Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Growing Older

Baxter had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. Actually, it was his assigned birthday. I assigned it to him. You see, the shelter where I got Baxter told me he was about four months old when he came to my house, but they didn’t know the exact day of his birth. So I counted back four months, and looked for a date I would remember around that time. I picked February 14, Valentine’s Day, as Baxter’s official birthday. I count his age from that day each year. He is eleven this year.

I have noticed a few changes in Baxter as the years have gone by. He feigns to scratch the furniture less (no front claws). His play periods are much shorter than they were when he was a young cat. But one thing has increased in Baxter’s routine. He is much more affectionate in his later years. Almost daily now, often twice a day, Baxter crawls upon my lap, purring away, and circles around until he finds the spot where he lies down for a short nap. He gets stroked on the back and a belly scratch, and he then usually falls asleep for a few minutes, sometimes soundly, and sometimes I fall asleep as well. Then, all of a sudden, he jumps up, gets down from my lap, and goes to one of his many favorites spots for a long term rest. The brief interlude with me seems less about sleeping and more about connecting. He just wants to be sure I’m still close to him, that we share our living space, and that I’m not going any where to leave him behind. In his older years, Baxter has come to appreciate companionship and knowing he’s not alone.

That is something we all need to ponder as we count our passing birthdays as well. It would look a little ridiculous to try to get into the lap of our close friends and family. We have accumulated too many pounds over the years for that. Yet, it is anything but silly to appreciate the closeness the years have brought as our lives together gather more and more memories. That is how we grow close, living together long enough to share memories. The experiences may not always be pleasant ones. Intimacy isn’t created only by the triumphs and proud moments we share. It also comes through the defeats and failures we have known together, using our shared expressions of pain and sorrow to divide the burden between us and support each other in the process. When we add it all up we get a summary of the human condition, and if we reflect on our stories a bit, we gain a little wisdom from the accumulated mix we share.

Jesus’ disciples discovered this closeness with Him as they realized what He had done for them in sharing His life, death and resurrection. Four of them wrote their reflections on this story in what we know now as the gospels. They all carried forward the memories in their preaching, teaching and sharing of the Spirit with others interested in His story. Disciples are intimate companions of the Lord Jesus. He knows them, and they seek to know Him. The memories of their lives are intertwined with His so closely that their stories come together. A disciple’s life is more than his or her biography. It unveils how Christ is living still with His disciples today — magnifying their joys as a reflection of God’s glory, sharing their pain and loss as the extension of His own cross, and transforming the whole of their lives as the promise of new and eternal life. Disciples share their lives with the life of the Lord Jesus, and the memories that are created generate a closeness with God that we come to count on and trust.

We are all a year older from last Ash Wednesday, and our life journeys will continue to add years until they end. Growing older doesn’t have to be a threat to us, if we come to appreciate the closeness with God and each other we have gained through the years. Lent is a good time to take stock of this closeness, and to take steps to grow closer still. Take the time to sift through the memories of your life to uncover the divine companion who was with you all along. He is with you still. Invite Him into the lap of your life and rest assured in His love.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Reading the Subtle Signs

I was away for a week recently, and during that break, a friend of mine gave me a book about cats. It presented questions that any cat owner would want to ask his or her cat. For instance, “What does it mean when your eyes are dilated and your ears are laying back?” The answer: the cat is anxious and upset about something, ready to run or pounce. On a contrary note, what does it mean when Baxter is fully stretched out on his back, sleeping soundly? Answer: this is a sign that he feels safe and secure. After reading the whole book with all its questions, I concluded that Baxter is one happy cat with little anxiety and much contentment.

Too bad we don’t have such a book for each other; a guide on how to read the signs we give about how the day is going, what our moods are, what brings us joy or causes us stress and frustration. However, after a while, we do learn some of these signals if we pay attention. We get to know what sets each other off. We can learn the connections between what happens, or what we make happen, and how others respond. We learn what buttons to push in each other to make us happy or sad, secure or anxious, peaceful or angry. Sometimes we may misread the moment, but for the most part, after we have lived with each other long enough and care enough to be concerned about the other’s responses, we figure it out. It is a key to living together.

God gives off signs to us as well. In fact, there is also a book that helps us interpret these signs. It’s called the Bible. As we enter into Lent this week, we need to take note of what the signs of God are in our lives and our world, and how to interpret them. Taking time to look for them because we care about our faith, and making room in our busy schedules to learn more about how to understand them is a vital part of our Lenten renewal. Two things can help in this regard. First, we need to pay attention to the signs. God is often subtle in His messages to us. Rarely do they come in lightning bolts or extraordinary visions. They come with the twists of the day, the conversations we share, the routine prayers we say. With the crowded lives we live, we are often just going from one thing to another, going through the motions to get on with it, and we miss the quieter messages, the signs of grace in our midst. To get God’s point, we need to slow down and be quiet.

Second, we need to read the book. The Bible is a compendium of thousands of years of people’s experiences of God expressed in various literary forms — stories, histories, laws, poems, letters, and special pieces. As we come to understand and appreciate these treasures through the lens of our tradition of faith, we see that God’s work of loving and saving us continues today in our lives and world. The scriptures lay out the track record of God’s ways, to help us recognize and understand the continuing signs of His presence and power today.

It is not just the ways of cats that appear mysterious to us. God’s ways are much more profoundly mysterious, and so they are often missed or dismissed as unintelligible. Take the time to stop, read, reflect and understand these ways a little more fully this Lent. There’s an added bonus for us in this Lenten exercise. As we learn to understand God’s signs better, we learn to live with each other more carefully and appreciate each other more fully.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Baxter's Cat Charm

Cats are real charmers, and Baxter is no exception. When he wants something, he really works at buttering me up. For instance, feeding time is grooming time, and I am the object of his attention and affection. He rubs up against my pant leg with a long, drooling meow, and then he sits with longing eyes, begging for relief from his feigned starvation. Of course, once he gets what he wants, he forgets about me and concentrates on the real object of his charm, his stomach. I am left with pant legs covered with cat hair.

We can do the same to each other, but in more subtle and devious ways. We can use each other to get what we want. Maybe it's a new job or a promotion; maybe it's a personal favor; maybe it's our desire to be among the popular and influential. We can use our relationships to flatter each other's ego. Then we give another person what he or she wants whether it is right or not, or we tell others what they want to hear whether or not it is the truth. Whatever it takes is what we offer to get what we want from them. We play an unspoken game with each other that appears as one thing on the surface but is another underneath. What appears to be esteem, respect and appreciation is really a disguise for self-centeredness and selfish interests. The test for this kind of deception happens when either party in the relationship changes positions or finds another person who might serve their desires better. The relationship dissolves, and what was thought to be genuine affection is revealed as simply convenient and manufactured human dynamics.

God is the test for genuine love and honest closeness in our human connections. God's love has no agenda but the good of the other. God grows closer to us by dealing with whatever we dish up in our lives. Whether we are faithful or sinful, whether we succeed or fail, win or lose, God remains constant in His intentions with us and for us. He seeks the best for us. He wants us to thrive and grow. He lifts us in His love to see ourselves differently, to see that we are valuable and esteemed for who we are as God's children. We are precious in His sight no matter our condition. We don't have to gain or lose a thing to merit God's love. God made the connection from the first moment of our existence, and while we may ignore or disavowal the relationship from our side for what we think is a better, more self-serving agenda, God stays where He has always been, loving us for the person He created us to be, without condition or reservation. God's charm comes from this unwavering constancy to seek our best and transform our worst by His healing and forgiveness.

Too bad we don't charm each other this way, instead of all the games we play to gain each other's favor. We love each other but often with so many strings attached that we act like puppeteers, trying to make each other do and say what we want for our advantage. Our charm is often deceptive. God's charm is loving, true and good. Trust in what God can do for you.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Baxter's Fan Following

Baxter doesn’t seem to be a fan of any team in any sport. He watches some of the games with me, but with a disinterest that often gives way to full out sleep. No cheering meows, no jumping up in excitement, no bad chirps for a bad play, he just lies there wondering, I think, “What is all the fuss about?” A pinch of cat nip or, better still, a bowl of kibble, and he’s full tilt ready to do battle for the spoils. But a contest on some field of play produces little to no reaction from him. Except, of course, if I yell too loudly for some fabulous play or fouled up performance, then Baxter jumps out of his stupor, and once he realizes I am the source of the noise, turns in disgust to resume his shattered dream in peace once again. It takes a lot to be a fan; more than Baxter wants to invest.

A fan must be enthusiastic. He or she is emotionally invested in the team they support. A great game can give a lift to the whole day, and conversely, a bad game puts a damper on the rest of one’s waking hours. A fan isn’t merely “interested” in the game. The day revolves around this event. The energy builds as the anticipation mounts. That’s why there is a ritual to the pre-game activities — tailgating, bands and fight songs, team gear, meeting up with fellow fans. It all contributes to the hype and charges up the faithful.

Which leads to the second quality of a true fan, he or she is loyal. A fair weather fan is no fan at all. The test of one’s blood line for a team is how you act when the team is in a slump. While you might get upset and want to fire the coach or strangle a certain player, you don’t walk away from the team. You stay with them through thick and thin, despite frustrations and disappointments, when the statistics are negative and the record shows it, when they do stupid things that lose the game. A true fan stands by them, and starts over with all the hype for the next game. How can someone do this, especially when the slump becomes a slide that seems to have no bottom to it? They never lose hope. The next play, the next game, the next season will turn it around, and true to this hope, he or she stands by, stays with, cheers on the team.

God needs fans in our world today. It sometimes seems like He’s losing the games of life with so much of the culture of death all around us. The right to an abortion remains the law of the land, as does capital punishment in many places. The frail elderly are often seen as a burden rather than precious pieces of fine, aged humanity. The poor are blamed for their condition rather helped out of it, and world peace is often dismissed as the fantasy of the na├»ve rather than the only practical course for humans to thrive. God is behind all of these contests for respecting and uplifting human life, but sometimes He must wonder where all of His fans have gone. So little cheering for these causes is often heard, or if it is heard, the cheers come from fair weather fans who pick and choose when and what they will support on God’s team. We are against abortion but for capital punishment. We are concerned for the elderly, but the poor are on their own. Peace is for the radicals, but war is for the patriots. Thinking this way is like cheering for pass plays but not for runs in football, or concentrating on the pitching game but forgetting about dropped balls in the outfield. A true fan supports the team in every aspect of its play, appreciates that each position contributes to the game effort, and remembers that usually only a fully balanced squad can sustain itself all the way to a championship.

God needs enthusiastic and loyal fans in His game of saving human life in all its conditions. Fans expect the team to be in condition, play smart, and give it their all. Our Trinitarian God always does that. We have to do our part in showing that we stand by, stay with and cheer on all God’s efforts in our world. We can’t give up, for the season for this sport is all that remains of human history. The game rituals are the sacraments we celebrate to prepare and strengthen us for the contest. The championship trophy is life everlasting. So stay with God’s team and cheer on His victory over sin and death in all its contests.

Baxter, wake up!