August 27, 2023
The Frog Prince
Reading today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans got me thinking about the old Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” You know how it goes. The young princess sat down by a cool spring playing with a golden ball, which rolled into the water. A frog appeared and struck a bargain with her: if she would love him and let him live with her, he would get the ball. Of course, she thought he would never be able to get out of the spring anyway, so she agreed. The frog got the ball, the princess went home, and the next day, he showed up at the door, expecting to move in. She slammed the door on him, but her father, the king, heard her story and told her she had to keep her end of the bargain. The frog came in and ate at the table, and stayed for three nights, whereupon he miraculously turned into a handsome prince. He explained to the princess that he had been enchanted by a malicious fairy who turned him in to a frog until some princess should take him out of the spring and into her home for three nights. The two were married and lived (as in all fairy tales) “happily ever after.”
It’s the same old story: girl meets frog, frog turns into prince, frog gets girl.
I once thought I was a frog. It’s true. I spent most of my adolescence sitting on the equivalent of a lily pad in my home room class; and when the beautiful princesses of the high school walked by, alas, I could do little more than croak.
But I came up with a great solution to my problem. By my third year in college, I had become a prince! I had the upper-classman tilt of the head. I had learned how to smoke a pipe and wear sweaters. I was cool. And the only problem was that, all along, I knew, deep down inside, that I was still a frog. I knew I might fool everyone but myself.
Isn’t it amazing what we put ourselves through just because we haven’t figured out who we are yet? And I have to confess, it doesn’t all entirely end at age twenty five. There are still moments when I can feel a little like that insecure little boy who always knew he was just one sentence away from saying the wrong thing. There are still times when I feel tough as nails – nothing matters – I can handle anything. And sometimes, that’s a good way to keep from being an insecure little boy.
If you and I look into our own hearts, we can almost surely find some traces of these feelings. We’re trying to escape from our lily pond, and we would so love to be princes and princesses. I suppose that’s why fairy tales are so timeless; they touch very deep and profound chords within each one of us.
Well, I do have some good news. For one thing, you’re not alone. All those other folks around you, including the ones who really seem like princes (or frogs), are asking the same questions deep inside. We’ve got a mutual “self-image” problem.
And what has the church got to say about it? I have to begin by saying that I think it’s high time the church started saying something different than it has for the last several centuries. The medieval Christian church told people they were frogs. They wore folks into the ground trying to make sure that every unacceptable thought and act was covered by the appropriate penance – that proper atonement was made for their sins. Their only hope, miserable wart toads that they were, was, through the magic of ecclesiastical mumbo jumbo, to be again transmogrified into royal lords and ladies. It was from this merry-go-round – acts of grace chasing acts of sin like a dog after its tail – that Martin Luther finally fell off. It was just too doggone much work trying to turn yourself into a prince when the church kept saying you were a frog.
But we haven’t done much better in American Protestantism. The early American revivalist church spent so much time telling people what awful sinners they were and what terrible consequences they would suffer for their sinfulness, that we developed something of a national deep-seated guilt-complex. And now, how many children grow up hearing little more from their parents than how wrong they are: “Johnny, don’t touch that. What’s wrong with you, anyway? Why can’t you learn to behave?” And the church has all too often only reinforced negative self-images by continuing to remind people of all their sins, but rarely lifting up their gifts and potentials.
Then, of course, the church has, as usual, overcompensated. I refer to the incredible wealth of churches these days (both electronic and otherwise) who preach little else than the “power of positive thinking,” and appeal to all those frustrated princes and princesses out there with the ingeniously popular message, “All you have to do is say ‘praise Jesus,’ send in your money, and you will experience a royal metamorphosis the likes of which would make Franz Kafka gasp” – or something to that effect.
For too many years, the church has been waving an impotent magic wand trying to turn princes into frogs, or frogs into princes. It’s high time we stopped.
The Apostle Paul says we’re not frogs. We’re not nothings. We are no less than very temples of Divinity. And Paul appeals to us, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” What’s the phrase that made the rounds a few years back: “God don’t make junk?”
Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” There’s no room here to be valueless. As a child of Divine Goodness, you don’t need to sit on a stump in a muddy creek and fall prey to the first royal snob who comes along expecting you to fetch a stupid ball. You’re not a frog.
But Paul puts the breaks on the other side of our distorted self-image as well. In verse three he says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” You’re also no prince.
In the world of the brothers Grimm, there are only frogs and princes and princesses. I’m very disturbed by the way this “fairy tale mentality” is not only alive in our personal lives, but also in our nation and world. After the 60’s, in which we in America turned over the rock that hid our collective racism, and the 70’s, in which we discovered our capacity for injustice in war and corruption in government, we got tired of being American “frogs.” So, especially in the aftermath of 9-11, and the brutality and destruction perpetrated by despots and dictators (like Vladimir Putin), we have now decided that we are the righteous, moral, good and powerful “princes” of the new world order. In the world of fairy tales, as often in the world of adolescence, the only way to vanquish the frog within is to replace him with a prince. Enough of fairy tales!
The truth about human nature is that for most of us, our self-image is so micro-thin that all it takes is a good breeze to nudge us into either self-abasement or self-aggrandizement. And whether one spends life with no sense of worth, or driven by a thirst for success, we all seem to be searching for the same thing: an identity.
Well, Paul refuses to let us take up residence in either the pond or the palace, but he doesn’t leave us without an identity. It’s here in verse four: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
Being members of one another has its advantages over sitting on a rock and croaking, or dashing off on a white charger with robes flowing. For one thing, you can drop the act! What a relief – to not have to be anybody but yourself. That’s what the church has to offer. A place where you can drop the act and be yourself. It is a place of relationships. And in those relationships we are each defined.
We are defined by how we treat one another. We are defined by how we care for and strive to understand one another. And in our so doing, we are defined by our relationship to the body – this body – the body of Christ.
I am so privileged to know all of you. I have come to appreciate the genuineness of your compassion, and the simple gift of your real selves to one another, and to me. This body of Christ is a great model for the world around. If people in our community, our nation, and our world could drop the self-defeating behaviors and the apathetic sense of powerlessness, if all of us around the world could let go of the pomposity, pride and greed, and all simply “be” together in relationship, and if we could all mold that relationship among us after the image of Christ, we might find our lives and our world touched by a grace we could barely imagine, and we might find ourselves, though earthen vessels, to be bearers of a treasure beyond comprehension.
Many of you know the story of how our next hymn came to be written. John Newton was the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century. After several years of running slaves from the west coast of Africa to the profitable slave market in the United States, he underwent a conversion. This hymn was the result of his awakening, and has become beloved by people around the world. I’d like to suggest to you, however, that Newton’s words could use a tiny bit of touch-up. The opening phrase, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” is reflective of the frog and prince dualism of the church in his day. I’d to invite you to sing it with me a little differently. Let’s put the emphasis where it belongs: on the saving act of divine grace, not on our own state of worthlessness. Join me in singing these words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved and set me free!”