Louisville, my team, was on the floor, locked in an epic battle with Michigan for the NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship. It was a glorious struggle, but the competition was so keen that, by halftime, my heart was racing.
I was, after all, in the middle of my own dramatic struggle against the powers of an unknown virus that had affected both my lungs and my heart. I had been released after four days in the hospital, going in with the diagnosis of congestive heart failure, but getting the “good news” that it was just fluid around my heart caused by a rather nasty infection. Now the fluid was coming off slowly but I was still suffering from very low stamina and a persistent cough that was caused, perhaps, both by the pericardia effusion and some form of bronchitis.
So, I got up from the couch wondering what I could do to calm myself and get my heart back to a sane rhythm. A sip of Scotch only made things worse, and just trying to master my organs and the rest of my body with my mind, was a losing battle.
Finally I decided simply to go out, get the seven Border Collies out of their kennels and take them around the farm.
I was amazed! I’ve been around dogs all my life, but this time the transformation of my body was so stark it was phenomenal. The virus and the fluid on the heart has kept me in a three-week-long funk. I have had little energy and even fewer thoughts because, I suppose, I have a little less oxygen, but a lot more attention focused on my misbehaving heart and lungs. And the excitement of the ball game proved to take a great toll. But in moments with the dogs the grip on me was released. I breathed easier. My heart calmed down. I smiled.
Today all of this came back to me when I received a little e-mail from my friend, Donald McCaig, a fellow shepherd and handler of sheepdogs, who happens to be an accomplished author to boot. Way back in 2008 he traveled from his home farm in Virginia to compete in the World Sheepdog Trials in Llandeilo, South Wales. There we met up at the home of another of my friends, Vicar Roger Hughes, and Roger and I led a worship service on the morning of the final day of competition at the Trials.
Donald wrote to alert me to a book review for his latest book, Mr. and Mrs. Dog, which ran recently in the Washington Post. His book narrates the saga of training and preparing the dogs and traveling to Wales for competition. The review of the book in the Washington Post, by Michael Dirda, quotes at length a prayer I composed for the worship at the World Trials. You can check out the great review of Donald’s wonderful new book at this link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/donald-mccaigs-mr-and-mrs-dog-reviewed-by-michael-dirda/2013/04/10/9e02fac4-a06b-11e2-be47-b44febada3a8_story.html
But I conclude this posting with the full text of that prayer. It’s on our website under the tab “John’s Writings” but I wanted to share it with you now, just to thank God more fully for the healing power of our dogs.
Oh, and by the way, both teams played brilliantly, but, in case you hadn’t heard, Louisville prevailed over Michigan and is the 2013 National Championship Team! And I enjoyed the victory without succumbing to a heart attack because of our wonderful dogs.
A PRAYER OF THANKS FOR SHEEPDOGS This is a prayer I prepared for the Sunday morning worship at the World Sheepdog Trials at Llandeilo, Wales in September of 2008
Lord, we thank you for our dogs—your simple gift to us. Open us to what they teach.
We thank you for the grateful exuberance of our dogs. We thank you for the way they bound across the hills, splash in the waters, chew on sticks and roll in the dewy grass. Teach us, every day to say our own ‘thank you’ with every fiber of our being, for the wondrous works of your creation.
We thank you Lord for the honest, direct loyalty of our dogs. We thank you for the wag of their tail and the offer of a cuddle for friend and stranger alike, the way they make people from 22 nations into our neighbors, the way they regard not body type, color of hair or color of skin. We thank you for the easy way they forgive faults—the way they love us, not because we can love back, but because of our need for love. Teach us, every day, to open our hands and hearts to friend and foreigner, and to be reborn to the power of free and fearless compassion.
We thank you Lord for the ageless wisdom of our dogs, who know things and do things that no book or computer chip can contain. Teach us, every day, to cherish what our neighbors know and what they can do. Help us to treasure the skills and arts of shepherds and farmers, cooks and cleaners and clerks, painters of landscapes and painters of schoolhouse walls. Help us to notice…help us appreciate…help us say “thank you,” with our smiles and with our words, for the ageless wisdom of our neighbors that we depend on for our very lives.
We thank you Lord for the way our dogs breathe deeply in and sigh deeply out before they settle and sleep. Teach us to live each moment of life as fully as they do and then to rid ourselves of the worries of the world as we commend to you our spirits. Teach us the deep mystery of peaceful sleep and peaceful death—to trust that the new dawn will come tomorrow, yet another of your surprising, simple gifts.
We thank you Lord for our shepherding dogs who can’t stand to loose track of the wayward lamb. We are your lambs, O Lord, and oh so often lost. Teach us, every day, to remember your fanatical eagerness to gather us back to your flock and fold, even as we pray the prayer your Shepherd Son has taught us to pray:
Our Father, which art in heaven…