Friday, March 30, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Fresh Air

Baxter loved the warm days we had a few weeks ago. I would open the windows wide, and he would sit on the sill all excited about the sounds of the birds and the warmth and brightness of the sun. He perked up at any movement he spied from his self-designated observation tower. He was full of life because he surrounded himself with all sorts of living creatures. They made him curious, and he wanted to investigate every sight and sound he encountered. He jumped from window to window, taking it all in and smelling the sweet freshness of nature coming to life again.

What gets us excited about living? Do we think we are too old and settled to expect anything new and different to spark our imaginations? Are the responsibilities we hold each day weighing down our spirits and stifling our creativity? Can God get to us with a call to live life anew in His Spirit? We need to examine our lives in view of where we have positioned the windows. Are they shut all the time? Are the blinds closed to the light? Do we even look out through them to see a bigger world beyond our confines?

Lent is window washing time for us. Take the dust away from our vision, and let the fresh air inside. Now look at what God is doing in our world. Despite the wars and violence in our streets there are signs of compassion when the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and the homeless sheltered. Despite the greed and selfishness of some business and political activities, there are those who want to work together, who are generous in their dealings, and who treat their employees and customers with respect and fairness. Despite the frustrations with cold bureaucracies and insider deals, every system has people who believe that serving others is the first and most important thing we do each day. Look for these heroes in our midst. Thank them for being different, and follow their example. They are the breath of fresh air and warm light that signal the end of the world’s winter and the growth of new life.

We can so easily get discouraged these days by all that we see and hear around us, however, the reasons for hope are there too. Perhaps not where we are accustomed to look, but look again. There are open minds and hearts that seek to serve others and make a better world for us all. For us who believe, these witnesses of hope are signs of the Spirit released by the Risen Lord. As we approach Easter, breathe in that Spirit. Feel its warmth; see its hints of new life; and praise God for His presence and power in our midst. Become a witness and agent of God’s Spirit wherever you live and work, and so bring some freshness to the life you share with others.

Baxter sits on the sill of an open window to take in the freshness of new life. We sit at the entrance of an empty tomb to see things differently. Baxter’s viewpoint passes with the seasons, but ours is meant to last into eternity. Don’t miss the opportunity for some fresh air and new life this Easter.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lenten Scratches: A Life of Blessings

Baxter has a very positive attitude towards life. He expects good things to come his way. Probably he holds this view because he is a cat. You see, cats have this outlook that life is at their service. You’ve heard, I expect, the old distinction between dogs and cats. Dogs have masters whom they idolize and try to please. Cats have servants whom they allow to take care of them. Being Baxter’s servant, I can attest to my role, and how he absorbs the things that provide him with pleasure and satisfaction. Give him a little catnip, and he is rolling on his back. Brush his back, and he purrs and purrs. Provide a meal, and Baxter dives into the bowl, chomping its contents with gusto. When something good comes his way, Baxter doesn’t hold back. He relishes its goodness, and how it lifts his spirit to enjoy living more.

I found this reaction in sharp contrast to a few comments I have heard recently about the beautiful, warm, early spring weather we have been experiencing. “Don’t worry. We’ll pay for this.” gives voice to the wary and suspicious attitude that has come out with the daffodils. If it’s good, there has to be a catch in it that will ruin it for us. If we like it, we will lose it. Something will happen to take it away. Life is out to make us miserable and defeat us in the end. Don’t trust what looks good and hopeful. It will only prove deceptive, and catch us off guard to dash our hopes. We don’t deserve pleasure and happiness, and in the end, life will exact a toll from every one of us, robbing us of what we cherish and enjoy.

Yes, there are losses, pain and suffering, disappointments and frustrations in the course of a lifetime. We have our share of rainy and cold days. But the question that faces us is what are we made for. Are we dogs or cats in God’s eyes? Is our lot to satisfy a capricious master so that he might throw us a bone once in a while and pet our head in a condescending gesture of divine pleasure? Or has he chosen to be our servant, blessing us despite the hardships and heartaches that come our way, and sharing these to lighten the burden. Is God for us or against us?

Saint Paul eloquently answered that last question in his letter to the Romans. “If God is for us, who can be against us? Is it possible that he who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for the sake of us all will not grant us all things besides?” God is the servant who saves us. God’s service does not demean Him, but ennobles us and shows us what true love looks like. Such love takes on the trials and selfishness of others and redeems them by absorbing the ultimate consequences that such darkness exacts on life. It dies to what could be its own self-serving pleasures to show those who are not sure of life’s source in goodness and grace, that in the end, all will be well. True love is crucified, and on the cross we see that both in the darkness of a frigid winter and the warmth of an early spring, we are blessed “because of Him who has loved us.” No change in the forecast of our lives can take that love away.

So enjoy the warm weather. Relish the good things that come your way. Take heart when the weather or your fortunes grow cold. The divine, crucified love that serves us is true. Cats got it right from God’s point of view in Christ. Soak in life’s blessings, and trust that God’s love finally wins out.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Water Antics

As you know, Baxter has this thing for drinking from the spigot in the bath tub. He sits on the edge of the tub patiently waiting for me to walk by the door, so that he can call me into the bathroom to turn on the spigot for his drink. He places his head under the stream and drinks the water that rolls off of his head onto the tub floor. Of course, this means that the gets quite wet from the whole maneuver, but he obviously thinks it’s worth it. He keeps coming back for more. He doesn’t see a problem. I, on the other hand, have a problem with the aftermath of Baxter’s hydration technique.

I try to wait until he is finished with his slurping up the H2O, so that I can stop him before the big splash. If I’m alert and quick, I can pin him down and dry him off with a towel before he sets off on his merry way. However, if I miss his cue that he’s done with the drink, then I have to deal with the splashes on the floor, the walls, the rugs and anything else in shot of his vigorously shaking head. Sometimes I think he tries to fool me purposely, so that he can get a shot at me. When my back is turned, he leaps out of the tub, shakes and runs to escape my flurry of unpleasant words and the flying towel that follow. He has made it a game. Let’s see who can outsmart whom. Will Baxter be high and dry from the alpha cat’s Turkish towel off, or will I, and my surroundings, be wet and offended by his mischievous antics? At this point, I think the game is tied.

Our God plays with water as well. He separated the sea for the Israelites to escape Egypt. He brought water for the people from the rock in the desert. After the exile, Ezekiel speaks of God’s salvation as life-giving water flowing throughout Israel refreshing the land, and John the Baptist calls the people to repentance through his baptism in the Jordan. Finally, the risen Lord Jesus commissions His followers to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Water is a common medium for God’s touching our lives and renewing them.

He used water when He first touched us with new life at our baptisms. Through this primal ritual of our Christian life, God gave us all the basic elements of faith—overcoming sin, identifying us as His children, commissioning us as priest, prophet and king to carry on God’s work in the world. Baptismal waters cleanse and give birth, and by recalling our baptisms, they replenish our spirits when we feel dried up and withered by the desert of our godless world today. “Never forget your baptism and its meaning for your life.” This is the message of Lent each year. We want it to wash over us again and again, so that it will soak into us and our way of living. Forgiven as sinners, loved as children, and commissioned as disciples set the landmarks in the Lenten landscape, and a river runs through this promised land like the Jordan river through the holy land. Its source is the waters of our baptisms into Christ’s life.

Don’t try to dry off too quickly from these waters. Too often we forget that we are baptized believers with a dignity and responsibility that is divine by adoption. We act like everyone else — arrogant, competitive, self-centered, self-indulgent, uncaring. We are called to be more. Wake up to who you are and what you can do in God’s name. Splash in the life giving waters where you died with Christ to rise with Him to new life. It’s God’s trick to save you and recreate the world through you. So what if you get a little wet. Just take a cue from Baxter and shake a little water on others to invite them to play along. That’s how the world is converted, not with crusades but with clever ways to invite others to take a drink, get a little wet, and enjoy how God saves us.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Finding a Peaceful Perspective

Baxter was making a fuss the other evening before bedtime. He was banging around the house, dashing in and out of the rooms. He was staring at something in the hallway that set him off. At first I thought it might be a mouse or a spider that got into the house. He toys with such critters if he can, running after them, trapping them or trying to throw them with his paw, and finally, he leaves them for more exciting distractions. But this manic episode was different. He wouldn’t stop. He kept getting more and more excited. He wasn’t giving up on whatever it was that peaked his interest until it was conquered, or I removed it.

Because I wanted to get to bed, I decided to get to the bottom of this ruckus. At first, I couldn’t figure it out. No signs of a critter, no body parts left anywhere, no strange sounds except Baxter’s, so what could be setting him in such a frenzy? Then I spotted it. The strange intruder who set Baxter on his mad antics around the house was a twisty-tie. Yes, you read that correctly. One of those little coated metal wires used to close garbage bags or plastic food bags was the source for his crazy runs, jumps and grunts. He was so easily set off by something that amounted to nothing. A flip of the waste can lid, and it was all over.

We sometimes get excited by the smallest and silliest things as well. A garbage bag left in the house, dishes left on the table, five minutes late leaving for work, a traffic light turning red, eye glasses misplaced, a cell phone left in the office, a greeting missed by a friend or colleague, whatever it might be, we use it as the earthquake to set off our personal tsunami. We let our anger and frustration wash over everything and everyone in our path at times like these, and we start drawing cosmic conclusions about the matter with words like “always,” “never,” “why” and the accusatory “YOU!” We blow whatever happened out of proportion, and make it a personal affront to us, to the responsibility and respect due us. No reasoning or conciliatory talk gets to us at such times. We just want to ventilate and feel justified in doing so. Like Baxter when he is strung out, we are simply out of control.

So what do we do about such scenes when they occur? We can’t do another take and discard the first reaction, even if we want to do so. Once the words are spoken and the theatrics are played there is no erasing them. We have to deal with the consequences and learn from them.

Dealing with the consequences means we want to repair any damage our harsh words created. “I’m sorry” goes a long way to fill in the gaps our rash judgment created. It’s an invitation to give me another chance, to start over, to forget the drama and live normally again. What our anger shut down in our relationship with another, our apology reopens for the free flow of exchanging thoughts, feelings, concerns and beliefs. We begin to learn again, and what we learn is perspective. We made a mountain out of a mole hill. We forgot the big picture of the person before us. We reduced the moment and the relationship to what just happened, rather than seeing it as a part of a history of happenings that constitutes a person’s full character and our relationship with them.

Lent is a good time to mend the tears we have created between each other and between ourselves and God. “I’m sorry” is a simple sentence with profound meaning and effect. It diffuses our sometimes over-charged lives together, and puts the pieces back into the places where they belong. It helps us appreciate each other for the unique goodness we each bring to the task of living. It calms, heals and re-creates our love for each other. The monsters we imagine are shown for what they are, little annoyances that are best discarded.

It’s just a “twisty-tie,” Baxter. Go back to sleep. We all need to rest in the Lord this Lent.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Lenten Scratches: Fasting

Baxter should be on a diet. He does eat “weight control” food, but all it seems to do is maintain his portly physique. I have tried lowering the amount he eats each day to below the half cup allotment, but then he becomes intolerable to live with. Between the mournful cries and the incessant rubs on my legs and paws to my arms, I can’t do anything else but give him attention. Of course, that’s the point of these antics. “Wear him down until he can’t stand it any longer and gives up more grub.” Cats are always conniving to get their way. And as his weight maintenance shows, Baxter usually does get his way.

Dieting is a part of our culture in America. It is constantly changing with the latest fad diet, but it never seems to go away. Maybe because the statistics tell us we are overweight as a nation, we are always looking for the next way to fix it. But we want to do so without any pain and sacrifice, without any significant changes to our life style, while retaining all the pleasures fattening foods give us minus the calories. We keep looking for the “perfect” remedy for our weight problem, but none seems to last. So we go from fad diet to fad diet without losing a pound, but confident that the simple solution is just around the next weight loss commercial.

Lent does not call us to diet. It calls us to fast. There’s a big difference. We diet to become physically thinner, but we fast to become spiritually richer. We fast to heighten our awareness of many aspects of our life where God has a point to make for us. Fasting shows us that we don’t need all that we think we need, not all the food or possessions or pleasures we think make us happy. We need less because they contain so much more than we take account of when we use them. Savoring a meal makes it last longer and satisfies us more than fast food consumption that quells the hunger in ten minutes, but brings it back in two hours. Having a few quality products around to use or wear allow us to appreciate workmanship where human labor cooperates with the Creator rather than mass production that often makes the worker into a machine for profit. Picking one’s pleasures allow us to absorb their beauty and gratification more deeply as a sign of God’s goodness and grace, rather than simply indulging ourselves in fleeting satisfactions than wear off quickly, leaving us looking for more.

We fast to intensify our appetites so that less can truly be more, as we grow to understand that a rich life comes with the quality it holds rather than the quantity it amasses. We don’t need as much as we think we do, but we do need more from what we have by experiencing it as God’s gift given for us to know how generous God is. Finally, fasting comes down to making us grateful for what life brings us, even the bitter fruit, for it all nourishes our soul through the mystery of how God saves us.

Baxter should go on a diet, but he probably won’t. He likes the satisfaction food gives him too much, and he doesn’t intend to lose it. He is a slave to his creaturely desires. We need to fast a little this Lent from food or possessions or creaturely pleasures to free us from such desires and to know how good God is to us. Then we will be ready for the glorious feast of Easter, where God took a criminal, thought the least among us, and showed Him as the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.