Dog training for beginners
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
10 January 2010, 10:30 (Baptism of Christ)
Even the most hardened sceptic would have to admit that it has been a while since I got my dog into a sermon. In this I have shown exemplary self-control, since almost every bit of Christian teaching can be illustrated by reference to dogs.
But today is a golden opportunity. Anna’s baptism, and an all-age eucharist. This could be my chance.
So there I was, pacing my study, grappling with notions of conversion and personal discipleship, when Jasper our black Labrador walked in and started chewing my notepad.
Which got me thinking about dog training.
You see Jasper and dog training didn't get along very well. There were lots of distractions, mainly the other dogs.
And Jasper didn't like the subject matter very much. Behaving well doesn't fit in with his essential philosophy of life - and I was the only dog owner who had to ask for replacement homework sheets because my dog had eaten ours.
But dog training, strangely, is an interesting little cameo of baptism and discipleship. Have you ever noticed that fascinating juxtaposition that occurs in the famous passage at the end of Matthew’s Gospel? In almost the last words of his Gospel, 28:19-20a, Jesus is quoted as saying:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Make disciples, baptise them, teach them. Discipleship and teaching and baptism belong intimately together.
Since a disciple is just another word for a learner, someone in training by and for God, then becoming a Christian, being baptized as a Christian, is about being committed to learn. And at a baptism service like this morning, that’s not just a question for Anna and her parents and godparents, it’s a question for all of us. How are we expressing our commitment to learn about God in our Christian lives?
Back to the dog training for a moment. The real disciples in dog training aren't the dogs but the owners.
For the dogs it's a pure Pavlovian experience. Come, fetch, walk, sit, lie down, paw, gets rewarded with a treat. Good boy! I do it; I get something I like, so I do it again.
But is that learning?
Not really. It's much more like manipulation, it's about controlling behaviour - and that's okay for dogs but it's a bit sinister when it comes to human beings.
But step outside those boundaries, cross the line, move beyond our Rubicon - and we'll hand you over to Satan.
Learning as behaviour control. It is not a disease confined to churches of course, just about every totalitarian state has tried it. The official line is education, the reality is indoctrination. As I say, it's okay for dogs.
But learning in a Christian context is something completely different. It's never about control; it's about liberation, growth, personal development, expanding horizons.
It equips you to think for yourself, to question, to experiment, to challenge convention, to look at situations laterally.
It resources you, it feeds you, it strengthens you, it nourishes you, it takes you to the waters of obedience and trust but never forces you to drink. It leaves you with choice so that obedience has value.
This was the type of learning and discipleship modelled by Jesus, and it's at the heart of any community which bears his name.
Jesus emerged at a point in history, a time and a place where teaching and learning was highly valued. The relationship between the teacher and the group of learners who gathered around them was precious and often lasted a lifetime.
Jesus called the twelve who gathered around him 'disciples'. Literally, learners. So learning is at the heart of following Jesus. You might say that the primary function of a disciple is to learn from Jesus how to live.
And this happened around Jesus in community. The twelve, the prototype church learning individually and together how to love God and love their neighbour.
Jesus taught large groups: the crowds, the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand.
He also taught small groups: his disciples, either altogether or - like Peter, James and John - in smaller groups from time to time.
Jesus taught families. The best example is Mary, Martha and Lazarus – two sisters and a brother.
And Jesus taught individuals, too numerous to mention. Every encounter, every conversation, every situation was one to learn from.
He taught through words, through actions, through discussion, through example; but he taught supremely through stories and parables - a teaching and learning method which is not about indoctrination and behaviour control but about growth and development.
For stories are open, they invite you to explore, to question, to feel things from someone else's perspective, to step outside the bubble of your own views and opinions and engage with the experience of another.
Stories rarely give you answers but they usually get you to ask the right questions. They don't transport you to a particular destination. They do give you a map and a compass so you can make a journey.
So Jesus' model for a learning community 2,000 years later is by no means rocket science. It's about engaging with ideas, encountering others, asking the right questions, discussing, reflecting, meeting, it's about doing things, watching, observing, listening, studying. It happens primarily with others but it also happens on your own. And the aim throughout it all is to learn how to live in such a way that you are fully alive.
Now if you ask where this is happening in the Cathedral I could point you in all sorts of directions. I hope some of it happens in sermons. Some of it happens through worship and prayer, the Eucharist itself. Holy Communion is a form of drama through which we learn. It happens in personal study and reflection. It happens through the small groups that meet in people’s homes. It happens in the gathering of Sunday Club and FROGS each week.
And it happens through meeting, relationship and encounter with others, especially those occasions which challenge our perceptions and stretch our understanding.
There's plenty of opportunity to learn here at the Cathedral. Do take it. We are disciples, learners, together. Anna’s baptism gives us the chance to remember that learning and discipleship lie at the heart of our Christian commitment.
But I ought to leave the final word to my dog. The real learning at dog training was not done by Jasper, it was done by me. And it didn’t have much to do with dog training either.
What my experience at those dog training classes did was to offer me this blinding insight that God never treats us like pet dogs. He doesn't use learning to control us but to liberate us, to present us as mature, fully grown human beings.
What’s the most important lesson Jesus wanted his disciples to grasp all those years ago? It’s not so different from the most important lesson Jesus wants his disciples to grasp today - to know, understand and accept how much God loves you, and to live the rest of your life in the light of that glorious knowledge.
Ultimately God isn’t interested in human beings who display the sort of robotic obedience bred into a well-trained dog. Well trained human beings are different - they’re rounded, real sort of people who don’t hide their hang-ups or hangovers behind a mask of polite obedience.
My dog is unruly, mad as a hatter and an embarrassment in polite company. But he's real, I love him to bits and I wouldn't have him any other way. And if I’ve learned anything in my 30 years as a Christian, it’s this. I think God feels much the same about me.