The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 14, Year A
Exodus 12; Romans 13; Matthew 18
September 19, 2017
Lessons from the Frog and the Scorpion
This last week, I read a wonderful article by David Benner in the journal Oneing, published by Richard Rohr and the team at the Center for Action and Contemplation. The article began with a story about a frog and a scorpion. You may have heard it:
One day, a scorpion wanted to cross a river. However, he couldn’t swim. Seeing a frog sitting on the bank, he asked the frog to carry him across the river on his back. The frog refused. “I don’t trust you,” he said. “I know how dangerous scorpions are. If you get on my back, you’ll sting and kill me.” The scorpion answered, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, we’ll both drown.” “But how do I know you won’t kill me when we get to the other side?” asked the frog. The scorpion replied, “I would never do that because I will be too grateful for your help to ever sting you.” After thinking about this for a minute, the frog agreed to let the scorpion get on his back. He began swimming, gradually feeling safer and safer, even starting to think that he had been silly to worry. But, halfway across the river, the scorpion suddenly stung the frog. “You fool,” croaked the frog, “Now we will both die! Why did you do that?” The scorpion answered, “Because I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature to sting.”
Benner says at the end, “The possibilities of changing human nature seem equally unrealistic…”
This is a difficult story to chew on, because it raises hard questions about ourselves and the world around us. We are called to become aware of those parts of ourselves and our society that appear to be incapable of or resistant to change, growth, development, conversion. Patterns of life sometimes seem intractable, and it’s easy to become jaded and cynical…and just give in and stop fighting…stop hoping.
But we can’t do that. That’s not who we are as Christians (that’s not who we are as human beings, as a matter of fact).
Taking positions of “That’s just the way I am” or “That’s just the way things are” is completely antithetical to the Gospel and the story of a living God that yearns for wholeness, redemption, conversion, and justice—for the Kingdom of Heaven.
In my own life, I continue to struggle with this temptation—and I fall into that pattern of “that’s just the way I am or things are.” And I give thanks (in hindsight) when someone wiser than me appears at that critical moment and reminds me that grasping onto such seemingly immovable and self-focused positions flies in the face of my Christian faith. I say “in hindsight” because no one likes change—except when you find it in your car when you forgot you were going through a toll booth.
The truth is that we are called to live into these spaces of growth and conversion, of transformation.
Look at the texts for today.
There is the Exodus text describing the moment of the Passover. In it, we see the movement from bondage to freedom, from slavery in what was to new life in what can be.
There is the Romans text that describes the movement from being asleep to being awake, from unconsciousness to a state of consciousness, of watchfulness. We are called to pay attention—even when it hurts.
And there is the Gospel text from Matthew and the provocative image of what is possible in a community when we move from a lackadaisical or flippant attitude to a posture of mutual accountability and maturity.
In all these texts, we see situations where there is a pattern of moving from the way things are or the way things have been into a space of possibility, of reorientation. These text show us that, at the heart of the Christian Gospel, we are called to a transformation of our very beings in and through the Spirit of Christ.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t like change. And, we will tie ourselves into pretzels to maintain a position that we hold dear, that supports a self-interest, or keeps us comfortable—even when all evidence points to the contrary. So, much of our Christian practice rests with, as we have said these past few weeks, with how we are called to think differently about things. How we live differently in life, how we live fully…as whole people. How we are called to experience transformation.
If you don’t know Mirabai Starr’s work, you should explore her. She writes so beautifully on St. John of the Cross’s image of the Dark Night of the Soul, that space in us when we come to realize—begrudgingly—that our usual or normal way of making sense of our lives—“the way things are”—no longer works or makes sense. We think, “this is the way things are” or “this is the way God is” until we are faced with a situation where that position is honestly no longer feasible. And we face a crisis of faith. Time after time I hear folks say, when they reach this space, where is God? Where did God go? Why wasn’t God here? When, perhaps the question we should be asking is, “Why won’t or can’t I budge an inch in order to widen my perspective and see God all around me—albeit in a way that I never imagined possible?”
How do we respond when our world view is threatened, when strongly-held opinions—economic, social, political, or whatever—break like waves against rocks? What do we do when we encounter goodness in a place we have been taught was only bad? Do we allow our hearts to open to the possibility that God might be bigger than our positions? Or do we grasp more tightly and insist that we are right?
Mirabai describes this space this way:
“This spiritual crisis is a cause for celebration, because it is only when we get out of our own way that the Divine can take over and fill us with love. But it’s a grueling process to come to this level of surrender, and few of us go willingly.”
The hard truth that we come to realize in the spiritual life—in Church communities and in all of life—is this: we will change, one way or another. As Cynthia says in so many of our conversations, this baby is going to be born.
We are going to change.
We can either grasp and hold on so tightly to our way of seeing and believing things until we reach a point where everything breaks down around us and we go into full crisis reorientation mode…
Or, we can cultivate a spiritual practice in a community. We can lean into a practice of faith that seeks wholeness, honesty, a bare-bones recognition of how our ego rules our life so often to preserve our self-interest…and we can cultivate a practice of prayer that seeks to yield to God’s direction in our lives…and we can be changed. We can be transformed. And then…when we face those moments of crisis, we find ourselves standing in a much different position than we would have been in had we continued to grasp and insist on our way of doing things.
Take these terrible storms…these terrible wildfires out West…all these catastrophes that are slamming into us one after the other. These storms of the century that seem to come every few years—or weeks. In The Episcopal Church we have long challenged ourselves to ask difficult questions about how our consumption and fuel usage, our addiction to ease of travel, and wastefulness and attitude toward life don’t connect with our call as Christians to care for the planet and use its resources rightly. It is why our Presiding Bishop named the Environment as one of his three focus points. Now, we must ask ourselves what we are being called to notice…what we are being called to pay attention to—even if it hurts. Even if that means that we must let go of long-held assumptions about ‘the ways things are.’
(For those who think that these are new prayers or new thoughts that the liberal clergy have brought in these past few years, those prayers have been in there since 1976—and well before that.)
Our practice is the key, our dedication to a space of prayer, of listening and yielding to God’s guidance. With this focus on our practice of prayer, we open ourselves to be awakened…to notice…to see…even if it hurts. How does a practice of prayer “work?” A disciple once asked his teacher:
Disciple: What can I do to make myself enlightened?
Teacher: As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.
Disciple: Then of what use are spiritual practices?
Teacher: To help ensure that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.
I know so much about life seems intractable—at least so much of my life does. So much around me seems to quote the scorpion, “It’s my nature to sting.” So much in my own life seems to have a nature to sting. So much needs to be transformed. So much needs wholeness. So much needs a reorientation. Hope in the midst of grief. Relief in the midst of crisis. Comfort in the midst of pain. Love in the midst of despair.
But hope abounds…is always there, waiting for us to see it, to notice it.
So, I invite you to take your bulletin home today, and—like we do sometimes—tape the picture of the scorpion and the frog on your mirror or somewhere. And notice it…pay attention to what seems intractable in your own life…see what comes to you…see what rises to your awareness, in your heart…and let it be a prayer, “Holy God, help this part of my life be transformed by your grace so that I may be whole.”
 David Benner, “The Heart of Deep Change,” Oneing, Volume 5, number 1, 2017, 21-29.
 Benner, 25.