As we begin today, I invite you to play a little word game. I will give a phrase and ask you to complete it. However, in completing it, please mention an animal in your answer. Be as descriptive as you wish.
“Sly as a ___________________” (fox)
“Happy as _________________________.”
“Wise as _________________________.”
Okay—so you get the idea. How about this one?
I looked up some expressions that might be well known to some of our more rural brethren. How many of you have heard these colorful expressions?
Madder than a hornet!
Madder than a puffed toad!
Mad as a mule chewing on bumblebees!
Madder than the snake that married the garden hose!
What we have spent a few minutes here doing is called “anthropomorphizing.” Anthropomorphizing is defined as giving human characteristics, emotional states, or behavior to any other non-human entity, in this case: animals. But we also do this with God. In fact, anthropomorphism was criticized hundreds of years before Christ when a Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570–480 BCE) noticed that people model their gods after themselves. He argued against thinking of the gods as anthropomorphic and observed that different cultures portrayed their gods in like image to themselves. He wrote:
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
The anthropomorphism of animals is very common, and our cartoon characters and childhood stories are just one facet of this. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the conscience of Jiminy Cricket, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Peppa Pig, Snoopy and Woodstock, Red from Angry Birds, and Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes are all examples of anthropomorphism at work. Likewise, anthropomorphism is evident throughout many well-known children’s stories, including Watership Down, Animal Farm, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, as well as Aesop’s Fables, an oral story collection which were in circulation 600 years before the time of Christ.
Anthropomorphism is a positive thing; studies have shown that when we anthropomorphize animals, we are more willing to care for creation and pursue the just treatment of animals. Interestingly, studies have shown that we are more likely to pay for the conservation of animals than plants and more for vertebrates that for invertebrates.
Yet, anthropomorphism is also not-so-good, when humans forget that wild animals are, indeed, wild and when we seek to keep exotic animals as pets, or when we imagine animals so like us, that we ignore their unique biological needs, habitat, and their right to exist without our deadly interference, or when we favor the cuddly panda to the praying mantis, or the dolphin over the electric eel, the penguin over the common garden slug.
Anthropomorphism shows up in our bible in many places. In our scripture reading for today, the Psalmist laments his condition. He feels dejected and ridiculed. He is – he says—”like a little owl of the waste places.” In some translations, the line reads, “I am like a vulture roaming the wilderness…a screech owl living in the ruins.” (Ps. 102:6)
Why does he feel this way?
His bones stick through his skin.
His heart is withering.
He feels the days slipping by like vanishing smoke.
His enemies taunt him.
Whatever he drinks is laced with tears.
Indeed, there are seasons in our lives when we can feel this way. Our health is poor. Our friends slip away one-by-one. We are filled with regret or bitter tears. We are broken hearted by living, by loss, or by our dried-up dreams. Yes, we have been lonely. As Roy Orbison once crooned, “Only the lonely know the way I feel…
And yet the Psalmist knows loneliness intimately too. And apparently one forlorn bird in the wilderness helps him to express that loneliness. Have you ever experienced a deep loneliness? Have you ever felt like a little owl in a place of ruin? According to an article published in International Psychogeriatrics, there are 3 peak times when folks are more apt to feel lonely. More people reported feeling moderate to severe loneliness during their late 20s, their mid-50s and their late 80s than in other life periods. Were there some seasons in your life when you have felt lonelier than others? How have the animals and plants around you—like the owl—brought you comfort in real or imagined ways?
Certainly, there is a kind of fleeting loneliness and then there is a deeper loneliness that strikes our souls and tends to stick around. In an interview, the theologian Henri Nouwen once described a kind of movement from loneliness to solitude. But years later, as observer Charlotte Donlon noted, Nouwen discovered a deeper loneliness affecting him. He said this: “The best of community does give one a deep sense of belonging and well-being; and in that sense community takes away loneliness. But on another level community allows you to experience a deeper loneliness. It is precisely when you are loved a lot that you might realize a second loneliness which is not to be solved but lived. This second loneliness is an existential loneliness that belongs to the basis of our being. It’s where we are unfulfilled because only God can fill us.
The paradox is that quite often in community you get in touch with this second loneliness. In community, where you have all the affection you could ever dream of, you feel that there is a place where even community cannot reach. That’s a very important experience. In that loneliness, which is like a dark night of the soul, you learn that God is greater than community. And it’s good because that kind of suffering makes me realize that the community is not the final destination.”
The psalmist feels isolated, cut-off, and existentially adrift. He eventually—at the end of the psalm—recognizes that his suffering is joined with all those who are similarly in exile—in his case, an entire nation. He anchors himself in God’s promises to restore the afflicted and broken-hearted.
If you are in a season of your life when you are feeling lonely and bereft, let the psalmist speak to your heart. When we talk about our loneliness with each other—when we acknowledge, express, and give it room to “screech and howl” like a little owl in the wilderness, we invite it to dissipate and give voice to the feelings and emotional states that can hold our soul hostage. When we name our loneliness and share the experience with others, we lessen its grip on our day and our life. And often, without knowing it, our mere acknowledgement of this human condition blesses others in similar predicaments. At the very least, we give expression to that which, in silence and fear, can grow threatening and intimidating. We find we can survive.
On this day, when we celebrate and bless our animal friends, let us give thanks that they, like the little owl of the psalmist, give us ways to express the inexpressible. Let us remember that, while we have much in common, they also have unique needs and that all of us depend on one another whether we anthropomorphize or not. Amen.
 Esmeralda G. Urquiza-Haas and Kurt Kotrschal, “The mind behind anthropomorphic thinking: attribution of mental states to other species.” Animal Behavior 109. (2015) 167-176.
 The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007)
 Fox2now. “Loneliness peaks at three key ages, study finds — but wisdom may help,” posted Dec 19, 2018 by CNN Wires. https://fox2now.com/2018/12/19/loneliness-peaks-at-three-key-ages-study-finds-but-wisdom-may-help/