Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from My Puppy

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Not literally, of course: my five-month old puppy is no help when it comes to parsing Aramaic verbs, or understanding the history of the Quakers, or finding the perfect sermon illustration. (She has written an interesting paper on economic factors leading up to the Maccabean revolt, but that is a story for another day.) But I did want to pass along a few life lessons I have learned sojourning with our little canine companion:
Love Keeps No Record of Wrongs: Well, yes, I actually learned this from 1 Corinthians 13:5; but it is nice to see it lived out on a daily basis. Step on her toes, be late with her meals, keep her in her “gated community” in the kitchen away from the rest of the pack: do what you will, she still wakes up each morning delighted to see you. “Hey! It’s you! Awesome! I am so totally stoked to see you! I love you!” What makes this especially appealing is the fact that it stands in such stark contrast to a culture in which keeping a record of wrongs is something of a national pastime. Real or imagined slights dominate the headlines and percolate down to every level of society. People are forever worried about whom they might offend, and so we endure treacly talk high on affirmation and low on content. Paying attention to what we say is a crucial life skill and a core biblical value; but paying attention to how we listen is equally important. We need to listen charitably, and we need to get rid of the little Book of Slights we all carry around in our hearts.
Alpha Dog Shakedown: Don’t worry: I didn’t learn this from our puppy; it’s something we do to our puppy…and we do it, I must add (see prior paragraph) with the full approval of ultra-dog-loving trainers. The Alpha Dog Shakedown consists of grabbing the puppy by the scruff of the neck and holding them down until they know, with Tony Danza, Who’s the Boss. The ADS has become a nice way for me to capture the sense of many of God’s Old School dealings with his people. God is not simply a nice guy, as many popular portraits make him out to be.
The Bible describes God not only as kind (which he undoubtedly is) but also as our Master who is perfectly willing to shake us up and pin us down as the need arises. The best personal example may be Jacob wrestling with the angel. While Jacob “prevails” in some sense, the dislocation of his hip is a painful and perpetual reminder of who is in charge.
Boundaries Can Be a Good Thing: We are repeatedly told nowadays to “color outside the lines”. What we once would have called “bad coloring” has now become a metaphor for the need to unleash the creative genius within all of us. We are likewise encouraged by everyone from pop stars to car manufacturers that there are “no boundaries” in life. Well, try driving your Ford Explorer off a cliff and see how far that gets you. The fact is, there are boundaries to what we can do, and attending to the boundaries God puts on our lives is a way of ensuring happiness, not restricting it. Our puppy would love to roam freely about the house; she would less love ingesting Lego pieces, so for now she stays in a clear and limited space. She would equally enjoy dashing headlong into the wide world outside. Since this would also involve dashing headlong into oncoming traffic, we keep her on a leash. Legos and automobiles are both good things, but there are rules that govern their use, and if you don’t learn those rules you will have some serious problems.
Help From Above: Franz Kafka is best known for his disturbing stories of personal paranoia and nightmarish bureaucracy. But he is also the author of the charming “Investigations of a Dog”, in which the title character tries to probe the mysteries of dog life. His task is made almost impossible, however, by his inability to recognize the role of humans in caring for and carrying around his canine kindred (hence investigations of “floating dogs” and food dropping from the sky). Whatever Kafka’s intent might have been, I have found it to be one of the most winsome shakedowns of atheism in modern literature. I am grateful that our own puppy has advanced well beyond Kafka’s dog in her understanding. While in the early days she did stare at the floor waiting for bits of popcorn or cheese or toast to magically appear, now she looks up at us. She knows where her daily bread comes from. Do we?

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