“Look to the birds,” Jesus told the disciples. “Consider the lilies of the field.” This Sunday we pause to do just that: to consider with our pets, to think with the created world, about the Gospel and its lessons for us.
What does brother Sun make of the Gospel? How does sister cat experience faith? Does cousin pig know something special about God’s love?
St. Francis asked such questions, listening and learning from the created world around him about the beauty, depth, and drama of grace. What might we discover from opening our own hearts? Can your pet teach you? Can the natural world around us speak of God?
While Jesus spoke of the birds, I look to my dog, Duchess, to teach me about grace. Years ago we had two black labs - Tigger and Krista - whom I loved. But when they died, I thought I was probably done owning dogs. Now, I thought to myself, I can garden in the backyard. I think I started talking to a landscaper the day after the last dog died.
But then I realized how much my kids and Jay wanted another dog. Tomas in particular was on a campaign for a puppy. I couldn’t send him off to college and then get a dog. So, overcoming all my hesitations, we picked up Duchess.
Duchess gardens the backyard. Like me, she’s very fond of Knockout Roses. I had planted three of them in the back, just beside the patio furniture so that I could enjoy the red roses during a summer of eating outside. But my assistant gardener had other plans. Two she pruned down to nothing. And the last one she dragged out of the ground, turning it into a backyard toy.
Grace often works like that: we make our plans, neat and orderly, but grace intervenes, all chaos and mess. Turns out I love Duchess far more than my garden. In fact, I think Jay would say, Duchess is not really our family dog. She’s my dog and I happen to share her with the family.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, had a dog like mine, one he ridiculously loved. He gave his dog the name Tolpel, which means fool. Luther delighted in the foolishness of his dog.
At night Luther would gather with his closest friends for dinner and long conversations about faith and politics. Tolpel watched Luther throughout the meals, quiet but ready in case anything fell to the floor, eyes fixed on the meat. One night, Luther said, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”
What would it be like if we prayed with the devotion of a dog? Could we so concentrate that all other thoughts left our minds?
Whenever I’m in the kitchen, Duchess watches, there to help. Like Tolpel, she loves meat. But her favorite might just be peanut butter. As soon as the bagels come out, she raises her head. When the toaster oven beeps, my little Pavlovian starts to salivate. And once the bagel is smeared with peanut butter, she’s already licking the air in anticipation until she gets the knife or spoon to clean.
Such concentration! When I think of my own prayer life, I realize how much less attention I muster. I try to quiet my mind, focus my thoughts, silently meditate. But then my thoughts wander, from God to grocery lists, from the divine to what to make for dinner. Maybe I am like Duchess, thinking most of all with my stomach.
But still I wonder, what would it be like to have the concentration of a dog? To anticipate prayer like Duchess waits for peanut butter, to put my whole being into it so that my body quivered at the first hint of grace?
Martin Luther said many other things about his beloved dog. On another occasion he said, “The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”
I agree with Luther; but I understand a cat-lover might say the feline to be God’s greatest gift; the rabbit-owner the bunny. I take away from Luther’s comment a larger insight. We might miss God’s greatest gifts because they’re common.
Recently I saw someone who I’d known years ago. She asked about my kids and I gave a brief update, including that Tomas was now driving. “They get big so quick,” she said. Driving was a big change in our lives. But when I think of my kids growing up, it's not the big changes I think of but the small ones: not Tomas driving, but Tomas remembering to put the seat back when he’s done with the car.
What if we watched for small signs of grace the way a dog watches for food, the way a parent sees small changes in a child? What signs of grace might we see? The gift of a pet? The love of a friend? The beauty of a song? The care of a spouse? The joy of a child? Luther’s dog Tolpel caused him to see the most common things in his life as gifts of God’s grace.
But I think the attentiveness of a dog might cause us to see more than just signs of grace; we might see opportunities for it too. And this might be how St. Francis’ life begins to look the most like brother dog’s. Just as a dog will do amazing things for those they love, Francis did amazing things for Jesus.
Duchess follows me from room to room, not always right next to me but rarely very far (unless someone else is holding a jar of peanut butter). Dogs are loyal; they follow.
One way to understand St. Francis is to see him becoming a loyal follower of Jesus. He didn’t start out that way. Francis started as the wealthy son of a merchant, not a noble but rich enough to be a ‘man about town.’ A life of luxury clearly had its privileges: he could cause trouble without getting in trouble. And isn’t that the definition of privilege.
Looking for more adventure, Francis signed up to fight in a war with Perugia, a neighboring city-state. The battle turned against Francis and his fellow soldiers. Many lost their life; and the soldiers from Perugia killed the wounded. But they let Francis live because his nice clothes and fine armor marked him as a rich man, one they could ransom off. Privilege saved Francis again.
He ended up in prison for a year. Only after his father paid the ransom did Francis return. He came back a changed person. Imprisonment perhaps, the carnage of war perhaps, the work of the spirit perhaps: all of it changed him into someone who wanted to follow Jesus, to be like Jesus.
Following Jesus meant giving up his privilege, starting with his clothes. He gave up his finely turned cloaks and comfortable shoes and luxurious shirts. It was these same kinds of clothes that once saved him; the literal embodiment of his wealthy privilege. He left it all behind to just wear the ratty clothes of a beggar.
Francis began a life to trying to follow Jesus. In some ways it literally seemed like a dog’s life: Francis begged for his food. But in more important ways Francis lived like brother dog, loyally following the one he loved. He followed the direction of Jesus in building up broken churches, in caring for broken bodies, in working for peace in broken places; in all those ways he followed.
I know Duchess will give up anything I ask her. The command is release. Even if she has the tastiest ham hock, she’ll release it.
Francis heard Jesus tell him to give up his privilege. And he released it. He heard Jesus tell him to live with the poor; he did it.
What would our lives look like if we followed Jesus like brother dog, like Francis? What privilege would we give up? What service would we take on?
Our pets can teach us the way of grace. To be attentive like a dog watching meat. To be grateful for the most common gifts of God. To be loyal, following Jesus into whatever future he leads.
Alleluia and Amen.