Animal Cruelty

By Ryan Shane Lopez

Welcome to the House of the Lord, everyone, and especially to each of our little critters who were able to join us tonight.

I’m Pastor Lambert, and I’m so glad you’re all here for this momentous Sunday evening at Open Arms Fellowship. Shortly, we’ll be taking a vote that could shape the very future of our congregation. A vote, I pray, which will determine once and for all how we are to interpret and respond to the unprecedented presence of these little critters, as we’ve come to call them.

A few quick reminders: If you’re a guest tonight, we’re so glad you’re here, but we do ask that only tithing members cast a vote. We also ask that everyone switch off your cell phones and any other recording devices, as sadly, in the past, there has been the occasional sheep in wolf’s clothing who sought to exploit the least of these among us. As God’s People, we must always speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Amen?

To our members, I’m delighted to see so many familiar faces. The trials we’ve faced these past six months would’ve long since run off a people of any lesser faith. We’ve witnessed the seeds of discord take root and grow amongst our little flock, splitting us into warring factions: The End Timers versus the New Edenists. The Environmentalists versus the Evangelists. Those who believe we’ve been entertaining angels versus those who say we should be exorcising demons. Not to mention the Purgers.

Most of you have chosen a camp, and more than one camp has sworn to leave and form its own church if tonight’s outcome isn’t to your liking. We who should be the united body of Christ have become as divided as the body of the Levite’s concubine.

But take heart, Church. The Lord works all things for the good. And the Spirit has blessed me with a message tonight that I believe will melt the hardest heart. Beginning with a word of personal testimony about how the Lord has been sifting my own heart like chaff ever since the day little Aardie there first crawled out from under Sister Dovey’s skirt.

Sister Dovey, with your permission, I’d like Aardie to join me on stage at this time. 

That’s right, Little Buddy, come on up here. Isn’t he something, folks?

Six months have passed now since we first met this brave little guy. We were in the middle of an altar call when, with every head bowed and every eye closed, someone let out a holler like a spirit-filled Pentecostal. I opened my eyes to see half the church jumping on the pews and the other half scrambling for the door. All because this rascal here had slipped away from Sister Dovey unnoticed and plucked one of young Miss Lory’s toenails clean off. But for all the commotion he caused, the poor critter was more scared of us than we were of him. Deacon Finch found him later rolled up in a ball inside an offering box.

In my office, Sister Dovey told me through tears about the cold winter night when she found on her doorstep a critter with a slender body, a horned shell, dozens of insect-like legs, and a long thin snout. Seeing as that fit the description of the thing presently scratching around in the offering box on my desk, I had no reason to doubt her story. When Sister Dovey had seen how the critter whimpered and shivered, she took it in without a moment’s hesitation. She couldn’t tell me what it was, where it came from, or when it got a hankering for toenails, but she knew the poor soul needed help. What we do to the least of these, we do to our Lord. Amen?

So, Sister Dovey found herself with a new pet, one she thought best to keep out of sight, considering its unusual appearance. But the first time she left it alone, it gnawed a hole straight through her front door. She returned home to find it wandering in the street, just asking to get run over. The next time she went out, she tried caging it, but its pitiful howls broke her tender heart. It wrapped itself around her calf when she let it out and didn’t let go for hours. That’s when she made the switch to ankle-length skirts. For months, she went all over town with a bizarre creature clinging to her leg, and no one was the wiser. That is, until the Sunday morning, it was tempted by Miss Lory’s polished pinky nail.

Sister Dovey hadn’t quite finished her story when Sister Wolff stormed in, demanding to know who was responsible for letting a wild animal loose in the House of the Lord. She’d worked herself into one of her famous tizzies, but this time I couldn’t blame her. After all, are we not to be good stewards of God’s generous gifts? And thanks to Sister Wolff spearheading our Nehemiah Rebuild Campaign, one of those gifts is this beautiful sanctuary in which we now gather. Our legal team hadn’t even reached a settlement with the contractors yet, and there were already bloodstains on the brand new carpet.

I was half-inclined to oblige Sister Wolff’s request and call animal control right then and there. Of course, it didn’t help matters that earlier the same morning, every last blossom in the church flower beds had been either trampled or eaten by that troublesome goat. You know the one, that speckled brute who’s always “escaping” from the Methodist preacher’s place down the street. Why that man insists on keeping goats in the middle of town is beyond me. But then, you can add that to the long list of things I don’t understand about Methodists. Amen?

Sister Dovey begged me not to take away her precious little critter. Said she never meant for anyone to get hurt, least of all a child. I’d sooner arm wrestle the devil than doubt her good will. Sister Dovey has taught children’s Sunday school ever since we first left Blessed Assurance to form our own church eight years ago. Those of you who were with us then know the faith that step required. But we did so in a Spirit-led response to their unrepentant sin, namely haughtiness, intolerance, and elitism. So, you’ll understand my predicament when Sister Dovey declared that if her little critter wasn’t allowed to return to this church, then we shouldn’t expect to see her again either. I couldn’t let that happen. To cast out a faithful member for merely being different would contradict our core values. On the other hand, Sister Wolff was also threatening to leave if she ever saw the thing within 100 yards of this building.

By God’s grace, we reached a compromise. Sister Dovey could bring her little critter to service on one condition: it remained caged and outdoors. Sister Wolff raised concerns about the rumours that might spread once passersby started to notice the strange breed of rodent on our front lawn. But we must fear God over man. Isn’t that right, Sister Wolff?

Our little covenant, however, didn’t even last a whole Sunday. I had barely begun preaching when we heard some neighbourhood boys laughing and throwing rocks at the poor critter. Not ten minutes after Deacon Finch went out and ran them off, I was interrupted a second time when that speckled goat kicked over the critter’s cage, so I asked Deacon Finch to bring it into the foyer. But when no one could hear my sermon over the critter’s constant squealing, like the judge to the persistent widow, I conceded and asked Sister Dovey to set the cage on the pew beside her. Sister Wolff objected, of course, but I said at least it was no longer on the lawn.

The very next week, young Jay came to me after the service and asked if he could pet “Aardie.” That’s what he called the little guy since, as you can see, while most of him resembles some kind of giant horned centipede, his head looks just like an aardvark’s.

Now, naming a thing is no trivial matter. Adam’s first task in the garden was the naming of God’s creations. Naming Aardie wouldn’t change his wild nature any more than Adam had changed the nature of the beast he called Lion. But a name reorients relationship. Adam was the Master of that which he named. The Lord also reveals to us our true names. Did he not change Abram to Abraham? Jacob to Israel? Simon to Peter? Saul to Paul? Was the sinful nature of these men changed the instant they heard their new name? By no means, but it signalled a change in their relationship to the Lord, who would in time make them into a new creation.

I had only begun explaining this to Jay when I saw that pesky speckled goat pooping on the sidewalk again through the stained glass. I went straight to my office and called the Methodist preacher, who I knew was done preaching since he’d moved up his service times in order to beat us to the best lunch spots, but he didn’t answer. Back in the sanctuary, Sister Dovey was holding her critter in her lap as children petted him and fed him sacrament wafers. As soon as I heard her call him “Aardie,” I knew he’d spent his last Sunday behind bars.

Aardie’s emancipation was a difficult transition for many of us, myself included. He left droppings scattered all over the building, which, though small, smelled like twice rotten eggs. Isn’t that right, Aardie? Who’s a big stinker? He chewed up mic cables, ate a hole straight through a box of sacrament wafers, and even bit off half a dozen toenails before we implemented a strict closed-toed shoe policy. On the bright side, this puts an end to Sister Wolff’s complaints about the youth wearing sandals to service.

Not that there was any shortage of complaints. But little Aardie here was never bad; he just wasn’t housebroken. Were you or I so different once? Yet, He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Amen? And look at Aardie now. Why he’s better behaved than some of your own children. 

Nonetheless, I suffered my doubts. I hadn’t thought I could afford to lose Sister Dovey, but now she threatened to drive away a dozen other devoted members. Seeking some means of casting out the pet without offending the owner, I took to locking myself in my office for hours on end to plead with the Lord on bended knee.

I even stopped by the church on a Saturday for an extra session in my War Room. It must have been a divine appointment because as I entered the building, I saw a goat’s rear end dart into the sanctuary. By the time I fetched a broom, though, the darn thing was nowhere in sight.

I found instead Sister Robinson practicing the organ, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with an anointed passion. Drawn by the heavenly sound, I wandered down to the front pew where I saw something I couldn’t quite comprehend: Sister Robinson was playing with a third arm! As I watched, I realized the “arm” was actually the fur belt she wore every Sunday, but somehow extending from her waist and striking the keys with incredible fluency. 

When they released the last chord, Sister Robinson looked over at me and, thinking she’d been alone the whole time, her eyes went as wide as those offering plates. I stared back in silent awe, struck dumb with unbelief like Zechariah. Peering out at me from her midriff was none other than Harriette: her furry, hawk-beaked serpent.

By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to Harriette and her musical gifting, but imagine my reaction at the moment. There I stood, as trapped as the Israelites between the Egyptians and the Red Sea. If two church members had been hiding secret pets, how many others might be doing the same? If I continued to allow Aardie to openly attend services, others would inevitably feel their critters deserved the same treatment. Aardie was already such a handful; a service with even three or four such critters would be utter chaos. Sister Wolff would have an aneurism.

On the other hand, if I forbid Sister Dovey to bring Aardie, she’d leave the church. And what if Sister Robinson decided to follow suit? Who would play the organ then?

I went straight to my prayer closet, prostrated myself before the Lord, and cried out for discernment. I’m here to tell you, folks, God answers prayer. While locking the front door on my way out, I dropped my Bible, and it fell open to Luke 8:17: “For nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest.”

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(Story continued below)

The next Sunday, after preaching on this very passage, I gave an invitation for any who felt led to walk down the aisle and make their secrets manifest before God and His people. After some encouragement, Sister Robinson came down and unwrapped Harriette from around her waist. Touched by her example, Sister Kite stood and raised her sunhat to reveal a bat-winged toad nesting in her hair. Brother Rook also came forward to confess the growth on his back, which we’d spent months praying for, was, in fact, a three-tailed spider-cat lying still and flat beneath his blazer. Standing alongside those three brave souls and their little critters, I declared that from that day forth, no one else’s secrets need remain hidden.

Church, be careful what you pray for. I soon met Sister Martin’s gator-snouted jackrabbit, Brother Drake’s leaping shark-toothed koala, and Sister Swift’s scorpion-tailed chameleon-eyed ferret. These were only the beginning.

Each Sunday brought not only new critters but new catastrophes. Ripped skirts, nipped heels, and soiled seat cushions quickly became the least of our concerns. The Fifth-Sunday Potluck was ruined when a unicorned greyhound knocked over the serving table and shoved her pig-shaped nose into every last dish. Miss Lory’s baptism was postponed after an iridescent dragon-scaled swan took a dip in the baptistry and left behind a few twinkling floaters. But no incident caused more fuss than finding Aardie inside Brother Crane’s casket, feasting on the man’s toenails, not that he had any further use for them.

I confess I was a hot mess. I may have kept it together on the outside, but my soul was being tossed about like a ship at sea. My inbox overflowed with irate emails. Even non-church members were calling to schedule meetings. Many “concerned citizens” felt our pet-friendly policies were emboldening our members to bring their little critters out with them wherever they went: stores, restaurants, schools. Then came our first viral video: Harriette’s organ playing. Dear Lord, the YouTube comments! That, in turn, brought the protestors, some of whom are outside waving their picket signs as I speak. But it also brought from far and wide new members who had either been rejected by more narrow-minded churches or had never before found the courage to bring their critters into the light.

Take Brother Heron over there. The first time I saw his scalpel-feathered turkey, I heard the devil whisper, “You can’t let that thing go swinging its foot-long blades up and down the aisle. Think of the children.” Then, I noticed the patchwork of bloody bandages beneath Brother Heron’s shredded slacks. Did our Lord not have compassion for the poor and downtrodden? Was it not the dirty, smelly, and covered with sharp edges for whom he shed his blood? Here was a man willing to do the same for a lost, defenceless animal.

So, we used our Good Samaritan fund to buy Brother Heron a pair of NHL-certified shin guards. We even drove a service team fifty miles out to his house to install a plexiglass border around the base of his walls and furniture. You’ve never seen a man so grateful. In the fires of persecution, it was testimonies like his that kept me pressing onward and upward.

Yet the pressures from without were but a mustard seed compared to the storm brewing within our walls. When the Founding Forty unanimously asked me to serve as your lead pastor, I vowed to protect this flock from the petty bickering which led our predecessors astray over at Blessed Assurance. Imagine how it grieved my heart to witness you already breaking into factions. Factions who were looking to me, a small-town preacher without a single hour of seminary credit, to settle the debate. Who am I to separate the tares from the wheat? It was all I could do to keep track of the newest positions from one week to the next.

The Delusionists were quickly silenced. After all, we’ve all seen the little critters bleed and draw blood. Then, the End-Timers gained traction, claiming just as the paired animals arriving at Noah’s doorstep signalled the coming flood, our little critters were a sure sign of impending doom. In contrast, the New Edenists argued these were prototypes of the creatures that would fill the New Heaven and Earth. On the other hand, the Environmentalists believed the critters were physical manifestations of man’s perversion and exploitation of nature. The Evangelists said these were fallen creatures who, like men, needed to hear the Good News. Some cried demons, while others called them cherubim. Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John. Are not the heavenly beings from these prophets’ visions all depicted as chimerical beasts?

Eventually, all this arguing and fiddle-faddle boils down to one question: Do these critters have souls or don’t they? If they have souls, they can be saved. And if they can be saved, they can be members of this church. That’s precisely what we’ve gathered to determine this evening, whether to treat these poor critters as equals or inferiors.

It would seem each of us has landed firmly on one side or the other, with the exception of those few anonymous cowards, The Purgers, who seek to remove these critters not only from our pews but from the face of the Earth. I’ll never forget the Wednesday night two animal control officers marched into a prayer meeting and hauled poor Aardie away in a net. You’ve never heard such a heart-wrenching cry. It took Brother Rook, the best lawyer in the county, a full week to get little Aardie here back in the loving arms of Sister Dovey. We still haven’t discovered who is responsible for these so-called acts of purification. But rest assured, the Lord knows.

The day those men came for Aardie is the day I decided to turn my prayers into action by leaning into my spiritual gift of getting folks involved. In this case, getting critters involved. I trained the grazers to weed the gardens and trim the hedges. I taught Brother Heron’s turkey to pass out communion. Even made the switch from crackers to bread so we could stick a bite-sized piece on the tip of each scalpel. I placed water bowls and treats at every entrance and built an outdoor play area with plastic baggie stations at my own expense. I wrote the curriculum for a new Connections Class for members and their critters. I even organized a drive-through Live Nativity featuring the most diverse cast of “barn animals” you’ve ever seen. I dare say it was an evangelistic success, and not just because Sister Larkin’s giant scythe-bladed mantis decapitated the plastic Baby Jesus, causing yet another video to go viral.

But as attendance and new memberships increased, so did the gossip and name-calling and, eventually, the hate crimes: Church members fired for posting photos with their critters on social media. “Exorcisms” performed by drenching critters with oil and tying crosses to their tails. Some even went so far as to kidnap poor Hariette. Praise God, she turned up alive and unharmed, hiding in Sister Wolff’s barn.

Through all this, those relatively few of you who actually had your own little critters repeatedly asked me to pray for you to just be left alone. How you yearned to sit in church again without feeling sized-up or singled out! Never have I felt like such a failure as I did in those moments. I began to believe the Lord had abandoned me. But when I look back on this season from Glory, I know I’ll see only one set of footprints in the sand. Amen?

The Lord’s sovereign plan was only revealed to me this past Friday evening. I was enjoying a divine meatloaf with my lovely wife and daughters when I beheld through our dining room window a transient gentleman rummaging through our garbage cans. I was always eager to care for the poor; I fixed him a doggy bag, threw on a coat, and stepped out onto the porch, locking the door behind me. After all, I had my girls to think of.

The transient gentleman took the bag of food and asked if I could spare some cash. Mind you, this man’s appearance made it evident he couldn’t be trusted with any amount of money, so I offered to take him grocery shopping instead. But he refused, saying he couldn’t ask me to leave my family at dinnertime—a sure sign he was only after booze and cigarettes.

I said God bless and goodnight, but he forced a cough and asked if I had a winter coat, he could “borrow.” I took the opportunity to inform him of the church’s Good Samaritan ministry and invited him to stop by during business hours. When he asked if he could come inside to warm up, the Spirit alerted me to his evil intention. You’d understand if you’d seen the way he was eyeing my girls through the dining room window.

Just then, I was distracted by the all too familiar bleating of a goat. Would you believe it? The very speckled goat that’s been terrorizing the church grounds for months had strolled right onto my front lawn.

I promptly escorted the transient gentleman back to the curb, warning that if he set foot on my property again, I’d be forced to call the authorities. Then, I went for the goat. I shooed and shouted and shoved, but the stubborn brute wouldn’t budge. So, I pulled out my cell phone and called the Methodist pastor. I demanded he come to retrieve his goat, but he said all his goats were accounted for. When I pressed him on the matter, he asked me to describe the animal.

Examining the beast by the porchlight, I noticed some peculiar features that had previously escaped me due to his history of running off before I could get close. Instead of two nostril slits, he had four. His tongue, ears, and tail were all slightly forked. His horns and hooves were made of something like jagged obsidian. Even his speckled grey coat had an unnatural sheen. In fact, other than the characteristic horizontal pupils, nothing about this goat was normal. Not too proud to admit when I’ve been wrong, I began to wonder whether this beast really did belong to the Methodist pastor. Or anyone, for that matter.

Tongue-tied, I stared at the goat for some time before noticing the dial tone blaring in my ear. I looked about and saw the transient gentleman rifling through my garbage again like a dog returning to his vomit. I kindly asked him once more to move on, but he said he wanted to clean up his mess first, which I didn’t believe for a second.

I turned back to the goat and, exasperated, grabbed it by the horns. They slipped right through my grip, and I fell flat on my backside. My hands throbbed with pain. Both palms had been sliced clean open. Behold, the scars!

The transient gentleman asked if I was okay. I stood and told him I was fine, but he started toward me across the lawn anyway. Being a man of my word, I got my phone back out to call the police, but it slipped out of my bloodied hands and onto the grass. I tried but couldn’t manage to pick it up. Seeing it was a brand-new Pixel—donated by an anonymous church member, of course—the transient man went for it, no doubt hoping to pawn it for drug money. I shouted at him to stay back, but he kept coming.

At that very moment, to my everlasting surprise, the speckled goat stepped to my side and belched a giant fireball at the man. The blaze hit so near his feet that his sneakers caught fire. He kicked them off and ran down the street as fast as he could, his shoes still smoking in a charred-black patch on my front lawn. He wasn’t seriously injured, thank the Lord, but he’ll think twice before assaulting another man of God.

While I stood amazed by what I’d just witnessed and the goat stood chomping away on my St. Augustine, my own blood dripping from his horns, the Lord said to me in an almost audible voice, “Fear not, for unto you is given this night a goat.”

It’s true, folks. I, too, have a pet critter of my own. I’ve had him all along but been too blind to see it. I named him Rev since he breathes fire to devour his enemies like the two witnesses in Revelation. He’s here tonight. Would you like to meet him? Come on out, Rev. No need to worry. He’s perfectly safe. See that? Even little Aardie likes him.

Brothers and Sisters, I tell you my story so that you might fully understand this confession: I have broken the command of Matthew 7, verses 1 and 2. I have judged. I have meted with an unjust measure. While outwardly, I appeared to be an advocate for these critters, in my spirit, I was more concerned with keeping up appearances than with seeking God’s sovereign will. I feared losing members and influence. I was bitter toward these animals for the conflict and inconvenience they created. At times, I was even jealous.

That’s right, I’m a sinner saved by grace, just like the rest of you. But His mercy is new every morning. Through Rev, He has shown me that these critters are not to be feared, despised, or envied but rather embraced. They are powerful heavenly beings, sent to aid us in our righteous endeavours and to deliver us from evil. To treat them as anything less would be to blaspheme the Holy Ghost. Therefore, I’m asking every member here tonight to vote in favour of granting to these God-sent critters full membership, with all its rights and privileges.

Deacon Finch will now distribute the ballots while Sister Robinson and Harriette lead us in singing “Just as I Am.”

Brothers and Sisters, the votes have been counted. Of our 145 members, 72 voted in favour and 73 against. The motion has failed to pass.

Settle down, folks. Settle down.

I confess I’m disappointed. I would have thought the wondrous signs I shared with you were enough to dispel every shadow of doubt. But who am I to judge? Even those who heard Jesus’ teachings firsthand were ever hearing and never understanding. We must bear with those of weaker faith as we continue to pray and–

Excuse me, Sister Wolff, but you haven’t been recognized to speak. I’m sorry, but you’ve had plenty of chances to make your case, which you’ve taken full advantage of. Please sit down. I have a few closing remarks before we dismiss to the Fellowship Hall.

Why, Sister, what in God’s holy name? Put Aardie down this instant! Why must you insist on causing a scene? You’ve argued for months, and now you’ve gotten exactly what you wanted. What more could you hope to accomplish by these theatrics?

Calm down, Rev. Everything’ll be fine.

Put that knife away, Sister Wolff. You have our attention. No one has to get hurt. What is it you want to say?

What do you mean just the beginning? Extermination? Now, wait just a minute. This vote was whether to grant the little critters membership. Murder was never on the table.

Stay back, Sister Dovey. I’ll handle this.

You’ve been secretly leading the Purger movement all along, haven’t you, Sister Wolff? I should’ve known. You kidnapped Hariette. You called animal control on Aardie. You’ve been trying to get rid of him ever since that day in my office. And now you want to finish the job. I don’t know how Satan has so filled your heart, but don’t be deceived into thinking tonight’s vote indicates anyone else here will go along with this wickedness. Or was this always your plan, no matter how the vote turned out? Either way, I can’t let you do this.

Rev, do not let her harm that animal.

Listen to me. There’ll be no violence in the House of the Lord tonight. You’re going to stand perfectly still while Rev gets Aardie and brings him to me. Understand? Don’t move an inch. Remember what happened to that transient gentleman. That’s it. Nice and–

Sister Wolff!

Lord have mercy. There’s nothing left of her but a pile of ash.

Has Aardie been harmed, Sister Dovey? Not a scratch. Hallelujah. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God has spared him from the flames.

Church, you know, I would never suggest this under normal circumstances as it technically contradicts our by-laws, but in light of this miraculous sign and seeing as we’ve just lost a member, it’s only fitting that we recast the vote. The Lord has spoken in a mighty way here tonight, and it would be a sin to deny you the chance to respond in obedience.

Deacon Finch, would you please pass out a fresh round of ballots?

Ryan Shane Lopez is a teacher with an MFA in fiction from Texas State University. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Hypnopomp, Deep Overstock, Porter House Review, Lunate, Fudoki, Patheos, Bodega, and The Bookends Review. He lives in Texas with his wife and their two daughters. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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