Friday, January 23, 2009

Thy Turnbuckle and Thy Bo, They Comfort Me

When I was in seminary, one of the professors commented on the well-known line in Psalm 23, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4b, KJV), and pointed out that the shepherd had both a rod and a staff. The staff, the traditional “shepherd’s crook”, was designed for leading, turning, or redirecting a sheep. The “hook” part at the end tenderly snagged a sheep going in a wrong direction and gently brought it back to safety.

The rod, however, was for those sheep that were defiant or purposely wayward. When the staff was not effective, the rod provided a clearer, unmistakable message that was hard to ignore or defy. Both rod and staff showed the shepherd’s care for the sheep as the sheep required; both, therefore, provided “comfort”.

Recently I was presented with two items. A member of the Vestry (church board) gave me a turnbuckle. I had seen one of these before but didn’t know what it was called. He said that a turnbuckle is a piece of hardware used for pulling together two walls that are bending outward from the weight of the roof over them. Without correction, they will eventually buckle and collapse, bringing down the roof. A turnbuckle joins two cables, each of which is connected to one of the walls. Tightening the turnbuckle gently but inexorably pulls the walls back to the vertical.

The person who gave me the turnbuckle told me that sometimes ministering in a church can be like that. The ministry of responsibility for leadership is often pressed to bring together people or parties of different convictions so that the congregation doesn’t collapse but rather enabling both sides to “pull together”, thereby becoming more true to themselves and so work for the common good.

A day or two after I received the turnbuckle, a family in our parish’s martial arts program gave me a bo for Christmas. A bo is a six-foot staff used as a weapon. Although a bo is usually made of hardwood, this particular gift was made of hard bamboo—for ceremonial or demonstrative purposes rather than actual combat.

The donor had had the fruits of the Spirit incised in Chinese characters on the bo. The fruits of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22)—are recited by the students at the beginning of each karate class.

Putting both these gifts together, it occurred to me that they were rather like the rod and staff of Psalm 23. The turnbuckle, like the staff, is a symbol of gentle correction. The bo, if I were so inclined, could be used as a “rod”—a stubborn student could be “thwacked” with the bo on the forehead, leaving the imprint of the suitable fruit of the Spirit. After the application, I could advise the individual, “Now go look at yourself in the mirror and meditate on the fruit of the Spirit you lack!” Doubtless such a student would be “comforted” by the application.

Some sensitive readers of this blog might object to the notion of a student’s being thwacked. To those well-intentioned but misguided bleeding-hearts, I ask whether they would prefer that I take a shepherd’s crook and yank people around by the neck. I don’t think so.

Besides, in these days when people by the gazillions are paying good money to get tattooed and pierced, who’s going to complain about a thwack on the forehead? Additionally, for the few days when the imprint remains visible on the student’s forehead, probably plenty of people will ask, “What’s that thing on your forehead?” –and that will provide the student with a grand opportunity for evangelism: “That’s the Chinese character for ‘kindness’; it comes from the Bible. The Bible is about Jesus. Let me tell you about Jesus…”

And what is more comforting than the truth about Jesus?

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