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STILL STANDING: St. Paul’s Cathedral on Dec. 31, 1940.
Herbert Mason/Daily Mail/Getty Images
STILL STANDING: St. Paul’s Cathedral on Dec. 31, 1940.

Hand-to-hand combat

Faith & Inspiration | Moving bodily into the battle is sometimes the only way to win

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

Part of my summer’s work has been to wage war with the harlequin bug. Also known as murgantia histrionica, harlequin bugs don’t just eat crops, they suck the life out of them. So I’d find the eggplants on their sides, spray them, only to discover the Swiss chard wilting from an infestation the next day. Once I sprayed the chard, the harlequin bugs moved on to the lettuce, then the arugula, and so on. The rotation continued, as I grew increasingly discouraged and, stupidly, went through bottle after bottle of insecticidal soap and other remedies.

I have said before that every year the garden teaches me something new about life under the sun. Every growing season the vegetable patch confronts me with a different lesson, a new way I need to grow. Here’s what I’m learning from this year’s battles with the harlequin bug: Sometimes there’s nothing left but hand-to-hand combat. 

We live in a world of aerial sorties where flying at 30,000 feet is the optimum altitude for solving life’s problems—figuratively and literally. We vent frustrations on Facebook. We no longer need to leave our desks to pay our debts. We hire middlemen to manage our details. And when it comes to national security, we send drones to do our dirty work. 

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This isn’t all bad. There are things you can see at 30,000 feet that get lost at ground level. But virtual, arm’s length warfare shouldn’t be the default: Sometimes only a close eye and a ready hand will do. Sometimes it takes a willingness to get dirty, hands and all, to risk fingernails, limbs—maybe one’s life—to rout an enemy.

After months of covering combat in Syria and risking her life, Italian journalist Francesca Borri described it as “a war of the last century; it’s trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other.” Yet this spring when an editor thought she’d been kidnapped, he sent her an email asking, “Should you get a connection, could you tweet your detention?” Borri confronted hand-to-hand combat where a distant editor saw but words on a page.

In one of the last century’s wars, during the London Blitz, volunteers formed a cathedral watch. At the end of a workday they headed to St. Paul’s Cathedral to stay the night. Their job was to protect from German air raids the church, built in 1675 at the highest point in the City of London and the masterpiece of Christopher Wren. The skies fell quiet for most of the month of December 1940, but on the 29th the Luftwaffe returned—with over 200 bombers—and St. Paul’s in its sights. 

As hundreds of bombs fell, and the City of London burned as it hadn’t since the Great Fire of 1666, the men and women of the cathedral watch climbed among the joists of its ancient lead roofs, staying ahead of the firebombs with sandbags and water buckets. In all they extinguished 28 incendiary bombs that fell on the cathedral that night—saving St. Paul’s.

The only way I found finally to defeat the harlequin bug was to get on my hands and knees in the lettuce bed, face down into the green leaves to pluck the little pests by hand, one by one, sometimes feeling their tiny pincer legs and their slime run down my grimy thumb before dropping them into a bucket of hot soapy water. I had to examine each leaf, up close, and sometimes chase the little bugs with my fingers through the dirt.

In the incarnation of Jesus Christ—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14)—we have the miraculous coming of God into the mire of life. In the coming of the Holy Spirit we His followers become His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), His hands and feet. Our translation even in this life gives us freedom to move toward people, toward problems. And sometimes to get our hands dirty.


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