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March 25, 2018

When I was two years old, my mother often took me outside to the front yard of our small frame house and put me in a playpen for some time in the sunshine.  For my entertainment, she placed several toys in the enclosure.  My favorite was a brightly colored rubber ball.

One day while I was in the playpen, the telephone rang.  Since this was in the days before portable phones and cellular phones, my mother stepped inside the house, only a few feet away, to answer the call.  In her absence, I threw the ball out into the yard.  To my shock and dismay, a large German shepherd dog, the pet of our across-the-street neighbors, retrieved the ball and leapt over the barrier into the playpen to return it to me.  When my mother saw the enormous dog with the ball in his mouth towering over me, she screamed.  The German shepherd left as quickly as he had come.  I was reduced to a sobbing, quivering state of fear.  From that day to this, when I see a German shepherd, I have a momentary pause. 

As a result of my playpen encounter, I have experienced some ambivalence regarding German shepherds.  I remember watching episodes of Rin Tin Tin on black-and-white television.  Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd hero assigned to the United States Calvary.  I liked Rin Tin Tin.  As a boy, I read Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  The notion that wolves and dogs are first cousins was implanted in my mind.  The children’s stories, The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, depicted wolves as big, bad antagonists.  When I saw the illustrations that accompanied the tales, I perceived the wolf as a close relative to a German shepherd.  The two canines, wolf and dog, seemed a lot alike.  Through the years, I have been the proud owner of a Beagle, a Cocker Spaniel, a Scottish terrier, an Airedale, and other dogs of the Heinz 57 variety.  I have never owned a German shepherd.

Several years ago, I was invited to be the guest preacher at a Family Life Conference in a church in North Carolina.  On Sunday morning I stood on the platform singing with the congregation the beautiful words of Saint Francis of Assisi, “All Creatures of Our God and King.”  Down the red carpeted aisle of the Sanctuary strolled a German shepherd.  I momentarily wondered, “If I throw this hymn book, will he retrieve it?”  I restrained myself and continued to sing though I felt that old familiar moment of anxiety.  The German shepherd came all the way to the front row and positioned himself at the end of the pew.  He clearly had a designated place in the Sanctuary.  When the congregation stood, the dog stood.  When the congregation was seated, the German shepherd enjoyed complete repose.  As I recall, the dog slept all the way through my sermon that morning.  I am sorry to say he was not the only one.

On Sunday night of the Family Life Conference, I enjoyed a meal with the church congregation prior to the service.  It was at that meal that I was formally introduced to Rex.  I remember musing that a Latin name seemed somehow inappropriate for a German shepherd.  I thought he should have been named something barbaric like Attila or at least something Germanic like Kaiser, but he was Rex, the Latin word for King.  A young woman named Elizabeth owned Rex.  She was almost completely blind, and her dog served as her eyes.  After I had been introduced to Elizabeth, she said, “Pastor Kirk, Rex is my Seeing Eye dog.”  Then she continued, “Rex, this is Pastor Kirk.  I don’t think he’ll bite.”  I did not bite, and neither did Rex.

Elizabeth and Rex attended the Family Life Conference throughout the week.  Each night I greeted them before and after the service.  I gave Elizabeth a hug, and I scratched Rex behind the ears.  As well as I can remember, he slept through all of my sermons.   I was privileged to discover the gospel according to Rex.

God has endowed the German shepherd with unusual abilities to hear, see, and smell. Intelligence, combined with keen senses, makes the German shepherd one of the most versatile of all breeds.  Originally used as a herding dog, German Shepherds have been trained as guards, as law enforcement specialists, and as rescue workers.  Countless human lives have been saved by these courageous animals.  My encounter with Rex reminded me of the importance of training, especially the training of shepherds.

Many of us come into this world with an aggressive streak.  I suppose we could say it is in our genes.  When threatened, we defend ourselves. When frightened, we may fight.  When angered, we are prone to attack.  It is a part of our nature that the Bible refers to as “the flesh”.  The good news is that we can be trained.  Becoming a person of faith is somewhat like obedience training for a dog.  It is a matter of learning to trust enough to obey God.  To first century disciples in training, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15).

A wolf in the wild and a German shepherd trained to be a Seeing-Eye dog look very much alike.  Their genetic makeup is similar.  The difference is in their training.  A German shepherd, trained to be a Seeing Eye dog, acquires a gentleness that is born of discipline rather than breeding.  It is the kind of transformation that occurs in the life of a person as they grow in faith.  As I observed the relationship between Rex and Elizabeth, I witnessed a patience and gentleness in the German shepherd that is desirable in every shepherd, in every pastor, in every believer.

On the final evening of the Family Life Conference, I selected as the text for the message, Psalm 23.  I used the shepherd imagery in the Psalm as the basis for a job description for parents.  At the conclusion of the service, the congregation sang “Savior, like a shepherd leads us. Much we need thy tender care”.  From that day to this, whenever I hear that hymn, I am reminded of the gospel according to Rex.

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