By Kathy Berken
A duck walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “Hey, you got any fish here?” (Hang on, we’ll get to that in a minute.)
First, I want to tell you what happened recently, outside my window, on the playground at Holy Spirit Grade School.
The recess bell had just rung and the kids—third- or fourth-graders—were running to line up at the school door. I noticed a little boy lying underneath the giant fiberglass rock-mountain and screaming. He was stuck. Arms outstretched and waving, he was crying for help.
Apparently, he crawled through from the other side, and because the ground was covered with loose woodchips, he couldn’t grip anything to pull himself through. He didn’t seem hurt, just stuck. A group of girls was running past, headed to line up at the school door. One girl stopped and turned towards the boy, briefly assessing the situation. She then quickly leaned over, grabbed his hands and pulled him out, releasing him from his distress. The girl turned and ran to the school door, leaving the boy to get up by himself. The incident was over in a few seconds.
I’m guessing that neither of them mentioned this to anyone, but I think that they will each remember the moment, perhaps even into adulthood, as one of great compassion.
To some, this might be nothing to write home about. A kid is stuck. Another kid pulls him out. Life goes on. But that is not how I see it.
I was impressed that a little girl would emerge enough from her comfort zone with her girlfriends to help a male classmate in trouble. Watching this group play for a while now, I almost never see the girls interact one-on-one with the boys, although true to form, they do chase each other around the playground.
What was so important about this little incident? Precisely that it was little and that they will remember it. God-moments often happen in a flash. So do sin-moments. There are likely many playgrounds with similar scenes, and it is likely — and unfortunate — that some may include a bully kicking dirt in the boy’s face, or worse. They’ll remember that, too. Then front-page headlines will call attention to it. Most media couldn’t care less about my story. It isn’t about a duck walking into a bar asking for fish, for heaven’s sake, just a kid helping a classmate. No big deal.
Most of our stories are flashpoints. We have a mental snapshot of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. Few, if any, of Jesus’ miracles were three-act plays. Most focused on a gesture, a look, a few words. In the Garden of Gethsemane, “[Jesus] turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). We know the power of a single image.
Spiritian missionary Father Vincent Donovan worked with the Masai in Tanzania for 17 years. In describing baptism in his 1978 memoir, “Christianity Rediscovered,” he wrote, “Their word for God means rain.” Ponder that for a moment. I imagine homilies, retreats and essays developed on the God-moment this single image likely created in a reader or two.
As for the duck that walked into the bar and asked for some fish? There are a few varied endings, which you could look up online, yet the point is not the joke, but that your brain will embed the image and keep it fresh for a long time.
What story will emerge from the next God-moment you experience?
What Scriptural gesture, glance or word will assist your spiritual journey?
What will you imagine the next time it rains?
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch)”.)