"Wrestling with an Angel" The Book

Wrestling with an Angel is also a book endorsed by Joni Eareckson Tada, Noel Piper, Russell Moore and others. It is available in print, audiobook, and a variety of ebook formats. Learn more about the book here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The God of Hope and A Dog Named Life

She was eleven years old, going on twelve. That’s nearly eighty in dog years. I remember the day we got her. Jake and Noah were just starting kindergarten, Aaron was in preschool and Hope was a distant dream on the horizon of our midlife. It was a gray day in late January just after Christmas break. We piled into the minivan with three excited little boys and a newspaper classified add with “Jack Russell Terrier” circled in red ink.

Kim says she’ll never forget that drive, so far into the back woods of Kentucky that we thought we would never make it out alive. The guy on the other end of the phone line said it would be easier to meet him someplace and follow him in, rather than trying to find the farm on our own. So we met him on an old grocery store parking lot and followed him to the address listed in the ad.

I’d heard the term “puppy mill” before, but a mental image had never been formed in my head to match that descriptive phrase…until now. The entire farm was a seemingly endless sea of caged kennels all full of Jack Russell Terriers in different developmental stages, from new born puppies all the way to aged adult dogs. The boys were thrilled to see this barking field of dreams. I, on the other hand, was extremely disappointed.

“This doesn’t look good.” I said softly to my wife.

We parked the van and got the boys out to see the field of dogs. The dog hoarder who guided us in from the grocery store led us over to a small kennel cage in the front. “You can pick any one of these here.” He said, as if he really didn’t care if we picked any at all.

I walked up to the kennel and examined the motley crew of canines. They we bouncing and jumping and barking like little children at an orphanage as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me!” I kept my eye out for the leader of the bunch. I had already given the guidelines to the family. “We want a strong, vibrant, well tempered male dog.”

My wife had a different eye.

I call this the Esau principle. If I were God, I would have picked Esau to father my nation. And my wife would pick Jacob, every time. This would truly be an Esau moment, as much as can be illustrated with caged dogs. My wife walked to the very back of the kennel and pointed to the smallest dog of the bunch. The pitiful creature was curled up and quivering in the corner of the cage, not even aware of our presence, oblivious to the pouncing and barking of the strong and healthy alpha males.

“What about this one?” My wife asked the dog farmer.

“She’s the runt.” the man of many words expounded, telling me two things that I wasn’t at all interested in. “We want a strong, vibrant, well tempered male.” I replied in a scripted tone. “Well, then you don’t want this one.” He said, as tobacco spit streamed from his mouth to the ground at the foot of the cage.

“I’m not sure I want any of them.” I thought silently to myself.

Then my wife gave me that look. Most men know what I’m talking about. It’s a wide eyed look with a sweet smile that silently says, “This is what I really want. I won’t badger you about it, but if you really know my heart you will do this for me, and it will speak volumes of love.”

“How much for that one?” I asked the puppy man in a firm, yet compromising voice—pointing to the shivering runt in the corner of the cage. “The males are $250.00, you can have her for $175.00.” finalizing his offer with a fresh puddle of tobacco spatter on the ground—a sort of back woods pledge, I suppose. I passed one more glance over the strong, vibrant male “Esau” dogs and reluctantly gazed upon the “Jacob” dog in the corner.

So we left the puppy mill farm with the exact opposite of what I came for. And we named her Zoe—the Greek word for “life” which was the exact opposite of her demeanor.

But she was a good dog and she grew up with my boys following them wherever they went, leading every adventure and bringing them safely home. She was patient with my disabled son, Jake, who would often pet her too hard and squeeze her too tightly. She was a companion to my weary wife and made her smile with a content happiness that I loved to see. When we brought Hope home from China, Zoe became very protective, sleeping at the foot of her bed to chase away all the things that little girls are afraid of when darkness comes--a service she also provided for Jake through all his disabilities. She seemed to have an instictive perception for the weak and the small.

And for these things I accepted the runt of the litter into our home, finding in retrospect that in her smallness and weakness, she fit our family dynamic perfectly.

It is difficult for me to confess, especially now—that even though I accepted her, I never really liked her. I didn’t like the messes she made or the food she stole. I wasn’t too fond of her willful disobedience or her skittish behavior that caused her to urinate every time I walked in the door. We had sort of a silent agreement: I gave her food and shelter and she was a companion to my wife and kids staying out of my way. But even though I really didn’t like her, I loved my family, and she live under the grace of that love.

Today, as I drove her to the vet's office, my mind went back to that one summer, nearly eight years ago, when that grace was put to the test. Our boys were playing in the back yard practicing their golf skills, driving old golf balls into the woods behind our house. One thing Zoe was good at--fetching balls. You couldn’t throw a ball fast enough or far enough that she couldn’t fetch it and bring it back to you. So the boys were having a good time teeing up the golf balls and driving them far into the woods, putting her skills to the ultimate test.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but Zoe was at the starting line ready to sprint into the woods and Noah was behind the club bearing down on the teed up ball. Zoe went for the golf ball on the tee at the same time Noah swung the club and instead of making contact with the ball, he smashed the club into her skull, driving the life from her body.

Kim and I were in the kitchen when Noah carried the lifeless dog into the house with a stark look of panic on his face. “I think something’s wrong with Zoe.”

Indeed something was wrong. Her body was stiff and her tongue was hanging from her mouth, purple in color from lack of breathing. Her eyes were fixed and I could find no life in the dog named Zoe.

I have to admit, I immediately began to look for a garbage bag to place her in for quick disposal, when my sweet wife took the dog in her arms and began sobbing uncontrollably. She took Zoe over to a living room chair and sat down, rocking the lifeless canine body and bathing her in tears. And then it happened—Kim looked up at me with those eyes and said, “Do something!”

With no less urgency than a paramedic at a trauma scene, I got down on my knees, physically opened Zoe’s mouth, placed my mouth on hers and began CPR. (Yes, I gave CPR to a dog.) I continued the resuscitation for several minutes, not with the expectation that she would live, but with the hope that my wife and kids would know that I loved them.

Much to my surprise I not only received their admiration, I received the dog back from the dead. She walked a little crooked for a few days and seemed a little confused, but for the most part she lived up to her name. Needless to say, Zoe and I walked a little closer from that day on. There was a sort of unspoken bond that was formed on that day.

These are the memories that filled my mind as she took her last breath today, in the vets office, at the ripe old age of 80 (in dog years). She was a good dog.

I wrapped her body in the blanket she used to sleep on, placing her in the front seat of my pick up truck and drove to a friend’s farm near our home. I buried her under a beech tree by the stream, near a small water fall, covering her grave with creek stone and a large wooded cross made from a fallen tree branch. I laid her pink dog collar on top of the crossed branches that marked the grave.

Kim already knew what had happened, the boys are now stoic teenagers who don’t show many emotions, but breaking the news to five year old Hope was especially difficult. Zoe was the only pet she ever had, the only dog she had ever known—and now the first and only occurrence with the finality of death that she had ever experienced.

I held her tightly as she sat on my lap crying hard and long, through tear fill eyes saying over and over again, “Oh, daddy I will miss her so much.” I rocked her in my office chair stroking her hair and absorbing her tears, anticipating the questions that might come from a five year old about death and dying.

After what seemed like hours of mourning, she looked up at me with a glimmer of hope-filled concern, “Daddy?” she sobbed. “Yes sweetheart?” I replied, ready for the onslaught of questions about doggie heaven and the souls of animals. I was stunned by what came next.

“Daddy, do you think that Zoe believed in Jesus?”

A smile came to my face as I wiped the tears off her cheeks, realizing that my young daughter, during one of the saddest moments of her five year old life, was placing her trust in the only person that could comfort her in her greatest sorrow. She saw Jesus as the Savior--the only hope in the dark mystery of death. I didn’t want to crush that hope, but I did want to use it for a platform of grace.

“Zoe didn’t have to believe in Jesus.” I said. “Jesus was her creator, not her Savior.”

“What does that mean daddy? Is Zoe-Zoe in heaven?” She innocently replied.

“I don’t know, the bible doesn’t tell us anything about dogs being in heaven. But do you know what the bible does say?” I said encouragingly, “The bible says that God is a good God and He loves us very much. He loved us so much that he sent His only Son Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be with Him forever.”

“I want Zoe-Zoe to be with Jesus forever.” Hope sobbed.

I held her for a while longer and then replied, “Don’t you think that a God who would love you enough to give his own Son, will love you enough to take care of your dog?”

We talked about the sparrows and the lilies and God’s love for His creation. I told her of a new heaven and a new earth that we would someday walk in. “It will be more beautiful than you could ever imagine. And Jesus will be there.” I comforted her.

“Will Zoe-Zoe be there?” She insistently asked.

“I think that animals will fill the new earth; that is part of God plan we call redemption.” I replied, hoping I was getting through—hoping even more that I was getting it right.

“And who knows, perhaps the same God who loves you and created Zoe, will create her again--or a dog just like her on the new earth—just to make you smile” And with that, she did.

I thought about how death destroys our innocence and opens our eyes to the cost of sin. I wondered how much of this she understood. I wondered how much I understood.

We rocked a bit longer and the crying subsided. “I will miss her.” Hope resigned.

“Yes, I will miss her too. She was a good dog."


  1. Oh Greg, you have the most wonderful way with words. We had a dog growing up, so I can relate to that; we have kids, so I can relate to that; we've had to answer many a question from the innocence of childhood, and so I can relate to that.
    But I could never articulate it all the way you can. Really, this was a joy to read.... even in the sadness of losing the dog. I can relate to that too :(

  2. Well, Mr. Lucas...I don't even like dogs all that much and I'm sitting here bawling, waiting on my 5 year old to ask me what's the matter with my face, like he does every time I cry. Very touching, indeed.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (sorry about above. Shouldve checked spelling first!) reading this when I should be cooking..... 77 year old Great Dane sleeping on her bed. God was so good to create our pets to love and teach us....

  5. Our Misty was the best dog ever. And looking back I'm ashamed that I did not love her as well as she loved us. In that context I'm so hoping that Misty will greet me in heave where I can apologize to her profusely.

  6. As a dog lover and having lost 2 of my dogs in the past 4 years, I just loved this story and I can certainly relate to your daughter. Through death (of friends, family, students, or even my own pets), my faith in Christ always increases.

    My faith is in Jesus Christ, who promised to fix this broken world, and Who conquered death through His resurrection. I am thankful also that my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ has grown even more through this article you posted.

    Would you mind if I posted your article on Truth Matters?

    In Christ,


  7. What a beautiful story! This have made me cry. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    I am a dog lover too.

    Hungry to eat His Word,
    'Guerite ~ BoldLion

  8. It can be said that dogs represent what we are like in Christ, and cats (but not all) who we are apart from Christ.

    I grew up with a basset hound, and her passing was my first real contact with death. But it was also my first contact with life, because it was what started me down on the road to a greater awareness of God, and an eventual closer relationship with Him.

    God bless sweet little Hope, that she might be comforted in the days to come.

  9. What a love-filled story!

    I'm a dog lover but there is a dog in my past that I didn't love and appreciate as much as I should have when she was with us. I'm with WhiteStone in the hope that she will greet me in heaven some day.

  10. Just checking back to read any postings you may have written.

    I’ve been following and enjoying your blog for a while now and would like to invite you to visit and perhaps follow me back. Sorry I took so long for the invitation.

  11. Was this the same dog you had in KY? I remember house/dog sitting for you all.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.