As I was preparing to write this article, Gus, my 9-month-old puppy, was hit by a car. My husband and I had been at a family funeral when our pet sitter broke the news. It seemed like a cruel joke. How could anyone have faith at a time like this?
That night, after visiting Gus at the emergency clinic, I couldn’t sleep. In the early hours of the morning I grasped for my phone and sent out an SOS, asking family and friends to pray for him. I was feeling so weary and incapable of prayer, it felt comforting to lean on their faith.
One by one messages from loved ones came in—reading them brought fresh tears to my eyes. Eventually I attempted a feeble prayer, whispering, “Lord, if you are out there, please let my puppy live. Please.”
Gus made it through the night, and the next day and the day after that. Today, to our amazement, he is happy and healthy.
Through pets, gifts of God’s creation, God continually amazes us. In response to our “Pets and faith” call, Living Lutheran’ s readers flooded my inbox with a multitude of reflections, each naming special dogs, cats—and even a llama—that brought them closer to God. What follows are a few common themes and highlights from those letters.
They teach us unconditional love
In her 13 years of life, Lucy the beagle accompanied Sean Wilson through highs and lows. When Wilson’s wife Hadley died three years after they married, he was devastated. “It was much, much, too soon,” Wilson recalled. “My life fell to pieces.”
He said the only constant in his life was Lucy: “No matter how bad I felt about myself or the hand I had been dealt, Lucy was there. There was never judgment, never frustration from her. There was only her promise to stay with me no matter what happened.
“Her complete and infallible love for me reminds me of the love Jesus has for us. We are imperfect, but we are loved without exception and reservation. … Knowing that love is there has made all the difference to me.”
The loving presence of Gus, a yellow labrador retriever, at Camp Kirchenwald brought comfort to children who really needed it, wrote Conrad and Winnie Youse. In his 14 years of life Gus always joined his owners as summer staff at the Lutheran camp in Colebrook, Pa.
Though as a puppy he often stole clothing from campers and interrupted games by running off with equipment, Gus matured into an important staff member, they said, intuitively identifying children who were homesick and painfully alone. “To those children he licked away their tears and offered a paw of consolation that could not be refused,” they wrote.
Gus was not only a counselor but a guide, leading lost groups back to camp. His behavior, they said, was an example that most Christians would do well to imitate.
They teach us to pray
Luna the llama taught Susan Dahle the importance of looking to God during times of trouble. Dahle and Luna live on a farm with other animals outside of St. Charles, Minn.
When Luna’s baby died after she gave birth, the llama “looked up to the heavens and cried a loud piercing cry, as if to say, ‘Why God?’ It was at that moment I truly believed that animals also turn to God at their time of need,” Dahle wrote.
For Stewart McDonald, a pastor in Tucson, Ariz., Fanny, his cat of 19 years, helped him take up the discipline of contemplative prayer.
One morning McDonald struggled to get started with contemplative prayer. “Then I noticed Fanny, curled up in my lap, totally relaxed. It was as if she was in heaven,” he wrote. “She led me to imagine what it would be like for me to sit on the lap of God, curled up like Fanny, totally relaxed. It worked!”
Becky Rische of Spicewood, Texas, believes her dog Cooper answers prayer. “He doesn’t do this alone, of course. God works through him,” she said.
He has introduced Rische to countless new neighbors and helps her see the best in others. “Consequently I pay attention,” she wrote, “because my dog can be one channel where God speaks.
They come to our rescue
When Ophelia came into Steve Poindexter’s life in 1999, he was in a rough place mentally and emotionally. Encouraged by his niece who had found the kitten at the veterinary clinic in Tulsa, Okla., Poindexter adopted Ophelia. The kitten was also in rough shape—she had been neglected and had recently undergone surgery for a broken hip.
Over time the two developed a deep bond. “Although my faith was somewhat tenuous at the time, I came to realize I was witnessing a small glimpse of God’s love for all creation through our relationship,” he wrote. “Seventeen years later … I see clearly now that I never actually rescued her, but rather she rescued me.”
Dooley the dog literally rescued Karen Yagher. At 2 a.m., Yagher woke up with searing pain in her back and headed downstairs for a glass of water and aspirin. Dooley followed.
“It’s OK, buddy dog,” she told him, “I’m just going to rest for a while.” That was the last thing Yagher remembered before waking up in the hospital. She was being treated for a bacterial infection that had destroyed several of her spinal vertebrae.
Later she found out that Dooley had stayed by her side, but at some point he became alarmed and ran upstairs to wake Yagher’s husband, who found her lying on the living room floor. He called for an ambulance right away.
Had her husband found her an hour or two later, the doctors said she would have died. “I don’t know why this happened to me, but I do know God used Dooley to save me that day,” Yagher wrote. “Dooley, my good and faithful friend, died last year. … He was more than just a dog, he was my guardian angel.”
They connect us to God
While recovering from her second cancer surgery, Jane McKinley of Lakewood, N.J., found it difficult to keep the faith. McKinley’s months-long, painful recovery left her confined to one room in her house.
Visitors came and went, but Rollie, her golden retriever, was a constant companion. “Rollie would come in every day, a little spring to his step, panting with excitement, eyes full of joy. I noticed after a while that my heart was beginning to feel his joy,” she wrote. “For the first time in a long while I was able to find God. … Rollie had been my angel. I don’t know if I could have made that connection without him.”
Jonah the cairn terrier also helped his owner, Herbert Chilstrom of Green Valley, Ariz., connect with God. The former ELCA presiding bishop wrote My Friend Jonah and Other Dogs I’ve Loved (Huff, 2014), where he recounted the day he and his wife took 17-year-old Jonah to be put down: “I held Jonah’s head in my big hands and leaned close to his ear. In a strong voice I said for the last of a thousand times, ‘Jonah, you’re a good boy.’ The doctor administered the fatal dosage. His head fell into my hands.”
At Jonah’s grave site that day, Chilstrom reflected on life beyond this world: “Is there more to life than the brief time we spend together here in this corner of God’s universe? Then I say, ‘Yes, I believe there is.’
“Thanks, Jonah, for teaching me how to live—and how to die.”