We were late coming home from church tonight, so we had our kids say their bedtime prayers in the car while we were driving. It was Madi’s turn. She prayed about all the usual things she prays about, to include my upcoming surgery. It’s something that we’ve been very frank about, so it touched me when she prayed, “When Daddy has his surgery, please don’t let him die because I love him.” Heavy stuff for anybody, let alone a seven year old.
That got us on the subject of why God allows people to die. Mary, the optimist, was adamant that she had every faith that I was going to make it through the surgery just fine. I, the realist (read “pessimist” in Mary-speak hehe), said that God has the last word, regardless of what we think or feel. It’s our typical stances :p
Things had progressed to the point where I felt I needed to tell them about a time in my life when I prayed dearly for Him to fix something that He ultimately let fail. I put that discussion on pause as we pulled into the driveway, went inside the feed the dogs and let them in, fully intent on picking the conversation back up when I was done. I called the dogs in. Daisy came running like always. Gunner did not.
Gunner had gotten sick before we left for church, but I didn’t think anything about it. There was nothing troubling about the vomit itself, so we set Gunner outside and went to church just like any other Sunday. When Gunner didn’t come when I called him, I started to worry that something was wrong, so I went looking for him. I found him behind the shed, lying very still.
He was still alive, but just barely, his breath coming in slow, shallow pulls. He had blood around his lips and smeared down his tail and thighs. When I came up to him to check him, he didn’t even lift his head. I tried picking him up, and he didn’t move.
I’m not going to describe Mary’s and the kids’ disposition. I’m pretty sure you can figure it out. I carried Gunner to the back porch at first, then into the kitchen at Mary’s insistence. While Mary sat with him, I went to try and calm the kids down. They, of course, wanted me to take Gunner to the vet (a $250 bill just for the vet to show up at the clinic after hours on a Sunday, to say nothing of treatment or euthanasia). When that wasn’t possible, they asked if they could pray that Gunner would live. While that wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, I couldn’t in good conscience pray that with them. God could conceivably save Gunner’s life if He wanted to — and if it’s important to us, it’s important to God — but I told them that it was better to pray that the Lord’s Will to be done, because we didn’t know what God had in mind and we might actually be praying against His Will. And besides, if God’s Will was different than our will in this, I didn’t want the kids to feel that their prayers were in vain.
Next the kids started trying to assign blame — whether it was something he ate, or how the kids would hug him hard enough to choke him, that sort of thing. Then Caleb went there. “Is God trying to prepare us for you?”
How do you respond to something like that? It hadn’t escaped my notice that we’d just been talking about the risks of heart surgery when we found Gunner dying, but I’d hoped against hope that the kids wouldn’t make the same connection. No such luck. And it was Caleb who made the connection too. Of course.
Olivia may be the oldest of the kids, but Caleb has always been the most grown up. When we watched the move The Grace Card back a few years ago, Caleb was the one who bawled at the end of the movie. When we asked him why, he said “Because that man forgave the other man and he didn’t have to.” For as tough as Caleb is on the outside, he is incredibly tenderhearted — a beautiful attribute to have, but also a dangerous one, as hurt sometimes turns into anger.
And it very nearly did. Where Livy, ever the optimist, kept asking if Gunner would be in Heaven, Caleb instead started assigning blame again, this time at God, bawling his eyes out the whole time. “Why would God kill Gunner? He’s only a year old!” Livy responded before I could, with “God has a reason for everything, even if we don’t see it.” Caleb replied, “What kind of reason could He have for something like this? What kind of good could come from it?”
Without question, that is my greatest fear regarding my coming surgery — not that I might die, but that if I were to die, my kids, and Caleb in particular, would turn to anger, and turn that anger on the very God that gives us joy that we do not deserve.
The philosophical Problem of Suffering is a daunting topic even under the best circumstances (if there could be such), but how do you respond when it’s your nine year old that asks it? My go-to verse for this tends to be the second half of Matthew 5:45 — “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” I tried to tell Caleb that sometimes, good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and we may never know why it happens, but God knows things that we’ll never know, and He knows them perfectly. Who can say what good can come out of this?
That answer didn’t completely satisfy him, but we talked back and forth about it for quite a while — even playing the Xbox to keep them occupied while Mary sat with Gunner for his final moments.
While I was laying the kids down for bed (they insisted on sleeping on the floor in our bedroom), Daisy kept running back and forth, kinda like she does when she needs to go outside. We concluded that she was looking for Gunner. They asked if she knew Gunner was dead — I told them that I didn’t know. Livy asked how she could make the pain go away, and said that she wanted to think about Gunner but at the same time didn’t want to, because she didn’t want to hurt. She asked, “Why couldn’t we just not feel pain when someone dies?” I said, “Because you’re supposed to miss somebody when they’re gone. If you don’t, then you never really loved them to begin with.”
Then it occurred to me, the answer to Caleb’s question earlier — why God would allow Gunner to die. I said that God gives us pets to teach us how to love. We tend to love people based on what they can do for us, what they can give us. But pets love us just because. They don’t stop loving when you forget to fill their water bowl, or neglect to play with them or rub their bellies. They don’t care if you’ve been gone a long, long time. They love you all the same when you get back. We tend to love very selfishly, but pets love unconditionally. That’s the very love we’re supposed to show others — love that someone might not have done anything to deserve, and quite frankly, may NOT deserve. Pets love us the way God wants us to love others — not blindly, but completely, and unconditionally.
It’s kinda strange how things work sometimes. Caleb and Livy were rummaging around my junk drawer one day last week, looking for odds and ends, when they found our old cell phones. They plugged them in, put in an SD card, and BANG — they have their own MP3 playing cameras! Caleb had figured out his camera just yesterday when he captured this picture of Gunner healthy, happy, and temporarily hiding his rambunctious nature. It’s now Caleb’s wallpaper on that phone. He stared at that picture right up until he fell asleep, tears still in his eyes.
I don’t know if dogs go to Heaven — there’s certainly no scriptural proof one way or the other — but I do know that if it’s important to us, it’s important to God, and as much as we might love, God loves infinitely more. Who’s to say what — or who — awaits us when our time on earth is done?