Defenseless?

Image titled I want my mommy by anyjazz65

Image titled “I want my mommy” by anyjazz65

My wife Carol has an amazing affinity for animals of all kinds.  Our house is a virtual Noah’s ark of pets, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, and other assorted, furry varmints.  Each pet enjoys Carol’s special blend of care and attention.  She has a natural ability to communicate with animals in a way that leaves me awestruck.

For example, earlier this week, my son Derek and I were in the basement with the windows open when we heard a commotion in the backyard.

“What’s that noise?” Derek asked me.

“I don’t know.  It sounds like a bird fight,” I replied, vaguely aware of Carol rushing out the back screen door as I spoke.

Five minutes later, Carol called to us, “Don’t let any of the cats out.  I just caught Choco about to attack a baby bird that fell out of its nest!”

Sure enough, when I went out back, there was a baby robin clutching a branch in our little Japanese maple tree.  The loud noises earlier had been the baby’s frantic mother calling for help, and Carol had answered.  Over the course of that evening, we watched her cautiously feed her baby, and tracked his progress out of the tree and onto the top of our privacy fence.

“He’ll be fine as long as the cats and dogs don’t get him,” Carol advised me.  “Be careful when you let the dogs out in the morning.”

The next morning, I followed her instructions to the letter, and even searched our yard for our little visitor, finding no sign of him.  Carol had errands to run in town, and I headed for the computer.  But within half an hour, I heard those same, frantic bird calls from the previous day in the backyard.  Vowing not to make the same mistake twice, I hurried out into the backyard.

I circled our fence twice, finding nothing.  I was just about to give up the search when I discovered our cat with the baby robin on our back deck.  He had dragged the baby to our back door and was preparing for the kill.  The baby looked up at me and opened its beak in a silent call for help.  Tiny clumps of feathers scattered about him on the floor boards testified to the terror he had suffered in the past five minutes.

I quickly tossed the cat in the house, then turned back to tend to the wounded bird.  My first thought was to move him back to the relative safety of the fence again, but as I started to reach down to pick him up, a quieter voice that sounded a lot like Carol’s spoke in my mind: If you touch him, his mother will stop taking care of him.

I knew that voice was right.  So, reluctantly, I went back in the house.

He looked so defenseless sitting there by himself, but each time we went out to check on him, we would find his mother hard at work bringing him food to eat.  It wasn’t long before he was moving around the deck thanks to her efforts.  We helped her by letting our dogs out the basement door and blocking the stairs to the deck to protect the baby.

Slowly it dawned on me that baby robin wasn’t defenseless at all.  His Defender had a plan for him all along, and we were all playing our parts in it.

Late that afternoon, Carol called to me, “I haven’t seen the momma bird lately.  Do you see the baby anywhere?”  A thorough search of the back yard confirmed he had gained enough strength to leave.

Good luck to you, little guy.  May all the others you encounter along your path heed the Voice that brings healing and peace to this world.

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Lost In The Woods

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

It was Easter Sunday, 2005, and I was excited about going to church.  This was going to be my first Easter church service since reclaiming my faith.  I had been raised a Christian, but had stopped practicing my faith just as soon as I went off to college.  I lived for many years thinking that I was smarter than all those “religious” people.  But during the previous year, I had finally awakened to my deep need for faith.  I looked forward to that Easter church service as my personal homecoming.

I was happily anticipating that service as I went about my morning chores.  Unfortunately, my daydreaming caused me to lose my focus when I let the dogs outside to do their business, and I forgot to clip our dog Sandy on her chain. 

Sandy is the escape artist in our family.  She’s a  sweet dog, but she was neglected and allowed to run wild as a puppy.  By the time we took her into our family, she couldn’t be trusted to be outside unless she was on a chain.  A couple of times a year, she’d manage to slip her collar, break her chain, or bolt out the door on us, and then she’d be gone.  She’d get muddy running in the woods, chase after cars on our street, and generally be a nuisance to our neighbor and friends.  Many hours, or even days, later she would return home, dirty, smelly, and completely worn out from her antics.

I realized my error seconds too late.  I rushed out the basement door just in time to catch a glimpse of her orange tail slipping under our fence.  I threw on some  shoes and gave chase.  It was my fault she had gotten loose; I knew I needed to get her back before I could do anything else, even go to church.

After a fairly lengthy chase through our development, setting-off fit of barking by every neighborhood dog in the process, Sandy headed up the hill and into the woods.  By now, I was bound and determined to catch her, so I followed her through the underbrush and into the forest.  At first, my persistence surprised her and I closed within yards of catching her.  But just as I dared to think I might actually succeed, pushing for all I was worth, she seemed to shift into a higher gear and accelerated away from me.  Within a minute, she was completely lost from sight.

I stumbled to a halt, panting for breath and holding a stitch in my side.  We were now deep in the woods, more than a mile from our home.  “Does Sandy even know where we are?” I worried.  “Would she be able to find her way home?”  I desperately tried to follow her by sound, listening for her crashing passage through the forest’s undergrowth, but eventually I lost contact with her completely.  Defeated, I turned to walk home, fearful that I may have caused our dog to be permanently lost.

But within a couple of minutes, I heard some crashing noises off to my left and caught a glimpse of Sandy’s orange-gold coat moving through the trees.  She was thirty yards away and moving in a parallel path to mine.  I sprang forward again with renewed energy, but the going was slower moving uphill, and I lost her again within two minutes’ time.

Again I turned to walk home.  Again Sandy reappeared and ran off when I gave chase.  As I lost sight of her for the third time, I came to a complete halt, bent forward, hands clutching my knees as I panted for breath.  Just as my heart was returning to a reasonable rate, that silly dog came crashing back out of the brush in the direction she had just disappeared.  She stopped twenty-five yards ahead of me, head up, eyes bright, tongue and tail wagging, staring expectantly at me.

Finally it dawned on me: Sandy was lost and didn’t know her way home, but she was more than happy to let me chase her through the woods.  She didn’t know where she was going, but it didn’t matter as long as I was following.

“Forget it dog,” I said, “I’m not chasing you anymore.”

I knew if I walked home, she’d simply follow me and resume her car chasing antics once she was on familiar turf.  So I opted instead to walk to a nearby meadow clearing on the opposite side of the woods, with Sandy tailing behind.  I found an old stump along the fence row and sat down.  Sandy circled me in the tall grass, never coming closer than ten yards, but never losing sight of me either.  There we sat, waiting each other out.

By now, it was too late to go to church.  I had missed yet another Easter service.  We stayed in the meadow like that for quite some time.  Despite my disappointment at missing church, it was quiet and peaceful in that field.  Eventually, I closed my eyes and began to pray.  After a while, my words ran out, and I meditated in silence.

“You treat Me the same way that Sandy is treating you.”

The words were simple and clear in my head, but they weren’t from me.  The Voice that spoke them sounded like mine, but it spoke with an authority and wisdom that I don’t possess.  It was a simple statement of Truth, made without anger or condemnation, a loving insight for my benefit.

And I saw clearly how I had been chasing down rabbit trails all my life.  I was trying to overcome the shame and guilt I felt by being faster and smarter than everyone else.  As a younger man, I had chased down every bluff and dead-end that I crossed.  Now that I had found my faith, I was trying to earn God’s grace through my own efforts, trying to anticipate and lead Him.  It was suddenly clear that all my efforts had been no more effective than Sandy’s were this morning.  I was just as lost as she was.

For the first time, I understood that I could never earn God’s grace and love; my debt was too great.  But I also clearly saw that wasn’t what God wanted from me.  His greatest desire was and is for me to simply accept the grace and love that He freely offers.  He waits patiently for me to stop my circling, draw close to Him, and be still.  Then He can lead where we’re meant to go.

Even now, almost three years later, I continue to gain insight and growth from the lesson I learned in the woods with Sandy that Easter morning.  On numerous occasions, as I’ve prayed, journaled, or simply gone about my daily business, I’ve seen a flash of Sandy and me in the woods.  I take it as a short-hand message from the Holy Spirit: be careful, you’re trying to lead the way again.

More recently, when I was considering reading a book that caught my interest, I prayed for guidance before launching into it.  When I accepted the answer, “No,” and set the book aside, I was treated to a vision of Sandy  sitting quietly by my side under the spreading branches of the trees in our forest.

I share this story not because I feel it makes me special, but because I believe each of us has similar sorts of stories to share, times when we’ve experienced the Spirit in a powerful and personal way.  Spiritual disciplines, such as reading scripture, praying, journaling, etc. are important to practice on a regular basis to put us in a position to experience God’s Spirit in our lives.  However, it’s those individual experiences of God where He does his greatest work in our lives.  He is a personal Creator, He knows our individual needs, and He has a unique plan intimately tailored for each of His sons and daughters.

This is a topic not regularly discussed in polite religious circles, let alone the “real world.”  How about you?  Do you have a story of a close encounter of the spiritual kind that you can share?  What happened, and how has it changed your life since it happened?  I’ve a feeling we’ll be surprised just how many stories there are out there.

Living With “Beagley” Abandon

Beagley DishwasherMy family has a lot of pets…  That’s a bit like saying McDonald’s sells a lot of hamburgers.  We now have enough dogs to qualify as a kennel when we apply for our dog tags each year.  The last dog, a beagle named Molly, joined our family two years ago when we adopted her from another family.

Growing up, my favorite comic strip was “Peanuts”, and my favorite character was Snoopy.  Everyone knows that Snoopy is a beagle, and Snoopy is very cool.  Molly is not cool.  She’s the polar opposite of cool, the Anti-cool.  Lacking proper adjectives to fully describe Molly’s behavior, our family has simply settled on the term “beagley”.

First on her uncool list is her bark.  Anyone who’s ever met a beagle knows that they don’t bark like other dogs.  Instead of “Bark!”, “Woof!”, or “Arf!”, they make a distinctive baying sound, “Bah-woooo!”  A hundred times a day, Molly finds cause to throw back her head, her floppy ears flying all about, and let loose with a full-lunged blast of beagle barking.  Our other dogs have a variety of bark types and different volume levels that they use to communicate their various levels of warning or excitement, but not Molly.  She has just one volume: extreme.  Full-on or off, there is no in-between.

Each time we let the dogs out into the backyard, her beagley blast of joy sets off the other dogs into a chorus of barking as they all race down the back stairs to the lawn below.  More than once, to my unspeakable horror, we’ve stopped neighbor’s backyard parties completely in their tracks, twenty-plus guests all gawking open-mouthed over at our yard to what must sound like a pack of dogs having a train wreck.  Our neighbors all have nice patios and decks in their backyards, but I’ve noticed they don’t seem to use them much now that Molly is living with us. 

Molly has strong feelings of affection for one of our neighbor’s chocolate lab Max, and she has worn a path in the grass along our fence as she barks for his attention.  My wife Carol is constantly yelling at her to get out of our garden during these romps, but Molly can’t help herself.  She has no finesse.  She fully expresses each of her beagley emotions as she feels it, regardless of who in the family is yelling at her to quiet down.

Molly is always on the go, begging for food, patrolling the house, wrestling and playing with another dog, trying to herd the cats.  She’s constantly following our family members around the house, wherever she can go.  If someone moves for the back door, she’s right there, hoping to be let out.  If Carol or I start to put our shoes on, she bursts into a beagley fit of tail wagging, hoping for a walk.  Our dogs have learned to like carrots, and they always beg for one whenever I feed our guinea pigs.  I have to be very careful when I offer Molly her carrot; her excited lunge for her treat will also hit my finger if I let her.

Even when Molly is tired, she can be annoying and coarse.  She likes to be covered when she’s sleeping, and she frequently pulls the blanket from the back of the couch to make a beagley nest to sleep in.  She likes to crawl under the covers of our bed to sleep at night, but she can’t do it in an endearing way.  She usually waits until I’m almost asleep, then digs at the covers, first with her paw, then with her nose, until she can worm her way under, usually displacing the covers off of me.  She plunks down after several circled loops right up against my bare back or side, her coarse hair feeling remarkably like sandpaper.

It’s at this point that Molly, unable to hide her emotions, expresses her beagley happiness.  She makes the funniest snorts and grunts in her nose whenever she is happy, or comfortable, or being petted, or begging for food.  I believe that this is the beagle equivalent to a cat purring.  Gruuunt!  Snarfle, snarfle.  She’ll crawl up into your lap, unaware that she’s not a lap dog, and surrender herself to the pleasure of being petted.  Gurgle.  She stares balefully at you with her big, brown, bulging eyes that give her a strong resemblance to Marty Feldman.  Puff!  Unngh.  Snorrrt!  She makes those beagley grunts frequently through out the day, perhaps even more often than she barks.

I respect that about Molly.  She’s genuine.  She has a good life, and she lives it to her beagley best each and every minute.  She throws herself wholeheartily into each and every experience, as if her life depended on it. 

Perhaps it really does.

Can you live a full life, an abundant life, if you constantly keep yourself in check, always holding yourself back, worried about what others may think about you?  Every day holds a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows, peaks and valleys, sometimes with little to no transition time between them.  Do we allow ourselves to fully experience and express those feelings?  Do we try to deny them, or repress the valleys as “negative”?  Are we too worried about appearing to be in control?

Molly may not be cool, but she has a freedom that I can only imagine.  She’s awkward and annoying, but she’s also vibrant and alive.  She is being exactly what she was created to be.   Perhaps it’s time to live my life with beagley abandon.