The Greatest Friend

On Sunday, we sang the song “Whom Shall I Fear” by Chris Tomlin and I was struck by a specific line in the chorus – “He is a friend of mine.” That doesn’t seem like a profound statement unless you realize I didn’t capitalize “He” because it was at the start of a sentence. The song is all about how I don’t have to be afraid of anything because God is there for me. He’s not just there as an impersonal guardian, or as a referee making sure you follow the rules. He is my friend. When I sat down to write this, I started thinking of another song for which the chorus is “I am a friend of God. He calls me friend.” (“Friend of God” by Phillips, Craig & Dean)

But, does that really appear in the Bible? I remember Abraham being called a friend of God and Moses talking face to face with God as a friend would. Where does it say that I am His friend – that someone without the historical significance of these great men can claim that title? Let me check…

John 15:14 – “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Well, that seems pretty clear. All I have to do is obey God and He will be my friend. But what about the times when I am rebellious? I’m pretty sure God isn’t just a fair-weather friend.

John 15:15 – “I do not call you slaves anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father.” – Ah, so we are His friends because He taught us everything He heard from the Father. We were slaves, so we were kind of obligated to listen, right? Not true. A slave or servant can choose not to listen to their master. There will likely be consequences, but it is something they can do.

Luke 12:4 “And I say to you, My friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” Oh, that’s just Jesus talking to his disciples. I’m not literally His friend like that. Jesus may have been speaking to certain people face to face, but I’m pretty sure He is talking to all believers, too.

John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.” Hmm, I guess Jesus really was serious about using the word “friend” to refer to believers, because this verse combined with the next one makes a pretty strong point. You bet!

Ephesians 5:2 “And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.”

Jesus Himself said that someone who dies for his friends has the greatest love for them. I can’t think of any greater friend than Jesus.


The Very Different Tree

I love being in the forest. The commanding presence of the trees feels comforting and secure. Clearly, I’m not the only one to feel this way, since forests are often used in stories and folklore as places of hiding (for heroes and villains), as shielding barriers, and as valuable resources. Each type of tree has been ascribed attributes and described as if they are benevolent entities or sources of power in many pagan traditions. After sifting out the mysticism, here are some of the things I learned about how Europeans historically viewed and used different species of trees.

Alder – the alder tree is found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, usually in wet areas. This may have led people to discover that the oily wood is quite water resistant. In fact, many of the foundations in Venice, Italy, are made from alder wood.

Ash – the wood of the ash tree is straight-grained, sturdy, and somewhat flexible. Through history, ash has been a wood of choice for spear handles, which needed to be straight and strong. It can also be found in the structure of old looms for weaving cloth or split and bent as supports for baskets. Today, it is a popular choice for baseball bats, guitars, and stair treads.

Birch – birch trees are very good at establishing themselves in bare patches of ground, often founding new forests. There are so many historic uses for birch! The bark was used to write on and to line the hulls of canoes, the inner bark contains compounds able to treat different diseases, much of the tree is edible, and the sap, which can be made into syrup, was a source of sugar in northern climates.

Elm – elms are particularly resistant to cracking and splitting. It is considered a very stable, supportive wood. The inner bark is often cut into strips and used as cane to weave the seats and backs of chairs.

Pine – considered a “sweet” tree, pine was often used for its aromatic properties. The scent is used to help clear clogged lungs. And if you don’t mind the strong taste, the needles are a good source of vitamin C.

Poplar – poplar trees often grow in damp areas, giving shade to marshy ground. The wood is strong and was used to make shields. Because of this, it is seen as a very protective and comforting tree.

Willow – willow is widely considered to be a very flexible tree. Weeping varieties even have branches that droop, giving them a sad appearance that represents mourning in literature. One of the important features of willow is that the flowers appear very early in the spring, even before the leaves, giving bees a good source of food early in the year.

Yew – though most of the yew tree is poisonous, the flesh of the berries can be used medicinally. In fact, there is even a treatment for cancer derived from yew berries. The wood is very strong and flexible, making it a popular choice for bows, both for hunting and for battle.

You may be wondering what sparked this sudden interest in the qualities of trees. Well, on Sunday I arrived at my church to see that they had changed the decorations on the platform to a wintery scene. The back of the stage was lined with leafless birch trees. Lights shone up from the bases of the trees to paint them with colour. Contrasted against the black wall behind them, the trees radiated eerie beauty. But my eyes were constantly drawn to one particular tree. It stood in the very center and contrasted with the white and coloured bark of the birches. It was a cross. Though it doesn’t grow leaves or send roots deep into the soil, the Bible often refers to the cross as a tree.

I Peter 2:24 “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds.”

Galatians‬ ‭3:13‬ “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.”

Acts 5: 30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree.”

So as I looked at the cross in the middle of those birch trees, I thought of it as a tree rooted in my heart. It is a strong foundation, like an alder. It is sturdy like ash. It is nourishing like birch. It is resistant like elm. It is sweet like pine. It is protective like poplar. It is a symbol of sorrow like willow. It is healing like yew. The cross is the most special tree of all.



The Heartbeat

I felt pretty special when the vet gave me my own job to do. I was just a High School age intern at the Cherry Brook Zoo in my hometown, but I was given an important job. The vet had been called in to check on a llama that she had treated a while ago for a broken leg. The cast had to come of in order for the vet to check on the strength of the leg and that required her to sedate the llama. The zookeeper, the vet, and I herded the fluffy white llama into a small barn in the exhibit and prepared to work. The vet gave her a quick injection with a sedative and we waited. Slowly she sank to her knees, then onto her stomach, and finally onto her side. She wasn’t completely unconscious, but she was pretty close and not worried at all when the three of us surrounded her.

The vet straightened out the leg with the cast and prepared her cast-cutting saw. “Okay, I need you guys to hold onto her, just in case she starts to wake up and try to move around.” The zookeeper I was shadowing that day moved to hold the llama’s other front leg and her head. I knelt down behind her and wrapped my arms loosely around the llama’s torso. The wool was so thick, my arms seemed to sink into the animal’s side.

“Can you feel her breathing?” the vet asked me.

“Yes, I can. She is taking slow, deep breaths.”

“Good, you be sure to tell me if that changes, especially if she stops breathing.”

It made me feel so good to be helping with such an important task, rather than just standing out of the way and watching. I was fascinated as I watched the saw cut into the plaster and expose the wooly leg. Things were healing well but the vet was concerned about there being enough strength in the leg for the llama to get around in her rocky enclosure after having a cast on for quite a while. She decided to let her wake up in the barn and stay there for a few hours before she went outside again. After some of the amazing things I’ve seen this far in my zoo career, this simple cast removal seems a bit mundane. But it will still be the first time I helped out with a vet procedure on one of “my” animals, and that’s why it sticks in my mind.

Sometimes events are so poignant, or intense, or infuriating, or joyful that we remember them easily. Other times we need little things to remind us of specifics. You would think that having God come down and die a horrible death just to take away our sins would be an amazing enough thing for us to remember all the time, but Jesus knew what humans are like. He knew we would need a reminder. He set up that reminder during what we call “The Last Supper,” when Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples right before he would be crucified. He took a piece of bread and compared it to His body that would be broken and He took a cup of wine and compared it to His blood that would be poured out. It was to be a reminder of His sacrifice, one that was easy for us to replicate and continue to practice. Paul said it this way in I Corinthians 11:26 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

My church practices this reminder, called communion, once a month. Last Sunday, we took unleavened bread, shared it around, and ate it together to remember His body. We then passed around little cups filled with grape juice to remember His blood. As I was holding my tiny plastic cup in my lap with both hands, I just stared down at the deep red juice. The lights on the ceiling were reflecting on the top as little yellow dots. I tried to hold the cup as still as I could, something I remember trying to do since I was young. Even though the cup wasn’t moving and I was sitting as still as possible, the yellow light spots kept jumping around. Then I realized why. My heartbeat, the blood pulsing through my fingertips, was making the surface of the juice vibrate. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park where the glass of water shakes in time to the T-Rex footsteps. But this wasn’t water. It was deep red juice reminding me of my Saviour’s blood. Blood that was once pumped by His heartbeat and was poured out for my sins. It was as if I was seeing God’s heartbeat right there in my hands.

And can it be that I should gain

An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood.

Died He for me, who caused His pain?

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be?

That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be

That Thou, my God, should die for me!

He left His Father’s throne above,

So free, so infinite His grace;

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race;

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me.

Amazing love! How can it be

That Thou, my God, should die for me!

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in Him is mine!

Alive in Him, my living Head;

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love! How can it be

That Thou, my God, should die for me!”

– “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” By Charles Wesley

The Empty Container

We zookeepers are often the ultimate scavengers, the champions of reusing and repurposing. Did a tree just fall down? Bring the leafy branches for the antelope to browse on, give the sticks to the bird department for nesting material, and divide the logs among the primate department, the carnivore keepers, and the elephant barn. Getting ready to throw out old newspapers? Give them to the budgie keepers instead. They always need them to cover cage bottoms. Got a flower pot that broke in half? Give it to the reptile department. It would be perfect for their new lizard to hide under.

I always love coming up with new uses for empty packaging and containers. In the bird house exhibits I looked after, I hated that the food bowls just sat on the ledge, looking super out of place in the natural surroundings. It took me a while to come up with a solution, but one day when I was taking out some recycling, I saw a bleach bottle in the plastics bin. “That looks about the same diameter as our round food bowls, the ones I use for the hornbills and aracaris,” I thought. Sure enough when I cut the top off of the bleach bottle, the bowl fit right inside. I set to work with some paint, moss, artificial plants, and a glue gun. Voila, a food bowl stand that blended in (well, mostly) to the naturalistic exhibit! Here’s El Macho, the aracari, getting ready for a snack.

Another one of my favourite re-purposings actually came about when I was cleaning out an old storage bin. It was one of those plastic sets of drawers with the white supports and the clear drawers. The bottom drawer was full of old enrichment toys that were broken or un-usable (yeah, zookeepers are often that kind of packrat, too). The middle drawer held supplies for weighing our hawk and owls, and the top drawer held the gloves for handling the birds of prey. Sounds like a fairly good system, but there was one big problem: we tried to use the top of the set of drawers to store things on. Turns out if you stack too many things on top of those, the plastic tends to buckle. And by “things” I mean 30 or so towels plus anything else we happened to toss up there. It got to the point that you could barely open the top drawer and the towels stacked on top didn’t like to stay put. My supervisor mentioned that we should clean that thing out and get rid of it. So on a day when I was looking for an indoor project, I set to work on it. After cleaning out all of the drawers and throwing away anything that was truly useless or broken, I used one of the drawers as a basic bin to hold the supplies for the bird of prey handling and weighing and was about to see if I could recycle the rest of the plastic pieces when I realized I could utilize it instead. In the area of the bird house that I was responsible for, I had lots of items stored on a long low bench, and the rest of my supplies on the top of an air filter attached to the wall. Even without the top or top drawer, the other two drawers would be perfect for holding some of the tools in there. I washed up the supports and the other two drawers and pulled them into South Tunnel, the area I worked in. The whole thing fit perfectly under the air exchange filter and didn’t stick out any farther from the wall. It was just how I wanted it. I filled the second drawer, now just an open topped bin on a stand, with the enrichment items for my birds and used the lower drawer to hold bulletin board decorations after they had been used, just in case I could reuse them.

This morning in church, I thought of that broken, dirty plastic set of drawers and how they became just the thing I needed. We were singing a song called Overcome that was fairly new to me and one of the lines struck me: “And for every fear there is an empty grave. For the risen One has overcome.” I know that the line was intended to mean that the empty tomb shows us that Jesus overcame our fears, but for some reason, I thought of it a different way. I read it as if every fear was being put in the empty grave Jesus left behind when He was resurrected. The tomb was just like that plastic set of drawers: it did its job well for a time, but then it was no longer needed for that purpose. Instead of holding supplies for taking care of raptors, the drawers became storage for papers and pictures. Instead of holding the sacrificed Lamb of God, the tomb can now be used by us to drop off our fears, our sins, our failings, and anything else that weighs us down. When we decide to follow Jesus, He takes everything that separates us from Him and tosses it into a little cave somewhere in a garden in Israel as if He was dropping a bag of putrid waste down a garbage chute. He will never see it again. He will only see us, shining and full of new life.

“Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” Romans 6:4-5

Overcome – Elevation Worship

The Gap

I must apologize for my silence on this page recently. There are two – well, I was going to say “very good reasons” but the first one is actually lame – I just got lazy and didn’t write anything. The second reason is better and a bit more complicated.

For the past 12 years, I worked as a zookeeper in Memphis, TN. I don’t think I ever mentioned my location before, out of respect for the zoo’s policy on social media. I mention it now because, unfortunately, I am no longer working at the Memphis Zoo. I had a good job and liked where I was but I am a Canadian and had a work visa allowing me to work in the States. At the beginning of June, my visa was up for renewal and, due to a different interpretation of my job description, my visa request was denied. So, I was in a bit of a pickle. I had to tell my employer I wasn’t allowed to come back to work, I had to list my house for sale, and had to make my way back to Canada. Even though all of this was a shock, I felt content and fortunate. God had everything under control.

Several things made this the perfect time for all of this to happen.

1. I had recently gone from being a keeper in charge of one exhibit full time to being what is called a swing keeper – someone who is trained in several different areas and is scheduled wherever needed. This made my absence a bit easier for my boss to cover with a fellow swing keeper. It also had allowed me to emotionally step back from total involvement with one group of animals to a more general care for a large variety.

2. I had recently applied for a job in Canada. I was really hoping to get that job, so I was already emotionally preparing to leave Memphis. Sadly, I didn’t get that job but I am still looking with a knowledge that God will put me where He needs me.

3. My house sold very quickly. Over the last several years, I had been doing some upgrades on the house, functional and cosmetic, so that helped. Also, the market in Memphis was primed for a quick sale.

4. This one is the most important. My very supportive parents were able to help me sort everything out and helped me move back home. I would have had a very difficult time if I had to do all of that without their advice, support, and assistance.

I hope that explains the long gap between blogs. I also hope that it helps someone see that your whole life can turn upside down and God keeps your world turning. I’m still in limbo between jobs, but at least I know I’m not stuck in it. God has a plan. I just don’t know what it is yet.

For I know the plans I have for you”-this is the Lord’s declaration-“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

The Common Question

When people find out that I’m a zookeeper, one of their first questions is “What is your favourite animal?” I usually say that it is too hard to choose, but really I mean “I have so many I don’t want to overwhelm you.” Red Pandas, African Penguins, and Purple Throated Fruit Crows sit near the top of the list but I could go on for a while about many others. But one question I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked is “What is your least favourite animal?” For one, it isn’t a common question like the reverse of it is. For another, I think most people assume that zookeepers love all animals. While that is true in a sense, there are species I have little interest in working with: venomous snakes, most insects, sharks, eels. Again, the list could go on, and I bet if it did, I would surprise you with a few of the entries. Perhaps the most shocking to people is that I don’t really like dogs.

Yep, you read that right. Dogs. They’re everywhere. Most of my coworkers have one or want one.. or twelve. They’re seen as friendly, devoted, loving, funny, and cute. I just don’t get it. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them, though I have a healthy respect for what a dog can do in the wrong circumstances. I just have a deep seated, visceral aversion to them. I can’t really explain it and it seems I can’t really change it, though I have tried. At home, I much prefer the company of cats. Dog people tend to see them as aloof, useless, and grumpy but I love my two fur balls.

I’m thankful that God doesn’t keep a list of “least favourites.” He loves every person. And He isn’t just like Santa Claus with a job to do that includes loving people. He doesn’t give good things to those He loves and skip over those He doesn’t. He doesn’t keep a list of naughty people and a list of nice people. It may seem like He does when the Bible says that there is a special book and if your name is in it, you get to live with Him forever. That book is a list of those who accept His ultimate Love and leaves out those who reject Him. If I were writing that list, it would be biased and constantly changing. But God created us to be loved by Him and glorify Him in return. He wants all of us to choose to have our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. My name is written in there, and, because of His grace, I couldn’t erase it if I tried.

The Extreme

One day when I was scanning through the TV channel guide, I noticed that it must be a slow day for the sports channels because one was showing a spelling bee and the other was showing something unique: Extreme Ironing. Seriously, it exists! Extreme Ironing. Apparently, it was started buy a guy who needed to iron, but wanted to be rock climbing instead.

Ever since that day, I’ve joked that I have my own version of an extreme chore: Extreme Gardening. I practice this “sport” when I have to climb the mountains in my penguin exhibit to care for the plants growing in the small pockets of soil along the sides. It can be a bit crazy to climb the mountain with a bag of tools and a roll of garbage bags. It is also crazy trying to climb back down the mountain with tools and full garbage bags.


Penguin Rock

Recently, I have added a couple of new extreme chores to my list. I was practicing this morning with one of my coworkers who is also training for extreme chores. We started with a session of Extreme Window Cleaning and finished our “workout” with some Extreme Vacuuming. What makes these things extreme? Well, the fact that we have to use SCUBA gear to do them. This morning my coworker and I had to get into our hippo pool (with the hippos locked securely in their stalls of course) and clean the underwater viewing windows before using a pool vacuum to suck up hay and leaves on the bottom of the pool. It can be quite a workout but I find it fun. After an hour in the pool wiping algae off the windows and siphoning the bottom of the pool, I really just wanted to continue swimming around. Instead, I got out of the pool and moved on to more normal chores like feeding birds and washing dishes. Not even in the same league of fun 😉

This got me thinking about some of the things we humans try to do to gain favour with God, or even earn our way into Heaven. Most are “mild” like praying, lighting candles, or trying to live a moral life. Others are much more extreme. In the past, people would punish themselves with itchy clothing or even whip their backs until they bled. Today, there are groups who isolate themselves and live under very strict codes of ethics and rules for living, all to make themselves pleasing to God.

I’m sure there are many more intense ways that people today strive to fulfill the requirements for entering Heaven. But the price is much too high for any human to pay it. God requires absolute perfection and total sacrifice for us to enter Heaven. The good news is that the price has already been paid! Jesus, God’s Son, was born on Earth, lived a completely sinless life, then died in an intense, extreme way, all to pay for my sins and yours. But Jesus’ extreme acts didn’t end there. Three days after being buried, Jesus rose from the dead. The fact that He didn’t stay dead means that His sacrifice was accepted and His work was done. There’s a ticket for Heaven with my name on it, and it is imprinted on my soul so I can never loose it. You can have one, too. All you have to do is acknowledge your need for redemption, accept Jesus sacrifice on your behalf, and ask God to make you His own. No rock climbing or SCUBA required.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that who ever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”