Last weekend was a tough one in our household as our elderly Lab (15 year and 7 months old) finally succumbed to the struggles of age and declining health. We nearly lost him a couple of times along the way and in some ways it was not unexpected and yet it still came on quickly. He went from wandering around in his aimless, happy way to collapsing and unable to move himself very suddenly. We gathered around and said farewell to our old mate. We also brought out the photos – some in print form but most on some device or other – reflecting the various moods of Nebo.
Nebo was a lovely, gentle old dog, although in his younger days his eagerness to be everybody’s best friend was a bit full on and bowled people over. He had a face that instantly drew people in – friendly, inviting, sometimes pathetic and his big brown eyes engaged you fully. Nebo was a faithful, friendly, loveable, and loving animal to other dogs, animals, and humans. I can’t remember him having enemies or really getting angry and rough with anyone or anything, even when playing. There was a humility and vulnerability about Nebo. He owned nothing in his life and was quite dependent upon us for most of his primary needs. He lived in the moment and enjoyed what was happening in that moment – even sleeping, but especially eating. ‘Now’ was the moment when life was lived – not yesterday of last week, nor tomorrow or even an hour’s time.
Perhaps one of the most significant things I learn from Nebo, beyond patience, persistence and perseverance, faithfulness, loyalty… is that he was who he was. Nebo, like all of our pets are who they are and don’t try to be anything different! They don’t try to become another, more impressive animal or even a different species of dog. They don’t try to be something they are not. It is fascinating that dogs are what they are, but so are the trees and creek, and so many other elements of creation. It seems that it is only us humans who try to be what we aren’t, to impress others and become what we think we’d like to be, something more popular.
I read an interesting blog through the week where the person suggested that power as it is mostly experienced in our world, circles around numbers. Numbers and popularity are important for powerful people to maintain their power and control, whether through fear and control or through gaining popularity and numbers. So much of our world is around convincing others of the ‘rightness’ of a particular path, a particular belief system or ideology. There is much competition around ideas, beliefs, power, wealth, fame and about being correct. There is much self-esteem and ego invested in being popular or powerful or right or… We often live for the sake of impressing others, gaining respect, fitting into the dominant group, appeasing others whom we fear… This becomes tiring and wearing. It leads us into a place of confusion over who we are as we become what think we need to be within the context we find ourselves in. Playing the numbers game can lead us into accepting particular systems of belief and practice that are not true to who we are nor ultimately life-giving. We can find ourselves moving in directions that lead us away from our core experience, beliefs or sense of being because we fear getting off-side with other people of power, influence or authority.
Something of this lies behind the particular readings our churches will read this week – Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13. In the Philippians poem Paul, some years after Jesus, tried to reflect something of the vulnerable and humble nature of Jesus who draws us into a relationship of love and interconnectivity, of relational, inclusive community. He describes how Christ takes on flesh and is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, a limiting, vulnerable and humble state. He proceeds in the way of truth, love and justice rather than seek ways of appealing to popularity or power – so much so, he is ultimately crucified. Jesus heads in a direction where power and wealth become uncomfortable with his words, his influence and his passion. Instead of compromising his way, the way of God, Jesus stands firm and recognises that he must be true to who he is and true to God but this path will lead to death! This is a humble and vulnerable path of love.
The story from Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus confronting religious leaders. They don’t like his presumptive ways. Jesus forgives people and speaks of God as loving all people and embracing the poor, ignorant and wayward. He forgives people in God’s name and lifts them into an awareness of God’s love for them and all people – and all the earth.
In this story from Matthew, Jesus speaks of a father with 2 sons. He asks the first, the one who is obliging, obedient and in a good space to do something. The son agrees: he offers the pious affirmation to the father. It is, in a sense, about belief, giving ascent to the father but he doesn’t actually do anything. The second, wayward son is also asked and he says no, you know I won’t or can’t… He does not hold to the belief system and does not affirm anything in his father’s statement, but he goes and does the very thing his father wants. Jesus is not so subtly suggesting that those who give ascent to God don’t necessarily do what God wants – ie. love! Similarly, not everyone who refuses to give ascent to God fails to do what God really wants – they may choose the way of love, and sometimes without even realising it.
Both of these stories invite us into the deeper story and meaning of what it is to be human. Whilst the religious leaders defend their turf on the grounds of Scripture, tradition and law, they are defending a status quo in which they benefit but has little to do with love and what God is really about. The Jesus portrayed by Paul is one who is humble and loving and is motivated by compassion and the pull of love. This Jesus Story is one that welcomes us into its transformative richness. It opens our vision to deeper mystery and wonder and the profound power of love – for God, other people and the earth.
Our beloved dog, Nebo, reminds me of the beauty of vulnerability, humility and learning to be who I am rather than impress others by being someone I’m not. I am also encouraged to live in the way of love, which is the way of Jesus and to live this out in all parts of my being – because this is who I am called to be and the way into deeper humanity and life. Our world needs less ego, less protestations of power, less lusting after control, wealth, fame and more loving humility and grace. More of Nebo would bring a peaceful, gentle world where we would gather around food and play, take time for sleep and rest, be eager to befriend anyone and everyone and live life fully in each moment.
Jesus’ way is vulnerable, gentle, loving, just and inclusive. It takes great courage and a deep sense of our own identity, found fully in our status of being loved in God and not having to prove ourselves because we are loved as we are and invited to simply ‘be’.