Category Archives: Nature and Animals

Remember Your Roots?

Basil

I used to be a country girl, I thought to myself this morning as I stood looking over the fruits and vegetables at Jenny’s Market.  There was a time when I wouldn’t have had to stop in the middle of making summer pasta to go buy a vegetable I’d forgotten during the previous trip.

Jenny’s has become one of my favorite things about moving to western Howard County, Maryland a few years ago to get away from the congestion of the suburbs closer to Washington, where we lived for fourteen years.

The market is a family affair, and each summer I go there to buy vegetables—spring lettuce, green onions, baby potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes.  The family posts handmade signs on the main route leading north from the suburbs to their market, spacing them a few hundred feet apart and entertaining drivers during the evening rush hour:  Your wife said…to stop at Jenny’s…and pick up some…juicy strawberries…sweet corn…and fresh green beans.

Each time I shop at Jenny’s, I miss my parents.  My father, when he was alive and I was still living in West Virginia, supplied me with vegetables from his garden each spring.  And my mother, who is now in a nursing home, canned those vegetables each fall, making a sloppy mess of her kitchen but proudly giving me jars of corn and tomatoes every harvest time.

A little sad, I picked up vegetables my dad loved to grow and handed them to the teenager behind Jenny’s table, along with my earth-friendly recyclable bag.  As she calculated and bagged the produce, I cheered myself up by walking to the other side of the market to watch the youngest child walk underneath the table, chattering happily to himself.

As I got to the end of the table, I laughed at myself for being so nostalgic.  The last display at the end of the table held a basket of mangoes, clearly not grown locally by the family.  They, too, have modernized their business, buying and selling produce that isn’t available in the area.

And I realized that the basil I bought there and planted in pots on my deck was not something my parents ever grew or served at their table.  In fact, the herb that is a staple in my kitchen never even made an appearance on my mother’s spice rack or in her cart at the grocery store.

I shook myself out of the past and drove home to finish the summer pasta.  As I pulled into the driveway, I smiled at the flowerbed I planted last month, now lush and colorful from the summer rainstorms.  The last time my mom visited, she had told me how much more beautiful my flowers were than any she had planted.  And she frequently told me that I was a better cook.

But today I needed to remind myself that I’m still a bit of a country girl.  I needed to feel the earth in my hands, so I decided to repot a peace lily that wasn’t doing well.  I found a bigger pot and got out the potting soil.  Holding the base of the plant in my hand, I turned the pot upside down, expecting the soil to come out in the shape of the pot as it usually does when I replant.

To my surprise, only the soil in the middle dislodged, and when I set the pot down and looked at the plant in my hand, the roots were bound in the shape of the original flat and had never spread to the rest of the soil in the pot.  I realized that when I first planted it, I must have forgotten to shake those roots loose a bit so that they would adjust themselves to the size of the new pot.

In all the times this country girl has planted, I have never had this happen to a plant.  And I understood in that moment that people are like plants.  It isn’t healthy to stay root-bound in space and time.  To thrive, we have to allow those roots to grow and change—and sometimes to be replanted in a new place.

Had I stayed rooted in my parents’ garden, I would never have tasted basil or gone away to college or become a teacher or had a family of my own.  But they planted the seeds and tended the saplings that grew into each of those parts of me.

And part of me will always be a country girl, wherever I put down roots.

So tell me, where do your roots grow?

Duck, Duck…Osprey?

Ducks in Duck

I’m a worrier.  And according to a recent study in Finland, I’m lucky I ever found a partner at all.  In finding the love of my life, I apparently won something akin to the odds of a mega-million dollar lottery, since the study says that worrying makes you far less attractive to the opposite sex.

So if you’re a single worrier, now you can add to your list of anxieties that you’ll spend your life fretting alone.  And for those of us who have a partner, we can start agonizing that our partner will look for a face with fewer worry lines and more laughter lines.

Me?  I married a man who makes me laugh every day.  Yes, his sense of humor was one of the things that made me fall in love with him.  But it wasn’t the only thing.  And, thankfully for me, he saw past the furrows in my forehead and fell in love with the whole person behind the worry lines.

This study is just another reason I believe that the exactness of science and the intangibility of faith can’t be separated from each other.  Cling to one, and we end up trying to make every aspect of life fit the rules we understand.  Cling to the other, and we are blown about by the winds of changing emotions.

On vacation this week, my husband and I have walked on the beach and along the sound, enjoying watching the animal families that live in the moment as we humans are never quite able to do.  On our first day on the beach, we marveled at the largest school of dolphins we’ve seen in all the years we’ve come to the Outer Banks.  We watched, mesmerized each time another dolphin rose in a graceful arc out of the water before disappearing again.  At the end of the school was a family of three, a smaller baby in the middle and two larger dolphins on either side, trading places, making a graceful braided ribbon as they swam back and forth around the baby.

Then yesterday at sunset, we strolled to the sound to get pictures of the sunset.  We arrived at feeding time and spent an hour watching a mama and papa osprey care for their chicks in the nest.  The mother stood guard, her head turning this way and that, alert for anything that might signal danger.  The father spread his wings majestically and glided back and forth over the water, then suddenly dove in with a small splash and came up with his prey.  When he flew back to the nest, two small heads rose up as he laid his offering at the mother’s feet and flew off again while she fed bits of the capture to their babies.

As my husband was snapping pictures with his Nikon, I turned to see a mama duck with nine baby chicks swimming around her.  I watched as she kept them close, circling them when they dared swim too far from her.  And when three of them went in different directions, I laughed as she expertly nudged each one back into place, wondering how she could possibly keep track of all of them.

My mind drifted back to the birds this morning when I watched a segment on the Today Show about the Finnish study on worry.  It occurred to me that not once in those hours that I had watched those animal families had I dwelled on my worries about my own loved ones.  And though danger was all around the animals, they lived in the moment, providing for the needs of the weakest among them.

And it occurred to me that science confirms for us over and over again what my faith has been telling us for thousands of years.  I thought again of that story of Jesus, telling the multitude that has gathered to hear his wisdom about what the animals have to teach us:

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  (Matthew 6: 25-27)

If I read that story literally, I’d never plan for the future.  But if I read it remembering to balance the past and the future by living fully in the present, then perhaps I’ll be less anxious about what I can’t really control.

So today I’m thankful that my husband defied the laws of science and had faith in me in spite of my worry wrinkles.  And I’m grateful for reminders to laugh and love and live in the present.

What about you?  What reminds you to revel in the here and now?

Is It Just-Spring Yet?

Starfish

Is it spring yet?  I think so.  But the May snow in Denver and the 37onight temperatures here in the DC suburbs belie what the calendar says is the arrival of my favorite month of the year.

Is it spring yet?  The tulips in the neighborhood say so…everywhere but in front of my house.  Last year I planted bulbs in my flowerbed and my neighbor’s, whose husband had taken a fall that prevented her from getting to her flowerbed.  But this year the deer ate mine and left the ones in front of my neighbor’s house to bloom a glorious red and tilt their blossoms at me mockingly every time I walk out my front door.

Is it spring yet?  I think of e.e. cummings, that quirky poet who wrote about an ordinary spring:

in Just-

spring     when the world is mud-

luscious…

when the world is puddle-wonderful

…it’s spring

The world has seemed more mud than luscious, more puddle than wonderful to me this year.  I’ve had some difficult days this spring, as we all do from time to time, with tears of sadness and disappointment sometimes overwhelming me.  My emotions have followed the ephemeral pattern of the weather—sometimes slipping back to winter, sometimes reaching to grasp a spring that’s elusive, sometimes gloriously hopeful at the promise of new life.

When I think of cummings’ poem and his quirky capitalization that says it’s Just- spring, I realize that nothing is ever completely Just in this luscious, wonderful world.

Last weekend at the beach I wrote a blog that said, “I’m going to go take a walk on the beach now.  And though it’s just an ordinary spring day on the Outer Banks, I know that I’ll revel in the sensory experience of that resplendent ocean.”

And do you know what happened on that ordinary walk?  I saw something I’d never seen in all the years I’ve strolled on that beach in Duck—starfish scattered here and there, thrown onto the sands by the waves.

Some of the starfish had lost an arm or the tip of a point, and I was reminded that, unlike us humans, starfish can regenerate an entire limb if they survive the crisis that caused the loss.  I was reminded, too, of that syrupy starfish story—one that I love in spite of its cheesiness—about the man who futilely throws the creatures back into the ocean because it makes a difference for each one that he’s able to help.

I tossed one or two back into the waves, but most of all, I was reminded by their presence that every day has the potential to be Just a little bit out of the ordinary—and maybe even ExtraOrdinary.

is it Just-spring yet?  is your world mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful?

Do Words Fail You?

Moon Apr 2013

5:20 a.m. on Thursday.  I opened the front door and gasped.  A golden round moon hung just over the rolling hill, rendering my tiny flashlight superfluous.  I stopped in my tracks as the dog, impatient for our morning walk, tugged at his leash.  “Wait,” I commanded, and he stopped, cocking his head and looking at me in confusion.  “Look at the moon, Beck!”  He waited patiently as I stood and breathed in the pre-dawn air.

We walked our usual path, and the moon followed, lighting our way through the silence of a neighborhood still asleep.  When we returned from our walk, I darted inside and pulled my cell phone from my purse as the moon prepared to drop behind the western horizon.  I hurried to the top of the hill and snapped several photos, increasingly frustrated at the quality.  I considered waking my husband, but by the time he pulled out his Nikon and dressed to go outside, the moon would be gone.

The next day I took my camera with me, but while the moon was still spectacular, it had lost its crisp roundness and its golden glow.  And the best camera couldn’t have done justice to being in the presence of even that less spectacular moon.

While technology is increasingly able to capture sight and sound, I’m struck by how often I’m disappointed.  A few years ago, I was introduced toJonathan Butler, a South African musician who came of age during apartheid, when friends invited my husband and me to join them for a Dave Koz Christmas concert at the Strathmore Theater in Bethesda.  Butler brought the entire crowd—a very diverse audience in both ethnicity and faith, since Koz is Jewish—to their feet.

A former evangelical who has converted to Presbyterianism—a faith sometimes laughingly referred to as “the frozen chosen”—I’m not entirely comfortable with overt expressions of religious emotion.  But hearing Butler sing “O Holy Night” made me feel I was in the presence of a spirited and joyful God.  I went out the next week and bought a Butler CD.  I love the CD, but each time I listen to it, I’m reminded of seeing him on that stage, and the recording can’t come close to the power of his presence in a live performance.

As I try to describe both experiences now, I understand all over again how words are so often inadequate.  To describe the perfect incandescence of that full moon in its beauty or the power of Jonathan Butler’s talent is beyond my capability.

But I’m comforted that far greater writers have tried to describe the awe of nature or the power of an event.  Today’s lectionary tells how Jesus was asked, after performing a multitude of miracles in a single day, if he were the Messiah or whether they should wait for another.  Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer.  He simply tells them to go tell the people who are asking about what they’ve just seen.

I love to read—great literature, entertaining stories, the holy texts.  And yet knowing how many times I’ve experienced something that is so much more powerful than anything I’ve read about the experience, I know that even the holy texts fail to capture the magnificence of God, of Jesus, of miracles.

Sometimes, I just have to take a leap of faith and go out and experience the world for myself.  So I’m going to go take a walk on the beach now.  And though it’s just an ordinary spring day on the Outer Banks, I know that I’ll revel in the sensory experience of that resplendent ocean.

So while vicarious experience may not do it justice, tell me a story.  Bring me close to your experience of the world.

Control a Meteor’s Path

After Hurricane Irene

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

Creation or Evolution?

Frog on Deck

Walking in the evening dusk last summer, my husband and I disturbed the play of three young boys when our dog, smelling something in the air, began to bark furiously.  Our sheltie tugged insistently on his leash, lunging toward a bucket on the ground that had captivated the boys’ attention until we interlopers showed up.

My husband put the dog into a sit-stay, and when the dog was calm again, we apologized to the boys.

The youngest, not quite old enough to be in school yet, reached into the bucket and pulled out something between his cupped hands.  “Look what we’ve got!” he exclaimed.

He opened his hands just a sliver, and my husband smiled.  “A smelly toad,” he teased.  “Better be careful.”

“Nuh-uh,” said one of the older boys.  “It’s a frog!”  He turned to his brother.  “Show him,” he commanded.

The Keeper of the Frog opened his hands a little more.  “See,” he said, “its back feet are webbed.  It’s a frog!”

“Impressive,” I said, smiling.  We would have stayed to hear more—we live in an adjoining neighborhood, an “active adult community” that has no children except for the occasional visiting grandchild who has no reason to come out in search of other children.

But the dog was beginning to twitch, so we apologized again for his bad behavior and bid the boys farewell, grinning as we turned back to our own community.

A few days later, I wandered onto our second-story deck with my morning coffee to join my husband, who generally gets up earlier than I do on weekends.  As I came out the door, he smiled at me and pointed to the corner of the deck, where a tiny creature sat near my pot of basil.

I leaned over and peered at him.  “How the heck did he get up here?” I asked my husband.

“I guess he climbed up the bricks,” he answered.

Remembering the boys, I asked, “He’s a frog, right?”

“A tree frog, I think,” my husband answered as I went back into the house to get the camera.  And since I’m a long way from elementary school science, I also did some research later that day to find that telling the difference between a frog and a toad is a little more complex than just checking for webbed feet, since some frogs don’t have webbed feet.  I also discovered that tree frogs actually have little suction cups on their feet that allow them to climb.

The little guy—or gal, since my investigation didn’t get that far—visited us several times last summer, and our guess is that it came in search of the water we poured over the basil—not a good sign for our ecosystem, we didn’t think, considering we live next to green space that borders a protected stream.

I promptly forgot our visitor until this week, when a friend of mine who is an atheist posted on social media a picture of Darwin with the caption, “We’ll let you teach creationism in our schools when you let us teach evolution in your churches.”

And it occurred to me yet again, in what each time seems an epiphany to me, that people on those either/or extremes forget that many, many, many of us occupy the space in the middle.  I’m a Christian.  I believe in evolution.  I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.  And I don’t see any reason to teach the biblical story of creation in a science classroom.

I’m an English teacher.  I’ve read and taught the literature that we collectively refer to as “creation stories”—some of which we refer to as “creation myths.”  I understand that many religions of the world have gone the way of myth as science has explained that we don’t need a god to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.  And as we come to a fuller understanding of our world, scientists and theologians continue to try to explain the mystery and the complexity of a world we will never fully understand.

For now, I choose to believe in a Father-Mother God big enough to create complex creatures that can evolve as the need arises—a God too big to be boxed in by people on either side who think they know with certainty how our world came into existence.  Why shouldn’t I believe in such a God?  Do any parents ever expect that the children they birth will stay as they are at that moment when their infants slip-slide their way into this beautiful, intricate world?

I know I’m not the only person in this world who believes that contradictions can coexist and that we can, in fact, celebrate those contradictions.

So, dance with me.  Let’s strike a chord against dissonance.  Sing to me in three-part harmony.  Tell me your stories of the in-between.

Blue Monday?

Duracho

Monday.  Even though I like my current job and loved teaching when I was in the classroom, I’ve never felt thrilled when the alarm sounds on a Monday morning, heralding the beginning of the work week.  Today was particularly difficult for me.  The air damp and gray, I began the day with sleet that delayed the work day for many in the D.C. area.  I reset the alarm and slept for an extra hour, so I tried to be grateful, thanking God in my morning quiet time for the extended sleep and the much-needed rain.

But it was still Monday when I backed my car out of the garage—a garage for which I was grateful on such a cold and dreary morning.  It was still Monday when I got to the school where I was helping out a group of teachers.  I thanked God for getting me through the 40-minute commute safely.  But then I felt sorry for myself when I walked through the exuberant teenagers in the halls, who made me miss teaching as they do every time I visit a school.  But then I remembered that having a job where I don’t have to grade essays every weekend has given me time to write a book and create this web site and blog.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I spent the morning bouncing back and forth between feeling blue and giving myself a pep talk about how great my life is.  I suspect a lot of us do this.  We know that we live in the wealthiest country in the world, a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 40% of the world’s wealth.

But it’s still Monday even after we give ourselves a pep talk.  And yesterday at my church, the bulletin proclaimed it as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Simply put, ordinary time is that time in the church calendar that has nothing to do with the Big Two—Christmas and Easter.

So here we are, on just another ordinary Monday.  The babe has been born, the tree has gone out in the recycling, and the stories of my faith have turned to Christ’s ministry in the world.  Today’s readings were anything but ordinary.  The psalms spoke of finding refuge in the shadow of God’s wings, a God who is “gracious and merciful…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the Gospel reading from Mark, Chapter 5 told stories of Jesus’ kindness to two very different people—a woman who is convinced she’ll be healed if she can just touch Jesus’ clothing and a little girl whose father, a synagogue leader, shows no such certainty but whose prayer for his daughter’s life is answered just the same.

And so I made it through an ordinary Monday, reminded that no day is ordinary for any of us—whether we’re Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Muslim, believer or atheist—when we can reach outside ourselves, touch what we believe in, and find resurrection in our faith.  For it is in staying in touch with what’s within and reaching out to connect with the world that we can know that nothing in this spectacular world is ever truly ordinary.

So tell me your stories of Ordinary Time.

Worth Saving?

Summer Stream

15o.  Wind chill made it feel like 6o.  This was the day my supervisors chose, before they knew the forecast, for a retreat.  The team-building activity?  The same one our students from around the county do some time during their sixth grade year:  Go down to a stream on county park property and conduct tests on the health of the local ecosystem.

Some of my colleagues balked.  One refused to step outdoors and sat inside in front of a beautiful fire while the rest of us were outside for an hour, measuring the levels of acidity, the temperature of the water, the life of the stream.  So what does it say about me that I preferred this activity to sitting at my computer in my windowless office in the DC suburbs?

I wore my flannel-lined windbreaker pants, a knit cap, my down coat with a fur-lined hood, leather gloves with flannel lining, and a warm scarf that my mother lovingly crocheted for me after she saw me without one at my father’s February funeral almost 15 years ago.

I traipsed down to the stream with three of my more cheerful colleagues—one from Belgium who was used to the cold, one who told us with a smile, “I’m from a country near the equator, but I’ll do this if you will,” and one who has lived here most of her life who cheerfully took pictures of all the teams.  We looked for signs of erosion, considered the plant life around the stream, and reached into the freezing water to turn over rocks in search of what the park staff called critters.

Everyone but me got a kick out of saying critters.  And me?  I grew up in southern West Virginia with a father who called all animal life critters, so for me, the word evoked memories of an early childhood of wading in creeks in search of crawdads, of running down banks eroded only by the feet of children.

Born in a suburban hospital in 1986, my daughter never experienced the joy of fishing critters out of a creek.  Her only experience with crawdads was in this same park, where she spent three days and two nights with her sixth grade team.  It made me a little sad this week that I didn’t take her back to a creek in West Virginia while my father was still healthy enough to wade in a stream with her and put a crawdad into her tiny hands.

At our retreat one staff member—from a group of about 25—found a crawdad.  My own team found nothing except a little green wormy creature, whose name I can’t remember now but who was one of the creatures that could live in highly polluted streams.  The one crawdad actually showed that the stream was somewhat healthy.  I told the director of the park staff—one of those rare residents who has lived here all of his life—that finding crawdads was much easier when I was a child in West Virginia.  He smiled sadly and said that I should see how polluted the streams are as they get closer to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. And I shared with him that many of the streams in West Virginia are no longer so healthy either—filled with the gray sludge that comes from coal processing plants.  I told him to check out the documentary On Coal River, which chronicles the lives of people who grew up in the shadow of a coal tipple.

So what do we do?  It’s getting harder and harder for those who don’t want to believe in global warming to deny the damage that human beings are doing to this wonderful planet entrusted to us by the Creator of a world too spectacular for human imagination.

Now tell me your stories of a world worth saving—of a world worth leaving to our children’s children’s children—of a world where our descendants can find critters under rocks in a cool, clear stream.  A world where we are only a legend they hear about in stories—stories of their ancestors who saved the planet just in the nick of time.

Where Do I Look?

Sun and Clouds

Perfectly round and perfectly orange, the sun crept toward the sound, hidden momentarily by a streak of gray cloud. Marveling at how a perfect sunset could be so different from the last perfect sunset, I continued down the hill, eyes on the streaks of orange and pink and yellow in the sky.

“Turn around and look up,” my husband’s voice broke into my reverie.

Eyes unwilling to turn from magnificence, they hesitated as I turned and then darted back and forth for a moment, uncertain where to look. But then my full attention turned to see the translucent white half moon against a brilliant Carolina blue, framed above by traces of wispy cirrus and below by a cottony cumulus ball.

Overwhelmed, I turned in a circle, reluctant to miss either the setting sun or the ascendant moon. Finally, I turned from the moon to the horizon, the silence disturbed only by the click of my husband’s Nikon.

I pondered the largeness and the limitations of the human brain to comprehend a world that is often bigger than our understanding. And I wondered again about a news article I read last week. According to the writer, 46% of us find it impossible to reconcile a Creator with a science that has given us an incomplete but rational understanding of a world so complex that no two sunsets evolve in quite the same way.

I wonder how that happened. I grew up in evangelical churches, but not once in twenty years in three different denominations did I ever hear a preacher question the scientific principles our teachers taught. Not once did I ever hear a demand that the creation story be taught alongside them. And while they were strident about the basic tenets of their faith, they were not threatened by a science that tried to explain the specifics of how God created this intricate and majestic world that defies our ability to fully understand it.

And when I behold a sunset that can never quite be captured in the lens of a photographer’s camera, I find it impossible to box God in to seven days at the beginning of time. That our Creator could shape creatures so complex that they could adapt to their environment and change over time does not diminish an infinite and divine power.

So what about you? What is it in this world that helps you believe not in either/or but a God who is both/and?

Dog Is Love?

Beckley's Hood

Dog is Love?  No, that isn’t a typo.  I can’t be the only one who’s thought about the fact that DOG is GOD spelled backwards, can I?  Dogs give us unconditional love.  We come home after a bad day and see that tongue hanging out, that tail wagging, and we let the day go.  We take that little doggie-human outside, go for a walk, throw a ball, and the stress of the day dissolves into the air as we throw the ball again and again for a little guy who’s just happy to have his family home for the evening.

My daughter Ashley had begged for a dog for years.  Her stepdad and I were skeptical.  We had married when she was five, and shortly after the three of us moved in together, she cried great big tears and declared, “Everybody in this house has somebody to sleep with but me!  I want a kitty!”  Though we weren’t cat lovers, we let one of my students, who lived on a farm, talk us into a calico kitten, a beautiful ball of fur who came into our home and demanded that we love her on her own terms.  She hadn’t lived in our house more than a week when my daughter tired of her and started asking for a dog instead.  We resisted her pleas until the Friday night pizza delivery girl fell in love with the cat and offered to give her a good home.  Delighted that she loved the cat more than we did, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the cat would be happier with her than she had ever been with us.

Unwilling to have another pet disaster, we resisted my daughter’s pleas for several years.  But since she was an only child, we ultimately decided it would be good for her to have the companionship and responsibility of a dog.  We researched various breeds, but we had a friend who had Shelties, so we went to a breeder and fell in love with Murphy, a blue merle who was frightened of his own shadow but who loved us and gave his loyalty to us from the moment we brought him through our front door.

Murphy was the perfect dog.  He barked only when someone knocked on the front door and, oddly, when we cracked a boiled egg for breakfast in the morning.  He lived to please us.  He pranced beside us when we went for a walk, ignoring all the dogs that barked when he trotted by, his head in the air as if he were a prince and barking were beneath him.  He happily went with Ashley when she visited her father, and he pranced around our feet, wagging his tail when he came home.  Shortly after Ashley left for college, he died of cancer, and we all cried for weeks.  Even Ashley’s father cried.  Even our friends cried.  And for months after he died, people said his name,Murphy, in a tone of reverence.

My husband Matt and I didn’t think we would get another dog.  But the house was too quiet, with both Ashley and Murphy gone.  So when Ashley came home for winter break, we went back to the breeder who introduced us to Murphy, and we picked out Beckley, another Sheltie, but who looked more like Lassie than Murphy.  And though we’d been warned that it was a bad idea to get a dog of the same breed, we brought Beckley home with great excitement.  While Murphy had been sweet and docile, Beckley was an alpha dog who barked at other dogs, at geese, at birds perching on the feeder in the back yard, at the telephone, at other dogs on television, and even at our sneezes.  Matt and Ashley fell in love with Becks before I did.  Matt trained him, and Ashley taught him to sing.  But I couldn’t forgive him at first for not being Murphy.

But like Murphy, Beckley was always happy to see us.  He barked fiercely when we left for work in the morning, as though demanding that we stay with him.  And as soon as he heard the garage door in the evening, he began barking again, happily prancing around our feet as we came in the door and put down the baggage of the day.

And when, after I had cancer, the oncologist suggested that I try to walk every day, Beckley fell in love with me and I with him.  Every morning when the alarm goes off, he looks at me expectantly and waits patiently by the front door while I don coat and gloves and grab a flashlight to walk in the pre-dawn hours in the quiet of our neighborhood.  I tell Beckley to look at the stars and the moon, and his ears perk up at the sound of my voice.  “This is the day that God has made, Beckley.  What do you think?”  He wags his tail and looks at me with love, and I think, What a great way to start the day—with the dog that God hath made. Thank you, God, for dogs and for their unconditional love.