These are two of our dogs, Avalon and Erin. They are sisters, half Lab and half Australian shepherd. They are not quite two years old. Greg brought them home from the shelter, where they were sharing one kennel after being surrendered by a previous owner.
It’s commonly agreed in our household that Erin, though very pretty and sweet, is not the cleverest of dogs. Avalon is a bit brighter, or seems so by the tilt of her eyes and the cock of her ears. Tara, the goofy, puling, lolloping Lab-Spaniel mix, now seems a sedate, responsible, grown-up dog in our canine hierarchy.
Sometimes Erin and Avalon do dumb things, like submerging their front legs and heads in their water pail when getting a drink. (The bottom of the water pail has a perpetual layer of humus from their paws and coats.) Sometimes they chew things, like antique books or Christmas ornaments or scrap lumber or their own dog beds. Often Avalon will suddenly start barking at a visitor who’s been in the house for hours, and on more than one occasion Erin has been witnessed attempting to eat a rock.
And sometimes they get out of the yard when we don’t want them to. This was a big issue when we first brought them home over a year ago; they found escape routes that had been ignored by our older, less adventuresome dogs, and as soon as we’d block one—with barbed wire, bits of old roofing, scraps of hog wire, whatever we could scrounge—they’d find another. Eventually all the gaps were mended, and we enjoyed a long period of yard-boundary sanctity.
But not long ago, they started getting out again. At first we didn’t know how or where. Then one day I happened to be looking out my bedroom window just as Erin was slithering her way under the side gate through a gap that appeared no wider than a few inches. Undaunted by the narrowness of the space or the strand of barbed wire looped around the bottom of the gate, she contorted her slender body into unbelievable narrowness, yipping occasionally when the barbed wire snagged her. Avalon stood and watched until her sister had wormed her way out, then followed suit.
In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost questions the necessity of fences in a place where property owners keep only trees, which are not likely to trespass, and challenges the oft-repeated adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But when animals are involved, there are sound reasons for these structures to exist—reasons like highways and railroad tracks and livestock. Dogs at large can do mischief and get hurt. In property as in life, boundaries generally exist for the well-being of people and animals.
One nice thing about these sister-dogs of ours is that when we call them home, they come instantly and gladly. I know the right way to call an errant dog: in a welcoming, encouraging, well-nigh joyous tone of voice. Anger and condemnation would be counterproductive; if you yell at him, he’ll just run away in confusion and fright.
So when I call Erin and Avalon back to the safety of the yard, I call them eagerly, lovingly. At the sound of my voice they turn, their mischievous plans forgotten, and run to me in an all-out, wide-eyed, ears-streaming-back, tongue-lolling lope. I continue to call encouragement, praising their obedience and cleverness. Alternatively, I might tell them how dumb they are in a nice tone of voice; it’s all the same to them. But mostly I say what they most want to hear—“Good dog.” No matter how annoyed I am, or how badly they have inconvenienced me, I call them with love and acceptance, never condemnation. And they come.
And every time it happens, I think, The grace of God is exactly like this.
I need the reminder. My default idea of God, the one that comes unbidden to my mind before I have a chance to recollect myself, is of someone calculating and skeptical and visibly underwhelmed by any inclination of mine to return to the yard after I’ve strayed. Certainly not yelling, but far from welcoming—arms crossed, foot tapping, with a cynical twist to the mouth and an unspoken expectation that it’s only a matter of time before I make a hash of things again.
This is an absolutely unbiblical view of God, the Enemy’s lie. It is he, not God, who is called the Accuser, who whispers reminders of past failures and insinuates that our repentance won’t count until it has proven itself. He would steal the joy of salvation and substitute dry, lifeless, prudent behavior modification plans for wacked-out grace. Mysteriously enough, it is precisely this wacked-out, unconditional grace that contains the power for true, lasting change in the human heart.
The Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια), translated in the New Testament as “repentance,” has the sense of a change of mind in both time and direction. The old is past and behind; the new is ahead, spatially and temporally. My errant dogs repent when they turn away from the wrong course and set their faces for home. There is no looking back. There is no cowering under the disapproving stare of the gatekeeper. There is no probationary period, no conditional acceptance, no recital of past wrongs. It’s truly a fresh start.
“Good dogs!” I tell them. And I mean it. They’re good dogs. They’re my dogs. And they’re home.