December 19, 2014

Blessing the Animals

Note from CM: Last Sunday, I pulled into the parking lot at the church I was attending and noted that they were having an outdoor service. Getting out of my car, I saw folks walking their dogs and carrying other pets toward the chairs. “Ah,” I thought as I smiled, “they’re blessing the animals this morning!” I have heard of these services, but never attended one before. It was delightful, an affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation, our connection with this world and its creatures, and God’s amazing love for the works of his hands.

You can read about the background of these services here: “Blessing of Animals,” by Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M. As Mackin says, this tradition has come about in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day (Oct. 4), and is conducted in remembrance of his love for all creatures. St. Francis’s great hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” calls heaven and earth and all therein to worship our Maker.

I won’t say more about the observance, other than that it was a wonderfully refreshing affirmation of our Creator’s care. I asked the pastor, Rev. Mark Havel, for permission to reprint his sermon, and he graciously said yes.  So, here is his message, emphasizing God’s radical love for all his creatures.

* * *

Matthew 6:20-30

[Jesus said,] “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

A little dog story, in honor of the occasion at hand…

Back in early August a couple of hikers were some 14,000 feet up the side of a mountain, somewhere in Colorado, when one of them noticed a dog – a big German Shepherd, Rottweiler mix of a dog – nestled between some rocks on a ledge.  It was obvious that someone had left her there, which they couldn’t understand, because no one’s pet would try to make their way up such a steep, rough, dangerous climb without some encouragement.

Anyway, the dog couldn’t get to them – partly because the terrain of the mountain was too tricky and partly because the dog was obviously weak and injured, with raw, bleeding pads on her feet and elbows, from where she’d obviously been trying to make her way down the mountain for some time.  So, the young couple wasn’t able to rescue the dog themselves, but they did bandage her wounds and leave her in a safer place than they found her, with some water to drink, before they headed back down the mountain to look for help.  On the way down the mountain, they found a sympathetic ranger who felt badly, but wasn’t able – I suspect because of some rule or regulation – to help with the rescue efforts on behalf of a dog.

So the young couple, with the help of a Facebook page, put out a plea for help with the rescue.  A few days later – 8 days after the dog was initially left, for dead, on the mountain – 8 people made their way up to save her.  They fought through a snow storm, found the dog un-bandaged and bloodied all over again, loaded all 100+ pounds of her into an oversized backpack, and headed back down the mountain, in what amounted to a 9 hour rescue mission that saved her life.

And she’s fine…recovering…and even though her original owner was discovered…Missy, will likely be adopted by one of her rescuers.

Some might hear such a story and wonder “why so much trouble for the likes of a dog?”  Some might rationalize that we should spend so much time and energy and effort to rescue people in the same way that these eight kind souls were compelled to go after this hound.  Some might think it silly to bless pets, during worship, on a Sunday at church.

All of this to me is about acknowledging just how connected we are as God’s created ones.  It’s about seeing ourselves in that little ditty from Genesis we hear so often – as being crafted by the hands and heart of God, as being linked by our goodness in God’s eyes, and as being bound to one another and to the whole of God’s creation in powerful ways.

And all of this, too, is about acknowledging and celebrating just how radical and irrational and unrestrained and illogical God’s love for all of creation is.  And it’s about our call to practice that kind of radical, irrational, unrestrained, illogical sort of grace on behalf of all that God has made.

It doesn’t make sense, after all, that any one of us is rescued from the mountains of our sinfulness by the grace we know in Jesus Christ.  It makes no sense that God would bother to climb onto, not a mountain, but a cross, to redeem what so many would just as soon leave for dead.  It makes no sense that God would care to seek, to heal… to redeem… to love… to adopt… to welcome home sinners like you and me.

There are plenty of reasons why some might be more worthy than others; why some might be more guilty than others; why some might deserve more or less attention or forgiveness or care or concern than others.  But God’s grace doesn’t make that kind of sense.  God’s grace comes after us no matter what.  God’s love finds us no matter what.

And if you brought a pet with you today – or if you’ve ever been lucky enough to have a pet like these – you know what that kind of unrestrained love and devotion and grace feels like, whether your animal has shared it with you, like the most faithful of dogs; or whether you’ve been blessed to offer it to one of those cats who couldn’t care less!

Whatever the case, we bless our animals today as a reminder of their importance in our lives, as a celebration of God’s creation and our place in the midst of it, and as an experience of grace – given and received – by the one who rescues and redeems us all in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

* * *

Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

O Praise Him! O Praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia!

Comments

  1. This is love(ly).

  2. Christiane says:

    Prayer For The Animals

    “Hear our humble prayer, O God,
    for our friends the animals,
    especially for animals who are suffering;
    for animals that are overworked,
    underfed and cruelly treated;
    for all wistful creatures in captivity
    that beat their wings against bars;
    for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
    or frightened or hungry;
    for all that must be put death.
    We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
    and for those who deal with them
    we ask a heart of compassion
    and gentle hands and kindly words.
    Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
    and so to share the blessings of the merciful.”

    Author – Albert Schweitzer

  3. Note to Pastors: See, deep theological truths CAN be communicated in under 20 minutes.

    • Michael, you are on target with that comment. When listening to Mark’s sermon, it did not come across as short, because the content and presentation were thoughtful, rich, and engaging. When he sent me the text, I was amazed at how short it was!

      Of course, with an audience full of dogs straining at their leashes, it had to be!

  4. Randy Thompson says:

    to be honest, I really don’t know what to do with the blessing of the animals.

    One the one hand, it’s a nice thing to do and a tangible way of affirming God’s love for His whole creation, and an environmental teaching moment, if you will. On the other hand, it feels like the scene in Robert Altman’s MASH where the chaplain, alone, largely ignored and generally harmless, is seen blessing a jeep.

  5. There’s something about our relationships to animals as pets that’s more like fantasy than reality. For this reason, I’m afraid I do find this practice to be more silly than substantive. I think Rev. Mark Havel does an admirable job of trying to defend the practice, but, for me, the defense fails because it ends up baptizing our fantasies about animals. Why not go all the way and baptize our pets and then serve them communion?

    • There’s no doubt that this kind of thing might get a little silly. I’m not sure, though, how we can more effectively communicate God’s love for all living creatures in a worship service than to have animals (and therefore our pets) present. Perhaps a service at a local zoo?

      • I’d settle for singing This is my Father’s World. Blessing the lions may bring some unpleasant surprises.

      • Randy Thompson says:

        Given the fellow who wanted to “be one” with the tiger at the Bronx Zoo recently, I suspect zoos might be a bit twitchy about people wanting to do spiritual things around the animals—especially the big cats!

        Come to think of it, how do you bless a gorilla?

        (Hint: At a safe distance. . . )

    • > There’s something about our relationships to animals as pets that’s more
      > like fantasy than reality.

      Absolutely. As the research is really starting to come in this becomes so apparent; most of what the average person believes about Fido is probably false, at least scientifically [dogs are *not* color blind, dogs are not at all equivalent to domesticated wolves (they do not “pack” in the same way), a dog doesn’t kiss – that is just chemical analysis as they have an additional scent like sense built into the roof of their mouths, their vision is not like ours at all (they aren’t just far-sighted, they are near-blind, and all sense of eye-contact is probably contrived)].

      On the other hand – people may believe all kinds of ignorant things about Fido – but that doesn’t make the relationship a “fantasy”. Fido reliably passes theory-of-mind tests [he knows you are a you, and not just an object] as well as object-persistence tests [he knows you exist, even when not in his surroundings]. That Fido genuinely cares about its owner is evident [or at least is concerned about the state of its owner], it just might not be the “cares” he feel towards Fido.

      Aside: or it could go the other way. We aggrandize our own concern about other people [and creatures, and issues], when perhaps it isn’t all that more ‘sophisticated’ than Fido’s; and I only use the term “sophisticated” for lack of a better term, not to insult Fido.

      It is that something so different, and most certainly not-us, can have a relationship with us, and work cooperatively to such an amazing degree… there is no doubt that a trained Fido can do some awesome things…that really touches me. Fido is a bit of a special case as the Fidos and the people have had a long time to work this out, but the same is true for horses and other animals that are less genetically bastardized. Silly people’s fantasy’s about relationships with animals, I believe, would only be turned into greater amazement if they realized the chasm that is being crossed. There might be some theology buried in there somewhere.

      > For this reason, I’m afraid I do find this practice to be more silly than substantive.

      It certainly could turn silly. It needs to be done in a reverent and serious fashion, and avoid indulging absurdity. But couldn’t the same be said about lots of things? I’ve seen no shortage of youth programs that are little better than silly.

      > the defense fails because it ends up baptizing our fantasies about animals.

      I do not think so. It could do that, but it doesn’t have to. It could even be an educational opportunity.

      > Why not go all the way and baptize our pets and then serve them communion?

      That is an important distinction – you can bless and admire something without incorporating into the salvation narrative.

      • I like what you say here, Adam, especially your points about the chasm being crossed and the distinction between blessing and incorporating into salvation. It may be that on the last day we will realize that we had only two ways of interacting with God’s creation, blessing or cursing. All our delusions about exploiting, sentimentalizing, or ignoring creation will be judged as they fit into those two categories.

        • When my sons were about 10 and 11, we had a college student baby-sit them in our home on Sunday afternoons, while Dad was at work as a retail manager (don’t miss those rough days) and I was sleeping before my midnight shift as a brand new, bottom of the totem pole RN.

          After several weeks, she came to me, very troubled, and told me that she was worried about our younger son…..while discussing pets, he shared with this lovely young lady that animals did not have souls.

          I suppose she thought we were raising a sociopath-in-training….She was pretty flustered when I said, “Of COURSE animals don’t have souls. Only humans have souls and are created in the image of God Himself. Animals have some sort of spirit, but they don’t have immortal souls. This is the teaching of the Church and what we believe in our home.”

          Still don’t know if she held some sort of pantheistic outlook on life, or was a secret Buddistm or what…..but I think of her confusion whenever the blessing of animals rolls around again each fall.

          • >“Of COURSE animals don’t have souls. Only humans have souls and are created in the image of God Himself

            This notion has always puzzled me. People are so certain about it one way or the other.

            Scripture seems rather mum on the subject. And what is “soul”. It would seem we first need to define that is some practicable way before we can tell each other who or what does or does not have one.

            Aside: we all know that gingers do not have souls

            An then you have “spirit”. Humans [at least according to some] have bodies, souls, and spirits. What is the difference between a soul and a spirit?

            And anyway, it matters a great deal more to me if you treat me with kindness and mercy than if you believe i do/do-not have a soul/spirit/soul-and-spirit. I’m quite certain the beasts feel the same about that issue as I do; or at least they would if they could figure out what we where talking about [which in this area, I stuggle with as well].

            It seems like most people-on-the-street use “soul” to mean personhood, personality, or, perhaps, sentience. This at least is practicable. I personally use soul==sentience. But then we have to define sentience. I set the bar at theory-of-mind – if he/she/it is aware that I am aware then it is aware. Ergo, dogs and dolphins have souls. This depends on where you set the bar for sentience, some people use human==sentient.

            Spirit is another matter. This I think denotes the particular religious [to avoid the redundant term “spiritual”] relationship between God and humanity. This would then clearly be a uniquely human quality. If other creatures have some defined relationship between themselves and the creator – that is their concern, not ours.

            That is how I solve the issue. Very few people I’ve read approach this issue in any way that I can actually use, which is disappointing.

      • Good thoughts Adam,

        You’ve given me a few places to rethink things.

  6. I love your small dog story, because I love my (smallish) dogs! They show me unfailing love & have been by my side through many dark days. One of the things I have been disappointed by in the general christian population has been the lack of concern for animals, from those who buy battery eggs & factory farmed meat, to those who treat pets like objects, i.e. some Amish & their horrific puppy farms .It may be that as I came out of a background of being an animal rights activist (not the hardcore type) it just looked disappointing to me, but I’ve not really met that many christians who share the joy I’ve felt regarding animals & the whole natural world since the day I was born.

  7. If anybody wonders what the evangelical collapse will look like, here is part of your answer. The church has pet day.

    Not a bad sermon though.

    • Boaz, “evangelicals” (in the current sense) would never do such a thing. They’re too busy trying to escape the world to affirm it in such a winsome way.

    • Boaz, I see your point.
      But with the trend of sermons as life principles, it would be about proper pet care as determined by the bible – I’m sure a few verses could be found.

    • And here’s another part of your answer: people take themselves too seriously. More specifically, Boaz, you take yourself too seriously. If the church can’t be childlike every once in awhile, we’re damned for sure.

    • I attended the first one of these events last year at our new church. From my background, it seemed to me as an occasion like show-and-tell, and clearly some treated it like a Jesus pet show. My views are changing. Ours, for example, is an Amish rescue dog. (No, its not trained to search for stranded buggies). We know the squalor it came from, and this example of suffering, mercy and redemption in itself is a small but enduring lesson for our children. And, it is wonderful to see them marvel at the created world – to enjoy it, to nurture it, and for it to make them happy in a good way. These are attributes of God’s image reflected in ourselves. Granted, animals do not have original sin, and they do not accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior. But for a brief time, all these dissimilar creatures lived together in harmony and protection on the Ark, along with man. We all were/are affected by natural evil, and we all need blessing and healing, and we all groan for all things to be made new

  8. Lovely sermon!
    For those of you interested in exploring a Christian engagement of animals and our relationships with them you might check out Not One Sparrow, http://www.notonesparrow.com.

  9. Wonderful post!

    We have a blessing of pets at the school where I teach. It is a deeply beloved day, especially for the younger grades. To see little children lovingly commend a cherished puppy or goldfish to the care of their Heavenly Father makes me think of the delight God must have taken in creating the world, with its creatures great and small, and it reminds me that we are called to become like little children ourselves …

  10. Christiane says:

    my favorite pet story:

    The Old Man and His Dog
    By: Author Unknown

    An old man and his dog were walking along a country road, enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to the man that he had died. He remembered dying, and realized, too, that the dog had been dead for many years. He wondered where the road would lead them, and continued onward.

    After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall, white arch that gleamed in the sunlight. When he was standing before it, he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother of pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He was pleased that he had finally arrived at heaven, and the man and his dog walked toward the gate. As he got closer, he saw someone sitting at a beautifully carved desk off to one side.

    When he was close enough, he called out, “Excuse me, but is this heaven?”

    “Yes, it is, sir,” the man answered.

    “Wow! Would you happen to have some water?” the man asked.

    “Of course, sir. Come right in, and I’ll have some ice water brought right up.” The gatekeeper gestured to his rear, and the huge gate began to open.

    “I assume my friend can come in…” the man said, gesturing toward his dog.

    But the reply was, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t accept pets.”

    The man thought about it, then thanked the gatekeeper, turned back toward the road, and continued in the direction he had been going. After another long walk, he reached the top of another long hill, and he came to a dirt road which led through a farm gate. There was no fence, and it looked as if the gate had never been closed, as grass had grown up around it. As he approached the gate, he saw a man just inside, sitting in the shade of a tree in a rickety old chair, reading a book. “Excuse me!” he called to the reader. “Do you have any water?”

    “Yeah, sure, there’s a pump over there,” the man said, pointing to a place that couldn’t be seen from outside the gate. “Come on in and make yourself at home.”

    “How about my friend here?” the traveler gestured to the dog.

    “He’s welcome too, and there’s a bowl by the pump,” he said. They walked through the gate and, sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a dipper hanging on it and a bowl next to it on the ground. The man filled the bowl for his dog, and then took a long drink himself.

    When both were satisfied, he and the dog walked back toward the man, who was sitting under the tree waiting for them, and asked, “What do you call this place?” the traveler asked.

    “This is heaven,” was the answer.

    “Well, that’s confusing,” the traveler said. “It certainly doesn’t look like heaven, and there’s another man down the road who said that place was heaven.”

    “Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates?”

    “Yes, it was beautiful.”

    “Nope. That’s hell.”

    “Doesn’t it offend you for them to use the name of heaven like that?”

    “No. I can see how you might think so, but it actually saves us a lot of time. They screen out the people who are willing to leave their best friends behind.”

  11. Well said, Ryan!

  12. > Some might hear such a story and wonder “why so much trouble for the likes of a dog?”
    > Some might rationalize that we should spend so much time and energy and effort to
    > rescue people in the same way that these eight kind souls were compelled to go after
    > this hound.

    But there is an important difference: a dog trapped on the ledge of a mountain wants to be rescued. Its ‘primitive’ brain knows, with primal clarity, that being stuck on a ledge is bad.

    Humans aren’t generally trapped on literal ledges [and that is what the ranger and the coast guard and firefighters, etc… are there for, standing by]. Human’s often build their ledges, and unlike the dog, a human is likely to cling to their ledge and scream “mine” if you try to take them off of it.

    When I was about 9 I bought a pony – cheap. It was an unmanageable beast according to the frustrated owner. Since it wouldn’t obey they had wrapped a 2×4 in barb wire and beat it – often across the face – in order to try to make it obey. In dark humor, the pony was named Spike. It isn’t hard to imagine how this animal felt about people, you couldn’t get near it. But I got it home an into a stall. Then I put a sleeping bag in the stall and slept their. Within 48 hours of my constant presence I could approach the animal – it just got used to my being their and nothing bad happening … in 48 hours. By the end of the week I could ride him. Other than that he liked to break fences I never had any manageability problems with him.

    But if a human being is brutalized, the recovery won’t be complete in 48 hours, or a week. It is going to be exhausting. And if you try and then give up, then you didn’t help.

  13. Chaplain Mike ~ thanks for this post. I have never quite understood this tradition of blessing of animals. I CAN attest to the healing power of having a pet. After becoming a widow and having to put down our beloved cat a few months later my grief was intense. Never will I forget coming home in the rain from the vet’s office with that empty carrier to an even emptier house. How I grieved and hurt. It took a couple of years and one morning I saw a photo in our local paper of the “Pet of the Week” sponsored by our humane society. I know it sounds crazy but I knew this was my cat. I quickly got ready and went to the pet store and got the “basics'” then off to the humane society. The cat was still there and I like to say I adopted him but…well as the bumper sticker says, “Who Rescued Who?” Well, this cat has brought such laughter, such joy and such profound companionship into my life. Every day as he sits in my lap I thank God for him. I also asked a good friend to put up a bird feeder I had purchased so I could watch the birds from my window. So – in my loneliness and grief I turned to God’s creatures and found healing. I am glad that the animals are blessed but I can tell you that I am blessed by them. Thank you Lord for these creature-friends.

    • Christiane says:

      is a prophetic phrase supposedly spoken by Chief Seattle, this:

      “If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit . . . “

      • And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

  14. What a lovely sermon. We had to put our dog down a few months back – and I still cry unexpectedly at her loss….like right now. Thank you.

  15. birdwoman says:

    Every creature, human and non-human, has value and purpose. And that value and purpose is derived from Creator Jesus himself, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.
    Yes, I feel quite dogmatic about that.

    Yet, many humans despise and even hate certain creatures, an attitude I never could comprehend.
    I don`t like all creatures either, but hating??
    I have more than a few times learned the value and purpose of beings whose existence I used to question.
    Take mosquitoes, for instance – what do they do other than pursuing my hide as an easy lunch?
    They actually pollinate more flowers than bees do. I just recently learned about this, and you cannot imagine my surprise!

    Respect for ALL of creation does not come easy to a western mindset – it`s counter cultural.
    But anyone can learn to appreciate it by simply becoming more observant.
    Creator Jesus` awesome glory and power is clearly evident in all of his creation!!!
    I`d encourage anyone to take a closer look, especially at despised creatures, such as insects. They are wonderfully and intricately made!

    The western idea that only humans [really only those considered “fully human”] have souls/spirits is faulty and leads to incredible abuse and cruelty.
    Once I immersed myself in a lenghty bible study on [the difference of] soul and spirit and finally came to the conclusion that the bible uses these terms interchangeably.

    But then I am a dirty animist anyway………..