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I fell in love with Labrador Retrievers long before Sonoma, our Yellow Lab, joined the family eleven years ago.

Living near a beach in the Southern California I had a “go to” place to meet with God. It was an isolated clearing atop bluffs that overlooked the beach and the ocean pawing at it. God always seemed to show up, it was my lair, a holy “Thin place” for me where the “distance” between heaven and earth was closed. Often transcendent each morning was a unique blend of quiet stillness, listening or my pleading, tears in both directions, and moments of bitching eventually followed by a season of repentance. Early, before joggers and beachcombers I would catch my breath while He spoke, brought clarity and patiently fathered me.

Alone on one of those mornings, under a marine layer, above the glassy surf, I was leaning against a wood rail fence lost in God; I was yearning for so much more of him, trying to put into words the deep groanings for a life more engaged, present… free and true. Then from nowhere bounces up a young black Lab playfully nudging me with perked ears, wildly wagging tail and expressive eyes with the unique-to-labs invitation that enthusiastically says, “Let’s play, gotta stick? A ball? How about the water? Come on!”

My reaction? Very revealing:

I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m communing with God here: I’m focused in the zone… what are you doing here, where’d you come from? Where’s your master?

Now on every single access or trail to a beach in Los Angeles County are the unavoidable signs that authoritatively state, “No Dogs Allowed on the Beach” with the county code reference posted clearly. A little agitated at the disruption and civil violation I attempted to spook her away. Labs are persistent and persuasive but I resisted and with a gentle foot prod and my best growling “scram” her interest in me was repelled allowing me to return to my uninterrupted abiding in the presence of The Merciful, Kind and Gracious God of all creation.

Within five minutes I notice this young lab down on the beach frolicking in the ebb tide, splashing, nipping at the lapping waves…thoroughly enjoying herself. I was captivated watching her sprint up and down the wet sand harassing a flock of gulls and sending them to flight. Whatever God intended a Lab to be this youthful pup was. Free, alive, living as God had wired her to be she was having a ball.

And me? I was in a trance like state with the oversized smile of a much younger and less cynical man. Spell bound by this lab I caught myself surprised by the spontaneous prayer and desire that surfaced, “Lord, I want to be a Lab”.

Whatever you created me, Craig McConnell to be I long to be. Fully alive, free, frolicking in the waves that come my way.

One of the great things about Labs is that is they cannot read signs.

There was no restraining her from living out God’s beautifully woven design for her. She was innocently and beautifully criminal. (As we all should be)

I can read signs and have. There’ve been a number of signs others/the enemy/the world/the religious spirit have posted to shape and mold me into something more “acceptable”. It kills your heart, and re-scripts your life and world robbing you of ever going to the “beach” and living out of your true, God given identity/nature.

This Lab, this frisky intruder triggered a passion for God to work more deeply in my heart while giving me a lasting image of what God has for me.

I couldn’t be a lab but I could get one and so we did. A delightful yellow lab we named Sonoma.

It’s probably best to avoid the attempt to describe her, but I must: Sonoma is a  Sandylands yellow Lab (female).  

  • An obsessive retriever with boundless energy.
  • An embarrassing food hussy.
  • Typical of Labs she’s easy going and trusting of anyone, friend or foe. Every one is to be greeted with a simultaneous wagging of head and tail.
  • She speaks through her eyes, by positioning her ears and by tilting her head.
  • Her bad teeth run up the aggravating dental bills but on the upside at eleven years old her breath has a distinctive old dog bouquet.
  • A lover of water whether it be a sprinkler, hose, river, the beach or mud hole.
  • A sweet companion never far away yet independent… not a lap dog.
  • A family dog she’s shaped the lives of our kids and their kids.
  • Cold nosing me out of bed she was the initiator of a thousand walks through the nearby park and woods. I’ve viewed them as me taking the dog for a walk, but more often it was God taking me for a walk. Every walk was different. On each one I’d be throwing the ball and wrestling with Sonoma as God would arrest my heart with stillness or speaking to my anxieties. He endured my bitching and made repentance inevitable. Sonoma would disappear chasing a deer and God would appear with clarity and His patient fathering heart. Sonoma has walked a lot of miles with God and me.

Designed for a world far different than the one we’re living in I often forget how closely linked love and attachment are to pain and grief. The coming Kingdom will be a wholly other experience with every tear wiped from our eyes and there will no longer be any death, mourning, crying or pain. (Revelation 21:3-4). Come quickly Jesus! .

After an abrupt turn in her health over the last five days I put Sonoma down last night to relieve her from a bleeding internal tumor. Argh!

It was brutal.

I returned home from the Vet late, emotional and a little disoriented. The tears and grief surged as well as my foe’s wily suggestion that my grief was over the top, a sign of weakness and something to hide. I poured a finger’s width of briny Talisker scotch and cranked my Worship play list to illegal levels. It was the most natural and needed thing to do in the moment. Two things were fiercely unfolding in my tears as I stood reaching for heaven; I was grieving the loss of Sonoma and I was worshipping The Merciful, Kind and Gracious God of all creation for the innumerable Thin Places he brought me through her. Today it’s more of the same; I miss her and I love how God loves me.

My life is full of reasons to grieve and even more to worship.

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