Let’s praise the Lord that May is here; a warming earth now brings us cheer;
The flowers in their showy bloom, prepare to strike the winter’s gloom;
For spring that pushes cold away, gains strength with every passing day;
But though it’s now a fading threat, the artic chill I can’t forget.
My memory of this past winter will not be dispelled by a few warm days and a cheerful show of spring blossoms. It isn’t just the gloomy weather that’s hard to forget, but the endless days of bone-chilling cold that started in early December and extended well into April. Although we did not have a lot of snow, the winds were unrelenting as they easily drove the cold through multiple layers of clothing. Our local snowbirds headed south at the first sign of frost last fall. No deep winter freeze for them as they fled the coming onslaught by sheltering in the far southern reaches of the Sunshine State. I confess to feeling a bit jealous at times when seeing social media posts of walks on sandy beaches in wide-brimmed hats and Bermuda shorts. But pity us not, because it was Pat’s and my choice to once again ride out the winter here in the north. This would have been unremarkable except for a new activity that compelled me to go outside every day. Walking the dog.
Winter is normally a time when I hunker down. Falling temperatures and rising winds signal a time for covering with a blanket and reading a good book. Certainly not for venturing outside for a walk. But not this year. For we now have a puppy! And Daisy needs to go outside every day. No excuses allowed. When she needs to go out, she needs to go out; and because our yard is not fenced, a person must always be on the far end of her leash. It is critical that dogs are exercised daily to keep them healthy and to avoid bad habits born of lethargy. [A principle that is also true for people.] Although Pat often takes her out for a short morning walk, I have become the Exerciser-in-Chief. For the most part, I am very happy to have this role, notwithstanding that for too many days this past winter the weather was dreadful. Still, there was no reprieve from the daily chore. Walking the dog.
The decision to get a puppy last year was based on Pat’s and my mutual desire to raise a therapy dog – for visiting hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities to cheer and encourage the lonely and the sick. Although our decision was intentional, the scope of the effort was masked by our exuberance when we looked at the first litter of Cavachon puppies. These being pretty much the embodiment of cuteness! So in our enthusiasm we took the plunge – like stepping off a high dive – and suddenly we were faced with the care of this new life. One thing I did not completely consider before the “adoption” was that I was the logical, indeed only choice to handle the bulk of Daisy’s demanding exercise routine. To be honest, going out in cold, windy, and often wet winter weather is not the path I would choose if I followed my natural leanings. But I do it out of my love for Pat, a vision for training a therapy dog, and an expanding understanding of spiritual growth. Born of love was this commitment. Walking the dog.
Consider this composite vignette of a typical winter’s outing. It is a frosty morning as Daisy and I leave the house for our first walk of the day. I brace myself against the cold as I step out of the warm garage and into a cold wind that strikes my face like a swarm of angry bees. Daisy seems oddly unaffected by the conditions and eagerly trots forward, nose to the ground. I, on the other hand, hunch my shoulders and pull my hood tighter as we start our trek heading east up the street. Despite the cold, I am struck by the physical environment of our neighborhood and by all that I miss when living indoors. From the inside, it is a two-dimensional world looking out through a window. But outside all is 3-D with the added dimensions of sound, touch and smell. And today there is much of the natural world to experience. Walking the dog.
We pause at the upper pond to consider an unusual flock of ducks that are wintering there. These are our resident Mallards with a single white duck in their fold, which is no doubt an escapee from domesticated stock. How strange it seems to see this large white duck living in easy harmony with the Mallards. No fighting or ostracism that I observe as they waddle together across the ice and drop effortlessly into an open hole of frigid water. It occurs to me that we humans could learn something from this flock of ducks, particularly amid deepening political divisions in our country. How easily we judge those of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities. And how fearful many of us have become as a result. Lord, forgive me where I have judged others wrongly; renew in me a desire for peace and unity; and lead me to live by Your word, “How wonderful and good to live in unity and peace, To dwell in perfect harmony where joy and love increase.”(Psalm 133:1) Meditating, reflecting, praying. Walking the dog.
We cross over onto the main path and after several minutes meet a couple walking closely arm-in-arm, a long-haired spaniel at their side. They are neighbors who have lived in our development for several years, but I have never met. The dogs sniff each other, as we people exchange our own brief greetings. Not a long or deep conversation, but enough to establish a first connection. I have met more neighbors in the past ten months while walking Daisy than in the preceding ten years. I reflect on this with regret. How isolated I have become. I have probably read the parable of the Good Samaritan a hundred times, and yet I barely know most of my neighbors. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”(Philippians 2:4) How can I look out for the interests of neighbors whom I’ve never met? Walking the dog.
Daisy and I make our turn for home at the edge of a woodlot where a Red-bellied Woodpecker has established its territory. Some days I hear it pecking for insects in the trunks of dead trees, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of it as it flits from tree to tree. Today, however, I hear its shrill call, sort of a rolling churrr that echoes in the forest. As we quicken our pace against the cold, the call stops and only the gusting wind breaks the silence of the day. In a month or so there will be cardinals, robins, and Tufted Titmice to serenade us; but for now we hear only the wind and our footsteps. Yet the day has one more surprise for us as again we pass the pond that feeds the stream running behind our house. For in a Mountain pine on a ledge above the pond, a Song Sparrow is stirring in its winter’s nest. And here on this coldest of days we hear it sing out with a few tentative notes of its beautiful lyrical trill. Not the full song, but enough of its joyous call to remind me that, “The birds are safe in trees that thrive where rivers rush along; they nest among the verdant leaves and sing a happy song.”(Psalm 104:12) I am never alone when I hear the sounds of nature, like getting a top-off for my soul. Walking the dog.
Coming to the end of our walk, I feel physically invigorated from the outing. Walking thus twice a day, the distance adds up – perhaps as many as twenty miles per week. But the greater benefit is spiritual. “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”(1 Timothy 4:8) For me, the discipline of walking the dog daily has become a spiritual discipline. As I reflect on the benefits, I see opportunities for spiritual health – finding God in the natural world, getting to know my neighbors, and experiencing periods of solitude for thinking and praying. I have seen many lists of traditional (and nontraditional) spiritual disciplines, but this is one I have never seen. Walking a dog.
Jesus said we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We do this by seeking the sacred in the secular, by seeing the costly in the commonplace, and by securing the everlasting in the everyday events of life. There is virtually no activity so prosaic that it cannot be redeemed for the kingdom of God. Brother Lawrence famously practiced the presence of God in the scullery where he was scrubbing dishes. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is in your midst,” (Luke 17:21) which tells me it can be discovered wherever it is sought. Even walking a dog.
How happy those who know God’s word and from it won’t depart,
And who are ever seeking Him with all their mind and heart. (Psalm 119:2)