Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

The Perfect Dog: an epilogue

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The Perfect Dog struggled to stand up. I helped and held her while she found her footing. She stumbled outside. When I tried to slow her down, she would only move faster, stumbling all the more. We reached the back yard and I sat nearby. She promptly relieved herself. She then walked a few steps and stopped, staring off into nowhere. I wondered if confusion had set back in. I continued to watch. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving. Then it struck me. She wasn’t confused. The Perfect Dog was soaking up her surroundings. The wind was lightly blowing, bringing all kinds of scents to her. I could see her nose twitch like it was tapping out a melody. The trees rustled, as if to suggest birds and other wildlife were just beyond reach. Her ears moved to capture as many of those sounds as she could.  There The Perfect Dog stood. There the Perfect Dog stayed. She was still but alert. Did she know? She must. She stayed until her legs began to wobble. She wagged her tail a few times as if to say thank you, then slowly and happily headed back toward the house. What a moment to experience. My heart was bursting with pain and gratitude to be its witness.

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Days have past since that occurred. I got Lucy inside and settled down, and immediately wrote about what I had just seen. I didn’t know what kind of time I would have with her, but I knew what I had witnessed needed to be remembered. I had never seen her stand that still for that long in such an alert state. I couldn’t help but think she was taking this in – her yard, her life – while she still could.

My Perfect Dog has passed away. She had three days of struggling, some hours where death seemed imminent and some hours where she actually seemed to be feeling better. Part of my sitting with her included reading to her The Perfect Dog, parts 1, 2 and 3. More than once, she would lift her head and look at me as if to say, “Stop blubbering on so.” But I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to know how much I loved her. I couldn’t expect to adequately convey my love for her in words or in such a short period of time. It’s a cumulative thing. But the compulsion was there nonetheless. The compulsion to make sure, to be crystal clear, to avoid any regrets down the road because you recognize that each minute counts.

As difficult as it is, I think it’s a privilege to be with one’s pet for his or her last breath. While I’ve been through this several times, this is the first time I noticed the last physical breath. Maybe it’s because each breath of hers was labored and therefore obvious. But there it was – one breath she was with us, and then she was gone. I held my breath wondering if there would be one more, but I already knew the answer. She would not breathe again.

I still head to the pantry to feed her. I still go to the door to let her out or in. I still look for her, listen for her, wait for her. I imagine that will be the case for awhile. Fourteen years of these habits don’t die as quickly as the ones who inspired the habits do. Yet I find myself grateful for that. I like to think of her as often as I do, even when it makes me cry. I am thankful that for over 14 years she was happy and healthy, and for a mere three days she was not. What a tremendous gift that is. Thank you, Perfect Dog. I love you. To the moon and back and then some.

A Rock Star for a Song

We were invited to celebrate a good friend’s upcoming 50th birthday. Mutual friends/fellow invitees secretly learned from his wife that when alone, the birthday boy loved to rock out to Bon Jovi’s 1986 song, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” No surprise he would want to keep that secret. So naturally our friends decided to perform the song at his party.

My husband and I were hanging out with these mutual friends/fellow invitees. When they mentioned their plans to do the song, we decided to collaborate. While I’m not a Bon Jovi fan, I’m a huge fan of both surprising and embarrassing friends. The men would play their acoustic guitars and the women would sing. Note that I am not a singer. But it sounded like fun so I decided to ignore my lack of talent.

I had two parts in the song that I took very seriously. One was the echo and the other was the final verse. (This would be a good time to stop and watch the video. For those of you who remember, it’ll be a nice stroll down Big-Hair-Glitz-Rock-80’s-Bands-Bad-Rock memory lane. For those who didn’t live through that era, it’ll make you appreciate it all the more. Although before you get too judgy, remember your own musical embarrassments. Every generation has them.)

The echo was a vocal strain but required commitment. The final verse, well, with these lyrics you either have to go all out or risk looking ridiculous. “I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back. I play for keeps ’cause I might not make it back. I’ve been everywhere, still I’m standing tall. I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.” If you don’t sing it like you mean it, you’ll look like a joke. But singing with conviction just might make it appear you are in on the joke, and thus look very, very, very cool. Except to my kids because I am never cool to them.

The four of us practiced together and I sang the song on my own. A lot. I sang it on my way to work. I sang it at home. I sang it in my head and I’m pretty sure I sang it in my sleep. I was determined in spite of my limited musical ability to own my performance like I was meant to be there. Admittedly I questioned my participating, but I never wavered on my desire to do it and I never stopped having fun along the way. It helps when you are willing to look like an idiot.

The party night arrived. The ShuPots rehearsed ahead of time. (Yes, we named our band.) We arrived and settled in for a bit, wanting to allow everyone to get a drink or two in them before we did our song. The time arrived and we performed our hearts out. I could see the birthday boy’s face, which looked thrilled, mildly horrified by his secret being exposed, and touched by our gift to him. The crowd was gracious and sang along. Thankfully there were no videos taken which allows me to remember our performance as nearly perfect.

Happy 50th, AB. I know it’s still early, but I’m hoping our performance will go with you as you near that big day.