On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in December, I attended the funeral of a woman whose husband I knew and wanted to support. He was an adoring, loving spouse, in every way a faithful servant who cared for his wife throughout her long decline from Alzheimer’s disease. The service was a fitting tribute to a joyful life well-lived in love and service to her family, her church, and others.
Fussing with a wet umbrella, as I entered the building I casually noticed a woman sitting on a nearby sofa with a service dog at her feet. She seemed in every way normal—perfectly groomed and well dressed—except that she was profoundly blind. I spoke briefly to the minister, tucked away my rain gear, and found a seat on a back row of the sanctuary, beautifully adorned with a bright array of poinsettias for Christmas.
As I looked around the room, I noticed the blind woman seated across the aisle. I observed her throughout the service, as she sang the hymns and participated fully in the order of worship. What caught my attention, though, was her service dog, a beautiful, muscular black Labrador mix with dark, no-nonsense eyes. It was obviously a strong partnership that had little to do with subservience, and everything to do with complete trust and mutual dependence.
Though I’m not really a dog person, once upon a lifetime ago I had a dog and generally like dogs. As the dog settled in for the service, he stretched out at the feet of the woman on the cool tile of the floor. He seemed to be resting, but all the while, he was scanning the people around her. Quite reflexively, I smiled at the dog, hoping to assure him that I was friend rather than foe. In response to my visual outreach, there was not so much as a thump of his tail to show that he acknowledged or would accept my well-intentioned overture. The dog was all business—he was perfectly trained to do his job and clearly he was at work.
The dog wore not only a leather lead harness, but a choke collar with a leash as well. There was a natural rhythm between the dog and his mistress. As he responded to her non-verbal directions, his every move demonstrated that he was highly trained to be the eyes of his companion. When he moved, she stirred, when he got up, she gripped the leash and gently pulled the collar to affirm her authority and presence.
Sometime later I began to think more about the dog—about the patient hands and voices who trained him to be the eyes of one without sight, about his devotion and loyalty to his mistress and her safety, and about his own care and well-being. I thought about a life of duty and service, a life of complete obedience dedicated solely to the privilege of caring for one in need. I wondered whether he enjoyed the freedom of living without a harness, collar, and leash to play and run for a little while each day. I thought about whether he understood—by instinct or training—that his primary job in life was working as a faithful caregiver.
As I sat there, I closed my eyes for a few moments and tried to imagine what it would be like to navigate life without the precious gift of eyesight, to be entirely dependent not only on the kindness of others, but on a dog, a living being that could not speak or respond other than by training and intuitive compassion. And in the darkness of these thoughts, I grasped anew the power of presence, of deep spiritual connection, and of a faith so absolute that we entrust our safety and well-being to the selfless concern of another, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 NRSV).
Think about what it would be like, especially when we grieve, to take off the harness, collar, and leash of the sorrow that constrains us, and live in complete reliance on the faithful presence of God. To abandon ourselves to new depths of dependence on God, who promises to guide us, to give us sure direction, and lead us when we are too blind to see the possibilities of the future or too debilitated by our loss and sadness to hope, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 NRSV). May we open our eyes and our hearts to the certainty of God’s hand in ours every step of the way through life, “though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand” (Psalm 37:24 NRSV).
Though we cannot see God’s, presence, God is with us. God never leaves our side, God never abandons us, or takes a break from our care. May we learn again to live with open eyes, with seeking eyes, with seeing eyes able to fully experience God’s comforting presence and compassionate care. For in the presence of God, and through the grace of God, the blindness of our grief is healed.
…the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
Psalm 146:8 NRSV
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