Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Don't be a dog; be a human.

This is Bingley. He was our foster dog for about nine months. I'll be perfectly honest with you, I didn't like him much. At least, he's not the kind of dog I would choose to own. My daughter, who took him under care when her best friend had to give him up to attend college, loved him dearly. Lots of people see his picture and think he's cute. Well, yes, he is cute in an ugly sort of way. He has a squashed face and he's wall-eyed. When he looks at you directly, you see more white than dark--always a little weird in a dog--and he never looks at you with both eyes at once.

He is also lazy. That dog could sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Go for a walk? Not when he's in sleep mode. Go outside to relieve himself in the morning? Not yet--he's sleeping in. Not only did he sleep all the time, but he snored. Not only did he snore, but he often slept with his eyes open! Whites showing, one eye looking one way, while the other was focused on something else. Did I say he was ugly?

I don't think he's particularly smart either. Other members of my family tried to convince me otherwise, but he generally seemed clueless--not interested in learning tricks or basic commands, apparently unable to make simple word and action or object connections.

But despite all the things I don't like about Bingley, he still got something right--he was doggy. Dogs are different from one another, to be sure, but dogs do a lot of the same doggy things. They lie around a lot, they scamper when they play, they bark and growl to protect, they wag their tails when they are happy. Would I prefer a dog with a long snout and sharper eyes and more inclined to learn tricks? Definitely. But I couldn't fault Bingley for not acting like a dog.
But here's the thing. It strikes me that lots of things in this world--dogs, other animals, plant life, even inanimate objects--all seem to do what they're supposed to do. Dogs act doggy and cats do their feline thing. Birds, for all their diversity, always act according to their kind, doing what they were created to do. Plants, although they seem a little boring compared to animals, nonetheless fulfill their God-given task to grow, to synthesize light and nutrients, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, to die and become mulch.

We pretty much take this all for granted, but the interesting thing is that while all of the rest of the creation order seems to understand what its supposed to do, the crown of creation--humankind--forgets it. There are obvious examples--hate crimes, atrocities, simple selfishness, lying, cheating, and stealing. But even when we try to correct this, it seems like we forget what we're supposed to be. Organized religion often struggles to figure out what humans are supposed to be and usually misses it. Even Christianity, I would argue, is often practiced in a way that dismisses our central calling.

I understand why this is. Because of the human will and our God-given ability to make choices coupled with humankind's fall into sin, we never do what we're supposed to do without mucking it up somehow. We're supposed to domesticate crops and we grow marijuana. We're supposed to create art and we make pornography. We're supposed to build cities and we create the Tower of Babel.

But have you noticed how religion deals with this? Instead of redirecting our creative and cultural proclivities into positive directions, we deny them all together. Sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in obvious ways, but it often happens because we can't seem to distinguish between what we're supposed to be doing and the fact that we often do it the wrong way. So what does religion offer us? Calls to holy living or spiritual activities or self-denial or other-worldly orientation. In short, I would argue, it calls us to forget who we are.

Although I said that dogs always succeed at being doggy, I implied that they always get it right, but they don't always. The dog that regularly lives with us is hyper-protective. She barks at every little sound she hears and it drives us a little crazy sometimes. We've tried to correct her and discourage her through all kinds of means. She knows that we disprove of it, but she can't help herself. Somewhere along the way she started trying to check herself when she begins to bark. She doesn't stop barking, but the first bark out of her mouth sounds more like a chicken squawking as she tries to stifle her instincts gone awry. It's a little funny, but it's also a little sad. What would be more sad is to have her debarked. Have you heard or seen a debarked dog? It has to be done sometimes, but it doesn't change the impulse or behavior, just the ability of the dog to vocalize. So if we debarked Lucy, she'd still leap from the couch and run to the door, but her actions would be accompanied by a pitifully squeaky or hoarse effort to bark.

This, to me, is what happens when our religious practices, our efforts to correct our sin, attack who we were created to be. God has called us to be humans--to be bearers of his image in the world, to be creators and cultivators and peacemakers--and by his grace equips us to do so despite sin in the world. Too often, however, we can't see our God-given tasks for the mess we've made of them. By God's grace, not only do we have the ability to fulfill our calling as God's image bearers, but to see what our calling really is.


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