Tag Archives: love

The Enduring Passion

 

“The little bit you and me might change the world,” Malloy smiled, “it wouldn’t show up until a hundred years after we were dead. We’d never see it.”
“But it’d be there.”

~James Jones, From Here to Eternity

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.

~ The Book of Judges 2:10

Our ancestors gazed into the heavens and saw the vast array of stars. With no streetlights, no cars, and only the light of their cook fires, they could look deep into the cosmos and see beauty that few humans today will ever behold. By those stars they observed the passage of months, and years, and lifetimes. Later, they would learn to sail ships and travel the seas, guided by the position of the stars that they had traced in the sky over millennia.

They worshiped what they did not know, building what Paul would later call “altars to an unknown god.” Not knowing their Creator, they revered instead what He had created, dragging massive stones more than a hundred miles to this high plain they’d selected. From start to finish, the construction took them over a thousand years.

Think of it – with an average life expectancy of only 30-40 years, how many generations did it take to move these stones? They left no written records, had nothing but spoken words to pass to their children. How could they sustain such an effort to completion? How did they pass along this passion for worship from one generation to the next? And the next? And the next?

On a cold and rainy day last July, I stood on this high plain and contemplated their monument to the stars. How many nights did they sleep in the shadow of these stones?  How many mornings did they awaken to this grey fog, chilled to the bone, with the slippery rain soaking their furs? And on how many days, over a thousand years, did they take up their ropes and their tools, and place their hands against the cold stone once again?

How quickly we abandon what we once desired to create. How soon we grow bored with one form of entertainment and are ready to move on to the next. We have convinced ourselves that anything worth having can be achieved quickly, and that our problems can be resolved within the boundaries of a 30 minute sitcom, such that now we can barely focus our attention on an idea for a single generation, let alone ten. Or twenty. Or thirty. We struggle to pray for but five minutes, and our mind begins to wander to the shopping list and the car repairs and the row we had with our wife last night.

Could we sustain one singular passion for our lives, and pass it on to our children, and they to theirs? Could we devote ourselves to worship for a thousand years? Can we learn again to be pilgrims, spending our lives on the journey to the Father’s house, learning to love the Way, even as we long for Home?

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The Great Challenge of the Hour

I have something to ask of you today. It’s important. Today, we mustn’t stop at quotes. Please don’t let today be about memes. Don’t let it be about clipping only the tamest, acceptable sections from some of the 20th century’s most powerful, challenging, and dangerous (to some) speeches and sermons. This is not the day to allow social media to serve up only what is comfortable, only what is agreeable, only those quotes at which we can nod and smilingly approve.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And we have serious work to do.

Let’s make it a day of change.

The federal holiday is designed to be a day of service. That’s great. We should go out into our communities, feed people, help people, clean things up. But we cannot stop there. Service cannot, must not, be limited to one day a year. By all means, let’s serve today, and then let’s make a commitment to find a place in service throughout the year.

Today, in 2017, that persistent and urgent question – What are you doing for others? – continues to tug at the hem of our garment. Our communities cry out for care. Love for, and service to, our neighbor is still required of us. There are children who need extra tutoring, immigrants who are struggling to learn English, student athletes to coach, elderly neighbors who would delight in a visit or a phone call or a loaf of bread. We are capable of these things. Dr. King longed to see us, all of us together, seeking after the Kingdom of God through acts of service and kindness.

If you’re not sure where to begin, start here. The need is great; there are more opportunities to serve in your community than you could imagine.

Then, let’s make it a day of learning.

Dedicate some time today to read some of Dr. King’s more challenging works, and let’s not placate ourselves with the comfortable excerpts from speeches that are served up for us on social media. Take the harder path, and challenge yourself with his sterner legacy. Dr. King faced down the racist, violent culture that was woven into the fabric of our nation from the beginning. He challenged the rest of us to face it, too. And he, along with Civil Rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis, put their bodies and lives in harm’s way to make their message heard. Not unafraid, but certainly undaunted. So today, read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, read his Letter to American Christians, or get yourself a copy of Why We Can’t Wait. These are not easy to read – for those of us in the majority, they are humbling texts that challenge our self-assessment, both as individuals and as a nation. They should cause us to grapple with the hard questions. Who are we called to be as a nation? What do we want the legacy of our time to be? What must we do to make this a nation of justice for all? Today of all days, let’s ask the questions.

Finally, let’s make it a day of self-examination.

We live in a world that we know is not as it ought to be. Our nation has made so much progress in racial justice over the last 50 years, but we know that we have not yet arrived. Some days it seems like we move backwards. Some days it seems like Justice is sound asleep. It takes courage to admit that the world we’ve shaped with our actions is not the way it should be, and a hard-eyed resolve  and tearful repentance to view it as it truly is – a world still afflicted by cruelty, by hatred, and by injustice.

So it’s fitting that we spend some time in personal self-reflection today. Who do I wish to be in the world? How can I embody the kind of mercy, kindness, justice, and love that Jesus calls me to, in a world that outright rejects these attributes, even believes them to be naive and foolish? Let’s gather together as families, as churches, and communities to consider what God is calling us to, and who he’s calling us to be for his Kingdom.

I’ll close with this thought: we live in a world that cries out for just and thoughtful, reasoned leadership. It’s especially fitting that we consider each his or her own place in leadership and service as, this week, our nation engages in a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations, delivered in St. Louis in April, 1957. It seems appropriate for the day.

This is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.

Oh, God give us leaders.
A time like this demands great leaders.
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill;
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy;
Leaders who possess opinions and will;
Leaders who will not lie;
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.

And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice.

God grant that ministers,
and lay leaders,
and civic leaders,
and businessmen,
and professional people all over the nation
will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge of the hour.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Long Walk Together

Fifteen years ago, our family began a long walk with a loving companion. That portion of our joyful walk ended last week, as it often does, with a final visit to our veterinarian and many tears. It was an unanticipated journey, in many ways, and it began with tears as well, but not my own. It began with a weeping Marine in my driveway.

I couldn’t recall ever seeing a Marine cry before. And I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d ended up in this predicament. But there she was, standing on my driveway, tears welling up as she spilled out all her troubles onto the warm concrete – her divorce, her fight for custody of the kids, her transfer to a new base halfway across the country, and then, on top of it all, unexpected puppies. It was the first and last time we would ever speak, but she dumped out her life story standing there in the bright sunshine while two small children, a boy and a girl, wailed in the back seat of her SUV. At some point during the car ride to our house, they’d sleuthed out why they were in the car with the dog, and with the windows down, their lament carried halfway down the block. Overwhelmed. Her. Me. All of us. What exactly does one do with a crying Marine?

Minutes earlier, a small blonde bundle of fur and feet had tumbled out of the backseat and flopped, face down, into our yard. The last puppy in the litter. Once she found her feet again, she went to work relentlessly sniffing everything in sight. There is nothing safe from the onslaught of a four month old Labrador Retriever; they are completely irrepressible in every way. And as the Marine poured out her woeful tale, and the children’s sobbing reduced to a wet snuffling in the back seat, the dog searched every corner of the yard, finally tiring and collapsing in the cool grass to pant.

Our two sons, then ten and fourteen, laid down in the grass to pet her. We still had the two cats that we’d brought back with us from Germany nearly ten years before, but old cats are not suitable companions for young boys, seeing as how they have so few common interests. Dogs, on the other hand, have nearly everything in common with young boys. Both are smelly, often somewhat dirty, and will eat off the floor if you let them. So there was never really a question as to whether the boys would want a dog. It was more a matter of when, and what kind.

“Next to one’s bosom friend, what companion like a dog? Your thought is his thought, your wish is his wish, and where you desire to go, that place of all others is preferable to him.”

-John Burroughs

I should back up. A few days before all of this, I answered an on-line ad about a puppy. “Our family is interested,” I wrote. “Maybe we could arrange for a trial run over the weekend and see how it goes?” The response came back from a Marine at the local base, and we made arrangements for her to drop off the dog for a couple of days. And now, as she wept in my driveway, it slowly dawned on me that this was no trial run. I looked over at my two sons, now romping in the grass with the yellow dog, and realized that she was ours, ready or not.

And before I knew what was happening, the Marine shoved a supper dish and some chew toys into my hands and walked around to the driver’s side of the SUV. “You seem like a nice family,” she declared. “She’s yours.” And just like that, she was back in the SUV, driving away, children still wailing their objections in the back seat, pleading.

Her name was Kansas, and since her fur was the color of late summer wheat under a blue Midwestern sky, we kept that name. She had without a doubt the softest ears of any dog ever, and the tiny, needle-like teeth that all puppies have when they’re done with their mother’s milk. The boys loved her, and the cats at least tolerated her, so my wife and I settled in with another member of the family.

Our daughter was born the next year, the one person in our family lucky enough to have never known life without a dog. When we brought her home from the hospital, we laid her on the couch and the dog snuffled the tiny bundle. We worried at first that a young dog would be too rough for an infant, but we needn’t have concerned ourselves. That dog was the gentlest of nursemaids. Later, when the baby became a toddler, tails were pulled, ears were chewed upon, and the dog became a rocking horse more than once. She never batted an eye. That little girl was her girl. Last week, now a teenager, she curled up on the floor next to her dog, a 13-year-old girl snuggled up to a 15-year-old dog, their heads touching on the living room carpet.

Many of us could measure out our years by the dogs that have been our companions. The first dog, Ruby, a beagle, who came to me in childhood. Her offspring, Sam, a hunting dog. The tiny and tyrannical terrier who lived in our home when I was a teenager, and moved with my parents to their country house after I moved away. And the long dog-less years while I was in the Army, moving too often, and deployed too much, to properly care for a dog. And then, not long after we bought our first home, a buff-colored puppy who became my companion and friend.

Each time we’d leave the house, I would solemnly charge Kansas to stand guard against intruders. And then I’d chuckle and walk away, because there was no way that dog was ever going to be a defense against burglars. Any thief could have taken all we owned if he’d only rubbed her ears while he did the deed.

Some canines are pugnacious, spoiling for a fight at the instant they spot another dog. But her breed was never given to such rough pursuits, and as an accident of temperament, she was particularly docile, even for a Labrador. She would start and pull at the leash in the presence of another dog, but never in hostility, for she was so overjoyed to see another beast of her own species that she could hardly wait to get closer to it, sometimes to her detriment.

She had few friends of the four-legged variety, preferring to spend most of her time around her human family. There was one dog to whom she drew close, a mongrel bruiser who lived with some friends of ours. He was covered everywhere in coarse black hair, almost the length of a sheepdog, and had human eyes that unnerved me every time he rolled them at me, which was often. Even his feet violently sprouted the long black hair, in a manner that gave him an appearance almost more bear than dog. He was a decent enough dog, generally, although he would bolt for the outdoors as soon as a door would crack open, and was utterly impervious to our cries for him to return. Eventually we learned that he loved to ride in the car, and would come running immediately if we drove around the block with the car door wide open, calling his name. As soon as he saw it, he  would dash for the car, long hair streaming back from his face, and leap joyfully inside, ready for a trip. But his dreams died each time with the snap of the leash on his collar, and he was returned to the house while we assured ourselves that we would be more careful  with the door in the future.

Once while we were away on vacation, the two of them were taken on a walk together, and a great Chow rushed at them from across the street. Kansas laid down in submission, and received a deep bite on her haunch for her attempt at peacemaking. Her friend leaped in to the fray with enthusiasm, punishing the assailant with tooth and claw before they were pulled apart. Kansas suffered stitches and shots from the encounter, but she never wavered – when it came to other dogs, she remained a dedicated pacifist until the end.

Squirrels, however, were a different matter entirely. Any squirrel who dared to cross our property line would receive a strong verbal warning and then be chased off the property.  Deer, apparently, represented an existential threat to our family, and she could not contain herself when they’d wander through the yard. But the deer were never in danger from her border patrol. They’d scatter upon contact, and she would stand flat-footed, head swiveling, trying to decide which one to chase. By the end of her life, to her disappointment, she never caught a single one.

She officially retired from guard duty several years ago, but would occasionally return to active duty if the situation warranted.

At night she’d patrol the house, stalking the hallway outside the bedrooms. We always sleep with the doors shut – no dogs in the bedrooms, I’d tell the kids. Besides, she snored terribly. In the morning, before the alarms would ring, she’d already be awake, snuffling under my door to remind me that I really should be getting up earlier. And when I’d step out into the hallway, that tail would begin to beat against the wall – thump-thump-thump – in a way that only a Lab’s tail can. It’s one thing that dogs have over cats: no matter what time of day it is, they’re always happy to see you.

A walk without a dog has a different sense of rhythm. Now when I walk through the meadow behind our home, it’s at a man’s pace, not a dog’s. There is no sniffing, or stiff-legged posturing when another dog passes by with his human. No one to chase the rabbits and start at the deer when they kick up from their hiding places in the underbrush. People look at me differently when I walk through the meadow by myself. When a man walks with his dog, he doesn’t have to be going anywhere in particular, but when he walks alone, everyone expects that he has a destination in mind. I think it’s a lonely thing, to go for a walk without a dog.

Last year she had a seizure. It went on for a long time, and we rushed to the vet, frantic, my wife driving and I laying across the back seat, using my body to hold her in place as we rounded the corners. An injection of Valium calmed her tremors, but did little to calm our fears. The vet tells us that it’s probably a brain tumor. There are tests that can be run, pet neurologists to consult, even brain surgery, but the bottom line is still the same. Our dog is old, and dying. There are no solutions for that.

I’ve watched my wife transformed into the gentlest of nurses, cleaning the dog’s skin and preparing her food. Watching her lovingly care for this old animal, I realize that this is one more part of our long marriage, one more thing that we have in common together – we have both loved the same dog for all these years.

Old dogs have a quality that makes them especially suitable companions. To sit with an old dog in the evening, and to do nothing, is not boring, it is peace. She knows nothing of jealousy, or discontent, or middle-aged anxiety. She does not worry or fret about what tomorrow’s work will bring. It is enough for her to lay at my feet, to be comforted by my presence, and to know that I am comforted by hers.

But I find no comfort in knowing that her pain will be over soon. I am angry knowing that Death, the last enemy, is lurking round the corner. Some people say that Death comes as a friend to the dying. I can’t see it. He always looks like a thief to me. First he’ll rob you of your freedom, and take away your joints, your movement, your vision, your balance. Later, your dignity. Unsatisfied, eventually he’ll come back for more, and steal away your very breath, your life. And while I believe that Death was completely defeated at the resurrection, a remnant of his power remains, and every once in a while we have opportunity to see it in all its sickening glory.

I killed a bird once as a child. A tiny woodpecker alit on a tree some distance away, and I unthinkingly swiveled and fired my pellet gun at it, never expecting to strike it, but only to frighten it and then watch it fly away. It fell to the ground, a bright red dot on its breast, but did not die. I rushed upon it to find it twitching, struggling to breathe. I stood there for a long moment, unsure, aware that a decision was called for. The moment loomed large for me. I could walk away, and let the tiny creature’s suffering weigh on my conscience, or I could finish it there, and live with knowing that I was responsible. I buried its tiny body, weeping, in the backyard. Death up close.

I’ve never held the view that animals have souls. All of my children have asked me the same question at some point: “Will our pets be in heaven when we get there?” I tell them that I am certain there will be animals in heaven, that God made animals and plants and people as part of his Creation, and that he’ll restore all of it to perfection one day. But I don’t think that means that our specific pets will be there, because God didn’t make animals in the same special way he made people – in his divine image, and with souls that will live forever. But, I always end that conversation the same way: “God is full of mercy, and he loves us very much, and I never rule out what he can do. Besides, he’s also a God of surprises and joy, so let’s just wait and see.”

Part of me hopes that I’m wrong. That somehow the animals we love are made new again. That she’ll be waiting for me when I arrive. Fifteen years is not nearly enough time to love a good dog, and was certainly not long enough for her to expend all the love that she had to give to our family.She probably still won’t have learned to fetch the paper, though.

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”
― Agnes Sligh Turnbull

At the end, I cried like a child. Face down on the cold tile of the vet’s office, my forehead pressed to hers as the first shot of sedative began to take hold and her eyes drooped, to tell her that she would sleep soon, that the pain would be gone, that she was loved. To tell her thank you for her years of devotion.  Before her eyes closed I whispered one last time, “Good dog.”