Thoughts about working dogs (and the ministry of presence)

Today I was shopping at Rural King and I had our dog Bo with me. Until five years ago I had rarely visited Rural King but I like shopping there now because it is one of the few places that allows dogs. So, if I need something that I think they carry, I pack up Bo and we are off.

As we were leaving the store today a women looked at Bo and said, “Is he a working  dog?” Since this is a farm store I assume that a good number of the dogs coming into the store are farm dogs who serve some function. However, we don’t live on a farm and Bo’s main function is to lay curled up beside me on the couch. “No,” I replied, “He’s just a pet.”  “Well, he’s a good lookin’ dog anyway,” she said. She went into the store, Bo and I walked to our truck, and the conversation ended.

But it gave me pause to think.  Bo is an invaluable presence in our lives. He is sometimes entertainment. Sometimes he is a comforting huggable lump of fur and flesh. He welcomes us home with unflinching loyalty.  So, does he work?

In the Bible there is a story about two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha is busy doing things for Jesus while Mary is sitting attentively listening to Jesus tell stories. Martha chides Mary for her indolence and Jesus chides Martha for missing out on what is really important. For a couple thousand years this story has challenged people’s perceptions of ministry. Sometimes it is important to actively serve others with our activities and sometimes just being with someone is the more important thing.  In the helping professions we call this second circumstance ministry of presence. Sometimes people need us to do for and with them and sometimes we just need to sit with one another.

For those of us who are in ministry the lines between work and the normal activities of life often blur. If we are at a high school basketball game and someone starts telling us about their latest domestic struggle are we suddenly working? If we go to a community event because we want to it is probably not work but if we go because we ought to represent the church then it may be considered work. Some of these issues get at the very nature of work and ministry. Sometimes it is difficult to say what is work and what is not.

And so I think about our dog, Bo.  He doesn’t herd sheep or cattle. He really doesn’t have any discernible job description. But whatever it is that he does, it sure works for me!

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Thoughts about visiting the dog park

This is a picture of our dog, Bo, enjoying the Columbus Dog Park.

During the fall of last year I was able to take a three month renewal leave from work.  Everyone serving in my position with the church gets such a renewal leave during their fifth or sixth year as a district superintendent. I must admit that I didn’t plan anything spectacular during my time off. My main goal was to see how many days in a row I could wear shorts, a tee shirt, and flip flops.  I also had plans to take our dog, Bo, to the dog park every day. Actually, both of those plans panned out pretty well. While I did have to put on real shoes a few times, a real chore after letting your feet run free for weeks on end, for the most part I was able to bum around, read books that had lain dormant on my reading list for quite some time, and watch every episode of “Lost” on Netflix.  Not particularly productive but certainly relaxing.

Bo and I have been making more frequent trips to the Columbus dog park recently and I am surprised at how quickly I can relax in that space. It is almost as if the physical location of the dog park puts my body and spirit in the framework of that renewal leave and I immediately feel the tension melt away.  For Bo, part of the attraction is the other dogs that happen to be there on any given day. For my part, I sit on the bench while he runs free or plays, reading or just watching. Sometimes I have conversations with the other dog owners who are there with their pets, mostly about our dogs, their endearing characteristics, and how they interact with one another. While we may enjoy these conversations, we know that in this space and for this brief time, it is all about the dogs. And somehow, moving the focus away from the world outside the park helps us relax all the more.

Mystics talk about “thin places” where the veil between the corporeal and the divine is less pronounced and people’s ability to experience the sacred is more easily achieved. I have visited places, like Stonehenge, which are widely recognized as thin places. However, I also believe that there are personal thin places where our individual experiences create a proclivity to experience the divine more profoundly. In some ways I would say the dog park has become a thin place in my personal spiritual experience.

I suspect most people have a place like that. A place that represents tranquility and well being. For some it is a particular room in their house or a beloved chair. For others, it is a walking path or a pew in a church. The places are probably as varied as our experiences of God’s presence in our lives. For me, in this season of my life, it is sitting on a bench, watching a loving dog run and play, sometimes with other dogs, sometimes just exploring the sight and sounds of this generous enclosure.  Midst the storms of my life it is a happy oasis.