by Jessica Palys
My name is Jessica Palys. For those of you who haven’t met me, I am one of the 4 new interns here at St. Lukes, where I will be helping to serve the ministries of the church until next May. I am a former organizer, a Seminarian from Chicago Theological Seminary, and a 10-year resident of Chicago. So now you know a little about me.
But the piece that you really need to know to understand me is that I am also the proud owner of a 55-pound lap dog named Lincoln St. Patrick – that cute brown and white creature that you just saw.
How many of us feel that way? That you may know us as coworkers, as friends, or as church members; but until you see the way we love and care for our pets, you don’t really understand us in all our dimensions. As a dog owner – I say ‘owner’, but is owner the right word? We heard the children of the church explore the idea of an animal ‘friend’. Sometimes, when I describe our relationship, I say I am a “servant” to this 4-legged companion. Especially as he’s rousing me from an indulgent sleep at 8 am for his morning walk, ‘servant’ feels very appropriate. As a dog ‘companion’, Lincoln demarcates the regularities of my life. From the 8 am bark-up call to the reminder to eat at the end of the day, Lincoln is there at every step. He reminds me that walking is important but running is more fun, that sleeping is good but cuddling is better, and to be excited at the first snow.
Being a dog companion has taught me a few things too. According to my dog, a treat is always worth sitting down for – and really good treats deserve patience. Lincoln also constantly tries to convince me that longer walks are better. Well, that’s true – many studies cite how pets increase the amount of exercise in pet owners. But that extra time on that walk makes me feel the breeze, listen to the birds and appreciate the world God has created a little more. Whenever I have the door open, Lincoln trots out of the house to lay in the sunlight, reminding me of how much I enjoy that too. In caring for my dog, I recognize how important it is to enjoy the perks in life. If I’m doing what makes my dog happy, I usually end up enhancing my life as well.
Lincoln knows that taking five minutes for quality petting time can improve a whole day – in fact research has proven that just five minutes spent giving scratches to your pet not only raises their serotonin levels – the primary hormone that improves mood – but also raises yours for the day. Some studies show that people who have pets tend to have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. According to a study of 200 adults, pets may have the potential to help you recover from serious mental illness. This isn’t too hard to believe, right? I know there are plenty of times when I am just feeling lower than low, and somehow my dog knows it, climbs into my lap, and let’s his sheer proximity comfort me. It’s kind of like him saying, “Things may be bad, but at least you have me.”
Lincoln also paves the way to meeting people. He’s a conversation starter. Kids will stop us on the sidewalk to pet him, and the other dog-owners and I trade stories. Isn’t it true that we all love talking about our beloved animals? I am always surprised at how long these chats go, how deep is the well of stories we have to share, and how enjoyable it is to listen to them. And in that act of sharing with another person the stories of our happiness, we end up connecting with other people and becoming friends. Lincoln has single-handedly ingratiated me with all the residents of my building – in fact I’m not sure if it’s my company or my dog’s they like more! Now we neighbors are bound in a web of friendly chats, shared dinners and volunteer dog-sitting. Lincoln helps me create community in my neighborhood.
In scripture this morning, we see that God recognizes our alone-ness, and says we need a ‘helper’. God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” God patiently fashions from dust each living thing on earth, allowing his human creation to name each new creature. But, the story continues, something was still needed for his human creation to have a companion…and so God created another in his likeness. Because, truly, God created us as social creatures, perfectly adapted to connect with one another. As humans, we have long memories, perfect for remembering years of complex social interactions with others. Scientists have found that the human brain can pull a face of someone it has met from a crowd of thousands in less than a quarter of a second. That, to me, proves that we were created to be social beings.
Two millennia later, medical science is affirming scripture. About 10 years ago, California Newsreel produced a public health film series called Unnatural Causes; Is Inequality Making Us Sick? One episode details the physical effect of human isolation, citing research that isolation increases susceptibility to any number of diseases, both emotional and physical. Close relationships and being caught in a web of social connections actually acts as a kind of buffer or barrier shield to chronic disease and infection. It actually strengthens our immune system. This probably sounds familiar in terms of child development, but what may surprise us is this need continues to be as crucial at every point in our lives. The lack of a caring ear to listen to our concerns, to hear our pain, or with whom we can discuss a big decision, is actually detrimental to our health.
I believe this is true. Last summer I interned as a volunteer minister on the Night Ministry bus. I know this congregation is one of the many wonderful ones that provides meals for the bus. But contrary to what you might think, feeding the homeless is not the main goal. As ministers, our goal at each stop is to be in relationship with those who come to the bus. Rather than focus on how we can offer assistance to them, we simply offer friendship. We try to make the space for comradery and fellowship; to let those who come to the bus know that we remember their name and we care about their well-being. People who have overcome homelessness will often say the most difficult part wasn’t sleeping in the streets, nor was it going hungry. The hardest part was feeling invisible to others. When passersby avoid eye contact or conversation, it takes a toll on your humanity and well-being. The Night Ministry tries to restore the human dignity of social interaction, maintaining the theory that individual change is easier for people to make when they are in relationship with others. We must feel cared for to feel secure enough to try change. Again, I’m reminded of scripture. It is not good for man, or woman, or animal to be alone. God created us to live in community, with helpers and partners, and to draw strength from one another.
In fact, many of us might say that’s why we come to church; to re-connect. And we wouldn’t be wrong; the root of the word ‘religion’ means ‘to bind back’ and reconnect. So it’s nice to reconnect with you this morning. Gary Gunderson, an author, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of faith and health, has suggested that congregations, by their existence, operate as healing webs of social interaction. In a world where we are less likely to know our neighbor on the street or the person behind the cash register, the added social web of a congregation can be the medicine we need in our lives. Gunderson identifies Five Leading Causes of Life in his book of the same name; these are Connection, Coherence, Agency, Blessing, and Hope. Connection is the primary element- the web of life that gives us strength and comfort. Coherence is when we feel life makes sense through enjoying our belonging and finding meaning in our web of relationships.
Blessing, according to Gunderson, is something received from another and something inspiring gratitude. Blessing comes in connection with others, and leads to hope – whether that be hope for ourselves, our loved ones, or hope for the future in general. Being in connection with other humans is a blessing to me. Being in connection with non-human creatures is as well.
In our Psalm today, we sang “let all earth cry out to God with Joy”. By ‘all earth,’ the Psalmist means all living things that walk or crawl or swim along creation. It parallels today’s Gospel; Matthew urges us to look at the birds of the air and take note of their carefree and bountiful existence. From watching them, we can learn how to live with delight in our experience. In this, Lincoln is also my teacher. He reminds me how to praise God with joy, the delight of living fully and gratefully. There is a moment I wait for when Lincoln and I go to wide-open spaces. Long after the sniffing, the inspecting, and the marking, there is the moment when Lincoln sheds his crusty shell created by the over stimulation from being cooped up in a city apartment, and suddenly resembles a puppy again. His curiosity returns, his ears come forward, he runs with abandon, often straight into pigeon clusters just to see them fly. He becomes canine in the truest fashion. In this moment, I see pure joy at being alive, and I am grateful. I believe we give praise by living into joy with gratitude – and sometimes I learn that joy and gratitude from Lincoln.
But I also want to talk about Gunderson’s third element; Agency. Agency is one of my favorite words. Agency is the human capacity to do. Made in God’s image, it is the reflection of the divine “I am”. It is the confidence that “I can”; it is empowerment personified. One of the best characteristics of the American mentality is the sense of agency – of “I can” – or collective agency – of “we can”. On the other hand, one of the most disabling characteristics of people in decline or depression is loss of agency. For the longest time, I delayed getting a dog because I believed “I can’t”; can’t manage the cost, schedule, or responsibility of caring for a pet in addition to my workload. But, by some twist of God-given luck, I ended up as a dog servant. And it is in serving my 4-legged companion that I’m reminded of my humanity as well. Serving is an act of agency and an act of love; and serving builds more confidence with each act. This relationship of dependence actually turns out to be the main driver in Gunderson’s Leading Causes of Life. Counter-intuitively, it is in serving that we realize ‘we can’ and are empowered to keep on. In serving my dog, I’m reminded of the web of life that connects us all to each other. I’m reminded that I, as God’s created human creature, have a purpose in serving others – whether that be in serving a cup of kibble or the cup of communion; in feeding the hungry or feeding the earth with compost. The act of serving reminds me that I have worth and function in God’s great scheme of things. But, here’s the thing; Alone, we are unable to serve. To be servant requires the company of others – whether they be 2 legged, 4 legged, feathered, finned or scaled.
So today we celebrate that pets give people a way to connect with others, to help them feel better about themselves, and to help them feel empowered and grateful to God. We recognize here in Creation Season, that being creatures of the earth ourselves, we are not only connected, but we are better together. With God, we are drawn into relationship with each other, and given the opportunity for comfort, joy, and servitude.