A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Heaven: Elderly Poodles and the Expectation of Perfection
June 8, 2003
The Day of Pentecost John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
This week, heaven has been much on my mind. On Monday my beloved Lucy the Poodle died. Almost 17, blind and deaf, she'd had a wonderfully pampered and indulged life. I find it almost impossible to explain how I felt about this dog, how she taught me about unconditional love, about how we lived interconnected lives able to clearly communicate with each other across the boundaries of our species.
Unwittingly, I found myself imagining her in some kind of doggy heaven. I wanted to write a liturgy for her that involved running free and sighted, with those long silky ears streaming out behind her like Snoopy on a mission. I wanted her to be whole again, to be the dog she had been as a young poodle. But she wasn't and to be honest, part of the interconnectedness we had grew as a result of her frailty. She needed me as much as I needed her.
So why this yearning after some place of perfection? Why this desire to have things as they were in a time I fondly, but probably mistakenly thought was heavenly?
Health funding, or the lack of it, always makes good press. Friday morning's Herald led with the headline, 'Patients wait as theatres lie idle'. Buried further down the story is the more accurate reality that health dollars need to fund a lot more than just elective surgery and there will never be enough money to meet all our expectations. But the hit has already been made. The headline buys into and encourages a sense of injustice by highlighting the idea that good people are missing out on something that is their right.
We live with a list of expectations, impossible to satisfy and if we explore a little, discover they are often not of our own making. Our bodies are tested, cut, poked and sutured to get them upright again and back in the race. We probe our families and relationships for signs of dysfunction lest any of us grow up traumatised by the reality of our own lives. We want our kids to have an education that will make them competitive in the job market.
Our own work history must show enough flexibility to denote broad experience and ability to cope with change, without sounding as though we are unreliable job hoppers. And to top it all, we must pay off our flexi mortgages as fast as possible, preferably on a home that does not leak, so that we can get on with the creation of wealth, which is meant to give us choices in life. And if you haven't cosseted yourself from hurt or dis-ease with all that, then a good course of psychotherapy will do the trick.
Today's gospel is an interesting one. The characters are not prepared to believe that Mary's son, someone familiar, ordinary, whose foibles were well known to them, could amount to much. Or was it that this local carpenter was just not fitting in? He kept doing and saying annoying things that taken seriously, would upset the way they did things around there.
Jesus was on about living differently. His wisdom suggests an intentional life that is actively concerned with challenging the values and behaviours of the most powerful and wealthy. Taken seriously, it can be personally disturbing.
Canvas; the new weekend magazine, this week has an article titled 'Basic Instinct'. It says that while 'men's manners have improved markedly since Genghis Khan's day… at heart,... we're the same animals we were 800 years ago. Which is to say we are status-seekers. We may talk of equality and fraternity. We may strive for classless societies. But we go right on building hierarchies, and jockeying for status within them'. And this is not just a male thing, it's just that men, apparently, 'pursue it more doggedly than females at every stage of life.'
Perhaps this inherent dissatisfaction with our raw selves and inherent grasping for more, may well have fuelled some of the heavenly theology that despite space travel and an understanding of the infinite nature of the universe, remains difficult to live without.
Every generation has to deal with their own set of what are, at heart, outrageous expectations. Continuous quality improvement and striving for a better world are of themselves positive aspirations but I wonder if there is a point where the longing for more or better becomes a rejection of self and the imperfect, messy lives that most of us have to grapple with.
This relentless engagement with the exterior, with getting on and making something of ourselves in life, resulting in try to meet the outrageous expectations, ensures we avoid the journey to the interior where hard questions threaten to turn our world upside down.
Some of the most difficult questions we face are about what we believe. What we believe or the set of principles we base our life on, provide the structure for our understanding of life's purpose - or put another way, is the thread of meaning running through our life. This thread of meaning, this belief system comes into sharp focus during hard times. It stands or falls on whether it makes sense to us at times of pain and loss.
Sometimes we are distraught, because the beliefs we had some years ago have not stood the test of time. It seems as though God has deserted us. Belief is not meant to be static and time bounded. As we grow and develop our understanding of our self and our world, our way of making meaning has to match this development. Our theology, what we understand about the godstuff, has to change to fit this developing vision.
Neil Darragh, an Auckland theologian, a local lad, encourages the development of an Earth centred spirituality. When he speaks about the Earth, he doesn't just mean this spinning ball we are attached to, instead the whole atmosphere is included. And so we live within the Earth, not on it.
He wonders if we could perceive ourselves as an interdependent part of the whole Earth? He asks, what if God is about location and not so much about being? What if God is located within the Earth along with us, and elderly poodles?
These interconnectedness ideas are already part of our common café conversation. They gain purchase in society because they make sense of our context and our understanding of life. And more, this theology offers a way for people to be involved, do their bit for the Earth, even if it's as small as putting out the recycling every week.
But taking on these theological ideas challenges us to rework the old words and ideas that we used to describe meaning. We are forced to redefine the concepts of sacred and holy. To relinquish the idea that these are things separate and apart. Instead we have a growing understanding that by living within this Earth, we are living within the sacred and holy every day of our lives. The challenge of Jesus remains. How are we to live intentionally within this sacred Earth?
We said goodbye to Lucy the Poodle on Friday night and returned her ashes to the care of the Earth. My expectation is that she is gently absorbed back into the Earth's burning heart, becoming part of the ongoing re-creation, bringing life and hope to us all.
May she and all of those people and beings we have loved, walk with us in the day and companion us through the long nights.
May the memory of their love inspire us to live now, in this moment, content in the love that surrounds and surprises us at every turn.