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Sermon illustrations

 Direction

Alice and the Chesire Cat

In the Disney animated classic Alice in Wonderland, Alice wanders through a frustrating world of tardy rabbits, singing flowers, and one curious-talking cat. Her visit with the cat begins as she continues down a mysterious darkened trail and stops at a large tree.

The tree is covered with signs that point in every possible direction: “Up,” “Down,” “Yonder,” “Back,” “This Way,” and “That Way.” Poor Alice looks more confused than ever and asks herself, “Now let’s see. Where was I? I wonder which way I ought to go?”

Just then, Alice hears a melodic voice that seems to be drifting down from the trees. She looks all around and finally observes two ghostly eyes and a wide toothy grin floating amongst the boughs of the great tree.

The grinning teeth inquire of Alice, “Lose something?”

“N-n-no, I was just…” stammers Alice in reply.

Suddenly, a pink striped feline body emerges from the branches.

“Oh, you’re a cat!”

“A cheshire cat,” he responds.

“I just want to ask which way I ought to go,” asks Alice.

“Well that depends on where you want to get to,” says the cat.

“Well, it really doesn’t matter,” answers Alice.

“Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the enigmatic cat just before vanishing into the woods again.

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney, 1951)

Changing Direction

There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line.

They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

Fred (Mr.) Rogers

Do You Know Where You Are Going?

In his book Growing strong in the Seasons of Life, the author Charles Swindoll tells a story about the 19th Century agnostic Thomas Huxley. The story goes like this – Huxley was in Dublin and was rushing to catch a train.

He climbed aboard one of Dublin’s famous horse drawn taxis and said to the driver -“Hurry, I’m almost late … drive fast”. Off they went at a furious pace and Huxley sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. After a while Huxley opened his eyes and glanced out the window to notice that they were going in the wrong direction. Realizing that he hadn’t told the driver where to take him he called out ‘do you know where you’re going’. The driver replied “No your honor, but I am driving very fast.’

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Source Material by Charles Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life.

Finding their Way

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to what shepherding looks like in the Middle East, even up to today:

While visiting Greece in the late 1990s, I was privileged to have an informative chat with a Greek taxi driver who had worked as a shepherd in his youth. He told me of how on one occasion he fell asleep in the field with his sheep during the afternoon siesta and awoke some time later only to discover that the flock was gone.

Terrified, he rushed back to the village and to his delight discovered that the flock had, on their own, wandered home. The homeward path from the “still waters” was familiar to them, and when the time came they followed it, much to the relief of the shepherd.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.60 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com 

Getting into Alignment

There was a businessman who had a demanding day ahead of him and was already late for work. He turned on the car, put it in reverse, and punched the button on the garage door opener. Nothing happened. He hit it again and again, a little harder each time. Still nothing. I’ve got to get out of this garage and make it to work in time for my big meeting, he thought. Frustrated, he put the car in park, pulled out his cell phone and called the garage door repairman.

When the repairman answered the phone, the businessman explained the situation and begged for help. “I can’t get to my destination because I’m stuck in my garage.”
The garage door repairman told the businessman to walk over to the garage door and find what looked like canisters at the bottom left and bottom right of the door. So the business man found the canisters. The repairman asked, “Are the red lights at the center of the canisters pointed exactly at each other?” The business man noticed that the red lights in one of the canisters were not in alignment.

The repairman said, “That’s your problem. When the red lights are not in perfect alignment, the door can’t receive the signal to open.” After the business man shifted the canister a little bit, the red lights matched up, the door opened, and he was off to tackle his busy day.

Tony Evans, Discover Your Destiny: Let God Use You Like He Made You, Harvest House Publishers.

The Importance of Orientation

Orientation is a fascinating word based on the Latin word oriri, meaning “to rise, as in where the sun rises. The sun rises in the east. Early Christians gave great thought and intentionality to what they oriented themselves toward. For instance, the altar in the earliest churches was intentionally directed east so that worshipers would face Jerusalem as they received the Lord’s Supper together.

For this same reason, many of the earliest Christians were buried with their feet facing toward the east. Their rationale was simple: when Christ returned and resurrected their bodies, they wanted to be standing and be facing Jerusalem in their resurrection. To be a Christian was, and is, to reorient one’s entire life and death around Jesus Christ.

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Kindle Location 341.

A Map & Our Beliefs

A few years ago I was with my family in Washington, D.C., a wildly complex city laid out like a square wheel with broken spokes making an angular maze that is a nightmare to navigate. However, my family and I arrived at our various destinations and returned back safely to our hotel every evening, rarely getting off track. How did we do that in a world with no knowledge?

We found our way using a remarkable little invention called a map. Did you ever think about what takes place when you use a map? Maps represent a belief about what a piece of the world is like (Washington, D.C., in my case). There is a simple way to test to see if that belief is correct. We find our current location on the map, plot a course, then move out. If our beliefs are true (if the map is accurate), we arrive where we intended to go.

If our beliefs are not accurate, we’ll learn that soon enough. Notice that perfection is not required in this enterprise. Sometimes we get it wrong, but even then, we know we’re wrong because of new, accurate information that shows us our error.

This little exercise repeats itself thousands of times a day, every day of our lives in the countless details we encounter as we navigate our world. Our beliefs about reality are like that map. We constantly test them to see if they match up with the world.

When they do, we know our beliefs are true. Every time we use a map or take a medicine or drive a freeway or move from bedroom to bathroom in the middle of the night, we prove that at least parts of the story of reality can be known. If not—if we couldn’t know certain important things that are actually true about the world—we’d be dead in a day.

Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, Zondervan, 2017.

The Monroe and the Nantucket

In 1914, not long after the sinking of the Titanic, Congress convened a hearing to discern what happened in another nautical tragedy. In January of that year, in thick fog off the Virginia Coast, the steamship Monroe was rammed by the merchant vessel Nantucket and eventually sank. Forty-one Sailors lost their lives in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. While it was Osmyn Berry, captain of the Nantucket who was arraigned on charges, in the course of the trial Captain Edward Johnson was grilled on the stand for over five hours.

During cross-examination it was learned, as the New York Times reported, that Captian Johnson “navigated the Monroe with a steering compass that deviated as much as two degrees from the standard magnetic compass. He said the instrument was sufficiently true to run the ship, and that it was the custom of masters in the coastwise trade to use such compasses. His steering compass had never been adjusted in the one year he was master of the Monroe.”

The faulty compass that seemed adequate for navigation eventually proved otherwise. This realization partly explains a heartrending pictured recorded by the Times: “Later the two Captains met, clasped hands, and sobbed in each other’s shoulders.” The sobs of these two burly seamen are a moving reminder of the tragic consequences of mis-orientation.

James K.A. Smith, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, 2016. 

Struggling with GPS

ABC News ran a story about neighborhood roads that have literally become commercial thoroughfares because GPS systems are routing traffic there, rather than along larger highways. There are other problems, too. One poor guy from California insisted he was only following his GPS’s instructions when he made a right turn onto a rural road and found himself stuck on a train track, staring into the headlight of an oncoming locomotive!

He survived. His rental car, though, and presumably the offending GPS along with it, didn’t make out so well. One representative from the American Automobile Association was sympathetic—kind of. “Clearly the GPS failed him in the sense it should not have been telling him to make a right turn on the railroad tracks,” he said. “But just because a machine tells you to do something that is potentially dangerous, doesn’t mean you should do it.” Indeed!

So what’s going on? GPS manufacturers say the problem isn’t with the devices themselves. They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Instead, the problem is in the maps the devices are downloading. It turns out that especially for small towns, the maps available to GPS systems are often several years, or even decades, out of date. Sometimes the maps are nothing better than planning maps—what city planners intended to do if their towns grew. The result?

Sometimes addresses that show up in one place on the planning maps ended up being somewhere else when the town was actually built. Sometimes roads that city planners intended to build never actually got built—and sometimes they got built not as roads at all, but as railroads!

Greg Gilbert, What Is the Gospel?, Crossway.

That’s Not What’s Troubling Me

Former Senator Dwight W. Morrow searched in vain to find his railroad ticket as he was on a train leaving New York City. “I must find that ticket,” he muttered. The conductor, who stood waiting beside him, said, “Don’t worry about it, Mr. Morrow. We know you had a ticket. Just mail it to the railroad when you find it.” “That’s not what’s troubling me,” replied Morrow, “I need to find it to know where I’m going.”

Our Daily Bread, September 11, 1992

Unnecessary Limitations

Spiritual advisers are often called on to do a similar kind of “reframing.” Father J. Brian Bransfield, associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the parishioners who seek out his advice have a tendency…to unduly narrow their options.

Individuals will often approach him with a dilemma: Should I marry this person? Should I take the job I’ve been offered in another city? Should I become a priest? His parishioners will often fret, “I just don’t know what God wants me to do,” and look at Bransfield expectantly, hoping he can act as a spokesperson. “There’s a myth that there’s only one thing that God wants you to do,” he said. “We spend so much time trying to figure out that one thing and become so fearful of making a mistake.”

Bransfield challenges them to broaden their perspective: Actually, there are 18 things that God would be very happy if you chose. You’re not cornered into becoming a priest or not. You’re not cornered into marrying this woman or not. There are 6 billion people in the world. You’re telling me that God looked at you and said, “There is only 1 thing you can do in your life, I know it and you have to guess it or else”? Could it be that you are putting your constraints on God?

Bransfield’s parishioners would often react with surprise to this message: “Really?” They’re relieved to hear that they’re not cornered. They’ve just been wearing blinders. 

Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, The Crown Publishing Group.

What are you Looking for?

You will always find what you are looking for. Think about the difference between two birds: a vulture and a hummingbird. Vultures soar high in the sky, looking and searching. What does a vulture find? Dead things. The ugly oversized bird doesn’t stop until he finds lifeless, rotting road kill. Contrast the vulture to the tiny hummingbird. With wings flapping twenty beats a second, what does this small bird find? Not dead things and disgusting rancid meat, but instead, sweet, life-giving nectar. Daily, each bird finds what he is looking for. The same is true for you. You can be on a road-kill diet or you can find nectar in each day. It’s up to you, because you will find what you search for. If you want to find things to be negative about or to worry about, it is not hard to do.

If you plan to be critical, you don’t have to look far to find fault. If you choose to be negative, you’ll easily accomplish your goal. But if you want to see the good in life, you can find it everywhere. If you choose to watch for places God is working, you’ll see his loving presence each place you look. If you decide to look for hope, faith, and a better future, you will discover these positive things and more countless times a day.

Craig Groeschel, Soul Detox (p. 50). Zondervan.

See also Illustrations on Disorientation, Navigation, Progress, Wisdom

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Direction. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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