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These Words

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.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful!

    September 26, 2014
  2. I’m pretty sure Naomi is not the only one who rubs his tummy.

    September 26, 2014
    • I’m pretty sure I have no idea what you’re talking about 😉

      September 26, 2014
  3. Now if only you had another cat. Woody wouldn’t be lonely and all would be serendipitous in your new house.

    September 26, 2014
  4. mike #

    Does God really want us to be like the example of the neurotic anxiety ridden puppy?( I used to live with one too :)…he drove me crazy.)

    I simply offer this for consideration:

    “But what if I told you there’s an incredible paradox to discover here? It’s that work comes from rest, that the kind of works that please God actually come from our relaxing with him. This is why the author of Hebrews tells us to “make every effort to enter that rest” (4: 11). Make every effort to rest? Yes, apparently it takes a concerted effort on our part to get to the place where we can truly relax with God. Still not sure that rest should be our focus? Take a minute to consider the fruit of the Spirit— things like love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and patience (Gal. 5: 22– 23). Do we really think these can come from a place of spiritual effort as we try our best to crank them out? No, these attributes are birthed from an attitude of rest, from a person at rest. We die to anxiety-ridden religion so that we can truly bear fruit for God (Rom. 7: 4). This is the profound paradox of spiritual productivity. So the true gospel in all its potency is both simple and spiritually restful. Experiencing this rest doesn’t take that much learning, but it may take a great deal of unlearning. Underneath all the layers of religiosity that we’ve added over the years, our God has already adorned the halls of our heart with his exuberant love. We may simply need to peel away those layers of restless rhetoric in order to gaze at the full splendor of God’s grace. During our journey together, we’ll travel against the grain. We’ll fend off some misguided Christian jargon and some double-talk that is popular today. Your beliefs may get shaken up a bit. But together, we’ll endeavor to ditch the guilt and find the real freedom and relaxation that Jesus talked about, the kind you’ve always longed for. Why I Wrote This Book “Get busy for God. He needs you!” This appears to be the mantra of so many in the Christian world today. Indeed, this might spur us to fanatical service for a time, but it ultimately breeds burnout and disillusionment. This book is designed to expose the fraud of that line of thinking and to throw open the doors to a whole new way of living—living from rest. Lots of Christians want to believe that Christianity is about rest, but how can they relax when they’re bombarded with teaching that spawns spiritual anxiety? Together we’ll examine the counterfeit idea that God needs us to work for him. You’ll learn how “easy and light” can become a daily spiritual reality and how living from God fits perfectly with good works. You’ve probably noticed that while some Christians are running themselves ragged trying to get God to like them, others seem to believe God is already satisfied with who they are, and they’re just being themselves. One group experiences anxiety, while the other enjoys rest.”

    Farley, Andrew (2014-06-24). Relaxing with God: The Neglected Spiritual Discipline (Kindle Locations 289-297). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    September 28, 2014
    • I’m certainly not advocating “spiritual anxiety” or people “running themselves ragged trying to get God to like them.” Far from it, actually. The dog metaphor, like all metaphors, has its limits.

      The life of faith is of course about both doing and resting. And, perhaps paradoxically, it seems that for Jesus the following of his teaching about the shape of a human life leads to a life free from anxiety, a life where we become what we were made to be, a life where all frantic striving ceases. The doing leads to the resting. Or becomes the resting.

      I wasn’t advocating becoming neurotic puppies for Jesus. I was simply observing a level of devotion and commitment that I think is instructive (however irritating 🙂 ). We are not this single minded in our faith. Or, at least I’m not. I wonder what would happen if we were.

      September 28, 2014
      • mike #

        “We are not this single minded in our faith. Or, at least I’m not. I wonder what would happen if we were.”
        Obviously you’ve never been a fundamentalist Pentecostal flame thrower so “on fire” for God that people who know you run when they see you coming :/

        September 28, 2014
      • Nope, I sure haven’t 🙂

        (But again, I would simply point out that there is a MASSIVE difference between single-minded devotion to converting people to a particular doctrinal package or religious “experience” and a single-minded devotion to the “these words” that Jesus is referring to in the passage I discuss above. Massive.)

        September 28, 2014
      • mike #

        Great reply, man. You make such a clear and important distinction between the Institutionalized Christian and the authentic disciple of Christ.
        My experience has shown me that the indwelling Holy Spirit will manifest the “fruit” of Christ through me , often despite myself. I see it as a Grace that becomes more apparent as I continue to seek to more intimately know my Creator.

        September 28, 2014
      • Well said, Mike.

        September 28, 2014
  5. mmartha #

    A change of pace.
    Houston Baptist U. is having an early Oct. music festival, “I Love to Tell the Story.” I think it is hymn-centered with stories.
    But telling something indirectly doesn’t make it untrue, certainly not unsaid. CC keeps telling the story.

    September 29, 2014
    • CC?

      September 29, 2014
      • mmartha #

        I’m sorry. Christian Century, which does stories so often and well and in their blog series.

        September 29, 2014
      • Ah yes, of course. Thanks. And, agreed!

        September 29, 2014

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