As we all seek to further animal welfare on the fronts of industry, law, and social practices, let us not forget the essential and foundational role of prayer in any Kingdom-bringing endeavor. Yes, pray for reform in farming practices; yes, pray for laws to be written and enforced; yes, pray for God’s supernatural intervention to minimize animal suffering and to meet animal needs of all kinds. I actually have written Liturgical Prayers to add to Morning Prayer to address each of these prayer-needs.
But also, let us pray for those who already care deeply for the non-human animal members of their families. Let us pray for those whose hearts are already soft toward animals of all kinds. Let us learn to weave Pet Prayers into the fabric of our normal church life. This is the purpose of my book, “Pet Prayers.”
As a Pastor, I care deeply for all the concerns of my parishioners. This includes the loving bonds they have with their pets. The church is invited into most of the life-changing events in a family: births, baptisms, hospitalizations, marriages, deaths. But, what about life changing events in families which happen because of pets? For example, the arrival of a new pet into the family, or if a pet gets lost, injured, or dies. These are all times when my parishioners’ hearts are very tender, and in need of pastoral care. What do such Pet Prayers look like? One example is a Pet Burial Liturgy I wrote in honor of Charis.
Throughout my life, I have had beloved pets including cats and dogs. One feline family member was named Charis. In those years, I was the Rector of a parish in Florida. I was single and in my 40s, and most of my parishioners were in their 60s or older with children and grandchildren. While I had good, meaningful, and peaceful relationships with my flock, I wouldn’t say we were social friends; we didn’t have enough in common.
Then, Charis died. I was heartbroken. I felt the need to honor her life and all she meant to me, and to give thanks to God for the countless blessings He brought into my life through her. So, I took the Burial Liturgy I used to bury people, and I rewrote it to be fitting for Charis’ funeral. I took the step – which was not an easy one because of how rarely we hear sermons like this – to preach about grief and pets and God’s care. I included this personal story about Charis
and her Burial Liturgy which I had written.
That Sunday, I had more “door conversations” after church, and more invitations to homes, than I had ever had before. The Lord had used the sermon to validate and affirm their love for their pets, to create a safe place to be honest about deep feelings of loss. They felt an immediate bond with me, a feeling of being understood, and an affection for me as their pastor
which had not come about in any other way. My parishioners wanted to introduce me to their beloved pets, to show me pictures of pets who had died in the past, and to ask me questions about how to pray at-home for these beloved members of their families. Our shared love for animals became a bond of fellowship which deepened the relational dynamics of the whole parish family, for they discovered they could be transparent with others in the congregation who felt the same
way they did about their pets.
Out of this experience, a book began to grow. Eventually, it was published under the title “Pet Prayers.” It continues to be one of the best ways for me to establish almost immediate trust relationships with new church members.
Another ministry which arose from the use of “Pet Prayers” is even more evangelical. As I volunteered at a local Humane Society, they became aware of this book. Often, people from the town would come to the Humane Society to ask for guidance at those tender times just before and just after the death of a pet. The staff did not feel equipped to help some who were struggling with grief. So, they called me one day, and asked if they could refer people to me. I responded that I would be happy to help in any way that I could, and reminded them that the form that help would take would be of a Christian nature. They were fine with that. I think they were just glad to have some suggestion for hurting people. (Isn’t that a good role for the Church to have!) I began receiving calls, including invitations into homes of people I had never met before. I would enter a person’s home, listen attentively to stories about their pets and perhaps how that pet had died, and in that moment, that person just wanted to feel understood and helped. Most of these people were not Christian, and some others were not church-goers. Some even said they stopped going to church because they felt shamed for their deep emotions surrounding animals.
I would open “Pet Prayers,” show them prayers shaped for their specific situation, and ask if they would like to join me as I held-up them and their pet to the Lord through prayer. Every time, the response was an emotional “Yes.” At times, I would also share some of the biblical reasons why I believe animals go to heaven. And, a few times, it was appropriate for me to then ask, “Would you like to know for sure that you will be in heaven with your pet?” This genuine, heartfelt invitation was never refused. Their bond of love with an animal already in heaven literally pulled them heavenward, and all I did was provide the words and prayers to help people respond to that pull, through Jesus Christ.
As a Theologian, I desire to root these pastoral concerns not just in sentimentality; but, in solid biblical principles. I am currently working on a Paper which could either become a monograph of its own, or an article for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. This Paper is “A Biblical Theology of the Ontology of Animal Souls.” In other words, what does the Bible say an animal IS? What sort of being? One with a soul? A soul with an eternal dimension? If so, and it is so, then the biblical view of stewardship must be shaped accordingly.
There was a time in academics when Theology held the position of Queen of the Sciences. All other human fields of study, and therefore industry and politics and social practices, were intentionally shaped by a foundational biblical theology. As our cultures become more distant from seeing Theology in this role, they also distance themselves from divine accountability and godly authority. As we pastors and theologians speak-up and provide clear biblical teaching about the eternal dimension to animal souls, we can reintroduce into animal welfare discussions a starting-point which has true eternal perspective and even divine authority.
I look forward to the time when Seminaries include as part of their core curriculum courses in animal stewardship, pastoral care, and liturgical practices, which evidence the biblical theology of the ontology of animal souls. Then, pastors will not feel hesitant nor unsure of how to integrate such prayer and care into their ministries. As the Church learns to demonstrate a biblical view of animal care, and the care of those who care for animals, we can then become a well-spring for such care to be evidenced in the cultures around us. So let it be. Amen!
The Rev. Dr. Susan I. Bubbers is Dean of the ATLAS Theological Center, a seminary Professor, church-planter and Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.