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

Earthworks at the beach

Bank holidays

Among the many fascinating features of living in Britain, one of the most spectacular is the weather.  And I mean this most sincerely.

Take bank-holidays for example.  Every year, we have a few precious days of “extra” holiday built into the national calendar.

Most of these are cleverly placed at times of the year when you’d expect to have fair weather.  And yet despite the statistical odds that we must have at least some chance of escaping to the beach on these days, the reality is that the weather conspires with the calendar-makers to deliver what is invariably the coldest, or the wettest, or the foggiest, or the snowiest August weekend on record.  Or something like that.

You can’t tell me that such an alignment of our weather with the national holidays with freak weather isn’t spectacular.

Beach activities

But just occasionally the insidious British weather shows a chink in its armour, and we are greeted by an unexpectedly bright, clear and warm day.  Beach weather.  And Mónica and I will take our wildly excited little ones to chase each other through the waves, explore rock pools and collect shells.

Eventually, however, the hard work must begin.  I refer, of course, to the building of sandcastles.  I’m sure other dads will identify with me when I say that a self respecting sandcastle should have lots of turrets.  And a moat.  And a canal to the nearest water supply.  And a few tunnels.  And – most importantly of all – a giant earthwork fortification to protect this masterpiece from the incoming tide.

Of course, by the time we get to the fortifications, the children have given up digging out bits of the moat that have fallen in, and are watching me with a sense of morbid fascination.  Writ clear upon their faces are the words “Daddy, what on earth are you doing?”.

But at this point I don’t care.  It’s one man against the forces of nature.  It’s the showdown.

Oddly, I always lose.  I always end up watching in dismay as the tide sweeps away defences which I thought were impenetrable.  And my loving children dance around, whooping with glee, as I frantically try to re-build critical parts.  And as the last remains of my efforts sink into the sea, they laugh, and run off to splash some more.


“Other” toddlers

At this point I owe you an apology, because I don’t think I’m the first person in history to use sandcastles being swept away as an analogy.  If you are in any way unhappy with this, let me know, and I’ll arrange a full refund.

But the whole thing is great for some gentle reassurance for God’s toddlers.  Because we worry.  Strangely, we often worry about God’s other toddlers.  We look at another group and say things like “The way they do things doesn’t really allow God to get on with what he wants to do.  I just know God has such great plans, but people like that hold him back.”

And we say it because we really care.  We say it because – as I mentioned when talking about black pepper – we’ve learned something, and God’s “other” toddlers haven’t.  And we think they’ll hold God back.

At a guess, they think the same about us.

So, for those who worry, the sandcastles are a marvellously refreshing reminder.  Yes, we (and others) can put up rules, structures and ways of thinking to defend our sandcastles – to keep things the way we like them, or the way we’re used to them.  But if God has other plans, we can no more hold back his spirit than my laughable earthworks can hold back the sea.

What can we do?  We can dig our heels in and fortify the defences.  Or we can imitate little children, stand back and watch him sweep away the barriers.  And we can whoop with glee and delight as the tide comes in and we get stuck in to whatever he brings next…

…then, in us, through us, 
and – if need be – despite us, 
let your kingdom come. 

The Iona Community

© 2012 Paul Brownnutt (Except quote from The Iona Community)

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


On failing to light a fire

I am not a gardener.  I have a garden, into which I periodically take some large cutting implements, with a view to finding the end, somewhere being the undergrowth.   This often results in large pile of branches in my garden, stacked with a plan in mind to ignite them in joyous combustion.

The other day I arrived home shortly before dusk, and Oliver and I decided to see what we could do in a hurry under the general heading of “setting fire to the garden”.

Since we only had a few minutes until darkness descended, we decided to do things the quick way.  We screwed up several dozen pieces of junk-mail offering life-insurance, double-glazing and monkey-grooming, and mixed them with firelighter bricks.  Then, on the basis that the branches were still covered in twigs, we decided on a strategy to avoid having to cut things down further: we thrust each branch twig-end down onto the paper, on the basis that the twigs would light easily from the paper.  And then we got out the matches…

Boy what a blaze!  And, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something fundamentally right at a primal level about burning mail from second-rate financial institutions.  It’s feels a bit like you’re returning them to the hell from which they originated.  But quite aside from the whys and wherefores, the flames leaped up, and were soon licking hungrily at the twigs.

And then they died down again.  Once the paper had burned, we were left with a couple of burning firelighters, and a grand total of zero burning bits of wood.  Oh.

So we stuffed some more paper on.  Which burned, and then died out.

By this time, the rest of the family had come to play, so half of last season’s Next directory* went the same way.  Then, in a spirit of scientific discovery, Monica added a selection of rags that used to answer to the name of  “Pyjamas”, which did pretty much the same, but in a more colourful way.

…and then we were left with the original, very slightly charred, pile of wood.

Now of course, you’ve already spotted the problem.  Since I am not known for my ability to apply myself to the real world, it took me a while longer.  But I think the problem was this: while there might have been some individual twigs close to (or even in) the fire, being attached to such rigid branches meant there was actually quite a lot of space between twigs, so they couldn’t really get anything going.

Now, my assessment of my incendiary skills may be correct, or it may be awry in some way that the physicists among you will be able to put me straight on, but whatever the case, it got me musing.

I go to church every Sunday, and give as much of my complete and undivided attention to God as my three children let me.  But there’s a lot space between the “twigs” of my time with God on Sunday.  No, it’s not because I’m one of those people who thinks God is only for Sundays.  There’s just a certain inevitability about it – small children take up so much non-working time and I have to be realistic about the fact I don’t have the free time I used to which could be used for extra “God-centred” activities.

But with so much space between the twigs, it can feel hard to really get anything going.  Christians often express the desire to be “on fire” with the holy spirit; I’ve seldom – possibly never – heard anyone proclaim the wish to be “slightly charred”.

Then again, God reminds me, it’s not about the amount of “free” time I can direct towards “God” activities.  It’s about making all the activities in my hectic day-to-day life God-centred.  I need to keep creative and find ways of getting the twigs closer together.

© 2010 Paul Brownnutt
* For some reason, Next still send their directory to the previous residents – we can only assume they pay for it.

[Originally Published 7th February 2010]