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Any We've Heard Twice

Marguerite Shuster

Years ago, my church-going uncle, observing a tiny grandchild struggling to carry a Christmas present almost as big as he was, slyly intoned, "It's not heavy; it's my present."

Of course, he was invoking an illustration that is now 130 years old, of a little Scottish girl carrying a large baby. When asked if he is heavy, she responds, "He's not heavy; he's my brother."

By the time I first heard the story, the girl had transmuted into an African boy trudging along a long, dusty road, trying desperately to get help for the disabled brother on his back. The line has become the slogan for the Boys Town nonprofit; the title, slightly altered, of a hit Hollies song; and the theme of a Miller Lite commercial (good deeds being appropriately rewarded, of course, by a tall cool one). The story clearly strikes a chord across time and genres, so why would I suggest banning it from the pulpit?

My uncle's response gives the first clue: Everyone has heard this anecdote already. It readily provokes parody instead of a deep understanding of the truth that love makes burdens light. I tell students that if they have heard an illustration even twice, using it themselves is risky. Of course, the problem for the preacher is exacerbated by the viral quality of today's good stories, to which nearly all of us have instant access. Such stories can be made to work only if the preacher signals a fresh twist upfront.

A subtler difficulty, but one all too common, is moralism and guilt-induction. Yes, love lightens burdens, but even the most loving people can become exhausted and overwhelmed by burdens, say of caregiving, that have pushed them beyond ...

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June 2014

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