I said goodbye to a good friend this week. Bodhi, my Labrador Retriever took his last breath on Tuesday afternoon after about 16 years of life. I cannot begin to express the hole in my heart. I can't really remember what it felt like to not have Bodhi in my life. Bodhi's story is so much part of my story that it is going to take me some time to reconsider my own narrative without that gentle, loving dog.
Bodhi is as much a part of my spiritual journey as any person I can think of. I live my life now as a pastor, and ordained leader in the Church of Jesus Christ. But when Bodhi entered my life, I was not - not a pastor, not a Christian, not a shadow of the person that I now am. Because I am a Christian and a pastor now, I have access to a vocabulary, words to try and explain what God was doing in my life. I now know that we were all created for a relationship with God. I also know that God reaches out to us through what we refer to as prevenient grace. That prevenient grace is God's unconditional love reaching out to us, calling to us, even when we don't know what it is or have any interest in responding to it. I believe that it was that prevenient grace of God that called me to make the most absurd decision - to get a dog. Getting a dog is not an absurd decision, unless you are a twenty-something, overachieving, self-centered, radio disc jockey who was more likely to be working an extra shift, locked up in a production studio or doing a midnight appearance at a bar than to be doing the sort of things dog owners do. In fact, I wasn't really sure what dog owners did, but it probably made sense that they were home sometimes.
With this clear thinking in mind I got the perfect dog for someone with limited time and misaligned priorities - a Labrador Retriever. Ask any lab owner, they will tell you that they take very little time and effort, once they pass age 7 or 8 or maybe 9. Going from pure bachelorhood to being charged with caring for a pure-bread, high-drive bundle of love and destruction was more of a shock to my system than becoming a father.
Bodhi changed my life. Bodhi completely changed my life. For the very first time, I had no choice but to look outside myself and learn to love and care for "the other." I had been in relationships. I had friends and girlfriends. But this was different. With friends and girlfriends, I always selfishly chose how much of myself I wanted to offer. I could alway retreat when I didn't feel I was gaining anything. But now, there was something other than me that needed me. My choices could no longer be solely based on what I wanted. There was a life that depended on me for food, exercise, training and love. If I failed to provide any of these things in a proper manner, that life would let me know in loving ways like barking, peeing on the floor, eating the leg of my table, or somehow gnawing through the drywall in the kitchen.
I didn't realize in the midst of it, how profound a change was occurring within me. Maybe Bodhi did. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "Lord, let me be as good a person as my dog thinks I am." I don't pretend to know what really goes on in the minds of dogs. I cannot speak to what their level of understanding or "love" is. But what we receive from good dogs is a feeling of unconditional love. So, as God was reaching out to me with that prevenient grace, that unconditional love was being demonstrated to me through Bodhi. Bodhi was the all the best that a lab can be. He was fun and crazy and sweet and snuggly. In my twenties, as I was trying to understand my life and its purpose, as everything in life that I thought could bring me joy was failing me, as I was searching and searching for something I couldn't seem to find, I would get to come home to this dog who seemed to believe that the news that my returning to the house was the greatest thing that ever happened! Just the idea of getting petted, taking a little walk and throwing a Frisbee was celebrated everyday as a grand celebration. I learned years later, as I read the parable of the prodigal son that Bodhi was showing me a glimpse of the love of God and the celebration that occurs when we finally respond to God's calling to us.
Bodhi also caused, or maybe forced me to open my eyes to the world that God created. Sporting dogs like to walk. So, walk we did. We walked for miles in the woods behind the house that I moved into just before I got him. (My apartment building was a dog-free zone.) I learned the art of hiking. Bodhi and I hiked hundreds of miles together in parks and forests, streams and mountains. He introduced me to a slower way of living that allowed me to look around and take in the wonder. That walking and that wonder caused me to ask bigger questions and seek new answers.
While Bodhi forced me to reconsider my life, he was quite patient to go along for the bumpy ride of my journey. When I decided to move to Texas to figure out the next phase of my life, Bodhi hopped in the truck. When I decided that might not have been the right choice, Bodhi climbed in again and joined me for a two-week cross-country camping trip. When I decided to head back to Austin, he was right by my side. When I came home from my baptism, he greeted me with the same tail wag and famous bunny hop that greeted me every day. When I first felt a calling to full-time ministry, he joined me for a week in the woods of the back country of New Mexico as I sorted through what God was doing in my life. So are dogs just incredibly resilient or do they just see the big picture?
As I consider the events of my life since my twenties, I can picture where Bodhi was. If he wasn't next to me, I can tell you where I had to leave him - in the kennel at the house while I was at work, in the boarding kennel if I had to fly away, at my sister's house for my first semester of seminary. It is going to take me a while to get my brain not to leave that bookmark. As I write this in a hotel in Dallas, I am catching my brain checking in... he is in good hands, but I can't locate him.
In the second half of his life Bodhi got a new job. He was still my dog but he took to a different role. When I met my wife Alisha, Bodhi was crazy about her, like she was supposed to be there. Just after our marriage, Alisha had major surgery. I think Bodhi decided that his major work was done with me and I am pretty sure he spent most of the rest of his life taking care of her. I know some people doubt exactly how far the intelligence and sensitivities of dogs goes, but dog experts make a pretty good case for the power of canine instincts and perception. Ask the owner of a good dog, dogs like to have a job. Bodhi glued to her side. Bodhi was part of changing who I was and when it became necessary, he changed to take care of the one I love. As his bones grew older, he was much more suited to snuggling and napping than running and hiking.
When I preside at funerals, I almost always begin with a prayer asking God to help us to move beyond our regrets surrounding the one we have lost. I ask God to to remove the regret for things we wish we had done for or with the person but didn't. I ask God to remove the regret things we said or did that we wish we hadn't. I just regret that I didn't offer Bodhi back as much grace as he offered me. Not just for his sake, but for mine. I could have stopped on our walk to let him smell one more thing. We could have taken more trips to the lake or ocean. I could have spent hours and hours more rubbing his ears. He would have enjoyed it and I would have been a better human being. But the love of Bodhi reflects the grace of God, he didn't love me more or less because of who I was or what I did.
I am so grateful to God for Bodhi. It will take a long time to fill that space in my heart, in my mind and in my life. But I was truly blessed to have such a friend.