Sermon: The Kind of Person My Dog Thinks I Am
The Kind of Person My Dog Thinks I Am
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Kathy Schmitz on July 10, 2011
At First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida


"Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.
If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.
Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.
And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love."


~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sermon Summary:
A t-shirt reads, “Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”  What would that really look like?  What if we challenged ourselves to love as unconditionally as our canine friends?

Opening Words:
from Edward Hoagland
Words for All Ages:
Thankful Dogs, Naomi King, from the UU Worship Web accessed 7/9/11
Meditation:
Dog Days by Rev. Gary Kowalski (July/August 2011issue of Quest)
Responsive Reading:
Without Hate, #598 in Singing the Living Tradition
Closing Words:
from a bumper sticker:  Bark Less. Wag More.
Permissions:
Permission is granted to quote freely with attribution.  Permission is granted to use as a whole in worship with notice to the author.  To reproduce in print, please contact the author.
Sermon:

A t-shirt reads, “Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”  

My husband, Charlie, used to wear that shirt.  Charlie has a lot of shirts of that type.  That particular one has since moved on to the rag bag or some other such locale, but there are others.  On many days, Charlie chooses the shirt he wears based on how he is feeling or what challenges he expects the day will bring.  It strikes me that making that choice is a way of setting an intention for the day, the way others might use meditation or prayer.

“Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”  

Not all the quotes on Charlie’s t-shirts are in the form of a prayer, but that one happens to be.  This quote has been the source of much reflection for me this week for it seems to me that it can be read, or prayed, at several levels.

What is it we are really saying about dogs, and perhaps more importantly, what are we saying about ourselves?

Take the phrase “The kind of person my dog thinks I am.”

What do the dogs we share our lives with think of us?  It is hard to know.

Of course, the skeptics say that dogs see us simply as a food source.  They say we project all kinds of silly stuff on to dogs, and other animals, when really all the behavior we take for affection is simply about seeking their next meal.  

I don’t want to dismiss this out of hand, but I do think there is more than that.  After all, most of us have had to make a living, which is just another way to say that we have had to seek our next meal.  While our jobs require something of us, this does not necessarily rob us of our ability to feel affection.  Perhaps like us, dogs want and need both food and love.

It is hard to know with certainty what our dogs think of us.  Like some of the families in this congregation, our daughter, Pam, and her family, rescue and foster dogs.  She reflected recently on what she is to the dogs in her home.  She wrote:

To my dogs, I am
…Warm, snuggly, kind and firm.
…A source of protection but also the keeper of the key to the outside world.
…Someone who, annoyingly, protects the little things in life FROM said dogs (ex: cats and those weird little bugs that are fun to chase across the porch)
…worth exuberant hugs and kisses even when I’ve only been gone for 5 minutes.


To our dogs, I suppose we are a bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole we might still do well to aspire to be “the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”

The quote suggests that, just as we project on to dogs, perhaps they project on to us.  Do they really think that we are that good… that good, and that kind, and that generous, and that friendly, and that loving?

Are dogs really boundless optimists?

Let’s assume for a moment that they are? That in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they really do believe that we are more good, kind, generous, friendly, and loving than we really are.

Could we really ever truly live up to those standards?  Some days, I’m not even sure I want to be that good.  But, even if I wanted to, I’m sure I couldn’t be as good as would be necessary to earn the kind of affection that dogs provide.

Are we implying that our dogs are clueless?  That they cannot perceive the reality that is right in front of their wet little noses?

I guess it is possible.  But, I don’t think they are.

I think the answer lies elsewhere.

I think “The kind of person my dog thinks I am” does not really have much to do with how good, kind, generous, friendly, and loving we really are.  

I think dogs may be quite aware of our faults and flaws.  And love us anyway.

I think the answer lies in their ability to find good in what we find imperfect.

How can we answer the question: What kind of person does my think my dog thinks I am?  

The answer is simple: Lovable.  Just lovable.

Not because we are good, kind, generous, friendly, and loving.  We don’t earn it.  We just are: Lovable.

For some humans, I think that it is harder to accept being lovable than it is to try being good, kind, generous, friendly, and loving.

Too many humans have been taught that love has to be earned, and that they probably haven’t earned it.

But dogs know better.  They know what kind of person you really are… imperfect, sometimes cranky, sometimes even mean, and they love you anyway.  Why?  Because they know what kind of person you really are… inherently lovable.  Lovable, in spite of all that other stuff.

I guess in this way, dogs are like the loving God described by our spiritual ancestors on the Universalist side of tradition.  These were they folks who refused to believe that God only saved some people and that all the rest were damned.  The Universalist believed that a loving God would not create people just to have them suffer for eternity in hell.  Rather, they believed in Universal Salvation.  They believed that all people would be saved.  They believed that “God is Love.”

And so, for our purposes this morning, we might say “dogs are love.”  At the very least, dogs have something to teach us about love, about unconditional love.  This is what people have most often told me they have learned from dogs.

Now, I have had people scoff at the idea of unconditional love.  Impossible, they claim.

Behind that claim, I believe, is a misunderstanding of love.

I would agree that much of what passes for love in our culture is conditional.  We say, “I love you and I will continue to do so as long as you continue to meet my needs.”  That is not love.

Love is an abiding affection that transcends your ability to meet my needs.

Does this mean that my needs do not matter?  Does this mean that I must become a doormat letting the ones I love walk all over me?

Of course not!

Enabling bad behavior on the part of another is not love.

Let us use another animal as an example in a story from the Hindu tradition (as repeated in Soul Food by Kornfield and Feldman, page 227-8)

Outside the village lived a large and dangerous snake, who had killed a man and wounded others with his poisonous bite.  A wandering saint, famous for his kind heart, came to stay nearby for some days.  The villages complained loudly about their snake and indeed were intent on hunting and killing it if they could.

“Where will I find him?” asked the saint, who immediately set out down the feared path where the snake lived.  With his great loving heart the saint called the snake to him and chastised him for so much destruction.  “And now, as a result of this harm you have caused, many people wish to kill you.  But if you promise me to not bite anymore, I will get the villagers to call of their snake hunt.”

Some months later a battered and bruised snake crawled into the hut of the saint as he paid the village another visit.  “After I stopped biting, the villagers began to tease me.  Then, since I did not respond, the children started throwing sticks and rocks at me as well.  Look at me.  This is all because you told me not to bite.”

“My friend,” said the saint wisely, “I told you not to bite, but I didn’t tell you not to hiss!”

Even a dog that loves us very much will nip at us if we step on its tail.

Unconditional love is not about what behavior we expect or put up with.  Unconditional love is about the condition of our hearts.  Unconditional love is about keeping our hearts open.

Our responsive reading but it this way:

Just as a mother, with her own life, protects her only child from hurt, so within yourself foster a limitless concern for every living creature.

The love of parents for their children in a healthy family is a wonderful example of unconditional love.  When children are young, we know they will do many things that are challenging for us.  We expect it.  They will make mistakes and have accidents and throw tantrums.  We will love them anyway.  We do not confuse our frustrations with a lack of love.

Children will frustrate us, disappoint us, embarrass us, infuriate us.  And, we can love them still.

It is somehow easier to remember this when children are young.  But even when they get older, love, real love, is not dependant on their meeting our needs.

If a child does not achieve success according to our standards, that does not make them undeserving of our love.

If a child struggles with life in ways that are hard for us to understand, that does not make them undeserving our love.

Our adult children will frustrate us, disappoint us, embarrass us, infuriate us.  And, we can love them still.

The same is also true of our parents.  They, too, are, or were, imperfect people.  We can love them anyway.

Loving them does not mean accepting their harsh judgments of us or are enabling of unhealthy behavior.  It does not mean we allow ourselves to be walked all over.  Sometimes, love even means that we walk away.  Sometimes, due to our changing needs, we must radically alter a relationship.  Even at times like that, it is possible, to maintain a loving heart.

Love means that we can wish for another person happiness, and health, and well-being.  Love means that we do not mean someone harm.

Unconditional love is not about what behavior we expect or put up with, unconditional love is about the condition of our hearts.  Unconditional love is about keeping our hearts open.

Alison Issen said that “Besides the unconditional love, my dog is in the moment always. Delighted by simple things. A great teacher!”  

Christine Haskins concurred, writing: “I think dogs can just BE in the moment. No looking back, no looking forward – just now. My dog sits on the porch just waiting for other dogs – and is delighted when it happens, as if it's never happened before and may never happen again.”

Living in the moment was the second most common thing that people told me they learned from their dogs.   Dogs don’t worry about what has already happened.  They don’t worry about what will happen next.  They enjoy the here and now, the encounter with the present moment.

You can, of course, find counter examples.  There are dogs that have been so traumatized that nervousness and anxiety sets in.  I do not find this to be the norm.

I think it is this ability to live in the moment that makes it so easy for dogs to be loving.  They are not holding grudges.  They are not worrying about if you will live up to their standards.  

There you are!… right in front of them!… available to be loved!… and so they do!  It’s amazing!!!

What if we could be that present… to the moment that we are in… and the person standing in front us… available to be loved?

What if, this week, every time you looked at a person, any person, you thought to yourself, oh look, a person available to be loved.

How would it change you?  How might it change the people you encounter?

And, don’t feel you need to limit this to humans.

What if you were like the Great Dane Sandy Cawthern told me about who went around the room and leaned into each of the 50 people crouching in fear on 9/11 to offer the reassuring comfort?

What if you showed your affection openly and boldly?  Sandy Baker noted that with dogs “You never have to wonder if they really like you. So many times friends don't express such sentiment until the funeral.”  What if you showed your affection openly and boldly?  

What if we let our experience of dogs as love, transform us?

What if we decided to BE love?

“Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”  

Perhaps your dog just assumes that you too are love, just like they are.

Loving, and loved, and lovable.

What if we could be that present… to the moment that we are in… and the person standing in front us… available to be loved?

What if, this week, every time you looked at a person, any person, you thought to yourself, oh look, a person available to be loved!

What if?