I’m not really a dog person.
A little over a year ago, we lost our miniature dachshund of fifteen years. Many words could have described her – yappy, longish, feisty, and naughty are among them. But the word that rises to the top of my caricature list would be “loyal.” She was always there – through holidays, sickness, three moves, and all the drama that comes with a family of seven. She sniffed the tiny toes of three new babies. She scuffled around (and under) our feet as we planned two college graduations and a wedding. Maggie loved us well.
Yet as the years rolled by, the demands on my time and the level of my expendable energy were at odds with one another. My heart, which had once been smitten with our little puppy, grew indifferent. “High maintenance” was a term that she earned honestly, and the years were siphoning off my ability to keep up with her needs. I grew frustrated with the cost, upkeep, and energy required of me. I’m sad to confess that in the last months of her life, I was anticipating the relief that would inevitably accompany her passing. When Maggie’s last days actually arrived, I was surprised by the sadness that overtook me. I couldn’t make it through the door of the vet to tell her “goodbye” without dissolving into tears. But the temporary wave of emotion and nostalgia didn’t penetrate my pragmatic resolve. We’re done with dogs. At least for a very, very long time.
With the pang of grief added to the long list of “why we wouldn’t have another pet anytime soon” the kids eventually stopped asking. We didn’t talk about it. I could find no logical reason to sign up for all of the work and inconvenience (and inevitable heartache) that a new dog would bring. It wasn’t practical.
Left alone to the laws of entropy, even the strongest surge of affection deteriorates over time. With our pets, our spouses, our friendships. It’s a slow, steady death.
Initially, we feel deeply – so deeply that love stretches the heart beyond capacity creating an achy, visceral joy. Over time, practicality and selfishness prick tiny holes, each slowly draining drops of life. As joy trickles out like air from a deflating balloon, the heart hardly notices. It regains control. It’s protected from pain. It becomes resentful. Even numb.
Yet unsolicited and without warning, the Giver of all Life steps in. With great compassion, He disrupts the status-quo. He offers an alternative to the slow, steady death of hope that accompanies self-protection and control. His gentle whisper extends an invitation. I have been given a choice. The cost – be willing to love, to hurt, to be inconvenienced, to set aside my own agenda. The gain – grace infused. The heart lives and loves and grows once more.
This Advent season, it happened again. The Giver of Good Gifts is changing the landscape of our family by changing the landscape of my heart. Only days after I had explained (yet again) why we wouldn’t be adding to our family, I found the words “I think it’s time” tumbling out of my mouth, landing squarely on my unsuspecting husband. Like a flipped light switch illuminates and drives out shadows of doubt, the decision brought an immediate flood of joy and strange relief. This is Love.
Many times in the past few weeks, I’ve watched my children anticipate Christmas and I’ve smiled. The Father has used our unexpected surprise to teach me much about Himself. Watching my children’s everyday struggles, frustrations, and disappointments, I’ve frequently found myself thinking, “If they only knew what was coming.” They anticipate, but their imaginations fall short of the greater reality that awaits them. A reality snuggled safely in a tiny basket under our tree.
Only my daughter dared to carry the torch of hope for a puppy. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, the standard reply was “A puppy. But I know we won’t get that, so a guinea pig. But we probably won’t get that, so I hope I at least I get a Beta Fish.” Hedging is safer than longing. Hope is a risky proposition.
This Christmas marks one of many small miracles in the story of our family. Much to my own great surprise, my heart has been broken wide open once again.
And I’m deeply, deeply grateful.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis