It was my first time preaching on World Communion Sunday. I was assigned to a two-point charge with a church in Russell County and the other in Tazewell County. I lived in Russell County in the community of Belfast, although I had a Cedar Bluff address. I remember praying before being assigned there, asking God to let me live in an old farmhouse, with a porch swing and be able to have a German Shepherd dog. I’m pretty specific in my prayers.
Well, when I became pastor at Belfast, the parsonage was a two-story farm house, with a smoke house behind it and a front porch with a swing. Beginning in late July and through the months of August and September, I kept catching glimpses of a German Shepherd darting past and disappearing. I didn’t own a dog, and sure didn’t have the resources to go get one. But this elusive sighting kept peaking my interest.
Hurricane Hugo had passed overhead during September. I rode it out in that old house, which tended to lean a bit, having been susceptible to winds at the foot of the Beartown Spur of Clinch Mountain, in a little valley between that majestic peak and the more humble House and Barn Mountain. A friend of mine had already survived the storm on his exotic assignment on St. Croix. The hurricane did much less damage over land in the US but still reaked havoc.
Soon it was the first weekend of October. The lectionary text for the day was the story of Lazarus and the Rich man, as told in the Gospel of Luke. The story goes there is a rich man who feasts sumptuously, and a poor man named Lazarus sits at his gates, begging for the scraps from the Rich Man’s feasts. The dogs come and lick Lazarus’ sores. It’s admittedly a gruesome sight. But the Lazarus and the Rich Man both pass on to their eternal reward. Lazarus is at the “bosom of Abraham,” while the Rich Man is suffering the torments of Hades. The Rich Man, not unlike the folk of his ilk today, hollers up to heaven, asking for Abraham to send Lazarus to “dip his finger in some water to cool his burning tongue.” His answer is to put up with it, after all this is his reward, and Lazarus is receiving his reward as well.
The exegetical details of this story came out in my sermon that Sunday, as I chided the congregation that “we need to find the Lazaruses in our community and meet their needs, sharing what we have with them,” which I’m not sure was the point, but for this young preacher that day, it “got me through a Sunday.” Which was my main goal. And that particular day, the disappearing German Shepherd showed up in the parking lot of the church. Apparently hungry, she was getting bolder. She even came and laid down in the corner of the front porch of the church. Her presence was causing the congregation to become concerned, even entertained.
My lay leader, a man who loved a good story, and was always speaking tongue in cheek, looked at the dog, looked at me and proclaimed: “Preacher, there’s Lazarus!!” With those words it became my responsibility to take care of the dog that was beseeching the church for some grub. It followed me home. I found some bologna. It was happy. We stayed together about thirteen years.
When Olan Mills took pictures of our congregation for a new directory, Lazarus made it in the book. Much to the chagrin of several of my older members, the dog came to define much of my time in Belfast.
She had a good life with me. It took her a while to accept my wife’s presence in our home about three years later. But they soon came to tolerate each other. Lazarus was an outside dog.
One day in Jonesville, Virginia, I found her at the basement steps, blood issuing forth from her mouth. She had apparently ingested radiator fluid someone had placed in the fenced section of the yard where she stayed. I never understood why someone would do that, but Lazarus rests now from her labors. She was a good dog.