Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What’s New?

With the New Year come resolutions that are often not kept. With the New Year come fresh beginnings for taxes, college courses and some branches of government. The New Year is an arbitrary time in many ways. Some businesses work on a different financial calendar than one beginning January 1. In many situations, we agree on what we will call the New Year, and then we follow the protocols that come with it. This is when we start over, wipe the slate clean, draw a new line for recording information and calculating it. The cynics in our midst might agree with Qoheleth in the scriptures, “There is nothing new under the sun.” We just pretend
that it is.

How do we genuinely make a new start, a fresh beginning, different life? We have certain activities that are built into our way of life that we can’t just stop or reverse all at once. We have to get the resources we need for food, clothing, and shelter, if we are to survive physically. We have to relate to our family and friends with respect, interest, concern and contact, if we want to keep them in our lives. We have to meet certain obligations like taxes, traffic laws and social proprieties, or else we face negative  consequences. How do we not feel boxed into life with little room for change or something new and different?

The New Year is not about a date on the calendar, and making a fresh start isn’t about abandoning all that we did in the past. Attitude and style can transform the same old, same old into something different and exciting. We get into a rut when we just focus on getting things done. Because the activities are routine ones which come around every day, week, month or year, they can drag us down with their drudgery. But this doesn’t have to be. We can change the way we do things, with whom we do them and the organization we use to get them done. We can break up the job into pieces and share the activity with helpers. We can bring new people into the routine and mix pleasure with work by connecting social time to follow work time. We can celebrate a job completed well before we move on to the next one. We need to know when to stop working because we are tired and frustrated, and come back to the task later when we are refreshed. We need to foster cooperation in getting a job done rather than competition, not trying to outdo each other but rather do for others through our work.

Baxter is a slavish creature of habit. He does the same things at about the same time every day. I don’t think he knows it’s a New Year, or even a new day. He just plods along doing his cat business with contentment. We look for more from life, but we have to put more into living if we are going to find it. We have to make it a New Year by bringing newness into our lives in different ways. Think about how you can do this for yourself. It’s God’s way of making your burdens light and lifting your spirit to be one with His.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Taking Care of Orphans

Baxter was an orphan when we first met. I never knew his parents. At the rescue shelter where I discovered him, he was among many orphaned kittens, abandoned for one reason or another. An orphan of any species breaks our hearts. They are so helpless and defenseless in facing the world. They crave to belong and bond with a family. When I first met Baxter he clung to me and wouldn’t release his grip. He crawled up my leg and nestled in my arm, and there was no separating us from that point. Baxter needed a home, and I needed to give him a home in my life.

Family life is high on the agenda of our Church these days. The first part of the synod on the family closed in Rome last October, and a working paper is now available for people to reflect upon and comment about how we best address the needs of families today. There are many points of view about this topic and the issues surrounding it. We have a tradition of faith that speaks to marriage and family life, painting a picture of life-long fidelity between a man and a woman creating an environment where the new life of children can flourish because it is embedded in their love. This is the ideal we all wish for and strive to attain. It gives us a direction to aim for and principles by which to live. It steadies us when we are not sure what to do, and it sets a foundation upon which we can rely when we have nowhere to turn. We don’t want to lose these roots that our faith provides.

However, sometimes our real lives cannot embody this ideal picture completely. In our struggles to love each other, we find ourselves limited and fragile. We are limited by our physical and psychological make-up, by what other people decide who were once committed to us, by economic circumstances and what it takes to support us. We can try to do the right and virtuous thing, but sometimes we have no control over the tragedies that break up our lives. Facing these facts, we feel like orphans, lost between how we want our families to be and what, in fact, they are. Where do we turn?

Jesus welcomed widows and orphans. They were among the most vulnerable members of society in His day. The prophets before Him proclaimed that God’s judgment of the people’s fidelity to the covenant was based largely on how they treated these misfits and forgotten ones. We cannot dismiss these core messages of the scriptures by quoting a law which we think excuses us from dealing with these real human dilemmas. At the very least, we must enter into these troubled human situations with empathy and compassion. We must consider what could possibly better the situation without compromising our principles, yet without abandoning the weak and wounded. We risk facing the same judgment of God the prophets levied against Israel, if we do not face these orphans in faith.

In the late third century, the Church faced a similar situation in what is known as the Donatist controversy. In the face of persecution, baptized Christians, mostly clergy, weakened and gave in to the pressure of idolatry and burning the scriptures. Afterwards,  they regretted their actions and wanted to participate in the life of the church again. Some rigorists, known as “Donatists”, following the view of Donatus, a particular bishop at the time, refused to entertain such a request. They thought that only the pure and undefiled deserved to be part of the Church. If a person sinned, he or she had to start all over again and be re-baptized, and a priest in this condition could no longer celebrate the sacraments. This viewpoint provoked a controversy in the Church. Saint Augustine got involved rejecting such a position, and helping the Church to understand itself as a community of repentant sinners striving for holiness, but always relying upon God’s grace to satisfy our deficiencies. God is always faithful, and He does not go back on His Word once it claims someone’s life. His fidelity means forgiveness and healing are always possible.

As we struggle with what is the best faithful response to wounded and irregular family situations today, we need to keep the lessons of our long Christian history in mind. It is rich in wisdom, and this wisdom can help us discern how the Spirit is calling the Church to respond today. There have always been orphans among the people of God. Maybe some ran away from home on their own, others were forced by circumstances to leave, and still others have stayed around feeling lost and excluded at times. In God’s name, they call to us for help. We should not use abstract principles and rules to avoid listening to and considering their desire for spiritual nourishment. The Savior born on Christmas accepted that grace often comes packaged in smudged, broken and unattractive containers that hold within precious, generous, and penitent souls. We can’t be holier than the Word made flesh.

When my orphaned cat came to live with me, he brought joy and companionship. He taught me the discipline of caring for another who relies upon me for his well being. He has shown me God’s workings in simple, peculiar and surprising ways. Our spiritual orphans may teach us even more.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Second Look

Before I got my first cat, Gatto, I never would have imagined how fascinating cats are. I took them for granted. They were those critters who seemed to multiply constantly, were aloof, manipulative, and selfcentered, and they lacked any desire for closeness and affection. Only when I began to live with a cat did I see a different side to them.

My first cat was abandoned for a while, so, except for me, she would hide from anyone coming into the house. She also hid whenever I would bring out a broom to sweep the floor. I figured she had some bad experiences with strangers and brooms that marked her reaction forever. Nevertheless, she was warm and affectionate when she felt safe, and she could distinguish me from everyone else who came to the house. She would welcome me home with a few rubs and meows.

Baxter was different from Gatto. I raised him to adulthood from a four month old kitten. He interacted with friendly people of all sorts, so he never shied away from strangers. He never had to deal with the hard knocks of the streets, but was pampered with food, soft beds and toys virtually all of his life. Baxter hates the sound of the vacuum cleaner and runs when it is turned on. I think it is the sound itself and not any bad memory that sets him running. The pitch hurts his sensitive hearing. Generally, Baxter is inquisitive, affectionate and a social butterfly. He figures anyone might have a treat for him so don’t ignore anyone who may come along.

Each of us brings to Christmas the traits we have developed through our experiences in life. Some of these may make us fearful and withdrawn with this celebration. The losses hurt too much. The memories are too painful to recall. We can’t wait for Christmas to be over, so that we can get back to normal. Others of us may just be too cynical about the season. The commercialism we witness colors our view on the whole celebration. We assume we know what Christmas is about, and we would rather avoid the whole thing. But our faith calls us to take a second look.

There is more to Christmas than what we first take for granted about it. God has reached into the human condition in a way that has married human and divine life irrevocably. Entwined with our earthly, physical and psychological dimensions is a spiritual one. It is often hidden from view at first glance, but if we penetrate the surface of our first impressions, we can find the divine impression God has made when the Word became flesh.

Behind the hurt of loss and grief is love. We feel the pain of deceased loved ones so much precisely because our love for them was authentic, faithful and everlasting. Our love doesn’t fade away, but with death it often feels empty and distressing. Christmas reminds us that these feelings aren’t the whole picture. They disguise the communion we still hold with our loved ones in God, and this season invites us to appreciate and give thanks for that wonder. Like the Christ child in the crib who looks poor and forsaken but for whom angels sing of the wonders of God’s love, so for those disciples who know pain and loss at Christmas, a deeper glory calls them to worship and give thanks to God.

Likewise, hidden within the commercialism of this season is a positive instinct sometimes misdirected. We spend on creature comforts for ourselves and others because we want to impress others with our taste and generosity, and send them a message about our regard for them. God did the same thing. As John’s Gospel declares: “For God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  living presents isn’t the problem. Forgetting what the giving represents is. Our gift-giving is a sign of God’s gift of the Spirit to us so that we can encounter the Christ present in every act of generosity and care. The commercialism of our culture wants to make a profit for the retail section of our economy. The commerce of God wants us to profit from Christmas by our living a life rich in incarnate grace.

So take a second look at Christmas. Get beyond the first impressions. Instead of fighting Christmas either inwardly or culturally, pray for God to transform what we see there to uncover God’s action in our lives. That will give us much to celebrate.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Like most pet owners, I love Baxter, my cat. He is easy to love. His needs are simple to satisfy. He needs food and water, a safe place to live and some attention. He has his quirks about some of these, but I find them more charming than annoying. Baxter usually plays fair. He isn’t deceitful or sneaky. He tells me what he wants, and he settles for what I decide to give him. He lives within the limits we have set for our relationship. Certain times to eat, bathroom practices and places to nap have been agreed upon, and we both follow the terms for these. We have a lot of give and take with each other. If Baxter wants to get on my lap, even if I am using my iPad or talking on the phone, I allow him. He is looking for a warm spot, and I can provide one. On the other hand, Baxter takes care of himself when I am away from home. He doesn’t chew the furniture, steal food or mess where he isn’t supposed to mess. He is well behaved, and I praise him whenever I return for his good manners and responsible actions. I think he appreciates this recognition because he keeps up the good job. I think he appreciates this recognition because he keeps up the good job. I think he appreciates me as well because he looks for me when I am away and welcomes me home when I arrive.

Too bad we do not have the same kind of mutual, honest and accommodating relationship with God. We say we love God, but we live with Him in ways that often contradict our words. We try to get away with things rather than carry through our part of the covenant. We don’t like to be honest with God for fear that He will punish us. From time to time, we step beyond the boundaries of our  relationship to flirt with other gods—money, sex, selfcenteredness, self-indulgence. We don’t like our love for God to inconvenience us. If worship fits into our schedule, we’ll be there; if doing what is right and just proves to our benefit, we’re in on it; if we face sanctions for satisfying our greed, lust or envy, we back off. It is hard for us to love God for God’s sake because we live in a world that doesn’t even acknowledge God’s reality as a part of the human condition. It’s so easy to forget about the bigger issues, the big questions, the wondrous mystery when you commute every day, get the kids from school and to soccer, dance, or karate, and barely say hello to your spouse before it all starts again.

But God still loves us, even more than our pets do. He wants us on mutual terms, but He will take what He can get. God’s love is so deep and strong that He fits in, however we will let Him. God is not easily offended. Instead, He takes any crack in our hearts we open to Him and sneaks in there, offering a moment of peace, a reassuring thought for our future, a sense of gratitude for our  blessings.

God gives wherever and whenever we are ready to receive.  Although we may treat Him worse than a dog, He is always ready to forgive and start anew. We may walk all over God with our sins, hardness of heart, arrogance and disregard, and He simply rolls out more carpet for us to have a soft landing when our pride causes us to fall. Although some might consider such a God a divine patsy, our scriptures teach that this is what sacrificial love unto death looks like, and it will save us.

Sometimes we treat our pets better than God or other people. Other people may be offended and walk away. God stays and waits for us to realize how much better our lives can be when He is part of them. So love your pets, but don’t forget who loves you more.

“Love came down at Christmas.” He died for us, and never left us."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Making Christmas Count

Baxter is hard to please at Christmas. He is very finicky about his toys, losing interest in them quickly. Once I got him a set of reindeer antlers, thinking I would get him into the Christmas spirit by dressing him in the part. He was not amused. Last year, I thought I had found the perfect present for Baxter, a heated bed. He is still looking at it without even considering a nap. With the heat switched on or off, he is not interested. He is content and comfortable with his well worn mattress and blankets. Gifts don’t make Christmas for Baxter. He is satisfied with the familiar pieces that make up his life.

Maybe we have something to learn from this grinchy cat. Christmas is not about what we get to add to our lives, but it is about what we have to give to life. And this is not the things we purchase for presents. Christmas celebrates God’s gift of Himself to us. His Word became flesh in Jesus, and He dwelt among us. He took on our human condition. He ate our food, smelled liked us, spoke in terms we could understand, cried and laughed and worked along-side of us. He didn’t bring anything special apart from His life with us, but in that life He revealed something special in all of us. We are God’s children. We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are disciples of the Lord.

Christmas happens when we share our common kinship in the Lord, when we recognize in each other a divine spark that can ignite goodness and blessing for others. Christmas lights are not turned on with a switch, but with calling forth from others the positive contributions they can bring to make our world a better place for everyone. The taste of Christmas isn’t found in the sweet treats we relish at this season, but in the hope we bring to season every difficult situation so that it will not overwhelm us. The disciple’s Christmas leads others to Christ by showing them the difference He has made in our lives. If we are generous with these gifts, Christmas will disclose the hidden treasures God has placed in all of us through His Son.

Baxter has it right about Christmas. We don’t need more things to find joy in the season. We need to find more in what we have already been given - more faith, hope and love of God. It is there, purchased by the blood of Christ. We need less stuff and more substance to appreciate it.