The Stray

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If you were a stray in my childhood, I collected you and brought you home. I wrapped you in cloth, found out what food you ate, fed youby eyedropper sometimes, made you a shoe box with tissue paper nest, put your box by my pillow, and stroked your fur or feathers until you calmed and slept. Baby mice, baby birds, baby rabbits. Anything lost or abandoned or too weak to survive on its own. I had a place for you in my house and in my heart.  

I thought of myself as an animal Mother Theresa. And I imagined if I lived in Calcutta, I would do the same with people.

My husband jokes that he was the final stray I brought home.

When we moved to Mexico, I carried my love for animals with me. Many days out on the desert ranch, I helped village children learn compassion and gentleness toward the animals they came in contact with. This wasn’t always an easy task because the outlook on animals is different there. For the most part, they provide a means to an end—food, protection, transportation. Very rarely are they coddled or adopted as a pet, especially in the villages. The people often struggle with feeding their own family, let alone a dog or cat. And without funds for spaying and neutering, the homeless population grows exponentially.

Extremes exist on both ends. Both cultureswhether we neglect or pamper. This isn’t about that. This is about what happens to a heart turned cold.

Many nights on the ranch, we cooked our meals outside, in the open air. We built fires and sat around them enjoying food, rest, and good stories from the day. Smells travel far on desert wind, and we often had uninvited guests on these nights. Strays looking for their next meal, their next comfort.

A few of those homeless dogs who found their way to the ranch we adopted and took them into our pack. But we had trouble with them eventually as they never fully lost their street sense. On occasion, they would attack the farmer’s livestock and damage our relationships with our neighbors. So, we stopped taking them in.

Our own dogs, two German Shepherds, helped with border control. We never trained them, they just lived off our cues. When a stray dog came onto the property, our dogs would determine how to respond by our actions. If we welcomed the animal, they would too. If we yelled to scare them off, the chase would ensue. Most often, the strays high-tailed it off the property. Our dogs would stop at the fence line and then return to the fire, a job well done.

When the work day began next morning, we’d shore up our fences and tighten our barrier against further intrusion.

One day, however, things went all wrong. I can still see the dog without effort, even years later. His image embedded in my thoughts. Rooted there to remind me of something eternal. The dog was a tan and black terrier cross, with desperate eyes. He came onto the property slowly. Slinking from the fence line, closer and closer to the warmth and smells and laughter of the circled fire.

When he got too close, I stood. My dogs came to attention. And when I yelled, “Yaah, get out of here!”, our dogs took up the chase. But the visitor did not run like most. Instead, he cowered. Curled himself in a ball while the large shepherds barked and nipped at him. He growled and nipped back, but would not be moved.

I stepped closer and reached down for a stone. The people taught us that if you are afraid of a street dog, just pretend to pick up a stone and they will run off. They know stones.

When I faked the motion, the intruder ran a few paces toward the fence, then crumpled again in the dirt.

“Get out of here,” I yelled with little response, except to rile my own dogs more.

In one final effort to be free of the trespasser, I launched the rock in my hand. Never had I had such precision in my aim or even considered the consequence of my actions. The stone found its mark and the crouched dog let out a yelp. A bitter cry from a heart of despair.

I froze in place. Dropped my arms and cried for the choice I had made. Maybe you think it’s no big deal, or you empathize with my heartache. Either way, think about the questions I considered …

What am I doing? How—how in heaven’s name—did I get here? And when did throwing rocks become justified in my mind?

I called my dogs off and approached the intruder. He remained huddled on the ground, but barred his teeth expecting the hurt to continue. But he didn’t move. Because when you have nothing left, how do you give up on the only string of hope you have?

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”

Then I gave him something to eat, and he never came back. But I haven’t forgotten him.

The outcast. The exiled. The unclean. Pushed to the borders and left to starve—physically, emotionally, spiritually. And we wonder why they huddle in the streets and on the corners. Why they curse and snarl, and sometimes steal. We wonder how they got there, and how we came to the place of shutting them out. Or even throwing the stone in our hand. How?

I was not who I imagined myself to be.

Why do you enter my gate when I don’t want you here? Why do you refuse to leave when you make me so uncomfortable? I have nothing for you.

Ah, but I do.

I have a shoe-box and a cloth. I have tissue paper and an eye dropper. I have a gentle hand to heal your wounds and a smile to calm your fears. And I have the One to give youone much better at loving you than I am.

The one who removes stones from hands and hearts.

And in Him, friend—when I come to the end of my meager offering—you’ll find your hope.




What Question Would You Ask Jesus ... If You Could?


What would you ask Him if you had the chance?

When will I die? What will eternity look like? Will I be with you? My loved ones?

The disciples had a chance. More than one. They could have asked Him all kinds of things. Mysteries of the world. Unending revelation. Unfathomable wisdom. But they chose to ask Him this: “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Do you think they wanted to know really who was the greatest … or do you think they wanted to know: “How could I be the greatest? Tell me, Lord, what is the pathway to greatness? For I think I would like to be on it.

Wouldn’t we all?

No matter how we dice it, the desire for greatness is in all of us. We want purpose. We want to have an impact. To make a difference. It’s at our core, as humans. Right? This ongoing, unstoppable striving to be greater. We’ve all known it. We’ve all tasted it. And… we’ve all abandoned the joy of a milestone, even an amazing one, solely to reach the next goal. And the next. And the next.

To make our mark. Our fingerprint. Our legacy.

Is there ever an end? Do we ever stop striving? And how, then, will we know when we get there? How will we reach our “greatest” point?

Jesus answered the question for the disciples ... and for us. He said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:3)

What did He mean? Become like children? For even a young child strives, doesn’t she? “Look at me,” she says on the swing. “I can go higher. I can swing upside down. I can jump off. Watch. Wait. That wasn't right. Watch me again.”

Even in our youth, it seems, the striving is within us. From the beginning. The need to be better. To climb higher. To run farther. So, what exactly does a child have that we might not? What is it within her that is different. What is that thing we are missing as adults? That path to greatness?

Knowing we needed more explanation, Jesus continued, “Whoever than humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:4)

Hmm … humility. That was the difference. That was the dividing line to greatness.

Is it the same for us? My mind can be quite convincing that I’ve already got it--this humility thing. Easy. I know I’m no better than the next guy. Yet, often times, my cloak of humility hides the core of pride. I am no good… but please tell me how great I am! I couldn’t have done it without you… but did you see how I could have!  Pride says the things that go right in my life are because of me and the things that go wrong are because of something or someone else.

True humility shines in the absence of pride.

The heart of a child says, “Show me. Teach me. I want to learn from you.” Always looking up, he is eager to follow. To learn. To explore new ways of doing something. And at his core ... at her core is trust. She climbs into the vagrant's lap and says, "Teach me to whistle." He stops the old man, bent and withered, and says, "Show me that card trick." I have something to learn from you.

How different do we approach life? How sure of ourselves and our own way of doing things. How we can delight, not in what others bring to our lives, but how much we bring to theirs. Or how much higher than them we can climb. Others become not handholds to offer support, but footholds to launch us higher. And if our boot puts them under foot, so be it.

Here is the challenge ... a challenge to myself. A challenge to look into the eyes of the next person I see, the very next person God brings into my life, knowing that I have something—something incredible—to learn from them. Whoever they are. May I look up, rather than down. And declare… “Show me. Teach me. I want to learn from you.”

That's how we find greatness. It was hidden this whole time in the heart of a child!