By the Rev. Eric Long
This is an excerpt from, followed by an addendum to, my February 5, 2017, sermon:
Three years ago for Christmas, after a six-year hiatus, Shelley and I decided to get our girls another dog. Perhaps it was amnesia from our exceedingly wild thirteen-year ride with beagles that made us do this. Perhaps it was the holiday season that turns even the cold heart of Scrooge warm. Perhaps it was my redneck friend who told me, “Every kid deserves to have a dawg, Eric!” But whatever it was, it all colluded against me in a weak moment, and the Long family once again decided it was time to go canine.
We decided to save a life and adopt a dog. But before you think too highly of us, we were still quite picky about the dog we would be willing to adopt. We didn’t want a barker, a chewer, a stealer, a jumper, a yapper, a pooper, or a beggar. As I said before, those beagles did quite a number on us. They gave us PBSD: Post Beagle Stressed-out-of-our-minds Disorder.
Well, we searched far and near for the right dog and finally found a rescue dog that seemed a good fit. In fact, he seemed perfect. He was calm, loving, and potty-trained. He didn’t bark and wasn’t a thief. He was laid back, so he wouldn’t add more mayhem to our lives already so full of mayhem. In short, he seemed like Goldilocks finally getting her porridge: just right.
We surprised the girls and had the dog’s foster family met us at the park where the girls could play with him, without knowing he would be theirs. We got a great video of Abigail and Madalene finding out they could take him home as their own. It was a moment of pure delight, full of squeals and jumping around.
Then, we had the great fun of naming the dog. We narrowed it down to “Johnny” for Johnny Cash – the dog in black (he had black fur) – or “Otis” for Otis Redding.
We settled on “Otis” for the dog. And the world seemed great. And Otis seemed perfect. He wasn’t a barker, a chewer, a stealer, a jumper, a yapper, a pooper, or a beggar. Unfortunately, I forgot to add “biter” to that list, because two days after Otis came to live with us, he bit the stew out of my hand.
At first, everyone thought: “Oh, that’s okay, it’s just Eric. Otis is a good judge of character.” Plus, he had been through a lot, and it happened as I was trying to take some scotch-tape off of his paw. So, maybe my fault? Although, my Lord, it hurt! And, as you can imagine, I was very concerned.
However, over the next month, my concern dissipated, as Otis acted perfectly fine and slipped back into his perfect ways…until one Sunday night, when Otis viciously bit Shelley, absolutely out of nowhere and for no reason we could discern. When I tried to break it up, Otis attacked me. It was then we knew that this Otis Redding wasn’t going to just sit quietly on the dock of the bay.
Not surprisingly, that evening I got the mayhem I was trying to avoid. Everybody in the whole house was either literally wounded by Otis or sobbing because of the obvious fact that Otis was going to have to go.
Of course, we wondered what we did wrong. Yet the truth is it almost certainly wasn’t about what did at all that made Otis bite, but about what was previously done to Otis that made Otis bite. Otis bit because his former life taught him he had to bite in order to survive around people – in his mind, even people like us.
Many of us have been wounded in life. All of us live in a “bite-first, ask questions later” world. It is the hallmark of social media. It is the scourge of our politics. It is the legacy of terrorism. Yet as followers of Jesus, as disciples attempting to model his ways, we can choose healing. We do not have to live out of our woundedness or give in to our fears.
The scripture lesson that inspired the sermon quoted above was Isaiah 58:9b-12. Isaiah preached his message to people who had suffered through the conquest of their homeland and subsequent exile into Babylon. They had every reason to be bitter. They had every reason to fear. They had every reason to bite back. However, Isaiah gave them an alternative way to act, even in a vicious age:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
You shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in (emphasis added).
Two weeks after Otis went back to his foster family, Shelley and I got a call from a family with two dogs they could no longer care for because of their very sick child. We cautiously decided to take one of the dogs, Emily, into our home. And in our home Emily remains. Two weeks later, they called back and asked if the other dog, Coco, could live with us as well. Coco now does. And we couldn’t imagine life without them.
At first, we would look at their teeth and fear the possibility of their bite. Yet we decided that no bite was going to change who we were. We knew that love makes us vulnerable to hurt, but it still must win the day. Therefore, we chose healing, and I hope we always will, not only when it comes to dogs, but more important, when it comes to the rest of life.