Learning New Tricks from an Old Dog

We have a 13-year-old Siberian Husky named Belle. And because she’s from Siberia, she has had a difficult time acclimating to our hot Missouri summers. Every year without fail, when it starts getting really hot and humid, Belle starts whining and complaining. She goes on and on about how great Siberian summers were back in the day and how much she hates the Midwest, blah, blah, bark.  It’s totally obnoxious.

Because of her disdain for the heat, she absolutely refuses to go outside, even to do her business. It’s amazing really, the bladder control on this dog! Unless she has a secret corner we don’t know about, she can go an entire day without relief. But as impressed as I am with her doggy-doo-doo discipline, it does not make up for the fact that she has decided that 2:00 in the morning is the optimal time for her potty break. It’s infuriating!

So, the other night, just as I was in the middle of some rare but deep sleep, I was awakened by a bark. The weird thing about Belle’s bark; it’s apparently at a frequency level that cannot be heard by female ears, because Sally never hears it…craziest thing! Anyway, I groggily made my way downstairs to the back door were Belle was patiently waiting, tail between her legs. I opened the door for her and reached over to turn on the back porch light. What I witnessed next seemed like a dream scene from an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

The humidity was so thick that it had created a low-lying fog hovering a few feet off the ground. The glow from the porch light created eerie shadows from the trees onto the wet grass. I rubbed my eyes to make sure the haze was not from gunk matting my eyelids together. When I refocused, I noticed there was not one, not two, not three, but four deer lying in our backyard.

My first thought was, “O crud, Belle’s going to go nuts!” I feared she would start barking at them and chasing them out of the yard, running past the invisible fence barrier. But as I looked over at her, I discovered her simply minding her own business (pun intended). She was looking at them, and they were looking at her, but no one made a move. It was like they were saying, “You know what, it’s hot, everyone’s tired, let’s make peace and just call it a night.” I was so impressed with my dog that night. I was so proud of how she allowed the deer to stay in her yard, to offer a place to rest without making them feel uncomfortable or like they were intruding. She did her business and came back into the house.

The next day as I recalled that scene, I wasn’t sure I had dreamed it or if it was real. But seeing the four flat areas on the grass convinced me it was real. As I thought about it, I wondered, what would it take for the church to start being as welcoming and accommodating as Belle? What would it take for us to allow people who are different from us, maybe even those who were once seen as our enemies, to find rest and sanctuary in our church? Maybe if an old dog, like Belle, can learn new tricks, so can we.

Studying Maps

I love studying maps. I suppose it’s because I enjoy seeing the big picture of a place; the “bird’s eye view” sort of thing. I like checking out the maps of vacation destinations just to see what points of interests are close by. How far to the nearest beach? How close is the mall? Do they have an Art Museum? (Just kidding about that one.)

But please don’t mistake my love for maps with the idea that I use one when I’m actually on the trip. What’s the fun in that? Any man worth his weight in testosterone would never use the map then. The idea is to get the big picture ahead of time and then let your God-given sense of direction and internal man-compass take it from there.

The same principle applies to asking for directions. It is proper and even beneficial to get directions before the trip, but never while on the trip. Any man getting caught asking directions when lost is subject to having his mancard revoked.

So here’s my big revelation regarding studying maps; sitting in my den reading a map is not the same thing as actually going on the journey. Sure, it can give me a sense of direction towards a particular destination and can give me an idea of what the destination is like, but it’s not the actual journey. For it to be a journey, I would have to get my head out of the map, make reservations, pack my bags, stop the mail, fill the car up with gas, get in the car, start the engine and start driving towards my destination. Only then am I truly on my way.

I think the same thing applies to our spiritual journey. While reading the Bible is vitally important on our journey, I don’t believe Bible study alone is what Jesus meant when he said “follow me.”  He didn’t tell His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his Bible and study it day and night.” No, He said “take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus also said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  What Jesus is describing here is a journey, a process, a way of life.  Yes, He has given us the Bible to study and learn about who He is and about His redemptive plan and how we fit into His story, but He didn’t give it to us so we would sit comfortably in our Bible study groups while the rest of the world carried on without us. We are called to get out of our comfort zones, out of our “holy huddles” and start living the journey.

I’ve heard it said, “The path is made by walking it.” Before there were maps, some courageous explorers had to start walking and making the paths that would later become the roads and highways that would eventually show up on those maps. Our job is not to just explore the map, but to actually travel those same paths, living the Way of mercy and justice in the world around us.

Wrestling with God

During my quiet time a couple of weeks ago, I began to try and put into words how I was feeling about my relationship with God. As I was talking to Him about it, I recalled the scene in Genesis 32 where Jacob found himself wrestling with a man, whom he later realized was God Himself. They ended up wrestling all night long and in the end, Jacob walked away with a permanent limp. As I reread the story, I realized, that’s where I was. I’ve been wrestling with God.

Now don’t get me wrong. In my mind, wrestling is not necessarily a bad thing. (Perhaps it’s a guy thing.) My first experience with wrestling was with my dad. I can remember jumping around on him at a very young age, thinking how easy it was to pin him to the ground. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he was letting me win. As I got a few years older, wrestling with my older brother became a bit more violent. He never felt it necessary to throw the match. So I usually ended up losing my cool and slugging him in the gut before running off to my room crying.

But here’s what’s interesting about all my childhood memories of wrestling; win or lose they are all very fond memories to me now. So fond, in fact, I passed this joy of wrestling on to my own son and more recently, my grandson. You see, there’s something very intimate about wrestling with someone you love. I heard someone recently describe it as “rough hugging.”

And that’s how I feel about my relationship with God right now. It’s very intimate, yet challenging and painful at times. Nora Gallagher calls this “redemptive wrestling.” It’s when we wrestle with our faith and our doubts at the same time. We know what God is telling us to do, but we doubt He will come through if we do it. We are so intimate with God during these times, yet we find ourselves struggling because of fear or pain. We don’t like being uncomfortable, yet we love knowing its God’s hands that are doing the stretching.

During my wrestling matches with God, we are so close I can feel His breath on my neck as He pins me to the ground. I enjoy feeling Him close, even though I do everything in my power to get released from His half nelson. Sometimes, He lets me think I’m winning in my own strength. Other times, he pins me to the floor while I’m kicking and screaming, threatening to slug Him in the gut. I often end up running to my room, limping and crying. But even with all my drama and posturing, God is always there ready and waiting for a rematch. Something tells me, He likes wrestling with me as well. Now, if I could just wise up and learn when I should surrender.

The Beauty of Community

We’ve all heard the stories about the “seeker of truth” climbing to the top of a steep and rugged mountain in a faraway land in order to meet the elusive and mysterious guru. The seeker wants to know the meaning of life and it’s his hope that this hermit with bad hygiene can provide the answer. So…how ridiculous is that?!

How can someone who chooses to live in solitude, isolated from the world, have any wisdom as to the meaning of life? Anyone who has experienced the struggles of life knows that isolation does not bring wisdom.  Isolation breeds temptation. And when one yields to temptation it only brings us pain and suffering.  And then this pain and suffering creates the need for more and more relief which typically leads to bad habits and addictive behaviors. Then finally, these habits and addictions, left unchecked, end up destroying all our meaningful relationships, which brings us right back to isolation. We find ourselves in a never-ending, downward cycle, spiraling toward a life void of meaning and purpose.

In my journey for truth, I have realized I don’t need to find some strange acting, hermetic guru to tell me the meaning of life. I need someone who gives life and loves people. I need Jesus Christ. Jesus was no hermit. Have you ever noticed that Jesus was almost always surrounded by people? He valued community. (Even in his times of solitude he was in community with His Father, praying.) Jesus surrounded himself with friends and family, building into their lives as well as receiving ministry from them. The times we find Jesus on a mountaintop, he is not alone, sitting cross-legged, chanting a mantra. No, He is surrounded by his disciples and followers in community. And did you ever consider that the one time in scripture where Jesus was alone and isolated, in the wilderness for 40 days, he too was tempted? So what makes us think that isolation from the world is the answer to the meaning of life? It’s not. The answer is community. Christ-centered community where we surround ourselves with meaningful relationships where we can encourage one another, challenge each other to grow and learn, help one another when we fall and warn one another when we stray.  That’s the beauty of community and the beauty of the church.

The Secret Cure to a Universal Pandemic

I’m one of those people who tend to self-diagnose whenever I am not feeling well. I find it easier and more cost effective that way. Who needs to go to the doctor or hospital just to hear them say, “Yeah, you’re sick alright, go home and get to bed.” I mean, I already knew that! Am I right?! So, since I’m so good with self-diagnosis, I feel qualified to offer my services to others as well. I have correctly diagnosed two gall bladders in the past couple of years.

Since I’m on a roll here, I think I should try my hand at diagnosing the entire human race. What do you think? After 30 years of ministry, leading literally thousands of worship services, I would have to make this prognosis. It’s a disease that has grown into a full-bore pandemic affecting the entire human race; it’s pride. Pride is a disease that keeps you from being able to worship. It’s also a huge barrier in relationships and is highly contagious. Pride is one of those sneaky ailments that come on you gradually. It has a way of disorienting you to the point that you actually feel very good about yourself. You feel so good, in fact, that you have no idea you’ve been infected.

But one day, BOOM, you hit the floor! You are totally taken off guard by the abrupt onslaught of this disease. You were going along feeling great, then in a flash, you find yourself on the floor huddled in the fetal position. How did this happen? How could this disease lie dormant for so long, but then instantly attack with such ferocity that it completely paralyzes you, turning you into an invalid?

I’m sorry to have to make such a dire diagnosis, but I feel it’s my duty as a self-proclaimed physician. But the good news is, there is a cure. And this cure is available without a prescription. But here’s the kicker; you have to determine how much you’re willing to pay for it. Its name? Humility.

So here’s the secret about this cure, humility; it’s best if you not only self-diagnose, but also if you self-administer. Trust me on this. It’s less painful if you humble yourself, as opposed to having someone else do it for you. And there’s one other secret regarding humility; if you choose to ignore the diagnosis and not realize you have contracted pride until after you’ve hit the floor, the symptoms of this dreaded disease can actually become the cure. Hitting the floor after a bout with pride usually provides you with just the right amount of humility to cure you. If not, God have mercy.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.                                                         Proverbs 11:2