It has been almost thirty years since I met Derek, but I can still hear his mother’s words echoing in my mind. “This is Derek,” she said as her cherubic looking toddler looked up at me, “He’ll be trouble.” I wondered, in that moment, how a mother could choose to introduce her three-year-old child to his new preschool teacher in such a way. By the end of the week, Derek had repeatedly proven her right, but I had to wonder how much of his behavior was a self-fulfilling prophecy. By Friday, I’d had enough and, perhaps, so had he. As I sent him to the futile kiddie jail known as “time out,” I watched him ball up his fists at his side and begin to shake with anger. I had thwarted him—again—by calling out his behavior and daring to enforce the rules. However, this time was different. I was still a new person in his life; I could set a different tone. In a moment of clarity, I knelt to his level, took his little fists in my hands, and, with as much gentleness as I could muster, looked him in the eye and said, “You’re very angry with me right now. I can see that. You want to hit me, don’t you?” He nodded affirmation and I went on, “You want to hit me right now, but you aren’t doing that. You are angry, but you are showing self-control and I’m very proud of you for it.”
Immediately Derek’s whole demeanor softened. I don’t think anyone had ever said they were proud of him before, least of all for his anger management skills. For some reason, after that day, though he still gave the other teachers trouble, he became my little pal. When one teacher had had enough of him, she would send him to me, and everybody was happier for it. At the same time, when he did something that made him proud, he would come bursting in from the classroom next door to show me his work.
So it made sense, at least in our little relationship, that the day Derek found a worm on the sidewalk he would bring it to me. Here was this child, who was known as a little bully and whose own mother had introduced him as being trouble, gently cradling a very unhealthy-looking worm in the palm of his hand. He was worried about this tiny life, which, he had correctly diagnosed, did not have much life left in it. He was looking to me for help. Together we walked over to a muddy, grassy patch, away from the eyes of any hungry birds, and offered his sickly earthworm back to the ground. There, I told Derek, repeating words my mother had told me when as a child I dragged in various bugs and worms, it would be able to find its way back to its family. There, it would find a warm, moist, worm paradise. Derek was happy; he had saved a life.
Derek, of course, is a grown man now. He may even have children of his own. He has probably forgotten the playground worm along with many other childhood things, but I hope the feeling of his own hands as gentle cradles for the weakest of creatures remains in his muscle memory. In the end, it matters much less that he learned how to control himself when faced with someone bigger and more powerful than he was; it matters more that he (and we) learns how to handle the fragile and weak lives that fall into our hands.
A worm is a truly lowly thing; dying in the hands of a three-year-old boy, it could even be said to be pathetic. The Psalmist uses the image of a worm to express the same pathos, “But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people.” (Psalm 22:6, RSV) Jesus quotes this Psalm from the Cross, the ancients used it as a prayer for the dying. Job’s interlocutor, Bildad, makes a similar assessment, comparing the might of God to the lowliness of humanity, he claims: How then can man be righteous before God? . . . how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” (Job 25:4a, 6 RSV)
Job’s response to Bildad is refreshing; telling the worm he is a worm doesn’t help him at all. What good is one worm’s pity of another? But both Job and the Psalmist speak of a redeemer, a resurrection that goes beyond what either writer could have known. The worm is held in the hands of one who, though he has strength, has gentled his grasp for the sake of the fragile nature of the one he holds.
If we are to be like our Lord, we will not be defined by the power in our hands, but by how gently we tame our power to hold the fragile and tiny lives that he places in our care. It is not our perception of the pathetic worm that matters. How we steward its weakness is what defines us.