'O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.'
For those of you who don't know it, that's the Book of Common Prayer Collect for Peace, a centuries-old prayer. It came to mind this morning as I was walking Ben (I warned you that I'd be blogging more about my dog!) There we were, two creatures both wearing dog collars, one ambling gently along while the other bounded and leapt and snuffled and smelt. I said in my last post that alreay, Ben and I have traipsed miles; that's not, strictly speaking, true. I have traipsed while Ben has strained and pulled (I know, I know...) and then ran and explored. In his previous life, most of Ben's walks were through town streets, on the lead. Here, all it takes is a quick two minute walk to be on a public footpath through as many miles of countryside as we have energy to find. The day after Ben came to us, I took him on the lead down to the village green, found a spot as far away from the car park as possible, and...took the lead off. He ran away. I called him. He came back. I threw a tennis ball for him. He leapt up, caught it in his mouth in mid-air and deposited it at my feet. Excellent, I thought. This is a dog who's been properly trained. We can have some fun.
So most of Ben's walks are very much off the lead, and he is relishing being a country dog (do the all lick horse poo?) I was talking to my vet friends about the difference between a dog walk on, and off, the lead. The difference is huge, we agreed; the word 'olefactory' was mentioned, as dogs can sniff and snuffle their way along when they are off the lead in a way that they simply can't when they are being led. Being off the lead doesn't mean making a frenzied bid for freedom leaving one's owner far behind. In fact, it seems the opposite; Ben seems to have a very finely tuned instinct for where I am, and what I'm doing. This morning as we were walking, Ben some way ahead of me, I very quietly stopped for a moment to see what he'd do. Within seconds he'd turned to see what the problem was.
Seeing him belting around the woods brought this prayer to mind. I can't think of a better metaphor for spiritual freedom than a dog exploring a woodland, jumping over logs and sniffing out trails. Of course, the only reason we were able to do this was because he had been trained as a puppy, and had very quickly attached himself to me as his new owner. I trusted him, he trusted me, and the freedom that he was able to enjoy because of that trust was just wonderful to see.
We might think about the structures in our lives that are intended to eventually bring freedom; stabilisers on children's bicycles, electronic cigarettes and so on. In Galatians, Paul writes about the law as being along such lines; the law is a teacher intended to bring us up to maturity, he says. In Christ, true freedom is a reality ('It was for freedom that Christ has freed you.') The law is a bit like a dog lead. In Christ, we are off the lead and the whole countryside is ours to explore.
You can probably work out where I'm going with this. We humans need to learn from dogs. We need to see that true spiritual freedom actually involves a lot of discipline, structure and learning. It involves a greater awareness of where God is in our lives and what he is doing, not less. It requires the readiness to respond when we hear our heavenly master's voice, and to come back when we've bounded off too far. Many of us long for spiritual freedom; but the work that it implies is, let's face it, quite demanding. When I was leaving theological college we had a short conference with our to-be training incumbents which was colloquially referred to as 'puppy walking.' I saw it as an insult at the time; now, thanks to Ben, I see it as something between a fact and a compliment. Only puppies who've been trained properly get to bound through the woods.