A Kid and a Dog: Should we bother God with a pet concern?

Bo Meredith could have made commercials for Skippy peanut butter. He was the penultimate darling little boy—round face, apple cheeks, floppy red hair, and a glorious Lone Ranger's mask of rusty freckles ear to ear. Terry, his mother, the daughter of a Lutheran preacher from Indiana, had been coming to Fort Anderson Church off and on for six months. Bo's father wasn't a believer, she'd said, and from her sketchy descriptions, Pastor Jack had developed the sense that the marriage wasn't in great shape.

But he was happy enough to get Terry Meredith, who did the weather show and an occasional feature for the local CBS affiliate. When she came to Fort Anderson Church, she seemed, by her very presence, to make the entire sanctuary shine.

The Sunday in question wasn't the first time Bo had raised his hand during prayer time. The kid had asked for prayer for his father's head cold and for his teacher's new baby. Jack was not unaware that the little boy's impromptu petitions brought more pure joy into the sanctuary than a half dozen praise-and-wor-ship choruses.

This time, it was his dog. When Jack called on him, Bo stood on the pew so everyone could see him. His mother nudged the mike up closer to his mouth. "We got this new dog, Henny." He looked around— amazing stage presence. "And I'm trying to teach him to do his toi-toi outside."

Giggles, of course, all around. Pastor Jack tried not to smile. Terry raised her hand to her face to hide a blush.

"Mom says that he's got to learn, or else he's got to go."

Sherm Menshoff laughed out loud. The sound of his ripsaw guffaw awakened the congregation to the odd twist of Bo's silly pun, and just like that laughter crackled across the sanctuary.

Which made Bo a little miffed. He didn't mean this to be funny. "I love Henny," he said. "But my dog has to learn to go outside." He handed the mike back and sat down beside his mother, who was trying to regain some control herself.

"Henny," Pastor Jack said. "We'll remember Henny."

Cordell Lanenburg was shaking his head in disbelief, and the choir was in stitches.

Jack had long ago discovered that some moments in the "Joys and Concerns" part of corporate worship should really shut down the process. When some members would, in tears, announce unexpected deaths, he'd end the opportunity for sharing, because if he didn't, some other parishioner would rise to introduce his Uncle Merk just afterward and turn personal trauma into parishioner trivia. But after Bo Meredith's concerns about doggy do-do, Jack wanted a more requests, a bundle more.

"Others?" he said, smiling.

But no one raised a hand. Bo hadn't been first on the list anyway; there'd been a half dozen more before him. Pastor Jack looked down at the names he'd scratched on the back of the consistory minutes—the Adamson's grandmother's cancer, Barry Sanderson's uncle finally gone after months of hanging on to life precariously, people starving in West Africa, and National Right-to-Life Day coming up.

He looked out over the chairs, hoping that someone might have something else so that not every last soul in the pews would be anxiously awaiting how he'd handle a pup's house-training problems—and what was the dog's name again? Good night! He searched through his memory—had the kid even said the dog's name?

He thought about just asking Bo, as long as nobody was raising a hand anyway. But the dog's faulty toilet habits had already blown cancer and death out of the water, and besides, he really didn't know yet how he was going to say what needed to be said. How was he going to talk about it without turning the whole event into stand-up comedy?

"If that's it—" he said, hoping, hoping.

No hands.

"—then let's turn to the Lord in prayer."

He looked down at his list and remembered ACTS—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication— an acronym from high school catechism, a formula he always invoked for congregational prayer since "joys and concerns" were 99 percent supplication. He started in on the cold snap and what it might be doing to the citrus farmers. He alluded to the death of lots and lots of vegetation, and the blizzards up north where most of the congregation had relatives. The reference point was the overwhelming power of God Almighty, manifest in last week's icy air that tumbled down from the north like a tidal surge.

That this God loved us—that was the joy. That this God of wind and rain and cold so potent it could turn south Florida chilly and gray, that this God loved us... that's what he said because that's what he thought. And that put him in mind of the hurricane. In September, a hurricane had missed Fort Anderson, coming ashore in Landis Beach, an hour south.

Some of the church's seniors had been donating their considerable carpentry skills in work crews at Landis Beach, and he referred to that too—the opportunity to show God's love to those so tragically evicted from their homes by the sheer power of nature. He pulled in an old lesson he remembered from a friend of his, a social worker, who'd once told him that ministering to the oppressed and disenfranchised, the poor and the destitute, was a joy because such work taught believers how to love.

So the hurricane became the focus of his prayer, even though he hadn't planned it that way. He'd spent two days there himself during the past week, carting trash away, and he'd seen homeowners whose tears hadn't washed away that crushed and vacant look disaster always creates in the eyes of those who've seen treasured belongings mush into garbage. Those people garnered most of his attention, until it was time to wind down, and then he went through the list scratched on the back of the bulletin. Except for Bo Meredith.

When he said amen, he looked up at the congregation and knew immediately that he'd committed some horrific sin. Five seconds—that's all it took, maybe less. Bo Meredith's dog lit up in the darkness in his mind. He'd forgotten the kid's dog.

"One more thing," he said, and publicly refolded his hands. All two hundred souls followed his lead, understanding exactly what he was up to. Then he prayed for Bo and the dog. For a moment he thought about praying for Bo's mom's unforgiving heart, but he assumed that would be pushing things. He said he hoped that the Meredith's new puppy would bring joy into the life of the family. And then, once again, he said amen. The congregation was all smiles.

Terry Meredith called him on Tuesday. "Did you see my feature?" she said. He had. She'd taken a camera crew to Landis Beach and done a video essay—a two-minute series of shots of people still digging out of the mess, close-ups of the devastation, close-ups of the people. "Your prayer last Sunday," she said, "it made me think about going back there—it's so easy to forget, you know? We were there every day for a long time after it hit, but it's been months now, and it's really still not over for those people."

"It was very powerful," he said. "Nicely done."

"Thanks," she said. "You know, there's an old adage from the theater—" she told him, "never share the spots with a kid or a dog 'cause you'll always get upstaged—something like that." And then there was silence.

"I hadn't heard that one," he said.

"Can we do that to the Lord?" she asked.

"I'm not following," he said.

"Maybe it's because I'm in the business I am," she told him, "but I wonder—you know, about the dog? Can we make God silly?"

"I don't think we can make God anything," he said. "God is God."

"That's not what I mean," she told him. "In our minds—can we make him look less than he is?"

"I suppose the best answer for that is that we can never make him all that he is—we just don't get it all. We probably never will."

"But we can shrink him, can't we?" she said. "And we like doing it too. We can make him a pet."

Jack had a sense of where this was going. "If you're saying that you shouldn't have let Bo say what he did—"

"I'm not saying that," she said. "But you know, don't you? You've been to Landis Beach. You know what those people are still going through?"

"Last week," he said, "—I was there last week, lugging out broken drywall."

"Well, I just thought I'd tell you that Henny's doing okay—hitting the papers quite regularly now. It's as if somebody up there heard the request."

Jack laughed.

"An answer to prayer," she said.

"Sure enough," he said.

And then she waited again. "I don't care, Jack," she told him. "I'm going to tell him that the whole church doesn't need to know about it—is that wrong?"

"You're his mother," he said.

"I know. But I met a woman today—seventy-four years old. She's got family in upstate New York, but they don't visit much, you know?"

He could picture this woman. He didn't need Terry to describe her. He'd been in Florida long enough to know the type—deserted really, exceptionally lonely.

"I guess the house was one thing, you know?" she said. "But this woman's really got nothing now—to hear her side anyway. I don't know. It seems so big."

"And you're thinking about toi-toi?" he said.

"Maybe I'm too Lutheran."

"Everybody loved it," he said.

"That's what I mean exactly," she said. "The dog even got his own prayer."

"Terry, you're too Lutheran," he told her.

"Yeah," she said, "maybe I am. Well, I just wondered if you saw the feature."

"It was wonderful," he told her again.

"Maybe I'm too Lutheran," she said again. "I'll work on it." And then she hung up.

"So," Jack's wife said, "is the dog doing his thing outside?"

"Everything's hunky-dory," he said.

Shar looked up at him and smiled. "Prayer changes things, right?" she said.

"Sure," he said. "Of course it does." When he looked up at Shar's puzzled look, he realized she had meant it in fun.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.