On a sunny morning during fifth grade, I was walking up my street to the bus stop at the top of the hill. Out of nowhere eight pounds of white short-haired dog appeared, bouncing along on short legs that carried its round belly only a few inches above the gravel. His smallish ears pricked forward as he approached me and when his doggie mouth turned up in a smile, I bent down and petted him. His tail wagged quickly back and forth and his lips curled up in a broader smile. He had a black spot between his ears and I scratched him there as a final gesture of goodwill. A quiver of delight passed through his little body. A similar pleasure passed through my young soul as I believe God smiled over two of His creatures who took the time to make a connection. It was right, decent, and good. I remember it as a holy moment in my young life.
The other kids were already at the bus stop. The sound of the approaching school bus rose from beyond the houses behind me. I stood up and started off into the rest of my day and life.
A narrow shoulder marked the border between the pavement of the street and the yards. There was no sidewalk in those days. With a sixty-six passenger bus barreling up the street, I continued up the hill walking along the grass. The little dog paced me to my left where the pavement met the shoulder, oblivious to everything beyond the moment. Behind us, I heard the bus gear down and gun its engine for the climb to the top of the hill.
I was looking right at the dog when the bus caught up to us. Its right rear tire caught the dog as it drove through the curve. I remember it in slow motion as his little body rolled beneath the wheel. He bounced and then lay still.
My world went gray as I took in the awfulness of what had happened. He had just let me pet him!
The bus continued up the hill, its engine roaring until it reached the stop and turned on its flasher. The neighborhood kids started getting on as I stood over the body of the little dog. I felt something rise in me that I had never felt before. I knew in my core that this was not the way things were supposed to be.
I ran up the hill toward the bus. My fury gave me plenty of air to shout at the driver. “You just ran over that dog! Didn’t you see him? He’s dead!”
Forty years have passed since that day and I know that the innocent animal was in the right place at the wrong time. Nor was the bus driver evil. He was just a man with a job to do and a family to feed. He could do nothing about what happened except to look in the rear view mirror and then turn to me and say, “I’m sorry, Rusty. I didn’t see it in time.” Since then I’ve lost loved ones and presided at more funerals then I can count. I know that it is necessary to comfort the grieving. I know that there are essentials things I have to learn by means of suffering. But that doesn’t mean I have to lose my ability to become positively angry over what death does.
I think this is something of what went on inside of Jesus as he imagined the cold body of his friend Lazarus (John 11:34-35). Jesus had no patience for the idea that death is “just a part of life.” He had stayed at Lazarus’s house just a few weeks before! He wouldn’t allow this death to stand. He wept as he confronted death. “Lazarus! Come forth!” he commanded and his friend lived again.
My confidence as a Christian is that the day will dawn when this intruder and enemy is put down with a shout as Christ raises all of His people up (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). Because of that, I live my life in defiance of the physical death I inherited from Adam. I will protect my hope because I need it to care: for my family, for friends, for animals, and for stories. I will keep my faith focused on the One who won the victory.
And on that glad morning, I believe that a little eight pound short-haired dog will smile at me and I will scratch him between the ears.