By Norris Burkes Nov 20 2020
In spite of an early morning rain, my day at the Sacramento VA Medical Center began like most days had during my 25-year career as a healthcare chaplain.
After checking voicemails and emails, I took the elevator up to patient floors where I began visiting veterans with critical diagnoses such as cancer, cardiac problems or liver failure.
However, on this spring day in 2013, a nurse interrupted my morning by stopping me outside a patient’s room to share a critical prayer request of her own.
“Do you pray for animals?” she asked.
My eyes swirled with hesitation patterns. I’m pretty fond of dogs, but the only time I ever prayed for one was when Toby, my little Jack Russell, peed on our living room futon. My intercessory prayer was that my wife would spare Toby’s life.
“It’s OK,” the nurse said, ready to excuse me. “Maybe it’s a bit frivolous to pray for animals.”
I had to admit her request felt almost flippant when compared with the concerns of our patients.
Nevertheless, I had to admit that God doesn’t ration our prayer requests. There is no limit or qualification on what we can pray for. God isn’t some kind of genie who grants only three wishes to the bumbling nincompoop who uncovers a buried lamp.
Her eyes quickly moistened, and I asked for more specifics.
“My cat is in the ICU at the animal hospital,” she said. She blew into her handkerchief and became more definitive. “Missy has cancer, and the vet doesn’t expect her to make it.”
The pained look in her eyes recalled the one I had seen in my children’s eyes ten years earlier when we put down our 14-year-old schnauzer.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be honored to pray for Missy.”
As we stood on the quiet end of a busy hospital hallway, we joined hands and I whispered a prayer. It was not unlike the ones I say with the family members of our patients. I asked God to comfort the nurse and help her make the best decisions about Missy’s care.
The nurse wiped her tears and thanked me as we both returned to work. I didn’t think of her prayer request again until a few days later while on weekend duty with the Air National Guard.
That’s when my chaplain assistant, Technical Sergeant Robert Webster, pulled me into our office to share a similar request.
“I need your help writing an animal eulogy,” Webster said.
Clarity lingered from the nurse’s pain the previous week, so I felt more sympathetic than I might have been otherwise. I motioned for Webster to pull our chairs close and invited him to say more.
“It’s Sydney,” he said.
I squinted. The name sounded familiar.
“She’s my wife’s 14-year-old Aussie shepherd.”
He squeezed his arm rests, trying to grip the reality of it all.
“We had to put her down this week.”
I’d never eulogized a dog, but then again, I’d never prayed for a sick cat until Missy.
“Absolutely. I can help you do that.”
In both cases, please know, dear reader, I did not comfort them with platitudes such as “All Dogs go to Heaven.” Nor did I say animals don’t go to heaven. I don’t speculate on the eternal destination of anyone, much less an animal.
However, I did pray for the pets because it seemed obvious to me that praying for their pets was in fact praying that my friends would be consoled in the love they knew for their pet.
My prayer included the Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
The verse speaks volumes of how God cares for animals. And if God cares about animals, I know he looks for us to do likewise.
But the verse goes even farther when it asks. “Are you not of more value than they?”
The assumed answer to this rhetorical question is — yes. And that is a win-win for both animal and man.