I heard a man tell a story about the gift given to him by a dying cat. In his neighborhood there was a stray cat that everyone saw on a regular basis. The cat was missing one eye. On that same side of her head her ear was mangled. She had a stump for a tail and one foot that was deformed. Her skin was covered with sores which were visible through patchy fur. She scrounged in the garbage for her meals. Clearly her life had been a struggle.
She always approached people and rubbed against their ankles, hoping for friendship. Repeatedly she was pushed aside because no one wanted the fleas she was carrying. No one trusted the sores that plagued her. She remained forgiving of their cruelty. The human community gave her the name, “Ugly”.
One evening the man heard a fight between a dog and cat. He went outside to see two dogs attacking Ugly. They ran away when he yelled at them but the cat had already sustained significant injuries. He gently picked her up and carried her up to his apartment. He tried to clean out her wounds but she was badly hurt. As he held her, she purred. She only lived several minutes in his care but she looked into his eyes and purred. In the last moments of her life she finally found someone who
was kind to her. He held her for awhile after she died, deeply moved that she had trusted him. He saw past her scarred body and realized she had great beauty. The brief moments he spent with a cat named Ugly changed him.
When the quarantine began many of the animal shelters in our country emptied out! Facing the reality that they would be shut in their homes for a lengthy period of time, folks quickly headed to animal shelters to find a loving companion. Children were excited to finally get the dog they had always wanted. People living alone knew that they would need a friend during a predictably lonesome time. So animals traded cages for warm beds. They had lots of time to bond with their new friends. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “My Rescue Dog Rescued Me”? Shelter animals and strays seem to have a lasting gratitude toward those who adopt them. They remember the time that they had no home, when they were hungry and thirsty with no one to provide for them. So when they are welcomed into a family that provides good ear rubs and a water bowl that is always filled, they show us their contentment.
In Galatians 5 we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” We encounter these attributes in our pets. We had a Blessing of the Animals service in our parking lot this past Sunday. Twelve furry friends joined in worship with their human families. Folks shared some stories about how their pets teach them to love! One man in our congregation shared how the family dog would always welcome the teenaged son home from school. His high school years were hard so he arrived home subdued. The dog would come right up to him, place her paws on the young man’s chest and look into his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to leave the unkind words of classmates behind and settle into his dog’s unconditional love.
Our dog learned early on that we don’t want him barking loudly. When he is particularly anxious around the dinner table for some scrap of food he doesn’t bark but makes conversational sounds. He reminds us that he’s there. When a UPS driver runs up to our door and leaves a package, there is no self-control! He barks to let us know that there is an intruder. But he has learned to exercise self-control, as difficult as that is for him, because he wants to please us. Animals that are reunited with their owners after a lengthy separation are forgiving of that time apart. They are kind toward their owner even if their needs are not perfectly met. They are endlessly forgiving of our foibles and how we sometimes forget to keep the water bowl full. In these animals who share our lives, we experience the fruit of the Spirit that reminds us of how we are to love one another.
In Exodus 17 the Israelites, who are newly liberated from the Egyptians, they find themselves in the austere setting of the wilderness. They have left a settled life of slavery for a nomadic life of freedom. We read that the Israelites journeyed by stages. One step at a time, their whole camp literally pulled up stakes and moved on to the next spot. Similarly our lives travel forward in stages. I suspect we will look back on 2020 and say that this was not a great phase of our life‘s journey. Some stages are easier than others and we learn not to take that for granted. Some have great gifts that we are only able to recognize later. With the upheaval of hurricanes recently we have seen how animals stick with their human companions at difficult times. They are resilient when we move them to different places, knowing that belonging to the pack is all that matters.
In this challenging time for the Israelites they asked a question that laid bare their sense of abandonment: Is the Lord among us or not? Even in their slave quarters in Egypt, they had a cherished sense of routine. They raised their families, had food to eat and knew what to expect each day. But in the wilderness, with no reliable supply of water or food, they wonder if God can possibly be with them. So Moses takes their plaint up with God. He begs God to do something about their needs, arguing that neglect of the chosen people would be a bad reflection on God. Moses also gives a reminder that these are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who were assured that they would be part of this sacred covenant. What if all of them were miraculously transported across the Red Sea only to die in the wilderness?
God listens to Moses who is at his wits end. God points to a large rock and instructs this exhausted leader to tap the boulder with his walking stick. Having seen the waters of the Red Sea part, Moses approaches the solid object with optimism. No sooner does he tap it and water gushes out. The Israelites would have an endless supply of fresh water. With their needs met, their question is answered: God is among them.
I think of the complete reliance our pets have upon us. It’s endearing when they make it clear that they need us. My dog sometimes paws at us when we stop petting him, as if to say, “Don’t stop! I love this!” My daughter, Maria, fell in love with a tiny bunny that fit into her hand at the Truffant Flea Market eight years ago. When Ingrid is very happy with an ear rub, she makes a noise that Maria calls “chittering.” She receives the rubs and bumps her nose against Maria’s hand if she stops. Our animal friends count on us to love them, feed them, and keep the water bowl filled.
I think back to the cat named Ugly. After a life of rejection and suffering she spent her last moments in the arms of someone who finally wasn’t afraid to touch her. She showed her gratitude toward this stranger by purring in spite of her grave injuries. He might seem like the savior but, in fact, he was deeply moved by the generosity of this wounded cat’s spirit. In her dying moments she accepted his love, forgiving the ugliness those who looked past her needs and rejected her. Our pets are such a gift to us with their wagging tails, their loud purring and their sweet requests for affection. Today we offer our blessing to them knowing how greatly they have blessed us. In these relationships that bridge human and animal worlds, we are reminded that God created us to be interdependent. Our faith calls us to acknowledge our complete reliance on God who more than tends to our needs. So each time that we fill the water bowl for our furry friend or spiky hedgehog or hopping rabbit, we remember that God made water come out of a rock! We are in good hands. God is among us, whatever the stage of our journeys!