Paws without Claws

Sweet enough when she's sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

Sweet enough when she’s sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

In our household, we expect guests to live by three general rules:

1)      Make yourself at home.

2)      Be careful backing out of the driveway (it curves deceptively at the end).

3)      Don’t pet the cat.

The third rule usually gets the most double-takes, especially from animal lovers. What kind of cruel pet owners would deny affection to such a lovely creature as our Sammi? And why deny our guests the chance to stroke her sleek fur and hear her purr gratefully?

Because, in the words of my eldest son, “She’ll try to gnaw your hand off.”

While Z’s statement is certainly on the dramatic side, it is in keeping with both the cat’s character and my son’s experience.

Sammi comes by her malice honestly. When she was a kitten, some of the youth from our church would sneak over to the parsonage during worship and tag her with water guns—a “game” my wife and I did not find about until years later, or else we would have put a stop to it. The poor cat was so traumatized that she licked herself bald. Her hair grew back once we left that appointment. Understandably, her trust in children did not.

By the time our boys were born, Sammi was set in her ways. Even a decade later, she will allow my wife and I to pet her most of the time, but not Z or J. If the kids come near, she will swat and snap and occasionally hiss before she runs under the bed. She has no front claws, so there’s no real danger to them. But it scares them when she swats, and it hurts their feelings to have Sammi respond to gentleness with fury. Most of the time, they avoid her.

On occasion, however, Sammi decides that the time has come for a battle of wills. She sits in the hallway and will not budge as Z or J approaches. About once every week, I turn the corner to see one of them locked in a staring contest with Sammi, afraid to move past her.

“Go on,“ I tell them. “She won’t hurt you.”

“She’ll swat at me.”

“Maybe. But she doesn’t have front claws. All she can do is pat you.”

“But she looks mad.”

“It doesn’t matter. She can’t hurt you.”

“But…”

And so the argument goes, until the cat gets bored with it and slinks away to terrorize dust bunnies.

I’ve been realizing lately how much of my life is spent in similar fear. I run into an obstacle whose only weapons are surprise and intimidation. It may not have power to hurt me, but it scares me into inaction with threats about what it might do and what I might lose.

Sadly, I often run across this in my job as a pastor. Sometimes it’s from colleagues whose insecurity turns them into bullies. Often, it’s from lay people whose unresolved fears lead to issues with control. Most frustrating of all, I sometimes see our denominational leadership resort to intimidation tactics for no better reason than to get people to do what they want.

When mature Christians give in to such tactics, we do no service to anyone, much less to God. What we need then is a little perspective, and perhaps a little courage to go along with it.

We mature Christians need to remember that we have all we need in Christ. We may lose an argument, and we may even suffer at the hands of those who abuse their power over us. Jesus certainly did. But nothing can ever be taken from us that would diminish the love of Jesus within us—not our pride nor our appointments nor even our lives.

When we learn not to be afraid of those who wish to control us, we are free from more than just the discomfort of fear. We are free to see behind the bluster of our adversaries. We can seek to understand the way they are, and by understanding to treat them with a bit more kindness, even as we resist their efforts to frighten others. We are free to move, and free to love our enemies, and free to live happy lives.

When seen through the lens of Jesus, those who would intimidate us are all paws and no claws. We can walk past them without fear.

Happiness Simplified: An Experiment

Do I really want to be happy?

I’ve asked myself this question hundreds of time throughout my life, usually during the more bleak periods. Part of me resents even asking it, since the question itself seems to buy into the notion that the pathway to what you want lies in the wanting itself—that desire is the key to realization. That idea is pop psychology at best, prosperity gospel at worst.

Still, I ask myself. Do I want to be happy?

The answer is yes, of course. I want to be happy. Who doesn’t? But I also want to grow my hair back, be a professional baseball player, and become a best-selling author before Christmas. Just because I desire something does not mean it is attainable.

Happiness, on the other hand, is attainable. I know this because I’ve had it for most of my life, and because I’ve seen it in so many people made beautiful by their joy, regardless of the circumstances in which they live. It seems like a small thing, a basic right even. To be happy. It shouldn’t take that much to achieve, should it?

Maybe. The “should” question doesn’t get us very far in this case, however. When we are searching for happiness, it matters little how the world should be. The more important thing to note is how the world, in fact, is. And in the darkest of times, the world is a cold and pitiless dessert, and happiness a lone green plant buried beneath clear ice too thick to crack. We know it is there, but we can’t get to it.

I’ve thought a lot about the cruel imprisonment of happiness in recent weeks. The ministry I’ve devoted my professional life to is struggling, raising all kinds of internal turmoil. Bad news continues to pour in on both national and international fronts. And everything always seems worse when it’s 97 degrees in September and the warnings about climate change become an inescapable reality. I worry about these things, all of which share one key characteristic.

They are all utterly beyond my control. I can scream and pound my fists. But I cannot dent them, much less crack them. They are part of my environment that I did not create, and failure to adapt will only leave me bloody. Just because I want things to be different doesn’t mean they will change, any more than wanting longer legs and better reflexes will make me a major league infielder.

If I want to be happy, I will have to choose to be happy, regardless of the circumstances.

The thing I am coming to realize, however, is that the choice to be happy is like the choice to be a writer, or a disciple, or anything worth making a core component of our identities. We can’t make one choice and call ourselves happy. We have to make the choice to be happy, over and over again.

Let’s simplify it further. We don’t have to choose happiness above all other things. We only have to choose it over whatever is keeping us from it at a given moment. I can hone my narrative of disappointment and despair, nurture my sense of cosmic injustice at my failures. Or I can choose to reject that narrative in favor of a more gracious one—one more closely aligned with how I believe Jesus sees us.

But I can’t have both happiness and hopelessness. I have to decide which one I want more, choose it over and over again, and trust that those choices will add up to something substantial over time.

Believe me, I am not suggesting that I do this very well, or that any of it is easy. But simplifying happiness by choosing it over one obstacle at a time seems like a plan with a lot of potential. I believe it is possible, and so I continue to work the experiment.

Longhand

File my no electronic weekend under “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I woke up Sunday morning in a hotel in St. Louis. After a grueling start to the school year, I’d hatched a plan to spend Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in baseball therapy. That is to say, with the Cardinals, and without digital distractions. I planned to spend Sunday morning exploring downtown, possibly including a stop by a church.

What I didn’t plan on was the rain. By 8:00am, it was coming down in sheets with no sign of stopping. No good walking, and no way to get the car out of the parking garage without losing my space. On a normal day, I would use this unexpected free time to take out the laptop and do some writing.

Only the laptop was two hundred miles to the south, on the kitchen table next to my tablet. And I had promised myself that I would leave the phone powered down except in case of emergency. I wouldn’t be typing anything.

So I did something I haven’t done in ages. I found a pen in the drawer and some blank paper in the courtesy business station. I sat down at the desk, and I got ready to write. Then I got up and brushed my teeth. And sat down again. And got up to take a shower. And sat down again. And got up…

You get the idea.

I have heard second-career students fret during their first semester about being back in the classroom after X number of years, worrying about taking notes and taking tests and being able to dust off their ability to learn. As I stared at those blank sheets of paper and searched for any excuse not to sit down and write, I found an analogous feeling settling into my gut.

The problem, as I have diagnosed it, goes back to appearances and judgment. When I am typing out something and part of it doesn’t work, I can delete it with a simple swipe of my touchpad. That awkward phrase or sloppy sentence—exactly how many adverbs can one clause hold?—disappears as though it were never there. The screen remains tidy, with spellchecked words and style-proofed sentences and crisp margins to inspire plenty of confidence.

Not so the handwritten page. Once I finally put pen to paper, I found myself constantly scratching out and scrawling in. When I’d finished (or better said, when I’d run out of paper), I was left with a jumble of bad handwriting and scribbled notes that made me wonder if I had done anything at all worthwhile. Every mistake remained on the page, pitifully hidden beneath a scribbled swirl. Anyone who looked at those pages was bound to think, “Whoever wrote this doesn’t know a thing about writing.” It was quite humbling.

And glorious.

I have not yet had a chance to pull those pages from my luggage and go over their content to see if they are worth uploading for other eyes to read. But this I do know: they are real. They do not exist in digitized format on my online storage site. They cannot be deleted with a keystroke, and no one will confuse their appearance with something masterful. But they reflect, more than anything I’ve written in awhile—this blog post included—the processes of creativity, the necessary mess that ideas create. What a refreshing reminder!

Perhaps I will file them away somewhere, in some actual folder. Maybe entitled, “Seemed like a good idea, and actually was.”

The creative process--not nearly so neat as it looks when fanned out.

The creative process–not nearly so neat as it looks when fanned out.

Usefulness

hex wrench               For most of his life, my father was able to spot road debris with uncanny ability. One of the first driving skills I learned was how to pull to a stop on our dirt roads and back up along the edge of the ditch so that Dad could retrieve a screwdriver or tire iron or piece of scrap metal that had found its way out of someone else’s pickup. He spotted things that I, with my bad eyesight and tendency to daydream, never realized were there.

When we got home, Dad would usually toss his new prize into a bucket in his shop, and Mom would cast a weary glance my way.

“It’s just more junk, Dennis,” she would say.

Dad would grunt and keep it anyway, unable by nature to throw away a good piece of metal. It could be just the right size for something one of these days. You never knew.

I thought about this today as I walked across the parking lot to work. It’s not unusual for me to pick up something as I go. Pennies, mostly, but occasionally other coins and once even a ten dollar bill. Today, however, I found something unusual: a hex wrench, partially rusted and nicked up from being pressed against the asphalt by car tires, but still perfectly usable. I picked it up, and a thought entered my mind.

Oh no. I’m turning into my father.

Perhaps not, at least in any meaningful sense. But the internal dialogue got me to thinking about other things I’ve picked up along the way without knowing their usefulness at the time.

When I was a student at Arkansas Tech Wesley Foundation, I learned about serving without counting the cost, and finding life by living outside of myself. I didn’t think of these as foundational Christian virtues at the time. Several of us just lived that way, every day.

My early appointments taught me more than I care to remember about dealing with conflict. And, since only one ministry I’ve ever served had any money to speak of, I’ve picked up plenty of handyman skills. Again, these were not lessons I set out to learn. They were responses to the situations at hand.

My on-the-job learning continues, and not just in a professional sense. I have lived long enough and thoughtfully enough to know that the most difficult things to deal with in campus ministry—discouragement, isolation, immaturity, volatility—are whetting stones that sharpen skills within me. I don’t enjoy the hard lessons, but I believe they will prove useful.

Even when I don’t believe that, I have to make myself believe it. That’s the only way to stay sane sometimes.

My father no longer has the ability to collect discarded steel artifacts. My brother and I joke about the buckets upon buckets of scrap metal that make up our inheritance. Someone, we know, will have to deal with it somehow.

But I have to admit, many of the pieces my father collected proved more useful than I ever thought they would. One large screwdriver with a chipped handle has pried open hundreds of paint cans. Odd shaped scraps have proven just the right size to patch a hole in a trailer bed, or to weld as a support brace on some custom mechanical contraption Dad or my brother have made.

If nothing else, I have come to believe that it is a good thing to keep your eyes open. Sometimes the scraps that we pick up along the way turn out to be essential. They are useful to us, and they help make us useful to God.

You just never know.