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The United Church of Gainesville Broken Hearts Club Band:
Reflections on
The Tumbler and the Princess
Larry Reimer
February 13, 2000

"The Tumbler and the Princess"
James Carroll

Once, when life was simpler, and people were too, there lived a tumbler who was by far the most skilled and agile acrobat in all the realm. Why, this tumbler had even been summoned to court once to perform before the queen.

All the people, including her highness, were awed by the tumbler – by his great daring, by his great strength, and by the great swiftness of his tricks. He was indeed an excellent tumbler and, by and by, the entire realm admired him and regarded him very well. Which was a pleasant turn of events for the tumbler at first, but eventually was a very bad one.

It happened, you see, that there was an ill-tempered seer in the realm. She did not like anyone, but she liked least of all those people for whom the kingdom as a whole had high regard. It may be that the ill-tempered seer felt this way because she herself was so little honored.

She had in fact been disgraced since her youth, when, as the royal seer, she had displeased the Queen with what she saw. She had been abruptly dismissed from the court and had been seeking revenge ever since, revenge against the Queen and revenge against anyone the Queen honored.

So it was that when the tumbler was acclaimed by the people and received with graciousness by the Queen, the ill-tempered seer took notice. She decided to pay a night visit to the tumbler.

Now the seer was not a violent sort. She would take no pleasure in hitting anyone, but she took great pleasure in seeing because she was indeed a seer.

So it was that, late one night when the tumbler was sleeping, the ill-tempered seer looked through the window of the tumbler’s house and through the window of his sleeping eyes. The seer took great delight in what she saw, wanting as she did revenge. The seer, in looking hard at the tumbler, saw clear through to his heart. And she saw that the tumbler’s heart was seriously cracked. There were clear, deep faults running through the middle of his inmost self. The tumbler’s heart was as fragile as china lace – and it was nearly about to break.

The ill-tempered seer left a message for the tumbler which said: "O you tumbler, you who are an excellent acrobat, beware. You are the bearer of a deep-cracked heart – which is dangerous for any one. But to one whose life is tumbling, such as yours, a deep cracked heart is both dangerous and deadly."

The next morning, the tumbler was surprised to find the seer’s message – and he was stunned when he read it. If his heart was cracked, so was his very life. Indeed, if his heart was fragile, his life as a daring tumbler was broken. An acrobat needs many things, but most of all a heart of granite strength that will not break with much hard use.

The tumbler thought to himself: "It cannot be so." But the seer saw only what was true – and the tumbler knew deep inside that it was so – his heart was cracked indeed. For the first time ever, the tumbler felt the crack in his heart and his spirit groaned.

From that day on, the tumbler could not bring himself to tumble any more. It was not exactly that he had lost his daring courage. But with a deeply-cracked heart, caution came to him as a reflex. Even if he chose otherwise, his body simply would not curl and hurl itself any longer. Even in plain walking, he was slower; he was more careful of foot, more wary of tripping.

When, not long after this, the tumbler was summoned by the Queen to perform again, he refused. The Queen was angry, because she wanted the tumbler to perform at the coming-of-age celebration for her daughter. All of the people in the realm began to say that the tumbler who would not tumble had lost his nerve. Even children, who were his greatest admirers, began to make fun of him. In this way, the tumbler was disgraced, and the ill-tempered seer had his revenge.

The tumbler decided to leave the realm – and he picked up his travelling bundle and set out. The road to the outlands of the kingdom and beyond happened to pass by the Queen’s castle. It also happened that the day when the tumbler left was the same day of the Queen’s daughter’s coming-of-age celebration.

And so it was, as the tumbler drew near the castle, he saw a large crowd gathered there. All the people of the realm had come to honor the Queen’s daughter. The Queen was about to present her daughter with the robe of her majority. It was a happy moment, because everyone loved the beautiful young girl. But her moment of honor was harshly interrupted.

The ill-tempered seer broke into the circle of lords and ladies and, in front of the whole assembled realm, the seer furiously insulted the princess.

The seer said "You, Princess, you are not so perfect nor so beautiful as you seem. In fact, your very heart is cracked." And the princess, very very disturbed by the seer’s words, ran weeping from the yard. She ran to the tower and climbed up to a ledge, clutching the castle’s wall.

The tumbler dropped his travelling bundle and pushed his way through the crowd to the tower of the castle. When he reached the wall, he stopped and looked up at its steep face. He felt the familiar fear, but he pushed it aside and began climbing, sure as shadows and quick as any bird. He made his way from foothold to handhold, as a new and total silence fell over the crowd.

When the tumbler neared the ledge, he called up to the princess "Hold fast, your highness!" And then he was there, clinging hard himself to the narrow ledge where she was.

The tumbler looked at the princess. She was weeping still. Her eyes were closed tight. She was indeed lovely, but her fear was catching. The tumbler looked down at the ground himself – and what he saw then nearly caused him to lose his hold on the narrow ledge. He saw the massive crowd of people, worried and fearful, and each one of them had a deeply-cracked


What the seer had said of the tumbler and the princess was true, but it was also true of everyone. The tumbler gestured down to the crowd for the princess to see. She looked and saw and slowly smiled her tears away.

The tumbler said to the princess, "Your highness, hold onto me." And he offered her his hand and she took it. She held him fast. Slowly they began to make their way down the steep face of the castle wall. They almost made it safely to the ground – but, when they were still high enough to hurt, the tumbler, tired by then, lost his hold and fell. He and the princess crashed to the ground.

They did not die, but instead fell into laughter where they lay. They still held each other, but it was, as the crowd could see, less clinging than embrace. All the people smiled to see them well and laughing so.

At that moment, the ill-tempered seer stepped forward from the crowd. Everyone fell back, for everyone was afraid that the seer would look at them and see too well. The seer was quite disturbed, not only that the princess would yet be honored, but that the tumbler would surely be honored again.

So it was that the ill-tempered seer, with all the fury, she could muster said:

"Stop laughing so! Stop laughing or your deep-cracked hearts will break."

The princess and the tumbler, still holding onto each other, let their laughter rest. They stood up – and looked at the seer. The tumbler said: "Our deep-cracked hearts have broken already. We have broken them on this falling. We have broken them on this sharing of laughter."

"Why laughter?" asked the seer.

"Because" the tumbler said, "the crack in the heart breaks for nothing but for giving away."

The princess, like the true princess she was, then said: "The breaking of a heart is the breaking at last of love." She said it gently, without reproach, for the newly-fallen princess was seeing the sad seer, and a piece of her heart went out to her.

The End

The Tumbler and the Princess is one of my three favorite of James Carroll’s stories, the former priest now novelist, who also authored the story Legs, that I told last week. My third favorite is the tale of Humbert and Hubert, two dragonflies who take off in search of heaven. I might just tell that sometime soon.

I think there’s a reason that the twenty-third Psalm, which Sandy read in a new translation for the Call to Worship, is probably the most widely treasured of all scripture. We all find ourselves walking through dark valleys of fear and brokenness at one time or another. The Paul Simon song, American Tune, says, "I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered."

We all have broken hearts, and we all feel like we’re the only ones who have those broken hearts.

I have said before that I do not believe in the classic doctrine of original sin. I do not believe that all human kind fell away from grace with Adam and Eve. I believe that all people from Adam to the newest child born on earth this day are created in blessing. I have said over and over again that I believe it is more helpful to understand that we are not so much about the forgiveness of sins as the healing of wounds.

It may help to translate sin as broken hearts rather than as doing bad things. When Paul says, "All have sinned, all have fallen short," it might be like the tumbler showing the princess that "All have broken hearts". This, by the way is not something I am making up. Classically, sin is a separation from our true selves, our soul, a brokenness of heart.

So think of a time when you were riding high, feeling like the tumbler – known for your great daring, your great strength, or the swiftness of your magic. Think of a time when like the Princess, you were about to make your big entry – an appearance on stage, a big date, a solo in the concert, a crucial game, a grand lecture, a new job, the school you had long awaited, true love.

And think of how someone who in his or her own ill-tempered way was able to see inside you and point out your flaw. "Hey," the creepy pest says, "You’re not as perfect as you think you are. You have a broken heart."

It’s like a punch in the stomach. It doubles you over. The world starts spinning.

How do I dare get up here and preach? I say to myself after it has been pointed out to me that I have lost my temper with the Dixieland band, or hurt a friend, or failed to fix what was broken in my own life.

You can fill in your own blanks. How do you face the world after the love that you thought would last a life time falls apart, or you don’t get in to the school you told everyone was your first choice, or you don’t make the team, or you don’t pass the big test, or your parents get divorced, or you are the parent who gets divorced; your kid gets arrested, or you’re the kid who gets into real trouble?

One of the real privileges of being your pastor is that I hear you share your wounds with me. Most of the time you tell me you feel like you’re the only one struggling with your own private pain. It seems to you that everyone else is sailing through life in a Lake Woebegone world where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are all above average.

The message of faith is that we are all broken. We are all wounded.

Hold up your broken hearts again and look around. Keep them up while I read this beautiful passage of Paul from his letter to the church at Corinth, "We who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots…We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed.

You may put down your broken hearts. I see you with those broken hearts every Sunday, and now once again you have seen them in each other. If you wonder just why you are here, and how you got here, I believe that God has gathered us just for this reason, to be in a place where it is safe to be who we are. We are here because God comes to us to heal our wounded, broken hearts. We are the "UCG Broken Hearts Club Band."

One of the things I really like about the story of the tumbler and the princess is that when the tumbler and the princess fall from the tower, they do not die, but they fall into laughter. The ill-tempered seer tries to make them stop, threatening that this laughter will cause their cracked hearts to finally break apart. The tumbler answers "Our deep-cracked hearts have broken already. We have broken them on this falling. We have broken them on this sharing of laughter. The crack in the heart breaks not for nothing, but for giving away."

I tell you that our laughter, our songs, the ways we give to one another in trust, these are great risks for folks with broken hearts. But that’s exactly how the love gets in, through the cracks. That precisely, is where God breaks in.

Prayer – Sandy Reimer
As we begin our time of prayer, listen to this poem by Robert Penn Warren.
Out of mist, God’s
Blind hand gropes to find
Your face. The fingers
Want to memorize your face. God’s fingers
Will be wet with the tears of your eyes. God
Wants only to love you, perhaps.

We come to this moment of prayer knowing that we carry pain and wounds deep within us, knowing that our hearts are cracked. But we keep them hidden, these cracks – we carry our pain around silently, protecting it in our private pouches.

Now, in this moment, as we breathe slowly in – and slowly out – with each breath, may we relax our guard. We each breath, may we open our trust to you, Mother and Father of Creation, you who are the embodiment of light and love. You reach for us in both our joy and our sorrow – you touch us in our tears – and you want only to bathe us in love. With each breath, let us breathe in love and acceptance – with each breath, let us breathe out, if only for this moment, our tightly guarded fear.

Let us remember each other, the people in our lives, who all have broken hearts. Let us surround with our prayers the people from this week who we know are hurting, who are ill, who are angry, perhaps even a person who has hurt us. Let us see that there hearts are yearning for love – let us see them surrounded by Your light, light that pours into those cracks in their hearts.

Out of mist, God’s
Blind hand gropes to find
Our faces. The fingers
Want to memorize our faces. God’s fingers
Will be wet with the tears of our eyes. God
Wants only to love us. Amen.