I had never been to a church for dogs. I was expecting something else when we went to church this Sunday. It was a tiny little community church Out West, in a village tucked into a steep valley. But when we got there at 11 and the parking lot was nearly empty, we heard those little “Uh-oh” bells chiming in our heads. Should we run?
I’ve visited a lot of Uh-oh churches all over the States. Ten years ago, we traveled around the States and Central America for nine months (seven of us then, including five boys) and visited a different church every Sunday. There were high church churches and basement churches, movie theatre churches, store front churches and everything in between.
On this trip, the last two Sundays we were in my daughter’s new church, an African Methodist-Episcopal church where I got to stand and clap and praise and move just as the Holy Spirit in me wanted to move. (Amen, thank you brothers and sisters for that freedom and joy!)
And this Sunday. Yes, to my story. A very nice woman greeted us at the door closely attended by----two dogs. Two labs in blue collars who seemed quite happy we were there. The greeter introduced one of the dogs as Beetle. I glanced at Duncan with eyebrows raised and considered turning back, but I decided to have an open mind. Why not welcome parishioners with the extra enthusiasm of wagging tails and wet noses pressed into your hands? It’s not like the dogs are in church or anything.
But then they were in church. They came in with her as she ushered us into the sanctuary. (Maybe they were service dogs?) But there were bigger problems. Three minutes before the service was supposed to start, the sanctuary was empty. Well, there were three people in the pews. We made seven. And of course the dogs made nine. We took seats in the back row in that hesitant way church visitors always sit, with their haunches slightly raised and one eye on the back door.
Soon a pleasant looking middle-aged man in jeans came and stuck out his hand with “Welcome folks!” to each one of us. But I was looking at who came in behind him----a massive Bassett hound. I tried not to gape but I couldn’t help nudging my sons who were taking this far better than I was. “This is going to be the dog church from now on,” I whispered to Abraham, who shushed me immediately.
After the nice man shook all our hands he strode to the raised platform, Hound close behind. He motioned for Hound to lay down on his blanket up on the podium. What next? Church for eleven, counting the third dog?
A few minutes later I heard voices---phew! Seven more straggled in, people that is, to my relief. But no more dogs, to my disappointment. Now I was all about the dogs. We began.
The worship leader’s Bassett hound presided on the podium with his tragic eyes, occasionally looking back lovingly on his master, while the woman who met us at the door, a large elderly woman, not only was the drummer in this “band,” but she played with her two pups beside her. Well, just part of the time. Sometimes they roamed the aisles and while singing “Come Thou Fount” I got to pet Beetle as he passed.
Yes, this church was odd. The guitar-playing worship leader couldn’t carry a tune. At all. He didn’t even seem to know the songs. The elderly drummer tinked her sticks off beat. No one moved a muscle during this worship. Not even in their faces. I couldn’t hear anyone else singing besides me and my family. And don’t forget the dogs.
(Note: Not the actual praise band.)
(Note: Not the actual praise band.)
At first, I wanted to run out screaming or plan B was to grab the mic from the leader and take over. But we stayed. And here’s what happened. The pastor preached from Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books. And he had studied. He moved us. He challenged us. He prayed with his whole heart. And at the end, I discovered this handful of people serve at a food bank, and a dozen other places in their tiny community and the world at large. And they’re going to pack and send 500 Operation Christmas Child boxes. Yes, 500.
This wasn’t a dog and pony show. This wasn’t a show at all. It was real---a handful of people coming together for hours on a Sunday offering giving what they had to each other, to God. Yes, it was ridiculous and pathetic, all of us, trying to praise God with little talent, bringing dogs to church. I felt sorry for God for a few moments, thinking of Him as a kind of lordly teacher having to endure his kindergarteners bumbling through their first show and tell. But then, in the midst of singing “God of wonders beyond the galaxies” I looked out the church windows. I saw the elk grazing on the brown lawn and the snowed mountains hulking over us in brilliant sunlight.
Two hours later I stood 50 feet above a waterfall that plunged 200 feet into a 1000 foot canyon. With the roar and force of the water, I could hardly walk to the edge, overwhelmed, knowing if I got too close I would be swept away.
And later, after the river and canyon, the sun wrapped a scarlet scarf around the neck of the Tetons as it departed.
It’s outrageous. It’s absurd. You have to be crazy out-of-your mind to believe that the God who designed and lovingly tends this kind of world sees us. Hears us. Loves us. Is delighted with us. Attends to us. Died for us. Little ragged-voiced stumbling awkward stiff off-beat dog-loving us.
But He does.
That river thundering into the 1,000 foot canyon that I knew would sweep me away. It has.
That’s His mercy. His mercy. All mercy. For us.
(Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!)