Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Who's the Alpha Dog?

Greetings from Baxter’s favorite canine friend, Charlie!

In case you didn’t know, dogs are pack animals. In a pack, there is a pecking order and a hierarchy. Dogs have packs so that each member knows its role. In Charlie’s pack, he is number three in our family of five. I am the pack leader, followed by my daughter Katie, Charlie is next, then my son Robbie, and finally my husband. Charlie is a very good dog, and he has a pretty good relationship with everyone in our house, but this pecking order shows through in his relationships with each of us.

We all take turns feeding Charlie and letting him out to do his dog business. Each of us brushes him and plays with him according to who is available to meet the need. Due to the regular rhythms of life, these tasks begin to fall on certain people at certain times. For instance Robert, my husband, usually feeds Charlie in the evening. Robbie usually plays with him in the afternoon. Nearly every morning, when I wake up, I take Charlie out and then feed him. Now, you might ask, how does Charlie show us our pack order? I’ll tell you. When I wake up, if I don’t feel like jumping out of bed, Charlie waits patiently until I am ready to let him out. He doesn’t bark at me or try to rouse me in the mornings. He waits patiently until I, the alpha dog, am ready to take him out and feed him.

However, if he wants something from another member of the family, nothing can distract him. He barks for attention, he runs to the door, he will even jump in the lap of the person he is expecting service from. He can be a real pain!

We treat each other this way too, don’t we? The status a person holds in our mind determines if we are kind and patient or short-tempered and terse. We may ask nicely or bark orders instead. We act as though we have supreme status, or we may behave as though we had none.

Hierarchy is necessary to the Church for order and harmony. The trouble is when we create pedestals and misappropriate authority.

Pope Francis has many people excited by his criticisms of the Roman Curia and the clergy for power-mongering and being careerists. I applaud the Holy Father for his bravery and candor, but I think that we the laity should take some responsibility here too.

Relationships are not one way streets and people treat each other in the ways that have been shown as appropriate. What I’m saying is that to some extent the laity has given the Curia and clergy permission to behave in these controlling ways.

Think on it for a moment.

Then have you said to yourself, or heard others say, “ That’s Father’s job.” Or, “A lay person can’t do that, a priest should be doing that.” Or again, “I am not as holy as... Father, Sister, or the Bishop.”

While the church is hierarchical by nature, that doesn’t get us off the hook. As baptized Christians, we are anointed as chosen ones. We are anointed as priest, prophet, and king. That means that each and every person in the pew is being called forth by God to participate in the life of the church. This is both our right and responsibility. The holiness of Jesus is not selfcontained. We have been called to participate in that holiness.

Of course, living the Christian life doesn’t mean we’re exempt from mistakes. It does mean that we should be offering ourselves to one another in service. We are to call forth the best of our community to express the fullness of God’s holiness. All of us have a role in that.

I hope that you realize your own holiness and that those around you are holy too. Each of us also has a role in participating at Mass and sharing in the ministry of the church. We should be seeking the best in and for our community.

We are more than dogs in a pack. We are a holy family.

Let’s act like one.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Artificial Satisfaction

Baxter developed a new, bad habit this past Christmas. He started eating the artificial tree. I don’t know why he developed this practice. As a kitten, he would climb up the inside of the tree and pretend that he was part of the decorations. As a young cat, he would chew at low hanging ornaments and bat them about as an extension of his toy collection. But, until now, he had never set to eating the nemesis that invaded his living room. He chomped on the branches and chewed the green filaments that simulated pine needles. Of course, his digestive system did not take kindly to the invasion of these foreign bodies, and it would reject them without hesitation as soon as they started down the digestive track. I was left with the results—slimy filaments in puddles on the floor. Hardly a way to send Christmas greetings!

Why did Baxter do this? I can only guess, but he must have found something in the artificial tree that satisfied him and made him feel full and content—that is, until his stomach felt differently. He was attracted to the lights and ornaments, and he found all that chewing strangely pleasurable that’s the touch of canine in him. There certainly wasn’t any nutritional value to the morsels he swallowed, and I hope that the short time he consumed them left no toxic residue in his system. Still, I couldn’t convince him to stop the practice. If I raised my voice when he was grabbing a mouthful, he would stop and walk away, only to return when he thought I wasn’t looking. Whatever he got from chewing these artificial limbs addicted him to the practice. The only way it ended was when the tree was packed away for the season. No more opportunities were available for cheap pleasure from forbidden, fake vegetation.

We do the same thing sometimes, don’t we. We get addicted to certain objects that we hook onto for our pleasure and satisfaction. Maybe it’s another person, or shopping for the perfect whatever, or a dream job, or drugs, alcohol or gambling. Whatever we set out to consume we won’t stop until we have it. Then we feel proud and satisfied. We got what we were looking for, and we want everyone to know it. We entice others to share in our delight. We think we are cool and happy now, but then it begins to unravel. The person we thought was our perfect match starts irritating us. The new whatever we bought breaks, gets torn or stained, becomes out of date, or no longer interests us. The job we loved becomes drudgery, and our boss is a tyrant. And drugs, alcohol or gambling soon take us down a dead-end path to self-destruction and ruin. What happened?

These creaturely pleasures we craved are all artificial. They can’t truly give us authentic happiness. They can provide a moment’s satisfaction, but then the moment passes, and we can’t find lasting nourishment from what we have fed ourselves. We need to look for something else.

Our life-long task is to purify our desires to want the right thing, the lasting thing, the thing that will nourish our heart and mind and build our strength of character. That is God, the divine mystery, whose Spirit is incarnate in our lives but never exhausted by any particular creaturely manifestation. We crave God, but we settle for lesser pleasures that never satisfy. We need to recognize what we are all looking for and allow the tradition of our Christian faith to lead us in finding it. The scriptures, the sacraments, the lives of the saints, the doctrinal and moral teachings of our church are all meant to point to the God of Jesus Christ. Without this object of our desire, these elements of our religion are but empty words and gestures. However, if we understand how they lead us to seek the Lord in all things, then they become the vehicles of grace for anyone who would hear and follow.

The real reason Baxter ate the artificial tree branches was that his diet made him hungry. Since his master restricted the quantity of his food, he turned to what he thought would satisfy him. It didn’t work. Artificial food will never satisfy any living creature. Our Master offers us good and true nourishment in abundance from the bounty of His grace. Eat up; be satisfied; then come back for more. There’s plenty for all. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Covering Up

When Baxter makes a mess he works at covering it up. I guess it is an instinct in cats to do this. If he loses his lunch on the floor, he paws the spot ahead of the mess to create an imaginary pile on top of it. Even after I have discarded the distasteful residue, he may still come by and paw the floor around where it was, still thinking he is covering up the evidence. I expect cats’ need to cover up any mess they make evolved as a safety measure. You don’t want your enemy knowing where you are, especially if you are sick, so you cover your tracks, hide any evidence that you might be nearby and not at your best. Baxter looks a little strange when he paws the bare floor, but old habits or instincts are hard to change, even when they don’t serve a useful purpose any longer.

We can fall into the same trap. We think we can cover up the effects of our wrong doing and no one will know it happened and who did it. Some in the church tried this with the child sexual abuse crisis and the financial scandals. Criminals attempt to cover their tracks, removing all evidence that they were involved finger prints, electronic communications, paper trails, etc. When caught, we seem to have a first instinct to say, “It wasn’t I.” We do what we can to disassociate ourselves from the wrong, even to the point of convincing ourselves that I wouldn’t do anything like that--when we did! Seeing the results of our wrong doing is hard to stomach, so we either push them off by blaming someone else or cover them over with pleas of ignorance. It is very hard to look at a mess we created and say “I did that.”

Trusting in the Lord’s forgiveness is the first step. God’s forgiveness doesn’t clean things up for us immediately. It allows us to take ownership for what we have done, so that we can begin to remedy the situation step by step. At first, we have to accept the consequences of our actions, and do what we can to reverse their negative effects. Next, we have to analyze what led us to do what we did, so that we can avoid repeating it in the future. Then, we need to face those who stepped into our mess and in a heart-felt way ask for their forgiveness. We have to try to empathize with what our wrong-doing did to the lives of others, whether its effects were physical, emotional, spiritual or all of these. Sometimes the worst consequences of our sin are not seen at first in others--mistrust of ourselves and others and apathy towards living. Finally, we have to create not just different procedures to deal with each other, but a different way of being with each other. We have to imitate God’s way of being with us.

God is true. There is no duplicity in Him. What you see is what you get. God is good. There is no malice in God, wishing to get ahead of others for His own advantage. God places others ahead of Him, conforming to their condition in life to save them. God is love. He wishes only the well-being of others, their enhancement and peace. He is not out to eliminate His enemies, but to win them over to see their own truth and goodness through which they too can love others. Imitating God’s way in our relationships with each other is a tall order. It can’t be self-taught or learned quickly. Accepting God’s forgiveness because we acknowledge the mess we created is the start of a process that will take years, and ultimately, a lifetime to finish.

There is much talk these days about transparency and accountability in all our institutions government, religion, education, law enforcement, medicine, law, just to name a few key ones. As Christian believers, we need more than policies and procedures to make this happen. We need to change the culture around our institutions, so that the humility to ask for forgiveness is a valued virtue, so that we are not afraid to face our messes in faith and start the process wherein we learn from each other how to rebuild trust and confidence in life’s goodness.

Baxter’s pawing the floor is a futile attempt to cover his tracks, born out of instinct. Our kneeling before our loving God and asking for forgiveness is an act of faith that is our only hope for a better church and world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Getting Wet

Baxter doesn’t like to get wet. He puts up with it because he likes to drink from the faucet in the bathtub. But in Baxter’s mind, water is for drinking not for bathing or dunking. It goes inside the body not on it. When it does get on him, he resists it. He shakes it off and lets me use a towel to dry him off. For Baxter, water isn’t something to wear. It is meant to get inside us and quench our thirst.

Jesus understood the waters of baptism in the same way. Although He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan by John the Baptist, and He instructed His disciples to baptize future believers, the ritual of baptism is not an end in itself. It points to a deeper and life-long reality, one we carry with us after we have dried off, one that interiorly sustains us and helps us grow in grace.

While we are baptized with water only once in our lives, we are called to live our baptisms each and every day of our lives.We enter the mystery of dying and rising more deeply as we move through the trials and challenges that life brings. At times, we can feel soaked by the losses, pains and sorrows that come our way. These waters keep coming, and we are forced to pass through them. They weigh us down. We wonder if we will ever get free of these burdens. We feel water logged rather than refreshed by the waters of life. We fear we may drown in them.

Baptism doesn’t take us out of these waters. It makes us buoyant in them. That is what it means to rise with the Lord. We are never defeated by the negative forces of life. In trials and challenges, we have hope that they will end and make us stronger for the future. In losses, we are grateful for what we once had and how it has shaped us forever. In pain, we find comfort in knowing we are not alone, but have the support of those who stand by us. In sorrow, we are soothed by the communion created by a shared loss. The mystery of dying and rising teaches us that getting wet in the tragedies and sins we face won’t harm us, if we don’t just shake them off and move on. Instead, we are called to embrace these in faith and probe the divine healing and forgiveness that can get into us, if we allow it. That is what it means to be a baptized disciple.

In His baptism, Jesus showed us that we don’t wear our baptism on the outside. We swallow it as the nourishment, refreshment and substance of our lives. We interpret ourselves according to the mystery this washing signifies, and we respond to our lives and others by looking for how to build new life from the floating debris we discover from life’s hardships.

Baxter has it right. Baptism is not about getting wet. It is about drinking in the waters of life God gives us.