As my husband and I make our backyard garden a hospitable place for creatures, pollinators, and people … I watch the bees on flowers (like in these photos I took). The bees inspire me by the goodness of their work: They seem to remind the plants to produce, and the blooms and blossoms respond by flourishing. Honeybees pollinate and gather nectar within about a two-mile radius, reminding me of the interconnectedness of nature and of us all. They risk the journey of flying out to forage, then back to the hive laden with pollen and nectar, despite the perils of nature’s predators and humans’ poisons. Thus they store up honey that will feed the hive in winter as well as the people who respectfully extract and enjoy the delicious, surplus honey.
As I watched a “bee doing good” this week, I was reminded to “be doing good” myself.* And this poem came to me:
As I awoke from sleep one morning, these words came distinctly to my mind: The long, cold stare of January.
I don’t know where those words came from. But they came clear and definite and stayed with me. I wrote that phrase in my journal, thought about it a while, looked outside at the wintry landscape, then composed the (above) poem.
I live in northern Colorado. January is our coldest month. And it is a long month, 31 days. The cold, short days and long nights can make one feel captive. It is a season when people, those who can afford it, like to travel to places like Mexico, Florida, or Spain. Other people may dream of warm beaches during January. But the weather often keeps us indoors and isolated. One can feel captive.
One can also feel captive in an uncomfortable way when people stare at them. Cold stares are especially disconcerting.
Feeling trapped, fearful, impatient with your situation can make your outlook seem hard and gray. But, truly, there is beauty in every season. Opening our hearts to “see” that beauty can turn those cold, gray eyes to a silver gaze.
Contemplatives speak of the “gaze” of the face of Christ that holds, sees deeply, and can draw out the inner radiance of one’s true self.
Recently I was reading a story that described the “silver” eyes of some Scottish Highland folk. I had never heard eye color described as silver before. Polished silver is not necessarily a cold-looking metal. A warmth seems to gleam from deep inside.
Hidden in every hard place is hope. If we look for it with eyes to see, it will eventually gleam forth; and then, rather than be captives we may become captivated by the presence of love and even joy.
Beauty, comfort, and caring community can come to us in surprising ways.
Ouyang is a Chinese friend of our author Susan Elaine Jenkins. They became acquainted while she lived and taught school in China for many years. Ouyang appears in Susan’s memoir SCANDALON: Running From Shame and Finding God’s Scandalous Love. If you read Scandalon, then you know how Ouyang helped Susan adjust to life in China and how Susan helped Ouyang better understand Christianity. Their conversations shared in the book are deep and moving and show God’s hand at work across cultures.
“Bobo the Hedgehog” relates a moving childhood experience of Ouyang during the dreary days of the Communist Revolution in China—a period of time with very little beauty, comfort, or caring community. Seemingly by accident Ouyang found all those things—beauty, comfort, and caring community—when he happened upon a rare thing, a rose garden, one of the few gardens sanctioned by the government. And inside that “secret,” gated garden was a kind old gardener who befriended Ouyang. When the old man found a hedgehog by the river, he kept it hidden and let it be Ouyang’s “pet” for a while until the risk became too great and the hedgehog was released back into the wild. But the comfort and joy a pet hedgehog brought to the boy never left him and became a part of who he is today.
The kind gardener (however clandestinely) sharing the creature with him, at a time when families were not allowed to own pets, a terrible time when starving people were eating whatever animals, including pets, they could find … is the type of experience that can give needed hope to a child in a bleak environment.
Ouyang’s childhood memory, written for him by Susan, provides a rare glimpse into what life was like in those difficult times. It also gives a glimpse into the life and character of the boy who became the man, Ouyang.
Soon after The Animals In Our Lives was published, Ouyang found this little hedgehog (pictured above with him) on a river bank. Happy, formative, hope-giving memories again flooded back to his heart and mind.
Ouyang’s story of “Bobo the Hedgehog” is one of many included in The Animals In Our Lives, that demonstrate how animals of all kinds can give us companionship, the experience of awe, and a sense of God’s presence.
Photos of furry creatures and social-media videos of cute animal antics … books and movies of animal adventures … these are popular because they evoke feelings of wonder, memories of beloved pets, joy and excitement of wildlife sightings, or perhaps sensory experiences of a trip to the farm. Here is what I believe about our relationship to animals:
• Animals are our fellow creatures, loved by the Creator.
• Animals can provide companionship, inspiration, and comfort.
• Animals can teach us about the Creator and how to relate to God.
• Animals provide metaphors of our lives that help us understand ourselves.
• Animals (especially those in the wild) represent elements of Mystery.
God cares for his earthly creatures. He created them, blessed them, called them “good.” He saved the animals from the Flood and then made a covenant with “every living creature.” Many Scriptures display God’s care for animals. Old Testament laws protected animals. Jesus’ parables affirmed and spotlighted them.
In God’s Creatures: A Biblical View of Animals, Susan 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?” Later, she adds: “Could there be subtle lessons of love God gives us through our pets?”
I think you will recognize these reciprocal lessons of love—some subtle and some not so subtle—in the stories, poems, anecdotes, and reflections included in this volume.
Sometimes animals are mirrors for us to see ourselves more clearly. I have found my dog to be a barometer of my emotions. His responses tell me when I am getting anxious or when my words sound too harsh; he responds much differently when my tone of voice is sweet and cheerful. It makes me feel bad to see him put his ears back and watch me with a worried expression. It makes me feel good to see him wag his tail and smile at me.
Animals, both wild and domestic, also help us by calling forth our sense of awe. As Thomas Berry has said, we need all of creation, including the animals “to evoke a world of mystery, to evoke the sacred.”
I continually wonder at the wilds of nature that can thrive alongside, often in spite of and struggling to adjust in the midst of, the civilized, tamed, domestic world. When a bird comes close and sings, when a deer steps out of the forest; these surprise sightings thrill. Finding myself sharing space with a wild creature, aware of each other, watching each other even for a moment, is a reminder of not only how different we are, but of what we have in common. Both the animal kind and my kind have breath. We communicate with body language and voice. We walk, run, choose mates, nurture families, search for food, seek shelter. And when we share moments of awareness and attention, the resulting experiential knowledge surely changes or affects us both in some way (hopefully not making us more fearful of each other), perhaps increasing our appreciation of our common creation.
We also share our lives with pets and, sometimes, farm animals. Our human friends learn to accept our animals as “part of the deal.” In a deeper application, the slogan often seen on kitchen towels or plaques, “Love me, love my dog” could, I think, be re-phrased “Love God, love God’s creatures.” Theologians have said as much, and more.
Celtic saint Columbanus exhorted, “Understand, if you want to know the Creator, created things.”
Orthodox scholar Maximus the Confessor taught the idea that creation (as well as Scripture) is God’s book. “God is ‘encoded’ for us in everything he has made. We are surrounded on every side by his ‘letters,’ his ‘analogies’ in creatures….” Our part is to care for, as well as give attention and respect to, the creatures, and even to praise God on their behalf.
Protestant evangelical theologian (and bird watcher) John Stott wrote, “God has given to human beings a midway position between himself and the animals. … In consequence, we combine the dependence on God that is common to all his creatures with a responsible dominion over the [animals] that is unique.”
Catholic writer Charles Camosy adds, “Nearly all theologians now agree that the biblical dominion God has given human beings over creation is not a license to use and dominate, but rather a command to be caretakers and stewards.”
I am thankful for all the dogs, cats, fish, chickens, ducks, birds, as well as the rabbits, squirrels, and deer that have been part of my life at different stages. I have cared for them, learned from them, and shared life with them. Many times when I or my family were facing challenging times, our hearts and spirits were lightened because the animals were there.
God, of course, is always there, everywhere, ever present to us; but God, who is spirit, does not have a corporeal body with skin, hands, and feet. Animals (as well as people) help God help us feel our loving, relational God’s presence.
With all this in mind, I enjoyed compiling, editing (and writing a number of) these often-funny, sometimes sad, and always awe-inspiring experiences with animals. I hope our readers enjoy these stories, too. You may find yourself laughing, crying, and appreciating more than ever God’s creatures, the animals in our lives.
This essay/post is extracted from the Introduction to the book, The Animals In Our Lives: Stories of Companionship and Awe. The book contains delightful accounts of people with their dogs, cats, sheep, horses, backyard birds, woodland deer, and many other creatures. Our animals—pets, farm animals, and wildlife—inspire our awe, entertain us, help us, teach us, play with us, mourn with us, even work with us. Any animal lover will enjoy this very readable book.
I have found that spiritual, emotional, and physical healing can begin even in times that are darkened, cold, alone, silent … when I still my heart and contemplate the “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). One of the sweetest treasures of darkness is the realization that we are not alone. This realization encouraged me anew this winter as I contemplated that nature also experiences the waiting that has become more acute for us during a pandemic winter.
In much of the Northern Hemisphere, at least, we have been waiting for lighter, warmer days of nature’s renewal. And during these days of Lent we also recall, again, Jesus’ crucified body waiting in a dark, cold cave of death. When Jesus “woke up” in that cave of a tomb, did he open his eyes to darkness? Or did his open eyes, his very breath and resurrection-life energy, shine light into the darkness even before the stone rolled away? John wrote that Jesus is the light and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
We can experience moments during periods of waiting that are holy, even healing. One morning this past winter I sat in meditative prayer in a corner room of our basement. That room has two windows with below-ground-level window wells. During the summer, toads and tiger salamanders dwell in the window wells. My grandchildren like to look for them. During winter, these denizens of the deeps dig into the earth and wait in darkness, finally emerging again in late spring. On that cold, sequestered pandemic morning I was thinking about these creatures—and my own sense of waiting—when this poem came to me:
There is no heartbeat
in a seed
Yet life waits
in that brittle encasement
as surely as in the stilled
breathing and slowed
beating heart of
toads and salamanders
in winter deeps and
sleeping bears in caves
Waiting, waiting, we wait
in lengthened nights and
chilled soil and cloistered suns
for warmer, lighter, moister days
From on high—and pulsing
in the depths—we hear
“Wait… Wait… Be still…”
I did, I am, I will.”
(This post was first published at GodSpace on 3-27-21.)
We have never experienced a Christmas like this one. No children’s programs at church, school, or community. No concerts to attend. Not much “window shopping.” No caroling door-to-door, no dinner parties, few gatherings or family reunions. I do think I see more people putting lights on their houses and trees outside.
In this season, as during this whole pandemic year, my husband and I have found great comfort in nature, even right in our backyard, especially the many birds that visit our feeders, birdbath, and trees and shrubs.
On a more normal Christmas a few years ago, our young grandchildren came to visit. We enjoyed playing in the snow and other activities, such as making pine cone suet feeders for the birds. Later I wrote these verses (below) and even illustrated them in a little Advent / Christmas book for the grandchildren. Two years ago I published this story-in-verse, entitled Something Is Coming To Our World.
These verses tell something of my own hopeful vision for the world, how our loving God is present to all creation, and has come into our world in the form of Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, whose coming again we await with anticipation, and with whom we can now be “partners,” co-laborers, caring for creation and loving people. (May God’s reign soon fully come!)
• • • • •
What Is Coming To Our World? (How a Backyard Bird Sees Christmas)
Seasons have passed of warm, wiggly worms,
bountiful gardens and bright wildflowers,
plentiful insects on leaf and wing,
sun traveling high across the sky,
and all good things that make us sing.
The days grow shorter. The air grows colder.
We search now for meals and warm roost.
When the hawk and fox come hunting,
I will quickly hide in a bush.
The chill in the air tells me high on the peaks
snowflakes are drifting in piles white and deep;
soon, in this place that’s home to me
frost will sparkle and snow will fall.
Creator God, who gives sunshine and seeds,
berries and water, spring, summer, fall—
surely wants us to thrive all year long!
Bells are ringing. I hear singing.
Good aromas are increasing.
What should we anticipate?
What story does the music relate?
When the people open their doors,
I smell something warm, spicy and sweet,
and the seeds they bring us are nice.
Nippier days turn their noses pink,
but something good is coming, I think.
Anticipation fills the air.
Nights are cold, but lights are bright
and they twinkle everywhere.
It looks like stars are coming down
on trees and houses from the air.
It looks to me—all around—
like Heaven’s surely coming down!
Children come bounding out in the snow,
all rosy and bundled for winter play.
They gather greenery, seedpods, and cones—
much like we do sometimes in spring.
I wonder what they’re going to make?
A blue-eyed girl and boy look my way.
I start to fly; then I hear the girl say,
‘Hello, little bird. Here’s a present for you.
Do you know that tomorrow is Christmas Day?’
The boy says, ‘Merry Christmas to you, little bird,
and happy celebrations with your friends, too.’
I like the peanut butter and seeds they’ve pressed
into the pine cones they hang in the tree.
I’ll fly to the highest branch and sing
a song of Heaven coming down,
light in the darkness, warmth in the cold,
provision and plenty, promises of old.
As seeds wait patiently within the earth,
there’s hope for us all—even little birds.
All feathered friends, all four-legged creatures,
all living things, now hear my song.
All who Creator God called ‘good’:
God cares—and comes—for all.
I will sing the song God gives me.
I will wing the flight that lifts me.
I will listen to the glorious sounds,
for Heaven’s love is all around.
“Which do you like best? The mountains or the ocean?” My sister and I would ask each other.
I could never decide. In California for much of my life, I didn’t have to choose. We had both within close distance. I could look up and see the steadfastness of the Sierras or the Coastal Range with their redwoods, pines, deer, bears, raccoons, waterfalls and trout streams that fed the valleys. I could often feel the ocean breezes and smell the salt air from tides so full of power yet knowing their limits, from waves that lapped like earth’s heartbeat.
The metaphors we claim as our own come to us from our surroundings like a fawn stepping out of the forest or beach glass glistening in the sand.
“Which season do you like best?” was another question my sister and I would discuss. Winter offered Christmas. Summer offered school-less, barefoot days, swimming and camping. Spring meant orchards in bloom, Easter, newness.
When I returned with my husband in midlife to my native state of Colorado, I found that daily life was even more determined by the seasons here, especially winter and summer. I found that Spring near the Rockies is a matter of winter and summer fighting it out until summer wins a precarious victory.
But fall remains my favorite season, a time of the year that most inspires me to write poems. As I prepare Remembering Softly: A Life In Poems, I find myself in the Autumn of my life. Christmas doesn’t bring quite the same delight and anticipation except as our grown children and our six grandchildren share the celebrations with my husband and me. Summer I love in this high country, where wildflowers bloom from spring to early fall, the scent of summer rains on prairie grasses imparts indescribable sweetness, and sunsets paint glorious colors across the wide sky.
But fall … During this season of life colors have muted a little, most storms have settled, and anticipation of change keeps one mindful that each era of life comes—and then passes. We must gather the harvest, the fruit, the beauty—as I do from my garden—and preserve it, distill it, package it to sustain us in the winter and to share with others.
When we lived near the Pacific Coast of Northern California, we enjoyed hunting for agates on the beach any time of year. Sometimes as a wave receded, we’d see the semi-precious stones tumbling in the gravelly sand. This process had polished them to translucence, often revealing mossy patterns inside, each unique and formed by the accumulated years. Other types of agates are found in the mountains and on the plains. Each of these gems uniquely encapsulates the effects of pressures and changes in the formation of our earth home. Yet, looking deep within each agate elicits a certainty that these natural processes were guided by a beautiful, loving, almighty Creator.
I think poems are like agates.
This week I had a conversation with my sister, who has also written verse. “Where does a poem come from?” we wondered aloud. Sometimes it seems to rise up from some secret place deep within. Other times a poem—or the inspiration for one—seems to come from without. Our grandfather used to say with a twinkle in his eye that he wrote poems when the “muse sat on his shoulder.” To me it seems as if help comes surely, perhaps from a literary angel. In his poem, “The Country of Déjà Vu,” Wendell Berry asserts that his poems “came through the air, I wrote them down, and sent them on” like migrating birds stopping at his feeder. Perhaps that is as good an explanation as any.
I still marvel at an experience I had in my young adult years. At home with two toddlers, my husband busy with his career, I was emotionally bound up by griefs and losses, especially the death of my mother. I hadn’t written a poem for a long time. One evening I went by myself to a poetry reading at a religious retreat center near our home. I knew no one there. The woman poet read with warmth from verses full of life and light and love. I didn’t go expecting this to happen; but, somehow, soaking in the spoken rhyme, rhythm, and sense, awakened the gift in me. For months after that evening, poems began freely coming to mind. The opening of this fountain provided one part of the healing the Lord began working in and through me, which continues today.
Admittedly, I am not a disciplined poet. I can compose meter and rhyme on demand; but mostly I wait for that elusive and mysterious inspiration. The important thing is to capture on paper the phrases, images, and insights as they come; to sit with them, savor them, polish them like agates; and if they pass the test of holding together and ringing true, to share them.
I won’t limit each poem’s meaning by trying to explain the emotions and experiences that, for me, are encapsulated in each one. As I send them out, they are free to take on new meanings as each reader looks into them. Perhaps for you a poem will speak to a quandary, a sorrow, or a joy you are experiencing at this season of your life. That is the beauty of sharing a gift of poetry.
Still fresh in my mind and heart, this experience happened over a year ago. Looking at the night sky brings it back to me. Hearing music like I heard this week does, too: a glorious bell choir playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Or a symphony … and the Nativity story, with bright stars and angels appearing, giving glory to God.
Here’s what happened. In early October, Larry and I went camping in the Rockies. I wanted to see the stars. But so many campfires and lanterns and flashlights obscured the view. Then in the night, when I had to get up and hike to a campground restroom, all was quiet, all human activity was still, all was dark … except for the sky blazing with stars. And that’s when this mystical moment came: I “heard” the stars sing! Here’s the poem I wrote about this experience:
• • • • • • • • • •
I HEAR THE STARS SING
Sleeping in a tent, we must take a walk to the ‘comfort station’ sometime in the night. At 1:30 a.m. we pull out of sleeping bags, put on our shoes, snap the dog’s leash tight.
Campfires and lanterns now out, we need no flashlight to see in the ethereal glow bathing path, tents, trailers and trees, boulders, peaks, and meadows below.
Fear of bears is forgotten as, looking up, I acquiesce to the serendipitous sight— stars sprinkling the sky, a sparkling array only dreamed of on lit suburban nights.
Like music engraved across the sky, notes—not in even scores or measures, but in splashes of compositions our eyes and ears aren’t attuned to hear or decipher.
Not with physical ears do I hear music of stars singing out from the night pavilion, graced by the moon, answered by bugling elk, crooning owls and sibilant whispering wind.
Celestial strains fill my soul with consolation, comfort, and swells of settled certainty one would expect of constellations shining in place since God sang the Heavens into being.
Surely nature sings back to God day and night, I think, as we settle back in our places— born under stars, resting under starlight and listening still to star-song cadences.
Stepping onto the garden path one early morning in August.
Since all our honeybees died last winter, my husband and I decided our beekeeping days were over. The time had come to take out the bee hives in the corner flower garden and use the extra space to add a foot path through the flowers, grasses, and greenery. During these summer months, this simple, curving garden path has become my early morning meditation/prayer walk. On cool mornings, before the heat of the day, I stand and gaze at the flower faces glistening and opening petals to morning sun, and my heart opens to Creator God, the same one who walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. It seems God is still dwelling, revealing, and walking in gardens.
This summer, on that lovely path my husband cleared and lined for me—with river-rock edging and cedar-chip paving—God has been there with me, helping me start each morning with awareness of, and fellowship with, his ever-creating, giving, empowering, caring presence.
After breakfast and coffee, and just before I step onto the path, I wait, in a moment of listening, for today’s focus of prayer. One day it was thankfulness. With each two steps I said (and meant) “Thank you” (stepping with left foot) “for family” (with right). Left always the same. Right included: new mornings, God’s mercies, colors of flowers, shades of green, people to love, a faithful dog staying close, gentle breezes giving relief from heat, hope for tomorrow.
Another day, loved ones came distinctly to mind, and I pictured them each in their places, facing their particular challenges. With each two steps I interceded for individuals in my family with a real sense of participating in God’s purposes, asking in his will, and was given the assurance that God’s heart was hearing my heart as I sought to hear his.
One morning, as the first rays of the rising sun shimmered through translucent petals, leaves glowed and dew drops sparkled, my heart lifted in praise. I felt God’s smile through the newness and beauty of life around me. With each set of left-right steps (taken slowly, savoringly) I spoke the praise I felt for God’s beauty, mercy, constancy, Fatherly heart, and for the way he creates new possibilities amidst the unfolding of each day.
Some morning prayer walks have included confession, as well as release and surrender.
I miss having a garden beehive, and the fresh honey we extracted; but this year we have enjoyed observing the wide variety of native pollinators that have visited our gardens; and the corner bee garden that I previously had to stay out of in the mornings because of honeybees protecting their hive), has become a welcoming prayer garden where faith and hope are pollinated. And the experience of starting my day with those few moments of communion is as sweet as any honey.