Part of the Series: “The Gospel according to Dogs: Lessons from Our Four-Legged Friends”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Emmanuel United Methodist Church
March 19, 2017
Luke 16:19–31 • “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
I have had a number of dogs in my life. A pet cocker spaniel growing up, a long haired miniature dachshund who came with a major relationship, and a shih tzu who was as much a part of our campus ministry community as the student she came with. All of them had particular gifts and personalities that made them lovable, caring, and creatures of enormous blessing. Muffin, our cocker spaniel, was adept at following a trail in the carpeting that we’d rubbed with a doggie treat and tracking it until she found the reward at the end. Samson was sweet and friendly and fearless: when we took him to the dog park, he ignored any dog his own size or smaller and wanted to run with the big dogs and would do so darting back and forth until they were all exhausted. Stosch was patient and loyal and could make anyone feel better just by letting them pet her, with a fascinating blend of regal air and a common touch. Each dog was special and unique it his or her own way. And many of us have experiences with pets like that.
But as fond as we are of our pets and their unique talents, we understand that service dogs are something else altogether. As much as I loved Muffin, I would not have counted on her to guide me through a busy intersection. I wouldn’t have wanted Samson to be the one to have to bring me needed medicine or to knock the phone off its receiver and call 911. (Samson had a hard time figuring out the concept of pointing and always looked at my hand instead of the thing it was pointing at.) So, as much as we are impressed by our pets’ particular skills, we acknowledge that there’s something different about even these dogs.
As we move through this series on lessons from our four-legged friends, we reflect today on the special lessons we have to learn from service dogs.
Now, it will likely come as no surprise that the topic of “service dogs” is on that long list of topics like “nuclear weapons,” “cloning,” “gene therapy,” and “representative republican government” that the Bible is silent on. To the extent that dogs are mentioned in the Bible at all, it is rarely flattering. They are often portrayed as scavengers who pick up the scraps left behind. There is a neutral presentation of a dog in the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, wherein we read:
“So their son departed, with the angel alongside him. Tobias’ dog also went with him and accompanied them on the journey. They both journeyed until the first night fell upon them, and they set up camp along the Tigris River.
So they both went on together, and Raphael said, “Get the gallbladder ready.” The dog came with them, still following behind.” (Tobit 6:2; 11:4 CEB)
It’s not the most exciting story of a dog, but at least it presents the dog as a faithful companion rather than as a scavenger. And it notes that that the dog is “Tobias’ dog,” that is, he is not just some straggler but belongs to Tobias.
And then we get the story from today’s gospel lesson, wherein we read:
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Here, in this story, it is the poor man Lazarus seeking the scraps from the rich man’s table to eat, and who was attended to by dogs that would come to lick his sores. This might be the closest thing to a service dog that we’re going to find in scripture.
III. SERVICE DOGS
Now, it should be noted that a service dog is not simply any dog who provides a service, as the dogs do in the story about the rich man and Lazarus. A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities, such as visual impairment, hearing impairments, mental illnesses (such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)), seizure disorder, mobility impairment, and diabetes.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has issued regulations about service dogs in which service animals are defined as:
“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
These dogs are specially trained for the work from the moment they were whelped, sometimes before their eyes are even open. Trainability, good temper, and good health are the most desirable traits in such service dogs, which is why some of this work is usually limited to particular breeds of dog.
Because of the special nature of the work, service dogs are afforded privileges that other dogs are not: they can accompany their owners into workplaces and other usually prohibited places for pets. On campus, we are given explicit instruction to permit service animals in our public spaces and that once it has been established that the dog is a service animal, the questioning stops.
Part of that is because while most of the service dogs we think of are of the kind I mentioned earlier, a great number of dogs are considered “emotional support” or “social support” dogs that are designed to be a companion and provide a calming effect for people who have problems with say, PTSD, depression, or social anxiety disorders. These dogs aren’t required to undergo special training, in particular, but can still be considered “medically mandated.” Some institutions will make the same exceptions for service dogs such as these as well.
So what do we have to learn from these dogs? Much, it turns out.
IV. WHAT WE LEARN
There is a reason that dogs are chosen for this kind of work. It’s not just that they are smart—there are much smarter animals out there: chimps, pigs, dolphins, ravens, elephants—but there’s a reason we don’t train them for this kind of work. Because aside from the fact that dolphins aren’t very good outside of water, elephants fit into very few office elevators, and chimps will bite your face off for an extra piece of your sandwich, none of those animals has ever demonstrated the fierce loyalty and faithfulness that dogs have.
It is entirely likely that the dogs we know and love are descendant from a wolf-like creature that hung around the outskirts of our campfires, looking for scraps. When we realized that these creatures provided benefit to us—they barked when trouble approached, they could be easily trained—a symbiosis was established and relationship for the ages was forged. Dogs are dogs because of their relationship with us. Their existence is bound up in relationship with humanity as humanity’s is with theirs.
In short, at some point in our shared pre-history, we adopted each other and dogs have been loyal to that arrangement ever since. And so, we trust dogs to bringing medication to alleviate symptoms, to retrieve an emergency phone in crisis situations or to dial 911 themselves, to provide balance assistance, to carry medical supplies or information, to provide tactile stimulation, to turn on lights and search rooms prior to a partner entering, to indicate changes in elevation, to navigate around obstacles, to locate objects on command, to retrieve dropped items, and to alert us to the sound of a doorbell or fire alarm, because we can count on them being there.”
Outside of the Bible, it is this aspect of dogs that is usually referenced in Christian tradition. Throughout the Medieval Era, dogs in paintings always represented faith. It is no surprise that one of the most stereotypical names for a dog is Fido, which is simply the Latin word for “I trust” or “I am faithful.”
And so, service dogs provide for us the model of faithful service. Attentive and loyal, service dogs help us to live. Likewise, we, attentive and loyal to one another, help one another to live. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, it should be the rich man tending to the wounds of Lazarus; but he is outperformed in this regard by the dogs who remain present and attentive. They, unlike the rich man, do not abandon Lazarus.
B. Do Your Work
It is really amazing what service dogs can be trained to do. The specialties that they can be trained for are remarkable. And this brings us to the next point.
In the Ten Commandments, God commands the people to observe the Sabbath day, saying:
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God;” (Exodus 20:9–10 NRSV)
We usually pay attention to the commandment about observing the Sabbath, but rarely do we pay attention to the preceding clause: “six days you shall labor and do all your work.” Not only is this a command to work the other six days of the week, but specifically to do your work. Not someone else’s; but the work that is yours to do.
Sometimes we forget that—especially those of us active in the church. Not every task is ours to do. We don’t have to do everything ourselves. Service dogs are trained to their task, but only to that task. They are not expected to be generalists; they would hardly be effective if they were. They are not failures if they are “only” a seeing-eye dog rather than a dog that can sense a change in elevation or that can detect a seizure or a diabetic episode. In addition, each service dog is custom trained for the person he or she is intended to help. That means that the dog is present for that individual in particular in a meaningful way. We sometimes get overwhelmed by all the work that there is to do in the world, that we lose heart. What can I do against the immensity of all that is broken in the world? Service dogs give us a clear answer: you can help this person.
C. Everyone Can Serve
Now, given the fairly remarkable tasks that service dogs can be trained to perform, we might be tempted to think that only a few kinds of dogs can be service dogs. But even that turns out not to be so.
A veterinarian friend of mine informs me that that any dog can be a service dog, just not all dogs can be a seeing-eye dog. As was noted earlier, in addition to the highly specialized tasks, dogs can be used for “emotional support” or “social support” dogs that are designed to be a companion and provide a calming effect for people who have PTSD, depression, or social anxiety disorders. And it turns out that the dogs who can do this kind of service are a much wider array than the stereotypical service dog.
“People think it’s 100% purebred Golden Retrievers who are chosen,” my friend says, “but it’s not true. Some of the most successful service animals were the ones found in shelters. Shelter dogs are always more attuned to that kind of work.” She goes on to note that it’s for this reason that almost everyone who works at such shelters has a sticker or car magnet that says, “Who rescued who?”
Any dog can be a service dog in this way. Samson couldn’t understand pointing, but he could understand emotional comfort. Stosch’s breeding to guard Tibetan temples gave her an ability to be a calming, comforting, and abiding presence. And Muffin’s loyalty was always demonstrating the kind of steadfast love that an emotional support dog can provide and the love that God calls us to have for one another.
We might feel unworthy to be of service to a broken and hurting world. We might feel that we’re not professionally trained, not qualified enough to make a difference, not skilled enough to address the enormous problems that exist in our world. Well, chances are, we’re not. But that’s okay.
Because there is a salvation that is known through solidarity, through standing beside and with the afflicted in their time of trouble. It is the salvation that is expressed through an emotional support animal, through a faithful dog accompanying someone suffering from PTSD or social anxiety. It is the salvation known to us through the solidarity of Christ who accompanies us in all our brokenness even to the point of death. It is the solidarity we are called to live out with one another in his name.
Untold thousands of years ago, the first proto-dog walked out of the darkness into the light of our fires for the chance at a scrap of meat and found instead a life-long calling to be a faithful companion and helper, a source of comfort and strength, of solidarity and witness.
We, too are summoned out of the darkness into the light to enter into those relationships with one another, for the sake of the one who has made all creatures and called them good. For the sake of the one who loves us so much that he came to us, to stand beside us in our times of trouble, to serve us rather than to be served, and who, through his solidarity with us, offers us our salvation.