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Death in the House (An Advent Meditation)

[Editor’s note: Do not let the picture mislead you! This is not a sad, sad post about a dying puppy.]

Meet Surry Virginia Thistlewoof. Yes, that’s her full, registered name. It’s engraved on a tag from PetSmart so it’s super-official. She’s a wire-haired fox terrier/schnauzer mix-ish.

You may think your dog is the sweetest creature, ever. I’m sure he/she comes close. However, Surry takes the cake (or the bone) in that regard, paws down, and if you ever met her you’d concede. She’s a rescue. We picked her up from a foster home in Kentucky last December. Since then it’s been a difficult journey from utter nervous anxiety to calm, stable, and happy. She’s come a long way in just 12 months and she even gets along with our other rescue, Figaro—an old, one-eyed, tailless black cat.

Surry is amazingly gentle and timid, but she loves tug-o-war. Like any red-blooded canine, she naturally bites into most things when teased into playing and proceeds to gnaw, grind, tug, and shake. I love our games of fetch and tug. Judging by the rate her tail gets going—like a floppy, furry, out-of-control metronome—I can tell it’s her favorite thing in the world. At the same time, I’ve never encouraged her to chase or kill any unsuspecting rabbits, chipmunks, etc., that find their way into our back yard. No, Figaro has hunted and killed enough for both of them in his years of rogue cathood. Maybe that’s just it—our cat seems more likely to kill, and I even find it amusing on some level, sometimes. Surry on the other hand, she’s never killed anything that I’ve ever seen—until this morning.

I let her outside, as usual, to run and do her business before coming in to scarf down her breakfast. This morning she was met with a rather large, lumbering chipmunk (we’re talking almost squirrel-size here, people) just at the foot of the porch stairs. Surry flopped awkwardly down the flight after the poor creature, and I said aloud, She’ll never catch it, because she never does. Chipmunks are fast! This time, to my surprise and horror, Surry managed to coral the creature against the fence that borders the yard. It threw itself in the air sporadically, and let out a sad, ineffectual chipmunk screech. Then it happened.

I watched, in disbelief, as Surry—my sweet, innocent, timid rescue of a dog—grabbed the panic-stricken chipmunk in her toothy jaws and proceed to shake. My smirk transformed into a grimace. I winced. Shake! Shake! Sniff. Lick. Shake! 

Many of you are thinking right about now, Oh, come on! That’s what dogs do! Yeah, I get it. But not Surry. Not until this morning. Suddenly, she went from being a life-enriching rescue animal that needed my love and care to another sad creature unwittingly participating in the cycle of death. That was the horror. That was why I winced. That was what took my smirk and smudged it into a grimace.

I shut the door and tried to get on with my morning coffee. I was pouring a fresh mug-full, when the back door creaked open and I heard familiar paws clicking, thudding into the living room. Turning, my horror compounded as Surry proudly plopped the broken animal onto the wooden floor and sat, staring at me awaiting my glee, my approval, my encouragement.

She brought death into the house. Surry brought death into the house. Surry killed this helpless little animal. I set my bitter, black coffee down and knelt to check that the chipmunk was indeed dead. That chilling scene from Lewis’s Perelandra comes to mind. You know the one? When Ransom happens upon a trail of dead creatures along the beach of an otherwise unmolested world. The death trail he follows lies in the wake of the eerily un-emotive Unman, who has been stabbing and tearing at the creatures with its long nails for the sheer pleasure of it, then discarding them and finding new ones to destroy. That’s what I felt. This is the Enemy’s handiwork. Sound extreme? Or is our numb acceptance of death in the world the more extreme tragedy?

There really is no corner of creation that isn’t touched by the cold finger of death, is there? Dammit. Damn this. I’m angry. Not at Surry. At Death. Especially when I’m forced to see creature-on-creature massacre, be that animal to animal, human to human or any combination of the two.

So, it fell to me to do something with the small, lifeless animal. It was, for the moment, still warm and soft, but its warmth was quickly draining away, becoming a stiff, unnatural cold. Unnatural. That’s what I was thinking as I palmed the corpse and plodded to the back of the yard, looking for a somber spot, away from the nose of the dog, the claw of the cat, the eye of the buzzard. What I wanted to say to the chipmunk as I set it amid some wet leaves and proceeded to cover it in a kind of shroud of more wet leaves, was something like, This is unnatural for you, I know. You should be frolicking. This isn’t your natural lot in life. Death isn’t your norm. It’s not what you were made for. Take heart! Someday, your chipmunk brothers will frolic in a land that never dies. Life, Himself, will laugh and run and romp with you and all other creatures. Someday, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the dog will lie down with the chipmunk.” I didn’t speak the eulogy. I thought it, though. All I could manage to think as I walked back to the warmth of the house was “Lord, help me. Help me. Have mercy. Where are You in this?”

I didn’t scold Surry for the kill. I tried not to alarm her or make her aware of my shift in mood. I wanted to console her. She seemed confused about it all. Why hadn’t I patted her head and played tug o’ war with the creature she’d brought in to give me? I wanted to explain to her Look, girl. It’s going to be ok. I know you’re confused. You didn’t mean to. In the New Creation you wouldn’t have even known to do such a thing. All will be restored.

The whole scenario seemed to fit quite nicely into this gloomy Advent day. I miss the sun. I miss the warmth of blooming life, the buzz of bees, and the romp of smelly dogs like Surry in lush, newly grown grass. I’m sick of Advent. We’re what, a week in? Not even? Skip the Christmas tree, let’s fast forward to April or May. But then . . . I’d miss out on the glorious culmination of it all. The remembrance/celebration/acknowledgment of Christ’s very literal arrival into his own death-ravaged creation. Granted, he didn’t come the way I’d want him to (as a fully-grown king, mighty and terrifying, out of the sky, lightning flashing, sword-swinging, exterminating death in some flagrant show of divine might). He didn’t even arrive the way his own people would have preferred. He didn’t topple the Roman Empire and reclaim the throne of David in an epic, *Peter-Jackson-battle-scene sort of way. (*A battle scene from the original LOTR trilogy is what you should be picturing, not a scene from the tragically CGI-glazed theme-park ride that is the more recent Hobbit series of cinematic fiascos.)

It’s difficult to remember, to believe, that the way in which he came was so much more than what I would have wanted. That his way of entering his own creation as a helpless, flesh-wrapped infant was so much more intentional, permanent, enduring, subversive, brilliant. By way of his death in the flesh and his resurrection in the flesh, he did assert his absolute authority over creation in a way that is unfathomable. And yet, stranded in time and space, a human being in 2014, I’m still waiting to see the full result of that authority, that victory. Death still occurs, all around me, everywhere.

Today, my sweet Surry broke a chipmunk’s neck, and I had to bury it. It will probably happen again, and again. That doesn’t mean that our Advent won’t end, won’t eventually give way to Christ with us, to creation restored, to peace on earth. I just pray for the grace to bear up under the weight of the curse and of death, while still being livid, furious, enraged at death, until the dawn finally breaks in on us and all is made right. Until we all awaken on the Christmas morn that will never, ever come to an end.

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