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Happy New Year!
The transition from one year to the next is an auspicious moment to consider not only what has passed but also what is to come.
Therefore, I’d like to bring you some encouragement! And not simply to cheer you on, certainly not to give you advice from me, but maybe to share some wisdom…wisdom especially from my dog, Hilde.
I’m just a simple parish pastor struggling along in a small urban congregation. But I do so accompanied by my dog who in many various respects serves as my copastor.
Some background, I have a dog whose proper name is Hildegard Rosie Goodhart:
Hildegard after the blessed saint, Hildegard von Bingen.
Rosie, well, because that’s the original name she came with.
And Goodhart, because she has been adopted into my family, my clan. Or to be more fair perhaps, she has adopted me…
She is a one hundred pound Bullmastiff, a total sweetheart and one of God’s most engaging creatures. But this post really isn’t just about her per se; rather, it is about her wisdom, what she has taught me.
And that’s primarily LOVE.
God is love. (1 John 4:8b) And dog is love.
The late Washington Post op-ed columnist and President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, put it this way in a piece earlier this summer: “Can dogs really love? Science might deny that the species possesses such complex emotions. But I know dogs can act in a loving fashion and provide love’s consolations. Which is all we really know about what hairless apes can manage in the love department as well.”
As a hairless ape I’m quite grateful for what dogs show! Again, back to the background, I cannot tell you how many times over this last year—over the last couple of years particularly—I have expressed to my dog, Hilde: I don’t know how anybody gets by without a Hilde dog?! I mean this personally to her of course. But I also mean this rather pragmatically and existentially. I really do believe dogs help us to be most fully human and to experience and share love. And this is especially true in the church.
In 2020, when everything shut down, every thing actually didn’t shut down. Churches in particular, while stymied from physically meeting in person weekly, had to adjust and figure out how to do this thing called community from a distance. Worship especially took on new and unique forms. This forum has discussed that enough. Suffice it to say that during those six months when we were physically separated one from another, each and every Sunday as worship was extended in online forms via Zoom from our sanctuary, my dog Hilde sat in place of the congregation. Although to be fair, sit isn’t exactly accurate. She sometimes ran up and down the aisles. She sometimes slept upon the chancel. She occasionally whined for her supper—Maundy Thursday and Good Friday that year were particularly poignant for the pathos she added to the services! But mostly, and this can not be minimized, she shared the ministry of presence, especially with me but also with everyone from afar who heard and saw and celebrated her antics.
Once we returned to in-person—something that started in the fall of 2020 but has yet to come about fully—the Consistory (church board) and I spoke about having my dog present during worship as we progressed. I said, “You know, she has been faithful these last many months standing in your place. It doesn’t seem fair to exclude her now that people have come back…”
And they responded unanimously, “Of course not! Hilde stays in worship!” And so it has been.
Therefore, now for over two years in worship (along with just about any other day you might come by the building of Trinity) you will encounter my dog, Hilde. As one of my Deacons has expressed on multiple occasions, she’s like an emotional support dog. (Full disclaimer: she is not officially an emotional support animal.)
From a New York Times article referencing dogs and Professor Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University who specializes in dog behavior:
Dogs have “an abnormal willingness to form strong emotional bonds with almost anything that crosses their path,” Dr. Wynne said. “And they maintain this throughout life. Above and beyond that they have a willingness and an interest to interact with strangers.
Each and every Sunday Hilde accompanies me to worship and as I’m making sure the communion elements are prepared or tinkering last minute with our technical connectivity issues for Zoom, she’s greeting folks as they come into the sanctuary.
Her practice is to greet almost everyone personally. Once worship begins she normally comes back to the chancel and rests at the base of the pulpit or next to the Lord’s Table. At the conclusion of the service she will often accompany me to the narthex sitting beside me as I speak with each worshipper.
A couple weeks ago she entered a pew with a family. I was concerned that perhaps their toddler was not happy with her close proximity. On the contrary, he was giggling and was quite delighted by her extending the smooches of peace!
I think it’s important to address something clearly here, rather significantly in this piece, not everyone’s a dog person. I know that. I think she knows that too. We have had a relatively new visitor over the last two months, a recent immigrant from Latin America, who is not entirely comfortable with Hilde’s presence. Still, in a very short time, they have developed a nominally friendly attitude with one another, an accommodating détente if you will. Another longtime older member with a very real significant reticence to dogs often brings her dog biscuits, but will only share them after receiving my permission! Hilde had an uncanny ability to connect respectfully with various kinds of people. I want to learn these skills.
But what my dog has taught me through the very dark days of the pandemic followed by the very chaotic days of the pandemic looking forward to these coming days of 2023 (not entirely sure of if we are still in the pandemic or not) is the importance of the ministry of presence, also the ministry of accompaniment.
God is not only with us but God goes with us. God accompanies us. We know that of course. We are still in Christmastide, the season of the Incarnation. Yet, to be able to see the adoring face, to pet the loving head, of love made real in a dog is a wonderful if not so gentle reminder!