If you had told me 25 years ago that I would one day order a package of ants in the mail, I would have laughed in disbelief.
But I did not know, 25 years ago, that there were such things as ant farms: miniature terrariums where you could observe a colony making their subterranean labyrinths. I did not know, 25 years ago, that I would have two small boys with an irrepressible love of multi-legged creatures.
How could I have known that, late one night—bundled under blankets and bulky expectations for the perfect “boy” birthday—I would click “buy now” for an online order of a space-age looking ant farm, and one small vial of harvester ants?
The ants arrived in a manila envelope, squirming in their glass tube. Upon the advice of the packet, I refrigerated the ants for a few minutes for optimal sluggishness (because they bite, you know.) The gel-filled ant farm had arrived days before, and my kids ogled as I tipped the ants into their new home.
“Why aren’t they doing anything?” asked my eldest.
“You’d also be confused if you’d been mailed in an envelope half-way across the country and then stuck in a refrigerator. Give them a minute: they’ll start wiggling soon,” I replied, wondering how we could pass the time while they thawed.
“Did you know there are ants in the Bible?” I offered. “There’s a proverb that says: consider the ways of the ant, you sluggard, and be wise.”
“What’s a sluggard?” asked my five-year-old.
“A lazybones,” I replied. “God says one good thing we can learn from watching ants is how to be good workers.”
My children shrugged, but the proverb continued to reverberate through my mind as we watched the colony. In the midst of some discouragement in my own work—discouragement that leads me inevitably to delay and distraction—I found myself watching the ants. Studying them. Considering them. Seeking wisdom.
Consider the ways of the ant: see how no one ant works alone? Each ant works shoulder to shoulder with the others, divvying up the work, doing its part. They know the meaning of community: they share life and load from birth to death, and even beyond—for when one dies, the others carry its body to the surface. Consider the ways of the ant, and learn that community achieves more than competition.
Consider the ways of the ant: see how small a speck each one carries every trip? Watching them under a magnifying glass, I see their tiny mandibles scrape almost imperceptible particles of gel. They maneuver each speck with attention and precision, and then make their way slowly back up the tunnel, carting that one tiny piece to the surface. Each morning, we marvel at how far they’ve come. When work seems tedious and pointless, consider the way of the ant: a lifetime of small, faithful choices can move an entire community deeper.
Consider the ways of the ant: see how they are tunneling through gel? Space-age nutrient gel is not a substance found in nature: ants prefer to tunnel in soil and earth. And yet, as the pamphlet points out, even though the environment is foreign, the ants will still tunnel, because it is just what they do. They will work faithfully even when circumstances are less than ideal. No matter what goop they find themselves in, they band together and get busy.
My children are counting legs and mapping tunnels and drawing pictures of tiny ant faces as they sit in front of the ant farm. But I am considering the ways of the ant, and thinking that perhaps I’m feeling stuck because I’ve forgotten the collective and communal importance of our Kingdom efforts. What we do is more important than what I do. Perhaps I need reminding that, like tiny specks of dirt gritted between teeth, our small labors—done unto Him—are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). And perhaps we all need to hear the whispered wisdom of the ants: it doesn’t matter where we land, because God has given us work to do. It’s in our nature.
And so, word by word, deed by deed, and speck by speck, I’m tunneling. The tunnels are not always straight, but that’s what happens when you’re working alongside others.
Minute by minute, it doesn’t look like much at all, but by God! Just wait ’til you see how far we’ve come in the morning.
Image credit: Christian Jiménez