Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bonnie and her favorite Manolo Blahnik's.

When you describe a dog what characteristics come to mind?

I went to a pet event called Petfest last Friday afternoon in Lisbon, Portugal.  The weekend event showcased dog training graduates, police horses and horse jumping, exotic birds and reptiles. My wife was there participating with an organization that helps poor people feed their pets so families and individuals don't have to abandon their pets.  The organization called, Animal life, supplies pet foods and vet care for free.  Animal life works with social services agencies to determine what families need their support and what the needs are.  The volunteer service provided is a unique and great way for people to keep their beloved pets without taking food out of their own mouths to feed and care for them.  Our son is kind of lukewarm about pets so he and I almost stayed home.  If we had I  would have missed an amazing opportunity to learn something about my faith from a canine obedience school.  It's true.  If one is willing to learn from God, and if you ask for wisdom, He will take every opportunity in many unexpected ways to teach you something.

My son and I walked into an enormous event hall and he made a beeline for his mom and led her off to find a lemonade.  That gave me a few minutes to check out the mounted police taking their Lusitano horses through their incredible routine.  I was amazed by the timing and skill of both rider and horse but the horses basically knew their routine already and all the rider had to do was enjoy the exercise.  It was so much fun to watch this that I thought it was probably going to be my highlight for the afternoon.  I was watching excellence in equestrian training but also centuries of horse breeding that began long before the Greeks and Romans used these horses in their epic battles. Two teams of dark or white horses left the arena and I went to look for my wife before she took home another cat because we have two already.

I did a quick fly-by checking out cages full of birds that I never dreamed existed and caught up with the family and we took a walk to the exotic area.  Not big fans of reptiles in our family but in that area, in a large cage on the floor was an animal that I have absolutely loved since childhood.  There in her cage, (kind of freaked out by the close proximity of people without her defense weapon) was a beautiful, adult North American skunk.  The last time I was that close to one was on a warm spring night walking through a field I grew up playing in as a kid.  As I walked through the tall grass I heard a strange drumming sound coming from somewhere around me.  The grass was up to my knees and with each step the drumming got louder and more intense.  Finally I stopped walking and waited, fortunately, so did the skunk.  In a small clearing in the grass, about two feet in front of me, was what looked like a huge black and white plant with a fat whispy leaf curved into a tight circle.  I had about three seconds to register exactly what I was about to step on and I turned and ran for my life.  I had a flight to catch the next morning but at that range the stink would caused me about a month of delay.

"Good afternoon, reservations."

"Hi.  I'm sorry.  I have to cancel my flight because I was sprayed by a skunk. Will there be a fee to reschedule?"

"Oh, hmmm, ahh, Let me put you on hold because this is a first for our airline."

Hold music, probably Vivaldi's, Four Seasons. Minutes later,

 "No, there will not be a charge but we will require a stink check at our ticketing counter.  You'll also need to submit a photo of yourself for our break-room."

"Ok, I'll see you in a month.  Thank you."

"No, snickering and group laughter in background thank you sir."  Bwahahahaha ha ha snerk  click.

I think it was my affection for skunks since I saw Bambi that prevented me from being sprayed.  I was in the bomb zone that night but now I was able to look down into the large cage and watch her pump her feet at everyone that came near her.  She was a little stressed by the visitors but I think it was also the Lusitano music loop that never seemed to end over in the next hall.  A hypnotic military trance sound with trumpets and crashing cymbals that you either love, hate or whinny through.

I dragged my wife away from the adorable fixed cats they were trying to find homes for and sidestepped the puddles caused by a massive beast of a dog used for shepherding in Portugal called the Estrela mountain dogs.  This breed is HUGE and there were a few of them, including puppies, lounging and rolling around like fluffy balls of enormous ballroom carpets.

We ate and then wandered over towards a large fenced in arena to watch a dog school putting on an obedience demonstration. There were about twenty dogs that walked out into the middle of the large area with their handlers. The dogs were different breeds, sizes and colors all led on leashes by their handlers.  The handlers were dressed in a dark blue military style uniform with cargo pants and shirts with red and white badges on their pockets and sleeves.  The dogs proudly wore red bandanas around their necks.

For the next half hour the dogs were put through various exercises to show off what they had learned.  The trainers would parade them around at different speeds and the dogs never missed the tempo.  Glued at their trainers knee the dogs would anticipate the pace of their trainers turns to the left, right, or at any time, a complete stop.  When they stopped the dogs waited for their trainers next command.  The trainers sometimes dropped the leash and directed their dogs to wait at attention and stand completely still, sit down or to lay flat until they were given a whistle, voice or hand command.  The dogs never got out of step once or moved before the trainers. They were excellently behaved dogs.

It is worth noting here that the handlers were perfectly clear about what they wanted their dogs to do. There was never a mixed command given by the trainers at any point.  There was no confusion about what was asked or who was in charge. The dogs never took their eyes off of their trainers and looked at them with complete readiness at all times.  It was fascinating to watch.

At the end of the first demonstration the trainers stood side by side with their dogs lined up with an arms length between each other.  The dogs were all commanded to sit down.  Trainers and dogs faced the large crowd that was completely still with what was going on in the arena.  Even my son who isn't really crazy about dogs was still.  A woman was picked out from the crowd and she approached each dog with a healthy sized dog treat in her hand.  She went from one dog to the next holding the treat out to them within reach.  About half way down the line a young female German shepherd pushed her nose out and almost took the treat with her dog lips.  The crowd held their breath to see if she would take it.  She wanted that treat so bad she was whimpering a little. She looked up at her owner who was looking straight ahead at the crowd avoiding eye contact with the dog.  She looked like she was going to take a small nibble but she finally backed her nose away.  The treat went down the rest of the way and back down again.  Once again the shepherd hesitated but didn't take the treat.

The crowd all let out a sigh of relief and almost applauded her restraint.

As the treat went from dog to dog the dogs would move their heads away from the treat and put their heads across the legs of their handlers. One dog put it's whole head and shoulders behind the legs of it's trainer not wanting to even see the treat coming it's way.  When that dog saw the temptation had passed away only then did it bring it's head from around the back of the trainers legs again.  It was an incredibly fun thing to witness but there was more coming.

The dogs all left the arena for a few minutes while a large ladder was set up like an upside down V.  The dogs were brought back out and commanded to climb up the ladder and go back down the other side.  Every dog had a turn and every dog climbed the ladder until the turn came for the same dog that almost took the treat.  She started up the steps of the ladder taking about two steps but looked at the height ahead of her and backed down the ladder.  They let other dogs go ahead of her and then gave her a turn again.  Same thing.  She took a few steps and she was straining and crying and wanted to go but she just couldn't get there.  Once again, she slowly climbed back down the ladder.

A woman with a mic came out at the end of the demonstrations and told the crowd about the young dog that was struggling through the exercises.  She told us that it was because she was still learning with the treat exercise and had never climbed the ladder before.  The dog could do the task easily but she did not believe that she could do it.  The trainers, however, were confident that she was going to climb that ladder in a few months with no trouble.  Once she trusted her trainers, and believed that she could do it, she would do it every time.

It was an amazing demonstration of obedience, trust, training and willpower of the dogs to wait and listen to it's trainers commands.  Their relationships together were so connected it was like they were reading each others minds.  Later on at home I thought about that half hour demonstration and realized I had watched all of the elements of what I have been praying for in my relationship to God.

I want to be in step with Him. I don't want to get ahead of God because that's impatience and pride. I don't want to drag behind Him because that's stubbornness and the self of independence; known simply as rebellion. I don't want to wander away from the safety of His side, getting tangled up in my life like an untrained dog who has wrapped himself in knots on a leash.  I don't want to take anything that even looks like a treat if it doesn't please Him. And if I have to close my eyes or turn my head, or hide behind Him until the temptation passes by that is exactly what I will do.  Besides obedience and total trust, I want to keep my eyes fixed looking for God only.  If God says wait, I want to wait.  Get up, I want to get up.  Be still, I want to be still.  When He says trust and go up and do what looks impossible, I want to put my best efforts to believe Him and make the effort to do; to do and keep doing with perseverance until I can do it and never go back again to what I have known. Faith is about getting out of your comfort zone and climbing every mountain in front you because there is a call in your heart that says you can and must do it.  At first if you can only crawl, crawl.

In patience to myself in my struggles, I also know that some things take time and I must not give in to discouragement.  But there must be no room for slack.  I ask God to help me and each day the relationship grows.  Faith, trust, obedience, walking in step with God takes time.  It takes time to know God.  I need to learn to hear His voice, to know His thoughts,  to understand what pleases Him and to pursue a life of fellowship with the One who calls Himself my Shepherd.  I need God every minute of every day to grow in this relationship and I also need trainers to help me through the exercises.  I need God's Spirit and I need people who have walked with God and learned to wait on Him, grow in Him and rest in Him. Through their counsel I can learn what it takes to undo my nature to have His nature.  It's not a natural thing to follow God, it is a spiritual thing, and it requires our commitment and our letting go of what we want for what He wants. Like any relationship it takes quality time practiced daily.

I'll ask you the opening question again.  What character do you think of when you think of a dog?

Loyalty? Obedience? Friendship? Courage? Faithfulness? Gentleness? Useful?

I have a dear friend who admitted that she used to spend enormous amounts of money on shoes.  She had a wall of hundreds of shoes but her favorite pair was a pair of Manolo Blahnik's that cost, and I'm guessing ballpark here, they were somewhere in the range of seven hundred to one thousand dollars.  She didn't want to tell me  She was also too embarrassed to admit to me what she paid for a dining table she bought and shipped from Florence, Italy. She doesn't spend that kind of money anymore, not that she doesn't have it, she just doesn't want to spend her money that way anymore.  A  few weeks ago we went for a visit to her lovely home where we met her gentle dog who I will call Bonnie.

Bonnie is about eighteen months old and is a long-haired and fluffy, Golden Retriever.  She attends dog school and goes twice per week and has her homework to do. School was imperative for Bonnie. When she first came home as a puppy she managed to go through boxes and boxes of my friend's shoes, bypassing the assortment of cheaper brands and discovered she loved the delicious flavor of Manolo Blahniks.  Bonnie the gentle dog, gently pulled out seven-hundred plus dollars of shoe from a box and gently destroyed them.  My friend came home that night and found both of her shoes in a corner, drooled up and chewed up like cheap rubber balls.  She admitted to a mini meltdown but she had enough control to go down to her expensive table and count to a thousand. A few days later she saw that one of the legs of her Florence table was also chewed up. Bonnie was immediately enrolled in dog school.

When I first came to Christ I was like a puppy pulling on my leash jumping around because I was so happy. And I stayed that way for many, many years.  I had the pure joy of being found like a lost mutt in a pound.  I was thrilled and I thought the big part of Christianity was the being found part but I never knew the real thrill, yes thrill, of learning to obey and submit to my Master.  I bounced around knocking things over in foolish enthusiasm or breaking things in disobedience and when I was corrected I felt bad and sulked with my tail between my legs. Only to repeat the bad behavior again.  I never learned to wait, sit still, shut up or trust.  I thought just because I had a collar on I could do what I pleased.  My disobedience almost destroyed my life completely.  I'm not talking about shoes here now, I'm talking about my eternal situation.

I needed time under strong discipline that still continues while pleading often for the patience of God to correct me and show me things I never knew, and the strength to do them.  I need obedience and training. I need to accept the yes and no's, waits and trusts and commands of my faith.  That process will never end and I know it.  There are new things I have to learn I never learned. For example, I don't want to obey what I think is true because it feels right, I need to have God's truth and desires at my highest level making my feelings irrelevant. The heart, that we hear so much about as the ultimate guide to our lives, is completely unreliable and worthless as a spiritual compass.

In my life now I need to have the faith to believe for much more than I have ever known.  I cannot climb the simplest ladder God says I must climb if I don't trust Him or have the faith to believe I can do it.  I must not only resist but completely kill off the habit of listening to a worthless compass.  I need correction, consistently, and daily. And I need the heart and disposition that can handle correction without a whine session following.  I have so much to learn.  Where do I learn?  From God and with God in His instruction manual called the Bible.  I can get lessons and patterns in many ways so God can reveal things to me but the first place is the Bible.  I can pray for wisdom and discernment from God, and may find my prayer answered at a dog show, but the Bible is the source.

Then I need connection for growth.  Church is a place where a bunch of mutts get together to encourage each other to become what they never could be on their own.  Church is a place to help and support each other and look out for one another, to climb the high ladder together and find out what pleases the Master.  To walk together and develop character to be useful to God who wants us to serve Him by being loving and obedient.  That's not the final goal of our faith though.  We are not supposed to be just obedient and loving servants, we are also supposed to bark warnings if we have to.  And in the days we are living in now we do have to bark sometimes.  People will tell us to shut up and be quiet but we have to keep warning them about the danger and darkness in this world that wants to devour everything.  That danger is still out of range for the unbelieving world, like a sneaky house fire beyond the sense of people who do not have faith in Christ.

Christians are commanded by the Master to go into darkness and danger, the fires and floods, working with Christ in an intimate relationship. We are trained to find those who are tangled up in situations too big for them to untie by themselves and lovingly lead them to the only One who can.

Of all the traits of a dog, as wonderful as they all are, the greatest one of all is that they love.

They love.


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