Colossians 1:11- 14
I saw the old fisherman again as I sped to my first appointment of the day.
He was standing as always, dressed in a battered green jumper and grey shorts, bushy eyebrows peering from beneath a terry towelling hat, and rod pointing to some place between the horizon and the heights of heaven.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” squawked the parrot beside me.
“Lucky beggar,” I grumped to myself as I negotiated the next curve of the coastal highway. “Nice for some.” And then carried on to do business as best I could in the more isolated settlements of the north. It wasn’t a bad day, and it wasn’t good. I probably paid my way. But not much more than that. Maybe a little less. “Awk! Loser!” squawked the parrot.
Driving home at the end of the day, I saw the fisherman again – in a different spot now. This time he was visible for several long seconds as I cruised down one of the few straight stretches on this road. Had he been there long I wondered? And how had he got there? He was a good twenty kilometres from where I’d seen him in the morning but there was no sign of any vehicle. Had he hitched? With all his fishing gear? It was odd. On the spur of the moment I pulled over and parked, letting a trail of traffic go past me before I crossed over the road and stepped carefully down the rocky sea wall to where he stood, eyes on the horizon, a shimmering nylon line stretching from between his fingers to the tip of his rod and then losing itself in an eternity of grey-green sea. I could just hear the parrot protesting from where I’d left it locked in the car. The fisherman nodded to me as I strolled over to him and then returned his gaze to the immensity before us.
I stood beside him in silence, suddenly struck by how peaceful it was; the soft shushing of the low surf even drowned out the parrot, and the sound of vehicles behind us was reduced to just an occasional whoosh. I let my eyes drift over the tide-line, through the waves, and out, out across the constantly shifting shades of the ocean on a cloudy day to that point where sea and sky meet – and on a day like today seem to fade gently into one another without any visible division.
“No line on the horizon, today, then.” I said. It was an odd sort of greeting to someone I didn’t know at all, but it seemed to fit at the time. Anyway, he nodded, and I glanced sideways at him. He was older than me, I thought, but it was hard to tell how old. Hard to tell if he was Maori, or a pakeha who’d seen too much sun. He looked content, though. “Any bites?”
“Oh, I might have had a nibble, just now.”
It was my turn to nod. I began to think about going back to my car. Returning to town. Losing myself in the evening’s entertainment. There was nothing attractive about it – though at least it shut the parrot up.
It was almost a relief when the fisherman began to speak, and I could stay a little longer; “You know, I reckon it does a man good to look at a long distance like this.”
“Yes. If you think about it, we’re often focused only just in front of our faces or our feet. The steering wheel, the oncoming traffic, the TV screen. We don’t often get to look at a really long distance.”
“No, I reckon you’re right.”
“I think it does something for us in our heads – it’s like, when your eyes finally get to look into a great long distance like this, it unwinds us, somehow. Helps us to relax a bit. Get a bit of perspective. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. I did know what he meant. I knew exactly what he meant. I was experiencing precisely what he’d been describing and it was almost as if his words were creating my reality as I stood there amongst the rocks and driftwood and seaweed and sand. I let out a long, quiet sigh as tension drained out of me.
“Hard day?” asked the fisherman.
“Not any more.” I looked at him again. “You’ve got it sweet; standing on a beach all day.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit of all right.”
“Are you on holiday? Or retired?”
“Nah, retirement isn’t in the plan. I do a bit of teaching. A bit of advocacy work. Some mediation.”
“You’re a… lawyer?”
He laughed at this. Laughed like a drain. “Nah, me and the lawyers never did see eye to eye. Pity. There are some good ones. What about you. What do you do?”
“Oh. Sell life insurance.”
“Doing all right?”
“What company you with?”
I told him, and he nodded. “Yeah, thought I recognised the parrot.”
I flushed. The peculiarity of our company was that all reps got to have a parrot. Our boss insisted. One of his own, personally bred birds, like it was some huge favour he was doing us. It was like having his voice – and his eyes – with us all the time. Who’d have thought a parrot could be so pernicious. I’d tried to make friends with it, but it wasn’t really interested. It’d eat my treats, and accept my grooming, but it would still chomp on my finger or screech in my ear if I did something the boss wouldn’t like. And every contract had to be signed in the presence of the parrot. There was even a space for its claw-print! I have to say, some customers found it a little off-putting, but most were quite charmed by it! They had no idea how it behaved when it was just me and the bird.
“Have you thought about working for a different company?”
“Well, yeah. I did work for another company, once.”
“So what happened?”
“Oh, the usual, I guess. I got a bit bored with what I was used to, wondered if things were better in someone else’s business, and then these parrot people came along and offered all sorts of incentives to jump the fence. I thought the bird thing was a cute sort of gimmick back then.”
“So, your first job would have been working for the Father and Son, company, yeah?”
“Yes, that’s right! How’d you guess?”
“Well, no other company does life insurance quite like they do. They offer the very best deal there is. So when you’re working for them you have no trouble selling policy, and you’re confident about the product, right? You know the company’s good for every claim.”
“Well, yes. Yes it was certainly a much more straight-forward policy, and a much more transparent system than this one. I still don’t know how this company plans to fill the policies.”
“But they would have wanted you, because when you worked for the Father and Son company, you could act with confidence and integrity – and that rubs off. They recruit from Father and Son because they want your air of honesty. They can’t pay people to act like that. You have to learn it by being in honest company. So it makes sense that they would offer you lots of incentives.”
I looked out to the horizon again. What the fisherman said was making sense. I had wondered why they seemed so keen to have me. I guess, I had thought that they were like my old company – they had a great product and they were really eager to get it out there. But they had a lousy product and they just wanted someone who knew how to be really enthusiastic.
The fisherman was watching me from beneath his hat with a shrewd look in his eye. “You can go back, you know.”
“Back to Father and Son. They knew this sort of thing was going to happen when they started off. Bad imitations of a great product. Competition. All the rest of it. They wrote into the company policy that anyone who works for the competition can come back to the company, provided they leave the parrot behind.”
I flushed again. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You don’t seem that keen on the bird.”
“Well – I did go back. I knew about the forgiveness clause, and so I got my old job back. And I handed the parrot back! I really did. But… when I did, when I took the parrot back to the office, they said it was fine, and they were really nice about it all, and they said, if I was ever free in the evening, to come down and say hi. So I did. And then one day they asked me if I could do a small job for them – just a one-off. With the bird, of course, I knew that. But I did it. It was just one job. Where was the harm in that? Then there was another one-off job, and then another, and then… I just didn’t go to work one day. I knew that I’d just slipped back into my previous position with the parrot, and I didn’t feel like I could face anyone. So I took up where I left off. Me and the precious parrot!”
I kicked up a spray of sand in self-disgust. “I couldn’t go back. Not after that.”
“Cheers. I will.”
I mooched about on the sand for a few minutes more, then said, “See ya,” and climbed back up to the car, put the parrot in the passenger seat, and went home.
The next day the coast road was empty, and the day after that I was in the office for the day, trying to make sense of incomprehensible policies and apparently empty promises. The following day was a different sort of day – I had some potential clients out on the plains so it was into the car again and off. It was a bad day, business-wise. After my conversation with the fisherman, I couldn’t quite bring myself to slur over the dodgy bits in the contract. Not surprisingly, I didn’t sell anything. The parrot got quite cross.
I was on my way back into town, wondering how I was going to explain this day to my manager, when I had to stop for a flock of ewes being shifted across the road. As I edged my way slowly through the baa-ing bodies around the car, I came up to the shepherd as he whistled his dogs across and set them to steer the sheep away from my side of the road. I wound down the window to thank him as I passed, and found myself looking up into the amused eyes of my fisherman friend.
He grinned down at me, and asked, “Any bites today?”
At this point the parrot surreptitiously took a piece out of my ear.
“No!” I said, after I’d hurled the bird into the back seat. “Not a single catch. But what are you doing here? I thought you were a teacher or something?”
“Oh, I’ve got my fingers in a few pies. I’m just about to stop for a minute and have a cuppa, though. You interested?”
I was. Besides the fact that this fellow intrigued me, it had been a long day and I hadn’t had a single offer of a cuppa up to that point. And there are precious few cafes on those back-country roads. I followed him at a crawl to where the sheep were being deftly sent through an open gate, and then, once that was secure, along a little further to a farm worker’s cottage set a little back from the road, and with a kettle softly whistling on what must have been the original coal range. Tea was soon made, and we sat side by side on the front porch, looking again at a misty horizon where blue foothills disappeared into grey clouds.
“It’s your fault,” I said, as I sipped the brew. “After you’d pointed out that it was my enthusiasm for the Father’s product that was selling this dubious policy, I couldn’t do it any more. Well, I can go through the motions, but I’m not very convincing.”
“Sorry about that,” he said, looking about as sorry as a cream-fed cat.
“Do you have room for another shepherd on the farm? After today I think I may be looking for a new job. Again.”
“What and you think my grass is greener, eh? How do you get on with sheep?”
“Dunno. Never tried. I guess they don’t want life insurance?”
“Not much. Look, why don’t you try that forgiveness thing again?”
He took another long sip of tea, and waited.
“Too much pride, I guess. Just can’t get over myself.”
He nodded a little, but then said, “When you were working for the Father’s company, did you ever meet the boss?”
“What? No – well, there was the sort of introduction thing we all got, and I saw him sometimes around the place, but not, like, to talk to or anything.”
“I hear he’s fairly approachable.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too, but, actually talking to him? Personally? I can’t see it. I mean, it stands to reason doesn’t it. A big company like that. And I’m just another salesman. Why’d he want to know me?”
“Did you ever try it?”
“Well, I went to the Christmas do, one year. That was fun, but I just hung out with the rest of my team, you know. Didn’t go looking for anyone else.”
“I’m just wondering, you see, if it would make a difference if you actually knew who you were working for?”
“I guess it might. But that’s all water under the bridge, now.”
“Maybe. You know my mediation work has taught me something; if you’ve got to the point where you’re ready to call it quits, then you’ve got to the point where you’ve got nothing to lose. So you might as well try something dumb.”
“Like going and asking the old man for your job back. In person. And see if you actually like him, and want to work for him.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“The worst he can do is say, ‘no’. And that leaves you no worse of than now, eh?”
“Living hell, you mean.”
“Yeah, I guess it is a bit like that, isn’t it?”
I stared for a while at the parrot cracking its beak on the car windows, and cackling evilly at me from the road, and made my mind up. “All right; I’ll do it.” And then, as I shook hands with the older man; “You know, I don’t even know your name!”
He grinned back. “It’s Whata. Kim Whata. But most folk just call me poppa. See you around young fella.”
The next day a smiling secretary ushered me up to a large oak door, standing wide open, and steered me inside. There behind the desk, wearing a very well-made suit, was my friend the fisherman. I guess I wasn’t very surprised.
“So did you get rid of the parrot?”
“As soon as I got back yesterday afternoon. They smiled and said they’d keep it for me – just in case.”
“Well. That’s kind of them, eh?”
He grinned at me, and made two cups of tea. “Come out onto the balcony. There’s a decent view – and you can see the horizon, today.”
We sat side by side once more, and I waited for him to speak, but I guess he was better at waiting than me – must have been all that fishing. “So what was all that about – just ‘bumping into me’ out in the country? And I must have seen you standing out there fishing dozens of times before I actually stopped. Surely you weren’t just waiting for me?”
“Waiting for you? No, not really. I was fishing. I knew when you would stop, but I also knew you wouldn’t stop if you hadn’t seen me before – a good dozen times. And yesterday – well the sheep needed shifting. I told you I was involved in several businesses. It just happened that they needed shifting about the time that you would be going past. It’s not hard to know when to put the kettle on.”
“But why? I mean – you must be incredibly busy just with this business, let alone all the rest of what you do – and you spent that time being there for me? That’s just a little… creepy?”
“Maybe. But – did you ever read the life insurance policies you were selling?”
“Yes, of course – they’re great.”
“Don’t you remember that being part of the company means that you get the same policy?”
“Oh – yes, but, I thought that was annulled when I started work for another company.”
“Not annulled. Just suspended. And we reserve the right to un-suspend any policy for any reason. Like, if I want to.
“We’re a family business. We do this because we’ve got something great to offer, not for our own benefit. The best thing we give people is their own lives back. You were losing yours. I decided that I wanted you to have another chance. Now, read this…”
I took the sheaf of papers he gave me, and starting at the top, began reading. As I went through, my cup of tea was put aside and forgotten, I sat forward in my chair, and the pleasure of our meeting drained from my face to be replaced by an anxious and angry frown. Eventually I looked up and asked, “Is it legal?”
“Yes, it is.” He took the papers back and started sorting through them. “Wear and tear on company equipment, penalty for breach of contract, compensation for failure to meet targets as contracted, veterinary bills for a slightly deranged bird, medical bills for the vet after treating the same bird… it’s quite a comprehensive list, and, apparently your contract with them makes you liable for the lot.”
I looked again at the figure on the bottom line. “That’s more than my life’s worth, that. I’m stuck with them, aren’t I? I’ll have to work for them forever to pay off that little lot!”
“More than your life’s worth? Maybe. But it isn’t more than you’re insured for.”
“What – but… you said my policy with you was suspended!”
“Yes. But the moment we reactivate it, it covers any claim retrospectively. In other words, your policy today covers your life-threatening debts from yesterday.”
I looked at my old boss with new eyes. “You mean…”
“My son went to their office some time back and settled your debt – and any other debts for our members. Fully and finally. It was… expensive. And unpleasant. Once was enough. But you are now fully covered for as long as you’re with the company.”
“And… am I with the company?”
“That’s up to you. I wanted you to have the chance to join again. But I also wanted you to know why you should join us. And more importantly, to know who you are joining. Do you want to be with us? Even if we hadn’t paid off all your debts, would you want to be with us?”
“Well – yes. I mean… even if I just saw you around the halls, like before, I’d still be very happy to be here.”
“Well, that’s nice. But I was sort of hoping you might want to go fishing with me as well. And you’d be welcome to try your hand at shepherding if you like – though I’ll warn you, sheep can be very …difficult creatures. And there are many other aspects to the business…”
“Then yes! Please. May I join the company again?”
“You just did. Welcome back.”
This story was delivered as a one-off sermon in between a series of sermons by another church member, and the beginning of our missions month. It came out of a few sources (that I’m aware of). The first source is the sermon the previous week! Jim had been speaking on the Lord’s Prayer, and was concluding the series with the verse, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil”. As he spoke, I doodled. I do this to help me concentrate. Honest! And what I doodled was this parrot. And then the preacher got to the point in his sermon where he’s talking about Satan’s temptation of Christ, and how Satan quoted scripture, but without belief or even understanding; – “He’s just a parrot!” he thundered. I looked at the demented parrot I’d drawn on my tablet and nodded. And the image stuck.
The other part of this story was that we had a great response to Jim’s sermons, and especially that last. Like many others I can relate very well to anxiety about evil – and my own vulnerability to it. It left me with a wistfulness that we would respond as well to God’s grace as we do to anxiety about our enemy! So this story really started in my desire to say something about how good God is, and the leaping off place was the reading from Colossians, that our worship leader had started the service with the previous Sunday. It struck, me very forcibly that God’s love is expressed most beautifully in his forgiveness.