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It happened one Sunday morning in my previous church, and I didn't notice it until I began to preach. A dog had joined the worship service. What I earlier thought to be a hungry tummy turned out to be an authentic growl from a scruffy, black-and-white mutt pacing near the rear of our colonial sanctuary. His leash led to a thin, dark-haired woman-a stranger-who, like her dog, seemed vaguely uncomfortable.
That made three of us.
She must be blind, and that's her seeing-eye dog, I surmised. Then I saw her reading the bulletin.
When the dog persisted in yipping, the congregation began to fidget, and I realized I had only seconds to consider my options. I could try a little humor ("Is my preaching going to the dogs?"); I could boldly instruct the ushers to remove the beast; or I could get on with preaching and hope he didn't bite anyone before the benediction.
I took option three. I preached with one eye on my notes and one eye on the dog. As my sermon wore on, I grew increasingly angry. Why has this woman brought her dog to church? And where are those ushers? It didn't help matters when, halfway through my sermon, I glanced back and saw our little friend curled up asleep. I certainly didn't need more of that!
After a quick benediction, I hurried through the crowd to find our two visitors, but they had slipped out a side door. In my haste, I brushed past Hazel, a meek, gray-haired deaconess, who motioned that she had an urgent message. When she got me aside, she whispered, "Did you see the dog in church today?"
"Why, yes I did, Hazel, and I'd like to know exactly why it was there."
"It's rather complicated, but let me try to explain."
I nodded, and Hazel began to talk-quietly, slowly, with a sadness that puzzled me. She said she had been cleaning up after Sunday school when the young woman, crying and visibly shaking, had come into the church kitchen with her dog. Hazel offered her a warm cup of coffee, and before long the woman was sharing her story.
"My husband has been beating me for months," she explained. "He started again early this morning. I got out of the house only by convincing him our dog needed a walk. When I left, I ran down the street, looking for somewhere to be safe. Then I saw your church, and I knew he'd never look for me here."
Hazel talked with the young woman, prayed with her, and invited her to our worship service. "But what about my dog?" she asked. "I can't take him into church with me."
"Why not? People will understand," Hazel assured her. "I'll talk to the ushers. Everyone's welcome here." And so they came to church.
"I tried to talk with her again, but she hurried out," Hazel explained. "She thanked me for caring, but I don't know if we'll ever see her again. Pastor, I hope you didn't mind the dog being in church."
What could I say? I felt a mix of emotions: sadness over the woman's situation; gratitude for Hazel and her tender ministry; gladness that our church had been a sanctuary, however briefly; frustration that we couldn't do more. But most of all I felt embarrassed, ashamed because I had minded that dog being in church. I had been irritated at the woman's "bad manners." I had been judgmental toward our ushers, not knowing they were more in touch with the situation than I.
I thanked Hazel, gave her a quick hug, and moved on to greet the departing congregation.
Hazel was right. Despite our efforts, we never did see that young woman again. I looked for her on our streets. I even watched for her dog. In fact, I often think of that little pooch, especially when I enter the pulpit. I remember the lesson he taught me the day he came to church: that the correct focal point for a worship service is God, not the pastor. A church is God's sanctuary, not my theater.
We preachers work hard on our sermons. We spend hours preparing and even practicing them. Sunday morning arrives, and we're eager to present the finished product. We're so keyed up, in fact, that distractions unnerve and even anger us. How dare they spoil my performance! Don't they realize how important this is?
Our preaching (actually God's Word) is important, and we need to keep unnecessary distractions to a minimum. Thank God for good ushers. But that dog taught me again that Sunday morning is God's show, not mine.
Maple Lake Baptist Church
Maple Lake, Minnesota
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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