Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Animals and Sick People

Last night, we had a good meeting of my congregation's worship committee. In reviewing the past month's activity, it struck some as surprising, unfortunate, and strange that while we had 50 people bring pets to a St. Francis-inspired blessing of animals (1 evening service which took place in such a downpour that only the densest person would not have thought of Noah and the ark), we had only a total of 15 people come to a St. Luke's Day services of healing (over a noon and an evening service on a very nice day).

I believe that part of the reason so few people came is that, like the rest of society, many of us Christians are solipsistic: We are, as Luther said, homo incurvatus in se (i.e., a people turned in or curved in on ourselves). If something doesn't affect or involve me, it's not important or it doesn't exist. So unless hurricane Wilma is ravaging US soil, it's not important for the newscasts to say much about it. And so unless I'm ill, I don't see the point in St. Luke's observances. (Not incidentally, that merges wonderfully with the individualistic, pietistic brand of theology rampant in most Christian traditions now: Salvation has been reduced to my own eternal fire insurance policy, church life is a voluntary-organization thing, and morality becomes a matter of my own conscience and desires.)

This self-absorption gets mixed up in Minnesota with good Midwestern stoicism: I will battle on by myself without whining or seeking help. There's no honor in weakness or in relying on someone else.

Of course, as is evidenced by the fact that Mount Olive's bulletin lists almost fifty people for whom prayers for healing are requested, we stoics are not averse or afraid to offer help. Like most Midwesterners, we are mostly generous (although I think that is changing, too, to reflect a society gone mad with greed and success) and willing to help. And for the most part, I don't think we devalue those whom we help (either in prayer or practice): That's a delicious irony of the Midwestern psyche. (And it may be true of other regions of the world; I'm just not qualified to speak about others.)

Now, I cannot claim to great affection for the blessing of animals -- although I don't know that I feel any distaste for them, either. (What with all the to-do over blessing same-sex relationships, I think it odd to have no reservations about blessing animals -- whatever that might mean -- while fighting over the blessing of people. I just throw that out for your amusement.) On the other hand, my daughter Erika was really gung-ho about it this year, because we now possess -- or rather, are possessed by -- a really cute and lovable Havanese puppy, and this would be Krissie's first blessing. So Erika not only took our dog, but she corralled two friends to bring their new pets for the blessing, too. (There's something here about evangelizing, but I prefer not to think it through. And, no, my friend who shall remain nameless for your own protection: The animals were not baptized, even though they were "asperged." Warren raises an interesting query about the use of asperges in the rite, when asperges is normally associated with remembrance of Baptism. How does that all fit together?)

I fear that the blessing of animals -- read: pets -- rather trivializes Francis' witness: I think he might be put off by the effete treatment many of our pets get, at the same time as people are living in cardboard boxes and going without food. And Francis' respect and affection for animals was inextricably tied up with his celebration of the manifold graces of God to be found, not just in living creatures, but in the natural cycles, the heavenly spheres -- in short, in all that exists (whether it has life and breath or not).

Thus, it would seem to me to be a better tribute to St. Francis if the Church were to devote more attention to catechizing the brothers and sisters so that they are prepared to see the relevance (and even urgency) of and to participate in the multitude of services by which we celebrate the world God has given into our care and for our enjoyment. Rogation services, saints' days, feasts and festivals -- these are all important to the life of faith.

But, even giving our congregations the benefit of the doubt with respect to self-obsession, I think it's fair to convict the church generally (and worship and education departments in denominational bodies and in congregations) of dropping the ball on training the minds and souls of believers to full expression of the life of faith. And with the entry into the church of innumerable people who have no background in the church, it is terribly important to catechize believers -- i.e., not just to train their brains (i.e., educating them in the theology and history of the church) but to train their lives of worship, too. (That was, after all, the early church's model and practice, wasn't it?)

So how can the church do this? How do we help all our members make the
"connections" among the various things the church does? Obviously, preaching is
a key way; but so is plain old-fashioned education: Talk to children about how
we plant gardens and pray God's blessings on them -- and why. Discuss with adults
how praising God for the ministries of pets is related to praying for healing
for people who need it (even if I don't think I do) and how the whole enterprise
reveals my own need for healing in ways I didn't see before.

I used to teach confirmands that when Luther asks, in the Small Catechism, "What does this mean?", he is asking, "How does this connect? How does it connect with other parts of the creed, Our Father, Ten Commandments, church theology? How does it
connect with Jesus and the Church? How does it connect with your life?"

I think that Mount Olive's experience with Francis and Luke days highlights disconnections. And though we are a relatively sophisticated congregation, "even we" have difficulty drawing the connections and putting them into operation. I think that mandates another program for the church. At a time when the ELCA is drafting a "successor" to the Lutheran Book of Worship, I wonder whether that effort is a little like (to quote from other contexts my favorite teacher, Robert Jenson) "rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic." Unless we (re-)catechize Christians into the liturgical expression of the faith, all the worship books in the world, with all the fanciest technology available, will be just so much waste of paper and power.

On the other hand, this may be a way of carrying on the vital ministry of the "liturgical renewal" movement that has served the church well for the last decades. We have learned well that liturgy is a vital component in the growth in grace, but we often forget that our growth in and into liturgical life can be enhanced by educators, poets, and prophets. I have urged our congregation to get with it and begin to realize that to be the Church is to be the worshipping Church.


LoieJ said...

Interesting observation. I've noticed at our church, when we've had healing services, many more women than men feel comfortable coming forward.

And the prayer list in the bulletin contains two to three times more women's names than men's names.

This seems to be the same mind set as males not being able to ask for help or ask directions.

Eric Lee said...

Thus, it would seem to me to be a better tribute to St. Francis if the Church were to devote more attention to catechizing the brothers and sisters so that they are prepared to see the relevance....

I wonder if this is what is meant by Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of his After Virtue when he speaks of needing a "new monasticism" (or so I'm told, I haven't read it yet). I was just talking about these similar issues with my Pastor a couple nights ago. There is a real need to train us Christians in the classical Christianity which much of modernity forgets (intentional or not, I'm not sure).

We're working on figuring out how to do this. We have Bible studies every Wednesday with outlines created for each group around the city by our pastor. We're thinking of starting up a Biblical Theology class at our pastor's house on Sunday evenings. We're tossing around some other ideas as well. The reason I'm mentioning this at all is because I think my pastor wants me to help with the catechesis of our congregation in the coming years -- yipes! :)



Dwight P. said...

If I may make one suggestion about catechizing into the Great Tradition through Bible study: Consult the volumes coming out from -- of all places -- InterVarsity Press in the series, Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scriptures. For each book of the Bible, the editors (under the general editorship if Thomas Oden, who very much shares the desire to bring the early church back into the modern church) collect comments (usually verse by verse) from the history of commentary. So for a verse in Matthew (or a parable), there will be quotations from -- oh -- Basil, Origen, Augutstine, Thomas Aquinas, and others.

I've found that, whenever I lead a Bible study, if I throw some of this in, it generates discussion of changing views, of "who's that" and why should we attend to this.

It's at least a place to start.

On another point, I have never dared begin McIntyre because I hear he's really hard! Yoder and Hauerwas considered him difficult. (And the quotes I've seen were ponderous beyond necessity.) But I'm coming to the view that we can't get a handle on reforming the Church without absorbing some of his stuff.

Finally, I don't think there can be any doubt that women seek aid and comfort more than men. It's socially inculcated from the beginning that men "suck it up" and "take it like a man." (Those phrases are especially haunting to me after last nigh seeing "North Country" -- the movie about the reason for the landmark sexual harassment lawsuit that grew out mining in norhtern Minnesota. It's Oscar quality: See it.)

Lee said...

In a field known for its ponderous writing, MacIntyre is one of the worst offenders. Only the po-mos are worse, in my experience.

However, that doesn't mean he's not worth reading! I personally think that Dependent Rational Animals is his best work. After Virtue is hugely anticlimactic, but in DRA he actually moves into the constructive phase of developing an ethic and what kind of social and political conditions he thinks are necessary for realizing the good life for human beings. I'm not fully convinced by his vision, but then he's Alasdair MacIntyre and I'm not! ;-)