Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advent Thoughts: Cat Time

Baxter has an internal clock that is set by his stomach.  He knows when it is time to eat.  At 5:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. he is ready to chomp on the food the second it appears.  If it is just a few minutes late, I hear about it persistently.  Like an alarm that won’t shut off until the button is pushed, Baxter cries for his food no matter what else might be happening until it is served for his satisfaction.  There is no patient waiting on his part, only impatient nagging.

Children can get that way about Christmas.  Their internal clocks are set by the merchandizing industry to begin wanting the “must have’s” for this year in early October.  TV, internet and peers stoke this desire with their enticing demonstrations of what the latest fad can do or how it can add to one’s image.  These promise the “best ever” Christmas, and they wow us with the innovations of technology and fashion.  Our children get excited and fidgety for the “big day”.  We get anxious about finding the right present and paying for it.  No one is at ease with the season.

God tells time differently, and Advent is based upon God’s time.  It is a season of patient waiting for something that is not clearly seen or completely understood.  Unlike Baxter before a meal or our children before Christmas, Advent seeks to shape our desires to be more open, more receptive and accepting of God, however the divine mystery comes into our lives.  Advent seeks to whet our appetite for the holy become incarnate in our midst in whatever form the Word made Flesh might show us now.  Those who held a preconceived idea of who the Messiah was and how He would come missed the true Savior born in simple surroundings of ordinary parents in a small town.  Advent is meant to prepare us to receive the unexpected ways of God that fulfill the promise of salvation from sin and death.

To do this, God waits.  He waits for life to throw us a few curves with disappointments and losses.  He waits for us to become more humble about what we can do and more open to His grace.  He waits to teach us that waiting isn’t time wasted, but time ripening until it’s ready to receive what God has to offer in His Son born among us.  All this waiting changes what we desire from living, so that we can learn what true hope is—not biding our time until we get what we want, but trusting in God’s love for us until we accept what He gives us as the source of true happiness.

Cats and children are often impatient.  We are sometimes catty and childish.  Still, God waits for each of us to grow up in the faith, and provides another Advent to do just that.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cat Power

The lion is considered the “King of Beasts”.  On the plains of Africa, the lion is the top of the food chain.  He is the predator who sets the order of hunting for food and all the other species fall in line behind.  The lion is muscular with sharp eyesight, speed and dexterity.  It overwhelms its prey and kills quickly.  It takes the choice pieces of flesh first and leaves the left-overs to those down the pecking line, first in the pride and then among the other carnivorous plain animals.  The lion’s kingship is held by brute force and physical prowess.  When age or sickness weakens his strength, another lion takes this particular king’s place, and the former head is soon forgotten, often left to die because it is no longer strong enough to hunt.

Baxter is no lion.  When he was younger, he was a feisty kitten, and he would like to wrestle and bite at all kinds of objects, including my finger or leg at times.  He thought himself king of the roost, and unless he got out of control, I never disillusioned him of his self-image.  Once in a while, life would do that to him.  He would encounter a BIG cat or dog on the other side of the window, and quickly his lion heart would sink to hiding under the bed or in the crook of my arm until the beast passed.  When courage is based on physical strength or force of will, it only takes another with a little more strength or greater position to drain it.  My cat quickly chickened out when faced with uneven odds.

“Christ is King!” we proclaim on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  But the Lion of Judah is no beast.  The power of Christ is not a physical force imposed on others or the will of the ruler intimidating His subjects into submission and conformity.  The power of Christ is the force of the divine-human character to influence others to respond to its self-sacrificing love and generous grace.  Christ’s power comes from within Himself as God made human in perfect integrity.  All that is of God and all that is truly human is brought together in a perfect identity we call in theology the hypostatic union.  No one else has this kind of perfect integrity between the divine and human, but everyone else is invited to draw on Christ’s integrity to find harmony and communion in their lives.  Christ’s power is a shared power from its one source in God-become-incarnate.  It will not intimidate or force itself into our lives because it respects itself and us too much.  God gave us free will, and in Christ there is perfect freedom of the will to unite with God.  These will not be compromised, even if people turn away from Christ’s call to follow Him as disciples. 

 The power of Christ the King is the power of a greater vision of the truth of life, the power of genuine love, the power to offer hope in the face of any darkness.  It is the power to lift others up rather than put them down.  It is the power to persuade and encourage rather than force and intimidate.  If we live in Christ, we have this power available to us to do God’s work in the world by feeding our souls on the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist.

Baxter is a real pussycat, lots of bluster but a softy in the crunch.  Christ is a powerful predator, but He conquers by offering Himself for the ones He loves and enticing them to Him by this selfless sacrifice.  What a strange and wonderful God we have!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cat Speak

I have a passive fluency in “Cat”.  I haven’t learned to speak it, but I have learned to understand certain words through their context.  For instance, the high pitched, strung out, muffled meow means, “Feed me now!”, if it occurs in front of the food dish, or “Give me a drink from the faucet”, if it is delivered while sitting on the rim of the tub.  The low pitched, groaning meow arising from the pit of the stomach means, “A hair ball is on the way.”  Full throated cries while standing in front of a closed door mean, “Open it so that I can decide whether or not I want to go there.”  A grinding sound fixed on one tone signals, “This is my turf.  All other cat types get out of here.”  It took me some time and experience to learn to understand these messages.  After all, I wasn’t raised speaking “Cat”, so I learned this language only after living with Baxter and paying attention to his habits and ways of communicating.  Now, after many years, we can have a lively exchange at times, though it usually consists of two scripts.  Baxter keeps insisting on something, and I keep responding with “No,” “Wait” or “Later”.  Eventually, he gets what he wants.  (Yes, I admit it.  He is spoiled.)

Conversation is an art.  It is not scripted.  It happens when two parties communicate with each other in such a way that the communication itself creates the message.  Conversations involve give and take, which leads to new understandings and ways of living with each other.  A true conversation never begins with conclusions.  Even the positions or opinions that the partners may hold at the start are not taken for granted.  They are explored together to gain deeper insight into why each person holds the convictions he or she does and what these reveal about them.  The point of a conversation is not necessarily an answer to the problem we are facing, but a bond with each other that allows us eventually to find an answer together.  Only humans and higher beings can have conversations.  With lower creatures, like cats, we may have messages sent, received and sent back, but not genuine attempts to get into each other’s heart and mind to find our common ground.

Faith sets us up to have a conversation with God.  When we believe, we are interested in getting to know God for who He truly is.  We want to understand God’s viewpoint, empathize with divine concerns, and work with God to solve our common problems, and God promises to do the same with us.  We know this because in Jesus God took on our human condition as one with us.  He knows our language from the inside out, and He seeks to use it to create a bond with humanity based upon mutual respect, understanding and love.  But how often do we deal with God and with each other in “Cat” speak?  We just send messages, most often demands, and expect the other to follow them.  We don’t want a conversation.  We want to get our way with each other, and when we don’t, we’re frustrated and upset.  Our faith calls us to something more than this superficial way of relating to God and each other in God.  It calls us to a communion of life in God.

It begins by allowing conversations to happen.  Pray as if you are talking to God over the back fence.  There’s no agenda, no conclusions, no demands, just getting to know each other by sharing what is going on in your life.  Then move to talking with each other as if you are praying—with respect, openness, interest and concern.  Now your faith becomes real because it colors the way you relate to others and your God.  Keep doing it, and one day you will discover you are speaking “God”.  It’s the lovely language of prayer and of honest and genuine conversations with each other.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Catch Me If You Can

If I am away for a while, Baxter likes to play a game with me when I return.  He crouches with his front paws down and his back ones up and stares at me with a funny “growl”. When I catch his look, he takes off running. At first, I didn’t understand the game, so I would just laugh and continue about my business. But then, he would return, and do it again. This time running half way and stopping to look back at me. Finally, I caught on to my part. I was to run after Baxter and tag him when he stopped. Sometimes he would try to hide himself by stopping with his head under the bed and his butt sticking up in the air.  My job was to grab him around the middle and say, “I got you!”  Then he would roll over for a quick belly scratch, and depending on his mood, either start the whole game over again, or call it quits.

This silly game of cat antics reminds me of a serious part of divine tricks. God sometimes plays a game of “catch me if you can” with us. He runs ahead of us and invites us to follow. We can’t always predict where He is going to go and how He will present Himself when we get there.  Especially when we have been away from Him for a while, God wants to engage us in a personal chase. Can you find Him and keep up with His antics?  Sometimes we expect God to be sedate and formal, and God chooses a different way to picture Himself for us.

 Maybe He’s a thoroughbred running at full speed and urging us to run along-side to feel strong and free. Maybe He’s a clown doing outlandish postures and gestures to get us to laugh at ourselves and life in general.  Maybe He’s a silly cat provoking us to pay attention to Him after periods of lonely neglect. God has many faces to show us. His transcendent love comes in ways that can be unconventional and unexpected. While He always plays a good game with no malice in mind, God does not have to follow our rules when engaging us. He can change the playing field, reset the time period, reconfigure the teams and reassign the scoring mechanisms. Then we are left with a choice.  Either we play the new game on its new terms, or we leave the game and pout about sitting on the sideline with nothing to do.

The spiritual life is not a single, straightaway track. It is a cross-country route with many challenges and unpredictable situations along the way. God leads the way, but we sometimes have to look for Him and how or where He is running. He urges us forward, sometimes with a stare, sometimes with a “growl”, sometimes teasing us with only a glimpse of Himself, and sometimes stopping to rest along the way. But He won’t stop moving through the changes of our lives and calling us to play along with Him. At first, we might not figure out what the game is, but if we keep engaged, we eventually will discover how to have fun with it.

“Catch me, if you can!”  God says. We won’t do it, but we sure can enjoy trying, and become holy in the process.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Tender Spot

Cats’ bellies are a vulnerable spot for them.  They guard their underside carefully, and at first, they don’t let anyone touch them for any reason in that tender spot.  I had to learn this the hard way from Baxter.  He loved to be petted and brushed from when he first arrived in my house, but when I went to pat his stomach, he reacted.  He cried, flipped over and ran away.  It took a long time for him to trust me enough to expose his sensitive underside to any touch, much less, a brush’s bristles.  However, in time, Baxter softened.  He began to trust that I wouldn’t take advantage of him or hurt him.  He came to appreciate a simple pat on the stomach or the gentle stroke of a brush to remove the loose, downy white hair there.  Now, he voluntarily rolls over from time to time to get a little scratch or gentle rub to assure him that everything is right with the world for the moment.

We all have our vulnerable spots.  It may be those places in our personality that we feel inadequate.  It may be those jobs we don’t like to do or don’t do well.  It may be certain subjects.  Maybe it’s death, our own or another’s; maybe it’s our marriage or our children’s relationships; maybe it’s certain secrets we hold about the past or present activities.  Whatever it might be, there are things in our lives we feel uncomfortable talking about, looking at directly or revealing to anyone, even ourselves.  When they come up, we quickly push them aside, change the subject, leave the scene or snarl a remark that signals to anyone present, “Get away!”  We protect our tender spots.

Privacy is a good quality in this world of total disclosure on Youtube or Facebook.  Not everyone needs or deserves to know everything about us.  We protect what we cherish, and we harbor precious feelings by holding them close and sharing them only with the most trusted family and friends.  Here is where God comes into the picture.  Can we trust God enough to expose the most private, tender and vulnerable aspects of our lives to His grace and mercy?  It may not be easy at first.  We may think we don’t measure up to what we should be as believers and faithful followers.  So we hide our underside from divine consolation and help.  We craft our sin to be acceptable. We pose our weakness to be normal.  We mask our insecurity with bravado and bully strength.  We never admit, either to ourselves or our God, the deeper desires we hold, some bright and hopeful, and others dark and despairing.

We dream of happiness in our later years and for our children’s lives.  We hope for a world of peace.  We enjoy the beauty of creation and the sparkle in a child’s eyes.  We seek revenge for hurts and rejections.  We envy others’ good fortunes.  We desire pleasures that are beyond our reach and gratifications that twist our relationships and pervert their growth.  All of these hidden dimensions are the stuff of prayer.  Light and dark, positive and negative, sprung from grace and sprung from sin, we bring these desires to prayer to magnify their goodness and to deflate their evil through the love of God for us.  Prayer is like rolling over and allowing God to touch the tender spots we hide from daily and common view.  Through it, we learn to trust that God will not take advantage of our vulnerability to harm us, but will bless it to become the instrument to save us.  When we can allow God to touch our tender spots, we know a bond has formed which cannot be broken.