It's late. I should go to bed. Even the dogs are sleeping now. But who am I kidding? Dogs sleep most of their lives. Eat, play ball, sleep, repeat. If only our lives were that simple.
Not that we want them to be that way. Not really. But when I think about what our dogs most want in this life, it isn't so far from what we most want. They want to matter to someone. They want to know that their human loves them. The other day, when our Big Lug was feeling too crowded just a minute too long from this interloper in his life--didn't she know better than to walk into his personal space while he was just lying there on the rug, sleeping?--Jackson reared up and bared his teeth. No, it was actually more than that, he came at our foster dog, Lacy, with his ears flapping, hackles raised, ready to take hold of her with those large, white incisors. And Lacy, who had been casually minding her own business, really, decided she'd had about enough of him, so she didn't back down. Before we knew it, Beve was tossing Lacy down the hall, and kicking at Jackson to get him to get back. Yep, my gentle Beve actually kicked our lovely dog.
But here's the interesting part. Afterwards, he tried to get Jackson to go down the hall away from him, down to me, and Jackson was like glue to him. Beve kept saying, "Jackson, go! Go!" But Jackson literally turned himself in the same kind of tight circle he used to when he was a puppy and would sometimes, unexpectedly discover his tail and start chasing it to follow Beve. He just couldn't be shaken from the man he most loves in this world, even if that man had just done something he'd never done before--inflicted pain on him. I watched this and said, "Beve, he needs to know you love him." So Beve just let the Big Lug follow him into the kitchen, and a few minutes later, when they came back down to where the rest of us were watching TV, Beve sat down on the floor to rub Jackson's belly. You could just about hear the 110 pounds of off-white fur purring.
They need to know they're loved, even when they're hurting. Especially when they're hurting. Even when we're the ones who cause the hurt. Just the way our kids had to climb into our laps after they'd been disciplined, just to be reassured that love was still the bottom line of how we felt about them. They needed to be sure they were still the apple of our eyes, and, even when I might not have gotten over my mad (I probably should have been the one in the time-out chair!), I remember feeling worried that I'd damage their psyches if I equated their behavior with their person. The difference is always deep and wide, but when you're mad, it's easy to put up a dam between the two. Beve and I made the conscious choice to never tell our children that they were bad. Decisions are wrong, choices are bad, but our children weren't. Of course they are sinners, just as I am. Just as you are. But for me--for us--to say, "You're a bad boy!" when he wrote a "Duck, Duck, Goose" circle on the new carpet with a permanent marker, wasn't what I wanted to convey. "That was wrong!" was the message we meant our children to learn.
That was wrong, but you--you!-- are made in the very image of God. That was our earliest message. Later we spoke of all not simply doing, but being wrong. Deep down. It's like a knife edge to balance on as parents, communicating unconditional love with the gospel truth of sin. But that knife edge is exactly where Jesus stood during His earthly ministry, and it's where He expects us to stand as His ambassadors.
My dogs teach me this. My children teach me this. My God teaches me this. Maybe, in the end, this is the one message I'm always learning. That I am unconditionally loved, even though I am a sinner. And even though I am made in His image, I sin. And there--right there on that knife's edge between those two ways of saying these Kingdom truths--is the Cross, the Resurrection, the purpose of Eternity. For this He came--that I am made in His image, because He unconditionally loved me, us, that much--to save me from the sin I commit, the sin I have been. Simple, yes. But not easy. There is death in it. But life as well.