Why I Won’t See “The Greatest Showman”

Anyone who knows me knows I’m all about the theatre. Some of my favorite songs are show tunes, and I’ve seen numerous shows both professional and amateur, and been in as many, if not more, also both professional and amateur (although admittedly, far more amateur). And then there’s Hugh Jackman. Who is simply, well, Hugh Jackman!

This is one show, however, that I wish hadn’t been made. The protagonist is P.T. Barnum, a man responsible for the exploitation of humans and animals, and who practically single-handedly reinforced the capture, imprisonment and enslavement of thousands of wild animals over the course of the last 100 years.

Barnum’s legacy is a long list of offences, one of the earliest happening when he was only 25 years old. In that year, 1835, Barnum leased a black slave named Joice Heth for 1000 dollars a year in order to market her as a 161 –year –old former nanny belonging to George Washington. During that time, she worked 10 to 12 hours a day on display for Barnum.  Even in her death she was not left in peace, as Barnum charged 1500 people 50 cents each to witness her “live autopsy.”

In 1841, Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum in Manhattan, replaced the previous owner’s name with his own, and there he exhibited exotic live animals, among them monkeys, birds, and snakes, the latter to which he fed live rabbits and sheep, charging visitors to watch, although why anyone would want to watch such horrors is beyond me. He also had hundreds of exotic fish, and even had a tank for two beluga whales and a hippopotamus. His most successful exhibits there, however, were various hoaxes such as a monkey’s head sewn onto the tail of a fish, calling it the Feejee mermaid. Surely, the most offensive exhibit there was an African-American man who was billed as “a mixture of the wild native African and the orang outang, a kind of man-monkey.”

Or let’s talk about “General Tom Thumb,” who in real life began working for Barnum at the age of five years old, drinking alcohol and smoking cigars as part of the exhibition. Or the two sets of conjoined twins Barnum managed to obtain as children, one source saying he had kidnapped them.  Or the African American boy who had microcephaly, meaning his head was abnormally small. Called the Wildman of Africa, he was made to wear a furry suit, scream and pretend to be violent in a cage. Or was he pretending?

During one of the two fires that ravaged the museum during its existence, the animals were not rescued. The human exhibitions barely managed to escape. The whales were burned alive, and possibly also the hippo. The snakes were either burned or got loose in Manhattan; it is not known how many actually escaped.  None of the animals, which had no business being in a building in Manhattan in the first place, are known to have survived the fire which burned the museum entirely to the ground.

Barnum’s treatment of animals has left a legacy that is just now being seen for what it is: cruel and inhumane. During his tenure as owner of the circus, cruelty to animals was de rigeur. It is known that he stole animals from the wild, including one group of either nine or eleven elephants, one a calf, from Sri Lanka. He kept them in a lightless, airless hold of a ship for four months where they could barely move. Barnum admitted that they had killed many more in trying to capture these few. Handlers shoved hot pokers up their trunks to break them. Hot pokers! Barnum himself beat elephants with sharp metal bullhooks. One died en route and was pushed overboard.

The suffering of Kenny is well-known, because of the level of cruelty that garnered public attention in 1998. The three year old elephant was forced to perform while deathly ill, bleeding from the rectum, despite a veterinarian’s recommendation against it, and was later found dead in his cage. You can read about it here in an article by Deborah Nelson. Admittedly, Barnum was long dead by this time, but the show was HIS former business, and it was certainly his legacy. Elephants were treated as he had demanded, so that his show could earn maximum profit.

Can you remember the circuses of the 20th century? I can. I attended at least one as a child. The tigers and lions who lived in tiny cages for many hours every day, made to perform tricks for our entertainment. How did they get so tame? Fear. Beatings. Electric prods. It is only now that circuses are giving up their wild animals, the lucky ones going to sanctuaries where they get to live out their days in peace, the not so lucky sold to circuses in other countries, which have not yet given up their market in cruelties.

P.T. Barnum’s legacy will keep me out of movie theaters for this show. I can’t give my money to be entertained by that which glorifies something I spend so much of my life fighting against. I won’t say I love animals and then patronize a show whose protagonist was responsible for the suffering of so many.





An Update to Ferals and Fosters

About three years ago, I wrote a four-part series called Ferals and Fosters about three black kittens that a friend and I rescued. They marked the beginning of my journey in earnest as a hands-on fosterer and socializer of wild and semi-wild kittens and cats. I had been involved in rescue for years but had rarely really gotten my hands dirty. These three kittens showed me how great a difference one person can make. The final installment of that short series was about Sampson, a scared little black kitten who stole my heart as my first really difficult socialization success story.

When he was adopted, I cried like a little girl and I never stopped thinking of him. His new family rechristened him Sammy and sent me frequent updates about him via Facebook. Each new report made my heart sing; he was coming out of his shell and becoming a part of the family, even watching the husband play x-box and sleeping in bed with them and their other cat.

Last December I received a frantic message from Sammy’s adoptive human mom. They were returning to the US and during the pack-out with the movers, Sammy had somehow gotten out. Could I come help trap him?

I can only describe the next few days as panicked and tearful. I advised the family to put out his litter box and something with their scent on it. A small group of us searched day and night. We called. We sat and waited with smelly food. We put out the trap. We took canned mackerel and set it out all over the place. We put up posters and dropped flyers in every mailbox in the area. We created a Facebook group. As the days drew nearer for the family to get on the plane with their other two cats and their two children (both born since Sampson’s adoption, and one of the other two cats adopted since then), I became more and more depressed. Unfortunately, no one ever reported having seen him, and the family left as planned, but without Sammy.

A few of us kept looking for weeks. We set the trap in different places, hunted down potential leads (all dead ends and none of them actual sightings), and put out more flyers. We talked to people who lived in the area and contacted veterinarians. Absolutely zero. After several weeks with no sightings, nearly three months since he was lost, we had to admit we weren’t going to find him.

They lived near some busy roads, so he might have been hit by a car almost immediately. The family isn’t sure what time he got out so he could have been killed within minutes and picked up by city workers. Unfortunately, at that time, for reasons neither I nor his family understands, his microchip was not registered and so his body would have been unidentifiable. (When he was adopted, the chip was registered to me but when it was transferred to them, apparently it didn’t get re-registered. Lesson learned – double-check that your fur-babies’ chips are registered properly.)

He could also have been quickly adopted by another family who, for whatever reason, did not see our ads or flyers. This option is very unlikely because, as I found out from the adoptive mom, Sammy remained very cautious, somewhat fearful, and although he loved the two of them, he didn’t trust anyone else. My cautious, mistrusting little kitten had matured into a cautious, mistrusting little cat.

The third option, the most frightening one for me, is that he ran away and simply didn’t respond to any of our calls for him because he was either too scared or he simply didn’t want to come back home. Now my experience tells me that if he were too scared, he would have at least been spotted once or twice in the neighborhood, and as I said, we have no reports that he was. Further, within a few days, scared cats generally show back up. They gather their courage and return home.

I’m fairly certain, if Sammy was still alive at the time we were searching for him, he didn’t respond or return home because he didn’t WANT to come home. I know that sounds odd but I’ve thought a lot about this and talked about it with a couple of other folks, and we agree that it is certainly possible, and I think even likely.

You see, what had been, when he was adopted, a quiet and calm home with no kids and only one other cat became, within a year, a home with an infant and a third rescued cat (this one a life saved from the death list of a kill shelter). Shortly thereafter, another infant and now a toddler in the house. Finally there was the confusion and noise of not just one, but two household moves; only a few months before this one, they moved from the apartment to a house only a few doors down. Working for the government being what it is, their transfer to the US was a short-notice surprise. Add all of these elements together and you certainly have a situation that a mistrusting and fearful cat would seek to escape from.

Now, before all the potential judgement happens, when I adopted Sampson out, I made clear in the ads that he was fearful and needed lots of patience and a quiet home with NO KIDS. Further, I insisted upon that very firmly, in person, with the adopters. They assured me they had no plans to have children in the near future, and as I mentioned, in the first months after the adoption, Sammy made progress; he seemed to enjoy hanging out with the two of them. When the wife let me know, with some apparent trepidation, when they were pregnant, only a few months after the adoption, she assured me that it was a surprise. I trusted her as a long-time animal rescuer. In the best of situations, animal companions take a bit of a back seat when babies are born, and obviously the noise level grows as the household does. With all of this, and based on conversations with the parents since his disappearance, it seems that Sammy retreated some into his fearful shell, and this only further evidences that he wouldn’t want to come home.

Months later now, and I still cry for him sometimes. I pray for him often and think of him even more often. I punish myself with “what-if…’s” and “I should have…’s”. I hold out a tiny hope that perhaps, since he was micro-chipped (and now the chip is in my name again since his family is no longer in the country), he could still come home. But I have to admit, that hope is truly miniscule. And the thought that he is living the feral life somewhere terrifies me because I know how full of suffering – disease, hunger, predators, unmet needs – feral cats’ lives are.

I know that God hears me praying that if Sampson suffered, or suffers, that it is little or not at all, and that he either comes home to me or has a home where he is loved and feels safe. I suppose it is an unhappy testimony to how little I trust God that I continue to anguish sometimes about him. It pains me to admit that, but God knows how very human I am, and I trust He forgives me my frailties.

We foster families have many flaws, but we have one great strength which unfortunately is also a paradoxical weakness: love. We love each and every animal we take in, even if they stay with us for only a short time. For me, and I’m fairly confident this is true of all of us rescuers, there are three or four who are extra-special, whose effect on us is so profound that we are changed because of them. I loved Sampson; he taught me to never give up on a hard-case, that they could become the most loving of all. I never stopped thinking of him and I never stopped loving him, and if he one day manages to come back home, I will weep with joy.

The other installments:   Ferals and Fosters, Part Two
Ferals and Fosters, Part Three


So you want to help community cats?  Start here.

So you need to socialize some kittens? Click here.

A Change of Heart

Where your treasure is, there is where your heart goes; there is where you spend your time. Last Sunday our pastor reminded us of this prayer: Lord, teach us to number our days, so that we will become wise. And he asked a lot of questions about how we spent our time in 2015. Here are a few that hit me in the heart:

How much time did you spend…

…enjoying family and friends?
…stepping out in faith for the Lord?
…trying to control others or your own life?
…encouraging others?
…pursuing the spiritual disciplines?
…pursuing a bad habit?
…pursuing a personal dream or goal?
…helping someone else pursue a dream or goal?
…listening to others?
…being thankful?
…responding to everything, the good and the bad, in praise?

These questions caused me to ask myself this one: How much time did I waste in 2015? Ouch. “A LOT.” Too much, and if I am brutally honest, I wasted a lot of time doing things that were simply not pleasing to God. This isn’t self-condemnation here; it is just facing the truth. It’s a truth that drives me to the throne of grace.

A new year always cries out for a fresh start. We, fallen creatures that we are, desperately need one. We need to behave like the new people  we claim to be. Unfortunately, so many of us don’t, and we make resolutions every year, promising to be different, to do “better.” If you’re like most people, those resolutions tend to fail; just look at health clubs’ inscriptions in January and compare that to their user-ship in June.  This is indicative of all our grand resolve in beginning the new year. A friend blogged about this topic very eloquently on It Was on My Mind, and he reminded me that we don’t need another failed new year’s resolution; we need a change of our hearts.  It’s our inner condition that drives our outward behavior.

Only God can change us from the inside out. For this to happen, I believe there are several conditions.
1.  We have to believe He is good.
2. We have to believe He wants us to be wholly and fully the people He intended us to be when He created us.
3. We have to want Him above everything else.

The first two conditions are not all that hard for me to agree with. The third one prompts a final question: Do I?

Do you?


A footnote: this post is aimed at those of us who know Christ. If you don’t know Him, or if you are unsure, call a trusted Christian friend and talk with him or her. Or click here and learn more. 

On Gratitude and Contentment: an update

I’ve had quite a few conversations about this topic over the past weeks. The previous post was born out of one conversation and birthed more conversations. My head has been swimming with thoughts about contentment. And today I ran across a blog post by a favorite ministry team, RC Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. I thought I’d share it here. It’s completely relevant to the conversations and to the previous post.

Godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Tim 6:6)

Learning Contentment, Sinclair Ferguson

Many blessings. May we all learn to be content, whether in abundance or in want.

Gratitude and Contentment

In what is perhaps my favorite piece of commercial fiction (Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher), the main character’s new friend, Oscar, explains that while he is not really a religious person, he nevertheless believes in God because “…I would find it very uncomfortable to live in a world where I had no person to thank.” When I first read that quote (right after the book was published because I enjoy reading this author), it resonated with me and I never forgot it. I am a lot like Oscar. I am filled with gratitude most of the time. I even have a decorative sign that says, “gratitude” in pretty script hanging at work.

I was talking with a friend the other day about gratitude, and he mentioned contentment, saying he thought the two must needs be go hand in hand. At that moment, I thought it sounded logical, but I wasn’t completely comfortable with the theory. While a person who is content should be grateful for all the blessings that make her thus, maybe she isn’t because unlike me and Oscar, she has no one to thank, or maybe she thinks all the blessings are hers by right or privilege. And how about the grateful person: me, for instance? A person whose life is so marked by gratitude for so many blessings is probably quite content.

After pondering this for a bit, I have determined that contentment and gratitude are more or less independent of one another. I can say this with absolute certainty because in spite of my overflowing gratitude, I would not say I am very content. Why not? I have all my needs and most of my wants met, I have people and animals in my life that I love, my job is enjoyable, my vocations are fulfilling, my health is good, I’m reasonably fit, I live in a beautiful area with loads of history, I travel…what more do I need? I have so incredibly much that I thank God sometimes several times a day; what else do I need or want so that I will finally be content?

Nothing. I need nothing and want very little, and surely our loving Father owes me nothing at all. But I have come to believe that my contentment (or lack thereof) is not at all about what God has given me. Rather it is about my response to Him and all of His many gifts. Because if the truth is known (and it’s about to be), I am often a disobedient child who refuses to do the things that will make me more like Him, and instead I act out of wilfulness or rebellion or both:
Instead of getting up a few minutes early to pray, sometimes (like this morning) I burrow under the quilts for a bit more sleep.
Rather than pray for the one who speaks ill of me, I slander her, either aloud or in my thoughts, and often both.
I’m prone to blame others for things that go wrong.
I don’t often share with those in need.
I’m slow to forgive and quick to blame.
I judge.
I become angry too quickly.
I give in too easily to gluttony and materialism.

I could go on but I don’t like to look bad to my readers, so I’ll stop there. (Can you hear my sigh of exasperation?)

In all seriousness, though… while I’m grateful for all the blessings, I know that sometimes I am not a blessing to others, nor even to myself. This disappoints me. And I wonder if it disappoints the One who made me. I know He wants the best for me, and He is making me in His image. What if these many weaknesses are trying to show me something? What if contentment eludes me because of my lack of cooperation with my Father? What if my own behavior is the very thing that keeps me from being content?

There is an old book called The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, by a lady named Hannah Whitall Smith. Smith was a Quaker and in the mid to late 1800’s, she was a member of the Holiness movement; out of that was born this book in 1875. It was given to me many years ago by a friend who knew me well, and I didn’t read it until just recently. (And frankly, I still haven’t finished it, but let’s talk about THAT character flaw another time, shall we?) The “secret,” according to Ms. Smith, can be summed up in one word: obedience. If we are obedient to what we know we must do, we will be “happy.” If I get up when the alarm goes off and spend some time in prayer and the Word, if I don’t judge others, if I forgive, if I control my tongue…if I do all those things, I will be happy, or at least content. It sounds banal, doesn’t it?

It also sounds simple. If my behavior is standing in the path between gratitude and contentment, then before I can take the next step I must change my behavior. I must make different choices. My choices need to be consistent with what I know to be true. Behavior that doesn’t align with beliefs brings discontent.

Obedience is, at the very least, a good place to start when we’re looking to move from gratitude to contentment. It’s not like it’s the answer to all of life, though. Or is it?

Remind Me

I write down everything important. I do this because if I don’t, I will forget. Appointments, errands, birthdays, three-item grocery lists — it doesn’t matter. I will forget it if I don’t write it down. They tell me this is a hazard of growing older. Maybe so, but it’s sort of always been that way for me.

A few years ago, I looked in the mirror and literally asked myself, aloud, “Who ARE you?” I felt like I was looking at a stranger. Of all the things I need to be reminded about, suddenly I needed to be reminded of who I used to be because the person who looked out of those eyes and into mine was someone I didn’t even recognize; it seemed I had become someone I had never intended to be. Divorced twice, often depressed, generally joyless and known by friends to enjoy drinking, I was nothing like the person I had been ten years before. I asked myself what had happened to bring me to that place and the only answers I could come up with were self-pitying and self-serving, so I threw them out. Over the course of the next years, the reflection in the mirror didn’t change much, and neither did the way I felt and thought about myself. I did, however, begin asking God to return me to the place where I’d come from, and to remind me of who He had intended me to be, of who I once was, and more importantly of Whose I am.

Over these years, I’ve had my heart broken several times. Unrequited love, disappointment with people, the deaths of those close to me. There’s a terrible danger to broken hearts; they take their toll and make demands that must be answered. Each wound presents the sufferer with a choice: grab hold of God or push Him away. In the moments when I gave in to my soul, I suffered for it by seeing my true self slip a little farther away. Thankfully those times frightened me enough that more often, I chose to cling to Christ, to recall His words to me, and to implore Him to hold me tightly so I wouldn’t lose my way.

There’s a particular song that has been meaning a lot to me for the past year or so. “When I lose my way, and I forget my name, remind me who I am. When in the mirror all I see is who I don’t want to be remind me who I am.” I could’ve written those lyrics. I wish I had, but thankfully, someone did, and put them to music, and someone else played them on the radio, and they help me every time I hear them to remember.

I’m a ragamuffin, but I’m loved by the Father, and that is enough.

Remind Me Who I Am Lyrics

A Hidden Treasure

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend, and it went a little like this:
“Fifty,” I said.
“What?” my friend responded incredulously.
“Yeah, fifty.”
“No way.”
“That’s what this pastor I met last night said.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Me, too, but that’s what he said. And he’s a pastor!”
My friend shook her head in disbelief. I was simply grinning from ear to ear.

Let me give you some background, and then I’ll let you in on what we were talking about. Maybe you’ll guess before then.

When I moved to Europe a little over three years ago, one of the main worries I, a reformed Protestant, had was finding a church where I felt at home. I mean, isn’t Belgium Roman Catholic? Isn’t all of Europe? It used to be, of course, but as most people know, 21st Century Europe is pretty secular. There are tons of Catholic churches but they are mostly just for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and for the inspiration of architects, artists, and people like me, Jesus lovers who get all excited about sacred art and the history of Christendom. I especially love the big Catholic church in Soignies, near where I live, with its clean, straight lines and dramatic outline against the sky, but as a Protestant, it’s not really an option for me as a “home church.”

Fortunately for me, there is a good Protestant Contemporary Service on the base. I love the English-speaking service with its familiar music and jeans-and-untucked-oxford liturgy. It reminds me a lot of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years in the U.S. By now, I’ve been singing with the worship team for a couple of years, and I enjoy the gathering of believers there. The chaplains we have right now are top-notch people who preach the Word. I actually only visited a couple of other churches, both aimed at Americans. I never even visited any of the French-speaking services nearby mainly because I figured I’d look and feel like and outsider.

I also surmised that there weren’t many local Protestant services, especially after I looked online and found only two or three. Adding to the mystery, of course, is the fact that you just don’t see any Protestant churches as you drive around. It isn’t like the U.S., where you drive a few blocks and oh, hey, there’s another church, and it certainly isn’t like my hometown of Wilmington, NC, where there are so many protestant churches in the downtown area that there is an entire poster devoted to “The Steeples of Wilmington.”  Even if there were a lot of them, they wouldn’t be all that obvious. Unlike the large and often breath-taking Catholic-owned buildings, Europe’s Protestant church buildings look like storefronts most of the time, or they are tucked away back in the corner of some residential area. The one I attended with friends in Grenoble, France is a sort of storefront, but nestled back behind some other buildings. And the one I attended on Friday night is similar, but more like a converted out-building behind some houses. But what the two buildings really have in common is much less tangible and far more valuable. They are repositories of the love of God.

I’ve met lots of really nice people since I’ve been in Belgium, but Friday night I met family. I attended a music service in an evangelical Protestant church. They had invited a Canadian worship musician to come and sing and deliver a message and the little building was filled to bursting to listen to this talented fellow named Luc Dumont (there will be a post about him, next). And every person I met, every single one that I talked with and sang with treated me like I belonged. Right there. With them.  I didn’t feel like an outsider at all, even though I was clearly the only American in the room, and my French is not as good as everyone else’s, and no one there, except my friends who invited me, knew me from Adam. But there, in that nondescript building, I met the international family of my faith, and it was like finding a treasure that had been buried in plain sight. I practically floated home afterwards.

So what were my friend and I talking about?  We were talking about Protestant churches in a tiny little area of Belgium, the itty-bitty Mons area in the French-speaking region of Hainaut. Now I’m pretty happy in the Protestant Contemporary body of believers on base, and I don’t expect to go anywhere anytime soon. I’m happily surprised to find out, though, that if I wanted to, I could visit a different body nearly every Sunday for a year. I’m not going to do that, of course, but I expect I’ll visit one or two here and there, just to get to know some more members of this big, unexpected, francophone family, and uncover another bit of this treasure.

Fifty. Five-zero. Five-oh. Pretty big family I’ve got over here all of a sudden.