Normally, when I open the front door in the morning, fierce sunlight streams in, blinding my just-waking-up eyes. But yesterday there was light, but no fierce sun. Clouds hung low, drizzling our dry, dusty ground with a mist so fine you want to stand amongst it, arms out, and let your dry, dusty skin soak it up.
Ahh. The rain has come.
And with it, a need for shelter.
Curled underneath our Toyota, was our landlord’s lone dog, Jasmine. She looks so precious, yet desperate huddled in the dirt under the only shelter she could find, or was allowed to take refuge in.
Refuge. The word echoed through my mind as I considered the hurt swirling around my shoulders. Stories that have entered my ears in recent months. Women who are used by men for sex. Men who treat their women cruelly. Children forced to watch cows instead of learn to read. Refuge. People in desperate need of a refuge.
My relationship with Jasmine, this dog, most wonderfully highlights the daring risk of relationships with broken people – ahem – ALL people.
Jasmine’s name is not Jasmine. In fact, she has no name. I’m not sure if her master even knew she was a her until she delivered 5 puppies on his doorstep. She’s a “Swazi dog”, which is similar to a “Mexico dog” or any mixed-breed mutt that one might find in a developing country. Flea-ridden, tick-laden, unresponsive to human touch (let’s be honest, touching isn’t really an option for her), controlled by her master’s rock-throwing, hardly fed, worm-infested, and sometimes mangy. Her ribs protrude into the brown and black flesh that tries desperately to keep her warm and be called a coat. She’s rough on the outside. When we first met her, her silence bothered us. Never a bark or whine or tail wag. . .
That tail never wagged until she met Thor. And then, throwing it high, she’d put out this guttural half-whine, half-bark, clearly ecstatic expression and they’d romp and play. . . for hours. Our vaccinated, bathed (okay, twice a month he’s bathed), well-fed, cherished, trained to a click or a whistle little Thor and this mangy dog would play for hours.
When I saw the desperate situation she was in, how far from being a domesticated dog she’d fallen, I felt moved to name her. She couldn’t just be “our landlord’s dog”, or “that mutt”, or “oh you know, that dog”, she needed to be Jasmine. Named after that mysterious, beautiful, compassionate, full-of-zest brown-skinned, black-haired disney Princess.
She needed a name of redemption. Something to call her out of the broken, ugly, far-from-her-calling lot.
The name stuck, and she certainly spent more time around our place. Like anytime you get close to someone or something that’s dirty, broken, and cast out by those who should love it, it gets messy. It’s not all, “love will fix it all” or cupcakes and roses overnight. Brokenness begets brokenness, and if you allow it close to you, stare her in the face, it’s gonna break you too.
Somedays I loathe Jasmine. She kills anything I plant outside the fence garden. Granted, she loves the grass-topped mulch for a comfy, warm, dry place to sleep, but she doesn’t exactly see the lavender transplant under her scrawny bum. She breaks into the chicken’s pen, nightly to steal any eggs we haven’t collected (or are forming into baby chicks). She poops all over our garden beds, nasty-foul specimens. Poop that I have to shovel up, rebury, throw over the fence, and just plain deal with. She jumped into our humanure compost, dug around, and slept there one night before we Jasmine-proofed that. Our habits of living adjusted to make things Jasmine-proof. I may be known to yell “Suka!!! Suka Jasmine!!!” (Get out!) when she steps into our garden. I haven’t tried teaching her to shake because she won’t let us touch her.
But she will let us feed her scraps. She’ll play endlessly with our dog. She’ll greet us when we walk up from the gate, moaning, curling back her lips in greeting (it certainly seems like a smile), and hopping around, encircling us with her greeting and delight. At night, she’s taken to barking ferociously when someone unwelcome (to her) enters the yard. She even will help Thor chase the unwanted goats, dogs, or cows from the yard (our new past time).
Although a delightful transformation has slowly unfolded with Jasmine, there are still ugly moments. And those moments bring out my true heart. The one that really wants her to go away and never come back because I’m just so tired of not eating grass-fed chicken eggs for breakfast. But the bad days with Jasmine are tempered with the good. The moments when I see her curling in, blocking out the hurt, the rain, the cold, those are the days I think anything is possible with her. That redemption will continue to come to her. That one day, she may be the fullest expression of a loved, domesticated dog.
But it’s not really dogs I’m talking about, is it? Jasmine’s story parallels the stories of our neighbors. Parallels the stories of the broken, hurting, shamed, and torn-down folks who come to us with shoulders bent against the crushing blow of husband’s hand, unjust work wages, unpaid school fees, or just plain hard life. Life with them is messy and ugly when I’ve put my heart on the Throne and want all to serve me. It’s messy when I’m 12 hrs into a day, with still a rainy, 45 minute drive home. It’s ugly when upset family members start haggling you with phone calls. It’s messy when you have to deal with people’s shit. It’s ugly when the one you’ve been pouring your heart into is found to abuse his wife. It’s ugly when I want to just throw rocks at them until they leave me in peace. The ugliness of sin is in my heart, in our lives, and trapped amongst us as we crawl towards healing.
But the beauty is there too. It sneaks in as hope creeps across a face. It sneaks in when we hug each other, and cry and say, “This is awful. It should not be this way. This was not God’s design.” It’s beautiful when we reach out beyond our small circle and find a larger, more equipped support team of counseling, and safe houses, police who care, and teachers who try. There’s beauty when we just crawl underneath the Cross, throw our coat across our legs and sleep because rest is a step towards health and regrowth. There’s beauty in lives being remade. There’s beauty in being a place of refuge for such brokenness.
All throughout my yesterday, as the rain drizzled and the cold that came with it swept around my legs, one thought returned again and again. Refuge.
“God is our refuge and strength,
always ready to help in times of trouble.”
“Show me your unfailing love in wonderful ways.
By your mighty power you rescue those who seek refuge from their enemies.”
Psalm 46:1; 17:7
My mind also recalled the Joshua 20 “Cities of Refuge.” Going back to look up the specifics, I was reminded that these Cities of Refuge were originally allotted as well-spread out places in the Promised Land. The intention seemed to be a place when someone who accidentally, innocently murdered someone could flee to to escape the family avenger (angry relative coming to kill the incidental “killer”). In these cities, people could find unbiased judgment, people who would listen to their stories without raising sticks or stones of condemnation.
As a commentator at Enduring Word.com points out, the cities of refuge parallel our picture of Jesus. There are several compelling similarities between these cities and Jesus.
Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge.
Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need.
Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.
Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed.
Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside means death.
As the hands, feet, hearts, homes, and people that stand as Christ amongst our neighbors, we, too, are Cities of Refuge. WE are to the be the places within reach of the needy people. WE are to be open to all, not just those like us, or those whom we understand. WE are to be a place where one can live, or connect them to a new permanent home. WE can be the only alternative for those in need. WE don’t go out and hunt down the avengers and get ourselves into a fight. Our homes are walls that protect. WE have to be close enough for people to get to us. People have to know someone will meet them at the entrance with no judgement, but one hand held out to them, another hand holding open the door. People have to trust that we’ll be there. That they’ll always be welcome. That they will be safe. And then, they will come.
These concepts rolled over and over my body throughout the day, into the night, and continue undulating over me as I wake.
And when I don’t know how to safely, wisely be a Place of Refuge, I can reach out to the broader community of social workers, abuse hotlines (thank you SWAGAA), safe houses, or others who have dealt with “neighbor’s abandoned dogs.” In that broader community, I find others whose faces and actions look like Christ, and together we seek His example of safety and protection for those who need it. Amen.