I took my dog, Buddy, to church recently! Buddy, is our 9-year-old family companion, a gift from a daughter. I must admit, I did not want another dog; we had a dog all the years our children were growing up. Our last one, Lady, was a big, beautiful, adorable collie. But I had had enough of dog care!
However, as in most family decisions, my view did not prevail, and Buddy arrived at our home when he was a puppy. He is a relatively new breed, called a Puggle: a mix of Pug and Beagle. And my daughter was right, we needed a dog. Buddy has brought so much to our home. He is loving, loyal and brings a dimension of wonder to our family that limits the attention on ourselves in this season of our lives.
Of course, we are not alone in our affection for a pet. The United States is a pet-loving nation. I have learned that there are 78.2 million dogs owned in this country, in 39 percent of U.S. households. Cats follow a close second.
Churches get involved, as well. There is a United Methodist congregation in Pittsburgh, which I have read about, that has a program called “Hearts and Paws.” Among other features of this special ministry, it offers support to families who have lost pets to death. What a thoughtful and caring ministry.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that a United Methodist church in our Atlanta community was conducting a late afternoon service of The Blessing of The Animals. I was aware of such services, though I had never attended one. I decided to take Buddy to the service.
Now Buddy, who in other ways is a remarkably well-behaved dog, has one annoying flaw—he is a “runner.” When the front door is open, Buddy is gone! He has introduced us to more of our neighbors than we would have otherwise met, as he races up the street and runs indiscriminately into their yards, all the while ignoring our calls and eluding our grasp. Countless times, neighbors have helped us corner Buddy, or have returned him to us. He is well known on our street.
So, as Buddy and I were leaving for his blessing, my wife Kim laughingly said, “Buddy may first need an exorcism!”
Interestingly, our United Methodist Book of Worship contains a “Service for the Blessing of Animals.” It was this order of worship that was used that day by the pastor of the congregation. The Book of Worship provides the following explanation. “A Blessing of Animals, in many congregations, witnesses to God’s and the Church’s love, care, and concern for creation. As we recognize our mutual interdependence with God’s creatures, the Church’s witness of stewardship of creation is strengthened.”
It further states that the service can be celebrated on or near the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4. So Buddy and I joined about 200 other worshippers and an array of dogs of every description outside the church on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon.
I did not see any cats or other animals that may have been a part of that unique “congregation.” To my surprise, the dogs were well-behaved as we lined up for the procession into the sanctuary, and that decorum was maintained once we were inside. Some dogs sat on the floor; others joined their owners on the pews throughout the service, which included prayers and hymns. However, I was careful to find a rear pew for Buddy and me, not quite sure of his reaction since this was his first time to attend a church service! He passed with flying colors, even as we walked to the front of the sanctuary and the pastor gave him a personal blessing, calling him by name.
The closing prayer offered by the pastor was especially meaningful: “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You inspired St. Francis to call all animals his brothers and sisters. We pray for these animals, gifts of your creation, and ask you to bless them. We praise you for the love which we receive from them, for the love which we give them, and for the comfort and companionship, which we share. May our care for our pets be a reflection of the peaceful and loving care you bestow upon all of creation, bringing glory to your name. Amen.”
Then it hit me: Buddy is not just a pet we own, but a valued member of our family! And I did not just take him to church to receive a blessing, but to thank God for the blessing Buddy is to us.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.