The Minister's Message

201709-walterEach morning, Walter and I go out on our morning walk. He has memorised all the points of significance along our fixed routes. The most important of these seem to be the houses where other dogs live. As we come close, he starts straining at the leash. You can hear his claws clacking on the footpath; his back feet slipping at the effort to rush forward. Then we reach the gate of the property. He glances quickly up the drive. He slumps in disappointment if the other dog is not in sight. But if it is, then there is an explosion of barking and leaping on the leash, quickly answered by the other dog. 

I am trying to get him to behave in a more gentlemanly fashion. I offer him a treat. He sits quietly for the few seconds it takes before I hand it over. Once it is gulped down, the yapping resumes. I half drag him away. He stops barking. The other dog falls silent. Then, just after that, just after we have passed the property and all is quiet, Walter turns his head and lets out one last bark. It puzzles me. It’s not ferocious; there is no body energy in it; more like a full stop on the encounter. The last bark. Why does he always want the last bark? 

Dogs, I think, can teach us a lot about what it means to be members of God’s diverse creation. Their capacity for unconditional love is often noted. However, what can be said about those loud skirmishes out walking? I find this behaviour to be very disconcerting. Yet, if I look at the world, what do I see: barking and ferocious body language between the leaders of the North Korea and the USA, shouting leading to unwarranted violence over some statues in the USA, and at home, a concern that the rhetoric associated with the survey on marriage equality will also escalate into ugly, damaging behaviour. Is the best we can hope for that some leash will restrain us and drag us away from these yapping sessions? How do we restore calm after such events? 

Recently in worship we have been listening to excerpts from the story of the family of Abraham and Sarah as told in the book of Genesis. The story ends with Joseph. Joseph (who was no example of righteousness) had been pretty badly treated by his brothers. They had plotted murder, then set him up to be sold into slavery in Egypt. There he worked for several years, including a stint in prison. What would have been his thoughts towards his brothers as he trudged miles in the slave line, or languished in prison? Nevertheless, Joseph persevered and eventually achieved success. Then his brothers came to town. They did not recognise him and this provides the opportunity to enact some pretty nasty revenge on them. But finally, there was a reconciliation, complete with hugs and tears. After that, Joseph was able to care for his family in difficult times. 

Often, the reconciliation scene is noted as an example of forgiveness. Yet, it is remarkable that despite the intensity of emotion, Joseph does not express forgiveness, nor do his brothers apologise. 

Forgiveness is the ideal, but sometimes it is difficult. Often we leave a situation of conflict and pain, without a resolution and without equanimity. There is a saying “He, who laughs last, laughs longest,” which expresses the essence of the desire for revenge. Yet in my experience, there never is a last laugh against another person; there is only a prelude to escalating vengeance. Equanimity does not come through revenge. Only forgiveness and love can stop a cycle of hurt, but it can be hard to reach to forgive and make peace. 

How do we live in the time between the hurt and the coming of forgiveness? In the case of Joseph, I wonder if there was not the practical realisation that the good of all required that the brothers cooperate, not just for themselves, but the future of the people of Israel. Love, in the first instance, is the commitment to work something out for the good of all. 

Perhaps that is what Walter’s final yap signifies. Is it a doggy way of saying “Okay, that was pretty intense. Now let’s get back to the job of life and the joy of the walk”?  Peter Trudinger

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