My daughter was slow to engage with hymn singing tonight, so my husband began playing Down to the River to Pray (United Methodist readers can find an arrangement in Worship and Song, #3164) They had sung it during communion on Sunday morning, and she had been disappointed that they stopped after five verses – she was wanting to add, “O Grandmas, let’s go down.” For starters.
So my husband played it long enough for her to sing verses inviting grandmas, grandpas, great-grandmas, great-grandpas, preachers, and then, with a self-conscious giggle, hamsters. (Public service announcement / disclaimer: hamsters are not meant to get wet. Please do not take your hamster down to a river, whether to pray or for any other reason.)
The self-consciousness is new. A couple of years ago, my daughter would have naturally turned to invite the animals to pray without any embarrassment. Perhaps she has come to realize that most people don’t consider animals in the same way that she does. Myself, I consider her love for non-human animal creatures to be a spiritual gift. Certainly, her love of animals has been a spiritual beacon to me – life with her has been a daily reminder that God’s providential care is not limited to human beings. I say “reminder” and not “lesson” because I learned this truth long before she came into my life – it is written all over the Bible.
The last couple of chapters of Job are the most obvious example of this. Job wants to know if God is paying attention, and God says yes – God is paying attention to Job, but not just to Job. God cares for every creature, and observes their every secret moment. Not just human creatures, but ostriches, hawks, and mountain goats (see especially Job 39). But if this is an obvious place to find God’s providential care for animals in the Bible, this is not the only place. The last verse of Jonah is curious. Jonah is angry that the Ninevites (who were Assyrians – enemies of Israel) were spared God’s wrath, and God is given the last word, asking, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV, emphasis mine)
Of course there is the matter of God going to the trouble (or calling Noah to the trouble, depending upon how you look at it) of rescuing so many animals from the flood. Granted, this is a dodgier example, as these were only representative animals, and the story necessarily implies that a lot more were drowned. But still. Every preschooler knows there were not just people on that boat.
One of my favorite scriptures on this theme is Deuteronomy 25:4. Tucked between a rule on whipping as punishment and an explanation of Levirate marriage, this verse seems almost a non sequitur: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (NRSV) This rule takes “do unto others” to the animal kingdom – you get hungry on the job, right? So does an ox.
In spite of all of this (and so many more), before my daughter was born, I had a tendency to devalue the animal kingdom, relatively. Surely people mattered most of all. For example, I might give to environmental groups, but only because the environment mattered insofar as it mattered to human survival. But her gentle (and continuing) insistence that animals were worthy of a lifetime of focused attention was convicting – my anthropocentric thinking meant that I was putting people at the center – but only God belongs at the center! Some things – most things! (maybe even all things?) – were not created for the benefit of human beings. Animals and all other created things have value not because of their usefulness to humans, but because God made them and called them good.
Recently, the local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers held a yard sale to raise money for continuing education for the member animal keepers. I did something I would never have done eight years ago – I filled up the back of the station wagon and headed to the Duke Lemur Center to donate a bunch of items for their sale. Taking my daughter around to the Museum of Life and Science and the Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue, I’ve met a lot of folks who are caring for God’s creatures with integrity. That’s important work. Not because failing to care for abandoned animals would be an affront to human nobility. Not because lemurs are cute or tigers are awe-inspiring. No, it’s important because these animals are God’s beloved creatures. And if I love God, then I cannot draw the line at caring about animals, plants, and places that are not demonstrably useful to human beings.