Pulling out of my driveway I felt my tires roll over something. I noticed it lacked that dispersive crunching sound common to toys under the tire. Outdoor toys typically have exoskeletons. This felt soft and intact. When I turned to see what it was my heart sank. Ringo was lying on his side, his little legs stretched wide and vulnerable and unrelaxed.
I jumped out of my truck and ran to him. He was alive and focused, straining with all his will to fill his crushed lungs with air. Every ten or so seconds he would choke down a hiccup-full. He was too focused on trying to breath to acknowledge my presence. I bet that broke his heart.
For the last 14 years Ringo has lived to acknowledge my presence. Before he lost his hearing, he would hear my presence before I ever entered the door, where I would find him already waiving at me with his tail. Even after he lost his hearing I often found him there, waiting and waving, who knows for how long. If he didn’t greet me at the door, the moment I walked into his field of vision he would perk up his big square head, struggle up with his little old legs, and carry his big long body over to my feet.
There were two places Ringo lived: on his blanket by the wood stove and at my feet. While I was gone he would lay on his blanket by the stove. While at home he would sit at my feet when I sat, stand at my feet when I stood, and follow my feet when I walked. Sometimes I would acknowledge his presence, often I would not. But he never took it personally. He never repaid neglect for neglect, evil for evil. He was always more Christian of a dog than I am a man.
On average I probably stepped on or tripped over Ringo about once a week, sometimes responding apologetically, other times erupting volcanically, depending on my mood. But he was always forgiving of my mistakes and remorseful under my wrath, always showing deference to my judgment, whether just or unjust, whether I treated him like the family dog or my personal scapegoat. Regardless, nothing I ever did or didn’t do diverted his good will toward me. He was unwavering, a far more principled dog than I am a man. But I suppose to him I was more than a man. I was his master. And he lived to affirm me as such. He lived to sit at my feet.
When God created Ringo he used only one substance: one hundred percent pure, undiluted loyalty. His form, however, was not as pure as his substance. He was an admixture of odd proportions, the body of a wiener dog, the head of a pit bull, and the howl of a Canaanite. But shapes and sizes aside, his substance was sure. He had the pure and undivided heart of a saint—until I broke it in two with my truck.
Now he lay there, divided, no doubt wishing he could acknowledge my presence in this rare moment I was acknowledging his with such undivided attention. I was more present to him in that moment than I had ever been in his 98 dog-year-old life, with my face pressed gently on his neck, my hands stroking his head, as I told him over and over how sorry I was and how good of a dog he was. But it took all the energy he had just to live, to keep breathing straw-fulls of breath. So he just couldn’t acknowledge my presence—he was hardly able even to acknowledge his own.
I was torn. I didn’t know what to do or what he would want me to do. I wanted so badly to assure him that he had done nothing wrong, that I was not displeased with him, that I did not hurt him on purpose, that he was a good dog and I was a bad master. I wanted him to know that this was not the intent of my will toward him; but it was the fault of my will, my reckless and wayward will, and I was so sorry. Ringo deserved a better master than the one I proved to be in the end. I wanted him to know that I had failed in my responsibilities to take care of him, but that I have a Master who has not failed, and that the Master who gave me dominion over him would return in the end to take his dominion back, to fix this broken world and Ringo’s broken heart. I wanted him to know that on that day I will join Ringo’s side and we’ll sit together at our Master’s feet.
I wanted to assure him of all this but I think I was just making it worse. I think I was just consoling myself and prolonging his suffering, if not adding to it with my disquietedness, if not making him feel guilty, like he was failing me. He probably felt he was not giving me the honor and attention I deserved, which he spent his whole life giving me—despite the fact that I never deserved it.
Making the decision to kill Ringo was not the hardest decision I had to make—I wanted his suffering to end immediately. The hardest decision was leaving him to fetch my log-splitting axe from the woodshed, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house and the dog warm. I knew I had to end his suffering but I hated to leave him for even a second. He proved his whole life that he valued my presence more than his comfort, especially in these latter years as he limped around in my shadow, doing his best to keep up with someone 62 years his younger (when you do the dog-math). I wanted to give him the gift of my presence as far as I could possibly extend it into that void which takes all presence away. I tried to yell for Keldy to grab my axe, but she was inside putting the kids down for a nap and couldn’t hear me. So I told him again how good of a dog he was, how sorry I was, and that I would be right back. I ran as fast as I could to the woodshed, cursing the day, damning the divisions in my heart and the one in Ringo’s too.
I returned in a matter of seconds and knelt again as before, cheek to cheek, doing my best to embrace him without adding more pain to his sadness and suffering. I told him again how sorry I was, how good of dog he was, and that I loved him so much. He gasped again, probably trying to tell me how sorry he was—though he had done nothing wrong—and how good of a master I was—though he deserved much better—and that he loved me too. He was probably trying to tell me he forgave me for running him over with my truck and for now having to kill him, for he knows I often know not what I do. He had never once held a grudge against or withheld his forgiveness from me. As far as I could tell, he had never kept a record of wrongs against anyone. He loved more like my Master than any man I’ve ever met.
I put my hands under his head and hips and pulled him off the edge of the driveway into a bed of pine needles as gently as I could, leaving a crimson smear against the black surface and all over my unclean hands. He winced subtly, his eyes widening in acknowledgment of a more acute moment of pain. I winced too. I wanted to scream, I wanted to breath fire, I wanted to pour out my wrath on sin and death and suffering, I wanted to punish the darkness with searing light and the silence with shattering thunder. But I kept quiet. I didn’t want to add any more panic to the moment already wrapping around Ringo’s thick copper neck, shortening his breath in the long dawn of night. So I told him one last time that I was so, so sorry, that he had done nothing wrong, that he was such a good dog, that none of this was his fault, that I’m the guilty one, that it was because of my divided heart that his was now broken, that his blood was forever on my hands. I felt it would take no less than hellfire to burn the stain off my hands, or perhaps burn my hands off the stain. [At least it felt like that in the moment. It’s wearing off. The heart is fickle. Pilate’s basin will do.]
Ringo, like all the beasts of the field, would have to die because I willed him to death, because I willed the death of all things. God entrusted his creaturely world to human care, and we turned on God and on each other and on all God’s critters and creatures. We were created to be God-reflecting masters of a good garden world (Gen. 1-2) but became blood-thirsty tyrants of a shadowy desert wasteland (Gen. 3-rest of the Bible). All of our creation companions now rightly live in the “fear and dread” of us (Gen. 9:2), most species simply keeping a safe distance from us, preferring flight over fight unless backed into a corner. But one species above the rest has not allowed their fear of our dominion to drive them to rebel against it. They insist on acknowledging our presence as the presence of royalty, humbly moving toward us, bowing before us, sitting at our feet. They can still perhaps see reflections, refractions rather, of Light splintering through us from the shadows that come out of us. Ringo seemed only to see my God-given light as though I were its source, as though I weren’t its eclipse. So he trusted me, his master, with his life. But I betrayed him, the most loyal of all God’s creatures. He entrusted his life to me and I ensnared him in my death.
If I’d had a means of killing him quickly without releasing him from my arms I would have used it, but I had nothing of the sort. I hated having to withdraw my presence from him, but I had no choice. I had to forsake him of my presence to end the presence of his suffering, the only presence he would ever know again until he knew none at all. So he had to die alone, at the hand of his master, who stood away from him, against him, at arm’s length. I kissed him on the mouth, like Judas, snapped back like a rattlesnake coiling up to strike, and in a storm of fury I sent all my rage at that godforsaken moment through the broad side of my log-splitting axe into the left side of my loyal dog’s head, condemning him to the death I deserve, the death I created.
His legs dropped, his body relaxed, and his life ended where it longed to live forever—at my feet.
I dropped to my knees and put one hand over his heart and the other over my face–the moment was naked and I was ashamed. Now that I was certain he was no longer aware of my presence, that I could add no more pain and unrest to his life, I opened my mouth and filled my neighborhood with a curse. Mark says that when Jesus died he “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mk. 15:37). There are things that should be said near the point of death if at all possible—things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and “I love you.” But perhaps something must be said at the point of death itself, at death itself, and perhaps that can only come out as a loud cry or a groaning, or thundering, curse. That is what love sounds like at death. Love hates death with a Passion. Love screams at death. Love “casts Death and Hades into the lake of fire” with unrelenting wrath and inexorable fury (Rev. 20:14). Love condemns death as the unforgivable sin.
I used to imagine Jesus sitting silently at the right hand of God until he returns. I don’t anymore. I think he is screaming. I think all of heaven is raging against human sin and death in a loud, grinding battle cry, first heard from the cross, which will not cease until Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven to give form to his thunder in a bolt of Light that strikes death in a merciless command of life:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command…and the dead in Christ will be first to rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).
I think Ringo will hear that command. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven—who am I to judge?—but I believe Ringo will. I was Ringo’s master. If I have any say in whom or what Jesus raises from the dead when he returns I suppose it would be limited to those creatures over whom he gave me dominion. As Ringo’s master, therefore, I want to hereby make an appeal for his life. I want to confess that I was never fit to be another creature’s master, much less such a good and faithful one as he, and plead with God to take back the dominion he gave me over Ringo in the first place and give it to Jesus, who is fit to be Ringo’s Master, my Master, Master of all. In my kingdom, everything ends up dying because of my reckless and wavering will. I get it. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to be king anymore. I want a Master who can keep the world alive, the garden alive, Ringo alive, life alive.
If God’s grace brings resurrection to the sinners he loves, should we not expect it also brings resurrection to those creatures most loyal to the sinners he loves? He’s the one who created them, no doubt to teach us something about loyalty and unconditional love, about friendship and humility and forgiveness and joy and trust. Most every dog I’ve ever met knows more about all of the above than any human I’ve ever met. Besides, innocent dogs in heaven makes more sense than sinful sinners in heaven, so I’ll keep looking forward to a reunion with that great cloud of K9s who will no doubt lead the way in showing us how to properly live at our Master’s feet when he returns.
So we corralled the boys and Sissy together for a “family meeting.” My children have never known life without Ringo. He was part of the reality into which they each were received, an odd but delightful part of the family. Ringo, on the other hand, had known life without my children, a life where he got far more loving attention and far less physical abuse. But he was raised in the south and had the gift of hospitality. He never repaid horsey rides with doggy bites. I was actually a little concerned about how he would react to the kids at first, because he did once kill our neighbor’s (evil) goat, but he proved to be discerning. He knew the difference between the children and the goats, and the closest he ever came to biting my children was licking the sticky off their faces.
Our tone was lower and our herding efforts more firm and focused than usual. They kept asking what we were doing and why we were meeting, and we kept not answering. We eventually got them all seated on the couch in the living room, where Ringo could usually be found if he weren’t found at my feet. It was the place his presence could be felt most, and now, therefore, his absence, which already had begun to swell out of proportion to the limited spaces his presence formerly inhabited: in the heaviness on my face, the cracking of my voice, and, indeed, the loneliness at my feet. It’s as though a creature’s body veils an essence that is only fully disclosed after it is broken, after it is dead and gone. Only then the veil is torn, releasing the true nature of the life represented in the body, the life now dead in the body. I kill a mosquito and it is gone. I kill my dog and he begins to haunt me, his absence more revealing than his presence. A centurion kills a Man and God begins to haunt him. Out of His absence comes the terrifying confession in a shower of water and blood (Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39).
I told them I had some really sad news to share with them: “Ringo died today.” A breathless look of surprise contorted each of the boys’ faces and was followed by three distinct responses: Maccabee (3) trying to comfort me and touch my face, Ryser (4) asking troubled and heavy questions about Ringo’s death and the nature of death itself, and Kezek (6) entering the ebb and flow of those initial impact waves of grief, wavering between questioning incredulity and wailing sorrow. I stumbled over words trying to respond, Keldy helping, clarifying, filling in the blanks as I would get choked up. It’s hard to watch your children’s first real concrete encounter with death. I think Kezek and Ryser both encountered death yesterday. It brushed against Ryser’s mind and pierced Kezek’s heart. I think it was once removed from Maccabee. He encountered it by way of my grief, his compassion for me shielding him from too direct an encounter. But each of their responses only took me deeper into my own encounter, because I knew the death of their first dog would be their first step toward discovering the death of all dogs, all people, all the living, including each of them and the ones they’ve shared their life and presence with from birth.
I told them we would now have to say goodbye to Ringo and bury him in the backyard, between the garden and the briar patch. Keldy had wrapped Ringo in his blanket and I had laid him at the edge of the garden next to one adult- and three kid-sized shovels so the boys could help dig. I uncovered the intact side of Ringo’s face so the boys could pet him one last time. I tried to press Ringo’s eyes shut, but they insisted on staying open. I think he was still trying to acknowledge my presence.
We laid him in the hole with his only two toys, which he had paid little attention to in the last few years, and an old pair of my shoes, where all his attention had been paid, especially in these last few years. When the boys asked why I put my shoes in the hole with Ringo I told them because he lived his whole life to sit at my feet and I wanted him to stay there forever. And then they heard their father weep like they had never heard before and all three climbed in my lap to console me. Kezek wept with me.
As we began shoveling dirt into the hole Radley (1) began saying “Baaaaah” (Southern for “Bye”) over and over, matter-of-factly. Once the hole returned to ground level, the green ground now marked with a big brown scar, I told the boys I needed them to help me make a cross. We went to the woodshed and picked out a long red cedar branch I hadn’t yet cut for kindling. I cut it in two unequally sized pieces and notched each to be fitted into the other. Each boy helped me secure the crossbeam using one decking screw a piece—they pressed the trigger while I held the drill. We then returned to the gravesite to stake a claim on Ringo’s life. I dug a narrow hole and poured a half bag worth of leftover concrete down to the bottom. I used the broad side of my log-splitting axe to hammer down the cross as deep as it would go until it began splintering at the top, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house warm.
I told the boys we were marking Ringo’s grave with a cross because the cross reveals to us what is on the other side of death, so we need not live in fear of death. I continued along those lines, weaving the moment into the Big Story of death and life using two kinds of thread, one made of dreams, the other of visions: dreams of a Garden in the world and visions of the world as a Garden. Probably a little less wordy but something like:
Death does not belong in God’s original or final intent for the world, for us. God created the earth to become a garden planet, wholly good and void of death, void of thistles and thorns. He gave it to us as a gift and blessed us to fill it and keep it and care for it, to expand the garden wherever we went. But we did not take good care of it. We have buried his blessing in a curse, filling the earth with thickets of pain. Under our dominion, the garden has gone to seed. We need a new Master to restore the garden–and God has sent One to us.
Jesus came to earth carrying the dominion of heaven in his Person (Mt. 3:2; Mk. 1:15), which he revealed to be a servant-shaped dominion (Phil. 2:6-11). The Master ruled by crawling under the table, down there with the dinner crumbs and the dog hair, and washing his servants’ feet (Jn. 13:1-17). He ruled by allowing the will of his Father in heaven for all creation rule over the self-preserving creaturely will he had inherited from the womb (Lk. 22:42; cf. Rom. 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:21). And so he was crowned with a braided halo of flightless thorns and buried in a garden tomb, in which the thorns remained buried but from which he was raised to life. Mary mistook him for a Gardener—it was no mistake. The Master Gardener just had to go underground to lay the axe at the root of creation’s curse, that ground-grown will to be like god apart from God (Gen. 3:5), so that God could raise him from the ground as the “firstfruits” of new creation (1 Cor. 15:20,) indeed the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). God has made a fertile womb of this barren world.
So we are living between the times, between God’s age-old creation and brand-new creation, between Friday’s night and Sunday’s morning, where the thorns touch the Garden, where death is the conclusion to life. But death is only the conclusion to life under our rule, creation under our rule, where men crucify their God and run over their dog. We too must learn to long for the death of our wayward, willful rule, for all creation to be born again under the will of God. But we can, we must, be born again even today, because God is present to us now, in the in-between, to all who call on the Name of Jesus, the One who has come, the One who is coming back–his Name is God’s number (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). To all who offer up their dominion to him, who cast their crown at his feet and confess that Jesus is Master, God has sent a downpour of his Spirit to begin washing away the deadroots of the curse entangling our hearts and restoring the blessing of heaven (cf. Acts 2). When he returns, he will finish what he started, burning off the dross of our ground-rule estates and welcoming us back from below up into the Garden–under his rule–the dirt as it is in Heaven.
So although death is a fact of life, it is not the fact of life. Jesus is the Fact of life, and he has made a Way to Life right through the heart of death, through the cross. Jesus died on a cross but came out fully alive on the other side of death, never to die again. Death, then, is not, as Shakespeare once described, that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” It has been discovered, traversed, exited and exiled. Jesus has gone before us all to come after us all, entering the all-consuming abyss to fill it with his all-consuming fire, with a Light from which no black-holed void can escape, a Life too big for death to stomach. He has travelled into the unbounded depths of the distant country to “bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom for the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isa. 61:1).
So Jesus enters death not simply that we might return to the life from which we came, where we remain masters of a wilderness wasteland, but that he might lead us out the other side into a new Life, fully alive, never to die again, because it is a life defined and defended by a Good and True and Perfect Master, King of kings, Lord of lords. He was buried in our prickly crown, the blessing of heaven sown into the curse of the earth (cf. Gen. 3:17), so that our dominion could be put to death once and for all and his kingdom could blossom to life without end. Until then, we stake a cross at the sharp edge of life’s end, between death and Life, between the thorns and the Garden, because we believe that though death is the end of life, Jesus is the end of death.
We must not, then, wish for Ringo to return. We must wait for Christ to return. Lazarus returned and had to die again. When Jesus returns death will have to die again–and we’ll all celebrate our birthday on Easter.
I also told the boys that Ringo wanted to die first because he loved us so much. I didn’t really explain what I meant. I don’t really know what I meant at the time. Looking back, though, I can’t help but wonder if it were true. Ringo never got in the way of a vehicle. He was street smart, a stray when I found him, wearing a chest harness attached to a broken chain. I can’t help but wonder if God gave Ringo the opportunity not only to love his master in life but now to love his master in death, to die in such a way as to give life through his death, to take up his cross and die for me. Perhaps he or God saw how careless I can be pulling out of the driveway and knew I needed to learn a lesson, a hard and convincing lesson. The fact is, it could have just as easily been one of my children in the wayward path of my truck. And Ringo knew the difference between the children and the dog. He knew what a child is worth to his master. Perhaps, then, in his last gesture of love for his master and his master’s family he threw himself under my truck to prevent me from killing one of my own children, which could have happened just as easily, just as quickly, just as permanently. There is a very real possibility that Ringo’s death has saved a child’s, my child’s, life. Ringo is a hero, perhaps even a martyr, and for that he deserves nothing less than the Lion’s share of my inheritance.
Yesterday morning, before all hell broke loose, I woke up way earlier than my alarm and could not fall back to sleep. So I made my coffee and walked over to the wood stove to sit beside Ringo, who was still asleep on his blanket, snoring. I startled him when I put my hand on his head, one of the few times in our relationship I can remember acknowledging his presence before he acknowledged mine, and only now because he was in a deep sleep, and because he was deaf. I touched him and he was jolted out of his slumber, awakening to his master scratching behind his ears, that place God installed dogs’ love receptors. He didn’t move his body but stretched his chin toward my thigh, waiting for me to meet him the rest of the 9/10s of the way. He knew I would. He knew how much I loved him when the kids weren’t around and I wasn’t in a bad mood. So I scooted over a few feet and he rested his chin on my leg. I was acknowledging his presence, and it was one of the best mornings of his life.
It is comforting to know that yesterday, on the day he died, I got to surprise him into life with my presence, to acknowledge his presence before he acknowledged mine, awakening him to his master’s unsolicited love—because I believe Tomorrow will happen for him in just the same way, as it will for us all who call Christ our Master, when the loud cry at death enters into the ground commanding the briars to die and the Garden to grow, when the grieving of God over death erupts from below as the command of Life everlasting, Light everlasting, Love everlasting—the world under the command of its Master, all creation at the feet of Jesus.