Our Border Collie, Buddy, is almost 16 years old. I know every dog owner believes his or her dog is the most special, but really, Buddy IS one of the best dogs ever. And he’s slowly fading due to an inoperable tumor. Buddy also has other issues, like cataracts that keep him from seeing well and because he startles easily, we think he’s also half deaf. But he still prances down the street, and herds us all to bed at night, so he has some good life quality remaining.
Buddy has given me the chance to play God. Because he sees especially poorly in the dark, and it’s now pitch black when I get up, we have a new routine. He and I head out together with me in the lead with one of those big Mag-lite flashlights bought just for this purpose. I shine the light on the stairs so he can get off the deck and into the yard. He waits for me to shine the light on his well-worn path to the bushes. Early on, maybe like between God, and Adam and Eve, I could guide him back by where I shined the light. I’d get him in the outer part of the beam and slowly move it towards the house. He would obediently follow. I was quite pleased with outsmarting a Border Collie.
But lately he’s been exerting his independence by wandering into other parts of the yard, further from the house, into the dark. A rabbit smell? A ground hog whiff? Like Eve, with the apple, curiosity is tempting old Buddy. As the rigid old God of my childhood, I stubbornly kept the light where I wanted it, waiting impatiently in the cold dark for Buddy to “see the light” and come back. But one recent morning he wandered into my neighbor’s yard, and I had a panicked few minutes where I couldn’t find him. He was clearly scared and disoriented once I discovered him in my neighbor’s garden. I was filled with such love and tenderness as I crouched to soothe him in my pajamas in the dark. I felt such responsibility and softness as I slowly guided him back with the light, my voice, and a gentle hand on his back. I was no longer the judgmental, righteous, I’m-in-charge-God, rather the one full of enormous love, patience and coaxing. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I struggle with whether or not there is a personal god or universally positive force that guides me. But my experience with Buddy has reminded me that regardless of my beliefs, I have a choice. I can live my life exemplifying a conditional, judgmental, flashlight-stubborn god. Or I can strive to be a loving divine presence that has an open heart for all of us flawed, blind creatures who wander in the dark. Can I find the tenderness I felt for Buddy in my interactions with annoyingly imperfect people? Is the awareness that brings this choice part of what we are cultivating in Wellspring?
Now on these dark mornings, I have a new spiritual practice. I allow extra time as I follow Buddy with the light wherever he wants to go. Even though it’s gotten colder on my pajama-clad legs, and the grass has the crunch of frost, I tap into my love for our lumpy, yet wise old dog, and savor the imperfectly perfect time we have left. I practice being the tender god who is patient and willing to be surprised. And then, with a heart now opened wide, I try to carry that experience to every encounter of my day.