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This message is from June 25, 2006

Scripture Reading:
Mark 9:43-48


Once upon a time, King Dozier and Queen Somnia had a baby daughter. She was born deep in the night. She entered the world by candlelight. All naked and wet, the baby was placed atop her mother. Through tears of happiness and relief, Queen Somnia studied her daughter's face and hands. Then the Queen wrapped the baby in a blanket.

King Dozier took his infant daughter into his arms. Very gently, the king tucked the edge of the blanket under the baby's chin. He marveled at the smell of her and all her miniature perfection. But the King did not start to cry until the baby's tiny fingers curled around one of his own. In that moment, the King knew that his heart had a new master. Despite all his royal power, the King knew that a part of him would always be defenseless in the presence of his daughter.

In those days, there were magical beings in every kingdom. It was simply a fact of life. King Dozier knew that it was very important to have a good relationship with all these powerful neighbors. And so, after the baby was born, the King sent a royal messenger to the mysterious water faerie who lived beneath the sparkling waters of Lake Crystal. He sent a royal messenger to the mighty stone giant who lived atop Boneshard Mountain. In this way, he told his magical neighbors that a new baby had been born to the royal family. And he invited them both to the naming ceremony that would be held in seven days.

In the land of King Dozier and Queen Somnia, there was a third magical being. And she was the most powerful of all. She was called the Night Granny, and she lived inside dark places. She was said to roam about at night. During the day, she might be found in the shadows of the forest or in the darkest corner of the root cellar. Not only was the Night Granny the most powerful of all the magical creatures, she was also the most unpredictable. Like the face of the moon, she was always changing. Sometimes she was round and generous. Sometimes, she was a narrow, jagged sliver.

King Dozier did not send a messenger to the Night Granny. Instead, the King went to see this magical being on his own.

On the night after his daughter was born, King Dozier kissed his sleeping wife and newborn child. He wrapped a cloak around his shoulders. Then he stepped out from behind the walls of his castle. He walked through the empty, slumbering streets of the village. He walked across the open fields, where the land was seeped in pale moonlight. He stepped into the deep shadows of the great forest. And then he called, "Night Granny. Night Granny, come to me. Night Granny, please come."

From within the shadows, there came a voice: "I hear your call, King Dozier."

The King said, "Greetings and salutations, Night Granny. I have come to you this night with happy news. Queen Somnia and I have been blessed with a beautiful baby daughter."

"Yes, I know," answered the Night Granny. "I am well aware of everything that happens in my domain. Since your daughter was born at night, your news comes as no surprise to me."

The King was amazed. "You already know?"

"Of course," answered the Night Granny. "Even now, I see the dimples on your daughters little hands. I see Queen Somnia stir beneath her blankets. And I see King Dozier, standing at the edge of the Great Forest. There is worry on his brow. The baby has opened a new door in the King's heart of hearts. Now he frets about what may enter through this door. Or what may exit. Yes, a door works both ways, does it not?"

The King slumped. He had been read like a book. He said, "Your vision is keen, Night Granny. When I think about what the future holds... I am overcome."

The Night Granny was still hidden in the shadows. Or perhaps she was the shadows. When she spoke, her voice was very close. She said, "Do not be troubled by the future, O King. You can always find trouble in the future. And happiness. There will always be good days and bad. Savor the good days and let the bad ones pass by."

The King had no use for this advice. Instead, he spoke the words he came to say. "Night Granny," he said, "please come to the naming ceremony for my daughter. It will be seven days hence."

The Night Granny chuckled. It was the sound of high branches bumping together in the wind. "Very well," she said. "What gift can I bring?"

This too was part of the ancient custom. Whenever a royal baby was born, the King and Queen were careful to invite their powerful, magical neighbors to the naming ceremony. And as a sign of their goodwill, the magical beings came to the soiree with a magical gift for the new prince or princess. Most of the gifts fell into a similar pattern: long life, good health, strength of arms, strength of mind, etc., etc. But true to her character, the Night Granny was unpredictable with her gifts.

"You are the most powerful of all my magical neighbors," the King recited.

"I know," the Night Granny snapped. "Don't butter me up, O King. It is beneath the dignity of your crown. Just tell me: what do you want?"

Because King Dozier feared that love would break his heart, he said, "Let me pick a day. Let me pick a perfect day. Let me pick a day when my daughter is still a child in my house, a day when she looks up to me with love in her eyes, a day without quarrel, a day without sickness or grief. Let me pick a perfect day, and let that day never end."

The Night Granny chuckled once more. There was no warmth in the sound of it. She said, "It will be so, O King." A sudden breeze stirred the branches. All the branches creaked mournfully. The same breeze tugged at King Dozier's cloak.

Seven days later, it was time for the naming ceremony. Queen Somnia and King Dozier presented their daughter to the world. In her white, lacy dress, the little baby was adorable. Surrounded by foreign dignitaries, magical beings, and all her future subjects, the little one was given her name. She was called, "Selene."

One by one, people introduced themselves to the new princess. "Hello," they said. "Hello, Selene. May fortune smile upon you. May God bless you. May you find happiness for all your days."

The water faerie smiled at baby Selene and hummed a haunting lullaby. "Sweet Selene," said the mysterious faerie, "may your thoughts be deep and pure, like the waters of Lake Crystal." The King and Queen flinched when the stone giant stepped forward to tickle the baby's ribs. The giant's finger was thick and heavy, like a log. But he was gentle and kind. He said, "Ah, Selene my darling, may your laughter echo from the mountains."

Then the Night Granny appeared. Her cloak was a shadow. And her face was pale, like the reflection of moonlight on water. The Night Granny pronounced a terrible curse. She said, "When night falls on your happiest day, may you never see another sunrise."

There was a gasp from all the assembled guests.

The water faerie stepped forward to undo some of the damage. "May you never see another sunrise," she repeated, "until a champion comes and wakes you with a kiss."

"And," the stone giant added, trying to think quickly, "may none of this come to pass until... um, until you prick your finger on a spinning wheel." To be honest, everyone found the bit abut a spinning wheel a little strange. But clearly, the stone giant was trying to help.

As you might have heard, King Dozier and Queen Somnia took all the spinning wheels in the entire kingdom and had them locked away. Year after year, Princess Selene grew up. The Night Granny's curse was all but forgotten. The princess grew tall and beautiful. She was kind and smart and curious about the world around her. She was easy to love. And no one loved her more than King Dozier.

One day, the King and his Daughter saddled their horses and went for a ride. It was a glorious day. It was the kind of day when all of creation sings a song of praise. King Dozier and Selene were able to talk about many things. Their conversation was deep and true. They laughed and cried together about memories they both held dear. It was a perfect day.

As night fell, the two of them were far from the castle. They made their way to the nearest inn. The continued their conversation over dinner. Then, Princess Selene kissed her father goodnight. Her eyes sparked. She said, "I love you, daddy."

King Dozier felt such joy in his heart that he thought it would break. Without meaning to do so, he thought to himself, "This is it. This is the day that should last forever." Who could say what tomorrow might bring. Maybe there would be illness. Maybe there would be an accident. Maybe Selene would fall in love with that brooding Prince Hamlet from the next kingdom to the north. Maybe she would be lured away to join a cult.

"Let it never happen," King Dozier said to himself. "Let today be forever."

As promised, the Night Granny called upon her ancient magic. Selene found her room and went to sleep. But here, far from the castle, someone had left a spinning wheel stored beneath the bed itself. As she slept, Selene's hand brushed against the spindle. In that moment, the whole kingdom fell into a deep, deep sleep. They slept and slept. And nothing ever changed. Cook fires burned down to embers, then grew cold. Clean dishes were never soiled. Dirty dishes were never cleaned. Dust settled on houses and roadways. Dust settled over eyelids. And nothing ever changed.

Most of the time, I don't really know where stories come from. This time, I have a pretty good idea.

My own kids have ended another school year. We are moving full-throttle into the adolescent years. I am mindful of the good days ahead of us, and also of the hard days. At the same time, I am thinking about my friend, Jesse. I am remembering all that happened, as he moved from childhood into adolescence and then into his years as a young adult. Moving into the future seems like such a dangerous thing to do.

What if we could stop the clock? What if we could stay forever in one happy day? In this context, I found myself thinking about the story of Sleeping Beauty. What if the villein in that story was only granting someone's wish? What if Sleeping Beauty is really a story about getting what you ask for?

As I sat with this image, my mind was drawn to an unexpected passage of Scripture: "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off."

Well, that's grim! I've always assumed this passage is saying something about punishment. I've always heard it as something like a plea bargain with God. "If you accept responsibility for your crime and punish yourself, then you can avoid a worse punishment later on." But I am starting to hear this shocking passage in a new way.

There's no getting around it. Any talk about cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye is inflammatory rhetoric. Even so, I am starting to hear this passage in a new way. It actually sounds like hope. It sounds like an invitation to embrace transformation in our lives.

The future is scary to us because we are afraid of change. We're afraid of growing up,. We're afraid of growing old. As human beings, we experience stress even in the midst of positive change. Getting married is stressful. Having a baby is stressful. So is starting a job, buying a house, and graduating from school. For us, all change is stressful!

And so we are tempted to seek the sort of bargain that King Dozier made with the Night Granny. Because we are afraid of what might come next, we are tempted to entrench ourselves in what is familiar. We are tempted to postpone the future, and hope it will go away.

When I actually sat down re-read this passage of Scripture, here's what leapt out at me. It was like a shout. "It is better for you to enter life maimed than go into hell with two hands, where the fire never goes out." Again, hell is the place, "the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.." Hell is unchanging. Hell is constant. There is no future in hell.

Behind the inflammatory rhetoric, I think Jesus is saying that it is better to make a drastic change in your life than to be stuck someplace where change is impossible. Self mutilation is a shocking course of action, but it is better to do the hard thing and change than to be stuck in a place where change is impossible. We must open ourselves to change. The alternative is unthinkable.

Ultimately, change will come. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, there is finally a Prince who arrives to set the story in motion once more. Presumably, Selene leaves her parents to start a new family of her own. Change happens. It is unavoidable.

What are the changes that lie on the horizon of your life?

What if Jesus had said, "It is better to enter life without your car than to be stuck in place where fires burn forever. It is better to enter life with a different job. It is better to enter life with less money in the bank. If it brings you life, it is better to lose the very thing you fear to lose."

What a hard saying.

What a hopeful saying.