Genesis 6:18-19; Matthew 6:25-26
I first became a theologian, a person who studies about god, when I was five years old. My parents went away to a church convention and my brother Bill and I stayed with a pious Baptist lady, Bertha Orr. She had a little poodle, named Taffy, and I played with Taffy all weekend. I had never spent much time with a dog before, and it was boy meets dog, and love blossomed. Being a pious Baptist child, asked her, “Will Taffy go to heaven?”
Mrs. Orr looked at me with shock, like I’d broken a dish, or said a bad word, and responded, “Of course not. God only loves humans. You better ask your Dad. He’ll set you straight.”
I was puzzled and I was also hurt. I loved Taffy – it was truly puppy love – and I couldn’t imagine God not loving her, too.
Now, nearly sixty years have passed, and I still wonder about Taffy and the dogs and cats who have been my companions since – Duke, Flaca, Chelsea, Charlie, Mr. Sweets, and now Tucker.
Do you think your pets love you?
My dog Tucker, a golden doodle, greets me with joy when I come home from church – tail wagging, jumping, and barking with glee. He jumps up on our bed and wants to cuddle. I know he enjoys the companionship, and sees me as the Alpha in the family (he’s the only one who does, I think), and I feed him and give him a comfortable home.
You could say he loves me because I take care of him, but I think there’s more to it than that. I had a few cats – and one in particular really loved me, “Charlie,” with a Charlie Chaplin mustache…he had been hurt as a kitty, and was definitely a fraidy cat…but he sat on my lap when I meditated and often when I was writing, and he loved me the way a cat loves – it was need, it was to receive benefits….but in retrospect, compared to God’s love for me, my love is like Tucker’s and Charlie’s – I love the way a human does – finite, fallible, sometimes irritable, sometimes selfishly, right? I love because I’m fed.
Now, the Bible doesn’t say much about pets – only once does a pet animal appear, and that’s in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, in which Tobit’s son Tobias goes on a journey – the scriptures are brief and mysterious:
The young man [Tobias] went out and the angel [Raphael] went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them. (6:1-2; 5:16 in the RSV)…And the dog went along behind them [Raphael and Tobias]. (11:4)
Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and God says everything on earth is good, including cattle, land animals, and birds.
Now, of course, the Bible doesn’t talk about everything, nor should we be restricted by what the Bible says or doesn’t say. Given that the Bible is a spring board for adventure, not the final word, I want to suggest that whatever is loved – whatever you love – shares in God’s love forever, and whatever can love is loved by God.
That would include our dogs and cats, and dolphins, whales, chimpanzies….in fact, Psalm 148 and 150 say that everything that breathes praises God. If you can praise, you can thank God, you share in God’s love, and that love returns to you. Moreover, we know that these higher animals create types of communities, have a sense of mortality, mourn the loss of their companions, including human companions, and in the case of elephants apparently create their own graveyards. They feel pain and they feel joy, and I am sure that God experiences their delight as they run and leap and breach and play.
Now, I have a big image of heaven. I believe that whatever God loves endures forever in God’s heart. We may even discover our companion animals are there to greet us when we find ourselves in God’s heavenly realm. I think we always need to err on the side of love, and trust that whatever loves and is loved will share in God’s everlasting life.
The story is told of a man who journeyed as a pilgrim, trying to be faithful to God as he went from one holy place to another. He traveled alone except for his beloved dog. When he died, he found himself at the gates of heaven. St. Peter answered the door: “We’ve been waiting for you, but your dog can’t come in.” The man answered, “This dog has been my faithful companion, I will not abandon him, even if it means I can’t be in heaven.” At that moment, the gates of heaven opened, a feast was prepared, and he heard Peter say, “That was the final test. You see if you abandoned your dog, you would have abandoned heaven as well. Come, the two of you, and rejoice in God’s realm.”
I believe that God loves this world, and wants us to love the world, to care for the non-humans around us, to care for the earth, to save the baby humans but also the baby whales, and to be part of God’s never ending realm of love, in which whatever is loved shares in God’s everlasting life.