A Test of Wills before Bedtime

Before bedtime we always give our seven sheepdogs one last run around the farm to do their business.

Last night it was rather typical weather for this winter: about 9 degrees Fahrenheit and a sharp wind of around 20 mph, so I was bundled in Muck Boots, long underwear, fleece-lined pants, wool shirt, down vest and jacket with the enormous hood over a poly-propylene ski mask, and extra thick ski-gloves.

Round and round we went in the middle of the 20 acre hay field where the ice ridges bounced me and the ATV around like a couple of pebbles in a rock tumbler. The crusty snow drifts are piled way too high all around the edges. I was mostly toasty due to the shot of Scotch I’d indulged in and the puffy get-up; but the skin around my eyes and forehead were burning with the cold blast of wind; and my toes were getting to that point where they cry out to be in bed, under warm covers.

So, I finished my midnight route and got the dogs back into their kennels. Cap and Nell and Hector always stand ready to be first in and to curl up on their beds. Bess takes a last hopeful look out the garage door to the house, then reluctantly takes a pet and goes in. Then Spot. Then I shut Betty into a smaller kennel cage—trying to break her of her soiling things in the night.

But where is Abbie? I call her; but nothing. She has been doing this lately—going her own way, into neighboring fields, then not following me back to the kennels. I call out again and again, blood beginning to boil a bit. Better go about my business a bit and give her time to avoid a waste of angry energy. I go in the house, wash my face, brush my teeth. Connie asks me if it’s cold, if the dogs had clean kennels. I grunt.

Donning the parka and Muck Boots once again I go back outside hoping to see Abbie at the kennel door, but no dice. I have grabbed my shepherd’s whistle—the Brass Blaster one—and I blast it. I blow as loudly as I can, over and over and over. Thank God the nearest neighbor is hundreds of yards away.

I walk towards the barn and here comes Abbie towards me. It only takes a hard glance on my part, and even with my head in a puffy hood, Abbie gets the message and immediately hits the ice and lies down. I call it “assuming the position.” I keep up my determined march towards her taking off my puffy ski-glove as I do. I know. I know you should never punish a dog when it has come to you—even if it is finally, finally coming to you. But I can’t help myself. I swing my arm in a great, cosmic arc, and I slap her on the head. Probably about three times. Then I silently march her back to the kennels, open her kennel for her to take her place in it, shut its gate, and I point at her with all the hardness I can manage. And I say, “What the hell are you doing?” Then I storm out, forgoing my usual ritual of calling all the dogs’ names out and telling them I love them before lights-out. Inside the house Connie asks me a couple more questions. I grunt, take my pills and finally comfort my frozen toes beneath the bed covers.

Through the night my  mind involuntarily multi-tasks. On the one hand it processes the sickness I feel about hitting my dog—the Abbie, whom I dearly love—even if it was with a puffy glove that inflicted no real, physical pain. And on the other hand I processed sixteen hundred years of Christian theology.

One of the greatest fights the church has had has been over the powers of the human will. Saint Augustine, on his way to becoming a saint, reflected on his own twisted journey to faith and salvation and concluded that his own will had been so corrupted that he would have never made it to a good place with God unless God had done all the work. He had spent all his sexual energies on selfish conquests and defiance and all his intellectual prowess on dead end philosophies. God’s grace was the only thing that could possibly turn him around and save him. So Augustine developed the idea’ of sin as corruption of the will and original sin. We are born with a defective human will—capable of everything except pleasing God.

Pelagius, a Celtic Bible student and itinerant teacher, thought that all this emphasis on the corruption of the will was completely discouraging. His project was living a righteous life to please God. He knew all Christians need the grace of being made capable of righteousness, the grace of being shown the way and the grace of forgiveness when they failed, but all this talk of original sin and of corruption was way too discouraging.

Through the centuries the church has mainly sided with Augustine. Martin Luther, specifically, doubled down on Augustine by writing The Bondage of the Will. The famous Lutheran-Protestant idea was that we are saved by the grace of God alone. Every attempt to earn our own salvation by our own works leads us to inevitable disappointment. How hard do we need to go along this path by our own will-power?

Today one of the most popular ideas is human potential. In it this notion of will power is everything. We believe the best thing we can do for our children is to tell them, “You can be anything—you can accomplish anything—if only you set your mind on it. Believe in yourself and try hard enough and the sky is the limit.” But for Martin Luther the idea of will was less about human potential and more about human willfulness. It is what motivates a two-year-old to think “I want it because I want it and because I want it and because I want it. Because it is I who want it—this is my SELF at stake. Because I feel this want – this hunger. And because I have locked my sights on this thing, so nothing else in the universe can fulfill my needs – only this.”

Then again, I’m not a two-year-old. And human potential seems wonderful. If I hide my light under a basket and constantly think of myself as incapable, what will become of me? I like human potential. I love it, I need it, I want it.

But human potential or will power made me hit my dog when she was coming to me. My will power, my sense of authority and identity and self was on the line and I hit Abbie.

And isn’t this the way it is so often? When I am training my dog and it is not doing what I want it to do, I often do the mental calculation that it is defying me. It is intentionally rebelling from my authority. Oh the more I mature as a trainer the longer it may take me, but if a dog persists in not following the commands I think I’m clearly giving, I will get to that point: My will is being defied! So my voice takes on a new tone – one of anger. I start violating the rules of training that I know deep down there in my mind. I have gone beyond capability and my own human potential to be a better handler and even a better person and I have begun to exercise sheer willfulness. I made my relationship with my dog into a contest of wills and by God, I’ve got to win because my own sense of self and self-worth is at stake.

When Abraham took Isaac up to Mount Moriah was he hearing the Lord or was he hearing his own sense of self? Was he treading the road of his own will—his hard-earned reputation for being faithful to God? Was he treading a path he felt sure was the right one of right religion. “Well, I’ve followed God’s will all these years, so now that I think He’s telling me to sacrifice my son, I’ve got to do it?” And did God then have to teach Abraham – “No, it’s not about you and your self. You are letting willfulness corrupt your trust in me. You don’t have to destroy another to prove your own will-power. You don’t have to be a good parent by beating up on your child.  You don’t have to win the battle of the wills and thereby sacrifice your son or your wife or your servants.”

I can be a better dog handler, but only if I avoid contests of the will with my dog. Only if I stop seeing my self on the line and start seeing the dog and sheep and me as one—my selfhood is a corporate one. We are not so divided up. We are not against each other. The reason why dogs or sheep or children or wives go different ways and march to different drummers is that we are all the same. We have the same thoughts and emotions – the same hopes and fears and confusions. Only our same traits are momentarily taking us in different directions. But it’s not that we are rebelling from each other. In fact, deep down at the deepest level we are happiest when we are getting along and all finding our potential at living in harmony – at helping each other out. I imagine now that Abbie had discovered something interesting out in the field. She wanted also to please me, but she was just momentarily distracted. Other times she is just confused or frightened by things. And I can work with her better if I strive to understand these things.

This morning I made a point of letting Abbie come to me. She loves to lean in. She loves to look at me with love. She loves to find that little patch of exposed skin that the ski mask isn’t covering and lick it. And as she licks I try to let go my anxiety about my own will power—let go my freedom of my will and relax into a greater Self that is woven by all the selves or spirits around me.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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