A Matter of Dispute
A Matter of Dispute
If the Bible doesn't state that animals go to heaven, does that mean that they don't?
With a hollow feeling in the it of my stomach, I dialed the vet. Over the years we've had horses and ponies come and go at our four-acre place in Westchester County. But Kelly was special. What could I ever say to comfort my daughter, Sanna, who owned her and was up in her room crying?
"Lord, help me," I prayed.
Eight years earlier I thought I had known what to say. I recalled that summer day when I was standing in the kitchen, and through the open window I could see my kids and Penni, the teenage girl who took care of our barn, gathered around her horse, BoJangles. They were saying goodbye.
BoJangles was old and sick, and soon the vet would be coming to put him to sleep. I watched Sanna, age 5, reach up to pat his neck.
"Don't worry about Bo," Penni said in a voice as loud as a preacher's. "He'll soon be galloping through heaven. The moment he leaves his body, that's where he'll be."
Penni knew a lot about horses, and she also had a strong faith in God. But sad as I was about BoJangles, I was not happy about what I had just heard her say. Wiping my wet hands on a towel, I strode firmly outside, down the steps and across the small strip of yard to the fence.
The kids were crying and I felt like a rat, but I couldn't let them believe what was not in the Bible. I took my duty in this regard very seriously.
"Penni," I said gently, "animals do not go to heaven. They don't go anywhere. They just stop living when they die. Only people go to heaven."
Sanna was looking up at me earnestly. I was glad I'd come out.
"Yes, Mrs. Smyth," Penni said, but there was steel in her eyes.
Penni went off to college, but she left a legacy that I was yet to discover. One day five years later, when Sanna was 10, a golden-colored pony named Kelly came into our lives. She was like sunshine trotting out of darkness, for she gave back to Sanna a love of riding.
My daughter had been terrorized by a speed-demon pony with a fondness for bucking. He'd been given to us. My older daughter could ride him fine, but she already had a horse. So we gave him back and prayed for a pony who was sensitive, gentle and well trained–and in our low price range.
A far-fetched wish. "But God can do anything," I told the kids.
"It says that in the Bible, doesn't it?" Sanna said, knowing I wouldn't say it if it didn't.
"Yes," I answered. "It says, 'With God all things are possible.'"
Sanna looked in the Pennysaver. "Here's a pony that sounds perfect," she said excitedly, her small finger resting on the print.
"Honey, it's very rare to find something in our price range that's any good, except by word of mouth," I said in my Mother-knows-all voice. I didn't want her to be disappointed. Especially after the last disaster.
"Can't God use the Pennysaver?" she asked. We went to look.
It was a professional stable with long barns and neat white fencing crisscrossed over acres of rich green pasture. The manager, a lively woman with auburn hair, took us to a well-groomed palomino standing on the crossties in a spotless, lonely aisle.
There was a dull, orphanlike sadness about her. In the stalls kids were brushing and talking to their ponies. Kelly stood alone.
Sanna ran to give her a carrot.
"Kelly's not happy here," the woman admitted. "I bought her as a lesson pony. She's well trained, but she's pining for one person to own and love her like she was used to.
"She's dropping weight, and the vet said she's not going to live if she stays here. I want her to have a good home. That's why the price is low."
I looked at Kelly. She had a white blaze on her face. Her ears were perked forward at Sanna, who was patting and talking to her. Her sad eyes showed a promise of kindness.
A week later Kelly came to our barn, joining three other horses and a Shetland pony. If the clutter of our Ma and Pa place was a comedown for her, she never let on. She stepped gracefully into our world and became one of the gang. In fact, she thrived.
"You've really made her happy," I said to Sanna a few weeks later. "She's picking up weight and she's got a spark in her eye."
"She's made me happy," Sanna said. "I love riding again."
As I watched the two of them trot out together, I thought about how my ideas get set in cement. I would never have opened the Pennysaver.
Three happy years went by. Child and pony rode everywhere together, even to the store, where Kelly always got M&Ms, her favorite candy.
One night Sanna didn't come in from the barn on time. Another hour passed and it was time for dinner. I called and she didn't answer. Worried, I rushed out. There was Kelly standing still as a statue. Sanna had fallen asleep on her back, and Kelly wouldn't move lest Sanna fall off.
I tiptoed into the stall and hugged this adorable pony's neck. "You deserve to live forever," I whispered.
Perhaps it was a premonition.
A few months later Kelly developed a painful bone disease for which there is no cure. We were devastated. We put her on an equine pain pill that had no side effects and hoped for the best, but one day the vet said sadly, "There is no more we can do."
We had a decision to make. "I'll call you after I talk to Sanna," I said.
I told Sanna that night. Tears poured down her cheeks. But her maturity astounded me. "We have to let her die," she said. "It will only get worse for her."
Now, as I dialed the vet, I could hear Sanna sobbing in her room. I remembered Sanna when she first saw Kelly...running to give her a carrot. They were friends from then on. They needed each other, and God had brought them together.
I thought again of that long-ago summer day when Sanna looked up at Penni, her brown eyes pools of belief. Had I been too hasty in squelching that faith?
Once, when we were arguing, my husband said to me, "There are things in this life that are right, no matter what, like the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments. But some things we don't know about and it doesn't hurt to leave the door open on them."
But I was afraid of muddying my children's faith.
I made arrangements with the vet for Thursday. It was October and the leaves were dripping with color. The air was nippy; the horses, spunky. Except for Kelly. She stood quietly in her stall as if waiting.
Wednesday night was cold. Sanna and I sat wrapped in blankets in Kelly's stall, watching her eat hay. Now and then she would nuzzle Sanna.
"Sanna, I'm sorry," I said finally. "I don't have anything to say."
She was suddenly angry. "Of course you don't! You tell me not to believe that Kelly's going to heaven because it doesn't say so in the Bible. Well, Penni always said the Bible never says animals don't go to heaven either!" She put her head in her hands and began to sob.
I dragged back to the house feeling like one of Job's comforters. I opened my Bible to John 14, because it talks about heaven, but something else in that chapter, something I'd read a thousand times before, caught my eye.
Jesus told His disciples that when He left, the Holy Spirit would come to live in us. He would always be with us, inside us, and would be our Spirit of Truth.
Resident truth...the stubborn door in my mind began to creak open. Could it be that I wasn't listening hard enough for that inward voice of truth?
"Lord, I'm willing to listen," I prayed. "My mind is open. Show me how to get out of the way of Sanna's faith so she can have peace."
The next morning dawned gently. The sky over our gray-blue barn was brushed with pastel pink. Fresh beads of dew watered the grass. So serene. So sad. Inside the barn, Kelly stood waiting.
Once I told her she deserved to live forever. Was that only a wish–or was it truth from some deep part of me? "Lord, I'm waiting to hear from You. I have to talk with Sanna, and I don't know what to say."
Sanna was still sleeping. She was staying home from school. On the kitchen table she had left a pack of M&Ms. She would give them to Kelly in one last goodbye. It made me cry. The vet was coming later.
I had to make an early phone call to a woman who has a healing ministry in our church. On impulse I blurted, "Do you believe that animals go to heaven?"
"Of course," she said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. "I've always believed it."
"I'm just a little squeamish about it," I said with embarrassment, "because it doesn't say anything in the Bible about it."
She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "It says in the Old Testament that 'the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,' so we know that animals will be in heaven. How do we know they aren't taken up from earth?"
I felt a shiver go through me. I knew that Scripture, about the new heavens and new earth, but I had never thought about it in the light of animals being in heaven. Was it because my mind had been so closed?
And then there was the beautiful picture from Revelation, the Apostle John's vision, in which Jesus and the armies of heaven come riding on white horses....
Liz was right. How do we know the wolf and the lamb and the lion–and horses–aren't taken up to heaven from earth? There was my answer for Sanna!
Kelly died peacefully that day. Sanna cried hard. But gone from her grief was the bitterness, for I was able to remove the stumbling block I had put in the way of her belief. She knew she would see Kelly again.
As for me, I can only say that when I die, nothing will please me more than to see a familiar golden pony galloping across the pastures of heaven.
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