Blessing of the Animals

May 7, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Call to Worship

Good morning, church! Good morning, animal friends!
These are the days that have been given to us;
let us rejoice and be glad in them.
These are the days of our lives;
let us live them well in love and service.
These are the days of mystery and wonder;
let us cherish and celebrate them in gratitude together.
These are the days that have been given to us;
let us make of them stories worth telling to those who come after us.
-William R. Murry

*Hymn "We' re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table" #407
We' re gonna sit at the welcome table
We' re gonna sit at the welcome table one of the these days, hallelujah!
We' re gonna sit at the welcome table/gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days!

All kinds of creatures around that table/All kinds of creatures around that table some of these days, hallelujah! All kinds of creatures around that table/gonna sit at the welcome table some of these days!

No fancy style at the welcome table, etc.

Offertory "The Wolf of Gubbio"
According to a famous legend about St. Francis, the people of Gubbio had been terrorized by a wolf who used to come to their village and attack the villagers. He was a ravenous beast, and the people finally got tired living in fear and called on St. Francis for help, as he had the reputation of being able to talk to animals. They sent a delegation to St. Francis and instructed him that he should tell the wolf that there is a commandment against killing. They told St. Francis to tell the wolf to move to someone else' s city.

Francis went into the forest to meet the beast, addressing it as "Brother Wolf." He had a nice talk with the wolf and convinced him to stop attacking and killing the townspeople of Gubbio. There is a moment (often depicted in icons of the saint) where the wolf comes forward and puts his paw in Francis' s hand in a gesture of covenant. Then Francis returned to the town square. "My good people of Gubbio," he told them "The wolf has been converted, but there is something you must do to assure he will not revert to his old ways. You must feed your wolf."

The people are very angry to hear this, but they do feed the wolf, and the killing stops. (adapted from Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, 498 and other sources).

While you are pondering the meaning of the story, the ushers will come among you for your contributions to support the programs and ministries… The gifts of the congregation will be most gratefully received.

Sermon "They Keep Us" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

She works like a dog. He eats like a pig, but on the other hand, he eats like a bird. Trying to organize a group of UUs is like herding cats, but you know, we don' t want to be "a pack of lemmings" or even like a flock of sheep. He gets my goat. They let out a wolf-whistle which really embarrassed her, because she' s as timid as a mouse.

Where would we be without our non-human animal friends? Our figures of speech would be so much less rich, for one thing. Animals have provided covering for our fragile skins, food for our empty bellies, bones for tools, oil for light, free labor for our fields and farms, subjects for scientific experiments that have benefited you and me.

And yet for most of us living in suburbia, our connection to the creaturely world comes exclusively through the companionship of those animal friends we call our pets. For the more politically correct animal advocates, "animal companion" is the preferred term, as it takes away the connotation of ownership. After all, do we really "own" our pets or do they own us? From my own experience as a caretaker of – let' s see – four cats and one dog -- I would vote for the latter option. We' re responsible for their food, shelter and veterinary care -- and to that extent are their keepers -- but truth be told, they "keep" us just as surely as we keep them, but they keep us through bonds of unconditional affection. We keep them through care and they keep us by loyalty. Mary Oliver writes,

"A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own here, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them."

By their silent companionship and their extravagant giving of affection whether we particularly deserve it or not, our animal companions also call us to a more morally conscious position in the world. Living with a pet puts us a little bit closer to what Albert Schweitzer called "reverence for life." They represent the natural world, messy and volatile, in microcosm.

On one level, we simply live with the delight of our animals' presence: how can we but admire their absolute comfort with themselves? When I get overly anxious, I turn to my cat as my role model. When I come home from church today, I know I' ll find her right where she was this morning on my bed. She' ll look at me when I come in, and stretch, and say "I thought the Sabbath day was for rest." And I' ll say, Ermengarde, you have a Sabbath life.

We love our animals. They ask so little. They respond to the simple pleasures of existence with such fullness of spirit. Gary Kowalski tells the simple story of a quiet moment in the life of one of an African baboon:

"A friend who worked in Africa with endangered species showed me a photograph he had taken of a Mandrill, sitting quietly and gazing at a setting sun. The fading light apparently affected the baboon as it would you or me; the Mandrill stopped to muse, experiencing a moment of contemplation or enchantment." (Gary Kowalski, The Bible According to Noah, p.21)

Do animals have souls? When people argue this question I just want to get up and leave the room. How could anyone who has experienced the unconditional love of an animal companion doubt that animals have souls?

Here is a beautiful passage from the Book of Job:
Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee,
And the fowls of the air, and they shall teach thee,
And the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In whose hand is the soul of every living thing.

They love, they feel pain, they certainly seem to grieve the death of their own loves ones, their mates and children and members of their pride or pack or litter. I don' t like to romanticize the animals who are sleek killing machines (or big burly ones, like grizzly bears), but I believe they all possess a soul. That doesn' t mean I' m going to go off to Alaska like Timothy Treadwell and try to be their best friends and end up like Timothy did. (If you want to know what happened – and it' s not a happy ending – see Werner Herzog' s wonderful documentary "Grizzly Man.") But I believe they have a soul. I don' t think they form bonds merely for survival. They love, and that to me is evidence of a soul.

This summer I went to the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. It was built by Stephen Huneck after he came down with a life-threatening illness and wound up in a coma for two months.

One night the doctors told his wife Gwen that her husband was probably not going to make it through the night. They told her they were very sorry and had tried everything, and that night Stephen Huneck did stop living for about five minutes. He had a profound spiritual experience and came out of the coma about two weeks later, to everyone's surprise, except Gwen's.

Huneck had an amazingly strong recovery - he was 45 years old and had to learn to walk again. His three dogs stayed near him with every step. This experience had a profound effect on him, and on his art.

One day, not long after he was back home with his wife and dogs, he got the idea to build a chapel, one that celebrated the spiritual bond between dogs and people, for people of any faith.

He built a chapel on Dog Mountain, in St. Johnsbury and styled it in the manner of a small village church built in Vermont around 1820. The white steeple points up to the heavens, and on the top is a Lab with wings that turns in the wind. (This description was taken from Stephen Huneck' s web site)

I visited the Dog Chapel this past summer and it was a wonderful place. It is a happy place and peaceful and sweet. The artwork is all dog-oriented and people visit with their dogs, or with photos of their dogs and cats and post them on the walls of the chapel. People leave messages that will make you cry: "Sergeant slept on my bed every night. He was my poochamadoodle and I miss him so much." "Dakota was with me before I got married. She has been my best friend and protector all my life. Now I will have to protect myself. Dakota, I will always love you." "Ginger, I' m so sorry." I left a little shrine in one corner with photos of all my striped tabbies: Trilby, Henry, Buster and Ermengarde, and a photo of our family dog, Pippin.

Then I went to stay for a night at a very rustic inn in Vermont, and when I checked in, the owner asked me what brought me to Vermont. Well, I' m on my way up to Canada, I said, and I also wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Dog Chapel. I just went there this afternoon. The woman smiled at me in a frozen way, and raised her eyebrows in disapproval. Oh, really, she commented. "Yes," I said, "And it was absolutely wonderful!"

"I' ve heard they have stained glass windows with winged dogs on them," she said. "And dogs carved into the pews." I told her that was so, and said again, "It was such a special place."

"Well, I guess it is if you worship dogs," she said.

I was pretty stunned. So I just blurted it out: "Do you really think God is threatened by the fact that we love our dogs that much?" I really wanted to know.

"Of course not," she said. "It just all seems a bit much." I told her she ought to see it for herself and to take her dog with her. And I thought of Mark Twain' s famous remark that man is the only animal that blushes… or needs to. For heaven' s sake. What I wanted to say was "What in the world is wrong with worshiping dogs?"
When we allow the beauty of species other than our own to really touch us in a spiritual way, we will inevitably come to understand why Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that the measure of a society' s morality could be measured by how they treat their animals. If we embraced the Native American spiritual practice of regarding animals as our relations, interacting with them mindfully, compassionately, prudently and compassionately, we would have less reason to blush. This is hard to do, as our relationship to animals is ubiquitous and complicated. I remember when my sister was a devoted vegetarian and activist with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). She came home from college for Christmas one year and was getting on her high horse about fur and eating meat and so on. My mother took two little Stick-It notes and wrote "MOO MOO" on them, and put one of the Stickies on each of Karen' s leather boots. And that was the end of the PETA evangelizing at home.

Like I said, it' s complicated. All we can do is begin with mindfulness and gratitude for all that animals provide for us, and we may be led to more serious advocacy on behalf of our animal friends.

Those of you who have gathered here today in the love of your animal companions, thank you for sheltering and caring for these friends. To live with them and care for them is a privilege, a blessing, an exercise in humility, patience and respect for difference.

We call this service the Blessing of the Animals, but of course it is they who bless us.

Let us join our hearts in this prayer for these very special and beloved visitors and friends.

Prayer for the Animals Rev. Weinstein

Gathered here, we pause to acknowledge our place in creation
and our responsibility to it.
We lift up grateful hearts to the Source of Life this day for the
infinite variety of creatures which make our own existence so much richer.
As human beings, stewards of the earth, we extend our blessings to our brothers and sisters of fur and claw, wing and fin, scale and hoof, paws and feathers.
We promise to live with them in harmony as best we can,
to be respectful of the fact that we share the planet together,
and to refrain from exploiting them to selfish or abusive ends.
We pray today for all of the animals who are sick or harmed
and for those who love them,
that they may find peace at the last and comfort in love shared and remembered.
We join our spirits in praise and thanks for those animals who live among us as guides and helpers to the disabled, rescuers of the lost and hurt, and companions to the suffering,
we thank them silently in our hearts,
knowing that love is the only language we share with them.

Creator Spirit, thank you for these, our animal friends, those present today, those we bring with us in our hearts this morning, and those who have crossed the Rainbow Bridge to that peaceful beyond.

If you would like to bring your animals up for a blessing (stuffed animals are fine too), please let the ushers guide you. We will go from one side of the meetinghouse to the next, with this side going first. Please take your hymnals with you, as we invite you to form a circle around the sanctuary rather than returning to your pews for the closing hymn.

Animals Blessing:
Bless you, _______________. Thank you for blessing our lives.

From our hearts and minds into our hands,
May blessings flow
Around and around this circle of friends
May blessings flow
Around and around our beloved earth
May blessings flow. Amen. Woof. Meow.

Postlude and Recessional