O, Hamsters, let’s go down – down to the river to pray

My daughter was slow to engage with hymn singing tonight, so my husband began playing Down to the River to Pray (United Methodist readers can find an arrangement in Worship and Song, #3164) They had sung it during communion on Sunday morning, and she had been disappointed that they stopped after five verses – she was wanting to add, “O Grandmas, let’s go down.” For starters.

So my husband played it long enough for her to sing verses inviting grandmas, grandpas, great-grandmas, great-grandpas, preachers, and then, with a self-conscious giggle, hamsters. (Public service announcement / disclaimer: hamsters are not meant to get wet. Please do not take your hamster down to a river, whether to pray or for any other reason.)

The self-consciousness is new. A couple of years ago, my daughter would have naturally turned to invite the animals to pray without any embarrassment. Perhaps she has come to realize that most people don’t consider animals in the same way that she does. Myself, I consider her love for non-human animal creatures to be a spiritual gift. Certainly, her love of animals has been a spiritual beacon to me – life with her has been a daily reminder that God’s providential care is not limited to human beings. I say “reminder” and not “lesson” because I learned this truth long before she came into my life – it is written all over the Bible.

The last couple of chapters of Job are the most obvious example of this. Job wants to know if God is paying attention, and God says yes – God is paying attention to Job, but not just to Job. God cares for every creature, and observes their every secret moment. Not just human creatures, but ostriches, hawks, and mountain goats (see especially Job 39). But if this is an obvious place to find God’s providential care for animals in the Bible, this is not the only place. The last verse of Jonah is curious. Jonah is angry that the Ninevites (who were Assyrians – enemies of Israel) were spared God’s wrath, and God is given the last word, asking, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV, emphasis mine)

Of course there is the matter of God going to the trouble (or calling Noah to the trouble, depending upon how you look at it) of rescuing so many animals from the flood. Granted, this is a dodgier example, as these were only representative animals, and the story necessarily implies that a lot more were drowned. But still. Every preschooler knows there were not just people on that boat.

One of my favorite scriptures on this theme is Deuteronomy 25:4. Tucked between a rule on whipping as punishment and an explanation of Levirate marriage, this verse seems almost a non sequitur: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (NRSV) This rule takes “do unto others” to the animal kingdom – you get hungry on the job, right? So does an ox.

In spite of all of this (and so many more), before my daughter was born, I had a tendency to devalue the animal kingdom, relatively. Surely people mattered most of all. For example, I might give to environmental groups, but only because the environment mattered insofar as it mattered to human survival. But her gentle (and continuing) insistence that animals were worthy of a lifetime of focused attention was convicting – my anthropocentric thinking meant that I was putting people at the center – but only God belongs at the center! Some things – most things! (maybe even all things?) – were not created for the benefit of human beings. Animals and all other created things have value not because of their usefulness to humans, but because God made them and called them good.

Recently, the local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers held a yard sale to raise money for continuing education for the member animal keepers. I did something I would never have done eight years ago – I filled up the back of the station wagon and headed to the Duke Lemur Center to donate a bunch of items for their sale. Taking my daughter around to the Museum of Life and Science and the Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue, I’ve met a lot of folks who are caring for God’s creatures with integrity. That’s important work. Not because failing to care for abandoned animals would be an affront to human nobility. Not because lemurs are cute or tigers are awe-inspiring. No, it’s important because these animals are God’s beloved creatures. And if I love God, then I cannot draw the line at caring about animals, plants, and places that are not demonstrably useful to human beings.

It’s Complicated…

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched It’s Complicated.  He had a cold, and I was recovering from food poisoning, so we were looking for something light.  We figured that the cast would be worth watching – Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski – so we had been hoping to get some good acting and call it a night.

The movie’s marketing campaign leads you to expect a bedroom farce, but while the movie is certainly a comedy, it never leaves the realm of the possible – you can imagine knowing a friend in this situation.  (Hopefully you cannot imagine yourself in this situation.  If you can, call me.  Seriously – we need to pray together before you do anything rash.  Or, God forbid, after you do something rash.)

I have never known of anything in real life even half approximating accidentally dosing your dead father’s lover with LSD, and then stuffing him in your father’s casket after mistakenly thinking that he was killed by taking a dive into the coffee table.  SayFor instance. I suppose it *could happen*, and it certainly was an amusing red herring of a climax in the midst of a hilarious movie, but I’m not sure that I could say with certainty that something like that has ever happened before.

But being divorced for some time, and then, while drunk, feeling attracted to this person that you (after all) were attracted enough to to marry some time ago, and then sleeping with this person that (after all) you had slept with many times before – this probably happens all the time.  Especially if you share children with your ex, and have plenty of opportunities to see them over time, to forget all that was bad about the relationship for long enough to wax nostalgic about – well, at least about the sex.  But not just the sex, either – the easy division of labor, the intact two parent family… it just feels wrong for Dad to drive away just when Mom and the kids are sitting down to the dinner table without him for the two thousandth time.

This business of suddenly waking up and deciding that you are in love with your ex-wife again has been happening for millenia, if we apply a hermenutics of suspicion – the Bible would find no need to forbid going back to an ex-wife if this idea presented no temptation to anyone.  But a single true premise does not make for a true story.  And that is where I was surprised by It’s Complicated.

Some of you may know that I have, over the past eight years or so (corresponds with taking Intro to Christian Ethics with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas.  Hmm…), found myself having more and more trouble enjoying fiction.  I went through a stage, on the movie front, where I could only watch documentaries with any success.  Even long standing favorites, like The Princess Bride, fell victim to new scrutiny.  Slowly I came to have a film canon, consisting of movies that seemed either true or at least insightful, whose few flaws I could forgive in the interest of the merits of the larger package:  The Empire Strikes BackThe Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serenity, Groundhog Day, Mystery Men, Galaxy Quest, Millions – wait a minute!  Aren’t there any on here that don’t have a scifi/fantasy element?  Sure – The MissionAbout a Boy.  Wait.  I know there’s more – let me think… Fargo? Six Degrees of Separation? Intolerable Cruelty?

But movies that gave me this feeling of being true to reality – of being untainted by any false premise (for every story makes multiple assumptions at the outset) about people or sin or relationships – became increasingly difficult to find – and so increasingly prized: The Savages, Love Liza, Owning Mahowney, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead…  And it made it worse that sometimes a movie could be true and yet I could not like it for some difficult to express stylistic reason – Magnolia, say.

Let us not suppose that it follows that all Phillip Seymour Hoffman movies are true!  See, for instance, the disappointing, nuance free, atheist propaganda cheap shot that is The Invention of Lying.  And neither does it follow that all “true movies” I have discovered in the past 6 years feature Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  See, for instance, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, or Blood Done Sign My Name.  Oh, right!  And – It’s Complicated.  (Remember Alice?  This is a song about Alice.)

As with any other movie, I have my complaints about It’s Complicated.  It is hard to believe that Mom would ever find her house to be “too small.”  And I’m generally not a fan of scenes that rely on smoking pot as a plot device.  It wasn’t necessary here, though it was a bit better done than usual.  And as you might imagine, I have to confess it was fun to watch Steve Martin and Meryl Streep pretending to be stoned together.  But (as usual) the depicted drug use was gratuitous.  However, the depicted sex was not gratuitous – it was at the center of the film without leaving me feeling like a voyeur.  Perhaps because the film wasn’t any more explicit than it needed to be to drive the story – which was ultimately a story about family, relationship, and the community implications of individual sin.

So let’s get specific – what’s so surprisingly good about It’s Complicated?  So many things.  Even the minor characters act true to character.  The humanistic therapist only concerns himself with the impact on his client – whether she can learn and grow from the experience – and, as so many therapists do, never considers the question of what the impact will be on the larger family system.  The “other woman” turns out to be a real person, with real feelings that can be hurt – after all, she has now formed a family with her husband and child – she is as blindsided and hurt as the first wife was in her day.  (Though we get only a glimpse of her pain – which may have had the effect for some viewers of letting Mom and Dad off the hook.)  The young child of the second wife is pitch perfectly annoying and insightful, and unquestioningly trusting of his mom’s husband – grabbing and snuggling Dad’s hand as he falls asleep.  And Dad?  He’s as much of a cad as ever.  Unmoved by this young boy’s trust, he is as ready to betray a child now as he was his first three children years before – and for the same reason – better sex with apparently less complications.  Which is not to say that every man who cheats on his wife is a perennially thoughtless idiot who wants to free himself from the slightest responsibility at the first whiff of that elusive mythical beast: no-strings sex.  (Then again…)  Instead, what is true about this scenario is that hiding an affair with your ex from your children is not a recipe for madcap fun, but for more heartbreak – for all the same people as last time, and maybe some more this time around.  When the two main characters end up in bed together, things simply can’t end well – and surprisingly (for post-1970s Hollywood storytelling), they don’t – It’s Complicated opts to tell the truth here.

Taking a broader view, the most generalizable insight of the movie – for me, anyway – was the implicit warning against misplaced nostalgia.  Yes, it would have been better for the first affair never to have occurred, for the first marriage to have been successful, for the first family to have had their father around as the kids came of age and Mom started her new business.  But it didn’t.  Mom can’t get those 10 years back – and really, the only reason Dad thinks Mom looks so perfect now is that he skipped those difficult 10 years.  The rift cannot be repaired – and a now equally messy, equally valid second family will be torn apart, too.  The opportunity for this relationship to be reconstituted has passed.  It is time to move on.  Seasons can pass for even the best of gifts, and we must not let what we wish had happened blind us to our present reality.

In the end, the only people with no regrets about this affair are Mom and Dad.  And in its own way, this moment of pseudo-reckoning is true, too.  Mom and Dad are the ones most guilty, the ones who acted most recklessly and selfishly (“I did this for myself,” Mom explains to her 3 adult kids, as they huddle together in a small bed, comforting each other in their confusion.)  So often, with sin, regret requires distance.  Taking responsibility for – even acknowledging! – the pain we have caused another so soon after the fact is far too painful in a world without grace.  Honest repentance when the victims of our sin remain mired in the consequences of our sin requires that we take on their wounds ourselves.  We cannot hide from it, or minimize it, until the wound has healed sufficiently for the rawness to be only sketchily remembered.  It is seldom that we are willing to suffer so deeply – truly rare that we are strong enough to face our error without being overcome by the dark depth of how our brokenness has infected those around us.

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

If it were not for God’s love – for the assurance that we are forgiven even in the midst of our sin, that we are known through and through and redeemed and redeemable – if it were not for God’s grace, we would not be able to survive the loss of our illusions about ourselves as “basically good people.”  Without grace, we would have to choose between remaining blissfully unaware of our daily acts of violence and drowning in the suffering we have contributed to.  In It’s Complicated, there is no evidence that Mom and Dad know of God’s grace, and so they semi-consciously opt for the route of “no regrets” – the pragmatic choice.

Let’s *not* be reasonable – God has chosen what is foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians, passim.)  Thanks be to God for those lights in the world whose ability to love, to suffer, to repent, to grow is so evident that they (like a city on a hill) cannot be hid.  These remarkable sisters and brothers in the faith remind us that we need not choose between confession of our imperfection and strength in our convictions.  Instead, God’s love gives us the courage to see ourselves clearly – to suffer with those whose suffering we have caused, and in this com-passion to be strengthened – to come closer to that kingdom in which mourning and crying and pain will be no more, when Christ himself will guide us to the springs of the water of life.