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Caring for God’s Art

[Editor’s note: Last night our lovely little dog, Misty, died of the cancer that had been consuming her for the past few years. This morning we buried her under a grizzly old cedar tree and marked the spot with a cairn of stones gathered from around the property. Jennifer asked that I repost this article as a memorial.]  

Three years ago I adopted a gorgeous and hopelessly neurotic Sheltie. The snap of a towel being folded sends her scooting for cover, plastic trash bags are her nemeses, and an errant golf cart blocking the sidewalk can cause the sunshine to shrivel in her eyes. Indeed, going outside at all is a traumatic daily test of her courage and moral fiber. (Not that I blame her; I couldn’t have a private moment while a garbage truck was watching either.)

Our relationship is founded on unwavering devotion and unsentimentally filled with saliva-covered squeaky balls, wet patches on my carpet, and unidentifiable smells. There is a simplicity about it that reaches deep down to the primal core of my human vocation. Sometimes I imagine that at the end of the day my most virtuous acts have been to fill up my dog’s food dish and give her a belly rub. Such moments remind me of the moment when the first couple first stood eye to eye with a tiger and praised its Maker. We sons of Adam and daughters of Eve may have many other callings in a fallen world, but this one still remains: to care for what God has made, what he loves, for which he has plans beyond our imagining.

We are in Eden no longer, and this little Sheltie is a fearful captive on an earth mucked up by human hands and feet—a world in which the rocks worship more loudly than we do and the dogs must be content with living off the scraps of grace that fall from the children’s table. When did God’s good creation become the flowery wallpaper in front of which—and often oblivious to which—we do the “important” work? What if that creation is actually at the heart of the story, a story we humans have tragically and wastefully interrupted? We stand on this earth surrounded by the sweep of a mighty Epic—paused on the brink of its climax while the Creator redeems its wayward protagonists.

If I woke up one morning and suddenly found myself living in a Van Gogh painting on the wall of a museum, I would take great care to water his sunflowers. I would stare proudly back at the museum-goers who were staring at with me with envy—this lucky girl who got to exist for a day in a vibrant swirl of blue and yellow. And if I popped back out of the painting again, the first thing I would do is to pick up a paintbrush. You cannot be embraced by a giver of beauty without something stirring inside you to give beauty back to him.

But I am that girl, whether or not I always remember it. I live and breathe and have my being in the artwork of a Master: the great evolving life of earth tumbling out its generations of species in playful and almost reckless exuberance; the yearning furnace of a million suns; the blind, voiceless praise of an undiscovered creature miles under the sea; the exquisite burst of a nebula, like a blooming rose of fire; the wet smear of a doggish lick of love on a human nose—all moving, growing, changing, telling, waiting, all rushing towards a single point, all answering back to God, “YES. Amen. So be it.”

Why then, do we often sit like crabby old couples on a train, reading the news and arguing over trivialities, while glory rushes past our windows? Maybe it’s because, in spite of what we confess and say we believe, deep down we really do think it’s all going to burn up in the end.

Perhaps it is not so much a failure of faith on our part as it is a failure of imagination, a myopic view of God’s panoramic purposes—from the redemption of the smallest and most foolish human being, to the restitching and repainting and reclaiming and reblessing of the whole cosmos. He has promised a new heaven and a new earth. We should be going into manic fits of gardening. We should plant trees just to be able to point to them and say, “Look—that beauty. That strength. That longevity. More, so much more, is coming.”

A man named Niggle paints a tree in J. R. R. Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle.” His begrudging generosity to his not-so-artistic neighbors slowly decimates that painting, leaving nothing of his work in this world but a single perfectly rendered leaf on canvas. He awakens, after the long journey of death, to see his tree—but it has become real, real with an absolute and eternal reality, the ideal that his brush could never quite capture, part of a landscape so much greater than his own imagination.

I believe that at the end of our journey there will be a magnificent moment of joyful, humble surprise at what the Maker makes of our making. Until then, we paint trees and we plant them in praise and in anticipation. In my mind there is a deep connection between caring for this shy little Sheltie beside me and sitting down to write or draw or crochet or strum a guitar. Somehow my own creativity is a way of joining in that chorus of created exuberance, answering back to God, “YES. Amen. So be it.”

The things that God has made matter. The things we do here, the things we make, matter. The true and good and beautiful works of our hands will, I believe, become part of God’s Art in ways we cannot imagine now. A love for God’s creation, a fervent hope in his new creation, and an impulse toward creativity all go hand in hand. I cannot wait to see what childlike, impish gleam of humor in God’s imagination produced the duckbill platypus and the leafy seadragon and the star-nosed mole. I cannot wait to build new kinds of beauty with him in a world of infinite innovation.

Will I see my dog there? It’s too small a question. It’s almost missing the point. We will, by the grace of Christ through whom it was all made, see this brilliantly designed, big-bang-up, mathematical masterpiece of a universe raised to the infinite power—changed beyond our wildest fantasies, shaken free of death and disaster and disappointment—yet still unexpectedly, recognizably, belovedly our own.

Right now the world is full of the blaring busyness of garbage trucks and golf carts and littered with the frightening, flying, crinkling, plastic refuse of human life. My dog knows these things don’t belong. She whimpers and groans with all creation as it yearns for the day of final blaring and crinkling—Master walking through the door at last. Mountain, meadow, fur, fin, beak, paw, and whisker all renewed, remade, awaiting the familiar footfall of the saints and the touch of resurrected fingers.

Amen. So be it.

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