I’m the sort of person who stares at lichen. I love its patterns, colors; the way it clings to cold, mossy boulders, craggy tree bark, and smooth, algae-painted fence rails. And I love how every now and again, it takes a walk.
Of course, lichen doesn’t walk, but it can travel with a bit of help.
Twice in my life, I’ve come across a larva of the Green Lacewing. The first time, I was bent over a rock face looking at clusters of lichen when suddenly a tiny piece moved. I gasped, pulled back, then wrinkled my brow and leaned in closer. A mere pinch of the pale, crinkly green was waddling along the stone’s surface, clearly hindered by uneven terrain, lots of very short legs, and mostly, by the load on its back.
Despite their small stature, Lacewing larvae are ferocious beasts. Sometimes called Aphid Lions, they are ruled by their appetite and not too picky about how they satisfy it. Besides aphids, they’ll eat caterpillars, thrips, white flies, spider mites, insect eggs, and the list goes on.
They are not . . . attractive. But to be fair, most insect larvae are not pretty; cute maybe — in their own way. These larvae are covered in a hard, brown armadillo-like shell and shaped like deflated, bumpy footballs. Their mouth parts resemble the business end of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Once you learn the load on their backs is not just lichen but the carcasses of creatures they’ve sucked the life from by draining and slurping their bodily fluids, the image of death’s deliveryman makes sense. Underneath this load of cadavers and debris, they hide their true selves from predators.
It’s hard to believe they grow up to be lovely, ethereal creatures, appearing as if they may have arrived fresh from some other galaxy. They change from a scuttling blob of waste-covered, brown, hard shell to an almost unreal beauty; from angel of death to angel of light. With dragonfly shaped bodies and wings laced with veins and cross-veins in patterns that must have taken some thought they shine, iridescent, in lime green. Their heads are crowned in yellow, and their large eyes are a dark, rich bronze.
Lacewings are slow, dreamy fliers; acrobats who sometimes lift off with a backflip. They are fae in flight, just a wee bit enchanted.
The eggs they lay, tiny, white pearls attached to a thread of hardened mucus, dangle from leaves or tree bark. An easy and enjoyable way to spot their eggs, is to relax in a hammock and scan the branches and leaves overhead.
I love the adults but must admit, I relate more easily to those shuffling larvae. I too drag death around on my shoulders, things that weigh heavy, things I can’t forget. You know the ones. They fall over you like a wave out of nowhere then settle in your gut.
Words: The ones you wish you’d never said. You ache to reach through time and yank them back. The ones you wish you hadn’t failed to say – “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Will you forgive me?”. The words that were lies that have somehow remained; the real story never revealed, always distorting a friendship, your standing at work or church, a spousal or parental relationship.
Actions: The things you regret doing, the ones you did for pride, vengeance, or fear’s sake. The things you regret not doing, the ones you were too afraid to do, too vain to risk failure; the opportunities to serve and welcome that you left lay.
The words and actions of others pile up as well. We can be wronged and still feel shame even though we aren’t the guilty ones. Maybe we’ve been abused or neglected. Maybe rejected even though we’ve been faithful and kind. Those things, when we remember them, make our faces burn with the humiliation that should belong to another.
We carry dead weight just like those little larvae. Thinking of this reminded me of Isaiah 46, the false gods of Babylon are being hauled away on ox carts. The prophet says they are bowed down as they are lowered to the ground — too heavy for the people to bear. Too heavy for the oxen to bear. They cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect their homemade gods. He says both the gods and the people are brought low by the weight of the lifeless statues.
Verses 6 and 7: “Some people pour out their silver and gold and hire a craftsman to make a god from it. Then they bow down and worship it! They carry it around on their shoulders, and when they set it down, it stays there. It can’t even move! And when someone prays to it, there is no answer. It can’t rescue anyone from trouble.”
In Christian-think, an idol is anything we hold above God, anything we make more important. Past sins, the ones we’ve committed and the ones done toward us, may not seem like idols on the surface. But if we’re honest, we often think about them more than we think of God. We allow them power over us; control. And if we say we trust Christ and his work on the cross yet continue to scoop up our sin-debris and place it on our own shoulders, then we aren’t trusting at all. We’re either believing God is weak and can’t bear sin’s weight, or that we are strong and must deal with it ourselves.
When ancient people carved stone or wood into a “god” they were only making burdens for themselves. That’s all an idol is — a heavy, oppressive burden. We must fashion it, bear the weight of it. We move it where we want it to go; it cannot move itself. We put it on its high place and take responsibility. An idol cannot leave us alone of its own accord, it has no will. It cannot set us free from itself.
The bible says, I was dead in my sin but now am alive in Christ, that my sins are removed from me as far as east from west; that I am not condemned. So why shuffle and scuffle and waddle under the weight of if-onlys. If only I had done better. If only I could have been braver, smarter, kinder, wiser. It never ends. Notice all the “I” statements. I keep believing in me, but I can’t rescue me from trouble. I can carve up my past in so many different ways, replay things, drag them here, drag them there, but still, I drag. I carry. I can’t erase or redeem anything. Perhaps, it isn’t the stuff on my back that I worship. Maybe, after all, it’s me.
But I can learn and change. Growth is key for us and for the Lacewing larva. Overtime, the smallness of the creature becomes larger, the body expands until it sheds its flesh as well as the load on its back. It doesn’t get away with doing this just once. There will be many periods of growth as well as periods of piling on, of hauling around a collection of all the harm it has wrought on others and perhaps some wounds inflicted to itself in the fight.
But, there will be a last molt. The old, not-so-pretty skin will fall away one final time and a winged creature of light will emerge. And it will dazzle.
Life in a corrupted world is like this. We lug the wreckage of our existence. We drag it everywhere we go. We hide our true selves underneath it, the selves that live blameless in Christ. Just like the larva, we want to be protected, to feel safe from those we fear might hurt us, whether they be people or Almighty God. We think if God or our friend can see what we really are, they won’t be able to love us.
But I am reminded again of how this started — with my lichen fascination.
Lichen is not dead. It’s alive and lives in death’s company on the back of the Lacewing larva. It even grows there. When the death cloak falls away, wherever it lands, the lichen will eventually overtake it, so whomever passes by, when they see it, will only see life. This observer will have no idea this bright, living organism covers over a multitude of death.
This is the fate of those who put their trust in Christ. He clings to us, holding on when we struggle over rough paths in a world full of loss and rubbish. His life, our eternal life, is always with us, and one day, all that we have carried will lift. It will be left behind with our old self. We’ll be new, made completely lovely by the persistence and patience of Jesus to never let us go.