“She’s a rescue dog.”
That’s what I’ve learned to say when people ask me what kind of dog Gracie is. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that we ponied up the money for a canine DNA test.
Just for the record, Gracie’s genes weave together traits from retrievers and terriers, hounds and cattle dogs. Weighing in a bit under thirty five pounds, she’s sleek and muscular. Her narrow hips and broad chest punctuate a long body built for speed and agility. She will retrieve a ball from the sun’s rising to its setting.
My wife Joy and I had mourned our previous dog’s death for about five years. Plato was a Golden Retriever. He was a Velcro dog, always sticking to your side. An affable innocent. Cancer took him when he was nine.
Returning from a visit to a friend in rehab, we passed a local PetSmart. They had been hosting a pet adoption for a nearby shelter. On impulse we stopped by. The event had been going on all day. The volunteers were getting ready to shut down and return the unadopted dogs to the shelter.
There were no individual kennels. Portable corrals held groups of dogs who leapt excitedly or looked pleadingly at us as we walked by. It’s as if they were pleading, “Pick me! Pick me!” Dogs want to be wanted.
One black puppy lay curled in the center of her pen. She had started the day in a little pack. All the others had been adopted. She was alone and seemed to have given up the hope that she could be wanted.
We had previously discussed adopting an older, less desirable dog. This brief stop was supposed to be one more step in thinking about it. But this dog who would become our Gracie broke open my heart.
I walked over and picked her up. She nuzzled into my chest. A bond formed that day that continues to deepen and broaden.
That’s what it means to be rescued, I suppose. Gracie rescued me that day and continues to rescue me daily.
You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads: Who rescued who? Like other catchy phrases, this one is grammatically challenged and yet arrestingly perceptive.
I’ve frequently heard that dogs love their human companions unconditionally. And while that’s true, I’m getting a something different. Gracie’s love for me makes me a more loving person.
With a tilt of her head she gazes into my eyes. She brings me her ball to remind me that I need to play. Her head rests gently on my lap when I sit at the breakfast table or lounge on our bed. We have become, well, a “we.” And our relationship makes me more than I was before. Like I said, she’s a rescue dog.
In Jesus, God rescues us. Scripture says as much. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Some have interpreted divine rescue in bleak terms. They tell us that Jesus snatches us from the fires of hell if we assent to a prescribed set of ideas about him. This is what they hear when Jesus says that those who believe will be saved. On the flip side, failure to assent brings condemnation or eternal punishment.
By contrast, Jesus’ own words persuade me to hear “believe” in a different way. On the night before his Passion, Jesus described himself as the vine from which we, the branches, receive our very life. (John 15:5) Branches emerge from the vine over time by virtue of the branch’s initiative.
Jesus is divine love in the flesh. Our flesh. That love makes us the beloved. And it also makes us loving. Relationship rescues us. Gives us new and greater life. Love is a force that transforms us. That’s why the late Marcus Borg urged us to reframe “believing” as “beloving.”
And yet, as uncomfortable for us as it may be, Jesus also says that those who do not believe condemn themselves. How we respond to God’s freely given love is up to us and brings with it consequences. However, there is no need to revert to a reward-punishment model to understand the role of believing.
Something Anne Lamott once said somewhere is helpful here. She said that the Gulf Stream can flow through a drinking straw. On the face of it, this seems absurd. And she means for us to be caught up short for a moment.
She then goes on to say that the Gulf Stream can flow through a drinking straw when that straw is aligned with the movement of the water. In other words, God’s love flows through us when we align ourselves with its motion. When we believe.
By contrast, a straw turned against the flow of the Gulf Stream will tumble and twist erratically. When we are misaligned, God’s love seems to be tossing us about. Paradoxically, love can feel like hell to those who resist it.
Day by day, one day at a time, God saves us. From self-absorption, loneliness, fear, and resentment. From over-functioning, soul-weariness, indifference, and cynicism. In Christ, we see that God rescues us from something specific every day.
I see God’s saving love in the manger and the cross. And I have learned to look for rescue in a child’s laughter, the rising sun, a starry sky, a loved one’s touch, and a dog’s bossy insistence that it’s time to play catch.
What is rescuing you now?