I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love… Hosea 11:4 (NIV)
I got a new pup, a black lab with some golden retriever mixed in. His name is Elijah. We are in love. Thank God. Learning each other’s rhythms and limits in fits and starts, shouts and barks, foot stamping and puppy pouts, we are pulling at the restraints of the discipline, which all relationships require. Without the love, we would never make it.
When people see Elijah they say, “Oh, how cute!” Then on taking a closer look, they shake their heads and add with pity, “He’s going to be a big dog.” I try not to shudder. The little prophet dog is mostly feet, knobbly knees, long legs, and a single minded purpose to chew. My last dog died at sixteen years. He had long given up gnawing at things and people.
Elijah has all the approved chewing materials. We go to puppy training. At the advice of friends, I got a training halter device which requires a degree in dog mechanics and six arms to put on your puppy. In spite of liberal use of hotdog bits, it didn’t go at all like the video showed. Obviously the demonstration dog had been drugged.
The device comes in a box resplendent with marketing genius, Immediate gentle control. “My pup was changed in a mere ten minutes.” The nose loop encircles your dog’s muzzle in the same way as a pack leader gently, but firmly grasps a subordinate’s muzzle in his mouth. This is a clear signal that You are his leader! My dog is still working to pick up that clear signal.
Elijah detests this device with a passion. However, I confound him by offering the tastiest treats I can find, when I put it on and when I remove it. I rubbed hotdog juice all over the part that goes around his nose. When we walk, he turns summersaults over the grass trying to shake it off, or writhes on the ground like a snake. Then he will flop prone in the street with a huge sigh and pout. Despite the period of adjustment for us both, things are improving. Once he gets over his hissy fit, he trots along in fine fashion being the dog of my dreams.
Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32: 8-10 NIV)
The amusing name for this device is Gentle Leader Head Collar. This cracks me up. I got the giggles thinking about it in church this week. I had this picture of God struggling to put such a halter on us, while we flop about in our lives, straining to get loose from the constraints of our own realities. Our genetics, life experiences, choices, and environments wrap around our snouts and bind our movement. Such discipline may gentle us into surrender to the truth of who we are. We may come to accept the conditions placed upon us by our journey and the reality that we are not the leader of the pack, or we may toss ourselves in summersaults, whining, and wriggling against our limits.
“Now be ye not stiffnecked, as your fathers were, but yield yourself unto the Lord, and enter into his sanctuary (2 Chronicles 30:8),” I say to Elijah, who is trying to chew the darn thing off his head. The Hebrew scriptures frequently compare the people of Israel to oxen with stiff necks who will not submit to the yoke, or a horse who will not follow without bit and bridle. The notion of discipline and surrender to the Leader of the Pack appears also in Paul’s writings. In fact it is often the prophets, including Elijah’s namesake, who serve as God’s harnesses to restrain an unruly rebellious nation.
If Elijah could see the positive benefits of his Gentle Leader, he might not put us through such a struggle. His resistance only increases his discomfort. Being conformed to the harness requires repetition, discipline, love, and a good deal of faith in the Leader on both our parts. The way to Elijah’s abundance is a counter intuitive surrender to what feels at first as terribly confining. Not a bad prescription for the spiritual life.
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