Hymn: The Ninety and Nine
Everything I Learned About Bring a Good Christian, I Learned
When Jesus was on the earth, he’d often use the simplest things in the world to try to describe the most profound mysteries of God. These were called parables. A seed. A grain of salt. A lamp.
Today we’re going to talk about a dog.
I’ve heard sermons, and read literature, and have had discussions with others about religion. But one of the people who taught me the most about the mysteries of the kingdom of God isn’t a person at all. He was a collie, named Happy.
Happy who lived from 1986-1997 His full name was Happy Liu. He was adopted into our family at the ripe age of 2 months.
My parents had promised my sister a dog since she was young. “When you get to college”, they said, “you can have a dog.”
Well, my sister finally did make it to college, and she cashed in on the deal. So my mom and my sister went to the breeder’s to look at dogs. I wasn’t there, but the story goes that the first time they visited the breeders, they met Happy’s mother. Happy’s mother jumped onto my mom, so that her paws were on her shoulders. As if she were saying, take care of my boy.
I remember when I was in high school, I was the eternal pessimist. I fought against the idea of getting a dog. And I remember my reasoning…we’ll get all attached to him, and then it’ll be too painful when he passes away.
Well, a few weeks later, we ended up going to the breeder again, where
we picked Happy up and took him home. This is the first time I saw him.
Already, you could see he fit his name. When the breeder called him, he
scampered in, big goofy grin on his face from ear to ear, took a couple
bites of food, and scampered out. He was a typical collie pup, with a
nose too big for his face, and short fuzzy hair. As we took him home,
My sister drove, and I carried him in the front seat. He kept looking
around nervously, with a big nervous grin on his face.
Well, Happy quickly got over his initial nervousness and quickly become a member of the family.
There are three kids in the family, and whenever my mom wanted to call one of us, she’d this habit of calling the other two before hitting the right person. For example, if she wanted to call Serena, she’d say Sam…Steve…and then Serena. We knew that Happy had literally become a true member of the family when one day mom wanted to call me.
She called me Happy.
To be with Happy was to be happy. Seems like there was never a time that he didn’t have a big smile on his face. I still remember clearly on sunny summer days when Happy would be outside. There was a favorite shrub of his, that provided the perfect shade on a hot summer day. He could sit under that shrub for hours, eyes half closed, panting, and with a silly grin on his face.
We’d often play a game. I had an old gray Thom Mcann Jox sneaker from when I was young. It become his prized possession. I’d toss it as far as I could in the back yard, and he’d go chasing after it with reckless abandon. Then, he’d trot it back to me. But try as we might to train him, instead of dropping it on the ground, he’d taunt me and I’d try to grab it out of his mouth. Then, there’d be a game of tug-of-war.
Being the bigger one, most of the time I won. Sometimes I’d put
him in a little headlock and pry his mouth open. Sometimes I’d have
a dog treat in my mouth…he’d drop the shoe, I’d get
it, and he’d have this “drat…foiled again” look
on his face. Sometimes I’d ignore him until hours later, he’d
finally drop the shoe. But he loved that shoe. He’d chew it, he’d
shake it, he’d hold it like a prize trophy and trot around with
a smug look on his face in those cases when he won the tug of war with
The first thing he taught me…
How to commiserate…How to bear someone else’s burdens
I remember an incident very well. It was a few months after we got Happy, and I was taking calculus in high school, there quickly came a point where I was well over my head. One night, I was studying late in our dining room for an exam the next day. The whole family was asleep, and Happy too was in the family room on the other side of the house. Because of my mom’s asthma, we didn’t let him go all around the house, so to keep him out of the living room and the dining room, we set up some barricades with chairs.
Anyway, it had gotten to the hour of 11 or 12, and I was completely lost. The numbers and formulas were just a complete jumble to me. I didn’t have any hope at all of passing the test, so after a while, I was just completely exhausted and my eyes were heavy with sleep. For some reason I just leaned back in my chair and I started howling. Oooohhhhh….
A few minutes later, I heard a low voice behind me. OOOhhhhh…
I looked around startled. Then I looked down, and there was Happy, all of eight months old, standing there with the most pitiful, plaintive look on his face. He’d managed to wedge his way past the barricades and make his way to me. He’d never made any noise like this before, so I it took me by surprise.
I looked at him, and stared at him carefully as I did a test howl…ooohhhh!
He immediately came to attention, closed his eyes, tilted back his head, and let out a long guttural howl….OOOhhh..
I couldn’t help but smile, and I just hugged him and buried my face in his fuzzy mane.
I can’t remember how I did on that test. but what I remember about that night was a feeling of complete despair and that Happy, in his own little way, somehow took away the pain of that night..
How is it that this little puppy could comfort me? Well, it’s very simple…he bore my sorrow as his own. His howling was instinctive. Something programmed into him said that when another member of the pack howls, you should join in as well.
And his cry was so pitiful, so filled with emotion that it could as well have been him taking that test the next day. And I wish he had…he probably would have done better than me.
So Happy’s rule #1 in how to be a Christian is…carry one another’s burdens.
There’s a “how to” and a “how not to” do this in the Bible.
The “how not to” is in the book of Job.
When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. (Job 2:11)
This, of course, was the right thing for Job’s friends to do…but you know what happened, of course. Job’s friends started out intending to sympathize and comfort, but they ended up criticizing and aggravating him.
The “how to” is in the book of Hebrews.
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)
The verse, of course, can be extended. Remember those who are sick as if you were sick. Remember those who have lost loved ones as if you have lost loved ones. Remember those who are sick as if you are sick. When you hear the list of people to pray for, don’t just get into the habit of ignoring it or spending ten seconds repeating the list to God. Listen to each prayer request as if you were the one the calamity were happening to.
The best example, of course, is Jesus Christ. Isaiah speaks of the Messiah:
Surely he took up our infirmities
It’s a big sacrifice to take someone else’s infirmities. To carry someone else’s sorrows. We live in a world and in a generation where people are basically selfish. People seek out their own comfort and well-being, and if it comes at the cost of someone else’s, no big deal. And people have conditioned themselves to walk past those who are suffering without a second thought.
This is what Happy did If Happy saw you crying or upset, he’d quickly trot over to you, put his head on your lap, and his eyes would look up at you with sadness. He wouldn’t stop looking at you or take his head off your lap until you started to laugh and pet him. There were times, especially in my early twenties, that I was depressed and upset at the world, but Happy was always right there. I’d sometimes even talk to him, and I knew he couldn’t understand, but he’d stare right into my face as if he did, and would always treat me as if I was the most important person in the world. It was a remarkable thing.
So the next time you see someone suffering, someone in pain, someone who needs a friend, don’t merely shake your head and pity him…don’t wonder how that person sinned to cause her to go through so much suffering…don’t give lip service and say “God bless you”, and then go home and live your life as if everything in the world were fine. But make that person’s problems your own. Especially in the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."
The second thing Happy taught me. Do not show partiality
My sister and I would sometimes torment Happy with a little game. We’d try to prove to each other that happy liked one of us better than the other one. So every now and then then we’d be sitting in a room a few feet from each other, and Happy would be lying the the middle.
I’d call Happy over to me, and he’d trot over to me.
This would go on for a couple minutes, and each time one of us called, Happy would run over to the one who called. We’d think of little ways to trick him into staying on our side. She’d secretly scratch him behind his ear, and he’d feel obliged to stay as long as she’d scratch him.. I’d hide a little bit of food so that he’d stay on my side and focus on the food. But even with these tricks, when the other one of us called him, he eventually would break off and answer the call. He went completely out of his way to show both of us that he cared for both of us just as much.
And when I’d take him for walks, he’d excitedly try to get the attention of everyone we passed, no matter who they were or what they looked like. Old people and young people…people of all races…it didn’t matter…as long as he could get them to pet him and as long as he could make them smile, he would seek them out.
Humans sometimes have a hard time doing this. They do not shy away from showing favoritism and partiality. It’s been that way from the beginning. The people of Israel had nothing to do with Samaritans. Look at how the poor were treated in the church of Corinth.
And even today, people discriminate. They see someone of a different race, and immediately, they treat them sourly. They see someone who may not be as intelligent, or attractive, or as rich as them and treat them with disdain. There are even parents who show partiality among their kids just as Jacob showed partiality to Joseph, and it causes just as many problems now as it did then.
Well, the Bible tells us that not only is this rude, it’s a sin.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:8,9)
What can we do? Well, follow the example of Happy. Treat everyone equally, and treat them as you’d like to be treated yourself. Especially in the body of Christ.
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (1 Corinthians 12:21-25)
Unfortunately, this is one of those sins that we generally commit without even knowing it. At church, at work, in your social circles…do you ever find yourself avoiding or ignoring those who are unpopular, or different, or those who you figure can’t do anything for you? That’s a sin. God wants us to love everyone, and especially the unloved.
The third thing Happy taught me was the instinct of a shepherd
Now Happy was born in New Jersey, but his heritage of course dates back to the brays of Scotland…where collies were bred to herd sheep and cattle. So now and then when I’d play a little game called “shepherd” with him, you could see his sheep herding instincts.
I’d run to the left, and he’d run faster to the left to head me off. I’d swerve to the right, and he’d leap to the right and gently nip at my heels to bring me back. His eye constantly watched me, so that if I suddenly took off running, he’d run right along side of me and ultimately get in front of me. Each time I’d start playing, sometimes without a moment’s notice, he’d catch on immediately and play right along. There was never a time when he didn’t successfully herd me. It was really quite impressive.
God gives us the same instinct to shepherd his flock. Unfortunately, we do all we can to squelch this instinct.
When we see a brother drifting away, we let him go…not realizing that it’s us whom God is calling to bring him back.
When we see a visitor to the church, we say to ourselves, oh, someone else will take care of her. Then when she leaves the church, we shake our heads and express disapproval at that poor soul has rejected the truth, not realizing that it’s us whom God will hold accountable.
When we see a brother sin, we shake our heads and censure him, not realizing that as it says in Galatians 6:1, that God expects us to restore him, not judge him.
In each of these cases, when the brother or sister thinks of leaving the flock, it’s we who should be running ahead of them, seeing in love if they veer to the left or to the right, and gently bringing them back to the fold. Instead, we watch them scatter in all directions.
One day, God will be looking at us…why didn’t you nip at that person’s heels and bring that person back to me?
God said this to the complacent Israelites about shepherding:
The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. (Ezekiel 34:1-6)
The 4th lesson…. Happy knew his master’s voice…(actually, his master’s car’s voice).
When I was in college, I’d come home on Fridays.
Happy had a ritual…when he heard my car pull up on Fridays when I came home from college, he’d use his front paws to prop himself on the family room couch to catch a glimpse of me driving up. He’s stare at me as I passed right to left by the picture window, and then just as I’d hit the front porch, he’d leap off the couch and run to be ready to greet me as I came through the door. He’d jump up, putting his paws on my chest, excitedly jumping all over me each time. It was as if to see me come through that door was the thrill of his life. Then I’d scratch him on the shoulders, give him a big hug, and say “g'boy!”.
There’s one amazing thing about this that I still don’t quite see how it was possible. I drove a white, 1990 Toyota Camry. My dad drove a white, 1990 Toyota Camry as well. For the most part, the cars looked and sounded the same. But when my car pulled into the driveway, he’d leap to his feet and be there at the window when I walked by. When any car passed by the house, including my dad’s car, he’d just ignore it.
Jesus said this:
The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. (John 10:2-6)
Now the question is, do you know your master’s voice? Down to the detail of what his car sounds like when he pulls into the driveway?
There are many voices in the world. Some of them may sound a lot like Jesus Christ. A voice is telling you to take a job that earns you a lot of money. Is that from Jesus or not? A voice tells you to marry a certain someone. Is that voice the Master’s voice? Every day, you make a few dozen decisions…from making investments to what to eat for dinner. Are those decisions from the Lord?
How do you know which one is the Master’s voice?
To know the Master’s voice, you need to listen for it all the time, through your whole life. Eventually, that voice will become familiar to you. But someone who constantly listens to other voices and follows every voice they hear without discerning who the voice is from will be lost or fall into the wrong hands quickly.
In Hebrews 5:14, it says that you learn to distinguish good from evil only through constant use.
The 5th lesson…I call 'The Prodigal Dog'
Now everyone who has a dog has faced this situation. You let the dog outside, and then a few minutes later you call him, and there’s no response. You go outside, and to your horror the dog has chewed a hole in a fence, or squeezed through a crack in the door, or dug underneath the fence to get out.
There’s something about dogs that makes them want to break free and roam and explore new territories. Of course, they don’t know about highways, and cars, and wild rabid animals and nasty people. They only know that they want to get out there and smell new smells and mark new territory.
When a dog runs away, the owner has an instant understanding about a dozen parables. You understand the parable of the lost sheep, and of the emotions that ran through the shepherd as he left the 99 to search for the one. You understand The parable of the prodigal son, and particularly of the emotions of the father. It’s a strange mixture of terror, anger, guilt, despair, and frustration, all balled up into a neat little ball in the pit of your stomach.
As night falls, You fear that your beloved dog will run headfirst into a lane of speeding traffic. You’ve heard stories where this has happened to other pets. And so you stop whatever you’re doing, take a flashlight, and start walking around. It may be raining, or snowing, but you search and search looking for just a trace of your dog.
I remember this happened to me a few times. The fence in the backyard was wedged open, and Happy was missing. I searched and searched for hours…walking, driving, calling his name. As it got dark, I was at the end of my rope, about to give up. I was fearing the worst had happened.
Then, I saw him. He saw me. I crouched down, clapped my hands, and called him. I remember what happened next. He ran, with breakneck speed, towards me. He didn’t care anymore about exploring or the wonders of the neighborhood. He just wanted to be back with me.
Well, he got to me and started jumping all over me. At that point, I didn’t know how to feel. I was exhausted. I was angry at him, of course. But the relief and joy of seeing him again overwhelmed anything else. I snapped the leash on him quickly, but I really didn’t need to, as I knew from his demeanor he’d follow me home.
Like I said, experiences like this really help you start to get a grasp of what Jesus speaks of when he speaks of a father filled with compassion for his lost son, or a shepherd carrying a sheep home on his shoulders.
The 6th lesson. Never biting the hand that feeds him.
There’s another thing that Happy did that I never quite could understand how he did it. For a lot of dogs, when you hold out a doggy treat for them, they’ll snatch at it. It doesn’t matter if they take off your fingers, or your hand, or your entire arm in the process. They just want that treat.
One day I was sitting with Happy with a bunch of treats…these were Alpo Liva Snaps…they’re little squares about an inch wide. Just for fun, I held the treat in my hand, covered up most of the square with my thumb, and held it to happy.
Instead of grabbing at it, Happy first used his lounge to get a feel for where the treat ended and where my finger began. Then he sort of gently gummed the treat until he was sure he wouldn’t bite my fingers. Then, with the gentlest of nibbles, he’d bite off the little corner of the treat that was exposed and take it aside and chew it. Then, he’d return to the treat. He’d go all around the treat until all that was left was a chunk of liva snap in the exact shape of my thumb. And all the time, his tail would be wagging.
Don’t try this at home, unless you really know your dog.
When God or even a fellow brother or sister gives us blessings, how often do we grab at them, as if we somehow deserve them? How often after devouring the blessing do we demand more? And how often in our grabbing of the blessing do we have no regard for the one giving them to us, even to the point turning around and complaining and not enough was done for us?
How often do we bite the hand that feeds us?
The Bible, of course, recounts all sorts of stories of people biting the hand that fed them.
But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" (Numbers 21:5)
One example, of course, of someone in the Bible of someone who “got it” is in Luke 17. It’s the story of ten lepers. Let’s read the conclusion of the story:
Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:17-19)
Out of ten people….a man doubly despised by the Jews…first as a leper, and second as a Samaritan…knew that his healing was extraordinary…not some manifest destiny, not something he earned or was worthy of…and so he accepted it with humility and thanks towards the one who gave it to him.
So next time you’re tempted to beat down God or a fellow brother or sister, whether to their face or behind their back, think twice. Rather than complain about them, see all they do for you, and accept it with humility and gratitude. Or the same plight that came upon all in the Bible who grumbled will come on us.
If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)
The seventh lesson. Be watchful and protect the ones you love
I’ll wrap up by recounting a favorite story of mine.
One day, Sam and Serena were back from college. In fact, it was one of the last times all five of us were gathered together in the house as a family.
It was about ten at night, and it was pitch dark out. Sam, Serena, and I were sitting in the family room, when all of a sudden, we heard Happy barking…plus, he was growling …not something that happened a lot. We went out to quiet him down, but a few minutes later, he started growling again. We figured something had to be going on, so we brought Happy inside.
Inside, happy started fidgeting nervously. We looked outside, and as we looked, a figure quickly dashed out of sight.
We knew who it was. So we shut off all the lights in the house. Sam went up to his room on the second floor to keep watch. Serena kept hold of Happy and petted him to keep him quiet. I went to my room, got out my heavy-duty flashlight that I’d gotten free from Radio Shack. This was a beast of a flashlight…it took six D-Cell batteries…9 volts of pure power…it could light up a city block. Then, I went back downstairs to the strategic spot inside the picture window in the family room, waiting for little Matthew Javick to come back. We knew he’d return to the scene to complete what he started.
He did. A few minutes later, we saw him creep back and hide behind our car in the driveway, but he didn’t see us. I aimed the flashlight, still turned off, at his face. As he perked his head up and started to make for the doorbell, I flicked the switch and shouted
I still remember the beam of light on that impish blond head, and the eyes wide open in shock.
I leapt outside with my flashlight as we saw a few figures running as fast as they could into the night. Upstairs, I could hear Sam yelling…"Your parents are gonna hear about this, punk!"
Inside, my mom had the phonebook turned to J and held up to my dad, and dad picked up the phone and dialed. “Mr Javick, we’ve been good neighbors of yours for years, and we’ve put up with your children turning on our water…and ringing our doorbell and…Mr Javick, this has been going on too long. Thank you Mr. Javick. A few minutes later, we saw a car pull out of the Javick house and drive into the neighborhood. And from that day on, we were never bothered again.
Without being melodramatic, after twenty years of being together, it was last times out of many that the five of us, or rather the six of us as a family were together and laughed and worked together towards a common goal: And appropriately, this was The complete and utter defeat of our perennial archenemy. At last. I remember us together in the family room after dad hung up the phone. We laughed and recounted the story to each other, and happy was right there in the midst of us, tail wagging wildly from left to right.
There are times I reminisce fondly on the past, and I think of the those who loved me most in my life. I thank God for many things, but one of the things I thank God for most was that I grew up in a house full of love. People who had the capacity to love me unconditionally. I think of my family, and Happy was one of them.
My fondest memory of my college days was that on Friday afternoons, I would drive home. The people in my dorm found it strange, of course. They scoffed at people who ran home to be with their mommies on the weekends and didn’t stay and drink and party. To them, it was cool to be off on their own. But to me, nothing beat the feeling of walking up the driveway, seeing that fuzzy face staring at me through the family room window, and opening the door to those fuzzy paws leaping onto me, with mom standing behind asking me how my week was.
As Happy got older and as Serena moved to California, she took him with her. Then, one day, I got a phone call from Serena. She didn’t say anything, except for the word “happy”, and I knew he was gone. Other people we told didn’t really understand why we had such emotions for a dog, but anyone who spent time with Happy could understand.
Serena had Happy’s body cremated, and sent the ashes back to NJ. It was a drizzly day when the little wooden box arrived at our door. I went outside to Happy’s favorite shrub, the one with the red berries, and dug a hole, and buried him there under the shade. Before I closed up the hole, I ran into the garage and found my gray Thom McAnn Jox sneaker, and I buried it there with him. Sort of my way of telling him after all those years of tug-of-war…you win. It’s yours. After a little prayer, I filled in the hole
Some people ask, are there any dogs in heaven. I remember there was a Bible seminar here at the church, and someone asked Elder S.T. Shieh that very question, and he said while it doesn’t say much about that in the Bible, he felt the answer was ‘yes’.
After knowing Happy, I tend to agree. Because heaven’s a place for those who bear other people’s burdens, for those who love everyone without favoritism or partiality, for those who have the instinct of a shepherd, for those who know their Master’s voice by ear, for those who return home running after wandering off, who never bite the hand that feeds them, and for those who are watchful and protect the ones they love.
There was a National Geographic special on dogs that concluded this way: we give them a little food, a little water, a little care, and in return, they give us their undying devotion.
That kind of simple devotion is the kind that God loves. And sometimes I picture Happy, trotting through those pearly gates up there.
And maybe God didn’t say to him “Well done”...Maybe God patted him on the head, scratched his ear, and said... “g'boy!”.
Hymn: Make me a blessing
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