Recently, I read an article about the death of Lawrence Anthony earlier this Spring in South Africa. Mr. Anthony became known as the Elephant Whisperer after he spent time living with a group of “rogue elephants” on a large wildlife preserve in South Africa. The elephants, it seems, had become a bit too wild and were seen increasingly as threatening, and people had begun to suggest that if things didn’t change, the elephants would need to be destroyed. So Mr. Anthony set out to save them by living with them. As his relationship with the elephants deepened, they apparently changed their ways so that they were no longer seen as a threat. And so, the herd was saved.
Mr. Anthony eventually took up residence in a house within the vast reserve, and there he died this Spring. The elephants with whom he had lived, and some of their descendants, were far from the house in which he died. In fact, he apparently hadn’t had any contact with them for some time. But, within a few days of his death, the elephants began to arrive at his house from the far corners of the reserve. They gathered at this house, and there they remained for a few days. Then, just as suddenly as they had arrived, they departed – apparently having completed their vigil for the man they had come to know.
The question, of course, is obvious: how did the elephants know he had died?
Clearly, some connection had been established between the elephants and Mr. Anthony, a connection that remained even though Mr. Anthony and the elephants were no longer living together. A connection that was maintained despite the distance that separated man and elephants in that great wildlife park. We might call it by many names, we might develop a number of theories to explain it. For me, there is really only one label that works to describe this connection: spiritual. Mr. Anthony and the elephants had developed a spiritual connection, and the elephants sensed his departure from this world.
This coming Sunday, most of the Christian world will celebrate Pentecost. It is a celebration of the Spirit, given to the church as a gift. It is really a celebration of connection between us and God, and among us as the followers of Christ. The story of the elephants and Mr. Anthony reminds us, as we prepare for this Pentecost celebration, that while the Spirit may indeed have been given to the Christian community in a unique way, the Spirit is not ours to possess. As Jesus reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Even among elephants.
And so as we celebrate the Spirit’s giving birth to the church as the animating energy of the Christian community, we should remember that this same energy animates all of life, all of creation, creating among us and between us a profound connection. We often lose sight of that vast web of connection, conceiving of it in far too small or exclusive a way. The elephants, and all creation, would teach us, if we are willing to learn, that this sacred web of connection encompasses all life. The Spirit blows everywhere, and to truly appreciate this should not diminish our sense of specialness, but rather should increase our awe and amazement.
The true gift of the Spirit is perhaps the privilege that we get to be a part of something so vast and so deep. If the elephants can appreciate this, we surely should, as well.