What might it look like if we learnt to grow and progress and build differently; non-materially? asks Mark Vernon
During 2019, climate change became climate crisis, even climate emergency. The tenor has become more urgent and with that shift are raised further, more nuanced reassessments. One interests me, in particular. What might it look like if we learnt to grow and progress and build differently; non-materially?
Put it like this. The genius of capitalism is to channel the insatiable human desire for more in specific directions. It’s fed a yearning for more technology, more travel, more security, more stuff. But could that longing be redirected?
The good news is that this question has been asked before, many times. It’s a perennial issue in spiritual work. To be human is to realise that you live “between the beasts and the angels”, as Augustine put it. We seek creature comforts and divine…
The summer has now officially finished. But before it did, we went to the beach, and Marta (6) buried a jellyfish.
To understand the enormity of this simple act, it is necessary to take you back for a few moments to the previous summer.
As usual, we had gone to Spain for the kids to spend some time with their cousins. And, frankly, for us to spend some time with an orb of fire in the sky the like of which is seldom seen in these parts. You will recall, of course, that we live in the land of song, sheep and perennial precipitation known to outsiders as “Wales.”
Our Spanish summers are always a fantastic few weeks to get away from things, and an inordinate proportion of our time is spent splashing in the sea. We almost always come back home before the late-summer blooming of jellyfish in the local area.
I say “almost” because last year the jellyfish arrived early.
It was a glorious morning and, as usual, we had gone to play in the sea before it got too hot. Suddenly we heard Marta cry out. We rushed over to find red welts on her arm, and her sobbing inconsolably. Between her sobs she managed to say “I’ve been stung by some seaweed!”
A few feet away, we saw a jellyfish bobbing gently.
“That looks painful!” we agreed. “You’ve been stung by a jellyfish.”
“No!” she she screamed. “It was seaweed! Jellyfish don’t sting me! They’re my friends!” and she tried to struggle over to give the jellyfish a hug. With some effort, we escorted her back to the safety of the sand.
When the pain had subsided, we tried to explain again. But the more we did, the angrier she became. “Jellyfish are beautiful! Jellyfish are my friends! Jellyfish would never sting me!”
I reflected that God’s Toddlers are like Marta, even as grown-ups. Patterns of behaviour which make us comfortable, with which we are familiar, which we find attractive can be hurting us, but we refuse to believe it.
Surely my obsession with Twitter cannot hurt me? Twitter is my friend! But perhaps sometimes it goes further than is good for me…
Surely a little benign chit-chat can’t hurt anyone? Communication is our friend! But sometimes we don’t spot the poison when banter becomes gossip…
And a thousand patterns we feel don’t harm us because they are our friend. But, if we cared to simply look, the red welts are there for all to see…
Burial at sea
When Marta found another jellyfish this year, washed up on the sand, she was a year older and a year wiser. She looked thoughtfully at it for a minute. Then slowly and carefully, she picked up her spade and buried it.
It would be no bad thing for me to start recognising my own jellyfish and, slowly and carefully, start to bury them.
Forgive me, for I have sinned. It has been nine months since God’s Toddler’s last confession.
I have lacked sufficient inspiration to write. For much of that time I have been busy, and for much of that time I have felt weary. The challenges of parenting and getting up to speed with a new job have left me with little time or energy to think about much else. Vague ideas in my head have failed to find their way to my blog. Vague whispers to my God have failed to add up to anything.
Now, in the winter, as days of ice jostle for space with the endless weeks of miserable wet greyness to mirror my own weariness, the time seems oddly ripe for me to write about the blazing heat of Spanish summer.
But before I go there, I would like to say a few words about the unfairness of stereotypes. They are almost without fail harmful and inaccurate. For example, vast swathes of the population of Scotland demonstrably do not go to work in a kilt. There are folk in Wales who get no closer to a sheep than their wool-blend suit. There are those in Surrey who have never converted a barn, and even unconfirmed rumours of people in Yorkshire who have still not succumbed to the overwhelming desire to buy a whippet.
On the other hand, it must be recognised that some stereotypes have a smattering of truth about them. The British, for example, really do say “sorry” for pretty much everything, even when the other person is in the wrong; I have yet to hear the words “Sorry but your car appears to be parked on my foot.” used in anger, but it can only be a matter of time.
And, in my not insignificant experience, the stereotype that says that the Spanish are a rather fiery bunch has them bang to rights. A simple family discussion over what to have for dinner is conducted with a level of political wrangling that puts House of Cards in the shade. All parties speak loudly. And simultaneously. Allegiances form and dissipate with the fluidity of the goo in a lava-lamp. Support for one’s own viewpoint is sought from erstwhile adversaries. The casual observer (if not drawn in to support a belligerant great-aunt’s demands that calamares be prepared) might be forgiven for mistaking the discussion for the oeverture of World War 3.
But underneath it all is a balletic precision of mathematical elegance in which unexpected melodies emerge from the discordant chaos as the melee dances with the inexorable fervour of the wavelets atop a mighty ocean swell towards the inevitable conclusion that, for example, paella might be nice as long as uncle Antonio brings over a couple of bottles of that wine he’s been hoarding to himself.
I confess that, despite my ingrained Britishness, after twelve years married to a Spaniard, I cannot escape the thrall of this Spanish fieriness when we are over there. Eventually I find myself irresistibly drawn in. Ah well, when in Rome…
Thus it was that one morning of our summer holiday in Spain, as the family headed out of the house where we were staying towards the beach, I threw myself wholeheartedly and joyfully into the lively family discussion about who had left what,where in the house and when someone else had said that they would bring it and who wouldn’t have needed to do it if someone hadn’t been fiddling with the garden hose.
We started out walking towards the beach quite briskly and managed to keep it up for perhaps ten seconds before, amid wild gesticulations, I was sent back towards the house for a bucket. I may have made pointed remarks about Dominic (8) taking responsibility for his own crab-catching equipment. It is possible that he, in turn, vigorously observed the role that Oliver (10) played in bothering him so much as we left that he couldn’t be expected to remember everything. Then it turned out that Mónica had the keys so I strode back towards the beach as she marched house-wards…and so on in a complex social dance, bickering all the while.
The only person who didn’t join in the fun was Elías (6). He had left the house quietly and thoughtfully. He had walked slowly and calmly. He didn’t get involved in the discussions or the messing about or the noise. He just plodded.
Five minutes later, we had managed to get a full fifteen feet from the front door. All, that is, apart from Elías. We looked down the road and Elías was waiting patiently for the rest of us by the beach. As we had rushed, he had plodded. And as we had made no progress, he had arrived at his destination.
My thoughts turned at first to the hare and the tortoise. Simply by calmly keeping on, Elías had reached the goal while the rest of us where doing first-rate impressions of headless chickens on the start-line.
Then I remembered a tweet I had seen earlier that morning.
This seemed to go so much deeper than the usual take on the hare and the tortoise. Instead of the slow plod of the tortoise, the slow trickle of the stream. Instead of the unattainable speed of the hare, the unattainable vastness of life. And all the while, the trickle of prayer wearing down the landscape.
When I am weary; when vague whispers to my God fail to add up to anything, perhaps they add up too more than I see. Perhaps the trickle of those faint whispers might be a stream that slowly wears away stones and banks. Perhaps like the slow patient plod of Elías, they might be what’s needed when the fiery chaos of life seems to take me around in circles. Perhaps the insignificant susurrus of my inadequate prayers might carve out new landscapes yet to be seen.
The magical writings of J. M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan and Captain Hook and all the other heroes and villains of Neverland have sparked events that even the glittering imagination of the author would never have dreamed…
…from the millions of children given the hitherto all but non-existent name “Wendy”, to the Disney franchises, to Robin Williams’ portrayal of Peter Banning to an intriguing insight into blue sand in our house last week…
…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the ever-popular characters from the story of Peter Pan is his airborne companion Tinker Bell. Indeed, Tinker Bell is so popular that she now has a series of films in her own right.
This plucky little fairy is drawn into countless adventures, with films about lost treasures and great fairy rescues. We’ve recently added “Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy” to our collection.
The films are all set in Pixie Hollow, which is full of fairies whose lives seem to revolve around fairy-dust.
Now if you will forgive me a short digression into our last Tesco visit, Mónica bravely took Elías (6) along for the ride. And since he asked very nicely whether they could buy a sack of blue play-sand he found, and he had behaved so very well, the sand was bought.
The sand was transported home with the utmost reverence. You don’t see blue sand every day, after all.
With due ceremony, it was decanted into the sand-table. Clear boundaries were established. The sand was not to be removed from the sand table. Nothing was to be added to the sand. It was to be kept pure, and there would be no more sand purchased in the event of non-adherence to the rules.
The children nodded sagely. These were wise rules. They would be kept without question.
You can imagine how long that lasted.
We realised what was going on when we saw Marta (3) at the top of the climbing frame with her right hand held triumphantly aloft, and a trickle of fine blue powder streaming from between her fingers. “Fairy dust!” she proclaimed to anyone who would listen.
I rushed out to bring order, but I was too late. Because for fairy dust to be of any use, you need to sprinkle it on yourself. Marta was well and truly sprinkled, and the tiny blue particles visible in her hair portended a good long session with multiple applications of shampoo and showering.
“But what’s wrong?” she asked innocently. “I put fairy dust on Elías and Dominic with no problems.”
Of course she had. Because with small children you should always be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The removal of blue sand from the hair of three children was as tedious as expected. But anyone who has dealt with normal sand will know that this was only the beginning. Sand somehow works its way everywhere. It works its way into pockets. It works its way into beds. It works its way into carpets. It mysteriously works its way into food. It works its way into socks that weren’t even being worn that day.
The added fascination of blue sand is that you can actually see it, so we spent a very instructive few days spying tiny blue specks in all kinds of unlikely places. If you are ever anticipating being very very bored for four days straight, I promise that this pastime has plenty to keep you occupied.
The bible uses some slightly arcane analogies sometimes. Of course, they were fine for your average Josephus two thousand years ago, but there are some that most of us in the digital age don’t instantly connect with.
Yeast is one of those analogies. We vaguely know that it makes bread. Or beer. Or maybe both. But for all but the most dedicated of home-bakers and brewers, it resolutely fails to feature in our “Top thousand things to keep in the kitchen.”
The analogy is used in the bible because once you work yeast into dough, it affects every bit of it. So it might make sense to think of blue-sand fairy-dust instead.
The blue-sand fairy-dust of the Pharisees
Take, as an example, Jesus’ warning to his followers about “The yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
He issues his warning in response to the fact that, after all the wonders Jesus had done, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had shown up demanding he perform for them on their own terms. The hallmarks of their approach were cynicism and a desire for control. Jesus was having none of their attitude.
Their cynicism was like blue sand. God’s kingdom is a crazy, risky and breath-taking place, but it doesn’t take much of us thinking “I’m not being cynical, I’m just being realistic…” before we start finding cynicism cropping up like blue sand. It quickly gets into our decision making and our thought-processes. It gets into areas we’d never have dreamed it could get into and clogs up God’s dazzling plans for us.
The blue-sand fairy-dust of the kingdom of heaven
But the flip-side is that Jesus also tells his followers that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
That means that when we start thinking and behaving in the backwards topsy-turvy impossible lifestyle that Jesus taught and lived…when we start doing things as though “blessed are the merciful” beats “sensible are the cynical”…when we start acting like “blessed are the meek” beats “sensible are those who demand to be in control”…
…it takes just that. The tiniest start. The lightest sprinkling of the blue-sand fairy-dust of God’s kingdom before we start finding Jesus’ style beginning to permeate all around us.
We’ll see it in the most unconnected of ways, working its way like blue sand into our metaphorical sock-drawer and adding an impossible glint of colour to everything around.
Marta (3) stood in the middle of the kitchen looking reflective. She was clearly putting together some complex thought. We waited while she assembled the strands of internal narrative and drew her conclusions. She sighed, and then delivered judgement.
“Mummy,” she announced. “I don’t like Oliver any more.”
We put on our serious expressions. Siblings squabble. This proclamation against her ten-year-old brother, therefore, did not seem too distressing. But we try to hear out their concerns and suggest ways of overcoming what, to a three-year-old can seem insurmountable relationship breakdowns. After all, big brothers can be overbearing. They can get angry when little sisters play with their stuff. They can be bossy. Books can be written – indeed they have been – on the reasons a little sister might not like her brother.
Nonetheless, we weren’t aware of any particular disputes between Marta and Oliver at that point in time, so we asked what had happened. Marta lowered her eyes and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. She seemed uneasy with what she needed to say. Finally, in hushed tones, she whispered the damning charge against her brother.
“He didn’t like the soup you made.”
Marta’s accusation was, in point of fact, entirely true. Mónica had made soup the previous day. The soup in question hadn’t really been up Oliver’s street, and he had said as much. Oliver had been expected to eat his soup graciously and without complaint in a civilised manner regardless. Mónica had taken this in all her stride and, if we’re honest, completely forgotten about it by the next day. She’s very grown up like that.
But Marta couldn’t forget this slight against her mother. The depth of the betrayal cut too deep. She no longer found herself able to like her treacherous and degenerate big brother, and had come to the point that she needed to share this with us.
Of course, we did what any parent would do. We supressed the desire to laugh and tried not to let Marta see our amusement. More importantly, we assured her that what mattered about the soup was that she, Marta, had loved it. Mummy loves Marta loving her soup. Oliver enjoys other things that Mummy cooks, and Mummy loves Oliver enjoying her other cooking.
And we know that both Marta and Oliver love Mummy, whether they like particular dishes or not.
Marta was surprised, but accepted our baffling verdict without question.
God’s Toddlers have different tastes too. Some of us don’t like soup. Some of us don’t like liturgy. Some of us don’t like the song “10,000 reasons.” Some of us don’t like long expository sermons. Some of us don’t like the humour of @UnvirtousAbbey’s Twitter account.
For those of us who do love these things, God loves that we love them. God has prepared other things for his other children, and he expects us to adore our brothers and sisters whatever metaphorical cooking is their preference. Although, when it’s soup time, we might be expected to eat up graciously and without complaint in a civilised manner.
It is, after all, the same God of baffling verdicts who we adore and who cooks for us all.
Marie-Antoinette famously didn’t say “Let them eat cake”; a phrase first recorded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Nobody quite knows who did say it, but it’s safe to say that whoever it was, they didn’t have in mind the cake which I received the other day.
I had gone to pick up Marta (3) from nursery. Her delight at seeing daddy, as always, lit up the world. Her smile threatened to stretch her face beyond the presumable elastic limits of her cheek-muscles. Her wild skipping threatened to throw her off balance in three directions simultaneously. And today she had something to show me.
“Daddy!” she yelled, “I made you a cake in the shape of a turtle!”
It was a cake like none I have ever seen. It was a splodge. It was made of pink play-dough. Protruding from the top were innumerable matchsticks and pipecleaners. It was inexplicable, inedible and bore no resemblance to either a turtle or a cake (unless you know any good geneticists who can cross-breed a cake with a porcupine.)
And it was completely wonderful.
Here it is.
Seldom have I been given a more heartwarming gift. Marta’s unadulterated joy and generosity as she presented it ensured that. Don’t misunderstand me. I am extremely grateful for all the gadgets and clothes and coffee mugs I have received from loving friends and family over the years. I have cherished them. I have even worn most of the ties.
But they pale into insignificance beside this splodge of pink dough topped with unidentifiable miscellany. The generous abandon with which it was presented glowed like the sun and – as so often happens with my kids – my heart melted.
My playdough splodges
“What can God actually use me for?” It’s a question I periodically ask myself in introspective moments of existential angst. If I’m honest, I’m probably doing some kind of metaphysical fishing-for-compliments, asking with the hope that God will reassure me how amazing I am at everything I do and that he really doesn’t know how he’d get anything done without me. He never does.
And that’s beside the point. I could be able to communicate his message to millions, be a natural-born leader, a concert standard pianist, have doctorates coming out of my ears and -as a result of all this combined with my fabled good looks – be overwhelmed by opportunities to change the world for God, and it would all still be beside the point. They are all great things that God can use, but it would be like bringing gadgets, clothes and coffee mugs to the God who has everything.
It is not in the excellence of the gifts that I bring to God that their value lies. It is in the generous abandon with which I give him everything I am: pink splodges, matchsticks, pipecleaners and all. This is what makes my relationship with God. This is what glows like the sun. This is what melts my father’s heart like an unattended ice-cream on a summer’s day. What he does with it is up to him.
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…
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…
FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS BOUNCING ON THE BED – THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
Five little monkeys jumping on the bed One fell off and bumped his head Mummy called the doctor and the doctor said “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”
Four little monkeys jumping on the bed One fell off and bumped his head Mummy called the doctor and the doctor said “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”
Three little monkeys jumping on the bed One fell off and bumped his head Mummy called the doctor and the doctor said “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”
Two little monkeys jumping on the bed One fell off and bumped his head Mummy called the doctor and the doctor said “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”
One little monkey jumping on the bed He fell off and bumped his head Mummy called the doctor and the doctor said “Put those monkeys right to bed!”
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
Baa, baa, black sheep Have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir Three bags full
One for the master And one for the dame One for the little boy Who lives down the lane
Baa, baa, black sheep Have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir Three bags full
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.
This song gives a great background to 1 Corinthians. It’s written by the apostle Paul to a church with deep internal divisions. The church is elitist and unjust. It seems to have combined the worst excesses of anything bad we’ve ever seen or heard in a church.
It almost seems pointless even writing. From the viewpoint of any objective observer, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the church in Corinth together again.
OK, so I’ve cheated here by using a children’s song which is explicitly biblical. But I’m a toddler. We’re whimsical like that.
The song that tells us that the toe-bone’s connected to the foot-bone and so on mirrors the bible’s account of a guy called Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones. “Son of man,” God asks him, “can these bones live?”
Then God breathes, and where a moment ago were dry bones, stands a vast army of living, breathing people.
We’ve seen irreparable bits of broken eggshell; a Humpty-Dumpty divided church; a valley of dry bones. Paul starts talking about what happens when God’s spirit breathes…
Two fat gentlemen
“For we were all baptised by one spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free.”
This is not a great song if you struggle with finger coordination. Two fat gentlemen (your thumbs) bow to one another, followed by thin ladies, tall policemen and so forth until all of your fingers have bowed to one another.
Here we’re reminded that, whether Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, fat gentlemen, thin ladies, tall policemen, little schoolboys or little babies, we are all fingers on the same hands.
Go on. Do the actions. You know you want to.
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes
“God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”
Yep. All in their place. Keep doing the actions. Point at the parts of your body. Point at your head. Point at your shoulders. Point at your knees. Point at your toes. All in their places.
Now point at the wonderful people in the church in the fantastic places God has called them. I know it’s rude to point, but we’re toddlers so we’ll do it anyway. Point them out and celebrate them.
One finger / One thumb
“You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. God has placed in the church apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.”
OK, so we’ve established we’re all part of Christ body…but he calls us to DO something with that fact. He appoints us to be apostles, or prophets, or teachers…but – finger or thumb – to keep moving!
“And now I will show you the most excellent way…”
The Hokey Cokey is apocryphally attributed to the Latin “Hoc est enim corpus meum” – or “this is my body” from the Catholic mass. This has on occasion been used as an anti-Catholic taunt, but along with all of God’s Toddlers I would like to take this opportunity to reclaim the joy of the Hokey Cokey and turn its reputed origin on its head.
Because it is in this passage that we acknowledge that we are Christ’s body.
Now is the time, as are all times… this is the place, as are all places… for Catholics and Protestants, Conservatives and Progressives, Evangelicals and Liberals to join hands and, with joyful abandon and celebrating the fact that while we are different we are part of Christ’s body, do the Hokey Cokey.
In 1956, the naturalist Gerald Durrell published “My Family and Other Animals.” It is a book which recounts his childhood growing up on the island of Corfu. Some forty years passed from its first publication before I, a scruffy student, finally stumbled across a battered second-hand copy and set about reading it.
By the end of page one I had forgotten the yellowing pages and brittle glue holding them in place, and was completely immersed in the tale of one small boy growing up surrounded by the magical world of a Greek island. A child focussed – with a dedicated fascination that only the very young seem to manage – on the endless variety of local wildlife.
In the languid pace of a Mediterranean island life one lazy day drifts into the next and into the next to create mystical and endless seasons, and the peacefulness is beautifully juxtaposed with the chaos and hilarity of a child who cannot resist the compulsion to incorporate Corfu’s diverse animal kingdom into everything he does.
If I’m not making it clear, the book is utterly enchanting.
For one thing, it is impossible not to feel for a household where scorpions escape from matchboxes, magpies taunt the workmen and a mantis and a gecko fight to the death across the backdrop of the whitewashed ceiling. And, for all that the constant drone of cicadas in the scorching sun is unfamiliar and alien to the British reader, I cannot help but think “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
For our household has enjoyed the company of its fair share of animals. We’ve welcomed caterpillars, butterflies, snails, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, frogs (captive and wild) and the children are already planning for fish, lizards and a dog. There seems to be an inevitability around being immersed in the world of children which means that there are going to be a lot of animas involved.
It was therefore no surprise that, when we went to the “ornamental fish” section of a local outdoor centre recently, Marta (3) wanted to feed the koi.
Now, my renown and expertise on fish could be written, longhand, in triplicate on the back of a tin of sardines, so I rely on my observational prowess to describe these delicate creatures as as “essentially goldfish the size of sharks with the feeding behaviour of piranhas.”
That I am able to give this objective observation is thanks the fact that the outdoor centre in question thoughtfully provides for those children who wish to feed their fish by charging you a small fee for a bag of fish food. So, bemoaning the fact that they charge money for the privilege of doing work that they’d otherwise have to pay someone to do, I did my duty as a dad, and handed over my cash.
Marta proudly and carefully transported her bag of fish food from the checkout to the ornamental pond and, one microscopic handful at a time, began to sprinkle food into the water.
As a brief aside, I have frequently marvelled at how far and wide Marta is able to scatter rice when it is served on a plate in front of her. Without apparent effort she seems able to get rice from the dining table, around two corners and halfway up the stairs.
I must therefore commend her single-minded dedication to ensuring each microscopic handful of fish-food landed in exactly the same spot. It may be that she thought a particular fish needed feeding up, but within no time every fish in the pond had converged on the single point in an attempt to benefit from her meagre offerings, and a feeding frenzy right out of a horror movie had erupted.
Stood, as I was, on a walkway a couple of feed above them, I still shuddered slightly at the savagery of the carp below. I felt certain that if I lost my footing and slipped, I would be transformed in short order into a skeletal pond decoration.
The observant fish
Still, despite the terror, the spirit of scientific enquiry didn’t abandon me. And if I’m honest I was a trifle worried that if the koi slaughtered one another in the battle for these tasty flakes, the shop might present me with a bill for several grand’s worth of fish fatalities.
So – politely asking Marta’s permission first – I took a handful of fish food and threw it to a spot on the far side of the pond. Most of the fish were too busy fighting each other to notice, but one observant creature on the fringes spotted the movement and swam over to investigate.
The observant fish poked its nose at the flakes. It poked the food with its nose. It took a nibble. It circled curiously around several times to get a better look at the food…and then hesitantly swam back, leaving my plentiful offering behind, to join the fruitless fray for the food Marta was dropping.
“Stupid goldfish,” I thought, and that was that.
Except that I then realised that God’s Toddlers (or at least this one) are capable of exhibiting behaviour remarkably reminiscent of the koi in question.
I know the way the world works. I know what’s important because the media tells me. I know what I have to chase after next, because received wisdom is, after all, wisdom.
And I know the way God does things. People around me tell me the way God is doing things elsewhere. I have seen how God has done things before in my life. A quick chat to people who know about history tells me how God has done things before. I know. So God will just keep doing the same thing over and over again, right?
I feel reassured in all of this, because knowing all of this makes me part of the crowd.
The trouble is, God’s Toddlers were never called to be part of the crowd. Part of a community yes, but not to go with the flow of the crowd. What if God whispers in my ear: “That’s all good stuff Paul. But come over here now. Here is where I want to feed you. Here is where the banquet is.”
Perhaps most of the time, like the frenzied fish, I don’t even notice. Perhaps I might notice, and risk being an observant fish, and having a poke around. And then I might, like the observant fish, go back to what the crowd reassures me works, content to live a second-hand experience of God.
Or perhaps I might occasionally dare a toddler-like exploration of where God is leading. To step away from what I think I know to where God is doing something slightly offbeat, and see how good the fish-flakes are.