been this way, and that it wouldn't be this way forever.

So the whispered rumor about a Deliverer came to their hearts like a promise that better things were going to come. The rumor was vague and not very clear. Different people interpreted it in different ways, depending on their individual wishes and feelings. The one thing they all agreed on was that when this Mighty One arrived, sadness and evil would disappear, and joy and peace would spread across the earth in the same way water covers the oceans.

A Deliverer! If he didn't deliver them from death itself which they all hated with every instinct of their being, then at least he would probably deliver them from the wearying sicknesses that made life hard even for the young. And he'd deliver them from work that was hard enough to prevent even strong men from living an easy, comfortable life. He'd deliver them from disappointments that wrenched their most sensitive emotions, and the chains of unfair abuse, and the conflict of divisive politics and lying gossips, and the weakness of their own souls that left them vulnerable to their own evil thoughts and thousands of other temptations.

The truth is, life in the world they were living in was tiresome even in the smoothest of times. "Oh, I wish there was a Deliverer!" was the private cry of each person's heart as his own particular hardship wore him down. If only the everlasting doors would be lifted up so that the King of Glory might come in and touch the earth with his magic scepter and restore everything back to order and joy!

They knew that this Mighty One, whoever he was, would have different names: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The burden of governing would be his responsibility, even though he would be a Son, and be born as a child. Where could such a person be found but in a palace? Where else would such a person be brought up? His father would surely be a king, and the mother who nursed him would surely be a queen. What happy parents, to be blessed with such a child! Who would be great enough for such an honor? Who could be so highly favored? And yet, great as the parents would be, this child would be greater and more powerful even than they, he would rule over and triumph over everyone, even them! He would be the King of Kings, and the Lords of Lords. No wonder hopeful eyes watched palaces for signs of him! No wonder everyone asked, "Is this the one?" every time a newborn prince's first cry was heard within the palaces. No wonder prophets and poets sang in anticipation of his fame!

But these newborn princes grew up to be common men, and they suffered and sinned like everyone else. Hope began to fail, but it wasn't totally extinguished. People continued to look for the Deliverer just like they had always done.

Some, though, thought that Wonderful, Counsellor had a different meaning and other purpose. They wondered if he might be kingly and deliverer because of his influence and character, without actually being a literal royal king. Perhaps his kingly virtue would be Reason, man's most noble ability, and he would use it to overthrow earthly kings. His deliverance would thus be the victory of mental intelligence over material things, and his rule would be using his brilliance to defeat violence and force.

One poor wise man saved a city but was not thanked or honored for his good deed--that just showed how unfair this world was. But that would soon change. People hadn't wasted their time or pondered who this Deliverer might be for nothing, not if the time was at hand. Soon he would be exalted as the world's Counsellor who was wise enough to rule the world. He would be Wonderful because of the greatness of his mind.

["The poor wise man who saved the city, but had neither thanks nor honour for his pains:" Ecclesiastes 9:15]

As wise men and philosophers thought about these things, hope burned in their hearts and made them devoted to him, whoever he was. And they began to pray to this mysterious Deliverer, asking that the Wonderful Counsellor would bring them light and truth, and conquer ignorance and errors in the world.

If only that day would come, when the majestic ability of the human mind would be revealed, and ignorant people would see all of its magnificence! The mind is the only thing great enough to warrant such an important position and the only thing appropriate to rule the whole world.

But year after year, wise men died like everyone else, and their children died after them. A Deliverer had not risen up from among them, so they continued looking.

Some latched onto the title "Prince of Peace," and thought everything could be explained by that. The conquering mentioned about him must mean that he would conquer and overcome strife. The superiority of Love would overcome all desires for conflict and everyone would work towards universal joy.

Surely when this Deliverer came, he would be able to make everyone happy and pour a healing tonic on every wound. Then all old sadnesses would be forgotten, and people's frustrated minds would be calmed, no longer troubled with struggles and difficult effort.

If only that day would come when every man would be his own king and kingdom, and the songs of rejoicing that gladdened the golden age could be heard all over the world! Isn't that what the prophets had said, and the poets had sung? Then every person would have his own grape vine and fig tree to sit under, and there would be no more poor or rich people because everybody would be equal, and everyone would be happy.

But when could they expect this Deliverer? Where would he come from? It would probably be in an unusually blessed part of the world, perhaps some beautiful, peaceful valley such as Cashmere, nestled among the mountains of India. He would undoubtedly be living among a community of simple, contented people in a perfect family who never experienced turmoil and lived in happy harmony with each other. Such a person could only come from this kind of blissful, peaceful background--the kind of person who would cause harsh weapons of war to be turned into tools for farming the land, and would cause plants, animals and even rocks to join together in one general song of joy.

So those who took that view looked for the Deliverer in peaceful valleys and quiet places where no disagreement ever happened. But they had no better luck--they kept on looking and waiting, and hoped Nature itself would confirm their hopes.

The non-living elements of the world became aware that some great event was going to happen. The earth, which had suffered and decayed under the ancient curse, listened to the whispered rumors. And every spring, as she dressed herself in beautiful greenery and flowers, a hint of the Mighty One who would restore earth's lost glories and make her young again was felt through every pulse of her. Earth didn't care about mankind's different expectations about this Deliverer. "It's not important how He comes," she said, "whether as a king, or conqueror, or sage, or God. In my bloom and beauty, I'm making myself ready for his coming. This way I'll be worthy to meet my Lord and King! When he arrives, all the hills will leap with happiness, the valleys will laugh and sing, and the trees in the forests will rejoice!"

So every spring, the earth dressed herself in hope. Every summer, she glowed with golden anticipation. But many springs and summers came and went, and no Deliverer had arrived. And when the sap chilled and returned to the roots of the trees for winter, and the flowers died and the leaves fell from the trees, and a stillness like death came over the earth for a while, she wept tears of regret as she said her good-byes for the season. Yet she said, "when the new spring comes, there will be hope again." The earth repeated these words, but with the cold, lonely winter upon her, she didn't feel very confident and she showed no signs of hope. Only the evergreen trees could cheer her up. They said, "while you can't have anything better, you can at least enjoy us. At any rate, let our green needles remind you of the spring that's coming."

But men and earth were both on the wrong track. Even while darkness was blinding the minds of men, and earth was locked in the deadness of winter, when common people were focusing their search on earthly palaces, and wise men were trying to find a clue in earthly wisdom, while those who lived for pleasure hoped that the Deliverer would usher in earthly delights--the truth was, God had chosen to use "the foolish things of the world to confuse the wise," and the weak things of the world to overturn the powerful things. God had chosen the common, unimportant things, and the things that are passed over so that "no person should have glory in God's presence."

You prisoners looking for hope, stop looking at grand, earthly wonders! Turn away from the confidence of mere earthly wisdom! Generations after generations of people had lived their lives and died, and the whole world was still lying in wickedness because "God, in His wisdom, did not allow the world to discover Him by using its worldly wisdom." And He doesn't call many people who are wise in earthly things, or powerful, or from important families.

And then, wonder of wonders, at an inn in a village, in the stable where animals typically sleep and rest, a tired young woman who had walked a long way laid down because she couldn't find room anywhere else. And listen to the crying of a brand new baby that came from inside that stable, unnoticed by the busy world outside! This young mother's first-born baby, whose husband had to work hard to support them--what difference did this common birth make to anyone? And yet--listen to another cry rising while the insignificant baby wails! It's a cry of thanksgiving and praise! "Glory to God in the highest! On earth, peace and good-will to men!" "In the city of David a Savior has been born to you--he is Christ the Lord!" And who was singing this joyful Hosanna? It was the angels of heaven!

What a day of glory and delight! The Deliverer had finally come! The long-awaited day of redemption had arrived! But what important sign was there to signify that this was the long-expected Mighty One? Were there royal parents to welcome him? Were there wise men there to confirm that this was the child?

No! The news was announced with the shining glory of the Lord to dirty, poor shepherds who slept in the fields keeping an eye on their sheep all night. And how would they know the child when they saw him? He would be the one they found wrapped on strips of cloth and lying in an animals' feed box.

Oh, ignorant people, and ignorant earth! When the crying of that tiny, helpless infant broke out in the stable outside the inn, who, unless God had told him, could possibly have dreamed that at that very moment, and in that unexpected way, the One that all the nations desired so much had finally come?

Yes, because God had decided that it should be at that very moment, and in that very way. This was how it should be, as an example to people of how God works. That's right, he came in poverty and humble surroundings. He came in that very way while Nature was paralyzed and hopeless, and half the world was covered in freezing snow. He came in just that way, with healing on His wings--but not the kind of healing they were looking for. It wasn't deliverance from death or sadness, or freedom from work and pain, not even a payment to take away temptation and sin--but, by God's strength and wisdom, and by the power of His Spirit, he came to make people "more than conquerors" through all of those things.

We have a tendency to look for supernatural signs and miraculous wonders; we look for things we can see with our eyes, or experiences that make logical sense. When we don't get those things, we get discouraged and give up hope. But so many times, again and again, this lesson of God's coming is repeated: God doesn't always make His presence known to us in the place we expect and in the way we're looking for. He doesn't always come during the times when we're expectant and deliberate about finding Him. He doesn't always come when we confidently say, "I am ready to meet God because I've done this or that worthwhile thing."

So go ahead and hang up holly and lights and tinsel over the winter landscape to remember the hope that human intelligence could never teach anyone. The Comforter did not arrive during the glorious days of summer. No, He came to His people when it was cold and dark. When our souls are cold and ashamed, when we stop putting any stock in the good things we've done, that might be when He'll come to us. If human logic and research can't find Him, maybe that's when He'll reveal Himself to those with pure, simple hearts. When important men's expectations come to nothing, that may be the time when He comes with healing on His wings to the soul of the poor and humble person.


___________________________


Inferior Animals

[Rooks are black birds, very similar to a crow. They live across Europe.]

'How? When? Where? The gods don't answer. Let "this is the way it is" be enough of an answer, and stop questioning.'--Goethe

What are they saying? What are they saying?

What can the noisy, cawing rooks possibly have to say as they sail over our heads through the sky, gathering more and more rooks on their way to their appointed meeting place?

What can they possibly have to say? We might just as well ask what WE can possibly have to say. Rooks have lives, and things to do, and food and children to talk about, just like we do. They may not talk about those things in a language we can understand, but they seem to understand each other, and that's enough.

It's obvious that they do understand each other, since they're gathering together from far and near in great numbers for some definite purpose--apparently they're planning to assemble in some field, or open pasture, or park, where they'll settle down together for an hour or so and walk and hop around as if they're considering giving up flight altogether and walking on the ground from now on. They say what they have to say the whole time, and we're as clueless about what they're talking about as they would be if they could hear us around our dinner tables.

We call their noisy talking "cawing." I wonder what they would call ours around our dinner tables? If they concluded that our talk had no meaning because they couldn't understand it, they would be wrong.

As far as the kind of noises made by rooks and people, it's hard to say which is the more pleasant. Of the two, the racket made by human voices is probably more harsh and confusing.

Have you ever thought about it? Think about it now--listen to some talking and judge for yourself. I mean, don't listen to the meaning of what's being said, but just listen to the mass of noise as mere noise. Imagine you're a rook who can't understand human speech, and can only hear the flurry of noise, and then your own conscience will force you to admit that there's no sweetness, or refinement, no melody or majesty in the shouting, shrillness, whistling, hissing, and grunting of a mass of human voices and laughter.

It's tragic that there are barriers that mysteriously come between us and the other creatures we share the earth with. The desire to communicate with them is a strong instinct we all have, but one we have to unlearn after infancy.

Watch a toddler as she babbles away to the cat on the rug and tries to be friends with it. Notice how every action shows that she expects it to understand her and return her affection. Notice her angry disappointment if the cat bites or scratches her, disturbing her loving little attempts at friendship. No matter what a practical observer might think, it isn't just physical pain she feels, but the frustration of hurt feelings as well. Kitty shouldn't have treated her like that. She would have gladly shared her breakfast with Kitty, and caressed Kitty on her lap. Didn't Kitty know how much she loved her?

And then the toddler has to be reminded by Mother that poor Kitty doesn't understand her. Kitty doesn't know what she means because Kitty can't hear what she says. Kitty can't talk as she can, and doesn't understand how much she loves her. Therefore, Kitty can't be blamed for scratching, though she must not be allowed to continue to scratch. Then watch the child's wistful eyes glaze over as she becomes more and more puzzled. It's bewildering to understand. She turns back to Kitty, as if looking at her would make it all more clear, but the veil between them is as thick as ever. Neither the scratch nor anything else is understood.

And with this, the unlearning process has begun. This process continues until we get used to it and forget that we ever thought we could communicate with animals. Only a few adults are still nagged by a bittersweet amazement at the barrier separating humans from animals as they watch the lower forms of creation.

It's understandable that lower creatures wouldn't understand higher creatures, so it's no surprise that animals can't understand us. In fact, the very concept of lower and higher life forms means that lower forms couldn't understand the more complex communication of higher forms, no matter what philosophers might say. But why shouldn't higher life forms understand the simpler communication of lower life forms? No one has ever been able to answer that.

It's only natural that a dog shouldn't know much about his master. But it's strange that his dog should be just as much of a mystery to the master. He might know some things about his dog--what the dog is skilled at, and what behaviors he can expect from him--but he knows almost nothing about the dog's inner life, what he feels, and his internal motives. The master doesn't even fully comprehend the dog's physical abilities. Who can explain what makes a dog take a short cut across unfamiliar country to get to the house where his master is? Or who knows how a dog always brings back the same stick his master threw him? Even when the master throws it from a gloved hand into wet grass, and it takes several minutes to find the stick, the dog never brings back the wrong one.

We are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" in more ways than one. From the first moment we're aware of conscious thought, we find ourselves in a world where the only creatures we can communicate with are other humans. All other creatures are strange to us, all other life forms are unintelligible. Their present, past and future are all a mystery to us.

The German poet Novalis said, 'Only children, or simple child-like adults, have any chance of breaking the spell that imprisons nature as if it was frozen, like an enchanted, petrified city.' If only this was true! We'd all want to be children again! Don't you wish you could be childlike and break the spell that keeps us from understanding other animals? Admit that you wish you had never unlearned that people and animals might understand each other. It would be lovely to once again be deceived and have faith that animals and people can enjoy affectionate friendship with each other. Let's forget that we ever unlearned, shall we?

Let's hold hands as trusting children, and walk into the fields, and read the hidden secrets of the world. You grab my hand, and I'll grab yours. Even the act of holding hands seems magical! These are the same hands we once placed in the hands of our parents, and the same hands our own children love to hold. Let's walk together in trust and affection for a while, and pick up the broken threads of old feelings and desires, and lost friendships and hopes.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Hush! What is that, over there, those birds making it dark over in that field? Is it an important meeting? A church service? What are they saying with all their caws, and hops and pecks and restless moving around? Are they engaging in rook politics? Or rook Sunday school? Or are they telling each other their rook hopes and fears?

Duck down in this hole in the hedge with me. Let's lean against the root of this old elm tree and peek through. Look! The honeysuckle is tangled around the thorns above us, making it smell sweet, as if it's welcoming us.

Do you see those black birds playing, my friend? Maybe they're not playing; I think they've come here for some solemn purpose. Over there, in that tall oak tree across the field, I can see one standing as sentinel, guarding the area. He'll stay there faithfully until the assembly disperses unless there's some sign of danger. Then he'll dash out and fly into their midst, giving a warning cry that's so distinct from the rest of their caws, that anyone who has heard it before will recognize it. We'll have to whisper very softly, or else he'll know we're here and give the warning cry and the whole flock might forsake the field.

Look how solemn and serious he is, how patient and observant! He's content to miss the group fun so that he can help it proceed in safety. Such an unselfish, dark watchman! Is he paid for his trouble? Or does he stand guard out of love and devotion for his brother rooks, in expectation of their love and affection in return? Or maybe next time it will be another rook's job to stand guard, and this rook's turn to play with the others. I keep saying play , but this can't be only play. Something more important and serious must have brought all these different groups and families of rooks from their distant homes to this place.

But what good is it to wonder and ask questions? Nature doesn't speak, and people don't know, so they can't answer me. No matter what people say, they don't know.

All of you scientists with your influence, and books, papers, diagrams, collections of facts, and surplus of self-confidence--you shine your extra-bright flashlights into the isolated corners of the universe, and imagine that you're sitting in the supreme light of creative knowledge. But you don't have a clue, and you can't answer. Disprove me, if you can, by answering the simple question I ask: what are the rooks doing and saying? Tell me about those inferior animals, since you in your superior wisdom think you know everything. Tell me that, and I will admit that your eyes have been opened and that you are like the gods, knowing the difference between good and evil.

Tell me what these important rook meetings are for. Tell me how they decide to call a meeting. Tell me how they're organized, and how all the rooks are given the message about the time and meeting place. Tell me how they decide where to hold their meeting, and how they select their messengers. What kind of message do they carry? Why do they meet on level ground and walk around, rather than meeting in their own deep woods, where they can fly and perch on branches and be safe enough not to need a guard?

Tell me what they're saying. What are they saying when they're finally all together? Are they there for business, or play? If you can tell me these things, then I'll listen to what you have to say about the God who created both rooks and people.

But you're all miserable guides, and miserable comforters. It's a thousand times better to be a child, like I am now, lying under the tangled honeysuckle, and listening respectfully to the unknown language of the rooks in the field. I wonder why the honeysuckle breathes out nothing but scent above me? Stoop down, honeysuckle--you must know what the rooks are saying. Why don't you whisper it in my ear?

What are they saying? I ask, like a child does. Must I ask and get no answer, like a child gets no answer?

Wait! Hush for a minute! Someone is speaking--a stranger is interrupting us. He calls, "Gentlemen!" as if there were gentlemen here. Go away, whoever you are--there are no gentlemen here! It's just us children, we adults who are pretending to be children for an hour. Leave us alone and let us dream our dream in peace.

How can this be? I don't see anyone near, and yet the voice is even louder than before. Where are you, my friend? Look, everything is calm in the field; the sentry is still sitting on watch at his post. The rest of the rooks are hopping, pecking and jumping the same as before. And yet I hear--what is it I hear? It's a voice! And it's coming from among the rooks! Have I lost my senses? Or have I gained another sense? The spell is broken! At last! I hear understandable, meaningful language all around! Quick, hand me my notebook! I want to write down everything I see and hear.

One of the rooks comes forward. A crowd surrounds him, and he is congratulated. He bows his head and thanks his friend for such a nice reception that went above and beyond what he had expected. What? Are they imitating and making fun of men? Oh, wait, he's getting serious again, and here's what I write in my notebook:

What the rook said:

"Therefore, the origin of these creatures--these men we fear and dislike, is the most useful of all subjects to study. How can it be otherwise? The way they treat us, and how we feel about them, can never be properly understood until we know something about men themselves. In fact, my friends, I base my whole question on these two assumptions: first, that it is a good thing to figure out the exact truth about men, and second, that it is possible to figure out the truth if you try.

"If you agree with me about these two points, hop and give a caw.

"Thank you, gentlemen, for your applause. I see that you are glad that I recognize our ability to figure out the truth. Faith in our abilities is necessary to gain knowledge. Thank you, thank you!"

As I write this nonsense, I'm ready to throw down my notebook in disgust. To think that even the birds of the air are droning on about philosophical dribble like arrogant men! Oh, wait, he's starting to speak again.

"How, when, where and why--these are the questions we must ask and find the answers to. How did man come to this land, and where did he come from? When did he become our enemy, and why? Why is he here at all?

"These are difficult questions. Before we answer them, we must consider the facts. Unfortunately, we know the facts only too well, so I don't need to say much. From ages ago (I've asked our oldest relatives) there has been a system of invasion on their side, and retreat on our side. Man comes near us, so we fly away. He pursues us again, and we flee from him. He invades our favorite places and woodland homes, making them public places, so we seek out new homes, only to be invaded again. It's a terrible predicament, and the time will come when we'll have to seek out a new world if we're going to exist at all, unless we can find a remedy for this threat.

"Why do we yield and flee from man? Because of fear. None of us can deny it. A cowardly terror has taken over our species from as far back as any of us can remember.

"But why is there this fear? They say that it's because of our sense of man's superiority to us. We're awed and intimidated by man's presence, so we give way. And now I will confess to you that I once believed in this old myth as much as you do. I saw our ancient woods deserted, our ancient homes forsaken, and I trembled before man, who I was told was the cause of this disturbance. But I started asking questions, and I now think that man's superiority is an old wives' tale.

"Why did we give way? Because of fear, obviously. Why the fear? Because of man's superiority. At least, everyone said man was superior, but can it be proved? No one could give me an answer! Here we are, intelligent birds, yet taking man's superiority for granted without any proof. I asked for proof until I was hoarse, but every one turned away from me in silence. So, naturally, my next step was to doubt man's superiority. If it can't be proved, maybe it's just a myth, a delusion that timid minds imposed on weak minds and said was truth. My friends, the moment I asked myself these questions was the turning point of my life. From that time on, I resolved to ask and investigate for myself, and now I'm going to tell you the result of my research.

"Before you accuse me of jumping to conclusions, let me explain the facts and you can decide for yourselves.

"Common observation does not show man as superior. We fly swiftly through the sky, but man has to creep along slowly on the ground. We soar to the clouds, but man can only jump up and come right down, although I've seen him doing it again and again, trying to get higher each time, as if he's playing a game. And he can't raise one leg without keeping the other on the ground, or else he falls on his face. In this miserable lop-sided way, moving one leg at a time, he gets from place to place, unless he can get some more skillful being to carry him along.

"We are clothed in thick, glossy feathers both in summer and winter. But man has no feathers to protect him from any kind of weather! His skin is uncomfortably cold in winter, and unbearably hot in summer. So he has to wear clumsy, awkward clothing. Of all creatures on the earth, he is the only one who has neither feathers nor fur. What kind of superiority is that?

"I have one more example. Every philosophical mind will appreciate this. We rooks are satisfied and contented with everything around us. But man is forever discontented and anxious. He seeks for rest by making continual changes, but he never finds rest, and he doesn't allow others to find it, either, as we've all experienced.

"My friends, if restless discontent is proof of superiority, who wouldn't prefer to be an inferior animal?

"Have I made you doubt your old faith in man's superiority? If so, you should accept a new tradition. If you agree, soar from the ground and say, 'Caw!'"

All the rooks rose up and gave an outburst of caws. Theirs is a beautiful language, and they're actually very beautiful birds. But I think I prefer them as simple creatures rather than having what they think of as man's wisdom. If only they had the sense not to make judgments about things that are beyond their ability to comprehend! Wait, he's speaking again . . .

"We have one objection that needs to be answered. It was raised by a clever friend who agrees with my views. In the unpleasant invasions I've spoken of, tragic events occur. These men will sometimes stand under our roosting trees and point at us with huge sticks that make a horrendous noise and give off smoke for some reason I haven't yet figured out. As soon as our young ones see and hear this, they fall to the ground, as if bowing at the feet of these men. All of you fathers know this is true, and you know the terrible results. The young ones are carried away without a fight, and are never heard from again.

"It has been suggested that this proves man's superiority, though I don't see how cruelty can be considered superior. I admit, I don't understand it. But when our minds are warped by a mistaken theory, we can misinterpret other facts. I have no prejudice, so I don't see this as a sign of superiority. We have deluded ourselves, and it has caused our little ones to inherit a paralyzing fear. Observe that it's rarely grown up birds who succumb to this terror, but only the tender and susceptible young ones who don't have enough experience in life to resist the cowardice that our stubborn belief in old traditions has passed down to them.

"But that's enough of that. Now for the more pleasant part of my task. I have a theory about the origin of man that beautifully and consistently explains all the puzzling facts we've been talking about, and opens up new possibilities for the rooks to triumph!"

There's a thunder of applause from the rooks. It's deafening! I'm curious now. What fools these rooks are! If only cleverness were true wisdom. If it was, supreme court judges would be overruled by mere lawyers, and hundreds of unjust verdicts would become law. The rook speaks again:

"My friends, man is not superior to us. He never was. He is nothing but a regressed version of rooks! Yes, I say with confidence that I can look back over thousands and thousands of generations, and I see that men were once rooks! They used to be covered with feathers, they lived in trees, they flew instead of walked, roosted in branches instead of squatting in wooden boxes, and were happy and content like we are.

"I realize this is a bold theory, and I don't ask you to accept it immediately. But test it in different ways, and if it seems sound, you will be forced to admit that it explains things that were unexplainable before, and accounts for a lot. Even though we can't actually see any visible proofs, you can't reasonably disagree with me unless you have a better theory. If my theory is not correct, how else can you explain things? Remember, we have already agreed that all things can be explained.

"I have offered an explanation supported by facts. I challenge you to accept it, or to offer another explanation to the question of why things are the way they are. If you see the justice of what I say, give me a congratulatory caw.

"It's almost unanimous! And you, my old friends who hesitate, it's alright, it was the young ones I was hoping to convince. Old age has a hard time accepting new ideas. Thank you, gentlemen, your supportive voices are loud and impressive."

Oh, birds! The world and its pride and foolishness are as deep in your hearts as they are in men's hearts. The rook is speaking again.

"The test I propose is this. If my theory is true, and men are a regressed version of rooks, how would they feel about us, the original race? Wouldn't their painful awareness of their regression make them uneasy and restless with their present condition? And so they are! Wouldn't it make them crave to be associated with us again? They'd yearn to be with us, among us, and like us again. That explains why they chase us so tirelessly and persistently--something that could never be explained by their supposed superiority. It explains why, when we run from them, they still follow us--not to do us evil, as we thought, but because they want to greet us with open arms of love!

"My friends, my eyes get teary to think of the mistakes we have believed about the race of men. How cruel and cold we must seem to them! How heartless we have been! If you agree, encourage me with a caw."

This time, the cawing is louder than ever, although it's hoarse with emotion. The dream that seemed like such nonsense is becoming real and exciting! He speaks again.

"Now we have an explanation even for the loss of our little ones, and we know what probably happened to them. It makes us proud. I imagine those young ones carried away to become friends and teachers of the race we thought was our enemies. I can picture them being tenderly cared for and watched in the men's wooden boxes. We can't see what's inside them, but our young ones lived in them as their homes. Every movement they made was admired and imitated by their captors. That seems very likely, because, as I will explain, man is imitating not only our appearance, but our customs and manners, too. The only way they've been able to imitate us is because of our own offspring. Who else could have taught them? It may be ages before our two races are reunited, but I look forward to that happening with confident faith. When that happens, our own children will have been the means of bringing us together. These children once fell down in fear at men's feet, but now we have solved the mystery of what happened to them. I am proud to solve that mystery, and comfort you with this happy, bright reality!

"What seemed so mysterious about man's chasing us, and mistreating us, becomes perfectly sensible in light of my theory and facts. Do you wonder how birds could ever degenerate into men?

"That's a reasonable question, and I have the explanation.

"At this very moment, friends, we are living examples of the first step of regression. Here we are, assembled from all over the country, having left our trees and woods to meet in this open field like men meet. We're walking lop-sided as men walk, with one leg up and one leg down, and jumping in short hops instead of using our wings to fly. How do you explain this? Coming down to the ground to get food, or sticks, or wool when we need them is one thing, but staying on the ground as we're doing now is a risky choice. It is laziness and giving in to the ease and comfort that have prompted us to meet on the ground. Those same tendencies are what degraded our ancestors! It may take ages to notice the changes that come from doing what we're doing. The change is so gradual that nobody notices. But with ages and ages of time, anything is possible. Can anyone disprove what I say? If so, let him caw publicly. If not, be silent. You are all silent, so you must agree with me.

"Now, imagine a race of rooks, long ago, even less energetic than ourselves, and with some kind of temporary weakness in their wings. You know that such weakness is possible. These rooks rested their weak wings by walking on the ground more and more often. It's easy to see that a weakness indulged in this way will become even weaker. After a few generations, through lack of use, the rooks lost their ability to use their wings at all.

"All of you know from watching your young ones that wings grow through use. As the young birds make efforts to fly, their wings get larger to accommodate the need. So you see that practice brings strength, and strength brings growth. In the same way, lack of practice means weakness and smaller wings. It's easy to see that, over generations and generations, lack of use made every generation's wings smaller until they disappeared altogether, leaving nothing but an outer bone as a sort of claw to grab things--a bone without its beauty and feathers. And this perfectly describes the long, awkward arm of the present man.

"It seems reasonable that, in a similar way, the other unused feathers on the back and breast also gradually declined to nothing. There was no air blowing through them, no free action, no struggling with the breeze. Instead, they lived in their enclosed wooden boxes. No wonder their wings disappeared, and their feathers decreased, until they became naked, claw-armed, bare-legged creatures.

"This is very likely what happened, given enough time.

"Picture to yourselves this miserable creature. He is longer because his lazy habits have encouraged warped growth, and the energy that grew feathers has to go somewhere! He is a featherless, thin-skinned, two-legged creature, not an animal, not a bird, nor a fish. He wanders over the earth, shivering, needing the help of every other creature around him, yet never satisfied with anything he gets. Do you need more details, or do you recognize this creature as the supposedly superior being, man?"

The other rooks caw and wheel around in exultant flight. I myself grow dizzy and confused. Am I half convinced? No. This is the kind of foolishness that comes from an imperfect being trying to comprehend a higher being. What a lot of poppycock! Oh, listen, he's going to say something else.

"You see that this kind of regression is very possible, and I have even more evidence that helps establish this fact.

"One of the questions that puzzles us most is why men wear clothes. If he's a perfect and superior being, this makes no sense. But if he is a regressed rook, it's just what you would expect. He once had feathers, but through deterioration, he has lost them, and has to make up for that loss with pathetic make-shift coverings.

"I only have time for a few more examples of my proof. Even though I have enough evidence to be fully convinced that my theory is true, I continue to collect facts. I can't be in enough different places to do all the research myself, but some friends have helped, in particular, Mr. Raven-wing, Mr. Yellow-beak, and Mr. Grey-legs. Once they were convinced of my theory, they knew what kind of evidence to seek out. Here are a few of the most striking pieces of evidence.

"Mr. Raven-Wing set out to find evidence of man's original color. He did not shrink back from the repulsive task of entering clusters of man's wooden boxes to find out. Men call these clusters towns. Mr. Raven-Wing was overwhelmed with what he found! The streets were covered with black. The pavements and walls were black. Blackness rose from small boxes on top of their wooden boxes (apparently to add height) into the air.

"The coverings men put on their heads for protection are black. The clumsy boots that cover their feet are black. Mr. Raven-Wing saw black everywhere!

"In one place, he observed men who left their homes every day white in the early morning, but returned every evening very black, apparently taking all day to make this transformation. But he was unable to tell how this transformation was accomplished, because the places they went to for this purpose were deep holes in the earth. They went down into them, disappeared from sight, into dark enclosures full of fire and heat where no bird could follow. Thus Mr. Raven-Wing could not tell anything except that everything there was black. People who remained there long enough became black. What struggles men go through to become like us! It is tragic to think about. Even sadder, for all that effort, the desired effect only lasts a single day. So these men emerge from their wooden boxes the next morning as pale as before, to go back to their holes and undergo the same difficult process just to get the proper color to their cheeks again.

"Mr. Raven-Wing personally observed all of these things himself, so we know they are true. But in the course of his travels, he heard about a class of men somewhere in the world whose black color stays with them for life! They have been so successful at keeping their color that they are able to transmit it to their offspring. But this is hearsay, and I can't say whether it's true.

"Mr. Yellow-beak's mission was to gather proofs of men's attempts to live in trees. He found some very interesting things. In the same towns where Mr. Raven-Wing was doing his investigations, Mr. Yellow-beak discovered narrow, upright brick boxes on top of their wooden boxes; they were no thicker than our trees. In fact, these boxes were similar to our trees, except that they had no branches or leaves. But out of the tops of these came the blackness that Mr. Raven-Wing saw. He learned that this is 'smoke,' and it is one of the ways man is trying to restore the appearance of his lost state.

"Mr. Yellow-beak is convinced that man is attempting a series of systematic, persistent efforts to return to the lost forests. These tree-like boxes are only one example. If he could find some way to devise branches on these brick boxes, he might, in the course of time, roost in these brick trees, just like they used to roost in real trees ages ago. I think it is very likely that some day, men will make their homes in branched chimneys in their towns. This will be a powerful step towards his return to uniting his interests and hopes with ours.

"Mr. Grey-legs collected miscellaneous information. He was out early one morning near a large town. While watching one of those smaller brick boxes affixed to raise the wooden box's height, he observed a living creature emerging from the top of it. The most astounding thing about this is that the creature was black all over! His clothes were black, the arm that lifted him out was black, and he waved something in his arm which was black and very much like a bird's feather. His gesture was triumphant, and his voice was, too. He sang out, 'Sweep-o-oh! Sweep-oh! Sweep-oh!' It was most likely a feeble attempt to return to the days when they used to caw. Its repetitive monotony indicates a common origin of language.

"But Mr. Grey-leg's most important discovery was that there are places near great towns where our poor degenerate brothers try to regain the ability to fly. They use a substitute that looks like a giant balloon, which is a clumsy apparatus, but shows the determination of man to return to the habits and manners of his ancestors. He is tired of his degradation. All this time, we've been avoiding him and fearing him, but he has been trying to show us how miserable he is and get our help. Unfortunately, his loss of language makes it very difficult. He has lost his beak, and the sounds that come from him are meaningless gibberish. It's painful to listen to. I suppose it serves his needs, since he seems able to give and take orders with other men, but beyond that, it's just random noise, with neither music nor meaning.

"There's no sweetness, or refinement, no melody or majesty in the shouting, shrillness, whistling, hissing, and grunting of a mass of men's voices and laughter."

Wait--where am I? Haven't I heard that before? Is this some kind of joke, my own words repeated like an echo? Wait, the voice is speaking again.

"We will discuss this again next time we meet. But we have established these facts: Man is a regressed version of a rook. He yearns to be reassociated with us, and works hard to re-capture his lost birdhood. I think he will be successful. I can picture him mounted in his brick-roosting place, growing feathers and wings because he needs them. He will gradually lose his meaningless gibberish as he returns to his happier state, and will caw once more when he becomes one of us.

"Sadly, we will not live long enough to see this glorious transformation. During our lifetimes, men will remain the same thin-skinned, clothes-wearing creatures that our grandparents were familiar with. They will continue to hop lop-sided along the ground, and only soar into the sky by means of clumsy balloon machines. But in future ages, men will again fly swiftly through the air. They will be our companions--rooks, like we are. Evidence shows that change is moving in that direction, and Mr. Raven-wing, Mr. Yellow-beak, and Mr. Grey-legs have confirmed this. One day, their success will be complete.

"In the meantime, considering the awkward relationship between us and them, and anticipating the day when their race shall be united with ours, we should try to . . ."

What happened? Suddenly all is quiet. What happened to the voices? I don't even hear any caws. Where am I? Am I awake, or dreaming?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I peek through the hedge again, but all I see is an empty, deserted field. Gone. They're all gone. The green pasture lies vacant under the setting sun. It's so still and silent. Only the tangled honeysuckle above my head continues to breath out its scent. Where are you, my friend? Where is the hand that was clasped in mine? It's gone! I must have been alone, then, dreaming some silly dream. Or maybe someone is secretly still there!

My memory slowly comes back to me. I remember the book that was lying open on my desk before I ventured out into this field, and as I remember man's longing to understand the speech of animals, I also remember man's first temptation from another book--the Bible.

Woe to us! The world grows old, generations of lives come and go, and the same sins continue. We still wish we could know as much as God. And still God writes this to us: 'Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.'


___________________________


The General Thaw

'When will what's good for everyone be each individual's rule, and universal peace will shine like a ray of sunlight across the land?' (paraphrased from Tennyson)

Ice, snow and water, who were not only neighbors but close relatives, were bickering about their rights and importance and who was the best of them all, instead of living pleasantly together, giving and taking as the occasion was needed.

They simply could not get along, and this is why: It had been an unusually long, cold winter that year. The ice on the pond made by the mill dam grew so thick and strong and glassy that it forgot it was a pond and imagined itself a crystal floor.

Isn't that ridiculous? But people will believe all kinds of nonsense when they start thinking about their own perfections.

So, imagining that he was a crystal floor, the ice looked down on the water that flowed underneath him and considered him a disrespectful intruder. He thought the snow was rude to coming dropping all over him from the sky.

His head was so full of the idea of his own importance that he felt like everyone else should realize how important he was, and admire him from a respectful, non-intrusive distance. And he made some rude comments saying so.

For example: "It would be nice," he said to the water as it ran from the stream to the dam, "if you'd do me the favor of turning around when you find yourself coming near me. You can go over to the fields on the right, or run into the ditches--anywhere you want, except under me. You annoy me to death with your constant trickle and moving. Please find something else to do besides disturbing important people like me. You apparently have no idea what a nuisance you are to others, since you're so used to your own habits. I can't take it any longer. Take your restlessness somewhere else, and leave me in peace to visit with my friends!"

The friends he mentioned were the skaters and sliders who praised his beauty as they skimmed along his surface, making beautiful figure eights as they went.

The water continued running in and said, "Stop talking nonsense! Leave me a little elbow room and quit pressing so close that it makes me thinner and thinner. If you don't stop, I'm going to try to break out and be at the top myself. I have no intention of being kept down by anyone, no matter how smooth and polished they might be. So take care, and beware. If the springs on the moor get loose, and the streams fill up and rush down here, I'd be able to lift you up easily, and then you'd look pretty silly. I can't believe you'd ask me to turn in some other direction. I appreciate the suggestion, but why should I run myself into the ditch just to accommodate you? I might as well sink into the ground! But I know my own level better than that. I warn you, if you won't leave me some room, don't expect any favors from me. If I find a way to squeeze through, that will be the end of your beauty and airs."

"You'll never be able to squeeze through!" shouted the ice, in a mocking tone.

"You think not?" said the water, in a rage by this time. "Even as stiff and strong as you are, all it would take is a thaw up in the hills and a whole torrent would come your way, and that would be the end of you. But what would you know about thaws, and hills, and the force of pent-up water? You're fixed in one place and never get any information.

"If you were to ask me for advice, since I know more than you, I could give you some suggestions about yielding gracefully when you need to. It would be a great advantage to you. But. . ."

But the water's voice died away. Even while it had been talking, it had been freezing, and as it froze, its voice got thinner and thinner until finally there was no voice to be heard at all.

Meanwhile the ice got thicker and thicker, and more conceited every minute. And he said, "Why should I bother about what's going on underneath me? That's where the water is, and that's where he'll stay, no matter how much he brags and chatters. He's at the bottom, and I'm on top. I have no idea what he was trying to say with his long talk. Trying to understand him is hopeless. He froze right in the middle of the story, and now he's stuck to me. I wish he'd move out of the way. But he won't, so I guess he'll just have to stay there, at the bottom, while I'm at the top. He's all mixed up with his ifs and threats, but anything as restless as he is can't be expected to have any firmness of mind. It takes solid character to keep your position in life. While he is always moving, never stopping to reflect, I stay firm. And look! Here come my friends to do me honor!"

And lots of skaters came--so many that the ice felt very grand and important.

It was admittedly a lovely scene. There were pretty ladies in chairs being pushed along by merry young men. Others were skating or sliding, sometimes racing by as fast as a comet, sometimes hitting a ball and sending it flying, sometimes twirling and doing graceful tricks. Off in one part of the ice, younger children were sliding and yelling, falling down and laughing, and getting up again--having as much fun as any of the others.

With this delightful scene taking place, it's understandable that the ice felt a little vain. It seemed to him like the people were visiting just to compliment him. You see, he had never had any school lessons to teach him any better. He hadn't figured out how insignificant people are to their neighbors. Instead he thought, "Look how everyone treats me with such honor and distinction! I am the support for this whole glorious crowd! All of these people depend on me for their happiness!" He thought these things to himself, but he was too lost in happy thoughts of his greatness to speak. It was so perfect, he wished it might go on like this forever. Poor ice, thinking only of himself! As far as the trickling water under him, that didn't bother him anymore. "My friends and I don't care about such minor things," he thought to himself consolingly.

So the water trickled in unnoticed. After a while the sun went down, and all the people went home. That night the wind came up, and snow began to fall. At first it was just a light dusting of snow, and in the darkness, the ice didn't even know it was there. There wasn't enough of it to feel. But little by little the flakes got bigger and said, as they dropped gracefully through the sky, "Won't the world admire us when it wakes up! It isn't every day that the world is dressed this beautifully! Only now and then do we visit from the skies. Let's cover everything over thoroughly so the world can be totally white for once!"

And they did. When morning came, none of the ice was visible. In fact, he was so covered over with snow that he would never have known daylight had arrived if a couple of boys hadn't kicked snow out of the way so they could slide.

And then he discovered what had happened. He was covered with a thick white blanket and couldn't see a thing! His beauty was hidden, his friends weren't there, his glory was gone! He remembered the previous day and his heart almost broke. Who was it who had dared to send those miserable snowflakes to hide his beauty? Who could have been so rude? In comparison to this insult, the little trickle of water underneath him was nothing.

The snowflakes were amazed that he was offended. "Nobody sent us," they murmured as they continued gently falling from the sky and landing like a quilt over the ice. "We have the right to fall anywhere we want. Who's going to stop us? The clouds are too heavy to carry all of us, so some of us have no choice but to come down. My sisters and I were closest to the bottom, so here we are. We don't understand why you're being so rude to us. You ought to be flattered that we've come down. We're used to being carried around by the breezes, and living in clouds. Your rude welcome hurts our feelings!"

"Your feelings!" shouted the ice, nearly cracking in his frustration. "How can you talk about feelings when you've thrown yourself right over my face uninvited? You're a bunch of homeless wandering vagabonds! In one fell swoop, you've ruined my beauty and my happiness . . ."

He couldn't go on. His tears made his words stick.

"Homeless wandering vagabonds?" echoed the snowflakes, almost losing their temper. "What would you know? You're low-born, and envious, and hostile. That's what you get for living in this dirty world here on the ground! You don't even recognize good when it comes to you, you pathetic, ignorant chunky lump! I can't believe you think we're homeless wandering vagabonds! We, who are carried around by the breezes and live in the clouds up in the sky. Good grief! Who would want to lower themselves to your level by choice? And you brag about beauty as if there was anything beautiful besides ourselves! Imagine, calling anything on this dirty, grubby earth beautiful! But you don't know any better. Unfortunately, you won't learn, even when you could. It must be terrible to be low-born and envious and hostile. And how tragic for us, who belong to the wind and clouds and skies--and to suddenly find ourselves in this strange, alien land."

"If the wind and the clouds are so fond of you, then let them come and take you away!" cried the ice. "All I want is for you to be gone! Be gone with your pretentious self-regard and polish. You aren't worthy enough for me to hold you up."

"Look at you bragging! I wish we could cover the whole surface of you and hide you forever," grumbled the snowflakes. "We have no intention of leaving just because of your inclination and whim. Here we are, and here we stay, no matter how much you whine and complain like a big baby. We're at the top, and you're at the bottom, and that's where you can stay!"

And it seemed like that was going to be the case. But after the clouds had dissipated, the snow stopped falling, and the sun came out. A group of skaters and sliders came and stood on the bank of the pond.

First they said to each other, "What a shame it snowed over our ice." But then they started saying, "Look, the snow isn't very thick," and "We could shovel it away if we had a few shovels and brooms." So a couple of young men went for them, and they shovelled and swept until the snow was laid in heaps on the banks and a big patch of ice had been cleared off.

That was hard for the snow to bear. It was a cruel shame for such poor, delicate snowflakes to be so mistreated. The snow was pushed, dirtied and thrown by the shovelfuls until she was ready to melt with self-pity.

But you can't do anything about your own fate, so she lay along the sides of the pond grumbling and whining. That was the only satisfaction she could get.

"Those skaters don't treat their visitors very well!" she cried, "they certainly weren't very hospitable to us! I guess that's what we get for leaving our rightful place and mixing with base things on the ground. How I hate to think of my lovely color soiled from their horrid sweepers and brooms! And then to squeeze me, and toss me around with their detestable shovels, as if I was dirt! I guess it's pretty clear that those who belong to the sky shouldn't bother coming near the earth. People down here don't know how to be delicate and refined. What a tragic waste! I wonder what will happen to us now?"

She was right to be worried. The group of boys had been arguing--more in fun than real anger. They rushed to the side of the pond, and seized and squeezed the snow into snowballs, which they let fly in all directions. Some hit the boys in the neck, some in the face, others in their jackets and caps. All of the snowballs were thrown around, messed up and broken. There's no telling when the fight would have ended if the skaters had not interfered.

The scattered, filthy bits of snow couldn't utter a single word. But the ice couldn't stop talking. "Now you've got just what you deserve," he cried gleefully. "Now you see what happens to those who come and brag in front of those who are better than they are. You thought you were too delicate and refined for the earth, did you? Well then, stay in the sky next time. Like I told you before, nobody wants you here. See? Now you have to sit in a corner and watch the world admire me. So you wanted to hide me forever, did you, you pathetic, soft fool? My friends knew better than that, and now you've got just what you deserve. Some day I'll put you where you belong, you and the fidgety, spiteful water underneath me. There's an amusing idea! Both of you wish you could be on the top--but you can't! I'm the only one fit to be here!"

"We'll soon see about that!" growled the water from below, somewhat louder than it usually did. "I know what I feel, and you'll be feeling it yourself pretty soon. Even if I can't stand on my own, I can afford to wait. So you think we both want to be at the top? Who do you call 'both'? Are you putting me, with my strength, in the same class as that flimsy snow? You're a pretty poor judge!"

"As if strength was all that mattered!" muttered what remained of the flakes of snow still on the ice. "What a vulgar, earthly idea! It's just what you'd expect from anything down here--water, ice, and everything. They're not fit to be friends with us, but we've found out only now that it's too late. We lowered ourselves in coming down here--and it's tragic."

Have you ever heard of three creatures as silly as the water, the snow and the ice? I didn't think so.

Before the day was over, the skaters were asking, "Didn't the ice feel softer to you?" and "Did you notice how the snow seemed less crisp?" But the ice was still perfectly safe, so they kept skating and didn't stop to talk much about it. However, as they went home, they all agreed that a thaw was coming.

But the ice didn't hear them, so he didn't know anything about it. He never suspected why the water underneath him was more agitated than ever. He thought it was just being ornery out of spite. So he continued raving and scolding. He bragged that some day his skater friends would help him get rid of the water, just like they had swept away the snow. "How nice it is to have powerful friends!" he said, triumphantly.

But the water gurgled and giggled, and didn't answer.

The truth was, a couple of springs higher up had thawed enough to get loose. A strong stream was pouring into the pond, though not yet a torrent. Soon the water underneath began to demand more room.

"More room! Make more room! Can't you hear, you stiff-necked ice? Make more room!"

And now they began to bicker. "I won't budge even an inch, you noisy, destitute water!"

"If you don't, I'll wash you away!"

"You'll have to wash away the whole world before you can make me move. I'm keeping my place!"

"We'll see about that very soon!"

And they went on like this, while the heaps of snow whimpered at the sides of the pond, "What an uncultured pair they are! How awful it must be to be so low-born and wretched! We're unfit to be here with them!"

Meanwhile, the water poured in and kept swelling more and more. Finally there was a great heaving upward of the crystal floor, in spite of all he tried to do to stop it, and soon a sharp crack broke along its surface, from one end to the other.

So you see that he was not able to keep his place after all.

Then there was another crack, and another, both along the sides, as the sheet of ice lifted up. At one corner, the water itself oozed in. The water didn't have a chance to brag, though, because as fast as the water touched the surface of the ice, it froze and was turned to ice.

So the water wasn't able to take the place of the ice because the thaw had stopped. But the ice was never the same again because of those horrible cracks. He was laughed at from above and below--he, who had bragged so much. Because the water and the snow, who were generally quite ready to give each other a hard time, were very willing to join together to spite a common enemy. That's the way the world is!

A little later, when a real general thaw came into the air, and all the skaters and sliders stopped coming to the ice all over the country, the poor deserted ice had some dismal days. "My friends have forsaken me," he cried, "and my enemies are rejoicing over me! Those cracks have broken my heart! In fact, I can feel my heart melting away."

And it was indeed. But the snowflakes disappeared before he did. Then the ice began to be wet on the outside. "I think the water is squeezing through! This is what comes from having bad companions. But at least the snowflakes have left, which was very polite of them. They did what I asked, so that's some comfort."

Actually, the water was not squeezing through, and the snowflakes had not left to be polite. But even the most clever people sometimes make mistakes.

Soon the water underneath found that the pressure squeezing him from above was not so great; he had a little more room to move in. So he said, "Yes! This is much better; my friend the ice is giving way a little. Better late than never! He's finally beginning to have some sense."

But the ice was not beginning to have sense. He was simply melting away. As he got thinner and thinner, he struggled less and less with the water, and he said, "I think we'll all live to be friends and neighbors after all!"

But they lived to be more than that--one day they discovered that they had become brothers! When the ice got so thin that the water poured in, it broke into a thousand pieces, and rolled and tumbled and dissolved minute by minute into the water. The heaps of snow on the sides of the pond fell in, too, and they all rolled around together, ice, snow and water all in one. And they wept, and rolled, and tumbled, and wept some more, crying out, "What have we been doing? What nonsense have we been saying? We've been resisting each other, and scolding, and bragging. And all this time, my dear, dear friends, we were all brothers together!"

They had a long, happy embrace. In fact, it's still going on! But how sad that they didn't figure out the truth sooner. Let those who are brothers in the same family think about this now. Don't wait for the General Thaw, which is death.


___________________________


The Light of Life

"What more could I have done for it?" The wail came from an afflicted heart.

It was uttered by Hans Jansen, the only son of the printer in Hamburg (Germany). He was sitting in tears beside a dying rose tree in the corner of his little backyard.

Hans was what some people describe as "not all there." He didn't view or understand practical things in the same way his neighbors did. He didn't notice half of what went on around him. He was somewhat mentally challenged.

His parents were sad that he was like this. He hadn't always been. But they were devout Christians and accepted it as God's will. Little by little they discovered some things about his condition that were a comfort. Hans was slower about some things than other people, but in other ways he was quicker. Respect for God and love for others came to him almost instinctively--or at least, without the struggles most of us have to go through before the troubles of other people touch our hearts. He never missed saying his prayers morning, night, and before mealtime. He never said anything unkind about anyone. It seemed that their son Hans was being prepared for life in the next world, even without the benefit of book learning. He had nothing to fear from death, and better things to hope for.

Hans had one passion in life, one special source of enjoyment and delight: he loved flowers. He was rarely seen without a flower in his buttonhole on a summer day. He was so good-natured that he had lots of friends who loved to see him happy, and gave him a few flowers when they could. Everyone knew that he didn't have a garden of his own.

Mr. Jansen's house was red brick in a row of other houses. It had a fenced-in yard in the front covered with pebbles. There was a square backyard with a water pump in the middle and a dog house on the side. It might have been used for a garden since it was covered with soil and had scrubby patches of grass here and there, but the ground was used to lay out cloth for drying. It hadn't been brightened by flowers ever since the day its boundaries were surveyed and a fence was put up around it. Now the fence had clothes-lines stretched out across it to hang wet linen.

Mr. Jansen had never wanted a garden. He was busy from morning until evening at his printing shop in town. His wife had enough to do keeping house, and you couldn't expect a mentally challenged child to be good at gardening.

Nobody knew how Hans came to love flowers, but the world is full of these kinds of mysteries. He had loved flowers since he was a baby. He spent many hours unnoticed in a corner of his backyard digging around in the black dirt, pretending to have a garden with plots and walkways like those he had seen at other places. In fact, once or twice he had tried to grow mustard and cress, or even peas, with a few seeds a neighbor's child had given him. But for some reason, nothing ever came of these attempts, so he had to content himself with his pretend garden.

But the plant he was crying about now was not pretend. It was a real antique rose bush that he had been given a few weeks earlier. A kind nursery gardener who knew Hans' father had let him walk through his gardens early on the day of a flower show, before it was open to the public. He happened to notice Hans weeping with excitement when he saw the glorious flowers around him, and it touched his own heart. He had an only son himself, but his son was clever, not handicapped like Hans, and he felt sorry for his friend because his child was mentally challenged. So when Hans left, he gave him something more than a handful of tulips or hyacinths; he gave him a beautiful rose bush in a pot, "a fine red antique rose," he told Hans as he gave it to him. He said it would bloom in six to eight weeks and brighten his whole yard with its glorious blaze of color.

Hans trembled as he took it. He stood there with his mouth half open, uncertain and embarrassed, as if he wanted to say something but was afraid to.

"What's the matter, son?" asked the gardener. "Speak up."

"How do you make your flowers so beautiful?" gasped Hans, still half afraid to ask.

"Well," smiled the gardener, "some in one way, some in another--I can't tell all my gardening secrets to just anyone. But I'll tell you how to make your rose beautiful. I know you won't misuse any suggestions I give you. You have a yard or porch with soil in it, right?"

"Oh, yes!" cried Hans.

"Then I'll tell you what you have to do," continued the gardener. "Dig a hole in a sheltered spot, pretty deep, and put a bone or two in the bottom along with some hair; my son can give you a handful. Then take the plant out of the pot without disturbing the ball of dirt at the roots. Set it down on top of the hair. Then fill up the hole neatly with dirt and don't tell anyone what you've done. And that's all! Remember to keep it sheltered, and water it at first. If you see it get too dry, you should also water it. Water it with soap suds whenever you can get any. Soap suds, bones and hair are the main things. There's nothing as effective for bringing roses to perfection. If you do what I've said and take good care of the bush, you'll have flowers as big as a hat, and as red as cherries by the end of summer. There you go. Good luck with the rose!"

And this rose was the poor shriveled thing that Hans was crying over now. How had the rose gotten like this? He didn't understand it. He had gotten hair from the gardener's son, and found some bones by the doghouse. He had made a hole and put those things at the bottom. He had turned the plant out of the pot without breaking the ball of dirt around the roots. He had placed it on top of the hair, filled the hole with dirt, and watered it thoroughly. He watered it whenever it looked dry and poured soapy water over it on wash days. He was given whatever he needed by just asking for it. He had done everything according to the instructions. He had put it in the most sheltered corner he could find--the same corner where he had pretended he had a garden. It seemed as if his dearest heart's wish had suddenly come true. And he had looked after it more diligently than a miser watching his gold. No one had interfered because he hadn't told anyone, partly because he had a vague idea that the gardener had told him not to, and partly because he hoped to surprise his mother with a rich blaze of color to brighten the yard some day before the summer was over.

Even the maid who hung clothes out in the yard didn't know about it, because he had set boards up across the corner where the plant was from one wall to the other so no one could see what was there. People thought the boards were just a whim from his addled mind.

It was the buds that failed first. They should have gotten bigger every day. Even his own eyes, which were sharpened from so much watching, noticed that they were getting smaller, not bigger. Seeing them continue to shrink day by day, he finally mustered up the courage to walk to the Nursery Gardens and share his fears with the gardener who had given him the plant.

But when the gardener heard that everything he had suggested had been dutifully done, he smiled.

"I'll say it again," he said, "in all my long experience, I've never seen anything more effective than bones and hair for producing perfect roses. You can't go wrong with them. Give it a little more water or soap suds. Maybe the soil in your yard is light. Try more water. The buds will grow fast enough, I think. In fact, I'll bet you're watching so closely that you can't see it. It's common for that to happen. I'll bet the buds have grown and you just can't see it. Just leave it alone, and don't assume there's something wrong. It's sure to be just fine with the bones and hair and soap suds. They make the best rose fertilizer in the world."

Hans listened with his mouth half open. He nodded and said, "Thank you!" at the end, and then went home, hoping he just hadn't seen properly. And he stopped taking the boards down so often in case his watching too closely was harming the plant. But every time he did take them down, he became more and more distressed. The healthy green leaves were gone, and the buds continued to shrink. There was no growth anywhere. The plant was dying inch by inch, it seemed. Hans rubbed his eyes hoping to see it differently, but it did no good. Finally one day the last leaf was crinkled and brown. Hans sat on the ground, crying and wailing,

"What more could I have done for it?"

His hopes of having a dream come true at last were dashed. His pretend garden was all he had left, and he had enjoyed digging around in it. He'd feel better if he went back to it.

But the sight of the dying plant was too distressing, so he replaced the boards to cover it and then sat down on the ground again, not quite knowing what to do next.

Soon a dog barked, a door opened, and his mother shouted, "Hans!" The gardener was passing by, and stopped in to admire the roses he had given Hans. Hans was unable to speak, but he led the way to the corner of the yard. As they reached it, he pointed to the boards and smiled through his tears, saying,

"There's no way I could have sheltered the rose bush any better than that. It's never been scorched, or chilled, or even blown on. It's had bones, and hair, and water, just like you said, and I've looked after it as carefully as I could, but it still died."

As he spoke, Hans removed the boards and exposed the withered rose bush.

The gardener stared at it, and then stared at Hans, in utter surprise.

"Do you mean you've kept it covered like that all this time?" he cried. "What were you thinking? How did you expect it to live? It had no light!"

"You didn't say anything about that," replied Hans in bewilderment and grief. "You said the way to make roses beautiful was with bones, hair, and soap suds, and that that's what I needed to use."

"But they can't grow without sunshine," cried the gardener, agitated at the thought of such a mistake.

Hans didn't answer. He couldn't say a word. He sat back down on the ground and hid his face in his hands.

"I must sound like a fool," muttered the gardener, half to himself. "Who could have possibly imagined that anybody would think a plant could survive without light? Well, maybe I should have considered the possibility," he added as he saw poor Hans in such distress. He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, and his heart softened. Maybe he should try explaining it more clearly.

"Hans, look at me. It's not your fault, it's my fault. There's one thing I forgot to tell you. It was foolish of me to talk about making roses beautiful with fertilizer and soap suds, as if those were the things that make roses. I didn't mean that. It's God who makes roses, and He makes them so they can't live without the light He chooses for them, and that light is the light from heaven. Do you understand?"

The gardener paused to figure out what he should say next, and Hans shuffled a little and looked up at him. And his friend saw the light from heaven shining on that sad, dull face with its red tear-stained eyes straining to understand. The gardener went on.

"Roses can't live without God's light, no matter how well you fertilize them. Things like fertilizer are just helps, Hans."

"It's true that a person can help or hinder God's plans with wise or bad management, but that's all a person can do. Bones and hair and soap suds are the best kinds of fertilizer in the world for roses, and a trade secret. But without God's own trade secret--his light from heaven--those things are worthless. Do you understand what I'm saying, Hans?"

"I think so," said Hans.

"Hans," continued the gardener, "it was my fault, not yours. You shall have another rose bush--or maybe we can save this one. If there's any life left in it, God's light just might bring it around. Tell me this, though--you're a very good boy sometimes--in fact, I'd guess you're always good, but let's say sometimes. What is it that makes you good?"

Hans' religious education had been short, but it was sound. He answered immediately, "God's grace."

"Exactly!" shouted the gardener in delight. "That's exactly what I meant! All the educating and training and effort in the world won't do without God's grace, will they, Hans?"

Hans shook his head.

"Those other things are only helps--like fertilizer," continued the gardener. "They're all good things, of course, in the same way that bones and hair and soap suds help roses, nobody can argue with that. But all the helps in the world can't do a thing if they don't have the most important thing God intends for them to have. For people, the most important thing is God's grace. For a plant, it's God's light. What grace is for man, light is for plants. My opinion is that they're both the light of Heaven."

It's understandable if Hans didn't follow the logic of this argument. The gardener understood what he meant himself, and that's what was important. Hans added to his own little collection of useful observations: that plants can't live without light. This knowledge had cost him dearly.

Those who are curious to know what happened to Hans will be glad to know that soon after this, the gardener turned half of Hans' backyard into a garden at his own expense. He gave Hans so many plants that both he and his mother had a few bright flowers of their own to enjoy the following year.

But even better, Hans proved to be quite watchful and attentive, and careful to obey advice in small matters. The rational pursuit of gardening seemed to clear away some of the confusion in his mind. The gardener noticed, and he decided to entrust Hans with a little bit of work in his own garden. Hans carried out his duties so well that he became not only trustworthy, but intelligent about flowers.

Thus it was that Hans spent the rest of his life in his idea of paradise on earth--among the flowers. There he lived, as innocent as the beautiful blossoms around him and as trusting as any amount of wisdom could have made him. From that lovely garden, his spirit, which had been imprisoned in his imperfect earthly body, returned to the great Lord of life and light and intelligence. Without Him, "nothing is strong, and nothing is holy."


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Gifts

"There are various kinds of gifts." 1 Cor 12:4

One, two, three, four, five--five neatly raked kitchen gardens. Four were side by side with a path in between. The fifth was long and narrow, placed right beside the gravel walkway. It was for rotating mustard and cress, which would be needed in a hurry for breakfast or tea.

Most people have stood beside this kind of garden at some point on a soft spring morning or evening, looking to see if the seeds have sprouted yet.

One garden might have different kinds of radishes--white-turnip, red-turnip and long-tailed radishes.

Another garden might have carrots. This part of the garden would have to be dug very deep, what's called subsoil digging, as deep as two shovel-spades, for the carrots roots to grow down deep.

Onions might be in a third garden, and both red beets and golden beets. The long narrow slip of a garden might be half mustard and half cress.

That's how this garden was laid out. For a while, it seemed as if all the seeds were sleeping. The furrows stretched dark and bare, but the seeds showed no sign of anything happening inside them.

Nevertheless, they were not sleeping. The little seeds were doing exactly what they had been made to do, each one in the specific way it had been designed. The grain seeds were decaying on the outsides, and their inner germs were swelling and growing under the ground until they could push their way through their blanket of dirt into the light.

They didn't all come up at the same time, of course, or in quite the same way. The gardener had planned carefully enough so that one kind of seed would sprout right after another. Their first new leaves all looked different, too, but that didn't matter. The tiny mustard leaves were round and thick. The cress leaves were oval and pointed. The carrots leaves were nothing more than thin threads. The onion leaves were sharp blades, and the beet leaves had an interesting stained look. But they all came out to the same life and joy, and they were warmly greeted by the dew, the light, the warmth of sunshine, and breezes. They needed all of these things. They were all related to each other, and all were dependent on the same influences to grow properly.

What was it, then, that made them start comparing themselves with each other, and envying, and causing them to have misgivings? What could have filled their heads with vain conceit, or despairing self-doubt, as if it wasn't good enough to develop according to the kind of plant they were? Every one thought that if they didn't grow like someone else's kind, they were total failures. Maybe it was some immature misinformed grub strolling by who started such silly ideas.

It started with an innocent question, a question that meant no harm.

"I seem to be growing deeper and deeper into the ground every day," said the carrot. "I'll get to be pretty long at this rate! I've been growing straight down for weeks, and I'm tapering to a nice point at my end in a beautiful way. Just the other day, someone strolling by said that this is perfection, and I think he was right."

It was the mischievous grub who said that.

"I remember what it was like living near the surface when I was a tiny sprout," continued the carrot, "but I never knew what real enjoyment was until I grew further down where everything is warm and rich. This is what it's like to be firmly established and contented, and it will just get better and better. After all, I don't see why there should be any limit to my growth. How about the rest of you?" he added good-naturedly. "How are you all doing? Are your roots long and slender and orange like mine? Are you growing as well as I am, and as far down? I want all of us to be perfect. Perfection is a worthy thing to attempt."

"Yes, perfection is a fine thing as long as you're going after it in the right way," sneered a voice from the radish garden. The red and white turnip variety were known for their sarcasm. "But if long orange roots growing straight down into the ground are your idea of perfection, then you should start all over again. It's too bad you didn't ask us first. We stopped growing downwards a long time ago--we've been spreading our roots out sideways and every which way into comfortable round balls ever since. Our lovely balls are solid and white inside and red on the outside--no orange whatsoever."

"No, he means white on the outside," cried another radish.

"No, I meant red, just like I said," repeated the first radish. "But in any case, definitely not orange!"

And all the radishes agreed: "Definitely not orange!"

"That's why we're so concerned," the first radish said, "to hear you ramble on and on about growing longer and longer. You should take my advice and not mention it to anyone else. We're your friends; you can trust us. You really need to stop wasting your strength and energy pushing deeper down into the ground, where you're so isolated and nobody can see you. Come join us near the surface! It's much better up here, and you'll make your friends proud of you. Don't listen to strangers who are just passing through. They don't have anything to do except walk around and chatter. And they tell us, too, that we're perfect! Don't listen to them. Do what we advise, and change the direction you're growing in. Roll your roots up into a nice solid ball as quickly as you can. It's not hard once you start. All you have to do is--"

"Wait, I have something else to say," interrupted one of the long-tailed radishes in the same garden. "It's not necessary to go from one extreme to the other, and that's what you'll do if you follow the advice of the roundheaded red radish. He should be ashamed of himself for forcing his own personal opinion on everyone else. But take a look at us. We're balanced; we grow a moderate way down, so we agree that growing down is the right way to grow, but growing solid round balls is useless and unnatural. Our secret is that we know when to stop growing, but you haven't figured that out yet. You need to learn moderation. Everything has a limit except foolishness. Even growing downwards deep into the soil has a limit. As far as the soil being better farther down, that makes no sense. It's more logical to make the most of the resources at hand, like we do. Once you've used up the nutrients you can reach easily, then is the time to think about going deeper. The man who gathered some of us yesterday said, "These radishes are just right!" So you be the judge as to which of us is right, and which of us is wrong."

"I have to admit, I'm overwhelmed," considered the carrot. "I don't understand why you're both giving me such different advice. Still, I wonder if I've been doing it wrong my entire life? Such a lot of time I've wasted. Should I grow a ball? Not grow a ball? I'm not sure I could, even if I spent the rest of my life trying!"

"How do you know? You haven't tried yet!" coaxed the turnip-radish convincingly. "But you never will if you listen to those old-fashioned long-tailed radishes in the garden next door. They can't make up their minds; they won't grow into a fat ball, nor will they grow a long tapered root that reaches far down into the ground. But I do know that nothing can be done without putting some effort into it. You certainly will never change at all if you don't try."

"That's true," murmured the carrot sadly. "But I'm too old to start over and try to grow differently now. Whether right or wrong, I'm stuck with my shape. I've grown too far down to change directions now. But maybe some of the younger ones can try. Do you hear that, little sprouts? Try to stop short if you can, and grow out sideways and all over, shaping your roots into round solid balls."

"But that's nonsense, to grow into round balls!" cried the long-tailed radishes in disgust. "What will the world come to if this nonsense continues? Listen to me, little carrot sprouts--grow downwards to a moderate depth and stay there. If you feel like you want to grow a little more beyond that, then throw out a few root fibers sideways. You'll be stable enough without them, but they won't hurt anything, and growing them might give you something to do."

"There are some strange ideas circulating," remarked the onions to each other. "Do you hear all this talk about growing into different shapes and directions? And yet they're all clueless about the whole thing, and seem to be totally unaware of the plain facts. The one radish went on and on about solid balls, as if there was no such thing as bulbs growing layer upon layer and coat upon coat. And that long orange guy with his tapering root is the most clueless of them all. And the roundheaded radish is not much smarter when he talks about being white on the inside and red, of all the ridiculous colors, on the outside. Where are their flaky skins? They have no layers to peel through, poor things! I can't imagine how they got such ideas. They must be stubborn and narrow-minded. Too bad we didn't live close enough to teach them a little better and show them how to do it right."

"Well, I've lived near you all my life," grumbled a deep red beet in the next garden bed. "You've never taught me a thing, and you won't if I can help it. You'd be a pretty poor teacher if you think red is a ridiculous color to be. I suspect you can't grow red yourself, so you make fun of it out of jealousy. But I am red inside as well as outside, so I guess you'd consider me even more ridiculous than the radish who claims that he manages to keep his white color on the inside at least, though I don't know if I believe him. Since it's foolish to be angry, I won't say any more except this: you should get red as quickly as you can. You live in the same soil I live in, so you ought to be able to do that."

"Don't call your color red!" exclaimed a gentle-tempered golden beet. It's only a pale glow, after all, and really more amber than red. Maybe that's what the long-rooted orange fellow meant."

"Well, maybe that's what he meant after all," answered the deep red beet. "Maybe the color he calls orange is what you call amber. At least he has more sense than Mr. Onion over there, with his layers and coats and flaky skin. Imagine wasting so much time growing such silly things! I say, grow a good, solid root and be done with it. Let everyone see that you know what can be done in a lifetime. Results, that's what counts. It's quite an accomplishment to get a solid round red root like I do out of the surrounding dirt. That's what I call finding purpose in life. Nobody knows how to make the most out of opportunity than I do. Nobody has more to show for their efforts, and nobody has a brighter future."

"Listen to them! Do you hear what they're saying?" whispered the cress to her neighbor, a mustard from the last of a series of that season's mustard crops. "Do you hear them all going on about their growth, and their roots, and their bulbs, and size, color and shape? It's so discouraging! I haven't done anything like that--nothing at all, yet I live in the same soil! What's wrong with me? What about you, mustard? Do you grow solid white balls, or long, tapering orange roots, or bulbs with layers and coats? Some of them mentioned throwing out a few fibers merely as a way of passing time. But that's all I ever do, and not just for amusement. There's no bright future in store for me! Please speak to me. But just whisper, because I'd be embarrassed for them to hear me, or to think about me."

"Me too," groaned the mustard in response, "I only grow fibers, too. But if I could, I'd spread out in every direction--downwards, sideways, every way, like they do. I wish I'd never been grown. It's better to never have sprouted at all than to have sprouted and grown to such a trivial purpose. It's not fair. The soil must be giving them something that it's not giving us."

"We must be weak and helpless," suggested the cress. "We're not able to make the most of what the soil gives us. How tragic for us to have been planted only to be so useless and unhappy!"

And they sighed and wept through the night. But they weren't the only ones who were unhappy. The carrot had become anxious and could no longer grow the way it felt like without doubting whether it wasn't supposed to be growing a ball with white on the inside and red on the outside. The onion was questioning whether the beet might not be right about putting some honest effort into growing a solid red ball instead of wasting his time growing his pale layers and coats and flaky skin. Was he really wasting his life? Maybe he should try growing farther down into the soil. And someone mentioned growing fibers for mere amusement--but his fibers were more than amusement. He needed them for support, so those other plants must be more independent than he was, and probably wiser, too!

Even the beet wasn't sure of himself. For all his talk about the onion's ridiculous layers, they actually sounded like a pretty good idea, and he wished he could manage to grow them himself. But he didn't know how.

In fact, the bold little turnip radishes were the only ones who were confident about their solid, productive growth and thought that everybody else ought to be growing the same way.

What a confused mess! And it only got worse. They called out to the wind, and the floating clouds, the sun and moon, the stars above them, to hear them out and decide who was right and who was wrong, who was making the most of his opportunities and who was wasting his life. They wanted to know whose system was the right one that everyone else should strive to follow.

But no one answered them, until one evening, the clouds that had been gathering over the garden began to rain and sank quickly into the ground where it had been needed for so long. All the plants cried out together, "Finally! Here's someone who can answer us! Now we'll finally know!" as if they thought no one in the world had anything else to do but settle their disputes.

So they asked all their questions: who was right? Who was wrong? Who had the one true secret? Only the cress didn't join in the questioning. He only shook in fear under the rain, thinking of his shame and what a poor useless creature he was who couldn't even hold up his head.

The rain found it easiest to sink into the garden of the carrot, who had made the deepest entrance into the earth. The carrot was the most eloquent in stating the problem--what the grub had said, how the carrot had responded, his doubts about his growth, and what he should do now.

The rain-drops didn't want to be rash and reply too quickly. As they came down gently, they murmured, "Peace, peace, peace," over all the garden beds. And they seemed to bring peace with them. As they fell, a calmness seemed to sink all around, and they began saying, "You poor little atoms in a huge, amazing world. Each of you has your own small part towards fulfilling the world's perfection. Each of you has gifts and abilities that are uniquely your own. Each of you is good in your own particular way. How did these sad misgivings and doubts come among you? Are the mountaintops all wrong because they can't grow corn, like the valleys can? Are the valleys all wrong and useless because they can't lift themselves up into the skies? Is the brook wasting its life because it can't spread out like the ocean? Is the ocean the only right kind of water because it's the only one that's salty? No, each one is good and useful for its own specific reason. Each one has its own small part in the full perfection of the limitless world. The overall plan is harmony. Peace, peace upon all of you!"

And peace seemed to fall over the whole garden more soothingly as the rain continued to fall.

The raindrops continued, "Harmony is vitally important for you, who have been given certain gifts and abilities, each of you different from the others, each of you good in your own way. It is necessary for each of you to do your appointed duty in the world, because the world needs each of your gifts and abilities to make it perfect--so that it will have mountains to rise into the skies, and valleys to lie low at the bottoms of them. Some of you have been given the ability to delve deeply into the ground, others are appointed to rejoice near the top. Some were made to lie lightly on the surface of the earth, as if they scarcely have a home there. Others were made to grasp at the earth with wide-spreading roots that stretch out and branch all the way to the rivers. Every one is useful and needed in its own way. Each one has its own part to play in the glory of the universe--the universe whose children are as numerous as their natures are various. None is useless, none is wasting its life by growing in its appointed way.

"Each of you is needed, each of you is useful, each of you is good in your own particular way. Peace, peace upon all of you!"

The rain's soothing murmur subsided into a whisper, and the whisper subsided into silence. By the time the moon cast evening shadows over the garden, there was peace everywhere.

And the peace was never disturbed again. From then on, even the cress held his head up manfully. Even he, after all, was good in his own way, for his own purpose.

Although once or twice, when the carrots were harvested, some strange growths were found--thick, misshapen lumps that hadn't grown down properly.

The gardener wondered what had happened, and worried about it, because he had been especially careful when he prepared the garden for the carrots. He had dug it deep enough that any plant would have found it easy and natural to grow down deep. But he didn't know that the carrot had experienced a period of doubt and had tried to be something he was never intended to be.

Still, the ugly, misshaped lumps weren't totally useless. Just as the gardener was about to throw them away as unfit for the dinner table, he remembered that his wife might be able to chop them up for soup.

And that's exactly what she did.


___________________________


Night and Day

"The city didn't need the sun or the moon to shine in it, because the glory of the Lord lighted it, and the Lamb is its light." Rev. 21:23

Long, long ago in the olden days, when Night and Day were young and foolish and hadn't yet discovered how much they needed each other to be happy and do well, they used to chase each other around the world in angry contempt. Each of them thought he was the only one doing anything good, and that the other one, therefore, must be doing some harm and should be gotten rid of if at all possible.

The old Northern tales say that they each rode in a horse-drawn carriage. Night's horse had a frosty white mane, and Day's horse had a shiny golden mane. Foam fell from the bit of the frosty white horse, and it dripped onto the earth as he went, falling as dew. The shiny golden horse was so radiant that it scattered light through the air with every step it took. So they drove on, taking turns bringing darkness and light over the earth as they chased each other around and around. But they didn't know one simple fact, and it was the main reason for their disagreement. What they wanted to know was this: which of them should go first? Naturally, if they were able to figure that out, then they'd know which of them was the most important. But since they kept chasing each other in a circle, it was impossible to determine which of them was first. If one was first on one side, he was last on the other side at the same time, as you can easily see if you trace their journey yourself. But this never occurred to them, and there were no teachers around back then to teach them. So, around and around the world they went, never realizing that the world was round and they were going in circles. Even if they had known they were going in circles, they didn't know that a circle has no beginning and no end. Neither of them was ever able to overtake and pass the other one, although sometimes they came pretty close. When that happened, it was twilight on the earth.

Of the two of them, one did more whining, and the other did more scolding. Can you guess which did what? Night was gloomy by nature, especially when the moon and stars were hidden behind a cloud, so she tended to grumble, fuss and complain in a depressed, pathetic tone. She was broken-hearted at the exhaustion in the world caused by too much work and active fun that happened during the light of Day. When it was her turn to receive the earth back, she treated it like a sick child she needed to nurse back to health. She felt like she had every right be resentful because of what Day had done to the world. Day, on the other hand, was chipper and cheerful, especially when the sun was shining. He never stopped to worry himself by wondering what was happening to the earth in his absence. Instead, he thought only of the fun the earth was having in his presence, and he never wanted it to end. He was frustrated when his fun was over, and he vented his anger by scolding and criticizing Night for spoiling his fun. He accused Night of putting a damper on things with her dark shadow and putting an end to happiness.

"You're cruel, Night," he cried. "You're ruining my life! You spoil everything! It's so much trouble fixing everything you've ruined. I have to drive away your mists and shadows before I can even begin making the world bright with my glorious light. And by the time I do that, I feel your chilly, damp breath trying to sneak up behind me. But you'll never overtake me--not if I can help it. I know exactly what you want--you want to cast your horrid black shadow all over my bright, pleasant world."

"What do you mean, saying you have to fix everything I ruin?" complained Night, bewildered by the accusation. "I spend all of my time trying to repair the damage of others--your damage, in fact. You consume life and strength so wastefully. Every twelve hours, I get the world back from you, and it's always half worn-out and exhausted. Then I have to restore it and make it as good as new again. But it's impossible! There are some things I can fix. I can renew and refresh some of the wear and tear, but not all of it, and then destruction and death are able to creep in."

"Listen to you!" cried Day, rudely. "As if you have a right to taunt me over damage! As if I'm guilty of causing destruction and death! I am the life giver. At my touch, the whole world awakes. If it wasn't for me, the world would lie asleep forever. You're more similar to the death you talk about, and you're the one who carries death's twin sister, Sleep, in your bosom."

"You are Day, the Destroyer. I am Night, the Restorer," persisted Night, sidestepping the argument altogether.

"No, that's not right. I am Day, the Lifegiver. You are Night, the Destroyer," replied Day, bitterly.

"I am Night, the Restorer, you are Day, the Destroyer," repeated Night.

"What death is to life is what you are to me," shouted Day.

"Then death must be a restorer, too, just like me," cried Night.

And they went on like this, just like all other ignorant and stubborn people who argue, each one thinking only of his own opinion and not even listening to the other. How can truth ever be found like that? Of course, truth can't be found in that way, so Night and Day just kept on being rude to each other. And at certain seasons they were even more ungracious than ever. For example, during the summer, Day's shiny golden horse became so strong and frisky that it was difficult for Night to retain her place, Day followed her so closely. In fact, sometimes there was so little of Night to be seen that people wondered if she had passed by at all. Only those who got up early enough in the morning to see the dew that her frosty white horse left could be sure she had been there.

Day boasted shamefully during those times! And he actually believed what he said. He truly thought it would be a great blessing if he could continue on forever, with no Night at all. Maybe his excuse is that he had heard a rumor of that actually happening once, but the main reason was because he thought too much about himself, and not enough about his neighbor. "How lucky the world is!" he would think, "Surely everyone must realize now which of us it is who brings blessings and does good for the people of the earth. The more I shorten Night's hours and lengthen my own, the more beautiful and productive the good old earth becomes. It appears to me that we can do quite well without Night's restoring process. If we could get rid of Night for good, imagine what a paradise it would be! Then the green leaves, the flowers, the fruits, and all the precious crops of my special summer season would last forever. If only it could stay like this with no interruption!"

"He's wishing for something that would be a curse," lamented Night; "if his wish came true, no life could even exist!" And her frosty white horse dropped dewy tears as she said this. But no one heard her. Yet her dew was very welcome, because the weather was quite hot.

And in her time, Night had her revenge. When it was summer on one side of the globe, it was winter on the other side, and then it was her turn to boast. It was in the winter that her frosty white horse came out in all his glory. Sometimes he ran so fast that his carriage was almost side by side with Day's, and squeezed him in, covering his light. And then Night murmured triumphantly: "Good! This is very good! Finally there can be a real rest at last! Now worn out Nature can repair herself and regain her strength! Weary muscles can get stronger instead of wearing themselves out, strained eyes can have a rest, and tired brains can get back some energy. Now Nature's secret forces of healing are at work, and exhaustion is being mended everywhere. Trees and plants are able to keep their gases for themselves, and earth can keep her energy. Waste and damage have stopped, because the wear and tear of life is resting. If only it could rest forever! Then the whole world would be renewed. Perhaps strong, giant super races of men and animals and plants could arise!"

"But they could never thrive from the sparkle of active life. They couldn't even be seen, except by the pale, faint light of the moon," sneered Day, who was actually horrified at the idea. But he wasn't able to make himself heard. At the moment, he was in the background, and nobody cared to listen to him. But he still managed to make his presence known a little at midday by the light of his shiny golden horse's hair. No force on earth could quite put that out, not even in the winter. During nice days, it shone over the ice and snow so brightly that they glittered like diamonds and might have been mistaken for fireworks.

And things went on this way until something happened that made them both pause. It started in a very odd way. It's hard to tell exactly what it is that makes you change your own mind, and even harder to know what changes someone else's mind. So I won't even pretend to describe the process in their case. But Night and Day did become wiser as time went on. After all, as everyone knows, they aren't squabbling and boasting today. On the contrary, they glide after each other gently and smoothly. Their horses don't kick, and their carriage wheels don't rumble or squeak. What probably happened is that, after their worst anger had subsided, they were able to look around and size up what each other did more objectively. And when they did that, they discovered that there were two places on the globe where they each had their own way for six whole months at a time. Those two places were the North and South poles. But all the wonderful benefits they said would happen if they had full reign never happened. In fact, the poles were the most bleak and forsaken places on the whole globe. They were nothing but an empty wilderness of ice and rock with hardly any animals or plants able to survive. It was upsetting to see. The shiny golden horse of Day rode around and around that frozen horizon with a steady, uninterrupted light, but where was the paradise that should have been the result? Where were the green leaves, the flowers, the fruit, and the precious crops that should have thrived in this everlasting influence of Day? A dove wouldn't have been able to find even a shrub to rest on. Not even a wandering seagull disturbed the deathly stillness in the air. Day, the lifegiver, looked down on a kingdom that had no life. No wonder he started to doubt himself! No wonder he started to suspect that there might be some truth in what Night had said after all. Maybe in some way Night really was the Restorer. Maybe in some mysterious way he couldn't explain, Night was necessary to his own success.

And it was the same way with Night when it was her turn to have complete reign. Her frosty white horse dropped his refreshing dew, but it had no effect. Dew seemed to be useful everywhere else, but not here. She finally had the opportunity to provide uninterrupted rest to repair and refresh Nature. Now she could let her secret powers do their work as they pleased. There was no labor or heat to cause damage or waste, and nothing to cause destruction. So then, where were the strong, giant super races of men and animals and plants that should have resulted? The wear and tear of life had stopped, but how had the earth benefitted? Night, the Restorer, finally had a chance to rule, but she ruled over a kingdom with nothing to restore. No wonder tears were mingled with the dew she dropped on the earth. She even called on the morning stars to bring Day back. Once she had dreaded Day and considered him her opponent, but now she longed for him as a friend. He had called himself Day the Lifegiver. Well, maybe he really was the lifegiver. At any rate, she seemed unable to accomplish anything without him. Wherever he was absent, the whole world was barren and empty.

It was obvious that they had made a terrible mistake. But maybe it's understandable that they didn't initially recognize that there need to be other influences than theirs alone to make the earth what it is in most places. People don't get wise all at once, and at least Night and Day were off to a good start by learning to doubt themselves. That's always the first step in being fair to our neighbors.

"Oh, Day, my bright, beautiful friend, I called you a destroyer!" moaned Night, in her gentlest tones. "Yet you're the one who brings light over my shadows, and makes my good deeds known to mankind. Lifegiving Day, forgive me! Please come back at your scheduled seasons. Please touch the earth with your glorious light at the right times. Otherwise, everything in the whole world will die, and I'll be forgotten along with it."

"And I mistakenly thought your gentle shadow was death," answered Day, smiling sweetly, although tears filled his eyes as he thought of how unfair he had been in misjudging Night. Smiling through his tears made a huge rainbow shine over the earth below. "I was even more unfair than you were! In your silence and rest, the very basics of life are renewed. An everlasting day with no night would destroy the earth. Dear friend, please forgive me, and return regularly."

"There is nothing to forgive," whispered Night, as she came around again. "And perhaps death restores and heals in the same way I do," she added tenderly. The harvest moon was shining over large fields of golden corn, and as she looked down at the waving stalks, and at the sheaves already gathered, she felt especially hopeful about everything.

"Anyway, we're friends," sang Day, "loving, helpful friends."

"Yes, friends. Comforting and eternal friends," echoed Night in return, as the tired world rested within her arms. Earth's eyes closed, its arms and legs relaxed, its flowers closed up, as if the soothing Angel of Rest had come down from heaven.

And they were friends, and will always be friends, even though long ages have passed since this story, and even though it's fashionable for scholars to say that Day and Night don't really ride around in horse-drawn carriages. Well, maybe the scholars are right. Maybe it's true that the earth is a ball hanging in space, orbiting slowly around the sun, but spinning at the same time so that different sides take turns facing away from or towards the sun, and that's what makes Day and Night. Perhaps the scientific explanation is correct. It's not important; no matter what process makes it Day and Night, they are the work of the Lord. Like all of the Lord's works, they have a voice and they tell us things worth listening to, especially now that they're no longer young and foolish. If we keep our ears open, we may sometimes hear little snatches of their melody breaking out when the wind blows through reeds and trees, making a sound like an Aeolian harp. Just listen, and you might hear it. And you'll be able to guess which of them is speaking, because they praise each other instead of boasting and accusing each other. One of them sings,

"Dear Night, once I dreaded you, thinking you were the dark and dull end of life and fun. Dear Night, now I realize that you're what renews life. Welcome, blessed healer. Take our worn out earth into your arms. Put your soothing, restful cloak over earth's struggles and toils. Earth's workers labor all day, and their strength is used up as they exert their arms and muscles, and strain their eyes and minds, and work to build things and make changes in the ever-changing world. Restore what you can, and what you are allowed. Whatever can't be restored should be content to continue to hope, because the merciful rest that you bring now foretells a greater rest still to come. You, Night, are like the mighty change that will some day come to everything. You are like the deep, mysterious rest that will someday renew all things. You are like the necessary, hopeful death that stimulates everyone to life! Dear Night, you are my sister and my friend. Your twilight shadow is approaching, and I can see your darkness beyond it, in gracious, blessed peace."

And the other answers in return,

"My mission is dark and secret. Men say that I'm gloomy, but in my arms, I hold the tiny spark of a glorious hope. It works within, where it can't be seen, until you, Day, the Restorer, return to break through my mists and shadows and touch those I heal with your light. In the same way, at the beginning of creation, the first light of the young new dawn brought gleams of life all over the world. Nature was amazed, and she awakened with songs of joy and thanksgiving.

"So, return, Day, beloved Lifegiver, and continue to revive the sleeping sparks that I nourish. I can feel their life hidden with me. I welcome you because of this, but I welcome you even more because you're like the eternal Dayspring that will finally dawn when sin and sadness and death are over. Then, our secret missions will be accomplished. Our secret work will be completed. Then both you and I, Lifegiving Day, will join our blessings together in one. Then the light that never damages and wears people out, and the life that never tires people out, will be united as one with eternal rest that stays forever!"


___________________________


Kicking

"Rebellion is as bad as the sin of witchcraft."--1 Sam 15:23

Three years of complete freedom, only to have to learn in three short weeks how to completely submit to the will of someone else!

That sounds like a hard method of education, and probably isn't the best kind of training. And yet, thousands of young colts have turned into good horses after just such treatment. If there's ever going to be any change in the way horses are trained, it will have to come from the trainers at the top, not from the horses at the bottom of the system. Reforms that come from the lower levels take on the character of a rebellion, and that's sure to cause the wrong kind of reaction from those at the top.

Yet those at the top should not blind themselves to what it's like for those at the bottom. It would be a good idea for everyone to sit in his neighbor's chair from time to time, and look at what he's doing from his neighbor's perspective. It's amazing how much wiser and kinder people become when they do this.

And a person's "neighbors" includes the animals he keeps around him for his own convenience or amusement, and calls "domestic." The very title of "domestic" implies that he has taken them away from their own natural homes and brought them to his. Therefore, it's not too much to ask for him to give them whatever comforts of home are appropriate to their species in return for what he demands from them. If he does this conscientiously, then when he makes a few errors of judgment, it won't matter any more than a few behavioral mistakes the animals make. After all, imperfection is part of living in our fallen world.

Imagine we're looking at the world from the perspective of a spirited young chestnut colt named Firefly. We have to admit, he would find it understandably strange, after three years of luxury to do whatever he wanted in a large, grassy pasture, to find himself suddenly cooped up in a small, square, enclosure surrounded by walls, instead of outside in the open air. Firefly was fastened to one particular part of the enclosure by a horrible device that went around his head and neck and pulled uncomfortably whenever he tried to pull away. Only yesterday he had been as free as the wind, able to go as far as the hedges that bordered the field. He had been able to gallop from one end to the other until he was out of breath. He could snort at people passing by on the road beside the field as much as he wanted, throw out his legs at anything and anybody, kick, plunge, and jump until he was tired, and whinny at his horse friends whether he had anything to say or not. He could do all of these things any time he felt like it. But now? The contrast was too distressing to think about. Firefly was now in a horse-breaker's stall with a halter around his neck.

At least he had one consolation: he was very well-fed. That's something a lot of people can't say, and it's something worth being thankful for. He had as much delicious grain to eat as he wanted three times a day from his feedbox. But that had come with a price: the loss of his freedom the morning before. The memory of being driven from the field to the stable yard, and then the betrayal of being captured at the end, was still bitter to him. And he, with his nervous shyness, couldn't forget the heartless outrage of having the horrible noose slipped over his head when the cruel men finally caught him. Still, taste is taste, and the food was delicious. He was young enough to be able to enjoy the present without thoughts of the past or future ruining it for him.

But even the best meals come to an end, and after he had finished his first feeding he started to fidget. After the second, he became angry and impatient. After the third, he became violent because the grain had begun to warm his blood. It was wonderfully luxurious after the cold grass he was used to.

And now he did what was only natural: he called out to one of his horse friends from the field in colt language. Humans aren't good enough linguists to learn the languages of other species. In fact, we know so little about other languages that we don't even know what simple houseflies talk about, even though we can hear them buzzing away in the air as soon as they wake up every morning, and then all day after that.

Anyway, Firefly shouted for his friends in colt language, calling louder and louder until he felt sure they must have heard him. Finally there was an answer, although it sounded like it must have come from far away. But that was because there was a stone wall between them. Actually, his friends Whitefoot and Silverstar were very close--right in the next stable, in fact. They had both been captured like he had been. Both of them had halters around their necks, one in one stall, and one in another.

Conversation was difficult under these circumstances, and couldn't be done for long. When they discovered that they were near each other, what they said was something like this:

"So you're somewhere in here, too, Whitefoot and Silverstar? Why don't you come here where I am? Where are you?"

"We don't know where we are. Where are you? Why don't you come to us?"

I can't; something yanks my head every time I try to move away."

"The same thing happens to us, so we can't, either."

"This is terrible!"

"It's very unnerving."

"But what does it mean? It makes me so mad!"

"We don't know what it means, but there's nothing we can do about it."

Their conversation ended here, because the colts weren't the only ones in the stables. In the one with Whitefoot and Silverstar was a good-tempered, middle-aged Welsh pony known as good old Taffy. In the other stable where Firefly was, there was an old half-bred white Arabian mare. Her mother had come from the East.

Old people who talk to young ones should consider the feelings of the young ones and not just think of themselves. If they want to gossip and complain, and vent about their frustrations, they should do that with each other. Life can be very hard to endure as old age sets in, and those who are the same age can understand those difficulties, excuse the complaints of life's challenges, and take them at face value. But young creatures can be misled by a few sad or angry words, and end up coming to the wrong conclusions and believe all sorts of nonsense. That's why old people should unburden their personal frustrations to each other, but only say things of practical, useful sense or pleasant, entertaining nonsense to young creatures.

If the old white mare had thought of this, it would have been better for Firefly. At any rate, he wouldn't have been encouraged to turn out unmanageable. As soon as Firefly said, "But what does it mean? It makes me so mad!" the white mare shook her own halter to get his attention, and then remarked in a melancholy tone that was impressive in itself, "I know what it means, but I'm afraid that when you know, you'll be even more angry."

Firefly was alarmed at this startling announcement.

"Oh no! Why do you say that? Who are you?" he asked excitedly.

"I'm someone who knows a good deal because of my age and experience," said the mare sadly. She added in a lower tone, "I've had some unusual experiences in my early life."

"I'm almost afraid to hear, yet I can't stand the suspense," cried Firefly. "What is this place? What's going to happen to me?"

"You are a prisoner at the mercy of those who locked you up," said the old white mare. She had a dull, monotonous life, and having the power to provoke a young colt's outrage was an amusing novelty. "I gather this is the first time this has happened to you?"

"It's the first time I've been tied up like this," groaned Firefly. "The only other times I've been penned in, I was loose and at my mother's side, though I don't remember clearly that far back."

"I had a mother once," murmured the old white mare. Her name was Egeria. She paused in sadness, remembering incidents from long ago.

"What about your mother?" cried Firefly. "What happened to her? I want to know!"

"Listen to you!" said Egeria. "You want to know! Don't forget, you're a prisoner. You need to learn not to want anything except what is given to you."

"Never!" he cried. "I will never learn that! But why am I a prisoner? Tell me that."

"You're a prisoner because the people you belong to want to make you useful--useful to them, that is."

"But why do I have to be useful to them? Why can't I do whatever I want, like I've always done? Why should I do anything for them?"

"You'll have to ask them," said Egeria coldly. "They'll tell you--they, who are your masters--your superiors."

"You're upsetting me!" cried Firefly, stamping his foot in the straw scattered on the ground. "You promised to tell me why I'm here. My previous life has been very short, as you'll hear. I--"

"Spare me," interrupted Egeria, "Our experiences in this country are all the same. We're left to do whatever we want for three years, and not taught a thing. Then our superiors catch us by using terror and force, and in three weeks, they make us learn everything they want us to know."

"And what happens after that?" gasped Firefly.

"It depends on who becomes your owner, whether you're treated well or not."

"And you've tolerated all of this patiently?" asked Firefly.

"I didn't have the heart to put up any resistance," sighed Egeria. "I didn't have enough spirit left in me to do anything about it."

"But I have plenty of spirit, and I will resist," cried the young chestnut horse, pulling against the halter as hard as he could, and dashing his legs against the sides of the stall, first on one side, and then on the other.

"But what can you do?" whined Egeria, a little startled by his violence.

"What can I do?" shouted Firefly, "I can kick, kick, kick!" And every time he said the word "kick," he kicked against the wooden partition that divided the stalls. Egeria became alarmed.

"I don't think that's a good idea," she said, "It won't do any good. The best thing to do is to put up with it as well as you can."

"That's very well for those who are willing to submit to it, old mare," exclaimed Firefly, "but I can't! I detest injustice, and I won't put up with it! I'm so mad, my blood is boiling already. To think of the cruel way they drove us along on our way to this place. Of course, if I had known what was happening, I never would have left the field. And even worse than that is the way the men panicked me when they all grabbed me and threw a horrible thing over my head. The whole thing is nothing but betrayal and injustice from beginning to end."

"If only we were in my mother's country," sighed Egeria.

"Why? What would happen if we were there?" asked Firefly.

"Oh, my poor young friend, if I told you, I'm afraid it might do more harm than good," said Egeria. "But if you really want to know, I guess I can't refuse to tell you."

What a silly old goose she was, agreeing to tell something she thought would do more harm than good! But she had no way of knowing anything about it. Besides, she hoped to stop Firefly from kicking and dashing himself against the stall by keeping his attention. So this is what she said:

"The people there--in the East, I mean, where my mother is from--treat young colts very differently than they do here. As soon as the little horses are able to leave their mothers, they're brought near the tents where the people live. The women take care of them and feed them and pet them. So the horses get used to their masters at a very young age. They don't have the fear and horror from the startling shock we have to go through at the end of three years, which we suffer from here. The halter and the training we have to go through come much easier--though, of course, even then, it's restraint, and that's not a good thing, no matter where you have to endure it. Please, please, don't kick again!" concluded Egeria. She had interrupted herself as she heard Firefly beginning to struggle again. "I've been telling you what life was like in my mother's country to keep you quiet."

"Keep me quiet!" shouted the miserable young colt. "I refuse to be quiet, not to please anybody! How can I be quiet when I only want to get away from this brutal country, and go to that other place--did you call it The East?--where colts are treated properly!"

"But, my friend, surely you must realize--it's too late," explained Egeria. "You can't start your entire life all over again. Please don't let your feelings run away with you like this--it's so foolish! People here don't mean any harm, on the whole. They're generally kind, mostly. At least, some of them are. You can see for yourself that they feed you well. Once you've learned what they teach you, you'll be glad, although you won't like the training while it's happening."

"Then I won't let it happen!" shouted Firefly. "They won't teach me! I'll refuse to learn! I refuse to eat their food, or receive their kindness! If they had brought me up properly, I would have submitted as easily as the next horse, but they've been unfair, and now I refuse to cooperate! I'll do something about it--I'll go to The East. And if I can't go there, I'll kick!"

"Please, hush! Calm yourself and be quiet!" said Egeria. To be fair, she had only meant to complain in order to get a sympathetic acknowledgement about conditions in return. She had never intended this kind of angry reaction. "You're going too far!"

"You're only saying that because you have no spirit, you poor old thing," cried Firefly. "You know you don't have any spirit; you said so yourself just now. But I have plenty of spirit!"

"Maybe I don't have much spirit," commented Egeria, "but I do have some common sense, and I want you to have some, too. Be realistic. You can't escape, for one thing, so going to the East is out of the question. And resisting these people won't do you any good. Take my advice. Submit, and get it over with. I can assure you from long first-hand experience that kicking never helps anything."

"Then I'll keep on kicking just for spite--just because it doesn't help anything!" cried Firefly. As he made this angry announcement, he broke out into a heavy sweat from the excitement.

Just then, the door opened, and the horse breaker came in to have a look at the young colt. When he saw how irritable and volatile he was, he thought to himself, "I'm afraid this one is going to give me a good deal of trouble!"

When he said this, he was comparing Firefly with the other two colts. He had just been in the next stable and seen Whitefoot and Silverstar being unusually calm and quiet for young colts--at least, unusually quiet for newly penned colts. Nobody, after all, expects a frisky kitten to be as serene as a fully grown cat. But it's no surprise that the other two were quieter. They were grey horses, which have an easier temper by nature than chestnut horses. In horses, color and temperament often go together. And these two grey horses had been hearing only good advice since they had been in their stalls. Even more than hearing it, they had been following it!

Maybe that's because good old Taffy offered his advice in such a pleasant way. "My dear friends!" he cried, when he started to hear them plunging around in their stalls, "I feel sorry for you, so very sorry for you. I know very well what you're going through. The same thing was done to me whan I was your age."

"Really? And how did you tolerate it?" asked the colts.

"Well, I was pretty impatient at the very beginning," admitted Taffy. "My Welsh blood made me balk at being confined, and I was all alone with nobody to tell me what was happening to me and why, so it was a difficult time. That's why I'm so glad I'm here now to help you. I can tell you about some things that will comfort you, and share some things that will surprise you and make you laugh! There are two sides to everything, even things that are annoying, I can assure you! But, please, my dear friends, calm down!" he continued, as he heard them plunging around again and trying to shake off their halters. "If you don't stay quiet, I won't be able to say another word."

"Alright, we'll be quiet," cried the colts, because they liked the idea of being surprised and amused. Who doesn't?

Then Taffy told them that they hadn't been brought here only to harrass them, as they might have supposed. They had been brought here to prepare them to learn a thousand wonderful things that are fun to do, and that they would never be able to do unless they were taught. Then he described the pleasures of trotting, cantering, and galloping over the country, as well as the enjoyment of good meals of grain, a comfortable stable, and a valet who would rub them down at the end. He also told them about delightful sports like racing and hunting that even he himself had not enjoyed. He had only been a spectator. And he explained that they couldn't have any share in all these pleasant things unless they first learned to obey their masters, and even come to love them a little bit.

At this, both colts shuddered all over. How could they ever love the terrifying men who had caught them and locked them in the stall?

"I see that you can't stand even the thought of that," said Taffy. "Might it be better not to have any master except yourself?"

Both Whitefoot and Silverstar whinnied their agreement. Yes, it would be better not to have any master except themselves.

"Well, there's no use worrying yourselves by wishing for something that can never be," continued Taffy. "For reasons that I don't know, these people are our masters and our superiors, and I know from my own first-hand experience that we are happiest when we submit to their wishes graciously. When we struggle and resist, we're miserable."

"But what if they want us to do something cruel and unjust?" asked Silverstar.

"Who decides what is cruel or unjust?" asked Taffy. "Many things seem that way, but aren't. You being here against your will, for example--some day, when your training is finished, you'll be glad about it."

"It's comforting to hear that," murmured Silverstar. "Is the training itself very unpleasant?" asked Whitefoot.

"Yes, it can be very unpleasant," said Taffy, remembering his own training, and the colts shuddered again. "Yet here I am, and no worse off for it. In fact, I'm better for it, and I'm never happier than when I have a man or woman or little child on my back, riding me three or four times a week, and when I'm treated like a pet by the entire family. You have no idea how good natured these people are quite frequently! They bring you little treats both in your stable and in the field--things like bread, or apples, or carrots, or clover that you can eat right out of their hands. But please--don't start kicking again," Taffy cried as he heard them flinging around wildly when he mentioned the people coming that near. "You wouldn't kick at kindness, would you? When it's offered, you have to meet it halfway, young foolish fellows, or else you may live to regret not having it some day! But don't be so alarmed! You won't be able to be on such friendly terms with masters and superiors until you've learned to be well-mannered and obedient. But my experience tells me that they are most kind when we are good. If they seem unkind, I think it's because we don't understand what they're doing. After all, they are our superiors, and how can we always understand the meaning of what those who are better than us are doing?"

How lovely a word spoken at the right time is! The colts became more and more calm as Taffy went on. When he ended by telling them about a good-natured lady who used to bring him handfuls of oats to reward him for a neat little trick of opening the stable door with his nose, they began to wonder if perhaps these people might not be so dreadful after all.

And it was at this moment that the horse breaker came into their stall to look at them. No wonder they tolerated his presence with only half the terror they would have normally felt, and so they stayed fairly quiet.

And so a week went by. Taffy encouraged them to bear whatever was coming with patience and hope by his own example and experience.

And poor Taffy could only speak from his own experience. Let's hope that in our modern era of improvements and advancement, that there are fewer exceptions to Taffy's rule that an obedient horse makes a master more kind. Shame on any master who disproves this and is not kind to his obedient horse!

The real trial for the three colts began at the end of the first week. And it was definitely a trial! Only a hard-hearted person could deny it. Heavy iron bits were forced into their tender, young mouths. It felt hard and stiff against their teeth, and cold to their skin. It was terrible! And the bridles that pulled at them seemed like monstrous contraptions. They forced their heads to turn this way and that, seemingly for the sake of mere whim--they never could figure out what it was for. Then there were the long whips that kept them at a certain distance all the time so that, although they were forced to move on continually, they had no choice but to go around and around in a circle. How irritating! I feel sorry for them whenever I think about it. Imagine those first two long hours on the first dreadful day of it. How difficult that experience must have been for them! It must be difficult for any horse.

Even worse, after a few days, the corners of their mouths became sore from the iron bit, and they had to endure the pain of a raw wound for a few days, as well as a longer and longer time of being restrained every day. Masters and superiors, you have a great responsibility! But it's not proper for the colts to sit in judgment.

How did the three colts do during this training that was terrible but apparently necessary? (When Firefly complained, Egeria had to confess that even in the East, they used a bit and bridle and whip.) Well, Whitefoot and Silverstar started out intending to submit if they could. So, although they didn't always do it cheerfully, and although it was sometimes painful, they finally learned to manage it.

Firefly, on the other hand, started out by resisting on principle. Since he was already determined to resist, he always found a reason to justify resisting. He claimed that if he had been treated well, he was sure he'd be able to submit as well as anybody, but since they abused him, what could they expect but kicking from him? As far as what qualifies as good treatment, he made himself the one to make that determination. At any rate, the training process just described was definitely not good treatment. It was cruel and unjust, so he continued to kick and kick and kick every chance he got.

Egeria had no luck trying to persuade him to stop kicking. She saw how much trouble her foolish complaining had caused.

"It makes no sense to resist something you can't do anything about," she pleaded.

"But it's not right to submit to an unfair necessity!" he cried.

And Egeria didn't dare contradict what she had said before by saying that maybe it wasn't as unfair as it seemed.

"Will you listen to me just once more?" she asked one day.

"If you talk sense, then yes," replied Firefly. "But if not, then I won't listen, old lady."

Egeria sighed. His rudeness was only an extension of her own. She had given him imperfect conclusions that she had based on only partial information. Her conclusions were formed when her inferior intelligence tried to make sense of her superiors, whose wisdom was more than she could comprehend. Plenty of rebellion and ruin have been caused when lesser intelligences form judgments about their superiors!

"What I have to say is sense, if you have the sense to figure it out," snapped Egeria. "What I have to say, in fact, is wisdom. What I'm going to tell you is truth and fact."

"I'm listening, say it," said Firefly with impatience.

"If you go on kicking like this, every time you think you--excuse me, every time you have a reason to kick, then do you know what will happen? You'll get into such a habit of kicking that you'll kick whether you have a reason to or not."

"Oh, I will, will I?" shouted Firefly, defiantly.

"Yes, you will," persisted Egeria, just as irritated as he was from his stubbornness and ridicule. "If you kick every chance you get, you'll very likely keep on kicking even when you have no reason to."

"I have never kicked for no reason, and I don't intend to start now," answered Firefly.

"Yes, yes, I know," replied Egeria. "So far, you've always convinced yourself that you're right. What the horse breaker thinks is another story. But, my dear friend, try to believe me. Habits are powerful things. If you don't get into the habit of giving way and submitting, you might not be able to give way later even when you want to. That's what I'm afraid of. Those who allow themselves to kick at all, will end up sometimes kicking when they'd give anything to be able to stop themselves."

"But how can that ever happen to me, when I never kick without having a good reason to?" cried Firefly.

At that moment, he was fetched for his morning's lesson, and Egeria was left alone to brood. And she did brood, because she wasn't a completely bad creature. Her problem was that she was such a thoughtless old simpleton, both in the way she thought of the world, and in how she talked about it to others.

Unfortunately, there was plenty of cause to brood later. After five weeks, Firefly was still wild and untamed, still undergoing training with the horse breaker. Two weeks earlier, both Whitefoot and Silverstar had left that place. They had completed their education respectably, and gone out into the world with new masters. There are plenty of good, kind masters who will take calm, well-taught horses, and Whitefoot and Silverstar had been bought by two neighboring families. They often met during their rides and talked about the old days. Egeria heard about this from Taffy. He was constantly outside and heard all the news around the countryside. In fact, once or twice, he had met his two old friends himself! It has to be admitted that she regretted Firefly's behavior even more after she heard this, and she was afraid it was partly her own fault.

When Firefly was led out after he heard Egeria say this, he wondered for a few minutes whether there might be some truth in what she was saying. But the first crack of the horse breaker's whip made his heart as hard as ever. For so long, he had gotten himself used to thinking of the whole ordeal as a system of brutal injustice, that he could only have gotten rid of that concept with a lot of concerted effort. There was one great obstacle to him getting rid of that concept: he would have had to admit he was wrong. And, unfortunately, he wasn't able to do that. So another week went by, and at that point the horse breaker lost his temper and told Firefly's owner that he was a hopeless kicker with a bad temper, though he was a valuable animal with many good qualities.

It wasn't very pleasant for the owner to hear this, but Firefly was handsome and strong enough to do worthwhile work, so his owner decided to sell him. Finally, a fearless young squire bought Firefly. He only cared that a horse was beautiful and fast. He was a solid rider, depended on a strong curb bit, and didn't mind using his spurs.

I don't like to describe the ordeal Firefly experienced in his hands. But even there, if he had submitted, his life wouldn't have been too bad because Firefly loved galloping as much as his new master. But over and over again, Firefly would refuse to obey the curb bit if it constrained him or turned him to go in one direction when he wanted to go in a different direction. Then the impulse to kick, kick, kick would come like an instinct, and he would follow it. Sometimes he and his master would have a battle of wills for a whole hour, the master's whip and curb bit against Firefly's determination to kick, kick, kick! Conquering by force and exhaustion isn't the same thing as being reformed, and Firefly was led back to his stable bleeding and covered with foam, as rebellious as he had been when he left it, and still repeating to himself, "If people would treat me well, I'd submit as well as anybody else, but if they abuse me, what can they expect but to be kicked?" The squire's tendency to slow him down or turn him around suddenly when he wanted to go straight ahead seemed as senseless and aggravating to him as the horse breaker driving him around and around in a never-ending circle. So he kicked strictly on principle, and all the more when this cruel injustice was enforced with a spur and a lash of the whip. So the squire got fed up with him, and Firefly was sold again.

This time he was sold to someone who knew a lot about horses, a country doctor. He tried a variety of different methods--less food, better food, extra kindness, more severe firmness. He had no luck with Firefly, so he took him back to the horse breaker. "He seems hopeless right now," he said; "he kicks for no reason. But there's one more option. Break him in and prepare him for a harness. Maybe kicking straps will bring him to his senses. Let's at least try. He has many good qualities, and he's a good horse. I'd like to see him do well."

The horse breaker shook his head doubtfully and led Firefly back to his old stable. Another new colt occupied his old stall, but there were still two empty ones. He was led into the middle one, and before night came, Egeria was led into the third one.

Firefly told her his story, and was eager to hear her shuffle indignantly at his mistreatment. "How unfortunate some people seem to be!" she observed when he had finished. But she had a slight mocking tone.

"I've been unfortunate all my life," he said. "I think I'm fated to be mistreated."

"Those who refuse to go anybody's way but their own are always victims of mistreatment," Egeria answered. "If you don't like it, why don't you do what they want you to? Go the way your master wants you to go, and stop fighting to go your own way."

"If people treated me better, I would submit--"

"Oh, stop it!" cried Egeria. "I've heard that too often. You never submit."

"That's because they never--"

"Always they, they, they! If you were to lead the way all the time instead of them, they wouldn't be masters, would they?"

"When it comes to masters, I have my own opinion about them," cried Firefly. "Who was the master of the two owners I've had? But that doesn't matter. I could have tolerated being led, but I won't stand for being dragged! It was the squire's curb bit and whip that I was kicking against."

"And what about your last master, the doctor? Why did you kick when he was kind to you?" asked Egeria.

"He wasn't always kind," muttered Firefly.

"But what about when he was?" insisted the old mare.

"That fool!" grumbled Firefly between his teeth. "I wasn't about to submit to go his fidgety way--stopping first at one house, and then another. No sooner would we start than we'd have to stop. We twisted down one lane, and then winded down another, never having a good run at all. I, who had galloped over half the countryside in the course of a morning with the squire! Who wouldn't kick if they had to put up with that kind of life?"

"That's what I was afraid of," said Egeria. "Anybody who wants to kick can always find a reason to, of course." And she didn't say another word, since she didn't understand the matter fully, like Taffy did. So her argument wasn't very convincing.

The first thing next morning, Firefly asked her if she knew what kicking straps were. Yes, she knew; why was he asking?

He repeated what the doctor had said.

"Great!" said Egeria. "If you're put into those, you'll never be able to kick again."

"We'll see about that," groaned Firefly, grinding his teeth as if he were chewing oats. "Masters, masters, masters. Humph."

He was still in this frame of mind when he was taken out two hours later, put into kicking straps, and had his first lesson to prepare him for going into a harness. This seemed to work at first, but that was only while he was shocked from the surprise of it, and helpless to do anything about it. Since he seemed to be not as wild, the horse breaker brought him back and declared that he was "fit to wear a harness as long as he had on kicking straps." Egeria commented that he was finally caught at last as he left her. "Humph, we'll see about that," muttered Firefly, fuming inwardly as the doctor drove him home. But the kicking straps were very strong, and he restrained himself. Nevertheless, he still hadn't accepted the first principles of submission. Egeria's foolishness and ridicule had confused the truth.

And what was the truth? The only way to know that is by viewing life from our neighbor's eyes. If Firefly had been able to see things from the doctor's perspective, he would have seen clearly whose fault it was that he needed the kicking strap. But instead, he blamed the doctor and considered himself the victim of unfair abuse.

One unlucky day after a series of tiresome doctor visits, he was corrected for being impatient. That irritated him, and, without thinking of either the kicking strap or any other consequence, Firefly took the bit between his teeth, lowered his ears, muttered, "Masters, indeed! Humph!" and, pulling at the reins like mad, he ran at full speed down the narrow country lane. He was stopped at the gate by the highway. The kicking strap had broken loose soon after he started running, so when he was stopped he kicked the cart's splash board to pieces. The doctor barely escaped with his life.

So Firefly was sent back to town and sold again.

He had too many adventures to include here. They were all variations of the same thing: a battle of wills between the master's authority, and the servant who refused to acknowledge any authority but his own. It's a miserable struggle, whether it's between a horse and his owner, or between man and God's powers, or even God himself. It doesn't matter whether the struggle is outright in the open, or engaged in through internal grumbling.

Finally, Firefly ended up in the hands of a regular horse dealer. He sent Firefly to another town where nobody knew his background or bad reputation. After a few weeks of not enough food and too much work, he was sold to a quiet country clergyman as a birthday present for his teenaged daughter.

By this time, Firefly had realized that his habit of rebellion was constantly getting him into trouble. And although he wasn't tired of his bad habit, he was tired of the trouble he kept getting into. Sometimes he was aggravated with himself for giving in to his habit. Sometimes he remembered Egeria's words: "Those who allow themselves to kick at all, will end up sometimes kicking when they'd give anything to be able to stop themselves." Yet he couldn't remember a single time he had kicked without having a good reason to. At least, what he considered a good reason. So he justified and comforted himself, and tried not to think about the other thing Egeria had said: "Anybody who wants to kick can always find a reason to, of course."

Finally there came a pleasant time of life for Firefly. What more could a horse want than to belong to a gentle young girl who was ready to love him, not just as pet who would serve her, but as a friend? He remembered Egeria's stories about Eastern kindness as his new young owner brought him treats that she wanted to feed him from her hand. But, as usual, he couldn't overcome his fear and loathing and pulled back from her caresses. All she said was, "The poor little thing is shy and nervous; perhaps he was harshly treated by a previous owner."

"This is the way it should be," thought Firefly, and he thought even more of himself than ever. The self-doubts he had recently entertained were pushed completely out of his mind. "I was right, and Egeria was wrong," he told himself, as he carried his light rider over her favorite place, The Downs. "I was right, and Egeria was wrong. I said I had never kicked without a good reason, and I never would. That was nonsense about not being able to stop myself from kicking if I wanted to."

And he really believed that until, unfortunately, the relaxed atmosphere of his easy, new life brought back his impatience and spirit. And what could restrain someone who doesn't have the law of restraint in his heart? There was another lovely week of self-confidence and enjoyment, and then . . .

. . . It wasn't her fault at all--not the beautiful young girl who had been so kind to him. Even he had to admit this to himself as he saw her laying stretched out at his feet. The eyes which had looked so kindly at him were closed, the beautiful dark hair fell around her face, which was deathly pale. The groom was struck with horror when he came up to them. It had never even occurred to him that he might need to keep a hand on Firefly's bridle.

They had been out taking a morning ride on the Downs, and she had wanted Firefly to canter. For the past day or two, some evil spirit (evil spirits are so clever) had been whispering in his ear, suggesting that being indulged as a pet might be just another form of unfair restraint. It was just another kind of unjust Master. Hadn't he proved that no one could really master him except he himself? And that's exactly what he had done just now--here, when he would have given anything to stop himself, just like Egeria had said. Now he remembered what he had only half-valued before: her little kindnesses, her worry about whether he was comfortable, little sacrifices made for him. He had cantered, but when she wanted to rest and slowed him down with the bridle, his old habit was too strong and prompted him to kick, kick, kick--and the result was that now she was laying on the ground at his feet.

More than an hour went by, and Firefly still stood beside her. He stayed in the same spot, looking at the same sight, with no desire to go anywhere else, even though he could have gone off wherever he wanted if he had chosen to.

Then there was a trampling of feet, both horses and men. Among them was her father, in his first reaction of tragic despair. Nobody even noticed Firefly. His owners didn't care anything about him now, so he just stood there, like a statue, in the same place, looking at the disaster he had caused.

Then someone who had been feeling her pulse and cooling her with water whispered, "She's coming around!"

And it was true! Firefly's young mistress had only been stunned, and her arm was hurt, but she came to and was alive! Her poor father threw his arms around her and wept for joy, and she looked up and smiled to see the horse who had caused such trouble still standing so near. Yes, there he stood, and he kept watching her as she glanced first at him, then at her father's worried face, and then she murmured, "Please promise me one thing, Father. Let poor Firefly go to Rarey* to be cured."

Who are Masters? Real masters and superiors are those whose spirit of love and forgiveness triumphs! So Firefly was taken to Rarey, but what happens to horses when they go to Rarey is something you'll have to look up. This story is not for the purpose of critiquing different methods of breaking horses. Rarey is only mentioned here because this was the turning point in our story. Rarey's process aims to subject the will, not just coerce the body. Its purpose is to teach horses to recognize that people are their masters and superiors. This is what they want to teach when they tie the horses legs so that its struggles are useless and the horse is finally exhausted into submission. The horse can plunge, rear, kick all he wants, for hours if he feels like it, while the man stands by, unhurt, unruffled, and not needing to hurt the horse at all, so he can even remain kind. This proves to the horse that the man is his master and superior, and the man's kindness proves it, too.

Firefly went through all of this when the horse breaker using Rarey's method gentled him all over his miserable body. Firefly lay panting and overpowered in the sawdust, finally conquered and convinced. All of his errors and mistaken notions about other people came to his memory as plainly as if Taffy himself were talking to him, and he wondered how he had missed seeing his misconceptions before. When he thought about his resolution to kick every time he was irritated, he broke out in a sweat again, and the horse breaker had to soothe him and gentle him more tenderly until Firefly was reminded of a similar soothing, when the father and daughter had comforted each other on the Downs on the day of his terrible disaster.

So, finally, Firefly learned that submission and love and happiness go hand in hand, and he was cured.

* [John Solomon Rarey rehabilitated abused and vicious horses in the 1850's. His technique, which could tame any horse in a matter of hours, was the basis for the movie "The Horse Whisperer."]

Then Firefly went back to the girl's home, and became part of a circle where beings, both inferior and superior, worked together in their own way, to make all members comfortable and happy.

At last he was able to willingly obey every touch of his young master's rein. He no longer feared her. In fact, he loved her! How that happens is a great mystery, but it happens all over the world.

Animals subservient to people, servants working for masters, children obeying parents, wives under husbands, citizens complying with authorities, nations following leaders, and all of them ruled by God; it's the same with all of them: the only real peace is obeying from the will.

The happiest colts are those who learn submission without having to suffer over a lifetime of personal struggle. The happiest men and women are the ones who who can practice obedience in small ways so they're able to obey in the more important things. What Egeria said is true: "Those who allow themselves to kick at all, will end up sometimes kicking when they'd give anything to be able to stop themselves."


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Imperfect Instruments

[Note: In order to prevent young readers from forming an image of the main character in this story as an Apache Indian, his Italian name, Geronimo, has been changed to its English variant: Jerome.]

'We don't learn from the mistakes of others, nor do we learn much from their wisdom. The most valuable things we learn are lessons from our own experience.' (loosely paraphrased from a poem by Tennyson)

One morning the rooks flew over the old church tower, leaving the trees nearby, and cawing as they went. There was still dew on every stone of the church building, on the moss and grass that had managed to grow between the cracks, and on the edges of the tombs in the churchyard. No one was up yet on this early autumn morning except young dark-eyed Jerome. He hurried up the path to the porch, and the church keys clinked together as they dangled from his hand.

A messy-haired country boy followed him silently, a little distance behind him. He had a stick in his hand, and he started to whisk the dew off the grassy graves with it until Jerome turned around and glanced at him. Soon the key was in the lock, the bolt turned with a grating sound, and the heavy door was opened with a shock that echoed through the entire church building. Jerome and the boy, Roger, who was the miller's son, walked up the aisle to the front where there was an organ and seats for the choir.

The church was in a lonely village that lay in a narrow valley on the southern border of Wales. A tiny river ran through it like a silver thread. There were old fruit trees where rooks had been building nests for generations. The hills echoed with the sound of cuckoos' voices. The church was at one end; the quiet vicarage was at the other. The flock of rooks liked to watch for the old pastor to pass by from the vicarage to the church on his way to work so they could follow him into that visible home of God on earth, with the pastor leading the way. It was a pleasant ritual, and fun to watch. Their procession had an atmosphere of loyal respect and trust which isn't often seen in our society these days.

The old pastor was a happy, uncomplicated scholar. He had a peaceful look of submission on his face, because he had suffered a long sadness. At the end of his life, he focused more and more on the day he would finally be reunited in heaven with his beloved Italian wife. She had died when their only child, Jerome, was five years old.

Jerome, who had recently graduated from college, was now his father's assistant. He was energetic, eager, determined even to the point of managing himself, and he valued system and order. He lived by the words of the poet Tennyson [from his poem 'None]:

'. . . since right is right, it's clearly wise to follow right, no matter what the consequence.'

His father, on the other hand, was past middle age, but seemed even older because the fire of his spirit had died out as a result of his sadness, but intellectually he was as sharp as ever, which is often the case with people who have noble natures. He had received a wide education, but as his life widened out like a river on its way to the sea, his judgment also grew wider and more gentle. He wasn't as convinced about his son's life principle of 'right, no matter what the consequence.' He said he thought a person ought to consider which was more important--the 'right' or the 'consequence'--before acting. To give a simple example, he said that there was a right way and a wrong way to sharpen a pencil, but if your pencil has a weak lead, it was better to sharpen it the wrong way, with a short, blunt tip to keep it from breaking, than to sharpen it to a long, chiselled point that would break and spoil the pencil altogether. He said that if he were going to choose words to live by, he would choose the broader teaching of Paul the Apostle.

Jerome listened impatiently. He thought his father's argument was like compromising on principles. He thought the example was silly, and, as far as the Apostle Paul, well, everyone knew it was easy to take scripture out of context to support almost anything.

So the father admired his son's strength of purpose and pure intentions, but he sometimes wondered what his future would be like. On the other hand, his son didn't really appreciate his father's point of view, although he appreciated how friendly his father was to him. He considered his father a kind but frail old man who was behind the times.

And it was true that while Jerome had spent time away at college, his father had remained in the confinement of the valley. While the young college student was being exposed to a variety of different opinions and had fresh, exciting thoughts and feelings to broaden his youthful perspective, the older man was out of the loop, and assessed those new ideas as an outsider, with the mind of a philosopher.

Maybe it wasn't the wisest idea for Jerome to be his father's assistant, but Jerome had offered, and the older man had accepted with tears of joy. There was a strong natural affection between them that went beyond any theoretical differences of opinion. The son also had a strong sense of his duty to his father. Perhaps both of them secretly hoped they might influence the other one to change for the better. And, of course, there was the unspoken love they both had for the young wife and mother who had died.

There was a triangular slab of marble on the wall at the front of the church, and a name was engraved on it--the dearest name to both the father and the son: "Maria Maddalena." The old man had often gazed on those letters with loving eyes over the years, tracing in his mind the triangle and travelling in his spirit up to the top point of the triangle, up towards heaven.

The son had his own memories of his mother. He dimly remembered her embraces, though she had passed out of his life too soon. And he had vivid memories of looking upwards towards the triangular stone as he sat in church ever since he was a child. He would gaze at the shining letters, and the shining emblems above them--the palm branches, the cross and the star, until their glittering shine would dazzle his eyes and bring him to tears. Had he been trying to get closer to her by gazing at her name as hard as he could? Was he hoping to wish her back so she could comfort him?

He wouldn't have been able to answer that himself. Children do things and feel things they can't explain, and the reason why isn't as important as the feeling and doing.

It was enough that the long-cherished habit of gazing lovingly at the slab of marble was ingrained in Jerome's heart, and it made no difference whether he could rationalize it or justify it logically.

Imagine, then, how he must have felt when he first returned to be his father's assistant, and he felt that it was his duty to ask his father's permission to have the triangular slab removed to some other part of the church!

Let's go back nine months before my story started. That's when Jerome's troubles began.

The scene that had taken place was painful. Jerome's voice trembled as he asked for permission to move the marble stone. His father responded with a heart wrenching, "Never!" And the silence that followed was upsetting for both of them. The new ideas Jerome had been exposed to at college had made him aware of some improprieties that he had never noticed before. The marble stone was on a wall within the rails where people took communion. It would be more proper to have it somewhere else. Private memorials were inappropriate in the communion area. In fact, Jerome thought they were inappropriate anywhere within the church. His father disagreed; he thought the church was for the dead as well as the living. If he had to do it over again, he would have preferred the stone to be outside the communion rails, but since it was already there, and it wasn't violating any vitally important principles, there was no compelling reason to desecrate the mother's memory by moving the stone now.

The son resumed the argument. His father had admitted that it didn't really belong in the communion area, wasn't it, then, an obvious duty to set aside personal sentiment for the sake of doing the right thing--whether the right thing was a great act or a small one?

"Show me how important the right act is," cried the troubled father, "compared with the negative impressions it will cause. You can't plow straight ahead through life without knocking over good feelings that will be hurt, as well as bad impressions over violating some trivial matter of impropriety. How tragic it would be to knock down what little good there is in the world!"

"The right way is a narrow way," said the son. "If we compromise because of the prejudices of ignorant sentimental people, then we'll be sacrificing principles to the whims of men." There was more that was said, but it doesn't all need to be repeated here. The next day, the father had made up his mind.

"After I die," he told his son, "and my name is engraved on the stone along with hers, you may remove it and put it wherever you want. If that's not good enough, go ahead and move it now. But I warn you--I believe that moving the stone will cause more harm than good to the people whose souls you're obligated to consider. You won't get them to understand the reason for moving it, and they will never accept it. What you lose will be far more than you will gain. I won't even mention my own personal feelings. I suspect we both suffer to think of the stone being moved. Go ahead and do what you must."

If the father hoped he was role modeling the act of yielding by giving in over an issue that meant so much to him personally, he was mistaken. Jerome didn't consider his father's permission an example of humble submission. He considered it his father's agreement that there was an error of impropriety that needed fixing. He refused to think about any consequences to the feelings of others. After all, in matters of duty and principle, consequences were insignificant.

So Jerome went to Roger, the mason in the village, explained what he wanted, and gave his orders. He said he himself would come to help. But the mason stared in astonishment. "You aren't really serious, are you, sir?" he asked. "You're not really going to tear down your own mother's memorial stone, are you? It will break your poor father's heart--and she was such a wonderful woman!"

"My father has consented to allow it," said Jerome. He was annoyed, but tried hard not to show it.

Roger the mason shook his head. He picked up a tool he had laid down, as if he was going to get back to work.

"If you pardon me for saying so, Mr. Jerome, you must have talked him into it. I know how you young people are," continued Roger, "but I can't imagine why you would want to do it--you're her only son, and she was such a wonderful lady!"

"I don't mean any disrespect to my mother, I assure you," said Jerome.

"I should hope not!" interrupted the mason.

"But," continued Jerome, "when it comes to matters of right and wrong, everyone has to sacrifice their personal feelings."

Jerome paused to give the mason a chance to agree, but the mason was silent. He had no idea what Jerome meant.

"It's necessary to set aside personal sentiment when there's an issue of what's proper concerning the treatment of holy places," Jerome tried again, but the mason still stared at him in silence.

"I don't think you understand me," said Jerome.

"I admit, I don't," answered the mason.

"Will you allow me to come in and explain myself more clearly?" asked the young man.

"The son of my pastor is welcome in my house any time!" cried Roger. Here was finally an idea he could understand! He led the way down a narrow passage and brought his young guest into a small parlor. After asking Jerome if it was okay for his wife to hear what he had to say, he called her to come down and join them.

But no matter what Jerome said, neither Roger nor his wife could understand what he meant, although, to be fair, they did try. There they sat--the mason held his cap in his hands between his knees, stooping a little, but looking up at Jerome from time to time. His wife sat bolt upright, never taking her eyes off him for a moment. And they still didn't understand! They had a couple of their own notions that were in opposition to Jerome's arguments, and those might have prevented them from comprehending. "The Mrs." as they called Jerome's mother, had been like an angel on earth if there ever was such a thing, and no place was too good for her memorial stone: wasn't she herself in heaven? At least, if she didn't make it to heaven, who else could possibly make it? And her poor widowed husband had stood under that memorial stone every Sunday since she had died. Who would have the heart to deprive him of the comfort of feeling her so near? If that stone was removed, the pastor wouldn't last much longer--Mr. Jerome could count on that! Roger's good wife declared that she refused to see her pastor stand up in the front of the church without the stone, all alone as if he had never had a wife, not if she could do anything about it. Take down his mother's memorial stone! As if his mother's very name wasn't a blessing wherever it was mentioned, and an inspiration, too! Mr. Jerome must not realize what he was saying! And Roger protested that he wouldn't take down the stone even if it meant he'd never be able to get another masonry job for the rest of his life. But Mr. Jerome was young, added Roger's wife, and hadn't recognized his own feelings yet. Surely when he thought it over, he would come to his senses. They wished him a good day, and said they hoped he would call again.

Mr. Jerome bit his lips as he left their house. What about his education and authority? Why hadn't it made a difference to these backward country minds? There was only one thing to do: move forward with the right thing, and leave ignorant folks to get used to it as well as they could. He was ashamed that he had wasted his reasoning and explanations on such simpletons. They had treated him like a child!

So, the next morning, he rode ten miles over the hills to the next town and hired a marble-mason to come the following week and remove the memorial stone. But then on Sunday, his father was ill, so he had to preach himself, in front of the church, under the memorial stone. All of a sudden, while he was standing there, one of the things Roger had said [that his father wouldn't last long if the stone was removed] flashed into mind. Admittedly, it was an unreasonable thing, but reason, even in the most logical of people, is not always a match for emotions. Jerome was suddenly unnerved. The scripture he was preaching about was about the short, miserable story about the widow of Nain [whose only son was raised from death in Luke 7:11-17]. Many of the details of the story were different from his own life--he was the only son of a living father, and it was his mother who was dead. Yet every word seemed related to his own circumstance, and he had the sensation as if his young mother Maria Maddalena from his childhood was looking down over his head from the memorial stone--the very stone he was about to have removed. He shuddered physically. Was it a sign? Was his father about to die, too?

But, even more than that, what really overwhelmed him, though he didn't recognize it, was the contrast between the hardness of the system he was trying to push forward, and the sympathy of the scripture he was reading. Yes, Jesus had driven the money changers out of the temple with an indignant hand of power, but the stone memorial wasn't tainted with worldly greed that needed to be thrown out. Jerome didn't think it all the way through for a long time after this, but in determining to value the church building above the more important human sympathy and concern for the moral results in other people, he was acting more like the Pharisees than like Jesus, who only imposed the most necessary burdens on the unsteady human mind.

Though he hadn't worked it all out in his mind, he had some doubt about his resolution to remove the stone. He got up early so he could meet the marble mason on his way to the church. He told him he had changed his mind about removing the stone, but there was another project he wanted him to take care of. With that out of the way, Jerome could breathe a little easier. He sat at the table and ate breakfast with his father with an easy mind. Therefore he was able to speak cheerfully about a proposed restoration of a Knight Templar's tomb which had needed it, and this project explained why the marble mason was there.

A cry from his father interrupted him.

"Jerome! A mason is here? Did you really have the heart to--" and his breath failed him. He grew pale.

"No, no, Father!" cried Jerome, excitedly, knowing what his father thought.

"Oh, good," murmured his father. "I know I gave you permission, Jerome, but I doubt I could have taken it if you had removed the stone. Age weakens a person so that little things can be burdensome. For weak people, just like for ignorant people, even a little grasshopper can seem like too much."

If only Jerome could have remembered that! But he hadn't seen much of life, or of the world, so he couldn't help being one-sided and narrow-minded. Since he wouldn't consider his father's wider knowledge, what else was left for him but to make mistakes?

So, since he took pride in his inflexible firmness regarding matters of "principle," he confused what was trivial with what was important. Even the wise things he did were done foolishly, and he tried to do other things that were neither wise nor worth even a fraction of the offense they caused to others.

"The Bible says we would be 'hated by all men for His sake,'" he said, to justify the things he was doing. [Luke 21:17]

'For His sake!' I don't even want to list all the trivial things he justified with that sacred scripture.

But once or twice, his father intervened and asserted his authority, and they argued. When Roger the mason hadn't automatically yielded to Jerome's better knowledge and position of authority, he had considered him backwards. But when his father, who was educated as well as broadly experienced after a long life, also failed to yield, Jerome assumed he must know a lot more than his father! He would have been a better Christian if he had added a little of the heathen custom of respect for his elders to his religious doctrine.

"A man's enemies will be the people in his own family," thought the older man bitterly, and he wondered whether he might have to send his son away. He couldn't let his son continue offending his church members and making them take sides.

But Jerome recognized that the conflict was about to turn into a storm that might divide the church. There was gossip that the father and son had disagreements, and the church members were divided in their own opinions. Natural sinful man loves the drama and excitement of conflict. Jerome became aware that some of the flock was siding with him and showing a disrespect for his father, and that made him aware of how much influence his position carried, though it didn't explain his mistake. When he attended more to what was being said, his tender conscience was grieved. The trust he and the congregation had shared was shaken and their love for each other was cooling. Whether there was a justifiable reason wasn't important now. Why was there distance between them? What could be done about it? Maybe he had been too busy with his plans and changes to spend time with people building relationships. So he visited people more often and tried to make peace between both sides, but it didn't seem to be helping. Many people continued coming to church out of habit, but they stayed rather distant. Only a few came up to chat and give a personal greeting like they used to when he was a little boy. Jerome was puzzled.

If he had contemplated all his new college ideas through Paul the Apostle's admonition to "not destroy the person Christ died for with your meat eating," he would have understood why the congregation seemed less friendly, and he would have known what to do about it. Instead, he got a bright and kind idea, and he decided to do it at once.

Jerome was musical. He had been since childhood. He had introduced the church to beautiful great music, and they appreciated him for it.

He decided to make use of their appreciation for music. He would plan something that they would all enjoy, both high and low. He would have a music festival. There would be singing and fun and food, and the occasion would be his father's birthday. Then everyone would see that the pastor and his son were not 'a house divided against itself.'

It was a pleasant plan. It gave the people something worthwhile to think about and do. The old people, who had nothing to do but talk, had something harmless to talk about instead of divisive gossip. "I see that Mr. Jerome and his father are as friendly as ever. It must have been a mistake about them not seeing eye to eye. The old gentleman certainly seemed pleased when he came by to see how plans were shaping up. In fact, he was helping me to pick out what I would wear for the grand supper that would end the evening! And just think--it will be on the old gentleman's birthday! That's something! Isn't it wonderful?"

And everyone was glad--especially the old man and his son, because they felt like they were reunited.

Now it was getting close, and there was one small problem. The organ wasn't as perfectly in tune as Jerome's delicate ear would have liked. At nearly the last moment, he wrote to the organ tuner in the next town, but found, to his dismay, that the man was out of town and wouldn't be back until the day after the festival.

It was a small problem and the father begged Jerome not to be too concerned about it. Hardly anyone would notice the slight tuning imperfection. But Jerome couldn't let it go. His sense of perfectionism and order was offended. Not that there's anything wrong with order. 'In the beginning,' God's will created a world of harmony and order out of chaos, and our hope is that he'll bring harmony and order into our disharmonious and quarreling spirits. In this world, people can do their best to encourage that harmony. It's their privilege and their duty to do that. Lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists, and, most of all, clergymen, make it their job to bring harmony and order in their very professions. Disputes, disease, war, complex physical laws, and distressed souls all need the peace that comes from finding harmony and order. With Jerome, the desire for harmony and order was almost a passion. But as far as wisely doing the practical steps to gain that order, he didn't know how. He was more helpless about that than he was about tuning the organ as perfectly as he would have liked.

He knew a little bit about tuning organs. He had been there the last time the organ had been tuned. He had watched how the organ tuner had widened or narrowed the mouths of the pipes to change their tone, and from that he had been able to correct a defective note or two on his own. Why shouldn't he tune the whole organ now? All he had to do was to figure out the order in which the guiding scale of notes needed to be. Then he could do the rest by ear. But how could he get at the first principles of the matter? The boy who played the organ when Jerome was doing other duties didn't know anything about it.

But Jerome didn't give up. The day before the festival he crossed the hills and rode into the next town to visit a musical instrument maker's shop. He asked if they could give him the succession of notes for tuning organs.

One person asked someone else, and somebody suggested the name of an authority a few doors down, and went to locate him. The shopkeeper, who was left behind, looked suspiciously at Jerome, wondering if he planned to compete with him for business. Then the other man returned and gave Jerome a piece of music paper with twenty notes written down on it.

"These are the notes, sir," he said coolly, as if he also suspected that Jerome planned to compete with his business. "It's the same notes as for a piano--which you already know, of course," he added, as if asking a question.

Jerome didn't want to answer, so he responded with a half-impatient nod.

"Mr. (-) asked me to say," continued the messenger, "that he hopes you realize how difficult is to tune an organ for someone who hasn't done it before."

"Has your master ever done it before?" asked Jerome hopefully.

"Oh, no, sir," replied the man, "We only tune pianos."

"What does the fool mean by telling me it's difficult?" thought Jerome, as he left. "It might be difficult for someone without a musical ear, but it should be easy for a musical person with these notes to help. Thank goodness you can depend on consistent results when you work with material things! They have reliable laws, and reliable results. There's none of that everlasting trimming and yielding that makes everything you do imperfect in the end!"

As Jerome thought about it, and read over the neatly organized system that would get his organ into the harmonious order called "in tune," he wondered if the life of an organ tuner might not be better than the life of a clergyman.

He still needed the little brass cone-shaped tool for widening or narrowing the pipes, so he picked it up at the organ-builder's shop. Nobody there asked him what he wanted it for. Then he hurried home.

And that's why he was at the church so early on the autumn morning of the festival. He had started tuning the organ the night before, as soon as he had been able to make an excuse to leave his father. He wanted to keep his organ-tuning project a secret until it was finished and he could show how wisely he had done it. Now he hoped to finish the job before breakfast, because then decorations would be brought in, and he himself had a lot of things to do for the festival.

For over two hours he kept at it. The biggest problem was being careful with the mechanical parts. Using the cone-shaped tool too hastily or putting it too far into the mouths of the pipes might split the metal and do some serious damage. But Jerome put his full attention on the task. His perfect musical ear brought the notes into perfect pitch easily, and he enjoyed this part of it. The organ was more out of tune than he had realized. His father had said it was just barely out of tune, and he himself didn't hear how badly it needed tuning until he tested it by the scale and found that almost every note was off and needed to be fixed. A few of the octaves harmonized, but all the fifths were either too sharp or too flat. It puzzled him that not one of the octaves was in perfect pitch--every single one was slightly off. It was a good thing he was there to fix it!

So for over two hours he kept at it. The occasional drone of pipes vibrated drearily through the aisles, causing little Roger to doze off as he helped with the blower. But finally every octave had been tweaked and brought into perfect pitch in harmony with the perfected scale of the twenty notes. Jerome was finished!

"Roger," he cried to the boy, who had let his job of blowing slack off.

"Yes sir?"

"Blow steadily and strongly for a good ten minutes more, and then we'll be done and you can go home and have your breakfast. Fill the bellows, do a good job."

Roger worked vigorously and the bellows were soon full.

"They're full now, sir," he said.

Jerome was looking at a piece of music open on the desk in front of him. It was Haydn's mass, in five flats [probably Missa in Angustiis/Lord Nelson Mass]. Jerome considered it the most beautiful piece of classical music in the world. As Roger spoke, Jerome bent forward and struck the magnificent chords of the key.

But as soon as he struck them, he cried out. Luckily, the organ was too loud for him to be heard, or else Roger would have thought he had gone completely mad. It was a cry of despair and physical distress. Something else startled Roger, and he let go of the blowing handle with a jerk. It ran up at once and the organ notes died away in a mournful squeal.

It was hard to figure out what Jerome was doing. He was off the stool in an instant, shouting to Roger to ask if the bellows had broken, then he was back at the organ again trying the notes to see if he had imagined it, or if he had hit the wrong keys. But he hadn't. Then what could explain why hitting those keys had filled the air with awful chords--bad enough for an untrained ear, but absolute torture to his refined ear? You couldn't even call it a chord; even using that word to describe it would be a joke. What he had played was more like a clash of discord.

Even human nature itself hadn't bewildered Jerome as much as this mystery!

After the first shock had passed, Jerome went through every possibility, working step by step, with as much calmness and attention to detail as he could. He made Roger blow again, and tried other chords, one after another. But it was the same with all of them, to a greater or lesser degree! He got out the tuning scale again and went over the twenty guiding notes. No, he hadn't made a single mistake. There wasn't one note off, not even a varying vibration. All the other keys were in unison with those. So he tried to play a chord again, but it sounded terrible, just like before. Next he examined the pipes. Perhaps he had cracked all of their mouths with the cone-shaped tool. But no, none of them were split. He had been extremely careful about them. And now it was getting late. Roger was half-starved. Someone had already been knocking at the church door. The decorators needed to be let in, and Jerome needed to go home and eat breakfast with his father. As he locked up the organ and put the keys in his pocket, his face looked ten years older than it had when he had started his work. He paid Roger ten dollars for helping him out, and hurried home.

People react differently when they're under stress from having made a mistake. Some people try to bicker their way out of trivial mistakes, as if self-conceit was the biggest part of their character, but then they humble themselves nobly when they make a big mistake. That's how Jerome was. He went immediately to his father and told him what he had done, blaming himself more bitterly than he deserved. But he did even more than that. He went around town and spent the morning visiting farmers and shopkeepers and begged their forgiveness for causing the day's festivities to be a great disappointment. He had wanted to make the organ better, but what he had done had made it worse, and since he didn't know what he had done wrong, he couldn't fix it. He promised to make sure the choir sang their very best to make up for it, and he hoped his mistake wouldn't ruin the whole day.

People are so confusing! Thus, we need to have extra patience with each other. Oddly enough, in all the time he had been his father's assistant, Jerome had never received as many friendly smiles as he did now, when he was spreading the message about his own failure!

It was wonderful. Everyone had a kind word for him; not even one word of disapproval was heard. It had been nice of Mr. Jerome to try, they said. Surely it couldn't have been his fault, something must have gone wrong by itself. At any rate, they didn't mind at all, and hoped he wouldn't worry about it. Without an organ, it would be that much easier to hear his wonderful singing. And as for the piece he had promised to play for them, maybe he'd be kind enough to play it for them another time. They just hoped he wasn't too upset about it, that was all!

Jerome felt like he was crowned with kindness as a result of his honesty in spite of the mistake he had made. The service, the feast and the festival took place without a cloud or blemish. In fact, it brought a promise of continued comfort because there was a better understanding of what both sides felt.

But what had gone wrong with the organ? Neither the father nor the son could figure it out. The only thing they could even imagine was that maybe the man in the music shop had given him the wrong scale to work with. It made sense, and it kept their curiosity stifled until the organ builder was able to come over. He was a strange, preachy kind of man with a dry sense of humor. When he got to the church, he touched the organ keys, and chuckled--and then he laughed outright!

Jerome asked one question after another: Were the bellows broken? Were the pipes cracked? Had he used the wrong scale? Did he tune it imperfectly?

"No, no--nothing like that," said the organ builder to each question. "There's only one thing the matter, but with an organ, that one thing means everything! The tuning is too perfect by half."

Both Jerome and his father stared in astonished, much to the organ builder's amusement.

"I guess you never heard that before, gentlemen," he said, "but it's a fact. The scale is right, the system is perfect. But if you stick too close to it, it ends up all wrong. The organ won't bear it."

"The organ won't bear being in perfect tune?" asked Jerome, greatly astonished. "How is that possible?"

"It's an imperfect instrument, sir," answered the organ builder. "And because it's imperfect, you have to make the best of it you can and not try to get it perfect, because it isn't possible."

He looked over the scale paper and explained that most of the fifths have to be left somewhat flat, and the few others have to be made a little sharp. Only the octaves themselves should be tuned in perfect unison. And that, he said, was the best way to get a harmonious whole--"not perfect, though, even then," he added, "but pretty good for this present world, gentlemen."

Jerome listened in silence. A makeshift system in the physical world, especially in music, seemed wrong to him. He sat there silently while the organ builder prepared to repair the damage that had been done. His father slipped away silently, though he probably had a few thoughts of his own on the subject.

Jerome still sat in silence until the organ builder started to tune the fifths, leaving each one flat, one after the other. Then Jerome could contain himself no longer. He got up, sat down again, got up once more.

"This is so frustrating!" he cried. "It just feels wrong--as wrong as it sounds in my ear. I have this perfect system here" (and he pointed to the paper with the twenty scales) "and to have to disregard it instead of carrying it out perfectly. My ear and my heart can't come to terms with the disorder! The organ sounds terrible when I play chords, but to have to listen to each note being tuned wrong is unbearable! This is upsetting!"

The organ builder had paused in his work to listen.

"I admit, it's not very pleasant," he said. "But do you know what's even worse? To find that you've worked so hard to get the system perfect, and then missed the purpose it was made for."

"But a perfect system ought to result in a perfect end," protested Jerome.

But the organ builder shook his head. "Not if the instrument isn't as perfect as the system. If the instrument isn't perfect, something isn't going to fit."

He hit a key and one of the organ pipes droned on. Another imperfect fifth was tuned. The organ builder paused again. He was a preachy person and liked to explain all around his subject. "It's the same with rules," he said. "Even the best rules, not counting scriptural rules, of course, shouldn't be insisted on too precisely. Man, like an imperfect organ, can't bear it. If we all had our perfect bodies in heaven, it might be different."

Jerome smiled in spite of himself. The smile did him good. "What a choice--the choice between two evils!" he said.

"It can't be any other way," said the organ builder, "as long as things are all imperfect together: men and organs, and maybe even rules, sometimes, too."

Jerome shook his head, but the organ builder didn't notice it. He went back to his tuning as cheerfully as if imperfection wasn't a necessary condition to work around in this world. Jerome went on listening to the awful sounds of off-tuned keys, reflecting the whole time.

Irregularity, inconsistency, even contradictions: these things are as common in the physical world as they are in the spiritual world. They have to be put up with, made allowance for, made the best of, in both the physical world and the spiritual world in order to realize the main thing in the end. Maybe the life of an organ builder wasn't any better than a clergyman's after all!

"There you go, sir. Now you can play Haydn's Mass in five flats for as long as you want," said the organ builder, as he finished the tuning, and played the full chord to prove it. "The organ plays sweetly enough now!"

And so it did--it played "sweetly enough," though maybe not as perfectly as Jerome might have wished, but he had learned his lesson, and he would have to resign himself to being satisfied with something less than perfectly ideal.

"The kind of perfect you can imagine in your mind
Can't be found anywhere in Nature."
[from The Two Voices, Tennyson]

At least, that kind of perfection can't be found anywhere in the lower nature. We have to wait patiently to see the full development of the higher nature in heaven. But patience comes with experience, and even Jerome learned patience at last.


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Birds in the Nest

'You are safe in the hand of one divine power
From the time you're born to when you die.
Everything in the world is art, although we may not recognize it.
Every chance coincidence is part of a plan that you cannot see.'
(very loosely paraphrased from Pope's Essay on Man)

Once upon a time in the woods there was a nest. In the nest were eight little eggs, and the mother bird was wonderfully proud and delighted with them. She thought they were the most precious eggs in the world, and her mate quite agreed with her. Sometimes when he flew around the countryside he would see eggs of other birds and tell the mother bird about them. But they couldn't compare with these eggs! These eight eggs were perfect. They had a splendid shape. They were rounded beautifully. They had a soft tinted color, and their spots were arranged tastefully. All other eggs seemed too dark, or too light, or too something. The sea-gull, who ate snails in the garden, boasted that his eggs were ten times bigger and ten times prettier. "But who cares if he thinks his eggs are more beautiful," said the mother bird, "when ours are perfect to us, and we're so happy and content?"

"And we'll be even happier," said her mate, who had travelled a bit and had seen what was in store for them, "when the little ones wake up to their own life and enjoyment, and can eat and sing and live with both of us."

"Yes, of course, you're right. That will be such happiness!" cried the mother bird. "I'm glad you reminded me. How silly I am, thinking I'm as happy as I possibly can be right now! Of course, I'll be even happier later. I can't even imagine such happiness, because I'm happy enough right now. Oh, I wish that day would come!"

Yes, she was very happy--especially during those times when she forgot that she would be even happier later on.

And soon the time came. The little ones were all hatched. They could look around and see their father coming with food, and open their mouths and swallow it quickly, and chirp for more.

"Finally! My happiness is perfect!" said the mother bird. "I have nothing left in the world to wish for."

And she watched her babies eating and feeling satisfied. She never felt hungry herself until her little ones had eaten their fill and were comfortable.

"Eight darling baby birds in one nest! The sight would make anyone's heart rejoice. It's true, they are a bit of trouble, and they leave me no time to rest, but to have your own eight beautiful children around you, under your wing, chirping and healthy--now, at last, my happiness is perfect!"

"Not quite perfect yet," sang her mate, but he didn't tell her right away. He waited for a soft evening in early summer before he told her what she could look forward to.

"Your happiness isn't quite perfect yet. Our darlings are very sweet, but they're helpless little things right now. Just wait until they have more feathers, have learned to take care of themselves, and can fly and sing. Our children won't be perfected, and your happiness won't be complete, until then. Some of our neighbors are ahead of us. Their youngsters were perched on the branches as early as yesterday, chirping and teasing our babies for being so behind."

"They won't be teasing for long," cried the mother bird angrily. "I know you'll help ours catch up as quickly as you can. Naturally, we don't want to be behind our neighbors. Of course they need to learn to take care of themselves and fly and sing like the others. I can't believe how silly I was. But thank you for setting me straight. It's fine to be easily contented, and our poor helpless babies are very sweet, like you said, but it will be even better when they've grown into fine young birds like the others. Then they'll be the ones flying and teasing the younger birds. And then I'll finally be happy. I wish that time would come now."

And it did come, but it took a lot of trouble to get there. The little ones had to be watched and fed until their feathers grew in, and then they had to be trained, step by step with a lot of watchfulness, how to use their little wings to fly. The mother bird nagged at her mate to start their flying lessons, partly because she didn't want her children to be behind, and partly because she wanted to know what it felt like to be as happy as possible. She was happy enough now, except for that one desire.

Unfortunately, the beginning of their flight training brought her a lot of trouble and anxiety. Her eight adorable darlings had to come out of the nest, and out from under her wing. She couldn't help them any more, yet they weren't quite able to help themselves. But, ready or not, they had to spread their tiny fledging wings, strain their baby muscles, and risk failing and possibly injuring or even killing themselves if they were ever going to fly.

Poor mother bird! What a stressful change this was, even though she had urged it on herself! While their flight lessons were going on, she would watch from a distance, trembling with fear and wishing all kinds of ridiculous things. She wished they were back in the nest, naturally, but even more than that, she wished for their baby days again, when they were still inside their eggs, unconscious of life and of themselves. "At least then they were all safely under my wing," she said. "My own sweet little babies were all with me, and I was with them. What more could I want?"

And when her children were safely back in the nest again at night, she would gather them under her wings with great joy.

"I'm starting to like night better than day," she observed to her mate, "because then all my babies are back in the nest again. You're doing a brilliant job training them, and I was the one who wanted them to be more independent like the other young birds, and they're doing very well and improving day by day, so I ought to be happier, but my life isn't as pleasant as it used to be. How can it be, with my babies away so much, and only an empty nest staring me in the face? And there are so many risks, too, until they can fly well, that I tremble with fear. But at night, when all of you come back and sing, everything is alright. If I didn't have to think of them leaving again in the morning, then I would be perfectly content. If only it could always be evening, with you and my babies always here!"

"It's only natural for you to feel that way," said her mate. "But you're wrong about the cause. If you're not fully happy quite yet, it's because things aren't quite perfect yet, that's all. When the young ones can fly better, it won't be so risky. And when they can sing better, our music will be even more beautiful. When they're capable and independent, all your worries and anxieties will be over. Just wait a little longer, and then you'll be more happy."

The mother bird sighed. "I guess you're right," she said. "I'll wait. But if I could sing a song myself, I'd sing a mother's song about the birds in the nest. Maybe it wasn't perfection then, but it was a very happy time."

So she waited and did her best to be happy. But the nest was empty for longer and longer stretches every day, and she reflected on lots of things she didn't dare say out loud--even the silly wish that her babies were all back in their shells again. But every evening they came back and perched in the branches, if not in the nest, and their singing became sweeter and sweeter, and the mother bird cheered up and was happy again.

And now, finally, the nestlings were full-grown birds. They could fly and sing as well as their parents. Perfection had arrived at last! They were independent. No young birds could tease them now for being behind! "But now, naturally," said their father, "they'll go out and seek their fortunes, like we did, and choose mates of their own, and live their own lives. That's the way it should be."

The mother bird said, "Yes, I see," but her heart was almost broken. And when he added, "The perfection of happiness for parents is when their children are independent," she didn't answer.

"Maybe that's the way it ought to be," she thought to herself, "but that's not the way it is with me. I wonder what's wrong with me?" She perched on the end of the empty nest and continued wondering, but she couldn't find any answers.

Then she heard her young birds chirping to her from the woods. Finally she said, "Everything is so different now, and my babies aren't coming back to me. I guess I'll go to them." This thought comforted her as she flew away. Then she found them and watched them enjoying their new young life. She listened to them warbling to each other cheerfully among the trees, and saw them having fun with their friends here and there. And then she began to understand: she was rejoicing in their joy, not her own.

Some time later as she sat, enjoying listening to her offspring from a branch in the middle of the woods, her mate came to her side, and she said to him, "Now it's becoming quite clear, and I see that you were right. This is closer to perfect happiness than anything else could be, although there's nothing that's quite perfect. Still, this is the nearest it's been to perfect, and the best. Whether any sweeter perfection exists, I don't know. Thank you for continually telling me. Before I was selfish; I only wanted my darlings to myself, under my own wing, in my own nest--in my foolishness, I thought they were safe there. How narrow-minded I was! As if one place was safer than another! Yet the sun shines down everywhere, sending its warmth and comfort everywhere. I see things so differently now. The wood is nothing but a larger nest, and we who live in it are a large family. My love is spread a little wider now, and with it, my happiness is spread out, too! Although everyone, at some point in their life, has to form their own little circle of joy, the whole thing must form one larger circle together, and who knows where it will end?"

She stopped, and then listened again. The woods were ringing with melodies. Her mate was singing by her side, her children were singing from here and there with their own loved ones. The circle kept getting wider and wider as time went on.

Later, when old age crept over both of them, her mate had fond memories of the old times, and tender thoughts for her. He whispered softly and kindly that she not been totally wrong. It hadn't been merely selfishness that had filled her heart. And he sang her the song she used to wish she could sing herself--the mother's song about the birds in the nest.

And it went right into both of their hearts.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

You other mothers in your nests, take heart and lift up your souls as the circle of love widens around you. 'There is one God and Father of everything. He rules everything and is everywhere and is in everything.' [Eph 4:6] He has everything within the circle of His care. Yes, everything is within His care, even when a world seems to divide us because of the change we call death. He will bring His own together at last into one home. There may be "many mansions" there, but it's still one home within the Father's house.


The End


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Paraphrases Copyright, Leslie Noelani Laurio, 2013. This was paraphrased between September-December 2013. For what it's worth: 24 percent of this book is scheduled in Year 1, 32 percent is scheduled in Year 2, and 44 percent in Year 3.

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