Body count in the culture war

And the body count mounts in our culture wars.

The godsend of a vaccine took our nation from 4,000 Covid deaths daily in January to under 100 in July. It’s back above 1,000 again and climbing fast as the virus races unchecked through the unvaccinated.

Consider: 1,000 precious lives lost every day because people have been convinced their lives are nothing more than fodder in someone’s culture war.

I used to wonder how in heaven’s name Jim Jones got his “Christian” cult members to feed poison to their children – their children! — and then drink it themselves, leaving 918 dead. Or how “religious” leaders convinced devotees to blow up their bodies and end the sacred lives of those around them, too.

Now we know. We watch it in our society day after day.

Political, social, religious, and media figures declare a culture war and rouse their constituents, congregations and viewers to engage in a fight to the death – their own death. They see their followers’ lives as nothing more than collateral damage.

And for what purpose? So the warmongers can amass yet more power, influence and money. They lust for better ratings, more votes, fuller collection plates, and more sway over their masses.

Treating precious lives as collateral damage

The “religious” war mongers trouble me the most. Preaching that “true believers” won’t get sick spreads death and misery among the people they’re supposed to love and nurture.

The various warmongers have one thing in common. They know people will react strongly if they’re made to feel they’re under attack from someone or something, and whether it’s true doesn’t matter. Truth is always the first casualty of war, including culture wars.

Of course, they never actually enjoin the battle themselves. Other people wind up on ventilators, not them. They’re vaccinated and out of harm’s way, with access to treatments their followers can’t get. They want to benefit from the war, not die in it.

And so we see people drink the poison and pledge allegiance to a lethal denial:

  • Denial that vaccines work.
  • Denial that life matters — their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
  • Denial that the doctors and nurses who have already saved their lives countless times are trying to do it again.
  • Denial that we have responsibility to love one another.

And the body count mounts.

I’m out of words for it, but one theological term comes to mind: evil.

Evil us using our free will to harm ourselves and others by making choices that devalue life. It’s rejecting the gift of life-saving medicine. It’s demonizing medical professionals who put their lives on the line daily to keep God’s breath stirring inside Covid-ravaged lungs.

Faith redeems and reconciles cultures through love

Remember that Jesus emphatically rejected the culture war mentality. He invited everyone – especially those who were targets of the culture warriors — to join his movement of truth and love and healing. Put down those swords.

Real faith is counter-cultural that way. It seeks not to incite wars within cultures but to redeem and reconcile cultures through love. It counters lies with the truth that we’re all God’s children and have a responsibility to love and look out for one another.

We know the warmongers won’t call a truce. The pandemic has been a goldmine for them, and they have no intention of stopping even as the bodies pile up. They’ll fight over medicine, masks, vaccines — anything they can conscript into their war — for as long as long as they can.

It’s up to everyone else to reject the poison and stop turning sacred life into collateral damage. More than 1,000 lives are being snuffed out each day in our society alone – more every day than died in Jim Jones’ mass suicide.

No more. No more drinking from the cup of poison. No more sharing lies that produce Covid-scarred lungs incapable of embracing God’s breath. No more devaluing life in the name of winning someone’s ungodly war.

(Image courtesy of Ben.Harper @CreativeCommons.org)

Freedom to serve, liberty to love

Liberty. Independence. Freedom. We heard those words mentioned this past weekend. But often, something vital was left out of the conversation.

While freedom matters greatly – it’s a divine gift and individual right – how we use our freedom is the measure of our faith and our lives. Our independence must be grounded within our interdependence.

Our culture promotes the myth of the self-made person, though nobody ever is. We’re lectured to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be responsible for ourselves alone. We’re told that God helps those who help themselves – words preached not by Jesus but by Benjamin Franklin.

We worship zealous individualism: Don’t tread on me or limit my rights for any reason. I’m free to do anything I want regardless how it affects anyone or anything else. The person bleeding by the side of the road isn’t my concern.

Our faith presents an opposite way of living. It centers the “me” within the “we”, places the “I” within the “us”, locates our individuality within our mutuality.

When we lose that focus, we end up in very dark places. Look at us now! In a society with so much, we have so little joy and peace. Instead, we overflow with anger, hate, disillusionment, lying, divisiveness and unhappiness.

Mother Teresa reminds us that if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

And we often forget. It’s a tale as old as time.

Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminding them that their ongoing problems — hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, and envy – are the result of forgetting their interconnectedness. It was true then, and now.

You end up in mutual destruction

“Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free rein” to selfish living, Paul says. “Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service. The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

“If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You will end up in mutual destruction.”

It’s important to work for justice so all God’s children may have the freedom they deserve. But it’s equally important to remind ourselves that freedom isn’t meant to be used only for ourselves.

When we use our liberty selfishly, we put ourselves in a prison. Our egos, our fears, our self-absorption become the bars to our individual cells. Our lives become very small, narrow, and unfulfilling.

By contrast, love liberates us – love and love alone.

We’re liberated when we recognize that yes, I am a child of God, but I’m not the only child; I’m part of God’s family where everyone is loved equally and must be treated with dignity and respect and compassion. And yes, we‘re part of an incredible creation, but we’re not the only part of creation that matters.

Love liberates us

Jesus invites us into this way of living – help the person bleeding by the side of the road, care for the needy, heal the hurting, love everyone the same way you love yourself, be compassionate and connected.

We can experience life in abundance when we ground ourselves within God’s inescapable web of creation. We’re fulfilled by joy, peace and love when we live within this Spirit of mutuality.

We experience God and our true selves when we use our freedom to serve and our liberty to love.

(Image courtesy of CrittentonSoCal @ creativecommons.org)

Shamrocks, triangles, and our many-ness

Trinity Sunday was never one of my favorites growing up. We’d hear references to shamrocks and triangles and the nature of God, and I’d wonder: What do any of these theological lessons have to do with me?

 Well, everything, actually!

 Trinity Sunday – celebrated a few days ago – is one of my favorites now, a necessary reminder of who we are, whose we are, and how we’re meant to live together amid our differences. 

The lesson of many-yet-one starts with the truth that the diversity around us and within us is a sacred reflection of our Creator. Each of us is a beautiful piece in a masterful mosaic, one moving body out of many in this collective dance of life.

What holds it all together? Love, of course.

Loving relationship is the glue that centers everything in its perfect place, the thread that binds us snugly together, the gravity that prevents our heavenly bodies from drifting apart. It’s been that way from the start.

Our faith tradition begins with the poetic lesson that diversity is at the heart of the divine nature Itself. God says let us create in our image and likeness. Plurality, not singularity. And it’s all good!

Thus, we get not just one kind of tree, but many. Not just one type of fish or bird or forest or mountain or planet or … you name it. There are countless versions of everything, each uniquely radiating the same divine image.

Plurality, not singularity

So, too, for us humans. There’s great diversity within our human family. Each unique face is another sacred reflection of our multifaceted Maker.

And it all coalesces around love.

In John’s description of the last supper, Jesus prays to God that we, his beloved friends – we the many, we the different – may be one as they are one, living within and through each other. That oneness forms from our many-ness when love is present.

When there’s love, there’s no need for division or suspicion or competition or recrimination or insecurity or fear or privilege or superiority or violence or partisanship.

As we’re reminded, love drives out fear. Relationship grounded in love recognizes diversity as a blessing rather than a threat. It seeks to work with the other for the common good.

Our diversity leads us to our God.

Of course, we’ll never have the depth of love that eliminates all fear and competition and insecurity – not on this side of heaven, anyway. But our call is to work at building and nurturing such relationship in our lives and our societies.

Diversity at the heart of the divine

This work starts by recognizing we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it so beautifully. Our many, varied relationships with God, one other, and nature are intertwined. They can’t be teased apart or separated.

What we do in one relationship affects all.

And, yes, it’s very hard work! We are hard-wired to gravitate toward the familiar and the similar. But the wisdom of trinity challenges us to open ourselves to that which is different and to see God present within people, places and encounters that might seem foreign or even frightening on the surface.

Unfortunately, some forms of religion lead us away from this wisdom. They seek to create “culture wars” among God’s equally beloved children and reject the diversity woven into our very nature.

Our refusal to recognize God’s presence within our diversity causes much of the division, fear, mistrust, hatred, and deep unhappiness in our world. If we can’t accept our many-ness, we’ll never know the oneness of Spirit for which we are made.

 Trinity reminds us of this foundational truth and invites us into this loving relationship.

(Photo courtesy of jmccarthy99@creativecommons.org)

Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

Newborns, faith and sacrificial love

When our son was born, a nurse checked his health, washed him, wrapped him in a blanket, and put a little stocking cap on his head to keep him warm. Then, she handed him to us.

In that moment, I felt an overpowering sense of love unlike anything I’d experienced. I knew in that moment I would give my life for this child I’d just met.

Two years later when our daughter was born, I felt the same overwhelming love again. I would make any necessary sacrifice for her, including my life.

Those moments taught me powerfully about sacrificial love.

Our faith reminds us that God has that same love for us, and we need to have such love for one another, readily sacrificing to meet others’ needs. It’s the core of the gospel – the good news – and one of the most challenging parts.

And, perhaps, the most rejected part as well.

Loving others in a sacrificial way

Jesus’ unequivocal message is we’re meant to love others in a sacrificial way, including the stranger, the person who is different, even the ones we consider our enemies. It’s a difficult challenge. We all struggle with this.

Too often, we miss opportunities to love sacrificially because we’re counting the cost, fearing repercussions, or doing a cost analysis of whether what we sacrifice is worth whatever return we can envision.

We forget that God’s love works without an accounting system. We receive grace with a lavish generosity that we might consider extravagant and wasteful. And we’re invited to love the same way.

We’re all aware that over the centuries, many Christians have rejected the call to live in sacrificial love. Instead, they sought to carve out privilege and comfort for themselves by forcing others to conform to their beliefs and lifestyles.

Today, there’s an Americanized version of Christianity that rejects sacrificial love. Instead, it preaches that everyone else should sacrifice and conform to whatever makes these Christians happy – saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” for instance.

This version of Christianity demands “religious liberty” to discriminate against anyone who believes differently. However, no one is allowed to discriminate against Christians or inconvenience them in any way.

It also promotes an unholy individualism that absolves Christians from making even simple accommodations to care for their neighbors, such as wearing a mask during a pandemic to save others’ health and lives.

Christianity without a cross, religion without love

Some Christian leaders promote a theology that says Jesus sacrificed for them, so they are absolved from having to make sacrifices for others.

It’s Christianity without a cross, religion without love for all God’s children. And it’s no surprise that many spiritual people have fled this version of religion.

Jesus lived, preached, and encouraged us to sacrifice our lives each day in many ways. He reminded us that whoever holds tightly to their life — refusing to sacrifice — will lose out on life, but whoever chooses sacrifice as their way of life shall live deeply and abundantly.

Real faith involves a daily commitment to sacrifice our ego, our self-interest, our time, our resources, our privilege, our comfort, our closed-mindedness, our indifference, our self-absorbed theologies so we can love more extravagantly. It involves serving all God’s children without exception.

Daily, we’re presented with the choice of living in a spirit of entitlement or in a Spirit of sacrificial love that draws us closer to the God who cradles us like newborns and reminds us we are worthy of any sacrifice.

And so is everyone else.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt @creativecommons.org)

The price of living passionately

In 2004, Mel Gibson directed a film called “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The movie focuses on Jesus’ final hours, depicting his death in gruesome detail.

The rest of his life is mostly edited out.

Some of us were raised in traditions that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death – referred to as his passion – while skipping what he was passionate about. The lessons he taught, the love he embodied, the relationships he established are relegated to verses recited on Sunday but relegated to the cutting floor the rest of the time.

The truth is that Jesus’ suffering and death weren’t his passion; they were the price he paid for his passion. And there’s a lesson in this story for all of us about living with the same passion.

He was passionate about healing and reconciliation, not only us to God but to one another as well. He passionately announced, embodied and created a sacred space where everyone is welcomed and treated as the beloved child of God that they are.

This alternate kingdom was the antithesis of Caesar’s kingdom, then and now.

The price for living passionately

He preached about God’s deep passion for the needy, the struggling, the oppressed – woe to the rich, blessed are the poor, the least are the greatest, help anyone who is bleeding by the side of the road. He made whole again anyone who came to him for healing.

And justice – he was deeply passionate about justice.

Gospel stories describe him staging a provocative Palm Sunday procession that confronts Caesar’s values of power, wealth, dominance, violence, and militarism.

He was passionately prophetic by overturning the tables of those who misuse religion – then and now – to amass power, preserve the status quo, and ignore the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

This was his passion. He lived it. He paid a price for it. And he invites us – no matter what faith or religious background — to do the same and live in a passionate way that challenges the status quo and heals the world. He challenges us to put our passionate lives on the line for those who are being trampled by the many opportunistic political and religious leaders of our world.

Each of us can, in our own unique way, bring love, healing, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection to our world, our society, our relationships. We’re forced to choose between between living passionately or playing it safe and never truly living at all, which is an even greater price to pay.

Jesus knew there would be a cost for his passion– there always is. He lived it anyway. May we, too, live passionate lives sustained by transformative love and daily resurrection.

Found by Christmas

As the clock approached midnight on Christmas eve, we’d gird ourselves for the one-block walk to church on a cold Cleveland night.

Burrowed into our coats, we’d wrestle galoshes over our shoes and head into the wintry night. The air was cold and dead, the sky clouded and lifeless. The night air was frigidly silent.

There, at the end of the block, was our church, fully illuminated for a midnight service. Light streamed through the stained-glass windows, a colorful beacon in the darkness.

Drawing closer with each step, we’d hear the choir filling the night air with beautiful song. We’d start waking faster toward it.

Arriving at church, we’d pull open the old, wooden door and warmth would wash over us and provide a shiver of comfort and joy. The church was decorated with pine trees, and that wonderful smell – mixed with incense – greeted our cold noses.

In the midst of all the darkness and stillness and emptiness, Christmas had found me again.

The church was filled with immigrants who were missing people and places and parts of their former life in what they called the old country. On this night, they felt the ache of separation and the loss of what had been.

The familiar words and hymns brought them comfort and joy. Christmas found them, too.

 I’m guessing we all can identify with those immigrants in some ways tonight.

Because of Covid-19, this Christmas eve is unlike any we’ve known. We’re separated from loved ones and missing parts of the life we once knew.

We can all identify

And yet, Christmas comes for us tonight just as it did for those immigrants huddled in the church. Just as it has for nearly 2,000 years no matter the circumstances – pestilence, war, depression.

Christmas meets us where we are and reminds us who we are. In beautiful and familiar words, it tells us again what’s real and true in our lives. It tells us of our worth and our life’s work.

Christmas reminds us of a love embodied not only in a baby but in each of us as well. An incarnate love that seeks to reconcile us and the world through each of us.

A love that gives us purpose and meaning. A love that will always have the last word.

Covid-19 won’t get the last word. Nor will our sad refusal to deal with it. Nor will hatred or fear or divisiveness or anything other than love. That’s the reassurance of Christmas: We are saved from and safe from all those things.

We’re saved from everything that isn’t love. Saved from even death itself, which cannot break any bond of love.

For God so loves the world.

So, let there be joy in the world!

Let us be warmed by that great light in our darkness. Let’s hear the joyful music in the air and breathe in deeply that sweet scent of Christmas all over again.

Tidings of comfort and joy. Let nothing you dismay! Love and joy come to you. Chains shall be broken, all oppression shall cease. Go tell it on the mountain.

Come one and all, joyful and triumphant.

Triumphant!

Reminds us who we are

We’d sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” at the end of our Christmas eve service each year. Then, we’d bundle up and head back out into the cold for the walk home.

Only now, the cold had lost its bite. Those wonderful, sweet smells of Christmas lingered in our noses. And the beautiful music hung in the air and in our hearts, just as it has every year for centuries.

No matter where you are or what you’re feeling tonight, remember to listen for the music. It’s in the air, inviting us to sing along.

(Image courtesy of Adam Cohn https://www.flickr.com/photos/96142515@N00/37146385212)

A ride home on Christmas eve

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

No surprise that we were waiting.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

Those demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. Looking out the front window, we saw a car that wasn’t my dad’s. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing and there was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Then, off he went into the Christmas eve night.

He saw that he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad acknowledged that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Perhaps you could, too.

Where did you go?

I was 4 or 5 years old when my mom took me to a department store. I recall standing next to her looking at some display, then wandering a few feet away to look at something else.

Shoppers moved into the space between me and mom and blocked my view of her. When I looked back, she was hidden from my sight. All these years later, I remember my panic.

Was she gone? Would I ever see her again?

My memory of that frightening moment is fuzzy, but I remember calling out to her. And right away, she stepped away from the other shoppers so I could see she was there.

I ran to her. She swept me up, held me and told me she was right here – she’d never leave me. She was watching me out of the corner of her eye the whole time.

We’ve all had moments of feeling lost or left behind by a parent, a group, a companion. Those terrifying moments can stick with us a lifetime.

We’ve all called out: Where are you?

Advent is a time of asking that question of God.

Where are you God in my life? In this mess? In this pandemic? In this divisiveness? I don’t recognize you. I’m not sure what you look like. I’m not sure you’re really here. Honestly, at this moment, I’m not sure you actually exist.

“Watching you the whole time”

Advent invites us to be honest and real in whatever we feel, and then watch and listen for answers.

We all go through times when we doubt the Creator’s presence and existence. We ask how God could allow things to happen and whether God really cares.

Who are you? Where are you? Are you even here?

It’s important to share our feelings and ask our questions, whatever they may be. When I became separated from mom in the department store, she didn’t know I was afraid until I called out to her. She responded immediately.

As I’ve grown, I’ve found that my feelings of separation and alienation most often come from my own distractions or my preconceived ideas of how things ought to be. I get so focused on one thing that I lose sight of everything important.

Something as small as a few shoppers can obscure my view of the ever-present Parent.

During my daily walks, I’ll get so focused on watching my individual steps – don’t want to trip! – that I don’t even look up at the gorgeous sky during the day or at the amazing stars at night.

They’re right there, but I don’t notice them.

“Invites us to be honest and real”

Or I obsess over some act of narcissism or injustice to the point that I lose my internal peace and no longer notice the countless acts of kindness and joy around me that more than outweigh the others.

I can so easily forget that love is our uninterrupted connection to one another and to the One who creates and sustains everything with an ever-present love.

So feel free to accept Advent’s invitation to stop, ask, and listen. To seek, knowing that what we want is right in front of us – obscured perhaps by our distractedness and panic, but present nonetheless.

And when we call out, to listen for that voice reminding us again: I’m right here. Watching over you the whole time.

(photo by Jasmic at CreativeCommons.org https://www.flickr.com/photos/58826468@N00/422104937)

Max and the fifth home

All Max the cat wanted was a home.

He didn’t have one that day many years ago when my daughter discovered him curled up in the corner of a park near our house, frozen with fear and overheating on a scorching summer afternoon.

Max was a house cat – he’d been neutered. But now, he was separated from home. Nobody knows why. Maybe his owners abandoned him. Perhaps Max – who was very inquisitive – boarded someone’s truck unseen and was transported away from his home.

How he got there didn’t matter anymore. Now, he had a second home.

Not that it was all easy for him. There were other cats in the house, one of which didn’t get along with him. Seven years ago, he was outside and got attacked, apparently by a much larger animal.

When I found Max that day, he was bleeding from the mouth and torn up inside. He nearly didn’t make it. The vets recommended giving him one more day and if there was no progress, it would be time to euthanize him.

On the day of decision, Max stood for the first time, took some wobbly steps and ate food. Down to his final hours, he clung to life and began to heal.

Sometimes, the final word is a purr.

“All he wanted was a home”

When I was divorced five years ago, Max came with me to his third home and was my companion. I’d arrive home from work and he was there to welcome me and demand attention.

He made sure I never came home to an empty house.

At night, he would jump on the bed and put his paw on my wrist as he curled in for sleep, wanting to feel that flesh-to-flesh connection. It was soothing.

When I moved a year ago, Max came along to his fourth home. He was content so long as he got a little tuna each day and a lot of attention.

After he nearly died in that attack years ago, Max’s need for attention and affection increased and could become annoying. He wanted to be petted nonstop. There were times I’d push him away or tell him to go away because it was too much.

Today, I miss the annoyance.

Max quickly went downhill over the weekend. He was 14 years old. Renal failure. It happens. Only one humane option left.

“Paw to wrist, heart to heart”

The vet gave him a sedative as he lay on my lap. I cradled Max’s head with my hand, reassured him everything was going to be OK, told him I loved him, and promised we would remain connected always.

He reached out his paw and touched my right forearm, maintaining our connection with his final breaths.

Gloria and I brought him home and buried him in the warm and welcoming shadow of his fourth home, even as he takes up residence in his fifth.

I believe the Creator of Life would never abandon a beloved creature or push them away. No, the God of Love cherishes and wants connections with us and among us: paw to wrist, hand to hand, heart to heart.

And home. God provides a loving home to all, no matter which number it is – first, second or fifth.

Welcome home, Max.