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Blind cats and fear

We have two old cats, a 17 year old cat named Edward and a 15 year old cat named Patrick. Patrick is blind, due to detached retinas caused by either high blood pressure or something worse. For the record, as soon as the vet told me that determining the cause of Patrick’s blindness would involve lots of expensive testing, I decided I didn’t need to know why. He doesn’t need to know why, or nor does he care why he went from seeing to not seeing. He doesn’t walk very fast as he bumps his way through the house or even outside, so he doesn’t hurt himself (unlike when I first discovered that he was blind, which was when he just walked off the kitchen table and fell solidly onto the floor). He can find his food and he can find his towel-covered heating pad in the garage. He can’t find the litter box, unfortunately, so it’s good that we humans can see where we are walking.

Last Saturday morning was a beautiful, sunny fall morning and I opened the garage door so that Patrick could bump along his way from the garage (his indoor apartment) to the patio (his outdoor apartment). In the summertime, Patrick prefers to spend all his time outside on the patio, as he did before he lost his eyesight. I watched him begin his journey from garage to patio, then I left to go to the grocery store.

The specifics of my failed grocery store trip are irrelevant except that forgetting my debit card caused me to come home sooner than I anticipated. As I pulled into the driveway, I could hear our neighbor’s little dog barking from inside his fenced in backyard. I glanced on the patio: no Patrick. I glanced in the garage: no Patrick. I glanced in the direction of the barking dog, and there was Patrick, inside the neighbor’s fenced in backyard, back arched, tail full, staring but not seeing the little dog who was running circles around him, barking.

Our neighbor’s dog is little, he may even be a puppy. Patrick was the same size as this little dog and the dog did not appear to be menacing, just playful. As I opened the gate, I marveled that this blind cat was able to squeeze into the neighbor’s back yard through such a narrow opening; but then, his blindness has encouraged persistence on his part. So what I saw before me was Patrick, crouched and ready to strike, and a small dog jumping and barking around him. I began calling and talking to Patrick, you know, to let him know that I was there. Then I made an unfortunate choice: I decided to pick up blind Patrick and remove him from the barking dog.

As my right hand cupped under Patrick’s stomach, he reacted in the only way that a frightened cat—blind or otherwise—would react: he latched onto my hand with the full force of his sharp feline teeth. And his jaws held on tight. The pain was incredible, as in “am I going to pass out?” fierce. I hustled out of the neighbor’s yard, Patrick hanging off of my hand, and managed to get to the garage where he unlocked his jaw and I dropped him onto his heating pad.

Now I’ll fast-forward through my visit to the nearby clinic and shots and antibiotics so that you know I am all right. I have learned a valuable lesson which is when choosing between a small barking dog and an old blind cat, pick up the small barking dog and not the old blind cat. Or pick up neither!

But this incident of the blind cat and the barking dog illustrated the power of fear. Like animals, we humans fear what we cannot see or understand. Our imaginations can get the better of us and we lash out blindly at whatever threatens us. Lately, I’ve felt like there have been a lot of “blind Patricks” in the news, sinking their teeth into refugees or religious groups or different races; anything that they fear. Fear inflicts pain, it does not create peace. Fear is not listed among fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Fear does nothing to improve a difficult or complicated situation. Over 80 times in the Old and New Testament, God or God’s representative, says, “do not be afraid” to human beings. God knows that we instinctively fear and gently reminds us, over and over again, not to fear.

So at the risk of sounding too simplistic, let us not be fearful of each other like hissing blind cats and barking dogs. Rather let us follow God’s imperative to “be not afraid” and the King’s command to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit those who are in prison. As we enter the Advent season, let us live faithfully not fearfully, remembering “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18)

Prayer Afterwards

Yesterday morning, after learning the results of an historic vote in the PCUSA, I thought about how, as pastors, we have to interact with people who will receive this PCUSA vote with joy, and those who are saddened or even angry.  We who are ministers have to pastor them all, and in many cases, we have to keep our thoughts to ourselves or we have to keep our feelings tempered around others who don’t share those same feelings.  Knowing that we are all in need of prayer–no matter what kind of church we serve and regardless of the type of community in which it resides, I share the following prayer with you all.

Loving and merciful Lord, you can be called by many names and your name can be modified by many words such as magnificent, powerful, almighty, holy—but this morning, in the light of yesterday’s PCUSA vote to allow clergy to perform same sex marriages, I call on you as the loving and merciful Lord of the church.  Your love is needed to bind together the people who are divided over this issue.  Your love is needed to be the focal point as we seek to love each other, even in disagreement.  Your love is needed to restore hope to those who now think this denomination has lost its way; your love is needed to give humility to those who now think they have “won.”  Your mercy is needed to forgive our church, now and in the past and even moving forward, for choosing division over unity.  Your mercy is needed to forgive us for looking at rules on a page instead into each other’s eyes.  Your mercy is needed to forgive us for creating climates of fear instead of churches of welcome.

Love us and have mercy on us when we cannot see Christ in one another.  Love us and have mercy on us when we spend so much time looking for the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own.  Love us and have mercy on us when we covet our theological beliefs more than how we care for one another.

Loving and merciful Lord, you created the church, your church, through which the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to every person.  On this day, and in the days ahead, enable each member of your body to reflect your love and your mercy, and to experience your peace that passes all understanding.  Be with those of us who have been called to lead your people, that the words we choose may be gracious, the comments we make would be thoughtful, the actions taken would be those of love and those of mercy, as we seek to imitate the One in whose image we were created.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thinking of You

Recuperating from surgery naturally affords one a unique perspective of what it means to experience limitations, to exercise patience, to be dependent on the love and care of other people. I have always said that it should be a requirement for every minister, doctor and healthcare professional to experience firsthand what it feels like to be a patient in a hospital or to be recovering from an illness. Clearly, though, we wouldn’t want every minister, doctor or health care professional to have to undergo surgery or contract an illness in order to empathize with a patient. Still, for what it’s worth, if any ministers, doctors or health care professionals do have surgery or get sick, they would do well to write down and remember their experience so that they can be more understanding to their members and patients.

While important, that thought is tangential to another insight that I had following my recent surgery. Taking it easy and allowing one’s insides to heal opens up a lot of time in which one can pray for others, but also a lot of time in which one can think about others.

For most of my ministry, I have had a standard “tag line” (for lack of a better description) in which I write or tell people that I am keeping them in my thoughts and prayers. Truth be told, I have always considered prayer to be slightly better than thought. It sounds much more spiritual to say “I am praying for you,” than to say, “I am thinking about you.” “You are in my prayers,” sounds more certain and located than “you are in my thoughts,” which has sounded vague and kind of “out there.”

But I have had a change of heart—and thought—about relegating “thinking of you,” to being the second-best thing I could do, rather than the best thing I could do.
It came to me first, on the eve of my surgery, when I received emails from friends who wrote a line or two which brought to mind some shared experience we had, and even if they mentioned they were praying for me, I realized that they were also thinking of me. Now considering all that we humans have to do every day—male or female, employed or retired, with or without children—taking a moment of precious time in which to think about me, and share those thoughts—well, that’s a pretty big deal! After my surgery, I received gifts that indicated the gift-giver hadn’t just gone to Walgreens and bought whatever was the featured item of the day, but had thought about me and bought something which reflected knowledge of what I would find amusing or fun or beautiful. Then, once I came home, as I opened up cards and notes that had come in the mail, I realized that every one of those people had taken time to choose a card with me in mind, took time to write or sign it, made sure it was mailed. I have received food from people who thought about my food preferences or what might taste good on a cold day or what would be easy to serve. And that often-maligned social media tool, Facebook, has brought instant thoughts of people who live in faraway places but who have known me for 30 years or more.

“Thinking of you,” is the sentiment, and as grateful as I am for all the prayers (make no mistake about that!!), I am equally grateful for all the thoughts. It’s humbling to be thought about, and it’s very uplifting. Prayers sustain and support me but thoughts—well, they keep me connected and encouraged.

And while I do pray for people, specifically and generally, I also find myself just thinking about a person at times, not really praying for that person but thinking about particular person: how courageous, how griefstricken, how lonely, how happy, how selfless, how lovely, how faithful. If I scan the church directory for one address, I find myself thinking about dozens more people.
I may pray for them when I am at prayer, but right now, a thought carries equal weight and godly weight. Maybe, as children of God and disciples of Christ, we are called to think about each other, to consider each other’s personalities, to reflect on one another’s joys and sorrows, to ponder other people’s lives that may be very different from our own and in so doing, live out these words from the Apostle Paul:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Thanks for thinking of me; I’m thinking of you!

A Sacred Moment

To anyone driving by that day, those people in the field might have been planting a garden or checking the fence or maybe playing a game. It would have looked for all the world like nothing was going on except a bunch of people standing around. No bystander would know that it was a sacred moment, a time when family members had gathered to scatter the ashes of their father and grandfather onto the field which was his.

The memorial service had long been over. Friends and relatives had gone home, leaving only the immediate family members: two daughters and a son together with their spouses and children. We were there as the ministers, although it wasn’t our presence that made this gathering sacred—what made it sacred was the love and the memories and the celebration of a life lived faithfully and well.

We made a wide circle and one of the daughters brought out her father’s ashes. They were in a bag, just a simple bag. Following no protocol except the need to scatter his ashes, each person took the bag and told something memorable or funny or wonderful about this man, who was as unassuming as the bag in which his ashes were contained. There was much laughter and conversation between those who had gathered there; heads nodding, sometimes tears flowing, everything spoken was a testimony to this humble servant of God. After each person spoke, he or she would reach into the bag and scatter ashes on the ground. The bag grew lighter as it passed from person to person; the last person emptied out the bag on the ground. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; “from dust you were created, to dust you shall return, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Creation and resurrection merged into that one sacred moment.

On the road above, a car drove by as the circle began to break apart and family members headed in the direction of a garden, loved by the deceased. Some walked by themselves, some in pairs, arms around each other; a daughter was hugged by her mother, a brother kept pace with a brother-in-law. We said our goodbyes and as we got into our car, I could see the rhythm of grief and celebration in their steps. What a privilege to be part of such a sacred moment, an intimate expression of thanksgiving for a dear, delightful man whose body returned to the earth he loved even as his spirit rested in peace with the God who loved him.

It is my habit, whenever I go to the beach, to get up early, go down to the beach, and wait for the rising of the sun.  And since I go to the beach twice a year—once in the winter, and once in the summer—and I have been going to the beach for almost 28 years—I’ve seen about 1500 (plus or minus) suns rising over the ocean.  My pictures over the years have moved from prints stored in photo albums to digital images stored on my computer, but I have managed to capture a lot of those sunrises.  

Some people might look at my collection of sunrises and say, “these all look alike!” but not to me.  I can get lost looking at each and every image of a sunrise.  Granted,  a picture of a sunrise is not as satisfying as actually being there and watching a sunrise but when I look at my sunrise picture collection, I am never disappointed.  A sunrise is never a disappointment.  Even if it’s the same ole sun coming up every morning, the way that the sun appears is always interesting, exciting and different.  Sometimes the sun is a tiny orange-pink fingertip that pops out of nowhere through bluish clouds.  Sometimes the sun comes fully formed, large and yellow, commanding the attention of the entire sky, not a cloud in sight.  Sometimes the weather conditions seems to indicate that there will be no sunrise this morning, but unexpectedly, the sun’s rays fracture through the clouds, if only for a moment, sending out brilliant rays of hope.

A sunrise never disappoints because a sunrise is an everyday assurance that a new day has come, and that new day is accompanied by the promise of God’s never-failing love and compassion.  And while it’s true that the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant with us, rainbows are too few and far between for me.  I need the constant, daily reminder that “God’s in His heaven–All’s right with the world” even when all seems wrong with the world.  The unexpected beauty of the sunrise reflects the unexpected beauty of an act of kindness or mercy.  The overwhelming intensity of a sunrise reminds me that the world’s darkness has indeed been overcome by God’s light.  The suddenness of a sunrise prods me into believing, when I am at my lowest point, that in surprising ways, God will appear to scatter doubt and fear.

And even though it was difficult to select a sunrise picture to accompany this writing, I enjoyed the process of looking at each one, because a sunrise never disappoints.

“[God’s] splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from [God’s] hand, where [God’s] power was hidden.”  –Habakkuk 3:4 (NIV)Image

My parents bought me a car when I graduated from high school.  Lest you have visions of a convertible or some candy-red foreign car, it was a brown and white 1959 Ford Fairlane which had accumulated about five years of dents from the previous owner who was the elderly mother of a family friend.  Her driving days were over; my driving days were just beginning!  They paid $75.00 cash for the car. 

I drove that car to and from college, work, and church.  The car had no seat belts and I quickly discovered that I could get eight—maybe nine–people in my car.  If I had made use of the massively large trunk, I could have carried even more.

In addition to having no seat belts, the car had no heater or defroster.  I bundled up whenever I drove in the winter, but rolled the window down so my breath wouldn’t fog up the inside of the windshield.  I had an ice scraper handy for when it did.   The radio didn’t work, so I bought a small transistor radio (only a handful of folks will know what a transistor radio is!) and taped it to the dashboard so that I could have a little music from the local AM stations.  Having no heater and no radio seemed odd only when someone else would ride with me and say, “how do you manage without a heater?” or notice my transistor radio and say, “I’d go crazy without a real radio.”  I didn’t mind; I had learned to live with my 1959 Ford Fairlane’s imperfections.  It served me well for five years.

Every car that I have driven since 1978 has had a heater and a radio but also has had some kind of quirk.  Maybe not as obvious as not having a heater or radio, but there has been something imperfect about every car.  I have learned to live—and drive–with imperfection.

As obsessed as we are with perfection in this society (perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect bodies, perfect lives), it is more Christlike to learn to live with imperfection.  When we learn to live with and accept imperfections in ourselves and in others, we are more Christlike.  It’s not “I’ll love you if you are a brand new 2012 car loaded with lots of cool features” but “I’ll love you even if you are a dented 1959 Ford Fairlane with no heater or radio.”  This is not to suggest that we humans aren’t supposed to try and live better lives or be better persons during our lives, but Christ didn’t say, “Fix yourself up and then come follow me,” he simply said, “Follow me” — dents, no seat belts, no heater, no radio and all. 

Christ calls us all of us imperfect beings, and loves us with a graceful, not a critical eye.  He calls us to follow him however we are, whoever we are, and he calls us to serve him with what we have been given, for as long as we live.  So it is as we live with our imperfections in service to Christ that we find that we are loved perfectly.

Orangey

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my Uncle Jimmy gave me a present. I  remember that day well because it was something of a shock to be given a toy “out of the blue,” when it was neither Christmas nor my birthday. He didn’t wrap it, he just handed me a clear plastic bag like dime-store toys were sealed in. Inside that bag was an orange teddy bear. This was not just any teddy bear, but a soft orange teddy bear with moveable legs and paws, a squeaker in his stomach, and—here’s the best thing of all!—some kind of yellowish plastic material on his paws, feet, and ears that glowed in the dark! One only had to hold this bear up to a lamp or leave him out in the sun, and when nightfall came, his ears, feet, and paws would glow in the deepest darkest.
Now, it would take a long time to explain about my uncle Jimmy, but he was someone whose life never quite got off the ground. He lived in fits and sputters, working here and there, never settling down or sitting still for long. My father always attributed the fact that my uncle was declared medically unable to serve in World War II as the reason why Uncle Jimmy developed an unfortunate friendship with alcohol, and my father blamed alcohol as the reason why my uncle’s life was so uneven and somewhat sad. I give that explanation only because while Uncle Jimmy had many talents (when sober) gift-giving was not Uncle Jimmy’s strong suit. He never had much money because he could never keep a job, and so all his presents tended to be things that he found discarded in the trash or that someone would give him in exchange for an errand Uncle Jimmy would run. They were never age appropriate if appropriate at all!

But on this particular occasion, the orange glow-in-the-dark teddy bear was the most wonderful gift I could have received. We had recently moved to a new house and my parents had taken that opportunity to convince me that this was the perfect time for me to learn to sleep without a night light. Perhaps they were right, or had read it in some child-rearing book, or maybe they didn’t realize how long it was taking me to fall asleep in this unfamiliar dark room in the suburbs where there were absolutely no street lights at all. Added to the scary darkness was the fact that the door to the attic was in the closet of my room, and many nights I would lie the dark, and listen to the sound of that door tapping whenever the wind blew.
But because of my Uncle Jimmy, Orangey (the clever name I gave to this bear!),came into my life. I would make sure that Orangey soaked up light all day long so that at night, so he could glow faithfully beside me in my bed and allow me to lie down in peace and safety. In a time when I needed a little light in my darkness, Orangey was–via Uncle Jimmy–a God-send.

I have often wondered why Uncle Jimmy gave me Orangey that day; I never asked him. I have wondered if Uncle Jimmy somehow knew about my fear of the dark—else why would he have managed to give me such an appropriate gift at just the right time? He, too, was the youngest child of three children and maybe he could remember needing a little light in the darkness of his childhood. Or maybe in the midst of his own adult terrors and insecurities, he wished for all the world that he had something in his world which was as simply comforting as a bear who breaks up the shadows with a soft , friendly light.

When Uncle Jimmy died in 1979, he was a year younger than I am right now. His death was due to heart complications accelerated by his alcoholism. But however uneven his life was, I am so grateful for Uncle Jimmy–for how hard he tried, for all the little acts of kindness that he showed to so many people, for giving a glow-in-the-dark bear to his youngest niece just when she needed it most. Uncle Jimmy was alone in his apartment when he died, but I have a feeling he was not in darkness.  He was comforted by the light of Christ’s love which surrounded him and welcomed him home.Image

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