praise

Worshipping at the Church for Dogs

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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.

 

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            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.

 

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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.)

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(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.

 

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            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.

 

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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!)

 

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Leaving Alaska: the Crooked Path Toward Praise

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On Monday, I left Alaska.  I am going to keynote the Breathe Writers' Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend----and then I’m not going home. For a long time. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, or exactly when I’m coming home but I’m not going alone. My two youngest sons, 14 and 16 go with me. And my husband will join us when he can. (Someone in this outfit must be gainfully employed.)

 

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We’ll be gone for 8 months traveling throughout the U.S., Europe and southern Africa. 

I wanted to leave rejoicing, singing. Remember my March into Gladness last spring, the long winter hikes, leaving sadness and griefs behind? This is that same travel, just longer, further, deeper. But I could not know this would happen: I left the day the news broke of the Las Vegas shooting. 

We have all had too much practice living with horrific headlines. We are all too acquainted with grief. And we must sorrow, lament and grieve in these times. We must go to the Psalms, many of which include gut-deep howls and wails to the God who often feels absent, silent, in the very times we need Him most.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
 Why do you hide your face?
    Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

O God, why do you cast us off forever?
    Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
    Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
    Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them!

Don’t cut it short. And hold your place there in those grief-songs because they will surely be needed again. I cannot say that better days are coming.

But I also know there is more to speak and sing than sorrow. This is not the whole of human life even now in the aftermath of 59 dead and 523 wounded. Nor is it the whole of the Scriptures. Again and again I read words that speak of something else, something that is foreign to our tongues, especially now:

The apostle Paul writes from prison, “Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice withyou all."

David writes, "Every day I will praise you
    and extol your name for ever and ever."

Paul admonishes us, "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name."

The Psalmist writes, "As for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more."

 

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Do you hear this? The imprisoned Paul is GLAD?  I will praise you more and more? Every day I will praise you?  Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise?  I rejoice with you all?”

I want to be like this: glad, always hopeful, continually offering praise, but I am not good at this.   I am good at lament and complaint and poor at praise.  I have excuses. I don’t want to be the loony woman in a flowered hat pasting a red lipsticked “praise the Lord! PTL!” all over every life event.  I don’t want to be the bright-eyed ever-chipper front pew-sitter ready to slap an upbeat Bible verse on every bent back. I don’t want to be the silver-lining addict pulling golden threads from every disaster.  I don’t want to be the church clown handing out tracts and balloons at the door while the neighborhood burns.  

This is gross hyperbole and stereotype, I know. But I want to be real. True. Authentic. Human. I want to own my feelings. AND I want to be true to what is most true of all---that no one is more worthy of our worship than Jesus, the bread of the world, our Savior, our Creator, the lamb of God who has died for us all. (Praise him!)

I want to be the kind of person who praises God with more than occasional parenthetical inserts (see above.) I want to be the kind of person who offers “The sacrifice of praise” the way He deserves to be praised. (But also surely praise is more than saying “praise?” And surely praise is more than singing praise songs at church.) And can’t we do this in a way that doesn’t necessitate a Bible verse every minute, that doesn't send the sane running for cover? Yes, many of the prophets and disciples were thought mad. Does it take a kind of madness, then, to praise "continually"? (Please, no!)

This is my quest this year.  This is the path I am pilgrimming this year. I am following the footsteps of the apostle Paul (again). Where he lived, died, started churches. While on the road, I am also journeying into the Psalms and the life of David. There will be many detours and hijackings along the way. I will probably have to report on chocolate somewhere, and on getting lost, and breaking down, and running out of money and arguing with my sons and meeting strange angels and dangerous seatmates. Because that’s exactly how the crooked path toward praise and gladness goes. I hope you will come with me?

 

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So there it is, my announcement. If you’ve signed up to visit Alaska every week, I hope you’re not disappointed. I am returning. And I'll likely use some of the 1500 photos I took this summer at fish camp along the way, especially when I'm feeling homesick. Like now:

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But now----I am in the air, on the road, seeking to enlarge this poor heart, to teach this lame tongue real gladness and praise. 

Don't we need it? Doesn't He deserve it?

 

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