This is for pastors. The rest of you may listen in.
We have all had defining stories occur in our families and our personal lives that would make great teaching parables. Interesting stories in themselves, they also serve as vehicles to convey spiritual truths to our people.
I have three samples for you. Whether you use them as parables–microcosms of spiritual lessons–or simply as sermon illustrations will be up to you.
First Parable: Eugene Peterson, in his book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” gives one of his parables.
Dr. Peterson was in a hospital room, recovering from minor surgery on his nose which had been broken years earlier in a basketball game. The pain was great and he was in no mood for fellowship.
However, the young man in the next bed wanted to chat. Peterson brushed him off–his name was Kelly–but overheard him telling his visitors that evening that “the fellow in the next bed is a prizefighter. He got his nose broken in a championship fight.” Kelly proceeded to embellish it beyond that.
Later, after the company had left, Peterson told him what had actually happened and they got acquainted. When Kelly found out that Peterson was a pastor, he wanted nothing more to do with him and turned away.
The next morning, Kelly shook Peterson awake. His tonsillectomy was about to take place and he was panicking. “I want you to pray for me!” He did, and they wheeled him to surgery.
After he returned from surgery, Kelly kept ringing for the nurse. “I hurt. I can’t stand it. I’m going to die.”
“Peterson!” he kept calling, “Pray for me. Can’t you see I’m dying? Pray for me.”
The staff held him down and quietened him and after a while all was well.
Peterson writes, “When the man was scared, he wanted me to pray for him, and when the man was crazy he wanted me to pray for him, but in between, during the hours of so-called normalcy, he didn’t want anything to do with a pastor. What Kelly betrayed ‘in extremis’ is all many people know of religion: a religion to help them with their fears but that is forgotten when the fears are taken care of….”
Second Parable: John Ortberg gives us a Tony Campolo story in his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted.”
Tony Campolo was about to speak at a Pentecostal college chapel service. Eight men from the school took him into an off room to pray for him. They knelt around him, laid hands upon him, and began besieging heaven.
That was good, except they prayed a long time. And as prayed, they grew tired. And as they tired, they began to lean more and more on Campolo. Eventually, he was bearing the weight of all eight of them!
To add insult to injury, one guy was not even praying for Tony.
He was interceding for somebody named Charlie Stoltzfus. “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right hand side.”
Tony thought about informing the guy that the Lord did not need directions to find Charlie Stoltzfus.
“Lord,” the man continued, “this morning Charlie told me he’s going to leave his wife and three kids. Step in and do something, God. Bring that family back together.”
Finally the prayers ended, Tony was able to stand to his feet, they had the chapel service, and he got in his car to drive home. Just as he was merging onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he noticed a hitchhiker on the side of the road and decided to give him a ride.
As they rode along, Tony introduced himself. The man stuck out his hand and said, “My name is Charlie Stoltzfus.”
Tony could not believe his ears.
At the next exit, Tony left the interstate and turned the car around. As they returned to the interstate, Charlie said, “Hey mister–where are you taking me?”
Tony said, “I’m taking you home.”
He said, “Why?”
Campolo said, “Because you just left your wife and three kids, right?”
The man was stunned. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I did.”
He moved over against the door and never took his eyes off Campolo.
Then, when Tony drove the car right into the guy’s yard, that really did it.
His eyes bulged out. He said, “How did you know I live here?”
“The Lord told me.” (He did, Tony insists, but not the way the guy thought.)
The trailer door threw open and Charlie’s wife ran out. “You’re back! You’re back!”
Charlie whispered in her ear what had happened. The more he talked, the bigger her eyes got.
Campolo relates this story and adds, “Then I said with real authority, ‘The two of you sit down. I’m going to talk and you two are going to listen!’ And man, did they listen!”
That afternoon, he led those two young people to the Lord.
That’s a story, a real one, and a parable from which Tony Campolo draws all kinds of spiritual lessons.
Third Parable: One our family tells is the banana story.
I must have been 9 years old and we lived in a mining camp called Affinity. Mom was seriously ill in the hospital in nearby Beckley, West Virginia, while our coal miner Dad was left to look after the six children ages 5 to 14. That Saturday morning, Dad had shopped for groceries at the company store, then took Glenn, the 13 year old, to visit Mom at the hospital.
That morning, Dad had bought a dozen bananas and left them atop the refrigerator. When he returned from the hospital, there was not a banana in the house. Never noted for his patience, Dad was furious.
He called the five children in for an accounting.
Now, for four of us, this was the first we had heard of the missing bananas. Obviously someone had eaten them, but it wasn’t me and I was pretty sure it was not my sisters, Patricia 11, and Carolyn, 7. That left the 5 year old, Charlie, and the 14 year old, Ronnie.
It did not take a Sherlock Holmes to conclude Ronnie was the culprit. But why our Dad did not figure this out, we never knew. As the first-born, Ron was head-strong and independent-minded. (Would you be surprised to know he became a Baptist preacher? Smile, please.)
Dad announced that if the guilty party did not step forward, he was going to whip all five of us. And when he administered a whipping, it was a major event in your life. His weapon of choice was the mining belt, four inches wide and a half-inch thick. It left a path in its wake.
The younger children started crying immediately. But Dad–normally a good man, but never when it came to disciplining a child–had no compassion. That day, he whipped all five of us. It was an unforgettable morning.
Dad never did learn who had eaten the bananas.
Well, not for a long time, that is. From time to time, after the six of us were grown and would be together, someone would bring up the case of the missing bananas. We must have been in our late 20s and early 30s when Ronnie owned up to it.
“A friend and I had come in and we saw those bananas,” he said. They ate one each, then another, and pretty soon there were none left. He said, “I was going to admit it until I saw how mad Pop was.”
He said, “I figured better to spread the whipping out among five than take all of it on myself.”
No one agreed with that judgment, you will not be surprised to know.
The rest of us have never allowed our big brother to live that down. It’s all in good-natured kidding, of course, but it still goes on.
Before making the application–all parables must have appropriate lessons, otherwise they’re meaningless–let me point out that Dad mellowed over the years and developed far more compassion than he showed that day. My own assessment is that he was under enormous stress. Mom was not far from the point of death, we were to find out later, and his fear had to be incredible. (Later, I learned that the punishment he meted out to his children was identical to what his Mom, my wonderful Grandma Bessie, had given to him as a child. My older brothers, Ron and Glenn, had been on the receiving end of some of her punishment, they told me.)
My dad was a conservative in a hundred ways. Now, in my opinion, a conservative would rather punish four innocent people than let one guilty go free. A liberal, on the other hand, would allow four guilty to go free rather than punish one innocent person.
That’s my application of that story, a lesson about liberals and conservatives (e.g., the Sadducees and Pharisees in the New Testament).
When big brother Ron turned 70, all the siblings met him and his wife Dorothy at a Birmingham restaurant. As we walked in, each of us presented to him a dozen bananas. He takes it in good humor and we all laugh at it now.