Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Learning from our Four-Legged Friends

My cat Scooter died. A colleague’s dog died. Two kids at church are struggling with the loss of a beloved family pet. And our Saint Francis day celebrations are around the corner. 

The Rev. Jessica Hitchcock
with Scooter
Both of the two kids who are struggling with the loss of their pet want to do something AT CHURCH to remember and celebrate their four-legged family member. One said, “’Cause that is where you remember people.” And so we have and we will. And at our Blessing of the Animals service, heartbroken folks will gather around a table and light a candle for their pet that they love but see no longer. I wonder why it is so instinctual to want the church, one’s faith community, to share with you the burden of such a loss. 

When we celebrate Saint Francis Day (a couple of weeks off still) we are stuck in the tension between our desire to incorporate our four-legged family members into our faith life and the full story of the person Saint Francis, a rich son who gave up everything to serve the poor and seek Christ in everyone. It might be said that we focus on the cute, warm, and fuzzy part of Saint Francis to enable ourselves to ignore the difficult implications his life has on our own. Saint Francis got his priorities right, but, truth be told, my cats, Tom and Huck, have their priorities right too. Eat, sleep, play, and love. I’d be a better disciple of Jesus if I took some pointers from them.

Call me a heretic, but I think our pets can be – and often are – God’s love incarnate. I offered a reflection at a friend’s wedding ceremony, but out of respect for the groom’s religious perspective, I had to refrain from mentioning Jesus. Or God. So I talked about the groom and the bride’s two cats, and what they could learn from the cats about the vocation of marriage, about sharing a life. What can the animals in your life teach you about your vocation? About the relationships that make your life whole? What is God saying to you through the animals that cross your path?

There’s that cliché quote out there, “Lord, let me be half the person my dog thinks I am.” When faced with unconditional love, we tend to respond by wanting to get beyond ourselves and our own personal drama – and reach out to others. We want to be better people. Saint Francis encountered unconditional love, and in response he changed his life completely. He got a glimpse of how his Beloved Creator saw him, and Francis wanted to be that person. 

My cats are fat. And I used to think that Tom would stop in front of me and meow loudly – yelling if you will – asking to be fed. But now I realize he wants me to pet him. He wants me to slow down, stop thinking I am so important, that I don’t have three minutes to spare – and pet him. He wants me to love him because he loves me and knows that it is good for me to love him. That sounds a lot like Jesus to me. Jesus wants me to take some time in my day to slow down and love him. So I can realize how much I am loved. 

The Rev. Jessica Hitchcock is the associate rector at St. Luke's, Bethesda.