Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Pebbles into Diamonds

A friend of mine is on the board of directors for my local community centre and recently invited myself and some other friends who live locally, to attend the AGM. In amongst the various items on the agenda, one of the presenters told this story:
There were once two travellers on a journey. On their way they met another traveller, and as they began to talk with him it soon became clear that he was a man of great wisdom. They felt extremely fortunate to have met this man and wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and to learn from him. As they neared the end of their journey therefore, they were disappointed to discover that their paths were to separate the next day - leaving them a day's journey to travel without their new friend. 
Before they parted though, they asked the man if he could give them some advice for the last day of their journey. He thought about this for a moment and then said, "Before you set off tomorrow, fill your backpacks with as many pebbles as you can carry. When you arrive at your destination, you will feel very happy, but I think you will also feel very sad". 
The two travellers were stunned by this advice. It sounded like complete nonsense and particularly surprised them coming from the lips of this man who had seemed so wise to them both up until then! They were strongly minded to ignore his advice and put it down to a lapse of judgement, but in the end, seeing as he had otherwise made such a good impression, they decided to give him the benefit of the doubt - but with considerable reluctance nonetheless. And so, the next day they gathered together a small pile of pebbles and loaded them into their packs.
At the end of the day, they finally arrived at their destination, worn out by their journey and especially from carrying the pebbles. They put down their packs and opened them up - to discover that the pebbles they had carried had all turned into diamonds! Both men of course were delighted with their new wealth - but both were also deeply saddened - for had they taken their companion's advice a little more seriously, then they would have carried a lot more pebbles!

The moral of the story - as delivered by the speaker - was that those who look after and run the community centre and its various services, have the job of turning pebbles into diamonds, by helping people, who often find themselves in difficult situations, to explore their potential and become everything they can be. It's hard work sometimes and may not always feel worthwhile, but it pays dividends in the end. Better to make the effort to carry a few more pebbles, than to get to the end of your journey and realise how many diamonds you could have ended up with!

For myself, although as far as I know the story is not meant to have a Christian emphasis, it reminded me strongly of one of Jesus' sayings about treasure:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6 verses 18-21
Most Christians today, when they hear the word "heaven", assume that this refers to the afterlife - and so this passage is about earning rewards for the future by performing good deeds in the present. To the original Jewish readers (for whom this was originally written) however, the meaning would have been quite different. "Heaven" for the Jews, didn't mean the place you go to when you die, it meant the place where God is (Jewish belief in the afterlife - for those who believed in an afterlife - was instead focused on the "resurrection", when those who had  been faithful to God would be raised from the dead to live in the new age of the Messiah).

So what does it mean then, to "store up ... treasures in heaven"? I would suggest that it's about what you value, and in my view, the speaker who told us the above story got it dead right. The things that we often think are valuable are not the things that ultimately matter and are not the things that matter to God. To store up "treasures in heaven" is to invest time, energy and resources in the things that God cares about - love, justice and people. When we do this, we are storing up riches that nothing can take away from us - riches that will last. These riches manifest themselves in terms of their current and ongoing effect on the world, and in terms of the type of people that we become - and I believe there is also, beyond this, an eternal dimension.

Christians who take Jesus' words seriously still do hope for a resurrection, although we may not be completely clear (or even all agree) about quite what that means. It does mean though, that we hope for a future with God, in a world ruled by Him and free from all evil. What kind of treasure is going to matter in a world like this?

I am convinced it will be the same kind of treasure that I mentioned above - love, justice, relationships, mercy - those who are rich in these character traits and have stored up treasure in these areas will be the "millionaires" and "billionaires" of the world to come.

When I get there I expect to be delighted to discover that the few pebbles I've carried have become diamonds. I also expect though, that I may feel quite sad, and wish that I had carried a lot more pebbles...

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