Thorns and Thistles & Merry Christmas

“Thorns and thistles”, I muttered under my breath as I watched forty pounds of dry dog food come pouring out of the torn bag and onto the floor of my vehicle. I was loading groceries into the back of my Expedition and as I attempted to slide a bag of dog food over to make room, the corner of the bag caught the edge of a dog crate and ripped open, hemorrhaging a river of pellets into my trunk space. Thorns and thistles. This has become my mantra over the past couple of years. There was a time in my life when the brokenness and difficulties of life were intensely frustrating to me. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I was living with a notion, just below the surface of consciousness, that life was suppose to be a certain way. And I was reasonably disgruntled that my life was not as I supposed it should be. I would catch myself saying, if not aloud then certainly to myself, “Why does everything have to be so difficult?”. Now I know why things are difficult; thorns and thistles.

Cursed is the ground because of us; Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for us. (Genesis 3:17-18) Life is struggle, brokenness is the norm in this post-edenic world that we inhabit. Rather than lament the toil and adversity, we should be astounded when things go smoothly. While I use to rail against the audacity and injustice of a world relentlessly opposed to my agenda, I have come to terms with the reality of humanity’s desperate situation. My desperate situation. Life only makes sense when viewed through the lens of the Genesis narrative. The days of our lives are punctuated by toil, by the sweat of our brow will we obtain sustenance until we return to the dust from which we were taken. This somber truth resonates within all of us whether we like it or not.

The past couple of years have been especially heavy as we’ve had to say goodbye to a few of our bulldogges who had entered into old age together. Death is never easy to accept, but it’s particularly difficult when it swallows up multiple loved ones in rapid succession. I found myself increasingly aware of the corruption that permeates all of life, the pervasiveness of calamity. All of our splendid moments are riddled with imperfections and woes. No longer embittered by the eventuality of all things, I passively accepted the paradox of life. And with that acceptance came a subtle sorrow that gently enveloped me. Lurking just around the corner of every glorious moment is a darkness that threatens to frustrate all that is right in the world. In the midst of the swirling absurdities, a light pierced through the thick haze of heaviness that was the atmosphere that I breathed. Thorns and thistles are the reality, but divine intervention has set into motion the restoration of all things.

The addition of several puppies into our family over the past month has proven to be a blessing that I couldn’t anticipate. As I soak them up and breathe in their sweet breath, I’m keenly aware of the presence of God pouring into the deepest recesses of my aching heart. Thorns and thistles trampled and beaten back by raw, undiluted love. That’s the antidote, after all. A love powerful enough to reverse the curse. As I contemplate the profound blessing of puppies in my life, my thoughts find their way to the Christmas story. Because of thorns and thistles, the God of the universe penetrates our shattered world so that we might be saved from the ravages of our own deeds. He enters into our brokenness, He restores all of creation from the inside out through unrestrained love. And it’s because of Christmas that we experience the glorious moments, the beauty, the glimpses of perfection. Because God is with us, life is good. It’s not as it should be, but it’s good. We live within the tension of brokenness and restoration knowing that a day is coming where everything sad will become untrue. Puppies are proof of that future reality. They’re the incarnation of divine love, a glimpse into the life our hearts long for. And so tonight, on the Eve of the celebration of the birth of Christ, I mutter under my breath, not “thorns and thistles”, but “Merry Christmas”.

Happy Birthday, Clementine

Dear Clementine,

When you came bursting into my world a year ago I couldn’t have imagined the impact that a three ounce pup, such as yourself, would have in my life and in my heart. I often marvel that someone so tiny can take up so much of my heart. And I’m equally astonished that you manage to take up so much of my bed. Just a year ago today I was rescuing you from the perils of runt life in a litter of bulldogge pups. But my resolve was strong. I intended to pull you from your litter, bottle feed you and find the right person for you when you were big enough to leave. I was absolutely certain that I wouldn’t keep you for myself. After all, it would be utterly nonsensical for me to keep the tiniest bulldogge puppy that I had ever laid my eyes on.  I had no room in my plans for emotions to navigate my decisions. Keeping, not just the runt, but the runtiest of runts was out of the question.  It’s amusing to me now. The idea that I could resist the gift that you are is absolutely absurd. I’m overwhelmed by the magnanimous grace of God that bored right into my adamant determination to resist love in its purest form. That’s really what it boiled down to, though I wouldn’t have articulated it as such. No, I would have said that I was making wise decisions in our breeding program and attempting to do what was best for you.

Truth be known, I was too exhausted to give it much critical thought at all. The rigorous schedule of keeping you fed was taking a toll on me. But you were thriving, so I pushed through the debilitating fatigue in hopes that you would turn the corner and return to your litter soon. I had big plans of letting you rejoin your littermates at around four weeks when the weaning process would begin. In the midst of exhaustion, that was the hope that kept me from collapse. And that hope evaporated like a mist when you continued to demand your bottle as your siblings started gobbling up the mixture of mushy food that I offered. I cried as you turned your little nose up at the mush that I presented to you day after day. If it wasn’t for my dear friend, Morgan, you would probably still be sucking that bottle. She clued me into the magical allure of puppy mousse and, by the grace of God, you dove right into that stuff. You’ve since heard me refer to that delicacy as “puppy crack”. My next hurdle was weaning you from the puppy crack to dry food. That was another process all its own. Quite frankly, you’ve been a handful since you were born, both figuratively and literally.

I guess looking back on it, that’s when it happened, though. My resolve broke. The realization that you would require much more than I had planned to expend crashed into me and wrecked me. The Lord knew that I needed you. And He knew that I’d struggle against the gift of you, so he sent you in a most irresistible package. An undersized pup with over sized opinions. In the midst of my agonizing sleeplessness as I poured myself out so that you might live, I was overcome by an inexorable force. Love, agape love, God’s love . And it’s precisely that kind of love that flows through puppies, especially tiny runt puppies like you. As Proverbs 19:21 says, we can make our plans, but it’s the Lord’s purposes that prevail. The Lord purposed you, Clementine, to bless my life exponentially. You were perfectly formed to fulfill a destiny that has brought me so much joy and happiness. How could I ever thank Him? How could I ever thank you?

A year ago today you tipped the scales at 3.2 ounces. Today you weigh in at a whopping twenty-six pounds. Still tiny, opinionated and bossy, you continue to simultaneously challenge me and steal my heart away. You were, and still are, a fireball dropped right into the middle of my “life as usual”. And you are the source of a multitude of joys in my life. I love you my little loud-mouth Terp. My world is a lot more eventful and beautiful with you in it. Happy First Birthday, baby girl.

Though she be but little, she is fierce. ~William Shakespeare

Praise The Lord

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”, cries the psalmist. The words dance off of the page and crash into my heart. The final verse of the final psalm of the psalter. The scriptures paint a beautiful portrait of God’s heart for His creation. Each brush stroke skillfully brings depth and form to the overarching theme and message. This final sentence of the book of Psalms serves as a climactic finale of poetic words revealing the purpose of all creation, human and animal alike. What does it mean to “praise the Lord”? In Psalm 148, the psalmist called on all of creation to praise the Lord including angels, wild animals, birds and cattle. As I consider the Bulldogges that I share my life with, I imagine what it could mean that they should praise the Lord. I continue to ponder the implications that all of creation, both animals and humans, are called to celebrate, elevate and illuminate their Creator.

The revelation that praise and worship flow out of creation when it functions as it was designed to function directs my heart and thoughts onto my nugget of a pup, Clementine. I’m overcome with joy and gratitude simply because of her existence. Her mere presence enriches my life in countless ways. My heart bubbles over with emotion as she rushes to greet me, bursting with joy. I’m utterly undone as unrestrained love bounds toward me. A sense of awe and wonder wash over me as she communicates her strong opinions about the world she lives in. I’m enamored by the precision and perfection of who she is in her entirety. Her thoughts, motives and desires are so beautifully complex. She’s affectionate, emotional, intelligent, opinionated and bossy. She’s a light in this dark world, a shooting star burning up the sky. Everything about this exquisite creature brings glory to the One who knit her together and animates her with his very breathe.

Animals, not just dogs, are arrows pointing to God. They are love and grace embodied, vehicles of the majesty and mercy of God. God loves life so much that he creates it in seeming endless variety. The beauty and complexity of it all leaves me awestruck. All of creation, all creatures, participate in the symbiotic relationship of the cosmos. All life is significant and filled with purpose. To fulfill that purpose is to praise the Lord. When creatures are entirely what God designed and desires them to be they bring Him glory. That’s the praise that His heart desires. That’s the heart cry that comes cascading from the psalms as mountains, trees, angels and animals join in praising the Lord. Eden restored. That’s the trajectory of the universe, spinning and toiling toward the fulfillment of resurrection life. My heart smiles at the thought of dogs praising God by just being who they were created to be. It’s inspiring and convicting.

While the birds observe the time of their migration, disobedient humans “do not know the ordinance of the Lord” (Jer. 8:7). Jeremiah’s contrast between birds and humans brings into sharp focus the upside down nature of things. Animals naturally do the will of the Lord. They can be no other than who they are created to be. They glorify their creator in all of their ways. This is why dogs are generally delightful. They will always be who God designed them to be. They are genuine, sincere, faithful and pure. Their presence is comforting because the peace and love of God radiates in and through them. They’re unable to deviate from their true selves. It’s as easy as breathing, inhaling and exhaling. They embrace the life that God gives to them and they generously give that life in return.

I’m humbled by the thought.

“Lord, thank you for animals, especially Bulldogges, who model what it means to truly praise You. May I never become complacent in response to the magnificence and splendor of the animals who grace my life. May I never lose my sense of wonder and may I learn to praise You as perfectly as they do.”

0F3FB562-F2A8-4718-955B-D00541EB3FB5.jpeg

Psalm 150:6

Luke

I was standing at the checkout counter in Dollar General waiting to swipe my card when the cashier cheerfully exclaimed, “I like your necklace!” Smiling politely, I thanked her. “It’s really cool. What’s it say?” I sighed internally, continued smiling and replied, “Luke. It says Luke. It’s a memorial pendant. Luke was my dog.” After an awkward pause she muttered, “That’s so cool.” Still smiling,  I kindly thanked her as I swiped my card and punched in my pin number. As I exited the store and walked through the parking lot, my thoughts looped back over the brief exchange.  “Luke was my dog” is what I had said to her. How inadequate those words were to convey who Luke was to me.

After eleven years of unwavering devotion and constant companionship I’m left with a mere symbol of his presence. I wear a pendant filled with Luke’s ashes around my neck. Saying goodbye to Luke was one of the hardest things I’ve ever  had to do. We often mitigate the grief we experience when losing a beloved dog by suggesting that it doesn’t compare to the loss of a human. I think we almost feel ashamed for being so deeply bereft over the loss of a canine companion when there are those who have lost children, spouses, parents. But in my experience the pain of losing a dog is just as intense as the suffering we experience upon losing a person. In some cases it’s even more profound. Relationships with people are often riddled with frustrations and offenses. Let’s face it, our capacity to love one another well is tainted. We set out with good intentions, but our own inadequacies ultimately unleash pain and suffering onto those we love at times. Dogs don’t do that. Because they shower us with perfect love, there are no landmines of trauma to navigate in their passing. Luke never hurt my feelings, he never responded harshly and he valued being with me above all else. I could always count on him to joyfully accompany me, to comfort me, to accept me. I could always count on Luke to love me perfectly.

Interwoven so intricately with what constitutes as our lives, we are wrapped up in relationships. We would like to consider ourselves self-reliant, autonomous creatures. But we’re intrinsically bound to our experiences. Like it or not, we are the sum total of our relationships. It’s our connections with others that shape who we are and the paradigm with which we see everything else. Just as relationships with hateful, angry, vindictive people can have long lasting destructive effects, the alternate is true of healthy, nurturing relationships. To be loved, valued and cherished is a rare gift that transforms us from the inside out. While people often struggle to illustrate a love that reflects God’s heart, dogs naturally pour themselves out in self sacrificial love. It’s interesting to me that humans, those who were created as God’s image bearers intended to represent Him in the world, so readily miss the mark while dogs eagerly serve as conduits of God’s perfect love. If our relationships with people are of an eternal nature, how much more are our relationships with our dogs? The depth of devotion, the intense connection. I believe that the purity of such a profound spiritual bond  transcends time and points forward into eternity. The fact that we can cultivate such extraordinary love, such intense soul ties with our dogs must be an indication of eternal implications.

As God pours His love into a broken world, we spin and toil and struggle to grasp the good. Life is a mixed bag. Chaos and peace, love and fear, we’re caught up in an onslaught of glorious moments which break upon the shore of loss and suffering. I remember looking into Luke’s eyes the last few years of his life and feeling a deep longing to enjoy him more. Tears would well up at the realization of the elusiveness of such a thought. Try as we may, we can’t slow the hands of time. This life is but a brief encounter, but the longing in our hearts betrays such a reality. And in the midst of our anguish the love of God breaks into the world. The hope of restoration propels me. All that is precious in this life will be amplified and clarified in eternity. Paul said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians  13:12) We’re not promised an ethereal, intangible existence on the other side of death. The promise is for abundant life, resurrection life. Life that satisfies. Father Richard Rohr says it best, “For those who are in Christ anything that has blessed and enriched us in this life will not be lost, but rather will be infinitely enhanced in the resurrection.” While I miss Luke in this life, I’m convinced that I’ll  be reunited with him when time gives way to eternity.

As the words, “Luke was my dog” hung in the air, haunting my thoughts, I mumbled under my breath a revelation of his true identity. He was the incarnation of God’s love for me. The manifestation of perfect love.

 

Until we meet again ❤️

Bulldogge Life: Who Owns Who?

My phone rings and I hesitate for a moment. I don’t recognize the number. Nevertheless, I answer the call and find on the other end of the line a guy who’s interested in the Bulldogge breed. The conversation takes right off as he tells me about himself and the dogs he’s owned and loved. This is my kind of conversation. He’s chattering away as I listen. He navigates through the list of breed clubs and competitions he’s been associated with. He elaborates on the shutzhund training that he was actively involved in with a particularly noteworthy German Shepherd. I continue listening as he shares about the many obedience titles his Doberman was led to under his tutelage. He lists off strings of letters before and after their names that indicates the titles that these dogs have earned. As he speaks at great length about the importance of asserting dominance over powerful breeds from an early age, my mind drifts back to when Luke sprawled out in the show ring and refused to budge. That was the same day that he urinated on me while standing ringside.

I had been showing Luke since he was puppy. He was no stranger to the routine. And he could prance around that ring and stop in a natural stack that would command the attention of any judge. He could make me look like a professional handler which was a miracle in itself. But on occasion he would decide that traveling around in circles was absurd, absolutely stupid. And when he had enough there wasn’t a hotdog or cheese bite that could bribe him into another lap. Selective obedience. That’s what you get with bulldogges. You might order other breeds around, asserting your dominance, but that won’t get you very far with bulldogges. As with any healthy relationship, Luke and I had to discuss things and navigate situations as they arose. I don’t think he ever understood why I enjoyed trotting around in circles for ribbons and trophies. He’d humor me most of the time, though. That’s what love does. It parades around in circles for reasons unknown and against better judgement. Anything that Luke agreed to was a reflection of his love for me. It was never an act of raw obedience.

It was a particularly cold day for an outdoor show. I was excited about the prospect of showing Luke in an all breed setting. He had earned his Grand Champion title with the National Bulldogge Association and I was hopeful that he might begin working toward a title with an all breed club. The day started off with a bang. As I stood with Luke at the registration table entering him into the shows, a Cane Corso strolled by and came to a halt next to his handler about fifteen feet away. I felt Luke’s leash fill with tension, so I redirected my attention onto him. That Corso was sitting politely at his handler’s side while staring menacingly at Luke. That’s all it took. Luke wasn’t about to put up with another dog mean mugging him. He snapped to attention, chest out, chin up. He snorted like a bull and stomped the ground. I quickly snapped the lead to draw his attention away from the rude onlooker. Luke stepped toward me as he shot one last piercing glare over his shoulder like a laser beam toward his adversary. As they held eye contact for a few more seconds, Luke lifted his leg and hosed down my freshly pressed dress slacks. That wrapped up the staring contest. The stone still Corso shifted, a perplexed countenance overtook him. Luke strutted alongside me toward our seats, intensely satisfied with himself. Check mate.

I stood, leg soaking wet, watching all of the handlers work their dogs ringside in preparation of the anticipated competition. Dogs stacked up beautifully, eyes fixed on the bait. I looked over at Luke who had bundle himself up in my mom’s lap and snuggled under her blanket to keep warm. I attempted to lure him out with a tidbit of hot dog. He shot me a flat no with his eyes. If I hadn’t already paid the entry fees I think I would have opted out of standing in the cold and went back home. Obedience and conformation competitions are enjoyable only when your canine counterpart takes pleasure in them as well. Luke was intelligent, personable and opinionated. He had strong feelings about things and he expressed them freely. He exhibited moments of excellence and high performance followed by fits of defiance. I learned early on in our relationship that forcing an issue would be miserable for both of us. Luke would do anything that I insisted on, but not without theatrics. An explosion of dramatics highlighting his utter contempt and animosity would precede obedience. And much sulking and silent treatment would follow. I learned to pick my battles. Life with bulldogges is like that. Asserting authority and pressing trivial matters will only serve to frustrate. Isn’t that true for any healthy relationship, though? Who in their right mind would enjoy being manipulated with treats while having their opinions overridden at every turn? Respect. Bulldogges require respect.

The day’s events went much as I had anticipated. There were five shows that day and Luke and I stumbled along in the first three. He would hesitate to enter the ring, I would insist. He would let out an audible sigh and begrudgingly travel around the ring without fanfare. He would sit when I tried to stack him, pull when I tried to stop. Eyes fixed on the ring exit, he went roughly through the motions while longing to bundle back into his blanket ringside. We were both miserable. Finally, the third show proved to be the climax of the day’s activities. As we passed by the exit in our final lap around the ring, Luke put on the brakes and pulled like a train in attempt to exit. With handler/dog teams bringing up the rear I cringed at the thought of screeching to a halt mid lap. I tugged on the lead with force and insisted that Luke comply. He shot me an insubordinate glare, bowed his head down , dug in with his feet and back pedaled to toward the exit. The other participants trotted past us as Luke plopped belly down with much force at the edge of the ring. We were locked in a battle of the wills. The judge was agitated, I was embarrassed and Luke was exptremely displeased with me. I pleaded with Luke to cooperate and he finally, after what felt like an eternity, stood back up and took his place with me in the line up. There was no chance in placing after such a flagrant display, but we stood there until the last ribbon was awarded. We congratulated the winners, left the ring and packed up our things. It was well past time to go home.

As I drove home feeling dejected with my pant leg stained with Luke’s urine, I glanced over at him curled up on the seat snoring like a fat baby. He had finally gotten his way. He was content. In spite of the day’s frustrations, I couldn’t be upset with him.  After all, he hadn’t signed up for any shows or indicated an interest in such for that matter. I had taken it upon myself to haul him out into the frigid cold to prance around in circles for points, titles and ribbons that meant less than nothing to him. As I reflect on all of Luke’s accomplishments in the show ring over the years, and he had many of them, I remember most affectionately the moments that more accurately conveyed his personality. The times when he expressed himself with flare. Luke showed well for me on many occasions, but he wasn’t a show dog at heart. He was charismatic, a social butterfly. He enjoyed meeting people at shows, he enjoyed eating chicken nuggets ring-side for lunch and he enjoyed just spending the day with me. But he didn’t always enjoy turning it on and strutting his stuff in a show ring.

My telephone conversation with the obedience training guru waned. I was amused that in a world filled with breeds who live to please, this guy was zeroed in on adding a bulldogge. I expressed my concerns to him candidly and explained that while bulldogges are intelligent, they aren’t always agreeable. Stubborn. Bulldogges are stubborn. And that flies in the face of activities that require impeccable obedience. He didn’t seem deterred by my words of caution. Maybe a bulldogge is just what he needs. Oftentimes, the most unlikely relationships happen along and serve to transform us in ways unimaginable. This guy just might need to be owned by a bulldogge. Few things are as special as having a dog take charge of your life and train you up to their liking. As I hung up the phone, I smiled as I imagined how unimpressed a bulldogge would be with his extensive training knowledge and experience. Maybe a bulldogge isn’t what he needs, after all.

FCB08051-74B3-4212-837E-28C20AB95335.jpeg

Testing: One, Two, Three

“His leg is broken” came the official diagnosis. I had left the puppy play pen with all 7 pups bouncing around vigorously. I came back an hour later to find Niles lying still as the other pups rushed to greet me. I knew instantly that something was amiss. I quickly discovered that one of his rear legs was injured, so off to the vet we went. The only plausible explanation for an injury of this nature is that his mama must have accidentally stepped on him when entering the puppy pen. Over the years I’ve witnessed close calls as pups swarm to greet their mom as she hops over the guard to enter the whelping box. It’s by the grace of God that more injuries haven’t occurred. My mind busily processed the logistical layout of the whelping box, play pen and guards. I searched for ways to prevent this type of mishap in the future. I came up with nothing. Accidents happen. It’s a frustrating fact.

X-rays revealed a clean break of the tibia that will heal quickly and completely. The prognosis is good. Relief rushed over me as I learned that Niles was expected to experience total recovery within three weeks and would suffer no lasting effects. The challenge, however, would be keeping a four-week old puppy confined so that his leg could heal properly. On the cusp of experiencing enhanced mobility, this little guy was suddenly restricted to staying off of his feet for a few weeks. His leg may be broken, but his spirit is brimming over with desire to bound about, to explore his surroundings. He wakes to eat, potty and play with much regularity around the clock. And he wakes loudly. Sleeping in short bursts has proven to be therapeutic for Niles. He awakens full of energy and well rested, ready to seize the moment.  I, on the other hand, am not responding as well to his schedule.  Broken sleep has ushered in exhaustion and irritability. I feel my resolve erode with each passing day of sleeplessness. I wonder how people raise human babies.  I can’t even imagine. And I’m too tired to ponder the thought for any length of time.

It’s a test. All of life is a test. How we behave when things are going well doesn’t exactly reveal much about our character. It’s adversity that breaks down our facade and illuminates what’s really inside of us. I’ve heard it described this way. If you have a cup of water and you bump the cup, water will spill out because water is what’s inside the cup. Likewise, whatever is inside of us is what will spill out whenever we’re “bumped” by the challenges of life. There’s nothing like a little sleep deprivation to highlight all that’s wrong with yourself. A journey that began with thanksgiving over a good prognosis was morphing into an opportunity for me to complain. A lot. If not verbally, internally. A steady stream of grumbling about everything imaginable was beginning to take root. I felt the shift in my internal atmosphere immediately. Peace evaporated.

I’ve fasted complaining on several occasions. You never really realize how much you complain until you make an intentional effort to cease all grumbling. Even the trivial gripes that flow from us in such a way that we don’t even recognize them as such. They’re the most destructive. A complaint fast is revelatory. I’m struck by the irony of it. Something that I electively abstained from on several occasions with fairly optimal results was the very thing that came gushing out of me when pressure was applied. The same old tired temptation to listen to the lies of the enemy and marinate in discontentment. I’m amused by the lack of originality on the part of my tempter. I’m less than amused that I fell into the trap yet again. All of life is a test. And I’m thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning.

It’s always a heart issue. Every lament is a reflection of pride rising up in our hearts, spilling out into our lives. A tinge of discontent settles on the countenance and before we  know it our voice assumes a tone of disdain. It’s subtle, subconscious for the most part. Nevertheless, our murmuring ascends up to God as an affront that serves as a barricade of His blessings. Every irritation, aggravation and frustration is at the root a complaint against God himself. The language of satan. As we exhale murmurs with the breath that God gives, we unleash hell into our circumstances. And the effects of discontentment are exponential as we give vent to bitterness. Isn’t it interesting that our free will is relentlessly bent toward misery? I’m arrested by the thought. We lock ourselves up in the prison of animosity and blame God for our suffering. We sacrifice peace on the altar of discontentment. And then have the colossal nerve to rail against God for the harshness of life.

Niles has a broken leg that struck him out of nowhere. He was up and running one minute and wracked with pain the next. I’m overwhelmed with emotion as I witness the abundance of joy that fills this little pup. In the midst of a major set back, Niles maintains an optimistic outlook. He dives into his meals with a smile, he scoots around with delight to paw at his toys and he lights up when I talk to him. There’s not an ounce of disgruntlement in this baby. The absurdity of my irritability due to inadequate sleep is magnified as I observe the love of God flowing through an adorable bulldogge puppy with a broken leg. That’s God’s grace. It relentlessly pursues and meets us in the midst of our messy moments. And it flows most freely through the gentle, the humble. It flows freely through puppies.

Adversity is an open opportunity to be a conduit of discontentment or of peace. It’s always a choice. It’s always a test. May the love of God flow as readily through me as it does through bulldogge puppies. And may there be an abundance of puppy breath for all of life’s tests.

0C09570A-07E9-4F03-84A5-A69BB60BCB3E.jpeg

Temptation

Luke waited in the car as I stood in the yard shooting the breeze with my dad. I can’t remember what our conversation was about, but as we chatted I’d occasionally glance over at Luke sitting majestically in the passenger seat of my SUV. He peered at us intently as if he were following along in our conversation. Luke never let me out of his sight when we were out and about together. If I went into a store he’d remain staunchly seated, chin up, eyes fixed on the door as I entered and he’d remain as such until I returned to him. Our conversation continued to flow as Luke repositioned himself. I glanced over to find him slouching, chin resting on the door, nose pressed against the window. Bulldogge nose art. Luke authored his fair share of masterpieces. I drove those creative works around town, displaying them proudly. Like most artists, I don’t think Luke’s creativity and artistic flair was wholly appreciated while he lived. I’m sure it’d be worth some money now if only I hadn’t windexed it away already. Hindsight.

I began to notice Luke’s impatience as my dad and I wrapped up our conversation. Luke adjusted his posture, turned in the seat and came to a rest with his chin propped on the center console. No sooner than we had said our goodbyes and I was turning to head back to my vehicle, my dad said with bewilderment, “What’s Luke doing?” I turned around to find Luke’s rear end up in the air, his nose down below where I could get a visual. My mind raced to figure out what was happening and then it hit me. “Our hot dogs!”, I exclaimed as I ran to salvage what was left of dinner. I had always been able to trust Luke with food. Well, food that was wrapped and sacked up. Once it was opened he demanded his fair share and he’d certainly help himself if it was within his reach. But food not yet opened had traditionally been safe in his care. Temptation. It gets the best of everyone from time to time.

As I worked to clean chili dog out of my cup holder where Luke had mashed it into a pureed snack with his snout, I thought about Eve in the garden. About temptation. I imagined that Luke caught a whiff of dinner’s pleasing aroma which caused him to look upon the hot dogs with desire. He saw that they were good for food and pleasing to his robust appetite, so he took for himself and ate. How could I be upset with him. Even humans created without a sin nature placed in the garden of God had been tripped up by temptation. A hungry bulldogge with idle time didn’t stand a chance against the wiles of chili dog temptation.

As we drove home Luke sat facing the passenger door, nose pressed against the glass, pouting because I had scolded him for stealing dinner. I don’t think he regretted eating the hot dog. He just didn’t want me to be upset with him for doing it. Luke lived free from the need to impress others. He never cared what anyone thought of him. Except for me. He cared deeply about being in my good graces. On the ride home I thought about the similarities and differences of humans and dogs. Both made from the dust and animated by the breath of God. According to Ecclesiastes, our spirits alike return to the One who gave it as our bodies return to dust. Created on the same day, our lives are meant to intertwine in profound ways. The only thing that elevates humans is that we’re image bearers of the Creator with authority over creation. We’re accountable for our actions before the Author of all life. Dogs aren’t.

Luke’s moral failure was relatively miniscule, hardly worth noting. He ate a hot dog for goodness sake. It’s not as though he transgressed into a vicious attack or chewed through a wall. He was a good boy. Luke was never even tempted to chew furniture, mark indoors or act out in any otherwise uncivilized manner. We all have our limits, though. An alluring treat dangling right in front of his nose was just too hard to resist. Oh, the seductive charm of temptation. And isn’t that precisely how temptation slithers in? I’m arrested by the thought. I’m never tempted to rob a bank, commit homicide or shoot up heroine. No, my temptations are much more subtle than that. More sinister. At the heart of every seemingly benign temptation is the desire for good. I’m never lured in by blatant evil. But the desire for knowledge, for autonomy, that’s always the propeller that launches us into the pits of misery. Hell is real and we unleash it into our own lives. We grasp for good, for life apart from the One who sustains us with His breath and we isolate ourselves from ultimate goodness.

The irony. Chasing after tantalizing facades that entice with empty promises. Sweet lies. We gobble them right up. Our appetites consume like raging fires. We spin and labor to achieve our dreams, to reach our goals, to become the person that we imagine we could be. But the satisfaction is always just out of reach. We can’t earn enough, achieve enough, know enough to quench that thirst. As Solomon said, “it’s like chasing after the wind.” It’s unattainable, a phantom. And when we get to the end of our efforts, the end of ourselves, there we find freedom. Freedom from the need to strive, the desire to achieve. Freedom from the gates of hell barred shut from the inside and liberated into who we were created to be. Surrender. A daily discipline that serves to alleviate the churning desires that open the doors to temptation. A relenting of my will, the very thing that sends me careening into the ditch. An embracing of my Creator’s will, the very thing that brings perfect peace.

We pull into the driveway at home and I squeeze Luke tightly, a bear hug of forgiveness. He soaks it up with a smile. As we walked inside I sat what was left of dinner on the kitchen table and announced to my husband, Daryl, that Luke had eaten his hot dog. Puzzled, Daryl replied, “Why’s it gotta be my hot dog?” I smiled, “Good question. You’ll have to ask Luke.”

321E2A12-6AC1-40DA-8083-CFADC1AD24E4

 

 

String Cheese

I grab a stick of string cheese from the refrigerator as a quick snack and immediately seated before me are three bulldogges. Staring me down, they indicate clearly that they expect their fair share. This translates into me having one bite and the rest of the bites being doled out among my pleading audience. String cheese is a house favorite around here. As I toss plugs of cheese into each of their drooling mouths, I’m reminded of Luke’s love of string cheese. String cheese was one of Luke’s many loves, second only to bananas. After he passed away I was unable to buy either of those items for quite a while. In fact, I still can’t bring myself to purchase bananas.

I grab another stick of cheese from the fridge in hopes of enjoying more than one bite as my mind drifts back to the days when Luke and I participated in obedience classes each week. Opinionated, strong-willed and far from being interested in “obedience”, Luke embraced training classes only for the special attention and string cheese. If the truth be known, we both enjoyed obedience classes simply as an excuse to have a night out with just the two of us.  We’d attend class then stop for a hotdog and ice cream next door at a local dairy bar. The girls working the window would give Luke a free hotdog and gush over him as he ordered a small vanilla cone. Good times. We both looked forward with anticipation each week to our doggy date night.

For anyone who thinks that bulldogges are simple-minded and easily manipulated with treats and pats on the head, I have to point out that their thinking is the only thing simple in that equation. Oh, it’s true that bullies may not always adhere to rules, come when called or obey basic commands. Don’t be mistaken, though. They absolutely know what the rules are and they understand with clarity what’s being asked of them. Life with a bulldogge can be frustrating. Especially for those who are under the impression that they’re in control and all four-legged members of the family must bow to their lordship. I can assure you that if you share your life with a bulldogge that type of thinking is a delusion, a beautiful  lie that you’ve sold yourself. You may simply own other dogs, but you enter into complex relationships with bulldogges.

As I observed the other dog/handler teams in our weekly class I was struck by the fact that most of the other dogs eagerly obeyed the commands for a tasty morsel. Eyes fixed on the handler, these dogs of various breeds from small to medium size delighted in pleasing their owners. They’d do anything for a tidbit of cheese. I looked at Luke and smiled. I had a pressing impression that we might impede the natural flow of things at this canine academy. But we jumped right in and Luke learned quickly. I never doubted his ability to comprehend new material. It was his willingness to comply that gave me pause. However, Luke obeyed the majority of the commands. On occasion he would balk and we’d just move onto something that he was more interested in doing. Give and take. Like any meaningful, committed relationship, resilience is key.

One evening after class I stayed late to chat with the instructor. As we sat across from each other shooting the breeze, the instructor’s chocolate Labrador walked over and sat down facing me. Gemma was a phenomenal representation of her breed. Not only was she beautiful, she was also impeccably trained and extremely obedient. Definitely a star pupil. Luke was lying at my feet when he saw Gemma approach me. He sat straight up and snapped to attention taking a seat right next to Gemma, facing me. I had string cheese in my treat pouch, so I pulled out a stick and broke off two equal pieces. I gave Luke his piece first. He happily took it from me and began to savor it. Then I reached out and handed Gemma her bite to which she gladly accepted as Luke looked on. Suddenly, Luke ceased chewing his coveted treat. His posture stiffened. If looks could kill I would have been annihilated on the spot. Seething with contempt, Luke threw his head back and forcefully spit his delectable treat at my feet. He then turned his back to me, let out a heavy sigh and sat down with a thud. Don’t try to tell me that dogs aren’t capable of harboring offense. Luke was deeply offended. And he was no longer speaking to me.

The instructor was shocked at what she’d just witnessed. A temper tantrum of sorts that culminated in an obviously well thought out silent treatment. As I pleaded with Luke to forgive me and take his cheese bite, he refused to look at me. He was utterly disgusted. How dare I share HIS treats with another dog. I had really gone and done it. I anticipated much groveling and extra ice cream after class to inch my way back into Luke’s good graces. Say what you will about bulldogges, but simple-minded they are not. This demonstration of sophisticated logic not only highlighted Luke’s intelligence, but also a dynamic personality driven by strong emotions. Luke felt deeply. He loved fiercely and he protested loudly when things didn’t go to suit him. It was my profound soul connection with Luke that created a dynamic that allowed for such expressions of emotions to be validated. As amusing as this outburst was, I knew that I had some explaining to do.

Luke forgave me, eventually. He couldn’t hold a grudge for long with me doting over him and professing my undying love for him. I realized that evening that obedience training was a two-way street. Luke would comply to sitting, staying and heeling, but I would have to learn to properly steward his treats. Give and take. Any relationship worth its salt requires humility and flexibility. Luke didn’t care about basic obedience. He had no desire to trot around a rally course, stopping, turning, sitting and lying down. In fact, I’m pretty sure he thought the whole scenario  was ridiculous. He did it, though. He did it because he loved me. Well, because he loved me and because of string cheese. But we’re not splitting hairs here. The point is, he generally went along with whatever I asked, even when he thought it was stupid. And I generally went along with whatever he asked, even when I thought it was irrational. That’s what love does. It doesn’t require that desires and feelings make perfect sense. It doesn’t analyze and scrutinize emotions. Love bores right into the middle of the complexity and reconciles hearts. My heart is forever reconciled to Luke. And I’ll never be able to eat string cheese without thinking of him.

DAA2BE8C-C0A7-403E-B203-2ECEA93F7410

 

Fear Not

I watch as Clementine stands at the bottom of the steps that lead inside with apprehension and escalating anxiety. Five steps. They seem like Mount Everest to this pint-sized pup. Because of her size, I traditionally carried her up and down the steps before and after outdoor time. Once she grew to a size where she could maneuver steps, I began calling to her from the top step to encourage her to come inside on her own. But she was having none of that. Clementine made it crystal clear that she would come inside only if I picked her up and carried her just as I always had. This began a process of learning to use the steps that we continue to work on even as I type this.

I coaxed her with her favorite treats and explained to her that big girls come inside on their own. She watched the other bullies ascending and descending. She desperately wanted to do it. She was brimming with the desire to march up those steps and claim her cookie alongside the big girls that blew right past her and barreled through the door. But she just couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. She would pace at the bottom step, her short legs moving quickly, but not taking her anywhere. Finally, she would charge up to the third step and stop short. Panic would overtake her and she would leap back out into the safety of the yard. Clementine did a lot of fussing at those infuriating steps that continually disrupted the flow of her day. As much as I wanted her to find her courage and overcome this obstacle, my heart would bend toward scooping her up in my arms and carrying her wherever she wanted to go.

The day that she finally made it all the way to the top I was standing in the doorway reading an email on my phone. Clementine had been running around the yard, but had decided that she was ready to come inside. As usual, she came to the bottom step and danced around while fussing about these godforsaken steps that were a constant thorn in her side. As I wondered if she’d ever manage those steps on her own, I was thankful that God made her small. I reasoned that if I had to carry a dog up 5 steps multiple times a day for years to come at least her size would be manageable for me. Then, suddenly, Clementine hunkered down and  shot up those intimidating steps like a streak of lighting. She was a blur in the corner of my eye as she leapt over the top step into the living room. I don’t know which of us was more elated. In an instant she had overcome her fear and conquered her giant. We celebrated the momentous occasion with cookies and many congratulatory smooches.

That was at least three weeks ago. As I observe Clementine today, after many weeks of facing this giant, I’m overcome with a profound sense of how fear manifests in our lives. Even the life of a bulldogge puppy. Several weeks ago I looked on with joy as this little nugget of a pup seemingly conquered her fears and overcame the obstacle that had left her whimpering in the yard every day for months up until that point. But today I stand on the top step and witness the frustration, the apprehension rising up and challenging Clementine each time she approaches those steps. At times she pushes through the fear and climbs those steps with confidence, but often she stares with trepidation at the one thing that looms large and insurmountable in her life. Focus. It’s always a matter of where her attention is focused.

Isn’t that exactly how fear manifests in everyone’s life? Just when we strike the enemy of fear a neutralizing blow and begin to feel our confidence rise up, we are often pummeled again by another wave of crippling doubt. We continue to circle the same tired mountains and while we may win some of the battles, the war rages on and on. I can identify with Clementine.  I understand the struggle. Things that others seemingly take in stride are often a source of great frustration in my life. It’s as though everyone is marching right up those steps while I’m stuck on the bottom rung. As I reflect on Clementine’s mountain, her formidable foe of concrete steps, it’s increasingly clear that we all have our demons to face. No one is exempt.  And they’re crafty. These demons are personable, flexible and hell-bent on filling us with fear. They highlight our weaknesses, point out our failures and magnify obstacles. A steady stream of lies whispered in our ears threatening to incapacitate us. Unceasing uncertainty grips us and our mountains get bigger as we buy into the lies and give into the enemy of our souls, Fear.

The tension of life. Teetering between fear and faith. Fear that leaves me pacing in angst on the bottom step sharply contrasted by faith that propels me powerfully over the top step and into my destiny. Trust. How can something so simple be so complex, so difficult?  The remedy is love. But not your run of the mill sort of love, the kind we toss around like a surplus commodity. Perfect love, agape love. That’s the solution to life’s maladies. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. And perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Fear is ceaseless, always lurking. I can’t annihilate fear by conjuring up fortitude. Fear isn’t intimidated by my resolve to buckle up and tear through its wall of deceit. I can’t manufacture courage. I’m unable to boost myself up enough to defeat fear with any consistency. Fear is ever-present, always an option. And a very tempting option at that.

The truth is that all of my fears are validated. My weakness and fallibility is tangible, palpable. And it’s when I push against the natural current of my existence and strive to conform to some other version of myself that fear barges in to shut me down. I’m learning that freedom, God-sized freedom, is not about building myself up into a functional, capable, confident human being. Freedom from fear comes only when I embrace the reality of my desperate condition and rest knowing that it isn’t about me. It was never about me. As I reflect upon the overwhelming, radical  love of God I’m transformed, not into a more competent person, but into a person resting in the One who holds my very life in His hands. The One who spoke the universe into existence is more than capable of carrying me up any flight of stairs I may face. But in His infinite wisdom He sets me down and walks alongside me, coaxing me, watching over me and empowering me. I’m transformed by His love. And as I become enamored by His incomprehensible love for me, I become increasingly unimpressed by my circumstances and fear bows. Perfect love drives out fear.

A2718427-A613-4516-90F6-7BD9E5E4B59E.jpeg

A Moment Of Clarity

I unbuckled the safety harness and scooped Clementine up out of the passenger seat of my SUV where she faithfully rides shotgun. As I lifted her out of the vehicle my mind wandered to a time long ago when Luke was a my co-pilot. We had a routine, a system. I would hop out of the vehicle and he would bound over the center console and gleefully fall into my arms as I would swing him around, setting him down on the ground like a plane coming in for a landing. If it’s possible for a puppy to laugh, I’m certain that Luke did just that each time I grabbed him up in my arms to exit the vehicle. He was a happy baby who embraced the good things in life. Especially chicken nuggets, ice cream and sleep. Luke had strong opinions about some things, but overall he was mellow and laid back. He definitely lived up to his name, Cool Hand Luke.

As I carried my little Clementine from my car to the gate at my parent’s place I held her tighter than usual, breathing her in. How is it that someone so tiny can take up so much of my heart? If you had asked me, I would have said that I hoped for a pup similar to Luke in every way to happen into my life to fill the void that was so prominent with him gone. The Lord knew that was the last thing I needed. As the memories of Luke rush over me in waves, this little fireball of a pup, the antithesis of Luke, brings unexpected comfort and joy. It’s counterintuitive. Clementine is a tiny tornado ripping through my life, leaving in her wake inexpressible happiness. I’m frequently overcome with emotion as I contemplate the magnanimous grace of God packed into this opinionated, independent,  pint-sized puppy.

Every day for weeks Luke dove out of our SUV into my arms and then suddenly, one day I realized that he was getting too heavy for me. I began teaching him to step out of the seat, onto the running board and onto the ground. He picked right up on it, but wasn’t excited about doing things differently. Not unlike me, Luke was a creature of habit. He was content to continue diving into my arms. It worked well for him. And so, about three days into the new routine Luke made one final attempt to do things his way. I stepped out of the vehicle, reached my arm across the steering wheel to grab my keys and Luke did a swan dive over my arm, crashing into me with a huge smile on his face. I braced for impact and barely avoided a broken arm as I was flung backward out into the driveway. I caught him. All fifty pounds of him. Luke was unscathed. I, on the other hand, took a few days to recover from the incident.

Trust. As I ponder Luke’s leap of faith, I’m struck by his level of trust in me. Luke had absolutely no doubt in his mind that I was going to catch him. I always caught him. I had never dropped him. He didn’t even consider the possibility that I might not be able to catch him. What must it be like to live life uninhibited, totally trusting? Far too often I convince myself that I’m trusting as I pray for clarity. I press in for answers, for certainty, all the while believing that my faith is in its proper place. I know that God is good. I know that He is faithful and capable and worthy of my trust. So, why do I struggle and strive for clarity? Why do I hesitate to dive out into His arms with a smile on my face, certain that he will catch me? Why is simple trust so difficult?

It’s subtle, the sin of certainty. I pray for God to guide me, to show me what to do, to explain things to me. Sometimes the answer is swift and obvious. How I cherish those moments. But most often I’m left to wrestle with uncertainty. It’s uncomfortable. The tension exposes in me things that are unpleasant and deep-rooted. I have come to realize that it’s precisely within the uncertainty that I most need to marinate. I’m reminded of John Kavanaugh who in searching for clarity in his life, sought the prayer of Mother Teresa. Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him, to which she replied, “What do you want me to pray for?” He asked her to pray that he would have clarity. Mother Teresa said bluntly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh rebutted that she always seemed to have the type of clarity that he desperately longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

I have prayed for clarity many times and on occasion God, in his infinite mercy, has illuminated my path. But I have come to realize that when certainty is my heart’s desire, my prayer must be for trust. Trust in a God who ushers incomprehensible blessing into my life in spite of me. A God who hears my heart cry and abundantly  provides in ways that exceed my wildest hopes. A God who enters into the depths of my pain and offers up a living, breathing antidote that I never would have imagined. When I consider the grace gift of Clementine, clarity is less important. Trust, less difficult.

E3485501-DD8D-43F3-8FF3-C8BB5F535062.jpeg