Rev. Meg Barnhouse
January 29, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756
We bring our well-behaved animals to church to bless them and to recognize the blessing they are to our lives.
This is an exercise that you would go through if you were being taught to be an animal trainer. You get to play the dog, and another trainer plays the — well, the trainer. You are in a room together. No words are exchanged. You know there is something the trainer wants you to do. The trainer has something in mind, like he wants you to put your left leg up on a chair. That’s the secret training goal, and you all will work together until you figure it out . How does he get you to do it? He praises you for doing something close to it. You move your left foot, you get some praise. You move toward the chair, you get some praise. You move away from the chair, you are ignored. Nothing. Hmmmm.. What does he want me to do? You have to put it together, what do you get praised for? When you put your leg on the chair, you are praised extravagantly. Who doesn’t care about praise? Well, cats, but there you go. I have more often had cats than dogs, and, while I have loved horses, I have never had one, or a bird. I did a lot of reading this week, and I got fascinated with dogs, so I will probably end up talking more about them. And I need to say that I am no expert on anything about animals.
That training exercise shows some of what it’s like for animals living in inter-species households. They don’t know our language, and, at least at the start, they don’t know what we want, although as those who have less power, they are more aware of our language and our requirements than we are of theirs.
We sometimes act like they communicate the same way we do. We smile at the animal to say hello. I hope they understand that. For animals, baring teeth is a threat. We would be in trouble if we said “look, that cute dog is smiling at me,” when we saw a dog baring its teeth. We feel close to animals, so we attribute to them the same emotions we would have in a certain situation. If a dog comes to you with ears lowered, chin down, you may think they are sad or being pitiful. That is their non-threatening friendly look. Their excited “Hey! Let’s go!” look is easier to read. Scientists who observe animals say they do have emotions. They get excited, humiliated, threatened and confused by some things we donÔt normally think of. Some things we have in common though. We want to be touched, loved, we want food shelter, attention, territory, a purpose, loyalty, belonging, exercise and fun.
Some things that are important to them, we don’t understand. Most animals, in a group, want to know who is in charge. Is it you? Is it someone else in the family? If you aren’t in charge, then they are. That can be what some animals want. It can produce anxiety in others. I had a greyhound living with me for a while, and I took her with me to a start-up weekend for a new ministry in this district. After a few hours with the members of this church, she walked to the center of a circle we were talking in, turned to face the man who was in charge, and bowed deeply. Was he the President of the congregation? No. Was he the new minister? No. Was he talking the most? No. He was simply one of the founding members, and one of those members who, by virtue of who they are and who they have been, are chieftains in the group. She instinctively knew who was the top dog in that group, and she bowed.
This Sunday we are celebrating a Blessing of the Animals. Why would be bless animals? Because they bless us so often. We don’t talk about them very often, but animals as companions have touched almost all of us, and it is good to acknowledge that. . As children we may have fallen asleep with the purring weight of a cat on our chest. Or on our head. We watched TV in the company of the family dog. We went exploring in the woods and our parents would feel safer knowing that the dog was along with us. They comforted us when we cried, they made us laugh, they were a personality in the midst of the family. For most of us, they still do those things. Here is what people say about animal companions: they give unconditional love. They forgive you anything. They think you are the be all and end all of the universe. They are sensitive to your feelings. They don’t care what you look like, what your sexual preference is, what your skin color or your car model or your job is. They just love you because you belong to them.
Animals have been in relationship with humans for thousands of years. Often in a mutually beneficial way. Often hurting one another. Humans were traveling with jackals, helping each other hunt. The dogs hung around the campfires and ate scraps, sounded the alarm for intruders. Enjoyed some protection from the humans, and gave them protection in turn.
In ancient Egypt, they worshipped cats and dogs. By that time, people had dogs as pets. We know because they were buried, sometimes, with their favorite dogs. The god of cats was named Bast. Egypt was the first country we know of that had laws against harming dogs.
In our country we have laws against cruelty to animals, but in animal farming and animal experimentation, we still perpetrate cruelties that are devastating to face. Some among us prefer not to eat any animal meat, others just want to work for lessening unnecessary suffering in the animals that are raised for food. That is not the purview of this sermon, though, as we are talking about animals that act as human companions. Feelings are strong enough about the animals that live in our homes. I do want to get into talking more about animal rights, just not this morning.
Animals as companions can do so much for us. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May, 1999 demonstrated that older people who have pets tend to have better physical and mental well being than those who don’t. A 1997 study showed that elderly pet owners had significantly lower blood pressure overall than their contemporaries without pets. There is an experimental residential home for the elderly called the Eden Alternative, which is filled with over 100 birds, dogs, and cats and has an outside environment with rabbits and chickens, has experienced a 15 percent lower mortality rate than traditional nursing homes over a span of five years.
Animal Assisted Therapy has been beneficial for kids recovering from abuse or other trauma. There are a few therapeutic homes for kids that use animals to calm agitated kids, to connect with autistic kids, to heal wounded kids. Mending a bird’s wings, caring for sheep and cows, sitting with cats on your lap, relating to dogs, seems to be healing for children. Helping another life through the caring of disabled or unwanted animals teaches nurturing and lets the children see beings who are surviving and relearning trust, just as they must do..
Even for ordinary families in ordinary time, there is a strong psychological and emotional attachment between people and their pets. Studies have revealed that most pet owners view their pets as both improving the quality of family life by lessening tension between family members and waking up their owner’s compassion for living things (Barker, 1993; Pet Theories, 1984; Voith, 1985).Using a projective technique to investigate owners’ closeness to their pet dogs, one study (Barker and Barker (1988, 1990) found that dog owners were as emotionally close to their dogs as to their closest family member. They reported that more than one-third of the dog owners in their study were actually closer to their dogs than to any human family member. I read a book called The Social Lives of Dogs by a classically trained anthropologist who began observing dogs instead of far off tribes. She and her husband had a dog who the husband described as “the keeper of my soul.” He and the dog were inseparable. She asked him idly one day if he had to choose, would it be her on the dog. He was quiet for a moment. “Don’t ask me that,” he answered.
Companionship helps us be healthy and happy. It is part of the art of living.
Economist John Maynard Keynes, saw the purpose of human history as our species learning to “cultivate the arts of life.”
It was in a publication called “Yoga World” that I saw a wonderful description of how to be a good companion. Sometimes an animal can be this to a human, sometimes a human can be this to an animal. Sometimes we can find this with another human. To be a good companion, it says, “You will need to be caring and concerned about his or her happiness. As a friend, you will want to share his or her concerns and labors. Naturally, you will want to make his, her, life more pleasant. You will have to know life and yourself well enough to become trustworthy, capable of keeping your agreements. To be a friend, your word must be true. A true friend, you will hold good will in your heart even when you misunderstand or distrust your gracious companion. You will refuse to indulge bad moods brought on by your inadequacies. It is not easy to be a true friend. ” May we all find a being like this is our lives. May we sometimes be able to be a friend like this ourselves, to another being. Our job here on earth is to learn how to love and be loved. As our animal companions teach us those things, we are grateful to them.
We have our animal blessing at Brigid rather than in October on St. Francis Day. We celebrate our earth-based connections by celebrating in the Spring, in the time when the earth is waking back up from its winter dormancy.
Our theology:: we are all priests and priestesses, and can channel the energy of blessing from the mystery. This is why I invite you to bless your own and one another’s animals. We can ask God to bless our animals or we can bless them just asking the Divine Spark to flow through us and grant our animals blessing We bless by wishing good things for the animals in our families, and by promising them we will love them to the best of our capacity, that we will learn from them, respect them, and that, when it’s time to let them go, we will let them go with honor.
Bless you for depending on me, for trusting me with your well being. Thankn you for all you give me in return. Companionship. Attention, your warm furry body next to me on the sofa, your tail wagging in joy at my return. Your delicious eggs for my breakfast.
You have a safe warm place in my heart and, if you leave this life before I do, I will carry your memory with me. You opened my heart. You taught me compassion and connection.
“We Give Thanks For The Animals”
by Gary Kowalski
We give thanks for the animals
Who live close to nature,
Who remind us of the sanctities of birth and death,
Who do not trouble their lives with foreboding or grief,
Who let go each moment as it passes,
And accept each new one as it comes
With serenity and grace.
Enable us to walk in beauty as they do
At one with the turning seasons,
Welcoming the sunrise and at peace with sunset.
And as we hallow the memory of good friends now departed,
Who loved abundantly and in their time were loved,
Who freely gave us their affection and loyalty,
Let us not be anxious for tomorrow
But ask only that kindness and gratitude fill our hearts,
Day by day, into the passing years.
Blessing for All”
by L. Annie Foerster (adapted)
My furry, feathered and scaled friends, I greet you. You come from the same life force of creation that I do and I greet you as a sister (brother). May your days be filled with love and whatever else you may desire. May your tummy always be full and may you always have a place to rest. May you have many days of love with your human friends. May you play together and work together in gentleness and respect for one another… My furry, feathered and scaled friends, I say farewell. I am happy to have met you. May your life be blessed.
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