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Photos of furry creatures … videos of cute animal antics … stories and movies of animal adventures. These are popular because they evoke feelings of wonder, memories of beloved pets, the joy and excitement of wildlife sightings, the sensory experience of a trip to the farm.
Have you ever noticed how many book covers feature pictures of animals? Evidently, animal pictures on covers help sell books. We have a few books with animals on the covers, ourselves. I looked inside each of these books today for some clues as to why animals trigger such heart responses in us. Here is what I found:
1. Animals are our fellow creatures, loved by the Creator.
In God’s Creatures: A Biblical View of Animals, Susan Bulanda explains that God cares for his earthly creatures. He created them, blessed them, called them “good.” He saved the animals from the Flood, and he included “every living creature” in the covenant he made with us after the flood (see Genesis 9:9-17). Bulanda goes on to show that many Scriptures display God’s care for animals. Old Testament laws protected animals. Jesus’ parables affirmed and spotlighted them. Then, Bulanda asks:
“Is it possible that God has put the desire to care for all animals in the hearts of many people … God’s love for his creation showing through humans?”
“Could there be subtle lessons of love God gives us through our pets?”
2. Animals can provide companionship, inspiration, and comfort.
In Walking In Trust : Lessons Learned with my Blind Dog, Gayle M. Irwin describes an afternoon of companionship with her dog:
“Snow falls in large flakes outside my door this afternoon and a warm Sunday fire blazes in the wood stove inside the house. Sage has found a way to wedge herself into the over-stuffed chair. At first she lies quietly stretched out beside me. Then, as if she has an itch, she suddenly rises, turns herself around and lays her head on my chest. I pause from my reading to softly stroke her black and white fur. She sighs deeply and tries to snuggle closer. I pet her long muzzle and then scratch behind her ears, a favorite spot of hers. As I minister these gentle strokes, I tell her what a wonderful, loving dog she is. Sage closes her eyes, relishing the experience. I, too, bask in the tender moment. My hand rests lightly on her shoulder and we sit like this for hours—protected from the frigid cold outside—in comfortable, companionable silence inside our cozy house.” … “I learned more from Sage than she did from me: lessons about trust, courage, loyalty, contentment, and perseverance.” … “Sage’s visits and her life story encouraged many children to persevere in spite of the hardships and challenges they face. Through the life of a blind Springer Spaniel, I have learned more fully what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.” (p. 145 and 9)
3. Animals teach us about the Creator and how to relate to him.
In All We Like Sheep: Lessons from the Sheepfold, shepherdess Marilyn Bay Wentz writes:
“I continued cutting out the weeds, but the burdensome task was balanced with the delight I felt watching my flock. I knew the serenity of the scene could be broken at any time. Movement as mundane as a startled Cottontail rabbit jumping from behind a bush to hop across the pasture could send the flock running for the protection of the pen. … In that moment, the joy of the Lord, expressed by the psalmist when he said ‘We are his people, the sheep of his pasture,’ made perfect sense to me. God compares his delight in me and you to a flock of peacefully-grazing sheep. He could have compared his delight to another animal in his creation. Why not say we are his people, the horses of his stable? Horses (which I am partial to) are beautiful, strong and fast. Surely, the Lord delights in seeing the horses he created. Or, why not compare his delight in us to that of seeing a lion? Male or female, a lion is a powerful and awe-inspiring animal. Or, surely the Lord is delighted to see the soaring eagles he created. They are simultaneously fierce and beautiful. They can soar high and dive powerfully. Their outstretched wings are a wonder to behold. But, he says I am as pleasing to him as the sheep of his pasture. To please him we don’t need to be fast and athletic like a horse, powerful like a lion, or beautiful and awe-inspiring like an eagle. What pleases him is when we, like the skittish sheep, run to him for everything we need, trusting his sufficiency to supply all our needs.” (pp. 156-157)
4. Animals provide metaphors of our lives.
In his allegorical fiction, The Dangerous Journey of Sherman the Sheep, Dean Davis describes the Shepherd taking his flock to the “high country”:
“Their destination was a lonely valley deep in the hills and an ancient sheepfold with four high walls of stone. This became their home away from home, the place where all their journeys began and ended. Early in the year, when grass was plentiful, their travels were short, hardly more than outings. At dawn the Shepherd would open the gate of the fold, whistle for the sheep, and lead His flock to a nearby meadow with a pool of fresh spring water to drink. Then at dusk they would all return to the safety of the fold’s strong walls. But as spring gave way to summer, and summer to fall, the journeys grew longer and more difficult. They’d be gone for many days, camping beneath the stars or in caves. The meadows grew fewer and the water more scarce—and to find these, the flock had often to follow their Shepherd through dark, narrow canyons, where wolves or lions might be lurking in the shadows. … Yes, this was the dangerous time of year, a time when sheep could get hungry, thirsty, or even hurt. Needless to say, the Shepherd took such dangers very seriously. But as for the sheep, they simply trusted in their Master’s care. They knew that sooner or later He would give them rest, just as He always had. (And as for Sherman—well, for him danger was just another word for adventure; and adventure was the one thing Sherman loved best)!” (pp. 8-10)
5. Animals represent elements of Mystery.
In Gadly Plain: A Novel, J. Michael Dew uses the literary device of a talking donkey who has lived since the Garden of Eden. This donkey represents the victory of life over death, of God’s overarching purpose in human history. This same donkey had gone up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac, had talked to the prophet Balaam, joined the other animals in Noah’s Ark, carried Mary to Bethlehem and witnessed the birth of Jesus. Toward the end of the book, the donkey, who is named Amen, is on the Isle of Patmos with John the Apostle. Amen and John share this conversation:
“Amen,” John says one day. “I have a story to share, a new one as fresh as a spring blossom.”
“My ears, friend, are big,” says Amen.
“I have seen the end and the beginning, the omega and the alpha. I have written it on a scroll. There is something you should hear.”
Amen swallows what he has in his mouth.
Then John goes on, “He showed me. His voice was like the sound of rushing water. The end is terrible and good. The fibber will have his due.”
“I don’t like the fibber,” says Amen. “He is the enemy of hope.”
John says, “It will be a great and awful reckoning.”
“When?” asks Amen.
John just smiles. “Amen, you have been faithful.”
“I have tried to be led well.”
“It is better to be led than pushed,” says John. “You will be led some more, good donkey.” And John laughs so hard, he cries and tries to catch his breath.
Amen just takes another bite and swishes his tail to swish away a fly.
Finally, John scratches Amen behind the ears. “Amen, do you know why, of all the other animals, you were given the ability to speak to man?”
Amen says no.
“I’ll tell you,” says John. “As a donkey, you are well-suited to carry heavy loads. The load you carry now is a story: words strung together since the beginning, invisible cargo on the back of a humble beast. I have seen the end of this story. I have only seen glimpses of the next.”
“I am a storyteller?” asks Amen.
“Yes, and a guardian, too.”
Amen shakes his head hard at that.
“How am I well suited to be a guardian?”
“You are stubborn. You won’t forget. You won’t give in to time. You haven’t yet.”
Amen thinks about that for a minute, and then he asks, “But to whom? I have learned a lot about man. He can be a cruel master. There were times when I kept my words to myself. Some men only hear their own stories. And worse, some men only hear lies. I know a story that can free them from their torments. Who can hear it, though, with the fibber taking them for long walks in the desert?”
John rubs Amen’s withers, and it feels good. “Yes, yes,” he starts gently. “The fibber is persistent. But what is his persistence next to the truth you carry?”
“I know the strength of his tug.”
“You have also felt his release, unwilling though it was.”
“Yes, and praise.”
Amen he-haws, because whatever he thinks to say, it doesn’t work.
“My brothers and I aren’t the only ones charged with relaying the good news.”
“I am a donkey. I talk. You say it is to tell a story—one I’ve lived, one I carry.”
“Yes,” says John. “You have been entrusted.”
“Please tell me then: Who will listen?”
“Those who can.”
“Those who can?”
“Those who wouldn’t think it that strange or that impossible to hear a donkey speak.”
(adapted from pp. 171-173)
Carol O’Casey was born to be wild. As a field biologist, pastor’s wife, and author she says:
As soon as I could walk I toddled outdoors to watch tadpoles knit themselves into frogs and clouds quilt the skies. I was at home in nature. Connecting it all to God would come later. Much later.
Those childhood years as an amateur naturalist fueled my passion for nature and led me to pursue a degree in marine biology. Yet, somewhere in the middle of a hardcore science education, I met a man studying to be a pastor. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Suddenly my world of science collided with the world of religion. Little did I know I would soon become a biologist and a pastor’s wife.
While God doesn’t promise us a life of comfort, he does promise to walk beside us. So I navigated the road of the ministry, rough edges and all. Along the way, God provided rich rest stops that soothed my soul. I found hope in his gift of nature as I escaped the expectations of ministry and took a walk on the wild side. Whether exploring field or forest, marsh or meadow, or the edge of the sea, in the natural world I was transformed. There, in the solitude of nature I experienced God’s presence.
What about you? Are you burdened with expectations? Do you feel drained from the demands of the day? God’s creation has the power to restore wonder. And wonder connects us with the divine.
Renowned agricultural researcher George Washington Carver experienced awe in his encounters with the natural world and exclaimed,
“I love to think of nature as unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour and every moment of our lives, if we will only tune in…”
In a society obsessed with speed, we must slow down, tune in. How often during an average day do you tune in—or tune out? What daily distractions can scramble your signal?
Perhaps Moses, the ancient futurist, could be considered the pioneer of tuning in to the God frequency. Moses was a murder convict on the lam, wandering in the wilderness, when he stumbled upon wonder. He could have missed the whole shebang. I’m thankful he didn’t. Consider Moses’s journey en route to wonder:
Moses sees: To avoid murder charges and Pharaoh’s pursuit, Moses escapes to the wilderness. While tending the sheep on the far side of the desert (read: the middle of nowhere) Moses sees a sight that piques his curiosity: “Moses saw that though the bush was on fire, it did not burn up” (Exodus 3:2).
Moses slows: Moses moves into step two of his journey to wonder as he intentionally veers off course and investigates. In our frantic, time-starved lives, we often fail to notice what we are seeing. Not Moses. Moses, in the act of holy wondering, pursues this sight of wonder. This burning bush intrigues him and he desires to know more.
Granted, this is probably easy for him to do. After all, what else do you do in a desert in the days before Kindle, Internet, cell phones—conveniences that, while helpful on one front, distract us from the wonder of nature on the other. Moses entertains himself with the world around him—in this case, a burning bush that does not stop. I guess he had become tired of counting sheep (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Moses connects: Because Moses slows to see, he experiences step three on the journey to wonder: Moses connects in a conversation with the God of the universe. “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look…” (Exodus 3:4). Whoa. Let’s just park there for a minute. Did you catch that? God was watching him the whole time!
God was watching and waiting to see what Moses would do with this wonder created to catch his attention. Imagine God, in eager anticipation, peering out from behind the curtain of his magnificence, waiting to see how Moses would respond. Would Moses look? Would he divert his attention from his everyday duties to notice this amazing sight sparked into existence especially for him? He did.
What happens next dazzles the mind. God calls to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And so begins a personal conversation with the Creator of the universe. How amazing. While Moses leads the sheep through a wasteland of wilderness, dutifully engaged in the ho-hum routine of life, the Creator of the cosmos calls to him. God calls to Moses the murderer, Moses the runaway, Moses the coward hiding in the desert.
Let’s be real. There is no hiding from God. When God wants us, he finds us. His presence goes before us, wherever we go. His presence waits for our attention.
Notice how Moses responds to God: “Here I am.” Three simple words. Honest. Concise. To the point. Through wonder, the burning bush is seared into Moses’s mind; God gets his attention and Moses is ready to listen. No excuses (those come later). Perhaps Moses is stunned speechless. I know I would be. What would be your response to such a call?
“Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). As a “wonderologist” (one who studies the wonders of nature), I delight in the details of creation. From the bumblebee that manages to fly on wings that appear too small for its ungainly body; to the dragonfly that rises from its waterlogged larval form and morphs to a powerful airborne adult; to the barnacle that literally stands on its head and snatches its meals with its legs, God entertains and delights us with the endless wonders he has created.
Now I confess, I’ve never seen a burning bush; but then, I’m no Moses. I’m a regular old child of God hiking through creation for a glimpse of the Master. Mind you, nature doesn’t solve my problems, but it does reset my “worry-ometer.” When I explore his wonders, I worry less. Care to join me? You don’t need a degree in science or a month in the rain forest to find wonder. All you need is a willing heart and a few minutes of time to intentionally see, slow, and connect with God and creation.
from the Introduction to the book, Unwrapping Wonder: Finding Hope in the Gift of Nature
Are you delighting in, and pondering, the wonders around you?
“For the Lord searches all hearts and minds, and understands all the wanderings of the thoughts. If you seek him … you will find him” (1 Chronicles 28:9, AMP).
My husband and I have a bee hive in our backyard, and I have planted many nectar-producing flowers for the bees. We also grow vegetable and berry gardens. Since we welcomed bees into our gardens; the flowers, berries, and herbs have flourished noticeably more. I’m sure the salvia flower stalks and peppermint blossoms bloom longer than they used to before so many bees were relishing closeness with them. The flowers seem to respond and love the bees as much as the bees delight in the flowers and the nectar they produce. Of course we, also, enjoy seeing the well-being of our gardens and eating the honey that results!
Similarly, I believe our relational God longs to commune with us, to create well-being within us, and to influence the course of the future together with us, as we pray.
Our view of God and his providence affects how we pray. If the future is open to God, our prayers and petitions to him can also be open and answered by him in more possible and creative ways than we can begin to imagine. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord asserts that God has given creatures genuine free will to make choices and to respond to him in ways that affect the future. For that reason, though the future is not pre-determined and known conclusively by God, “the future is full of possibilities, and, being omniscient, God knows them all.” We can live and pray in hope and expectancy. The believer’s life of prayer can be a life of adventure.
This prayer relationship with God reminds me of the relationship I observe in my garden between the flowers and the bees. Deep calls to deep as God calls us to intimate prayer and contemplation with him. As we respond and allow him access, he searches our inner being and comes to know us more and more thoroughly. I believe that to be known by God is to be transformed.
If God is Spirit and omnipresent in every moment of time—all the time everywhere—we can and should pray in the spirit everywhere and all the time.
Because “God lovingly invites creatures and creation to cooperate to enact a future in which well-being is established in surprising and positive ways,” we can and should cooperate with him in faith: praying, trusting, and working toward goodness and his will and kingdom to come. We can be looking for shalom to blossom and grow.
If God’s essence is uncontrolling love, we can and should pray uncontrolling, loving prayers. According to scripture, God actually shares his nature with us. If this nature is essentially kenotic, “self-giving, others-empowering love,” we can pray self-giving, others-empowering prayers.
God is far beyond the comfortable boundaries we have set for him in the past. It’s overwhelming and unsettling at first to consider this, but God is so much bigger than we have believed. How can he also be personal, hearing our prayers, far bigger and far closer than we have imagined? God’s essential being is love and he relates to each of us intimately.
Our open and relational God is calling us to:
- Praise him.
- Confess to him our lack of faith, trust, hope, and loving action.
- Give thanks to him for enlarging our hearts and vision.
- Bring supplications to him, interceding on behalf of the people and places we see that are far from the well-being of shalom.
- Listen to and commune with him. Receive and respond.
- Be prayerful in the spirit always.
- Say “yes” to what he is calling forth in and through us.
As we watch and pray that God will call forth cooperation from—and give shalom to—his people and all of creation, the prayers of a righteous person avail much! We are co-creators of the future with him! He delights in this.
It is much like the bees that seem to draw out more blooms and fruit from my garden. Through prayer we can work with God to see his kingdom grow. Each one who truly cooperates in prayer and action with the Spirit of God increases his kingdom, his will, his working for good and overcoming evil in this world.
“We know the whole creation has been groaning,” kind of like a garden longing to open its petals to sunshine and bees. Perhaps the world is waiting for us to respond to our almighty and ever-present God in open, obedient, watching-for-possibilities prayer. Perhaps the more people respond positively to him, the more grace is available, like a well-pollinated garden. We have been too passive-aggressive, lazily saying “But God is in control,” on one hand, while on the other hand complaining and becoming angry at the way the world is going. God calls us to be active in faith and prayer and love toward him and toward his needy world. I don’t think it’s irreverent to say he hovers over us like a buzzing bee seeking access to our hearts, waiting for them to open their closed petals to him, to give of the nectar of our lives to increase goodness and to sweeten the future.
If it were true that God sees one set future, determined since before time began, we would have a big God. But the open view of God describes a far bigger God! He sees every possibility. He sees how our ongoing, potential actions and choices in every instance may cause repercussions that affect those around us.
Note: I wrote this piece because I believe in prayer and I wanted to engage with Thomas Jay Oord’s teaching after reading his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God (NavPress, 2015). This entire post first appeared at http://uncontrollinglove.com (and later at http://thomasjayoord.com ). I agree with some, but not all, opinions and philosophies expressed by the writers there, but I’m thankful to have an opportunity to participate in the conversation.
When I visited author Marilyn Wentz on her farm, I saw these sheep in a pen. The scene struck me as humorous, as if the one sheep in the foreground was holding a meeting of the flock. She seemed to have their attention. And a discussion seemed to ensue. Many of Marilyn’s (and her mother Millie’s) sheep have names. In All We Like Sheep the two shepherds tell stories of lambs and ewes named Carla, Charlene, Foxy Lady, Scotch, Squirt, Pumpkin, Spring, Teddy Bear, Gomer, Pibb, and Blue.