Downward Dog: Finding God in a Dog (Philippians 2:1-13)
By Melissa Tidwell
We didn't have dogs in my family-we were cat people-so it was not until I was an adult that I first fell for a dog. Lucy, a Golden Retriever who came to live at my house was the one who changed my heart. She seemed gentler than other dogs I had been around. We invented our own particular game of catch that had all kinds of special rules and dispensations for squirrel encroachment and slobber abatement. I loved that dog and could never bring myself to follow the somewhat clinical advice of the dog training book to dominate her for her own good, to make sure I was always the pack leader.
When I read that there was a talking dog television series, I felt pretty sure the featured dog would be nothing like Lucy. I expected an excitable good-time dude who made jokes about bodily functions and his own sexual prowess. But Martin, the narrator of Downward Dog is nothing like what I expected. Martin is calm and loving. He has an inner life. His sly jokes are often about the differences between humans and animals (like how every seven years, his human wants to dress him up in costumes.)
Downward Dog (recently canceled after its first season on ABC but available on demand) features Martin's reflections on his relationship to his human, Nan, in his own voice. Martin's voice is described by its creator as "a social justice warrior millennial." That's not quite how I hear it, I get more "yoga bro," but I do get that Martin's voice is that of a young soul, one still in process. Martin's monologues are touched by fascination with his relationship with Nan-- how it feels, why it goes wrong sometimes. He has spent a lot of time alone, while Nan is at work, considering why she needs all those others to play with. He suffers her absence because he truly thinks she is the source of all goodness. Martin has a little Nan cosmology worked out in which she made everything and then found him to make her world a little less cold. (Cats, however, are the proof of evil's presence in the world.)
Martin's love for Nan is gentle but it isn't all agape. He longs for her and the way he expresses his longing sounds romantic, noble, and charged with tenderness and humor. Martin's relationship has challenged him to rethink his ideas about autonomy versus interdependence, faithfulness versus freedom. In some of those tensions, he would have a lot in common with the issues the Apostle Paul struggles with in his New Testament writings.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses the text of a great hymn of praise to the humility implied in the incarnation of Christ. Paul tells the Philippians, who seemed to have been encountering some kind of opposition or discouragement that they could find consolation by imitating Christ, who could have been content to remain a part of the Trinity, divine, removed from human pain, but who chose to take on life as a person, Jesus of Nazareth, for the sake of the world. This way of Christ did not seek to further its own aims, hype its own awesomeness, but instead emptied itself out for the sake of love. The Greek word that refers to emptying, kenosis, has never been added to those charts of the four or seven forms of loves the Greeks understood on which Christian love has so often been compared and contrasted, but it seems like it ought to be.
When I picture the love I see in my congregation- the spouse who tenderly cares for the partner with dementia, the farmer who plants the field again and again knowing there might be drought or flood, the immigrant working long hours to make a better life for her family-I see the kenosis of love, giving its all.
The self-emptying Paul describes can be a difficult idea to embrace. Doesn't exalting servanthood exalt a distorted view of human worth? Some of us never had the choice about servitude. Many of us-women, LGBT people who have had to fight for the right to even have a self-are wary of the idea of emptying our hard-won individuation.
But Christ did not erase the self he possessed, he offered it. I sometimes hear lonely people say they have a lot of love to give, and it seems they might be imagining their love in a vessel, filled to brimming, with no right place in which to pour out the devotion that is waiting inside them. The giving of the divine Christ, entering into human life as he loved the disciples, the sick who came to him for healing, the crowds who flocked to his stories, was that pouring out of the love he had to give, extended as a gift, a libation. And perhaps it was for Jesus and for us that in the pouring out the gift, we find it, like the waters of abundant life, welling up to regenerate the love freely offered.
Writer, pastor, and LGBT pioneer Chris Glaser once published a lovely little book, Unleashed, that presents itself as the English translation of his dog Calvin's insights. Calvin knows a bit of theology and his canine language expression of it illuminate the dog perspective on things like stress, which he describes as the "stretched-leash-attitude." One of the distinctions Calvin observes is about loving physical touch which can express itself as "pet to get" when what is truly fulfilling is "pet to give." Downward Dog's Martin would totally get that. So would the members of my congregation, those who are lonely, those who are loved and those who are both.
Downward Dog is funny because it puts to light our human wrongness, our inability to make kenotic love our center. The show is also hopeful because it catches those moments we move toward love's generosity. Nan and her sometime boyfriend pull apart and together. Nan's terrible boss seems intentionally clueless about both business and humanity and then admits a deeply vulnerable self-doubt. Martin runs away and then realizes how much Nan matters to him. In missing the mark but never giving up, the friends connect in ways that are funny and doggishly devoted.
We love dogs-we need dogs-precisely because of the way they live so unfiltered, so free of pretension or anxiety about status or wealth. They go after their Frisbee with passion, they lick their food bowl with relish, and they look at us with utter kindness and devotion. This week, in honor of the feast day of St. Francis, consider learning from the saints who have found God in their animal friends, and the untamed natural world that they bring us. Maybe let your dog be the pack leader, seeing their love poured out as a sign of the irresistibility of grace.
Melissa Tidwell has written about metaphor, music, maps, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and has also written for Weavings magazine. In 2013, Melissa returned to seminary to finish a degree begun 20 years before, and is now pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio.
1. Who taught you to love? What examples of kenotic self-giving have inspired you?
2. What response do you give to the idea that kenosis poses an ethical dilemma for the oppressed?
3. How can humility in love be a form of leadership that offers a vision to explore without the coercion of power?
For Further Reading
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp (Dial Press 1999).
Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog, Translated by Chris Glaser (Westminster Press, 1998).
Can An Enslaved God Liberate? Hermeneutical Reflections On Philippians 2:6-11, By Sheila Briggs (Semeia January 1, 1989).
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