Two things need stating at the outset. First, although I am generally pretty good with people, I am also extremely introverted. I am generally friendly, outgoing, and a good listener, but I do not naturally seek others out. I’m naturally inclined to spend my time thinking, analyzing, assessing, and observing people and things. Second, I have had dogs in my life since I was born and they have been a bridge for me to socialize when I likely would not otherwise have done so.
Of course, we all grow up. Priorities change, lifestyles change, time to care for a pup is limited as we get busy with, well, life. And so I found myself without a dog during my undergraduate years, throughout seminary, and then during my doctoral studies. As you can imagine, going to school while also working prevented me from being able to properly care for a dog. However, I managed to finish and successfully defend my PhD dissertation in March of 2019 and this meant I could consider getting a pup.
Sure enough in early May of that year, a friend I’d met at the local Starbucks mentioned that he knew of a dog that had been shuttled between a few homes in the first nine months of his life. It was fairly traumatic for him and as such he had chewed his tail near to the skin. To make a long story short, this beautiful husky/malamute nine-month-old pup would become mine, and I would become his.
Explorers, Witnesses, Communicators
As anyone who owns a dog knows, walks are an essential part of life. Backyards are wonderful, but they do not form the bond based in the mission of exploration, communication, socializing, and growth in character and community, that walks provide. I use this language quite intentionally. It is of course language familiar to Christians: we receive the love of God who sent his Son into the world to take on our humanity, to suffer our fallen fate of death, to be raised up from the dead, so that we might be reconciled to him in that very Son by his Spirit. And having received that love, we are freed from the fear that we are condemned, that this world is the measure of our lives, our being, our value, our worth; we are free therefore, and furthermore, equipped by the Spirit not to fall back into fear, to live according to this world’s values, but to live in accordance with God’s own life revealed to us fully in Jesus Christ. We are free, that is, to be explorers or discerners of God’s life with his people, and through them, his life with us. We are free to be witnesses to his revealed truth, to be communicators through our own respective characters, and through our interactions in social situations and the various communities of which we are a part.
The thing about a dog though, is that he/she tends to remind us of the simplicity of this exploratory mission given to us as witnesses to God in ways that often get lost in our busyness, our anxieties, our fears, our insecurities, our politics, our doubts, our anger and bitterness, and our often secret obsession with being and having and proclaiming with certainty.
How is this the case? Dogs remind us of the most central of claims that the Scriptures make: as our dog is to us, so we are to God, utterly dependent. This implies something key about those respective relationships: as our dogs will come to us for all of their needs, even their desires, particularly when we prepare to go out into the world having to determine where and how we will walk together, what behavior is appropriate when they are communicating with people of various ages, sizes, personalities, what behavior is good, necessary, not so good, maybe even dangerous, so we – those with free will quite beyond that of a dog – are reminded by our dogs that we must turn to God over and over for direction, for correction, and ultimately, when we get inevitably lost or confused. While we dog owners are of course pretty fallible creatures ourselves, and so dogs will sometimes rightly ignore or misbehave when treated poorly; God who is perfect, provides a “walk” – that is, a path or road that will gather us to him.
Dog-walks and God-walks
This walk is not without suffering. Suffering, says Paul in Corinthians, is common to all, but God will provide for all a way through so that we are not tempted beyond what we can handle. And in fact, out of this suffering (see Abraham, Sarah, Job, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter or Paul), God shapes a life of witness that is conformed or shaped to Jesus Christ’s own whether in our disobedience or in our obedience to him. And here, my dog, Kodi, has been an instrument of God’s grace; a catalyst, you could say. How? Because as Kodi needs to get out for a walk three times a day, so I am reminded of something critical about my relationship to God: whether I am feeling good or bad, despairing or hopeful, anxiety ridden or exhilarated, I must bring these feelings to God, for he is walking with me through them. I must open myself to him so that I can hear the voice of God, so that I do not drown his voice and his will, with my own proclivities and inclinations.
Finally, as I said at the beginning of this article, I am highly introverted and often prefer spending most of my time alone. It is okay and quite natural for me to do this. But it is an insufficient way to live, precisely because God made us for communion with one another. Scripturally, Jesus certainly needed his alone time. Yet this time was purposed. It was intended as preparation to lead and serve his disciples and to gather the whole of humanity to his Father through him. Kodi reminds me of this mission.
Gifts from God
He is a beautiful dog both in how he looks and in his temperament. He does not even recognize these things as ‘his own.’ Rather, he uses this reality of who he is to draw others to him so that he might communicate with them. He has calmed down angry people ready to start a fight, he has comforted people who have faced a trauma and are terrified and in tears, he has sat quietly and listened while people have poured out their sorrow and anguish, he has been the source of an endless number of social interactions. Kodi has simply allowed the gifts God has endowed him with naturally, to build others up: to allow them an outlet, to give them comfort, company, hope, and unconditional love.
In this way, my dog has reminded me that my introversion, and its underlying intellectual underpinning, is not mine. It is not for me to boast about. It is not for me to obsess over, as if it is an identity that separates me from others. It is a particular inclination tied to gifts that are to be exercised in and for the sake of others. God is well able to draw people to himself using introverts and extroverts alike. Just get out there, engage with people authentically, and use all of who God made you to be, to share what you’ve come to know about Him.