I was confronted with a bit of perspective this weekend, once again by way of my four year old daughter’s uncanny knack for capturing the essence of life.
Last Christmas we purchased a fish for my daughter as a gift. It was a last minute decision made at PetSmart while I was picking up dog food. There was literally a wall of beta fish, each in solitary confinement, stacked one cell on top of another. I thought it was a stoke of genius to get my little girl something living as a gift and so a little redish fish, angry with the world and himself, came home with me. My daughter was thrilled with the beta and named him after another beta that my wife had cared for years ago, Valentine.
Valentine was a warrior. We found this out when we realized that the container we purchased for him had a reflective surface on one side. Every time he was assaulted with his own face he got angry, like a Republican listening to Rosie O’Donnell angry. But we figured out how to keep the reflection down and he figured out how to mellow out. Overall, Valentine became a good pet for us. He took care of himself for the most part, didn’t make much noise, and he never complained.
Fast forward to this weekend. On Saturday morning I heard my wife call to me from Karsten’s room. She made a veiled reference the fact that Valentine had gone on to that great tank in the sky and she came to ask me what I wanted to do with him. We decided to flush the fish, as should be done with all fish, because “Finding Nemo” has clearly taught us that all drains lead to the ocean. In the chat about flushing Valentine she asked if we should tell Karsten, or how we should involve her in this ceremony / disposal. I said, of course she should be involved, it’s her fish and she needs to learn about these things.
So there we were, the three of us in the bathroom, looking at a bowl containing some uneaten fish food and beta, floating on its side, awaiting his burial at sea. I attempted to approach the issue philosophically,
“you know that all living things die, right sweetheart?”
She acknowledged this fact.
“Well, your fish, Valentine, has passed on. He is no longer with us.”
“What happened? Valentine isn’t here anymore?”
These two questions were squeaked out as Karsten’s face contorted and prepared itself for the inevitable sobs that were already building.
“Yes sweetheart, Valentine is dead. Fish don’t really live too long, they are only with us for a short time.”
More crying and calling the fish’s name.
I sat on the edge of the tub with Karsten on my lap, wrapped in my arms, as she cried. I had no real emotional attachment to that fish, it was $3.99 worth of entertainment for an entire year, but seeing her cry was difficult to say the least. Though I should have, I really wasn’t expecting this explosion of emotion from her. I figured she would take it in stride. But then things began to take a unique turn.
“Baby, we are going to send Valentine on.”
“How are we going to do that daddy?”
“Well, like many fish before him, we are going to pour him into the toilet and then flush him down the drain.”
This was, to be perfectly honest, the part of the ordeal that I thought would be the most traumatic. Certainly it’s difficult finding out that your fish is dead, but to watch that lifeless body begin the death spiral and eventually dive into the mysterious hole has got to be far more traumatic. Or so I thought.
As soon as I told Karsten that we were going to flush the fish she stopped crying. Not only did she stop crying, she started laughing. She was cracking up at the idea that her fish was going to be flushed. So I asked her if she would like to do the honors and hit the lever, she obliged and we watched Valentine, lover of pellets defender of mirrors, twirl and then dive.
Later, in the car my curiosity reminded me of a question I’d had earlier, I had to know why Karsten’s crying had turned to laughter in the moment that I suggested Valentine’s final end, and in this is the lesson that I learned.
“Why did you laugh when we flushed Valentine this morning?”
“Because daddy, fish don’t belong in toilets! It was funny!”
Fish don’t belong in toilets. Does it seem odd that of all the reading I had done that day, and all of the prep work I had done to preach the next morning, the most profound thing I’d come across was a four-year old telling me that “fish don’t belong in toilets”?
How do we look into the face of death and deal with the finality and stark nature of it? How do we watch, day after day, year after year, our loved ones and our family members, and even our pets, pass away without finding ourselves distraught and defeated? What Karsten taught me on Saturday is so simple that I would have missed it: until I see life as what it actually is instead of what it appears to be I will find nothing but futility.
Fish weren’t made for toilets, and people weren’t made for graves. Bodies weren’t made for sickness, eyes weren’t made for bindness. Hearts weren’t made to give out, give up, or be broken. Minds weren’t made to be lost. No, we were made for more.
When I embrace the fact that all that is will not always be, I begin to see things differently. One day God will reset, recalibrate, and resurrect this world. All will be well, all will be at rest. There will be no more death, sickness, blindness, or decay. Troubles will cease. Governments will stop arguing, soldiers will stop shooting, and morticians will be out of work. There will be no more autopsies, surgeries, prescriptions, or medical insurance. And the beauty of redemption is that I have the choice to see that right now. There is a way to simultaneously weep and smile at the passing of those we love, but it requires us to see life as a child sees life, and as Jesus saw life. Every grave’s sorrow points us to the reality that we weren’t made for the grave. Every distraught emotion at the report of violence or war or disaster should be a signpost in our heart that reminds us that we were made for something different, something more. We are hard wired for peace, love, joy, health, and rest. This is the truth because it is how God created the world, even though it does not appear that way now.
In every stress and strain of life may we be quick to remember that there are better things coming. May we find grace and hope and peace and even laughter as we remember that fish aren’t made for toilets, and the moment of trouble you are in is not what you are ultimately made for. Be courageous because a King is coming to rescue us all, and He has called us to hold out, to “stand therefore”.