In writing about the dogs that passed through my childhood last post I briefly raised the question of whether or not there will be animals in heaven. For this post, let me take a little more time with that question. It is not as frivolous as many suppose.
Our connection with the animals is a complex issue. I mean we eat some of them while others work for us and others are pampered pets, friends of a sort or virtually members of the family. I think it used to be more like the friendship thing and less like the next meal thing. By ‘used to’ I mean before we fell into sin and we all lived together on earth as a paradise. Perhaps I will write something more on that in a future installment. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum: the future rather than the past. Do dogs really go to heaven & etc. CS Lewis often expounded on his theory that the destiny of the animals is tied to the destiny of man who has dominion over them – long story short – As per the book of Romans, nature fell when we fell and waits for redemption along with our redemption. Ergo, Lewis concluded, the animals will make the jump to eternity on our coat tails. Another future blog post!
For now, let me just say that all our lives have been touched and shaped by the animals that pass through them. The usual suspects are dogs, cats and horses – though there are substantial minorities favoring other species! These days I am not much of a pet person. My wife’s cat and I co-exist – mostly peaceably. But in my youth it was definitely dogs – three dogs in particular.
Patty was a pure-bred Irish setter with a big long certified birth name I no longer recall. He arrived as a Christmas Puppy for my mother who had long admired the breed. Patty was a moron. He was forever doing things like getting his head stuck in the hand-hole for unlocking the sliding barn door. Let me assure you that easing a frantic Irish Setter’s head back through such a hole is a task. But such incidents took place because you pretty much had to lock Patty in the barn if you wanted to go anywhere. We were hunters and hunting was, I suppose, in Patty’s blood. But his idea of hunting was to run back and forth across the woods with much loud crashing and thrashing and, if you forgot for a moment to hold it up too high, suck on the end of your gun barrel as though it were a soda straw. He loved the smell of gun powder. Patty also loved to accompany the tractor and trailer on wood-cutting expeditions. And when he attracted the negative attention of other dogs along the way, to run underneath the moving tractor with the neighbor dogs darting in and out. This necessitated stopping, breaking up the dog-fight and putting Patty in the trailer, tied to the spare tire – which was no guarantee he still wouldn’t jump back out and end up running alone beside the trailer on back paws only. Patty frequently went to war with bees, snapping them out of the air – and getting stung until his mouth got too swollen to carry on. Always a drooler, with a mouth full of bee venom patty left puddles fit for wading. There’s more. Suffice it to say Patty had character and enthusiasm and needed constant watching over. He made me laugh and made me more responsible.
Spot was a Dalmatian/Mutt mix. When we moved from town to the farm, dad got Spot from a litter at my Great Grandfather’s farm. (Grandpa Ros kept pure Dalmatians and wasn’t overly attached to the ‘accidents’.) Spot got along with everyone as long as it was all fun and games. He liked playing with us kids though he could play kind of rough. And as he grew he became a marauder, single handedly wiping out the little flock of Muscovy Ducks that lived on the farm when we arrived. Soon after, Spot turned his attention to our White Rock Chickens. When you locked Patty in the barn he only whined and got his head stuck in the hand-hole. Any effort to discipline Spot or put him somewhere he didn’t want to go ended with his backing into a corner growling and ready to defend his liberty with teeth. Dad worked hard with Spot but the end came as it probably mush have soon anyway. Spot was also an inveterate car chaser and one week while I was away at church camp, Spot was run over. The lessons I learned from Spot were somewhat different from those I learned from Patty but I was sorry Spot was gone and wished he could have learned better and, perhaps, that I could have helped him more.
To set the context, I was twelve when Spot came along and just ready to take off for college when Patty turned up under the Christmas tree. Bandit, (all mutt) definitely THE dog of my youth, arrived on the scene in between – a replacement for Spot and the established boss dog when Patty got there. Bandit left the chickens alone, pretended he couldn’t see bees (or spiders or snakes or…) Bandit seemed embarrassed the few times he accidentally touched the electric fence – a quick yelp followed by a survey of the scene as though to establish whether his indiscretion had been observed. Bandit never ran when walking would do and knew how to be quiet in the woods – and everywhere else. At any rate, he hated the sound of gunfire and promptly disappeared any time he saw a firearm. But he loved to camp in our woods with me anytime guns weren’t involved. If I ever thought of bandit as protection of any sort I didn’t think it for long as it became obvious Bandit thought of me as protection. Bandit stayed well away from our pigs unless we happened to be working with them – moving them, ringing them, etc. On all such occasions Bandit would station himself directly behind me, stick his head between my legs and bark what I took to be vile obscenities and challenges at the porkers. He would go anywhere I would go. He felt sure I would fend off the neighbor dogs, the pigs, any night monsters, etc. Fortunately, Grizzly bears were scarce in central Indiana in my teen years. AND bandit climbed trees. Well some trees anyway. That also arose from his determination to go where I went. I climbed trees. I never saw a tree I didn’t want to climb. It started one beautiful summer afternoon hiking through the woods on the way to a neighboring pond where we had fishing privileges. I stopped to climb a familiar tree on the south side of our wood lot – a sprawling old oak growing near the top of a high bank. The situation produced a large limb about fifteen feet up the oak but extending outward to just above ground level at the top of the bank. A good hopping step put your feet on that limb. A walk along the limb to the trunk and on up a virtual spiral staircase of typical radial/wheel spoke limbs. But on this day, I hopped onto the limb and so did Bandit. I grinned. I walked to the trunk and so did Bandit. I laughed and scratched him behind the ears. I went up a couple limbs and Bandit followed. He reached his limit there so I sat down and he lay along the limb with his head on my leg. It was, as they say, a moment: a boy and his dog, in a tree, masters of all they surveyed. We always stopped to climb that tree (and a couple of others Bandit learned to navigate) after that. Some years later when I brought Mikel (my then fiancé/now wife of forty + years) home to meet the folks, we took a walk – with Bandit – in the woods and even though he was an old dog by then, he got to show off his tree climbing ability for her. Along with being a constant companion, Bandit taught me that trust makes many seemingly impossible things possible.
Though Spot came to a bad end, Bandit and Patty died of old age there on the farm. All three rest beneath the shade of an old hickory in the pond lot, and, I suppose, they were only animals. But I learned things from all three of them and they are, in part, responsible, for good or ill, for the person I am.
In these days when organized religion is so often despised and so many Christians are lone wolves or – at best – find their only community online – which, if you ask me, is actually worst – ritual is frequently viewed as the ugly step-sister of the religious world. On the one hand, I understand. When religion becomes ONLY ritual, it tends toward emptiness. But I find that happens far less often than the critics think. I will confess that I was not raised ‘high church’ and my roots still show. My approach to worship is, no doubt, too casual and ‘free-range’ for some. And yet – baptism, the Lord’s supper, communal prayer, a blessing pronounced, a good responsive reading or the public reading of Scripture in general – these things remain meaningful to me and, when they go by the wayside, I think we lose something important.
I have come to regard ritual as a language of sorts – one through which God communicates truth to us on a deeper level than just verbal. Consider the Old Testament ritual of the Passover. When the Israelites neglected it – and they did neglect it more often than not – God thought it was a big deal. There were Kings (Hezekiah and Josiah for instance), prophets, (Zechariah and Haggai for instance) and other kinds of civic leaders (Jerubbabel and Ezra for instance) whose whole ministries and authority were thrown into restoring the Passover (and other rituals). Promises were made for keeping the ritual celebration. Punishments were levied for neglecting it. A great deal of what led to the Babylonian Captivity was the neglect of the Jubilee cycle with all its ritual. In other words, God behaved as though the keeping of the prescribed rituals was a matter of some import.
Why? Well, part of it was remembering. God leading the Israelites out of Egypt was kind of big deal and the ritual practices of the major celebrations (Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost) kept the memory alive. After all, if you forgot what God had done, you might fall into relying on Him less and yourselves more – with the usual tragic outcomes. So, ritually celebrating Pentecost kept the memory of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai alive. Participating in the rituals of Tabernacles kept the memory of God’s support through the wilderness fresh to the mind. And the detailed ritual observance of Passover made it impossible to forget that dread and very final type of judgment that fell on all who were not covered by the blood of the lamb.
OK – so I am giving something away with that last sentence! It was only partly about remembering – though remembering, in itself, is plenty important. The rituals also looked forward. The Passover not only described what God had done in the Exodus – it also described what God was going to do in Jesus Christ. The very same thing is true for the other holidays if you care to study it out. There’s a reason the Holy Spirit fell on the church on the Day of Pentecost and are we not still being led through the wilderness and provided for all along the way. (BTW – Jubilee literally means Trumpet Day – let’s see a day involving a trumpet on which all the slaves are set free, debts are cancelled, and the big reset button is pushed. Hmmm, nope, sorry, can’t come up with a thing. LOL. The details run much deeper than this brief general picture I am presenting. God absolutely packed these rituals with meaning that looked forward to His real solution for sin, death, and the curse. Study the OT holidays and see!
And the rituals are so largely pectoral and symbolic which carries a kind of punch and gives the message a staying power that would be lacking otherwise. For instance, if God just wrote an essay – kind of like this one – and said, Here, read this and remember it. – let’s just say the rituals have proven more effective – WHEN THEY ARE OBSERVED!
When the Israelites neglected the rituals they lost touch with God’s past provision and His future plans. Raise your hand if you think that’s a bad thing. Of course, this being a blog post, I can’t see whether you raise your hand or not. But that’s another thing – rituals are generally designed for communal practice. If we were together – the raising of hands would have an inclusive power beyond words. And when the Israelites forsook the prescribed communal communicative pectoral participatory rituals – they lost more than they could afford. They became less connected to God and less able to recognize His purposes when they were finally fulfilled.
All of this being the case with the Old Testament rituals – why should we assume anything different concerning New Testament rituals. I get it. Baptism is symbolic. I’ve read Romans and I Peter. The power is in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ not in any magic water. The power is in what He did – not in a formula we repeat. That does not mean the ritual is unimportant and can be set aside without cost. Practicing the ritual keeps us connected to what God has already done and prepares us for what He is going to do. And what is God going to do? True, I may only know in the most general terms and have to guess a lot at that. But then, the Old Testament Israelites didn’t know exactly to what the details of their rituals were pointing either. Nevertheless, the rituals turned out to be powerfully prophetic – bright neon arrows pointing directly at Jesus when He came. Neglecting New Testament rituals may well leave us less prepared for God’s next moves and break our connection to what He has already done.
At the end of the day my advice is simple. Go to church and participate in the rituals. They matter and are not to be despised nor forsaken.
First, my apologies for being less than faithful in my blogging lately. This is the time of year when two IRCC ministry programs overlap – the Garden and the Scrap ministry. It keeps my hopping and this year, the scrap ministry is more than usually challenging. Having written before of the Community Harvest garden, let me say a few words about the scrap ministry. Some years ago I was questioned by a reporter for the Canton Repository as part of an article he was writing about recycling in the County. I gave honest answers that left me less than satisfied with myself. Basically, I didn’t really recycle a lot of things because it required much more effort than just putting it out for the trash man to haul away. Recognizing Stark County’s status as the landfill capital of the Eastern U.S. rendered my ‘throw away’ mentality even worse in my own eyes.
Never being content with the private exercise of virtue, my newfound determination to recycle became a ministry for the congregation I shepherd. And being a goal setter, we now set new goals every year for tonnage in paper/cardboard and scrap metal. The goal for paper this year is 70,000 pounds. We’re on track.
Now, about scrap metal – what qualifies? Anything made of metal. I tell people we scrap from paper clips to bulldozers. No kidding – we have done both. Well, the bulldozer was actually a bucket trencher circa 1940’s – a bulldozer body with a 10’ bucket wheel instead of a blade. I can tell you the bucket wheel weighed at least as much as a blade would have. In fact, that was the project that resulted in my crew of helpers changing the name of their group (previously scrap corps or scrap elves) to ‘Scrap Dummies’. They adopted that name because I kept getting them into these impossible jobs and they kept coming back. Note: anything will fit on an 18’ trailer if you cut into enough pieces and make enough trips! Anyway – buckets of rusty nails, old cars and trucks – parts of old cars and trucks, auto-batteries, appliances of all sorts, steel or aluminum cans, old plumbing fixtures, pipes, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, furnaces, hot water heaters, aluminum siding/gutters… We have cleaned up farm dumps and ransacked houses scheduled for demolition. We have cut up at least four semi-box trailers. We’ve done a few house trailers too but those are losing propositions. We’ve sorted the brass and the big cast iron sound boards out of several upright pianos – the wooden parts serve other purposes in the garden and nativity set ministries. We know how to separate out non-ferrous, motors, etc. My two favorite tools are a gas powered cut off saw and a short handled eight- pound sledge-hammer. You can take things apart fairly quickly if you have no concern for ever putting them together again.
The scrap ministry is always a fair amount of work – and for what it’s worth – if those of us involved in it took part time jobs at minimum wage we could make the congregation more money than we get off the same amount of hours working scrap. But the landfills would be more full and people wouldn’t have this way to get rid of things and support a good cause in doing so. I love the scrap ministry!
For reasons I won’t go into at the moment, I switched the scrap goal this year from pounds (we have been exceeding 100.000 pounds per year the last few years) to dollars. This was done in January – i.e. before we knew about the pandemic! The ramifications of the pandemic are both deep and wide. All local congregations could tell their story! Among the other places IRCC has been touched by the pandemic – it hit the scrap ministry. The price of scrap was already comparatively low owing to the evolving trade situation with China (the biggest customer for U.S. scrap metal). The pandemic drove those prices down to next to nothing – at the worst - $20 per ton for basic steel – most of the time the last couple of years the pre-pandemic price has bounced between $60 and $100 per ton. And, like everyone else, the scrap yards shut down for a while and when they opened it was not for full regular hours and they weren’t always taking all the usual types of scrap. All this for the year we set out to raise $10,000 from scrap metal! Had we set a weight goal – even one higher than 100,000 pounds, we would already have hit it. But as it is, we worked hard to get half the money raised in 75% of the year. Which explains why I have not been blogging as regularly as usual. To meet the goal, we need to raise as much in this last quarter as we did in the first three. Hence, I designated the last quarter of the year – Operation Impossible Scrap Goal and set the weekly benchmarks necessary to accomplish it. Here in week two, we are on track – but just!
Although you may not be able to tell it yet – I did not write all this as a complaint. I wrote it as a lead up to the following sentiment I once heard expressed by Chuck Swindoll - God is in the habit of providing wonderful opportunities but He cleverly disguises them as hard work and seemingly impossible situations. That’s probably not an exact quote of Swindoll but close enough! I think God often wants us to answer a question for ourselves (He already knows the answer). You say you want something. You claim that feeding the hungry is a value you get behind. You think you want to make a difference in the local ecology and economy via recycling. You assert that these things are so – but how bad do you want them? Bad enough to glean commercial corn patches in the rain? Bad enough to process semi box trailers and bulldozers in the heat?
Even as Operation Impossible Scrap Goal was about to commence, before any formal word could get out, the phone calls started coming in. An HVAC contractor with a load of AC units and furnaces he wanted shed of. (One day of moving them. Three consecutive Monday evenings for the scrap dummies to process them. Three consecutive Tuesday mornings of hauling it all in.) This got us to the halfway point in time for the final quarter to begin. But more was to come. The new owner of an old body shop wanting to clean out a lot of stuff accumulated over the previous owner’s years of work. A guy with a couple of trucks to contribute. Nothing to it but work. I suppose God could just drop a dump truck load of Number 1 copper ($2.50 a pound currently) in our lap. But then we wouldn’t have to answer the question. We all have to answer it. I hope we always answer right.