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One of the things my daughter was looking forward to when we moved from the west coast back to the prairies was the opportunity to join 4H and have her own sheep. For those who don’t know, 4H is a kind of farm club where kids learn how to raise calves, sheep, etc. And so, this past weekend I found myself at my daughter’s 4H sale. Saturday was the big day when her sheep was paraded before the judges and then auctioned off.

Because there are lots of kids with lots of animals there is a lot of waiting. During one long stretch of time between events, I struck up a conversation with one of the boys ahead of my daughter in the line up. Most of the kids had named their sheep, so I asked the boy what his sheep’s name was. “Supper,” he said. I tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress uproarious laughter. You had to admire this kid’s realism. He knew what was coming. Later, while sitting in the stands, I relayed this story to my wife. A woman turned around and said, “Yeah, that’s my son. The first few years he raised sheep he found this day very hard. There were lots of tears when he had to say goodbye to his sheep. But with each passing year he’s gotten more and more used to the reality of things—and this year, he just decided to name it for what it would be. Supper.”

What was initially little more than an amusing weekend sidebar has let to a bit more reflection since Saturday—especially as my daughter has struggled a bit with the reality that her sheep is gone and isn’t coming back. Of course, on one level, it is utterly unremarkable that a kid would move from being devastated by the discovery that the sheep he just spent months feeding, cleaning, trimming, and loving is destined for someone’s dinner plate to accepting it and calling it for what it is. But is also kind of, well, sad. It speaks to a kind of loss of naiveté, or innocence… or something. “Reality bites,” the saying goes, and there’s some truth to this. Perhaps we grownups take so much of the painfulness of reality for granted that we forget that it was not always so—that there was a time where it hurt to learn that things we loved were gone and would never return. That the world was the kind of place where things we cared about were regularly taken from us. That this was normal.

Last night my wife and I watched a Canadian film called Away From Her (adapted from Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain) which poignantly and agonizingly tells the story of a couple’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a brilliant film that, on an altogether different level, also addresses what it looks like to come to terms with reality. The film is a heartrending portrayal of what it means to live in a world where the things we love are slowly, painfully, inexorably taken away. Where we have to stand and watch love walk away.

In one scene, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) is given a tour of the facility his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) will be soon be calling “home.” We watch as he absently listens to an efficient and cheery administrator talk about the comfortable accommodations, the games and puzzle rooms, the dining room, the library, the hallways with “lots of natural light.” He follows her around through hallways of disheveled faces and vacant stares with a dazed and defeated look on his face. For the administrator, it is “normal” that these fading human lights are penned together in an institution where the rooms have numbers and where “attendants” look after them. For Grant, it is a horror that can barely be contemplated. The thought that his wife should come to live in this place is more than he can bear. He knows that these kinds of places have only arrivals, no departures. This is a “normal” that he cannot accept.

But, eventually, he does. Eventually, we all, in our own way, come to terms with “normal.” Reality as it is shows few signs of being willing to accommodate to human desires, after all, and so it is we who must do the accommodating. We do our best to push the dark thoughts out of our minds for as long as we can, but we know that death is always waiting. Sheep die, people die, everything dies. Nothing that matters to us lasts. We know how the world works, no matter how inventive we can be in trying to flee from the truth. Some fight reality longer than others, some flee farther and faster and longer, but no one finally escapes.

Many argue that religious faith is a flight from reality. God and eternity are mere inventions to console us in the face of a harsh reality where everything dies and is remembered no more, where most of what we care about will go unrealized, where nobody, ultimately cares what “normal” we might prefer. It is an understandable perspective, but, for me, an inadequate one. It doesn’t explain enough of the story. To say that our deepest longings as human beings—longings for permanence, relationship, security, peace, love beauty… for wholeness—have no connection with what is finally true about the world seems too simple a solution to me. A “solution” to the problem of the pain and heartache we experience with “the way the world is” that renders the deepest parts of our humanity as curious byproducts of overdeveloped brains with no connection to we what we can finally, truly hope for is no solution for me. I suspect this is true for many of us on an existential level, regardless of what we might accept intellectually. We live as if the things that matter to us, as if the hope and beauty and goodness that guide and lead us, are the final reality with which we have to deal.

So, we keep on keeping on. We wash and trim and love our sheep even though we know they are destined to be someone’s “supper.” We play games and read books and hold hands with loved ones in the context of institutionalized decay. We do these things and many others as symbols of our twin convictions that suffering is not meaningless and it is not final. We come to terms with reality, in various ways in to varying degrees, because we believe that our suffering, in some mysterious way, represents a sharing with the One who suffered that the world might be forgiven and healed (2 Cor. 4:12-17). We also refuse to accept reality as it is because our suffering is guided by the conviction that the “normal” that we must now come to terms with will not be normal forever—that one day a new normal will be ushered in by the One who makes all things new.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan, I really appreciated this post after saying goodbye to a beloved uncle this weekend after his very unexpected death. It’s encouraging to remember that the time and emotional energy, the love that we all invested in our relationship with this man (and in each other) is significant now and in eternity. Despite the sadness that came with his death, the weekend was also a itself a strange sort of time-warp, where eternity and our reality seemed to mesh for a time. I think that what has preserved the family from overwhelming grief this past week was their ability to look at the ugly reality and see blessings in it. It was why the eternal reality didn’t seem far removed from us.

    June 11, 2012
    • I’m very sorry for your loss… And very appreciative of your words here, as well—especially the image of love never being wasted, and of sadness being caught up in and transcended by a present reality suffused with the hope of eternity. Thank you.

      June 11, 2012
  2. Ken #

    I hear a different story among those who believe evolution accounts for the origin of species than the dark narrative in your next to last paragraph. The story is that we are part of a magnificent and beautiful whole and that we remain part of that whole in death.

    A few days ago beside a lake where I like to have dinner at sunset watching the wild ducks, geese and birds, I saw an ugly sight. A couple of obese women were feeding white bread to the ducks and geese. The feeding lasted about an hour. They had a large box full of many loaves and they fed all of them to the ducks and geese. A few feet away a sign said, “Don’t feed the ducks, geese, or any other wildlife.” It is illegal to feed them because it harms them and other creatures. The women did not care. They were amusing themselves. It was their desire to amuse themselves. Feeding wild creatures is their delight.

    Also that evening I watched a young girl chasing ducks while her parents watched and laughed at their little angel’s game. On another evening, I watched a young man throw rocks at ducks swimming in the lake. His parents watched approvingly watched their little warrior’s game. A few feet away is a sign saying that harassing wildlife is illegal and punishable by a fine of $20,000 and imprisonment.

    I imagine all of these people hope their desires are met in heaven someday. I imagine they all hope their own suffering is not meaningless and final.

    Human desire has made a huge mark on the world.

    June 11, 2012
    • I didn’t really say anything about evolution in the paragraph you mention. As I see it, the issue isn’t evolution but how one interprets it—if one interprets it as pregnant with hope or, ultimately, futility.

      Re: the ducks, I’m not sure quite what to say about your comments there. These seem a rather uncharitable collection of conclusions to draw from the simple observation of behaviour… Perhaps you know more about these people and their views of the world than I do.

      But as long as we’re imagining motives for behaviour, how about this one. The people at the park have all embraced the worldview that they and the world they are a part of began from nothing and will end in nothing. In the light of these convictions, they have determined that the ducks have no real value and that it doesn’t matter how they treat them or any other creature. In light of the origins and destiny of the world, as they see it, the only thing of any real value for them to pursue is the fulfillment of their own desires for the brief slice of time that they happen to occupy within a vast horizon of chaos and meaninglessness.

      I guess we would have to ask them to find out.

      June 11, 2012
      • Ken #

        Such nihilism is not a necessary hypothesis, and unlikely because it is uncommon. Perhaps they think like many Christians do that humans matter more than other creatures and that humans have dominion in a sense that makes such feedings and harassments okay. We do know that they appeared to enjoy the feeding and the harassment. We do know that what they did is harmful and illegal. What they did is quite common.

        People who believe evolution by natural selection accounts for the origin of species generally do not interpret it as signifying futility.

        June 11, 2012
      • Such nihilism is not a necessary hypothesis, and unlikely because it is uncommon.

        I did not say that it was necessary, only that it is a plausible rationale for the behaviour you describe. It may be uncommon, but in my view this has far less to do with the intellectual coherence of the position than with its unpalatability on an existential level.

        Perhaps they think like many Christians do that humans matter more than other creatures and that humans have dominion in a sense that makes such feedings and harassments okay.

        Perhaps. Again, though, it would probably be best to ask before venturing a rationale on someone else’s behalf.

        The lines between moral (secular?) and immoral (Christian) approaches to the nonhuman creation do not fall nearly so neatly in the places where I have lived. In my experience—including time spent in an overwhelmingly secular context—people behave the way that they do (good or bad… with respect to ducks, people, or anything else) for a bewildering variety of reasons. Perhaps it is different where you live.

        June 11, 2012
  3. Ken #

    We do not know their theology or worldview. It does not matter. Their behavior was harmful and, thankfully, illegal here. The reasons that these individuals did what they did does not matter. I still imagine that they have the desire that their lives will not come to grief, or if they already have, that things matter yet (something like you described as the hope associated with God, whether or not they believe in God.)

    You wrote, “Reality as it is shows few signs of being willing to accommodate to human desires, after all, and so it is we who must do the accommodating. ”

    But we don’t. We don’t accommodate the reality of the world. Human desire has made a huge mark on the world, on its reality.

    I understand what you are saying in your post. You were writing about how to face the realities of suffering, death and the food chain. I wrote what I wrote not to disagree with it, but just thinking of the ironies in it, thinking about the reality of our cruelty to animals and the planet, thinking about how we have affected reality through desire, thinking about how understanding the origin of species as the work of natural selection offers hope, and thinking about how hope does not depend on belief in God or a messiah making all things new. And, thinking about how the hope that God will make all things new has contributed to the devastation of so much non-human life.

    June 11, 2012
    • Larry S #

      Ken, I think Ryan`s post either comes out of or will become part of a sermon (he`s on a weekly treadmill and has to be on the lookout for material). You`ve taken the preaching point and run off in a different direction (I bet you hated it when people listening to your sermons did that i know i did 🙂 )

      From my side of the aisle, a Christian worldview means that humans “matter more than other creatures“ and are meant function as care-takers of creation. I agree the behaviour you describe was wrong.

      Ryan, when I first read your post the thought of evolution didn’t enter my mind. Instead, I was taken back to my happy years in Alberta. The kid naming his lamb “Supper“ is brilliant and very albertan rural On death, I remember doing an internment at a very rural cemetery where parishioners dug the grave for their life-long friend and then stood by to cover the grave when family members had left. Things were up close and personal.

      June 11, 2012
      • Thanks for this, Larry. It really was one of those “made in Alberta” moments… :). I imagine that must have been some internment…

        Re: the weekly treadmill, yes, you’re right, the need for material is omnipresent. I don’t seem to be able to experience much these days without thinking about how I can preach or write about it. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not….

        June 11, 2012
    • Ken, I’m afraid I just don’t understand. You say that worldview and theology don’t matter in this case, yet you were the one who brought up a very specific worldview and theology in the first place as an explanation for behaviours you did not like. Perhaps I have gotten lost somewhere along the way.

      Of course misdirected human desire has caused much harm to the planet. And of course Christians must own their share of the blame (but not more than their share). I don’t think I have ever suggested anything to the contrary on this blog.

      June 11, 2012
    • Ken #

      Larry, good as always to hear your ideas. You wrote, “a Christian worldview means that humans “matter more than other creatures“ and are meant to function as care-takers of creation.” I think we can modify Christianity to omit anthropocentrism and replace it with something like deep ecology.

      Creation care theology resembles theistic evolution. The former attempts to retain anthropocentrism while replacing dominion with stewardship. The latter attempts to retain creationism while replacing a literal understanding of Genesis 1 with a new narrative of creation through evolution. Without anthropocentrism, creation care becomes deep ecology and the question of how we are made becomes part of the question “what are we made of?” The answer can be, “the body of Christ.”

      Christianity has long justified agriculture, including grazing of farm animals. It need not. The anthropocentrism of Christianity is rooted in this justification.

      In one remote wilderness area where I like to hike, a herd of wild cattle lives. They graze the ground to dust. They cause much erosion. When I see them, I think first of my connection with these wild beasts and I love them. Then I think of how humanity created them to be what they are and abandoned them to the wilderness. They run from me. They see humanity in me and they are afraid. I see humanity’s great and awful footprint on the land, and I too am afraid. I took one of my best hiking friends there to see the place and its wild beasts. He saw something different. He loves to cook. He sees food – supper. He talks about ways to cook them and imagines ways to catch or kill one and take it home for dinner.

      I follow the paths of the wild beasts through wilderness, pursuing my desire – for God, I think. It is prayer to me. It is a lectio divina of wilderness.

      June 12, 2012
      • Larry S #

        Ken, good luck on modifying (removing) anthropocentrism from Christianity  Wouldn’t you agree that creation care is at least better than Christians using their bibles to dominate, use up and destroy. (And there are many Christians become open to seeing God’s hand in evolution – even some Evangelicals.)

        On the return to nature track you are on: when we learned to harness fire and invented the wheel wasn’t the trajectory pretty much set, predicting where humanity finds itself today?

        June 12, 2012
      • I agree with Larry—creation care is much to be preferred to some of the other options Christian have (tragically) chosen throughout history.

        Similarly, I wonder if “deep ecology” can ever really escape the anthropocentrism it critiques. Deep ecology is a form of stewardship, after all (at least as I understand it). It is a rationally accepted and deliberately chosen approach to life that seeks to provide a kind of care and protection of the natural world on behalf of nonhuman creatures. The choice to “recognize” that we are a part of the natural world and to understand and locate ourselves appropriately for the sake of the world is still that—a choice. And it is undertaken by a creature that, while sharing many similarities with other creatures, obviously has important differences as well, not least, the ability to choose courses of action that will honour and protect the broader natural context of which it is a part.

        Perhaps the issue is not anthropocentrism vs. no anthropocentrism or “ought we to think of ourselves as stewards or not?” but how will our inevitable anthropocentrism/stewardship capacities (Christian or otherwise) be exercised?

        June 12, 2012
    • Ken #

      I don’t think creation care goes deep enough, even if it is obviously better than destruction. It is an attempt within evangelicalism to retain something of traditional beliefs while adopting a perspective of the present.

      And yes, we can read Promotheus that way. Or, through Darwin’s eyes, we are just seeking our survival, consciously or unconsciously.

      Even if one can detect a latent anthropocentrism mixed with deep ecology in some nature writing, the difference between stewardship and deep ecology is yet meaningful and significant. I don’t see deep ecology as a form of stewardship. It is instead an expression of desire for and unity with the planet and wildlife. Stewardship goes along with agriculture. It is offensive to the paleo instincts in deep ecology. Stewardship is associated with Cain. Deep ecology is associated with Abel.

      June 12, 2012
      • I’m not convinced the anthropocentrism in deep ecology is “latent”—I think it is inevitable and unavoidable, for the reasons stated above. It is presupposed in every consciously chosen human action on behalf of the planet. There may be meaningful and significant differences between “stewardship” and “deep ecology” language, but it seems to me these have more to do with how the two positions are conceptualized and reinforced by their advocates than with the (often implicit) theological/anthropological assumptions and presuppositions that support them.

        Re: “offensive” agriculture, I’m not quite sure what to say. Aside from wondering how we would feed 6+ billion people without it, my thoughts also return to a tiny remote village I visited in Colombia a few months ago. The people we met there cultivated the earth. They grew fruit trees. They grazed cattle and sheep and pigs and goats and saw them, and everything else their agriculture produced, as “supper” (often barely enough). I wonder how your words would sound to them.

        June 12, 2012
    • Ken #

      Deep ecology writers sometimes refer to the kind of ecology associated with stewardship as shallow ecology. That is the common ecology of replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones and recycling. That is the Prius ecology. It is definitely anthropocentric.

      Re: 6+ billion people. 6+ billion mouths. That is the heart of the problem. Our population is destroying the planet with the help of its agriculture and industry. It can be stipulated that we cannot support the current human population without them. The problem is growing.

      Be fruitful and multiply: words that served the needs of a burgeoning agricultural civilization near the dawn of the neolithic age. In them, the divination of priests, prophets and kings that what they needed was a very large number of peasants to work and defend the fields.

      June 12, 2012
      • Larry S #

        Ken, it seems to me that you are introducing a worldview which is entirely incompatible with the judeo/christian worldview shared by Ryan and myself. Don’t be surprised at our pushback. I’m wondering why you even bother trying to associate Abel with deep ecology. The God with whom Abel had to do appears to have quite the focus on humans.

        June 12, 2012
    • Ken #

      Larry, I assume you are referring to an ecological view in which humans are not considered special in any way. That is the view associated with a belief that evolution by natural selection accounts for the origin of species. Many Christians and atheists agree that this view is incompatible with Christianity. I am only able to hold them together in my life through seeing the universe as the body of Christ, as Chardin did. That is, of course, not a literal, but a mythical way of seeing the universe. It is a different way of understanding the incarnation from that found in evangelicalism, but is within the wide range of understandings associated with liberalism in Christianity.

      The connection of the deep ecology narrative with the story of Cain and Abel has to do with associations that scholars have made between Cain and the neolithic era, and Abel and the paleolithic era. It is nothing more than that.

      I don’t want to give you the impression that I am not troubled by the inherent conflict in these views. In seminary the professors taught that the Bible is fiction and that it first written in the court of David as political or royal propaganda. (Similar political theories were advanced to explain the later parts of the Old Testament and the New Testament too.) I asked, “If we know this, then why regard it as holy?” I see my question as something like yours where you asked, “why bother …?” Seminary professors, surprisingly, had no answer to the question I asked. I hope I have answered your question, even if you don’t agree with the viability of the answer.

      June 12, 2012
  4. Thank you for this post, it comes at a time when my brother is in palliative care in a hospital.
    Reality, yes…………

    June 11, 2012
    • I wish your brother all the best, Joyce. And you as well, as you struggle with acceptance and resistance of an unwelcome reality.

      June 11, 2012
  5. Ryan, I have a sister in spirit whose cancer is marching on in spite of all treatments. Your reflections here helped me today. Many thanks.

    June 12, 2012
    • Wishing your sister much peace and hope today and in the days to come, Chris.

      June 12, 2012

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