Hey Sweet Friends! It recently occurred to me that while I’ve made off hand comments about Willa I’ve never truly introduced you to her and told you our story. Lest you believe she is simply just a dog, I decided I needed to remedy that post haste and there is no time like the present!
I’ve always been more of a dog person than a cat person…especially since I’m not a cat person AT ALL. We had dogs off and on throughout my childhood and some I loved more than others. Morgan, you are still the best giver of kisses I’ve ever known. Rest in Peace, little girl!
I moved to Orlando when I was 24 years old and after the excitement and newness of adventure with the Lord wore off, I was so lonely. It was the first time I’d lived alone. I remember going to see a movie by myself, which, even as lonely as I was, it wasn’t a complete hardship because I LOVE going to the movies by myself. Something about being in a big dark theater and experiencing art by myself without having to worry about whether the person I’m with is enjoying it and I only have to concern myself with what I think about it? That is a simple joy that feels like a luxury to me.
On this occasion I went to see Eight Below with Paul Walker. It was about some Antarctic explorers who had to leave their team of sled dogs behind because of a terrible storm and there wasn’t time to get the people AND the dogs out. For months Paul Walker’s character tried to get back there, all the while the dogs had to fend for themselves for survival. It was equal parts heartbreaking, and inspiring and all I could think about that night when I got home to my empty apartment was how much I wanted a dog.
I remember looking up some dogs for adoption that night and I even mentioned it to my mom. I’m so glad she talked some sense into me about finances and responsibility. She knew then what I did not. Being a dog mom, in the right way, in the way I would want to be, is a commitment I wasn’t ready for.
Fast forward 8 years. I was living in a three bedroom apartment with two other women, in Franklin, TN, right outside of Nashville. One of my roommates was one of my closest friends and she was planning her wedding for the summer. Since her fiance lived and worked in England, at the time, she was doing a lot of the planning on her own and she was starting to feel lonely in the midst of it all. So when she asked if I wanted to go to a cake tasting, I decided to go support her and to eat lots of yummy cake. Let me tell you…it was a REAL hardship to spend my Saturday morning that way!
Now before I get into the next part of this story, let me give you some context for this particular season of my life. In Just Call Me Audacious, I shared about some oil paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling and getting my heart broken into 1.7 million pieces. I had believed God in big ways and not only was I told no but I was also told I hadn’t been hearing the Lord clearly for quite some time.
My roommate asked me to go cake tasting with her six months later. At that time, getting out of bed every day was excruciating. Hopelessness was my closest friend and Love was the greatest threat to my heart. As much as I value authenticity, I faked everything until I could be back in the safety of my 12×12 bedroom in that three bedroom apartment.
It was about two or three in the afternoon on that early April day in Nashville and my roommate and I were floating on the highest of sugar highs, having only had cake to eat. We looked at each other and said, “We need some REAL food!” One of my favorite food trucks was out and about so we decided to stop and get some of The Grilled Cheeserie goodness. Looking back on it, a fancy grilled cheese sandwich after a bunch of cake was probably not the best food choice but it’s what we had and even in that questionable lunch choice, God was sovereign.
It turned out that The Grilled Cheeserie was out for a pet adoption fair. When we turned in, Autumn said, “OOOO puppies! We have to go look.” I was torn. On one hand I love cuddling with puppies just like any warm blooded human with a heart. On the other hand, I was barely holding it together as it was. Deeply depressed and grieving a lost relationship and my roommate and friend getting ready to get married and move to England? I knew that if I saw a puppy I wanted I would want to bring it home and I just knew that wasn’t going to be able to happen because of our third roommate. Nothing had ever been said, but I just knew it wouldn’t go well. So I told Autumn I didn’t need to go look at the puppies. “Oh come on! Looking won’t hurt!”
To be fair she didn’t know how it looked inside my heart with how hidden I had been keeping it, but I knew if I went to look at the puppies I would want one. And I told her so!
Isn’t it funny how people get surprised when things work out exactly how we say they will if a certain thing happens?
We may have left that pet adoption fair without a dog but two weeks later I brought Willa home. That night I got on Pet Finder.com and I put in several very specific filters. I wanted a puppy, female, a medium sized dog, and within driving distance to pick up. I scrolled through several dogs and I even passed a couple of her sisters and then there she was, with her sweet brown eyes, head tilt, and that asymmetrical white spot on her nose.
I knew I was done for when her picture was literally the first thing I wanted to see the next morning so I sent in a request to see if she was still available. When I found out she was, I paid the adoption fee and THEN I told my roommates. I remember sitting at our kitchen table at a necessary roommate meeting, (I mean, if the tables were reversed, I would have called one too) unapologetic for doing what I knew I needed to do to save my heart.
Since Autumn was getting married and moving we had all kind of decided to go our own way in August anyway and since it was April, I just kept saying, “We’ll hang out in my room! You’ll never see her unless I’m taking her outside to go potty.” The question, “Why can’t you just wait to get a dog until August?” kept being thrown around.
But there was something about this dog. The Pet Finder profile said, “Her foster mom says she would be the perfect completion to someone.” Maybe that would have been a catchy little thing to put on a dog’s profile you were trying to get adopted but there were 5 puppies in her litter that were found on the side of the road and the other four profiles didn’t say that. Other things were said about their personalities.
I didn’t have a name for her yet but the Pet Finder profile had her named Tinkerbell. That name, for my girl, still makes me laugh. I didn’t want to wait until August because she wouldn’t be available in August and to be fully transparent, I think I knew my heart was going to be in serious trouble if I waited any longer to do something to give me a tangible reason to get out of bed. So I insisted and Willa Rayne came home on April 26, 2013.
Can we all take a moment to recognize the fact that I have kept a living being alive for 8 years? That feels like a real accomplishment!
One thing I didn’t anticipate was how nervous and scared she would be. I’ve heard it said that dogs don’t remember or have feelings. I don’t believe that for a minute. Willa and her brothers and sisters were out in the wild for weeks, emaciated and full of all sorts of parasites, and as a result, my girl is food aggressive and aggressively terrified of vehicles.
My 8 year old girl, as loved as she has been, as much as she has been provided for, and as safe as she has been, there are echoes in her that speak to those scary weeks as a puppy that turned her into what her foster mom described as feral.
As I write this, she is spread out on the couch next to me and as I watch her belly go in and out with her deep sleepy breaths I am so incredibly humbled that I get to be her person, because I didn’t rescue her. We rescued each other.
Those first couple of months were hard. Like sleep deprivation for 10 days straight, crying at work to my best friend saying, “I think I have to send her back…I can’t do this anymore”, hard!
Y’all I was so tired. Having a puppy with anxiety issues in a three bedroom apartment with two roommates who weren’t thrilled with my decision, trying to get her to sleep in her crate in my bedroom. It was a literal nightmare. But do you know what else was happening in the middle of that exhaustion? God was prying the door of my heart open with a Willa sized crowbar.
She got me outside.
She got me thinking about something other than my busted up life.
For the first time in my life I had a living being that belonged to me, that was dependent on me, that I was solely responsible for.
If you’ve read For the Moma Without Children, you know how much I’ve always wanted to be a Moma. I’m not suggesting in any way that being a dog mom is comparable to being an actual human mom, but for my 32 year-old heart, Willa was God’s healing balm.
I remember talking to my moma on the phone one day, telling her how much I loved Willa. While I was talking I was thinking about how fragile life is and that if anything happened to her how devastated I would be. In my thoughts only, I wondered what it would do to my tenuous relationship with Jesus if He took her from me. Out loud I said, “I think I might love her too much.” Having no idea what path my thoughts had just taken, my moma asked, “Do you believe that God gave Willa to you as a good gift.”
I had never really thought about that. I took a couple of seconds to think about my life before I got her and then after, even with all the sleepless nights and tears. My only answer could be yes, God did indeed give Willa to me as a good gift.
Moma continued with, “Then I don’t think you can love her too much. God is love and He gave you Willa as a good gift for you to love.”
My moma gets me and Willa. There were many times in those first years before where we moved to Columbus that Moma would comment on a Facebook post I would make about Willa something like, “I’m so glad you two have each other.” Then for Christmas of 2014 she gave me a piece of cross stitch art that she designed and stitched for Willa. She had created a piece for her, then, two grandsons as well and she didn’t want to leave me and my girl out. In 20 years, when Willa is long gone, I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but for the last 6 years it has been hung on my wall as a testament to who my moma knows Willa to be for me. Like the verse stitched to the top of the piece says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”
Recently, I participated in an activity with my co-workers where we chose two core values that are meant to define who we are and how we live our lives. Of all the words on that page, one jumped out to me immediately.
This word, since I was about 22 years-old, after the last lie I told my mom and she called me a liar to my face, this word has guided me and my interactions. I’ll probably write an entire post on this soon but for now I’ll leave it here. The reason I bring it up at all is because, in my experience, the church has a bad habit of only telling part of the truth. Before you get offended, let me explain what I mean in a real life example from working with my students.
In Teen Advisors, one of the things that set us apart from other youth ministries is we actually get to go into the public school system to do what we call Classroom Sessions. In these Classroom Sessions, our students get to talk to their peers about peer pressure, relationships, stress, and mental health. As staff, we train and coach our students to have these conversations with their peers and then we sit back and watch them shine. Sometimes in coaching them, I have to stop them from making generalizations. Several times in training I’ve had to correct them from saying things like, “Your parents want what’s best for you”, or “Go to your parents. They will do anything for you.” What I always say is, “I am so glad you know that to be true of your parents but that is not everyone’s story. I don’t want you to lose those people because you just said a thing they can’t relate to. My fear is they will shut you out and miss everything good you are about to say. How can you say the same thing in a way that will not alienate those people it is not true of?”
We do that a lot in the church. When we say things like “Only good things come from God!” Do we really know the weight of that statement? Do we acknowledge that the Lord’s definition of good and our human understanding of that word are two very different things? I’m not suggesting that that declaration isn’t true. Of course it’s true, but do you know what else God called good?
The crucifixion of Jesus. That was good so we could be reconciled to God. There are many things God calls good that feel counterintuitive to the human mind and as Christ Followers we know that is the way it is meant to be. If we understood everything about God and His ways, we wouldn’t need Him and while I can’t speak for you, I am intimately acquainted with my need for Him so I am happy to not have all the answers, but that is not true for our friends who aren’t Christ Followers yet.
When we speak in pat, Christianese answers and generalizations are we aware of how we could possibly be alienating the people who don’t know Jesus yet? Are we aware of how our words might be pushing them further away from their Creator?
I’m not suggesting that we stop saying, “God is a good God”, I’m simply suggesting that we follow that up with a, “Not my definition of good, but His. Because He sees the end from the beginning.” I’m not suggesting that we stop saying, “Only good things come from God”, I’m simply suggesting that we follow that up with a “Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way because he is more concerned with our growth than our comfort.”
I want to encourage us to tell the whole truth, as Christ Followers, so that we don’t alienate the people who have lived different stories than ours. This takes more work and intentionality, for sure! But those people, who have lived different lives than you, Jesus sees them and if our goal is to look more like Jesus, we need to strive to see them right where they are. Not where we think they should be. Not assuming they have the same knowledge as we do about things of the Bible. But right where they are.
At 32 and 33 years-old, my heart was so beat up I assumed that if God took Willa from me prematurely…if He took the good gift of her away from me, our relationship would be irrevocably damaged.
At 40 years-old now I know that God gives and he takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord. In the natural order of things, it is safe to say that I am supposed to out live Willa. One day I will, hopefully, lose her. I’d much rather that happen than for her to lose me. People of a certain age are supposed to outlive their dogs.
Will I be devastated? Without question! Thinking about it even now, makes me want to weep but just because I’ll lose her one day does not make the gift any less GOOD. She was, is, and always will be God’s good gift to my heart.
How can a good gift be a devastating loss at the same time? See Maybe We Need To Imagine. That is what Heath was for me and I know I’m not alone in this lesson. That is life, which is my point!
If we don’t tell the whole truth about the ways of God, those who still need Him will not believe us. If we aren’t authentic in our full stories, we do the work of God in our lives a real disservice.
Sweet Friends, what has been His definition of good in your lives that you’ve had to wrestle with? That is the place of authenticity He is calling us all to. It’s not as shiny at the beginning but the more we give the Lord access to those pieces of our story, the more He refines us to a pure, authentic version of ourselves. Just like a goldsmith setting gold over fire so he or she can skim the impurities off the top to make it a pure piece of gold. The fire is the wrestling and the gold is your authenticity.
In those first two months, Willa did not feel like a good gift, but 8 years later, I am convinced that I would not be fit to do the work I do if not for her. Could God have kept my heart open with anything else? Absolutely, He could have, but he didn’t, and she is what matters.
Man, I’d love to hear what God has used in your life in similar ways. Let’s continue this conversation in the comments.
He is good, Sweet Friends. He gives good gifts. Let’s not turn our friends who don’t know Him yet off because we don’t share the whole story. He gave it to you to share, on purpose!
Until next time,
Thank you for being here.
Remember to take deep breaths.
And, God has got us!