How small works for big: lessons learnt from E’s etch-a-sketch, and conversations about Calvin in the kitchen . . . .

Below is a photograph of E’s latest etch-a-sketch representation of herself and Baby J.

She’s been drawing a lot of these sorts of pictures recently, as her fingers and thoughts come to terms with the yet-again-new shape of our family.

And sure, there may be a bit of parental pride exposed in putting it on display in this space. Dr M and I happen to think our zany three year-old is a bit of an emerging artist (just look at the expression in those eyes in the larger figure, the quirky shape of those eyebrows!) But I’ve got another reason for positioning it here. The picture represents something of what I’ve been learning lately, about our smallness, and His bigness. So, clearly, then, E is something of a philosopher and theologian as well as an artist.

In case you think I’m going insane pulling apart the intricacies of a three year old’s rudimentary etch-a-sketch work let me explain where I’m going with this. And what etch-a- sketch has to do with John Calvin…and what John Calvin has to do with conversations taking place in our kitchen.

I don’t know about you but I’m one of those people who copes in the moment and falls apart in the quiet. And there’s been a lot of noise lately in our household in the way of sick kids, sleepless nights, sick parents and so on and so on . . . .

There are lots of signs the big collapse is coming for me, but here are some of the more peculiar ones:

I start rearranging furniture
I get my hair cut (shorter and shorter)
I scan websites on decluttering and simplifying – searching for the cure-all solution to chaos and ease
I go op-shopping for cosy household items I’m sure will make everything look and feel better (thus cancelling out the decluttering/simplifying step above, and initiating further rounds of furniture re-arrangement….)

But what is it underneath all this that causes all of these peculiar coping strategies to blister to the surface? What hidden force binds them together?


A few worries are like rain drops, unpleasant and irritable, but not too disruptive. Too many worries and they turn into a flood, and then the thunder clap comes, like the one that woke our family, and half of Sydney, sometime last week. And the deluge follows.

Below is a list of some of the things I have currently been worrying about:
The world, and all that’s wrong with it. What we can do to help. What we can’t do to help. What I’m not doing to help. E’s coping ability at preschool. Our coping ability with E. The sickness cycles in our household that seem to rotate like out of control, never ending ferris wheels. Our messy house. Our messy world (again). Sleep, or the absence of it. Finances and college. Anxiety (that’s ironic). Family. The future.

I realise I’ve written about this theme of worry/anxiety and its antidote more than a few times now. But that’s because I need to keep hearing truths that combat the static. Because like the Israelites, led through the wilderness and on the way to the promised land, I forget.

But this is what I’m learning. Sometimes the wobbliest of roads can actually be the paths to worship. And acknowledging our own inadequacies can lead us to a greater awareness of the one who is greater.

That’s what I discovered when I stumbled into our kitchen one morning last week, exhausted already before the day had even begun, only to find Dr M equally exhausted, hunkered over his coffee apparatus, seeking to make the world’s finest and strongest brew (that’s Dr M’s outward coping strategy, by the way, elaborate coffee ceremonies worthy of the Olympics).

‘I feel like I’m doing it all wrong,’ I began, as Dr M wiped the sleep thick from his eyes. ‘Like I’m failing at everything.’ And if that wasn’t enough to make him lean closer in to the rich comfort of his coffee beans, I continued. ‘And the world too, I mean, it’s all just so sad. All that’s happening lately. Disasters everywhere you turn. And heartache.’

Dr M was quiet for a bit, as he sipped. At last he looked up and spoke: ‘It must be hard being in charge of the world, especially when you are only one fairly insignificant individual in the 21st century, living on an island in the South pacific.’

Wow! If that wasn’t an almighty put down, I don’t know what is. But this is the thing. I found it relieving. To hear how small I am. How little I can control. How terribly misplaced is any version of reality that puts me at the helm of . . . anything.

And what is better, this isn’t where it stops. Our smallness is not just a thing in itself, but it is an arrow pointing onward . . . to something much, much bigger. Or someone.
That’s when John Calvin (a European church reformer from around 500 years ago) stepped into our kitchen, and into our conversation, as Dr M recalled something he’d been reading just the night before. ‘Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God…. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.’ (Institutes). The truth lies in the comparison. When we recognise our own ‘poverty’ we admire more His majesty, that is, the ‘infinitude of benefits reposing in God.’ When we witness his majesty, we take our rightful place. On our knees. For, ‘our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.’

That’s surprisingly relieving to hear. The antidote to anxiety does not lie in becoming bigger, stronger; but rather in remembering what and who we really are. Smaller. Weaker. Not that as a smaller creature it’s wrong to grieve, pray and care – in action – about things going wrong in the world. In fact, those responses are asked of us. But becoming small is part of a process whereby we learn our proper place in an ecosystem that too often gets turned upside down.

In church lately we’ve been talking about the dangers not of adversity, but of prosperity. In prosperity we run the risk of viewing our own selves as the controllers of our good destinies.

In adversity, when we start to see how weak we really are, we turn to the one who is bigger than we, to the mountain higher than the valleys we find our feet stumbling through.

*A couple of these photos were taken by Dr M on a recent ‘family adventure’ to the Blue Mountains. A great way to experience small vs big.


Impacted by these words in some way? I’d love to hear you’re thoughts.