Dog-owner theology

Our old house had a fenced-in backyard with a privacy area immediately behind the back door, also fenced in. It contained four trees, a few bushes, an explosion of day lilies, and a rash of sweet gum balls. Four other backyards joined it, and one of them contained several dogs. But our backyard was Fergus's domain, which he patrolled faithfully and marked obsessively. Multiple times a day we would let him out, and he would charge, full-speed, down the path he had beaten permanently into the grass over the past nine years, barking his head off. He'd run madly up and down the portion of the fence inhabited by other dogs, shoving his nose into chinks in the fence, snorting. Every day.

Then we moved.

Our new house also has a fenced-in backyard, but it is approximately seven hundred miles long (That could be an exaggeration. Who can tell?). It has four trees and a few bushes, but the bushes inhabit a tamed garden, and the trees are baby trees encircled by small wooden curbs to give them a sense of place in their vast, green expanse. None of the neighbors have dogs.

The first several weeks we lived in the new house were hard for Fergus. We'd put him outside, and he'd cower next to the door, barking with a shrillness and insistence that could only come from fear. The wide open space scared him. If we'd go outside with him, he'd stay out long enough to sniff the bushes and do his business, but if we went inside--fwoop--immediately glued to the back door, arfing his brains out. The irony? All of the space that terrified him was his territory.

Once I figured out that Fergus was scared to death of the yard, I went out with him, and we walked the perimeter together, while he sniffed at the fence and the old dog doings from the previous owner's animals, peeing on fence posts, interesting pieces of grass, and anything else that stood still long enough for his dubious aim to hit it. We walked over to each of the trees for his inspection, and we ran up and down the middle of the yard a couple of times. Finally I sat on some lawn furniture and watched him. He looked at me, looked at the yard, and made his way cautiously up the right fence, glancing back at me every few steps and moving onward when I encouraged him. He got about halfway up the yard before losing his nerve and bolting back to where I was. Then he did the same with the left side, then up the middle, with me calling out encouragement all the while. Eventually he started up the left side of the yard and walked the perimeter by himself, making sure I was still sitting in the yard as he did so.
Isn't he lovely?

I supervised him occasionally over the next few days, until he was comfortable exploring by himself. Now he patrols daily, walking the perimeter like a fuzzy soldier, which is simultaneously inspiring and adorable. I love that dog.

Fergus's response to the new yard made me reflect on how we (I) respond to God. When we moved into the house, we were excited about how much yard Fergus would have. But to Fergus, it felt big and bare and exposed. Anything could be out there. He didn't know that we had thought of him when we chose the house, that we had looked the yard over. He didn't know it was all his. He didn't know that we would keep him safe. He needed to experience my presence with him, as I walked through the yard next to him. He needed to know that I was there, to see me watching, even though it was all his territory. And I had to get on his level to help him.

I don't react well to unexpected change. I don't react particularly well to expected change. I wonder how often God brings things into my life that are specially for me, and I react in utter fear at the great unknown. How I need Him, and how little I see His hand in the design of the circumstances that make me afraid.

Other things I have learned from Fergus that make me reflect on how I act (or do not act) toward God:

  • Putting myself in the way of blessing: it is an absolute guarantee that, if Fergus is in the house and I open a plastic bag, he will be at my elbow, ears up and attentive. If he suspects I have food, he is there. All in. Just in case. And it normally pays off.
  • Living in hope: every morning, if Fergus isn't spectacularly dirty, I invite him over to a particular chair in the den, and I sit in it and scratch him all over. He grunts and makes all kinds of noises, thoroughly into it. Then he backs up, looks at me speculatively for a moment, sort of screws his face up, and sneezes, and immediately his ears go straight up, and he tenses himself to bolt for the pantry, where his treats are. He lives in earnest expectation that I will bless him.
  • Expecting the best: if I am holding food in my hand, and I throw it to Fergus, he never hesitates to eat it. He expects that I am throwing him 1) food, that is 2) delicious. He doesn't expect yucky spinach (though, as I am kind of evil, that has happened) or something that will make him sick (which, as far as I know, has never happened). He doesn't ever hesitate to accept what I offer, because it never occurs to him that it will be anything less than absolutely wonderful.
All of these characteristics come down to one basic factor: trust. Fergus genuinely trusts his family. We feed him, take care of him, make sure that he is provided for and protected. As far as dogs must assume (I have no idea whether they do), he assumes we won't do bad things to him. He assumes the best of us, and that is the heart of trust.

Two weekends ago I was in North Carolina, at a women's conference, and a woman named Babbie Mason led the worship. She quoted Charles Spurgeon as having said, "God is too good to be unkind. He is too wise to be confused. If I cannot trace His hand, I can always trust His heart" (I tried to find a citation but have as yet been unsuccessful. As a history major, this hurts me). She had composed a song around this quote, and it so struck me. My default setting, any time I face circumstances I do not understand, is to suspect God's heart of coldness, pettiness, or indifference. Would that I assumed the best of Him every time! I want that to become the new default of my life. I would like to respond to God more like Fergus responds to me, with that same uncomplicated, unself-aware trust.

1 comment:

Iva May said...

Goodness attracts trust! Love you, Jen!!!