Paws, Prayers and the Precarious Middle
A few weeks ago, I was at the lake, sitting on the dock alone, a cup of coffee steaming on the arm of my Adirondack chair. Grizzly was swimming his usual laps around the dock. Suddenly it was too quiet, the splashing and puffing of breath sounds had stopped. I had the nervous feeling a mom gets when her child is out of sight and quiet for too long.
“Grizzly, Come!” I yelled. I listened. It was quiet—uncomfortably quiet for too many seconds.
“Grizzly! Where are you?” I yelled again. “I get nervous when I can’t see you.” I could feel anxiety rising within me.
Within a few seconds he came bounding from behind the house. I stroked his face in relief and felt silly for the feeling of panic. Then I realized that what had come from my voice wasn’t just for Grizzly. It was was prayer.
I stared into my dog’s brown eyes and wondered at what was going on. How did calling for this dog bring me to this moment of prayer?
“Listen to everything you say to Grizzly.” This phrase bubbled up in my mind.
Maybe the best prayers are the ones you hear yourself say and then wonder, “Why did I just say that?” Perhaps that’s part of what Paul meant when he said the Spirit prays within us when we don’t know how to pray. Earlier in the summer, I’d just finished walking my favorite labyrinth one day and as I took the last steps out, heard myself asking, “to be faithful to my call, to steward it well, and to be willing to follow wherever it takes me, unafraid to fully embrace it.”
No sooner than the words formed in my consciousness did I wonder why I said that: “willing to follow and unafraid to embrace.” What was I even talking about? My life for the last several months has been about managing resources and space and risks. Staying safe had been and still is a high priority.
I’ve had two dogs in my life die by drowning. The first was a Boston Terrier on a family camping trip when I was a child. “Buck” had been swimming with us all day when suddenly one wave went over his head and he didn’t pop back up. Twenty-five years later, we had a Boston Terrier named Glamorous Glennis who drowned in our fish pond. An alligator had pulled her in while she was near the water’s edge. By grace, my husband and I found her and pulled her ashore but it was too late to save her.
I’m sure my anxiety about Grizzly in the water has roots in those two events. Those moments of ‘too quiet’ brought it up and out.
“I get nervous when I can’t see you,” characterizes my relationship to Jesus too. Though my mind knows that He is not my felt sense or experience of presence or absence, I get nervous when I can’t sense Him near.
That phrase - “I get nervous when I can’t see you,” - That’s real prayer. True-self prayer. It’s admitting vulnerability, fear of loss and being alone. It’s facing my humanity and confessing unbelief. Sometimes I only believe what I can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. I forget there are ways to see Jesus and I’m slothful about training my eyes to them.
I know that a beloved dog can drown, or that a thousand other bad things can happen out of nowhere on a beautiful sunny day. How to keep living in that reality and not be gripped by constant anxiety is a question I am living. Denial is not the answer; it’s the poor and unhealthy other extreme.
There is a precarious middle.
“Start listening,” the still small voice says to me. “Start listening to everything you say to Grizzly.”
This dog, bounding into my life embodying truth, is teaching me how to pray. My real self, the one who buried her face in Grizzly’s fur and counts on him to look menacing on our walks, that girl is the one who is talking to Jesus more. Not the teacher, not the middle-aged empty nester who thought she would have life figured out by now, not “Julie, the Cruise Director” (she’s dead), not any of the people I’ve thought I ought to be.
I don’t try to present a false self to my dog. I don’t feel shame if he knows I am scared or weak or annoyed or hurt. I let him see my vulnerability, it’s actually the reason I have him. I do not want to walk alone. That’s how I want it to be with Jesus. The real me showing up. The scared one, the weak one, the true self who needs to know she is not alone- ever.
The precarious middle is this: We live and move and have our being in him, dwelling in Christ and He dwelling in us. In that place we are fully alive, fully aware, denying nothing yet fearing nothing either. I choose the word precarious because none of us lives in perfect awareness. None of us constantly remembers that Jesus is always with us. None of us always shows up as our real self in prayer.
But for all of us it is always possible. My hope is to stay in that middle place longer, being present to whatever is before me, trusting that I am circled and protected, and praying as honestly and easily as I talk to my dog.