God and Dogs
August 17, 2008
All my favorite jokes – all three of them – involve dogs and God, or at least dogs and religion. My favorite goes like this:
Did you hear about the dyslexic, insomniac agnostic?
Yep, she stayed up all night, wondering if there is a Dog.
Well, our scripture takes us back to a puzzling passage which includes talk of God and Dogs.
It is a puzzling passage, in which things seem to get turned backwards, like the spelling of God and Dog. It is a passage that troubles us – like a dog wanting attention, who puts his wet nose in our hand, or bumps into the newspaper we are reading, or who whines or even barks to say, “Hey, look up. Pay attention.”
IN this passage Jesus seems to call someone a dog. Then, as the story unfolds, her dogged persistence is rewarded. Jesus says, “Great is your faith.”
Now, I know this is kind of an unusual tack to take, but I was thinking that if Jesus described someone as doggy – but of great faith, maybe we could learn something about faith from looking at dogs. So I want to suggest some ways we can learn from Dogs that might actually help up become more faithful human beings.
The first attribute of Dogs that we might consider is that:
1) Dogs know their master. Dogs look at the world in a fundamentally different way than, say, cats. A dog and a cat were describing their living situations.
The Dog said, The person I live with feeds me, he gives me shelter, he fills my water bowl, he pets me and he loves me. He must be God. The Cat says, The person I live with feeds me, he gives me shelter, he fills my water bowl, he pets me and he loves me. I must be God.
Now I know some of you are “cat people” – you have cats. Some of you have very lovable cats and I’m not dissing anybody’s pet here. But I think we can agree: Dogs have a master. Cats have staff.
Well, there’s a book out called the Theology of Cats and Dogs that challenges us to think deeply about what that basic difference can show us about our own faith. The premise of the book is that a lot of us treat God as if we were cats and God was our “staff”. We believe that the Almighty is there to facilitate our comfort and serve our needs. When we need God, we expect him to be there. But for long stretches of time, we don’t think we need the Divine Presence at all. And, quite frankly, we’d be just as happy if God left us alone.
Contrast that attitude with the faith of a dog. A Dog has a master. And there is really nothing that a dog wouldn’t at least TRY to do for his master. Really, a dog’s main aim in life is to be with and please the person that he sees as Master. Life is about making the Master happy.
Do we have faith like a Dog? Do we know who our Master is? The woman in our story correctly called Jesus “Lord” every time she called on him. “Lord” means Master. It doesn’t mean best buddy, or most important connection or powerful ally. It means the one who is served. How do we think of God? As our Master? Or as our Staff?
2) There’s another bit of Dog behavior that the woman in the story exhibits: She is very persistent in bringing her need to Jesus. She calls out. She keeps on calling. She runs (apparently around the group of annoyed disciples) and kneels before Jesus. Kneeling in front of someone who is walking – now there is an attention getting gesture. She just wouldn’t give up or get discouraged.
That’s kind of dog like. Dogs are persistent. Last week, when Tim and I were with the boys at Lake Michigan, I took a walk down the beach while they swam. And pretty soon I came upon a big black wet Labrador retriever. When he saw me walking toward him, he ran to a blanket, picked up a tennis ball, galloped over to me and rolled it at my feet. Well – what would you do? I picked it up and threw it down the beach, and he bounded off after it, got it, ran as fast as he could back to me and rolled it to me again. So I threw it again. And again. And again. The first 10 times it was fun. Then it just got to be amazing. In the water, out of the water. The dog was unstoppable. It was a game. The first one to give up loses. And I finally had to concede defeat, though I told him I was doing it for his sake - thinking that the poor creature would have a heart attack.
This woman chased Jesus and wouldn’t give up. How persistent are we in taking our prayers and requests to Jesus? How persistent are we in bringing the needs of others to Jesus? How easily are we discouraged when our spiritual life doesn’t seem to be giving us the results we were hoping for?
I’d bet that there are times when each one of us gets discouraged. We have problems that aren’t getting fixed. We have hurts that won’t quit aching. We have weaknesses that we’d like to see strengthened. And sometimes, God seems to be taking his own sweet time in bringing situations to a satisfactory conclusion. At times like that, we might do well to remember the story of the woman who doggedly pursued Jesus, whose faith was such that she just wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t be shoo-ed away, wouldn’t be ignored and who took even an insult and turned it into yet another plea. The poet Edwin Markham, wrote about this encounter:
He drew a circle that shut me out -Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.But love and I had the wit to win:We drew a circle that took him in.
Yes, Lord, she said, but even the doggies get to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. I’m only asking for a crumb. But I won’t go away without something from you.
If we could have something of the persistence of a dog in our relationship with God, and if we could take the doggy attitude that it is our greatest joy to bring joy to our Master – we might find ourselves actually growing in our Christian lives and in our faith. Even if we ain’t nothing but a hound dog – Jesus can be counted on to, at last, bless us with kind words and a healing blessing. He said to the woman, “Great is your faith. It shall be done for you, just as you have asked. This hour your daughter is made whole.” Jesus’ nature is to give to his beloved grace upon grace, even more than we ask.
And maybe that’s enough to learn from dogs. But there is something else – and it’s not about each of us as individual doggy Christians. It’s about life in the pack.
Dogs are very social animals. They like to live in packs, of other dogs or of humans that they think are dogs. "The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue." -
And they have some very good social skills that we should not be embarrassed to adopt.
"A man may smile and bid you hailYet wish you to the devil;But when a good dog wags his tail,You know he's on the level." -
Dogs greet those they love with enthusiasm. When I open the back door, there is Chief, wagging his tail, dancing around me, letting me know he’s glad I’m home. Now, sometimes I’d rather be met by someone who can help me carry in the groceries, or ask me how my day has gone, or pour me a cool drink of water. But even so, being wagged at and loved on is pretty darn nice. And you don’t have to be a dog to do that.
At home, how do you greet the rest of your pack?
At church, how do we greet those who come to our door?
Do we rush to the door to meet our loved ones?
Do we wag our tails to show them we are glad they are here?
I think those are good things. And anyone can do it. We call it “being the greeter” and Jeff Burlew doesn’t want to ask you to do that. He hasn’t got any one signed up to greet and usher this month. So I’m going to be asking. Because hospitality is not just some nice icing on a church cake. It is the cake.
In this story, The disciples say, “Send her away.” We don’t want to be that kind of disciple. We want to be the kind that acts out God’s delight in each person, and welcomes them into this place hoping that here they will find themselves at home with God and with us. Let’s wag our tails and welcome each person that comes as if they are made out of bologna. Which, let’s face it, most of us are.
Sincere and enthusiastic tail wagging is the third doggy like trait we might try to develop as we grow in our Christian faith.
The encounter Jesus and the disciples have with the Canaanite dog-woman is a somewhat puzzling passage. It’s almost impossible for me to conceive of Jesus ignoring someone, almost turning her away, and calling another human being a dog. But in the end, perhaps it was her doggy-ness – her persistence and her calling him Master – that Jesus wants us to see. Maybe he wants us to see that he recognizes and blesses those aspects of faith. Great is your faith! He says to the woman. What you have begged for, you shall have. If there is healing and hope for her, there is healing and hope for us all.