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.



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.


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.


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.



It  was life as usual since I said goodbye to Luke. There was a giant void with him gone, but I had surrendered to the idea that I probably wouldn’t ever have such a deep connection with another dog. Of course, I love all of my dogs. Immensely. But there’s a deep soul-tie that sometimes happens along that’s unexpected and profound. Once you’re knit together with another creature in the depths of your soul, life will never be the same. And losing them will be agonizing.

But then along came Clementine.

As I watched over Velvet giving birth to 9 beautiful bulldogge puppies, I noticed about midway in the birthing process that an exceptionally tiny pup had been pushed forth into my world. Weighing a whopping three ounces at birth, this pup was alarmingly small. She was less than half the size of her litter-mates. As I watched her scoot around and struggle to nurse in what seemed to be a sea of giants, I knew that I had to intervene if she were going to live. I put her in a shoe box next to my bed on a heating pad and began bottle feeding her every two hours around the clock. I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. To say that I was exhausted is an understatement. I have vivid memories of bottle feeding her during the night while seriously wondering if anyone had ever died of sleep deprivation. It seems ridiculous now, but in that moment I was convinced that I might simply drop dead of exhaustion.

Needless to say, I lived through the many days of agonizing sleeplessness and emerged from the experience healed and whole in a profound way. The heaviness of life without Luke coupled with weariness as I bottle fed this wee little pup opened up a floodgate of God’s grace which poured forth in unexpected and overwhelming ways.  As my heart ached for Luke, God sent to me a pup that I would have to surrender myself to. As with any relationship, deep connection and love is only cultivated through devotion and self sacrifice. As I poured myself out so that this little pup might live, my soul began to connect with her in ways that I had not anticipated. Simply put, she stole my heart.

It’s our natural inclination to wonder where God is when we enter into adversity and suffering. Life is often heavy and riddled with struggle. No one is exempt from the cruelty and harshness. I have found that it is precisely within the struggle that God’s presence is most tangible. After all, the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and he rescues those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18) As my heart broke, God’s heart broke and poured out into me healing in ways that I didn’t recognize in the moment. I wouldn’t have chosen it. I resisted it, in fact. And as with most of what’s meaningful in life, it only makes sense in reverse. A dear friend of mine said that this pup was God’s love song to me. As beautiful as that sentiment is, I remember thinking as I was running on fumes that she was more like a heavy metal song. Now that I’m on the other side of the struggle and I’m able to more clearly discern what God was doing, I cherish that sentiment in my heart.

We named this miracle pup Clementine and she graduated from a shoe box, to a plastic tote, to our bed. Still tiny, she weighs in around twenty five pounds now. I’m amazed that the good Lord could pack so much personality into such a tiny package. Opinionated and strong-willed, Clementine was a fireball dropped right into the middle of my “life as usual”. I find myself wondering how I ever lived without her. Isn’t it interesting how we relent to a certain type of existence and then suddenly, out of nowhere, life is turned upside down and transformed into something we never could have imagined, something glorious?  That’s what grace does. It bores into our messiness and revolutionizes our lives. It’s unexpected.  It’s often wrapped in unassuming packages. And sometimes it’s a tiny runt puppy that steals your sleep and erodes your resolve. I’m thankful for the grace gift of Clementine that I didn’t ask for, didn’t know I needed and tried to resist.


And though she be but little, she is fierce.




Life Without Luke

It’s been one full trip around the sun since I said goodbye to Luke, my canine soul mate. I don’t remember the logistics of that day, but I remember with clarity the palpable realization that life without Luke would be agonizing. Grief is a thorny issue indeed. Does anyone ever get over magnificent loss? I don’t think so. I think the pain and sorrow pierces right into the core of our being and transforms us into something else entirely. It crashes over us in waves, revealing emotions and desires that we often leave neatly tucked away as we go about our tidy little lives. Death is a violent assault against our souls, plain and simple. It’s unbearable and unavoidable. To love greatly always requires that we open ourselves to the reality of great loss.

I was right. Life without Luke is agonizing. Sure, there are moments of joy sprinkled amid the heaviness. But isn’t that everyone’s reality? Life is struggle. Life is also a gift that is beautifully breathtaking, filled with moments of unutterable splendor. Losing Luke has forced me to view life’s moments through a different lens. No longer do I take the grace gifts of life in stride. I see the miracle of moments more readily. Realizing that the cycle of life is rushing along with full momentum, I’m more able to surrender to the inevitable and embrace the goodness that’s often tangled up in the messiness of a broken world.

After all, the richness of the relationship that I shared with Luke was a grace gift. I don’t think I would have ever described it as such, although I felt it deeply. Isn’t that always the case, though? The most profound emotions are complex and words to accurately convey elude us. To be known and loved completely without an ounce of pretension or malice. That’s a miracle in this hateful and utterly broken world. It’s undeserving. It’s scandalizing. It’s exactly how Luke loved me. Simply put, dogs are proof that God loves us. They’re a four-legged reflection of the agape love that is only attributable to God.

I’m grateful for the gift of Luke in my life. I loved him fiercely. I still do. But it was his love for me that brings into sharp focus the sheer goodness that unexpectedly comes upon us, engulfs us, transforms us. It’s subtle. It’s often wrapped in unassuming packages. It’s easily taken for granted. But once our awareness is piqued we either struggle and strive to hold onto that goodness and ultimately lose it or we surrender to it, breathe it in and let it recreate us. It’s the magnitude of the goodness of the gift that violently contrasts the anguish of losing it which leaves us broken. But through brokenness comes abundance. Ann Voskamp says it best, “for a seed to come fully into it’s own, the shell must break open, it’s insides must come out and everything must change. If you didn’t understand what life looks like you might mistake it for complete destruction.” I thought that losing Luke would destroy me. Turns out it did. It wrecked me. To say that I miss Luke is a massive understatement. But through brokenness comes abundance. Abundant joy, love and goodness transcend the grief as time marches on.



Until we meet again, sweet Luke.