For a minister, my humor sometimes gets a bit edgy for church folk. For instance, I can't help but laugh every time I read that dyslexic parody of the "God is my co-pilot" bumper sticker, which declares, "Dog is my co-pilot."
While the original sticker conveys the more serious truth that God walks alongside us, there is also room to consider that God might work through a dog. After all, the Bible tells us God spoke to Balam through a donkey. (No, it actually says that other word, but we had to say donkey in Sunday school.)
Considering the possibility God might bring help through a dog was not something I found particularly plausible. But the truth be told, I'm usually suspicious of want-to-be helpers -- people who call the chaplain's office with offers to help.
These folks can sometimes be people who just want to add another notch to their Bible belt. But that isn't true of Toby. He likes people of all flavors and I doubt if he's ever met a person he hasn't liked, uh, I mean, licked.
Toby is a Queensland heeler -- a pun not lost on our healing team. He's the canine member of our interdisciplinary care team at the senior center.
It's hard to avoid a Dragnet tone as I recall the afternoon Toby and I were working the day shift out of downtown when the call came about a distraught woman. The request from a social worker came in the midst of our Thanksgiving feast. She interrupted my gluttonous recon run on the desert table to point out one of our senior participants.
"Suzy's having another panic attack," the worker whispered. "Since she usually goes to your Bible study, I wonder if you could talk with her."
In clinical terms, Suzy is usually "upright and ambulatory," but fear had momentarily transformed her into a wheelchair-bound invalid. I walked toward her, unsure of what I could do, all the while feeling like a TV faith healer summoned to produce a miracle.
Poised near the exit, Suzy was like a child on her first day of kindergarten desperately praying for the bus to take her home early. She was Dorothy in Oz, as her feet became pistons driving her lap up and down while her hands were drumming cadence to the litany, "I want to go home. I want to go home."
At my appearance, she stilled momentarily to ask, "Are we having worship today, chaplain?"
Pursing my lips, I floated an excuse: "Not the usual worship. We've planned an interfaith Thanksgiving service."
"We're not having our regular Bible study or singing?" she asked.
Her shaking resumed as her eyes took leave of the conversation.
"We can still sing our hymns." I said, coaxing her back to our exchange. "Nothing is stopping us from singing."
She tossed a doleful glance through the noisy holiday crowd. Just then, Toby walked up with his partner.
"We can still sing -- just you and I," I said as I left in search of hymnals. When I returned, I found Toby warming my chair. I replied with an icy stare. I've heard this will show the dog who is boss.
What's he doing here? I thought. This is my gig. I didn't need a dog sticking his wet nose in my clerical business. Like the shuttle arm grabbing an unsteady satellite, Suzy's hand formed a shaky greeting for Toby. Toby responded by wrapping his tongue around her hand like a kid's tongue encircling a chocolate cone on a sweltering day.
Slowly, Suzy's wrinkled face was beginning to trace a smile as she took a firm grip on Toby's leash and denied slack. Hesitantly, and despite the fact I had been seriously upstaged, I started to see the wisdom in letting Toby take the lead.
I asked Suzy what she wanted to sing, and she replied, "Amazing Grace."
"Yes. It certainly is amazing," I allowed as my hand connected with hers to discover Toby's ability to lick a double scoop. During the next 15 minutes, Suzy and me sang one duet after another. Between songs, I helped Suzy recall favorite Scriptures and a calmness permeated Suzy's spirit as we hugged Toby's neck a little tighter.
The joy promised by scripture "to pass all understanding" was beginning to spring forth from this connection -- first in drips and then in gushes. By the time we sang our last song and pinched our last crumb of pumpkin pie, Suzy insisted on leaving her wheelchair to walk herself to the bus.
People ask me all the time if they have to go to church to worship God. No, you don't have to go to a church building to worship God, but Suzy and me rediscovered the wisdom in the biblical admonition that people of faith should not forsake the assembling of themselves together. The promise is that God will be present anywhere "two or three are gathered in his (God's) name."
In that afternoon, Suzy and I were two people gathered together and, even though Toby made an iffy three, our worship connected us with our creator and renewed our strength. God's handprint of love, if not Toby's paw print, became evident for all to see.