I look forward each year to the telecast of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show from Madison Square Garden. I love seeing the wonderful variety of dogs that God created and human beings manipulated into “man’s best friend.” My favorite judging groups are herding, working, and sporting. These are dogs with a particular purpose. They aren’t just pretty show dogs and supreme examples of their type, they actually work. Some aid in hunting, some work animals, and others pull carts or work in search and rescue, therapy, or as assistance dogs. Did you know that dogs are better at detecting cancer through their spectacular sense of smell than many of the diagnostic tests doctors use? They are amazing animals that we are a long way from fully understanding.
Growing up I had little contact with working dogs. We had pets, usually mixed breed companion dogs. Then Sally came into our life. Sally is an Australian Cattle Dog, commonly called a “heeler.” These dogs work cattle by nipping at their back feet, thus their name. We think she was about a year old when she found us. She was a stray that my wife saw running franticly around the pastures and fields around our house. It took my wife a few days to get Sally to come to her. She was very cautious and afraid. She had just had a litter of pups because she was still lactating, and perhaps that’s why she was so frantic. We fed her and invited her into our family.
Sally is happiest when she is working. She doesn’t play. We have tried to play with her, and she looks at us as though we’ve lost our minds. She wants to work. One day a man was moving a herd of cattle down the road in front of our house, and my wife noticed it. He was moving them with his Lincoln Continental, so my wife asked if he would like some help. He agreed, and my wife began to herd them in her truck. Sally was with her in the front seat and became very excited. So, my wife let her out and told her to bring up some strays that had wandered into a neighboring yard. Sally did exactly what she was supposed to do. We had never trained her or worked with her. It is her nature. Work is her play. You should see her “smile” when she is moving our horses along. She is fulfilling her purpose.
People could learn a lot from these working dogs. We have difficulty with purpose in our life. We wander aimlessly searching for something we cannot name. St. Augustine calls it our effort to fill the God-sized hole in our soul. People yearn for purpose in their lives, and when they don’t get it, all hell breaks loose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us what our human purpose is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (answer to question one, “What is the chief end of man?”). God created human beings, the man and the woman, for love and joy. We are to glorify God by loving God and one another. This leads us to ecstatic joy. That’s our purpose. So why do we reject it so?
The easy answer is “sin” or the power of the “principalities and powers” of this world. We reject our God-given purpose because of powers outside ourselves, things over which we have no control and, thus, no responsibility. I imagine that the reader is like me and can make up spectacularly convoluted excuses for my actions, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and compulsions. God’s love in Christ frees us from our sin and the influence of the principalities and powers and points us to a better way, the way of Christ. Loving God and neighbor is our purpose, and it leads to unexplainable joy in our lives. Like Sally, we “smile” when we are fulfilling our purpose, the one God gave us.
God gave us the Church to provide the basic training and ongoing nurture and accountability for our purpose in life. We work with our dogs to prepare them to follow our commands and so fulfill their purpose. They may have the herding instinct, but we have to shape it according to our human needs. God does that with human beings through the church. We have to learn what it means to love God and neighbor. It may be different from time to time, era to era, as God needs us to express our love. God gave us the church to teach us compassion, generosity, forgiveness, discipline, and support as some of the ways God calls us to love one another, including our own self. When we quit interacting with people in these ways, we divide the world into “us versus them” categories and reject God’s purpose for us. It breaks my heart when people in churches stop loving one another and the community in which they live. When we insist on exercising power, control, and purity in our relationships, we deny God’s purpose, and people reject us. Some churches are simply unfriendly, unaccepting, and rejecting of new people and ideas. No wonder they don’t grow. Other churches embrace new people with love and affection and encourage them to contribute in new ways. They grow. They grow because they are fulfilling God’s purpose for the church to be a provisional experience of the Reign of God.
If there is anything else I’ve learned from our dogs (We also have a terrier mix, but that’s another story.), it is unconditional love. You should see their joy as they greet me when I come home at night. Is it love? Are dogs capable of love? They sure act in loving ways. Let us take our cue from them. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God.”