Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Eulogy for Grace

Found beaten and abandoned to the streets, she was taken in by Because You Care, a local pet rescue organization.  She was a Yellow Lab/Beagle mix – a “Leagle”, I like to say.  BYC named her Natasha and adopted her out to a local couple.  This couple renamed her Sasha and promptly dispatched her to their backyard, where the neighborhood kids threw stones at her.  In addition, she was only fed table scraps and cheap dollar store treats.  With poor nutrition, no exercise and limited human interaction (abusive, at that) her weight ballooned to 72 pounds on her short beagle legs and she withdrew in to herself.

BYC’s mission was to keep animals out of shelters and place them in loving homes.  In Natasha/Sasha’s case, the home had become no better than a poorly run shelter.  True to their mission, BYC removed Natasha/Sasha from this home and brought her back in to the program.  It was in their “Pet of the Week” newspaper ad that I first laid eyes on her.
Nine months before I’d had to have my dog, Coach put down and after a few months of grieving, I began the process of looking for another dog.  But not any dog, it had to be the “right” dog.   For a few months I’d scanned newspaper ads, gone to shelters a couple of times, followed up leads from friends but none of the dogs were “right”.   Taking in a pet is a lifetime commitment – lifetime of the pet, at least.  This decision needed serious consideration.  But when I saw Sasha’s picture I knew she was the one.
Her newspaper portrait was anything but a glamour shot.  It was obvious she was seriously overweight, sad and withdrawn.  In the ad they referred to her as “plump”, which struck a nerve with me.  Having been more than “plump” at one time, I thought it mean for this to be pointed out.  I felt a kinship with Sasha and called BYC to apply to adopt her.
The application required more than name, address and adoption fee.  I had to provide a veterinary reference, have a fenced in yard (which in my case they gave an exception) and sign an agreement that if I ever had to give her up, I would not put her in a shelter but give her back to BYC and provide financial support until she was adopted again.  Like I said – a serious commitment.
I did all this and we arranged for a meet and greet.  The woman from BYC (Joyce) said she’d bring her over and introduce us.  Since I worked close to Joyce’s home I volunteered to go over there to save her the trip.  Joyce cheerfully declined, saying it was no problem for her to come over. 
Joyce and Sasha came over one evening.  Sasha was so overweight that her belly almost touched the ground and she had a bit of trouble climbing the four steps in to my house.  I showed them around a bit, Sasha cowering behind Joyce.  Sometime during the tour, I realized Joyce was doing a home inspection and screening me; BYC takes their job seriously!  Eventually Joyce and I sat on the couch to discuss the adoption procedure.  Sasha tried to climb up on the couch behind Joyce.  She tried to stop her, explaining to me that they don’t encourage foster families to allow dogs on the furniture since it might be a problem with their final adoptive families.  I have no problem with animals on the furniture (in her abode in heaven, my mother is scowling at this) and since I planned on being the final adoptive home, I let her sit up there with us.  It was a bit of a struggle due to her weight, but she made herself comfortable.
The only potential issue I had with the adoption was no one knew if the dog was good with kids.  Normally, BYC screens this information or gathers it from foster families.  Since she’d just been brought back in to the program and given her experience with the neighborhood kids at her last home, no one really knew.  Because of regular Barbling visits, this was a deal breaker.  The Barblings were on vacation at the time so there was no way to find out.  Joyce and I agreed to have Sasha stay with me for a trial period and if after the Barblings returned from vacation we discovered issues, I could return her with no problem.
So Sasha had a sleepover at my house for a few days.  To increase the chances of success with kids, I headed on over to the Barblings’ home and took some of the girls’ dirty laundry from their bedrooms.  I left the laundry on my living room floor so the dog had many opportunities to sniff and get to know them.
She and I spent the next few days getting to know each other.  I fed her healthy food.  I took her for walks around the neighborhood – short walks, which wore her out.  She slept on the couch, she slept in the chair that eventually became her chair, she looked out the window that eventually became her window identified by the hundreds of snout prints on the glass.  She quickly settled in.
When the Barblings returned, everyone was introduced.  The dog shyfully sniffed everyone and tentatively accepted the hugs of three excited little girls.  We took a brief walk and the girls got her running, tongue lolling from her mouth, ears flapping, a look of pure joy in her eyes!  There was no doubt she was good with kids; she was good with everyone!
Now that she was a permanent fixture in my home, I wanted to change her name.  The name Sasha is a perfectly acceptable name, but it didn’t flow with my last name.   I mulled over a number of possibilities, but one time I looked in to her soulful eyes, dug past the fear and pain and saw…grace.  And so she was renamed and reborn – Grace.
To look at her, she was not the typical picture of grace.  She had the long Lab body on short Beagle legs.  Overweight, out of shape, shy and withdrawn, her grace was not readily apparent; covered in layers of fat and fright, her true character hidden.  She did not have the lithesome body of a dancer but the solid, wide-shoulder look of the working dog she was designed to be.  She lacked the agility and speed of a runner; she lumbered and plodded, but she plodded with enthusiasm!
From healthy food, regular exercise and overdoses of affection Grace quickly shed pounds and apprehension.  Her beautiful personality began to emerge.  So did a bit of willfulness, too I must say.  Considerate of her abusive past, I was gentle in my training of her, but Grace still needed to know the boundaries of our household; I still had to discipline her.  Any sharp word or scolding from me would send her slinking away in fear.  It broke my heart and I wondered if she could ever recover from her sad past.
Over the years, I would occasionally whisper her old names to see if she would react.  “Natasha”, I’d speak; “Sasha”, I’d quietly say.  Sometimes I’d get a bit of a response – a flick of the ears, a jerk of the head.   It might have been my imagination, but at times I thought the reaction was a fearful one.  About three years after her adoption I called out Natasha, Sasha again.  There was no reaction; her ugly past was forgotten.
 About two months after her arrival, I reprimanded her for something when she walked away to her crate.  She turned around, slumped down and started muttering under her doggie breath.  She’s sassing me!” I thought.  I knew then that she’d shed her Natasha/Sasha self.  She was now truly Grace.
She was full of grace in her gentle and kind bearing, her quiet demeanor, the manner in which she approached new friends, two- and four-legged.  Those who experience grace understand joy better and joy Grace exhibited at the mere mention of the words walk, treat, biscuit, or ride.  At the jangle of her leash or the crunch of a lunchmeat bag she’d practically do backflips.  We made many walks up to the local Dairy Queen often times with a Barbling at the end of her leash.  She liked trips to the playground across the street and Barbling #3 even got her to go down the slide a number of times.  Grace enjoyed the simple things in her life, perhaps because she’d known depravation.
Because grace had been extended to her, Grace extended it others.  A number of other dogs (and a couple of cats) have stayed with us over the years.  Atticus, Daisy, Tin, Bella, Buddy, Phoebe – they were all welcomed in to our home. But in every interaction, Grace had to be top-dog.  Most of the time this was a given, but occasionally a skirmish broke out as her dominance was established and reestablished.  She was gracious, but not a doormat!
About four months after her arrival, I was contacted by BYC to foster another dog.  “Sissy” had been found wandering the streets and she was extremely frightened and skittish.  Joyce had to drag her in to my house.  Like Grace and the “plump” and “portly” comments, I thought it cruel to call this dog “Sissy”, highlighting her weakness and so I renamed her Dora.  We became a two-dog, three-bitch household.
From her behavior it was clear Dora was traumatized, but she slowly came to be a bit more trusting of humans.  I think this was because she saw the two-legged being treated the other four-legged being pretty well so she didn’t have to worry so much.  Though they never became playmates or best buddies, Grace and Dora had an understanding.  And as top-dog, Grace took her role seriously, on occasion facing down another dog who might try to go after Dora.  Other times, Grace would place herself between a stranger and Dora, offering a layer of protection.  And Grace bestowed the greatest of kindnesses to Dora by allowing her to sleep on our bed – albeit at the foot, saving the honored place at the pillow beside my head for her own.
After over nine years of faithful service and loyal friendship Grace left this world on Friday,      September 27.  Almost twelve, age and arthritis ravaged her body, but her graceful heart remained strong until the very end.
That last day, as we both lay on the floor of the vet’s office saying our goodbyes, I whispered “Natasha, Sasha” and she had a little twitch, as if she was spending some time reflecting of her life, a trip down memory lane.  I was doing the same, speaking to her about how much I loved her, how she’d been a good dog and done her job so very well.
Years ago I read the book “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn in which he biblically answers people’s questions about what heaven will be like.  When I first got the book, I saw that the format was each chapter answering a specific question.  I quickly looked up the question “Will animals, including pets, live again?”  Alcorn’s answer was that though there is no definitive biblical answer, some noted theologians allude to the fact they will be.  In fact, Alcorn quotes a poem by John Piper in which he refers to seeing his old dog, Blacky in heaven.  If one so noted as Piper believes his pet will be in heaven, then there’s a pretty good possibility of this being true.
My pets in heaven – Priscilla, Dusty, Lucy, Coach – this isn’t a deal breaker between God and me.  He gave me more than I ever deserved just with their presence on earth, let alone heaven.  I’m just so very thankful to have been blessed with the most amazing, Grace.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Forgiveness & Grace (the Dog)

In the past year, I've noticed my dog, Grace slowing down.  She's had trouble jumping up in to the car, had to consider whether a trip up or down the stairs was worth the effort, lagged behind on the occasional walk to the Dairy Queen.  She's 11-1/2 years old  so this is to be expected.  In the last two weeks though, I noticed a steep decline.  This came to a head on Thursday night when I arrived home late and found her panting heavily, and a panic-stricken look in her eyes.

I had no idea what was happening.  She'd been panting heavily all summer, but I thought it was related to the heat and humidity and though the weather was cooler, this panting episode was heavier than ever before.  I though maybe she was having lung or heart problems.  It was only after Googling "canine+heavy panting" that I discovered this was a symptom of pain.  It finally registered to me the look in her eyes was not panic but one of intense suffering. 

I researched how to treat her symptoms and realized I had none of the over-the-counter remedies available at home.  About 10:30 pm I made the decision to take her to the Emergency Vet office where they examined her and described all her joints - hips, knees ankles, neck - as "crunchy".  The very word makes me cringe.  The vet gave her an injection for her pain and some oral meds which helped slightly.  On Friday evening I followed up with our regular vet office, where they gave me additional meds which seem to alleviate her pain somewhat, but not nearly enough. 

As I reflect on the past 12 months I see so many signs I missed, where I could have had Grace treated earlier, possibly forestalling the "crunchy" joints and the pain that accompanies them.  At one time I had been giving her Glucosamine to keep her joints lubricated, but ran out and never got around to buying more.  When I was unemployed, regular vet visits fell victim to budget cuts.  When I was more gainfully employed, I just never made it a priority.  I used to walk my dogs often, which keeps their joints flexible; but when I got a job with a long commute I settled for just letting them run in my backyard.  Dog care took a backseat to "Barb-care".

Many of my reasons for putting off the dogs' care were legitimate, financial and time constraints being two of the biggest.  But, truth be told, in my own self-absorption I ignored the needs of both Grace and Dora and now they (Grace, primarily) are suffering because of it.

Sin is like that.  It causes us to see only our selves and our own needs, blinding us to the needs of others.  Much has been written about the story of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite walk by, see the injured traveler and ignore him.  The Samaritan sees him and stops to take care of him.  But I wonder, how many walked by and never noticed the injured man.  How many were too busy thinking about their own troubles that they never saw the bleeding, beaten man on the side of the road? 

In Genesis, God gave man charge over the earth and all that was in it.  With this authority came responsibility to care for it.  In this most recent case with Grace, I flunked.

Lest you think I am beating myself up over this, I am not.  There is forgiveness for the repentant and I have apologized to Grace and to God.  Because of Jesus, God has forgiven me... and so has Grace.

Theologically speaking, it's said dogs do not have souls.  Only man was created in the image of God and only to man did God breathe in His breath of life.  But I have a theory on this.  Note:  my theory has no biblical basis.  In addition, in case you haven't noticed, I am totally biased in favor of dogs.

Knowing dogs the way I do, I think that after God created them, they followed Him everywhere.  Sure, they chased the squirrels and the occasional cat in Eden, but they ran back to their Creator,  happily napping at His feet as He sat on His throne. 

So, when God created Adam, the dogs were all there milling about.  As God formed Adam from the dust of the earth dogs were watching excitedly saying, "Wow, it smells like dirt!".  Being the curious and obtrusive beings they are and loving dirt as they do, they were right there surrounding Adam when God breathed His breath into Him.  I think they might have caught a bit of His draft, an overspray you might say; which is why like God, dogs are able to forgive so easily and so often.  Maybe that's why dogs find such joy sticking their heads out of car windows.  They're trying to re-experience that invigorating, life-giving breeze from so long ago!

Lesson learned, I will be paying more attention to Grace, administering her meds, trying to make her comfortable, alleviate her pain and prayerfully considering the next steps.  Deciding when my beloved dog has had enough is a great responsibility, one for which I seek His guidance.

I thank Him for giving me grace and for giving me Grace.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Obama as Nebudchanezzar

The Bible says we’re supposed to submit to government authorities as they were put in their positions by God.  I’ve tried to follow this directive.  While others refer to him as “Obama”, I’ve tried to intentionally use his title President Obama, conferring respect for his position.  I may not have felt respect, but I thought by using his title I might eventually develop some.

The day after his last inauguration speech, I was driving to work listening to talk radio during my long commute.  The previous week had contained a particularly large number of hot topics in the news including the economy, jobs, Benghazi, abortion, same-sex marriage, and women in combat.  The IRS and NSA scandals hadn’t even entered the picture, yet.  As the radio shows and news reports were rehashing the President’s inauguration address in which he touched on these divisive issues I remember being struck with – not anger or frustration, my normal reaction; but with a deep sense of sorrow for our country.  Suddenly I realized why President Obama so brazenly flaunted unbiblical principals – God had hardened his heart, as He had with other leaders throughout history.  At times, God hardened leaders’ hearts as a judgment of the people of the nation, their defiance of His authority.  This is what I felt on that day; God had hardened our President’s heart because of the American people’s disregard for Him.
And so I began praying more regularly for our country and its leaders, including President Obama.  I prayed for a return to the Biblical principles on which our nation was founded and our constitution developed.
Though I disagree with President Obama’s policies, I honestly believed he wanted the same outcome as I did.  You know - life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the Bill of Rights, the self-evident truths.  Since Syria crossed the “red-line” and subsequent developments it’s become clear to me that I was naive. 
When it was revealed that Syria had used chemical weapons, I supported US intervention.  When you take a child’s life, you forfeit your own.  Period.  No amount of diplomacy can correct such evil; there is no room for negotiation when a kid is involved.  My motto – “Don’t mess with kids” (and were I not trying to exhibit a bit of decorum, I’d use another four letter word other than ‘mess’).
However, the President’s comments and behavior these past few weeks have led me to change my position on attacking Syria.  Obama’s (note the missing title) flip-flopping, denials and blaming demonstrate his motives.  He is not defending US interests; he cares not for the US Constitution, his motivations are not innocent Syrian citizens and children, and the only life, liberty and pursuit of happiness he’s interested in are his own.  He doesn’t even support his supporters or staff; he routinely hangs them out to dry.   I don’t trust him.  In addition, Obama doesn’t even know what he wants to accomplish in Syria so getting involved with not even a remote goal would be disastrous.
As I listened to Obama’s lackluster speech last night I was reminded of that day last January when I was struck by how hardened his heart was.  As I drove to work today, again listening to the talk radio hosts rehash the speech, God reminded me of another story – that of Nebudchanezzar.  In the Daniel 4 passage, because of his pride and disregard of God Nebudchanezzar went insane for a period and roamed the fields eating grass, like cattle.
After having to dine on the crow he served up these past few weeks, Obama can expect to be eating a vegan diet for a while until such time that he humbles himself.  Unfortunately our country will suffer in the meantime.

Friday, September 06, 2013

For Phil Cooke

Today, I saw a Tweet by Phil Cooke that, in reference to his Huffington Post article, asked "What should Christians do to change their perception in the culture?"

I replied " Christ-like???  Is this a trick question???

Phil replied “Being Christ-like” is too vague. What does that mean? Give me 5 specific expressions of that which would change people’s minds. 

Good response, Phil.  And it WAS a trick question.  You "tricked" me in to having to explain my flippant, but accurate answer.

Like Phil, I don't like vague.  But to give 5 examples in the 140 character limitations of Twitter is impossible even for the most succinct, which I am not.  And since I haven't posted anything here in a while, I decided to kill two birds with one post.  So, Phil, here goes:

(NOTE:  these are not in any specific order - by importance, or chronology, or anything other than the random, stream of consciousness that is me.  Additionally, Christ-likeness is not limited to five examples.  These just happen to be the five that were floating at the top of my psyche at this time)

1.  Jesus healed people.  So did some of the disciples (well, God did the healing through them, but He used them for this purpose).  I do not see me ever healing anyone in the near or distant future, but I can and have prayed to He who does the healing.  I have prayed for people and with people - believers and non-believers alike.  It's the praying with people that really demonstrates one's care and compassion for the other.  It's an open display of one's faith.  In addition, when God answers the prayer, the recipient will remember that moment and (hopefully) recognize the answer was anything but coincidence.

When Jesus healed Lazarus, He prayed aloud to those within earshot  "Father I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me."  (John 11:41-42)  He made a public display so people could view the entire process from prayer to answer/miracle.

Like Christ, I need to pray with people more.

2.  Jesus died for sinners so they might become saints.  John 15:13 says "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."  I've never taken a bullet for someone, though I like to think that if the situation presented itself I would.  However, I can give my time, my money, my home, my goods - and not just the extras sitting around.  Taking a bullet would hurt.  A lot.  Sometimes we need to give 'til it hurts.  Sometime we need to put aside that quiet night home vegging on the couch after a rough day at work and seek out our hurting neighbors.  I say "sometimes", acknowledging the need for boundaries in some relationships and we need to wisely discern when to stay home and when to go.  But too often we (more accurately, I) err on the side of self-preservation and put off the sacrifice until a more convenient time.

3.  Jesus confronted sin.  There are right ways and wrong - horribly wrong ways - to do this.  Think "Westboro Baptist Church" wrong.

But there was that time in the temple when Jesus attacked the moneychangers.  And Jesus did say "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23:13).  Pretty strong, confrontational words!  And if Jesus found it appropriate, so should we - sometimes.

However, there is also Jesus' treatment of the woman at the well in John 4.  She was a Samaritan and Jews didn't associate with "those people"; yet Jesus did.  When she tried to skirt around the issue of having had five husbands plus her current lover, Jesus didn't ignore or avoid the issue.  He still spoke with her and she left pretty impressed with His treatment of her.

Then there was the adulteress in John 8 who faced stoning.  After His famous line
"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." when everyone left, Jesus told the woman "go and sin no more".  He pointed out her sin and that of the crowd and told her to not sin anymore.

4.  Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners.  (Considering all that the IRS has been up to lately, believers should set up shop outside their office buildings -bad joke -  couldn't resist -sorry.)  Doing this takes wisdom and awareness of our susceptibility to various temptations, but we cannot wrap ourselves in a cocoon of righteousness; our faith will suffocate.  The Word does instruct us to guard our hearts yet that doesn't mean we're to go on full lockdown.  God provided us with armor to defend ourselves from attack as we go forth. 

I remember a story from about 25 years ago about my friend, Angelo.  He worked for the county nursing home where a number of the residents were on various government entitlement programs.  Part of his job required him to go to the local welfare office on behalf of some of the residents.  Quite often he had to stand in line with the other welfare folks and he would say or do things to make it known he wasn't there on personal business.  He didn't want people thinking he was on welfare or anything like that.  One time, while standing in line the Spirit reminded him that these were the people Jesus hung out with.  Ouch!  I still remember this story so many years later when I'm finding myself looking down on "certain folks".

When Jesus was at Zacchaeus' home He said "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  I certainly don't do the saving, but I do need to do more seeking and introduce the lost to my Saviour.

5.  Jesus was humble. He was God but He was also man.  He knew where He came from and He knew where He was going (John 13:4).  Knowing this, He was able to submit completely to the Father's will. 

Humility is NOT the "Aw shucks, I'm not THAT good" attitude.  That is false humility; and in fact, it could be construed as a form of pride, a means to garner attention to oneself and away from God.

Humility is the knowledge that God is sovereign; that He is in complete control of everything - the number of hairs on our heads, sparrows falling on the ground, weather.  The LORD giveth, the LORD taketh away.  We can do nothing without Him.  The surgeon who saved a life today?  God did it.  The baseball player who pitched a no-hitter? God did it.  The blogger who wrote a really insightful and inspirational post (Phil, is this insightful?).  God definitely did it!

I could come up with more than five expressions, but I think I'll close with this synopsis of Christ-like character using God's own words.  Micah 6:8 -Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.  And then there's Luke 10:27 - Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength.  That's what Jesus did every moment of His life, until His last breath and beyond.

Hmm, maybe I could have done this in 140 characters!