Sunday, June 12, 2011

Baxter's Summer Vacation

Baxter has decided to go on vacation for the summer, so I am left without any material to write about until the fall. I hope that my feline musings have struck a note in some of you to reflect about your faith and how it fits in your life. God speaks in various ways to us. If the Baxter columns have helped, give God the glory. If not, look for something else that speaks to you to grow and mature in the faith. Baxter assures me that he will be back in the fall and with a special series for Advent-Christmas this year. After all, you know how he loves to eat, and I have told him often that he has to earn his keep. Until then, have a relaxing summer and take in the warmth of God’s grace. Baxter sends a big purr and leg rub to all. I pray that you know God’s blessing always.


Baxter goes a little crazy from time to time. I don’t know what comes over him. It usually occurs in the evening, but there have been incidents in the middle of the day, and even the morning. What happens is that he bolts upright on all fours, stands at attention for a second, then he starts running through the house. He stops when he gets to his destination, pauses for a moment, and then starts his run at full speed again back to where he started. Usually, these episodes come with two or three repetitions. After that, he lies down in one of his normal prone positions as if nothing just occurred -- a brief moment of madness in an otherwise boring day.

Pentecost seems like such a moment from the descriptions we hear about it in the scriptures. The Holy Spirit descends on the first disciples like tongues of fire, and they begin speaking in different languages so that all can understand. This frightened group of followers of the Lord Jesus, hiding in the upper room, is now set ablaze with energy and conviction to announce the good news of God’s salvation in Christ to anyone who will listen. The resurrection victory over sin and death explodes with the outpouring of the Spirit, and it seems that nothing will stop its spread through those who believe.

We share the same Spirit, but would anyone know it from the way we speak and act? Centuries after the first Christian Pentecost the Church became conventional. It started under Constantine who wanted to consolidate his empire with the Church at its center. Eventually, the persecuted became the powerful, the outcasts became the establishment, and what was new and exciting for the first Christians became conventional and taken for granted by later faithful. The fire of Pentecost began to smolder, creating at times more smoke than light, and the energy of the Spirit was now tamed by rules of order and management. The surprising God who opened tombs and appeared in unexpected settings eventually became the God of the court, dressed in finery and regulated by the protocol of royalty. The madness of the Word made flesh, the dead raised to new life and the Spirit bringing peace, forgiveness and understanding to all was hidden away.

Perhaps that is why Blessed John Paul II called for a new Pentecost in the Church. From time to time in the history of the Church, someone comes along to stir the Spirit and revive the energy and fervor of the original time. The Irish monks after the Dark Ages came with missionary zeal to Europe to re-Christianize the continent. Saints Francis and Dominic and their followers broke with conventional monasticism to bring the gospel in a new way to the new cities and universities arising in the Middle Ages. Saints Ignatius of Loyola, Jane Frances de Chantal, Vincent de Paul, and many others started new ways of spreading the Good News that were “outside the box” but where the people were struggling to live with meaning and dignity. In the more recent past, figures like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Saint Damien of Molokai, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Blessed John Henry Newman, Saint Edith Stein and others have shown the power of God in various settings and new ways to both the elite of this world and the least in it. Indeed, the Spirit has been moving through the Church over the centuries.

Now it is our turn. What will it take for a new stirring of the Spirit in the Mon Valley, its churches and communities? We have been through hard times, but in the history of the Church, it was precisely in such times that the Spirit found a new fervor. When the old ways don’t work any longer, the Spirit inspires new wisdom to try a different approach. When people are abandoning the church out of ignorance, poverty or complacency, the Spirit raises witnesses who show that belief is reasonable, effective for bettering the human condition, and a source of happiness because it calls for a life of service driven by a divine purpose and meaning. We rely upon the past not to repeat it, but to give us confidence in the present and future. God did not abandon the Church during difficult times in the past, and He will not do so now. But we must rise to the challenge with the gifts of the Spirit we each have been given.

Use your head, trust your gut, get off your duff, and give the Spirit a chance to move you in new ways to bring new life and hope to a different, but still redeemable, world. Let Baxter’s mad dashes inspire you to get moving in the Spirit again.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hide and Seek

Baxter likes to hide to get my goat. Even with a bell on his collar he knows how to step quietly and pick a new spot to rest without a sound. Of course, if he’s not in sight, I go to his usual haunts first to find him, but that doesn’t always work. When he really wants to hide, he picks a new place, one he has never visited before where he fits in seamlessly. Under the bed is a common one, but once I found him between the pillows on the bed pretending to be a match for the Steeler bear I have tucked there. He was one more fuzzy face with the stuffed animal. He has been behind the curtain in the bathtub, in the corner of the closet, and on a chair under the dining room table -- always fitting in so well he is hidden from sight. Sometimes for a few seconds I get a twinge of anxiety when I can’t find him. Is he lost outside and encountering other critters who may not be very friendly? But then he shows up with a look like “I got you!”

Sometimes God seems to be hidden from our lives as well. When times get difficult at work or at home, when tragedy strikes, when our hopes get dashed or our worries overwhelm us, God can be hard to find. We look and look in all the usual places, and they are empty. Praying and coming to Mass are a struggle to stay focused and involved. Conversations with friends and family can be strained. The beauty of creation and the excitement of a special occasion are lost in the dull grayness of wondering what it’s all about. New life turns sour with the bitterness of pain and loss of whatever kind, and we turn fearful and depressed with the thought that there is nothing more for which to hope.

Then God shows up again, sitting in front of us with a knowing look and a kind smile. “I just wanted to let you know who is in charge here” seems to be the message. Happiness is not about controlling our world, but living in it with confidence that we are not alone even when we can’t clearly see where the divine spark of love is set off. God’s silence is not a trick to deceive us, but a way to send a different message. You cannot penetrate the mystery of life and death. The mystery will penetrate you and bring you to a new and deeper understanding of God’s goodness and generosity. Just because God is out of our sight for a while does not mean that we are out of His. He quietly watches us in our doldrums, staying close at hand but not interfering, ready to reappear when the time is ripe for us to appreciate what He brings to our lives — meaning, belonging, hope for the future and consolation in the present. God doesn’t fix all of our problems, but He places them in a setting where we can fix what we can and learn to live with the brokenness only He can heal in His time.

When God is hiding, we learn to seek Him more intently. When He is silent, we learn to listen more carefully. We come to see what our faith truly brings to our lives, not easy answers or pleasant routines but a deep sense of the holy that undergirds and sustains us. God is always there, but not always in the same place in the same way. He is too great to be captured in a moment, an experience, a thought or an action. He sometimes seeks new places in our lives, places previously unknown to us, which can soon offer a new twist on the saving mystery of death and resurrection. After all, before Christ, who would have thought of looking to the cross as the place of victory over sin and death. God was hiding there, and believers eventually came to see the new life won for them in that place.

Hide and seek is a children’s game where we try to come home free before we are caught. Baxter often beats me at this game with his tricks. God is even better at it. When He hides in our pain and sorrow, our desire for His love grows, and if we don’t give up, He finally declares to us, “Ollie, Ollie in free!” Sin and death are conquered. New life is won. The Holy Spirit is set free.