To Win or to Play

Green Die by Steve JohnsonA group of friends really loved playing a game.

I’m not going to use the name of the game here, but you’ve probably seen it and you’ve probably played it. It’s the one where you’ve got these pieces that move around an outside track, and then they go up toward the center of the board, and when you’ve got all your pieces there you’re the winner. You roll dice to see how far your pieces can move, and sometimes you can make your opponents (or they can make you) send pieces back to the beginning.

These friends loved to play this game. But one of them, I’m afraid, was something of a cheat.

He wasn’t a bad person most of the time. He shared his cookies with his friends, and he’d help them out when they were struggling to climb something. He didn’t call people names, and he did his homework with minimal reminders from his parents.

But he did like to win.

While the group was learning the game, he would play merrily along until it started to look bad for him. A few times, he stuck it out until the game was over, but at other times, he’d walk away. A couple of times, he jogged the table enough to displace all the pieces.

That didn’t go over well with his friends.

Since he still wanted to be with them, and he still wanted to play, he had to find some other way to be there. Some way to make sure he ended up winning.

That meant cheating.

He learned how to miscount his moves so that he could land on the “safe” spaces. He’d miscount other players’ moves so that they wouldn’t land on his pieces and send them back. He’d even try moving pieces while the others weren’t looking.

Sometimes he’d get away with it, but mostly he did get caught. They’d make him do it right. But that was nearly as dreary a way to play a game as with someone who’d give up when things looked bad.

Finally, one of them said, “Look. I know you want to win. I know you really don’t want to lose. Here’s the news flash for you:

“None of us wants to lose.

“More than winning, though, what we want to do is play the game. Just play the game. Winning is better, and losing is worse, but what we want to do is play the game.

“And if we’re going to play the game together, we’re going to have to play by the same rules. That’s what makes it a game, and not a fight.”

Well, he settled down. He had a few relapses, but fewer and fewer as time went on.

Because he really did want to play.

Photo by Steve Johnson, used by permission under Creative Commons license.

I’iwi Rules

'I'iwi_at_Hosmer_Grove,_Haleakala,_Maui,_Hawaii_4There was an i’iwi who was brave and creative and spirited. If she was a marcher, she’d have marched to the beat of her own drummer – and changed drummers at least four times along the course of the parade. The chances are good that only one of those five drummers would have been audible to any other marcher.

She was not a marcher, however, and had no intention of becoming one (since i’iwi never seriously consider marching at all). She was determined, however, to push the boundaries every chance she got.

It started when she realized that her long curved bill could be inserted into an ohi’a blossom from above as well as below. It worked as well from either side. She experimented with all sorts of perches, and all sorts of grips. Some worked better than others, but she never gave up trying something else.

 

If she could eat upside down, she reasoned, certainly she could fly upside down. Right?

This, it turned out, did not go well at all. Her body, which probably had more sense than her head at that moment, resisted even trying to fly upside down. She would flip over, and her wings would curl just a little more and complete the roll so that she was rightside up again. She tried left, and she tried right, and she went rolling through the sky.

With enough determination, though, she got her wings to stop making that extra curl – or make a reverse curl (she wasn’t sure) – and there she was, belly-up to the sky. And…

Falling.

She flipped hastily over before she hit the ground.

A few more tries brought much the same result. An i’iwi’s wings don’t provide a lot of lift upside down.

“Well,” she thought, “how about if I try something else?” She gained some altitude, settled into a rhythm, and then tucked one wing onto her back. And then she was rolling and spiraling downward, head spinning, and only her body’s instinct to re-open her folded wing saved her from a nasty crash.

Several near-misses later, she flew wearily to a tree where her grandmother had been watching. She settled down on the branch to catch her breath.

“What,” asked her grandmother, “were you doing?”

“Trying different ways to fly,” she replied between gasps of air.

“Upside down?”

“I can eat upside down.”

“On just one wing?”

She shrugged. “I’m sure I can make it work.”

Her grandmother looked long and lovingly at her, and said, “If any i’iwi could do it, I’m sure you could, Granddaughter. But I’m afraid there are some basic rules to flight – not rules of what’s allowed, but rules of what’s possible. And one of them is that you’ve got to use two wings to fly.”

An i’iwi could explain the physics of it, I’m sure, better than I can. What I can tell you is that the grandmother gave her granddaughter enough of an explanation that her failures to fly on one wing started to make a lot of sense. It’s one of the rules that i’iwi live by.

For many centuries now, people have had a set of rules that make life better for us. We call them the Ten Commandments. They’re not laws of physics, but they do tell us how we can live well with each other and with God. If we don’t give our worship or give our resources to powers which aren’t God, we’ll do well. If we don’t break promises made in God’s name, we’ll do well. If we give time to God, we’ll do well. If we treat our parents respectfully, we’ll do well. If we don’t hurt one another, or steal from one another, or lie to one another, or break our relationships, or pay more attention to each other’s stuff than to themselves, we’ll do well.

Those are as basic to us as two wings are to the i’iwi. With those rules, we’ve got every chance to fly.

Photo by Kanalu Chock  – originally posted to Flickr as ‘I’iwi at Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8261908

The Big Brother

Cookies by ZingyyellowThis story is about a little boy who had a younger sister. Do any of you have a younger brother or sister?

[Pastor, of course, knows perfectly well that some of these children have younger brothers or sisters. He had to suggest that elbowing little sister was not strictly necessary for the story.]

Well, when the little sister came along, he was terribly excited. She was a brand new addition to the family. She was smaller than he was, which was a new experience for him, and she was pretty adorable, after all. It was wonderful to have the new baby in the house.

Fairly soon, though, he wondered if she was going to be quite as wonderful as he’d hoped. She didn’t seem to do much, you see. In fact, all she seemed to do was eat, sleep, and cry. Sometimes it seemed that all she ever did was cry.

She’d cry when she was hungry. She’d cry when she wanted a snuggle. She’d cry when she was tired. And for heaven’s sake, she couldn’t even use the potty, and she’d cry when things were messy.

I mean, this was kind of hard to deal with, after all.

He was pretty observant, though, and he noticed something about all this crying. It worked. She’d cry, and she’d get fed. She’d cry, and somebody would pick her up. She’d cry, and she got put down to sleep. She’d cry, and somebody would take her off to get her cleaned up.

That was impressive. He didn’t get what he wanted as easily as all that.

So he decided he’d give her technique a try.

As it happened, he wanted a cookie. So he stood in the kitchen, and he started to cry. With any luck, he’d have a cookie before very long.

At the beginning, it looked like it was going to work. Mom came right away, and she asked him, “Why are you crying? What’s wrong? What do you want?”

His sister, however, never answered questions like these, no matter how many times she was asked. In fact, the adults usually answered them themselves: “Are you hungry? Oh, yes, you are!” without even giving his sister a moment to reply. So he didn’t answer, either.

He just kept crying. And the more his mother didn’t guess he wanted a cookie, the more frustrated his crying got.

I’m afraid this part of the story goes on for a while. Does anybody want to fill in with some crying?

The adults shook their heads, but one of the older brothers chimed in with, “Wah, wah, wah!”

Well, he finally stopped crying. By that time he was in his mother’s arms, snuggled on her lap, with his tears drying on her shoulder. He finally decided to answer the question she asked gently once again:

“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“Well,” he sniffled, “I want a cookie.”

His mother was baffled.

“Why didn’t you ask for one? Why did you start crying about it?” she asked.

“Well, my sister just cries. She cries, and she gets what she wants.”

“Oh, son,” said he mother. “She gets what she wants because, being a baby, she doesn’t need very many things. She needs to be fed, and held, and cleaned, so we don’t have too many things to guess at before we find the right one.

“You want many more things than that.”

He had to admit that this was true. His sister never seemed to want a cookie, after all. It was rather nice of her, in fact, to leave them all for him.

“Also, your sister doesn’t know how to talk yet. She has to learn.”

This was news to her big brother. He thought she could talk just fine; she just never did.

“She’ll learn to ask for things. It will take some time, but she will. You did, after all.”

“I did?”

His mother beamed at him. “Yes, you did. And you do it very well. At least, until just now. And I think it works much better for you than just crying. So you might try asking once again.”

Asking. Oh, yes. What was he asking for?

“Can I have a cookie?”

And now, what do you think his mother said?

The young people let out an immediate and unanimous chorus of, “She said ‘No!'”

Oh, my. Don’t you folks like happy endings?

Well, I like happy endings. And since this story didn’t happen just before supper time, mother was able to look at her son and say…

“Yes.”

Photo by Zingyyellow. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

The Manu-o-Ku Sisters

Incubating_white_ternToday’s story is about a bird – and no, I’m not going to ask you to guess which one. Today, the heroines of our story are a seabird called a manu-o-Ku. In English, it’s called a white tern, and I would think you can guess what color most of its feathers are.

That’s right. They’re bright white.

Like a lot of seabirds who catch fish and squid – er, calamari – the manu-o-Ku spends a lot of its flying time circling around and looking down at the sea. Since it flies straight so seldom, that’s why it’s called a “turn.”

[The congregation responded with not-so-muffled groans.]

This, incidentally, is why most people prefer that I use the Hawaiian names for creatures in my stories. I can’t pun in Hawaiian.

Well, there are three manu-o-Ku in this story, and the three of them were sisters. They were all grown up, each had a husband, and each would set out to lay a new egg and add a new chick to the family each year.

Manu-o-Ku are somewhat unusual among birds. They don’t build a nest for their eggs at all. They find a depression in the ground, or among rocks, or on a branch, and they lay a single egg in it. Both father and mother take terns (terns, get? take terns) keeping the egg warm.

These three sisters, however, had different ideas about where to lay their eggs.

The first sister was the one who wanted to get things over and done with. She would find a spot on the ground with only the barest hint of a depression, and it didn’t matter to her if there was a slope. In fact, when she and her husband would trade places, they’d sometimes have to hold the egg in place with their webbed feet.

There were seasons when the two of them went scrambling after a rolling egg and gently coaxed it back into place.

The second sister was the perfectionist. She looked high and low (literally, on the ground and in the trees) for the perfect spot for her egg. If the depression was a little to big, she moved on. If it was a little too small, she moved on. If there was anything even the tiniest bit out of place, she moved on.

She was always the last to choose her place and lay her egg, and she drove her sisters, her husband, and the rest of the family nearly frantic with worry that she’d wait too long and lay her egg in mid-air!

The last of the three manu-o-Ku sisters was careful, but not compulsive. She was decisive, but not slipshod. Her egg might rock in its depression, but it would not roll away. She turned away from plenty of potential sites that could put her egg at risk, but she found a good one in plenty of time.

There’s a difference between being careless and being too picky. It’s important to see that we meet our real needs, whether that be for food or water or shelter or, of course, a safe place to lay an egg. It can be nearly as big a problem, however, to require perfection for our needs, or confuse what we want with what we need.

We might find ourselves laying an egg in mid-air. So to speak.

Photo by Duncan Wright – USFWS Hawaiian Islands NWR, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1167986

Brother and Sister

Common_NoddyA brother and sister noio koha were fighting.

A lot of you have brothers and sisters, right? I’m sure none of you ever fight.

What’s that? Your sister likes to take your things and crawl under your bed with them. Oh. Well, the noio don’t do that. For one thing, they don’t usually have any space under their nests, and they definitely don’t collect stuff. Anyway.

The noio koha is a kind of seabird that fishes by flying over the water, and diving down to catch small fish and squid. Oh, I’m sorry. We’d agreed to call that calamari.

Anyway, there’s not much in a noio’s life that seems like it would call for argument. But this brother and sister had managed to find one.

One of them insisted that the proper way to catch fish was to fly high, and when you see a likely looking school of fish below, you make a steep dive down into the water. Then you can grab the fish or squid (sorry; calamari) before they get startled and swim away.

“A steep dive,” insisted the brother. “That’s the only way.”

“Oh, no,” returned his sister. “That’s not right at all. You spot the fish, and then you come around and do a shallow glide. That means you can swoop in, pick them right out of the water and be flying away before they even know what’s happening. That’s the only way.”

I have to give them credit; they were arguing, but they were using their words (well, squawks, actually) rather than batting at each other with their wings or their beaks. They were not, however, being quiet in the least. Soon enough the entire flock was awake and listening to the argument with noio expressions of puzzled amazement.

I mean, what really is there to argue about if you’re a noio koha?

Finally, one of the older noio stepped up between the squawking pair. “Stop a moment!” he shouted, and they fell silent.

“Each of you need to ask the other a question,” said the older bird, “and you need to listen to the answer you’re given. All right?”

The brother and sister said that was all right, even if they did say it with sulky faces.

Turning to the brother, he said, “Now ask this question of your sister: ‘Have you caught fish with your shallow dives?'”

With poor grace, the brother did as he was told. “Have you caught fish with your shallow dives,” he asked.

“Yes, I certainly have,” she said with pride, “and that just proves…”

The older bird interrupted her. “Now you, sister, ask your brother this: ‘Have you caught fish with your steep dives?'”

She was speechless for a moment, then turned to her brother and repeated the question.

“Yes, I definitely have,” he replied, “and that just proves…”

“That just proves,” the older noio interjected, “that you’ve both caught fish with your techniques. They both work. Neither of you is hungry. You both catch fish.

“So what are you arguing about?”

There are plenty of times in life where we can do things in different ways, and it really doesn’t matter. There are times when it does, like when we’re choosing to treat somebody well or badly, but much more often, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve got shoes that tie or shoes that slip on or slippers which are silver colored or slippers that are gold colored.

What’s important is that we catch the fish – that we show the love – that we make a better day.

Photo of a noio koha (brown noddy) by Glen Fergus – Own work, Lady Elliot Island, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=898797

‘Apapane Solo

Once a young ‘apapane learned to sing (which is not unusual).

He grew up to sing with his family, with his friends, and with pretty much any other ‘apapane around. They liked to sing to each other in the trees as they sought the nectar from ohi’a lehua.

Singing just made this little bird feel good. Hearing the songs of the other birds around him made him feel even better. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t forgotten. He was part of a flock, and they loved and cared for each other as they sang.

As ‘apapane go, he was an adventurous one. He would fly some distance away just to see what was there. He wanted to see new things, and discover new things, and (of course) going to a different part of the forest helped him find ohi’a that was in blossom.

The rest of the flock liked it when he’d explore, and they liked it when he came back, because he often could lead them to the next stand of trees bearing the bright red blossoms that sustained them.

One day, though, he went farther than usual. He was gone far longer than he’d been before, and while he was gone, the other ‘apapane realized they had to move on. The lehua on their stand of trees were going to seed. Making the best guess at the direction he’d taken, they set out after him.

They guessed wrong. Where he flew mauka, up the mountain, they flew makai, toward the lower slopes. They were sure he’d catch up, or they’d find him. But they didn’t.

When he made his long flight back to the ohi’a grove he’d left that morning, he found himself alone.

Sitting in the last tree with fading flowers, he felt very sorry for himself. He took a sip of the last nectar, and munched on some incautious insects, but mostly he felt alone. He opened his beak to make a sound something like a sob. It was a very sad noise.

In a moment, though, it shifted, because all his life he’d sung the ‘apapane song. His lungs and throat and beak all took that shape, purely by reflex, and he began to sing. He sang solo, no other ‘apapane replied, but in the song he realized that he still carried the ‘apapane music with him. His flock was with him, even if he had no idea where they were. They were with him in the song.

He carried on singing until he fell asleep.

The next day, he made a guess at which way the flock had flown, and they made another guess about where they might find him. They’d fly, and settle in the trees, and sing the ‘apapane tune. This time, good fortune was on the wing. He heard them first (there were more of them to hear, after all), but they soon heard his merry reply.

And so they sang once more together.

There is always something connecting us. Sometimes it’s a song, sometimes it’s a feeling. Always, though, it’s love – aloha – that links even people who are very far apart. Even when it seems that we’re at our loneliest, there is always someone who loves you, and best of all, there is always God who loves us best.

The video comes from the American Bird Conservancy’s YouTube channel.

 

The Many Forms of the Land

20170727 Kamokuna entryA little boy came to his grandmother one day because he had an urgent question. He had to decide what he’d do with the rest of his life.

His grandmother thought he had plenty of time to figure this out yet, since he was only nine or ten years old, but there was no stopping him when he got going on something. So she sat with him and listened.

First, he wanted to become a race car driver, and get behind the wheel of a big and powerful car, and zoom around the track at incredible speeds, and win great big trophies beneath the waving checkered flag. Oh, how he wanted to be a race driver.

“But, grandmother,” he abruptly said, “I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m tall enough. You have to be really tall to drive a race car, right?”

Grandmother tried to break in that he had plenty of time to grow, and she didn’t think you had to be really tall to drive a car, but he didn’t give her a moment to speak. He was off again.

This time, he wanted to be an airplane pilot. He imagined soaring high above the clouds, and seeing places far away, and looking down on the land or the ocean from his airplane above. Oh, how he wanted to be a pilot.

“But, grandmother,” he abruptly said, “I don’t think I can do it. To fly an airplane, you have to go really high. I don’t even like climbing ladders. I don’t think that will work.”

Grandmother tried to tell him that he might learn to be more comfortable on ladders, and she’d seen him racing along the upper levels of the playground equipment, but he didn’t give her a chance to say a word. He was off again.

Now he wanted to be an explorer. He wanted to meet new people who’d never seen other people before. He wanted to be the first to see rivers and waterfalls, and find new kinds of plants and animals. He wanted to wear a leather jacket and a big hat, and speak fifty languages to the people who marched through the wilderness with him. Oh, how he wanted to be an explorer.

“But, grandmother,” he abruptly said, “I don’t think I can do that, either. After all, I really just like to stay at home.”

Grandmother was quick, this time. She jumped in before he picked another thing he’d love to do, but for some reason could never do. I think the hug might have been what worked to help him listen rather than keep talking.

“Grandson, listen to me for a little while,” she said. “I want you to close your eyes and imagine the things I describe to you.

“Imagine the mountaintop,” she said. “You’ve been there. You’ve seen how hard and sharp the rocks are. It’s a harsh, rugged place. And that’s the land. Yes, that’s what land is.”

Going on, she said, “Now imagine the beach. On the beach, it’s soft sand. It settles beneath your foot, and it tickles your toes. You can lie down on it and it cradles you. And that’s the land, too. Yes, that’s what the land is.

“Now imagine the forest, with its soaring trees and ferns growing wildly everywhere. In some places there are rocky outcrops, and in others swamps and reeds. The trees reshape the land as time passes. And that’s the land, too. Yes, that’s what land is.

“And now, grandson, imagine the volcano. Imagine the hot, liquid rock flowing down the mountainsides. Imagine it pouring red-hot into the ocean, and imagine the way it makes new land where there was water before. And that – the liquid lava and the bursting sand, and the hardened rock of the growing shoreline, that’s the land. Yes, that’s what land is, too.

“Land is like all of that, and even more things. Land doesn’t have an imagination; it doesn’t dream of the things it can be, and yet it takes all these shapes.

“Now imagine, grandson: if land can take on so many forms without a will or purpose or imagination, what makes you think that you’re more limited than the land? You have a brain to consider all sorts of things that might be.

“And grandson, you might make any of them happen.”

The photo is of lava entering the Pacific Ocean at Kamokuna, Hawai’i, on July 27, 2017. Photo by Eric Anderson.