By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Did you ever read the book, Who Moved My Cheese? It’s by Spencer Johnson, and it was published in 1998. When it first came out, it was a best seller. And rightly so. It’s a cute little story about four characters – two mice and two little people about the size of mice. They live in a maze and their mission in life is to find and consume cheese. At first it takes some doing, running this way and that through the dark maze; sniffing and smelling and finding bits of cheese by trial and error. Finally, they find a large cache to which they return day after day.
The mice, Sniff and Scurry, eat their cheese with a watchful eye. They’re wary of the fact that a cache of cheese, however big, won’t last long. The little people, Hem and Haw, settle in and make themselves at home. “There’s enough cheese here to last us forever,” they say to themselves, and they come to think of the cheese as, well, something they’re entitled to. After all, they found it. They lapse into a pattern of casually getting up in the morning and ambling down the corridor to eat their daily fill. They didn’t notice what was happening.
What was happening was the cheese was gradually being depleted. Sniff and Scurry knew this from the start. That’s what happens when you eat cheese. It doesn’t lasts forever. And, sure enough, one day the cheese was gone. When Sniff and Scurry arrived and couldn’t find anything to eat, they moved on to find more cheese. Simple as that. Not so for Hem and Haw. After all, they were little people, not mice. They could think and reason. Besides, they had feelings. And so, they were confused and upset. “What, no cheese?” they protested. “Who moved my cheese? It’s not fair,” they said.
Sniff and Scurry quickly find another stash of cheese and life goes on for them, much as before. But Hem and Haw are stuck where they are, wondering what happened and what they can do about it. At first they decide to wait it out. Surely, whoever took their cheese will bring it back and life will return to normal.
Well, the story continues and, in time, Haw decides to venture out in search of new cheese. Hem stays behind. For him, it’s a matter of principle. He’d rather wallow in his grief and starve to death than swallow his pride and move on.
At first, life’s hard for Haw. It’s not easy finding new cheese, and he’s out of shape, and his senses are dull. But, in time, he regains his strength and sharpens his senses and so, finds new cheese. And through it all he learns a lesson he’ll never forget: There’s new cheese to be found if you’re willing to admit the old cheese is gone and is not coming back; and, if you’re willing to leave the security of the past and venture out into the unknown. It’s a lesson most of us can relate to.
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I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I was born in 1946. I graduated from high school in 1964. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a small town in southwest Arkansas. It was an idyllic time, or so it seemed. We went to Sunday school and church every Sunday morning. Sunday school started at 9:45, church began at 11:00. We got out at 12:00. My brothers and I sat with my father on the second pew, right hand side. My mother sang in the choir. The worship service was virtually the same, Sunday after Sunday. It’d start with an organ prelude, then a choral introit, then an opening hymn. As often as not, we’d sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was number one in the hymnal. That was followed by the Apostles’ Creed. As a young child, I thought we were saying the “Opossum’s” creed. The ushers would take up the collection and we’d sing the Doxology, then settle into our pews for the anthem and the sermon, which took up the bulk of the hour. Sermons in those days generally consisted of three points and a poem and, occasionally, a little shouting and a lot of dramatic pauses. We took it all in stride. After church we’d sit down for Sunday dinner. That consisted of roast beef (which mom put in the oven before we left for Sunday school), mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob in the summer time, iced tea and, on special occasions, chocolate pie.
As I said, it was an idyllic life, an era in which “the women were strong, the men good looking and the children above average,” to borrow a line from Garrison Keillor.
Our little community, as most communities back then, was homogeneous and free of most of the controversies that plague us today. As far as churches go, there was basically only one choice and that was Protestant with a lot of variations to choose from – Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and the like. We had a small Roman Catholic church in town, but they politely kept their allegiance to the Pope and their prayers to the Virgin Mary to themselves.
Then things changed. When was it? The 60s? The 70s? The schools became integrated. Women joined the work force in record numbers. Day care became a growth industry. So did fast food. The divorce rate soared. Sunday school and church attendance plummeted. Hush-hush topics such as abortion and homosexuality and birth control were aired openly. Couples started living together out of wedlock. We went from paying by cash to checks to credit cards. We added the term, “consumer debt,” to our vocabulary.
Television came into our community in the late 50s and early 60s. Our family was the first in town to own a television set. It was a small Emerson – black and white, of course. Television transformed our lifestyle. We went from sitting on the porch talking to each other to sitting in the living room watching programs from NewYork City and other exotic places. In time television would take us around the world in seconds and expose us to the harsh realities of war and natural disasters in the making.
The interstate highway system gave us easy access to points far away. Ironically, it also bypassed little communities like ours and gave us the feeling that life was passing us by. Air travel became more commonplace and more affordable. We started going places, not because we needed to, but because we could. Mobility changed the landscape as young people left their home towns and the homogeneity of home towns gave way to the growing influx of newcomers.
Then came the computer … and the Internet … and cells phones and palm pilots and i-pods and blueberries – or is it blackberries? And … well, the list goes on.
It’s no secret: The world has changed dramatically over the years, to the point that so much of the knowledge and skills and expertise we’ve developed over the years are no longer valued or needed.
For example, I had a man in my church years ago who ran a linotype machine for a local printer. When it came to typesetting with hot lead, he was as good as they come. I visited with him one day at his little work station, and I’ll never forget how he tried to convince me why the offset printing press would never catch on. As far as I know he died waiting for the linotype to make a comeback.
It’s a different world. It used to be popular for teachers who wanted to make a little extra cash over the summer to sell sets of the World Book Encyclopedia. You don’t see that much any more. And for good reason – there’s just not a lot of market for nicely bound encyclopedias. Or pocket watches. Or slide rules. Or Zippo lighters.
And it’s so unfair. The Nash Rambler was a good car. So was the Hudson Hornet. And the Henry J. And now, the Oldsmobile. The folks who made them put a lot of pride into their workmanship. No matter. The market shifted, and the plants shut down.
It’s a reality that affects us at every level. My oldest son, John, is a United Methodist minister. From time to time, we talk about sermon preparation. He says, “Dad, the difference between me and you is that, when you think of an illustration for a sermon you think of a hymn or a poem or a quotation; I think of a movie clip.”
Just hanging around young people is beginning to make me feel like a relic. What I think and feel and know to be true is increasingly irrelevant.
Do you hear what I’m saying? Can you identify with me? Because, if you can, I have a word of Good News to share with you and that is: Jesus takes what’s old and obsolete and hackneyed and worn and fills it with new life and vitality and meaning.
That’s the essence of his first miracle. The Old Covenant with Israel wasn’t working. It was based on the law and, as the Pharisees found out, the more you try to obtain righteousness by keeping the law, the more the law exposes your sinfulness. It’s a vicious cycle.
So, God initiated a New Covenant in Jesus Christ, as symbolized by a wedding in Cana of Galilee. And, through Jesus, God performed a miracle. He took the Jewish purification jars, symbolic of the Old Covenant, and he had them filled them with water, a symbol of life, and he turned the water into the most robust, sparkling wine you’ve ever tasted. It was a clear sign of new and abundant life for all.
Jesus takes what’s old and obsolete and hackneyed and worn and fills it with new life and vitality and meaning.
I was talking with a man just the other day at the George Bush Presidential Library. He had been an executive for Ford Motor Company for years, but when they started downsizing he was among the first to go. Instead of bemoaning the injustice of it all, he hired on with Toyota. Today, he lives and works six months out of the year in Japan. He’s on the cutting edge of the automotive industry, and he couldn’t be happier.
Are there parts of your life that are old and obsolete? Is your normal routine not working as well as it once did? Are you out of synch with the world around you? Has someone moved your cheese? Then listen up:
• There’s new cheese to be found if you’re willing to admit the old cheese is gone and is not coming back;
• and, if you’re willing to leave the security of the past and venture out into the unknown.
In a word, turn to Jesus. His body was broken and his blood was shed that you might share in the hope of his resurrection and his promise of new life. Entrust him with the brokenness of your life, and he will take your brokenness and make you whole once more.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2005, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.