The Animals Teach Us Advent Expectation

‘Tis the season for expectation. Pregnant waiting. Yearning flavored with confidence. Confidence born of experience.

Advent has always been a favorite time for me. Of course, as a child, it all led up to that moment when we drove home from Christmas Eve pageant, past the colored lights on the homes and along the runways of Standiford Airport in Louisville, and then walked through the door of our house to find all the presents that had magically appeared in that short two hours we were away.

But even that moment would have been emptied of effect if not for the weeks of deliciously eager anticipation.

Older now, we wait and watch for something far more holy. And here at Heatherhope we are daily treated to instructive demonstrations of the profundity of this vigil.

In the winter, our flock of North Country Cheviot sheep is completely dependent on us to meet their needs for water, mineral, and, of course, hay. If we let them they would eat twice as much as they need, so we put hay out for them. And since sheep normally have two active eating times a day, we feed them twice a day. But we can never take them by surprise. Their bodies are tuned to the routine. When they hear our shuffling footsteps on the gravel path, or our squeaks in the snow, they all turn their heads expectantly in our direction. When I load up the hay on my shoulders and come through the gate into the feedlot, numbers 238, 248 and 241 especially rub up against me all the way to the feeders.

Our fat cat, Smeagol, is an even better teacher of Advent anticipation. From morning till night he knows the meaning of time. At sun-up he is at the basement door, making it pound his alarm to get me to let him up and feed him. Since I reliably squeeze off a little of the “pill pockets” I use to give Abbie her morning thyroid pill and put it in his food dish he rubs on my leg till I fulfill that promise. He sits and quacks at us as we finish our cereal knowing either Connie or I will let him lick the last bit of our milk. When he sees us just about to eat dinner he paces near his dish again, counting on us giving him a few of his nuggets, called “Temptations.” Finally, when we go to the bathroom to wash up before bed, Smeagol quacks again in earnest, knowing we have “trained him” into sleeping in the basement by putting out a bit of canned cat food for him. When I descend the stairs I have to be especially mindful not to trip over him because of his repeated leg rubbing.

Then there are the dogs. A follower of Martin Luther recorded this morsel of table talk:

“When Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes, he [Martin Luther] said, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”
If Luther had had a Border Collie, how much more would he have been impressed? Laser-eyed, they are beyond focused. They are taut.

And my do they anticipate! I give a bit of cattle-injectable Ivomec to our dogs to ward off heartworm disease. It is concentrated. It must taste absolutely awful. So, when I come into the kennel and fill a tiny syringe to squirt about a quarter of a milliliter into the back of each dog’s mouth, they all start to circle in their cages. As I approach each one, that one licks its lips and turns away from me. They can taste bitterness before it reaches their mouths.

Of course, the most thrilling thing for a sheepdog is work. So whenever I first enter the kennel, the dogs all sit utterly spellbound. They watch my every movement in rapt attention. And when I reach to release the gate of any one of them, that one charges out; but all the others explode in sound until I go out the door. I know I have not been the best of trainers, because others have been able to break their Border Collies of this habit; but I have given up trying. In fact, apart from being annoyed by the ear-splitting din of it all, I am impressed, as Martin Luther was with his puppy–with the intense focus and heartfelt eagerness of the dogs.

Isaiah tells us that those who wait for the Lord renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles.

The faithful are waiting not in mere resignation, not hopelessly, not because they have nothing better to do; but they wait and watch in sure confidence. They have good reason to count on the Lord.

Hunger, thirst. Reaching, straining, hurrying upward. Knowing, known, seeing the not yet. Tasting it.

Animals show the way. All creation waits with eager longing.

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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