Thursday, October 25, 2012

Too Much For Baxter

Recently, I was watching a football game on TV where the competition was very tight.  The two teams were battling it out for the whole game, and the score ended in a tie, forcing an overtime period.  In overtime, the game came down to a goal-line stand where my team had to hold its opponent out of the end-zone from the one yard line for a win.  The tension mounted; the excitement was electric; my nerves were on end.  The ball was snapped.  The running back lunged for the goal line.  The defense closed from both sides and behind the line.  The whistle finally blew, and the ruling on the field was no touchdown.  I leaped off of my chair with a shout and began jumping up and down in celebration.  Baxter got scared, so scared that he ran out of the room and lay down in front of the door in case he needed a quick escape from this madman.  I was elated.  Baxter was fearful, confused and unimpressed.  We shared the same moment, but we read it in very different ways.

You see, I was a die-hard fan of the winning team.  Baxter was a fan of neither team.  Fans get charged by a team victory, but those on the outside don’t feel the same way.  They look upon all the hoop-la as at best, nonsense, or at worst, mental illness.  They fail to understand how something like winning a game can gather so much energy and mean so much to a fan.  They may concede that winning is nice, but it doesn’t hold much significance beyond that pleasantry.  To the fan, it makes his or her day.  It creates a memory that will be part of the team lore for decades.  It sparks enthusiasm for the next game, and creates an attitude that carries over into the week ahead.  To the neutral observer, the game is just a little entertainment.  The win is nice, but it will soon be forgotten.  It was an interesting diversion in the day.

We need to remember this difference in perception when we try to evangelize.  We come to the table committed.  We are God’s loyal and true fans in Christ, and we wish others felt like we do.  So we might be tempted to get carried away with our enthusiasm and the urgency with which we try to convince others either to come back to the Church or begin the journey for the first time.  We cherish the sacraments and the traditions that mark our lives.  We are passionate about these and the convictions they embody, and sometimes we can’t understand others’ apathy or coolness towards them.  We want others to believe so much that we might try too hard to convince them of its value.  Then they respond like Baxter to our over exuberance.  They get frightened, confused and put off.  They wonder what’s wrong with us to get so carried away.

The journey of faith is not an all or nothing goal-line stand.  It is a lifetime walk with various companions on the way until, like the disciples on the road to Emmanus, we discover that the Lord has been with us all along.  The Eucharist is not fast food that we grab when we have little time to eat.  It is the supper of the Lord prepared carefully over time by many members of the family of faith gathering to pray.  The richest traditions of our faith grew through the centuries, changed with the times, and were instruments of renewal by the way they called people back to the basics of our belief and their lives.  They didn’t expect instant results but lasting ones, effects that soaked into the heart and marked one’s character ever after.

So witness your faith to others clearly but carefully.  Take the time to allow them to ask questions, reflect on what they hear, and grow into their loyalty and enthusiasm.  True fans don’t happen overnight.  They develop from family and friends sharing many experiences of the team, until one day they realize they are connected.  These kinds of believers stay with God’s team in good seasons and bad ones, and their enthusiasm always comes back when it’s needed to push on and move ahead. Their cheers may not always be loud and boisterous, but they are there when encouragement or celebration are called for.  Not “Yeah!” “Goooo!” or “Boooo!” but “Alleluia!” and “Amen.”

 O.K., Baxter, I’ll calm down.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Another Baxter Quirk

Bathroom habits aren’t usually talked about in polite and public company, but Baxter has a most unusual practice when it comes to his personal hygiene.  First, however, I do have to commend him for his flawless record with the litter box.  But that said, he does have a very peculiar habit as part of his bathroom routine.  Baxter has the typical cat characteristics.  He is finicky about his toilet.  It has to be kept clean.  He does the usual pawing and digging to find the right spot.  But the quirk comes into play after he has taken care of his needs.  He jumps out of the litter box, and he runs at full speed into another room.  There he begins to meow in an extended cadence, more like a common dog’s howl than a sophisticated cat’s cry.  After a few seconds it’s all over, and he is back to his usual daily activities—eating, sleeping and looking out the window.

This funny escape from his own mess almost seems like Baxter’s way of disowning it.  When he takes up his call in another room away from the litter box, it is as if to say, “Who did that?  That’s not mine.  Someone else must have left behind that mess to clean.”  He runs away, pretending that no one will know who did it and forgetting it ever happened.

While our bathroom habits aren’t the same as a cat’s, our ways of dealing with the messes we create in the course of our lives may closely resemble Baxter’s bathroom quirk.  Instead of doing what is needed to leave a clean slate, we run away from the messes and pretend that they didn’t happen or that someone else is to blame for them.  These can be a range of problems.  Maybe we have squandered our money, and now we can’t meet our monthly bills.  Maybe we have neglected our spouse or children for other interests—work, recreational activities, volunteer commitments, etc.  Maybe we find ourselves caught in an addition to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual fantasies or sexual encounters.  Whatever is the mess we might be in, we need to face it, figure out its causes, and do something to remove it from our lives.  It won’t go away on its own or by waiting for someone else to solve it.  We will just keep making more messes until we take charge of them ourselves.

Jesus never let people off the hook.  He forgave them much and often, but He never told them not to worry about the consequences and effects of their sin.  He held them responsible for changing the circumstances that led them into their mess.  “Sin no more,” He tells the woman caught in adultery after the crowd departs.  “Give her something to eat,” He instructs the parents of the little girl he raises to life.  “Unseal the tomb,” He directs Martha and Mary so that their brother can walk free of death.  “Show yourselves to the priests,” He orders the cured leper.  In all these circumstances, Jesus asks people to cooperate with the power of God’s grace by taking responsibility for what they can do to improve their lives.  Miracles aren’t magic.  They are disclosures of how God is at work to save us, but we have to do our part to make the effects of grace sincere and lasting.

Baxter is a cat, so he’s off the hook for his quirky habit of running away from his own mess.  We are children of God, so there is no excuse for us to help ourselves to better our lives.  God will be there.  He promised.  Are we willing to take responsibility to work with Him when we see a mess that needs cleaned?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Curious Cats

Cats are curious, and Baxter is no exception.  He loves to explore anything that isn’t part of the normal routine of his world. If the furniture is rearranged, he has to walk all around it and know where every piece is placed. If there is a new sound in the air, he runs to find its source and decide whether or not it is friendly. If strangers come into his space, he comes out to see what they look like; he rubs against them to mark them for himself; then he hopes to con them into feeding him to win a friend forever in Baxter. Baxter wants to know who and what is in his world, and what is going on beyond the ordinary routines of his cat life. Nothing escapes his notice and his sniff test to determine if it is friend or foe, food or just fuzz balls.

Curiosity is Baxter’s way of making sure that nothing escapes his notice or his control. He wants his world to be within the boundaries that he has set with the objects and people he has placed there.  That way he can try to eliminate any surprises that may disturb and disrupt his life. Keep a hold on everything, and nothing will escape and threaten your comfortable existence.

We are curious creatures also. We want to know what is going on, how it works, who is involved, what is behind the obvious facts. On the one hand, this drive to know more is a good thing. It spurs new developments in human knowledge and the life style we develop from these. If no one ever wondered how human cells work, many devastating diseases would still be menacing our lives. If no one ever thought about micro waves and storing information on silicon chips, the world of the internet and cell phones and all that comes with them would never have been possible. If we don’t ponder the great mysteries of life—from where did it all come, why do we suffer, what happens after death—the meaning of our lives will remain shallow and devoid of the weightier questions that lead us to the mystery of God and our own lives. Curiosity is the engine that drives our minds and hearts to grow in comprehending the fullness of life.

On the other hand, however, we can misuse our inquisitiveness. We snoop into places we don’t belong with little regard for what we are doing. When science is not directed by appropriate respect for the objects of its study, we can do things that are unethical and justify them in the name of free inquiry. Some stem cell research, death dealing comfort drugs, mineral extraction technology, and even cyberspace data collection reflect this distortion of our human desire to know. Closer to home, our curiosity sometimes leads us into areas of other people’s lives where we have no right to go. We try to get private information that we share with others for no other purpose than to tear down another’s character and reputation. We justify our twisted inquiries by neutral terms like “idle gossip” or “small town news”, but they are really calumny and slander. This kind of dark knowledge makes us feel important in our own eyes and sometimes in the eyes of those who listen to it. Like Baxter’s drive to know everything that’s going on in his world, it’s a way to control and manipulate others’ lives. We use information like a weapon that threatens and confines people for our purposes.

An old saying reads, “Curiosity killed the cat.” The misuse of our God-given and wonderful desire to know our world and each other in it will kill our souls and warp our understanding with sinister and selfish motives behind it. So explore, wonder, ask questions, investigate but do so for the good of others and our world. Any other reason is not worthy of you, others or the God who planted the seed of our curiosity when He made us.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Balancing Act

Despite his portly bearing, Baxter is quite the acrobat.  He can still negotiate window sills and shelves with ease. He can walk the rim of his litter box with alacrity. He likes to sit on the edge of the bathtub, and he will even hold a pose on the back of a dining room chair for a few moments--if he thinks I’m not looking at his trespass onto forbidden territory. Cats have an amazing sense of balance. Between their agility and ability to adjust their body weight quickly, they are able to get to where they want to be no matter the obstacles or the limited access.

Although we may not be as versatile as cats, we too have a remarkable ability to balance our body weight against gravity. Once we get the hang of standing and walking on two legs, there is no stopping us. Did you ever watch a two year old set loose on his or her own? It’s usually nonstop motion into everything. Steps, cabinets, decks and balconies, they all are fair game for the young one who has discovered his or her knack for balancing his or her body on two feet. Once we have learned how, we take our sense of balance for granted. We just get up and go, not thinking twice about what it takes to stay upright.

But then something happens. We injure our back. We develop vertigo. We lose the strength in our legs.  We can no longer stand upright without holding onto something, and we can only move forward slowly and cautiously. We’re afraid of falling now, and so we begin to move less, go to fewer places, stay put to stay safe. Losing our sense of balance has many consequences for our way of life.

The same holds for our spiritual lives as well. We need to have balance to keep moving and feeling secure, and sometimes we lose this balance and don’t notice it.  Life gets busy, and soon we are consumed with work or activities.  An elderly parent or spouse becomes ill, and all the focus is on caring for them.  A divorce happens or an addiction is uncovered, and now everything falls out of whack.  At times like these, we can get trapped into limping through our days not thinking about how we are doing and what we need to change to make things better.  We are hurting so much that we can’t think straight.  Our feelings go numb, but our nerves are on edge.  We sense the pressure building in our souls, but we don’t know what to do about it.

Balance is a key to the holy life. Time for prayer, work, enrichment, recreation; time to develop the mind and get in touch with the heart; time for physical and spiritual exercise; time to eat well, sleep well; time to be alone and time to enjoy others’ company; time for serious pursuits and conversations, and time for fun and frivolous banter. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “There is an appointed time for everything . . . under the heavens.” If we fail to walk through all these times of our lives, we grow narrow, lethargic and rigid. We don’t allow life to keep us limber so that we can move through our time on earth gracefully rather than grudgingly. We need to ask ourselves:  what’s missing from my life to keep it in balance? There is where God is calling you to respond.

Cats walk upright on the narrowest ledges because they have a wonderful sense of balance.  We can learn from them.  We can walk in faith through the toughest of times, if we keep our sense of balance by using all that God gives us.