Monday, December 5, 2011

Relationships

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, Philippians 1: 9

Relationships is a word I hear often in my church.  We're called to live in relationship with God and one another, near and far away.  It's because we value relationships so much that our church doesn't just give away money but tries to build and maintain relationships as agents of Christ's redemptive and healing work in our world. Mission, outreach, deacon care and connection, are all about cultivating relationships with our partners, in love and service. Well, yesterday's incident with Smokie taught me a few lessons about living my life with God, even as it answered my many questions about some of the challenges facing our church's care ministry.

Smokie is our indoor cat and she spent last night outside, in the cold dark world. It was 11 pm or so when my husband discovered that we had last seen her 4 hours earlier. That was when I had opened the front door to take down the Fall wreath and I saw her come near the door and chased her away. Or so I thought. She must have slipped out. To make a long story short, I found Smokie this morning and she is now home safe and sound.

Lesson # 1: Judgment, discernment, compassion, and self-care all come into play, when we build relationships, and yes, even with my cat, our beloved pet who is the sweetest little thing, I can and must exercise these things along with compassionate discipline. I could have stayed up all night but I didn't. I needed to sleep and so, after I said my prayers, with a special one for her safe return home, I fell asleep. I woke up a little after 4 am. My husband said he'd seen Smokie on our security camera. I dressed and came out. I walked around our neighborhood softly calling her name. No response and so I came back into the warm house. I went out a little later. Now, every time I called her name, I heard her meow back. It took me several tries but I finally found her, nestled under a small table on my neighbor's porch!

How could I sleep when my beloved pet was lost and afraid, lost where she could become coyote-morsel anytime? I could because of my trust in God and also because of my relationship - which has given me knowledge and understanding - of Smokie. At first I was devastated and like my husband I wanted to just spend all night looking for her. But such thoughtless compassion is easy for me to feel and sometimes is self-deceiving (it makes me feel good that *I* am doing something). Compassionate interactions, on the other hand, especially coupled with the practice of spiritual discernment are tougher. These require me to be a good listener and pay attention to details about the object of my compassion - be it a cat or a needy stranger.  Such discernment often requires waiting on, insight from, and trust, in God. In this case, I knew Smokie did not want to run away, that she'd find a snug spot not too far away and stay there. This was because of my daily experience with her (see below). I also knew that of late Smokie had been itching for a taste of freedom and adventure and that she would be none the worse for her little taste.  I trusted in God, left everything in his hands, and went to sleep. I have learned that good self-care is important too. And, in the end it paid off. I got my sleep and Smokie had her little adventure, and is none the worse for it. [My husband, I am hoping, has also learned some lessons here besides Smokie too :).]

We got Smokie from the Animal Rescue Shelter, about 9 years ago, when she was about 6 months old. When we brought her home, she wouldn't leave me, clinging to me all night, suffocating me! Later, of course, she became a lot more independent but as I got to know her, I realized that although she was a lot smarter than Raja (our other pet cat), Smokie was even more timid and fearful than he. Thus, like Raja, our other indoor cat, we kept Smokie inside the house all the time. Except, Smokie whom we'd got as a replacement for our beloved dog who'd passed away, and Raja did not get along.  A few years ago, in an attempt to get the two of them more accustomed to each other, I started to take both into the backyard with me. This soon become a daily ritual. Now, even though I've given up the habit of reading my Bible in the backyard, Smokie asks daily and gets to go into our walled garden, sometimes twice a day. I do my kitchen chores while she is out there and when I am done, I call and she comes. She doesn't always come in when I tell her time is up. Since she likes to find a spot and hide, I have to "beat the bushes" before she emerges reluctantly. In recent months she has become curious about the gate to the outside. If I accidentally leave it open she will cautiously come near and peer outside, too fearful though to walk right out, even with me right there. Raja, on the other hand, has lost all desire to go out anymore, just sleeps inside the house, on his favorite couch, sunlight warming his tired old bones and creating magical ripples of seal-point colors. :)

Lesson #2: We cannot love unless we know the person and this, I believe, is at heart of serving the needy. To love them, we must first come to know them. Thus, I am also reflecting on my experience this Saturday at our church's Breakfast Voucher program. Two of the people who came to get the vouchers, greeted me with delight. They were so very happy to see me again and even hugged me upon leaving! I remembered them only vaguely and so they refreshed my memory by recounting the details of when we first met, 6 or so months ago. One of them had brought a friend. It was the friend's first time at our church.  Both had woken up at 4 am and biked as the buses didn't run until later on Saturdays. They enjoyed sharing their stories and however, tenuous it all is, it seemed to me that relationships were being forged.  This, then, is the essence of relationship-building - if we truly want to know and serve the needy in our midst with spiritual discernment, we first have to engage with the other, by giving of ourselves, our physical presence, time, and full attention. Not just our money.

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