An acquaintance was telling me about someone in his condo complex that has three greyhound dogs. Apparently there are rules in the complex about pets, size and number, and the three greyhounds exceed both criteria. But the person is allowed to have the dogs because there is some kind of documentation certifying that they are comfort dogs providing a mental health service to the owner. The person who told me about this volunteers at the Humane Society and was not complaining about the situation only describing it.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess my biases up front. We also have three dogs which provide a goodly share of comfort to our household though they are not designated “comfort” dogs. They are also a lot of work and a lot of fun.
But I have been thinking about those three greyhounds. How is it that a person needs so much comfort from dogs? Is our society so anxiety ridden? While the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] are reassuring, we also need to be thinking about why the comfort is needed. Why are people so distressed? The opioid crisis is another manifestation of the distress and anxiety of people today. What are the roots of that dis-ease?
I have heard that anxiety is on the rise among young people but I was still shocked to hear from my son who is in college that students are allowed to have pets in the dorm – dogs and cats and other animals – if the animals are certified as comfort animals. Again, what kind of community and culture is fostering so much stress and worry and anxiety?
Back in the dark ages, the 1980’s, when I was in college, sure it was stressful. And from what I have seen of college requirements today, we worked a lot harder academically. And how did we deal with the stress? We relied on each other, our classmates, for support and solidarity.
The story about the three greyhounds makes me wonder about our level of stress but it also makes me think about where we are getting comfort. Does this person in the condo have three dogs for comfort because she is not getting enough comfort from the people in her life? Does she not know that she can turn to the church for comfort?
When we think about the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that he was engaged in creating communities of justice. A healthy society is just and there is fair treatment of people, and equal access to opportunity, and a safe environment where life’s needs are met. This was the vision Jesus was sharing with his followers. He also showed compassion to all who were excluded or suffering or distressed. So he showed us how to create less stressful communities and how to be present to one another with compassion and comfort.
As we think about the theme “Be Born in Us Today” may Jesus be our guide as we consider the level of stress in our society and how we provide comfort.
May we be grateful for pets and animals that give us comfort and joy. May we remember that we are animals, too, not only with the capacity to be “comfort” animals, but also with the capacity to reduce distress in the world. Amen.