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

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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, MĂłnica’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.  ElĂ­as (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, ElĂ­as 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 ElĂ­as’ 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 ElĂ­as above my head, clear of the waves.

This worked marvellously. Until ElĂ­as 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

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, ElĂ­as 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

Scamming Santa

Watching you

Like every other resident of the United Kingdom I shop at Tesco. Well, there may be three or four individuals, possibly on the farthest flung outposts of the Western Isles who don’t shop there yet, but I’m sure Tesco have their beady eye on them. And on a recent visit to Tesco, Oliver picked up…

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.

Being small can be terrifying when you stop to think about it. There are so many things out there to get you. The lion from the zoo; the big bad wolf; giants; things that go “bump” in the night; and Santa.

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Oh, yes there’s no getting around it. For all that it’s very nice of him to bring gift-wrapped elf-made electronics, Santa is a pretty scary prospect. Not only is he into mass breaking-and-entering with a level of skill that not even mummy and daddy can stop him. He is also watching you.

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good, for goodness’ sake!

That’s right. When you sneaked a kick at your sister under the table, Santa was watching. When you took a second biscuit and said it was your first, Santa was watching. When you used daddy’s tie in one of your “experiments” that didn’t quite go as planned, Santa was watching.

Getting away with it

With all of this going on in a billion homes throughout the world, it’s little short of a miracle that Santa even bothers to brush the snow off his sleigh and make the trip every Christmas eve.

Disney does offer one suggestion for the canny child, as followers of Huey, Louie and Dewey will know. But since this involves storming Santa’s workshop to add your name to his list by force, it is probably outside the means of most normal children.

The issue was highlighted on on that visit to Tesco that I mentioned. Oliver picked up a pre-written “letter from Santa” which seemed to be aimed at reassuring children they would be getting presents. And even the corporate giants at Tesco seem to have realised the problem. Their letter says “Even though some days it has been difficult to be good, I see that you have tried very very hard!”. But I think it’s fairly instinctive that ”trying very very hard” just doesn’t cut the mustard.

So this leaves us to try to fathom an alternative way of getting our misdeeds under Santa’s radar, and enjoy the other side of him: the kindly old man who wants the best for everyone.

If only we could trick Santa into watching someone else.

The Father vs Father Christmas

We often find God portrayed a little like Santa. And I don’t just mean the improbably bushy beard. I mean spying on us to find out whether we have been bad or good, and handing out punishments or rewards accordingly.

But it’s not as if you could storm God’s workshop and add your name to his “approved list”. And “trying very very hard” doesn’t make any more sense with God than it does with Santa.

And how could you ever hope to get him to watch someone else?

Actually, come to think of it, we can do exactly that. Because that is precisely what Christmas is about. Yes, the little baby in a manger was born to show a better way to live. Yes, he was born to be a great teacher. But more than anything, he was born for us to take the credit in God’s eyes for his perfect life.

Because God doesn’t just require “being good”. He requires perfection. But the first gift of Christmas is that he doesn’t require it from us. He already has it, from the dribbling snotty baby in the hay. Which leaves us free to revel in a relationship with him, free from the baggage of whether or not we’re good enough. That’s the beginning…

Empty boxes on the floor,
Of things I never asked you for…

(Jars of Clay)

So, while you might need to scam Santa, God is another story altogether. And God’s track record on getting stuck down chimneys is rather better too!

© 2012 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.