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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What’s In A Name?

The annual cousin’s reunion. Tables filled with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, casseroles and enough dessert to give someone sugar shock. Every year we have a family gathering in my dad’s big barn with a pot luck lunch and plenty of reminiscing and entertaining banter. This past year Clementine, our tiny bulldogge puppy, tagged along. She enjoyed the day tussling and playing with my parent’s Boston Terrier, Lola. While I’m certain that God made Clementine especially for me, I’m also convinced that He had Lola in mind as well.  I think Lola needed a friend and God sent her a best friend in Clementine.

As I observe Lola brimming over with excitement each time Clementine comes to visit, my heart is filled with joy. Lola rushes to grab the most interesting and desirable toy in the room to offer up to her cherished companion. When cookies are doled out, Lola generously drops her cookie at Clementine’s feet as a love offering. Lola loves to run, and by run I mean bolt through the yard like a shot. Lola is fast. Clementine isn’t. At least not by Boston Terrier standards. It’s heartwarming to watch Lola instigate a game of chase only to slow down or stop and roll over, belly up, so that Clementine can not only keep up, but tackle her. The cultivation of this sweet little friendship has been a blessing not only to Lola and Clementine, but to me. To witness the generosity and kindness expressed by these pups as they pour out love in its purest form is transformative. There are never any false pretenses with dogs. No ulterior motives. But that pondering is deep and wide and for another day.

As the day’s festivities unfolded everyone took an interest in meeting Clementine, the tiny pup that was bottle fed. The little miracle puppy. She soaked up the attention and pranced around with her most adorable wiggle-butt maneuvers. Everyone was smitten. My uncle looked on with a smile and then asked her name. We told him her name was Clementine and he nodded amusingly. The name was her litter name and it simply stuck. We chose the theme of folk songs for that litter of pups and among the list of songs was Clementine. This little nugget of a pup wore the name so well that we decided to keep it and began affectionately referring to her as our little tangerine. You know, like the Cuties Clementines? She was no bigger than a tangerine for many weeks and she was also sweet with a twist of tart, so the analogy seemed fitting.

What’s in a name? When God gave Adam the privilege of naming all of the animals, he was charged with the responsibility of calling forth their personality, their  very  being. It wasn’t a string of letters, verbiage or simple words that were given in the garden of God. A name is much more than that. A name encapsulates a being’s very nature, personality and character.  Is it really any different as we name our companion animals today. We look into them and catch a glimpse of who they truly are and we give them a name that we believe best sums them up. It’s why naming a new puppy is fun and, at times, challenging. Finding just the right word to pin onto a furry little creature that we already love with an intensity we can’t articulate is no small task. It can take much time and thought to settle on the perfect name for our beloved pets. But sometimes names suddenly emerge without any reflection or forethought. Like an angel dropped them out of the sky, they suddenly spring forth and fit perfectly. Turpentine is such a name as that.

After a day of eating, touch football and catching up on the happenings in everyone’s lives, we all began to box up leftovers, put away the tables and engage in long drawn out goodbyes. In the south goodbyes turn into conversations that last at least another hour.  In the course of time, my uncle again approached Clementine and as he listened to everyone talking to and about her, he let out a chuckle. He admitted that up until that moment he thought we were calling her Turpentine and had went the whole day referring to her as such. That gave us a good laugh and we began to affectionately refer to her as Turpentine when she was being defiant, stubborn and just plain ornery. Turpentine, or The Terp for short, has become her alter-ego title. As sweet and affectionate as Clementine is, she is equal parts sass and attitude. I’m always amazed that God could pack so much personality into such a tiny package. She’s independent, opinionated and strong-willed. She’s adorable, charismatic and affectionate. As with anyone, words fall short of accurately capturing who this tiny fireball really is. She’s my sweet little tangerine, Clementine, most days, but sometimes she’s a shot of turpentine.

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