The late Terry Pratchett once lamented that the word “banana” is very easy to start spelling but very difficult to stop. I have found the same to be true of relating the bible through toddler songs.
Last time I blogged about “The Body of Christ” and told the whole thing through toddler songs. And once I’d started, it was very difficult to stop. So I’m at it again, and this time I’m covering the opening chapters of the book of Revelation.
If you’ve ever tried to read Revelation, you’ll know it’s one of the most surreal pieces of writing ever committed to parchment. The material is sometimes disturbing and it has not always been easy to find toddler songs which suitably reflect the message. Therefore in two instances I have delved into a much darker genre: that of nursery rhyme.
But the opening chapters are simply messages to God’s Toddlers in seven cities at the time it was written. Each song or nursery rhyme mirrors one message, and I’ve started each section with a summary of the message…
FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS BOUNCING ON THE BED – THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
The message to the church in Ephesus: “You have forsaken your first love. Think of the heights from which you have fallen.”
The monkeys in this song have been bouncing joyfully on the bed, but, like the Ephesian church one by one have fallen off.
Perhaps as the monkeys reflect on the heights from which they have fallen, with them we can distinguish between the joy and bouncing of our first love, and the monkey business which causes us to fall.
BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP – THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA
The message to the church in Smyrna: “You are rich despite your poverty. You are faithful.”
A sheep is as mundane as things get. They are possibly beaten in their mundaneness by the humble goldfish, but it’s a close-run thing.
But the sheep in this song has riches beyond its appearance. It is able to provide wool for the master – a grand calling indeed. It is able to provide wool for the dame – also very grand. And yet its blessings spill over even to encompass the little boy who lives down the lane.
Its faithful production of wool blesses the greatest to the lowest in society. It is, indeed, rich despite its poverty.
THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL WHO HAD A LITTLE CURL – THE CHURCH IN PERGAMUM
The message to the church in Pergamum: “You have remained true to me…but you listen to false teaching.”
The church in Pergamum are a paradox. They have listened to false teaching, and yet they are commended for not renouncing God.
When they are good they are very good indeed, yet when they are bad they are horrid.
There is no excuse for the heresies they have followed, and yet there is no hesitation in praising their faithfulness.
Finally, the message to this church makes the mysterious promise of a new name; a twist whose significance seems as mysterious as the curl on the nameless girl’s forehead…
LADYBIRD LADYBIRD – THE CHURCH IN THYATIRA
The message to the church in Thyatira: “You tolerate a false prophetess. Her children will be struck dead.”
This nursery rhyme is one of the shortest and darkest in the canon of English literature. Early versions, in their entirety, run:
Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home.
You house is on fire,
Your children shall burn.
It can be assumed that the church in Thyatira weren’t stupid. It’s unlikely they were following someone who gave the impression of being a false prophetess. She probably looked as bright and shiny as a ladybird, even if what was underneath was all beetle.
There is no easy way to get around the fact that the fate foreseen for her is as dark and awful as that of the ladybird in the nursery rhyme. This is a difficult passage. One to be wrestled with and not absorbed lightly.
PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON – THE CHURCH IN SARDIS
The message to the church in Sardis: “You look alive but you are dead. But some with clean clothes will walk with the angels.”
Life is not the three-score years and ten we are allotted on this earth. Dragons live for ever, and the creator of heaven and earth; the alpha and the omega created us to do the same. The church in Sardis, however, is no more alive than Jackie Paper. It frolics and plays, and one day is no more.
The song speaks of noble kings and princes, and such things can catch our eyes. But as C.S. Lewis notes, kingdoms and empires are infinitely less important than individuals, for kingdoms and empires will pass away, while individuals are eternal.
Like Puff, our God mourns when what seems alive is dead. He has so much greater capers planned for us.
LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN – THE CHURCH IN PHILADELPHIA
The message to the church in Philadelphia: “There’s an open door in front of you that nobody can shut. Hold on. I’m coming.”
The writer of this song sees London bridge ahead. Like the door before the Philadelphian church, a bridge is the way forward; the path onwards.
Chillingly, the bridge seems condemned by a devil’s advocate determined to find reasons the bridge will not hold. Wood and clay will wash away. Iron and steel will bend and bow. Silver and gold will be stolen away.
But there is a greater determination to be reckoned with. The creativity of this determination is endless. Whatever barrier is thrown up, a new building material is found to make certain the bridge holds. When I was a child, we would add verses which involved the bridge’s woes being overcome with everything from reinforced concrete to Weetabix.
Yet in one of the oldest quoted versions, all of the creativity and all of the devil’s advocate’s schemes are eventually irrelevant. Because a watchman is set on the bridge and given a pipe to smoke all night. The watchman will ensure that, come what may through the night ahead, the bridge stays put, the path stays clear and the door before the church stays open.
Hold on precious church. The dawn comes. The glow of the pipe will dwindle before the fire of the sunrise. London bridge will not fall. And your watchman will come.
ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, ONCE I CAUGHT A FISH ALIVE – THE CHURCH IN LAODICEA
The message to the church in Laodicea: “You’re neither hot nor cold. You think you’re rich but you’re wretched.”
There are many silly and pointless nursery rhymes, but none leaves me feeling as empty as this one. Five are counted and a fish is caught. Five are counted and a fish is lost. The whole thing seems vacuous. It is a zero-sum game.
For something as trivial as a nipped finger, the singer lets his fish escape.
Like the Laodicean church, this nursery rhyme is neither hot nor cold. God longs for the Laodiceans to be SOMETHING. We speak of being on fire for him, and this is good, but even that which is hostile and cold he works with.
Maybe that hostility can be pictured in such a despicable creature as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. In the films, the greatest hope I feel for him is the sight of his zeal as he tries to catch a fish alive. For him there is no half-hearted letting go again.
Or maybe the picture is of St Paul, pursuing with the same zeal the destruction of the nascent Church, before his dramatic conversion. Sometimes I worry that my views are mistaken, but I should remember that they will never be as mistaken as those of Saul of Tarsus. But unless I try to pursue God with all my heart and risk getting it wrong, how can God hope to turn my “cold” to “hot”?
Is it a coincidence that, as God turns St Paul’s “cold” to “hot”, fish-scales fall from his eyes? Or was God thinking of the nursery-rhyme all along?
Laodicea, catch the fish. Hold on tight this time…
© Photos of Monkey, Ladybird and Gollum licensed for non-commercial re-use.
© Text 2015 Paul Brownnutt
Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Today’s post was brought to you by Revelation 2-3