On Walks, Barking, and Better Hopes

This morning, I took my dog out for a walk – a long one.

After waking me up yesterday bright and early – I dearly love her, but daylight savings time is meaningless in doggie world – she let me sleep late today, and for that I was grateful. That, and the sun was shining, the leaves on the trees were showing off all their deepest and brightest colors, and I had time. So we walked, and we walked some more, and I breathed in the air and let the sun wash over me.

It’s been a tough summer for me and little Zoe; we moved across town at the end of June, and while it meant more space and more freedom for me, it also meant leaving all her doggie friends and green spaces and the dentist with the huge milk bones out on the curb.

Zoe has always had some trouble reacting to other dogs, which stems – I believe – from her early life, likely as a dog bred to fight with others. Fortunately for us, she’s too loving and silly to make it in the dogfighting world, so she found her way to the streets, to the Chicago pound, to a shelter in Northbrook, and then to me. But we still have that early history to reckon with, which means reactivity to other dogs when she is stressed – and moving houses was her biggest stress to date since I adopted her.

This meant that for many weeks, we trained HARD, and we struggled when other dogs approached us on the sidewalk. I tried calming words, I tried restricting her leash, I tried yelling and crying and calling our trainer.

But some of it just took time. Time to learn the new sights and smells, the new people and dogs and sounds of our neighborhood, and to trust that I wasn’t going anywhere despite all these other changes. And when time did its work, and we found some new training techniques, Zoe started to shine again. She made a puppy friend, whom we now have play dates with. And she is doing much better at not barking at other dogs when we’re out on our walks. In fact, we went a whole weekend without a single bark.

Until today.

Today, during that beautiful, leisurely walk, she barked at four dogs. And I was crushed.

I yanked her leash, and scolded her, and when we got safely home I knelt down to explain:

“I just want you to meet other dogs, and make friends, and be universally adored. Is that so much to ask?”

I laughed a little at myself for that last part, but the rest of it was true. I have high hopes for this dog, and I know how sweet and silly and lovable she can be, and I want the world to see that. To look past her worst moments and see her for the best that she is.

That’s why I was disappointed at her today. That’s why I was sad and more than a little angry.

That’s why I felt the same way after our church meeting yesterday.

Yes, I come from a long line of Scandinavians who don’t like conflict, but more than that, it pains me to see contentious meetings like yesterday’s because I know what the church can be. I know the church’s best self, and one of the best parts of being a pastor is seeing that best self in action.

I wrote several months ago about how the church showed up for me on moving day, hefting boxes in heat and humidity AND pouring rain, down stairs, around tight corners, and up more stairs. How everyone laughed and joked and sweated but never complained. How it was a joyful, if exhausting day, and I went to bed feeling so loved and supported.

That’s what the church can be.

The church can surround someone in grief, showing up at visitation and waiting in long lines because it matters to show up and hug someone who’s in shock at their loss.

The church can fill a refugee’s empty new apartment to the brim, shower them in linens and kitchen goods and love and friendship, and make a strange land feel a little more like home.

The church can be a bunch of adults showing up on a cold October night and dressing in all sorts of silly costumes to hand out candy, so that kids have a safe place to trick-or-treat.

That’s what I want people to see, when they look at the church, and our church in particular. I want them to see our kindness, and our joy; our generosity and fierce love for each other and our caring and delight.

I know that we have to work through conflicts, but I want people to see us do so with love and respect, not harshness, distrust and animosity.

I know that we will disagree, but I want people to see us do so with grace.

I know that we will have hard days, like Zoe did this morning, but I want people to see us leaning on each other and on God to get through those days, and to find better ones ahead.

I want us to show the world what the church can be, and it will require work on our part, training and discipline and effort – just like Zoe and I have to do every day – but it is possible. It is worth it.

Because, after all, when we show the world what we can be, we point them more and more to Jesus. And that should always be the most important thing.

-Pastor Jen

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