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This inspiring religious anecdote could be used to talk about self forgiveness, God, angels, love, peace, serenity, aging, grief, the meaning of life, what is important in life, illness, death, fathers, daughters, sons, mothers, pets, dogs, companionship, friendship, family, kindness, mercy, generousity, making a difference, reaching out to others and more. Although religious, it could be used for homilies or reflections for Christians, Jews, Muslims or other religious or spiritual people.
Angels come in many forms
My father had always been a robust and hearty man, living life for all it was worth. He was the president of a prominent printing company, served on the church council and was an avid hunter and fisherman. Everyone knew who he was, his reputation to get things done and his non-nonsense attitude. When I think of him in those days it was him
in a business suit, cell phone clamped to his ear, puffing on a cigarette and wiping sweat from his forehead. He was an intense man to call dad.
He kept on working past when he could have retired, insisting that he knew best for his company and he didn’t want or need to retire. We invited him to spend time with our families but he said he was too busy. My sisters and I watched this and felt concerned because he just pushed and pushed, and we were worried about the effects of stress on him. When both my parents were in their 70s, my mother passed away and my dad was left alone. We tried our best to support him but he pushed us away, saying he could handle it himself. After the funeral, he just pushed himself harder at work, staying in his office late into the night and then continuing work on his laptop when he came home. The strain was apparent but he didn’t listen to our pleas to slow down.
One gray, cloudy morning I received a call from the hospital. Dad had had a stroke. His employees at work had called the ambulance as soon as they found him lying unconscious, but it was touch and go. We rushed to the hospital where I saw my sisters, both looking pale and anxious. After what seemed like hours and many cups of coffee, his doctor came out to tell us we could see him.
In his hospital bed he looked small, defeated. His skin was gray against the crisp hospital sheets and there were tubes going into his body and steady beeps and hisses from the hospital equipment. It didn’t even look like my father – how could that boisterous, controlling man be the same as this silent, weak person laying in the bed?
In the coming weeks, he had surgery followed by a set back from an infection and another surgery. At first, his work colleagues and employees came to visit him. His room had flowers and cards. But dad was angry about the stroke, angry that his muscles and body wouldn’t respond to his directions, angry at the hospital staff for not allowing him to eat what he wanted or smoke, angry at us for refusing to bring his laptop with his work on it to the hospital. When visitors came, he was sullen, angry, often rude because of his frustrations and pain. He had never been sick and laid up in his life. He resented people treating him as though we was sick and sickly – exactly the way he looked when you visited him.
Slowly, the visitors stopped coming. They didn’t want to be snapped at by this angry man. My sisters and I persisted but the environment was tense and irritable. Dad finally got out of the hospital but he was weak. He had suffered partial paralysis, had trouble talking, and problem solving and remembering things became difficult. His company, which had been functioning for months without a president finally asked him to retire, and outraged, he stormed out shouting that he would show them, but eventually he did retire medically. He refused to attend the retirement party they wanted to have for him.
He couldn’t get around his old house and take very good care of himself, so he moved in with my husband and me. It wasn’t easy having this sullen man, still angry about his situation and finally having to deal with the loss of my mother, rather than running away from it. My father needed help but did not accept it willingly, which made providing it even more difficult. My husband got frustrated and angry with him, and I begged him to be patient with dad.
“Why don’t you just put me in a home and forget about me then,” he’d say if I lost my patience with him. “After all, they tossed me aside at work,” he’d say. “They didn’t want me around now. You don’t want me here either.”
Dad started staying in bed most of the day. I would try to get him to go outside to the deck with me, but he would just turn his face away and refuse to talk or look at me. He wouldn’t leave the house and I couldn’t get him to shower or shave. When he did talk, it was only to criticize me or my husband, or to complain bitterly about his old life. I prayed to God for an answer – some way that we could continue dealing with the man my dad had become. In his old life, he didn’t need any help and wouldn’t have accepted it. Now he needed it, but wouldn’t admit it or accept it.
“Please Lord, send me an answer. Let him forgive his co-workers for not wanting him, forgive my mother for dying, and forgive himself for being sick and aging. Give him some way to find peace.”
The next morning, I opened the door to a whimpering sound. It was a dog – scruffy and dirty, old with a gray muzzle and a limping way of walking with its head hung low. It had no collar and was obviously a stray. It was such a pathetic thing I gave it some leftover food for it and then went to find my husband to ask him to bring it to the pound. As I walked away it barked and I winced, knowing it would disturb dad.
I heard a sound behind me and I saw dad, slumping down the hallway dragging his left foot as he did now, walking to the door. He saw the dog cowering on the doorstep and I readied myself for an outburst about the mangy animal. Instead he walked outside and lowered himself slowly into the big rocker on the porch. The dog settled its head onto his knee and dad set his hand on the dog’s head. They stayed like that for hours. As evening drew on, I brought dad’s dinner out to him on the porch where he shared his sandwich with the dog.
“He looks just like the dog I had when I was a kid,” he said in a calmer voice than I’d heard him use in years. “Did I ever tell you about that dog?” So I sat on the porch and listened to him talk. The dog stayed around and we washed him and fed him, and dad named him Ginger. Over the next weeks, we’d sit on the porch together a lot and he would talk, about his job, about my mother, about what he thought he’d do with his life and what he did instead. I saw my father cry, something that I had never seen, and he let me hug him while he wept for my mother and hold his hand when his pain medication wasn’t working as it should.
Ginger always stayed with him, and when dad finally started leaving the house with me again, to go to church or the grocery store, dad insisted the dog accompany us. He would sit in the back of the car with his head stuck out the window and dad would laugh at how happy the dog looked.
We bought dad an electric wheelchair, and he would drive the chair down the road to the restaurant a few blocks away and have coffee out front with some other men. The dog trotted alongside him and the old men all took turns giving him French fries or bits of leftover omlette.
Dad and Ginger were inseparable for the next five years. Dad still had his bad days, but they infrequent and he made new friends and started new hobbies. It was more peace and happiness than I had ever hoped for him to find. One night, I was awoken by a whimpering and the feeling of a nose brushing at my hand. Ginger always slept with dad and when I saw the dog by my bed, somehow I knew. With a heavy heart, I got up and followed Ginger into my father's room.
Dad was lying peacefully. He looked serene, like he was sleeping, but his chest did not rise to breathe, his heart did not beat and I knew that he was gone. He was finally truly in peace.
The next day, we were so busy calling realtives and trying to take care of things that it was evening before I noticed that I hadn't seen Ginger for several hours. He wasn’t in dad’s room. I looked all over the house and went outside to call for him and that's where I found him. There on the porch, laying in front of dad’s chair. He was still warm but he was still and gone, as sure as my dad had gone.
At the funeral, the church was filled with family, with dad and Ginger’s new friends, and with some of dad’s old friends from work. The pastor began the eulogy, talking about dad in his old life and the man who he had become. He talked about dad’s kindness to Ginger, adopting the dog when it was ragged and old, saying that showed the true kindness and gentleness in his heart. He turned to Matthew 25:35 and read, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home.” He went on to read from Hebrews 13:2. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it."
I thought of what he said, and how he said dad had saved the dog. The dog also saved my dad, I thought, and I remembered Ginger’s first appearance on our doorstep – at a time when I was fed up and prayer was the only hope I had for an answer.
I thought of Ginger’s calm demeanor – his support and devotion to my father that had finally helped him to let go of his anger and move on. I thought of their companionship and how the dog had been there for my father until the end. Then I understood that God had listened and had answered my prayers.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. Angels don’t always have wings and miracles do not have to come with a blaze of trumpets. Sometimes God works through the simplicity of love and by showing us the way to serenity. When God comes to us in our need, sometimes it’s by giving us the chance to help one more in need than ourselves. Sometimes God’s miracle comes to us through the laying of hands - sometimes through a dog laying a head on your knee.
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