The Parable of the Tiger and the Goats: The Necessity of Spiritual Formation in Personal and Parish Renewal

In a sermon on “The Church’s Search for Identity,”
Bishop Kenneth Carder shares a most compelling metaphor/parable:

The nineteenth-century Hindu philosopher Ramakrishna told a fable about a tiger cub who was separated from his mother and fellow tigers. He was adopted by goats who raised him as if he were a goat. So, instead of roaring with a voice that shook the forest, the tiger bleated softly in sounds heard only by his adopted family. Instead of eating red meat, the tiger grazed on the soft grass and ate bark from tender saplings, which caused him to lack the robust strength characteristic of well-fed tigers. Instead of roaming the lofty peaks and leaping the treacherous mountain crevices, the tiger who thought he was goat roamed the paths of the lowlands. He didn’t know who he was. His only image of himself was taken from the world around him, a world of goats rather than of tigers. He was less than a tiger because he had no understanding of what it meant to be a tiger. He had been cut off from his true identity.  (Carder, Sermons on United Methodist Beliefs, p. 15)

So that no one misses his point, he goes on to conclude – with words that undoubtedly have meaning in any number of denominations and congregational settings:

The church suffers from a similar malady. We have been orphaned by our broken connection with our biblical and theological parentage. Our failure to stay in daily contact with the images of the church as found in the Bible and in historical theology has left us with the inadequate images of the world around us as our models of being and doing. The business world, civic clubs, and social and political organizations have become our patterns. Consequently, the church is treated as an institution among institutions—an organization among many organizations to which we belong, in which we find fellowship, and in which we engage in endless activities.

The result is that we wander around on the smooth, well-worn lowland paths, grazing on tasty but unnourishing pious junk food. No one trembles at our blah messages or pays much attention to our bleating pronouncements. We hear the echo of a distant roar which temporarily strikes a responsive curiosity. We have a vague hunger that is not satisfied by palatable pious platitudes. Occasionally we glimpse a lofty height, or a Christlike image falls momentarily across our path, giving us a nudge to be more than we are as a church. We go through the motions, but our hearts are elsewhere. We know deep down in our souls that there is more to this church thing than going to meetings and promoting an institution. (Ibid)

It’s just one more way of framing
the general ministry of spiritual formation
and our mission of Zoe-Life Explorations:
facilitating discussions and explorations
of those spiritual dynamics and rhythms
by which God equips the Church
(and its leaders and members)
to recover true identity, calling, and voice in Christ!

The Parable of Deadheading

Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away;
and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
(John 15:2)

If the Scriptures were to be written today, perhaps there would be references to how God would want us to behave in traffic, how to plan our calendars, or how to engage media.  Instead, we have scriptures with references to gathering water, walking on a journey, shepherding, harvesting, tending vines,..

Though many of these images are foreign to our lifestyles, they continue to speak to us millennia later.

Parables – employing everyday scenarios to teach us about God’s desire for our lives and God’s presence in our lives – are genius.  We can creatively extrapolate out the meaningful teachings for today even in ancient writings.  Thank you, Holy Spirit for your companionship in the creative listening!

The gardening practice of deadheading plants, for example, is a task that can speak to each and all of us—if we have ears and hearts to hear.  Most plants that bloom will benefit from careful tending by the gardener.  When deadheading a plant, a gardener snips off spent blooms.  Plants grow, set blooms, bloom, and the bloom turns to seed for the potential for another plant to grow from that seed.  With many of the blooming plants in our landscapes, more blooms are encouraged when plants are dead-headed.  Thereby, a plant is able to expend less energy creating and sustaining a seed head and can divert energy to new growth.

To be sure, it’s a tedious chore.  When deadheading, the gardener has to take care not to nick the wrong stems.  It can be discouraging–where the more you remove, the more you see that needs to be removed.

But, be patient!  In a few weeks, it’s noticeable and can be breath-taking: when the well-tended plant is full of blooms again.

Yes, perhaps in our world today (where gardening is a more popular task than cultivating grapes), Jesus would resort to a parable about dead-heading… and the benefits of a few choice cuts on a rose bush.

To paraphrase and adapt words from Browning:

Earth is crammed with heaven–
and every bush a village of deadheads.
But, only those who have eyes to see
take off their shoes
and ponder the essential prunings.

I wonder what Jesus would deadhead
from my life to benefit my ability to bloom and grow?

posted by Kathy Reiter on April 22, 2021


Upper Case Living

Last week, we published our 12th issue of the seasonal-quarterly periodical which is Ruminations.

Recalling its focus (on “Spiritual Formation and the Journey to “True Self’”) brings to mind some words from a meaningful discussion on our vocation (or calling) in Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak:

It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else! I have sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or squandering it–and I think I am not alone. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”‘ (p. 10f.)

Or, in my case, “Why have I not been Jim?”

Or in your case, “Why have you not been who and what God has called you—or named you—to be?”

Powerful to consider that when God creates things [cf., Genesis 1]—calling them forth with the call of their name, they have no choice but to spring forth. God’s word does not return void.

There is an exception to this naming and things automatically springing forth, though. Endowed with free will, we humans can choose whether to live out of our “calling”/design… or not. We can choose to live up to the active and living Word of God which called (and calls) us into being… or we can choose to live up to any other number of lesser “words” and voices which call us and shame us and confuse us in this world – call and shame and confuse us about our ultimate purpose and design.

Brings to mind some journaling I was about a few years ago—as I pondered Mary’s words, “let it be with me according to your word”:

There are a lot of “little j” jims even as there are a lot of “little g” gods. There is one “big J” Jim [Reiter] even as there is one “Big G” God. Beyond all lesser voices which seek to name and define me(including my own voice), I am a word from the mouth of God. As God’s word is active and alive, when He says my name, “Jim [Reiter]!”,it shatters all lesser names and namings. As when He says “Light!” and there is light [Gen. 1], even so: when He says “Jim!”, there is Jim[Reiter] in all Jim’s real fullness.

“Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be—let me be—according to your word.”

I am humbled. I am not “jim.”

I am hopeful. I am “Jim”… and will be “Jim.”

I feel loved. Oh, how patient the Divine is!

I have dread. Oh, all that must die and be broken for “Jim” to be reborn and renewed and recollected!

Accepting and embracing and living
into the Word of God spoken over our lives—
the name, the character, the identity
which was declared at our conception:
is this but one more way of,
one more angle for
speaking about the essential facet
of spiritual formation
which is our journey back to our true selves?

O Thou, Who names all things
     and thereby calls them into full being,
O Divine, Who even has a Name for me
     (above all lesser names and namings):
Assist me, not just in the hearing,
     but in the acceptance of Your Naming–
     to the honor and glory of Your Holy Name.
Let it be with me according to Your Word!

Spiritual Formation and the Journey to “True Self”

The story has been attributed to Parker Palmer:

A three year old girl welcomes
her parents and newborn brother
home from the hospital.

From the moment they arrive, she is insistent about having some time alone with him—in his nursery, behind closed doors.  Mom and Dad are a bit torn but mostly curious so they allow things to proceed—mindful that a cribside intercom
will allow them to be there.

Closing the door,
they race down the hall to the intercom base—
in time to hear the little girl’s voice:
“Tell me about God, I’ve almost forgotten.”

Like that little girl, I believe we all live with a sense of memory and yearning and haunting—of deeper truths and realities which we know or are convinced we have known but which seem to be fading or hiding.  These inner stirrings speak of a higher Reality/Being, yes.  But, they also suggest a fuller, truer person—caged or stuck somewhere below the surface of what we show ourselves to be amidst our daily routines and busyness.

The two are related, interconnected: this higher Being and this deeper, true self.   They abide together.  And, each is a legitimate and essential object of spiritual formation.

In this light, we are excited to announce the publication
of our 12th issue
of Ruminations—
focused on “Spiritual Formation and the Journey to ‘True Self.’”  It seems like a perfect focus for the coming weeks of the Easter Season—during which we celebrate all the hidden promises
of God which we’ve been tempted to forget.

Click here to access this issue
as well as the larger Ruminations library/archive.

But, be advised as you approach this (as, indeed, all issues) of Ruminations:
true to its name and its mission, Ruminations offers a lot
for individual and small groups to chew on—
for study, devotion, and retreat.
We encourage you to engage it, then,
at a pace that will nourish your soul.

“Who Gives a Fig?”: A Holy Week Meditation

“You shall know them by their fruits!” (Matt. 7:16)

     12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves… 
(Mark 11:12-15)

At first, it can seem rather capricious , somewhat erratic on Jesus part: “he went to find out if it had any fruit” for “it was not the season for figs.”  Sit on it for a little while and it can strike real terror: “You mean Jesus could possibly look at my life and judge me along those same lines–expecting things when the time isn’t right for those things?!?!?”

Here, my work in Hold Land studies with Dr. Jim Fleming helps a lot.  Fleming teaches that, while the Greek had but one word for the fruits of a fig tree, the Hebrew distinguished between a “first fruit” and “latter fruits.”  Phagee: the early, first fruit [bitter to the taste but nonetheless edible] is what one horticulturalist has referred to as the fig tree’s “bloom.”  It is to be distinguished from the later seasonal fig the Hebrew will distinguish with another word.  To be sure, there is a connection between the two: where there is no phagee (no spring blooms), there is no hope of any latter fruits to come. 

For our immediate purposes, though, this distinction helps illuminate the difficult passage before us.  Per Fleming: Jesus is hungry; he searches the fig tree (here in the Spring at Passover time… looking for phagee); though the tree was full of leaves, there was no phagee to be found—“for it was not the season for figs.”  Gone, then, is a lot of the confusion over Jesus’ disgust with what we might think of as an otherwise “innocent” fig tree!

My concern and focus shifts—for us, as individuals and as a faith community (in this Lenten Season and beyond) to the “moral” of this story.  It’s a moral, in fact, that is reinforced by the passage that follows it—where Jesus cleanses the temple.  Here again, there’s a lot of activity (a lot of outward foliage) to suggest vitality, but… there is no fruit bearing, there’s nothing which offers life to a starving world. “All vine and no taters,” as Bill Hinson would say.  (Or, as they said of wannabe cowboys in one rural community I served, “all hat, no cattle.”)  

Living things are created to share life.  Taking up space and sucking precious life from the earth just won’t do.  Apparently, the God revealed in Jesus is concerned with much more than outward show.  Clear in his actions here (and his words elsewhere) is that Christ is adamant about things living up to their full purpose and identity—which, for human community (like a fig tree) means bearing real, life-sustaining  and life-conveying fruit! (cf., Matt. 7:16; John 15:1-8)

Which brings me to my question—or, more appropriately, my prayer–for myself… and for all of us in this Lenten Season (and beyond).  A lot of activity fills our lives and community.  Holy Week and Easter can bring additional things to do.

Forbid, O Lord,
that we should become so consumed and preoccupied
with ‘leafy’ busy-ness and activity
that we should neglect a regard
and heart
for the deeper fruits
of real life and living!

Who gives a fig?
You should.
I should.
We all should, dear Soul.
It’s a lesson from the Mount of Olives.
It’s lesson from the Mount of the Temple.
It’s a law of the Gospel,
a law of true life and living.