Reverend John McLean at Unity of Nashville read Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions during a Sunday service.

The story is delightful and John’s commentary is very insightful.

Here are the questions.

  • When is the best time to do things?
  • Who is the most important one?
  • What is the right thing to do?

There is a lifetime of wisdom here.

Here is the transcript:

Once there was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the way to act. 

I want to be a good person, he told his friends. But I don’t always know the best way to do that. Nikolai’s  friends understood, and they wanted to help him. If only I could find the answers to my three questions, he continued, then I would always know what to do. 

When is the best time to do things? 

Who is the most important one? 

What is the right thing to do? 

Nicolai’’s friends considered his first question, then his friends were animals. 

Then Sonya, the Heron, 


She said, To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance. The monkey, who had been rooting through some leaves to find something good to eat, said You will know when to do things if you watch and pay close attention than the dog who was dozing off rolled over and said, You can’t pay attention to everything yourself. You need to pack and keep watch and help you decide when to do things. For example, a coconut is about to fall on your head. 


Nicholai thought for a moment. And then he asked the second question, Well, who is the most important one? 

The heron said those who are closest to heaven are the most important ones. The monkey said those who know how to heal the sick are the most important one. And the dog said those who make the rules are the most important one. 

The boy thought some more. And then he asked the third question. He said, What is the right thing to do? What is the right thing to do? 

Well, the bird, the heron said were flying, 

the monkey said having fun all the time, and the dog said fighting is the best thing to do. 

And then the boy thought for a long while he loved his friends. He knew they were all trying to help doing their best. But their answer is none of them seemed quite right. Then an idea came to him. He said, I know I will go ask Turtle. He has lived a very long time. Surely he’ll know the answers I’m looking for. And the boy hiked up high in the mountain where the old turtle lived alone by the creek. And when Nikolai arrived, he found the turtle digging the garden. 

The turtle was old and digging was hard for him. 

The voice as I have three questions, I came to ask your help. What are those questions? As Turtle, 

What’s the best time to do things? Who’s the most important one and what is the right thing to do? 

Well, the turtle listened carefully. But he only smiled. 

Then the turtle went on with his digging. You must be tired, the boy said. Let me help you. The turtle gave him the shovel and said thanks. 

Because it was easier for the young boy today than it was for the turtle. The boy kept digging until the rows were all finished. But just as he finished, the wind blew wildly in the rain burst from dark and clouds. And as they moved toward the cottage for shelter, the boy suddenly heard a cry for help. 

Running down the path, he found a giant panda whose leg had been injured when she fell from a tree, and so the boy carried her into the turtle’s house and made a splint for her leg with some of the bamboo that she had. And as the storm raged on, banging at the doors and the windows, the panda finally woke up and she said, Where am I? 

Turtle said, At my house in the giant panda. I said, Where is my baby? 

So the boy ran out again and down the path. And the roar of the storm was just deafening, pushing against the howling wind and the drenching rain. He ran farther into the forest and there he found the panda’s baby cold and shivering on the ground. And the panda was scared and where but alive. 

And the boy carried her inside and made her warm and dry and put her in her mother’s 


while the turtle smiled when he saw what the boy had done. 

The next morning, the sun was warm, birds sang, and all was well with the world. 

The panda’s leg was healing. She thanked the boy for saving her and her baby. 

And at that moment, the heron, the monkey and the dog all arrived to make sure that everyone was OK. And the boy felt great peace within himself. He had wonderful friends. He had saved the panda and her child. 

But he also still felt disappointed. He still had not found the answer to his three questions. So he asked Leo the turtle one more time, and the old turtle looked at him and he said, But your questions have been answered already. They have said the boy 


If you had not stayed to help me dig my garden, you wouldn’t have heard the pandas cry for help in the storm. 

And therefore, the most important time was the time you spent digging the garden. 

The most important one at the moment was me, the 


and the most important thing to do was to help me finish my garden. 

Later, you found a panda injured and the most important time was the time you spent mending her leg and saving her child. The most important ones were the panda and the baby. And the most important thing to do was to take care of them and make them safe. 


there’s only one important time, 

and that time is now, 

and the most important one 

is always the one you’re with 

and the most important thing to do is to do good for the one you’re standing there 

for. These, my dear boy, are the answers to what’s most important in the whole wide world. 

The end.

The purpose of any spiritual teaching, arguably the purpose of any spiritual teaching is to not answer your questions, but to make sure that you question your answers, conscious answers or even unconscious answers, which we call assumptions.

We go through life with an assumed answer for everything which can be largely unconscious. 

Sometimes we’re asked something in particular and we have an answer, and that’s a conscious answer, that’s a reply to something. What time is it? It’s ten. Thirty. Do you know that’s an answer? 

But when this little boy 

ask these questions 

about when to act. 

Let me say them correctly. 

And to go all the way back 

to the page, the three questions, when is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? 

What’s the right thing to do? 

Well, when is the best time to do things? 

When you ask that question? There’s an assumption that there’s a universal answer that’s very that would be guiding, that would be particular, that would be rooted in your own particular culture. That would be 

the most appropriate thing 

to do. 

Who is the most important one 

in our Western culture? We are assuming that we’re going to be talking about God, right. 

Whatever that may mean to you. 

That assumes. 

That we’re inferior somehow, even when we ask that question, we’re assuming that there’s anybody or anything more important than our own holy nature. 

To even ask that question is so loaded with prejudice, a prejudgment 

about surely there must be something better than just me 

and even all of all young. 

We have a lot of undoing and learning to do in that realm doing 

and what’s the right thing to do? What is the right thing to do? 


We’re talking spirituality here, we’re not talking we’re not talking business necessarily. 

If if if we were talking about a corporation, what is the right thing to do is maximize shareholder value, not a bad thing, but in that world, that’s the answer to that question. There’s only one right answer. 

We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about ourselves and our own growing awareness of our own importance of our place in the world. 

Our value, everybody else’s value. 

And establishing a new order of things. 

So, yes, there’s going to be an answer 

and the turtle had good answers. 

And that comes from the perennial philosophy which we talk about every single week. 

For those who find deep relevance and the wisdom teachings of Jesus, when is the best time to do things? Well, you know, the kingdom of God is at hand. That means now. 

Now. And it’s not like the next now isn’t going to be any less important or holy than this now the unfolding ness of now. 

Is what life reveals to us and who is the most important one? Well, in our own. 

Basic principles. We said, well, if you say who is the most important one, will, all of creation is an out picturing. It’s an expression of the mind of God. So could there be any hierarchy? 

Is there such a thing as good and good or 

I mean, I kind of like the word good or a personal preference, I like it, 

but is there any gooder than good? 

Grammatically, no, but it’s all 


all of it is good. So there is no more important thing person than anyone else. 

And what’s the right thing to do? 

I know that is, again, perennial answers from so many different traditions are. 

You won’t ever go wrong, I learned this from my friend, Rabbi Ted, but, you know, his answer to that is what’s the right thing to do? The kind of thing. 

The kind thing and even the Dalai Lama, when they say, what is your religion, he says, well, my religion is kindness. You know, it’s really simple. 

And how easy is it to be kind? Not so easy. Not so easy, especially when any of us might feel threatened. 

Especially in a case like that. 

To do the kind of thing. 

I know I have found in my life 

that I’ve never regretted any kindness that I ever did, nor did I ever regret taking the high road. 

The only regrets that I have for not taking the high road. 

Of not being kind. 

And so, again, these three.

questions which the philosophers of our planet have written, libraries filled with all kinds of answers and situations and relativities and 

and suppositions and theories. 

But in the world of spirit and by spirit, I mean your growth, your life, your way of being in the world. Yes. 

It’s very different. And there is a guiding principle. 

A guiding principle that all of us can take advantage of.

When is the best time to do things? 

Now. Now. 

And who is the most important? Well, the turtle says the most important is the one you’re with. 

But I believe there’s a deeper understanding behind that answer from the turtle, even because the one you’re with establishes the We of me. 

And it doesn’t exclude you in any situation that you’re in. 

Of course, it includes you. 

In that situation, 

we’re talking about an opportunity, whether it’s helping somebody or even opening a present that somebody might give, you know, doesn’t always have to be hard manual labor. 

But to be prescient with the way that each of us are when we’re in communion, right as we are today with other people. 

And to be kind. 

You know, the buzz kill about spirituality is always that one of our unconscious and unarticulated assumptions is always that if I’m going to make some kind of effort to live a spiritual life, that means it’s never going to be fun. 

Like who wants to be holy all the time? Who wants to be like a monk and and have to pray and do that? And that is an incorrect assumption. 

Because of being present now isn’t fun, you’re missing the whole point of planet Earth. I have learned. I have learned. 

And fun is everywhere. And available to all. 

Again, it’s sometimes it seems like if we’re devoted to our spiritual practice, that, you know, where will how do I how do I experience happiness? Well, I want to read this because I want to get it correct. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson says the purpose of life is not to be happy. What the purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that we have lived and lived well. 

And happiness is the emergent feeling of doing all those things, even science tells us at this point that happiness is primarily dependent upon the quality of one’s relationships. 

The quality of one’s relationships.  So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, are you finding yourself useful? 

Are you finding yourself being integrity? 

I mean, these are yes and no answers, right, these aren’t that complicated either. 

Are you able to be compassionate?

On a sliding scale? Maybe. 

And if you if you are doing those things and let’s go back to Tolstoy, if you are present in the moment, if you are doing what’s in front of you to do. 


How can you not be happy, how can you not have a sense of deep satisfaction with the way things are? It’s an inevitable consequence. 

Inevitable that you will know happiness and whatever you’re doing. 

Oh, it so seems so hard, it seems so mysterious, but it is not. It’s in front of us all the time. 

To be here now, to choose kindness. 

And to know happiness. 

And as it relates to any of us individually. 

Same thing is true with work my showing up in my work life with some kind of integrity. Am I present to what’s actually going on? Or am I making up some scary scenario in my head and rehearsing fights? 

I was so good at rehearsing fights that never happened in my head. That was one of my hobbies. And I used to drive to work and I had the drive. 

Oh, yeah, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. Not.

What a waste. What a waste. It’s all very simple. And yet we come here each week to remind ourselves of what the simple, powerful, profound and useful teachings are so that a week ahead of us might unfold in some sense of joy, decency, utility and fun. 

And fun. 

So what is ahead of you this week? I don’t know. 

I don’t know.

But what I would do, what I would invite you to do is to start 

questioning some of the assumptions that you might have that you might be unaware of, but maybe you will become aware of this week of when I enter a certain situation, what do I usually expect? I usually expect it to be what? Any kind of, you know, your staff meeting, your we did I say we have an annual meeting in three weeks. I love business meetings and I’m the only minister I know who does. 

I think they’re a gas, but like, why not find them fun and entertaining? It must happen. It’s a part of life. So find a way to make it fun. I think they’re hilariously funny. 

Reframe anything 

that you go. Oh. 

You know, your body always knows what you’re thinking. 

Your body will tell you. 

In your exhalations and in your shoulders, 

wherever there’s a uggh. 

Can you do the eye-rolling  thing, too? I do the ironic thing when I get a kind of flutter, my eyes like, oh my God, not again. You know, when you do that this week, what am I really thinking here? 

And can I be present now? 

Can I become can I be kind and I can. Can I do the do do what needs to be done? 

And if you don’t know the answer, the answer is yes, of course you can. So let’s have a few moments of quiet, shall we, do that together now, so I’ll invite you to set aside anything that’s on your heart or in your mind. 

Knowing that it will be there 

if you need it and you probably don’t. 

But in this moment, to simply breathe and be grateful for that. 

Be grateful for growing awareness. 

Be grateful for change that is happening all the time, thank God. 

Be grateful. 

That we get to learn something new every day if we’re present  now. 

Be grateful that we get to appreciate the abilities that we have when we’re asked to participate in something in front of us. 

Be grateful for the growing awareness we have  as our skill increases our ability to be joyful in the work we do. 

Be grateful. 

And any question that comes to your mind. 

Well, as we affirmed in our opening prayer, there’s something in you that knows the answer. Yes. 

So be present and still until the answer is revealed. 

This is May, a brand new month. 

What good can there be ahead of us this month? 

What joy is yet to be revealed. 

And let’s save her some silence just a half a minute, but let’s save her some silence. As we said together. Now. 

Breathe deep 

Fly high. 

And seek peace. 

Know that life while life is difficult, it’s not bad, and it is not a mystery. 

But as the practice. 

Practice of the greatest of all, the arts, which is your life. 

And as we take time to remember that there’s one mind and there’s one God, there’s one life, there’s one cosmos. Expressing everywhere. 

All at the same time, beyond the grasp of the human mind, 

but there is an infinite coordinating ability that is the cosmos itself, that is blessing all of creation everywhere, all at the same time. And that includes you, 

you in particular, 


and your uniqueness, you. 

And no less 

than the greatest galaxy anywhere you 

are, the completion 

of the universe. 

To be reminded of that 

is to be encouraged 

and feeling 

this encouragement en courage ment in the heart. 

I am truly centered, reset and prepared for all that’s ahead of me. 

And so it is.

Amen . 

Well, thank you for being here today and thank you for joining us, your very presence helps us to shape and receive this experience and it is all the more complete because of you each and every one of you. So whether or not we’re here face to face or heart to heart, it doesn’t matter because it’s all a field of grace. Yes. 

And we are all one thing expressing.

And so I will indeed, again, thank you for keeping your commitment to being here today. 

I know that fellowship happens when we encourage each other on our journey. So when somebody asks you a really hard question about holy cow, what am I supposed to do?

 You know that you can say, show up in love. 

That’s the right answer. And you’ll seem like a genius to whoever you’re befuddled friend might be. Show up in love and do what’s in front of you. Hmm. And as always, you pray for me and I’ll pray for you because that’s what God’s children do. And before we say the prayer for protection. 

Let us say the pray for protection for all that are in need, grieving, experiencing loss. And the front lines are in the shadows of life, at the light of God surrounds us, the love of God and folds us, the power of God protects us, and the presence of God watches over us for wherever we are, God is and all is well. And we’ll see you again next Sunday morning.