A friend of mine once said to me, “You know, I think God has said to himself,
‘That time I had the idea to create dogs…yeah, that was one of my better ideas.’” I believe there is a lot of truth to that.
Last November my wife and I adopted a new dog. The previous month we had to put one of our dogs down and we wanted our other dog, Hope, to have a new companion.
Hope is a dog with a gentle and beautiful spirit. Her heart is deep and filled with compassion. Hope was severely abused as a puppy and it took us years to fully gain her trust. She loves us dearly but she has spent her whole life with a fellow canine companion. So my wife and I knew it was just a matter of time until we invited another dog into our pack. Henry joined our pack in November.
We visited various pounds and rescue centers seeking a new dog. We had three basic things we wanted in our next dog. We wanted a rather large dog to match Hope’s size. Henry, the dog we adopted, is less than a foot tall.
We wanted a female. Henry, as the name implies, is a male.
We wanted a cute dog. Henry is a very cute dog.
You may wonder why we decided to adopt a dog that only met one out three of the criteria we set forth. Well, we actually had four criteria. Our primary and highest criteria was that we wanted Hope to pick her new companion.
Each time we visited a pound we took Hope with us. We would wander among the kennels and pick out a dog or two. One by one they would be brought to a fenced area where Hope could meet them. Sometimes Hope would engage them. Sometimes she would be very clear that a particular dog was not going to be an option. Sometimes she would effectively shrug her shoulders and move on. Over a couple of weeks Hope met more than a dozen dogs at three different shelters.
But when Hope met Henry everything changed. From the moment Hope saw Henry it was clear she loved him. They played, they frolicked, they sniffed about the yard together. During the 20 minutes or so they visited they were never more than five feet apart. If Hope could speak I am sure she would have said, “Henry’s the one.”
We promptly adopted Henry and welcomed into our home and Hope welcomed him most warmly. They are best friends. They adore each other. For weeks I watched them together and I wondered what it was that attracted Hope to Henry. What did she see in him? Then the answer occurred to me.
Henry has a prominent scar that runs down his back, around his rib cage and onto his belly. It is a vicious scar. We have know idea how he got it. He doesn’t act like an abused dog so we don’t think a human hurt him. It might have been through some accident or it might have been because of another dog attacking him or, who knows, he might have chased the wrong cat or even tangled with a wild animal. We have no idea how he got the scar. But his scar is clear and it reminds us that his life before us was not one of ease and comfort.
It dawned on me that Hope, being a victim of maltreatment and abuse, looked at Henry and immediately thought, “Oh there’s a puppy who knows what it’s like to suffer.” It may seem like a stretch but those of us who have known a good dog understand that dogs can be amazingly empathetic. Hope chose to rescue Henry from his painful past.
In verse seven of today’s reading from Exodus we come across two words that change everything in the Bible’s story of God and humans. It is the first time these two words have appeared together in Scripture. I suspect you heard them this morning and thought nothing about them.
But consider this: If you began reading at the first verse of the Bible—Genesis, chapter one, verse one—and read continuously until we come across these pivotal words of the seventh verse of Exodus, chapter three, you would have read more than 1500 verses, in excess of 33,000 words before you come across these two words together: my people.
Hundreds of verses, thousands of words before God utters the phrase, “my people”, and yet it is just four verses, not even 100 words later, that God repeats them. And when God says the words a second time they become emphatic. In the Hebrew of the tenth verse there is a prefix added to the word translated as my people. It is a prefix that expresses proximity and connection.
“My people,” God says, “My people I am with.”
What has caused this major development? Why after all that the Bible has told us about God and humans does God finally choose to say, “my people”?
Consider how verse seven ends. God says, “Indeed, I know their sufferings.” God has seen the abuse, the turmoil, the dire circumstances of the Hebrews and God declares them “my people”.
One of the great conundrums of our lives is the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people.” Honestly, I can’t answer that. A similar question I can’t answer is, “Why did God allow that to happen?” But by God uttering the words “my people” what I can say is that God has told us that God is with those who suffer.
Where is God? God is with those being abused. Where is God? God is with those in turmoil. Where is God? God is with those trapped in dire circumstances.
Do you want to know where God is in your life? Try looking to where your pain is, to where you fear is. Try looking into the darkest and most anxious parts of your life. There you will find God.
Hope saw the suffering of Henry and said, in effect, “my dog.” God saw the suffering of the Hebrews and said, “my people.” But let me push this metaphor a bit further.
One of the things I love about dog behavior is when they give you a simple kiss on the hand or cheek or, as my dogs like to do, on the tip of the nose. That is no mere expression of affection. In dog behavior, when a dog kisses you the dog is saying to you, “You are a member of my pack.” It is really the highest compliment a dog can give you.
God sees the suffering of the Hebrews and he calls them, “my people”. Then, in nearly the same breath, God intensifies his declaration, saying, “my people whom I am with.” God basically kisses them on the cheek.
It’s a lonely world at times. We all know it is a violent world as well. We all know it is a world that seems to be spiraling out of control. These feelings, these fears, are nothing new, really. The Hebrews felt them deeply, more profoundly than we may ever feel them. Yet it was in that distress, that fear and suffering that God stepped forward and said these people who are suffering are my people, I am with them.
Do you want to find God? You will find him where compassion and love and grace are most needed. You will find God among the pain, the suffering, the dark and weary. Do you want to find God’s light? Look where it is the darkest.