Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Baxter is ten years old, and he has lived in five places, not counting the animal shelter where he originated. One place in particular he loved. It had a garage with a cement floor, and the garage was attached to the house on the ground level. When I would return home he would be waiting. As I opened the door between the garage and the house, he would come bursting through it into the garage, talking all the while. Then he would fall onto the cement floor and roll on his back and wiggle back and forth. After a few minutes of this stunt, he would roll side to side until I would scratch his belly for a welcome greeting. The last part of the ritual was for him to jump bolt upright on all fours and run into the house, all the while chattering because, of course, dinner was next on the agenda. Only food ever gets Baxter to move fast.

Baxter’s welcome home ritual was something to which I looked forward after a long day. I was never sure whether it was provoked by my return, or by the fact that my return meant he would eat. Probably there was a little of each, with the food primary in driving his enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it was a great show. He would purr and purr through it all, delighted at the cool floor, the anticipated dinner and his servant’s return, in that order. His ritual meant I was home again.

Easter is God’s ritual of delight for us. After not just a day or two, but many millennia of preaching, healing, forgiving and suffering for the people, the fullness of time was accomplished. In Christ, God conquered sin and death, and brought us salvation in the promised new life won on the cross. He must feel delighted. It worked. After human sin’s and nature’s fracturing of goodness marked a world with suffering and pain, now the victory of grace transformed that world by passing through the passion and death to resurrection. It seems too good to be true, too much to believe. That is why we are at a loss for words, except “Alleluia!” That is why we show this mystery in sacramental ways — fire and light, water and oil, bread and wine, all made holy by the appeal to grace’s claim on them.

Easter continues for fifty days of the Church’s liturgical year and for a lifetime of discipleship. We need to relish the wonders of this season and their meaning for our lives. Although we weren’t sure before, now we know that we are never trapped behind locked doors, whether we close them ourselves through our sin, or we are enclosed by the losses, tragedies and disappointments of others. Resurrection keeps opening a door to new life that we need to look for and explore. In this way we share in God’s delight for us and His power to save us. Easter is God’s welcome home to the Kingdom for each of us, where a new and better life is promised. Turn the knob and open the door to let God into your life this season.

May this joyous season be filled with many blessings for you and yours.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Herding Cats"

“Herding Cats” is a brand name for an inexpensive wine. This incongruous metaphor reminds us of just how independent and uncooperative the feline persuasion can be. Baxter is a case in point. He has a mind of his own when it comes to where he wants to be and what he wants to do. He claims the whole house as his and allows me to share a chair, a bed, floor space or a window, if I behave. Cats are not pack animals. They prefer to go it alone or, at the very least, on their own terms. Herding cats just doesn’t work.

Jesus must have felt like He was trying to herd cats with His disciples at times. Each has his own idea about what to do, where to be, and how the Messiah was supposed to act. Can’t feed the five thousand. Too many folks! Don’t go to Jerusalem. Your enemies are out to get you! Don’t talk about suffering and death on the cross. Messiahs are anointed leaders not common criminals! Everyone wanted to go their own way and take Jesus with them. Only once did they all get in line to follow — for the parade into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday.

We have a natural tendency to get in line when it forms behind a winner. We want to be carried along on his or her coat tails, and reap the benefits of backing the strong man or woman. We’re thinking about ourselves — what this person can do for me — but we look like we are committed to the cause, loyal to the leader, faithful till the end. But then our true colors show. On Good Friday, no one was around at the trial, the scourging pillar, the cross. They all scattered like cats in a thunderstorm, hiding from the noise, the jeers, the threats, the accusations. Each afraid for him or her self, wondering how to escape or at least how to lie low until the heat is off. Cats are like that.

But despite all that, Jesus still loves cats. When we come back for a meal, He gives us the Eucharist. When we say we’re sorry, He forgives again and again. When we’re sick, He comforts us with prayers and anointing. When we think we’re in love with each other, He blesses and strengthens our desires with a sacrament that roots our love in God’s. He washes the harmful effects of our human condition away and welcomes us into the life of grace, and then He confirms our wish to follow Him as a disciple with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He sends us shepherds charged with leading His people with the heart of the Good Shepherd. In all of this, He keeps trying to herd our cattiness to become one Body of Christ.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus just doesn’t give up on us? Why He doesn’t stop trying to get us together in line behind Him on a journey to the Kingdom of God? Well, my only clue to an answer comes from living with Baxter. My life would be easier without him, less mess and less worry about being sure he’s taken care of when I’m not around. But it would be a lot lonelier, a lot more boring, and a lot less humorous without his foibles and antics. Maybe God feels the same way about us. Let’s give Him a chance to get us in line.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Desiring God

Baxter is not easily deterred when he wants something. For instance, food. At first, he tries to charm me into feeding him -- soft meows, rubbing against my leg, lying coyly at my feet, sitting quietly in the kitchen with pleading eyes fixed on me. If those antics don’t work, then he gets serious and assertive. He sits in front of wherever I might be, stares intently, and lets loose this death-rattling cry, sustained on one note and interrupted only to take a breath before beginning again. There’s no ignoring this scream. I have to do something.

I remind him that he just ate a half hour ago, but he won’t hear it. So I figure out something to satisfy him — a pinch of catnip, a treat morsel, some cat milk, or a diversion like a bird outside the window or a visit to the garage. These distractions work for a little while but they won’t keep him from his primary objective — another meal. Only if I leave the house while he is preoccupied with the consolation prize, will he settle instead for his second heartfelt desire, sleep, and give up on the meal for a while. But this is only a temporary fix. When I return after a few hours, he will return as well to his original mission, and the routine repeats itself. He knows what he wants; he doesn’t forget; and he is resolute in getting it.

What about us? Lent is the time for us to focus our desires on the right things in life, and to set our resolve to follow them. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are meant to tame our passions for the fleeting pleasures of life, and focus them on the lasting treasure of God’s love for us. Do we want God in our lives? Are we willing to do what it takes to include Him?

Wanting God doesn’t mean that we abandon everything else. We still have to work for a living, raise the children, cheer for our favorite teams, solve our financial problems, get an education, care for our sick and buy groceries among other things. However, with a focus on God, we do these things with an eye to how they serve a bigger purpose. God is present in our work and family, our chores and recreation. Lent should help us see God in these undertakings, and seek His guidance and support. This, in turn, should affect the way we go about fulfilling our regular tasks for living. We bring principles and virtues to bear on them. Everything is not permitted because God counts on us to uphold our dignity and responsibility as His children. Everything should be done with an eye to respecting ourselves and others, serving them and uniting us as a people who share a common Father in God.

Now this may sound too much for the pressures of daily life. How do you sustain the attitudes that come from faith in the face of the pressures to get things done? How do you follow principles of right and wrong in a world that is cut throat and pragmatic? Fortitude is called for. We need a sense of firmness about our convictions and follow through in our actions, even while we do so with compassion and understanding. Fortitude also helps us to start over when we fail. Making a mistake is not a disaster unless we give in to the mistake and give up. The Sacrament of Penance is meant to strengthen our resolve to try again.

How often in the Gospel accounts do we encounter people who persist in getting what they want from Jesus? Think of Simeon waiting in the temple for the Messiah, the Canaanite woman pleading for her possessed daughter, Zacchaeus who wants to see, Nicodemus meeting late at night to understand. Despite the different obstacles they faced, these characters are resolute in their various efforts to seek the Lord and His presence and power in their lives. Faith without fortitude is bound to fail, but fortitude without faith is simply stubbornness, not a true virtue.

Baxter won’t give up when he wants to eat. We are offered the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation every Sunday at the Eucharist. Do we have the fortitude to hunger for this food in the way we celebrate and live our faith each day?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fear of the Lord

Baxter is easily spooked. Any strange sound will set him off. A door slamming, the crunching of cellophane, popping bubble wrap, a door bell, they all get him scurrying for cover under the bed or behind a door. Baxter scares easily, and hides to protect himself from his imaginary fears.

He also gets easily excited about things that fascinate him. Birds in the tree outside the window, spiders crawling across the floor, other cats walking through the backyard, these all set him on high alert. He will sit in place for a half hour with ears perked, tail swishing like a metronome, eyes wide and bright, and murmuring energetic sounds that mean something in cat-speak. I suppose he is on the hunting prowl at such times, getting ready to pounce, if only the opportunity allows itself.

Our scriptures tell us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Baxter’s two examples of high alert can help us understand what a proper fear of the Lord is like.

Too often we think of the fear of the Lord as a threat. If we don’t do the right thing, God will get us. If we don’t practice our faith, something dreadful will happen to us. If we want to have “good luck,” we have to please the Lord, and like a happy grandfather, he will lavish undeserved fortune upon you. Fear in this sense plays games with the one we fear. It keeps a distance between us and whatever we fear so that we can control the object of our fear, avoid it, or at least protect ourselves from its effects. Fear generates an unhealthy guilt if we are caught displeasing the object of our fear. We act like kids caught with our hand in the cookie jar. We don’t regret trying for the goody; we regret getting caught at it. We think and act like immature children, or like Baxter, afraid of the doorbell.

But there’s another way to understand the fear of the Lord. God can fascinate us. He is “awesome,” as the kids would say. We get caught up in the grandeur of creation at the Grand Canyon, the depth of unselfish love in Mother Teresa, the precious innocence and wonder of a new-born baby, the spectacular silence of a star-filled summer sky, the beauty and joy of a Eucharist well celebrated. These moments place us in the presence of the Mystery that envelops and enfolds us. It is bigger than anything we can conceive and mightier than anything we can do to hold it back. Its Spirit is within us driving us to do and say things we did not think possible for us, but it is also beyond anything we can do and say leaving us with a few words of praise and thanksgiving or just awesome silence. Like Baxter on high alert looking at the birds singing in the trees, we feel fully alive before the Holy and charged with an energy whose source is outside ourselves.

To be ready for Easter, we need to cultivate this sense of the fear of the Lord -- the wonderful, awesome, fascinating and overwhelming encounters with the Holy that fill our world. Financial insecurity, personal loss of a loved one, guilt over past sins, the threat of terrorism or natural disasters are all fears that can crowd out the true sense of our fear of the Lord. We read in the gospel, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Trust the mystery that claimed you as part of its life in your initiation into the Church. Then stand ready to hunt for it again and again every time a bird sings or you come to church.