Thursday, February 23, 2017

Understanding Each Other

The other night I was intent on finishing some long delayed work at the dining room table. I was busily writing my thoughts and organizing the material, and Baxter kept hanging around. Since I didn’t have any food to offer him, I was wondering why he remained sitting at the foot of my chair. After a while, he began to meow loudly. I asked him what he wanted. I told him there was no food available now. But he kept meowing forcefully. I decided to ignore him, and after a while, he left the area. However, in a few minutes he was back, and he started his meowing again. This went on for several sessions—walking away, returning, meowing, walking away, returning, meowing . . . . All the while, I decided to ignore him and go on with my work.

Finally, his persistence and its annoyance caused me to stop, ask him again what he wanted, and then get up from my chair. Baxter took off for the bathroom. That was it. He wanted a drink from the spigot. I missed what he was looking for, because I was so absorbed in my own project. It just took a few minutes for him to lap up the running water and be wiped dry, and we were both happy again.

We catch each other in the same kind of predicaments, don’t we? We are so involved in our own concerns, work or interests that we can’t hear or see anything outside of them. Now, ours are not trivial matters. People are counting on us. We should be committed and conscientious about our responsibilities. Research has shown that multi-tasking doesn’t work. We can’t handle two or more things at the same time with equal quality devoted to each. So how are we to blame for missing the messages others want to send us? We have to stand up for what we believe and do our job.

Yes, but we are in this together. Even when we each have our separate roles to play, it’s not a one person play. It’s an ensemble of actors with God as the producer and director. That is how the story of salvation is written and presented, and we get into trouble when we try to rewrite the script or act it out differently.

When we get lost in our concerns, work or interests, we miss the dialogue between characters that gives the play energy and meaning. Not that our part doesn’t matter, it does. But it matters most when it fits into a whole drama of human beings searching together for what makes life valuable and purposeful. Being part of something bigger than ourselves makes our lives bigger than our individual concerns and interests. These expand into shared desires that we help each other refine and fulfill. Our church teaches this kind of theater as the “common good” where God is served when the most are served by many acting together.

We all need to lift our heads out of our private projects from time to time and hear what others are trying to tell us. At first, we may not understand them, but if we stop, notice each other, and listen to other’s concerns, we will form a relationship where our perspective and care will grow. Then we will begin to take their concerns, interests and responsibilities into consideration. It worked with Baxter, and we don’t even speak the same language. Just think what might happen with God’s grace between human beings who do.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Cold Shoulder

I got the cold shoulder from Baxter for a couple of days. I was away from the house a lot, and he didn’t take kindly to my absence. It was nothing personal, but Baxter didn’t see it that way. He didn’t greet me when I came home in the evening as he usually would do. He sat with his back to me when I was eating. He slept facing the wall with his least attractive end facing my direction. None of his signals was subtle. He was making me pay for what he viewed as a slight, a personal insult. How could I have ignored him for other things—like office work, recreation or ministering to God’s people? Of course, his needs for food, water and even pleasant music were attended to, but this wasn’t enough. He wasn’t the center of my attention for a few days, and this wasn’t acceptable.

We can get that way too. We want to be noticed. We want people to pay attention to us and our needs. We want to know that we matter to other’s lives. So we do certain things to send this message and hold others’ feet to the fire about answering it. Often our techniques are a little more subtle than Baxter’s, but they serve the same purpose. The message is clear: Give me your undivided attention and serve me on my terms. Anything less is ignored as trite and trivial, divided love and loyalty, or token obligations rather than true affection. We impose our terms of  commitment, dedication and love on the other person, and refuse to negotiate them.

Jesus certainly called for total commitment, dedication and love from His followers. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37) Yet, He did not try to control or dictate to His disciples the specific terms of this pledge.

The disciples came from all walks of life—fishermen, tax collectors, politically and religiously left and right. Some were out spoken and almost impetuous—Peter and Paul—and some seemed mild mannered or even skeptical—John, Philip and Thomas. What they held in common though was a shared desire to seek God and God’s ways among us. This desire is what Jesus touched in each of them and what brought such a disparate group of persons together to form a band of followers, then a community of disciples, and finally a communion of life called the Church. The litmus test of their love and loyalty was not in what they said or even in what they did--some said challenging things and performed wrong-headed actions with Jesus. The key to their love and commitment was not abandoning their search, not losing their desire to discover God’s will and way for their lives.

In this divided world--and sometimes divided Church-- we live in today, we need to tap the  root of our common desires. We want to know, love and serve God. From this desire, others flow. . We want a better world for our children where they can be safe and have a chance at their dreams. We want a fairer way to share the earth’s goods and a chance to develop our talents and skills. We want the Kingdom of God. To get there, we each and all have to relinquish our private little kingdoms where we try to control and manipulate others to serve our selfish purposes. We need to serve the common good, the desire planted in the heart of every human being for God to be with us, directing us to a better life for everyone.

This vision is beyond Baxter’s ability to see and pursue. So he fusses and pouts when he feels offended and ignored. He’s a cat. Because God made us different from cats, we can be better than that. Let’s start trying.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Little At A Time

Besides his mellow and affectionate disposition, another sign of Baxter’s maturity is a change in his eating habits. He certainly still has his appetite, but he satisfies it differently now. When Baxter was younger, he gobbled down his food. As soon as the feeder would deliver a new portion, he would run to it and inhale it all. Within five minutes, his meal was over. Sometimes he would eat so fast that he couldn’t keep it down. It all got stuck somewhere in his esophagus, and there just wasn’t enough room to hold it all.

Now the picture has changed. Baxter still runs for his food, but he ingests it differently. He will chomp down a part of the meal and then stop. He goes for a drink of water and walks away for a rest or bathroom break. After ten or fifteen minutes, he goes back for a little more. This routine continues for perhaps three or four visits to the feeding station. After that, he usually leaves just a few morsels for a mid-morning snack. He paces himself through a meal, and I am sure his digestive track is grateful for this slower intake that allows time to process the contents.

How do we take in the nourishment life offers us? Do we savor its taste, aroma and satisfaction, or do we absorb it just to survive? We can go about our days just getting things done, because they are necessary for our work, our families or other obligations we have assumed. At the end, we are exhausted and frustrated. Tomorrow, it all starts over, and sleep is simply a recharging station we use to have the energy to get through another day. This approach can leave us feeling empty, while our schedule is full. We go through the motions of a full life, but interiorly we are queasy and upset. The stomachs of our souls are growling for genuine nourishment.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) To grasp the rich life Christ offers, we need time to take it in, to reflect on what is happening in the light of faith. We want to see ourselves as characters in the story of God’s saving mystery in Christ. This understanding is only possible if we sit quietly and look at the particulars of our lives slowly and carefully. The deepest meaning where God is knitting our lives together is not caught on the run, gobbling down experience after experience, and feeling overloaded. This level is disclosed in bits and pieces with time to fully digest the details where God is often hidden.

Sometimes the scene is dark and bitter, and we are tempted to spit it out and move on. At other times it is light and sweet, and we want to overindulge in it, filling our outlook with self-importance and self-pride. Only with slow and careful reflection on all of it, do we see the true picture where God’s grace was upholding us, guiding us, nourishing us and moving us along. Bit by bit we see a pattern, a hidden and holy presence, a movement that is transforming us. At feeding time when we are starving for soul food, we often miss this divine milieu, but in the quiet of the night, with time to digest the
day, we can savor its nourishment and allow it to build up our strength and vitality.

In the German language there are two words for eating, fressen and essen. Fressen is what animals do when they tear into their meals to get as much as they can for fear that another animal may come and steal it. Essen is what human beings do when they have overcome their fears and take time to dine, to share nourishment and savor its goodness. Maybe Baxter is becoming a little more human in his eating patterns. Maybe we need to become a little more human in our pattern of life. Plato attributes to Socrates the line, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To nourish our spirits, we need to take the time to digest what God gives us in the course of our lives.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Jitters

Baxter has a case of the jitters. For all of his calmness and laid back attitude, a strange noise can cause him to stand on alert, speak nervously and run in the direction of the sound to see what’s up.

The other day he was on my lap, and I was using my iPad. A ping sounded from the iPad alerting me to a new message. Baxter became agitated. He sat up, looked out the window and then jumped off my lap with murmurs of trouble and concern. It was all nothing, but I couldn’t convince him to settle down. Once he gets frightened and upset, Baxter doesn’t return to peace and tranquility quickly or easily.

Many of us are in the same boat. The aftermath of 9/11 with all the subsequent terrorist episodes that we have heard and seen on the news has set us on edge. We are suspicious of the stranger, especially if their habits and appearance are not like ours. Our suspicion can lead further to mistrust of anyone different. We feel threatened by the unfamiliar, and this threat gives rise to fear.

When we are afraid, we don’t usually make good judgments. Fear clouds our perceptions so that we see everything through its fog. We draw a conclusion about someone or some situation, and this idea, in turn, leads to other similar conclusions— until we see threats and enemies around every corner. We make our world a compound where we can feel safe, and everyone who is not part of our world we want away from us.

How do we stop ourselves from getting trapped in this prison our fears can create? The gospels give us some guidance. Jesus often enters a scene where people are upset about something that just occurred—a storm is raging; a woman is caught in adultery; a young man just died; a tax collector wants to see him; a paralytic wants to get close to him. What is His typical response?

First, Jesus does something to slow everyone down. He asks some questions to clarify the situation. He speaks to all the parties involved. Then, Jesus says something to help people see the situation from another perspective. Finally, He acts to avoid or heal the harm and remove the threat it poses. Jesus defuses the fear by giving people time to think, to listen to each other, to understand the situation differently, and to do something to better it. In this movement, people come to recognize the power and grace of God at work in this man.

In this troubled world these days, we need to be Jesus for each other. We need to help each other calm our fears. Jesus shows us the steps to take. Let us follow in His foot-steps to find a better way. Baxter, don’t worry.

It’s just the iPad.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sweet Sixteen

In a couple of weeks, Baxter will have a birthday. I consider Valentine’s Day his birthday, since I don’t know the actual date. He was four months old when I got him, so I counted back and picked a day that I wouldn’t forget. Sixteen is old for a cat. If the rule of seven is in play for him, that means that Baxter is 112. He looks good for that age! He still gets around, jumps into the tub, demands meals and treats, and is always on the lookout for stray felines trying to hone in on his territory. He gets excited about these things, but otherwise, Baxter has mellowed with age.

He spends more time on my lap. He allows me to pet him at my will, dry him off after lapping the water from the tub faucet, and rub his belly when I come home for the evening. He even tolerates my bothering him when he is sleeping. Purring is his usual response now to all my interventions. Baxter wears old age well.

How about us? How are we dealing with ourselves and those we love as we age? Getting older can bring out both the best and the worst in us. Like Baxter, it can help us to mellow as we discern what is important in life and what is best left to pass unattended or unnoticed. Not everything is worth our time and energy. We don’t have anything to prove to anyone at this stage. We have made the mark that we have to offer, and hopefully, we can appreciate both the value it holds for others and the limits it has. We can’t solve every problem. We can’t please all people all the time.

We can’t accomplish everything we wish we could in a day, a week, a year, a lifetime. But we do make a positive difference for others and our world, and then we leave it to the next person, the next generation to add their contributions. In these ways, aging brings peace and comfort, and so strengthens our bonds with each other.

On the other hand, getting older can be a hard fact of life. We have to face our limitations, and this can make us anxious and upset. We don’t look the same as we did in our twenties. We sag, shrink and grow soft. We can’t work as long and hard as we did ten years ago. We forget things more easily. We can get trapped in our regrets about the past. We begin to fear what might happen and feel vulnerable. We worry more about our health, our children, our finances, our deaths. “Getting old isn’t for sissies,” as George Burns is alleged to have said. It makes us face ourselves fairly and squarely, with our warts and weaknesses, and sometimes this picture upsets us.

But our God is eternal, ever ancient, ever new, as Saint Augustine wrote. He embraces us in our whole lifespan, and He brings wisdom to bear on our growing older. Keeping the God Jesus revealed in focus, brings two dimensions to both the positives and negatives of growing older.

First, God wraps our lives in divine peace. He embraces what we have done to better life in this world and includes it in His bigger picture of the Kingdom of God. The significance of our lives isn’t measured in worldly terms of monetary, professional or social success. It is magnified by how it fits into God’s work of saving the world, and we don’t understand that full picture until our lives are over. Mary is a prime example of how a human life reflects the glory of God.

Second, God accompanies us through the diminishment and darkness of aging. We never face the fears of growing old and dying alone. As Jesus’ suffering and death show us, the Father is with us. At times, we may not feel His presence or may wonder why certain experiences have come our way. Jesus prayed through just such doubts and confusion. However, His passing reveals that God never abandoned Him, never caused His suffering, never was embarrassed by the shame and physical weakness Jesus faced. In faith, we hold onto this picture as the source of hope for ourselves as age takes its toll.

Baxter and I are getting old together. He deals with it through instinct and the training he got by living with me. We can deal with our latter years better through deeper faith in what we claim to believe and learning to allow God to guide us to the end.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Full of Surprises

Packing Christmas away each year is never as much fun as preparing for the holiday. When taking down the tree, unplugging the lights, and storing all the various decorations, a little melancholy filters into the moment. All the anticipation is passed. The memories seem out of place after the season. The atmosphere is colder, both outside the front door and inside our attitudes and outlook. It seems like such a long stretch of time until spring and the uplift of warmer temperatures, flowers and bright colors. Now is the gray time of the year. Aside from the hopes of a Steeler Super Bowl, there isn’t much to look forward to.

The post-Christmas doldrums don’t bother Baxter. He is a creature of habit, strict habit, unrelenting habit. If I miss a feeding time or his nightly brushing and treat, he is incensed. He doesn’t like to have his world disrupted. If I move his water dish or mattress to another spot, he is suspicious, cautious about using it and gives into the new setting only reluctantly. Baxter doesn’t like anything to shake up his world and alter his routine. His life is steady, and he wants it that way. Christmas is an unnecessary interruption as far as he is concerned, and if it is over, he couldn’t care less.

Christmas brings excitement to our lives because it surprises us. God surprised Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi with the birth of His Son, but that is just the beginning of the story. He continues to surprise believers with people, events and experiences that didn’t have a place in our lives before. Some of these might be wonderful from the start like a new baby, a new friend or a new activity we love. Other surprises may throw us for a loop at first— that cancer diagnosis, that unexpected death, the drugs we found in our son’s room. Nevertheless, all of these are reminders that the Word has taken flesh and continues to dwell among us. We have to look for this meaning when we face such surprises.

Happy surprises are not just good luck. They are blessings and signs of divine providence. Disorienting surprises are not just bad luck. They are challenges to our vision of faith, calling us to go deeper into the mystery of how God’s love supports us even in life’s adversities and pain. We have to be open to surprises as the experiences God uses to keep the meaning of Christmas alive throughout the year.

Baxter, you don’t know what you are missing by insisting on your rigid routine. The God who made us and loves us has a surprise in store for all of us. He showed it first in Jesus. It’s not just luck, good or bad. It’s life, full of grace.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Surviving Darkness

The extra darkness at this time of the year doesn’t seem to bother Baxter. He exhibits no signs of increased depression—he sleeps and eats the same amount. He isn’t more lethargic than usual. He goes about his life in the dark about as well as he does in the light. Maybe that’s because cats see better in the dark than we humans do. It probably has something to do with their hunting instinct and stalking their prey at night. Sharp night vision allows the astute feline to snag a snack before the critter realizes it is caught. Of course, Baxter wouldn’t know that. He has never worked a day in his life for a meal.

Seeing in the dark is a skill we humans might do well to develop. I’m not talking here about physical sight, but about another set of eyes, those of the soul. Our souls look at life and want to see the meaning it holds. Where did it come from? Where is it all going? What brings genuine happiness? Where do we fit in the big picture? These questions provide us a viewpoint to uncover the source and sustenance behind a meaningful life, but to focus these lens of our soulful eyes, we need to be able to see in the dark.

So much of what we encounter in living is often difficult and even negative. We struggle with closeness and understanding in our relationships, especially those that we stake the most upon—our marriage, our family, our close friendships. We face dishonesty, cut throat competition, and deceit in the workplace. We worry about paying the bills, safety on our streets, and the life threatening influences on our children. Terrorism seems possible anywhere these days, so that we live always a little on edge with each other. How can we make something meaningful out of such a dark and disenchanting picture?

We have to learn to see through the dark. All of these anxious experiences can blind us to seeing anything more than threat and conflict. The eyes of faith have a broader and deeper vision. In faith we counterbalance human vice with human virtue. Though there are destructive forces in our world, there are also constructive ones— persons who genuinely want to help make others’ lives better, to work together for a common good, to share their talents and resources so that many may benefit. These hints of light live in the midst of the darkness, but they are not extinguished by its negative effects. Their presence keeps hope alive. Their influence develops the same vision in others. Their attitude is contagious, softening hardened hearts, neutralizing cynicism, and lowering defenses to allow people to come together as a community.

We who claim Jesus as the Lord must be these sparks in the darkness around us. Otherwise, our actions and attitudes contradict our profession of faith. We know the Creator and Savior who pronounced His world “good” and loved it unto His death on a cross. How can we give into the darkness and hide in it? If we do, we become catty cooperators with its forces in our world, hunting for what we can get out of it, not witnesses to what God’s love can put into it. Living in the midst of this broken world, our faith sees beyond the problems and fear to the promise of a faithful God who saves and recreates us.

Baxter sees in the dark to get to his feeding dish. Our faith can see through a dark world to be fed on the grace of our good and loving God.