When you need ANSWERS, darnit.
What the heck is this? I don't know. I made Steven take pictures of me. He said "stand by the light, people love that light stuff!" So here I am.
“Where the hounds run
and track me in my sleep
When I can’t trust the company I keep
When I’m pushed past the point of pressing on
You’re what I’m counting on.” - John Mark McMillan
“It’s legs to walk and thoughts to fly
Eyes to laugh and lips to cry
A restless tongue to classify
All born to grow, and grown to die.” - Townes Van Zandt
“We know that ‘we all possess knowledge’. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” - 1 Corinthians 8:1-2
He scribbles his answers down in his workbook, carelessly employing the kind of handwriting my elementary school teachers would have referred to as “chicken scratch” and which seemed to afflict the boys with far greater frequency than us girls, who worked tirelessly at shaping our letters into effervescent shapes, the “i”s dotted with hearts and the “t”s crossed with swirls.
“Yeah, mom, I don’t need you to read me the whole chapter, I just need the answers,” he says, dismissively waving a hand as I embark on the third chapter of Genesis.
I balk. Suddenly I am a Bible scholar instead of a lazy layperson who just today found Bad Lip Reading videos on Youtube far more seductive than God’s word during what was supposed to be her morning devotional time.
“You need to read the whole chapter for the context,” I condescend snottily. I resume my reading and soon he asks “Mom, I just don’t understand why God had to make birth painful.”
I think briefly and offer a half-baked answer: “I dunno… our big brains make it painful. Maybe it was because when we were infected with the knowledge of good and evil from the apple our brains got big. All that stuff we’re not even supposed to know. These useless big brains.”
Izzy starts giggling, to my offense. “So Adam and Eve were walking around the garden with teeny tiny heads on full-size bodies?” He laughs fully now, the giggles shaking his body as he unironically takes a bite of his own apple.
Oh hell’s bells, I think. Children and their literalism, their blessed gullibility, their reflexive tendency to take things you say and run with them. (I also wonder about this expression “hell’s bells” that my grandmother has always used and which I picked up uncritically. Why are there bells in hell? What do they sound like?!)
Two days later I come home to find Yolanda hanged, her gold-laced feathered bouffant wedged between the hinges of the chicken pen’s gate. She was one of my very favorite hens, dumb as a pile of rocks but so very beautiful and a doting mother to the one chick she’d ever hatched. At first I puzzled at her body suspended there, thinking from a distance it must be a plastic bag.
Then I hoped perhaps she was still alive, a child’s delusional hope, that reality is not as cold and final as it appears, that miracles are the rule and not the exception: her body was rigid already. I wept as I gently unwedged her and cradled her.
Her feet were folded up toward her neck, a positional vestige of what must have been a frenzied struggle to free herself. Her eyes were closed, her beak open, her bronze and black feathers forever ruffled. Death came in a squall of pain and terror.
And I knew the culprit: the cat. The evil feral cat that has been stalking our flock, picking them off one by one with infuriating precision. Yolanda must have attempted to flee over the fence to escape its clutch but alas, I had clipped her wings last week and she floundered and began to fall back toward the dirt and, in an implausible sequence of events, her thin neck found the half-inch of hard-framed space that wrung it. Crappy.
Yolanda and I in happier (living) days.
The cat is just an amoral slave to its instincts, some might say, and I should not impose my hegemony of human terms upon it: wicked, evil, diabolical, spawn of Satan. After all, it’s not like it has a choice in the matter, exactly. What it is compels to to hunt, to kill. But what is it that compels? God called it all good, once. Now the astonishing beauty, the colorful flourishes, the mosaic grandeur, even the clownish eccentricities of the animal kingdom – it all seems irrevocably tainted when you look a bit closer and into view come the parasites, the viruses, the ruthless predators.
As we wrapped Yolanda in brown paper and put her in the freezer to bury in the morning, my tears (YES I wept for a chicken, okay? Get lost) of sorrow mingled with those of righteous indignation for this cruel world of predator and prey, bereft of conscience and mercy, where creatures have been dying for millenia in obscurity, in the fanged maws of carnivores who tear and rip and lap blood, with no one to mourn them but God Himself.
Does God mourn them? I hope He does. “They will neither kill nor maim on my holy mountain,” He promises in Isaiah. But for now they kill and maim with regularity, the killing and maiming an integral part of the “circle of life” that even Mufasa’s thundering baritone can’t convince me is a purely good thing or the original design.
After I lay down last night I heard my own cat come padding into the bedroom on his velvet feet, so stealth and gracefully deadly. He leaped onto the bed and curled into his customary spot near my head, never questioning his welcome, purring forcefully. Tonight I eye him suspiciously in the dark. I see his face is, as usual, a mask of contentment and entitlement so total it preemptively quashes accusations of arrogance. (There I go with the anthropomorphizing again. My nature compels me.) I think about how I pick him up and draw his nose level with mine and call him humiliating infantilizing things like “pooky wooky baby waby” and tell him he is perfect in every way BECAUSE HE IS. But tonight, his eyes glint in the dark with a dangerous remnant of the jungle, and I realize I am sleeping with the enemy.
It’s always been this way and yet I can’t ever seem to get used to it, can’t ever seem to accept it as normal and good: things die. They die, and die, and die some more. I was ten when I skipped up cheerfully one morning to our little chicken coop, added on to the west side of the grey barn and clearly designed without the forensic insight into a predator’s mind that is required for a successfully fortified chicken coop because that morning I encountered a bloodbath that seemed as gratuitous as it was total. Rust red splattered the walls in arcing sprays. Feathers: so many feathers, many with bits of birdflesh still attached. I was traumatized, I was aghast. A fox’s work, we later deduced, as I stood shellshocked and tear-stained on the grassy slope outside.
But I have to ask, as we bury Yolanda in the morning and I read Romans chapter 8 over her grave: has it always been this way? And must it be this way?
Just for the record, I’m not talking about vegetarianism or veganism. I tried those, with varying measures of devotion, for many many years and all I got was anemia and a major B vitamin deficiency, plus a delusive sense of self-righteousness that made me the Pharisaical killjoy of many a luncheon and potluck.
But must it be this way, a carnivorous feast, a farce of dying and being eaten and short lifespans burdened by constant vigilance lest one be snapped up in the jaws of some watchful beast? I mean, it’s not like this for us, exactly. Not exactly. But kind of. I tire of spiritual warfare, of clawing up a mountainside and squinting through the mist toward a God who makes Himself too often silent, obtuse, unresponsive. At least being vegan made me feel like I was doing something right, however insufficient and nutrient-depleted. Legalism’s certainty is seductive. Trying to live by faith in Christ, on the other hand, is too often a maze of ambiguity, a haze of unknowing, a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game where we’ve been blindfolded and spun and spun around.
How many ways we try to take matters into our own hands, to make it right. How many ways we fail, and do the exact opposite of making it right. But we can’t wait forever, can we?! My soul cries out. How long can we wait on a tarrying God who lets chickens, which are way bigger than sparrows, fall to gruesome strangulation deaths? How long can we wait on a God who leaves doors shut and leaves messes messy, who leaves wombs empty and trees barren and keeps letting creatures and people just die, over and over and over again?
The questions breed hot-blooded rebellion in my heart. Suddenly I kinda sorta understand those people who are trying to figure out how to upload their consciousness and how to make cryogenic preservation work. We have to take matters into our own hands. He’s too elusive, too subtle, too unpredictable, this God. The crucifixion looms large, the resurrection pales and recedes. The end is near, but what of the beginning?
The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time, Paul writes in Romans 8.
We were with child, we writhed in labor, but we gave birth to wind, Isaiah writes.
I sit near Yolanda’s grave in the garden. My fingertips graze the rough, ancient surface of her headstone, a large rock we pulled from one of the landscaping borders. Oh Lord, I am tired of waiting. I’m tired of dying. I’m tired of trying to figure out what You are up to. I’m tired of trying to spin a good story out of all this dying, all this chaos. I’m tired.
The garden teems with secret life and its intractable sister, death. There is probably dying going on right now, unseen, shadowed by leaves. Praying mantises are cannibalizing their mates. I probably stepped on several bugs on my way over here, bugs who are now flailing, half-squashed, pathetic in their clueless attempts to resume their normal insect business with half a thorax smashed. I know for a fact the mammoth garden spider by the clotheslines has a couple of cruelly mummified flies in her web and lies in wait for her next victim.
The death depresses me. I sit there and I think, and I think some more. I analyze, I try really really hard to figure everything out. It doesn’t work, so I demand answers from God.
And this is what He says, quietly and calmly: relax. Relax! Of all the things! Of all the things to say at a time like this!!! It’s beyond insouciant. It’s downright irresponsible.
How can I trust a God who says relax? A savior who insists that the sparrows never work themselves into an analytical tizzy, and yet God takes care of them just the same? How can I believe that resurrection is a more present and pressing and ultimately insuperable reality than death?
I think of Adam and Eve and their little Neanderthal heads (I guess). I think of my big brain, mine and yours, and its many liabilities. Oh, these useless big brains, connected to all these restless tongues. They fit through the birth canal, just barely, except when they don’t at all. So many liabilities. Big brains make the poisons, they make the weapons of mass destruction.
I see obscene liability. Not a good idea at all, I have sometimes thought, to loose us on the earth and tell us to reproduce with these big brains. But God sees glory, or at least the potential thereof. Which is it?
Sometimes, like when I find my favorite chicken hanging from a fence, I look at nature and see a bloodbath of oceanic proportions, a pustulating quagmire of futility. God sees the groaning, the “bondage to decay,” as Romans 8 puts it. He sees the bloody ordeal of childbirth, our knowledge-swollen heads nearly cleaving women in two in their yearning to be born into an even bloodier world.
And then He dares enter this world, this world which has polluted itself with knowledge. He dares challenge its wisdom with His own foolishness: Christ crucified. And we find that His foolishness somehow makes a mockery of our wisdom, makes it seem crusty and vacuous and dry and dead.
My chicken might be hanging from a fence, and it seems tragic and gross and pointless. But the son of God hung from a cross. And that seems infinitely more tragic and gross and pointless until that recalcitrant streak of childlike hope stubbornly reasserts itself, small but defiant. Maybe reality is not as cold and final as it appears.
It busts in anew, the foolishness of God – that the cross meant something, in fact meant something more than anything else has ever meant on its own and indeed gives meaning to everything else, so nothing can be understood except through it. It saves. He saves, whatever salvation means, because it is so much more than these useless big brains can define. We hear only echoes, see only glimmers.
But sometimes, when the breeze is just right and the feline who is not so many generations away from trying to maul me is instead laying on my chest and purring noisily, I can believe the lion will lay down with the lamb. I can believe creation groans now but its reckoning is coming, as is ours.
I can believe I don’t need to take matters into my own hands any more than I need to make my own heart beat.
I can believe that maybe, just maybe, I can relax. Maybe. Still working on that one.
And I shiver in awe of a God more fearsome and wonderful than my useless big brain can fathom.