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In the mountains west of Calgary, a solitary and elusive teacher roams—with an important message for a pandemic-wearied world. As many of us struggle to regain our footing and tentatively step back into life, the wolverine calls out, “Don’t be afraid, go for it!”
And wolverines know what they’re talking about.
In his book, The Wolverine Way, Douglas Chadwick offers this description: “If wolverines have a strategy, it’s this: Go hard, and high, and steep, and never back down, not even from the biggest grizzly, and least of all from to mountain. Climb everything: trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes, summits. Eat everybody: alive, dead, long-dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, its still warm heart, or frozen bones. Whatever wolverines do, they do undaunted. They live life as fiercely and relentlessly as it has ever been lived.”
As I studied this zoological parable this past month, I found the wolverine’s example compelling. Apart from eating everybody, who doesn’t want to be this alive?
According to 2na century Greek theologian Irenaeus, the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Both Irenaeus and Jesus knew that real life is lived before God.
One way we can be before God is by appreciating, and learning from, the good creatures God has made. Every one of the estimated 8.6 million species that fill our planet was a thought in the mind of God before it ever came to be. The wolverine is a pointer to God’s wild, free and undaunted nature. It’s also God’s way of reminding us of what being alive looks like.
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.”
(Job 12:7-10, NRSV)
These words come from the mouth of Job—a man who struggled through the existential angst of troubled times. Why has this happened to me? Where is God in all of this? How do I find my life again?
When Job’s friends feed him bad advice, Job pushes back and tells them that even the animals know more than they do — that God is still holding everything, still at work, and still near.
To know that nearness, we need to know what the animals know. And one thing the wolverine knows is how to “be itself” before its Maker.
With its webbed, snowshoe-like paws, oversized heart, lungs, and thyroid, and its outsized spirit, this uninhibited creature really is a zoological word from God that can remind us that we have more internal resources, to exit this pandemic with confidence, than we know.
When a wolverine scales a mountain that they could have easily circumvented (researchers were blown away when they first discovered their climbing prowess), it teaches us that pushing ourselves through hard climbs is a necessary part of becoming ourselves — a way of learning that life’s mountains are not as high as they seem.
When wolverines face down an enemy 10 times their size, they teach us that we are braver and more tenacious than we realize. Look at how strong and fiercely determined we’ve been facing down this pandemic. We’re bigger than we think!
By being wild and free, wolverines model what it means for a species to thrive in the middle of a wilderness — knowing that their needs have always been met, that the resources are always out there, and that they’ll always able to sense where they need to go next.
A huge part of what it means to be human is to be free; free from fear and anxiety, free to roam, free to be close to other people, free from all the continual judging, free to get lost in the woods or in your thoughts for a while.
Some theologians believe that animals communicate with God, and even praise God, by simply being who God made them to be—birds by flying, bees by pollinating and humpback whales by singing and breaching. I suppose this truth applies to the human species as well.
What kind of wild, free and undaunted life are you being called to live right now?
John Van Sloten is a pastor at Calgary’s Marda Loop Church. This month the church is exploring the theology of animals. Sunday, church attendees are going to the zoo. Info is at www.mardaloopchurch.ca