Welcome to the “View From The Parsonage” series.
Funny things happen when a pastor lives in a parsonage on the same property as the church where he serves. My family and I have had a few experiences that would not have happened to us if we lived off property, and we’ve learned a few things through them.
If I ever knew his name, I can’t remember it. I do remember what he looked like. He was big. Really big. He was every bit of 6’ 6” and 400 lbs. He was wearing denim overalls, work boots, a head of hair like a lion’s mane, eye glasses, and very full beard. Overall, he gave the imposing physical impression of a professional wrestler from the 1990’s (think Hacksaw Jim Duggan), and he was knocking on the front door of our home. Now, I don’t know about you, but I always get a little nervous when large, strange men are standing at my door. But here he was, so I said a quick prayer and opened the door.
After a few years of living in a parsonage, I’ve come to expect anything when I open the door to a stranger. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to find this guy crying, but hey, there’s a first time for everything.
He asked me if I was a priest – I get that question a lot in our heavily Catholic area – and I told him I was a pastor at the church. He then proceeds to tell me his problem.
“My best friend is in the car right now, and he’s dying.”
In all my pastoral wisdom I thought, “What the heck are you doing here? You need to get him to a hospital!” What actually came out of my mouth was something like, “How can I help you with this?” My big ole buddy answers, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Do dogs go to heaven when they die?”
I think, “What? You’re asking me about dogs when your best friend is in the car dying at this moment?” (I’m a little slow sometimes.)
As reality finds its way into my jumbled noodle, it occurs to me that we never talked about this in my seminary training or ministry career. Dogs just didn’t come up. Now, I have an opinion on the matter, but giving this guy the full theological treatise on the true nature of the resurrection and re-creation on the New Earth just didn’t seem to fit as I stood on my front porch with this gentle, crying giant. I mean, there are right answers, and then there is the right time to give the right answer. I suppose I could’ve talk about the nature of man being made in the image of God, and how man is the pinnacle of God’s creation, and that there is no reason to believe that dogs have a soul. But with a very large crying man in front of me, it didn’t seem appropriate to say, “Nope. I’m pretty sure when your dog dies that’s it for him.”
Truthfully, I don’t believe this man was fully mentally and emotionally capable. He was a man-child: huge but strangely unassuming. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to cause unnecessary harm either. I told him that I believe God loves every aspect of His creation. I told him that I would like to think that dogs would somehow exist in the afterlife. (Notice that I didn’t tell him he was going to see his dog again. How could I possibly know such a thing?)
I doubt this was the iron clad assurance my big visitor was wanting, but it was all I had at the moment. As I prayed with him, I thanked God for the simple joy that dogs bring into our lives, and asked for comfort during the season of loss. We shared a few more words, and he was on his way.
My lesson from the parsonage on this day was that ministry to real people in the real world isn’t textbook clean. It isn’t simple, and it’s often kind of goofy. People throw you curve balls. They ask odd questions, and you probably didn’t read about it in a book. If we are going to minister to people, we have to be ready for anything, even if that something doesn’t fit into neatly defined categories, or follow our succinctly prepared arguments.
Ministry is often a simple matter of prayer, presence, patience, and perseverance. It almost never goes the way you think it’s going to go, and occasionally something Divinely random happens. You might just find yourself answering questions about dogs and heaven.