People often refer to someone being “at that age” in reference to life stages.
After my friends and I graduated from college, we were “at that age” when peers started to marry. Then we found ourselves “at that age” when friends began to have and adopt children.
Now we are “at that age” when our beloved pets are passing away. I routinely log on to social media these days to find friends’ posts about decisions regarding end-of-life care and saying goodbye to their pets. These tributes stick with me long after I read them.
In recent months, two friends said goodbye to their dogs. In one case, Indy was a docile pit-mix, who was rescued through a program that sought out neglected canines and found them loving homes.
Indy had been chained up and neglected so long that her skin grew over her collar, which had to be removed surgically. After the abuse Indy suffered, gaining her trust took time and patience. The first year in her new home, she had to be fed by hand.
My friends did gain her trust, and Indy returned that kindness with 12 years of friendship. When Indy passed away, she was not chained outside but in her own bed, surrounded by family who loved her, including her best friend, a cat named Gromit.
The death of my friends’ pets prompted me to reflect on my family’s relationship with our dog, a 75-pound labradoodle. Jubilee bounded into our lives in 2011, and she barely stopped moving since. She never met a human or a ball she did not love. Over the years, Jubilee and I spent many days together.
She always insisted we spend time doing something active. Every afternoon, Jubilee would pop up from napping and make it known she was ready to go. The two of us ran together on trails and greenways, in parks and neighborhoods, and we could not conclude our activities until she chased a ball for a while.
She has always been finely tuned to my emotional state, as well. If I am upset, she refuses to leave. Watching sporting events turns into an anxious experience for Jubilee, as she reacts to my enthusiasm with excitement and my frustration with concern.
Jubilee is always there. Whether we are happy or discouraged, she remains at our side. Is that not what real friends do?
She is aging now, and the veterinarian advised we stop running due to signs of dysplasia and arthritis. We still walk each day, and Jubilee still pops up and insists on chasing a ball. I realize now what a gift those days were when she pulled me away from my desk and we ran and played together.
The adjustments to our routine signal that the time we have left is shorter than the time we already enjoyed. Everyone with a pet knows that we will have to part ways and spend days without them. But that does not make the parting any easier.
I spend much of my time writing and teaching about the biblical texts, and thus, I think theologically about life, including life with a dog. As Jubilee’s joints ache and her movements slow, I recall Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8:18–25.
In the preceding chapters, the apostle describes the far-reaching effects of sin and death. Sin, he claims, “entered the world” via Adam’s trespass (5:12) and proceeded to enslave humans. The cosmos thus stands in need of divine rescue, which God provides in Jesus Christ (6:15–23; 7:24–25; 8:31–39).
When the reader arrives at Romans 8:18–25, Paul claims non-human creation is also wrapped up in the drama of sin, death and salvation. Creation itself longs for the day when God’s children will be revealed because that day will bring about creation’s liberation from futility and decay (8:18–21).
The present time is beset with suffering, but Paul points to a coming glory that far outweighs the present woes (8:18) – a time when “the whole creation” that “has been groaning in travail” will be set free and redeemed (8:21–23).
To borrow the words of Marilynne Robinson from her book Housekeeping, a text like Romans 8 “allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect considerable attention to detail.” It allows us to hope that God’s redemption will reach beyond humans to include all creation, even our non-human companions.
Let us recognize that when we welcome non-human animals into our homes, weave them into our routines and love them, we have a taste of what it is like to live in peace and harmony with God’s good creation.
Perhaps, the love and companionship offered to us by canines serves as a foretaste of that promised redemption for which all creation longs. After all, as Romans 8 testifies, the destinies of creation and our own are tied to one another.
As Jubilee moves a little slower, tires out quicker and requires medications, I hope we reflect on how blessed we are to share life with God’s creatures. The love and care we offer our pets draw us away from focus on ourselves toward tending God’s creation; in doing so, we participate in divine care of the created order.
When we give creatures a safe place to live and make sure they are loved, we are doing holy work – divine work. And maybe that is some of the best work we can do.
Assistant Professor of Religion and Biblical Studies at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.