Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures—St. Francis
There are certain dog lovers in the world who will wax ecstatic about the many wonderful qualities our canine friends have: loyalty, faithfulness, unconditional love. Dogs, they will say, are humankind’s best friend.
These people obviously never met my dog, Cliff Barnes. He was cute and funny and cuddly. But if he was our best friend, he was a best friend with a bite. He had an undeniable streak of “jerk” running through him. If you touched him the wrong way or he thought you were out of line, he snapped. He was awkward and nervous, with the shrillest paint-peeling yap you have ever heard. Our good friend George astutely summarized Cliff Barnes’ edgy personality in “The Ballad of Cliff Barnes:”
He steals and then gets caught
He frets and worries a lot
You’d not want the worries he’s got
We spent much of our dog’s life trying to protect him from himself, learning to anticipate his grouchiness and therefore to avoid situations in which his Mr. Hyde side would take over. Whereas we often speak about the value dogs add to our lives, what they can do for us, how they can contribute toward human life—they increase our life spans, add to our overall health, provide therapeutic company, and a whole host of other impressive claims—Cliff Barnes was adept at turning up the temperature in any difficult situation. I am convinced that he knocked several years off my husband’s life.
For all of this ‘tower of sin’ that was our dog (another phrase from “The Ballad of Cliff Barnes”), I can also say that Cliff Barnes brought me and my family closer to God.
One of my favourite things about the Bible is its complete avoidance of romantic depictions of people and situations. Aside from a few verses that you might pull from the letters of John with its reassuring reflections on God’s love (even though these ‘reassuring’ verses end up being a challenging call to sacrifice and service), there are almost no sweeping general statements about how we exist in the world. The Bible is startlingly, unnervingly, specific. We do not receive polished-up archetypal heroes of the kind that we have come to love in our fairytales today, the ones with pure hearts and beautiful faces and only the truest of motives. The only Biblical heroes who come across unqualifiedly well in Scripture (like say, Melchizidek or Mary of Bethany) are the ones who we don’t get to know all that well. From Adam and Eve, through Noah and Abraham and Sarah, King David and his son Solomon, on to Jonah and the various prophets called by God, we meet people whose partnership with God surprises us, and whose actions within that partnership can be no less than disappointing. Evidently, Jesus took this witness to heart in forming his own community of followers. He sought out, not the best of the best, not even the ‘diamonds in the rough,’ but rather the ignored, the forgotten, the ones who had already had their last chances, the snarly, weak and difficult. The only framework we have operating through the arc of Scripture for all of these less-than-perfect ancestors in faith, not to mention the less-than-predictable world around us, these damaged people in damaged situations, is that one word which was spoken on this messy creation in the beginning: good. God saw that it was good.
Good is enough. Good is enough for God’s miracle and light to break into our world. The Bible implicitly affirms in all of its nuance and complexity that our flaws participate in God’s holiness too. As my pastoral theology professor, Brian Ruttan, often liked to note, “God works because of who are, not in spite of who we are.” Or as Leonard Cohen would say (interestingly ‘cohen’ means ‘priest.’ Cohen might be the prototypical priest of our day, lifting up for us the beautiful and sacred from the muckiness of life):
There’s a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Our dog died last month. I am not tempted in his death to gloss over his faults and claim he was a better dog than he was. His faults made him real. We loved him as the strange and unique and challenging dog that he was. Each one of Cliff Barnes’ eccentricities, each of the funny and lovely and obnoxious ways he had of being in this world, thunders its absence in our lives now that he is gone. He wasn’t some platonic ideal of a dog. He was very specifically our dog. And his specificity demanded that we encounter him and love him, not our idea of him.
Likewise, I am sure that he experienced each of us, his family members, as being far from perfect. He thought that we were lax in protecting our home, and so he would nervously and loudly stand guard instead. He was not ever convinced that we were actually qualified to be in charge, and so his stubborn self-attempted throughout his life to assert its dominance. He could never soak up enough attention and affection from us, and so he would position himself to be constantly under foot, settling for the attention of being tripped over rather than no attention at all. And for all of our flaws, he certainly loved us anyway and always.
There is something else that people say about dogs. They say that they have a soul. They say that they will be with us in heaven. Some Christians have dismissed such statements as the sentimental tendency to claim heaven in whatever convenient and appealing package we happen to want or imagine. And yet, there is that one word spoken by God in the beginning, claiming as good this vast and beautiful and weird and difficult expanse of creaturely relationship that God weaves together in those days of creation. There is the actual experience that informs our lives, the actual experience of how we are so totally not perfect, and somehow in all of our imperfections are hearts get stretched in love for one another, not just human to human, or God to human, or human to God, but also human to fellow animal. This word and this experience suggest that to be created “in the image and likeness of God” is clearly revealed to mean that human beings are created for and by relationship and we are created to honour and nurture the bonds that connect us to one another and to our Creator. If that is what we are here for, not to plunder creation for all that it can give to us, not to honour and uphold say dogs and animals and fellow human beings that can serve us well, but to praise our Creator in how we learn to love through all of our flaws, then it becomes nearly impossible to claim that our human souls could in some sense be considered distinct or separate from the rest of God’s creation, that somehow the New Creation into which we believe God is drawing us might parcel out God’s loving care and eternal life to only the human fraction of God’s living masterpiece.
And yet, whether our family will one day be reunited with our dog isn’t the most important conclusion here. The surprisingly intense ache of grief that we are living through now tells the more important story. That grief signals a profound and no less than divine gift. Our lives were changed by a stubborn and warm-hearted schnauzer, who on the day we went to pick him up almost a decade ago, wandered over from his pack and touched his paw to my husband’s foot and claimed us as his family. He made our lives harder and better. We are grateful for what he gave to, and demanded of, us.
Rest eternal grant to him, O God. And let light perpetual shine upon him.