By The Rev. Rick Biedermann
“Pastor, do cats have souls?” A member of one the churches I serve stuck his head into my office with that question recently. I gave a nervous laugh and told him I wasn’t sure about that.
As far as I knew, there was nothing in the Bible that indicated that they, or any animal, have a soul. We didn’t cover that topic in seminary. But then he showed me the kennel he was holding with his 18-year-old cat in it.
He was on the way to the vet to have him put to sleep. Their cat could no longer stand and had many other health issues. I tried to recover from my avoiding his question and said, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in believing they have souls.”
He asked for a prayer, which I offered, giving thanks for the life of their cat and helping the family in their grief. He then left to go to the vet.
I know animals can certainly become part of the family. We had a springer spaniel for eight years that we had to euthanize. And that was also a very hard thing to do.
Whether you are a pet or animal lover or not, we all have to face the reality of death in our lives. Many people have been affected recently by the tragic accident in Chippewa Falls that resulted in the deaths of three Girl Scouts and a mom. And our hearts ache. And we ask, why? Could not God have prevented this from happening?
I’m reminded of a similar question Martha and Mary asked Jesus when their brother died way too young, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus had come too late.
It is OK to ask, “why?” To ask why shows that we are upset and angry that death has taken someone we love. Paul describes death as the final enemy and there are many times when it does feel like an enemy. Especially when it comes to someone too young.
There are no easy answers to the question why. One could say that death is part of our broken world. That is wasn’t part of God’s original intent. Bad things happen. Accidents happen. I personally do not believe God caused these deaths.
But we do get another kind of answer. Maybe not so much an answer but a response. One that we may not expect. It is the sound of Jesus weeping.
When Jesus came to the tomb where his friend Lazarus lay we are told, “Jesus began to weep.” And the word for weep is a strong one. It isn’t just a few tears and sniffles. It is openly sobbing.
Picture Jesus, listen to him crying maybe wailing at the death of Lazarus. He is also crying because he sees others crying in their grief. He shares in their sorrow. Which is really amazing when you think about it. That Jesus, God in the flesh, shares in our sorrow. When we grieve the loss of a loved one Jesus cries with us.
Sometimes I am concerned that Christians who believe in the resurrection get the message that they ought not grieve. That they should be happy that their loved one is with God.
I see this attitude sometimes reflected in “Celebration of Life” services when someone has died.
Now I’m not opposed to celebrating someone’s life but I also don’t want to deny the reality that this person who was loved will be missed, that there will be some sadness. It is Ok to grieve. If Jesus can cry, we certainly can cry too. Tears are not a sign of a weak faith but a sign of the love we have for those we have lost.
I like this quote from Washington Irving, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power ... They are the messengers of overwhelming grief ... and of unspeakable love.”
There is another response to death besides tears. Jesus ends up raising Lazarus from the dead. And later Jesus himself is raised from the dead. This shows us that God is stronger than death. God will not let death have the final say. As Paul writes, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” God is a God of life, not death.
As a Christian I believe that because God has raised Jesus from the dead God can raise us from the dead too. And so we cry and we share in the grief when there is death but we also cling to the promise of the resurrection.
The Rev. Rick Biedermann is pastor of St. James Trinity Lutheran Church, Fall Creek, and English Lutheran Church of Bateman, rural Chippewa Falls.