This is going to come as a shock to some people, but I love dogs. (Who knew, right?) I love all dogs, but I have a penchant for those dogs some find off-putting – the big, mean-looking ones that people cross the street to avoid when you’re out walking them.
Because I love dogs, my Facebook feed is filled with stories from dog rescues. This often makes me smile as I see the goofy faces of dogs who have been adopted. But it also can make me angry as I see dogs who have been ignored or neglected or abused. And what gets me every time is the story that accompanies these dogs, because almost always it goes something like this: “Despite having suffered horrific abuse, this dog just wants to love and be loved.”
And lest I get too outraged at the world that produces this kind of abuse, I can remind myself of my own, albeit lesser, but still disappointing, “abuse” of my own dogs.
After coming home late one night last week, I walked in the door to five antsy and excited dogs. They had been home alone longer than normal, and in addition to wanting dinner and a walk, they were simply excited to see me. I had barely shoved my way in the door when all 120 pounds of Samson jumped up on me, forcing me to drop my bag and purse, and get entangled in the paws and licks of what seemed like a crazed pack of dogs.
As I pulled myself loose, I noticed the remnants of a book scattered across the living room. Torn bits of paper were everywhere, and I quickly boomed out “Who did this?!”
As Lily slunk behind the love seat, it was clear who the ring leader was.
I muttered to myself about naughty dogs as I grabbed the trash can and quickly gathered up the pieces of what was a cherished book. And when Lily shyly snuck up behind me and nudged me with her nose, I turned around and told her she was a naughty dog, which resulted in her slinking back behind the love seat.
By the time I had finished feeding and walking all five dogs, I had calmed down and gained some proper perspective. I had just sat down on the couch when Lily jumped up and laid her head in my lap. She looked up at me without raising her head, and my heart broke.
Despite my chastising her for what amounted to her “telling” me she missed me and needed more attention, she simply wanted to snuggle with me. That is unconditional love.
This week I had the privilege of visiting a pre-release class my employer hosts in a prison in Colorado. Twenty-five men who, having done time for all manner of crimes, have come together to prepare for their upcoming release. They have spent the past 18 months learning “life skills” and being mentored by Christian men offering their free time in hopes that their influence will make a difference between true freedom through life change and a lifetime spent in the revolving doors of prison.
Although I work for a prison ministry, I found myself almost instinctively judging the men as they were introduced to me. Although some looked like men you’d meet at your local coffee shop or grocery store, many had the look of someone who’s done time – white supremacist messages tattooed across their knuckles, strange “horns” implanted under one man’s forehead, gang symbols across an arm.
But as I made my way into the room, I saw something remarkable – a tiny, black pit bull puppy in the arms of one of the men. By the time I had met each one, I realized that three of the men had dogs they were caring for. But that little puppy just did me in. It sat snuggled, sleeping, in the arms of a convict. Content. Safe. Happy.
That little puppy loved the man who held it. And it was clear that the man loved that little dog.
And my heart broke as I realized the depth of my own brokenness. As a Christ follower, I am to love those who, to the rest of the world, are unlovable. I am a sinner in need of grace and love, and I am called to provide grace and love to those around me. Everyone. Not just the nice ones. Not just the well-dressed ones. And not just the ones who love me back. Everyone.
But I don’t always do that. Sometimes I judge. And sometimes I lose my temper. And sometimes I doubt that God’s promises of redemption are available to all people.
But that’s not true. And that’s not what Christ calls me to believe.
I asked God for His forgiveness as I asked the man if I could hold his puppy. Both God and the prisoner held out their hands. And when I left, I prayed God’s blessings over those men and vowed once again to try and love like a dog loves – unconditionally.