If everyone's weary in different ways from these past years, I think my weariness centers most around esoteric arguments over theological nuances; what the apostle Paul calls "wrangling over words". The debates, played out on social media often with more cynicism and arrogance than humility and charity, have wearied and divided us internally, driven thousands away from faith communities, and caused outsiders who previously viewed the church as harmless, to now see us as damaging, even a threat!
The same apostle Paul who warns against this, also exhorts us to pursue what he beautifully calls "the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ" I thought I understood this, but two years of life with a dog has intensified my understanding. I share my growth in hopes that it might help you return to what really matters: companionship with Christ!
We're coming up on the two year anniversary of bringing our COVID dog home. He came to us from deep in the Rocky mountains and I'll never forget the first moment our eyes met, just outside the Bozeman airport. As soon as he saw me he buried his face in the thick winter coat of his breeder/owner, in hopes that by hiding I'd go away. I didn't though, and because all the details of our exchange had been negotiated beforehand, in less than 30 minutes, I had five pounds of dog in my hands with a tiny harness on and I heard a barely audible whimper as he drove away. It was the last sound from Silver Fir, our new Klee Kai puppy, for about 36 hours. We sat in Bozeman for three of those hours, and then he sat in his tiny travel crate, under my seat, for a quick flight home, and then a drive up into the snowy Cascade mountains where we live. His was the silence of terror. "Where am I going?" "Why have I lost my family?" "Who is this old man taking me away?" Once hoe, I slept on the floor beside his new little play area by our wood stove for the next three nights to let him know I'd be there for him.
And so began a love relationship that would become, in so many ways, instructive to my soul. I've told people about Jesus for forty years and I think the main thrust of my message has been the absolute beauty and joy I experience from companionship with Christ. After all those decades, though, I'm seeing that relationship with greater clarity because of what's become of this relationship with the dog, Silver Fir. He's a picture, in his (unconditional, and surely undeserved) love for me, of what companionship with Christ can look like and why it's so beautiful.
TRUST AND OBEDIENCE - It happens literally every time we're out hiking on a trail. He'll be out front, either on or off leash, and he'll encounter something that looks like a trail, but isn't. Often at such junctures, he's deceived and heads off the wrong way. By now though, I say, "Hey buddy!" He stops and looks at me and I say, "We're gonna' go this way" as I point to the true path. Literally 100% of the time, without fail, he'll change course and follow the path I've laid out for him. I'm no dog whisperer, but I'm guessing that, behind this relentless trust and obedience is a belief that I know best, and a longing to go where I point.
Imagine if your companionship with Christ had that level of clarity, trust and obedience. For many, though, there's not a clear sense of hearing from God or knowing the path. Other times, we know the way, have heard the voice, but we don't like what we hear, so we wander off - blissfully unaware of the cliffs, cars, or other threats awaiting us as we insist on going our own direction.
LONGING FOR PRESENCE - The high level of social anxiety in the Klee Kai breed is a weakness, but it's also exemplary for those looking for a greater sense of reality in their companionship with Christ. Klee Kai's want 24/7 presence with their owner(s). We're still working on separation anxiety two years into this because when my wife gets her keys out of the drawer, Silver Fir begins howling with a sense of grief and loss like he's at a funeral! Likewise, when either or both of us come home from time away, he's beside himself with joy and after showering us with kisses, and running around with a toy in his mouth, he eventually settles at our feet as if to say, "All's right with the world again, because we're together."
Carl Jung, as part of his critique of Christianity wrote: "Christian civilisation has proved hollow to a terrifying degree. The inner man has remained untouched. His soul is out of key with his external beliefs."
Few Christ followers would ever verbally declare that their Christian life consists of giving assent to certain beliefs about Jesus' humanity, divinity, death, and resurrection, and then expressing those beliefs through some sort of ethical construct (which varies by geography, politic, and century). Still, for too many this is the reality, and the result is that a person can be "orthodox" "faithfully serving" in a church somewhere, and at the same time often present to the world as joyless, loveless, anxious, and either proud or dealing with the shame of not living up to their ideals.
I'll humbly suggest that joy will only be an experiential reality tied to one's faith to the extent that companionship with Christ is a reality. We must learn to see Christ in many places throughout our day, have a confidence in the presence of Christ, and rejoice in the revelations Christ offers us (which come from scripture, silence, forests, oceans, rain, snow, the warmth of sun on the face, sunsets, sleep, intimacy, good coffee, and yes, even the presence of a tiny dog in your life.) To the extent that we begin to look for the presence of Christ in our daily living, we come to discover that, unlike a human's relation with his/her dog, our Creator has told us that Christ will "never leave us or forsake us," has said that "l am with you always," and has been called "a friend who sticks closer than a brother." So for us, there's no need for that "whining and howling" that comes from fear of abandonment. Religion might instill that fear in you. Christ does NOT!! When we begin to see every day as a chance to enjoy gifts revealing the character of our Creator, we'll find both joy and an increasingly real sense of companionship. What's not to love about that?
RESTING IN PRESENCE - It's the end of the day. Our dog is in his self-made den, asleep alone under the sofa, yet carefully watching for what always comes sometime later in the evening. I close my day by reading a bit in bed in preparation for sleep and as soon as I head the to the bedrooom, Silver Fir is bounding ahead of me and jumps up on the bed. He waits patiently while I read lying on my back. When I'm finished, I turn the light out and turn to either my left or right side, curling up in my falling asleep position. That's when Silver Fir, without fail, finds the bend in my legs and plants himself right there, with has body relaxed into my legs, more at rest than me because, for reasons I'll never understand, he's most at rest when he's resting against imperfect, work-in-progress, sometimes anxious, aging, occasionally petty, neglectful, and cynical me! His love is utterly unconditional, and melts me often.
Much could be written about the power of that kind of love, but that's for another day. For now, I wonder if resting "in Christ" is something we can learn to do by considering our pets, asleep in perfect trust and contentment in our laps, or the bend in our legs. If you're reading this, you likely know the words about resting in Christ, maybe even the doctrinal nuances from Matthew 11 and Hebrews 3 and 4. Respectfully, though, who cares if you know the words? If you and I don't find an existential, experiential delight in the presence of Christ, enough that we follow him, long to be with him, learn from him, come to him with our joys and sorrows... if that's missing - I'd suggest most everything that matters is missing!
I could go on and on because there are so many
THOSE UNPLEASANT, UNTRUSTING, TIMES - Silver needed a minor treatment recently which required anesthesia. When he came home he was surly, suspicious, and fearful - even trying to bite me a couple of times when I tried to correct him. We'd feared that he was harboring anger towards us for turning him in to the vet for a painful session. It turns out he was just drugged out of his mind for a while. By the next morning, his was licking my face when I woke, and eager once again to trust, please, play, and obey.
I'm also "not in my right mind" sometimes, perhaps most of the time, I fear. I have access to the constant companionship of one who knows me, loves me, wants to guide me to the best places and protect me from damaging myself. I know that; believe that; teach that. But when he says, "Hey buddy, we're going this way!" am I even listening? And if I am, am I eager to follow without question, believing that "master knows best"? When it's time to rest do I lay the weight of my life with all its cares and hopes on Christ, Or do I fall into a fitful sleep, worried about meetings, and money, and fretting over appetites that so often drive decisions?
The 23rd Psalm was written by a shepherd who saw the metaphor. Here's my take for dog owners:
Christ is my owner, so I don't lack anything I need
He shows me when it's time to rest
He provides places for rest and restoration
So my soul, in contrast to so many in this striving age, is content
My owner knows best!
When I'm wandering off trail, he always calls me back
"Hey buddy! We're gonna' go this way!"
How great is that??!!
Even on night walks, I'm not afraid
He's with me, and keeps me on leash
So the wild animals of the forest won't come near
When there are aggressive dogs, I get afraid
But he picks me up, and in his arms, I find rest and peace
There's food, and water, and shelter, and warmth,
All because my owner loves me.
Why would I want to run away?
By now I know it:
My owner's love is the real thing
And I'll be here, with him, until the very end!
May it be said of us, in our relationship with Christ!
NOTE: I'm doing a series on habits for wholeness on my youtube channel. Join me there for meditation, and coming soon, "reading scripture as a means of building companionship with Christ"