Throw the Ball, God

In the Summer of 2015, I began a 3-year seminary program.  There is a definite rhythm in seminary life:  Class, chapel, class, chapel, lunch, class, chapel.  Evenings are open for reading and writing papers.

When the three years were coming to an end, I was beginning to wonder how I would maintain a rhythm in my daily life without the intensity of seminary schedules.

And so, I went looking for a very special hunting dog.  A vizsla.  They’re hard to find—especially dogs bred with hunters in their lineage.  I finally found a breeder in the panhandle of Oklahoma.  I described my lifestyle.  She agreed that a vizsla was a good fit.  And she had a litter due in April of 2018—both the sire and the mother were champion hunting dogs.

The litter had several male pups.  By the fourth week, their personalities were emerging.  The breeder named the one I chose “Rascal” because, in her words, “he gets into absolutely everything”.  [In his fifth week, she sent a photo.]

Based on her description of his personality, I named him for an island off the coast of Ireland:  Dursey.  Of all the places I have hiked in the world, Dursey Island is the most memorable mix of wildness, winds that threatened to blow you off the trail into the Atlantic Ocean, and unspoiled beauty. 

In his 7th week, the breeder placed Dursey into my arms and said, “Good luck with that one!”.

Seminarians learn many things, but first and foremost, we learn to think theologically.  Or, to interpret our world through our growing understanding and awareness of God. 

On the first night with Dursey, I stayed in a hotel.  There was a full-length mirror in the room.  The 7-week old puppy stared at his image in the mirror.  He sniffed the mirror; touched it with his paw; licked the mirror.  And then he barked at it. 

I have been around 7-week old human babies, but I’ve never seen one that understood how to use its physical, innate gifts to interpret the world.  But, a dog lives a much shorter life span than most humans.   Dursey is a living microcosm of a human life.  And I began paying close attention to him…theological attention.

At 7 weeks old, he understood his nose, his eyes, his tongue, his voice:  and he was able to experience new things through these filters built into his extraordinary being.  By the end of week 7, he knew three human English words:  potty, sit, walk.  All of this learning required many naps. 

As week 8 came to an end, it was time for him to be in the kennel—and alone—for 45 minutes one time per day.

The kennel was perfectly sized for the puppy.  He had a cushioned sleeping area, brand new water and food bowls, a toy, and a chew stick.  All of his needs were met.  Each time I would put him in the kennel, I’d say the same words:  I love you Dursey.  I’ll be back.

The first day I left him in the kennel, I went to the grocery store and returned in 45 minutes.  My neighbors were standing in the driveway.  They had been inside their homes listening to my dog (inside my home) barking, howling, and yelping for 45 minutes non-stop. 

Every day, I would leave him in the kennel.  Each week, I increased our separation time by 15 minutes.  During the first few weeks, when I came home and opened the kennel, he would just pour himself into my arms. 

But during the 4th week, something new happened.  One day I came home, opened the kennel, and Dursey leapt into my arms.  He was licking my chin, tail wagging…he ran to the front door to ring the bells that tell me he wants to go outside.  And then he picked up the tennis ball I kept in a flower pot and brought it to me.  He dropped at my feet, and he began the Dursey dance:  throw ball mom, throw the ball.

To this day, this is the enthusiastic greeting I get every time we are reunited.

In week 4, our relationship matured—Dursey demonstrated trust.  The dog could not possibly know where I went, how long I would be gone, whether I would be detained, and on and on.  In the 4th week, trust…moved him from being fearfully alone to being joyful in our reunion.  It was a remarkable moment and shift in our relationship.

At 10 months old, one February morning Dursey climbed into the back seat of my car at 6am.  When we arrived in Colorado 12 hours later, he had a new experience:

Six feet of snow. 

I remember reflecting on this moment.  He had never seen snow.  Never felt snow on his paws.  The car door opened, and he was in a winter wonderland…and he embraced it.  He ran and ran and ran.

This would be the last trip where he would experience Colorado on a leash.

Dursey was growing.  And so was I.

At 14 months, Dursey and I spent the whole month of June hiking in the San Juan National Forest.  He was about 50-50 on the recall command.  But, my neighbor’s dog, Eva, was 100% on her recall command.  Often the two of them would be playing in the neighborhood, Dursey would hear me call him and then go back to playing.  But, if I called Eva, she would come.  And Dursey would follow her…because he followed Eva everywhere.

I wanted to hike off leash with Dursey.  But the 50/50 recall command left me nervous.  So I asked my neighbor Annie how she had taught Eva to hike off-leash.  She smiled and said, “Why don’t we take the dogs out together a couple of times.  We’ll let Eva show Dursey how it’s done”. 

The first day, we took a short hike…3 miles or so.  The dogs ran wild.  But every now and then, Eva would come back to Annie.  Annie would pat her on the head and say, “Good check-in, Eva”.  Dursey was doing everything Eva did, so he would come alongside me and I reached down, patted him on the head, and said, “Good check-in, Dursey”.  And then gave a piece of bacon, just to cement the deal.

On the 2nd morning, we went on a longer and more challenging hike.  Near the end, the dogs were ahead of us on the trail and out of our line of sight.  Annie suggested that this was a good time to get off the trail, sit on a log, and wait to see how long it would take for the dogs to find us.  Well….my heart was pounding.  No doubt Dursey was in New Mexico by now and I would never see him again.

Annie explained what we were doing:  “Paula, you and Dursey have a very strong bond…he’s not going anywhere.  Dursey is going to realize that his silly human has managed to get lost.  And then he is going to come find you.  Always.” 

Well, a good 5 to 10 minutes went by.  Then, I heard the sound of a stampede coming toward me.  Vizlas are able to run over 40 miles per hour.  Dursey was running the trail as fast as he could.  He was so focused on the trail, that he ran past Annie and me.  Eva was following Dursey.  But, Eva is a small German Shepherd.  She’s not built to run 40mph.  Eva was so focused on Dursey, she didn’t see us either.

After a few minutes went by, I could hear Dursey whimpering.  He had lost us.  I whistled for him one time.  He came crashing through the forest on a beeline for me.

The next day, Dursey and I hiked alone.  Halfway through the hike, he was out in front of me, beyond my line of sight.  I ducked behind a tree with my cell phone video running—I wanted to see how long it would take for him to realize I was missing and find me.  22 seconds.

At first, I thought Eva had done the great teaching of Dursey.  But, I realized that it was really Annie who taught me how to be in relationship with a dog.  Dursey is a bird dog; he wasn’t created to be at the end of a leash.  He was created to chase birds and squirrels and anything else that moves.  But until I was willing to risk letting go, Dursey’s experience was always contained at the end of my leash. I had inserted myself as the epicenter of his experience.  Once I let go of my fears…and the leash, Dursey’s Nature was his guide.  And his Nature is to take care his human.

In Christian Ethics, the change happening in Dursey is described as flourishing.  Dursey living into the fullness of being the very dog God created Dursey to be….that is flourishing.

Two years into our relationship, my exercise journal hit pause.  While playing backyard soccer, my ankle broke.  Bp Mayer ordained me while I was still in a cast.  On July 1, 2020, St. Martin’s took on a new curate.  The World had a big “Closed” sign in the window, but St. Martin’s was determined to flip that sign around.

We began a zoom-based curriculum called “Human Flourishing”.  As we built trust in one another, we began to flourish in new ways…as individuals, as a group, and as a parish. 

Spring of 2021, after some discernment, I decided to sell my home.  It was the only home Dursey knew.   

I’ve often wondered what this time was like for Dursey.  After our stuff was moved from the old house to the new house, I went back to check for overlooked stuff.  Dursey walked into the empty house with me.  He stared at me for a moment, and then went back to the car.  He got in the car and stayed there.  This wasn’t home anymore. 

Within a short time, he trained the new neighbors to carry dog treats and be properly loved and rewarded each and every morning by a Dursey greeting.  He knit a community for us in this new place where he was planted.   The where and the what do not matter to him.  As long as we are together, we are home.

When we aren’t together, well…What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!

Some of you will remember sermons that grew from each of these vignettes.  Seeing God’s handiwork in Dursey—and through his embrace of life—has been fun.  His life is a Sign that sheds light on our human journey with God.

Our relationship with God deepens with trust, or in theological terms, faith.

St Martin’s has traveled together through a pandemic.  The stock markets are rattled.  Inflation is growing.  Violence is a daily occurrence.  The world in which we live is broken.  Intentionally looking for Signs of God’s love in this world is a life-giving skill.  By God’s Grace, we have the gift of faith to see God in a creature like Dursey, a flower, another human being.

Loving our neighbor isn’t an exercise of semantics (as in the Gospel): “Who exactly is my neighbor, Jesus?”.  Our neighbors are the ones we like, the ones we abhor, and the vast majority who fall between those extremes.   Human Flourishing invited us to grow empathy for all people:  to imagine the sociocultural obstacles that prevent our neighbor from living into the fullness of the person God created them to be. 

There is risk in loving.  Jesus didn’t say it would be easy.

On his 4th birthday this year, Dursey hiked in the San Juan National Forest.  No leash.  He cleared the trail in front of me.  He scouted the trail behind me.  He looked across the tall grasses, scanning for deer or small game.  This is who Dursey was created to be…a focused hunting dog, at home in the wilderness, guarding his human partner.  He is a confident hiker.  I am confident in our partnership.

I wonder if God longs for this kind of relationship with us:  That we might not live fearfully, but patiently and faithfully seeking God….To live with joy that screams, “Throw the ball, God, Throw ball”….To live into the fullness of God’s image planted within you…and me.