Sunday, May 29, 2011

Miss Annie Initiates a Course in Theology


May 29, 2011

Hello, friends,

Considering the change process whether in therapy or spiritual formation inevitably leads to serious thinking about the experience of fear. In the last few months I have thought frequently about the impact of fear in the human change process. Then, as frequently happens in the way I experience “the world as text” an experience with Miss Annie provided an insight that I would like to explore with you.

Miss Annie (aka Fraulein Freud, Therapist Cat Extraordinaire) prefers to rest from her clinic work in a high perch near a window. One of her favorite “high” perches is in the garage. A friend of mine organized this particular perch for her shortly after Miss Annie came to live with me. Annie likes it principally because of its height and the size of the window. She also likes it because the perch itself is “upholstered” with a soft worn bathroom rug.

Miss Annie reaches this special perch in three steps: first, a jump from the garage floor to the potting table, then a second jump from the top of the potting table to the top of the low bookcase, then a third jump from the low bookcase to the top of the high book case in front of the garage window. Annie was quite confident regarding the first two jumps, but was initially somewhat hesitant concerning the third. In order to encourage her, our friend constructed a ramp from Styrofoam planks. Annie quickly learned to walk her “runway” (stylishly, of course) from the lower bookcase to the high one. She also developed a pattern in which she stopped, coming and going, to sharpen her claws on the Styrofoam planks and to provide ample time for any available audience to admire her elegant self.

When I returned from vacation, Annie was quite happy to see me and greeted me warmly. I soon noticed, however that her collar and tags were missing. Since Annie had not had an outdoor adventure in my absence, this loss seemed strange. Even more mysterious, however, was Miss A’s new reaction to the garage. When I attempted to place her on her perch in the garage, she growled at me and inserted her claws in my shirt (and in my shoulder). When I placed her on the floor and attempted to comfort her, she ran to hide under the bed. Annie, the Confident Elegant Miss Annie—Annie, the Therapist Cat Extraordinaire—had become afraid. She had in fact come quite close to a feline panic attack when confronted with a once favorite place. What in the world had happened?

Some garage detective work soon revealed the remains of an accident. Annie’s “runway” (all of the Styrofoam planks) was on the garage floor. One was broken, and all were tangled with the rug which was on the floor as well. Underneath the runway planks and rug lay Miss Annie’s breakaway collar and her tags. There were no witnesses, of course, but circumstantial evidence indicated that while walking her “runway” one of the planks had given way under Annie (she’s a big girl). When she started to fall Annie had likely grasped the rug with her claws. The rug in turn had slipped from the perch and fallen down with the planks, possibly on Annie’s head. For one of the few times in her life, Miss Annie may have experienced great difficulty in landing on her feet. In the struggle to regain her balance and to escape the smothering folds of the rug, it appeared that Miss Annie had broken her collar, then, badly frightened by the fall and the accompanying rain of debris, had escaped and fled the scene, planning never to return to the garage, no matter my thoughts about the matter.

The friend who had helped construct Annie’s favorite perch came to lunch. I explained my admittedly theoretical reconstruction of the scene and described Miss Annie’s panicked reaction. “You couldn’t help that,” our friend said. “but she may be afraid for a long time; she may never like the garage perch again. I don’t know what you can do about that.” Options for repair of the ramp were straightforward. Dealing with Miss Annie’s fear was less so. If the world is text, I thought, then what does this mean?

Our friend was correct in one basic sense. All of us, including Miss Annie, have life experiences that result in fear. While we can learn to make ourselves less vulnerable to harm, we cannot change life in ways that safe-proof our journey. What then do we do with our fear? Simply live with it? If this is the only option, then why in so many places in the biblical text does God instruct his people NOT to be afraid?

Could I help Miss Annie NOT be afraid? What if Miss Annie did not want a fear-reduction program but wanted only the freedom to avoid forever entering the garage again? But after a time in which I considered some of the parallels between Miss Annie, myself, and some of my clients, I devised a plan.

More next week on the plan and our progress (Miss Annie’s and mine).

Meanwhile, thinking with you about the comment Jesus made to his disciples: he told them plainly that in their lifetimes they would have trouble (John 16:33). He also told them plainly not to be troubled or afraid (John 14:27). But he also pointed out that the peace he would give them was something different than “the peace the world gives (Jn. 14:27).”

What can we understand about the human experience of fear? And does seeking to live as a follower of Jesus change the human experience of fear, or does it change our capacity to manage fear, or both?

See you next week.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

coming home

May 22, 2011

Hello, friends,

Travel brings change. In coming and going, and in the adventure of being neither here nor there but somewhere in the in-betweens, change occurs. However, the change that lasts comes both on the journey and when we arrive home again.

I was surprised at how eager I was to reach home (and privately amused at myself). During the time traveling I had enjoyed companionship and friendship at a rich, consistent level. The enormous forests and the immensity of the ocean made a visual gallery of memories that will last a long lifetime. Nevertheless, in a paradoxical way that is difficult to express, it was in coming home that I began to understand where I had been.

The car was emptied at last. I left the luggage in an untidy heap in the hall, and sat down in the quiet of my small house. Miss Annie curled up on my lap, purring her welcome home. And there, sitting in my favorite chair, unbidden I suddenly re-visited in my mind a breath-stopping curve in the road we had driven earlier in the week. I could see and hear the wild waves pounding against the sheer cliffs below us, their spray white against the black rocks. I could sense the power of the water, the unmoving resistance of the massive black walls of rock that bounded the shore line, and the incredible frailty of my human self in the context of that world of rock and wind and water and grim sky. I had some sense of that even at the time we initially rounded that curve. I thought then, “This changes my sense of both the frailty and value of human life.”

But I knew it again in a different lasting sense when I knew it in my chair at home with Miss Annie on my lap. The enormity of the dimensions of that world and its impersonal unintentional power were at some level unknowable until I re-knew them in the context of home.

Whether in therapy or in spiritual formation, change comes on the journey, but it is in those times of quiet harbor that we integrate and store the journey’s change within the person we are becoming. In our action addicted world it is easy to miss the importance of stillness and retracing the road where we have been.

An old Zen-like cliché reads something like this: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Coming off two weeks of wonderful travel, tonight I would say: Don’t just travel. Come home and rest. Then you can know where you have been.

I am thinking with you about the challenge of understanding and keeping change I have experienced.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 8, 2011


Hello friends,

I will be traveling the next two weeks. Look for a new blog Sunday, May 22
See you then.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

The text from a landscaping project

May 1, 2011

Dear friends,

Some good folk in the church where I worship are in the process of a major landscaping project. As things have developed, the project has also required structural renovation of portions of their house, only a part of which were anticipated in the initial plan. These changes have resulted in a sharp upward trajectory in the bottom line of the budget. This has not provided moments of joy for my friends. They are experienced householders, however, and so, while not joyful at the increased cost, they are neither totally surprised nor anxious. They have years of relationship with God; it takes more than a landscape project to unsettle their dependence upon God’s faithfulness.

Happily, the project is nearing completion. The results are astonishing and truly beautiful. Visually, I could never have guessed that the house I now see as we come around the curve is a renovated version of the house I entered when first welcomed by my friends into their family life. This house, skirted with natural stone, sits now above the flowing shapes of walls and gardens that move with casual elegance down the hill where anchoring pines mark the curving edge of the lower street. Graceful stone-faced pillars support the deck that extends from the windowed living room. At night those who shelter in this beautiful space can look down into the pines and out over the roofs and trees of the neighborhood below. House and walls and trees have been melded into the essential shape of the hill on which they rest, and at night the city lights below scatter diamonds at its feet.

The project has led to a number of thoughtful moments for me as interested observer.

As a prairie born individual, I experience the need to remove living trees with serious concern. The landscaper experienced no such reluctance. While the task attracted considerable neighborhood “supervision,” and provided a good bit of drama, he arranged for a large shade tree to be cut down and its huge root system removed. On the initial “drive-by” after the tree was gone, I felt sad—it was a great flourishing tree, a source of shade and beauty; I had enjoyed tea and wonderful conversation with friends under its summer shade. It seemed an unwelcome change, and a high price to pay for an as yet unrealized beauty.

My sense of meaning changed, however, when on the next “drive-by inspection” I could see the damage—serious, structural damage—that the roots of that flourishing tree had done to the house.

“The world is text,” to borrow Benjamin Meyers’s wonderful line. I am now reading the text of my friends’ landscaping project with new eyes.

I can see that it is possible to shelter comfortably under some great flourishing tree of which I am quite fond while outside the range of my awareness serious damage to the foundation stones of my life is taking place. It is true, I think, that whether in therapy or in spiritual formation, comfort or even affection is not a necessarily reliable indication of needed change.

Thinking with you this week about the necessity for seeking a God-shaped view of change and loss. This view can alter our sense of the budget bottom line.

See you next week.