A Nursery Revelation

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…


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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

Creative Commons License

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

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.”


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.


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

Creative Commons License

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