An old allegory came home with added force one summer evening. My daughter Shawna, her little brother Jonathan, and two little friends of theirs were strolling with me through the neighborhoods surrounding our home outside downtown Portland, Oregon.
The kids--as kids will do--decided to make our walk an adventure. "Let's look for bugs on the ground," Shawna suggested, and they all began to scan the ground for signs of life.
I'm not sure where all the other insects were, but the kids found evidence of subterranean ant colony after ant colony in various cracks in the old, pre-World War I sidewalks. Curiosity soon gave way to mischief, however, so I had to ask the kids not to squish unsuspecting ants with their fingers and sandaled feet.
"Why, Daddy?" asked Shawna.
Because God made ants and we don't needlessly kill things God has made, I explained.
That settled it and the kids playfully but carefully continued exploring ant colony after ant colony, yelling down the little holes if no ants were topside at the moment.
While most of the ant colonies had holes somewhere near the center of the sidewalks we traversed, I spotted one ingenuous colony in the process of digging a new home on the edge between the sidewalk and the hard packed dirt strip next to a busy Portland street.
Just as I spotted the thousands of ants hard at work, one of Shawna and Jonathan's little friends stepped smack on top of them, easily killing hundreds with one fell swoop.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking a bit sad as he peered--face near the ground--at the mass havoc he'd created. I wasn't sure what to say, so we moved on, finding the ant colonies fewer and farther between now where fresh concrete had replaced the original sidewalks.
As we walked, I tossed out an old philosophical question to my six-year-old daughter. "Suppose you really loved ants," I said. "I mean, really loved them. And you found out the city planned to tear up some of the old sidewalks back there and kill all those ants. What would you do, Shawna?"
"I'd tell the workers not to do it," Shawna said earnestly.
"What if the workers said they had to tear up the old sidewalks to put in new ones?"
"I'd tell the ants to go some other place."
"You would? What if the ants didn't leave? You don't speak ant language, and they might not understand what you were trying to tell them." Shawna thought about that for a minute, then I continued.
"Suppose scientists could take a Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Kids machine and make you as small as an ant. Would you do it, Shawna, so you could go down and talk with the ants?"
"Of course, Daddy."
"But, Shawna, it wouldn't work. You still wouldn't know how to talk ant-talk."
Shawna thought about that, too.
"Suppose they could take a machine and turn you into an ant, but there were only a 50-50 chance they could turn you back into a little girl afterward. Would you do it, anyway?"
"But, Shawna, if there were only a 50-50 chance we could get you back, you wouldn't do it really, would you? What if you didn't come back? Your mommy and your older sister and your brother and your friends would be so sad. And your daddy would cry for days and days. Would you still do it-for a bunch of ants?"
"Yes...I mean, no, I guess I wouldn't, Daddy." We continued walking a few more steps.
"You know, Shawna, that reminds me of what Jesus did for us." After a pause, I asked, "Are you lots bigger than ants?"
"How much bigger?"
"A hundred million times bigger."
"Is that how much bigger God is than us?"
"No, Daddy, He's even bigger than that. A zillion times bigger!"
"How much bigger?" I asked, gesturing in mock disbelief.
I thought about that, then suggested maybe Jesus Christ becoming a human was like one of us becoming a germ...intsy-wintsy, microscopic. By then we were walking down another old sidewalk on our way back toward home, and the kids were beginning to find ant colonies again.
"Would you really want to become an ant, Shawna? What if you went to tell these ants they had to listen to you and follow you to save their lives and they didn't believe you? What if they said, 'Who do you think you are?' What if they decided you must be an enemy from another ant colony they didn't like? What if they called you horrible names and started hurting you? What if they finally killed you? We'd cry and cry for weeks."
By now Shawna was in full agreement she wouldn't become an ant, no matter how much she loved them. I told her I was glad.
"Think about what Jesus did for us, Shawna. Even though He is God and made the whole universe, He became an intsy-wintsy human being. That's what Christmas is all about. And once He became a human, He stayed a human. He still was God but in a body that's this tiny [I gestured with two fingers held close] compared to the universe He'd made. And He still has that body today," I added. We both thought about that for a minute.
"What did people do to Jesus, though, when He came to earth?" I continued. "Did they receive Him gladly and believe what He said?"
"No, they crucified Him."
That's a horrible, horrible way to die, I explained to Shawna. Much worse than being obliterated like so many unfortunate ants. Yet why did He go through the agony of Good Friday?
"Because He loves us very, very much?"
"Yes, Shawna. He does. Jesus loves us so much He became a human being and died for us, to save us. But that's not the end of the story, of course. Because He's God, He also rose from the dead. He's alive!"
By then we'd rounded the last corner. Several of the kids dashed ahead of the others, and 45 minutes later my two little ones were tucked into bed with a kiss, a hug and a heartfelt prayer.
Many times since then, Shawna and I have reminisced about our ant talk--and what Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter really mean. I fervently hope that none of my children will ever grow too old to understand more about God from what they see around them on warm summer evenings.