Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Skipper As a Spiritual Discipline

Skipper came to us from the Humane Society. We were looking for a kitten and, finding none suitable that particular day, we strolled through the dog kennels. Just looking, you understand.

Skipper spoke to me. Rather, God spoke to me.

It was three weeks and some prayer and contemplation later than I went to get Skipper. He is damaged. He is what we call in humans post traumatic stress disorder. He was also starved, although he didn’t display any symptoms of being beaten.

His major problems are two. First, he barks insanely when dogs go by our house, standing at the window and then going through the dog door, running along the fence barking as the dog passes on the sidewalk thirty feet away. Second, he flips out when we are out walking and he sees another dog. He lunges and barks and pulls and will choke himself, trying to get to the other dog. He is beyond verbal command although he knows perfectly well what I want him to do.

Well, there is a third problem. One cannot turn one’s back on one’s food and Skipper at the same time. If one does one will soon hear the “click” of the dog door closing and, if one looks quickly enough through the kitchen window, one will see him out in the back yard devouring whatever it is that one was careless enough to leave in his reach.

Oh, yes, he also seems to have serious issues (he growls and slinks) in the presence of bearded men.

We tried the dog park but he is a dominant fellow and, when “play” with bigger and stronger dogs gets out of hand, there is not an ounce of “back down” in him. I have seen him come close to serious injury because he will not submit to bigger, dominant dogs who get tired of his stuff and just go after him. We are done with dog parks.

I run with Skipper every morning, which I wasn’t doing before he came to live with us. That’s the first part of the discipline.

The second part is the patience that has been required to integrate him into our home and the compassion he develops in me. It’s an on going process. Here for about five months, now, he’s adapting pretty well but that’s a relative term.

My other rescue dog, Fido, who is half border collie and half yellow lab, is a submissive fellow and gets on well with Skipper but for an occasional squabble. I think these are set off by Fido trying to get Skipper to stop doing things of which we do not approve. Fido is a “company man” right down the line. If one of the children leave the gate open Fido will come sit by the front door and, when I open it, give me an expression that says “Did you know the gate is open? I would have closed it for you but I don’t have thumbs.”

Skipper also gets along OK with our three cats, one of whom is the kitten we were seeking when Skipper and I were brought together. At first Skipper had some issues with Lefty, our youngest male black cat who, at four, is in his prime. That conflict has quieted down, although the cat certainly milks it--demanding, now, to be carried inside, ferried past “the danger.” No doubt Lefty is doing whatever is the cat equivalent of sticking out his tongue at Skipper as he is carried in.

So, Skipper is making progress. I am teaching him the standard dog training stuff which he does flawlessly, now, when there is not a lot of excitement going on around him. And he is good about sleeping where told and staying away from the dinner table. He is not running around, all the time, nor does he dig holes, or jump on people or chew anything that isn’t his. He used to steal shoes, but not so much, anymore.

But the integration of Skipper into our home, and “saving” him from the Humane Society, is not what makes “Skipper” a spiritual practice. It’s not what I am doing for him, it’s what he is doing for me, or, rather, what’s being done to me through him.

Skipper is about my patience, my ability to respond to frustration with love and compassion. God used Fido to do a lot of that kind of work in me, when he first came, but Fido presented as first children sometimes do. He was a trial but, really, was a snap compared to Skipper.

(I have sometimes wondered whether children get together, before they are born, to decide which will come first. If my second had come first, lovable handful that she is, the other might never have been brought along!)

The trials Skipper creates moves me to want to throw things and, at times, to complete despair. More than once I have told myself that it was a mistake to bring him home and that I would like to find a way to send him away and then, immediately I see what the dynamic is, here. More than once I have been reminded, as he does something that he knows he’s not supposed to do (like steal food or chase Lefty), of how frequently I have done things that I know I am not supposed to do. Neither my parents or God ever gave up on me. And there have been times I have been a prime candidate for giving up on.

One time, after he stole a left-over turkey leg, I went out back and called him to me. (There was no point in trying to catch him. An Australian Shepherd that does not want to be caught is not catchable short of four people and a net. A big, heavy net.) He looked at me, gnawing on that turkey leg, with an expression that said “I hear you calling, I know what you want, and I’ll do it when I’m done, here.” I was so convicted by the look on his face. It was a look that God has no doubt seen on mine a number of times. I went inside and sat down, where I prayed and worshipped for quite a while. Finished with his turkey leg, Skipper joined me in the living room, putting his head on my thigh so that I could scratch his ears for a few moments before laying down at my feet for a nap.

A spiritual practice/discipline is something we do, an act of will, that puts us in a place where God/Spirit can get its “hands” on us, where we are available to be changed, available to grace. The test of a spiritual discipline/practice is whether it moves us along toward embodying the testimonies (or the fruits of the spirit) (or whichever description of this transformation, from whichever spiritual tradition, makes sense to us).

Through Skipper, through bringing him into our home and dealing with the problems he presents, both he and the members of my family are being changed. He will probably never be a completely normal dog, like Fido. But he will certainly have done his work, God’s work, by bringing Light of revelation and changing--edifying-- the way that we are able to live our lives, contributing to the work of conforming all of us toward the image of Christ.

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