All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice with us and sing.
—Saint Francis of Assisi
I have always loved animals. Family lore tells of me reaching for our giant husky-shepherd mix the moment I came home from the hospital, refusing to speak to grown-ups but happily running to greet every strange dog I encountered, and hiding from the costumed characters at Disney World, instead following tiny chipmunks into the bushes.
When my own memories kick in, the story doesn’t change. I rejected baby dolls and Barbies, preferring the company of the piles of stuffed animals that overwhelmed my bedroom. My most perused book was National Geographic Book of Mammals. I’d spread the volume open and study the pictures and information, returning again and again to the spread on bats, hoping to squelch my fear. (It worked! More on this later.)
The stories demonstrating my deep love of animals are endless. A million spring to mind. But since this is a [story] about animals and God, it’s important that I mention this: though I have been a Christian nearly my whole life, I have not always loved Jesus.
You heard that right.
I was baptized as an infant in a Lutheran congregation and taken to church most Sundays of my youth. I had a mystical experience with God at age seven that led me to believe in God’s actual realness and presence. All this time, I would have said I loved Jesus. But I never really did. Here’s how I know.
My grandmother died when I was seventeen. She was a devout Christian woman, although she didn’t go to church. Not in the years I knew her, at least. TV preachers were her thing. I still have notebooks filled with notes and questions she’d jot down as she watched church from the comfort of her chair.
My grandma had some weird beliefs. In fact, I believe the best Christians do. But one that I never questioned was her stance that if dogs weren’t in heaven, she didn’t want to go there either.
This made complete and total sense to me—until, that is, my late twenties, when I mentioned this bit of theology to a Christian acquaintance. She laughed and then said, “Good thing we’ll be so happy to see Jesus, we won’t even care if our dogs aren’t there!”
Total gut punch.
It was the worst thing I’d ever heard.
But that was when I realized I didn’t love Jesus. I believed in Jesus (in a wrestling, antagonistic sort of way). I followed Jesus (in a middle-class American sort of way). And I proclaimed Jesus (in my reserved way).
But I didn’t love him. Because I could not for one second fathom being happier to see Jesus than I would’ve been to see Sven or Faith or Gus.
It wasn’t even close.
But it wasn’t just the idea of not being happy to see my dogs that threw me. When I gave heaven or a new earth any thought, I never cared about mansions or streets of gold. Yes, I wanted reunions with loved ones and conversations with Cleopatra (I believe in a big God). For sure, I wanted relationships with no suffering.
But mostly, I wanted the lion lying down with the yearling. I wanted the child playing with the cobra. I wanted the garden of Eden where I could scratch the cheeks of a mama grizzly and nuzzle a moose.
That was heaven.
But still, I felt bad when I realized I didn’t love Jesus as I thought I did or should have. So I did what any good Christian would have done: I took it to Jesus himself. I asked for forgiveness. I asked for help. I said, “If I don’t love you as I should, help me.” Of course, there was no immediate change. No thunderbolt. No new heart.
But when, ten or so years later, I walked into the kitchen to find our one-hundred-pound Rottweiler dead on the kitchen floor, I dropped to the ground to touch Bob’s huge snout, to confirm the lack of breath. I had often wondered if he would die with his beloved tennis ball in his mouth. He didn’t. But in my despair, a sudden and overwhelming sense of calm came over me. An image flashed through my mind—a picture of Jesus throwing a tennis ball to our sweet dog in heaven.
And I loved Jesus for it.
God has always used weird things to shape my theology. Often, it’s been through suffering. Other times, it’s through the music of the Indigo Girls or some old-time hymn writer. Usually, though, God shapes and guides my thinking through my great loves: my husband, my children, and animals—both those that have lived in my house and those in the wide world beyond.
At least, when I’m paying attention.
I’ve written books about suffering. I’ve already overshared personal stories about my family (and my children are old enough now to be fully off-limits—although perhaps they should have always been). My thoughts about the Indigo Girls and hymn writers remain too unformed to write about yet. But being in the mood to explore more about how God uses weird things to reveal Godself, I’m inclined to let the animals do some talking, to explore and listen to the ways all creatures proclaim the glories and wonders of our Creator.
Of course, my desire is in good company. From the psalmists to Saint Francis to British veterinarian and author James Herriot, animal-loving humans have long appreciated and written about what animals “say” about God. When we pay attention, we see that animals can teach, show, and model aspects of our Creator we might otherwise miss. I have to believe this is the way God intended it.
After all, God may have made humans in God’s image and given humans some kind of “dominion” over animals, but throughout Scripture, writers look to the animal kingdom for metaphors for God. (Of course, what this dominion was meant to look like is hotly contested. But no matter our interpretation, we’ve clearly messed up caring for the earth in more ways than we can count.) Jesus, who was the Lion of Judah and Lamb of God, made it clear that servants—suffering ones, even—make wonderful teachers. In the Bible, the promises of rescue, redemption, and rebirth apply to all creation. Not just us humans. And so, although only humans go to church and write creeds, though only we attend seminaries and get baptized, all creatures share the ability to recognize and praise our Creator. Psalm 148:7–14 offers a beautiful picture of this:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
Sea monsters. Creeping things. Wild animals. Flying birds. Amazing! All creatures can praise God and thus know something about God’s good heart.
We can learn these things if we pay attention. When I finally started listening to what animals had to say about things like love—what love looks and feels like—I discovered I may have loved Jesus all along.
While many people view animal stories as mere “feel-good” or “human interest” pieces that exist to warm our hearts and cheer our days, the human experience with the animals we love and fear runs much deeper. I suspect we all understand this—and not just us pet lovers. I mean, we go to zoos and aquariums; we take trips into nature and get excited about spotting wild creatures for good reason: animals are good for our souls because they move our souls and reveal our Creator.
Of course, animals are not actual saints (well, with the exception of Saint Guinefort, a snake-killing, child-saving French chien whose grave was the site of many a miracle). But the saints do tell us something about God. And they point us to God. As someone who has loved and lived with animals my whole life, been involved with animal rescue, and written children’s books about emotional support dogs who work miracles on the regular (Helper Hounds!) and adventurous penguins who teach about conservation (Edward & Annie!), I have seen that animals mirror the saints in many ways.
[There are several] ways animals teach us about love; about God’s rescue plans; about vices and virtues; about delight, adaptability, and the importance of instinct; about fear, creativity, and abundance; about those liminal spaces between earth and heaven; and about redemption. To make this journey, we need to open our minds, our hearts, our senses. We might need to think differently about the typical ways we encounter God—or view animals. But animals are one of God’s great gifts. All nature speaks and points to our Creator if we are willing to notice. We can learn so much about this life and our God if we pay some attention to these amazing saints of feather and fang.
This is an excerpt from the Saints of Feather and Fang introduction.