Duke is my dog-in-training; although, sometimes I suspect I am actually his person-in-training. Regardless, we have both been learning a lot. I have a fairly good-sized, fenced backyard and my initial expectation was that Duke would be able to roam there, unfettered, to his heart’s content. The problem is that Duke possesses a heart that is prone to wander. He also instinctively gravitates to trouble.

Most of my previous dogs have been climbers. Their preferred path of escape was climbing over or jumping the fence. We have, therefore, become experts at blocking all over-the-fence routes. But, Duke is a digger. I’ve heard of diggers, and read of diggers (e.g. The Poky Little Puppy), but I had never seen a digger in action. Duke’s powerful front paws are no match for the sandy dirt in my backyard. If Duke were left unattended at the backyard gate I am certain he would be able to tunnel under it in less than ten minutes. Once we realized this, we put Duke on a fifty-five foot retractable tie-out which gave him access to most of the yard, but kept him from actually touching the fence line.

That worked well for keeping him home, but then there was the poison ivy. We live in the forest, as my prairie-raised husband likes to say. Trees and vines abound and, if not vigilantly beaten back, they tend to take over. On the gated side of the yard the pretty, non-poisonous ivy has covered a good portion of the side of our garage and the ground around it. I had not noticed that in the midst of the benign ivy the poisonous cousin had also taken root. Duke, of course, found just that spot and whether the poison was on his fur or his tie-out leash I don’t know, but I soon developed a severe case of ivy poisoning. We sprayed the offending vines, but to our dismay we learned that they were still poisonous even when dead, so we took the precaution of fencing off that area, at least until we could remove the dead vines. Duke, of course, soon tunneled under the fencing and I was quickly reinfected. So, we shortened his tie-out leash just enough that he couldn’t reach the poison ivy.

Next, Duke discovered that something was living under our shed. I suspect it was a ground hog, but whatever it was, Duke became obsessed. The tie-out was long enough for him to reach the shed and before I knew what was happening, those powerful front paws had ripped off a long board covering the foundation and he picked it up in his mouth and tossed it aside so that he could begin making a hole large enough to burrow his way straight to the offending varmint. Because I knew that the board could be replaced, I decided that this was a relatively harmless way for him to burn off energy, since his tie-out leash would never allow him to actually get under the shed, so I let Duke dig away. At some point the poor critter must have escaped because I heard frantic barking and after that Duke all but lost interest in the shed, particularly because he was unable to crawl under and explore.

I tell you all of this as background for today. Several relatively peaceful weeks have passed where Duke has been able to happily roam the yard on his tie-out without much drama. I was, therefore, lulled into a false sense of security. Every morning Duke has a rigid routine, which he established himself, and part of it involves his rushing out to go potty and then immediately galloping back to the house for a biscuit and a lovely time of being petted. I always put him on the tie-out leash before he dashes out the door; but today I thought, “He loves his routine, I probably don’t even need to put him on the leash first thing in the morning. He will just come right back.” Hah! All went well for about 30 seconds, then, as the realization dawned that he wasn’t on the tie-out, Duke headed straight for the dead but still deadly poison ivy. At the first indication of trouble I ran for my shoes and by the time I grabbed the tie-out leash and reached him he was looking wildly around trying to decide whether to head to the gate or to wriggle his entire, now unleashed, body into the still gaping hole by the shed. His hesitation was his undoing. I dove for his collar and managed to get the leash clipped onto him before he knew what was happening and he dejectedly returned to the house.

While I was vigorously trying to remove the ivy’s urushiol oil from both of us, I thought about salvation, grace and freedom. Let’s say that the yard represents salvation, and let’s say the tie-out leash is the law, and that, because of Christ, God has let us off leash: We are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14) Most people who fear an over emphasis on grace do so because they believe it will give us permission to sin and that this freedom will lead to licentiousness and ultimately to damnation. They picture deceived Christians wildly leaping over the fence or tunneling their way out of the yard and straight to hell. What they don’t understand or take into account is that a God, who is incomprehensibly wiser than I am, is always there, not only on the outside of his children, but also on the inside; and he is tenderly pulling us out of the poisonous places we still head for and patiently blocking every escape route. He doesn’t then put us back on the tie-out to keep us in line, like I did with Duke (Galatians 3:24-25); instead, he guards us and ever so slowly teaches us to trust him. He binds us to himself with cords of love until our hearts’ desire is to stay close to his side. We are never left unattended to run away. We may still foolishly wander into trouble, but God, in his mercy, always lovingly protects his own and keeps us safely in the yard.