Learning happens all the time. No matter what we are doing in our lives, we are gleaning new information, perfecting past actions, figuring out what will result from our current efforts. Even when we are doing “nothing,” our brains are churning thoughts, processing past experiences, and pondering future possibilities. Life teaches. It’s what it was created to do. My husband and I believe life is a better teacher than we will ever be; after all, when a life is lived fully, few important things slip through its “curriculum.”
A while ago my daughter, Brynna, began talking about chickens. Actually, talking is probably an understatement–obsessing is more like it. Her days were filled with research about how to raise them for eggs, teach them tricks, and what would be required on her part. She prepared herself with facts and figures and then approached me with the possibility of beginning her own egg business.
Impressed by the time she had invested in learning all she had on her own and my sentimentality, I agreed. One-day-old chicks arrived at the post office a couple of months later and the adventure began. Weekly growth was monitored with photos and time was devoted to loving little ones that grew into adolescents. Gangly and awkward adult feathers began to emerge through chick fuzz, and the love affair grew ever stronger between my daughter and her girls.
As questions arose about chicken life, she was faithful in finding the answers in magazines, on the internet, or in books from the library. She patiently waited the six months for an egg to appear in the nesting boxes, all the while learning the unique personalities and quirks of each bird. The day arrived when the first egg appeared. Brynna was thrilled as she preserved the prized treasure by blowing it out and placing the egg on her desk for all to admire.
Day by day the quantity of eggs increased, spurring her quest to know more about egg production and chicken reproduction in general. Her ability to identify which chicken laid which egg was uncanny because of the immense time she spent with them.
Collecting 13 eggs a day, her business had just begun to blossom. The chickens became a part of the entire family’s life. The younger kids loved gathering eggs and feeding them scrap vegetables from our kitchen. I loved the stress relief they provided as I would daily sit next to their run and watch them scratch and take dust baths. Truly they were a joyous addition to our family, providing numerous learning opportunities, companionship, and delicious eggs.
Life is always teaching, but death has a wisdom to impart as well…
Our home is located in the high desert of California. The summers here are notoriously hot, but the last day of June was particularly unbearable. The triple-digit heat gave no relief to areas shielded from the sun’s rays as thermometers registered a whopping 115 degrees in the shade. The heat wave was too much for the ventilation system of the shed we converted into a coop, and it took the lives of each one of Brynna’s precious chickens while we were at church.
You can imagine the hysteria, self-blame, and questions of a twelve-year-old girl who opened the door on this misfortune. Life had ended, but she wasn’t done learning from her feathered family. This time they were going to teach her about her God, her family, and herself.
The first words from my daughter’s hurting heart were, “Why can God raise people from the dead, but not bring my chickens back to life?” I didn’t know why. I too wished that God had spared their lives or performed a miracle, but on this sweltering day He didn’t. Searching my mind for answers, I found none. I was left silent and cradling a sobbing child.
I didn’t want to elaborate or spin stories of my own making to justify God’s actions or lack thereof; He needed no human defense. So I told her what I knew was truth. Jesus says in Luke 12:6, “Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” Christ, the one who knows the Father intimately, confirmed what Job stated in Job 12:10–in God’s hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. God cares deeply for everything he has created. Her chickens were not forgotten by God because He was tending to other heat-related incidents of the day; He knew the names of every feather-ruffling girl Brynna loved so much.
So then why? Scripture says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” One day, when we come face-to-face with our sweet Father, we will have a Paul Harvey moment and finally know the rest of the story. The pieces will click into place and we will see the tragic shards of heartache transforming into a breathtaking masterpiece of good–a reassuring promise to those called to His purpose (Romans 8:28 ). We need to exercise patience and trust as we wrestle with our questions while waiting for that day; then the One who knows us completely and whose great love for all of creation, including our pets, will answer our “why.”
Families can be messy, especially big families. Lots of personalities vying for attention in close quarters; wanting to be heard; contesting property lines of sorts; jockeying for seats at the table or in the family vehicle; opposing one another; challenging each other’s opinions. When unfortunate events occur, though, those rivals become your biggest supporters, and much like the Transformer action figures of my youth, they join together to create a force that few can come against.
In the chaotic moments of discovering our loss, bickering no longer existed. Brynna’s siblings moved harmoniously together to show support and accomplish what needed to be done for their grieving sister. Kids were rushing chickens from the coop to the bath tub and under the cool water of hoses in attempts to lower body temperatures, praying that their lifeless bodies might begin to rise and fall. They fought diligently for the lives of their sister’s beloveds. When all attempts had failed, the five wept with her. Her older brother and dad blistered their hands as they dug a grave in the rock hard desert earth so that 14 of Brynna’s best friends would have a proper burial like she wanted.
Proverbs 17:17 states, “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.” Next week the little ones will wreck her bedroom when she leaves the house or her older brother will tease her at dinner; she will be angry with them, but inside she will know that they truly care for her, because in her time of need they stepped up. Her siblings even discovered that they had a resolve they didn’t know they possessed, and a family was able to show their loyalty and love to one another.
After sitting quietly for a while by herself, Brynna said, ” I don’t think I can ever love again; it just hurts so bad.” Love is hard, and when you experience pain from loving someone or something, it’s easy to want to protect your heart. The choice to distance oneself or to place ourselves in situations of vulnerability is a difficult decision for adults, let alone children. Both of the commandments that Jesus called the greatest were about loving. We are commanded to do it, but we have a choice; we don’t have to love. We could stifle emotions and disassociate ourselves from those who pose the highest threat, but then we miss the joy.
Chickens can live for 8 to 12 years. The truth is that Brynna would have lost her ladies within her lifetime. One at a time she would have mourned for them and the relationship they created. In the oppressive heat and hurt of a Sunday afternoon, she could see nothing but a tragic end. We had to remind her of the amusement they brought to her days, the pleasure of gathering their hard work, the delight of chickens flocking around her when she entered the run because they knew and loved her. Those blessings don’t come when there is no investment of time or emotion. Relationships work and flourish only when we love without fear of pain. That’s what Brynna did; she sacrificed and didn’t hold back her love.
Nowhere is this modeled more clearly than in the love of Christ. He came knowing full well that His love for humanity was going to be painful and ultimately lead to His death, but He took the time to love passionately anyway. We are called to this love, but few of us do it.
Animals help us to develop the ability to love well. They thrive under our care, their loyalty spurs us to love better, their innocence motivates us to protect, but ultimately we learn the lesson of pain when they leave this world before us. As time passes we move past the pain and treasure the beautiful memories created by lives intertwining. It makes us want more. More love. More life. Eventually more chickens.
You see, life was created to teach. It’s a better teacher than any homeschooling mom or college professor. It follows no schedule and requires no syllabus. It is engorged with knowledge and opportunities. Even when life seems to have ended, it continues to challenge us by raising questions about our beliefs and perceptions of ourselves and those around us.
Life was created to teach and death is there to broaden and reaffirm its lessons.