It wasn’t what woke me, but my guilty conscience certainly was what kept me awake until the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon on that recent morning.
What woke me was the dogs barking in the backyard. It’s not all that unusual. They are dogs, after all. Normally, it’s just a squirrel in the sweet gum tree, right above their heads.
Squirrels are such undisciplined creatures. They run up and down the trees, simply to tempt fate it seems . Then, when they have the treasure they sought, a nut or the stalk of some plant, they carry it in a rush up the trunk of the tree. Right in front of the snapping jaws of death they scurry, chattering as they go.
The dogs, creatures of habit, want nothing more than to have order in their world. No animal is safe within their reach, simply because that is one of their rules. Nothing walks where they walk. There is a penalty for doing so.
The penalty is death. They have meted out the penalty numerous times. Moles, birds, o’possums, even a squirrel or two have met the end of their undisciplined ways at the jaws of the law-keepers.
Hmmm. Like the squirrels, I seem to have wandered a bit. I meant to tell you that the dogs were not barking at a squirrel on that early morning, but had bigger law-breakers to attend to.
The neighbors up the street a block or so were the reason for the ruckus. He, sitting in his roughly-idling truck, and she, standing in her bathrobe outside the front door, were shouting at each other. Again.
I stood at the kitchen window and remembered that time, a few months ago, when the police were at that front door because of a complaint. And still, at all hours of the night or day—mostly night—the noisy disturbances are likely to erupt.
On this particular morning, I, standing at the kitchen window, listened for a few moments, fuming. The nerve! Don’t they know people—No, strike that!—law-abiding people are trying to sleep?
I was angry. Then, I realized I was proud. Yes, proud.
I would never do that. Never. I know better than to shout at the Lovely Lady. I certainly wouldn’t do it in public. And, you can bet it wouldn’t be at four-thirty in the morning!
Mentally, I went down the list of things they do I would never do. It was significant. I was proud.
As the truck finally backed out of the driveway and roared up the road, laying rubber for a fair distance, I spun on my bare heel and headed back upstairs—to sleep, I supposed.
Not that morning. Sleep had fled.
I lay there beside the slumbering Lovely Lady and I crumbled.
In the dark right before dawn, the words were whispered into the blackness, but they sounded as if someone had shouted them throughout the entire house. I looked at the face of the sleeping woman beside me, but if she heard, she didn’t let on.
Do you know what I learned, in the darkness of my thoughts that early morning?
That’s right. Nothing I hadn’t already known.
I heard the Teacher say, “The second is like unto the first. Love your neighbor as you do yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) I’ve heard the words a thousand times, or more.
I’ve used them in my writing so many times, I can’t remember all of them.
Here’s the other thing I didn’t learn that I already knew, that morning: If you’re a dog, you think you’re better than the squirrels.
Perhaps, I should rephrase that. When you work hard to follow the rules, you begin to look down on those who don’t.
It’s really hard to remember that you love someone when your mouth is full of the words I told you so.
It’s hard to pray—really pray—for a person if you think you’re superior to them.
Do you realize how difficult it is to lie still and be quiet in a bed when the disaster that is your soul is revealed to you? If the pre-dawn night was dark, how was it that I saw the filth of my heart so clearly?
The evil servant who forgot how great was the debt that had been forgiven him, grabbing the man who owed him a mere pittance by the throat while demanding payment couldn’t have known more torment. (Matthew 18:21-35)
Ah, but even as I made my promise to be a different person, I remembered.
I recalled that it would never come—could never come—from me. If I try to be good—if I try to do right—I run right back to the trash I vowed to never dig up again.
It is all because of grace. All of it that matters.
I can’t do this. No one can.
And, that’s the whole point. If I can claim to be good, I have a right to look down on others who walk this path with me.
I’m not good.
Grace changes that. For any who come.
Funny. When I remembered what I am—what I am and who He is—I thought about my neighbors again. The anger was gone. Almost instinctively, I found myself praying for them and thinking of ways to show them the love of Jesus.
They are my neighbors, after all.
And finally, sleep came.
It’s true: The heart is restless until it rests in Him.
It’s time for rest.
I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer ~ German theologian ~ 1906-1945)
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 ~ NIV)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.