Nate Hester: Dog-Eat-Dog World
There are seven or eight paved roads in this boom-town that went bust. Each morning at sunrise, or shortly thereafter, Mr. Vernon covers each of them, slowly ambling back and forth, up and down, to the edge of Mr. Ronald’s fields and back –always turning around in front of the church, briefly touching the tip of his cap as a sign of respect to the old, white building that he has never been invited to enter.
One day, I asked him about a peculiar habit of this walk of his: “Mr. Vernon, why do you carry that golf club up under your arm, sir?” He did not use it as a cane, and he never seemed to swing it at a wiffle ball, imaginary or otherwise. His answer was simple: “Rev, too many folks these days refuse to keep their dogs chained up good; if one gets loose, a man needs to protect his-self.”
I myself love a dog: I love a dog’s slobbering tongue, how a dog will look so sheepish after having gnawed off the leg to the nicest chair in the living room, how a dog will so enthusiastically jump up the base of a tree anticipating that it might actually be able to catch the squirrel above. I just love a dog. So, frankly the thought of frail, seventy-something-year-old Mr. Vernon pounding even the meanest of the local pit bulls into a ground-round pulp with a five iron was more than a little disturbing.
I covenanted privately in that very moment, as I wished Mr. Vernon a good and safe trip home, that as for me and my people we would be choosing that day to not draw arms against the pets in the community. I, for one, would not carry a golf club; I would not use any such instrument to damage another life or to destroy one of God’s creatures.
Unfortunately, before the end of that very week, my seemingly-defensible position would be put to the test. I would have to change my tune a tad. It happened on the Allison Cooper Road, in front of the Saturday morning flea market, in the middle of a soybean field. I was on foot and nearly five miles from home. It is my habit to run three miles several days each week, with one long jog often sprinkled in for good measure; I often push my baby boy in his stroller, and I thank God that he was not with me on this day. For, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, streaming from every bush dotting the corner house, a run-down brick ranch with black shutters where it is rumored that crystal meth is sold, one after another dog rained down on my parade. First, one. Then, two. Then, as if in a flash, at least a dozen. Barking ferociously! Gnashing their teeth! Trying to surround me! Lunging at my ankles! Mutts! Mongrels! Studded choke collars! Red eyes! Out for blood!
I could not turn and run; they would have consumed me. I could not fend them off, because no farmer worth his salt would allow even a pebble, much less a stick, in his stand of beans. So, I lowered myself a bit with bowed knee, offered them an open palm, and back-pedaled slowly. Occasionally, I had to take an aggressive posture, striking out, hollering, kicking at one that put its teeth to my leg. Progress was slow back in the direction that I had come. One step at a time. They were wearing down my resolve. The pack’s intensity did not seem to be abating in the slightest.
It seemed like an eternity, but it probably was no more than five minutes before I heard a honk. There was a white van. It seemed to have a carpet cleaning decal on it. The passenger side window rolled down, but I was too focused to call out, to ask if these dogs belonged to the person in the van. I heard another honk and another. “Come on, boy; get in.” Somehow, I managed to climb into the white van. It was Mr. Harold, my daily Good Samaritan, some distant kin to some of my parishioners although he himself attends the Baptist church uptown. Even though he was late for a job to clean carpets in the opposite direction, he drove me all the way back to the parsonage; I was weary but unwounded. We laughed and prayed. And, I, for one, changed my mind about the value of a five iron.
Rural ministry will do that to you. It will change your tune a tad. The world that you seek to transform through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will end up transforming you as well. That is the beauty of it. Now, each morning, as I head out with the little man in the stroller, I hilt up my own five-iron golf club, praying that I will never have to use it.
I still do not believe in violence or in ‘just war.’ I still firmly believe that our behavior shapes the landscape that we occupy; I still firmly believe that if I want to live in a space of love that I have to act in accordance with love. But, in many ways, I see that golf club, not as a symbol of evil, hatred, and violence, but as the very maintenance of a loving order. Moreover, there is a posture of humble and gracious intolerance to the world’s intolerance that must be maintained. Christians must proactively protect the world from the evil of that self-same world. In that regard, at least, the golf-club is not much different from our beloved Bible. For the Christian, Scripture is a text that reveals a sketchy portrait of a merciful, yet just, God. Scripture is a text that points to the ways by which we can live into that light. Scripture is a text that protects us from our very own vile and base impulses.
At the edge of this dog-eat-dog world, the Bible and Mr. Vernon’s golf club help us fully enjoy man’s best friend: dog, man and God.
Nate Hester is a Rural Ministry Fellow and student pastor of the Middleburg-Hermon Charge in Middleburg, N.C.