Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sweet Sixteen

In a couple of weeks, Baxter will have a birthday. I consider Valentine’s Day his birthday, since I don’t know the actual date. He was four months old when I got him, so I counted back and picked a day that I wouldn’t forget. Sixteen is old for a cat. If the rule of seven is in play for him, that means that Baxter is 112. He looks good for that age! He still gets around, jumps into the tub, demands meals and treats, and is always on the lookout for stray felines trying to hone in on his territory. He gets excited about these things, but otherwise, Baxter has mellowed with age.

He spends more time on my lap. He allows me to pet him at my will, dry him off after lapping the water from the tub faucet, and rub his belly when I come home for the evening. He even tolerates my bothering him when he is sleeping. Purring is his usual response now to all my interventions. Baxter wears old age well.

How about us? How are we dealing with ourselves and those we love as we age? Getting older can bring out both the best and the worst in us. Like Baxter, it can help us to mellow as we discern what is important in life and what is best left to pass unattended or unnoticed. Not everything is worth our time and energy. We don’t have anything to prove to anyone at this stage. We have made the mark that we have to offer, and hopefully, we can appreciate both the value it holds for others and the limits it has. We can’t solve every problem. We can’t please all people all the time.

We can’t accomplish everything we wish we could in a day, a week, a year, a lifetime. But we do make a positive difference for others and our world, and then we leave it to the next person, the next generation to add their contributions. In these ways, aging brings peace and comfort, and so strengthens our bonds with each other.

On the other hand, getting older can be a hard fact of life. We have to face our limitations, and this can make us anxious and upset. We don’t look the same as we did in our twenties. We sag, shrink and grow soft. We can’t work as long and hard as we did ten years ago. We forget things more easily. We can get trapped in our regrets about the past. We begin to fear what might happen and feel vulnerable. We worry more about our health, our children, our finances, our deaths. “Getting old isn’t for sissies,” as George Burns is alleged to have said. It makes us face ourselves fairly and squarely, with our warts and weaknesses, and sometimes this picture upsets us.

But our God is eternal, ever ancient, ever new, as Saint Augustine wrote. He embraces us in our whole lifespan, and He brings wisdom to bear on our growing older. Keeping the God Jesus revealed in focus, brings two dimensions to both the positives and negatives of growing older.

First, God wraps our lives in divine peace. He embraces what we have done to better life in this world and includes it in His bigger picture of the Kingdom of God. The significance of our lives isn’t measured in worldly terms of monetary, professional or social success. It is magnified by how it fits into God’s work of saving the world, and we don’t understand that full picture until our lives are over. Mary is a prime example of how a human life reflects the glory of God.

Second, God accompanies us through the diminishment and darkness of aging. We never face the fears of growing old and dying alone. As Jesus’ suffering and death show us, the Father is with us. At times, we may not feel His presence or may wonder why certain experiences have come our way. Jesus prayed through just such doubts and confusion. However, His passing reveals that God never abandoned Him, never caused His suffering, never was embarrassed by the shame and physical weakness Jesus faced. In faith, we hold onto this picture as the source of hope for ourselves as age takes its toll.

Baxter and I are getting old together. He deals with it through instinct and the training he got by living with me. We can deal with our latter years better through deeper faith in what we claim to believe and learning to allow God to guide us to the end.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Full of Surprises

Packing Christmas away each year is never as much fun as preparing for the holiday. When taking down the tree, unplugging the lights, and storing all the various decorations, a little melancholy filters into the moment. All the anticipation is passed. The memories seem out of place after the season. The atmosphere is colder, both outside the front door and inside our attitudes and outlook. It seems like such a long stretch of time until spring and the uplift of warmer temperatures, flowers and bright colors. Now is the gray time of the year. Aside from the hopes of a Steeler Super Bowl, there isn’t much to look forward to.

The post-Christmas doldrums don’t bother Baxter. He is a creature of habit, strict habit, unrelenting habit. If I miss a feeding time or his nightly brushing and treat, he is incensed. He doesn’t like to have his world disrupted. If I move his water dish or mattress to another spot, he is suspicious, cautious about using it and gives into the new setting only reluctantly. Baxter doesn’t like anything to shake up his world and alter his routine. His life is steady, and he wants it that way. Christmas is an unnecessary interruption as far as he is concerned, and if it is over, he couldn’t care less.

Christmas brings excitement to our lives because it surprises us. God surprised Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi with the birth of His Son, but that is just the beginning of the story. He continues to surprise believers with people, events and experiences that didn’t have a place in our lives before. Some of these might be wonderful from the start like a new baby, a new friend or a new activity we love. Other surprises may throw us for a loop at first— that cancer diagnosis, that unexpected death, the drugs we found in our son’s room. Nevertheless, all of these are reminders that the Word has taken flesh and continues to dwell among us. We have to look for this meaning when we face such surprises.

Happy surprises are not just good luck. They are blessings and signs of divine providence. Disorienting surprises are not just bad luck. They are challenges to our vision of faith, calling us to go deeper into the mystery of how God’s love supports us even in life’s adversities and pain. We have to be open to surprises as the experiences God uses to keep the meaning of Christmas alive throughout the year.

Baxter, you don’t know what you are missing by insisting on your rigid routine. The God who made us and loves us has a surprise in store for all of us. He showed it first in Jesus. It’s not just luck, good or bad. It’s life, full of grace.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Surviving Darkness

The extra darkness at this time of the year doesn’t seem to bother Baxter. He exhibits no signs of increased depression—he sleeps and eats the same amount. He isn’t more lethargic than usual. He goes about his life in the dark about as well as he does in the light. Maybe that’s because cats see better in the dark than we humans do. It probably has something to do with their hunting instinct and stalking their prey at night. Sharp night vision allows the astute feline to snag a snack before the critter realizes it is caught. Of course, Baxter wouldn’t know that. He has never worked a day in his life for a meal.

Seeing in the dark is a skill we humans might do well to develop. I’m not talking here about physical sight, but about another set of eyes, those of the soul. Our souls look at life and want to see the meaning it holds. Where did it come from? Where is it all going? What brings genuine happiness? Where do we fit in the big picture? These questions provide us a viewpoint to uncover the source and sustenance behind a meaningful life, but to focus these lens of our soulful eyes, we need to be able to see in the dark.

So much of what we encounter in living is often difficult and even negative. We struggle with closeness and understanding in our relationships, especially those that we stake the most upon—our marriage, our family, our close friendships. We face dishonesty, cut throat competition, and deceit in the workplace. We worry about paying the bills, safety on our streets, and the life threatening influences on our children. Terrorism seems possible anywhere these days, so that we live always a little on edge with each other. How can we make something meaningful out of such a dark and disenchanting picture?

We have to learn to see through the dark. All of these anxious experiences can blind us to seeing anything more than threat and conflict. The eyes of faith have a broader and deeper vision. In faith we counterbalance human vice with human virtue. Though there are destructive forces in our world, there are also constructive ones— persons who genuinely want to help make others’ lives better, to work together for a common good, to share their talents and resources so that many may benefit. These hints of light live in the midst of the darkness, but they are not extinguished by its negative effects. Their presence keeps hope alive. Their influence develops the same vision in others. Their attitude is contagious, softening hardened hearts, neutralizing cynicism, and lowering defenses to allow people to come together as a community.

We who claim Jesus as the Lord must be these sparks in the darkness around us. Otherwise, our actions and attitudes contradict our profession of faith. We know the Creator and Savior who pronounced His world “good” and loved it unto His death on a cross. How can we give into the darkness and hide in it? If we do, we become catty cooperators with its forces in our world, hunting for what we can get out of it, not witnesses to what God’s love can put into it. Living in the midst of this broken world, our faith sees beyond the problems and fear to the promise of a faithful God who saves and recreates us.

Baxter sees in the dark to get to his feeding dish. Our faith can see through a dark world to be fed on the grace of our good and loving God.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Taking Down the Decorations

Baxter is not much of a Christmas person. Aside from wanting to eat the tree, he usually ignores all the lights and decorations I use to mark the season. So taking down the tree, unplugging the lights, and packing away the ornaments and crèche figures seem to have no affect on Baxter’s disposition or routine. He goes about his day in the same way with or without these appointments. They make little difference to his outlook or life style.

For most of us though, taking down and packing away the signs of Christmas is a chore we would rather avoid. Preparing for the holiday is fun. We recall traditions that hold warm memories. We anticipate seeing friends and relatives whom we miss. We look forward to delicious foods and festive activities that we may indulge in only once a year. But then it is all over, and we pack it all away until next year with a sense of sadness and remorse. Too bad we can’t carry on Christmas throughout the year.

But we can. Although we place the signs of the season out of sight for eleven months, we don’t have to store away the reality behind these markers. God is with us. He comes to save us. His Word has become flesh, and so we can see God’s grace whenever human nature discloses a nobility and graciousness that reaches beyond the self-protective selfishness of its sin. These revelations of divine love decorate our lives and our world throughout the year, but we don’t acknowledge, use and cooperate with them. Their signs are not obvious in the news. The excitement they carry is often dulled by the drudgery of the daily routine. But they are there, decorating the human heart with openness, generosity, care and forgiveness. These lights are not added to our surroundings to brighten our world. They come from within us to enlighten us with insight into our problems and energy to work together to solve them. These are the light of Christ we carry always as baptized Christians.

So put away the trappings of the Christmas season until next year, but keep the meaning of this time alive by using its grace that we have been given each day. Baxter may not notice the difference, but we humans will. A world lit from within by God’s grace working through us creates a different place where we can all live better lives.