October 1st, 2015
His name was “Tölpel” (Tohl-pul), synonymous with its sister and more familiar German word, “Dummkoff.” (That familiar epithet, if you remember, hurled by Herr Kommandant to Sgt Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes.)
It was a name of endearment–given by none other than Martin Luther to his dog.
Tölpel was to Luther far more than a pet though. He was yet more evidence of the graciousness of God. Inspired by Tölpel, Luther wrote what other dog-owners might eagerly nod their heads in agreement with,
“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”
In his dog and many dogs one could see a vibrant picture of devotion that men would do well to emulate. Taking note of Tölpel’s unflinching attentiveness to a table scrap, Luther confessed:
“Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.“
Luther, the man of letters, the monk of intense–almost compulsive–reflection, had from his canine companion come to learn something theologically profound. His dog had shown him something of his Lord perhaps his books and debates could not yield. His dog–his dog!–had come to disciple him in abstract ideas made concrete as inimitably as a four-legged creature could.
In that he is not alone.
Not long ago we let Tom Headland relate a “God story worth telling.” We’d heard that story, the first of many from many of you we hope, and “nominated” him to tell it to the church.
If you’ll forgive the appearances of nepotism, this week we’d like to nominate my daughter Savannah to share her own God-story worth telling. It’s one she might not have preferred to tell given the sorrowful circumstances that led to it.
See, she had to say goodbye to a best friend this week. One that walked on all fours, too. One whose name was Olaf–another name of endearment ascribed for its association with that etymologically-opaque term “doofus.” Allusive to his on-screen eponymous counterpart in Frozen, our Olaf struck that same blend of uncomprehending lovingkindness.
He’d been part of our family for a year and a half, a rescue dog of mixed breed with at least a little Schnauzer in him. And for the whole time we had him he demonstrated a fierce devotion and intense affection for us.
The problem was his loyalty to us overshot his capacity to restrain that against all we might be loyal to who visited our home. (Many of you have firsthand knowledge.) He was our protector and none else who might draw near were to be trusted.
So this last Monday we tearfully returned him to the veterinary from whence we received him, releasing him to a different future in a setting apart from us. We loved him but couldn’t let his love for us impinge further on all those we’d like to love in our home. As one new friend put it recently, “while your Gospel might offend your guests, your dog oughtn’t.”
In a world of geopolitical strife, economic turmoil, capital punishment, and climatic chaos, saying goodbye to a dog does not rank high, if at all, on the ledger of tragic occurrences.
Unless you’re nine. And the presence in your young life who perhaps showed you an unprecedented kind of unflinching adoration and enthusiasm has to be escorted from you down an antiseptic hallway into a room with unfamiliar animals.
Not to be consumed by the grief, on the cusp of that parting, Savannah wrote these words (whose every typo we gladly and proudly preserve in the transcription). She entitled these words, “The Walk.”
As I walked with Olaf, I cried. Olaf was my Best friend. I will always remember him, no matter what. “Olaf,” I said as I walked, “you are the Best pet I’ve ever had.” While I’m writing what just happend, I’m sitting with Olaf, probobley The last few menuts I’ll ever have with him. I can’t bring myself to look at him. Everybody is very sad. Even Seamus (Shamus) cried (and he’s 12) [to say nothing of the 44 year old —ed.] This is one of the hardest times in my life. Even when I’m only nine, it hurts like a knife diveing into my chest. I said to Olaf as I walked with him a few menuts ago, “Olaf, if I ever Did anything to you mean, I’m sorry. I never wanted to leave you. You mean a lot to me. Please forgive me for giveing You to Somebody else. I love you,” said I.
This is what I said to Olaf on our walk, “Olaf, when we adopted Jedidiah, his mommy Placed Jedidiah for adoption because she knew that if she kept him he would not get the Best care. So She let us keep him. That’s what I’m doing for you. I’m giving up being with you to save you. Jesus gave up his life for us. I’m not giving up my life for you, but I’m laying down a portion of my happyness for you.
We went inside, and I realized I never really thoute I ever had a Bestfriend. But now I realized that Olaf was always my One and Only, True and forever, my Best friend.
Of tales of children and their pets there is no end. For as long as there are both there will be stories of camaraderie, bliss, and communion of a sacred kind. But these heartfelt musings make for a God-story worth telling for several reasons.
They underscore how you’re never too young to discover how at the bottom of love is sacrifice. Whether young or old, they prove that the only thing worse than losing a best friend is never having had one; speaking of the risks of love, C.S. Lewis so bracingly said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.”
Mostly, they remind us that God may use perfectly mundane means to make plain to us exalted notions of faithfulness and sacrifice–even through what attracts fleas.
In telling us the story of her grief, Savannah told us the story of our hope. Answering that perennial question about whether animals are destined for glory, Luther was so bold as to assert, ““Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.” But while the sorrow of parting is no proof of its future reunion, it hearkens to that Story which no one saw coming but which, despite all, isn’t easily dismissed.
If you hear a story from someone in our community that offers an insight into God and the Gospel, nominate them to tell that story. Those stories need to be told.