All Dogs go to Heaven?

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The thud of bumper against flesh makes a nauseating sound that tears a family apart.  As we sat together enjoying dinner after a long day of work, school, swim practice and homework, going around the table with our “high point of the day,” we barely took note of the sound of impact outside.  We all heard it, but just didn’t realize that sound, was to be forever part of the horrible memory.

People often find a veterinarian’s compassion remarkable.  You have so much empathy, I’m told.  “You’d think after dealing with this time after time, it would make you numb to it all, but when we brought Callie in last week, you acted like she was your own!”

Whether a body is brought in from a passing at home the night before, a tragic accident, or a humane euthanasia in the office, I know a family will never be the same.  The sweet memories fade into forever ago when confronted with a sudden loss of a beloved pet.

Somehow people often just seem to know that I take my faith seriously.  The cross I wear is tucked under my shirt, and the Third Day silk screen is covered by my scrubs, but I find myself often responding to complicated questions;  Philosophy and theology discussions that my veterinary training ill-equipped me for.  “I know you’re a believer, but why?  There’s so much suffering in the world – if He’s actually up there, why doesn’t He care?”  Often I force myself simply to sigh and remark something about there being so many mysteries.  And all this is true, but I thoroughly enjoy sharing and discussing my evolving theologies with others who are curious, or want to spar with our respective apologetics.

But I simply can’t typically do this at enough length for justice in a 15 minute office visit, so I mainly just sigh, and smile, and agree that it’s a mystery.  But sometimes I’m asked, especially by children, what used to be considered a softball question with a reflex quickie answer.  But now lots of adults also ask me, and I know some of them well enough to realize they want an honest, scripture based answer.

“Dr. Bill, do our pets go to heaven?” or specifically, “Will I see my dear Killian in Heaven?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used to kneel down by the child and say with consoling confidence, “Of course!”  I’d never give it a second thought, but I find myself questioning the reason and logic for pretty much everything I do anymore.  And it began to bother me a little bit.

In simplest terms, Christians believe entrance to God’s kingdom is based on our choosing to accept Jesus as Savior and applying His message as the way to live our lives and interact.  As a pretty serious Christian, I do believe this.  Well then, how on earth could we possibly think animals could get to Heaven, since they have no ability to even make rational choice?  Besides, they don’t even have souls … do they?  So I’m supposed to look down and lie to a child so everyone is happy?  Or say callously with a pat on their head, “No Susie, cats don’t have souls!”  Or pretend that I believe the New-Age Gobbletygoop, “Susie, Heaven will be everything you want it to be, and if you love Callie, she will certainly be there.”  Because we’ll all have our own little heaven of anything we want it to be.  (Although this may indeed be true, for so many members of the “church of me,” where you get to pick and choose what you think should be right and wrong.)

Or maybe I should simply shrug with a smile, and say, “It’s all a mystery!”None of that really works for me.  However I do have two thoughts on the subject.

First of all, I’m certainly no theologian, I’m not even particularly intelligent.  So on a plethora of topics, I choose to yield to others in history who have devoted entire lives to research on philosophy, meaning, and of course theology.  I have many favorites, but at the top of the list is St. Augustine (also know as Augustine of Hippo).

Saint Augustine clearly wrote “that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature … including animals … and all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next. (Sermon 242).

St. Francis of Assisi wrote in “Canticle to Brother Sun,” about what he had discovered in scripture , such as Psalm 148, and he added a personal touch, giving the title of “Brother” and “Sister” to the various creatures. Francis seems to emphasize all the more the viewpoint that all creatures make up one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. We are to form one community—one symphony of praise—with our brother and sister creatures.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a woman arriving in heaven surrounded by her pets, and he notes, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love… And now the abundance of life she has in Christ… flows over into them.”

Lewis believes that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their human masters. We give our pets names and they answer to those names (hopefully), and perhaps recognize themselves by them. “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. “And in this sense,” suggests Lewis, “it seems to me that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

Secondly, Scripture itself seems to support this premise.

Consider the story of Adam and Eve before their disobedience as well as the story of the animals, the birds, the trees and plants in the Garden of Eden. Not only Adam and Eve, but the other creatures as well seemed to find peace and happiness in that first paradise. Why then would God want to exclude them from the paradise that is yet to come? (Even if it has nothing to do with their merit, but simply for us.)  Thus, I would have no argument with Christians who believe that the animals and other creatures are with God in heaven, just as they were in the story of the original paradise.

In the New Testament we are told God sees every sparrow that falls, which means he takes notice of each little life. In the Old Testament, we read about a future kingdom where the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat.

And finally, in the Book of Revelation, John describes a heavenly vision of all creatures before the throne of God. In that glorious gathering, he sees more than saved humanity: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever ” (Rev. 5:11-14).

Claire was my 14-year-old daughter’s very best friend.  She came one year for Christmas to chew on the piano bench, and grab the roast from the table, and teach my daughter about unconditional love.  And that she could lean on her Heavenly Father when strength was no-where to be found.

This was the first of many horrific losses my family would face in 2012.  Another death to confront.  Another opportunity to ask, “Why?”  Another reminder to cherish every loved one, and welcome every opportunity to embrace as if it’s the last one.

We believe in a God who understands loss and grief, pain and anguish.  He’s been here, and walked in our shoes, and fills our hearts with hope and joy, confidence and consolation.

Of course dogs can go to heaven.  So many things to look forward to.

Blessings for this Holy Week 2014

Much Love

claire1a

 

 

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Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

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Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

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Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

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Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

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