Sunday morning my family and I attended one of my favorite events of the year, the Canine Classic, a dog race held annually at our club. Yes, we stand outside in January to cheer on dogs. (And drink bloodies, of course. We aren’t animals.) Started more than 30 years ago as a bet between a groundskeeper and a club member over whose dog was fastest, the race has grown into a multi-heat event, run by dogs of all shapes and sizes. In each heat, two owners or “handlers” for each dog stand on opposite ends of the 50-meter track. When the whistle blows, the handler at the starting line releases the dog and the handler at the finish line begins screaming, jumping and doing whatever it takes to attract the attention of their pet. Theoretically, the dogs run as fast as they can to their waiting owner across the finish line. The reality is much less assured but much more hysterical, with dogs running (or not) in all directions. It’s a spectacle of both pure joy and barely organized chaos.
At one point I went up on the porch to watch the hilarity with my mom (she was out of the drizzle and under a heat lamp—smart lady) and the scene brought to mind something one of my sons said earlier in the week that had been nagging at me. He said his problem with the Church is that it’s always telling us what we have to do, or can’t do. At the time I wasn’t able to articulate how much more nuanced faith is, but as I was looking out at the dogs, it came to me. God doesn’t want us to be like trained dogs, performing routines for the “treat” of heaven. No, we pray and we make devotions out of love, to have a relationship with God and to thank Him for all the blessings we have. And heaven isn’t held out as a treat to be earned—it’s the natural yearning of our soul to be close to God.
When I was a little girl I loved the logo on my daddy’s RCA records—the dog cocking it’s ear at a gramophone, with the caption, “His master’s voice”. Our hearts are made to know and love God, just as our beloved dogs know us through sound and smell and want to be with us. Watching the dogs running all over the field, I thought how like them we are. There are some of us focused in our faith, seemingly with a one-track desire to reach the finish line. But most of us aren’t so disciplined. We find ourselves distracted by others’ toys, or wanting to run at our own pace and in our own direction, rather than God’s. A good number of the dogs out there didn’t have a clue why they were there or what they should be doing, just like many of us. And yet, all of those dogs love their people and want to be close to them. Like the owners who groan with chagrin but also with an indulgent smile at their dog’s antics, I think God knows our natures and celebrates each time we just try to get it right.
When the dogs finally ran up to their owners (or the owners tracked them down—yes, sometimes God needs to go fetch us when we run too far) there was much tail wagging and belly-rubbing and ball-throwing. That pure joy of the love between people and dogs showed me how I should have responded to my son. Our faith isn’t defined by constraints and edicts any more than our relationship with our dogs is defined by sits and stays. It’s about love. And the love we have for our dogs and all they give us is just a foretaste of the best love that awaits us. Maybe all dogs don’t really go to heaven, but if they don’t, they sure give us a little piece of it here on earth.