October 23, 2017

In Memoriam: Morning Prayers

By Chaplain Mike

Introduction
In a vision from another life, I see my wife and I scrambling our four young children into the van and driving out to a house in the country. There, all over the porch and front yard, a recent litter of seventeen puppies cavorts. My kids squeal with delight and go about the task of choosing one, just one, to be our family pet. We’re buying our first home and I have insisted that a home in the suburbs with a big yard requires a dog. Eventually, our hearts settle on a little golden lab mix. We call her “Terra Nova.” Our home will be complete.

Fast forward to January, 2010, to a veterinary clinic in central Indiana. My son, now 22 years old, holds the golden girl that has been a best friend for most of his life while the doctor gently inserts a needle into her leg. Within seconds, she is gone, worn out from old age and kidney failure. We all cry. Who knew this would hurt so badly?

I still look for her when I come through the back door…

I wrote the following in August, 1996, a tribute to my dog and other gifts of common grace…

Morning Prayers
In the morning, my dog Terra and I make pilgrimage through our backyard. A night-person by nature, used to long hours of darkness reading, listening to music, channel-surfing or playing computer games, I can’t just get up and go sit in some office without being sleepy and sluggish. When I’m finally persuaded to rise, I’ve got to do something or I’m a goner. So we walk a bit.

Terra used to get excited about this. Her tail would hammer the floor or nearest piece of furniture; in fact the whole back half of her body would swing like an out-of-control semi about to jackknife. She’d pace frenetically, eyes wide, impatient, darting toward freedom every time I seemed to make a move toward the door, then back again, never disappointed, always eager. Now she barely raises her head as I meander to the kitchen to make coffee. She’s learned this might take awhile. However, the instant I finally say, “Wanna go?” the old surge of longing lifts her upright, and after the customary yawns and stretches, we start out.

Through the sliding screen onto the deck, down the stairs and over the damp stones of the patio we walk, through the fence gate that sticks because its own weight has twisted and wobbled the post. We have a fine backyard and I like being in it, especially at this time of day. Terra and I pause for a moment and look around. She sits and waits while I take a sip from my mug. The moment I begin walking, she takes up her trot, never far from me, nose to the ground, investigating familiar earth made new by night’s passing.

We don’t do much and we do it at a leisurely pace. A few glances at the perennials, a surface perusal of the vegetable garden, that’s about it. Corn’s about ready. Tomatoes are large but still green. Could that be a pumpkin? No, just a mini-basketball that rolled deep into the corn and settled by the crawling vines. I retrieve it and toss it toward our cement court.

My main occupation soon becomes yard cleaner. Here’s a half-chewed two-liter plastic pop bottle. Terra watches as I pick up the fragments–she’s known that bottle. Her metal food dishes are strewn here and there. They contain rainwater, dirt clogs, bugs, bits of branch and leaf. I dump them and set them upright against the giant oak under which she sleeps on hot summer afternoons. There’s always a basketball or two around out here as well, sometimes one in the neighbor’s yard. I put them in the sandbox or up against the pole that holds the backboard that will need to be replaced, maybe this fall. The bottom edge is beginning to rot.

At the other end of the yard, near the storage sheds, I often find scraps of wood that have been dug out of their hiding place underneath by my son, who fancies himself a builder. Sometimes a tool or two appears, glistening with dew in the grass. I shake my head and haul project debris to workbench, shed, and trash can.

The wood piles look unattended. One consists of unsplit cherry, the other a variety of split logs, some I bought, some I split myself. Soon enough, the crisp air will call again for the ax. I make a mental note to pull out the string trimmer at next lawn mowing to edge around them.. Terra has followed me here, where she finds a paradise of fascinating scents. Life! Chipmunks have been in the piles and under the shed. We haven’t seen them for some time, but it’s not because of the dog’s lack of interest. It takes a few extra calls or hand claps to get her away from this pursuit.

A shed door is open, a common finding. Some scraps of paper have blown our way from the street. A child’s socks lie discarded, bunched, forgotten. The vinyl tablecloth on the picnic table that sorely needs painting has been blown over its back side. It clings to the leaning umbrella pole. Around front, we find a bicycle, a baseball bat, a few small toy cars, a tangled hose under hedge clippings, a landscape timber fallen away from the flower garden. I straighten, clean, pick up, move, organize. Terra sniffs on, paws rustling through lawn and mulch, now clicking on the concrete drive.

Where did I leave my coffee? There it is, out on the basketball court. We retrieve it and look for more to do, loath to end this puttering. A few more toys into the sandbox, a chair or two put in place in the yard, on patio or deck, a trip into the garage to get a biscuit for the dog, and that’s about it. The day’s begun.

But like I say, in the morning, Terra and I make pilgrimage; she, sniffing for evidence of life, and me, picking up after it. We don’t accomplish much and we do it at our own lazy pace. But I figure we’re praying, my dog and I. As liturgies go, it’s somewhat common, but it’s not inconsequential. A few small discoveries, a little more order, a bit of air, a touch of dew—otium sanctum. Holy leisure.

Terra, who slept all night curled up with her head under the coffee table in the living room, will soon be ready to resume her work of being a lazy dog. Deck and giant oak will shade her. Me? I’ll go to the office and try to put a few things in order there until I can come home again to another late night and tomorrow’s morning prayers.

Comments

  1. Clay Knick says:

    Our pets are such gifts of God’s grace. They teach us so much and give us so much friendship. Thanks for this.

  2. I loved the imagery. Years ago I had a golden-mix too. She passed one long winter night while I was in college, but from what my Dad told me, though she was not terribly mobile at that stage of her life, the night before she glimpsed the snow from inside, ran out when she got the chance – at a pace we hadn’t seen in years – and played in the snow like a puppy. …she knew it was her time, and I like to think Terra did too. Thank you for allowing us to join you two on that walk.

    Ben

  3. One of the hardest things my wife and I ever did was to put our cat of many years to sleep, and we both can still shed a tear when we think about her. I was always amazed at how much practical theology I could learn just from thinking about how our cat lived and how we related to each other. As the previous poster said, our pets really are wonderful gifts of grace.

  4. Yes, it’s hard. Dogs are good friends.
    http://paul.dubuc.org/2008/05/17/sheila-1992-2008/

  5. The way dogs play around and show love to us gives us a glimpse of God’s amazing character (this coming from an unapologetic Calvinist).

  6. Our lives are so enriched by our beloved animals. Thanks for the story, Pastor Mike. And Paul, I went to your blog and I, too, love: “Lord, make me the kind of person that my dog thinks I am.” Someone else said the same letters are in the words “God” and “dog” and asked, “Coincidence? I think not.”

    I grew up with cats and dogs and loved them all. My husband and I have only had a cat that lived for 18 years and was a wonderful cat. But, Tom has asthma and thinks it may have been improved somewhat by no longer having a cat. But lately, he has been saying he would like a cat around. (It’s been years since our Furbish died.) I found one that I know we would love, but neither of us want his asthma to be worse. So, we don’t know what to do. I surely miss patting a cat and hearing the purring and feeling the warmth, though. And when Tom was sick, he would be comforted by our cat lying beside him. Tom doesn’t want to take meds for asthma.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Terra. Our condolences on your loss.

    In January, we lost our beloved Lucy, an 11 pound Lhasa apso who had been with us for a dozen wonderful years. Like Terra, her body had become worn out beyond repair, due to kidney disease and old age. Comforting her in her last moments was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.

    I believe that God sometimes uses our pets as demonstrations of his unconditional and limitless love. Surely he used Terra and Lucy in this manner.

  8. Chaplain Mike, this might be of help for your family, and others who read.

    http://www.nhepiscopal.org/artman/publish/printer_279.shtml

    I believe we will be able to live with our pets in the age to come. I have nothing with which to “prove” that except the love of God, the depth of which is beyond our comprehension, and the Psalm verse that says “No good thing will you withhold from those who love you, O Lord”.

    Dana

  9. Your beautiful post brought back the pain of losing my dog a few years ago. I cried more over that than my parent’s death. And the one I have now is absolutely my best bud.

  10. Thank you Mike. Well said.

  11. Our youngest daughter and I escorted our cat to the vet for her final time about four years ago. She was not even able to enter in to the veterinary clinic. I was able to enter in, but was hardly able to talk. I could not bear to be in the final room with our cat. We drove silently home with tears in our eyes.