I made a new ‘friend’ last year. A beautiful black Australian swan with a red beak. This last couple of weeks I have seen him again by a pond near where we are staying. I don’t have a name for my friend yet, yet already I have learned things and been comforted by his presence each day. When we think of friends that accompany us on our journey of life and death, we tend to naturally think of humans. But there is a non-human world all around us of beauty, and at times awe and even terror, that encourages, warns, and comforts us. Are our eyes open?
This kind of Australian swan is extremely rare in the United States. I learned last week that originally there was a mate to him but she had died a few years ago. I don’t know the circumstances of how these swans were introduced to the community I am staying in. As with any friend, we want to know more about their story and life. That is true for my interest in my swan friend. Sometimes we can feel very alone in this world, but all around us is the amazing world of creation longing to speak to us, to be known. Yet often in our busy lives we miss the messages they can bring, the wisdom they can impart.
When Jesus was on earth He spoke of this learning from creation several times: think of the encouragement in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6 and verses following from 26, where we are to ‘look’ or ‘consider’ the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. (I wrote a blog post about these verses; Have you ever seen a frustrated tulip? Or a worried bird?)
The other day I was reading in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, also filled with life lessons and learning from ‘friends’ in the non-human world. In chapter 24, verses 30-34, the wisdom is to learn from the overgrown field of the sluggard. We listen to the field and learn, in this case lessons of warning and caution for our own lives. When our eyes begin to open, we see all around the encouragements and warnings from ‘friends’ in creation.
Now of course we do need human friends. I am so blessed to have many, including people that I have walked closely with in life and ministry for over 40 years, and some even longer back to childhood. But there is a place for having our hearts expanded to be open to the birds, trees, and so many other diverse expressions of the non-human world. Think of the love and comfort many of us receive from cats or dogs. Such loving companions. Last year about this time we lost our companion of 15 years, Laney. She was a beautiful Labrador-Terrier mix, feisty yet so very loving. We got her as a one year old when we had first returned from India, and she had been there for all our difficult family transitions in the years after. When I suffered from long Covid over many months, she would lay next to me, the perfect ‘comfort’ dog. I learned so many lessons from her life, but more than that she was a friend.
For those of you who have loved and lost a pet/friend like Laney, whether when you were small or as recently as now, you know what I am talking about in this post. There is always so much going on around us in the non-human world, so much to learn from and receive from and give to if we will only open our ears and eyes and hearts. Two years ago this week, we were in a very deep personal time of grief and loss as we had heard of several friends and colleagues from India that had died from covid. It was an awful second wave in India, and for a while it seemed like it would never end. Right in the middle of that time, my wife and I went to the beautiful Oregon coast where I had been invited to officiate at the wedding of a very close friend from our years in India. That wedding was a a time of intense hope for me in a season of darkness. As I walked the beach those three mornings while we were there, I saw the huge rock off the coast and it became my friend. You can read more about this in my post: A Very Present Help in Trouble
Who are your companions on your life journey, or your journey at times of loss and darkness and death? We all need human friends, people to be close to in all these seasons. But where are your non-human friends? What ar thee birds of the air speaking to you today? Or the solid and unmoving mountain before your eyes? Or the arid desert with its places of hot springs welling up at times? Sometimes we learn actively from these friends, and sometimes just like with human friends we rest and sit in silence and companion together.
I am so grateful for my non-human companions on this journey called life.