Tuesday, July 06, 2010


For about one month now, my wife and I have been raising up a puppy. He's a black border collie mix with white paws and a laid back temperament. His name is Arlen--an anagram for "learn," but inspired by the fictional Texas town in Mike Judge's King of the Hill. Border collies are the most intelligent dog breed, so, non-satirically, Arlen is a learner.

I've become a stay-at-home dad for this puppy. He demands it. While Jaclyn works during the day, I play with Arlen, walk him, feed him, and sometimes just stare at him in amazement. He's a profound little creature. He has grown and learned so much already, and I'm so impressed by his ability to live happily. If he wants to play with a toy, he does. If he wants to plop his butt down on the AC vent, he's there. And sometimes, he lies down behind my desk chair while I'm writing, because he wants to keep me company. He's a little animal, but I'm starting to feel a pretty strong connection between us.

In the past month, I think we've only made it to church once. And it wasn't our usual church. Not even a block away from New Community Covenant is an Episcopal church. Walking past its entrance a few months ago, we noticed a sign encouraging dog walkers to bring their pets in for an early morning worship service. I do want to raise Arlen up in the ways of the Lord, so I got up early one Sunday morning this past month for the sake of his spiritual well-being. Get 'em while they're young, as they say.

There weren't more than 10 people at the service, mostly older women wearing pink and purple sweaters with birds and palm trees printed on them. One woman stood up to read the call and response creeds, until it came time for the scripture reading. The woman reading from the Bible had a miniature poodle strapped to the front of her body, like one of those infant slings. The poofy white dog had a Bible right in front of its nose, but its eyes darted around the sanctuary while her owner read aloud. My wife and I couldn't help but smirk at each other, but the reader was as serious about the scripture as the pope would be at the Vatican. All the while, Arlen was roaming around under the pews while I held onto his leash. He wasn't paying attention to the message.

The message was actually about embarrassment. Not being upset at someone who inadvertently embarrassed you, and apologizing to a friend or family member if you thought you embarrassed them. There was a wonderful irony to all of it. As I sat amidst the sweet old ladies in my faded black jeans, I wondered why it wasn't a more eclectic group who looked more like Jaclyn and me. But I got over myself quickly, and whispered at Arlen to "sit."

When the service ended, we all had donuts. And the dogs had doggie treats. The head pastor then came in to greet me and my wife. He seemed pretty gay. But it was the Episcopal church after all, so he probably was. But I appreciate that about the Episcopals. They accept the gays and the dogs. It's rare to find either in any other Christian denomination.

The Bible doesn't have many kind things to say about dogs or homosexuals. Dogs are usually portrayed as mangy scavengers, metaphors for lower life forms who live according to their own primitive instincts. And homosexuals, well, they're an abomination. So there's that...

Now I don't mean to equate dogs and homosexuals. I just find it funny how both of these groups are accepted in the church by only one denominational branch of Christianity. I'm not an Episcopal. In fact, I don't know what I am anymore. Maybe non-denominational. Maybe Universalist. I don't know. But since I've had Arlen, I've wanted to be able to relate to him in every way possible. I want to believe whatever he believes in.

This is the silly thing about humans. Beliefs can be obtuse and unwarranted, but still we'll cling to them unto death. When I look at Arlen, I see a creature that should be cared for and loved, and yet the animal expresses no irrational response to a Sunday church service. As the Bible is read, dogs remain dogs. As prayers are uttered, still the animals act according to their instincts. They don't get reverent and bow their doggy heads. There is no faith to be had for them, still they are shown God's grace... and given treats.

My wife and I are inclined to learn from a Sunday morning message. What can we take away from the sermon? How can we be better Christians from this point onward? But Arlen asks no such question. He desires shelter, sustenance and love. He makes no qualms about his soul's condition. He simply goes on about his day, making the best of it.

I don't mean to lower my ethical standards to that of a dog, but sometimes I wonder about human evolution. Have we come so far intellectually that we are really learning things on a spiritual level? A level no other species on the planet has yet experienced? Or are we just playing with ourselves? As a puppy plays with a stuffed animal in a living room like it were a dead squirrel outside, do we engage in religious practices as a means of satisfying some invisible biological urges? Are prayers and worship services simply relics of leftover instincts? Sure, Arlen can pretend that he's killing a squirrel when he whips around his fluffy squeaky toy, but he isn't really. What exactly are humans doing when they go to church on Sunday mornings?

One thing is true of dogs and humans: we both have the ability to learn. Of course, humans are much more advanced than dogs. We can communicate and interact with each other at frighteningly high levels, even to the point of accomplishing moon walks. Dogs are a few million years away from figuring out rocket science. But is it possible that all of that which we must put faith in, can it be possible that this is nothing more than a chemical reaction to our natural desire to progress humanity? Do we actually believe in God, or are we just ever-reaching for better things? Is love something we are first given by our Lord, or just another evolutionary aspect of our being?

What I want to learn now is not a tactic that will help me read my Bible or pray more often. I want to learn about the creatures around me. I want them to be safe, and happy in their environments. Humans and dogs, the wealthy and the scavengers, all of these living things have needs that must be met. Some intangible, some tangible. But it starts with learning. It starts with whispering "sit," and communicating for the sake of a relationship.

I don't believe in spirituality anymore. I believe in Morse code. And the potential for human disbelief. Just because I'm an advanced life form doesn't mean I have to neglect my primal nature.

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