The Gospel According to Gigi

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The Gospel According to Gigi

A summer sermon preached in
Current River United Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario, on
Sunday. August 31, 2003
by Hugh MacDonald

It’s good to be “home again”. I have very happy memories of the interim ministry that Ken Moffatt and I shared at Current River United Church; and, while there have been changes in this church and this congregation, this still feels very much like home.

There have been changes in my life, too, since I was here. Ten years bring many changes: physical changes, of course; my hair is disappearing and my joints now “creak” -- but also spiritual changes. When I was a minister here, I was sure of many things about which I now have doubts. I no longer have “pat answers” to the great mysteries of life. In fact, four or five years ago, I virtually gave up preaching. For a time, the Gospel seemed to me to be incredible.

I knew I was not alone in my doubts. A number of men have left the ministry and the priesthood and a number of lay folk have left the Church, not because they want to do so, but simply because Christianity no longer seems to make sense. For them continuing to claim the childlike faith they once had is impossible. The Gospel seems too preposterous! And so many thinking people are abandoning the faith. For many of us, both clergy and laity, it’s no longer possible to swallow all the simple formulas and pat answers that our great-grandparents once regarded as certain.

As I say, I must confess that my own understanding of Christianity has been undergoing a deep change. Four or five years ago, I found myself wandering through the dark valley of doubt. And then, just thirty-eight months ago, I gained a little friend who immediately began to give me a new perspective on what life is all about. She began to help me see my relationship with God in a new light; in these last three years, this little friend has been reminding me of some obvious spiritual truths which I had been forgetting. She’s a little French girl; and before I try to tell you what she has taught me, I’d like you all to meet her for a moment . . . .

(Gigi appears and is lifted into my arms where she will remain for the rest of the sermon.)


This is my best little friend, Gigi. She’s a Bichon Frisé, thirty-eight months old. She weighs only nine pounds, but she rules our home and our hearts. And, as I say, while she is bringing me great joy, she is also renewing my faith. We have just now read in the Old Testament about God speaking to one of His prophets through the voice of a donkey. Well, if God can speak through donkeys, He can most certainly speak through dogs. Dogs are special creatures, and they can teach us much.

Dogs are so much part of our society that I was astounded when I turned to the Bible and discovered that it really doesn’t have a good word to say about dogs. In the Scriptures, there are over one hundred references to dogs; and hardly one of them is flattering. Dogs are seen as wild creatures that forage in dumps and eat unburied corpses; they lap up the blood of victims after violent deaths; around the household, they are of no use except to gobble down the scraps beneath dining tables. In the Biblical perspective, one of the biggest insults you can give a person is to call him a “dog”. Dogs are seen as worthless, unclean, good only for warding off wolves. (Even today, Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims would never contemplate having dogs in their homes.)

All this seems very strange to me, for the Bible praises other animals. Horses, cattle, and oxen, for example, all are seen as worthy animals. And sheep? Why sheep have a starring role in the Bible! “We are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of His hand.” “God is a Shepherd who knows His sheep and calls each one by name.” “He leads us beside still waters and into green pastures.” We are all familiar with paintings of Jesus, holding a little lamb in His arms, while surrounded by an admiring flock of sheep. He is “the Good Shepherd”. I wonder if any artist has ever felt a similar impulse to paint Jesus as “the Good Master”, with a little puppy in His arms and a pack of dogs staring up at Him, wagging their tails. Probably not; dogs somehow have never made their way into our faith. (I venture to guess that Gigi is the first dog that has ever been in this pulpit.)

I

Let me tell you what Gigi has taught me about myself, about life, and about God. There are three truths, perhaps four, of which she has made me aware. And the first is this: I don’t have to understand God in order to have a relationship with Him. Let me repeat: we don’t have to understand God in order to have a relationship with Him. In a half sort of way, I’ve known that that is so, but in those recent years I had been forgetting it. I realize now that I was losing my way largely because I have been trying to understand God, trying to grasp with my mind the miraculous Power that underlies all creation. I think that this is what happens to many people. They tried the impossible, to understand what is beyond understanding. Gigi tells me that that is a mistake: we don’t have to understand God in order to have a relationship with Him.

Since the end of the Second World War, modern science has been exploding all the old ideas and concepts of God. Take astronomy; when the Scriptures were written, people believed that there were about four thousand stars in the sky. During the Renaissance, even after Copernicus and Galileo had revealed their discoveries, fifty thousand stars was thought to be the absolute limit. Then came the radio telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope and we are now told that in our galaxy, the “Milky Way”, there are at least one hundred million stars and that our “Milky Way” is only one of at least one hundred billion such galaxies. And with every new discovery, there come ten new questions. It is becoming more and more obvious that “Whatever” is out there, “It” is Something beyond words, Something that no scientific theory, no mathematical formula can ever express. As one great astrophysicist said some time ago, “My own suspicion is that, not only is the universe stranger than we imagine it be, but it is stranger than we can ever imagine it to be.” In other words, the mystery of the universe goes beyond the ability of human thought.

Now, out there, in that mystery, amid those hundred trillion stars, I found myself losing any sense of a personal God. And I suspect that that is true of a lot of other people. The sheer size overwhelms us. Look at your hand for a moment: stretch out the palm; extend your fingers. Now imagine that we shrink the size of the sun to that of a grain of sand and that we put that sun, that grain of sand, in the centre of your palm. The nearest planet to the sun, Mercury, would be at the tip of your middle finger. And if you were to stretch out your arm, straight out from your shoulder, that is where the orbit of the farthest planet, Pluto, would be. And now, for fun, guess! Where on that scale would the nearest star be, the nearest sun to our sun? At the far end of your pew? Up here with me in the pulpit? Across the street? Ah no! The nearest star to our sun would be somewhere down past the Intercity Mall, more than four miles or six kilometers from that little grain of sand in the palm of your hand!

In 1977, NASA launched the two Voyagers on an interstellar space mission. For two years they surveyed the planets in our solar system and then were thrown further into outer space. Although they are flying fifty times faster than our fastest jet fighter, they will take seventy thousand years -- that’s right -- seventy thousand years to reach the nearest star! When I came upon facts like that, I found my faith dissolving. Whatever God lies behind this universe, He is far too great for me ever to know!

And then wee Gigi came into my life; and as she and I came to know each other, I came to realize that she knows just about as little about me as I know about God. Have you ever thought about how magical and strange and mysterious we must seem to dogs? This dog in my arms is an intelligent creature (as dogs go), but she knows absolutely “nothin’ from nothin’.” A switch on the wall turns on a light; a key in the ignition starts a car’s engine; a tap makes water come out of the far end of a hose; a scratched match produces flame. She has no idea how these “miracles” happen. When I sit at my computer or read a book or talk on the telephone or watch television, she has no idea why -- my life is a total enigma to her. I live in a world that is absolutely beyond her understanding. And yet although she does not understand me, she has a deep relationship with me. Although she cannot define me, she can experience my love, my care, my friendship. Although she cannot explain me, I am always there to untangle a leash or throw a ball or just scratch behind an ear. And I found myself asking, “What if God is like that? What if all my struggle to make sense of Something that is beyond my comprehension is just a waste of time? Just as Gigi can have a relationship with me without her understanding me, maybe I can have a relationship with God without ever understanding Him.”

II

And that brings me to a second truth that Gigi has revealed to me: my relationship with God depends entirely upon my being willing to trust Him. Again, I repeat: our relationship with God depends entirely upon our willingness to trust in Him. If Gigi didn’t trust me, if when I called to her she did not come but slank away frightened, her tail between her legs, I couldn’t have a relationship with her. I could, of course, force her: I am seventeen times her size, and so I could put a collar around her neck and drag her to my side -- but there would be no relationship if she feared me, if she believed that it was my intention to hurt her, if she thought that I was going to harm her.

(I once had a friend who had a “service dog”; the woman was semi-blind, semi-paralyzed, and this dog was given to her to help her get through the daily tasks of living. Unfortunately, whoever had trained this dog had trained it with fear, not love. It was a beautiful dog and it was absolutely obedient, but it lived in fear and dread. It was always “on edge”; it trembled as it obeyed commands; it shied away if anyone tried to pet it. It was a service dog, but not a friend; it obeyed but did not trust. And so it never knew the kind of happy relationship that Gigi and I enjoy.)

Most of the world’s great religions have within them a large element of fear, and they stress to their followers that believers must obey God if they wish to have a relationship with Him, that they must follow His orders if they don’t want to be punished -- (and often brutally and eternally punished.) We must admit that through the ages much of Christianity has said exactly the same thing: “Obey! Obey! Obey! Or else! Or else! Or else!” And so for many of us, our religious faith brings no real relationship with God -- but rather a kind of unhealthy fear which easily translates itself into a fear of life and an even greater fear of death.

Yet Jesus told us that the great secret about God is that He can be trusted, that we can put our lives into His hands without fear, that He will never drag us by a chain or whip us into submission; rather, with love, He will watch over us, and we will learn to walk at His side because we know He loves us. In a sense, because of Gigi, I hear Jesus saying to me, “Why are you worried or frightened, Hugh? Look at the lilies of the field, the birds of the air; or look at the little dog you love! They live by trust: why don’t you? Your Master knows your needs even better than you know them yourself. Then trust Him; let Him have your leash; come when He whistles; and all that you ever need will be given to you. If you, being the self-centered and foolish individual that you are, still care for little Gigi the way you do, how much more can you trust your Heavenly Master to care for you?”

You see, it’s only when we begin truly to trust God that we discover that we are in a personal relationship with Him. He is then no longer Something or Someone strange and far-off. He is still and will always be a total mystery to us, but that doesn’t need to affect our relationship with Him. And to be in relationship with Him doesn’t mean that we are to be like circus dogs, perpetually performing tricks to please Him; nor does it mean that we are to be like little puppies, forever yapping at Him, trying to gain His attention. (With all respect, you know, as I watch some of our evangelical friends on television, striving to keep their emotions at fever pitch, swaying in their pews, clapping their hands, shouting praises, and endlessly declaring how much they love Jesus, I wonder if even Almighty God, Himself, doesn’t get weary of their worship. Gigi and I have our own special moments together -- there are times in our day for walks and games and back scratches -- but I feel equally close to her when she is content simply to be in my presence. She follows me wherever I go, but I am grateful when at times she flops on the floor as I write or read, satisfied just to rest in my presence.)

And Gigi reminds me that there are also other times when she has to trust me completely: now and again I have to do things to her that she doesn’t like. I have to hold her in my arms as she gets her vaccinations or as she has her nails clipped or has her hair trimmed. She doesn’t like any of that; and she hates having baths -- (she should have had one yesterday, but I never got around to the task.) In all such trials, she often pants and whimpers and squirms and cries -- but still she licks my hand and trusts that I know what is happening and that whatever it is, because I am involved, it is for the best. I try to remember that fact as I go through dark moments: even when I am being hurt, even when things happen to me that I don’t like or understand: if I truly trust God, I will find His arms around me. A quiet trust is the secret of any true relationship with God.

III

So far, I’ve told you of two simple truths which I have learned from Gigi: first, we don’t have to understand God in order to have a real relationship with Him and, second, any real relationship with Him rests upon our having a deep faith in His love for us. Both those truths are at the centre of the Gospel, and the Church, when it has been preaching the Gospel, has been emphasizing those truths for almost two thousand years.

But let me now bring you a third truth -- or at least what to me is now a truth, a truth of which I have always been dimly aware but one which Gigi is now forcing me to face and accept and understand. It is a truth which Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism have stressed much more than Christianity; nevertheless it is, I believe, a very important truth. That truth is simply this: all life is sacred. I repeat: all life is sacred -- not just human life -- but all life: all life is sacred. As we were reading that story from the first chapter of Genesis today, as it spoke of the ideal world which God envisaged when He created our marvellous planet, did you notice how the writer spoke of a sort “magical kingdom” in which all the animals would respect one another, how even wild animals would all be vegetarians? And did you notice how at the climax of the story, the writer has God saying to the human race, “You are to have dominion over all My world, over all My plants and animals I am the King: you are My governors-general. You are entrusted to rule this world for Me.” (That word, “dominion”, is exactly the same word that St. Paul uses when he reminds husbands that they are to have “dominion” over their wives -- not to rule them, not to abuse them, not to exploit them, but to protect them, care for them, meet their needs. So it was supposed to be with the human race and the lesser creatures entrusted to our care.)

But we in the Jewish and Christian and Muslim traditions have all taken that word that we have “dominion”, that we have control of the world, and we have interpreted it to mean that we can do whatever we want with this world. And so we in the West have spoken of “conquering nature”; and with that attitude and with modern technology, we have raped this Garden of Eden, seized its bounty, plundered its wealth, now to the point that we are in danger of ending all forms of life, even our own. And in our belief that only we human beings have any rights, we have done the most terrible things to all those “creatures great and small” who share this planet with us. Dean Inge, the famous Dean of Canterbury, writes, “If animals have a theology, then we human beings must surely be their demons and their devils!” And so we must! We have destroyed their environment: twenty-five species of life vanish every day, more than one every hour! We have sacrificed animals for our sins: how many millions of helpless lambs, doves, and calves have had their throats slit to atone for the guilt on human consciences? We have used animals for medical experiments in which little or no consideration has been shown for the immense suffering we were causing. And we have slaughtered them for so-called “sport”, chasing them, tormenting them, killing them.

Let me make a personal confession. As a little boy, I went fishing, sometimes with my father, more often with my friends. And I learned how to thread a wriggling worm onto a hook. My conscience troubled me for it was obvious that the little creature was suffering terribly -- but my friends laughed at my squeamishness, told me that I was being foolish, that “real men” fished -- and so, in time, I hardened my heart and tried not to think about the suffering on the hooks. And as I became a fisherman, I kept telling myself that it was a manly sport. But then one rainy day, when I was twenty-eight, I hooked a fair-sized pike. It put up an immense struggle I thought it was great fun as it thrashed around in the water. Finally I got it into the bottom of the boat. It had swallowed the hook; I had no choice but to kill it. And as it saw me reaching to break its neck, it let out a sort of groan; it made strange sounds; it hissed at me in fear and hatred -- and I suddenly realized that this was no sport at all. This was a case of a large and supposedly intelligent mammal who had been deliberately teasing, tormenting, torturing, and now was about to kill a small and helpless reptile. I rowed to shore and tossed my fishing rods away.

As I say, I have always been dimly aware of animal suffering; but I chose not to think about it, telling myself that it could not be as bad as I imagined or other good people would surely be more concerned. Things troubled me, however; I understood, for example, why people might have to hunt for food but the idea of killing a magnificent moose or a beautiful deer or even a harmless duck for “sport” repelled me. The native fur trade, with its use of leg-hold traps, seemed and still seems to me to be a most brutal form of torture. I have gone to Spain several times and have found that I love much about the Spanish people, but their fascination with bull-fighting revolts me; how a civilized people justifies this is the name of “sport”, I don’t know. And how Prince Charles and Lady Parker-Bowles and their aristocratic friends can justify “fox-hunting” is utterly foreign to me; I am ashamed that our royal family is part of the pack that promotes this barbaric ritual.

Still I managed to avoid thinking too deeply about such things -- and then little Gigi came along. I quickly discovered what a wonderful little creature she is. She has a sense of humour -- she loves to tease me. She really enjoys life -- two or three times a day, she does what veterinarians term “the Bichon buzz” in which she dashes around and around the house, playing hide-and-seek with me. She knows little tricks and tries very hard to speak to me through growls and snorts and squeals. When she has a problem, she comes and sits before me, sighing deep sighs of concern, her head cocked on one side, her little brown eyes staring into mine, She is a real little personality and she really does live life to the full.

Ah yes! And as I’ve said, she is three years old and weighs about nine pounds, about four kilograms. And so in China or in Korea about now, I could take this dear little soul down to the butcher where her throat would be cut, her little body skinned and gutted, and she would be turned into a five-pound roast for some family’s dinner. I had tried to avoid thinking about things like that, but with Gigi I had to face the truth. I began to make enquiries and do a bit of research. After seeing Gigi and seeing little lambs prancing beside their mothers in a pasture, who could eat a rack of lamb? Little pigs are as intelligent as little dogs (and every bit friendly); they can be trained; and if given a chance, they keep themselves clean. Certainly, they suffer intense pain and fear when they are herded into a slaughter house and hoisted by their hind legs onto a conveyor belt. So do cattle. Two years ago, the St. Petersburg Times in Florida smuggled a reporter with a hidden camera into an abbatoir. The story and the pictures revealed poor animals, some only half-stunned by the stun-gun, still conscious, still looking wildly around themselves, still struggling even as their legs were being sliced off and their torsoes gutted. And chickens -- their beaks burned off, crammed six or eight into tiny cases, so tightly packed that in frustration they tear each other’s feathers off, forced to crouch all their lives while their eggs roll onto a trolley belt beneath the cases. I learned about the agony through which helpless calves must live in order that we can eat veal. I discovered the intense suffering of geese, held motionless for months while huge amounts of grain are forced down their gullets so that gourmets can enjoy their paté-de-fois-gras.

Gigi has made me realize that Albert Schweitzer was surely right when he said that the underlying truth in ethics is that all life is sacred! All life is sacred! Sometimes, it is necessary to kill a life in order to preserve life -- but life must never be taken casually or carelessly; and always, whatever is done, there must be humaneness and mercy. And so Gigi has turned June and me into what I would describe as 95% vegetarians. We avoid red meat; we avoid touching chicken; we eat fish only sparingly. We have learned that tofu is available in all sorts of delicious forms, that it is cheaper and healthier than meat. (The grain required to make one pound of beef would make seventeen pounds of soy protein in our world that is going hungry!) June and I still buy eggs, but we make sure that they come from free-range farms where the hens are not abused: free-range eggs are available at A & P -- they cost a dollar more a dozen, but no suffering is involved on the part of the hens. And we have stopped buying fifty products from companies that use animal testing. We have started supporting the Humane Society more fully then we had before. And so on and so forth!

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not pretending to be virtuous, nor am I saying that I have “found the way”. I am not advocating that anyone else become a vegetarian or stop fishing -- or whatever. What each of us decides about such matters is up to our own consciences -- but, whatever we decide, the way we treat animals is a matter of conscience! Our treatment of other species is an ethical issue! There is no doubt in my mind that this little ball of white curls is something much much more precious in God’s sight than a five-pound roast. Gigi has a right to live and to enjoy life -- to snuff out her happy personality merely for an hour’s meal would be unspeakably wrong! So, too, to use her for target practice, to kill her for sport, would equally be unspeakably wrong. But, if that is true of Gigi, it must also be true of all creatures who have highly developed central nervous systems, creatures who are high enough on the evolutionary scale to have feelings and fears, an awareness of life around them, creatures who are conscious of what they are experiencing. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they shall obtain mercy” -- and animals need our mercy as surely as do our fellow human beings. Gigi has taught me what St. Francis of Assisi always said to his followers: all living creatures are our brothers and sisters; all living creatures deserve to be treated kindly and humanely.

* * * * *

So these are the three simple truths that Gigi has driven home to me: first, that although I do not understand God, I do not need to do so in order to have a relationship with Him; second, that any real relationship I have with God must be based, not on fear or blind obedience, but upon a simple trust in His love; and third, that this is God’s world, that all His creatures have their places in it, and that I am to regard all life as sacred and precious.

* * * * *

Now, I leave you with a fourth and final truth. Bichons live a long time -- fifteen to eighteen years on average; and so (if we’re both lucky) Gigi and I should be checking out of this world at about the same time. The time may come, however, when for her sake I must take her to a veterinarian and allow her to be put to sleep. If that dreaded moment comes, I am sure of this: the last sensation she will have will be that of my arms wrapped around her, and the last sound she will hear will be that of my voice reassuring her that she has been a very good dog and that she is very much loved. And long after her little heart has stopped beating, as long as I am alive, she will continue to live in my heart and in my love.

And, you know, that’s part of the Gospel, too. Our Master has said that, if we allow Him, He will hold you and me until the very last and that, when our hearts have stopped beating, we will continue to live forever in His heart and in His love. I know that Gigi will live on in me, and Jesus tells me that I will live on in God -- and so my hope in Christ is that, in the many mansions of our Father’s great and mysterious house, there will surely be places for all creatures great and small, for all of us, human beings and animals alike, all who have known and experienced the miracle of God’s universal love. Those who live in love live in God -- and God’s love never dies! And that’s Good News, my friends! That’s Gospel News! And that’s what Gigi has been telling me. May it be so. Amen.

© To be published in 2011 in the book, FINALLY, MY FRIENDS .