Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Venturing Fourth

When Baxter was a kitten, I had to keep my eye on him all the time. He was so curious and courageous that nothing stopped him from venturing forth into new territory. He would sit on the window sill, and he couldn’t resist the call of the world outside. He would push the screen until it released from the window, and then he would try to take off, exploring the birds and bugs, flora and fauna in the neighborhood. Because he was young and na├»ve, I never let him venture far. He was too vulnerable to the bigger beasts and sinister forces around. Baxter had spunk and energy and a fascination for the uncharted and unusual in those days. Although at times he was a handful, he was a delight to watch. His adventurous spirit was contagious with a spark for life.

Now Baxter is older and more settled. When he sits on the window sill, I have no worries that he will try to get out. He is so content and satisfied with the comforts of his indoor life that he never tries to escape to greener pastures. In fact, when I open a door to get the mail or newspaper, he looks out for a second and turns and runs to the safe haunts of one of his favorite spots. Baxter has become a settled homebody. He is uninterested in engaging the world beyond his window. He is satisfied with watching it, commenting about it and then lying down for a nap.

Have we become like Baxter in the way we live our faith? We are comfortable with our daily and weekly routines, with the people we see in church, with the practices and understanding we learned as children, and we aren’t concerned for what’s going on beyond our tested boundaries. Many people today are looking for God but don’t know where to turn or how to go about it. Many others used to be part of our Catholic community but no longer practice their faith. Some have been driven away from us by scandals, hurts or mistakes in the past. Others have just drifted away as adult responsibilities and mature understanding of what life entails outgrew an immature notion of God and His ways. They didn’t reject the faith. It just got crowded out by other activitiesand interests which seem more vital and worthwhile.

These people are outside our doors and windows. Can we leave the comfort and security of our Church pews and meet them where they are? Can we ask them what they are looking for from the Church without prejudging them for their answer? Can we invite them to come and see the richness of our liturgy and worship without condemning them for their absence in the past? Can we admit that we all need to grow in our understanding and personal commitment as disciples of the Lord Jesus and abandon our self-righteous attitude of being Good Catholics? Can we go to those who are different from ourselves-- the un-churched, other Christian denominations, our Jewish forebearswith genuine interest to understand their point of view? Can we listen to the poor and learn what they face each day so that we might have true empathy for their situation?

Reaching out to others where they are can be a scary adventure. We step beyond our comfort zone to the stranger with different experiences and different ideas and ways than ours. These encounters cause us to reflect on ourselves, to deepen our understanding of who we are and why we do what we do in God’s name. In the process, we discover a new vitality that can bring energy and commitment to our practice of the faith. We call this the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit is revealed in encountering the other and discovering a brother or sister in the Lord. This is the heart of the New Evangelization Pope Francis is calling us to take up.

Once in a while, Baxter still gets excited about what he sees outside. Then the spark of the kitten reappears in him. God wants to ignite the spark of the original Spirit of Jesus in us again, so that new life might come to our faith and our Church formed in the Spirit. But it won’t happen as long as we stay inside ourselves -- comfortable, secure and alone.

Venture forth to those people God is leading us to welcome, invite, meet and understand, and rediscover the spark of the Spirit we received in Baptism. It will revitalize our faith and our Church.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Smell the Flowers, Don't Eat Them

Easter and Spring bring back the flowers. It is so uplifting to have their colors, shapes and aromas to grace our church and gardens. They remind us of God’s gifts of beauty in our world. They soften any environment dressed by their blooms, and they are a concrete sign that the long winter has passed and more new life is to come. We enjoy the sight and smell of blooming plants, and welcome what they add to what can be just ordinary and dull surroundings. Flowers make an occasion special and memorable. Perhaps that is why we often use them to mark a birthday, a wedding or holiday. They dress up the setting—unless you are Baxter.

Baxter likes flowers and plants, but for a different reason. He eats them. I can’t have any living foliage around the house, if I want it to survive. Baxter ignores any “Don’t Touch!” prohibitions, and seems to miss any aesthetic value to natural greenery. To him, it is all salad to be chomped on and add variety to a boring diet of kibble and water. Plants and their blooms don’t have a chance for peaceful coexistence with this herbivore. What we might see as delicate beauty with rich color, Baxter sees as an additional course at dinner. There’s no teaching him otherwise.

We can often limit our perception of people and circumstances in the same way. We see things for what we want them tobe and how they will serve our purposes, and we miss what they might add to our lives. In a sense, we consume them with our selfish motives, and fail to see what they might contribute of their unique beauty. So we have turf wars. No one can do what I do the way I do it. If they try, it is not as good or downright wrong. We get jealous and envious that others are honing in on our territory, so we make them feel uncomfortable. We gossip about others. It is a way of eating up their good reputation so that they won’t be appreciated for sharing their time and talents.

God cultivates our lives in His love so that they will bloom with many gifts to share with others. But we have to welcome these gifts and admire their contribution to our common environment. Not everything is a competition against each other. Among God’s people, we are all on the same team working for the building of the Kingdom in our midst. We may be different varieties of blossoms, but placed correctly in a positive environment, we can all add to the beau

Baxter can’t live with beautiful, living plants around him. They are simply part of the food chain for him. We can be better than that. We can appreciate and cultivate each other’s beautiful goodness, and use it to enhance our celebrations of God’s beauty and goodness in our midst. It’s how Easter happens for those with the eyes to see.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Baby Steps

Guess what? Baxter has lost nearly 2 lbs! I could hardly believe the veterinarian when she announced his weight. Even she was amazed and admitted that it isn’t easy to get cats to reduce. I had not taken Baxter for his regular weigh-in for a while due to the winter weather, my schedule and general laziness on my part. I have kept him on the diet food with the portion size the vet recommended. At times, I thought he might be getting a little lighter, but then I would doubt myself, and think that it was the wish being father to the thought. It all happens so gradually that the effects go unnoticed for a long time. However, now I have evidence, verified by a professional, that the diet is working. Baxter is on the way to a new physique. Arnold Schwarzenegger, move over!

Our spiritual lives often mature in the same way slowly, gradually, without frequent notice. We have the standard practices that we follow. Regular prayer and worship, acts of charity, times of fasting, spiritual reading, maybe a retreat, all make up a regimen of our efforts to open ourselves more and more to God’s grace and its transforming power in our lives. But we usually don’t notice the results. How often do we secretly chide ourselves for being impatient and a little aggravated right after we have celebrated Sunday Eucharist? Who hasn’t wondered to themselves whether our prayer really makes a difference? Who hasn’t doubted whether our charity does any good or is it just giving into con artists using gullible people? All these questions may cause us to hesitate in our spiritual discipline at times and maybe even give up on the practices for a while. Our cynical side gets the best of us.

But then something happens. Maybe somebody thanks us for an act of kindness we didn’t realize we were doing. Maybe we find strength to deal with a family difficulty that we didn’t think we could handle. Maybe we go out of our way to help someone in need, thinking it’s no big deal. Maybe we had just the right words at the right time for someone distraught or depressed. How did these things happen? Where did we get what we did or said?

God is working in us. We most often don’t notice it, but grace is having its effects. It is changing our spiritual metabolism to operate differently with the people, problems and events we face each day. We digest these things not with the burning juices of our acid egos, but with the soothing balm of our spirits made generous through knowing God’s love for us and all. Divine power is changing us, but we don’t recognize it, just like the first disciples didn’t recognize the Risen Lord so often in their midst. But not to worry. The resurrection didn’t depend on the disciples’ reaction for it to happen. It relied upon them to witness to its truth and goodness in the way they handled life differently after encountering the Lord Jesus.

So, Baxter, keep up the good work. We believers, do the same. Neither of us may notice it, but we will walk more lightly through the trials of life and relish the joys more fully. The effects of grace often lack drama, but they never fail to make life better for us all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Getting what you want!

Charlie is quite the manipulator! Oh sure, he is a cutie pie, but a manipulator none the less. He has learned all of his appropriate doggie cues to get what he wants from us. He knows how to sit, lay down, play dead and roll over. He comes (mostly) when called and will even dance on demand.

Of course his tricks are nothing short of adorable. He knows how to use his doggie wiles to get whatever he wants from his victim. The funny thing is that he never does a trick without expecting a reward. What I mean to say is that he never does anything simply to please me, his owner.

Charlie doesn’t ask how my day was and he doesn’t offer any support or solace unless prompted. No, everything Charlie does is with an ulterior motive. He only does what’s necessary to get what he wants. He is always seeking some kind of payback for whatever he offers.

As a sweet little dog, I hardly think of him in a poor light, but manipulator is really the term I have to settle on when I think of this conniving behavior.

We do the same thing, though. How many times have you heard the joke, “I was looking for a job, not for work!” Or the familiar phrase, “what’s in it for me?” No, we aren’t too quick to offer ourselves up without some kind of compensation.

What is troubling to me is that we also carry this payback attitude into our relationship with God.

We get into a funny habit thinking that way. We start to think we can manipulate God’s Grace by the things we do. If I go to church, if I give my money, if I offer my time, then God owes me. To coin a current advertising phrase, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how ANY of this works.”

God cannot be harnessed and Grace is not earned.

It doesn’t matter how many times you go to Mass, if you have malice in your heart toward your fellow man, it’s worthless. It doesn’t matter how much money you give, if you aren’t giving it without expectation, it has no value. It doesn’t matter how many service hours you put in, if you aren’t doing it for love of others, your time is meaningless.

St. Paul says it best, in 1 Corinthians 13. You hear it often at weddings, but I really like it as an examination of conscience. “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

The way God works is when we let go of the control. That’s when love and grace fill us up. It’s only when we stop keeping track of all the things we are owed that we can really be fulfilled.

God’s grace is not about earning or learning or keeping track. He doesn’t offer us rewards for doing tricks. We aren’t his pets.

We are His children.

He loves us through every moment, struggle, and success. He loves us at our best and at our worst. It’s us and our silly ways that keep us from that.

Charlie does some really great tricks, but since he’s just a dog, he always expects his reward. We aren’t dogs. We love and serve one another because Our Lord loves us. There aren’t any tricks about that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Beautiful Moment

Baxter has shown many different moments in the years we have shared together. I have written about many of them. His antics with objects he makes into his toys, his penetrating stare, his cries for food, his crazy races through the house seemingly without purpose, these are all part of Baxter’s repertoire of feline fancy. But sometimes, Baxter doesn’t do anything unusual or extraordinary. He just sits and looks at me with simple dignity, or he lies down and sleeps in a deep calm and peace. He conveys a sense of being right with the world and knowing it. At these times, he is a creature at ease with himself and inviting others to this same place of perfect fit with life. Although he has no pedigree, Baxter carries a beauty in such moments that is precious and remarkable.

I picture the Resurrected Christ in this same sense. We can’t explain the workings of how the resurrection happened. It is beyond our imaginations to conceive and beyond our sensibilities to fully express.  The Church helps us with the rituals of the Easter Vigil to make a stab at it. Fire, light, water, proclamations, white garments for the newly baptized, bells and music with all the stops pulled out, create an atmosphere where life conquering the forces of death can be seen and heard. Still we crave for more. The liturgy ends, and we want to take what we have experienced into our homes, work places and social activities. We struggle to tell others what we have seen and heard here.

The first disciples had the same problem. “The Lord is Risen. He has appeared to Simon,” they announced. But how did they help others to understand. They opened the scriptures so that they could see God’s hand moving towards this moment in the long history of salvation. They shared what they had in common, so that no one had to worry about being hungry, clothed or sheltered. They pronounced God’s forgiveness to those who were truly sorry for their sins, and they healed others in the power of the Risen Lord.  “See how they love one another.” became the hallmark of their identity and the sign to others of the resurrected life they knew. We can’t explain it, but we can show it in the way we order our lives with space for God among us.

This is a beautiful moment when it happens to come together. It is rarely planned and most often spontaneous, like the resurrection itself, but we know when we have seen, heard and been a part of it. It provokes our gratitude and praise. We are caught in the moment and see something beautiful that penetrates all of life. It brings calm, peace and assurance. Nothing captures it well except the ancient acclamation, “Alleluia”.

Baxter and I wish you a beautiful Easter moment to signal a lifetime of Easter grace.