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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Taking Down the Decorations

Baxter is not much of a Christmas person. Aside from wanting to eat the tree, he usually ignores all the lights and decorations I use to mark the season. So taking down the tree, unplugging the lights, and packing away the ornaments and crèche figures seem to have no affect on Baxter’s disposition or routine. He goes about his day in the same way with or without these appointments. They make little difference to his outlook or life style.

For most of us though, taking down and packing away the signs of Christmas is a chore we would rather avoid. Preparing for the holiday is fun. We recall traditions that hold warm memories. We anticipate seeing friends and relatives whom we miss. We look forward to delicious foods and festive activities that we may indulge in only once a year. But then it is all over, and we pack it all away until next year with a sense of sadness and remorse. Too bad we can’t carry on Christmas throughout the year.

But we can. Although we place the signs of the season out of sight for eleven months, we don’t have to store away the reality behind these markers. God is with us. He comes to save us. His Word has become flesh, and so we can see God’s grace whenever human nature discloses a nobility and graciousness that reaches beyond the self-protective selfishness of its sin. These revelations of divine love decorate our lives and our world throughout the year, but we don’t acknowledge, use and cooperate with them. Their signs are not obvious in the news. The excitement they carry is often dulled by the drudgery of the daily routine. But they are there, decorating the human heart with openness, generosity, care and forgiveness. These lights are not added to our surroundings to brighten our world. They come from within us to enlighten us with insight into our problems and energy to work together to solve them. These are the light of Christ we carry always as baptized Christians.

So put away the trappings of the Christmas season until next year, but keep the meaning of this time alive by using its grace that we have been given each day. Baxter may not notice the difference, but we humans will. A world lit from within by God’s grace working through us creates a different place where we can all live better lives.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The New and the Old

The other day a person on our parish staff was telling me about their cat’s adjustment problems to a new home. The change was causing him to be anxious and to act in less than friendly ways. Baxter has been a blessing to me because he never fell into this problem. He has gone through five moves in the course of our life together, and each one he managed with aplomb. Of course, he would case the joint at first, figuring out where he wanted to sleep, explore, eat his meals, and have his bathroom. I usually accommodated his wishes, because it made a change in our living situation so much easier to handle.

Soon after each move, Baxter would settle into his routine. After a month, no one would ever know he didn’t live all of his life where he was. He found a way to fit his needs and desires into the new situation. Of course, I have been the constant in Baxter’s life through all these changes. No matter where we might be and with whom we might be living, we were together. The schedule might have to adjust a bit. The surroundings may be more noisy, less private, bigger or smaller in living space. Still, we were in it together, and that gave both of us confidence to figure out how to make it work. Faithful and true relationships anchor our lives.

We need to take time to think about how we best mark transitions as we face a new year. Everything will not be exactly the same in 2017. At this point, we may not know what the changes will be, but we can be sure there will be some. They may be large and dramatic like a new baby, a new job, a new marriage or the loss of a loved one. They may be just minor adjustments like a new house, a new friend, a different schedule for school or a new favorite restaurant or TV show. Whatever changes in the year ahead though, we don’t have to become anxious and upset about it.

Think about the relationships that sustain us. We carry them with us through the changes ahead, and they will help us deal with them. They provide perspective on what may at first seem overwhelming. They provide comfort when the familiar gives way to the strange and uncertain. They steady us when the ship of life may begin to rock, and they assure us that we have what it takes to get to the shore again.

God is the source of all these life-sustaining relationships we rely upon. He is the cement binding faithful and true friendships and family ties. He is ever present through the changes life brings, assuring us of love, care and affection through those who sustain us through life’s transitions. God is the quiet, hidden presence we take with us wherever we might be. His mystery is malleable to fit into the changing circumstances in which we may find ourselves in the coming year.

Don’t be afraid. We are never alone or totally lost. God knows us as His children, and He will never abandon us no matter what may come our way. He moves with us and lives with us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. He makes the new familiar, and the familiar fresh when He is allowed to share our lives.

So Happy New Year, whatever it holds for us. We can make it because the God of Jesus is with us, holding us in the palm of His hand, close to His heart, wherever another year of living takes us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Short Term Memory Loss

Baxter seems to have a lot of patience. When he wants a drink from the spigot in the shower, he jumps onto the side of the tub and sits there until I come along. Sometimes he jumps all the way into the tub, and sits there. Of course, if I don’t come along too quickly, he will start to call me. I suppose that he is saying: “I want a drink.” “Pay attention!” “Where are you?” If I don’t get to turn on the faucet for some reason, he will eventually stop yelling and jump out of the tub to settle for a few licks from his water bowl. When this happens, he doesn’t seem to hold a grudge or set out to ambush me at the next opportunity. He just forgets about it and moves onto his bed for his next nap. Baxter isn’t one to hold a grudge when he doesn’t get his way. There are benefits to having a cat’s short memory.

What about us? How do we handle past hurts, insults or snubs? Do we hold onto them until whatever gave rise to the affront is settled? Do we hold onto the infraction and bring it back whenever the opportunity arises for us to do so? Once speared by another, we keep them on the hook for as long as possible, rubbing their noses in what they did, and never allowing the dust to settle on the disrespect we were rendered. We like to be hurt and offended. We refuse to forget and move on. We mark off our lives and their relationships by the wounds we bear and refuse to let heal.

Lucky for us, God has a different approach. If He would hold a grudge and never forget, never move beyond the betrayal, never allow the scars to form and be forgotten, Christmas would never have happened. Rather than turn His back on humanity’s sin and infidelity, God comes closer to us, so close as to become one with us in our sinful, frail and distorted condition.

Jesus is the sign of God’s short memory and persistent desire to connect with us. Like an unwanted kitten we might push outside to fend for itself and we find at the door the next time we open it, God won’t go away despite our insults and rejection. He settled for a manger to be born, if that were what it took to come close. He accepted lowly shepherds and unknown strangers for visitors, if they were the only ones who noticed His incarnation. Our humble God will never give up on His stubborn, arrogant and disrespectful children. He just keeps forgetting the wrongs we inflict on Him through each other and embraces us again.

This Christmas, what do we need to forget, so that we can celebrate the birth of divine love in our midst? Baxter always comes back for another drink from the spigot, no matter how often it might be dry. He knows that eventually refreshing, lifegiving water will flow for him, if he can forget about the times it didn’t. The same holds for us. A shortened memory of life’s hurts will allow us to drink deeply of life’s blessings, and to realize God’s unrelenting love for us.

That’s the true meaning of Christmas and the gift that is offered to each of us. Will we accept it?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Studies have shown that our disposition is affected by the seasons of the year. Some people respond to the turn to winter with despondency that can lead to out-right depression. With the shortened days and longer nights, a person’s body can begin to withdraw.

He or she sleeps more, eats more carbohydrates, feels lethargic and aimless. One psychically hibernates, avoiding social situations and losing interest in activities which normally he or she enjoys. The lack of light in winter has been shown to affect some people with these symptoms, and medical personnel sometimes recommend “light therapy” —exposure to an artificial light that simulates the sun— to help combat the affects of the season.

Baxter doesn’t seem to have this problem. He always sleeps a lot. His appetite is always on the hunt for delicious tidbits. His habits are steady season to season. If he is depressed, he is depressed all the time because his behavior doesn’t change much in the course of a day, month or year. He follows a cat’s life style—set on getting what he wants to make himself content and comfortable and not worried about anything or anyone else.

Christmas isn’t made for cats. It is a human celebration. Christ counters the cold and dark of winter with the warmth and light of God’s love made real in the human condition. This is how we are called to celebrate the season, by making God’s love tangible to others. Our gift giving, the special foods we share at this time of the year, the holiday parties, the Church’s liturgies are all ways that we can see, taste, hear and feel the warmth of God’s love.

Our charitable efforts also fit in here. Through them, God touches us and those in need with a sense of His generosity and care. When we are instruments of divine mercy and compassion, we get as much, or even more , than we give . We act like God. We don’t try to measure others by what they deserve, because no one can earn genuine love, especially divine love. We all just try to be grateful, and from that gratitude, we share in concrete ways what we have all been given. That is the seasonal affective order which offers soul therapy through every time of life.

Winter in these parts can be harsh and bitter, but a wintry attitude can do more damage. It will starve our souls, make us harsh towards each other, and leave us alone with a bitter taste to life.

If we need psychological help for depression, get it, so that God’s grace can build on a healthy nature. If we need spiritual healing to be open to Divine Love Incarnate, seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual direction. Don’t act like Baxter.

God made you for better things.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Who We are Matters Most

I made a mistake with Baxter. I began to give him a little something from my table. Now I have created a monster. If anything I am eating appeals to him, Baxter is there throughout my meal pestering me for some. He will paw my arm, sit and stare, meow, and make a general nuance of himself, hoping I will give in and drop a little morsel his way. Now Baxter doesn’t need this food. He has plenty of kibble and snacks to keep him nourished. But the smell of my lunch or dinner seems so much better to him. He can’t resist satisfying his desire for what I have.

This happens to us as well, doesn’t it? We see another person’s car, house, clothes, phone or whatever, and we want what they have. We envy their possessions, and we set out to get the same or something better. Why do we do this? Why can’t we simply admire another’s possessions, compliment them for their quality, and be satisfied with what we have? What moves us from admiration to envy, compliments to criticisms, satisfaction to discontent with our things? We overvalue stuff.

The stuff we own can take on an importance that is far beyond the monetary value it holds. We see it making a statement about us. Stuff can  become a status symbol of who we are, how successful we have become, and how important we are to the community around us. It tells others to look at me and see what I have become. It tells ourselves that we are better than some people and we have to compete with others to get ahead of them. It’s an external measure of how we compare to other people on the socioeconomic ladder. It tells us where we fit with others and where we have to go to make progress.

Jesus cuts through all of our status symbols. He never measures a person by what they have or don’t have, but He looks elsewhere for what gives value to a life. He admires and compliments people for their character and its qualities--faith in the centurion who believes in His power to heal, generosity in the widow who gives her last penny, persistence in the Syro-Phoenician woman with a sick daughter, humility in the sinful woman who washes His feet. There are many others. Jesus admires people for who they show they are, not for what they have and flaunt before others. He chides the Pharisees for their concern over the size of their phylacteries and fringes, and for seeking places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues. It’s not about stuff. It‘s about what we are made of.

The baby in the manger was the Word made flesh. Nothing on this earth could have greater value, yet many people in His day had more possessions, higher social standing and greater esteem from others. Yet, He is the Savior. Stuff won’t save us; only a person can, the person of Jesus, born poor and homeless, but rich in the divine virtues He would share with His followers.

Be prosperous in what matters this Christmas season. It will make us all rich and successful, no matter our bank accounts, for we are God’s children too.

Baxter, you can’t have people food. You are a cat!