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The animals in our lives

I Corinthians 13

The animals in our lives

It’s an incredible thing to have a friend who isn’t a human being. What a privilege! You can sit in the forest here and watch the birds, maybe see a deer walk by, or a rabbit or a mouse, but they’re minding their own business. They don’t stop for us. Our dogs and cats and hamsters share their lives with us. You look into their eyes and another kind of intelligence looks back. They live in the same world we do, but they don’t see it the same way. It’s an invitation to imagine life outside our human experience. Fantastic.

If we just coexisted, that would be great enough. We had allergies in our family, so growing up, I only had goldfish. You walk up to the fishbowl with the shaker of food in your hand and they get all excited. But that’s as far as it went with relationship. Mostly I looked at them (till I got bored) and they ignored me.

With a dog or a cat or a hamster, it’s different. There’s communication. We don’t always understand, no matter how clear they try to make it. But we get to imagine what it might be like to live in a pack with an alpha male or alpha female, or what might be entailed in having to hunt for your food, or what it would feel like to have territory and mark it and guard it, or what happens when you are a creature of routine so strong that nothing gets to break it, nothing is more important than dinnertime and walk time or nap time. The cat sits on the windowsill for hours looking out at the street and you wonder, what does he see?

But fascination is only the first gift. How do we even begin talking about love? This creature who adores us, who wants to sleep on our pillows and sit on our laps, who hates it when we go away and is in heaven when we get home. Who wants to play with us. Who senses when we’re upset and wants to comfort us. Our friend. What a privilege!

Maybe you’ve seen the YouTube video by Wendy Francisco about her dog. She’s made a little cartoon and she sings a little song []:

I look up and I see God,

I look down and see my dog.

They would stay with me all day:

I’m the one who walks away.

But both of them just wait for me

and dance at my return with glee.

Both love me no matter what

Divine God and canine mutt.

I take it hard each time I fail

but God forgives, Dog wags his tail.

God thought up and made the dog

Dog reflects a part of God

I’ve seen love from both sides now

It’s everywhere. Amen. Bow-wow.

Listen to how she finishes:

I look up and I see God

I look down and see my dog

And in my human frailty

I can’t match their love for me.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt that? Humbled by a depth of love that is beyond what we selfish beings are capable of? Patient and kind, forgiving, believing – I wonder if St Paul had a dog? Feel the challenge. We could all love better than we do, less judgmentally, with more delight. Slower to blame, quicker to accept. Let them teach us.

Every dog and cat has a personality of its own. Is that true of hamsters and guinea pigs too? Tortoises? I don’t know. The scientists who like to define these things note that lots of mammals show evidence of purpose and planning, goal-oriented behavior that points to the ability to imagine the future. If your dog recognizes me today after not seeing me since last week or last month or last year, that’s memory. What else does she remember? That mother orca grieving for her dead calf has all of Seattle grieving with her.

On the basis of this, we are urged to respect them. No more abuse. No more using them for our causes without their consent. No more experimentation or circus tricks. No more factory farms. No more hunting or trapping. These things are morally abhorrent. If we didn’t eat mammals, there would be a lot fewer of them on the planet, because we wouldn’t be breeding them on our mega-farms anymore. But that’s OK, says ethicist Tom Regan. It is each individual born that matters. Whether there are few or many, they are precious. [Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia & God, HarperSanFrancisco 1992, pp. 219-21]

Some environmentalists see it differently. In their concern for biodiversity, they treasure the endangered animals over the ones who are plentiful. It is when a species is under threat, one unique expression of life on earth, that they want our urgent care. This isn’t about sentimentality, they say; it’s about the viability of our common life.

On animal Sunday, we hear how it is God calling us to the protection of the life around us. God who loves the diversity, who created the whole teaming plenty of life out of the sheer joy of doing it, calls us to care. So we will act out the blessings that these animals here already exude out of every fiber of their being. We will say, “Welcome to worship,” because they are God’s creatures every bit as much as we are. We will pray for animals who are suffering. And we will commit ourselves to live out our caring in serious ways as we go from here to live our lives.

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