By Norris Burkes Dec 4, 2022 (3)

During my years working as a chaplain for Sutter Medical Center in downtown Sacramento, I usually flew solo when making my patient visits.

While I was occasionally interrupted by a well-meaning staff member offering an unsolicited prayer, or even an overambitious clergy pressing his or her theology, I was always happy to yield my sacred patient-space to Toby.

Like me, Toby preferred to work off leash. That’s because he was a therapy dog, a Queensland heeler, a pun not lost on our healing team. He truly liked people of all flavors, having never met a person he wouldn’t lick.

Part of my weekly duties was to conduct a support group at Sutter SeniorCare,  a daycare support facility for the elderly.

One afternoon, I came to the unit to lead my weekly, spiritual-support group, only to be told the group was canceled in favor of a Christmas potluck. Not a bad trade, considering how renown the staff was for its potlucks.

As I made my way into the food line, a social worker pulled me aside to tell me that the change in routine had caused a panic attack in one of our elderly patients. Since the woman normally attended my group, the social worker suggested I talk with her.

Leaving the food line, I quickly found a woman sitting anxiously near the exit. Her name was Dorothy, as in the “Wizard of Oz.” She was drumming her feet repeating the litany, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

At my appearance, Dorothy stilled momentarily to ask whether we were having our group today.

Pursing my lips, I tried to explain, “No, we’re having a potluck.”

Her shaking prayer resumed as her eyes took leave of the conversation.

“We can still sing our hymns,” I said, coaxing her back into our exchange. “Nothing is stopping us from singing.”

She tossed a glance through the noisy crowd.

“We can still sing — just you and I,” I said, excusing myself to search for a hymnal.

When I returned with the hymnal, I found Toby warming my chair.

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.

Yet, as I watched, the woman extended a shaky-hand greeting for Toby. Toby responded by wrapping his tongue around her hand like a kid’s tongue encircling an ice cream cone on a sweltering day.

Slowly, Dorothy’s frown transformed into an upturned smile as she took a firm grip on Toby’s collar. Hesitantly, and despite the fact that I had been seriously upstaged, I started to see the wisdom in letting Toby take the lead.

When I opened the hymnal and asked Dorothy what she wanted to sing, 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, we sang one duet after another. Between songs, I couldn’t help but notice a calmness permeate the woman’s spirit as she hugged Toby’s neck a little tighter.

Her joy 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 pie crumb, Dorothy walked herself to her waiting bus, finally answering her original prayer to go home.

People ask me all the time whether they have to attend church to worship God. No, you don’t have to go to a building to worship God, but Dorothy and I reaffirmed the wisdom in the biblical promise that God will be present any place “two or three are gathered” (Matt. 18:20).

In that afternoon, Dorothy and I were two people gathered together and, even though Toby made us an iffy threesome, 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.


Please read past columns on my website, Send comments to or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or via voicemail (843) 608-9715.