Todd Outcalt is pastor of the University Heights United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the author of several books. This book is a fine collection of stories and parables from Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Africans, and Native Americans. In the introduction, Outcalt writes:

"Parables, for all their brevity and density, possess a universal appeal and often extend beyond the religious, social, and historic milieus in which they were first spoken or written. As such, we find in parables both enlightenment and entertainment, for stories have the ability to move the heart as well as the imagination."

Here are some of the many themes touched upon in these stories:

• Living a life of faith, hope, and love
• Appreciating the beauty that surrounds us
• Embracing the freedom to live your life
• Seeking and finding guidance
• Discovering the strength in a virtuous life
• Encouraging others who are in need.

Here is an example of a Buddhist parable, followed by Outcalt's commentary:

The Fire of Compassion

"There once lived a beautiful parrot in a dense mountain thicket. This bird lived among the other animals of the forest in complete harmony and tranquility.

"One day, a careless hunter started a fire, and as the wind stirred the flames the animals were swept into confusion and fear. The parrot, knowing that he could fly away to safety, was nevertheless moved by compassion for his friends.

"Flying to a nearby lake, he dipped his beak into the water, flew over the flames, and shook drops of water from his beak to give relief from the heat. He did this many times with a heart burning with compassion, and did not stop until the flames were extinguished.

. . .

"There are many instances in life where people do not know the depth of compassion found in a community until tragedy strikes. As with many disasters, we typically see communities in action when the need is greatest — after floods, fires, or hurricanes. In spite of the stresses that often tear people apart, there is something within the human spirit that longs to help others. Suffering brings out our deepest empathy.

"It is also true that everyone has the capacity for this compassion. It may lie dormant until needed, but the extremes of life cause compassion to rise to the surface. There are gifts, and there are givers. And the greatest gifts are those we offer to one another through a spirit of generosity and helpfulness, expecting nothing in return.

"Sometimes, it is only in tragedy that we witness the true meaning of compassion and sacrifice. But it is good to know that this is the highest calling and the better nature of humanity."