Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dog Food Tales

Dog food.

It's considered such a lowly source of nutrition.

It may be healthy, of course; otherwise, we wouldn't feed it to our beloved family pets.  But judging by its looks and odor, we rarely assume it would taste good to us.  And those few hardy souls who've ever tasted it on a dare never seem eager to make it a regular part of their diet.

Dry, it can be even less appealing than those unappealing dry cereals doctors say are supposed to be the healthiest for us.  Moist, or in what dog food manufacturers call "gravy," dog food takes on the texture, appearance, and even smell of leftover human food that's turned bad in the back of the refrigerator.

Our dogs don't seem to complain too much, but I haven't known a dog yet that, just like you and me, prefers people food instead!  That right there probably tells us something about the flavor quality of conventional dog food.  Which makes dog food the butt of many jokes and disparaging comparisons.  "That looks worse than dog food," we'll say.  Or, "I wouldn't let my dog eat that."

Poor dogs.

Then consider this:  It has been said that American Christians today spend more money on dog food than they do on cross-cultural missions.

Do you believe that?

Dr. Michael Oh serves as the executive director of the Lausanne Movement, a group founded by Billy Graham that seeks to promote Christian evangelization worldwide.  He said it during an interview for the Gospel Coalition's website.  The statistic originally comes from Leonard Ravenhill, a British evangelist best known for being a spiritual mentor to the late musician Keith Green.

It's just convicting enough to sound accurate, although I can't find anything to substantiate its claim.  For one thing, what was Ravenhill's definition of an American Christian?  There are so many varieties.  Besides, has anybody ever done a study to determine how much American Christians spend on dog food, or cat food, or pet food in general?  Then too, how would somebody determine a dollar amount for what American Christians contribute to cross-cultural missions?  Would it be by how much they individually donate, or a percentage of what they donate to their church, or what they donate to para-church missions agencies?

Veterinarians say people food is usually bad for dogs.  So, considering the price of quality dog food these days - the stuff that isn't made with artificial fillers and questionable byproducts in China - how can American Christians NOT spend a lot of money on dog food?

Still, it makes the point that although dogs and pets in general are not a specific part of our faith walk, it's an approximation of a likely truth that American Christians are just jaded enough about foreign missions to spend more money on relative luxuries like pet ownership than they are to help fulfill a basic command from the Bible.  You know, the Great Commission?

Go ye therefore, and preach Christ's Gospel to every nation?

Do you spend more on dog food than you give to support the Great Commission?

I don't have any pets, so do I have to answer that question?

Back when I was working for a freight brokerage in New York City, I got a call one afternoon from a potential customer who had a hot lead on a job lot of dog food.  A freight brokerage, just so you'll know, arranges to ship goods from a supplier to a customer, and the firm for which I worked specialized in international exports from America to places all over the world.  And this guy who called our office with his request about dog food wanted to ship it from here to Bulgaria.*

So, I started collecting the information I'd be needing to get some shipping quotes.  His location, whether or not he was using a letter of credit, and to whom the dog food would be consigned.  We also briefly discussed the process involved.  This potential customer had never shipped dog food to Europe before.  He was acting on a tip he'd gotten about really cheap dog food, and somebody had provided him a contact in the recently-dissolved USSR who would buy it from him in Bulgaria, on the spot.

"Wow," I commented casually to the guy on the phone.  "They must have a lot of really hungry dogs over in Bulgaria."

"Oh - this isn't for pets," the man replied.  "This is for people to eat."

I stopped in my tracks.

He wanted to ship these containers of dog food to a foreign country for human consumption.  I asked him to repeat himself, figuring I'd mis-heard him.

"Yeah, the Bulgarians are starving over there," the guy confirmed, and I could practically hear his glee over the telephone.  "They're so hungry in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they'll eat anything to survive.  Isn't it great I got this super cheap deal?"

I don't remember how I ended that call, but when I hung up the receiver (remember those pre-cell-phone days?) I turned to my boss and said, "I can't process this request for a quote."

"Why not," my boss wanted to know.  So I told him that the guy wanted to ship dog food to Bulgaria because people there were so hungry, they'd eat it themselves.  I remember that my boss's face clouded over, too, but he was the owner of the company, and bottom lines meant more to him than to me.  He did take the information to work up a quote, and he figured it was just unusual enough a shipment that if there were any official questions from customs, it might sound better to the authorities if the paperwork was arranged by the owner of the company, instead of a regular employee.

So thankfully, I didn't get any demerits for being unwilling to perform a basic function of my job.

And, fortunately, when my boss called the guy back with some figures, he learned that the deal had already fallen through, but I can't remember why.  So my boss was relieved, too, that he didn't actually have to go through with such a questionable shipment.  We talked about it in the office, amongst a couple of us, and the possibility was floated that if food was that scarce in Bulgaria, that maybe dog food was better than nothing at all.  Somebody checked the customs regulations (we had books and books of them in our office; this was before the Internet, too!), and there was nothing illegal about such a shipment.  Dog food is nutritious, after all.  But none of us were happy with the thought that somebody was still trying to earn a profit off of the misery of people he'd likely never have to meet.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but maybe it can also be the stepchild of abuse.

So, as I heard about us American Christians spending more on dog food than missions today, my mind floated back to that day on the 25th floor of 21 West Street, where I used to work, and had received that call about sending dog food to the starving people of Bulgaria.  The whole episode left a terrible taste in my mouth, as if I'd eaten some of that dog food myself.  I thought then that maybe, if the people of Bulgaria were that desperate, I should look into whether or not some humanitarian organization was already shipping human food over there.  The church I attended, Manhattan's venerable Calvary Baptist, had an extensive network of international compassion ministries; maybe one of them could help.

But then somebody in the office mused that maybe the reason the dog food deal fell apart was the customer in Bulgaria learned that the United Nations or some other relief group was bringing in real food to prevent a humanitarian crisis.  And then, as things tend to do, more calls came into the office regarding shipments to other places, and before I knew it, the Bulgaria situation had been shifted to a back burner.

And then it disappeared from the stove completely.

It's what usually happens when we're presented with an immediate challenge, isn't it?  If we don't act quickly on it, like this customer with the dog food deal was trying to do, something else can just as quickly divert our attention.  The diversion can be just as worthwhile, but usually, it's just more busywork, or something less demanding, or perhaps some desirable recreational activity.

That's why, when I hear things like dog food and international missions, the ease with which the Bulgarian situation dropped from my consciousness - despite my strong stance on it initially - still can prick my conscious.  Not that I think God is blaming me for whatever aid may not have arrived for the Bulgarian people.  But the truth that cross-cultural missions is an ongoing responsibility for God's people, and it's a responsibility that doesn't lose its importance, urgency, or impact on the lives of those it can touch.

Whatever mass starvation existed in Bulgaria is long over.  But the Great Commission is as valid today as it was when Christ charged His church with it over two thousand years ago.

That's a long time in which to grow complacent, isn't it?  A longer shelf-life than dog food, even.

But that doesn't make it any less efficacious, does it?

* I say it was Bulgaria, but it may have been Hungary.  Sorry I can't be positive which one it was.

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