The Widening Circle of Care
The Widening Circle of Care
August 26, 2018
Everything I read about Jesus of Nazareth says that he stood with open arms and open eyes, with an open heart and and open mind, and searched for the person who was being overlooked or ignored. When he found them, he made a beeline to them, unless of course they were already running or limping or being led by a caring crowd in his direction. It wasn’t o.k. for anyone to be left out or cut off, or viewed as anything other than a fellow child of God.
Unless we come to grips with this, we will never understand why Christ was crucified. In the span of three years of ministry, he managed to challenge and anger almost everyone. He didn’t really care about the “rules,” whether those rules were political or religious in nature. This guaranteed that the authorities would be on the hunt for him. However, the tipping point for folks turning on him happened incrementally, with every leper he touched, with every tax collector he welcomed, with every foreigner he embraced. Sooner or later, Christ pushed people’s “buttons” and forced them to ask themselves, “Do I follow him or do I follow what I know to be culturally true? Do I follow him or do I hold onto the comfort of being like everyone else?” As soon as we feel Christ’s pull to care for someone who pushes our buttons and we recoil and refuse, our walk of faith (at least temporarily) is over.
To put the matter in another way, if we really choose to follow Christ, that decision will change everything—our whole way of being in the world. And right about the time we get comfortable with the way that faith has changed us, faith will change us again. You will think that you are as open as you can possibly be, that you are connected. In the very next moment, that connection will grow even wider and deeper. And when it does, it is…amazing!
Here’s a story for you of that happening for someone. Her name is Lynne Cox. She was 17 at the time but she had already lived quite a life. She was one of the best long distance swimmers in the world. She already held the record for being the youngest person to swim the English Channel. Later, she would swim across the Bearing Sea from Alaska to Russia. She would even, one day, swim over a mile in the frozen waters of the Antarctic. It was at 17 though when she had her most memorable swim.
You can imagine how much you train to be a distance swimmer and how lonely that training must be. Lynne swam at Seal Beach in California, starting well before dawn every morning, swimming mile long laps off the shore. Folks looked out for her—Steve, the old guy who worked at the bait shop on the pier, various life guards and fishermen. On this particular day, she was just doing what she always did, slicing the water with her arms, kicking in that peculiar cadence of someone who is doing something far longer than a sprint, gliding through the water.
Lynne was used to gliding. What she wasn’t used to was feeling a presence below her in the inky blackness of the ocean in the dark. In fact, she says, she not only felt the presence, she felt like the water was hollow, like she was being carried along. At first, she wondered if it was a seal but it was bigger than that. Later, the thought entered her mind: “What if it is a shark?” She altered her path. The presence followed her. She headed for the pier.
As she drew close, she looked and saw Steve, the bait shop owner waving to her. He yelled to her that she was being followed by a baby gray whale. She had to keep swimming, he said, because if she headed in, the whale might beach itself and die. “Keep swimming,” he yelled, “I’ll see if I can figure out what’s going on.” She turned to do another lap. The baby whale turned with her.
Lynne Cox swam for hours that day in those cold waters, something almost no one else could do. The longer she swam, the more emotionally connected to the whale she felt. She admits with a laugh that she spoke to it, telling it that they were working on finding its mother, hoping comfort would somehow transcend words. At one point, the whale came close to her and made eye contact with an eye that she says was dark, dark brown and about the size of an orange. Every now and then, the whale would sound and swim deep, at which point, Lynne would tread water, wondering what was going on. Then, just as quickly as it had disappeared, the whale would reappear and support her, always, as they swam together. In fact, this young girl, one of the best swimmers in the world, was suddenly aware of how awkward she was as a swimmer compared to this magnificent creature. There came a moment when the whale was so close to her that she decided that she had to touch it. She reached out and she knew that the whale could feel her touch. In fact, it leaned closer into her.
Finally, word came from Steve that the whale’s mother had been spotted not far away, heading in toward where they were. Almost as if the baby whale understood, it breached repeatedly, something that marine biologists think this is a whale’s way of saying, “Here I am!” At this point, Lynne’s fear began to creep back in. The water was cold. She was tired. What if she grew hypothermic? Really, though, her actual fear was this: what if the mother does show up? An adult gray whale is 45 feet long and weights thirty tons. The sheer size was what overwhelmed Lynne when “Mama” arrived. And yet, there was nothing threatening about the mother’s presence at all. That “bus” of a creature pulled up alongside the two of them and drew right next to Lynne—and she reached right out and petted the mother, too. And again, there was this profound sense of connection.
The mother and child swam off together. Fishermen would later report that they were seen heading off with a pod of whales toward Alaska. Lynne never told her parents about that encounter because she was sure that they would be mad about her extra long swim. In her mind, though, she named the baby, Grayson. And for years, whenever she saw a whale, knowing that they could live for fifty years or more, she wondered if Grayson had returned.
Connection. Relationship. Care. This is what was shared between Lynne Cox and a baby gray whale. She had the chance to make that connection only because she was in the ocean all the time and at exactly the right moment that day. She also had the chance to make that connection only because she could overcome her fear. (How fast would you or I have headed to shore when we felt that “presence.”) She was open and available and didn’t demand that the world meet her on her terms. And she had this mind-blowing, life-changing, deeply spiritual experience.
On this, our Blessing of the Animals Sunday, I simply want to make the case that not only will God lead us in a life of faith to connect to other people, especially those who truly need that connection, who are the overlooked and the ignored, God will also lead us to connect to the larger mysterious and amazing world around us. Just as we are required to wake up and notice those people, so, too, we will be called to wake up and reconnect to the creatures who share the world with us.
Part of that connection is the animals with whom we live. It matters how we treat those animals. So, in the first creation story, God creates the animals and declares them to be good and then makes sure that we know that it is our God-given job to care for them. Later, in the book of Exodus, when the rules for the Sabbath are laid out, not only are human beings to rest on this day but the animals who work for them the rest of the week—the cattle and the sheep—are to be given a day off, too—because they have a God- given dignity, as well. In the story of Jonah, we are told that God refrains from destroying Nineveh, not only because there are lots of people there but because there are lots of animals, too. In the Noah story, God not only saves the human race but saves every species of animals, too, because they are valued and precious in God’s sight. Much later, Jesus would point out to everyone how much God cares for the birds. And, when Jesus was ready to break the Sabbath laws to help a person, he reminded everyone that if a sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would save the sheep. In short, there is a clear message that non-human creatures matter.
There is also a clear message that the earth matters, too. Every seven years, there was to be a Jubilee year, in which debts were forgiven and everyone got a fresh start. What also was to happen in that year was that the earth was to be given a rest. You didn’t plant that a year. Like a good farmer who rotates his or her crops, it was wise to care for the earth.
If we really want to follow Christ, our faith will be measured, in part, by how we treat the animals in our homes and the birds in our trees and the squirrels in our back yards. Our faith will be measured in part by how we treat the earth. Are our pets just an annoyance to be dealt with? Are the animals around us just a nuisance? Is the earth, itself, just a resource to be exploited? As our proverb reminds us, if we intend to be righteous and faithful people, how we treat our animals and the earth will reveal our care, our faith and our souls. Or, perhaps, our broken actions will just as easily reveal our lesser, darker impulses.
Most of us will never swim with a whale. However, every day, I have a wonderful creature who nuzzles up to me in the morning and then explores the prairie with me through the day, pointing out the snakes and the grasshoppers and the frogs. When I am feeling down but still open and available, the hawk cries out and lifts my spirit and reminds me that I am wildlife, too. When I am awake and aware, I realize what one member of our church family reminded me of recently, that the natural world is the biggest, best sanctuary of all.
Are we open and available and willing to connect with the larger world? Are we willing to put ourselves out there in nature enough that we might one day have an amazing surprise of our own? Do we believe that the earth, itself, is God’s and worth protecting?