Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Yesterday the dog trainer with the Atlanta Humane Society came to start a spate of in-home training sessions with our dog Roosevelt— this after Roosevelt had bitten a couple of neighbors, snapped at a child through our front fence and viciously attacked our other now geriatric dog Carter a couple of times. (We name our dogs after presidents and until now have had a thoroughly bi-partisan household.)

Two hours later the trainer, a sweet, cherubic looking woman who said she had worked with thousands of dogs across her lifetime, was gone, having advised that the most “humane” option was to euthanize Rosie.

There was something darkly comedic about the whole encounter: there I was at the start, wide-eyed and ready to work redemption on our problem dog, only to be told in the words of a dog lover and pro, that my dog was an “A-hole” and should be put down. (Apparently, once a dog has bitten a couple times, the pattern is so ingrained that it’s nearly impossible to break even with loads of time, and there is no guarantee that the dog will not bite again—this time lethally.)

But before Roosevelt was a muscular, ninety pound, biting force of nature, Roosevelt had been one of my (albeit impulsive) compassion crusades: I saw his adorable seven-week mug in a coffee shop asking for my help in rescuing him and quickly persuaded the kids that Rosie would be a great surprise to have around for Daddy upon Daddy’s return from a trip to Europe. (Daddy was less enthusiastic than I had thought he’d be.) Roosevelt had been found wandering streets at an early age—as the trainer explained yesterday, Roosevelt’s separation from the litter so early had contributed to the aggression issues—and a sweet couple looking for a “good family home” had rescued him. At the time, the fact that Rosie was running around chasing, nipping and being an “A-hole” to his rescuers seemed like just an infuriating puppy trait that Rosie would grow out of.

Now, more than a year later, it appears I was wrong.

Sometime today or tomorrow before heading for two weeks of vacation in Tuscany, Italy, I will have to treat Roosevelt to the best day of his life, probably a burger and ice cream at McDonalds; and then I’ll slip a peanut-butter-laced muzzle over his head and drive him to the Atlanta Humane Society, where I’ll (as I’ve told my six-year-old and three-year-old) send him off to “another home.” (I’m leaving out the euthanasia part for the kids’ sakes.)

But the experience has me wrestling with the limits of redemption in this life. There’s a reason for the expression “A leopard doesn’t change its spots.” Long-ingrained habits in dogs, like in people, can be nearly impossible to break. Redemptive change can happen, but the question is with how much risk to hurting others or ourselves? How do we love the problem cases in this world without actually doing further damage? Of course dogs and people are different, contrary to the name of a shelter I was referred to yesterday called “Dogs Are People Too.” (I mean, seriously?!!) But the concept at play here—namely, sacrificially helping others without hurting innocent bystanders—has me wondering how to acknowledge and navigate the very real limits of redemption in this life.

Yesterday I was at the gas station filling up when a homeless man came up to greet me. At first Smiley (whose demeanor embodied his name well) seemed like he just wanted just to talk. “I don’t like asking for money,” he said.

So we talked and Smiley began to tell me just a bit of his story. He was clearly sober now, but his clothes registered that he spent much of his time asking for loose change and, as he told it, living in an abandoned basement.

“You know about the fork in the road, right?,” he said. “I was a great basketball player…” then (rattling off the names of some well-known basketball players) “but I took the wrong path.”

He turned to my basketball-playing son: “Don’t ever do drugs or alcohol,” he said.

We talked for a while until finally my son began to complain that we needed to go.

“Can you spare some change?,” Smiley asked.

I politely refused but suggested some shelters and services.

He was grateful for the conversation at least.

As he wandered off to chat up someone else and as I put my key into the ignition, I noticed how Smiley limped a bit, wobbling somewhat precariously; it was the gait of someone who’d become accustomed to walking down the wrong path for a while now; I had just happened to catch him sober.

If the job of Christians is to look for God’s redemption in the world and participate compassionately in that work, it seems we must also approach this task with wisdom and realism about the limits of what we can and cannot do. But the question is how do we do this well? How do we straddle a faith in God’s capacity to redeem anything and anyone, including our own broken selves, and a hope that one day all creation will be redeemed, with the very real abiding problem of brokenness, both its contagiousness and its necessary containment?

Got any grist for the mill? Leave it here. FYI, I’ll be under the Tuscan sun in two days’ time to join my husband who is teaching there now, and between now and then I may not be able to meet you here at this intersection between life and God. I do hope I’ll be able to send at least an occasional post in the next couple of weeks, but if you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know why: I’ll be having a sinfully delicious time in one of the loveliest places on this planet. I will absolutely plan to meet you here again after July 19 when we’ll resume a regular schedule of 3-5 posts/week. In the meantime, God speed in your own travels.


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