A Cat Tale: Relentless Pursuit of Love

Look, this is going to end with one of those endings that we appreciate but still roll our eyes over it. Like, in my preaching class, a young man was delivering this really great sermon and it was all tossed out when he ended a sentence with, “…and that boy was me.” We all contained our laughter as best we could and we recognized the power those phrases don’t always have. And this is going to end like that, but don’t toss this out. Please.

My partner and I were in seminary together (we met there (fun fact: I did not like her when we met (at all))) when she rescued this cat named Muji. She’d been talking about getting another cat but this wasn’t just another cat. This was a special-needs cat who would need a lot. I had a general understanding of Muji’s condition when Chelsea May adopted him, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea because I was keen on her. I wanted to be with her for the long-term and adding a handicapped cat – a handicat – into the mix wasn’t what I had in mind.

I also had a general understanding that when Chelsea May sets her mind on something, nothing can change it. She had fallen in love with this cat and the expression of  my emotions and feelings about it were appreciated and taken under advisement. And then we went and she filled out the paperwork to adopt him.

Muji shortly after he arrived at Chelsea May’s

Muji was an orange tabby with long, spindly legs and patchy fur partially covering his ribs and hip bones. His mouth was more gum than tooth. He had a neurological disorder similar to CH (cerebellar hypoplasia) which caused him to walk with a wobble, stammering across the floor in uncontrolled stops and starts. When he lost his balance he would fall onto his side, yet somehow he would still make progress in the direction he was headed. He used his claws to his advantage, dragging himself across rugs and up pant legs and the sides of furniture. For being a handicat, he was certainly very mobile.

Unfortunately, Muji couldn’t make this physical ailment go away, so the litter box situation was almost always a disaster. And when Muji was startled he would – with super-cat-like strength and agility – he would just launch himself across the room. So if he was in the litter box pooping and he lost his balance and fell backwards into said poop, he would then be startled by the poop now in his fur, and so all rockets would be fired and he would zoom across the floor. And the poop on the fur would then be the poop on the floor, and he would be over in the corner somewhere trying to get fresh poop out of his fur with his tongue, and that was a nearly-daily thing.

Muji wanted to be with you on an incredibly close level.

Muji was a handicat but he didn’t let his disability keep him from being a cat. He liked to chase toys and laser lights, falling and stumbling along the way, eventually just swatting away at the air and the toy as he lay on his side, eyes desperately seeking the target. He loved food…he loved food the way I love food (and I really love food); if he heard crinkling plastic which may have made a similar sound to his cat treat bag, he would come bumbling and fumbling across the floor yelling his loudest meow in a desperate attempt to get food. The sound of a can opening sent him into fits of uncontrollable excitement and when the food was set before him he became something similar to the Cookie Monster, but instead of delicious cookies it was wet, pureed cat food…everywhere…oh my goodness it went everywhere. And that “being startled” thing and flinging himself across the floor I mentioned earlier? That would happen with food, too.

Aside from the poop and pee and food in his fur and on the floor, he was a pretty good cat for a cat. He was snuggly and wanted to be near people. He wanted to be held and loved – Chelsea May had a papoose that he loved to sleep in as Chelsea did her chores. This cat was relentless in his desire to not only be loved, but to love. He pursued you to get into your arms because he wanted to be with you. He would journey for ten minutes to get across the house to find where the people were and yelled until you held him. He sought out affection and love and did not stop until he received it.

But I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of this cat (everyone else was) and I did my very best to tolerate his existence in my life and in my relationship with my partner. He felt like a burden to me and my future. He felt like he was more trouble than it was worth. He felt like he would be too much for Chelsea May and I didn’t want to carry that weight.

As much as it sounds like I was, I promise I wasn’t this way because I’m a heartless ogre; I was this way because I wasn’t doing well myself and my mental space was too clouded and crowded to bring in another being that needed my time and attention and energy. Someone else could take care of this cat. Someone else had better resources to take care of this cat. Someone else would have more time to spend with this cat. Someone else had a partner who could enjoy a special creature like Muji. And in those days, I wasn’t that someone.

As I moved through seminary it was pretty apparent to me that my mental health wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t terrible; I wasn’t in need of medical intervention because I thought I could get out of that depression pit on my own. Exercise and lots of sunlight and hanging out with people and doing the things that bring me joy – that’s what I was doing and it was keeping me afloat. But then the COVID lockdowns hit and all of the things that kept me going were no longer present to keep me going.

I suffered in those early days of COVID and I experienced a number of great losses. I lost out on a graduation ceremony from seminary. I lost out on the dream wedding with my wife. I lost out on saying goodbye to friends. I lost out on healthy endings, so when I started my first pastorate in southwest Missouri I was at an all-time low in my life and had unhealthy beginnings in my work and life in Missouri. The job of a pastor is already difficult, but the difficulty is only compounded by a pandemic, a fair election called fraud with an attempt to overthrow the government, a large dose of an unhealthy congregation, anticipatory grief, and loneliness. All of this was what my mind, body, and soul was wrestling with as I moved into this new position and I knew I needed to do something different, so I talked with my doctor who prescribed me some antidepressants and I began meeting with a therapist.

It took a few months, but roughly a year after moving to Missouri and taking medicine and seeking therapy, I was feeling good; I was feeling like myself again and the world wasn’t nearly as difficult to live in as it was before. Don’t get me wrong, the world was still terrible (COVID variants, Trump’s 2020 election schemes, degrading of the Supreme Court, etc.), but I was in a better place mentally to deal with it all.

One day I was at home getting lunch and Muji heard the refrigerator open so he came tossing and shuffling and groping into the wind to make progress into the kitchen to see what he could find to eat and something startled him. Remember when I said that when Muji was startled he would – with super-cat-like strength and agility – he would just launch himself across the room? He did that this day and bonked his head on the wall, something I’d seen him do a hundred times before, but this day…this day it was different. This day, as I looked down at that poor, helpless orange-ish cat, I saw for the first time the beloved creature Chelsea May had seen the whole time. For the first time I saw a little being made by God that needed love and wanted to give love. For the first time I saw one of God’s little creatures who needed help. As he lay there at my feet yelling at me for food and attention and pets I saw and heard the cry of God’s beloved.

Look at all of that tooth.

When I was mentally in a good place I could see the world around me for exactly what it was. I could see the ones who loved me and wanted me to succeed. I could see what losses I needed to accept and what I needed to walk away from. I could see that there was hope and promise and something better. And I saw all of that when I looked down at that feline; when I looked at Muji I knew that it was okay and things were getting better. Despite his disabilities and his challenges, that damn cat pursued me since he set his wobbly little foot in Chelsea’s home because he wanted to love me, and he kept coming after me day after day after day until he won me over.

For the first time since he had been a part of our life, I had the ability to see Muji as a lovely and loving cat that I desperately needed. He could have written me off – many pets have that ability and can just ignore people they don’t like (some go so far as to bite those they don’t like), but Muji didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was, in some strange way, a furry embodiment of what love was and what love wasn’t.

Love wasn’t going to stop its pursuit. Love wasn’t going to discriminate. Love wasn’t going to bother with formalities or always doing things in a regular way. Love wasn’t always show up clean and neat and tidy. Love wasn’t always going to look ‘normal’ (whatever that is). Muji showed me and all who met him that love is love is love and there’s a whole lot of people and animals and spaces that are filled with love just waiting to be accepted.

His last day on this earth. A full belly of wet cat food and treats, nestled into his papoose.

While Muji had been in my life for nearly three years, it was in his final few months that I came to appreciate and love him as much as he always had appreciated and loved me. I looked at his matted hair and ever-more-prominent hip bones (he was struggling to maintain weight) and saw a lovely little being with a dumb face that wanted to love me. I looked at his mouth perched open as he slept, heavily purring, and saw a contentment I so wanted in spite of all my pains and hurts. I looked at his herky-jerky movements and saw determination that somehow motivated me to keep marching forward until I got what I wanted. This little orange cat pursued me and loved me and you know, (prep your eyeroll) while Chelsea May had rescued Muji, somewhere along the line, it was Muji that did the rescuing.

All I can say now is thanks be to God for the pursuit of love. Thanks be to God for Muji.

P.S. – We have always had Christmas stockings for the animals (who am I?) and when Muji died, Chelsea May and I chose to keep filling his stocking every year and donate the gifts to a local shelter. This year is our third year doing this and we wanted to open it up to others. So, if you’d like to contribute to Muji’s Stocking Fund, you can do so here: https://gofund.me/485e28ae

much love. sheth.

On Laying Down Arms

One of the downfalls to being a Christian is that we’re not always told how difficult the walk with Christ will be. We’re not given the nitty-gritty details about how we’re going to suffer – not so much in that persecution/martyr sense – but in the little things of life: avoiding excesses, loving the unlovable, speaking truth in all circumstances, putting Jesus first. If, as people showed interest in this walk with Jesus, we told them about all this suffering they will face, they would more than likely walk away because it doesn’t sound all that fun. Most people come to God because they’re suffering already – the last thing they need to know is that they’ll have more of it! While it’s not always fun, I would gladly say that in the end, the walk with Christ is worth the small sufferings we must endure.

We endure these sufferings because we’re called to live in a different world and time; we’re called to live in the reality of God’s reign on earth that is both now and not yet, a life oriented toward God’s future. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” – a call for a new way of thinking and living that, though we may indeed suffer a little (or a lot), we will find peace and reward in the midst of that new living.

I’ve learned that one of the greatest demands of this call to non-conformity and one of the greatest sources of suffering lies in the example Christ gave us for living in this world: that of self-sacrifice. The transformed life toward non-conformity is sacrificing the entirety of our life – body and mind and spirit – as an expression of devotion to God. This self-sacrifice isn’t done out of compulsion nor for appearances; more than likely, self-sacrifice is done in spite of these things. The world mocks self-sacrifice because when it’s done right, you don’t get ahead…you don’t win…you don’t succeed materially; you quite literally live in worldly suffering. Self-sacrifice is an active choice to live the transformed, renewed life that goes against the ways and workings of the world.

It is in living this self-sacrificing, non-conforming, transformed life that we can, as Paul says, “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In this discernment we assess and evaluate our lives and the things in it to determine God’s will for us, for our next step, for our direction in and through this world. We discern where we’ll work and how that expresses our call to vocation. We discern where we’ll live and how that expresses our call to evangelism. We discern where we’ll attend church and how that expresses our call to fellowship, relationship, and discipleship. But we also discern little things as transformed non-conformists: am I to give to this organization? Is consuming this media an expression of Godly living? Can I drink a glass of wine? Discernment is ultimately asking what is most pleasing (good/acceptable/perfect) to God and how we can live that out in our daily lives as we love God and neighbor.

“I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid. Had we become distracted by the question of my safety we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Since my parents visited me and my spouse in Missouri in 2020 I had been praying and reading to discern the will of God in my life concerning the firearms that I own. Why? All I can really say is that the Spirit moved me in that direction and called me to question why I wanted/needed those weapons in my life and in my home. Through this discernment process I found that what would be most pleasing to God was that I remove these weapons from my life. I recognize that this doesn’t conform to the ways I have lived my life, nor does it agree with our extended family’s ways of living; and truthfully it’s been a very difficult discernment process for me to come to terms with this calling, but God’s call to self-sacrifice – to being transformed – is often uncomfortable, disagreeable, and difficult to bear.

Growing up I learned from my dad and grandpa that our family hunted out of necessity. While certainly not dirt poor, we acknowledged that in our poverty, hunting was a way to find food to sustain our family’s life and well-being. For many years the meat we hunted supplemented the food we bought and I found pride and satisfaction in that. As I have been reflecting on my life as a gun owner and hunter I have realized that my use of firearms has not been for sustaining our family, rather, my use of firearms has been solely for sport disguised as family preservation. The countless prairie dogs and birds I killed were never placed in our freezer, they were killed for summer fun. The deer and elk I killed were never needed nor necessary kills for feeding our family as we always had enough. As much as I’ve tried to deny it and argue against it, my hunting has been purely for sport, an affront to my family heritage of hunting and a spit in the face of God for dishonoring creation. God has shown me this lie that I have been telling myself and the wrongs that I have committed against God’s beloved creation. I am hurt that I have deceived myself for so long, ashamed that I defended my actions, and saddened of the destruction and death I have caused.

The first school shooting I remember was at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999; within 45 minutes the perpetrators murdered twelve fellow students and one teacher before taking their own lives. That wasn’t the first time a shooting occurred at a school and it certainly hasn’t been the last, and the uptick in mass shootings in public places has become a near constant in my American experience. All-too-often I have witnessed news reports of some individual expressing their feelings with a firearm in their hands. The loss of life I have witnessed and the fact that our society allows it to continue is an affront to our Creator who demands from us more than mere thoughts and prayers.

Over the course of my lifetime I have lived in the shadows of wars and in rumors of wars: the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, the arms race with China, the 1980’s Iran skirmish, the 1990’s Gulf War, the 2000’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and most recently the saber-rattling between the United States and Russia. Violence and war on the global stage has been a near-constant for my entire life. In my travels to Kosovo, Mexico, and Budapest I have witnessed firsthand the destruction and death which firearms have waged on God’s creation. I have listened to stories of families evicted with AK-47’s pointed at children. I have stood at the foot of a mass grave where an entire village was executed by firearms. I ran my fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. I saw tears shed as families recounted the systematic ethnic genocide they endured. I have been living in a world of violence carried out by firearms. Certainly this could have happened with rocks or knives, but the reality is that it has happened with firearms. The human heart is prone to evil and causes this violence, but when armed with readily-accessible weapons of death, evil is able to cause more evil.

As I’ve been learning to wholeheartedly walk in the Way of Christ I have wrestled with what it truly means to live into his words spoken from the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). How can I love my enemies…how can I love those who would seek to harm me or my family…how can I live out this calling from God in my life? Certainly I can face the violence that will come at me with violence – I can use my firearms to protect me, my family, and our property – but am I called to that? Can I truthfully love my neighbor if I carry a weapon for protection?

I have been praying and seeking counsel on how I personally can best respond to the violence that will come my way. My American culture tells me to get a handgun and keep it at my bedside; but is this what’s best for me? I certainly have the right to bear arms and stand my ground, but do I have the right to take another life to preserve my own? Does my life, or my spouse’s life, carry more weight and worth than those who may cause us harm? Can I love my neighbors, my enemies, my persecutors while pointing a gun at them?

The Reign and Way of Christ started with vulnerability: as an infant in a manger. Christ certainly could have come bearing sword and shield but he came to us as an infant refugee instead. Jesus chose non-violence as a way of life, not idly sitting by and allowing violence to happen, but refusing to use violence to get rid of violence. In his life he insisted that he would rather die than kill. He would rather love his enemy than harm them. A life of love has no room for killing; a life of love lays down its ‘rights’; a life of love seeks another way. I can discover and learn non-violent ways to protect my life and the life of those around me while preserving the life of the one who seeks to harm me, and if I die in the midst of this, then I die.

Walking in the Way of Christ has called me to live a transformed life, a life of non-conformity, a life that will make me and those around me uncomfortable, uneasy, unwilling to accept. Walking in the Way of Christ has called me to live a life of sacrifice. I am sacrificing my known way of life – safety behind a firearm – for the unknown of life with no firearms. I am sacrificing my family’s heritage and tradition for the unknown. I am sacrificing relationships for the unknown. But I have discerned that the will of God for me is to lay down my arms because this would please my Creator the most and God’s approval is what would please me the most.

I inherited two firearms: a 20 gauge shotgun and a 30-30 rifle. As these are ‘heirloom’ guns and have meaning for our family I humbly returned them to my dad. While I have treasured these gifts and am beyond honored that he chose them for me, I have been called to live without them in my life. Three other firearms I owned I had disarmed and donated to RawTools – an organization based in Colorado Springs and Philadelphia which lives out Isaiah 2:4 by turning weapons into gardening tools. This organization not only physically reshapes weapons of violence, but they provide outreach to communities across a country steeped in gun violence, teaching non-violence, conflict resolution, and perspectives of peace.

The walk with Christ is difficult and challenging…it forces us to live a life that most others would reject…it forces us to choose between Christ and conformity. I choose the self-sacrificing, non-conforming life because I have hope that it will help realize God’s dream for this world. I choose the self-sacrificing, non-conforming life because I trust that God will sustain me when I’m hungry, will protect me when I’m in danger, will bring peace when there is violence. I choose to lay down my arms and take up the cross because this is the most pleasing, most good, most acceptable, most perfect way I can live my life for the reign of Christ in this world. This is God’s calling on my life.

much love.

On the Occasion of the Scattering of My Mother’s Ashes

My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person show Christian virtues, like charity and diligence, kindness and patience, moderation and humility. I think we can all testify to the fact that my mom showed these virtues. But more than mere show, she lived them in her daily life. She gave of herself so others could thrive. She cared for the least among us. She succeeded in teaching unteachable subjects to students who were told they’d never get it. She lived her life in the shadows and gave of herself away from the limelight.

My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person have a reputation for holiness. Holy things are regarded as sacred or able to convey a sense of the divine; a reputation for holiness then, means the person lives in such a sacred way that their very being, their very existence communicates God. My mom’s life was such that we all saw Christ – we all knew God was present when she was around because she welcomed the stranger and showed hospitality, she gave love when she didn’t receive it, she ensured all were treated equally.

My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person perform a miracle; my mom was a miracle worker. She fed three hungry men on mere scraps of food, turning a little food into an extravagant feast. She healed scraped knees and bonked heads with a gentle kiss. She cured broken hearts with big hugs and a listening ear. She touched and mended souls. She clothed those around her with compassion. She made a home with plenty of room for all who needed rest. She spent time with and loved those imprisoned in their minds and bodies.

My mother is a saint who knew the broadness of God’s love and the lengths God would go to share that love. My mom knew how deep God’s love could travel and how high that love would reach. My mom would want nothing more than for us to experience that same love – that love that she lived for, that same love that she shared with each of us. My mother is a saint – may each of us be likewise.