Thursday, February 28, 2013


Certain things get Baxter excited.  On one hand, the smell of salmon on the grill, the sound of his feeder offering a new meal, the rustle of his package of treats opening, these widen his eyes, perk his tail, and send him running in the direction the smells or sounds indicate.  On the other hand, the sound of fireworks or the household sweeper, the smell of vinegar or lemons set him in the opposite direction, fleeing the repulsive signal.  Baxter has two sets of buttons.  Some are pushed by those things that make him happy, and others by those that repel him and set him on edge.  Either reaction is abrupt, and he doesn’t try to hide how he feels about the situation at hand.

We have the same sort of visceral responses to certain things.  The mention of certain persons, places, or things may set us off with either cascades of praise or deluges of disgust.  (Chocolate works the first way for me, and grits the second.)  Usually there is no convincing us otherwise when one of these “buttons” is pushed for us.  We either delight or disgust ourselves at the mere mention of the word. We love to savor the delights, and we hope to forget, avoid or eliminate those disgusting stimuli we encounter.  Often our responses are failsafe.  No conditions, disguises, or exceptions will change our minds and the reactions our memory generates.

God has certain positive and negative buttons too.  We see them clearly displayed in Jesus’ ministry.  He can’t resist forgiving the humble and contrite sinner.  He is attracted to the weak and vulnerable among us.  He puts down the arrogant and proud, and he exposes the deceiver and manipulator for what he or she is.  He accepts any genuine invitation to sit and eat at someone’s house, and He invites others to His table with only a few conditions—a wedding garment, no excuses, and a hunger.  Jesus’ buttons are clearly marked.  Push a certain one and you get what’s coming—a warm and enthusiastic embrace or a direct and challenging rebuke.  The lukewarm doesn’t hold much value in the Kingdom preferences Jesus displays.  His likes and dislikes are definite.

What sets us off?  That’s a good way to examine our consciences this Lent.  Do we get excited and upset about the right things from God’s point of view?  Are our buttons set to value what God values, to seek what God desires for us and the world, to explode with enthusiasm for what is genuinely good for all and with outrage for what degrades others as less than children of God?  Lent is a time to adjust the settings of our lives, so that we care passionately about what God loves and are unmoved by lesser things.

Baxter’s buttons are rather simple and clear.  As long as he can get the food that he likes and have the security and quiet he prefers, he is set for his life.  Our buttons are more complicated with more at stake.  When something sets us off, it’s an explosion that can either destroy what makes life valuable and meaningful or add to its value and meaning.  Unlock the power for good this Lent.  Push the right buttons in yourself and others for the right reasons for God’s sake and our own.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Baxter wasn't hard to train.  He came ready to use the litter box - no learning curve there.  He quickly gave up jumping on counters or tables - a few loud and harsh voice commands did the trick there.  He grew into getting brushed each night.  At first he resisted, but eventually he looked for it.  Now he comes when I call him for his nightly primping.  When it came to the furniture, we negotiated that one.  At first, I wanted to say no contact with any chairs or couches. Baxter had to stay on his own bed and pillows - but that was a losing battle.  We compromised by his using those pieces of furniture that I made Baxter-proof with covers. Consequently, there are many covered chairs - and a covered bed - in my quarters.  Baxter got the better part of that deal.

In fact, Baxter got his way on a number of things.  Where and when he ate were a lot of his doing, but I portioned the servings over his protests that they were too small.  Window access was Baxter’s call.  He loved to look outside, and if he could get to any ledge, I allowed him to take in any view that he fancied.  I also gave in on Baxter’s drinking habits.  He preferred flowing water from a spigot, and he has chosen different spigots in the various places we have lived - laundry room, bathroom sink, bathroom tub, lawn hose.  Why one and not another in certain places - I haven’t asked him.  I am sure he has his reasons though.

You see what has happened between us.  We have trained each other.  He knows my limits, my non-negotiables, and I know his likes and dislikes and try to accommodate them.  It’s a give and take, and in the course of our years together, we have trained each other to become a family of sorts.  We have learned to share our space, our habits, our idiosyncrasies, our delights and our displeasures.  We have learned to put up with each other, but also to enjoy each other, to work together to make wherever we are living a home by marking it with our unique relationship.  In this way, we have shaped each other in a habit of living that has made life better for both of us.

That’s the way God works with us.  God sets the standards for living together, but there’s lots of room for us to add our personal touch.  We are asked to live a life of discipleship that follows certain divine principles, but we give it our own personality, our own strengths and weaknesses, and our own set of gifts and talents.  All these make our discipleship unique, even while it is held in common with fellow disciples in the Church.  God controls the big picture of authentic human happiness, but He allows us to color in the details.  He respects our taste, our freedom to choose from many goods in life, our understanding of the various dimensions of life’s truths, our desire to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.  He accepts our limitations and works within them.

Nevertheless, God always calls us beyond the limits we have set for ourselves.  His love encourages us to work through our struggles and dilemmas, to use our minds to figure out the right course in a reasonable and loving way.  He calls His followers to support and help each other through life’s difficulties.  God takes on the character of our lives, so that we can better them, reshape them into the image of God’s life for which they were intended.  When we live with God, there’s a give and take. God concedes to take on our ways so that we can finally live with Him and each other in His ways.  This wonderful exchange is the mystery of our salvation in Christ.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


When Baxter doesn’t get what he wants, he gives me the cold shoulder.  He usually turns and sits with his back to me.  He doesn’t say anything.  He just looks straight ahead in the opposite direction from where I am and pretends I’m not there.  If I call his name, he ignores it.  If I ask him a question, he makes no response.  He may eventually leave the room for one of his comfortable spots, or he may just continue to sit with his back to me, denying me a place in his world.  Baxter shuts me out of his world because I didn’t make it the way he wanted it to be-full of endless food.

We can sometimes do that to God.  We turn away when we get angry at Him for what happened to us.  We pout because everyone else seems to have all the luck, and we think we are left with the bum deal.  We get all the toil, struggle and heartache.  Our lives are full of drudgery and lack excitement.  We think we know what we need to be happy, but we are denied it.  So, we make ourselves out to be the scape goat for others’ irresponsibility and sin, and we play the victim of life, the butt of God’s mean-spirited joke, and we don’t like it.  All we know to do is to give Him the cold shoulder.  We stop praying, stop participating in the Sunday Eucharist, stop trying to live by the principles and convictions we were taught.  We give up on God, on each other and on ourselves.

Lent is a time to turn around.  The call to repentance that marks this season bids us to face up to God, each other and ourselves with our grievances and hurts.  Like the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father comes out to us and invites us home to celebrate.  He allows us to get our burdens off our chests in an honest confession of the pain we have felt.  He tells us how much we matter to Him and how He grieves when we are distant.  Through the exercises of this season, God looks at us with the warmth of His love and tries to melt the resentments we hold that prevent us from seeing Him at work in our lives.  Lent is meant to be the annual homecoming for us in faith, and our ticket to this reunion is the prayer, fasting and almsgiving we undertake, the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance we celebrate, and the efforts we make to think, say and do things differently.

Eventually, Baxter gives in and comes around again with a friendly purr and gentle rub. If a cat can find his way to a change of heart, surely we can.  Don’t miss the opportunity to turn things around this Lent by using the tools the church offers us to guide our repentance.  A cold shoulder only breeds more hurt and pain, but a warm embrace of genuine love brings happiness to those who share it.  Let’s have a happy Lent.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Baxter doesn't like for me to leave.  I try to keep it from him for as long as possible, but he has this uncanny sense of my intentions.  He looks at me with, at first, a look of suspicion, and then a look of hurt and resentment.  "How could you leave me behind?".  When I pull out the luggage to pack, he knows it's happening.  Then he tries to come along.  He climbs into the bag and lies down.  If I zipper it shut, he just stays inside.  I guess he hopes I'll forget he's in there and take him along.  When I take him from the bag and begin to put my things inside, he lodges his protests, first, with sounds of indignation, and when that doesn't stop my packing, then the cold shoulder.  He refuses to look at me and sits with his back to my view.  Finally, I get the sad eyes, the look that says, "I wish you wouldn't leave."

For all of his feigned independence and love of solitude, Baxter does cling to the things he loves.  He stays close to his favorite sleeping pillow, his food dish and me.  He doesn't like to be too far from their reassuring presence, and he regularly rubs up against these markers to reassure himself that his world is right and safe.  If one of these is missing for a while, I can see his confusion, quandary and eventual sense of being lost.  It's like a lifeline has broken, and he is floating in a sea of uncharted waters.

We experience the same kind of disorientation when we lose touch with the landmarks of love in our lives.  The regular phone call from a friend or family member, the weekly breakfast or lunch with colleagues or neighbors, the friendly note or email or text message, these are all ways we keep in touch and know that others care.  We can't just think about others.  We have to touch them in some way to stay connected.  We can't take for granted that they will always be there.  We have to make an effort to assure others that they matter to us and we won't forget about them or let them down.  While we can't cling to them if they are ever to be responsible and free adults, we stay attached by showing our interest and concern through our communications and thoughtfulness.  We matter to each other not by being attached at the hip so that neither person can move without the other, but by being attached at the heart where the bonds of concern bridge distances, different circumstances, and changes in life style and obligations.  Another person doesn't have to be physically present to be part of our life.  He or she just has to fit in an ongoing way with what is happening to us.  They are interested; they care; they help when possible; they stay in touch.

Now we have a hint to eternal life.  When Jesus rose from the dead, He wasn't physically present to the disciples as he was before the crucifixion.  His was a resurrected body that allowed Him to continue His relationship with them, but in a new way of being.  His love never died, but it showed itself differently as the circumstances of life changed for the Lord and for His followers.  Now the disciples' faith had been tested, and they were more mature in their understanding of God's ways.  Jesus didn't have to hold their hands and fight their battles for them any longer.  They could preach the Good News themselves and make decisions that would concretely shape their lives as the early Christian community.   They spread out from ancient Israel to bring the faith to peoples of different backgrounds and cultures.  They developed doctrines to summarize their beliefs, rituals to celebrate them, and rules to order their life together.  They took the initiative to do all of this because the Lord was present to them with love and concern through the Holy Spirit that He sealed into their new lives.  He never left them.  He just moved on to risen life with them creating different marks of His presence and love in their lives.

We share this risen life in the Spirit, so we share a bond of affection that has its own marks of connection in grace.  Don't take these for granted, but cultivate and nurture them.  Then we will know that although we may be separated for a time, we are still part of each other's lives for all time.  The communion of saints is eternal.

Baxter, I am coming home soon.