Dogs and God

I knew owning a dog was a big commitment when my husband and I adopted Belle, but I didn’t know a dog could teach me so much.

It’s been a week of being in another depressive haze–one minute I feel “okay,” and the next I’d rather just sleep for eternity. I wanted to get out, but not by myself, but also not with people. Well, lucky for me, I have an amazing dog, so I decided to take us on a little hike, somewhere there wouldn’t be cell reception, where I could just take pictures and not cause myself anxiety with the checking of social media or messages.

Being a Border Collie mix, Belle has a lot of energy, and she loves to work. She needs not only physical stimulation, like hiking, but also mental stimulation. When we go on hikes, then, I try to make sure we do both. Of course, the hiking is the physical exertion. Her mental exercises are in the practicing of commands. I often do this to take her picture. She is just such a pretty dog, and she looks great with the fall colors behind her. (Yes, I’m bias, and I am totally aware I sound like a crazy dog person. Sorry not sorry.)

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She follows her commands well. She sits and she stays, even when she hears a squirrel (as in this picture). But getting her to sit still and look at the camera is no easy feat. Most of the time, I have to settle for what I call her “model pose”. I usually entice her with a treat. When we hike, there are so many new sounds and smells that she insists on taking the lead and practically drags me up the hill. Since she walks pretty well regularly, I don’t mind this behavior so much. I can’t blame her for being excited. But this hike made me think about her behavior in a different way.

My husband always joked that Belle is like me because she can be selectively social, much like me. As I watched her sniff every leaf and tree branch, though, I was struck by another similarity: the idea that I’ve always wanted the next thing, but I never look back at God for the next step.

As a dog, she obviously has far more traction than I do on rocks, and our hikes are often punctuated with my commands of “gentle, Belle” or “slow down.” She just wants to plow ahead, on to the next smell, the next tree.

How often have I just wanted to plow ahead when God has been asking me to slow down? How often have I been anxious about the next step when, instead, I should know that God is providing gentle guidance? How often do I try to drag him along on the path I wanted to carve for myself? How often do I really look at Him and say, “Okay, God. I will go where you lead me and do what you ask of me”?

Walking around the city, Belle usually does pretty well. She’s getting better at looking up at me for her next guidance. Part of me, though, thinks that’s because she’s used to walking in a city. I take her downtown frequently, and we walk around the neighborhood a lot.

Being someplace familiar makes it easier to trust God, but the instant we get to the unfamiliar–the new sights, the new smells–we are afraid to. We only begin to trust Him when we are worn out, when we have exerted ourselves, when we literally have nowhere else to go.

. . . . . .

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This is probably the best picture I got of Belle on our hike, and even then, the minute I gave her the “okay,” she was ready to go again. Again, I was just struck by how many times I have said to God, “okay, I’m content here, I will stay” and then something happens, and I go “okay, ready!” even if I’m tired, even if something is pulling me back.

Training Belle and watching her grow has taught me so much about not only raising a dog, but also about myself. She’s a year and a half now, and I never thought we would get to where we are today training-wise. I’ve been exasperated with her, I’ve gotten angry with her, I’ve cried over her… How many times has God felt that for me? And yet, He persists. He continues to love me, to provide me hope and grace.

Who knew dogs could teach you so much about your faith.

. . . . . .

Do you have animals? What have they taught you?

 

Work, Leadership, and Grace

Since leaving my previous job, I have had much more time and opportunity to write. I feel so much better about what I’m doing. Although my income may only come from my adjunct teaching positions, I definitely feel like I am working; I feel busy. For the first time in months, I am happy with my work.

I’ve had the chance to write things I enjoy writing, to pour myself into what I write, and to truly believe in what I’m working on. I’ve begun a short story series—Part 1 and Part 2 of which can be found here–which has given me the chance to experiment with my writing. I’ve actually started working on my memoir, which is something I never thought I’d do.

About two months ago, I submitted an article for the Virginia Maryland Washington D.C. Dog Magazine. The article was on how Belle helps me navigate and cope with my anxiety and depressive symptoms and episodes. This month, that article was officially published in the magazine.

Some of my writing assignments have been articles for the web portion of a local women’s professional and lifestyle magazine. The past week I have been working on two articles that highlight women in powerful positions in their profession—the Superintendent for the National Fire Academy, who is also the first female to hold her position, and the President/CEO of a county hospital in a neighboring area. Interviewing these two women has given me particular insight into leadership.

In my previous experience of having a direct supervisor (outside of academia that is), the supervisor acted more as a manager than a leader. I felt I was intensely and unfairly criticized. I was inadvertently told I could not be trusted to do my job. Because of the treatment I endured, I stopped trusting my own abilities, and it became a cycle.

In interviewing these women, I was taken back to my negative experience. Not because they mirrored that experience, but because they were so different. While each woman had her own way of responding to the interview questions, the themes were similar: community, “do not forget where you come from,” mentorship, and leading—not managing—your workforce. I couldn’t help but reflect. Here, I thought, are supervisors who know how to be leaders.

One of the things I took from these interviews was the concept of leading by example and learning through mistakes. These women don’t just tell others what to do or how to do it. They show their employees—through previous experience, commitment, and communication. I wondered if my experience at my previous job—personal situation aside—would have been better if my supervisor had exhibited different behavior.

. . . . . .

I teach about leadership in the Small Group Communication course I instruct, so I’m familiar with leadership from a theory and academic standpoint, but also from positive and negative personal experience. There’s one ultimate leader example, though, that I always think of but is usually frowned upon to discuss in academics: Jesus.

Jesus is the ultimate portrayal of leading by example and learning through mistakes. He tells his disciples and the people what they are to do, but He also shows them. He shows genuine love and compassion for others. He shows the people how to have faith. He also shows plenty of forgiveness to those who have strayed.

I found it interesting that as I was working on this piece we started a new series at church: “Jesus Is ____”. I had a plan for this particular post, but today’s sermon changed that, and, actually, it’s more connected than I thought.

Today, the series kicked off with “Jesus is grace and truth.” One of the tidbits from this sermon is the idea that Jesus showed us how to approach others. We read through the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8 as an illustration, which brought about the pastor’s final point and the piece that stuck with me the most: the concept of “grace and truth” versus “truth and grace.”

Basically, grace should come first. Once grace is given, truth can follow and be better heard. It’s a balance of both.

. . . . . .

I don’t know about you, but I’m not perfect, either in my career path or in my faith. My story plot lines are far from J.K. Rowling-status. I tend to be a sappy, hopeless romantic in my writing, and my attempt to get out of that style doesn’t always go well. I’m not a perfect instructor by any means; I make mistakes. I “fail” at having faith a lot. I “fail” at believing sometimes. I “fail” at praying. But none of these makes me a failure, either as a writer, an instructor, or a Christian.

The reason is that balance of grace then truth.

If I had been shown a bit of grace in my previous work environment, perhaps things would have been different. But that experience taught me something not only about the professional world, but also about treating people: show grace. It’s okay to give second chances; in fact, we should. Because God gives us second and third and fourth chances all the time. God gave us the ultimate second chance in Jesus.

Jesus, though he gives truth, does so gently, as in the story of the woman: “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” The truth here is that, yes, according to the law of the time, she should have been stoned. But Jesus told the gathered crowd “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” The truth is everyone had sinned, so therefore had no right to condemn another. Jesus gave her truth in acknowledging her wrongdoing, but also granted her grace by lack of condemnation (read: death).

Christians are followers of Christ, signifying, simply in words, His leadership of our lives. If we truly are followers, then we must approach others the way He approaches us: with grace then truth.

. . . . . .

Thanks to my past experience, I know what kind of professional I want to be and what type of person I could or could not work for. But I’ve also had the chance to take a look at my values as a person, and I realized I want to change them.

I used to instantly go to condemnation and truth. Like the people in John 8, though, I have no right to condemn others when I myself have strayed from God’s path. Instead, I want to show grace first.

. . . . . .

In what area do you need to show more grace?

I pray God would guide you in showing grace to others and that He would speak to your heart when you are tempted off-balance.

 

Lost & Found

Have you ever lost something? You look for it for days, maybe weeks, and eventually you just give up, knowing you’ll never find it. Maybe one day it randomly shows up somewhere. But, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Yet we are always hoping it will make its return.

. . . . . .

The young man demands his share of possessions and goes out into the world, where he wastes everything. Driven to the lowest of the low, he finds the pigs he is feeding have it better than he does, so he decides to return home and beg his family to take him back, even if it means as a servant. Upon returning home, he is, surprisingly, greeted with open arms and a celebration of his return. His family accepts him back.

Does this story sound familiar? It should. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32.

I found a new church this past weekend, and it was the first church I’ve been to here that felt natural, almost like home. It was their launch, so it was their first official service, but it somehow felt familiar. I will be going back. The message on grace and the prodigal son really impacted me, and I hope it will impact you, too.

The pastor explained the story like this: basically, the young man demanded his half of his inheritance, which he wouldn’t typically get until his father died, and he left home and squandered it. After hitting rock bottom, he eventually realized he had wronged his father and he desired to return home, asking his father to accept him in the household as a servant. However, when the son neared his home, the father saw him and welcomed him back with open arms and decided to throw a party to celebrate his return.

This youngest son chose to disrespect his father. He chose to live immorally, wildly, and waste what he had. He had made terrible decisions. The biggest thing is he had to come to his senses on his own.

. . . . . .

This decision I have been writing about beating myself up over was the decision to take a job, because my husband and I could no longer afford where we were living. We argued about it for days, but I thought we had come to a mutual decision, so I accepted the offer and made the move, believing he would follow within months.

Two months into the job, I not only began to realize it wasn’t for me, but my husband explained he was still extremely angry about it all. After not speaking for a month, he explained he wanted us to separate.

During that phone call, the calmest and most adult one we had had in a while, I asked if this was leading to a divorce. He sighed and said he did not see them as the same thing. When I asked if we can seek counseling in a few months, he said we would discuss that later.

It’s been six months now, and I haven’t received any sort of legal paperwork. But I also haven’t heard from him.

. . . . . .

There were two things in the message that I felt God meant me to hear.

The first was the face that the son had to come to his senses. He had made terrible choices, yes, but no one could have convinced him otherwise. No one could have told him to go home and beg for forgiveness. In fact, I picture this son fighting himself internally—he needed to return home, but he had done this to himself so how could he possibly face his father? He had to come to terms with his choices in his own time, and he had to make the decision to return home on his own.

The second thing that struck me was the pastor said he always pictured that father as sitting on the porch every night, waiting, and hoping to see his son on the horizon. Maybe he prayed every night for his son’s return. Maybe he shed some tears in quiet. Eventually, though, this patience paid off because the son came home.

I spent days, weeks, months even, writing to my husband in hopes that I could say the right thing that would make him turn his thinking around. But I can’t do that. He has to come to his senses on his own. So I continue to pray every day for him and our marriage.

The pastor also gave us the difference between justice, mercy, and grace, and I found them rather fitting.

Justice is getting what you deserve.

Mercy is not getting a punishment you deserve.

Grace is getting more than you deserve.

The son in the story surely deserved punishment, right? I’m sure none of us would disagree that he did. He received mercy. What he also received, though, was grace. His father could have made him a servant, could have given him exactly what he deserved. The son didn’t deserve a party. In fact, the oldest son says this at the end of the story, explaining he had never disrespected their father, yet he has not received this celebration.

His father’s reply was simple: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” [Italics mind.]

That is grace.

. . . . . .

No, this didn’t make my depression go away. Yes, I still went through today where some moments seemed hopeful and others hopeless. But the message of the prodigal son and grace has stuck with me.

I have seen friends having children and families, and I long for that. That is all I have ever wanted with my husband. And I can’t count the number of times I have prayed, trying to bargain with God: “if you just grant me this, I will do anything.”

I think right now, though, He is trying to tell me I need to be patient. I think, too, He is telling me I need to come to my own senses.

I realize now the decision was made out of fear, not out of genuine prayer. I realize now I was so desperate to prove myself, when I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. I realize I should have been more patient then.

I can’t change what has been done, but I can work to truly put my faith into practice.

I will be waiting, as I promised. I will pray every day. My heart and soul are already on their knees. I will not give up. I will not stop fighting. And I will show more than mercy; I will show grace.

I don’t know how things will turn out, and, yes, that frustrates me. But the Bible is full of redemption and God is a god of restoration.

. . . . . .

Have you heard the story of the prodigal son before? How does it speak to you?

What do you need grace for today?