Sunday, October 12, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish in Portland, Maine
Sunday October 12, 2008


I am standing on the sea shore,

A ship sails in the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.

She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her Till at last she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says: “She is gone.”

Gone! Where?

Gone from my sight - that is all.

She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her.

And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.

The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “She is gone,” there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout: “There she comes”

-- and that is dying. 

An horizon and just the limit of our sight.

Lift us up, Oh Lord, that we may see further.
--Bishop Charles Henry Brent 1862 - 1926


I know this may come as a surprise to many of you given everything I’ve just read, but I never really cared that much for dogs when I was younger. I always saw myself as more of a cat person. In fact, when I was a teenager, I figured that you could pretty much divide up the entire world according to these two categories. Cat people were graceful and free and independent, while dog people were sort of dull and stupid and noisy. Cat people went on to become artists and poets and musicians and (of course) sailors, while dog people owned “stinkpots,” and became cops and used car salesmen and Junior High School Vice Principals. Cat people liked to do their own thing, and go their own way, and mind their own business; while dog people were always sniffing around (and sticking their noses in where they really didn’t belong), digging things up, barking for attention, slobbering EVERYWHERE, and generally hounding us cat people up a tree.

My father was a dog person. As those of you who have met him may already know, when I was growing up my father worked as a regional sales manager for a large pharmaceutical company; and then later in his career became a sales trainer and process improvement consultant for several different large, multinational corporations. He knew how to sit up and fetch and roll over and shake hands, and qualities like loyalty, discipline, tenacity and obedience were very important to him. I didn't really appreciate that when I was a teenager. I just thought it was rather ridiculous of him to try to get a cat like me to wear a leash like his.

Of course, now that I am older (and have been the parent of two teenaged children of my own), I understand these things a lot better. And my estimation of cats has fallen considerably in that time. They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but in my experience you can't teach a cat of any age much of anything at all, except maybe when to eat and where to excrete, two things that most dogs learn far more quickly than do human children. The reason that curiosity killed the cat was that the cat was too stupid to get out of harm's way. No dog that I've ever known has managed to get itself stuck up a tree and out on a limb, unable to get down of its own volition!

Dogs are courageous where cats are cowardly; dogs are affectionate where cats are aloof; dogs come when they're called and stay where they're told and only very rarely bite the hand that feeds them. There are some archeologists who estimate that dogs have been part of human society for as long as 25,000 years, and all 400-plus breeds you see today are still members of a single species. A cat may occasionally catch a bothersome rodent and deposit it in your bed where you'll be sure to find it and appreciate it most first thing in the morning; but dogs can be trained to bring you your slippers and your newspaper, to protect your home from intruders, to guide the blind, herd sheep, hunt ducks, and do hundreds of other useful jobs in exchange for their bed and board.

Of course, I'm speaking of dogs in general now; not all dogs live up to the promise of their species. And unlike my good friend and Harvard classmate Gary Kowalski, I'm not quite ready yet to ordain dogs to the ministry, whatever their virtues as spiritual advisors. "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine" saith the Scripture. I don’t know about you, but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable about going for counseling to a therapist who growled, barked, whimpered and whined for a fifty-minute hour, and then licked my face when the session was over. A dog may well be "a man's best friend," but somebody has got to draw the line somewhere!

Actually, my dog, The Adorable Parker, although named for a famous 19th-century Unitarian theologian, possessed very few of the spiritual qualities enumerated by Gary. But compared to her predecessors, Calvin and Luther, she was a saint! Those two “Big Dawgs” certainly had healthy enough appetites, liked to exercise, and got at least eight hours of sleep a day (usually on the couch); but they lived for junk food (pizza was their favorite), and one Christmas they stole a 20 pound turkey out of our kitchen where it was thawing overnight. Of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, dejection, avarice, gluttony, and lust — I knew them to be relatively free only of the last, and that due to a surgical procedure performed by the veterinarian when they were still puppies, and not because of any special piety on their part.

Over the years, my dogs have proven amiable enough companions: loyal, friendly, and reasonably obedient if I'm there to keep an eye on them; but they were hardly saints, and even Parker loved nothing better than to tear through the garbage in search of a tasty tidbit the moment I let her out of my sight.

Martin Luther once wished that he "could only pray the way this dog looks at meat;" while the 17th century English metaphysical poet George Herbert insightfully noted that "He who lies with the dogs, riseth with fleas." Samuel Butler observed that "The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too."

Yet perhaps no one learned more about life from dogs than the "dog philosopher" himself, Diogenes of Sinope, the original Cynic, whose philosophy of cynicism takes its name from the Greek word for dog. Diogenes believed that one could obtain spiritual liberation by minimizing one's physical needs and freeing oneself from the foolish pleasures and conventions of society. In this respect, he was very much like Henry David Thoreau, who in his day was sometimes called the “Diogenes of Concord,” and who learned to measure his own wealth by the things he could afford to do without.

But Diogenes went far beyond Thoreau in his effort to achieve self-realization through the rejection of the "artificial" values of human society. He literally lived like a dog in a tub on the outskirts of Corinth, where his acerbic criticism of pretense and vanity soon gained him quite a reputation throughout Greece. It is said that Diogenes was once visited by the Epicurean philosopher Aristippus, who through his skill at flattery had earned himself a comfortable place at the court of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse. Seeing Diogenes preparing a meager meal of lentils, Aristippus told him "if you would only learn to [pay a] compliment, you wouldn't have to live on lentils." "And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter Dionysius," retorted the Cynic.

Alexander the Great likewise sought out Diogenes, and found him sunning himself, just as a dog might, there near his tub on the outskirts of town. When Alexander asked whether there was any way which he, the conqueror of the known world, might serve the philosopher, Diogenes asked him to "Stand out of my sun." But when Alexander's entourage began to ridicule the Cynic, Alexander reportedly silenced them with the comment "If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes."

In yet another story, Alexander comes upon Diogenes examining a heap of human bones. "What are you looking for?" the king inquires. "I am looking for the bones of your father," replies the Cynic, "but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves."

Nowadays we think of Cynicism as that attitude which sees the worst in every situation, which questions the sincerity of people's motives, sneers at the hint of goodness or compassion, and assumes that most folks act out of their own narrow self-interest, with little concern for the happiness or well-being of those around them. To the cynic all politicians are liars, all businessmen are crooks, (I hesitate to repeat the things they say about the clergy); and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool, deserving of whatever injustice they may suffer.

Yet dogs, as a rule, are loyal, honest, trusting creatures, eager to please and devoted to a fault, whatever cynical motives we may attribute to them. I can't really blame them for preferring Pizza to Purina or the the living room couch to a crate in the garage; I suspect I'd feel exactly the same way if the choice were left to me. What is truly amazing about dogs is their capacity for near-unconditional love, an instinctive affection for human kind engraved upon their souls by ten thousand years of breeding and training. A dog WANTS to love its owner, more than anything else in the world, and will often do so in defiance of its own best interests.

Calvin came into our household as a death camp survivor, literally rescued from the Midland County Pound seconds before he was scheduled to be euthanized. An AKC registered Weimaraner who had been badly abused by its previous owners, and then abandoned when they moved away, he was a good twenty to thirty pounds underweight when he came to live with us -- his ribs were clearly visible beneath his flesh, and a mere movement of the hand was enough to send him cowering in a corner. He barked all night, he peed in the house, he chewed up everything he could get his teeth on; but his one great fear was the fear of being abandoned again, and once that fear was set at ease, as we fattened him up with scraps from our table and allowed him to sleep on the floor at the foot of our bed, he became as devoted a house pet as anyone could ask for.

Luther had a slightly different story. Luther was what you might call a "puppy of a lesser dog" — a congenitally deaf Dalmatian who somehow managed to turn his head at precisely the moment the veterinarian snapped his fingers, and thus escaped the fate which ordinarily awaits "defective" purebred dogs. It's tempting, I suppose, to feel pity for Luther, living as he did in a silent world all his own. But being deaf wasn’t something that Luther generally lost any sleep over; as far as he was concerned, he was just another dog, who didn’t know or care much about what he might have been missing. And he didn’t miss much, at least not in the way of trouble: he could bark and chew and dig and strew garbage with the best of them. Moreover, sirens, thunderstorms, and Fourth of July firecrackers were no big deal for that hearing-impaired canine; and I swear he could smell the Pizza truck coming up the street long before Calvin heard it pull into our driveway.

Parker was, is, and in many ways shall always be my “forever dog." A “pet-quality” Boston Terrier (although we sometimes refered to her as a Boston Terroist), whose non-standard markings imperfect gait had likewise caused her to be rejected by her original owners, in many ways she represented to us the best of all possible worlds: a cat-sized critter with the heart and personality of a full-sized Canis Lupus Familiaris. For over thirteen years she was my near-constant companion: we slept in the same bed, often ate from the same plate (only after I was FINISHED, of course), and for many years pretty much spent every waking moment together (which sounds a lot more impressive than it was, considering the amount of time she slept). I loved her as a puppy; learned to appreciate her more fully as a fully-grown dog; and in her final days she taught me once again the essential truth of Forrest Church’s definition of religion as ‘our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”

She reminded me as well of Forrest’s more trenchant theological observation (which I have quoted now at practically every Memorial Service I have conducted since I first read it more than a decade ago), that “knowing that we are going to die not only places an acknowledged limit on our lives, it also lends a special intensity and poignancy to the time we are given to live and love. The fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes in part from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, [of course, dogs...] even life itself. It also comes from the faith required to sustain that courage, the faith that life, howsoever limited and mysterious, contains at its margins, often at their very edges, a meaning that is redemptive.”

Proverbs 26:11 reads "Like a dog that returns to his own vomit is the fool that repeats his folly." Yet as unappetizing as it may sound, this is precisely the genius of dogs: their eagerness to please, the tenacity of their love, their willingness to try again and again to do what is asked them in exchange for the smallest token of our affection. The cynics may find this a foolish virtue, but within it, perhaps, lies a lesson for the spirit: a lesson in loyalty, discipline, tenacity and obedience which leads to a larger liberty of the soul, a tolerance for difference and diversity, the courage to devote ourselves to that which is not ours to keep, and a reward of unconditional acceptance that transcends the limits of our understanding, yet still awakens deep within us our own capacity for love.


[I’ve known Gary Kowalski for about 30 years now; he was a classmate of mine at the Harvard Divinity School, and currently serves as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington Vermont. He is without a doubt one of the smartest people I’ve ever known; in fact, I sometimes like to joke that I have only had three good ideas in my lifetime, and that two of them started out as Gary’s. In addition to his work as a Unitarian Universalist minister, Gary has also developed a whole second career as an author and an animal rights activist. Two of his books in particular touch on my topic for today: Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet is the 7th-best selling book in its catagory at Amazon this week, while his earlier book The Souls of Animals is now in a second edition, and contains a widely-quoted passage about the virtues of dogs as spiritual advisors which has always been a particular favorite of mine. But even before Gary published that book, I’d seen (and saved) an earlier draft of that particular passage from one of his church newsletter columns, and since we have a little extra time today, I thought I’d read them both....]


from The Souls of Animals by Gary Kowalski

My dog has deep knowledge to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn’t hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes. Like a true Zen master, he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. He’s not hung up about sex. Best of all, he befriends me with an unconditional love that human beings would do well to emulate.

Chinook does have his failings, of course. He’s afraid of firecrackers and hides in the clothes closet whenever we run the vacuum cleaner, but unlike me he’s not afraid of what other people think of him or anxious about his public image. He barks at the mail carrier and the newsboy, but in contrast with some people I know he never growls at the children or barks at his wife.

So my dog is a sort of guru. When I become too serious and preoccupied, he reminds me of the importance of frolicking and play. When I get too wrapped up in abstractions and ideas, he reminds me of the importance of exercising and caring for my body. On his own canine level, he shows me that it might be possible to live without inner conflicts or neuroses: uncomplicated, genuine, and glad to be alive.

“FROM THE STUDY” by Gary Kowalski

My dog is my therapist and my spiritual advisor. He models healthy values for me. He has a sound appetite, gets plenty of exercise, and sleeps at least eight hours a day. He doesn't drink or smoke. He makes friends easily, doesn't carry a grudge, and has a healthy and uninhibited expression of sexual needs. He doesn't eat junk food. He doesn't worry excessively or hang on to regrets, but pretty much takes each day as it comes. He doesn't know the meaning of life, but he enjoys almost every minute of it.

I believe the essentials required for happiness are not too complicated: nutritious food, fresh air, going for walks, and someone to pat us on the tail when we go to sleep at night. These basics are within the reach of most people. If you're seeking a fulfillment that eludes you consider: contentment may be a bone buried in your own back yard.