There is one species on our planet that seems to be benefiting from Covid-19 stay-at-home orders: dogs. There are more dogs out on walks, it seems, than ever before. Many animal rescue organizations have reported high demand for animals, dogs included. Dogs are even getting to “go” to church in record numbers as their owners live stream worship services. Man’s best friend is having a field day!
Pets have a special place in many hearts, with many homes having multiple animals. Dogs, cats, hamsters, goldfish — even snakes — the list goes on – all living with us. They become members of our families (maybe not the snakes). It is not surprising that when they die, their deaths can shake us to the core. Often it is the first loss experienced by children. It is especially hard when we must make that decision to “put them down” because their health has deteriorated and they have so much pain. That part of pet ownership is the most difficult, and yet that responsibility goes with the joys pet ownership entails.
Of all our pets, dogs have what is arguably the most special relationship (yes, cat owners love their cats, but is it really the same?). In his book, The Grace of Dogs, Andrew Root explores this special relationship. Root, a recent presenter for the Episcopal House of Bishops, is thrown on this quest by the death of his family dog, and especially by the reaction of his son, who in the midst of grief, preforms a “rite of farewell” on Kirby, their black lab.
Owen walked out to the lobby and returned with a dog treat and a paper cup he’d filled with water. Silently and purposefully, he knelt before Kirby’s body, placed the tiny dog treat on Kirby’s back, and, dipping his finger in the water, reverently made the sign of the cross on Kirby’s forehead. Then he lifted his hands to heaven like a priest at the altar, looked up, and whispered, “I love you Kirby. Good bye.”
That’s the image I can’t shake.
This image forces Root to ask if there is more to our relationship with dogs than merely an animal learning to get food, shelter, and safety from us in a mechanistically, natural, evolutionary process. Root traces several areas of research about dogs and our relationship with them. He explores how dogs came to be domesticated, how behavior of both dogs and humans change over time to the mutual benefit of both. He shows how the idea that dogs both receive and give love might not just be an anthropomorphism on our part.
Finally, he tackles the question that almost every child (and adult, if they’re honest) will ask: do dogs go to heaven? He quotes Will Rogers who said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.” More to the point, he recounts an episode from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who when asked by a young boy if his dog would be in heaven, answered “God loses nothing that God loves.”
The Grace of Dogs is a wonderful book, and reading it will benefit any pet lover. One area the book would have benefited from, however, was more consideration of the theology of creation. At one point Root notes how the idea of “dominion” has been used to justify the misuse of creation, but he could have spent more time exploring what Genesis says is our true God-given relationship to creation. He might have explained how a better translation of Genesis 1:28 might be “serve and protect.” Our primordial vocation was as stewards of creation. This vocation might have much to say on why pet ownership has such a hold on our hearts. In our relationship with our pets, we get a distilled taste of that vocation, up close and personal. In the decision to euthanize our pets, we get a large dose of the bitterness of where our relationship with creation went with the Fall.
The Apostle Paul puts his finger on this point in Romans 8:19–21
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Our disobedience caused creation to be subjected to a “bondage to decay” while it awaits its release.
Easter is a sign that this release is at hand! The Gospel of John has several clues:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. (20:1)
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (20:15)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (20:19)
Notice John tells us twice that this is happening on “the first day of the week.” Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener — and she is not wrong! John wants us to know that there are creation-related things afoot, and that the new Adam is on the scene. The revealing of the children of God has come. Jesus, and we who belong to him, take up again the mantle of stewards of creation.
Our dogs really do know more than we give them credit for. Your dog, when he puts his slobbery head on your lap, knows that we are more than we know. We are the rulers of creation, getting ready to fulfill our primordial vocation. So scratch that dog on the head and respond, “He is risen indeed!”
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.