NORMAN — My grandmother, who lived to be 96, spent the last four years of her life in a nursing home just blocks from where we lived. She lived across the hall from the pop machine and would ask us when we arrived, “Got 50 cents? Bring me a Pepsi.” That and a baked potato every afternoon when my mother would visit pretty much set her up.
My mother’s daily presence and those two tasty treats were the highlights of her days in those years.
Many of her fellow residents found similar pleasure in the monthly visit from dogs from a nonprofit agency that provided companion animals for differently abled folks. People who stared in silence most of the time would come alive at the nuzzle of a cold, wet nose. People who no longer had words seemed to communicate thoughts with these furry friends. And people whose smile muscles seemed completely dead would miraculously reanimate as a small dog was placed in their laps.
There’s something about the relationship between people and animals that’s hard to articulate and, for me, points to God’s presence. We theological types spend so much of our lives trying to explain how God works and explain what love is and explain what this or that word really means in scripture.
Sometimes we ought to sit back and say, “Some of this faith journey stuff is a mystery, and we must be at peace with the mystery.” Some of it we just can’t explain. God’s love is nearly impossible to explain, even though many of us work in places where books that try to explain it line the shelves.
How do you explain the love of a being you can’t see or whose existence you can’t prove? It’s about as easy as explaining why you love that kid you’re raising or that guy you married … or that dog who has climbed into bed next to you the last 10 years and whose contented sigh is the last thing you hear before you drift off.
Words fall short, and people are invited just to believe you.
We never had pets growing up, but finally when I was 32, I got to bring home my first house pet, Tootsie, a three-legged orange tabby cat. I’ve learned that it’s true what they say about a house pet’s ability to give unconditional love.
Tootsie doesn’t care if I’ve been moody that day or made an irrational decision or was impatient with a coworker. She just longs to hear the clink of crunchy treats in the Fiestaware bowl of which she has become so fond and to stretch out, satisfied, on my lap when her dinner is over.
Our days together are numbered, unfortunately, as kidney disease wreaks its slow havoc on her brave little frame. I know I will be devastated when “the time” comes, especially since she was my first pet ever, the pet who helped carry me through a divorce and has supported me — in an eight-pound, furry kind of way — through the challenges of professional ministry all the years since.
Farm folk seem to take a less sentimental view of cats and dogs, as cats and dogs are really “on staff” instead of fulfilling the role of companion or less-complicated baby replacement. A cat controls the mouse population and a dog helps herd and protect.
Still, where would we be on a farm or ranch without those dogs and those cats? And where would we be without all the other animals who help us work that keep the ecosystem in balance and fill out the food chain?
This Sunday at St. Stephen’s, we will bless the animals. Yes, just like that time on the “Vicar of Dibley,” people are encouraged to bring their pets to be blessed at our 10:50 a.m. service.
It’s been amazing to me over the last six years how well-behaved those critters are. Oh sure, there’s usually at least one potty accident, but dogs and cats (and the occasional lizard or ferret in a cage) sit and seem to be listening to the sermon. Some of them fall asleep and none of them hesitates to scratch whatever itches but it’s really not the rowdiest crowd I have to deal with all year.
I just feel like there’s something going on between the humans in the room and the animals. Maybe it’s because every time I get hungry, or jealous, or fearful, or excited or tired, I remember that I am an animal, too, and I want to be cared for, protected, fed, nurtured and loved, both by the people in my life and by a God who cares for me more than words could quite ever articulate.