Remembering Bonnie

Dedicated to Dr. Joe D’Amico, the best veterinarian I’ve ever known.

 

I haven’t seen them in a long time, but somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of old home movies, films which were loaded on reels and mounted on a Bell and Howell projector that played them with a clacking sound. I recently discovered that the clacking sound was made by something called the “Geneva mechanism,” so called because it was also found in Swiss watches.  A more interesting discovery was that you can watch the movies and identify traits in the children which lingered into adulthood. I recognize the quiet hunter in my brother, David, and in the ever- grinning, always- curious Dennis, the future mechanical wiz. With eerie clarity, I also recall a movie of three year old Debby walking through a sea of rough collies. Was that when my craving for collies began? If so, it lay quiescent for a long time.

Through the years, we had lots of hunting dogs— Labs of every color and a Brittany. They were cheerful canines, stoic and gentle: Nellie, Finnegan, Murphy and Mick. They weren’t slobbery or demanding, which Jon liked; he said that a good dog should be dignified. Well, they were good dogs, but when I was old enough to have a mid-life crisis, I decided that I wanted a different kind of dog. And for some reason, maybe because I loved Phillip Keller’s books, I began looking for a border collie.

She was the last puppy to go. The breeder thought it was because she was tricolor, instead of the more popular black and white. I think she was meant for me. When I first saw her, she was barking furiously at a kitten that was sauntering past her kennel; it was not a ” come in and play with me” kind of bark, either; it was rather, “if I get out, I will render you inoperative.” I concluded that it was a very good thing that our cat was twice her size.

Like most herding dogs, she was intense, insanely intelligent, and impatient to “get to work.” She was a breeze to train—  if I couldn’t get the commands out fast enough, she made up her own and executed them. I’d never seen a dog like her before. I laughed a lot during those early training sessions. Her eyes never left my face as she waited for my words. “What,” she seemed to wonder, “is so funny? Get on with it!” Our vet observed that she was different. ” It’s unusual for herding dogs to lie quiet and look you in the eyes,” he said, “she makes contact.” Then he said, “I had a dog like this once.  Only once.”

Even “once in a lifetime” friends eventually leave us. When Bonnie was 14, she developed a chronic blood disease, and when she was 15 1/2, in spite of the extensive efforts of her admirers at the veterinary hospital, she died. There are three other dogs living here, but when I returned home after her last car trip, the house felt immensely empty. I put away the rolls of gauze, the tape, the expensive ointments. I cut the last  piece of liver into fewer pieces. Without my consent, life had gone and changed again.

I thought I saw her yesterday, lying at the foot of the stairs the way she used to when she was waiting for me to come down. I heard a thump of a tail, and automatically turned to see her, but, of course, it was one of the other dogs. He was happy enough to greet me; he wanted food, and after I fed him, he was happy to go outside. Carefree and jolly, he wasted no time searching my face for clues. He didn’t care what I was thinking— there were squirrels to catch!

Often, when a good dog dies, people will say, “That dog was almost human.” Well, Bonnie was not almost human; she was as canine as they come. But she was a daily reminder of what it means to keep your eyes on your master and joyfully follow his commands. I hope I never forget it.

 

Psalm 100:2

  Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before Him with joyful singing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus and the Border Collie

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The nativity set I purchased for my grandchildren has a border collie in it- not a Roman drover dog, not a Canaan dog- a border collie!  And the Scottish canine isn’t the only mistake. The smiling camel, which presumably carried the three tubby wise men, shouldn’t have showed up until much later; the angel on the roof is nowhere mentioned in scripture ; and- a PIG!  Apparently, these Jews didn’t keep kosher.

Whether or not the designer of the nativity set knows anything about Jewish culture,  he certainly understands how to attract little people.  My youngest granddaughter is completely mesmerized by our set.  She will stand quietly arranging and rearranging its components so that, in her mind at least, they are just right.  Last night, I discovered that the angel had flown away and the border collie was keeping watch from the top of the stable.  One sheep had assumed a position up a palm tree, and the prohibited piggy sat grinning in the donkey’s cart.  The holy family lay scattered around-  apparently, Mary had decided that sheep are easier than babies, and was abiding in the field.  Periodically, my older grandchildren will wander by and put the set in order, but invariably, little Elinor will come back to fix it the way she wants it- with the angel gone and the border collie back up on the stable roof.

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What did the nativity really look like?   Was Jesus born soon after His parents’ arrival in Bethlehem, or had they been there for a while?  Did the birth occur in a stable or a cave, or was the couple simply assigned a room at the lower level of a house?  Did Mary have help, or was Joseph forced to be midwife?  Were animals there? The presence of a manger- a feed trough- implies it, but doesn’t prove it.

A lot of talk has been devoted to the idea that Jesus was born in the filth of a stable, but there is no mention of manure or drool-soaked hay in the good doctor’s account.  And I’d like to defend Mary here.  What mother would wade through manure to plop her newborn into a bare feedbox?  Wouldn’t she find a swept corner of the room, and insist that Joseph grab some fresh hay and  a sheet for the manger crib?  Jesus needn’t have been born in muck;  it was hard enough that He was born amidst the squalor of the human condition.

The children’s nativity set has smiling people wearing brightly colored clothing.  It has a barn and a palm tree, a donkey and cart, a tiny mouse hiding in the hay.  It all makes a happy scene, and serves an important purpose- to teach the child the elements of the Christmas story and establish the centrality of its serious message- that God came to earth as a baby to save us from our sins.  The joy of that message should be reflected on every human face.  If they could comprehend it, even the animals would rejoice.

A happy border collie by the manger?  Well, border collies herd lambs after all.  Perhaps the nativity’s designer was wiser than I thought.

“…Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”   John 1:29

Peace in Real Time

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photograph by Mahkeo on Unsplash

 

When my mother was a little girl, she and her siblings were separated and sent from home to live in bad places. Her brothers were shipped to an orphanage almost 500 miles away, and Mom was left to grow up with her paternal grandmother, a mean-spirited, angry woman. Upon arrival at her new home, she was assigned a bedroom in the back of the house where she wouldn’t bother anyone. She lay scared that first night; it was dark and lonely, unfriendly to the abandoned eight year old. She told me that when she asked God to help her, she was filled with peace and the assurance that He was there, and would take care of her. Her life thereafter wasn’t easy, but she survived it and grew up to pass on the story. It made an impression: times might be hard, but God was good.

Spending time with my paternal grandmother was a totally different experience. Instead of being exiled to a dark back bedroom, I shared a room with her. I still remember the feel of the pink, plaid, flannel sheets on the ivory twin bed. There was an off-white, wind-up clock on the dresser that lulled me to sleep with its loud ticking. I recall hearing trains as they passed through in the night, their mournful whistles advancing and fading. And even now, I can conjure up the comforting sound of Nannie’s rocker in the next room. It was easy to fall asleep there. Nothing was going to get me. There was clock- ticking, rocker- creaking, whistle- blowing peace.

The “Peace Candle or the Angels’ Candle is the fourth candle we light during Advent as we recall the amazing appearance of  the heavenly host, who sang or spoke  historic news while the shekinah shone around them: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)                                                                   

Mark the moment. The Savior had arrived. The plan for cessation of hostilities between God and man had been initiated . The first part of the message made it plain: this was a God-originated, unilateral peace treaty, which men could either accept or reject. It was gift of love: “. . . not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:10)

Through the Son men could regain favor with God, although the mechanism wouldn’t be revealed for another thirty plus years, when Jesus, “the propitiation,” died on a Roman cross. The skies were dark when Jesus died. No angels sang. On that day, it looked like hope for peace had expired with him. But then — He wasn’t dead any more! At the tomb, another angelic message was delivered: “. . . you are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene who has been crucified. He is risen; He is not here. . .” (Mark 16:6).

Life is hard. It was hard for the shepherds; it was hard for the disciples; it’s hard for us. God did not send his Son to make life easy, but to make a way to eternal life. My mother and grandmother understood that. Their peace came from confidence in the one who gave himself up for them. The only one who can give us peace.

 

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A Visitation of Joy

The third advent candle is the “joy” candle. But, what is joy? Most of us equate the word with “happiness,” except that it’s happiness on steroids, a”delight”, an “exhilaration”, an “exultation” even.  Happiness is all about earthly satisfaction, but joy, which may arise from terrestrial circumstances, also contains an element of the sublime. There is no better illustration of this than the joyful meeting between the Bethlehem shepherds and the angels:Image result for free images of shepherds and sheep at night

 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Luke 2:8-14

The first emotion the shepherds felt was not joy, but terror. The sudden appearance of an angel had them shaking in their sandals. Imagine cowboys sitting around a campfire, shooting the breeze to stay awake, when suddenly the dark night splits open, and an alien from another dimension steps out of the breach, backlit by radiation of unknown origin. They’d probably  choke on their coffee or swallow their chewing tobacco! They might pass out. Only on this occasion, the anonymous angel had to keep the shepherds conscious because they needed to hear the joyful tidings. “Don’t be afraid” (that was an understatement) “because I bring you good news of great joy.”

Good news would have been the last thing they expected. When had they ever received any? Their profession had fallen into disrepute since King David’s day. Nobody wanted to grow up to be a shepherd. They weren’t invited to parties. They weren’t admitted as witnesses in court. They were nobodies, exiled from good society. Yet the angel was delivering a message— a momentous message, a joyful message— to them! And it was a communique‘ even they could understand. Their Savior had come, and was available for viewing at a local manger. After the army of singing spirits withdrew, the excited shepherds set off to find him.

Scripture says that after they had seen the babe, they went back “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them“. I think it is reasonable to see this as “rejoicing.” But what had changed to make them joyful? They were still uncomfortable, underpaid, and undervalued, and would most likely finish their lives in this unhappy condition. How could news of a good change that might not occur for another thirty years bring about joy? Could it be that they realized their Creator still cared, and he cared about them? For a few minutes, these common, earth-bound men of dust had touched eternity, and it changed their lives forever. Ours, too. God be praised: joy is not restricted to those who meet angels in pastures, but is the birthright of all who believe.

 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17

 

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The Power of Love

 

 

Red Lighted Candle

 

In the sixties, Patricia McGerr published a short story entitled “Johnny Lingo’s Eight Cow Wife.” Yesterday, when it came to mind, I thought I’d have to spend days digging in internet archives for it, but I was mistaken. You can still easily find this tale about the transforming power of love. In the story, a young man offers to pay eight cows for the plain, dejected, Polynesian girl he loves. Her father is elated— he thought he’d be lucky to get one cow for her. The neighbors think the suitor is a sucker. The girl. . .well, that’s telling.

We all do crazy things for love. Yesterday, I sat hunched in front of a computer screen for hours looking for Greek and Roman toy soldiers. The reason? I wanted to give a grandson something special for Christmas.  We all strive to give those we love satisfying and suitable gifts. Time and money are of little matter—extravagance is in the nature of the lover.

We light the second Advent candle in memory of God’s unequaled extravagance. He clothed the second person of the trinity in baby flesh and gave him to humanity. It was a satisfying gift because it met the need; a suitable gift because we could identify with it, and an extravagant gift because it cost God everything. Was this Bethlehem baby a crazy gift? In no way. For to those who receive him, he gives eternal life.

Most of the time, we take this gift for granted. We forget our former situation and the colossal chasm of sin that separated us from our creator. We’ve become so used to the story that we lose sight of  its consequences— that the chasm between us is closed, and the way is clear. We miss the glorious significance of it — those of us who believe are sons and daughters who have a hope and a future.

Johnny Lingo paid an exorbitant price for his wife, and then took her away from those who devalued her. He gave her a new life on a new island, and— surprise! She became beautiful. A curious visitor acknowledged that Sarita was stunning, but asked Johnny why he’d paid so much for her when she was still homely and unloved. Johnny’s reply? “Because I wanted an eight cow wife.”

McGerr’s story is fiction, but it reveals the truth about love. Love does what nothing else can; it rescues and then beautifies. That is what God did; what he is doing; and what he will do.

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

 

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Hope in the Desert

 

Desert, Drought, Composing, Dehydrated

 

I didn’t know where I was, but I was standing on a vast gray plain beneath a leaden sky. The ground was hard and the grass was dead. The light, dim and dreary, revealed no colors except the everlasting gray. The air was stale and hot and barely breathable. There was no sound, either of birds or insects or wind. There was no evidence of life—somehow I knew there was none. Life, with all its richness of color and sound and relationship was gone forever. But death was gone, too. There would be neither sleep nor death to relieve the despair of this existence.  Prayer was useless; hope was extinct.

Abruptly, I was elsewhere. I saw, streaking toward me through the swaying, gleaming grasses, a black and white dog. Her coat was shining and her eyes were full of joy. Hope rushed back into my soul, and I woke up.

Hope- what is it, and why do humans need it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.” It would seem that modern linguists equate hoping with wishing:

          I wish it would stop snowing.

           I hope it will stop snowing.

I have a strong desire and expectation for it to stop snowing because it is May!

But what if it doesn’t? What if it snows all through winter and is still snowing in June? What if it never stops snowing? What then? Is all hope gone?

Back in the day, circa 1828, that is— Noah Webster wrote: “. . . hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.”  Mr. Webster attached four scripture references to his definition; apparently his concept of hope included the idea of trust in God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we light the hope candle to remind us of God’s promises to send a savior. Many would consider this an archaic concept: aren’t we all just fine? No. We definitely are not fine, and it only takes a moment of reflection to figure this out. Things are out of whack in our world; there is trouble within us and without, and there is no wishing it away. Nor is hope to be found here. Hope must come from outside. And that is the reason we light the hope candle— as a reminder that, no matter how hard things get, hope has come. For God “has sent the son to be the savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).

 

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Something Better

 

My freshly mowed lawn looked like a bald head fringed with straggly green hairs, and I spent two hours pulling, poisoning, and whacking weeds.

Hedge Row

I quit when the weed-trimmer ran out of cord, and hobbled inside, collapsing on the couch, naively hoping to take a nap. But of course, tout de suite, bored grandchildren arrived with a request. They wanted to explore the under-stair storage space. Although there is nothing special about that spot, the entrance is covered by bookcases which swing inward when certain boards are removed— a  feature which attracted the Nancy Drew-loving eleven year old  like an electromagnet attracts iron.

Treasure chest

For an hour, my nap was interrupted by thunderous little feet running upstairs and down. The pint-sized explorers brought me, among other things, thirty year old piano sheet music, a small Curious George toy, a wooden ruler, and the report of a mysterious gray and white dollhouse. Soon, the children had excavated all items of interest, and moved on to other activities. The eldest plopped herself down on the piano bench and sight-read an old Faber piano book —apparently, it’s never too early to learn Christmas carols. I lazed on the couch, listening to holiday songs written in C major, and ruminated over what made the kids so enthusiastic about searching through old junk.

I had sold the kids’ adventure short.  Contrary to my pessimistic predictions, they had found plenty of gold. It came to me that, somewhere along the way, I’d stopped believing in treasure hunts, which seems to be a common plight among grown-ups. Adults get stuck in the doldrums, where longing is limited. Adventure has passed us by; all the islands have been named and tamed.

Gloom can invade thought without our noticing. On Mother’s Day, for example, I read countless sad posts about mothers who had passed away. These invariably included pictures of flowers, candles or angels, and— I get it. I really do. I miss my mother and wish we were together.  I don’t want anyone to forget her. If she were here, I’d give her the most beautiful rose I could find. She would enjoy it, and I’d feel good. But, as it is, she has embarked on an adventure from which I am temporarily excluded. If I were to write a post to her, it would be something like:

“Mom. . . I wish I could see what you see! It must be fantastic!”

I’d do this because I am confident that she is better off than I am. At least, that’s what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the sea-faring Corinthians:

“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Co 5:6-8)

 As believers we have every reason to live with an extravagant sense of adventure. Though we  suffer squalls on the the first leg of our journey, we know that what awaits us is much better.  Grief is great, but it must not have the last word. Death, after all,  is merely a harbor from which we will again set sail.Free stock photo of sea, landscape, mountains, nature

 

Staying in at Recess

 

In the sixties, staying in from lunch recess was a punishment and disgrace.  For in that hour, we were free as the breeze to wander in a grassy field punctuated by mature trees and honeysuckle bushes where a wood and steel, low-tech playground  offered manifold delights.  Teachers didn’t organize games for you back then; they just heaved a relieved sigh and cut you loose to play.  Recess meant the freedom to mull over problems,  whoop and holler with friends, or just sit quietly, lost in dreams, before returning to the stifling confinement of the schoolroom. It was a kind of sabbath, and if a child had to miss it because of bad behavior (or the bad judgment of an evil teacher), he would be wildly envious of his liberated friends.

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I only remember one really crazy/evil teacher from my elementary years, and if you, Mrs. Roberts, are still out there, I haven’t forgotten. I can’t recollect what drove her to shake me, screaming, “You never smile! You never smile!” and make me sit alone in a dark classroom while she and my classmates marched off to lunch and recess. Neither do I recall what inspired me to track her down at the teacher’s table where she was dining with her associates, and ask when I could eat. The memory of her subsequent behavior, affecting concern and telling the other teachers I was sick, and taking me to lie down in the principal’s office is not particularly painful (although I never did get to eat lunch). What hurt was the exclusion, and the implication that I was inferior and did not deserve to eat or play. I expect that my parents would have raised cain about the incident, but I never told them.

Years away from the classroom, and teachers, good and bad, I occasionally catch myself  feeling like that ostracized eight year old. What my particular woes are makes no difference; the point is that I appear to be suffering more than my friends and I don’t like it. “If I weren’t inferior, intractable and unlovely,” I tell myself, “I might be having more fun.” God, like Mrs. Roberts,  is keeping me in from recess, and my subconscious conclusion to the endless question of “why ” is that He must love me less. But the electrifying truth is that He doesn’t love me less, because God doesn’t do things by halves. Where God loves, He loves totally. Tozer wrote:

“It is a strange and beautiful eccentricity of the free God that He has allowed His heart to be emotionally identified with men. Self-sufficient as He is, He wants our love and will not be satisfied till He gets it. Free as He is, He has let His heart be bound to us forever.”

The truth is liberating.  Regardless of what is going on around me, a deeply personal principle is in operation:  namely that God loves me according to His nature, and that means fully, always. Good times, hard times, He always desires what is best for me. Knowing this, I can be glad that—  if I have to sit out recess sometimes—He will sit right there with me.

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Celebration in Chaos

Free Stock Photo: a pair of chickens (roosters) on a farm

Last month we celebrated Chinese New Year: 2017, the year of the rooster. Needless to say, with my Irish/Italian heritage, it was a first for me. St. Patrick’s Day —sure. Columbus Day—sometimes. But Chinese New Year! Blame it on my affection for Asian cuisine, my lovely daughter-in-law, and a desperate need for color during a hard, dreary winter month.

Chinese recipes are notorious for including a list of esoteric ingredients as long as your arm, and the prep time is e-tern-al: chopping, mixing, and stuffing galore. About half-way through the long afternoon, I wondered whether this was a big mistake, but I kept on chopping, pleased  that my grandmother’s grater still produced feathery piles of cabbage.

I was still chopping when David and Joy showed up with their offerings: sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and wontons ready to be filled,  and—oh, glory—to be deep fried in the Fry Baby. The chaos to calm quotient rose by a factor of ten as we criss-crossed each other back and forth from counter to stove to sink and back again. Three small children, batting balloons around in the adjoining living area, crying out in shrill voices, and occasionally arguing, drove the ratio up still further. As we stuffed sausage mixture into wonton wraps, two of the children performed an impromptu symphony on harmonica and ocarina, while the littlest grabbed for the sausage mixture, indignantly protesting as she was hauled off for hand washing. We told her that raw pork could kill her and she subsided. At this point, family number three arrived.

A remarkable ruckus is raised when six little cousins meet. Not one sentence was received intact by adult ears; instead, we heard a flurry of high-pitched, excited phrases as each child, eager to share his news, spoke over the other. The Chinese presence in our family remained calm in the tumult, but those of Italian/Irish descent emitted terse messages such as, “Settle down,” “Go downstairs if you have to run,” Don’t grab his balloon,” and my personal favorite (courtesy of Bob Newhart), “If you do that again, I’ll bury you alive in a box.” We finally finished cooking and filled their plates.  Our little ingrates asked if they really had to eat the : fried rice with peas in it (“Peas!”), the steamed dumplings (“Ooh, they look slimy”) or the popcorn chicken (“I don’t like this kind of meat.”). However, there was no griping about the cream cheese wontons.

After dinner, the poisoners of peace migrated upstairs to loll around on Nana’s bed and watch a movie while we adults filled our plates and talked about the day. Some of us had had it rough—  the rest could only listen. In the end, we could be thankful for the gift of the present moment, all of us seated around the scratched oak table, each one of us sustained by the living hope we share.

It may be that thankfulness was the best part of this celebration, although the presence of pandemonium — a hot pink thread woven through pale blue cloth—  was undeniable. Somehow, in spite of the problems, noises and crazy interruptions, I was  thankful. Thankful, of course, for the big things of faith and family. Thankful also for the myriad small things that make up my life: little feet running, dogs playing, chicken frying, clear glasses of pale yellow wine. Grateful for conversation—serious and silly, for old jokes and new ideas, for calls to prayer and words of encouragement. After all, some people say that it is gratitude which opens the gate for joy. 

When the stage manager in Our Town gives Emily advice about choosing a time to return to earth, he says, “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”

Celebration through the trivial, the chaotic, the painful? It may be not only the best way to live; but the only way to survive.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100: 4-5)