We take this break from our regular Ordinary Time programming for me to introduce you to the newest member of my family: Shemmy Kenja-Penja Pullar. Shemmy is a betta fish – also known as a Siamese fighting fish – purchased for the fourth birthday of my highly inquisitive, nature-and-ocean-loving eldest son.
If you read my poem from earlier in the week, you’d know that the process of preparing for Shemmy’s arrival in our lives was a little like preparing for a baby, mostly because you learn about all the things that you need to buy to keep them alive and because, when it’s your first, you have no idea what is true and what is sales pitch. In fact, having had no success in the past at keeping pets alive, I’d say I have a much better track record with human babies than animals. I was only a small boy, about my son’s age, when our beloved family cat died, and we never had a pet after that. In fact, a childhood fear of dogs and limited exposure to animals made me think for much of my life that I didn’t like animals. Not at all, I’m learning. I love animals. I just haven’t ever learnt much about how to interact well with them.
And as a result there’s much that I’ve missed out on learning from them. I first realised that we could learn a thing or two from animals when, during a particularly anxious time in my life, I stayed with my sister and her family and was struck by the simplicity of their dog’s complete trust in us and in the world around her. The Bible uses the animal world to remind us of God’s faithfulness to all His creatures, and this is wonderfully captured by Mary Oliver who, though not a Christian in any conventional sense, is an extraordinarily devotional poet in her own way:
...if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead–
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging–
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted–
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning… (From “Morning Prayer”, 1986)
Of course, the earth is not exactly as we want it – not now. We’ve done a very good job of be ensuring that it isn’t through violence, apathy and greed. As God’s image bearers, it’s right that we hunger for our world to be what it was made up be, and right that we should grieve what we’ve done to it and to each other. But there’s a powerful reminder when we see a scarlet fish waving through the water that it takes completely for granted – a reminder that this earth is a gift to us from one who knows perfectly what we need and feeds all creatures, including is, “in due season”.
The seasons are undoubtedly out of kilter. Many do not receive what they need, and much in our world is falling apart. God is not. I do not know how to keep my fish alive or my children happy; God does. And though He lets us experience the out-of-kilterness of things as the natural outcome of the choices our species has made, He does not abandon us. Like my wife when she gently calls our new fish to slip up towards the surface and take the food she has sprinkled there, God keeps calling to us, urging us to have that same trust in His power to make everything right again.