My inspiration: old hamsters and lame goldfish.

tiny-goldfish-wheelchair-taylor-dean-fb

Whenever we go to a pet store, we look at all the critters. Because we have owned various hamsters over the years, we spend a little extra time looking at them. Most of them are just weeks old, adorable little fur pom-poms either snoozing in their nest or tumbling about. However, there is always at least one adult hamster who is housed alone (because hamsters become increasingly territorial as they grow). This one, we know, will not be chosen by anyone. Hamsters have such short lives that no one wants to take one on if it’s not a baby. Prospective pet owners know an adult hamster is a big-eyed fluffy heartache-in-waiting. At this point in our pet store perambulation, it is inevitable that one or the other of my daughters will say “I wish we could take that one home – nobody else will, so he’s going to die here without anyone to love him”. This has always tugged at my heart strings, but I move us all along quickly rather than go any further down that path. Who wants another pet funeral?

Every year, Lent receives heavy consideration from Fiona and Bridget. They follow the common tradition of giving up something they love – candy or chocolate, usually, although one year it was watching “Spongebob Squarepants”. The purpose of going without something you want throughout Lent is to lessen the power of what tempts you – to examine its impact on your life, to learn how to deny yourself frivolous pleasures in order to focus on worthier pursuits. To that end, I try to encourage them to add things as well as giving up things – to consider what they can give to or do for others. This year, Bridget said wistfully “I wish we could adopt an old hamster – to give him a home, and treats, and love”. My first instinct was to say no again. To point out that there are so many much bigger, more important problems in the world. To ask what difference it would make. But I didn’t. Because I’m trying to be more open, to see the world through unjaded eyes. Because I have started to believe that we are all called in different directions by compassion, by love. And that if we all followed our callings, however small, the world would start to look different. Softer. Kinder. More beautiful.

Derek of San Antonio, Texas, is a believer, too. When faced with a disabled fish (the fish has a bladder disorder that keeps it from holding itself upright, meaning it was stuck at the bottom of the tank all the time), he did not shrug and say “this is stupid – it’s just a fish”. He did not say “flush it” (which, I must admit, is probably what I would have said). No, he came up with a system of airline tubing and styrofoam to help the fish swim – a sort of wheelchair for the fish. Now the fish swims all over the tank, like it was meant to do.

And now Gerry the hamster (Gerry is short for “geriatric”) has a forever home – however short forever may turn out to be for a hamster of indeterminate age. Gerry’s a lovely little thing, with a gentle disposition and an insatiable appetite for pistachios, and I’m glad we took a chance on him.

Many times over the past few years, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tide of deep sadness and desperate need relentlessly rolling in. Wave after wave of hopeless cases and terrible stories. What can we do? Communities that have been destroyed by a natural disaster or a terrorist attack need roads cleared and hospitals rebuilt and people saved and patched up and fed and sheltered – but we can only buy gas for one rescue vehicle or provide a week’s worth of meals for one family. Thousands are dying of preventable diseases, but we can only pay for treatment for a handful of patients. The earth is poisoned, scorched and overheating, but we can only turn off the lights and taps in our own home and reduce our trash by a bag every two weeks. People in our own neighbourhood don’t have enough to eat, but all we can do is toss a few cans in the bin on our way out of the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like our contribution is so small that it’s hardly worth giving, and we start to lose faith in it. Sometimes it feels like there is so much need that the little things – like elderly hamsters and wobbly goldfish – don’t even get a second look.

This may seem like a tall order, but I want to rid myself of that soul-crushing apathy, and I want everyone else to do that, too. Years ago, in Sunday School, we used to sing a little song called “Jesus Bids Us Shine”. I remember, in particular, the lines “in this world of darkness / we must shine / you in your small corner / and I in mine”. The song isn’t about banishing the darkness or saving the world. It is about giving what little we can, when we can, to improve our own little piece of the cosmic puzzle. And, whatever your position on Jesus and Sunday School, you can’t argue against that. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something – and if it alleviates the suffering of any creature, big or small, human or animal, it’s worth it. Let’s not become overwhelmed by our own smallness. Let’s push back against despair, and watch how drops of water become an ocean.

Walk by faith, wherever your faith lies.

jesus-art

I love Maclean’s magazine. I’ve been a subscriber for years. A flip through any issue yields a number of interesting, well-written pieces on a wide range of topics. Recently, an article appeared in Maclean’s called “Did Jesus really exist?” The article was centred around the work of Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar. I read it, wondering if there might be anything new on the subject. There wasn’t. Alot was said about the concepts of false memory, social memory, and the fact that tales grow in the telling. The children’s party game of telephone was mentioned to illustrate how a message can change each time it is repeated. Apparently, there are some dates that don’t line up, and there is some confusion over whether Jesus’ death warrant was signed by Pontius Pilate or King Herod. Some of the gospel accounts differ on a few details, or focus on different parts of Jesus’ life. The apostle Paul’s lack of interest in the life of Jesus is mentioned to support the idea that he never really existed. There is a possibility that some of the documents supporting Jesus’ existence were forged by zealous early Christians.

Basically, the same things people have been saying for years – and the same things people could say about many famous ancient figures. Ramses, Homer, Confucius, Plato, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Genghis Kahn, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare …. How do we really know any of them existed? If they did, how do we know they really did what we think they did? Oral memory is sketchy. Forgeries are possible. Not all historians agree on what happened and when. Shall we use this to drum them out of the annals of history, or will we keep telling stories about them? Does every detail matter? A human being is not simply a superbly designed machine. There is head – and there is heart. There is more to this life than what we can see.

We struggle to quantify and prove what is important, and we demand evidence of everything – but it’s never been so easy to forge everything. Photographic evidence isn’t even reliable anymore, thanks to technology that can seamlessly blend images and change any detail of any picture – and filters that convincingly mimic many different time periods. Statistics show that more and more of us see ourselves as secular and cynical. Yet, we live in an era in which we are increasingly walking by faith and praying for miracles – whether we know it or not. We’re a global village, and the next pandemic or terrorist attack is always just around the corner. Some very unstable people have access to weapons that could destroy us all if they ever decide to use them. Our planet is heating up and drying out. Many of us are plagued by anxiety, and feel like we’re not safe anywhere. Yet we make a daily decision to walk out the door into uncertainty. We keep making art and poetry and music and plans for the future – and babies.

Why? Because we are believers even when we don’t know what we believe in. Because we have decided to keep walking, however dark the path ahead. At the core of all of us, though it may not be acknowledged or even recognised, there is faith. Faith in science, faith in humanity, faith in ourselves, faith in love – and, for some of us, faith in Jesus. Did he exist? Does he, as Christian tradition teaches, still exist? I’m not going to try to prove anything or persuade anyone. I’m just going to give my opinion. Partly because this is a subject dear to my heart, and partly because I just love giving my two cents to everyone on everything all the time. I have chosen to believe he does exist. I feel his presence whenever I talk to him. I see his face in the faces of everyone I love. I see his hands in the kindness people show each other in times of trouble – in Mister Rogers’ oft-referenced helpers. I hear his voice urging me to push through my fear and keep going, to share what I have, to reach out to others who need a friend, to show love to people who have none for me. I use the stories of Jesus to guide me when my faith is low or I don’t know what to do. When I’m disappointed in myself, I remember that he knows me well and loves me anyway, and that his grace is freely given to me every day in the form of second, third, tenth chances – and I forgive myself because he does. Whatever does that for you, whatever gets you though the frightening, beautiful mess of being alive, hold onto it. You don’t need proof that it exists, and you don’t need experts to agree with you. People can speculate all they like on whether he’s real – he’s real to me, my faith in him compels me forward no matter what I have to walk through, and that’s enough for me. Happy Easter, whatever you believe!

When words fail ….

image

So, this week, for the first time ever, I wanted to burn my computer. I wanted to set it on fire, throw it through a window and pour myself a glass of champagne to celebrate its demise. I don’t feel this way during DST, when people whine about how they can no longer function because their clock changed by one lousy hour. I don’t feel this way on May 4, when an army of nerds wishes me the company of the Force. I don’t feel this way every November 12, when people start carping about keeping Christ in Christmas. I didn’t even feel this way when the Minion craze was in full swing – even though I severely dislike (and, worse, don’t really get) Minions and they were all over my Facebook newsfeed. No, what brought me to an all-time low in my experience of the digital world is the overwhelming wave of anti-Muslim memes and rants that I’ve seen over the past week. Horrible things have been posted. Things I wouldn’t say in a sound-proofed closet in an empty house, yet they were proclaimed for all to read. I won’t repeat them, because I can’t bring myself to give them voice. I will say, however, that it is not an exaggeration to observe that my Facebook newsfeed was oozing, dripping, spewing, hemorrhaging hate. So I did what I always do when I don’t like something – I said something. I said alot of somethings. At times, I was buoyed by the positive responses of like-minded people. Most of the time, though, I felt like I was standing alone against a swarm of ignoramuses, bullies, xenophobes, racists. Haters.

I have wanted to blog about this for days now, because this is BethBlog and I’m Beth and I blog. But I’ve been having trouble finding words. Usually, I use my own words. I love to write, and words come easy to me most of the time. Today, though, I can find no better words than those of Jesus Christ in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Today, I’m extrapolating on perfection when I add “For I was a refugee, without home, comfort, possessions, food, clothing or health …. and you opened your arms to me.” 

On love and loving ….

love image

And now for the post I meant to write on Valentine’s Day …. Not long ago, a friend of mine tossed one of those questions that makes for a fascinating discussion at me, and some of our mutual friends. “What is love?” People have been trying to define and describe love time out of mind. While I had to admit that I really don’t know what love is, attempting to answer her question gave me a better idea of what I think it is. Two quotations immediately came to mind.

“Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will.” For a while, I had forgotten the source of this line – but it came back to me just yesterday. It’s from a song by Christian folk singer Don Francisco. In the eighties, my parents had a tape by him – may even have had more than one – and this song stood out to me, even as a child. Here’s the song, with lyrics …. If you can get beyond the cheesy line about Jesus not dying for you because it was fun, you will find that the song has a deep meaning. As Christians (that is, Christ-followers), we are called to love as Jesus loved. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you”, he lived and died it. He bled it. He wrote it in the invisible but powerful ink of excruciating, dehumanizing pain, large and loud enough that we still hear the echoes more than two thousand years later. (Whether you believe that Jesus Christ was real and did what the Bible says he did, or you think it’s a myth, the beauty of the story is undeniable.)

Jesus’ version of love is doing, whether you feel it or not. This is a concept that helps me daily. No, I don’t always feel love. Sometimes, I feel nearly its opposite – even for the three people I believe I love dearly, and for whom I would take any number of bullets. Love, in hard times, becomes my choice. My choosing to respond with kindness when someone is being a jerk. My choosing to show patience when someone is leaning on my last nerve. My choosing to give hour number two of listening when I maxed out during hour number one and I’ve heard it before anyway. My choosing to sacrifice what I desire in order to help someone else, when what I’d really like to do is tell that person to go play in traffic, and sit on my ass with a glass of wine and a good book …. That, to me, is my love in action. Yes, I say all the right words, because I feel them and because I believe my family needs to hear them – but anyone can do that. It is in those rubber-meets-the-road moments, those times when the feeling of love is losing its glow – that’s when love ceases to be feelings and words, and solidifies.

The other quotation is this one: “You have had too much therapy. Or not enough. God knows how to love, Kiddo. The rest of us are only good actors.” This comes from a wonderful book I have read about a dozen times, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. When we say we love someone, and we do all the things we believe love requires, and we commit to that person for a lifetime …. We are still incapable of the perfect mercy, kindness, empathy – and endless forgiveness – of God. Because we are only human. We will say and do the wrong things – and sometimes we won’t even know what the right things are. Sometimes, our resolve to choose love will falter, and we will act in ways that are unkind, ungenerous and even cruel. If we understand that about ourselves and others, we will be more gentle with ourselves and others. We will offer forgiveness instead of resentment. And, in the absence of the bitterness that hardens us, love will be able to grow and mature.

So, I love Ryan, Fiona and Bridget – and many others – by choice. It is an act of my will to give these people the gift of my imperfect attention and service and care – and I have the best of intentions, I really do. But I will fail them again and again, because I’m so far from being God, the perfect lover. My friends and family, though they know this, return their imperfect love to me. And, somehow, it keeps the wheels turning in the vast and beautiful mill that is life ….

And then there’s the picture at the top of this post …. I went searching for images of love, and Google came up with this one (along with hundreds of others, of course).Two snowmen, so small that they would go unnoticed by most larger creatures, lumpy-headed and cock-eyed and wobbly-grinned, reaching out to each other with the gift of love …. They know, deep in their frozen little hearts, that they’re not getting out of this alive – because none of their kind does. They know that someday they’ll be nothing but a damp spot on the ground, and the little paper heart will be trampled or blown away or both. But they’re doing it anyway. And so are we.