Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.

 

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