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The Prize

An unwelcome interruption brings answers to the search for intimacy with God.

After nine months of organizing, planning and leading our church's weekday pre-school programs, I was exhausted physically. Emotionally, I had nothing left in my heart to give. Mentally, there wasn't an original idea left in my head. Spiritually, the "busy-ness" of daily living had taken over my life and I needed to feel Jesus' presence in my heart.

… too quickly, my quiet was intruded upon by loud splashes in a nearby pond.

It was great to be away with the other women at the retreat centre, but when we were given an assignment to evaluate our personal block in our intimacy with Jesus, I seized the opportunity to be alone. I put on my runners, sunscreen and bug spray, and headed off for the nature trails. But too quickly, my quiet was intruded upon by loud splashes in a nearby pond.

I peered through the trees but couldn't distinguish what type of wild creatures were thrashing around. These thoughts were interrupted by loud shouts. I shook my head, rolled my eyes and grumbled to myself. I envisioned the other women off in serene situations while my first quiet in ages was intruded upon by people training golden retrievers!

I started to turn in the other direction but the young dog drew my attention as it bounded out of the pond. I expected it to behave like most dogs, shaking vigorously and spraying water, soaking anyone in sight. But subtly, the owner made a hand signal. The dog walked twenty feet away and then shook. "Incredible!" All thoughts of personal isolation and tranquillity left me. I had to know: how did he train a dog to give up its natural instincts and movements? If he could do this, could he teach me how do the same thing with young children?

Two men were actively working with their dogs. A woman stood nearby observing half-heartedly. She proved eager to strike up a conversation and answer my questions. And, as the dogs practiced she explained the training procedures to me. We watched the youngest dog standing expectantly beside his master. A float was thrown into the pond. Then, a less visible float was thrown much further into the pond. The dog was signaled to retrieve. He swam towards the easily attainable float. His master firmly instructed the dog to go after the furthest float.

The woman told me this would prove the dog's trust in its master. The dog would learn to go through the unknown towards the unseen. He had to develop a faith that his master could guide him towards the goal. I watched in amazement as the dog obeyed. He was guided by the master and reached the prize.

The second man threw his float. It landed about three feet off the shore. The water there was murky and shallow. His dog eagerly started out. Nearing the pond's edge the dog ran into difficulty and slowed its pace. The water was full of half-submerged branches that hindered the dog's swimming. It slowly lifted one leg at a time. Covered in leaves and muck, it certainly wasn't the proud looking animal that had started out. Finally, the dog captured the float in its mouth and paused before returning.

"There is no choice. If you want to get the prize, you have to obey."

The woman said to me: "This is the decisive moment. When they are pups you hope for an intelligent dog, one who is willing and desires to obey." The dog retrieving the float knew that the safest, fastest and easiest route back to the master, was to jump ashore and run on the ground by the pond's edge. But, to be obedient, the dog had to retrace its path back to its master. The woman told me that earlier that day, the dog had been in a similiar situation in a competition. Using its freedom, the dog had disobeyed. With increasing interest, I watched.

Raising its front paw in the air, the dog hesitated and turned back to look at its master. The man signaled for it to return along the more difficult path. If you could say a dog looked reluctant, this one certainly did. Slowly, the dog turned and once again struggled through the murk and slime. Finally, he reached the clear water and headed for his master. "There is no choice, if you want to get the prize, you have to obey," explained the woman.

For just a minute, I wondered if Jesus had come to me in the form of an overweight, middle-aged woman who spoke while a cigarette dangled from her mouth. Similiar to those dogs, we have free will. We can choose to run along the easiest paths that come naturally to us—pride, materialism, dishonesty or apathy. Or we can choose the harder path of obedience to Jesus. We can struggle through the murky waters of our lives—our jobs, our marriages, our families and our relationships—pausing and looking to our Master for guidance. We, too, have to learn to go through the unknown towards the unseen, trusting Christ to lead us.

Jesus couldn't have made a message more clear. My future training? Obedience. My prize? Intimacy with Jesus.

Marny Atkinson and her family attend St. Andrew's United Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Originally published in Fellowship Magazine, March 1997




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