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.