Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beyond the Plush Toy

Beyond the Plush Toy

I’m 67 years old and I still have a stuffed animal on my bed, this cool red soft Monterey Bay Aquarium plush octopus. 

As a guide at the Aquarium, every week I see little kids lovingly holding plush toy sea otters, penguins, orcas, bought that day or brought in as a fellow visitor.   I bet they hold these toys as they go to sleep.  Do stuffed animals help us connect more deeply to God’s diverse creation?

The Aquarium teaches us guides to encourage folks to relate to “iconic animals.”
“charismatic animals,” otters, penguins, white sharks, orcas, octopus, animals we seem to have a special deep connection with, we can love, respect, fear, wonder about, work to conserve.

I’ve been studying St. Francis and will be on retreat in Assisi later this month.  He surely loved animals, preached to the birds, negotiated with a wolf, hosted the first live animal nativity scene.   We call him the saint of ecology, and he remarkably called all living beings his brothers and sisters. 

But I know for sure he did not own a single plush toy stuffed animal. 

The fabulous Franciscan Richard Rohr offers an online class about Francis (I highly recommend) called “Beyond the Bird Bath.”  Francis calls us to live a life of faith that’s more than a warm fuzzy soft of birdbath faith.  The first Francis birdbath only first appeared in the gardens of privileged Connecticut homes and the pages of Architectural Digest in the 1950’s.  We love this guy, let’s sculpt him and keep him in our garden with the birds.

Francis’ ministry and his community are as much about poverty, freedom from things and trust in God, as about ecology.  His message was simplicity.  Not plush toys or birdbaths.   

The most iconic and charismatic creature I know – that would be Jesus.  Also Francis, Clare.  They did not live plush lives.

I love my plush octopus, but I know that God calls me to be real and to honor all creation in its realness.  Octopus actually aren’t soft and cuddly, otters, penguins are not soft plush toys, but struggling wild creatures, sharp teeth, sharp claws.   They work hard just to stay alive and get enough to eat.  My plush octopus makes me happy.  But it also teaches me about real animals, that all animals hunger every day and need homes. Francis reminds me that real life is on the edge, a little hungry, more rough than soft.

I’ll keep my plush octopus, but I will try, like Jesus and Francis, to be wild and real. And to trust in God.

I’ve been writing for the past few weeks about Francis as I prepare to go on retreat in Assisi for two weeks to study him and his colleague Clare.  I’ll be back writing my weekly blogs in November. Please check out to consider a visit to our Pacific Grove ministry connecting faith issues and ocean concerns.  Love God, and love animals, both the live ones and the plush ones. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sister Whale

Sister Whale

I got to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC two hours early to get one of 6000 seats for their annual Feast of St. Francis and Blessing of the Animals.  Saxophonist Paul Winter, as he does every year, led his Consort in his haunting “Missa Gaia/Earth Anthem.” The opening song is St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, with a new second verse.

“All praise be yours through Brother Sun. All praise be yours through Sister Moon.
By Mother Earth my Lord be praised, by Brother Mountain, Sister Sea.
Through Brother Wind and Brother Air, through Sister Water, Brother Fire;
The stars above give thanks to thee; all praise to those who live in peace.

“All praise be yours through Brother Wolf, all praise be yours through Sister Whale.
By Nature’s song my Lord be praised, by Brother Eagle, Sister Loon.
Through Brother Tiger, Sister Seal. Through Sister Flower, Brother Tree.
Let creatures all give thanks to thee. All praise to those who live in peace.”

When I wrote last week about meeting two Franciscans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and how blessed I was to sit and listen to them, I received moving responses from far and wide. Since I am going on retreat in Assisi in a month, I will spend the next three weeks writing more about Francis and his Green/Blue Theology.

Check out this fabulous icon of Francis by Nancy Earle, a Missionary Sister of Immaculate Conception.  Note the traditional Francis animals -  wolf, bird.  But look!  A whale and turtle, ocean as well as land.  One of the other Missa Gaia songs features recordings of humpback whale songs. “Praise be yours through Sister Whale.” 

Pope Francis begins his 2015 encyclical on the environment by quoting from Francis’ Canticle to the Sun, also called Canticle of the Creatures, and praising the saint whose name he took:

“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us….Francis’ response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.”

The annual St. John the Divine Animal Blessing famously ends with a silent procession to the altar by creatures great and small.  I saw (in 2006) llamas, parrots, alpacas, snakes, a cow, (all from a local animal rescue agency) as well as all the pets brought to be blessed.  The Missa Gaia’s first year (1981, 800th anniversary of Francis’ birth) the circus was in town and an elephant led the procession.

Sadly, no Sister Whale.  But whales bless us here in Monterey all the time – this week huge pods of humpbacks have been seen right from the shore. Come say hi to your sister, and be blessed.
Our Blue Theology Ministry is hosting Blessing of the Animals services in Pacific Grove (Oct 13) and La Selva Beach (Oct. 14.)  Join us, or tell us about your service.  Remember to include God’s wet creatures in your blessings.  I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and on Facebook.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Angel Fish

Angel Fish

I was having a bad day as a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It wasn’t the thousands of guests or tens of thousands of fish.  They were just fine -  happy, curious, cute, inspiring.  What was getting on my nerves were a few of the (necessary) policies that guides must follow there – not a huge deal, things like schedules, territory, personalities, expectations.

Then I met the Franciscans, and my day was redeemed and transformed. 

My assignment that half hour was “Greet,” welcome folks as they walk in.  My above grumpiness meant I was not feeling very welcoming.  I told myself, “Just do the next right thing.”  I saw an older couple, woman in a wheelchair, staring with a confused look at our map and program guide.  OK, maybe I can help them find the otter exhibit and its special
“otter-vator” access to the second floor.  I approached, small talk re where are you from, can I help you find anything etc.

They seemed in no hurry to explore.  They said they were on a tour of the California missions and other coastal sites, like the Aquarium.  Oh, I asked, which has been your favorite mission?  (Good Aquarium staff teach us to take interest in the guests, listen, don’t just do an ichthyology lecture.)  I was still standing up while they told me about SF’s Mission Dolores, that their tour was from their Southern Cal parish, how they stayed last night at the St. Francis Retreat in San Juan Baptista.  Oh, I love that retreat center, I said, and decided to sit down on the bench next to these folks and the guy sat also.  How did you know about that retreat center?

Well, we are Lay Franciscans.  We follow Christ in the footsteps of Francis. 

Oh!  I am going to Assisi next month, I said, on retreat.  Gentle here, Streeter, stay with them, don’t talk too much about yourself or religion.   Oh, tell us more, they say, who are you going with, where are you staying?  Well I am a minister in the United Church of Christ and I’m going with 8 other UCC clergywomen.  Oh, make sure you go to…..and they told me some great stories of their several visits there. 

15 minutes later, after much talk on Francis, Clare, their church, various teachers we know in common, I said, well, you probably want to see some fish, can I help you find anything?  No, we are just going to wander, we’re in no hurry, it’s all a blessing. 

Yes, it was all a blessing.  A good travel rule – remember to slow down, listen, and sit with the strangers.  In that way we often meet angels, unaware.
Come on one of our Blue Theology service trips, retreats and pilgrimages in Pacific Grove, group or individual, and you will meet angels unawares.  I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and at  Image is from a Francis coloring book!