The story of Arnold, from a little book: Nenshu and the Tiger, by Martin Bell. Keep in mind that the author of this story was an Episcopal priest.
Once there was a bird with fur. He had a long yellow beak and pleasant green eyes. Everyone who knew him called him Arnold. But his real name was Bill.
Bill would never fly when he wanted to go somewhere. He was more than satisfied to shuffle along the ground at a leisurely pace. And sooner or later he always got where he was going.
Usually, when a group of his friends saw Bill shuffling quietly to and fro they would say, “Hello, Arnold!” And Bill would say, “Hello.” And then after he was gone the whole group would spend a lot of time talking about all of the reasons why Arnold should fly instead of shuffle.
It made Bill happy whenever friends said hello to him. And he rather liked the name ‘Arnold,’ even though it wasn’t his name. Interestingly enough, Bill didn’t know that his friends thought that he should fly, because no one ever told him what they said when he wasn’t there.
Now and then Bill was mistaken for a kitten. This was in part due to his appearance, of course. But it was also because he could, and did, purr whenever he wanted to.
Perhaps you have never seen a bird with fur that shuffles and purrs. Certainly the same is true about many others. So please don’t be discouraged. But do stay alert. Heads up and all that could avoid many a passing-by-unnoticed.
Anyway, ‘Arnold,’ as he was called, enjoyed life immensely. And although he had only one possession, it was enough. I wonder if you can guess what he had? Would it surprise you to learn that Bill owned a wrist watch? Well, he did. On one furry wing Bill wore a tiny Timex brand wrist watch.
The watch didn’t work. And so Bill never really knew what time it was. Still, he was always hopeful that someone might notice it there on his wing and ask, ‘What’s the time?’ Bill chuckled softly when he thought about his reply. Naturally, he would make up a time. And then without so much as blinking a green eye he would say, ‘It’s 3:45.’ Or, perhaps, ‘Ten-fifteen by my watch.’ He could decide on whatever time he wanted. Such fun to own a watch that didn’t work.
Glenda the bobcat liked ‘Arnold.’ Ordinarily birds weren’t safe when she was around. Not at all. But, as luck would have it, Glenda was terribly nearsighted. And she actually did think that Bill was a tiny bobcat. (You may be certain he had never indicted otherwise.) Whenever Glenda found Bill shuffling, she always carried him back to her lair by the fur of his neck. Then Bill would purr for a long while until Glenda went looking for food. When the coast was clear, so to speak, he shuffled on about his own business- until she found him again, and the process was repeated.
During the various interludes between being found by Glenda and waiting for someone to ask about the time, Bill spent many a happy hour pretending to wind his watch. I say ‘pretending’ because it is nearly impossible to wind anything with a wing. It wasn’t that Bill didn’t try. He just never succeeded.
Finally the day came when one of his friends approached him on behalf of the entire group who had been insisting that he should fly.
‘Arnold,’ he asked cautiously, ‘why don’t you ever fly?’ It was Charles the groundhog.
‘Because flying is for the birds, Charles,’ replied Bill, shuffling around a bit as if to emphasize the point.
‘But you are a bird, Arnold,’ the groundhog insisted. ‘And you really ought to fly. You’re making ever body uncomfortable.’
Bill was silent. He looked perplexed and lost in thought. Then, after a moment or two, he brightened up and said, ‘No, I don’t think so, Charles. I don’t want to fly. I’m sorry it makes you uncomfortable. Truly I am. However, flying is out of the question.’
‘But, Arnold,’ said the exasperated groundhog, ‘what shall I tell the others? You’re embarrassing all of us.’
‘Tell them anything you want to, Charles. Just get the point across. No flying. I’m sorry.’ Bill glanced at his watch. ‘Why, however did it get to be so late? It’s 8:37- past your suppertime, Charles. Time for me to be on my way, too.’ Bill seemed genuinely surprised and chagrined by the lateness of the hour. ‘Thank you for stopping, though. I know it took a great deal of courage to be spokesman for the entire group. Goodnight, Charles. Can you believe the time? Wherever did the evening go?’
After the confused groundhog had scurried off in order to make it home for supper, Bill sat down in the warm afternoon sun. He decided to make up a shuffling son to sing while moving about.
Shuffle, shuffle to and fro
I’ll get where I’m going.
Never even have to know
Which way the wind is blowing.
I suppose that I could fly,
There’s really nothing to it.
Still, I’ve always wondered why
A bird would want to do it.
There, that was a fine song. Bill smiled as he thought about Charles running home for supper. Then he placed both wings behind his neck and lay back in the grass for a short nap.
Shuffle, shuffle to and fro
I’ll get where I’m going.
Never even have to know
Which way…the… wind is …
Soon Bill was fast asleep. The afternoon sun warmed his fur and he dreamed an appropriate dream.
After a while he heard a voice beside him saying, ‘Hello, Arnold.’ Slowly, Bill opened on eye. It was nearly dark. Evidently, he’d slept a good bit longer than he planned. ‘Hello, Arnold.’ Bill turned in the direction of the greeting. It was a firefly acquaintance.
‘Hello, Alice. Nice evening and all,’ he said pleasantly.
‘Arnold, will you tell me what’s going on? Whatever did you say to upset Charles so? Why won’t you fly like you’re supposed to? And what are you doing lying here in the grass?’ Alice seemed puzzled and concerned.
‘Why, of course, I’ll tell you, Alice,’ aid Bill, dusting himself off and resuming an upright position. His green eyes reflected the firefly’s glittering. He blinked at Alice once or twice and then began.
‘For the most part, I’m convinced that we forest animals, birds, groundhogs, even fireflies, take ourselves too seriously. Each of us seems to believe that he or she has a certain set part to act out in some great big cosmic play. Incidentally, I don’t think it’s true, Alice. But, God knows, it might be. All I’m saying is that either way, it’s funny. If there really is a script, the whole idea tickles me. And if there isn’t any script at all, but we keep insisting on acting out a part that hasn’t even been assigned to us, then that’s hilarious.’
Alice looked distressed. ‘I don’t think it’s funny, Arnold. Everyone knows there is a script. And it’s very important that you act the way you are supposed to. Your part has been assigned.’
Bill shuffled some. ‘Perhaps,’ he said.
Alice waited for a minute or two and then she added, ‘Arnold, are you OK?’
‘Oh, yes. Fine, fine. I was just thinking that I am more of a mind to believe the play isn’t composed until after the actors themselves have created the script by what they say and do. I’m sure we take ourselves much too seriously, Alice.’ Bill pretended to wind his watch.
‘Is that a watch, Arnold?’
‘Why, yes it is,’ Bill replied without looking up. ‘Yes, indeed. It is a wrist watch. And a favorite possession of mine, too.’
‘What’s the time?’Alice asked.
Without so much as blinking a green eye, Bill said, ‘It’s nearly midnight. Eleven fifty-four to be exact.’
‘Gracious, Arnold! Are you sure? It doesn’t seem that late.’
‘Am I sure? Oh, yes, certainly. 11:54 exactly. It’s always later than we think, you know.’ Bill looked up and blinked thoughtfully.
‘Goodnight, Arnold,’ mumbled the bewildered firefly.
‘Goodnight, Alice. And thanks for stopping.’
That night Bill slept out under the stars. He awoke feeling refreshed and even more delighted with his world than ever. For a while he pretended to wind his watch.
Shuffle, shuffle. To and fro. A bird with fur. A long yellow beack and pleasant green eyes. ‘I’m sure we take ourselves much too seriously,’ he mumbled while making an attempt to stand on his head. Then, upside-down, Bill saw Glenda the bobcat headed earnestly in his direction, and he immediately toppled over in silent laughter. ‘There can be no mistake about it,’ he thought. ‘We do take ourselves much too seriously.’
I don’t know Martin Bell, personally. So what I have to say is pure speculation and, as with all comments from Peter about Paul, my speculation says more about me than about him.
My guess is that Martin Bell is Arnold. He created a character to use as self-explanation. The story, then, is self-revelation.
He was an ordained Episcopal priest, so Martin was called Father; that’s the name they gave to him. As a priest, he was expected not only to say and do certain things in a liturgical way, as befits the practice of Episcopalians, but the parameters that circumscribe the behavior and beliefs of people in his profession are rather tightly drawn.
Arnold is bird. He’s supposed to fly. It’s as simple and as direct as that. Period. End of discussion, as Charles the groundhog- the spokesperson for the entire group- so clearly pointed out.
It’s not the name- Father, or Arnold, that’s important here. Martin Bell is pointing out that one’s identity as a person is determined by ‘what they say and do,’ as Arnold explained to Alice the firefly. “The play isn’t composed until the actors have created the script by what they say and do.”
On the other hand, it is not unreasonable for a member of a particular congregation to expect certain behaviors from a person hired, or assigned, to serve that congregation.
A title is assigned to certain jobs or professions, and, by and large, this job or profession has been chosen. It’s not imposed. At least in our society. The question the story raises is, “How much latitude is given to the individual who is doing a certain job or profession?”
Latitude allows for authenticity. It’s a matter of being a real person who happens to do a certain job, rather than a person who becomes the job. Since this is an important aspect of the role for those of us who are doing it, so it must be given serious consideration to those of you who are participating in the process by being here today. (But not too serious, of course!)
Martin Bell is telling the story- he’s saying what it’s like to be a man who happens to be a clergyperson, and a man who happens to be a clergyperson has a lot of “supposed to’s,” attached to the job, as Charles the groundhog said: “But you’re supposed to fly, Arnold. You are a bird!”
Now let me comment on Glenda the bobcat. Ah, yes, Glenda. When Glenda the bobcat is around, Arnold learns to purr! Fortunately for him, Glenda mistook Arnold for a kitten, and you can be sure he didn’t tell her otherwise! His life depended on it!
Charles the groundhog was the spokesperson for the entire group who thought that Arnold should fly, instead of shuffle. But Glenda took matters into her own hands, or her own mouth, as it were. She wasn’t representing anybody but herself. Her issue wasn’t about his flying. Not at all. As a matter of fact, if he did fly he wouldn’t be safe landing around her!
We get the point. And, of course, it’s not only people who happen to be clergy persons who have people telling them that they should fly. It’s not only clergy persons who have to learn to purr in order not to be eaten by the bobcats of this world!
On the other hand, it is fair to expect certain things of a person who decides to be a clergyperson.
As a footnote let me say that the person from whom I first heard this story more than 25 years ago was a Unitarian Universalist clergyperson. He was a very nice guy. He was a fun guy. He served a congregation not far from the church I was serving in Attleboro. We developed a fun relationship as soon as he took that nearby church.
So I was surprised one day when I got a call from a funeral director in that town who told me that he had a Unitarian Universalist family who needed a clergyperson to officiate at a funeral or memorial service.
I told him that there was a minister there at the Unitarian church in town, and that he had been there for several months. He said, “I know. We called him and asked him to do the service but he told me that he doesn’t like to do funerals. As a matter of fact, he suggested that I call you.”
A bird with fur that shuffles and purrs, with a long yellow beak and pleasant green eyes. My colleague who didn’t like doing funerals also didn’t like preaching more than once a month, and there were other things he didn’t like about the work. He left our ministry after a very brief tenure. And rightly so.
Martin Bell knows full well that life is serious business. Those of us who assume the role of clergyperson stand at lots of gravesides. I’ve done it hundreds of times. That’s serious business.
Those of us who assume the role of clergyperson are expected to listen to the stories that are brought to us; stories about terminal illnesses, divorces, abuse, depression and generalized anxiety and angst. We know very well that life is serious. This is not dress rehearsal. It’s serious business.
We also know that it’s possible to take oneself too seriously. Most of what we clergypeople do is not about us; it’s about you. One of our tasks is to be fully present without imposing ourselves, our personal needs, onto those whom we are called to serve. It’s tricky business. There’s a fine line between ‘dealing out one’s life to the people- life passed through the fire of thought,’ as Emerson challenged ministers of his day to do, and making ministry a personal thing.
I’ve been walking that fine line for 32 years. I’m not unaware that Charles the groundhog and a firefly named Alice who think I’ve crossed the line with my ‘shuffling and purring,’ my personal stories and poems; and that there’s a Glenda the bobcat here and there who wants to take me by the scruff of the neck and locked me in her den.
We’re all aware that there are people who go a little too far in telling other people how they should live–what they should think and say and do. To put it differently, we’ve all been Charles the groundhog from time to time, or even Glenda the bobcat.
Just for the record, let me say that I have enjoyed the broadest latitude imaginable in my work as minister here in Fairfield County. I have absolutely no complaints, even as I acknowledge that I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. But then I don’t try to be.
The other point to Martin Bell’s story of Arnold has to do with taking ourselves too seriously, and acknowledging the healing power of laughter. We know the value of a well-developed sense of humor, especially the ability to laugh at oneself.
To take oneself too seriously gives the appearance of putting oneself above others and patronizing by talking down. One is said to pontificate, which is to say, to act like the Pope, which is why this particular Pope made a practice of kissing the ground of all those countries to which he has made a pilgrimage…to avoid looking like one who pontificates…to make a down-to-earth connection with the people who live on that land!
To take oneself too seriously is to become pompous or pretentious, and there’s no better way of looking like a clown than to assume that self-important posture.
When Arnold sees Glenda the bobcat headed earnestly in his direction Arnold topples over in silent laughter and he says, to no one in particular, “There can be no mistake about it, we do take ourselves much too seriously.”
Mark Twain once quipped that we humans are the only species who blushes, or needs to.
We are also the only species to laugh.
Why do we laugh? Obviously you could answer, ‘Because we need to laugh,’ but why do we need to laugh?
There are lots of different kinds of laughter. Some laughter is a spontaneous response to something said or done- but some laughter is simply nervous energy, or an attempt to satisfy someone’s need to tell a joke.
Some laughter is an act of ridicule or mocking derision- which has nothing to do with a sense of humor and everything to do with prejudice and even hatred.
Psalm 22, which provided some of the final words attributed to Jesus: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me; why art thou so far from helping me…they pierced my hands and my feet…they divided my garments among them…all that see me laugh at me…”
Laughter can be cruel. But I want to talk about laughter that is healthy and healing- laughter that is a relief and a release from the seriousness of living and the need to deal with death and dying, taxes and bankruptcy and family feuds and the humiliation of failures and so forth.
The laughter we’re talking about is what the Bible’s book of Proverbs calls ‘the best medicine.’ “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance,” says Proverbs 15 “He that hath a merry heart has a continual feast.”
It’s no coincidence that the people on this earth who have been the most hated, abused and battered- the Jews- have also been among the funniest, self-deprecating (in a humorous way, as in ‘we-need-to-laugh-at-ourselves,’ way.)
A few years ago someone gave me a book called Laughter in Hell: the use of humor during the Holocaust, by Steve Lipman, a staff writer for The Jewish Week.
The strange success of The Producer is based on the ability to parody of the Nazis.
Hadassah Magazine wrote, “Steve Lipman…gathers an array of humorous materials arising from the struggle of those subject to the Nazi horror. From the anti-Nazi cabaret parodies…to Jewish jokes in the Warsaw Ghetto and through the early postwar period, it was apparent that humor served a vital role in maintaining a sense of self and humanity.”
Humor serves a vital role in our lives, helping us to maintain a sense of self a humanity…there’s no doubt about it.
One of my reasons for giving this sermon at this time is to let you know that I am alright; that the difficulties of recent weeks and months have not caused me to lose my sense of humor or my sense of balance.
Laughter is built in to this experience we call being human. The infant does not need to be taught to laugh, anymore than she needs to be taught to cry. The infant’s cry is a very effective means of communication, but the infant’s laughter is something else. It is just as natural as crying. It pure. It is without motive; it is unadulterated, spontaneous joy. It’s one of the great gifts we get from the child…to be reminded that we sometimes take ourselves too seriously.
We need to balance the seriousness with some good, old-fashioned laughs. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves.
That’s why some of the bloopers in church newsletters hit home to religious professionals as well as people in the pews.
One church newsletter announced an upcoming potluck supper this way: “The potluck supper on Sunday will begin at 6 p.m. Prayer and medication to follow.”
Another announcement to which some of us can relate said: “The church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment, and gracious hostility.”
And an announcement in the order of service said, “This evening at 7 p.m. there will be a hymn sing in the park across from the church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.”
Some might suggest that the secretary’s typo was a Freudian slip. Who knows? A little letter left off or added to a word can make a big difference. For example, under ‘joys and concerns’ the newsletter said, “Mrs. Johnson will be entering the hospital this week for testes.”
“The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Fellowship Hall on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.”
“Weight watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.”
The sermon this morning: “Jesus Walks on the Water.” The sermon tonight, “Searching For Jesus.”
Barbara Thormahlen might have put this one in the newsletter: “Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don’t forget your husbands.”
“Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.”
“Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.”
This one’s on me, it says, “Bette Clark remains in the hospital and needs more blood donors. She is also having trouble sleeping and requests tapes of Frank’s sermons.”
Or this: “During the absence of our Pastor, we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when J.F. Stubbs filled the pulpit.”
“Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married at the church on May 5. So ends a friendship that began in high school.”
And this reassuring message from the minister: “Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.”
Finally an announcement about one of the many self-help groups that meet in churches: “The Low Self-esteem Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Please use the back door.”
Sometimes tears and smiles are mixed very closely together. I’ve had lots of brides cry at the critical moment, and I’ve had some get into a fit of laughter.
I’m reminded of the famous Mary Tyler Moore show about the funeral for a clown, when Mary can’t stop laughing. When the minister says, “It’s okay, it would please Jimmy to have you laugh, he loved to make people laugh, he lived for it…so laugh, get it out!” At which point she breaks into tears.
One of the things that has helped me move from feeling nervous during a Sunday service, or a memorial service or a wedding is when I make some kind of bloopers or obvious blunder. Suddenly I lighten up and I’m able to be present, to be ‘in the moment.’
I think, along with everybody else, “So I goofed. What else is new? Now that I’m reminded that I’m not perfect, and I don’t have to try to be, we can all relax a little. We do take ourselves much too seriously.”
When we take ourselves too seriously we run the risk of sounding pompous or ridiculous.
Norman Cousins, in his wonderful book about surviving a major illness, The Anatomy of an Illness, decided that if he was to survive the life-threatening illness with which he was dealing, the first thing he had to do was to get out of the hospital, where there was so little humor, so little opportunity ‘to laugh it off,’ so to speak.
He went to an expensive hotel, which, he said, was a lot cheaper than the hospital! He rented some films that he knew would help him to laugh: The Three Stooges and some Marks Brothers films. Laughter, he said, helps the immune system which builds the necessary antibodies that fight off infection and disease. Important endorphins secreted by the brain as a response to thoughts- laughter is, indeed, good medicine.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Norman Cousins donated this pulpit. He would approve of the use to which it has been put today! Taking ourselves too seriously is not good for our health!