The Good Doguardian
I approached the open screen window and called out to her, “hey baby, hey I’m here”, and from within the house I could hear her delighted response to my voice: small wordless, high-pitched squeals and whimpering. As I rounded the corner on the wrap-around porch and approached the sliding glass door, there she was, this beauty waiting for me, so excited she could hardly stand still. I opened the door and she nearly knocked me down in a joyous welcome embrace, her two front paws landing on my chest. “Yes, my baby, yes, it’s so good to see you too, yes, you are a good girl, yes you are, such a good girl”, I kept saying again and again as she danced around me, jumped all over me, ran to get her favorite squeaky rubber toy, which she grabs whenever she is happy to see someone.
This is Ary, short for Araya, named of course after Araya Stark on Game of Thrones. Alas, she is not my dog. She is my friend Dennis’ beautiful black mixed-breed rescue dog, and because in my line of work I can’t have my own dog, I am especially grateful for the gift of taking care of Ary from time to time when Dennis is away.
When Dennis first acquired Ary, she was scared, really afraid of almost everyone. Her tail never wagged, she barely looked up, and when anyone approached her she would usually shy away to a corner or under a table or back into her metal crate. She never barked, and I wondered if she even knew how. The first person she trusted was Dennis, and early on she followed him whenever and wherever he went. I decided I would try to earn her trust, and one day when Dennis was away I went to his house and spent hours laying on her level on the floor next to her-- talking to her, petting her, rubbing her belly and her rear end. And just as I was about to get up and leave, she began to lick my hand, and then my arm, and then the other hand and the other arm. That is often a submissive gesture, the dog letting you know that they acknowledge you as the leader. It can also can give them a feeling of comfort, helps them relieve stress. I knew when Ary licked me that I was on my way to earning her trust, and although I’m not her main man, I know that she respects me, feels safe with me, and likes me. And these days when I come round to her house to take care of her, she recognizes my voice and comes to me right away.
Dogs are great animals and wonderful pets. Spend a little time on social media and you will see how important they are to so many people. They are members of the family, great companions for single people old and young, they provide great lessons on love to children who are raised with them. But they are also dependent creatures. Smart as some of them can be, they are also like children, and if you have one in your life, you need to be as responsible for their well-being as you are for a child. When you take on a dog in your life, you have to be there every day. It needs to be fed, walked, sheltered, played with, loved. If the dog gets sick, you need to get it to the vet, administer the drugs, tend to the wounds. If you go away, the dog either goes with you or you need to get a caregiver. Like children, however you plan your future, you always have to factor in the dog.
When Dennis got Ary, that was part of his plan. Coming out of college and entering the real world of work, he wanted to be responsible for something alive and needy. He thought it would help him mature. And it has, Ary has. There is a deep personal relationship involved, and it is wonderful watching the two of them together. He is first and foremost in her life, and when he is gone, she is always watching out for him, literally staring out the window until his return. And when Dennis recently left to shoot a TV show in LA for six weeks (he is a cinematographer), he had a lot of trouble saying goodbye to her---almost as much as saying goodbye to his wonderful girlfriend!
This is Good Shepherd Sunday, and Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, and to us as the sheep. The word ‘shepherd’ is a contraction of sheep and herder, and a shepherd is a person who cares for or looks after the welfare of a sheep or a bunch of them. Sheep are sweet but pretty dumb animals. They are usually meek and submissive. They not very powerful, they easily panic, and are vulnerable to predators like wolves and mountain lions and bears. They have a horrible sense of direction, and often can get lost or confused. When that happens they fall to the ground and bleat loudly in hopes they will attract the attention of the shepherd. When Jesus calls us sheep, it doesn’t sound very complimentary.
These days not too many of us encounter live sheep, but we all know dogs and many of us live with them. I think that if Jesus had lived today, he might have referred instead to the relationship between a dog and his human caretaker. I’d call them ‘doguardians’, a contraction of dog and guardian. If Jesus had lived today we might be hearing the ‘Parable of the Good Doguardian’ on Good Doguarian Sunday.
Of course that would make us the dogs that the Doguardian cares for or looks after. But that works too because maybe we have more in common with them than sheep.
I have a friend who has five dogs—all rescues--and he has an intimate understanding of their personalities and gifts: which dog is more aggressive, which pup is the most playful, which is the smarter one, which has insecurities or moods. But like sheep, each of his dogs are vulnerable and dependent in some way. He needs to protect them, guard them, search for them, and give them what they need each and every night. My friend is their doguardian who knows his dogs and loves them, each and every one.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, but also as the sheep gate. In those days, when the sheep were out in the pastures, the custom was for the shepherd to usher them into the sheep pen each night. It was typically a stacked stone compound, high enough to keep out predators, but it didn’t have a door. The shepherd laid down in the opening to the sheep pen, and literally became the sheep gate. Nothing went in or came out unless it the shepherd allowed it to do so. Would-be predators would have to cross over his body to get to the sheep.
I asked one of my students if she would be willing to die for her dog. What if it looked like a car was going to run over her dog---would she leap up and risk her own life to save the dog? She hesitated for a minute, and then said, “Maybe”. Really, I said, your life for a dog?
There were other students around and I turned to them and told them that I would take a bullet for any of them, and asked if they’d do the same for me. No one said anything, not even a maybe. Really? I said. And then one of them, with a big smile on his face said, “Well, you’re old!”
Risk your life for a dog? Hmmm. But Jesus the sheep gate, laying down his life for the sheep. Take a look up there, the sheep gate, for us, right?
Which brings it all to us on Good Shepherd Sunday, or my alternative, Good Doguardian Sunday. We the sheep, the dogs; he the Good Shepherd, the Good Doguardian. Like dogs or sheep, sometimes we are dumber than dirt, often we are timid and helpless in the face of whatever life throws at us. Sure, we snarl and bark and sometimes even bite.
But beneath the bravado and our belligerent or cocky attitude, we are listening for the voice that knows our name, reassures us with its tender embrace, and calls us to our better selves. We listen for that voice because we know that it is filled with love, a love that has its origin in the very source of everything that is, in the heart of the creator of us all—sheep and shepherds, dogs and doguardians, and every other living thing that is.
And when we hear it calling to us “hey baby yes, it’s so good to see you too, yes, you are a good girl, yes you are, such a good boy”, well we can’t but dance around, jump with joy, maybe even bark out a happy Alleluia!! in thanksgiving for being so loved.