Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Black and white, day and night

It was past 11 p.m. on a Sunday that started at 5:30 a.m. with a dog walk, playing the organ for a Methodist congregation, and yard work—all before noon. In the evening, I had bottled 19 pints of mulberry jam, and my feet were killing me. Evie, my black and white Border collie, indicated that she needed to go outside, so instead of accompanying her as usual, I sent her out to the fenced back yard and continued to clean the kitchen before I went to bed. Evie made a growl-and-chase sound as she often does for a stray cat or a pedestrian outside the fence. (My pet has delusions of being a guard dog.)

I took out the trash, then brought Evie back in. My dog ground her face on the scatter rugs and rushed around the family room, blinking her eyes. I looked at her closely, and saw a yellow-brown substance on her white face, smelled an odor that far exceeded that of bug killer, decided that my dog was the carrier of the smell, and put her back outside. It’s said that a dog’s sense of smell is 1000 times more acute than a human’s. If she smelled that terrible to me, then how much more must she have been in distress with the scent right on her muzzle?

The “stray cat” turned out to be Pepé Le Peu, a cute, furry, black and white—skunk. My house is in a built-up suburb, but it’s four blocks from a dry river bed, superhighway to coyotes, possums, skunks, and wild creatures that roam the neighborhoods. Apparently, summer is a great season to be thieving vermin—if you like ripening tomatoes, avocados, peaches, and berries!

Naughty Evie had recently found fallen, overripe avocados and rolled in them: twice in one week. (Right, a black and white and green dog!) So the dog shampoo was already on the patio table. I poured a large amount into my hands and slathered it on Evie’s face and mane. She was clearly not happy at that, but I wasn’t finished. I brought her into the house and put her in the bathtub with the flexible shower head. I waited a moment until the water was warm, then started spraying the stink and dirt off my dog. She was even more unhappy, but I did more shampoo treatments and rinses, and Evie produced many showers of dog shampoo and water until I was also soaked. I towel-dried my dog on the bedroom floor, and brushed her long coat so it wouldn’t mat. At 12:15, I tossed the rugs and dog towels into the washing machine with plenty of detergent. At 1:00 a.m., I crawled into bed, almost too tired to sleep. I’d removed 85 percent of the odor, but various treatments would follow, including expensive skunk-deodorizer enzymes.

We often think of God’s love as conditional: If we keep the commandments, color within the lines, excel at our jobs, raise brilliant children, are successful in our careers, and win the Marathon because of our superior diet and exercise, God must really love us! We think we smell like the Mr. Lincoln rose, a heady perfume.

“If ” we’ve sinned, made mistakes, or come up short of expectations, we’re apt to think less of ourselves, that our efforts are failures, and that we need to hide from God until we straighten ourselves. He won’t bless us, love us, or listen to our prayers unless we’re perfect, or the best, or at least trying to be good. We come up smelling skunked. So God must love us less, right?

The answer, paradoxical to human thought, is NO. He cannot demonstrate His love for us in any greater way than this: while we were still stinking of skunk odor, He took the effects of our nasty scent on Himself, so that we could be washed brilliantly clean and be imparted the beauty and perfume of the Rose of Sharon.

Not only does God love us infinitely more than our wildest imaginings, He cannot love us less! That is a difficult thought for me, mired as I am in legalism and behavior-oriented religiosity. But Christ died to free us from that slavery to sin and legalism, and set us free to understand that His grace is limitless—in both directions on the continuum. He cannot love me more, He is incapable of loving me less. Praise His holy name.

God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:8-11 NIV.

When my dog reeked of skunk, did I love her less? Did I yell at her or spank her? Of course not! In fact, when she was deep in trouble, I was more caring and solicitous than ever. At risk of taking malodorous substance on myself, I tenderly groomed Evie, hours after my appointed bedtime. I murmured to her that I loved my doggie. But my experience is a molecule in the vast ocean of God’s love.

How much more the Father loves His children, even when we’re covered in sinful or rebellious acts. How He longs to wash us, and create new hearts and righteous spirits within us. Not because of who we are or what we’ve done, good or bad, but because of Who He is and what He’s done.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? ... absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. Romans 8:31-39 MSG.

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