A story I wrote while I was in
Morocco, Sunday, June 4, 2006
Once upon a time, there was a town. It looked pretty much like any other town, except for one special feature. This feature was a long ditch where everyone kept their stuff. Now, why people kept their stuff there, nobody knew. Somebody had probably started it long ago by thinking, “Ah. Here’s a nice ditch. This looks like a good place to hide some of my special stuff. It will be my special place where I can keep things.” Then other people copied the idea, and it caught on and got popular to keep stuff in the ditch. From then on, it was a tradition that everybody followed. That’s just the way things were, and nobody questioned it.
The ditch itself had evolved from a plain, rough ditch in the ground to an elaborate system of keeping stuff. It was divided into neat little compartments, with dividers to separate people’s stuff. People who could afford it lined the bottom and sides of their ditch with wood or stone, to keep the stuff clean and dry. The town government had paid to have a roof built over the ditch, and they designed drainage systems to keep the water out. Some people had lockable compartments to keep their stuff safe, but even those who didn’t usually found that nobody bothered their stuff. It was just too ingrained in people that they all depended on the whole town’s unspoken commitment to keep the ditch a safe and friendly place.
Mr. Elton was a traveling peddler who lived in the town and had a section of his own in the ditch, but he often went to neighboring cities and villages to peddle his wares. Occasionally, he would make it all the way to the capital city to sell things and buy more stock. On one of these instances, he was talking to a man he met in the street, and the conversation got around to where he was from.
“Oh, you’re from the village of the ditch?” the man said. “Aw, I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Mr. Elton asked.
“Don’t you know?” the man replied.
“No, I don’t,” Mr. Elton said.
“I thought you would have heard the news, seeing as it pertains to you,” the man stated.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. What is it?” Mr. Elton prodded.
“Okay. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t even know if this is true. It’s just a rumor I’ve heard. But my cousin is a servant in the king’s kitchen, and sometimes he brings food to the king’s table. He said he heard the king say he was going to burn that ditch, that he is very unhappy with it, because every time he rides by it in his coach, it looks so junky. He also doesn’t like the idea of his citizens keeping their things in a ditch, instead of in their houses or in the bank, like normal people are supposed to do.
This was sobering news to Mr. Elton, and he pondered it all the way back to the town. Once there, he told a few of his friends what he had heard and asked them what they thought.
“Nah. The King lives so far from here. What does he care? He hardly ever comes through here, anyway,” one said.
“It’s impossible. Why, this ditch has always been here. I don’t see why anything should happen to it,” another said.
“And as the man said, it’s just a rumor. Who knows if it’s even true?” remarked the third. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The peddler agreed. But just because it was an interesting story, those people told others, who told more friends, who in turn told more people, so the story spread (in all the twisted varieties it acquired from being re-told so many times). Not everyone heard it, though, and almost no one believed it, so naturally, it died out after it had been talked over and laughed about.
Two or three months later, a courtier from the King’s court arrived in silken garments and riding a white horse. He proceeded to the town square and gathered a crowd.
“Hear ye, Hear ye,” he cried. “By the authority of the King, I do hereby declare that your ditch will be burned in one year’s time. The citizens of this town are invited to remove their possessions to a safe location before this date, determined by the king and sealed with his signet ring on this royal decree I present before you. Anyone not following this advice is subject to the loss of every possession in the ditch. Be forewarned and advised.”
With that, he departed.
Immediately, there was a hubbub of talking. Those who had heard the rumor passed it on to those who had not, with the added revelation of “So it was true.” A few people began making plans to remove their stuff right away, when a certain Mr. Sneed got up. He was known for having political ambitions and for being a passionate speaker.
“Listen, all of you,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know about you, but I love our ditch. It’s part of the tradition of our town. I remember going as a little boy to my part of the ditch, to put snail shells, little stones, anything that was special, in there. That ditch has more memories wrapped up in it for everybody here than anything else in this town. It’s part of our identity. I say we save the ditch!
This cry was taken up by the crowd. “Save the ditch,” they roared in unison. “Save the ditch! Save the ditch! Save the ditch!”
Mr. Sneed waited until the noise died down, then resumed his speech. “Now, here’s how we’ll do it,” he said. “We’ll have a three-pronged approach. First, we’ll beautify the ditch. If the king doesn’t like it looking junky, then we’ll improve it. We’ll plant flowers, install fountains, have everything freshly painted, fly flags, and whatever we can think of. Then maybe the king won’t want to destroy it.
“Second, we will be prepared to fight. If the king decides to go ahead with his plan, we will stand against him and defend our ditch. Therefore, I will need every available man to report for weekly drill over the coming year so we will be ready. Are you with me? Who can I count on?” Hands flew into the air from every direction, accompanied by a hearty cheer.
“Third, we will be prepared to put out the fire. We will install sprinkler systems, have fire trucks standing by, and have plenty of water at hand to douse any flames. With these three steps, I believe we can save our ditch.”
This chant was taken up again. “Save our ditch! Save our ditch! Save our ditch!” The crowd swelled with confidence that they could indeed save the ditch.
Those who had started thinking about moving their stuff abandoned their plans in favor of saving the ditch, and over the course of the next year, all three of Mr. Sneed’s steps were implemented. Very few people actually took their stuff out of the ditch, and those who did were condemned for weakening morale, not having community spirit, and for being weak and afraid.
One month before the appointed day, the king himself drove into the town to see the ditch and see if people remembered his advice. He saw all the beautiful flowers, the fountains, the fresh coats of paint, and all the other improvements, but he was surprised to see how few people had taken his advice and removed their stuff.
“Did I not give you enough time?” the king demanded of the townspeople. I gave you a whole year. Why is your stuff still in the ditch?”
“Oh, your Majesty, you see, we couldn’t part with our ditch, so we left our stuff there,” they said. They didn’t really want to give away their plan to save the ditch, but the king, being an astute man, noticed the disapproval in their eyes, saw their jaws clench and their fists tighten, observed all the provision for extra water in the immediate vicinity of the ditch, and guessed their plan of opposition.
Before he left, the king had signs posted at regular intervals along the ditch. “By order of the king, this ditch will be destroyed in one month’s time. Anyone opposing this plan will be tried in the royal court. Remove your stuff.”
Still, few people took it seriously.
The month passed. The king sent soldiers to carry out the task. The town’s informal militia proved woefully ineffective against the trained soldiers, and they were overpowered, along with all the people who were prepared to be firefighters. The ditch was burned and then filled in with dirt so as to be unusable in the future. Only the ones who had heeded the warnings were safe. The others not only lost the ditch they tried to save, but all their stuff as well.
This is an analogy. The ditch is the world, the townspeople are the people in the world, and the king represents God. God has said the world will be destroyed, lay not up treasures on earth (Mt. 6), that he who tries to save his life will lose it, and that the world will be shaken (Heb. 12). So why do we cling to earth, keep collecting stuff here, and focus on our earthly treasures when God has said he will burn it all? Christians are looked down on when they don’t value all the world’s treasures, but we need to not cave to their pressure. Lord, I want to lay up my treasure in heaven. Earth is just a ditch. Yeah, it might be a nice ditch, or a fancy ditch sometimes, but it’s a ditch compared to heaven. Help me to work for treasure there.