It rains a lot here in the winter. Our Doberman, Pharaoh, is a long-legged, big-pawed horse of a dog, so when he runs through the backyard and skids to a stop, he tears up the grass. Most of the backyard is now mud. He also has dug a deep hole under the azalea bush and thrown dirt everywhere.
He sleeps on the back porch which has dog-door to the backyard. The porch needs to be swept and then mopped almost every day. He spends most of the day indoors when we are home. We tried letting him stay in the house at night, but he left too much to clean up in the morning. He also chewed-up about anything he could reach—including the books from the many bookcases. He chewed my Bible and ate some of Psalm 18 (which did not improve his behavior). He now has a nice bed on the back porch, but tracks in a lot mud.
So most mornings I must carefully wash his paws. In fact, it is often the first thing I do. I take him a short walk to the telephone poles and fire hydrants. We then walk through the wet grass to get some of the mud from his feet. On the porch, I have a paw-washing jar with warm water and a little soap. I wash and then dry each paw before letting him in the house. We have been doing this long enough that he stands still and lets me scrub each paw.
Paw washing has become a small sacrament for me. It is a spoonful of grace that sweetens the morning. Tending to Pharaoh first pulls me out of myself and is a gentle reminder that the day is not about what I get but what I can give.
And perhaps there is a distant echo of Eden and the work of tending the garden. In serving animals before ourselves we get something right about our purpose and calling. We discover we are most ourselves when least focused on ourselves. Farmers who get up in the dark to feed their animals experience this grace when they finally sit down for breakfast. Mothers who take the worst pieces of chicken so the kids can have best know this. Tired grandparents who bend stiff joints to play with the grand kids on the floor know this. Jesus too.