In Memoriam: Posthumous Lessons from my Boston Terrier, Jax

My little boy kept going over to the blind, opening it, and peering outside, to see if it had really happened.  His mother would come behind him and close the blind again, trying to put a salve on the curious wound that had now been opened.   He would not be deterred.  Again and again, this happened, for several hours, until the night swallowed up the day and the empty pavement was no longer a distraction.

A few hours earlier, Jax, my Boston Terrier, had been hit by a car.  This 11 month old puppy, with whom I had not even shared a birthday, his or mine, was dead, his lifeless body lying at the head of our driveway, motionless.  There are three little boys to whom this dog belonged.  One had been told to bring him inside only moments earlier.  Moments earlier, Jax, was being himself.  He was on the porch wrestling with his favorite play thing, the cat.  All was normal.  Jax was being himself and the cat was on the receiving end.  They let him remain on the porch in his usual style with his usual best animal friend.

A minute later, another one of the kids was asked to bring Jax off the porch.  He goes over to the door, looks out the window panes on either side, and Jax is missing.  He was just there, now, he’s gone.  The boy goes outside, looks around, and suddenly rushes back in the door and exclaims, “Something is Wrong!”  All the children run outside with their mother only to find that death had snuffed life from the place where it once resided.  What was offered as a few minutes more of playtime had turned into a tragic tale of a dogs love for life proving his demise.

We are not sure what happened.  No one saw it.  It happened too quickly.  We surmise he was on the porch with the cat, whom was not faring so well, and the cat took off running across the road.  Jax, for whom caution was no obstacle, most likely dashed toward him, while an unforeseen vehicle driving much too fast on the road in front of our house, was dashing toward him.

There was no sound, no screech of wheels.  There was no remorseful driver that made their way to our front door, dog in hand, apologies falling from lips.  There was just our small puppy who had brought himself up the driveway going to the only place that he knew could help him. 

I hold many powers, but resurrection is not one of them.

About this time, I get a text, “Jax was hit by a car.  He’s dead.  I’m so sorry.” 

My reply “No. No.”

How could this little guy who had just played hide and seek with me only hours earlier be gone?  This little dog who kind of sorta smelled like Fritos and would wait for his turn to lick out the remaining contents of my morning yogurt container, gone? 

This news hit me like a punch to the gut, instant pressure and breathlessness moved over my chest as the suddenness began to overtake my senses.  This was a little guy that I took selfies with, and if you follow me anywhere on social media, you know I don’t take selfies…but now, I’m glad I did.

My favorite memory of him was the neurotic way he obsessed over my hands.  My hands were his favorite play thing because they contained the magic of the man/dog wolf pack of two that we had created together.  He liked to play rough and he liked being pushed and shoved and tapped on the nose with lightening speed.  He’d growl and nibble at my hands, and he would sound ferocious, but he’d never bite me and if I stopped playing rough, and went full silly voice, his ears would go back and he’d lick me until I needed another bath.  He was so obsessed with this way of playing I would often come home, sit on the couch, hands in my pocket, and he would come over to me, begin to nudge my pockets and attempt to dig my hands from their lair.  He would not be deterred.  I possessed the greatest toys around.

My wife moved him into the garage, wrapped him a towel and placed him in his bed.  She turned out the lights.

A few moments later she noticed one of our kids going to the garage door, looking through it and turning on the lights, the same child who was earlier opening the blinds.  She asked him what he was doing and he replied, “Jax doesn’t need to be in the dark.”  He loved his dog and he wanted to make sure that he was ok, that he wasn’t left all alone; he was hoping Jax would get back up…he was hoping for a miracle. 

When everything feels dark, it’s only natural to turn on the lights.

Two of my boys are huddled on the couch crying together, wrapped in a blanket, and the other sits with his mother and says, “I sure wish magic was real so I could bring Jax back.”

All three kids are crying, not able to concentrate on homework, not able to play or be kids because Jax is in the garage, dead. 

I step into the house and the absence is palpable.  I get home and find them all in their room, attempting to do the impossible: sleep.  This just doesn’t feel right.  I, for one, am speechless.  Not that I don’t have words; I just want to keep them inside.  I don’t have much time.  Jax needs to find his final resting place tonight, but I want to the kids to have one more opportunity to say goodbye.  We ask them if they would like to do that before I go and take care of Jax.  They all say yes, climb out of the bed in their pajamas, make their way into the garage, and stand around Jax still not sure what is happening but knowing that whatever this hurt is, it is real.

I was at work all day.  The last time I saw him I put him in his cage, told him he was a good boy and left the house, fully expecting him to be excited to see me hours later.  Instead, what I found was a poor little puppy, wrapped in a blanket, rigor mortis set in, his eyes open peering into mine, as he lay in his dog bed.  Animals this small begin the death process quickly after they breath their last.  I really hoped I’d find a softer puppy I could pick up, look at and hold, but he was too stiff and his body was cold.

He had died around 3:50pm.  I did not get home until 9:15pm.

I find a box that is suitable for him.  Put on my hat, gloves and goose down coat, and carry him in his box into the yard, the cold biting my face but my face not even flinching.  I have parked my car at a slant facing the part of the yard where I will bury him and I turn on the headlights so I can see.  I choose a spot right next to Bailey, his predecessor, and our family dog of 11 years.

What made burying Jax so difficult tonight was the fact that we had just buried Bailey last April.  Bailey was our Westie we had gotten the week of college graduation, Spring 2003.  He had been the dog that was home through our first milestones: babies being born, 3 different apartments, 2 different houses, moving out of state, and sat by my feet as I wrote many papers for seminary.  Jax was brought into our home 3 months later.  He was supposed to be the dog for the next 10-15 years, the dog the kids would leave with mom and dad when they went to college, that their High School girlfriends would pet, the dog they would really remember as their own.  And now, in an untimely fashion, I was burying him feet away from Bailey.  Losing him seemed like losing Bailey all over again, only now with a year of memories to boot.

I understand that having a pet will mean dealing with loss and I am totally “ok” with that loss happening once every decade.  I can deal with a gaping hole that is more loyal than most humans happening to me once every 10 years…but twice in less than a year just sucks.  I promised myself that all the things I didn’t do with Bailey, or the ways I would sometimes think of my dog as an inconvenience, I would not do with Jax.  Jax was my redemption, my next attempt at being the owner that Bailey deserved when I felt like there were times when I had not loved him as much as he had loved me…and that’s why losing Jax hurts…because I was a good owner and I loved him the best I could and he loved me…and now he’s gone, so I have lost the dog that knew my voice for the past 11 years and now I lost his successor much too quickly.

I picked up the shovel and began carving out a 1 ½ x 3 size square into the ground.  After 35 minutes of digging in the dark, taking brief pauses for emotional moments, I opened the box and looked at him one last time.  I cried.  Actually, I wept.  I touched his face.  I apologized to him.  I told him I loved him.  And I thanked him for being a great dog.  I closed the lid.  Placed him in the ground and covered up my newest best friend.  With what remaining strength I had left at the end of the day, I padded down the dirt, leaving a mound for the ground to settle…walking away, I looked back, still not sure of what I had just done.

Funny thing is I used to not be a dog person, until I was.  Bailey and Jax did that to me.  They made me love them because they loved me.  Even when I didn’t realize it, they were working their magic on me and I only realized how successful they were when they were gone.

It seems ridiculous to be hurt and tore up over losing an animal.  I used to think so myself, until I felt the hole that is left when something you love so deeply is gone.  No, they are not human…but when they live in the house with you they become one of your creatures, part of you, and something you consider when making decisions.

The reason it hurts when we lose humans close to us is because they were close to us, not because they were human.  Humans die every day and none of us care.  Humans in our families die, humans that we didn’t see or talk to much, like our “moms dads cousin” and many of us have been to their funerals, offered condolences, but it hasn’t kept us up at night.  But humans that live with us, humans we share life with, humans that are human with us, those humans matter and when we lose them we are inconsolable.  And truth be told, we never really get over that loss.  The loss remains and we know it.  We just learn to incorporate the loss into our lives and learn to live a life of loss under the charade of healing.   But we all learn that part of living is living with losing.

Jax’s absence is already salient because he lived with me.  He slept in my bed.  He followed me around the house.  He rode in my car.  He would greet me every day when I got home from work.  He would bring me his toys and he would lick me to death if I’d let him.  He was the creature that would get my copyrighted stupid voice every day because only he would be entertained by it.

What makes us value those creatures, human and animal alike, is our interaction with them, and for many of us who are pet owners, we can literally have thousands of interactions over the course of a lifetime with our animals.  The interaction we share with God’s creatures will often times dwarf what we share with most other humans, even the ones in our family, so it makes sense that we value these relationships and it makes sense that it hurts when they are stolen from us.

Our connection with our animals also indicates that we are created to be in harmony with both the human, and non-human, creation.  We want relationship with people and creatures…it taps into something that tells us we are not so different even though we tell ourselves we are.  This is why we are able to become attached so quickly.  Within a matter of days of bringing a dog home, he is already part of the family.  Once this belonging has been established, removing him from the family can in no way be undone without causing trauma, even if it is only a slight wandering of our mind toward “what if?”

The loss of our animals hurts because they are a gift to us; very literally, they become a grace to us, giving us forgiveness, acceptance and affection when we do not deserve it.   Grace is an unmerited favor bestowed upon someone without cause or purpose; grace is typically preceded by an unconditional love.  Jax, and all our animals, teach us many things, but perhaps the most important is that love can be given without condition.  Our animals love us regardless of how we treat them, what we buy them or how often we even give them attention.  Dogs, and I’ll go on a limb her, are perhaps one of the best examples of incarnational love in the animal kingdom because they truly, in essence, embody the love of the Christ toward us…a love offered by God, without stipulation, toward us, in order to save us from ourselves and our own damnation.  And they do it without thought for personal gain. They just want to love the world one lick at a time. I don’t know about you, but on more than one occasion Jax saved me from my own pity and loved me even when him licking my face was the last thing I wanted at the moment.

So I write these words and these thoughts in memoriam to my good buddy Jax.  I am thankful that he reminded me my heart is not rocky soil and I am thankful for the grace that he was in my life.  I sure am gonna miss him.  If God is ever going to be in the business of renewing creation like scripture says, Jax better be there or me and Jesus are going to have words.

Jax Napier.  In Memoriam: March 2014 – February 2015

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Go and Sin…Bravely

sin bravely text

As I prepared for seminary after finishing my bachelor’s degree, a well-respected and articulate professor of mine said, “Go to seminary, study hard, but have fun. Theology is pointless if you’re not having fun.” I’d like to think what I have done since then has been a quest in having fun…and reading Sin Bravely has certainly been an extension, and affirmation, of all the fun being Christian is supposed to be.

It’s not the typical fare I read, or discuss here at ParanormalChrist, but an excursus of theological fun is in order in case you think what I do here usually sucks.

So if you’re not having fun, please stop, put down your Christianity and find the one that is fun.

In a life plagued by interesting the mixture of classic American Liberalism and Puritan anthropological expressions of the Self, this small text goes to the heart of what happens when we turn our faith and our religion inward rather than outward: We become cowardly sinners who think our faith is FOR us and to support OUR worldviews as the INTENTION of God.

Funny how God always thinks like us isn’t it?

The title is catchy, and is in fact why I picked it up, “Sin Bravely,” but the text is not a book that promotes a life that is free from societal obligations nor does it reject personal behavior that is founded in the Gospel of Jesus called the Christ.

The text is, rather, a call to have fun in life, to have fun being a Christian, to have fun engaging our lives as brave sinners…because that is in fact all we are: Sinners saved by grace. Note that Paul does not use a past tense in the Greek there.

To those with holiness tradition sensibilities (i.e., most Wesleyan and American Holiness traditions) this may come as a surprise. At least it did for me, but Ellingsen was a trusty guide through those Augustinian/Lutheran forests.  Historically, Augustine won the debate on defining sin, but in these traditions Pelagius has really taken center stage. Even the late Dr. Bill Greathouse (a renowned theologian and leader in the Church of the Nazarene) quipped after a General Assembly to a colleague, as he was laughing, “we’re all just a bunch of Pelagians,” and this comment after a debate on the floor following how the denomination was to define sin in its articles of faith.

Ellingson is trying to free us from that moral certitude, or overly humanistic perspective, that is touted by folks like Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren or the similarly related prosperity preacher Joel Osteen (that which is the result of misapplying historical figures such as Jacob Arminius, John Wesley or even the Apostle Paul for that matter).

These authors, along with strong currents of American ideology, promote a “do it yourself” Christianity that seems to equate purpose with a focus upon the self (even though they profess such is not the case). Jesus is to be followed because he enables you to be a better you…though I don’t recall reading this in the Gospels. I digress. Warren, Osteen and their entourage, equate ones success with ones efforts…efforts that can overcome our humanity and align ourselves with God’s “purpose” which somehow also looks like the vision of the world offered via the American Dream.

This is good, and commendable to a degree, but the problem arises when the “steps” are followed and the “purpose” discovered…and we continue to look more American in our materiality and philosophies and less Christian all the while. It’s hard to be prophetic when you’re not really being prophetic…go figure.

In other words, the vision offered in the Purpose Driven model is one that looks like a success story within the American Dream.  The only thing that makes it different is that it is peppered with Jesus…not to mention all this talk of purpose is still talk directed upon ourselves, for ourselves.

The goal becomes the self and its actualization. Christianity and Jesus are just the vehicles by which we actualize ourselves. This doesn’t really sound a whole lot like the words of one who said, “unless you pick up your cross and follow me.”

And this is where “Brave Sinning” takes center stage.

Ellingsen is writing from a Reformed theological perspective, Lutheran to be exact, and he is following Luther’s Augustinian theology of concupiscent desire to discuss sin as not only those things that people do by omission or commission, but all our activities by which our self is the goal, the end, of the action.

And not only are our actions selfish, but even the act of faith and religious expression since being religious (having faith) is something we do for the self…as something that is self-ish…self-centered…so to it is sin. Even reading this review, or stopping to read this review, is an act of self-decision for self-benefit…and hence marred in the sin of selfishness.

This is what Luther and Augustine mean by those bound by sin, Luther’s idea of being simultaneously sinner and justified. It is not an idea hatched in Calvinist Hell as some would observe; it is, rather, the idea that at any point wherein the self is the driving force of the action the action is sinful.

Thus, sin is ever present because our egos always play a role in our decisions. We cannot escape our condition…or as the writer of Ecclesiastes is apt to note, “there is not one righteous, no not one.” Whether it be helping someone pray, writing a sermon, giving to the poor, asking God for forgiveness, mowing our yard, being kind to our spouses, being an awesome teacher to students etc., etc., all these actions have benefits for the self and were the self not benefited in some way than most of us would not do them.

This is what separates us from Christ:  Christ partook in action for the gain of nothing…as humans we do not know how to do that.

Even the act of confession is a sinful act whereby we are confessing our sins to save our “souls” from hell…and in the holiness traditions that speak of sanctification the goal is really a negation of the self in order to find the “real” spiritual self.  Hence even this pious theological idea of purity is still an act of spiritual actualization that is not selfless…in fact it is totally centered on the self.

And that is a profound theological trick: to convince people we are not interested in the self only to really preach a gospel that makes us better selves, feeling better about ourselves and creating a path whereby the self we hate becomes the self we can love.

Thus, Elingsen writes to inform us that once we realize we are all sinners to the core, selfish ego-centric beings, we can then be free to sin bravely.

We can bravely help the poor, preach the Gospel, petition for peace, give to others, bury the dead,  marry the happy,  help a child with their homework., etc., because we know that we do these things as people who are not pure in our intentions but who do them as sinners and do them so that God can turn our actions into something greater than our motives, no matter how pure we think them to be.

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In other words, we do them as sinners saved by grace in thought and practice, not as people who do them thinking we are worthy because of our holy intentions. Once we are released from the idea of purity in motive and act, we are then free to sin bravely, courageously, and to embody a Gospel that is authentic and honest…and one that is much more fun than a list of Puritan rules whereby we are the author and sustainer of our faith via our actions that “keep” us “right” with God.

Ellingsen reminds us of the words of Augustine, “love God and do what you will.”

A heart turned toward God will love God through its actions, yet it will do it lost in the space of God’s grace and not beholden to an ideal of purpose and prosperity that remains focused on the self rather than focused on the God wherein the self is to reside. A perpetual quest for self, whether secular or religious, leads to a fragmented society of fragmented people…that take themselves too seriously and get caught up in their own importance as they pursue themselves.

But a life that is committed to brave sinning will face the world in hope and freedom. Hope in the Christ that has made us more than we could ever be and free to be ourselves as those that engage in the playful realities of life that we like to call business, and God just calls playtime.

I leave you with the words of Ellingsen

“So Sin Bravely! But believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely…as long as we live here in this world we will have to sin, but no sin will separate us from Christ. Have fun, too!”