Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Jesus, John and Daniel Striped Tiger

The following is the text of a message delivered during worship by ESR student Travis Etling on September 22, 2015. 

(Daniel and Travis)

Part I.
Description of Cornville
I want to start this morning with a story.  And before I tell the story, I want to give you the context for the story – because I was paying attention in my biblical studies classes and I know that context is everything!  I also want to minimize or at least contextualize my own questionable behavior in this story. 
     The context for this story is a sheep ranch in Cornville Arizona circa 1984; which is where I grew up - from early grade school through early high school.  Let me paint a quick picture for you.  First of all, there is no corn in Cornville.  Local legend has it that the founders of the town were named Coen.  When the clerk recorded the name of the town over the phone, she assumed the Coen’s were saying “corn” with a southern accent.  This is a highly dubious explanation I know, but that’s the story.
     Cornville is in the high desert.  There are rugged mountains, scrubby trees like mesquite and juniper.  Cornville is in the Verde Valley, which means “green valley” in Spanish so it’s not your typical desert scene – no sand dunes or saguaro cacti – its actually quite green depending on the year.  There is quite a bit of surface water.  Our property was sandwiched between an irrigation ditch along the top of the ten acre pasture and the Oak Creek river which ran along the bottom of our ranch.  The pasture was actually flood irrigated - which is why there is no more water in the Western United States.  Actually the golf courses in Nevada and Phoenix probably have more to do with that.  Anyway, you have a sense of the physical landscape – rugged but also lots of room to run and play and grow gardens and raise sheep – really very idyllic. 

The Culture of Cornville
     Now for the cultural landscape.  Cornville was tiny – there were two corner stores where you could buy milk or gasoline.  BUT, also available for purchase in Cornville, at the local survivalist store, one could buy an Uzi assault rifle.  If you chose to buy the Uzi, you could also buy a kit to convert the legal semi-automatic weapon into an illegal fully automatic weapon at the same store. 
     If you have been anywhere near the Verde Valley, you’ll know about Sedona, situated among gorgeous red, yellow and orange cliffs and mesas.  Sedona has been a center for New Age Spirituality for decades.  This Verde Valley region is somehow really representative of Arizona culture in general – a strong interest in New Age and Native American spirituality paired with a wild, frontier mentality - an interesting mix of New Age belief and 2nd amendment activism.  Cornville Arizona was truly a magical place to grow up – surreal and a little creepy perhaps, but also magical.  I’m just providing you with some cultural reference points – not that this excuses what I’m about to tell you next – but it provides some context.  Basically, in 1984, Cornville Arizona was physically and culturally still the Wild West.
4-H Family
     What we did in Cornville was 4-H.  Cornville was a 4-H kind of town and my family was a 4-H kind of family.  I can still say the 4-H pledge.  Anyway, I was very involved in 4-H, I participated in gardening and raising livestock including sheep and swine.  I also did entomology, conservation and for a very brief time, trapping.
     Trapping is as bad as it sounds, it’s truly awful.  Trapping involves setting steel leg traps for animals like raccoons, muskrats, and coyotes and then walking the trap line with a gun and shooting whatever poor animal may be stuck in the trap.  I know, it’s awful – I can’t believe my parents allowed me to do this.  But they did.  Before I go any further with this part of the story though, I need to tell you about my cat Daniel.
Daniel Striped Tiger
     Before we lived in Cornville, we lived in Tucson.  My cat Daniel was born in Tucson several years prior to the events in this story.  Daniel was the only orange striped cat born to a cat named Tabby Abby.  Tabby Abby had a litter of kittens that were all white – all except Daniel who was orange striped.  I begged my mom to let me keep the orange kitten and she finally agreed.  My favorite TV show at the time was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood - because I was in preschool.  If you know Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, you know that there is a character who is an orange cat, a puppet and his name is Daniel Striped Tiger.  Daniel Striped Tiger is one of many puppets who live in The Land of Make Believe.  Some of the other characters are King Friday, Queen Saturday, Prince Tuesday and Lady Elaine.  Daniel Striped Tiger was one of my favorite characters from Mr. Rogers, so, I named my orange cat Daniel.
Daniel was a Really Amazing Cat
     Daniel was a really cool cat – he behaved more like a dog that a cat.  He would come when you called him, he would accompany me on my various exploits and missions out in the desert – or fishing down at the creek.  Daniel survived the harsh Arizona landscape – and we went through a lot of cats – the coyotes and rattlesnakes were really hard on the cats!  I have a picture of my college graduation in State College Pennsylvania and Daniel is there in the background – so he survived to a ripe old age and lived his final years as a mostly indoor cat, in the civil and much milder landscape of Pennsylvania.
Trapping Daniel
     Anyway, long story short, I took my traps down to the Oak Creek that ran along the bottom of the pasture and set a couple of traps baited with tuna.  This was the very first time I ever trapped.  The next morning, I got up and checked my traps.  I was excited.  I had my .22 rifle.  As I approached the first trap, I could tell there was something caught and thrashing around in the underbrush.  I moved forward quickly through the brush, my heart pumping like crazy – and you can probably guess what or more precisely who was thrashing around in the trap.  Daniel. 
     Daniel was obviously in distress, his right foreleg caught in the trap and he was kind of limping around in a circle, yowling.  The rest of the memory is kind of a blur. I lay down the rifle, went to Daniel and released him from the trap.  Tears were streaming down my face.  Daniel didn’t try to bite me or scratch me while I pried open the heavy steel jaws of the trap.  He was relatively calm.  I carried Daniel as quickly as I could across the pasture and up to our house where my mom promptly drove us to the animal hospital. He had this ridiculous cast on his leg that went all the way to his shoulder – but eventually, after a few weeks, his leg healed and he was back out following me toward adventure out in the desert.
Theological Hints
     This experience gave me a lot to think about.  I never even considered whether or not to continue trapping.  I never gave it a second thought.  I gave the traps to the 4-H leader in charge of that club and I quit the club.  I was done with trapping.  Though I wouldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, my experience of Daniel’s suffering led me to have compassion for other animals.  I didn’t want anything to suffer like Daniel, so I stopped trapping. Of course, I also didn’t want to catch Daniel again either.  In my experience of Daniel’s suffering, I had a window into suffering in general.  It was an enlightenment moment, it was a salvation moment, a moment with depth, a moment touched by the mystery of God.  In my experience of Daniels suffering, I was opened to a deep experience of compassion, empathy and responsibility.  
Part II
     In A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman, Michael Birkel writes:

The issue of suffering is central to all systems of religious thought.  In Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Job stands out as an extended meditation on the meaning of suffering.  In Christianity, reflection on suffering often focuses on the meaning of the cross – the suffering of Jesus – because Christian belief holds that God through Jesus entered into human history and took on human suffering.  What is more, the suffering and death of Jesus are understood and experienced to be redemptive.
     John Woolman’s reflections on the cross are profound because they grow out of his inward experience of participating in the sufferings of Christ… Woolman felt led to enter, with the greatest respect and sympathy, into the suffering of the oppressed in order to participate in the ongoing process of redeeming the world.”[1]  

     John Woolman’s story is fascinating and inspiring to me for a variety of reasons. He was both a contemplative and an activist, both a mystic and a prophet.  He was grounded in his experience of the love and presence of God – a presence that lured him out beyond himself and his particular tradition to witness prophetically to the broader society.  I appreciate Woolman because he lived actively and authentically in the space between loving God and loving neighbor – a space which Jesus identifies as the mystery at the very heart of his teaching and tradition. 
     Woolman’s love for neighbor led him to expose himself to suffering in a variety of ways.  He traveled throughout the country in order to witness to slaveholders - to share his concern with slaveholders about the immorality of the practice.  Woolman however was not just trying to liberate slaves but also trying to liberate slaveholders.  He recognized the damage being caused not only to the slaves but also to the souls of the slaveholders.  Woolman’s religious imagination was rich – it allowed him to recognize that this category “neighbor” is broad and inclusive – that it includes both slave and slaveholder.
     Woolman understood that slave keeping “depraves the mind in like manner and with as great certainty as prevailing cold congeals water” and therefore can “shut up the mind against the gentle movings of uncreated purity.”  He seems to understand intuitively and spiritually what we know to be true today based on neuroscience:  when we practice empathy, when we open ourselves to compassion, we become better at it.[2]   Compassion is a skill.  But, we don’t just improve our behavior through the practice of this skill, we actually change the structure of our brains as we practice compassion.  The neural connections that fire when we open ourselves to empathy are reinforced and strengthened.  When we resist or shelter ourselves from the experience of suffering, compassion and empathy, we gradually lose some of our ability to be empathetic – those neural connections are physically weakened.  George Lakoff is one of the cognitive neuro-scientists who writes about this.  If you are interested, his books are very readable and non-technical.  They are fascinating. 
     While sailing to England, Woolman chose to ride in “steerage” rather than the more comfortable and expensive cabins.  Woolman wanted to experience the conditions that people suffered in steerage.  Woolman even expressed gratitude for this desire to understand suffering:
Desires were now renewed in me to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardships and difficulties of my fellow creatures and to labor in his love for the spreading of pure universal righteousness in the earth.[3]
Part III
     In each of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Mathew and Luke, Jesus describes the project that is at the very heart of the Christian tradition.  In Mark and Matthew, this teaching is identified as the “most important commandment.” In Luke, this teaching is described as the thing that will allow you to experience eternal life.  Here is the version from Matthew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (NRSV)

What is most striking to me about the great commandment is its tone.  Jesus’ teaching is passionate, excessive and even hyperbolic.  “All your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”  This project that involves loving God and neighbor doesn’t seem to be a peripheral concern, not something we do on the side or on the weekend but rather the central reality around which we organize our whole lives.  Surely this includes our material practices, our personal choices, how we organize our time and our political commitments?  What is most striking to me when I read this teaching is that I’m not even close to approaching the mark.
     The other thing that strikes me about this passage is just how tricky it is  – clear, maybe but also very tricky. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind? 
     In the version of the great commandment that we read in the book of Luke, the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify: who precisely is my neighbor?  Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, you remember that a man is beaten and left for dead by bandits.  The first person to come upon the victim is a priest – someone who should have been a good guy.  Yet the Priest shelters himself from the suffering Samaritan – he walks over to the other side of the road where he doesn’t have to experience the suffering, he doesn’t have to look the man in the eye, or see his blood, or hear his groaning.  The next person to come down the road is a Levite – again someone who by external standards should have been sympathetic to the man.  Yet the Levite does the same thing as the priest, he insulates himself from the suffering of the victim.  He looks the other way.  And the next person to come by is the last person we would expect to be helpful – a Samaritan, someone we would want to deport, or identify as an evildoer.  So this foreigner, this sketchy, Samaritan “comes near him; and when he sees him, he is moved with pity.”  He sees the blood, the torn skin.  He gets close enough to hear the ragged, labored breathing.  The Samaritan allows himself to be exposed to this particular suffering and is moved with empathy and compassion to take responsibility for the man in need.
*          *          *
     Many, though not all, Christians throughout history have understood that Jesus’ suffering is somehow redemptive. I also think that when suffering is experienced by people who are able to respond with empathy and responsibility, suffering can be redemptive because it allows us to participate in the ongoing redemption of the world.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow shows us that we are at one with all creation.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow mirrors for us all the suffering in the world.  I’m convinced that how precisely Jesus reconciles us with God is a profound mystery rather than a simple formula.  Christians should approach this mystery with imagination and contemplation and allow the images and to speak to our condition, to interpret us.  This isn’t a problem to solve with our rational, empirical understanding, not a puzzle for constructive theology to work out but rather a depth into which we are called to descend.
     It seems that both Jesus and John Woolman were inhabited by the Spirit of God.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be with and for those who suffer because God is with and for those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be in solidarity with those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be willing to be exposed to suffering, because we are grounded in the mystery and compassion of God.
*        *          *
     I wonder how often we organize our lives in ways that shield us from suffering because it can be uncomfortable – and this gets to the trickiness of the great commandment.  The kingdom of God involves risk.  I don’t want to make anybody feel bad about the ways that we live our lives, its natural and rational to avoid trouble and suffering.  It’s natural and rational to avoid the sketchy part of town or the individual who might take advantage of us.  Maybe though we should periodically and deliberately disrupt this habit of security in small ways in order to be exposed to opportunities to participate in the redemption of the world. 

Travis Etling is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Travis on his blog,

[1] Michael Birkel, A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman (Richmond IN:  Friends United Press, 2003), 57-58.
[2] George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2014), Kindle location 137.
[3] John Woolman. John Woolman’s Journal, p. 172.  Quoted in Birkel in A Near Sympathy p. 65

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