Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Banished to the Basement

Her persistent scratching on the door at the top of the basement stairs informs me that my fluffy black cat, Fuzzy Lumpkins, is ready for her morning milk. I pour her treat into the little Pyrex dish and somehow make it safely down the stairs despite her racing in circles around my feet. After setting it down on the basement floor, I scratch her back as she sprawls before me on the cold concrete, tickling her belly and patting her on the head a couple of times before heading upstairs to my first cup of coffee and my morning routine.

Fuzzy spends most of her life in the lower half of our home. Early on she became the appointed companion of an older and infirm feline who could no longer function upstairs and needed the stability and quiet of a more secluded spot in the basement. She happily provided that support until the older cat passed away last summer. Her duty done, she was welcomed upstairs once more, only to retreat again to excape the attention of a very loud and bouncy beagle puppy. Already on the skittish side, the least sudden noise would send her dashing for cover, and a barking dog looking for a furry black playmate was simply too much for her. The basement became her home once more, this time by choice.

But it's a lonely existence for a cat that loves the attention of people. Although she still sneaks up the stairs when she knows the dogs are not about, looking for a lap to sit on or a quick belly rub, for the most part any overtures of friendship have to begin with me. I'm the feline fancier in a house full of dog devotees. So lately I've tried to make a point of spending some quality lap and face time with her downstairs on a daily basis.

It's interesting that it's while visiting with my cat that I simultaneously spend time with my God. Likewise looking for a quiet spot for my nighttime devotional reading, I chose the beat up brown couch (similarly banished to the basement) for our time together. I sip coffee and read, petting her absently while she sits on my lap, purring at full volume and looking adoringly into my eyes.

But like everyone else these days, I'm a busy person, my days filled from daylight to midnight most of the time. Sometimes I come home late from work, church or family activities, grab a quick bite to eat (funny that I always have time for that!) and then am ready to climb into bed. Just as I'm stumbling towards the bedroom the thought comes to me, "Fuzzy hasn't had any attention today." And I stop short. Fuzzy...my cat, my responsibility, and more than that, my friend. I'm reminded that she came to be a member of the family at my request and that she deserves better than to be totally ignored except for the regular visits to bring her food or change her litter box. So I sigh, grab my book and head down the stairs for a quick visit. No matter how late the hour, I find her waiting for me, eager to interact once more.

Who couldn't use a little devotion at the end of a long day? It turns out that Fuzzy and I ...and even God... have this desire in comon. In fact, it was on just one such evening visit that God spoke to me and stated the simple truth that too often, He, too, seems to have been banished to the basement of my list of priorities for the day. While it's not always the case, there are days when I breakfast with Him as briefly as it takes for me to bring my cat her morning milk, and then I dash into the day's activities without giving Him another thought until I'm ready to fall into bed that night. Suddenly the thought comes to me, "I haven't spent any time with God today." And since He came into my life at my request, lives within me by my choice, and developing my relationship with Him is largely my responsibility, I grab my Bible and spend a few minutes reading His Word and talking to Him before closing my eyes for the night.

While it's a good thing to have my last thought of the day centered on God, it's not so good if that's the only thought I spend on Him each day. God desires a relationship with each one of us, genuine time and conversation on a day-long basis that spring from a heart devoted to Him and desperate for more of Him. He wants so much more than just a quick kiss and a wink His way out of duty before I head to bed. Callling myself a Christian but never spending any time with the lover of my soul rings as false as saying I'm married because I have a ring on my finger but never spending any time with my spouse. Both situations fall far short of the glorious and joyous experiences they were meant to be.

So what to do about it? As far as my cat is concerned, I've started to leave the basement door open more often, inviting her to visit as she dares, when the dogs are sleeping or outside. And she's taking advantage of it. This morning she came and sat in my lap as I was sitting at the kitchen table, and together we watched the birds outside the window for a while. The more she does so, the more accustomed she'll become to the dogs' presence and the more time we'll be able to spend together.

Likewise I'm leaving the door to my heart open more regularly for God, inviting Him into all the parts of my day, and deliberately directing my thoughts in His direction no matter what I'm doing. It's an action that becomes habitual with practice and which improves the quality of my spiritual experience with Him a hundred fold.

As I was climbing the basement steps yesterday after a late night visit with Fuzzy and God, I stopped for a moment and looked back to see her at the base of the stairs, watching me ascend with love in her eyes. And I knew that God was doing the same. While it still may be from the depths of my basement that I tell the Lord that I love Him, I want the words to come from the bottom of my heart.

"and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."
(Mark 12:30 NKJV)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New Year, New Language

One sentence. That's it. Six words, to be exact. That's all the Italian I can speak, despite being surrounded by people who spoke little else in my childhood years.

My father emigrated from Italy with his mother and older sister in the 1920's to be reunited with his father who arrived in America first, round work and then sent for his family. Sent to kindergarten before he could speak a word of English, my dad promptly ran away, only to be returned to his mother sitting proudly in front of a mounted policeman, or so the story goes. Apparently he did eventually go back to school and stayed there, and he and his sister quickly learned to communicate with those around them.Learning English was a much more difficult chore for his stay-at-home mother, so around the house, in bigger family gatherings, and even at the big holiday parties in the basement of my grandmother's San Francisco home, Italian flowed from lips as freely as the wine was poured and the huge platters of homemade ravioli and risotto were passed around the tables. Even my Canadian-born mother picked up enough of the language to be able to understand the conversation around her.

Not so her daughter. Oh, I picked up some words here and there. I can say
prosciutto, salami, lasagna and rigatoni with the best of them! Speaking the names of Italian foods and consuming large quantities of the same have never been a problem for me. While I say it too rarely, I can mimic to perfection my grandmother's cry, "Basta! Basta!" ("Enough! Enough!") when pressed to take a third helping of some dish or another. And despite the many years that have passed since those days, the hearty, "Salute!" as wineglasses were raised in toast still echoes in my ears. The one sentence I actually remember and can say to this day was drilled into my head by my father, who was determined that each family member say a greeting and a word or two of introduction on a tape he was making to send to distant relatives back home. While I read an entire paragraph into the microphone that day, all I've retained is the first line.

For years I've talked about rectifying the situation and learning the language with the help of one of the many study aids that are now available. And yet I haven't taken a single step towards accomplishing that goal...until this year. While shopping with the family one day for after-Christmas deals, I stumbled upon a page-a-day calendar that promised to teach me 365 Italian phrases in the course of a year! While that's way too many for me (my goal is to learn one phrase a
week), talk about a bargain! My discounted calendar will last me seven years!

I couldn't wait to start! Eagerly the first full week of January I flipped through the pages to find the perfect phrase with which to launch the New Year. When I came across, "I need a nap", I knew I'd found it, and the fact that it (literally) made me "laugh out loud" led me directly to that as the second phrase!

Silly, perhaps, but I'm having such
fun with the idea that it's worth it just on that basis alone. Of course, I have nobody to speak my phrases to, and I wouldn't be able to understand their responses if I did. But I love the sound and feel of the words coming off my tongue and am quite content to go around my house babbling in Italian for nobody's benefit but my own. This may very well be the one New Year's resolutin that outlasts the first month of the year.

But it reminds me of another resolution that likewise has to do with the words that come out of my mouth. I entered the New Year tired of the hours, days, and weeks I've wasted on worry and fear in the past. Mentally dubbing this the "Year of No Fear", I set out on a course of action to live free of those pests that have plagued me and crippled my spiritual life for longer than I care to admit. It was not by accident that I received a copy of a favorite author's new book on the subject for Christmas, nor that my pastor preached a sermon on that very topic as the New Year began, as well. Rather, they were confirmations from God that this was a wise course of action for me to take.

I've found that it likewise involves the study of a whole new language, and that, as in the learning of Italian phrases, I have to think for a moment before I speak, making sure that what comes out of my mouth is not only biblically correct but pronounced with faith and accented with confidence, rather than spoken in the dialect of doubt and in the vernacular of my current circumstances and feelings. It's not as easy as I thought it would be. Health issues, money problems and relationship struggles all tend to tie up my tongue and tangle my faith talk. But I find that as I flip through the pages of my reference tool, the Bible, and repeatedly voice aloud the promises I find there, not only do the words flow more fluently off my tongue but they change the way I think and live my life, as well. Thankfully I'm surrounded by people who also communicate in the language of faith, and who speak it back to me with words I not only understand but that my spirit eagerly responds to.

My dad passed away many years ago now, long before the desire to learn his native tongue gained a foothold in me, but I know he'd get a kick out of my current interest. Yet I know that my
heavenly Father is listening to the words I say every day, and so I don't want my spiritual vocabulary to be limited to just a few phrases or a handful of promises I learned as a child. May whatever language comes out of my mouth express the thoughts of my heart in words that will make Him smile.

"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer." (Psalm 19:14 NIV)
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