Animals and Packs

If there is one thing that has become more and more clear to me over my time in ministry, it is the essential and central aspect of regular Christian community and worship.  I try to drive this point home in nearly every engagement with the people I meet, whether in jail, in recovery programs, in small group settings, as well as in my congregation.  This thing that we take for granted is where we are fed, nurtured, and protected.

And whenever we are away from it for very long, very bad things can happen to us.

Opus and Milo are our two beloved family dogs.  They turn four this month (we think), and they are brothers (we think) that we got through a rescue program almost three and a half years ago.  They are brothers in the fullest and best sense of the word.    They’ll lay next to or on one another.  They are always together.  They grow nervous and agitated if they are separated.  Their love for each other is tangible.

But they are still animals.

When they were younger, they would fight as all siblings do from time to time.  As dogs they fight with teeth and claw and growl and snarl, with flickering tongues and snapping jaws.  We feared for them in those early days, unsure how strong the animal in each of them was as opposed to the brotherhood between them.  We would quickly put an end to their fights, and over the years we’ve come to know how much they care for one another and look out for one another.  I even commented to the family less than a week ago that I no longer worried when they would skirmish with each other, trusting that their love and care for each other would keep them from really hurting each other.

We’re in the midst of a familial adjustment.  For all the time we’ve had them, we’ve kept them kenneled or in a large cage in the house whenever we left for any reason.  It was their routine when the kids shouted “In in in!” to run to their cage and sit, waiting for the door to be closed and latched and receive their treat.  They didn’t like us leaving, but they knew the routine.

Two weeks ago, I left two dogs in the cage and returned a few hours later to one dog in the cage and one outside of it, with no discernible explanation for this change.  The next day, by a freak chance, I discovered the reason.  I put the dogs in their cage as usual, preparing to leave for a few hours.  But I got caught up doing something else and didn’t leave the house right away.  So I heard when barking and a commotion began in the cage and went back to investigate.  I opened the door to the room just as Milo reached the top of the cage and launched himself out of it.  The cage is 4-ft high heavy gauge metal.  By using the corner of the cage, he had learned how to scale the metal wire and leap out.

Deciding that four years is old enough to not destroy the house in our absence, and not wanting to risk a broken leg from further efforts, I took down the cage and began leaving them out in the house when we left.  This was new for them as well as myself.  It afforded them time for deeper exploration of certain food-bearing areas of the house, namely the kitchen.  I returned home several times to see evidence that they had been exploring the kitchen counters and pulling off items of possible (edible) interest.  We learned to clear those counters before leaving.

In order to give them something to do, we got sturdy chew toys that you can put peanut butter inside and freeze.  The dogs can just barely get their tongues into the openings to lap at the peanut butter, and it occupies them.

But they’re still animals, and not just brothers.

So it was that last night when we returned home, we discovered that apparently in a fight over the delicious toys, Opus had torn Milo’s ear.  It’s not severe, but it was a little bloody and both dogs were clearly traumatized by whatever transpired between them.

I had assumed that the good behavior we helped reinforce in them by breaking up their fights would be enough to protect them from themselves and each other if we were gone.  But I was wrong.  It isn’t that they don’t truly love each other.  But the fact is that they remain animals as well as brothers.  And in the absence of their pack, their community, their family, their animal instincts got the better of them.  Greed.  Suspicion.  Anger.  Defensiveness.  These things are there all the time, but having their pack around them helps restrain them and bring them back into appropriate and healthier behavior quickly.

I don’t think they would kill each other.  Not intentionally at least.  But it’s clear that the animal instincts can rise to the surface dangerously quickly and with lasting results.  They need their pack just as we need them.  For protection not just from the world beyond but from each other and ourselves.  Together, we model the right behavior.  We teach, train, condition.  We demonstrate healthy love and discourage and prevent unhealthy love.

And these aren’t things that you learn and then can take on your own solitary way.  They are the way we learn to live, and we need the constant support and encouragement and structure of community to reinforce these things and ensure that our animal instincts don’t get the better of us or one another.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, but the sinfulness, the animal instincts, still remain within us and have to be watched over carefully.  We never outgrow the need for Christian community, just as our dogs never outgrow their need for a pack.

Satan understands this and so he spends a great deal of time – perhaps all his time – on convincing Christians that they don’t need Christian community.  They don’t need worship.  They can take it or leave it.  They can read the Bible and pray on their own.  They don’t need to be around all those hypocrites.  They’ve been confirmed and know what they need to know and can go their own way.  The language and tactics vary from person to person, but the goal is always the same.  Separate and destroy.

I don’t know many strong Christians who don’t engage in regular worship and Christian community (these are two distinct though hopefully overlapping things).  And while there are certainly weak Christians who do these things regularly, the promise by the power of the Holy Spirit is that they will grow in their faith as they engage in actively loving God by loving their neighbor in Christian community (as well as beyond).

I’ve begun telling young or returning Christians to put their Bibles away at home.  Don’t leave them out and fool yourself into thinking that you’re just fine without Christian community and worship just because you have a Bible at home and maybe even read it every day.  Don’t give Satan the opportunity to pull you away from the pack by convincing you that you don’t need it, that all you need is the Word.  You need your pack.  You need your family.  There are Christians around the world who would give anything for the luxury that we treat so lightly.

Don’t think that once you’re a professed follower of Jesus that you’ve tamed yourself.  You haven’t.  The animal is still there.  And he’s always hungry.

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