Wednesday, July 22, 2015

All dogs go to heaven, or something.

We're all gonna die.

I'm not trying to alarm anyone, but that's a fact that needs no reference. The earth revolves around the sun, rivers run to the ocean, light races along at nearly three hundred million meters a second, and our time living in it all will end. You can count on it. You're alive at this moment or you would not be reading my post, but some day (and there's no getting out of it) you will pass on; as will all of my friends, as will I.

As will my dog, Monty. And that one really hurts.

My favorite human person with my favorite canine person.

Don't get me wrong, I will certainly mourn you, I promise. But I'm not expecting you to go very soon, and you'll have to forgive me if you're not at the forefront in my mind, given that I can't really be sure who is reading this. With Monty, every morning for years he's the second person I see, and every night he's the second to last. Every day I watch my beloved schnauzer, and I know that for him the end is nigh.

Monty is thirteen years old. He still wants to play with me - I know this because he always finds me and stands in front of me until he has my attention, then runs away to the only room we have with a rug (where he can get traction) and stands above his rope-bone, waiting for me to try and steal it. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want a frayed smelly old rope-bone, but I usually oblige and snatch at it, only to have him grab the other end and tug until "he wins". He still meets me at the door when I get home from work (most days), looking up for a pet and for me to let him immediately out the back door (even though he likely just came in!). He sticks his nose up to my bed and sniffs at me until I rub his head, then turns around so that I can scratch his butt while he throws his nose up in the air, making grunting noises and looking at me over his shoulder.

That's about 50 pounds of handsome, right there.
He does not behave like old dogs do, yet. But I can see it coming. I can tell by the way he needs a couple of attempts to get out of his bed, or resorts to a full-on belly flop when he tries to lay down gracefully. Or how he struggles with stairs, and often won't trouble himself to rise for every little inconsequential happening (like he used to). His hips are old, slowing him down. Soon, more of him will slow down, and parts of him will ache all the time. He will stop having fun, and will be simply tolerating his own existence.

I know this is true, but I don't like to admit it. Of course, we're going to see if we can get treatment for his hips, and maybe that will get him over this hurdle and buy us more time. But my lovely wife, ever the realist, the ultimate pragmatist, won't stop reminding me of this truth. I don't know if she talks about it so much in order to make sure we are prepared, or if it is because she wants me to be prepared.

Well, I am preparing. It kills me, but I am. It sounds odd, but I have never lost anyone in my life who is as close to me as this little canine. I have raised him since he was a few weeks old; trained an alpha male to be part of (and not the head of) a family, and watched him grow to trust and be trusted. I have literally bled (since he was so dominant as a puppy that he was vicious with anyone who dared to handle him) for him. And he has bled for me, saving me multiple times from deadly groundhogs striving to overthrow the sovereign territory of our back yard. We are the truest friends. And I have to be ready for him to go.

Here he is as a vicious, domineering puppy. It's OK to say "Awwwwww!"

Despite the title of my post, I don't believe I will see him in some sort of doggie Heaven. That's a story we often feed to children because it's too difficult for us to tell them what we know to be true. I don't need that kind of hope anyway. Like with everyone else in my life, I am honoured to have had his love for thirteen years, or fourteen or fifteen, or whatever fortune brings. Things will not be empty for me when he is gone, because I will have my memories. I will say my good bye, and he will be gone, and I will never see him again. But I will always remember, as long as my mind and body are connected. And I will not be alone, since there are other dogs, and cats, and humans that will want my love.

Don't we kinda look alike?

I could certainly feel guilty that there are people in my life that may leave me, and that I won't have said all that I need to say to them or made it clear to them how much I care about them. That's the beauty of a relationship with a dog - I will never imagine that he didn't know I loved him. Every time I trip over him while he's circling my ankles, I know he loves me back. And every day when I see him limping and tripping, I'm reminded how brief the rest of our time together might be. But people don't get under my feet, and they live far longer, and sometimes they leave without warning me that they're on their way out. There is no way to give myself to everyone the way I have given myself to Monty, so I must hope that my loved ones all understand that I do cherish them, and always will. Even when they are gone for good, I do not expect to mourn the time I can no longer have with them, or regret the time I did not have with them - I will rejoice that I knew them, and that I loved them. That is a great legacy for anyone. That is what I also hope those that I leave behind will do for me.

All this, I learned from an old dog, my hairy cousin with bad breath. I wish that all could be so lucky as to have a friend like my Monty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

How not to pray, or: how to not pray.

As long as I can remember, prayer was a struggle for me. It was not something that I did at all before I was born again (Hallelujah!) at the age of fifteen. I have vague memories of being taught to pray "Now I lay me down to sleep..." as a young child, but I don't remember who taught me. I don't think it would have been my parents, since neither of them was religious. But that's neither here nor there, since the exercise was no more spiritual to me than reciting "Mary had a little lamb" or "Humpty Dumpty".

Is it just me, or do you find the idea of an anthropomorphic egg to be just a little creepy?

When I became a part of evangelical church culture in my mid-teens, prayer was a vital activity in order to belong. When I attended youth group, we often gathered in a circle to pray together, and as a self-styled leader among these teens, I forced myself to participate. Privately, I made myself take daily time to talk to God and read the Bible, so that I could conduct a "relationship" with God. Of course, the frequency with which I simply fell asleep during the practice of sharing my soul with God was much greater than that of the times when I felt I had made some kind of connection. There were rare times when I sat alone, in an emotional transfixion, thinking I had reached out to God; but for the most part I felt as is my thoughts were bouncing off the ceiling rather than traversing the heavens to connect to the Creator.

Because of this, my private prayer life almost completely dissipated over the years, despite my guilt over the fact. Regardless of this I grew to become a significant member of my church. I even participated in the "Ministry Team" for a period of time, a cadre of lay people whose sole purpose was to go to people who had come up to the front of the sanctuary (usually during, but not limited to, the time towards the end of the service) looking for prayer. I fit in very well - I've never been one to struggle for words, and I have a reasonably sharp intuition, so in "prayer ministry" or group prayer I don't think I ever looked out of place. I know that I prayed with people, and many time my words were comforting or encouraging to them.

And I hated every second of it.

I was happy that I could be an encouragement to my friends and fellow church-goers, don't get me wrong. I just felt like a fake, because I knew that I was not actually speaking to God in Heaven, I was saying words to the people standing around me. It was totally for them. And I think I was pretty good at it. I was asked to pray often. People seemed to be able to relate to what I had to say (to God).
1. Speak to God
2. ???
3. Prophet!

I was also the token Christian in my family, so I got to pray at all our family get-togethers. You might say that in true hipster fashion I was religious before it was cool - in the last few years many of my family members have found a devotion that I never saw before in them, but prior to that I was alone. It's important to mention that this unique role I had carved out for myself was not without its responsibilities. Every year my family has a gathering for breakfast on Boxing Day, and every year my grandmother, the matriarch of our clan, would have me pray the blessing before we would chow down on our bacon, eggs, sausage and ham. I would always oblige, swiftly thanking God for our wonderful family and asking for His blessing in our lives. Despite my hesitations, I felt good being given such a place of honour in our family.

This became an anxious ritual for me a few years back. As my beliefs were changing, I started to become more comfortable with my abstinence from prayer. After all, it was not me that hadn't held up his end of the prayer-bargain, it was God: why should I feel guilty about something I had put every reasonable effort into? As I retreated from church life I finally had no reason to ever pray publicly, aside from this once-a-year family gathering. I started modifying these speeches to become less like prayers, and more "invocations". I was not thanking God, but acknowledging the cooks. I was expressing my desire for blessing on my family, but not asking anyone in particular for it. I'm good enough with words that I don't think anybody noticed. At least, nobody ever mentioned it. But it was still spectacularly uncomfortable for me.

Maybe this would have solved my whole problem?

Finally on the morning of one of our breakfasts, when my grandmother approached me semi-privately beforehand to ask if I would pray I very politely suggested that she find someone else. This had the effect of putting a total seizure on the event while Nanny tried to figure out why I would decline, until my aunt gracefully recommended another family member. It seems that my grandmother, who was not religious in any way, was much more upset about my loss of faith than I was! I think she may have seen this as me relinquishing the post of "family chaplain." I had hoped to back out of this quietly, but her reaction to the news made it anything but inconspicuous. As it turns out, old people don't seem to appreciate change.

Now that a couple of years have passed, I have been able to remove myself from from any expectation from anyone that I need to perform prayers. Even in the social environments where someone may need to pray, I don't expect to ever be the person asked to do it. I will be honest, it's been a great relief.

I understand that I may be making a huge mistake in writing about this publicly. In admitting that I struggled to communicate with God in prayer, I may open my arguments up to dismissal from believers who wish to claim that I was not a valid believer if I did not have a "strong prayer life" (yes, Christians talk like this!). This line of reasoning is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, and it's frankly bullshit. However, I'm willing entertain that risk, because I would be willing to bet that it is in fact that other way around: I'm sure that many Christians have experienced the same frustration that I did, and can identify with my struggle; that they have also faced years of silence from God punctuated by brief epiphanies. Believers are encouraged to admit that they doubt, but never to analyze that doubt for fear that it might overcome their belief. I have come through on the other side, and have have found more encouragement here than I ever did before.