The Gospel According to Coco

Lest you think I have converted to some form of animism with my title, let me assure you that I am simply going to tell you what a dog has taught me about God.

On a rainy, cold Earth Day last week, Mark and I took our 15 and ½ year old chocolate lab named Coco to the vet for the final time. She had clearly reminded me earlier in the week that “it was time” when she struggled to shuffle her ailing back end up to me while I was reading my Bible at the kitchen table, and she nudged my hand with her head. Clearly, she wanted my attention. Then she sauntered over to her bed again and completely turned her head and looked back at me with those piercing eyes. I was so taken by her gesture that I picked up my phone and snapped a photo of her. Her look was not languishing. She wasn’t panting loudly like she had started to do so often weeks before. She simply sat back down, lifted her head and looked directly into my eyes, hoping that I would catch her drift. “It’s time” I remember thinking sadly. By Tuesday afternoon I had made the appointment with the vet. It was the appointment I wished I would never have to make.

I never had a dog growing up. We lived in the PA countryside with plenty of outdoor cats that often didn’t live very long because of a major road in our front yard that was widely traveled by huge trucks. Dog ownership became a thing for me after our four kids were born, and we’ve had four different dogs over the years, all chocolate labs. The unique thing about Coco was that she was “my” dog; that is, she came into our lives ten years ago, shortly after our youngest went off to college, and she knew from the start that I needed a lot of emotional support and some companionship or I would go crazy with such an empty house. She followed me everywhere (even on our couches and up the stairs, something none of our other dogs did). Even in her later years, she would cozy up to me every chance she got and try to escape every time I opened the front door for a walk (“Take me! Take me!”). In this last year with the pandemic, she was clearly in her happy place because we were around ALL THE TIME.

Here are three simple spiritual lessons I’ve been reminded of through my relationship with my sweet furry pal Coco. (*Warning: none of them will be earth-shattering, but maybe, like me, you need to hear these simple truths again.)

1. Unconditional love is here for the receiving and giving. Coco was going to love me no matter what. It was just her nature to look at me without pretense or judgment. Just as she didn’t care what kind of mood I presented, Jesus doesn’t care how difficult you are to love. Actually, that’s His specialty…when we are totally inadequate and we know it, He doesn’t wait until we’re over our “attitude alert” (as my granddaughter likes to call it) or whether we have kicked our unhealthy self-obsession or whether we feel lovable or not; He swoops in, takes us in His embrace and loves our false selves, warts and all, even if we’re kicking and screaming. All we have to do is position and orient ourselves to receive love; to receive Him. Love has no limits when it is unconditional; it is like the way we are treated when our grandchildren see beyond our cantankerous, self-loathing selves and appreciate our genuine loveliness as God’s image bearers, bad breath, and all.

My friend recently shared how absolutely overwhelmed she was by her four-year-old grandson who lavishly hugged and kissed her when she came to visit; it caused such a bubbling over in her soul that she became much more intentional in her prayers for each of her grandchildren. At some point, we adults lose the wide-eyed awe over the expansiveness of God’s freely given love for us and others and we begin to see others a certain way (the “We/Them” mentality) and to work out life on our own terms. Always a bad idea to think we can muster up love apart from Jesus. He is always the father running toward our prodigal selves even though He knows our propensity to mess things up. He does not give up on us even when we do.

I am so glad Coco looked at me with fresh eyes every day, never showing disappointment if I shooed her away the day before. She would always make herself ready and willing to receive my affection, even if it meant pushing herself willfully under my hand and forcing me to pet her. (She would do this also when I had forgotten to give her morning kibble) God’s unconditional love is here and available. Receive it; breathe it in. You cannot give what you don’t possess.

2. Boundaries and limits are set by God for our good and are always meant to accentuate our fellowship with Him. Several months ago, we had to set up barriers in our home for Coco’s safety and health. She longed to go upstairs to sleep on the floor right next to my side of the bed, but she could no longer go back down the steps safely on her own. Mark built a little wooden barrier at the bottom of the steps. The first night we set it up, she pushed her head through a railing on the fence and got stuck, she was so anxious to be with us. I almost had to run for the saw, but Mark was able to gently push her head back out, and we had to cover the railing with a solid board after that.

Trust that boundaries and limits God sets up in your work and relationships are meant to keep you healthy and safe. Take His boundaries as wonderful limits that lead to “truly finding rest in Him alone” (Psalm 62:1). As Christians, we often look at setting boundaries as selfish, which often leads to guilt. God looks at them for our good. Make room for silence, solitude, and sabbath. Be okay with saying no to some things in order to say yes to the better things God has for you. Set limits to your phone, computer, or TV you are tethered to until you can echo David’s prayer in Psalm 92:1-2: “It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night.” Embracing God’s boundaries will deepen your intimacy with Him. Coco always greeted me as I came back down the stairs in the morning, even if she didn’t quite understand why the boundary was put there. Boundaries set by God are for our good.

3. Always look for the crumbs. As is probably the case with all dogs, Coco couldn’t wait for all the reunions and family gatherings we would host, for that was her opportunity to live off the scraps from the smorgasbord. She didn’t wait to be invited to the party; she often pushed her way through any barriers in order to sit under people’s feet. She especially liked to sit near children, for she was almost always guaranteed several scrumptious morsels.

This reminds me of the story in Matthew 15:21-28, when we come across a rather strange conversation between a woman of Syrian descent and Jesus, whom she asked to heal her daughter of demon possession. She was a Gentile who understood that God had first worked His plan of salvation through the chosen ones of Israel, but her longing for her daughter’s comfort and healing and her own hunger for righteousness made her bold enough to say she would be satisfied with whatever crumbs would come from the overflow of God’s blessings for the Jews.

This show of faith was what moved Jesus to heal her daughter. The disciples, however, wanted to shun her (“We/Them” again), but Jesus, who persistently taught about having the faith of little children, was drawn to her persistence in wanting just a little morsel. He granted her request. As Eugene Peterson so aptly paraphrased the beatitude found in Matthew 5:6, “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.” Stay hungry for God. Look for the crumbs.

The first morning after we said goodbye to Coco, I came downstairs and caught a glance at a wooden sign in my den that reads “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” Obviously, the sign is meant to remind us that dogs think their owners are pretty special, almost godlike. I stopped in my tracks because I suddenly realized not only that she was “my dog”, but also that I was “her person,” and I wondered what she would say about me after all these years. Would she say I was an example of unconditional love? I know she was for me. Did I create a safe and secure space for her and spend enough time with her? (I did often let her snuggle next to me on the couch.)

The Passion Translation of Psalm 84 describes God’s people as the “lovely sanctuaries of His presence.” It seemed I provided a lovely sanctuary as Coco slept peacefully next to me almost every day of her long life. But I was not a perfect dog owner; I don’t have the selfless propensity to be that way. But that didn’t matter to Coco. She knew my posture, my intent, even to the very end when she looked at me and said, “It’s time.” My heart breaks and I miss her terribly, but I’m grateful for all the things she taught me about God’s persistent, overwhelming love and His desire to shape me to be “His person.”

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