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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cats and Dogs: On Apathy and Zeal

Animal lovers, don't hate because of the generalization I am about to apply. I can honestly say I've known real, live cats that had true affection for their humans, but we can all also honestly say that in general, cats are distant, aloof, loving on their own terms and when it suits them. So don't hate. I'm using the cat stereotype in this blog entry.

I've been mulling and mulling over some of the events of my life, things I've done or failed to do, times I've loved or failed to love, and the content of this past Sunday's sermon and how it relates to relationships and expectations.

And I think I finally realized today why some of the hurtfulness hurts so badly. I still don't know what to do about it, but at least it's making a little bit more sense.

More than we are rich or poor, this race or that, male or female, we people are either cats or dogs. And I'm a dog. Now. But I wasn't always. In my most self-centered time of life, I was a cat, and I could claim pedigree for it too.

I will tell you the story, and you can know that I tell it through tears of regret, remorse, and repentance. If life had an "undo" button, I would use it. But that would rob my dear friends of their crowns received for the forgiveness they gave me, and so, it remains not undone. It's in our history; it's part of our story.

First, some background.
The sermon on Sunday was based on Romans 12: 11-12. If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can listen to it here: Spiritual Passion. There's a lot in this, and definitely one for Pastor Dave's Greatest Hits collection, though I've said that a lot lately. I think he'll need at least a double EP.

First, the scripture reference: Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

So he's talking about this zeal, fervency, pathos, passion behind the emotion. It's tying in well with my Covenant Theology class--getting the balance right between head knowledge and emotion, because both are necessary in our relationship with God. And of course, all of us are guilty of a certain level of apathy toward God. Even if we're doing fairly well at some points, his outpouring of affection and desire and support of us is so great, we can't even imagine how great our response ought to be. So we have to be commanded not to be slothful, but to "LET love be genuine." Don't hold it back. And if the heart is hard so that there's not a passion in there, evaluate. Why is that? Pastor Dave says apathy is sin. The word fervent has to do with a raging fire, a boiling over. We're supposed to boil over for the right things: To love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and ALL your mind and ALL your strength, and then to love your neighbor as yourself. We get the "as yourself" part most of the time. Dave's always mentioning that we're navel gazers. The trajectory of our emotions are pointed inward, to me. It's true.

How do we want to be loved? And how do we want to love?

In the movie The Big Kahuna, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito are salesmen who have worked and traveled together for many years. They've done life together. But in a scene, on the road, at dinner together, Danny asks Kevin, "Do you love me?"

Kevin is taken aback a bit and he stammers over his reply. "If you're asking whether I want to marry you and have kids, I'd have to say no." Then he dwells on it for a bit, and gives this lukewarm reply to the guy he's spent years of his life with. "You have good hygiene. You're a snappy dresser. What's not to love?"

Danny is clearly deflated. It's not how he wants to be loved. He wants to know someone is FOR him with more than just a detached, dispassionate awareness, or simply the absence of offensiveness. He quotes Jesus' "Love has no one greater than this: that he lay down his life for his friends."

Lay down my life. That's a big one. But I can honestly say that right now, there are people I love enough to put my physical existence on the line for them. There are people whom I would take a bullet for, like Eponine did for Marius, because I need to know they live more than I think I need to live. But what about the parts of life that aren't really life itself, and yet get so elevated? Will I lay down my schedule for my friends? Will I lay down my financial security? Will I lay down my perceived reputation? Will I lay down my pride? Why do those things hurt so much more to give up than life-breath itself?

I think pride really is at the heart of apathy. Don't you? Here's the cat and dog thing.
Dogs just aren't proud. It isn't in them. They are not navel gazers, not even when they are wounded. A dog sees you coming, even if you only just stepped outside to take out the trash, and he is like, "OH, HEY! It's YOU again! Hey, I missed you! Man, it is SO GREAT that you came back! Let's do something together! I want to get in your face! I can't get close enough to you! I just LOVE you!" His arrow is completely turned outward.
But the cat, not so much. You bounce up to a cat you haven't seen in twelve hours, and she may rub up against you if SHE feels like it. Or she may turn and smack you down. Cats love you on their own terms, when they feel like it, when they have nothing better to do, and they love you just as much as they determine that you deserve. And the more you gush over them, the more likely they are to withdraw and go find a bed to brood under, free at last from your zealous affections.

When I first arrived at college, I was gifted outright with some of the best friends a person could ever hope to have. People I could at once be completely at ease with, comfortable, genuine, transparent. People who loved me like the dog does. And they let me love them back. Over the course of the first few years, we grew really close, and then lost a few. Lauren chose to join the Army and I lost him for a couple of decades. But thanks to God, he turned up living in the same town I now live in, and I got to see him married almost a year ago in a wedding-to-never-forget in nearby Brevard, to a woman who seems so well-suited to him that I kind of have a craving to know her better, and hope opportunity for that will happen since we are geographically so close. Britt had to leave us for a larger school, and when she did, a hole in my heart for her absence opened and never has quite filled. Mitzi was in there, yep, but she also had close friends from her hometown at school with her, and not too far into our college years she found the man she would marry there and so she migrated between his social group and ours. But Dave, Matt, and I were definitely bonded in a type of zealous affection and encouragement of one another solidly for several years.

Until I turned cat-like. I can't tell you why my heart hardened toward others. I can tell you that it most certainly did, and when I look back at it, I hate it about myself. Sure, school was busy. I had a lot of work to keep up on. There's that. It's still no excuse for failing to love genuinely. No excuse for being slothful in zeal. I just turned my arrow inward and became the Queen of the Navel Gazers.

It was most evident one time when we were all preparing to leave for break. I don't remember if it was a short break like Christmas or a long one, such as summer. I fear it was a long break. I lived in an apartment off campus and the guys lived in the same complex just a few apartments down the hill. Literally, I could look from my parking space to see whether their cars were parked outside their door or not. It was that easy to be in touch. But I was thinking only of myself. I finished my classwork, packed my car, and pulled out for the 3 1/2 hour drive to my parents' home. I didn't look for my friends Dave and Matt. I didn't say goodbye. I was a cat, doing my own thing, and I felt justified in my self-direction. I had things to do.

About a half hour after I arrived at my parents' house, the phone rang. I remember taking the call in the kitchen. My older brother Jimmy was in the room, sprawled in a hard wooden chair at the kitchen table. He had met me with a bear hug and helped me bring in my bags a few minutes earlier and he was waiting to get caught up with me about school. It was Dave on the phone. He couldn't believe I had actually answered, that I was already almost four hours away from school, and I had left without saying goodbye. Remember, Dave and Matt had been the genuinely affectionate ones. The encouraging ones. The ones always delighted to see me and always pulling for me. And I had turned cold. I could hear the emotion in Dave's voice, "You left without saying goodbye? We're right here, and you left without even saying goodbye?"

And even then (I cringe when I think back to this), I responded like a cat. It didn't cut through my hard heart. I defended myself. It's MY life. I'm not responsible for how YOU feel. Gosh! Get over it already. It's just a break. When I hung up the phone, I saw my older brother, in his wisdom and compassion and judgment, looking at me with those knowing eyes. He was hurt for my friend Dave. And he was, I believe, ashamed of me. (Had he been Mr. Knightley, he might have said, "Badly done, Rebecca.")

What he did say was, "You know, I wish, I really wish, I had just one friend who cared enough about me to notice when I came and when I went. You have two, and you don't even know what that's worth."

I now know that he was right and I was so very wrong. But then, even then, when my hero big brother was trying to open my eyes, I couldn't see it. I could only see me.

The next year at school, Dave and Matt and I did drift apart more. They got other friends. I made MY plans. Dogs make friends easily. Cats think they're OK to be alone. And then we went different ways. Graduation, changing schools, jobs.

Five years later, I found myself living alone in NC. Dave was in Atlanta. Matt in Maine. I had a great job that I loved, with magnificent co-workers who shared a common purpose with me. But I had no social circle outside of work. I was desperately lonely. And it was only then that the scales on my cat-eyes started to come off, and the hardness of that heart started to change and soften to realize what I had done.

The funny thing is, though, they had already forgiven me. Even in the distance between us, they had forgiven. In the deepest point of my loneliness, Matt called me. He initiated. He was going to be on a road trip, and he wanted to come through Asheville and bring his girlfriend Holli for me to meet. Would I let them come see me, stay a night? Of course! And all of a sudden, I was a dog again. Salivating and squirming and joyfully looking forward to their arrival. I remember sitting with them on the floor of my apartment, listening to music and looking at magazines and talking, talking, talking. I loved Holli instantly and could see what a perfect match she was for Matt. I could be thrilled at how happy he was. And they were there, with me, and I didn't want to be alone, but I wanted to bask in how fantastic these people really were. Yes, it was filling an empty loneliness in me, but that arrow wasn't pointed toward me then. It was pointed outward at them, and in that, I was being satisfied.

Not too long after that, Dave came too, to bring his fiancee Donna to meet me. (Another one of those meetings I can be so thankful for--seeing how each great friend was provided exactly the partner he needed for this life.) He had forgiven me and when he faced the biggest relational event of his life, he was clear that he wanted me to be involved.

We are fully reconciled, and I have so much reason to be thankful for how it did work out. So when I hear these kinds of messages, I can look back on that story in my life and see the hurtfulness and destructiveness that apathy causes. I know it personally too. I think the times I have been most deeply hurt by others is when I have received what I gave that time: I bounce up to someone in enthusiastic optimism and support and love and get smacked down, like a puppy approaching a cat who does not have time for that.

Pastor Dave says it isn't hopeless. I know that to be true. God broke me out of myself that time, and he will keep doing it for me. It's a process. It's never really over. I'll go back. I'll turn inward. But he'll keep drawing me out again, and I hope, I get a little better each time. I also have hope for others who are where I was then. I want the reconciliation. I want the mutual fervency. I have hope, however long it takes. I have hope.

And I'm much happier as a dog than as a cat. I wouldn't have known it at the time, all self-protected as I was. I thought that was the way to be. I thought I was somehow higher, more evolved.

I was wrong. I was just prideful and hard and hurtful. But I was given grace, by the bucketsful. And I am so thankful.

There is grace.

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