This is “Chasing a Chicken in the Snow,” a short story and illustration from the children’s book A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek:
Another chore that the children helped with was cleaning chicken manure out of the coop. This was easy work compared to barn cleaning, for chicken droppings were light and much mixed with straw. Usually, a fresh, sunny day was chosen for the job.
Chickens are jumpy. If anyone cleaning under them makes an unexpected move, the whole flock will fly into the air. One chicken might even fly out the door to the glistening snow. Then, William’s mother would yell, “William! Come here, catch the one that got away!”
Now, there is nothing so stupid as a chicken. You can’t drive it, for it does not follow a straight course away from humans, as cows or horses or geese do. Nor will it let itself be caught. The best you can do, as William found out from experience, is to keep the chicken moving until it is worn out. Then you hedge in, and pounce! If you’re lucky, you can grab it by the leg and carry it squawking back into the coop.
Indeed, there is nothing so stupid as a chicken.
Unless, of course, you’re dealing with a donkey – a creature that lives, moves and breathes at the exasperating intersection of stupid and stubborn.
When a donkey digs in its heels and decides it wants absolutely nothing to do with the determined wants and steadfast desires of its human master, it’s time for Katy to bar the door! For what’s about to break out is a violent battle of wills that leaves both sides bruised and battered.
That’s one of the conflicts we’ll witness in this morning’s Scripture lesson: the obscure, rather strange, definitely violent, Old Testament story of Balaam and his talking donkey. But the bigger and badder conflict is the one brewing between Balaam and God, who’s so sick and tired of Balaam’s monkeyshines that the Lord sends a sword-wielding angel on a deadly mission to do-in Balaam and bring an end to his shady dealings.
Balaam has got himself a good gig, and he’s making the best of it. Balaam is known as a prophet of prophets who’s supposedly blessed with the power of fortune-telling. He gets lucky in the beginning, makes some good business decisions, uses his words in just the right way, and word of his divination begins to spread.
You say you’re a farmer going through a dry spell? For an affordable fee (half up front, half on delivery), Balaam will come out to your field and pray for the heavens to open up and pour forth.
Frustrated with your in-laws? With a reasonable down payment, Balaam will head over to their place and pray for calmer, clearer heads to prevail. Of course, satisfaction is NOT guaranteed.
Unsure of your future? With just a few easy monthly installments, Balaam will read your palms and tell you what’s coming your way:
“I see … an argument that remains unsettled.”
“I predict … days of joy and days of sorrow.”
“You will be … very cold in the winter and very warm in the summer.”
“You won’t … get what you want for your birthday.”
“Your wife will … insist that you help with housework.”
“Your husband will … forget your anniversary.”
Gullible people are willing to pay whatever Balaam asks if they think that the voodoo he does will work. If you’re looking to pay a lot for little more than smoke and mirrors, then Balaam is your man to get the job done.
Enter the king of Moab, who hears about Balaam’s supposed powers and decides to hire him to place a curse upon God’s people, who’d not long ago escaped from slavery in Egypt.
Now, Balaam isn’t much into placing curses and hexes, but for the right price, he’ll do just about anything. So, he decides to lend the king a hand and give it a whirl. He decides on a flat rate for a curse of locusts and famine, but he’ll throw in a flood of biblical proportion for an extra 15 percent.
The Lord then appears to Balaam in a dream and tells him lay off the curse on God’s people. So, Balaam calls the whole thing off. But the king’s men come back and offer Balaam even more money – houses chock full of silver and gold. The Lord again appears in a dream, telling Balaam to go but only to do and speak as God tells him.
When it comes time to leave, the money is speaking louder than the Lord, so Balaam sets off on his trusted donkey with dreams of swimming pools filled with gold and spacious rooms covered in silver. Balaam is ready to say and do whatever it takes to get his reward, which is where we pick up the story.
Please listen carefully for the Word of the Lord from the book of Numbers, for there’s more to this story than a reminder that the love of money is the root of all evil.
God’s anger was kindled and became inflamed, because Balaam was going with the officials of Moab, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now Balaam was riding on a donkey, and his two servants were with him.
The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. So, the donkey turned off the road and went into the field, and Balaam struck the donkey to turn it back onto the road.
Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall. So, Balaam struck the donkey again.
Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam, and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey,
“Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”
But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And Balaam said, “No.”
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand, and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the LORD said to him,
“Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.”
Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.”
The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So, Balaam went on with the officials of Moab. (Numbers 22:22-35)
Balaam is supposed to be this uber prophet who sees more than most, and yet his donkey sees more than he does. Without the donkey’s persistent efforts to point him in another direction, Balaam would have been killed by his love of money, essentially cashing out on the chance for the Lord to transform him into someone new and turn his life in a new more faithful, more obedient direction.
Our lives are filled with many donkeys hoping to redirect our attention to the path God lays before us. The God who is the Great I Am is the One who’s in charge, actively and doggedly ensuring that the divine plan for changing the world and saving its inhabitants keeps moving forward to fruition in the ways that God wants it to unfold.
And the Lord speaks through any number of surprising, unexpected voices in never-ending divine effort to get us to listen up!
The good news is the reality that we get these little reminders at all! Rather than leaving us to our own dark devices, the light of the Lord shines in our midst.
In the words of Scripture, we see faint reflections of ourselves, and we are reminded of God’s never-ending love.
In our prayers, we remember that the world is much bigger than ourselves and that God’s answers to our prayers aren’t always the ones we want to hear.
In community, we hear God speaking through the voices of others – if we have the courage and humility to listen and act.
These days, there are lots of voices making lots of noise about lots of things, and it’s oftentimes hard to tell the difference between the donkeys speaking the words of the Lord from the asinine belloring the words of selfish desire and blatant lies.
Let me suggest three ways of figuring out who’s speaking for whom and which direction is of God:
First, the voice pointing you down a particular path must sound like the voice of the God who’s revealed to us in Scripture: the God who’s always reaching out in love with mercy and forgiveness, the God who seeks to build up and not tear down, the God who seeks to reconcile a people unto God’s self and to each other.
Second, the path that the voice wants you to follow must be a path that Jesus took: a straight and narrow path toward repentance and transformation, humility and sacrifice, peace and grace; a path that leads to strength and healing for those hurting and ailing in body, mind and soul.
And third, the path that the voice wants you to follow always must produce spiritual fruit: love, joy, or peace; patience, kindness, or generosity; faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control.
If a path leads to anything other than those things, then it’s definitely time to heed the donkey, turn tail and change course.
Surely, like Balaam, we’re pretty quick to beat the living daylights out of those donkeys who see God, speak for the Lord, and stop us on our sure path to destruction. That could explain any number of the violent conflicts that we’ve seen playing out on the national stage in recent weeks.
Maybe chickens aren’t the only creatures who are stupid, and donkeys aren’t as stupid and stubborn as we might think.
Perhaps, then, ours is the confession of Balaam to the angel: “I have sinned. I didn’t realize you were standing in the road to block my way. I will return home if you are against my going.”
And I simply have to believe that God in no uncertain terms is against the way that far too many of us are going these days.
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to the Lord.
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, February 7, 2021. It is the third in a series of sermons based on the children’s book A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek. Our song this morning, Highland Cathedral, is by Andre Rieu and His Johann Straus Orchestra.