Monday, July 14, 2008

Elephants

I woke up this morning thinking about elephants. And I'm not talking the cute little figurines that people have been prone to buy for me because I've indicated an interest. I'm not talking Dumbo, either. No, I refer to the enormous mammals that actually live, breath and struggle for life along with us on this planet. Elephants have been a passion of mine since many years ago when I watched a National Geographic video about a certain family of African elephants, labeled by researchers the E family. Who knows what elephants name themselves--they haven't bothered to tell us--but those who study elephants name them, both in family groups and individually. So this program I saw was about a baby male elephant who was born with a disability: his front feet curled under so when he walked (which took him a much longer time than normal), he walked on what would be our ankles. But walk he did, and increasingly quickly too. Soon he was almost keeping up with the rest of the family. And the older members of the clan accepted him as a full member in good standing, so to speak.

It was a profound documentary and led me (as many subjects have in my life) to further research about these magnificent creatures. Over the years, I've read everything I can find about African elephants and have learned that they are an almost utopic kind of society. More than any other mammals, even the vaulted dolphins we consider our intellectual equals, elephants live in community. They care for each other's calves, help each other in illness, midwife for each other--it's incredible how they get on each side of a female in labor to hold her up until the last moments of birthing. Their 'voices' are used in different ways for different situations--there is a long low blast (so low it cannot be heard by a naked human ear, but has been discovered via sound equipment) used to call between clans from as far away as several miles. Researchers believe this call is meant to help tribes of families march toward each other, relay information about water holes, etc. When families meet in the savanna, they trumpet, a joyous sound that is as welcoming as any human greeting. And when they are in trouble their trumpet is a a different noise altogether.
And elephants always--always--recognize the bones of their own kind. They can walk right over other kinds of bones in the plains, but elephant bones make them stop, paw the bones, and make a long keening sound. Even more interesting--compelling-- they differentiate between the bones of an unknown elephant and one of their own family. The cries they make when they come across their own is heartwrenching.

Needless to say, I have fallen in love with these giants of the plains of Africa (I am less drawn to Asian elephants--I just don't know as much about them), these creatures of the enormous trunks, feet, and ears that are--did you know this?--shaped exactly like the continent on which they roam. My interest in them has made me long to see them, though, unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer elephants roaming the savannas. Drought and humans have depleted their number from the tens of thousands that used to dwell on the grasslands of Africa.

The more I've learned of them, the more I've imagined what it would be like if the church of Jesus Christ lived and breathed and had its being in the kind of community elephants have. OK, there are some pitfalls to this dream, most significant that male elephants, beyond puberty, are expelled from the clan to make their way alone. Full-grown bull elephants have one purpose, to expand the family. Only when a cow elephant is in heat is a bull accepted, and even then, it's a temporary and uncomfortable acceptance, never by the entire matriarchal community. Sure, in my worst moments, I find even this somewhat appealing--but those are only in the heat of battle, so to speak. Really, what would I do without the Beve--and my now full-grown son--in my daily life? Actually, I can't imagine living in a world in which he lives but isn't my Beve.
But other than this small thing (smile!), elephant community has much to teach me about what God wants for His bride. Involved in all the important events in life, helping, encouraging, accepting the weaker members and making concessions for them. Even taking time to mourn the dead as often as we think of them. Perhaps there are gossips among elephants, perhaps some cows are critical and pessimistic. But from the outside, without knowing their language, this is hard to see. So walking with the elephants, walking like the elephants has been a giant-sized illustration of walking in a manner worthy of Christ (have you noticed how this is a recurrent theme on this blog--an in my life?).

"As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Ephesians 4: 1-3

P.S. There are other pictures out there, I think. God populated this planet with all kinds of animal pictures for us to learn of Kingdom life. All those who mate for life like wolves and swans (and lobsters, as SK points out!), for instance. Maybe to balance exclusion of male elephants illustration, I should learn about them--for Beve's sake...and my own. Hmm, stay posted.

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