Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Memory of Elephants

Sunday, my 14 year-old son and I went to the Melbourne Zoo to see the baby Elephant born last month. We made a day of it, riding too the zoo on the train and having lunch at Central Station on the way home. We had no idea the amazing scene we were going to witness or the lessons we would learn.

After an hour on the train and a walk through the zoo, we arrived at “The Trail of the Elephants” where we found the baby, his mother and the rest of the herd in the last elephant enclosure.

The baby and two other small elephants were in the middle of the enclosure near an empty concrete wading pool. Three large elephants milled around in the shade near the wall of the large enclosure - quite some distance from the baby who was curiously exploring the area around the dry pool.

As we watched the little guy exploring his terrain, we were in for a surprise. The pool area was fenced with a solitary piece of string tied to tall metal stakes. Normally there is an electrified wire to keep the adult elephants out of the empty pool area. Because of the presence of the little elephant, the electric wire had been replaced with string. The elephants, of course, did not know this.

The baby clumsily climbed up the concrete area bordering the pool and wobbled toward the string. As he got closer to the empty pool his head bumped the string. The baby let out a panicked squeal. He lurched, trying to get away from the string, but ended up rushing underneath it into the roped off area. He clearly knew this was a bad thing. He roared his distress - repeatly calling for help. I was amazed how low his voice was. The lions in the "ROAR" exhibit would have been proud to have this little guy's resonance and depth! 

The other elephants reacted instantly, rushing to the string. It was clear which elephant was the baby’s mother as she waved her trunk under the string and scuffed her feet in the dust. Every other elephant in the enclosure gathered around the mother, clearly wanting to help.

One of the elephant handlers appeared at a gate and hurried into the enclosure. The baby was continuing to call and the adults to answer. The man navigated around the herd of concerned adults cautiously but quickly and reached the empty pool. The handler called the baby elephant and lifted the string up. The baby crossed underneath, rushing to his mother.

Then the rest of the herd did something amazing, they formed a protective huddle around the mother and baby. As one massive group, they quickly shuffled away from the pool area. Once they reached a safe distance, they scuffed their feet and blew their trunks into the dirt creating a dust cloud. The baby disappeared in the protective huddle. In the wild, this would serve as very effective protection and an intimidating display to any would-be-baby-killer!

The elephants stayed huddled around the little baby while the handlers opened a huge gate at the far end of the enclosure. Once the herd could see an exit from this stressful (and dangerous!) environment, one elephant lead the way and the others followed. The entire heard left the scary enclosure behind and journeyed to greener pastures.

What if our church community was as caring as an elephant herd? What if every one of us responded to the stress the world brings our young? What if we gathered around struggling and stressed parents to provide strength in numbers? What if our pastors had stress-reducing strategies ready whenever we feel in danger? What if our church was the safe environment where at risk youth were shepherded?

What if nurture came as naturally to us as it does to elephants? It can! We just need three things: Big ears, quick feet and small groups. We need to be listening carefully - the cries will rarely be as loud as an elephant! We need to react to what we hear, running to support those who are suffering, struggling or stranded. And we need to gather together regularly in groups small enough that we each know, love and care for each other.

Seven years ago, our family left Tasmania. During the two years we lived there my wife was part of a small group that met weekly. Yesterday, a card and a gift arrived from the small group. They had heard that my wife was going through a tough time as she dealt with both her father and myself each having a tumor. Her small group heard, ran to the need and huddled together, signing the card and wrapping the gift. Even after seven years, a small group never forgets.

There are many more stories like this one, of people caring for their friends and family because they listen, gather and care. When we spend time together regularly, nurture comes naturally. You know this already, if you have a small group that you call home. If you don’t, perhaps it’s time to start one!

Your Sabbath School class, or your kid’s Sabbath School class, is a great place to start. Think through the families you know and enjoy. Invite two or three families over for a meal (or to the park or a restaurant) and see how the first “meeting” goes. If you gel well as a group, ask the other adults if they’d like to “do this again sometime”. You’ll be surprised. People are looking for community. Your small group is only a meal away!

It is impossible to quantify the gift you are giving the children in your family or church family by being part of a small group. Their cries will be heard. Their needs for community will be met. You will have a group of people ready to care when a young one encounters his first string barrier or a not-so-young one has a life crisis that takes them beyond their depth. It may seem small to you but rushing to their aid, or just gathering around them, could make all the difference.

Did you know that a group of elephants is called a memory of elephants? Yes, they can also be called a herd or a parade. Both of those make sense, but why a memory? We’ve been told an elephant never forgets. Perhaps this is why a group of elephants is called a memory. Or, perhaps it is because a small group of people is a lot like a memory of elephants - it never forgets it’s own. 

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For more parenting pondering,
see the "Parently" section of this blog.

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