Growing up in western Pennsylvania in the late 60s and 70s, I remember July and August being a time when the oppressively hot air simply did not move and the high humidity made it feel like you were perpetually living in a sauna. This was in the days before most people had air conditioning, so an open window and the occasional fan humming at night were the only things keeping you from turning into a stagnant pool of salt water.
Most of those nights I went to bed with a little red transistor radio glued to my ear while listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball games called by the legendary Bob “The Gunner” Prince. The Gunner who used colorful phrases like, “You can kiss it goodbye!” for a home run, or, “He got him by a gnat’s eyelash” when there was a close play at the plate. It was from the Gunner that I first heard the term “Dog Days” applied to July and August — a term used to describe those long, hot days and nights in the middle of the season when there are far too many more games to be played. Of course, I thought he made that up until, years later, I heard other people outside of the Pittsburgh area use the term (needless to say, we didn’t get out much!).
The term actually comes from the Roman observation of the brightness of Sirius, the Dog Star, in the constellation of Canis Major (“large dog”) in the months of July and August. The Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time of year when the sea boiled, dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became lazy. If you have teenagers lounging about your house on summer vacation, you know that the Romans weren’t far off.
Even though we live out West now, where the humidity is virtually non-existent and nobody really needs air conditioning, I’m still thinking about the Dog Days, but now in terms of my preaching. Like a long baseball season, July and August come roughly halfway between Christmas and Holy Week, which are like Opening Day and the World Series of the church year. In terms of church attendance, the asphalt in the parking lot is boiling, board members go mad, and creatures that are normally excited to come to worship are more likely to lounge in a hammock in the mountain air than get ready for church.
Maybe we preachers get a little cranky this time of year, too. Even though our people may be in a lazy, vacation mindset, Sunday still comes every week and we’ve got to get ready to work in case people show up (and, miraculously, some still do!). Your homiletical fast ball may not be as sharp as it was on Easter Sunday, and you’re hacking at those summer sermons like a relief pitcher who gets put into pinch hit in the 15th inning of a Sunday day game.
Truth be told, however, I like to think of this time of year as a gift. Maybe I’m out of the office a little more, reading a novel at a table outside the coffee shop (but tucked in the cover of a heavy theology book just in case one of the church board members shows up). Maybe I count riding my mountain bike and having conversations with a parishioner between gasps as “counseling.” Maybe I go to a ballgame and count it as sermon prep because, you know, it’s a game full of wisdom. Like Yogi Berra used to say, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” There’s a sermon illustration in there somewhere.
I think God gives us preachers the Dog Days for a reason. It’s not that we get so lazy that we stop being disciples of Jesus for a couple of months. Instead, I think God makes it hot and humid so we’ll slow down a bit, look around some more, watch the world go by, take in a beautiful sunset, or sleep in once in a while. Think of it as an opportunity for an extended Sabbath in the middle of the season. It’s a time to take your vacation and enjoy it. The same God who put the Dog Star in the sky will keep the creation running until you get back. No need to rush.
After all, Advent will soon seem as close as a gnat’s eyelash!