Tag Archives: story book

“The Yellow Emperor”

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

Thousands of years ago, Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, reigned for a hundred years in the country of Ch’i.

For the first fifteen years of his reign, he took great pleasure in his position. He rejoiced that all the people in the Empire looked up to him as their emperor. He took great care of his body. He ate well, and took the time to enjoy beautiful sights and sounds. But in spite of this, he became sad and depressed, and his face looked haggard and ill.

So Huang-ti decided to change his ways. He saw that the Empire faced great trouble and disorder. For the next fifteen years of his reign, he worked night and day to rule the people with wisdom and intelligence. But in spite of all his efforts, he remained sad and depressed and his face still looked haggard and ill.

At the end of this second fifteen year period, Huang-ti sighed heavily. “I was miserable in the first fifteen years of my reign, when I devoted all my attention to myself and my own needs, and paid no attention to the Empire. I was miserable in the second fifteen years of my reign when I devoted all of my time and energy to solving the problems of the Empire and paid no attention to myself.

“I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in establishing good government,” he said. “I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in making myself happy. I have only succeeded in ruining my spiritual life.”

So he left beautiful rooms he lived in within the palace and dismissed all his servants and attendants. He went to live in a small building off to one side of the palace. He stopped eating all the rich food they served in the palace, and began to eat just ordinary food. He sat by himself for three months purifying his mind.

Then one day, he took a nap in the middle of the day. Continue reading

A story of Guru Nanak from the janamsakhis

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, grew up as a Hindu in the Punjab in India, where Muslims and Hindus lived side by side. Nanak famously preached that there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim, because there is one God for all religions; and there is neither lower caste nor upper caste, for we are all simply human. The following story about Guru Nanak is probably not historically accurate;1 it comes from one of the janamsakhis, collections of tales about Nanak collected a century or more after his death in 1539. This story may wind up in my growing collection of stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time, on one of his missionary trips or udasi, Nanak camped beside the Tigris River. Nanak had been teaching all day, and in the evening an old woman, a Muslim, came to visit him. Weeping, she bowed down at his feet. Nanak asked her to sit next to him and tell him her problems.

“I have been waiting for you for twelve years,” said the old woman. “It was twelve years ago that my son got onto a ferry boat at this very spot to travel to the other side of the Tigris. He was twenty years old, and he was going across the river to visit his sister. The ferry was well out into the river when it suddenly capsized. I watched in horror, trying to see if my son would be safe. Some of those aboard were able to swim to shore, but many were lost. My son was one of those who did not make it back to land.

“I waited all night by the side of the river to be sure,” said the woman, “and at last went home to sleep. I saw you in my dreams, a holy man who held up his hand so that a light shone upon me and filled me with warmth. I knew that you would come and bring back my son to me.”

“Where has your son been for the last twelve years?” Nanak said.

“He has been with Allah,” said the woman.

“Is he content and happy to be with Allah?” said Nanak.

“Oh, yes,” said the woman, “of course he has found perfect happiness with Allah.”

“Then surely you would not be selfish enough to ask your son to leave that perfect happiness to come back to this world,” said Nanak. “For as you know, in this world happiness is rare, while misery is a constant.”

The old woman was silent.

“And have you really been without your son all these twelve years?” said Nanak. “Has he not lived on in your memory? Can you not remember the way he played as a child, the trouble he got into, all the time you spent with him? He was so much a part of you while he was alive that he can never completely go away from you. You have lost his body, yes; but his soul and spirit will remain with you always.”

So it was that Nanak brought her son back to the old woman; though he had really never left her. She touched his feet and went on her way, her soul at peace at long last.

The source for this story is The First Sikh Spiritual Master: Timeless Wisdom from the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak, by Harish Dhillon (Mumbai: Indus Source Books, 2005; Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006), pp. 166-167. Although the bulk of the book is a popular historical biography of Nanak, Dhillon also retells several stories from the Nanak janamsakhis, stories which his grandmother told him when he was a child.

1 Not historically accurate according to Dhillon, pp. 155-156.

I have been able to identify only one English translation of a janamsakhi, the B40 manuscript in the possession of the British India Office, translated by W. H. McLeod and publsihed in Amritsar c. 1979.

How To Feed Five Thousand People

Another in a work-in-progress, stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread have we got right here?” Continue reading

Visakha’s Sorrow

Another children’s story from a work-in-progress of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Udana, viii.8. I used Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, pp. 107-108; as well as The Udana: or the Solemn Utterances of the Buddha, trans. from the Pali by Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong (Luzac/ India Company: London, 1902), pp. 126-127. I’m not sure what I think about this story; not sure I much like it. But it does seem to get at something central to Buddhism. (Update: a few typos fixed.)

Once upon a time, the Buddha was staying in the city of Savatthi, in the Eastern Grove. He was staying as a guest in the mansion owned by Visakha. Now Visakha had a granddaughter whom she loved very much; this granddaughter was her darling and her delight. While Buddha was staying in her mansion, Visakha’s granddaughter died after a long illness. When Visakha heard that her granddaughter had at long last died, it was very early in the morning. Visakha was overwhelmed with grief when she heard the news. Even though it was very early in the morning, she went to see the Buddha.

She approached the Buddha, greeted him politely, and went to sit down at his side. The Buddha looked at her, and could see she had been crying. He said quietly, “Well, Visakha, what is it that brings you here at a very early hour, with your hands and hair all wet from tears?” Continue reading

Creation myth of northern Ohlone (Coastonoan) Indians

I’m still working on stories for liberal religious kids, and I wanted a creation myth that comes from this region, the San Francisco Bay area. After some research (thank goodness for Google Books), I found a creation myth that mentions landscape features that we can see, if not from the church, at least from here in Palo Alto. As usual, this is a rough draft, and your comments are welcomed.

Once upon a time, there were no human beings, but there were two spirits, one good and one evil. The two spirits made war upon each other, and at least the good spirit overcame the evil spirit. At that time, the entire world was covered with water, except for two islands, one of which was Mount Diablo and the other of which was Reed Peak [i.e., Mt. Tamalpais].

There was a Coyote on Mt. Tamalpais. He was the only living thing there. One day Coyote saw a feather floating on the water, and, as it reached the island, is suddenly turned into an Eagle. Spreading its broad wings, the Eagle flew up onto the mountain.

Coyote was much pleased with his new companion, and they lived together in great harmony. Sometimes they would make excursions to the other island, Coyote swimming while Eagle flew overhead. This went on for some time. Then they consulted with each other, and decided to make human beings.

Together they made the first human beings. Soon the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down so that there was more land for the human beings. Soon the children of the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down some more. Then the grandchildren of the first human beings had children, and so on, and the more human beings there were, the more the waters decreased, until at last where there was dry land where there once had been water.

At that time, what is now known as the Golden Gate was a chain of mountains, and you could walk from one side to the other side without getting your feet wet. The water that came down from the east had to go out through some other rivers somewhere. But then a great earthquake struck, and chain of mountains was cut in two, forming what we now call the Golden Gate. Then the waters of the Great Ocean and the Bay could at last come together, and the land became as we now know it.

The above tale is adapted from “Tradition of the California Indians,” by H. B. D., in Hesperian Magazine, vol. 2-3, (ed. F. H. Day, San Francisco, vol. III, no. 1, September, 1859), p. 326. H. D. B. says this tale came “from the lips of one of our most venerable pioneers, and I give it as I heard it.” Continue reading

Frog in a well

The following story is part of a work in progress, a series of stories for religious liberal kids. From the Chaung-tzu, 17.10, adapted from the James Legge translation. Still a rough draft, comments welcome as always.

Kung-sun Lung was talking to Prince Mou of Wei.

Kung-sun Lung said, “When I was just a boy, I learned all the teachings of the great kings of old, and I learned how to be good, kind, and righteous. I studied the wisdom of ancient philosophers; I learned all the arguments about being and the attributes of being; I learned what was true and correct, and what was false and incorrect. I thought I understood every subject under the sun.

“But when I heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu,” said Kung-sun Lung, “I get all confused. Maybe I’m not as good at arguing as he is. Or maybe I don’t know as much as he does. But now that I have heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu, I feel like I don’t even dare open my mouth. What is wrong?”

Prince Mou leaned forward on his stool. He drew a long breath, looked up to heaven, and smiled. Then he told this story:


“Have you ever heard the story of the frog of the broken-down well?” he said. Kung-sun Lung shook his head. “Well, then,” said Prince Mou, “Once upon a time, there was a frog that lived in a broken-down well. Ordinarily, this frog would not want to live in a well, because once he got into the well, he wouldn’t be able to get out again. But the broken-down sides of the well allowed the frog to climb in and out of the well as if he were climbing a ladder, or a broken-down staircase.

“One day, the frog climbed out of the well, and as he walked around, he happened to fall into a conversation with the Turtle of the Eastern Sea. She asked the frog how he enjoyed living where he did.

“The little frog said he enjoyed it very much. ‘I hop onto the edge of my broken-down well,’ said the frog, ‘and from there I climb down into the water, using the broken-down sides of the well as a grand staircase to the water. When I get close to the water, I dive into it. I draw my legs together, and keep my chin up, and swim around the well. I dive down to the bottom of the well, down and down until my feet are lost in the mud. I come back up for air, and I look around at everyone else who lives in the well — the little crabs, the insects, the tadpoles — and I see that there is no one who match me. I am in complete command of the water of my whole little valley. It is the greatest pleasure to enjoy myself in my broken-down well. You should come with me and try it yourself.’

“With that, the little frog led the way to his broken-down well. The Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to follow him. But her front right foot got stuck in the well, before she had even manage to move her front left foot forward. At this, she hesitated, and then drew back, saying to the frog that it would be better if she didn’t try to get into the broken-down well.

“Instead, the Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to tell the little frog he she enjoyed living where she did. ‘The Eastern Sea where I live,’ said the turtle, ‘is thousands of miles across, so far i can’t even measure it. It is more than a mile deep, so deep that i cannot find the bottom. If your valley got flooded, and hundreds more valleys like yours also got flooded, and if they all drained into the Eastern Sea, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not rise. If there were to be a drought, so that no rain fell for seven out of eight years, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not fall. The waters of the Eastern Sea do not rise or fall for any cause, great or small. And this is the greatest pleasure of living in the Eastern Sea.’

“When the little frog from the broken-down well heard the turtle describe how big the Eastern Sea was, he was amazed and frightened. His mouth opened, and he was lost in surprise.”


When Prince Mou finished telling this story, he said to Kung Sung-lung, “Do you understand how this story answers your question?”

Kung-sun Lung did not respond.

Prince Mou said, “Someone who isn’t yet able to understand the true difference between truth and falsehood can’t possibly understand Chuang-tzu — it would be like asking a mosquito to carry a mountain on its back. If you don’t have the wisdom to know how to talk seriously about very important topics, you are like the frog in the broken-down well.

“Chuang-tzu is like like the Turtle of the Eastern Sea, able to reach the deepest depths of the earth, and able to rise to the highest heights of sky. With freedom he launches out in any direction, and starting from what is confusing, he always comes back to what is understandable. Yet you think you are going to understand what he’s talking about by asking lots of questions and making lots of arguments! It is if you are trying to look at the whole sky through a small tube. You are like a frog in a broken-down well.”

Upon hearing this, Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open in surprise. He felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He slunk away, and when he was out of sight of Prince Mou, he ran away home.

Abigail and David

The Sunday school class I’m co-teaching is doing a unit on King David. We used the stories from the book From Long Ago and Many Lands about David and Saul, and David and Jonathan — which are pretty much guy stories. So for tomorrow’s Sunday school class, I decided to do the story from 1 Samuel 25.2-42, which features the quick-thinking and clever woman Abigail. It’s still a rough draft….

Long before he became a king, when David was still running from Saul, afraid that Saul would kill him, he and his six hundred followers travelled to the wilderness of Paran.

In Carmel, which was near the wilderness of Paran, there lived a rich man named Nabal, who owned three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. Nabal was married to a woman named Abigail, who was clever and beautiful. Nabal himself, however, was rude and ill-natured; his name meant “The Fool.”

In the wilderness, David heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep. He decided to send ten young men to Nabal. David said to them, “Go to Carmel, find Nabal, and give him my greetings. Say to him, ‘Peace be upon your peace be upon your household, peace to all you have.’ Tell him that we have been living here among his shepherds, and we have not attacked them, nor have we stolen anything from them;– we have only the best intentions towards him and all those who work for him. You will arrive at his household on a feast day, and ask him if he would please give whatever food and drink he might have on hand to me and all of us.” David knew that anyone who lived in that land would feel compelled by the laws of hospitality to give at least some food to a band of men living in the wilderness.

David’s ten young men went to see Nabal the Fool, and they politely passed on David’s greetings, and his request for hospitality. But Nabal spoke to them harshly. “Who is this David?” he said. “There are many servants who try to run away from their masters. Why should I take bread and meat and water away from the people who have been shearing my sheep, and give it to people who come from I know not where?”

When the ten young men came back to David and told him what had happened, he told four hundred of his men to strap on their swords. “I protected his shepherds and everything else Nabal had in the wilderness, but for this good I did he returned to me only evil,” said David. “Now we will go and kill every male in his household.” They followed David towards Nabals’ house, while the remaining two hundred men stayed to guard the animals and the camp. Continue reading

Rapt in a Revery

This story is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The sources for this story are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I wrote this story for use in worship services, but I have also used it in Sunday school classes (slightly modified) to introduce a unit on meditation.

Rapt in a Revery

I thought you might want to know what a spiritual practice is, so maybe you can talk about it after Sunday school with your parents. A spiritual practice is something you do regularly that helps you get in touch with something larger than yourself. For example, some people sit and meditate for a spiritual practice. Some people do yoga for a spiritual practice. Some people pray for their spiritual practice.

Well, I don’t pray, and I don’t do yoga, and I don’t sit and meditate. I do a different kind of spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists do. But first I have to tell you a little story….

Way back in 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau was living with his mother and father and his sisters in a big house in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry worked for his father in the family’s pencil-making business. Henry’s family all went to the Unitarian church in town. Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up. Then one day Henry decided that he needed some time to himself, to get in touch with something bigger than himself. I would say it this way: Henry wanted some time to do intensive spiritual practice.

He went to his friend Waldo Emerson, and asked Waldo if he could build a little cabin out in the woods, on some land Waldo owned that was right next to a pond named Walden pond. Waldo said, Of course! So Henry spent a few months building a cabin for himself, and then he went off to live in the woods. His cabin was only a mile or so from his family’s house, and he still went home regularly to eat dinner and spend time with his family. But mostly, Henry lived out in the woods alone, and worked on his spiritual practice.

Henry’s spiritual practice was to spend time in Nature. One of his best ways of spending time in Nature was to sit quietly outdoors, doing nothing, just watching the natural world. Here’s how he describes it:

“Sometimes, in a summer morning, … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant roadway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

I can see the whole thing in my imagination: a warm sunny day, Henry sitting on the front step of his cabin, looking out over Walden Pond, “rapt in a revery” — and when Henry says, “rapt in a revery,” he means that he is just sitting quietly, not really thinking of anything in particular — he is simply sitting and watching and listening to the world of nature around him, lost in wonder at the beauty of the natural world.

Sometime you should try doing this yourself. On a nice day, find yourself a comfortable place to sit outdoors — maybe leaning back against a tree. Pick a place where you can see and hear the natural world — it could be in your back yard, if you have a back yard — pick a place with trees and grass and birds and sky and clouds. You just sit there — you don’t have to do anything — you don’t have to think about anything — and see if you can lose yourself in sitting, watching, and listening to the natural world. See if you can lose yourself in something larger than yourself.

Henry Thoreau could sit like that all day, but he had had lots of practice. You try it for ten minutes or so at first. Maybe you’ll find you like it — sitting like Henry Thoreau lost in wonder of the natural world. Maybe that will be your spiritual practice — a real genuine Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.

John Murray Sails to the New World

I’m away from Internet access today, leading a workshop on Unitarian Universalist history. While I’m away, I thought I’d leave you with this story, which is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The source for the story is The Life of Rev. John Murray, by John Murray, ed. and completed by Judith Sargent Murray; 8th edition ed. L. S. Everett (Boston, 1854), pp. 128 ff. There are lots of versions of this story out there. But I went back to the source, and wrote this shorter version from scratch, putting my own (slightly cynical) theological spin on it. It’s fun to ask people from the congregation, or children from the class, to act out the various parts of this story (someone always wants to do the death scene).

John Murray Sails to the New World

Most Unitarian Universalists don’t spend very much time talking about miracles. We’re not all that interested in miracles, and many of us don’t believe in miracles anyway. But did you know that we have our very own Universalist miracle? Let me tell you about the miracle of John Murray.

John Murray lived in England, with his wife and his baby. John Murray and his wife had started out going to an ordinary church, and people in that ordinary church believed that if you were bad, when you died you would go to a very unpleasant place called Hell. Fortunately, John Murray’s wife, Eliza, found a Universalist church where she learned that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and therefore no one would ever go to Hell after they died. Soon, she brought her husband to that church, too, and they became enthusiastic about their new Universalist religion. John even became a Universalist preacher.

Then something very sad happened. Eliza and their baby got very sick and died. John was so sad that he decided to give up preaching Universalism, leave England, and go to America to start a new life. So he got on a boat that was sailing for America.

Well, they sailed and they sailed and they sailed, and at last they were almost to America. But as they got close to shore, the boat got stuck on a sand bar! They couldn’t get off that sandbar, so the captain sent John Murray ashore to fetch back some food and water.

John Murray went ashore. They were far from any port, or even any town, and as he walked along he saw a very strange sight. He saw a small farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, and nearby he saw a church. What was a church doing in such a lonely place?

John Murray introduced himself to the owner of the church, a man named Thomas Potter. John asked him what the church was for, and Thomas Potter answered that he had built the church, but that he was waiting for a preacher who would preach about a loving God, who would preach that there was no such thing as Hell. Well, said John Murray, I used to preach just exactly that — I was a Universalist preacher — but now I don’t preach any more.

Thomas Potter grew excited, and said, “You’re just the one I’ve been waiting for! Come preach to me and my neighbors in my church!”

But John Murray said, No, I have to get back on my ship that’s stuck on the sandbar. Well, said Thomas Potter, if your ship is still stuck on that sandbar on Sunday, will you come preach in my church then? Yes, said John Murray, because he was sure that the ship would be free of the sandbar by then.

Days went by.

When Sunday came around, there was the ship, still stuck on the sandbar. And so John Murray came ashore, and preached a sermon on Universalism to everyone in that neighborhood. He was such a good preacher, he kept on preaching Universalism, and he went on to found the very first Universalist church in New England, which is still a Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

So that’s our Universalist miracle: because the wind didn’t shift, John Murray started preaching Universalism, and became the most famous Universalist preacher of his day. We know it happened this way, because that’s exactly how John Murray tells the story in the autobiography. It’s our own Unitarian Universalist miracle.