Pentecost 17B, 2000
8 October 2000
(Blessing of Pets)
OF DOGS AND CATS AND GOD: TOWARDS A LIFE-CENTERED THEOLOGY
“To be life-centered
is to be respectful of both life and environment.”
This comment has been offered by American theologian Jay McDaniel in his book Of God and pelicans.
McDaniel is concerned
that we need to shape a new way of thinking about God -
a theology which lives out of a sense of kinship with all life,
not just human life alone.
“An inclusive life-centeredness is needed because ‘the least of these’ now include animals subjected to cruel treatment in factory farms and scientific laboratories, endangered and extinct species whose habitats have been disrupted by direct and indirect exploitation, and the Earth itself, with its shrinking forests, eroded topsoils, encroaching deserts, contaminated waterways, polluted atmosphere and depleted ozone layer”.
Within our religious tradition there is one person who stands out
as an advocate of this kind of thinking... Francis of Assisi.
Il Poverello, “the little poor man”, as Francis was called,
was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1182,
the son of wealthy merchant parents.
Tradition says he grew up as a cheerful and bright young man.
But in spite of his love of luxury and pranks,
he saw many inconsistencies in and around him.
He knew there had to be something better.
During recuperation from a long illness, when he was about 22,
he turned to reading the Bible to pass the time.
Thus, he was exposed to the character and teachings of Jesus.
He was attracted by what he read in Matthew 11:28...
“Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden,
and I will give you rest”.
Francis acknowledged he needed to change his priorities.
His party pals started seeing less and less of him.
And with his loss of enthusiasm for making money,
his enraged father kicked him out of home...
“that dreamer, is no son of mine”.
People began to take him a bit more seriously as time went on.
One by one, other young men began to seek him out privately.
Now they were changing too.
When the group numbered 12,
they journeyed to Rome and received verbal permission
to become a monastic community.
Later, to be known as the Franciscans,
the order was destined for the next seven centuries
to extend its influence to every part of the globe,
establishing itself within both Catholic and Protestant traditions.
Tradition says Francis died on October 4, 1226,
which is why we are remember him this weekend.
And while he was probably the first to begin shaping a life-centered theology,
he is also popularly known for a Christmas event he fostered.
Tradition also says, following a visit to Bethlehem in the year 1220,
Francis returned to his own village and decided to recreate that experience.
He built a manger in a cave,
placed a stone image of the baby Jesus in it
and surrounded it with real animals.
There he said Mass.
And it was reported that the atmosphere was so intense,
it was possible to believe that you were standing at the actual birth.
From then on, nativity scenes,
using large painted wooden figures of the Holy Family,
became exceedingly popular.
Now days, closeness with animals is widely promoted
as being good for human health.
That closeness provides:
love and companionship,
and improves state of mind and body.
In many cities, “Pets as Therapy” programs have been established.
But long before these current programs became popular
a group of people with a love of horses,
began in 1963 in Brisbane, to work with disabled children.
This group is now called Riding for Disabled,
an international association,
and as some of you who are regulars here will know,
Dylis (my wife) is an accredited Coach with RDA.
Riding for Disabled programs assist in rehabilitation and therapy.
So it is much more than offering pony rides to children and adults.
Susan Cusack, former National Executive Director of RDA says:
“Once riders with disabilities are on the horse, the movement of the horse is very good for improving their coordination and balance. And in some cases, with some disabilities, it helps the muscles to get stronger”.
She says there is a psychological benefit for many of the riders in being mobile
and being able to go faster than they normally can
with their crutches or wheelchairs.
“Often it also works over into their educational program and into the development of life skills. Really the horse is the king, the centre piece, of the whole program. Children can do exercises with a physiotherapist and get very bored and very tired of it and not enjoy it very much. But when they do the same things on a horse in an outdoor context, it’s totally different.”
Jay McDaniel is concerned that as Christians
we need to shape a new thinking about God and the world.
A theology which lives out of a sense of kinship with all life,
not just human life alone.
Our simple ‘Blessing of the Pets’ sevice might not seem much on the surface.
Maybe even thought by some of you as just a gimmick or waste of time.
But let me suggest - it is a first step towards shaping a life-centered theology.
A life-centered theology which is open
• to future hopes rather than past achievements
• to a future where there is
love and justice among people,
harmony with nature,
and communion with God.
McDaniel, J. B. 1989. Of God and pelicans. A theology of reverence for life. KN: Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press.