Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Tame animals are a sign of the kingdom

Earlier this week I had the privilege to take the funeral of a man who had been a lion-tamer. (I regard the taking of all funerals as a privilege, not only because I am asked to be involved in a very difficult time in people’s lives, but because they give me an open opportunity to speak to the unchurched about God.)
As I said in the service, whatever else one heard about this truly interesting man, it was hard to get past the lion-taming. Of course, for some people this would be very hard to accept as a legitimate occupation. Needless to say, the man concerned had very strong views on this and ‘animal liberation’ generally.
Perhaps some indication of what this meant in practice, however, can be gleaned from the fact that when his children were young, they would eat breakfast with a fully-grown lion lying in the same room, which they would ‘shoo’ away if it became an obstruction.
Of course this must have entailed risk. But it was a risk which the family evidently thought both acceptable and minimal.
I am rather reminded, now I think about it, of the household set up by the Director, Ransom, in the third of C S Lewis science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, a key member of which was Mr Bultitude, the bear (who, as it happened, had been rescued from a circus, of the kind of which my subject would have entirely disapproved).
The point Lewis was making was that the animals in the Director’s household had come under an influence which had, as it were, ‘brought them out of themselves’. As Mrs Maggs says,
... if the Director wanted to have a tiger about the house it would be safe. There isn’t a creature in the place that would go for another or for us once he’s had his little talk with them.
Mr Bultitude was thus treated as a legitimate occupant of the house, albeit one whose bulk and stubbornness could be inconvenient, such as when lying in front of the fire with Pinch, the cat.
Those who share the viewpoint of Mr McPhee, the rationalist Ulsterman in the story who nevertheless is also part of the Company, will explain away human behaviour in relation to animals as just some kind of quid pro quo, usually (these days) with some sort of ‘Evolutionist’ gloss to finish it off.
The Christian, however, will see something else, which is why I chose as the Bible reading from which I preached at the funeral Isaiah 11:1-9. The second part of this contains these words,
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (NIV)
The taming (rather than merely the domestication) of animals is a feature of the coming kingdom, just as the final removal of ‘harm and destruction’ reflects the character and holiness of God.
I was reflecting on this the other day after reading something by a modern-day rationalist to the effect that the animal kingdom is one great mass of fear and terror, as all of them feed on one another. And perhaps there is indeed such ‘emotion’ (albeit in some animal form to which we cannot be entirely party).
But if that is true, it must also, logically, be possible for animals to feel joy and elation. Thus the birds which sing in every dawn chorus are not, on this argument, simply marking out territory in some biological-machine-like process. If they feel fear at the approach of the hawk, why may they not also feel joy at the arrival of the dawn — or, if they are early enough, at the catching of the worm?
And into all this, we must factor the human element. For in our best moments our instinct is to overcome the warring elements in nature. Sometimes this creates an obvious dis-pleasure, such as when I have rescued birds or mice from our cat. The cat’s disgruntlement on such occasions is impossible to ignore. Nevertheless, it may be argued that what I am doing on a small scale is what Isaiah prophesies on a grand scale — transforming nature from being ‘red in tooth and claw’ to being something which corresponds to a very different principle.
Thus, as I said to the funeral congregation, when we pray together, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we must remember that this means a transformation of nature such as we see occasionally on earth already. What we see is partial and incomplete, but it is a sign of something better yet to come.
John Richardson
1 September 2010

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  1. excellent stuff John thank you
    (please tell me he wasn't attacked by a lion)

  2. 'For we know that the whole creation.........' Romans ch8 vv19ff. What a tremendous thought, brought about through Aslan, who "was not a tame lion"!

    S Bazlinton

  3. We lions do have to agree to be tamed for that transformation, however incomplete, to occur.

  4. Excellent article, John. Yes, at this moment in time, the "animal kingdom is one great mass of fear and terror, as all of them feed on one another", indeed: that is a sign of the Fall - all of nature is disorered, humans, animals, the earth, everything. But the way things really should be is the order and peace described in the wonderful Isaiah passage you quoted, and that will return when the Lord returns, and this wretched age is over, all wrongs are righted, and every tear will be dried.

  5. Thank you John ... Also from Genesis, it refers to humans having dominion over animals before the fall, and that is surely a loving charge of creatures who have no reason to fear us, and whom we have no reason to fear.