A few months ago, I wrote about the anticipation of getting a puppy. My husband and I had lost our beloved Standard Poodle, and we decided that we were not prepared to live without a dog. In our case, the acquisition of a puppy also represented a second chance for us as dog owners. Daisy, our last poodle, was a wonderful member of the family, but having been adopted after many months of neglect and isolation, she had a lack of social skills that we were unable to overcome. To be sure, a good bit of this handicap was set before she joined us, but undoubtedly we could have done more to help her develop better mental health.
And so, as we looked forward to Lucy, we did everything we could to prepare ourselves. We read many more books on puppy training than we ever did on child rearing. Two of those books had most intimidating titles: How To Raise The Perfect Dog and Perfect Puppy in 7 Days. We researched and discussed various training approaches. We purchased pouches from which we could conveniently dispense training treats, and we contacted a dog trainer for advice and help.
Eventually, June 17th arrived, and it was “ready or not, here she comes” time. We drove to Newark Airport and waited an eternity for her delayed flight to arrive. Finally, there was a crate with a tiny ball of chocolate fluff inside.
We signed the necessary paperwork, snatched the crate, and ran outside to a lone grassy spot that we had staked out on our way into the terminal. I opened the crate, expecting a wriggling puppy to come bouncing out. Instead, I found myself looking into the crate at an adorable face and two gorgeous hazel eyes quietly staring into mine. A relationship was born.
Lucy has been with us now for a few weeks. Living with and training a puppy is exhausting and challenging, rewarding and fun. As we grow and learn together, it is becoming abundantly clear that training, while important, is not an end but a means. The goal of training is not to produce a perfect dog, but rather to establish a strong bond and appropriate relationship between dog and master(s). In discussing our goals with our dog trainer, I realized that my desire to be able to have Lucy confidently off-leash was not merely so that we could take advantage of special times of fun and freedom, but more because of the relationship that off-leash work represents. I want to do agility training with her, not to compete, but again, because agility training is all about relationship between dog and master.
Lucy’s arrival has reminded me of a vital spiritual truth: God has created us, in His image, for loving relationship. That is our goal. Everything else is simply the means. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment. He could have alluded to any number of performance-oriented tasks prescribed by the Law. Instead, He replied: “’YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Does this mean that the rest of the Law does not matter? Of course not. The distinction, though, is one of means and end. The end is loving relationship. The rest is merely the means to that end. This is why I sometimes identify myself as a Christian pirate. In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, we learn that the Pirate’s Code “is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.”
So it is with my life of faith. While I respect and honor God’s Word, His commandments are not rules that we must follow in order to achieve righteousness, but rather guidelines that lead us to Him and enable us to be truly and deeply obedient in the way we love Him and one another. Jesus’s teachings, His commandments, are much like the training exercises we are doing with Lucy. Our dog training exercises promote a connection and love relationship between us. My learning to obey my Master draws me into relationship with Him and enables me to learn to love as He loves. In the Gospel of John, the Apostle records these words of Jesus: “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” This doesn’t mean that I need to demonstrate or prove my love by keeping my Lord’s commandments. Rather, it means that since I love my Lord, I will take the means He has given me—His Word—to reach the end He and I both desire, that I would love Him with my whole being and love others with the love He has given me.