About four years ago, our family got a little white dog named Woodchuck. A neighbour on Vancouver Island was looking to find him a different home, and so, after a sober, rational family conversation—a conversation which consisted mainly of me saying, “I don’t want a dog” and my wife and kids saying, “who cares what you want, dad, it’s three against one”—the decision was made. Woody was in our house the next day.
Woody is a very simple creature. His life pretty much consists of eating, walking, pooping, and slavishly following my wife around, desperately hoping that she will scratch his ears or rub his tummy. These are the meager extent of his horizons. He is there, standing hopefully at the door when we all leave in the morning, and he is there, full of plaintive longing and loneliness, when we return home later in the day. The depth of his devotion to his masters (my wife and daughter, mainly) is truly a thing to behold.
Usually, I don’t have a whole lot to do with Woody as I’m gone for good chunks of the day and when I am around his attention tends to be fixed upon the preferred humans of the household. I walk him periodically, but I’m at least third, probably fourth in the pecking order of his affections in our house. Because we just moved into a new house, however, and because I’ve had to be around to let tradespeople in and out as they finish off various things, I’ve been working from home a lot this week. Which means I’ve been spending a lot of time with Woody. And this dog is seriously starting to creep me out.
It is downright unsettling, Woody’s need to constantly be around me. I sit down at my desk to work, he plops down at my feet, sometimes even on my feet. I go downstairs to get a cup of coffee, he’s literally two steps behind me every step of the way. I go to the bathroom, he waits, whining outside the door and is there to greet me the second I am done. I step out to get the mail, he races to the window to watch me as long as he possibly can. No matter where I go and no matter what I do, this dog is right beside me. Sometimes I just go up and down a single flight of stairs for like five minutes to see how long he’ll go… Up, down, up, down, up, down…. I usually get tired before Woody.
I’m not sure I can handle this kind of devotion. I grew up on a farm, and on the farm dogs pretty much did their own thing. They slept outside, foraged about the place for food, wandered off and did who knows what for long stretches of the day. (Well, sometimes I know exactly what they did but it often involved livestock carcasses so it’s probably best to move along.) The point is, they didn’t hover around your feet for every waking second of the day, desperately craving any and all forms of affection. Right around the third time I tripped over Woody this morning, I literally blurted out loud, “don’t you have somewhere you could go, something you could lick or play with that doesn’t involve me in any way?! He stared at me and wagged his tail. I stared back at him and sighed.
One of the things I’m trying to finish up while avoiding my dog today is a talk on the wise and the foolish builders from Matthew 7 for a group of young adults on Sunday night. In it, Jesus is commending a life built on a solid foundation. The passage begins with, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.” When I was younger, this passage was usually interpreted to mean something like, “those who accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour have built their lives on the rock.” But the obvious question on any normal reading of the opening sentence of this passage is: Which words are “these words?”
In context, “these words” can only refer to, well, the words Jesus had just finished speaking. And what words might those be? Well, they are the famous words of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning in Matthew 5.
- Words about the upside down and counterintuitive nature of what it means to be “blessed.”
- Words about being persecuted, and poor.
- Words about mourning and making peace.
- Words about refusing anger and loving enemies.
- Words about fidelity and truth-telling.
- Words about refusing revenge and not resisting evildoers.
- Words about praying for people who mistreat you and giving to the needy.
- Words about simplicity and unpretentious piety.
- Words about storing up treasures in heaven and refusing to worry.
- Words about avoiding judgment of others and bearing good fruit.
These are the “these words” Jesus is talking about. Everyone who hears these words and puts them into practice, is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. These words. Not words that fill some elaborate doctrinal formulation, not words about joining the right church, not words about any of the other things we have assumed (or hoped) Jesus was referring to instead.
No, these words.
These ones. Right here.
I am thinking about these words as I look at Woody sitting devotedly at my feet, staring pathetically up at me with wide-eyed longing. I wonder what would happen if ordinary followers of Jesus were even a fraction as devoted to these words of Jesus as my little white dog is to me? What would our relationships and families and churches—our world!—look like if we, those who name Jesus as Lord and Teacher, went beyond paying lip service to these words and actually did them? What if these words and, more importantly, the One who spoke them on that dusty hillside two thousand years ago, were what and whom we followed slavishly, devotedly, irritatingly, unreservedly? What if these words were the ones we trotted around after, full of longing and expectation?
What if, indeed.
And now, I have to go let Woody in. I tried to get him to embrace some “alone time” on the back deck while I wrote this, but I can hear him barking and whining at me even through my headphones. Back to the desperate devotion.