My story and the Mogwai’s story

80´s Cinema

Those who remember the golden years of the 1980’s world of cinema will bring to mind the tasteful and timeless hairdos, the seamless and realistic CGI and the startlingly lifelike animatronics.  And if, as you may, you sense a slight lack of sincerity in my praise of 80’s cinematography, let me appease you with a single word:

Gizmo.

OK, so the animatronic star of the film “Gremlins” may have had eyeballs that looked like cheap marbles and fur that looked like it had been inherited from a B-list teddy bear, but he was, for all that, inescapably cute. That, at least, is the view that Dominic (7) formed when he discovered Gizmo (as you may recall, one of a race known as “Mogwai”)

Gizmo became his yardstick of adorability, and he began asking, day after day: “Am I as cute for you as a Mogwai?”

“Yes,” I reassured him “you are even cuter.”

Comparisons

For a time, this response satisfied him.  Eventually, however, there came a day when the conversation became much more analytical.

GizmoDominic: “Daddy, am I as cute for you as a Mogwai?”

Me: “Yes Dominic, you are even cuter.”

Dominic: “Oh.  How many times cuter?”

Me: “Um…a thousand times cuter!”

Dominic: “Oh.  And how many times cuter than a Mogwai is Oliver?”

Suddenly something which had been a search for reassurance of my unrelenting love for him had become a competition for reassurance at the expense of his brother.

Whose story?

There’s a throwaway line in one of C. S. Lewis’ books (“The Horse and his Boy”) which I’ve always found arresting. As with so many stories, we reach the part where all the loose ends that have puzzled the main character are brought together into an explanation that makes sense. Eager to get as much information as she can, she asks for an explanation of what happened to her friend too, and is given the response:

“Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

I doubt I am alone in sometimes wanting to compare myself with other people. On my more honest days, I might admit that I’d like reassurance of how much more my heavenly father approves of me than he does of them. That’s what happens when I try to reassure myself that my theology is right and theirs is wrong.  And that’s what happens when I berate myself that others seem to do so much more for God than I do.

But in reality, his unrelenting love for me is enough. That is my story.

When other people tell their stories, it can – and should be immensely encouraging.  If I’m to be doing any better than comparing myself to a Mogwai, I need to allow myself to be encouraged by others’ stories without letting that interfere with the fact that God’s story with me is one of incomparable and uncomparing love.  That is enough.

© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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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 Luke 18:9-14

The Bible according to Techniquest

There are a great many perils in the life of a toddler. There is the danger of needing to tantrum because someone thoughtlessly gave you the wrong coloured cup.  There is the danger of having to go to bed (nobody is quite sure why this is such a terrible fate, but it clearly is).  But the toddler is never in danger of taking things too seriously for too long.  Accordingly, a completely silly, fun post seemed due.

Yesterday, our family paid a trip to the hands-on scientific establishment known as Techniquest and, surrounded by such wonderful stuff, couldn’t quite resist wondering what “The toddler bible according to Techniquest” might look like.

Move over Ham and Nye. Now science and religion meet in toddler style…

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“The light shines in the darkness, and does crazy and unexpected stuff.” – John 1:4

Plasma ball

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“By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them.” – Exodus 13:21

“Tornado” experiment in the dark area

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“…and by night in a pillar of fire.” – Exodus 13:21

“Fire tornado” being demonstrated

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“MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN” – Daniel 5:25

An oscillating pen on an oscillating pad

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“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook?” – Job 41:1

Mechanised dragon

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“The Lord asked me, ‘Son of man, can these plastic bones live?'” – Ezekiel 37:3

Plastic model of human skeleton

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“They that wait upon the LORD shall rise up with wings like beach-balls on an air-stream.” – Isaiah 40:31

Beach ball suspended in a stream of air

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“Where your treasure is, there also will be a cryptic key to open it.” – Matthew 6:21

Treasure chest with a mysterious opening mechanism

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“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and the Rock Core Xylophone” – Psalm 150:3

Xylophone made with tuned rock-core

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“I will take out your heart of stone, and give you a new heart of colourful rubber!” – Ezekiel 36:26

Model of human internal organs

© Photos 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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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 Psalm 8

On tolerating creepy-crawlies

For all that I love the sublimely surreal whimsy of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, it is important not to forget his other wondrous works.  Personally, I’m a big fan of his poem “Beetle” which recounts the epic tale of a small child in the tireless search of their escaped beetle.  It seems to capture a fundamental feature of childhood: Creepy Crawlies.

My creepy crawlies of choice when I was small were snails and woodlice, which I kept in margarine tubs.  I tried to make them a little home from home, with rocks and earth and their (possibly) favourite foods.  Now it is the turn of my children.  Elías (5) has discovered caterpillars.  We have discovered stripey caterpillars, spikey caterpillars, and an elephant hawk-moth caterpillar. Many of the specimens have been captured and Elías has made them a little home-from-home, with sticks and leaves and their (probably not) favourite foods.

..and then I discovered the cabbage-moth caterpillars.  The cabbage moths themselves are lily-white creatures that flutter beautifully in the sunshine…and lay eggs on my broccoli.  By the time we discovered this, the broccoli plants that had been thriving in my vegetable patch since spring were all but lost.  The caterpillars had hatched from the eggs and had begun to strip the leaves bare.

There was only one thing for it.  I called Elías and excitedly told him there were more caterpillars to add to his collection. Without hesitation, he set about collecting all the caterpillars from the broccoli.  Within half an hour, he must have caught over fifty and added them to his collection.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next day there were more.  I sent Elías in again.  More the next day, and more the next, in a never-ending stream of brassica-destruction.  Google tells me they will keep going until the hard frost of winter.  It became clear that, for all Elías’ best efforts, my vegetable-patch was doomed.

But more of that later.  We have other creepy-crawlies to deal with.

Along came a spider

There is a spider living under our computer-desk.  I’d get rid of him, but he scuttles off every time I see him. He is on the large-ish side.  I’m not scared of spiders, but that doesn’t mean I like them.  I know they’re sinister.  I know how they trap their food and wrap it up with their thread and their eight spindly little mechanical legs.  They make me shiver a bit.  And secretly I suspect they have something like this planned:

Lego Frodo meets Loom-band Shelob

Lego Frodo meets Loom-band Shelob

But I’m big enough and ugly enough to shrug it off and tolerate the spider living in the corner.

Having said that, I don’t ever recall seeing as many spiders as I have this autumn.  Their webs adorn the garden and stick in my hair as I try to get to the shed and the compost bin. And I tolerate them. And as the number of spiders has shot up, I have noticed the number of caterpillars start to dwindle.  Another quick Google search confirms that spiders do, indeed, eat caterpillars! Gradually the leaves have begun to grow back on my spider-web-festooned broccoli.

The creature I had grudgingly tolerated for so long had saved the day. Instead of being one of those things I put up with, they now play a critical role in the life of my garden.

 

Church Spiders

“Tolerance” is one of those words which crops up a lot. Some people think we should be more tolerant. Some think we should be less tolerant. Some want to look tough by advocating “zero tolerance”.

Jesus’ model blows tolerance out of the water. When he told his closest followers to love one another, he knew that one of them was a terrorist against the occupying army and one was a collaborator with the occupying forces. He knew some of them were no-nonsense fishermen and some were ideas and numbers people.  They were the kind of people who would, at best, grudgingly tolerate one another.  And yet he expected them to lay their lives on the line for each other.

I suspect I’m not the only one of God’s Toddlers who finds it too easy to find a place for ourselves the world’s sliding scale of tolerance; to hang out with those who think like us and do things like us, while grudgingly tolerating those who are different.  To tolerate precisely those people who God has welcomed with open arms; those who are as much part of his plan as we are; those we should expect to – figuratively – rescue our broccoli; the spiders who we should welcome with the same delight as God does.

You might be like me and think you are comfortable with most people.  If so, try listening to Vagabonds by Stuart Townend, which includes just some of the groups who are welcome at God’s table.

If, like me, a few of these made you flinch with discomfort, they might be your spiders.  What if, instead of being one of those things we put up with, they played a critical role in our lives, and we in theirs?

© Text and photo 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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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 1 Corinthians 12:22-23

Eric the wolf, and the sanitised gospel

The solution
There’s a chilling familiarity with the way it’s done. The enemy is identified for us. From the outset they are systematically demonised; portrayed as lacking any trace of goodness or humanity. They are subhuman. Legitimate targets. Why? Because it makes it so much easier for those who move in the shadows and pull the strings behind the scenes to sell us the solution: The enemy must be killed.

No, I’m not talking about the war on terror (though I could be). I was thinking more of about half of my children’s DVD collection. From Disney to Little Red Riding Hood, we seem disconcerting comfortable with presenting the solution of “killing off the bad guy” to the very youngest of children.

The story

So when my son asked me to tell him a story “from my head” the other day, I decided enough was enough. This is it:

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In the darkest corner of a dark wood there was a cave. And in the darkest corner of the cave, there was a wolf. He was hungry (it had been a long winter). And he was lonely. Nobody wanted to talk to a wolf. They said he was big. And they said he was bad. So they called him the Big Bad Wolf.

One day the Big Bad Wolf was walking past a wall, scavenging for food when he heard two people talking. “Little Red Riding Hood,” said the first, “Your grandmother who lives on the other side of the wood is ill. Please take her this delicious basket of fruit. And don’t talk to any wolves on the way. They are big and they are bad.”

“Yes mother,” replied the girl’s voice.”

The wolf could hardly believe his good luck. If he played his cards right, this could be a double dinner. And maybe, just maybe this agonising pain of hunger gnawing in his stomach would stop for a while. They would think he was bigger and badder, but they would think that whatever he did, and he was starving.

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He quickly scampered off down the path towards the cottage on the other side of the wood, bounded in through the front door and swallowed grandmother whole. On reflection he should have got rid of her reading glasses first, as they caught a little in his throat. But time was of the essence, and he could hear the little girl coming up the path. He was a little less hungry, but the winter had been hard and he could still hear the rumbling of his tummy ringing in his ears. Good food was hard to come by, and he couldn’t afford to pass up this opportunity. He hurriedly put on grandmother’s spare nightie, and eased himself into her bed so as not to scare lunch off.

Moments later, the door opened, and Little Red Riding Hood stood in the doorway. Her friendly look gave way to a quizzical stare. “Grandma,” she stuttered, “What big ears you have!”

The wolf was thrown. Nobody had spoken to him in three years. Oh, they’d thrown things at him and shot at him, but here was a human girl addressing him directly. Confused, he replied “All the better to hear you with.”

“And what big eyes you have!”

“All the better to see you with?” he ventured, unsure of the protocol.

“And what big teeth you have!”

Here, the wolf was on more familiar ground. “All the better to eat you with!” he roared, and opened his mouth wide and dark as the cave he inhabited. But Red Riding Hood was ready for him. She had never bought into the story of “Big Bad Wolf” anyway.

“You stop that this instant!” she scolded firmly. “I know you’re hungry but you can’t just go around eating people like this. You’re better than that!” The wolf was so gobsmacked that he stopped in his tracks. “And it looks like you’ve swallowed my grandma too. Cough her back up! Now!” The wolf did as he was told. The glasses were as uncomfortable to cough up as they had been to swallow, but in no time a bedraggled and bile-covered grandma stood before them.

As grandmother recovered from her ordeal, Red Riding Hood had the wolf help her prepare the delicious basket of food for the three of them to share. All three sat down and ate together, and as they talked, the wolf made the first two friends he had ever had. The wolf never went back to his dark corner in his dark cave. He stayed and lived with grandmother. Little Red Riding Hood visited every day with a basket of food. And instead of calling him Big Bad Wolf, she called him Eric, because that was his name. It was just that nobody had ever asked before.

As I drew the story to a close, I was quite pleased with myself. I had sanitised the story of Little Red Riding Hood of its incitement to resolving issues by force, and I had added a positive spin of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The sanitised gospel
I remained quite pleased with my retelling until I realised that, if that was the best explanation of forgiveness I could give my kids then I had also sanitised the gospel – Jesus’ way of forgiveness – as well. Jesus’ message should be deeply offensive, not because it sees the best in us (which, of course, it does) but because it also forgives the worst. Jesus’ message forgives the unforgivable, and that sits so uncomfortably that even in church we sometimes try to find ways around it.

So if I was telling this story about Jesus-style forgiveness, what would change? Well, the wolf would have spent his life devouring more than he needed, not caring about the impacts on his victims. He’d have terrorised the villages around for the fun of it. He might not have been all big and bad, but he’d certainly have relished the feeling of power from grandma’s terrified scream when he stormed into her cottage.

In Jesus-style forgiveness, this is the wolf that Little Red Riding Hood consciously invites to eat with her. This is the wolf Little Red Riding Hood offers a new start. This is the wolf she chooses to call “friend”. And his name isn’t Eric. It’s Paul.

© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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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 Romans 5:7-8

A very useful engine

Singing a new song

I am young. I am sprightly. I am a hip, hop and happening parent who is “down with the youth”. And therefore everything I am about to say is entirely objective and not in any way an indicator of me being grouchy or old.

What I want to tell you is this: Children’s television is not what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. The content is largely acceptable. The theme tunes, however, are not. Fireman Sam is still there, but instead of telling me that “He’s always on the scene. His engine’s bright and clean” as it did when I was younger, the music now urges viewers to “Move aside, make way ’cause he’s gonna save the day”. Something of a brash change in tone.

And what about Postman Pat? They’ve had the decency to keep the opening music, but as the closing credits roll, I am now entreated to a guessing game: “Postman, Postman Pat, can you guess what’s in his sack?” A tedious game at best, since the answer is always the same (presumably because otherwise they would have to keep rewriting and rerecording the song). If the suspense is killing you, I can reveal that it’s Jess the cat in his sack.

And then there’s Thomas the Tank Engine. A cheerful – even enjoyable – tune has been replaced by an ear-desecrating inane babble telling anyone who can’t avoid listening that “They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight, Shunting trucks and hauling freight, Red and green and brown and blue, They’re the really useful crew!” I kid you not. Every word true.

As observed, I am not a grumpy old man, and bring this to your attention purely by way of constructive information sharing. Well, that, and because of the final line. “They’re the really useful crew.”

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A useful engine
Literary historians among you will know that being “a useful engine” dates back to the early days of Thomas, and the episode “The Troublesome Trucks”. As the franchise has developed, “usefulness” has become more fundamental to the series, to the point that being useful seems to somewhat underpin the modern Thomas. The Fat Controller’s ultimate compliment seems to be “Well done Thomas! You’re a very useful engine!”.

There’s a sense in which it echoes modern life: We must demonstrate our usefulness to be of value as people. This means we have to be involved in an endless drive for greater productivity. If we aren’t seen to be productive; to be useful, then we risk losing our value.

But perhaps there is a greater wisdom in Thomas than I give him credit for. Because when he is commended for being useful, what he has actually done is nothing more and nothing less than what the Fat Controller has asked of him. It is the Fat Controller who sees the grand scheme of things. If the Fat Controller sends Thomas to rescue some errant carriage, but sends Percy to operate the branch line, has one been more useful than the other? I would venture not.

It is up to the Fat Controller to make the engine’s obedience useful. Their usefulness is defined not by what they achieve, but by their obedience.

Faithfulness

I suspect I am not alone in sometimes wondering whether what I’m doing at any given point really has any use. Am I maximising the value of my time? Am I being as profitable as I can with my efforts? I find it easy to choose not to do things because they don’t seem useful. Or to judge something as a failure because the outcome didn’t seem useful. And I suspect this true of individuals and groups and churches.

But when I stop to think of it like Thomas, who am I to decide whether what I have done is useful?

Mother Theresa of Calcutta deftly cut to the heart of our concern to be perceived as useful (or, in her words, “successful”)

We are not called to be successful but to be faithful.

Perhaps when we are concerned about whether what we are engaged in is useful or productive, a more appropriate question would be “Is it what God is asking me to do?” If it is, then it is up to God to make our obedience useful.

© Original Photo Christine Matthews
© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Isaiah 55:11. You can always think about it in the little we know of a guy called “Useful” (Greek “Onesimus”) in the very short book of Philemon

Praying for a helium balloon on a Thursday

The hunter and the hunted

As a grown up (a claim I make several times a day just to reassure myself) I know that I am stalked day and night by a tireless foe; a hunter that I cannot defeat, avoid or slow down; that whatever I do, slowly and relentlessly, one day at a time, this predator approaches its quarry and that eventually, as the summer approaches, another birthday will catch up with me.

But it was not always thus. Once I was like my children, desperately counting the days (starting at 364) until their next birthday. And as Oliver’s 9th birthday approached recently, things reached fever pitch.

Party planning

We had asked him what theme he wanted for his birthday party and, after much soul-searching, he was unable to decide between Harry Potter and Skylanders. So he wrote invitations saying it was both, and that was that.

I may not be a fan of my own birthday, but I do love to work on a theme and so, if I say so myself, I rose admirably to the challenge. I put new spins on old games. A mound of flour was transformed into Hogwarts castle with the addition of a flag. Dressing up clothes became Mad-Eye Moody with the inclusion of a wooden (OK cardboard) leg. Pictures of Spyro were hidden around the house with secret passwords on them. And all with a level of secrecy which would have MI5 taking notes.

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Ah yes, but did I mention that small people get very excited by birthdays? And frustrated by the absence of visible evidence, Oliver became convinced that mummy and daddy weren’t on the case at all. We clearly needed guidance. He began to make outrageously specific demands. We must play pass the parcel with a certain wrapping paper. We must play musical bumps with the music from “Ice Age 4”. We must buy a helium balloon on Thursday. Eventually Oliver had a meltdown*, in the middle of a shop, two days before his party. “You haven’t bought me a balloon! You don’t even know which one I want! You don’t know anything I want! I don’t want a party!” he screamed.

Well, quite. We actually had every intention of buying a helium balloon the following day and involving him in the decision. But he was basing his views of what a party should entail on what parties entailed when he was five. I was planning things for a nine year old. He didn’t trust his dad to take a simple request for a party and do it in the right way.

My meltdowns

Yet again, I find myself looking in the mirror. This is my standard M.O. in prayer. “God, help me through this situation. And help me by making this happen, that happen, the other happen and GOD YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME!”

Or perhaps “God, this person is going through a tough time. Please help them. And make sure you do it by making this person say that to them, that person say this to them and ARE YOU LISTENING GOD, ARE YOU GETTING ALL THIS DOWN?”

…and breathe Paul.  Step away from the wheel Paul. Admit that perhaps God heard you, God cares, and God can organise a Harry Potter Skylanders party a damn sight better than you. He’s probably even thought of the balloons.

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* Full disclosure: It is possible I may have had a meltdown back.

© Photo D. Sharon Pruitt
© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Luke 11:11-13

Waves and shadows (Paradoxology) – Don’t be afraid…because it’s scary

Contradiction

When I wrote “Waves and Shadows” I made two starkly opposing points. In Part 1 I suggested that God aims to get us standing on our own two feet.  In Part 2 I suggested that God calls us to depend on him and on those he has put around us.

Having seemingly contradicted myself, I wanted to bring the two together here. Of course, at one level each of the messages helps avoid taking the other to extremes. Our call to live in a state of interdependence is not a call to retreat into a cosy enclave. Our call to get out and do God’s work is not a call to self-sufficiency. But there’s another unifying factor…

 

Christmas concerts

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It’s a time of year that parents and teachers know well. This week our household will see no fewer than five Christmas plays and concerts. Fragments of songs are being merrily sung and scraped on the violin. Costumes are being prepared and tinsel cut up for stars and angels.  Ah yes, angels…

As folk attend schools and churches over the coming weeks, they will hear the cute little angels echoing three words that many of us have heard so often that we will simply ignore them. Three words that echo the words of the angels two thousand years ago. And three words that reverberate through thousands more years of God’s relationship with people:

Do Not Fear

 

Bombshells

“Do not fear” is one of the most repeated phrases in the bible. Why? Of course, it might be because God likes us to have a constant warm, fuzzy, glowing feeling. But the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. With Mary, with the shepherds and with scores of others, God tells us not to fear just when he’s about to drop a bombshell.  He tells us not to fear precisely when it’s about to get terrifying.

Shepherds, do not fear: I want you to abandon your posts.

Mary, do not fear: I want you to risk social disgrace, your marriage and your future.

And throughout the history of his people the message keeps repeating – Do not fear: defy your family. Do not fear: take on occupying forces. Do not fear, do not fear, do not fear…

And the only reason not to fear is that God has told us not to.

 

Safety

Society sells us a dream of safety. We, God’s Toddlers have largely bought into it. We believe the life worth fighting for is one where we’re safe, secure and risk free. God’s way is different. God’s way isn’t safe. By any normal measure it’s scary. Those who have read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe may remember Mr Beaver:

Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘course he’s not safe. But he’s good

So, to go back to the question of what standing on our own two feet and depending on others have in common, I’d suggest it’s that they’re both terrifying. For most of us, standing back on our own two feet after we’ve allowed God to pick us up is a terrifying prospect. It’s not safe.  For most of us, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and depend on other people and on God is a terrifying prospect. It’s not safe.

God calls us to both with the reminder “Do not fear”. And to any number of daunting prospects, with the reminder “Do not fear”.  Not because what lies ahead isn’t scary, but because it is, and he’s there regardless.

 

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Angel photo (Original version) © Gardner Campbell  

© Text 2013 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by all of the above Bible verses

Waves and shadows (Part 2) – a lesson in dependence

A time for everything

It’s said that there is a time and a place for everything: a time to laugh and a time to mourn; a time to sow and a time to harvest; a time for coffee and (presumably) a time for chocolate.  Now is probably a good time – if you haven’t already – to read Waves and Shadows (Part 1).  In Part 1 I talked about standing on our own two feet.  Now I’m going to talk about dependence.

An introduction to beaches and the sea

As you are aware by now, our family has recently returned from holiday.  Our holiday destination was, as usual, Mónica’s native southern Spain.  To be more precise, we went to the beach.

Now, the Spanish beach offers many of the same activities which will be familiar to frequenters of more northern beaches, such as those of the UK.  There are ice creams to be eaten, sandcastles to be built, channels to be dug, and rockpools to be explored for alien lifeforms.  But Spain boasts an additional attraction: THE SEA.  Yes, I know we have the sea in the UK, but here I tend to limit myself to wading in up to my knees and splashing about a bit.  Some daredevil may streak past me, plunging headlong into the deeper water only to emerge again five minutes later an attractive shade of purple.  But on the whole I find the sea in the UK more challenging than welcoming.

In Spain, on the other hand, the sea welcomes you with open arms, enticing you to immerse yourself in the balmy waters and allow yourself to be bobbed and buoyed by the rolling waves.

Or at least , I think it does.  Elías (4) disagrees.  He is fine with that description until it comes to the waves.  The booming, pounding, terrifying waves.  The waves which threaten to engulf, consume and devour him.  No, Elías does not like the waves.

It was, therefore, a relief to find a solution which worked for everyone concerned. We all went into the sea. When the waves became high enough to splash Elías’ face, I took his hands and helped him jump over them. When his feet no longer touched the bottom, I lifted him clear of them. As the water got deeper, even I had to jump. And when I did I held Elías above my head, clear of the waves.

This worked marvellously. Until Elías saw the size of one incoming wave. It was big. And as I prepared to lift him, he forgot all about our solution. He decided he needed to save himself.  He wanted to be in control when the wave hit.  He clung tight to my neck, preventing me from lifting him up. And the wave hit us both full on…

The myth

There is a curious myth that has taken hold in society.  To a greater or lesser extent, we who are God’s toddlers have accepted it unquestioningly. The myth is: Independence is desirable.

We think independence is desirable when it comes to God. Yes, we might rely on God’s grace for our salvation, but we’d rather live our own plans and just ask God’s blessing on them. Or perhaps we will ask God what he wants us to do, and then try and do it our way, and in our strength. We want to be in control when the waves hit.

But perhaps a more beguiling variation on this myth is that we think independence is desirable when it comes to the community of God’s toddlers (traditionally “Church”, if you must).  We’re often happy to embrace the fact that we need to help other people.  We can be much less happy to embrace the fact that it’s a good thing to be helped by those around us. We’ve come to believe that reliance on others is a sign of weakness; that it puts us in their debt; that it just means we failed to do it ourselves.  And we want to be in control when the waves hit.

We’ve forgotten that Jesus created a community of followers, not individuals.  We’ve forgotten how many of God’s instructions to this community are reciprocal: “Love each other“; “Be devoted to each other“.  Nobody can live out this kind of reciprocal community if everyone is trying to be independent.

And when we start to examine some of the problems with reliance on others, they don’t stack up.

  • It’s a sign of weakness?  But simply accepting Christ’s grace is an admission that we can’t do it all by ourselves.
  • It puts us in their debt?  But every member of that community owes everything to Jesus, so how could we be in debt to each other?
  • We’ve failed to do things ourself?  But if we’re called to be in community, not doing it by ourselves is a success, not a failure.

So why do we find it so difficult to let go of control?

I think there’s a challenge as to whether we are prepared to let go of the myth that independence is good.  To recognise that God designed us to live in a constant state of interdependence.

If not, we can cling onto control. And when the waves hit, we will keep clinging on. And we will emerge on the other side, battered but in one piece. But we will never be borne aloft by our loving father and the hands of those he has put around us.

© Photo of wave LJ Mears 

© Text 2013 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by 1 Corinthians 12:15-26 Read the whole story here

Waves and shadows (Part 1) – a lesson in standing on our own two feet

Paradox

Something amazing happened the other day.  We went to the park, and I was persuaded to try and walk on a wobbly balance-beam…and I DIDN’T FALL OFF.  Balance is a tricky business, you see, and I’ve never been much good at it.

But beyond the balance beam, sometimes getting a balance right in life is a matter of holding two ideas in balance with each other.  It stops us toppling off at a tangent in either direction.  I’ve tried doing this before, where writing about the safari here and here.  In this post and the next, I’ll be trying to do it again.

This first post is a lesson in standing on our own two feet…

Fun with words

The late Douglas Adams is often remembered for the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – the interstellar adventures of Arthur Dent: a man in a dressing-gown.  Occasionally people go further, and remember his creation of Dirk Gently: a private investigator from whom you wouldn’t buy a second-hand car, much less entrust delicate investigative work.

And then, once in a blue moon, someone remembers “The meaning of Liff”.  The premise of this short book is that too many experiences in life don’t have a word for them.  And there are plenty of good words to be found on – say – signposts.  Thus “The meaning of Liff” sought to borrow some of the more pleasing placenames from signposts, and assign them a meaning that sounded like it fitted the name.  The end result was a “dictionary” of sorts.  Don’t get it?  Here are some examples:

  • LIFF (From whence the title) is defined as “A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words. ‘This book will change your life.'”
  • SHOEBURYNESS – “The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.”
  • WOKING – “Standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.”
  • ELY – “The first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.”

For what it’s worth, I am deeply convinced that “Ely” is one of the most useful made-up words that the English language has seen  at any time in the last century.  And I was privileged to see a moment of “Ely” first-hand during my summer holiday this year.

shadow_1No escape

We were walking back to our apartment late one evening, with Marta (2) skipping happily from one lamp-post to the next.  Then she stopped and flicked her toe in the air experimentally. She put her foot back on the floor. Pause. Another flick. Foot down. This time the hesitation was noticeably apprehensive. The first, tiniest inkling that something had gone terribly wrong.  ELY.

As she frantically waved and jiggled her foot, she stared with increasing terror at…her own shadow. She desperately tried to shake it off, but like the antithesis to Peter Pan, her shadow was going nowhere.

Finally it was all too much. She placed both feet firmly on the floor, screamed “Mama!” and insisted on being carried the rest of the way home, in the safety of mummy’s arms, where the shadow couldn’t get her.

As the days wore on, a pattern emerged. Once it was dark enough for the streetlamps to cast a shadow, Marta would glance down, scream and that would be it for the evening. She would insist on being carried.

Now, Mónica and I have seen the Doctor Who episode with the flesh-eating shadows, and we are not convinced that it is in any way based on verifiable fact. And so we set about persuading Marta that her shadow was not able to hurt her.

  • Yes, it was there.
  • No, there was nothing she could do about it.
  • But that didn’t mean it needed to hold her back.

We were prepared to carry her for as long as needed, but it really wasn’t doing her any favours for us to keep carrying her indefinitely.  We were delighted when, a few days later, we were able to put her back on her own two feet, and watch her getting out and doing things.

The other shadows

God’s “grown-up” toddlers find ourselves paralysed by more abstract shadows: by our shortcomings and failings; by the things we feel we should have done and the things we know we shouldn’t have; and by a whole host of other shadows which send us running for the comfort of the father’s arms.

For some of us we might find this in the support of a loving church community. Others might find it in a place of tranquillity and reflection.  Whatever it is, it’s an important part of allowing God to restore and renew us. It’s part of allowing God to parent us, but it’s not the point of today’s blog. I’m going to focus on WHAT HAPPENS NEXT…

Our mistake can come when we assume that this place of comfort is the point of our relationship with the father.  It’s like Marta assuming that being held clear of the shadows is the point of being in a relationship with Mummy and Daddy.  In the same way as Marta needed to learn we weren’t doing her any favours by holding her off the floor, we need to let God teach us that, while the shadows may still be there; while they may not go away, they have no power to hold us back.

The purpose of God’s healing cannot be to keep us indefinitely in a place of comfort, waiting for the shadows to disappear. The bible is littered with imperatives to go and do things, from preaching good news to feeding the hungry.  We can only do this when we allow God to take us our of the comfort zone, and stand on our own two feet, in defiance of the shadows.

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© Photo of shadows Jeremy Page

© Text 2013 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Luke 8:38-39 – Read the whole story here

The parable of the lost toothbrush – on who we can become

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Hygeine

Once upon a time I was not a sleep deprived father of four.  And back then someone once explained to me how things change as you have more children.  “Take spoons,” they said. “If you’re feeding your first baby with a spoon and it falls on the floor, you sterilise it, and get a freshly sterilised spoon out.  If it’s your second baby, you just pick the spoon up, give it a lick, and carry on feeding the baby.  If it’s your third, you pick the spoon up, let the dog lick it, and carry on feeding the baby.”

At the time I thought they were joking. I have reconsidered this viewpoint since.  We don’t have a dog, but I now have no reason to believe that this was an exaggeration in any way.

Lost and found

But there are some fields where even I have to adopt a stricter approach, as is the case with the lost toothbrush.

Let me explain.  Many months ago, Elías lost his toothbrush.  We asked where it was and he explained – as if we were a little dull – that it was in the garden.  We looked, but try as we might, we could not find it…

A few days ago, however, I was sitting in the lounge, sipping coffee, when Oliver burst in exclaiming “I got it! I got it!”

“Got what?” I enquired.  (But you’re way ahead of me)

“The toothbrush!  It’s been stuck inside the leg of the sand-table!”

Now, let us be realistic.  The toothbrush was in the state you’d expect for one stuck in the leg of a sand-table for months on end.  It was infused with bits of grass and sand and moss and mould.  It was covered with mud and sludge and slime and goo.  It was putrid.  It was fetid.  It stank.  And slugs had been slithering on it.

Forget my laissez-faire approach to using spoons when they fall on the floor.  This was not a toothbrush that was going in anybody’s mouth.  You could wash it.  You could sterilise it.  But nothing was ever going to take away the image of that dripping, rank and vile object that Oliver held proudly aloft.  And, I suspect, nothing was ever going to take away the taste…

Past and future

And suddenly I realised like never before how simply mind-boggling the thing we call “grace” is.  Most of us feel that there are things in our past which mess us up. “Grace” is what puts us right again. A few thousand years ago, the language that was used was that God washes us “whiter than snow”.  For those of us who live in the modern world, we probably think of the off-grey sludge that covers our cities for a few weeks in winter.

So let me offer this alternative: If our lives were a toothbrush then, no matter how clogged up they have become with grass and sand and moss and mould, no matter how obscured by mud and sludge and slime and goo, God washes it so clean that you’d – metaphorically – put it in your mouth again.

We’re not just picked up and dusted down a bit, with a reluctant “that’ll do”.  We are restored to being like new.  Our past – as they say – does not need to define our future.  And if we ever catch ourselves thinking we can never do something because of where we’ve been…well, if picturing a shiny new toothbrush helps, then go for it.  Because grace really is that good.

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© Text and Pictures 2013 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Isaiah 1:18