Dogs, Little Boys, and Grown Ups

By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal

When I was growing up I had a German Shepherd named Heidi. Heidi lived a very long time for a German Shepherd: she outlived my Elementary, Junior High, High School, and SMU college years; and, during all those years she was a faithful dog. She was not only my companion during my growing-up years, but she was also there when the painful realization hit me that I was no longer a kid.

I had just graduated from Southern Methodist University, and was nearly ready to leave for Seminary at Duke University. Early, on my last day before departure I had decided to walk Heidi through Huffiness Park, a wonderful wooded area near my home where I had spent many boyhood hours playing with my friends. I spent some time wandering along the old trails that I had followed as a young boy, amazed at how much of the terrain I still remembered—and at how little it had changed. I stood and gazed at the soccer field, where my Dad had coached me back when I was in elementary school. I walked around the park for a good hour, lost in my boyhood memories, until I came upon the playground where I had once spent many hours in imaginative flights of fancy.

Heidi was winded from all the walking, so I entered the playground and sat down on one of those benches where parents sit to watch their children. There was only a single little girl in the park that day—and a young mother, no older than I. As I sat and rested Heidi, the little girl came running over with her mother to “pet the doggie.”

I told her it was okay, and Heidi gladly let the little girl stroke her between the ears. While this was going on, the little girl’s mother sat down on the bench beside me and we talked for a few minutes about the weather and other things of little consequence. She asked me what I did for a living, and I told her that I was in school, preparing for the ministry.

Hearing that horrible, dreaded word “school,” the little girl looked up at me and said, eyes as big as saucers: “But grown-ups don’t go to school.”

It was like a knife, twisting in my heart. Grown Up? I’m not a grown-up, am I? I asked the little girl’s mother the question, and she smiled and replied, “You certainly are to her.”

After assuring the little girl that “grown-ups” did, indeed, go to school, I got up and led Heidi away from the playground and back into the trail-blazed woods.

Me, a Grown-up? It didn’t seem at all possible. After a few minutes of aimless wandering along the bike-paths, I stopped in a clearing, sat down on a picnic-table bench, and stroked Heidi’s graying fur as I pondered the question.

As I was sitting there, two young boys came running into the clearing, one chasing the other. The one being chased tripped on a stone and went sprawling to the ground, and the other boy leapt on top of him and began to beat on him with his fists. I stood up and shouted at the boys to stop, which they promptly did--and then started laughing. They quickly explained that they were just playing, and that everything was okay. “Sorry to bother you, sir,” said one of the boys as he and his chum walked off, still laughing.

And, as I stood there, staring after the boys, I came to the horrible realization that I was, indeed, a “grown-up.” Fifteen years had changed me. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was very uncomfortable. I looked down at Heidi, who was looking up at me with those brown eyes, full of adoration; I smiled, “Do you remember when I was that little?”

“Yes,” her eyes seemed to say.

Change is not always fun. Time can bring many serious changes in an individual, or a community, or even a Church. As much as we would like to keep things the way they used to be, that’s not always possible. Things change--and as they change, we must change too. I'm not saying that we should forget the past--far from it! Celebrate the past, learn from the past, and grow! But don’t live in the past.

“But I don’t like change!” “I don’t want things to change!” Few of us do. But we really can’t stop the changes. Change will come, just as surely as little boys will become “grown-ups.” But, even as the changes come, we can ensure that they won’t overwhelm us by doing what God has called us to do, and remaining faithful to the fundamental truth which God has called us to proclaim. As we change, let us not get lost in our pain or in our past. After all, we’re Grown-ups.

© 1994 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from