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The Lure of the Fuzzy: Stuffed-Animal Blessing Service

The Lure of the Fuzzy:

Stuffed-Animal Blessing Service

UU Society of Sacramento

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Responsive Reading: gray hymnal #664, Give Us the Spirit of the Child, by Sara Moores Campbell

Hymns:  #203, All Creatures of the Earth and Sky; #21, For the Beauty of the Earth;

#201, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. 

Piano/violin:  Linus and Lucy (Guaraldi).  Choir:  All God’s Crittters Got a Place in the Choir.

Homily
            Most children love stuffed-animal toys, made with plush or another soft cloth.  Lots of grown-up love them too, but sometimes we are shy to admit it.  Maybe we’re just shy  to admit that we might still have the feelings, motivations, and the very spirit of our childhood selves.  Your grown up ministers thought a service like this one could be a way to give permission to everyone to express appreciation for our stuffed, cloth-covered or fuzzy friends, and to consider what they have done for us. 
            The most famous manufacturer of plush animals began in Germany in 1880. Now the company is known as Steiff GMBH.   Its founder was Margarete Steiff.  Margarete had had polio as a baby and used a wheelchair all her life.  As a young adult she had a job as a seamstress and began making animals as a hobby.  First, it was elephants, then dogs, cats and pigs. With her brother’s help she started the company, making designs and prototypes herself.  She’s been dead a long time, but the company maintains her high standards for quality and safety for its products.  In 1902, her nephew Richard designed a stuffed bear.  Thanks to Theodore Rooselvelt, in five years they were selling nearly a million teddy bears every year, many of them exported to the United States.

Here’s the story.  In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was out on a bear hunt in Mississippi with several other important men, who also liked big-game hunting.  After a while most of the men had killed a bear but the President hadn’t.  Roosevelt’s assistants found a bear, sicced the dogs on it, beat it, and tied it to a tree so the President would have something to shoot and take home.  Roosevelt said:  It’s not sportsmanlike to kill a helpless bear.  He went home empty handed but ordered others to put the mistreated bear out of its misery.  Later a political cartoon in the Washington Post newspaper showed the President turning away from the animal.  It said:  “Drawing the line in Mississippi.”  The animal became known as Teddy’s bear.   More cartoons followed, showing the bears ever cuter and cuddlier.  American toymakers Rose and Morris Mitchom were the first to make and sell a toy bear in the President’s honor, but the Steiffs were right behind them.  A few years there were at least 20 teddy-bear companies. 

        Lest you think me a promoter of consumerism for talking up store-bought bears, let us also praise the loveable sock monkey.  The sock monkey has been around since at least the 1930s.  While you can buy one in stores, typically these monkeys have been home-made out of work socks, especially socks with red heels, which become the monkey’s mouth. 
      I’m sorry to say that I was a greedy little consumerist kid.  I never settled for a sock monkey.  One Christmas season I instructed my parents to instruct Santa Claus that I wanted a lot of stuffed animals.  On Christmas morning, several of them appeared under the tree.  One was a plush pink pig with a wind-up key in its side, to make it play music. 

I’ve been wondering:  What is it that makes our comfort objects, like dolls and soft animals, such good companions?   What do these animals excel at?  For one thing, as versatile playmates, these toys encourage our creative imagination.  They are able and willing to play any role we give them in whatever skit or scheme we come up with.   With a fuzzy friend and an open imagination, you don’t really need anything fancy or expensive to have a good time. 

Sometimes as a boy I lined up my animals along the wall of our walk in closet.  They were behind the hanging clothes, so it seemed that each one had its own house.  I’d walk them over to one another’s homes for a visit, and deliver mail among them.  I practiced medicine on them, as well as cosmetology.  Once I cut out spots of their fur with scissors; kids, don’t try this!  The fur won’t grow back.  My father was a physician, and I filled some syringes with water and gave them injections, with real needles.  I don’t know if I was acting like Doctor Doolittle or more like Dr. Joseph Mengele.  But I do know that sometimes I took out my frustrations on my toy pets.  My real pets were no doubt relieved.

            Where else could a wolf and lamb lie down together, or a lion sit with a calf, than amidst  the fuzzy menagerie of a toddler who can bring them together by the spirit of imagination?  In the Bible, the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah imagines a new world, a world in a state of divine peace:  “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together.”  And, the Prophet Isaiah concludes, “a little child shall lead them.” 

        Soft animal toys or dolls teach empathy.  They listen softly, so to speak.  They are always ready to hear our joys and sorrows, our hopes and hurts.  As  patient companions, they welcome our ideas, opinions, grand schemes, and stories.  Soft listeners never say, “That’s stupid.”

They are role models of gentleness and reminders of the goodness of just being present with one another.   They don’t have to have the answer for our questions or try to solve our problems, they just need to be there.  No matter what your age, sometimes it’s nice to have the soft attention of a good listener.  Maybe  as adults we can remember how important it is to be gentle and patient with one another, and with ourselves. 

            For some of us, a soft animal has been a source of tender companionship when our family situation didn’t feel so tender, gentle or kind.  A Unitarian Universalist friend of mine grew up in the 1950s and 60s in an anti-religious family, and secretly prayed every night after going to bed.  When the lights were out she would pull all her animals under the covers with her and pray with them.  She’d pray to God for peace and harmony among members of her family.  She’d pray for peace and safety in her own life, and she’d pray for other children, including the kids living in the Soviet Union during those early years of the arms race.  She’d finish her prayers by praying for all the animals in the bed with her.  Of course, this little girl grew up to be a minister.    

Our stuffed animals can gain meaning for us over time–it’s not how many we have or how new they are that really matters– it’s their familiarity.  It’s like a meal we know as “comfort food.”  Comfort foods evoke a variety of memories, longings and cravings.  The meaning of things to us depends on our own life story, not on how elaborate or expensive things are.  I have a friend in her 60s who still still has the animal given to her by her father when she had her tonsils removed at age five.  This friend’s young-adult daughter also has kept a homemade stuffed animal from her childhood.  Once as a little girl, her daughter had a birthday party and invited all her guests to bring teddy bears, and they decorated tee-shirts for the bears.   This was the first party she didn’t want her younger brother to attend.  He had a stuffed penguin.  He drew a card for his sister, with a teddy bear on it, and wrote “I can’t bear to miss your party.”  [pause for sighing]  She let him come after all, and welcomed the penguin as well.
            Playing with dolls or toy animals is a way to practice love, kindness, and affection. Of course, the animals are not real, but the spirit of companionship is real.  The love that we show is real.   In the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, the soft toy Rabbit asks:

    “What is REAL?  Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’

    “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

 

Let us affirm the gift of imagination and the practice of love.  Let us learn to trust one another to show our softness and our spirits.  Let us give thanks for the real gifts of care that we can give and receive, all through our lives.  So may it be.  Amen. 

 

Introductions of our Fuzzy Friends

            If you have brought a toy or animal to church with you, we invite you to line up at the microphone and introdue it.  Tell us its name, and tell us what it is, if that’s not obvious.

 

Blessing Ritual

Now for the ritual of blessing.  We will have a laying-on of hands.  Place your hand over your fuzzy friend or another toy you’ve brought.  If you don’t have one, feel free to call to mind one that you do have, one that you used to have, one that you’d like to have, or one you would like to give to someone else.  Now let us call to mind the faces of those children who live in places or conditions where gentleness is is in short supply, and the need for peace and playfulness is great.   

            Spirit of Love and Creativity, we give thanks for all sources of care, comfort and companionship, including these present with us today.  Bless them and us, and bless the goodness that arises within us and among us.  We are thankful for the wonders of imagination and play, and the gifts of attention, patience and presence.  May the healing powers of joy, love and hope touch everyone, of every age, here and all over the world. 

So may it be.  Blessed be and amen.

 

Closing Words and Benediction

Our closing words come from one of the  Winnie-the-Pooh books, by A.A. Milne:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
‘Pooh?’ he whispered.
‘Yes, Piglet?’
‘Nothing’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand.
‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’

 

May you depart in joy and return in peace.  Amen.

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Really, was this your message? I’m sorry but while it’s cute, it’s not really teaching the Bible, or the gospel of the Bible very closely. I’ve never been to a UU service, but it sounds kind of irrelevant and like fuzzy theology.

revtimbrown

Comment by revtimbrown

Did Christ not teach love? Does love know no bounds? While this may not teach the Bible in it’s most strict senses, it teaches by example and such things should never be down played.

I think it’s a wonderful idea.

Comment by Leo

Well, of course Roger’s sermon isn’t teaching the Bible! Billions of the world’s people know the Protestant English Bible is the words of (ancient, unidentified) men, and not the only Word of God. For them, what counts is whether a sermon speaks to the heart or the soul. Unitarian Universalism is a historically Protestant denomination that gradually developed a post-denominational point of view.

Comment by John Abbott

[…] The Lure of the Fuzzy: Stuffed-Animal Blessing Service October 2009 3 comments 5 […]

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