Our congregational conversation at Vine Street CC has turned toward the mystical – that is, the reality that lies beyond our physical senses and that opens the door to experiencing the absolute divine – God – in the moment.

As we have traversed down this path, it becomes more and more evident that our common everyday words often fall short in our attempts to describe the spiritual reality of the mystical presence of God in our midst. Words are often lacking the depth of meaning which describing spiritual realities requires. But every now and then, when words are chosen carefully and used in a manner that opens our heart to new insights, words can take us to where we otherwise could not have gone. 

That is indeed the case with one of my all-time favorite poems, “The Woodcarver,” by the ancient Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. Upon first encounter, it may seem like a fuzzy attempt to tell a story about a job assignment that a certain woodcarver received from the Prince. But, as the soul enters into the spiritual realm of the story, it becomes clear that Chuang Tzu is opening up a whole new reality that goes beyond our eyes and ears, and takes us to a truth beyond the mere words of the story – and down a path to eternal and universal truths.

What at first seemed a little story about a job assignment turns into a spiritual creed about how one is called to live out this precious little time we have on earth, with all the competing demands for our attention, time, and energy. “The Woodcarver” teaches us that our true calling is always about more than what it seems to the world … and that we all have the power to stay true to ourselves and our God even against the pressures of cultural and social norms and expectations. And, most importantly, this woodcarver who claims to have no secrets, teaches us that when we “do our life” in sync with our spiritual reality, then even the spiritually uninitiated will attribute our work to the gods! 

Take some time to read this grand story in its full glory … slowly and intentionally. Read it though several times. Begin to observe the deeper meaning of each stanza … and every word … for the truth of the story … and then for the truth of your life … your calling … and how you choose “to do life” in the face of the pressures around you. 

The Woodcarver by Chuang Tzu

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood. When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded. The said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:

I have no secret. There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were no to the point.

I fasted in order to set 

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

“What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.

I pray that the words of the story moved in your heart in a way that took you way beyond this woodcarver, this Prince, and this bell stand, way beyond the limitations of mere words and your physical senses, and deep into the soul of your own eternal calling …

Pastor Bob <><