Lessons from a Fat Cat

There’s a fat cat that lives in my neighborhood. She walks slowly and deliberately down the street and through my yard, jingling as she goes due to the bell she wears around her neck. My husband and I have frequently watched her disappear into the tall grass bordering the field behind our home, and we’ve chuckled imagining her futile attempts to catch a mouse—announcing her presence to all creatures in the vicinity with the ringing of her bell and lacking the speed or energy to pounce should she actually encounter one. “Lazy cat!”, we tease her. “You need to lay off the Fancy Feast!”

One day recently I was checking my mailbox when I heard the familiar jingling. The fat cat was plodding towards me at her usual leisurely pace, this time having come from the tall grass and heading back towards the heart of the subdivision. “Hi, pretty kitty,” I said, walking towards her, noticing as I approached that she carried something in her mouth—a fluffy toy, perhaps, with a red ribbon trailing from it. “Whatcha got?”, I inquired, stopping in my tracks when I suddenly realized what she’d “got.” It was a mouse!—a live one—or at least it had been alive recently. It was quite dead now, it’s plump little body clenched tightly between feline jaws.

The fat cat took no notice of my dismay but instead continued purposefully on her way, presumably traveling to a location selected especially for the devouring of her prey. It occurred to me that I’d misjudged her. Despite my belief that she was simply an over-domesticated pet, she knew who she was—a huntress, wild and free and fierce, able to get the job done any time she needed a mousey snack.

This was followed by the revelation that my misunderstanding of her and even taunting her had affected her in no way. At all. She lived out her true identity in the face of opposition, paying no mind to my pointing finger, neither slowing her pace in shame because I doubted her nor quickening her pace in an effort to prove me wrong. She remained single-minded and focused, and she was effective in accomplishing her goal, much to the chagrin of the poor mouse.

I want to be more like the fat cat--in the idealistic sense, that is. Like all humans and women especially, I sometimes struggle with issues of identity, particularly when I’m misunderstood or opposed. At times I’ve succumbed to the temptation to shrink back from a challenge because someone doubted me or to strive to prove myself to the world and prove my critics wrong. God has been working on these people-pleasing tendencies in me over the course of the past year, and I’ve surrendered to His hands-on lessons with all the grace of the fat cat. Nevertheless I’m learning to listen for His voice instead of the voices of those around me and to desire His pleasure more than theirs.

The single most helpful tool on my God-pleasing quest has been, of course, His Word, specifically those passages that tell me who I am as a follower of Jesus, woman who fears the Lord, and someone who calls on God. There are many such passages of Scripture, but here are several that have been meaningful to me lately, stated as affirmations:

I am approved.

I am a worker.

I have no need to be ashamed.

I am a truth-handler.

2 Timothy 2:15, as stated in Jen Hatmaker’s book, For the Love

I am bold and stouthearted.

Psalm 138:3

I am clothed with strength and dignity.

I can laugh at the days to come.

Proverbs 31:25

What would happen if I really lived like this was my true identity? I suspect it would change everything. I think I’d be like the fat cat, doing my thing and still getting a lot of weird looks and maybe even chuckles or outright disdain, but nevertheless living grounded, purposefully, and effective.

Is your identity rooted in who others say you are or who God says you are? How can you take one step away from people-pleasing and closer to God-pleasing today?

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Christmas in My Heart

This morning I set my mind to the task of writing to you, dear reader, and promptly made hot chocolate…and watched White Christmas. Having successfully burned two hours, I then reviewed my holiday calendar, read the Christmas story in Luke 2, and played carols on the piano. The holidays offer much material for creative procrastination.

The lilting melody of “He is Born” tugged at my heartstrings and, as beautiful music often does, turned my mind to deeper things. I thought about my Grandma, who loved Christmas and me dearly and whom I miss terribly this time of year. I thought about two friends—one overjoyed because her adoption journey recently culminated in a precious baby boy and one heartbroken because her arms are empty when it should have been her baby’s first Christmas. I thought about the relatives I can’t wait to see in the next few days at our family gatherings and the ones in whose presence I'm not as eager to be on account of unresolved conflict.

Ever pragmatic when it comes to my emotions, I decided that this sentimental reverie wasn’t doing me any favors in this “season to be jolly,” so I got up from the piano bench and looked around for a present to wrap or a batch of cookies to bake. Finding myself up to my eyeballs in gingersnaps and snickerdoodles and not quite crazy enough to mash my potatoes four days in advance, I determined that my physical preparations for Christmas were done. The irony of my vastly different states—outward completion and inner turmoil—was not lost on me, and I realized: it was Christmas in my home but not in my heart.

This is a classic struggle of mine—allowing hands-on work to crowd out space for mental, emotional, and spiritual work—and it’s a battle familiar to our culture, perhaps especially during this "most wonderful time of the year." Several chapters over from the Christmas story, Luke shows us one such scenario:

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42).

Though today by some Christmas miracle I find myself mostly ready for the coming days of seasonal get-togethers, numerous snapshots of my state of being over the course of the last month could be captioned “worried and upset about many things.” And heaven knows between the shopping, wrapping, baking, visiting, gathering, and attending, I’ve been “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.”

What might it look like during this season to sit “at the Lord’s feet listening?” Or to choose “what is better?” Flipping back to Luke 2 with fresh eyes seems like a good start, so I begin to read, and what stands out to me this time around is completely different—“placed him in a manger,” “no room for them in the inn,” and “shepherds living out in the fields.” This is no Precious Moments nativity scene; this is a newborn in a feeding trough, a young family unable to find decent accommodations, and society’s lowest of the low. It’s into this messy and far-from-ideal set of circumstances that Jesus is born. “But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-12).

That the Son of God and Savior of the world entered this planet in humble and even grimy circumstances is another irony not to be missed, one that has something to say to the full gamut of my earlier wonderings--to Christmas memories of my Grandma and longing to see her again, to both my rejoicing friend and my grieving friend, and to my peaceful family relationships and also those that are filled with strife. Good news. Great joy. For all the people. A Savior. Christ the Lord. Christmas in my heart.

What about you? I’d wager a bet it’s Christmas in your home, but is it Christmas in your heart? Amid the preparations that have to be made, how can you create space to ponder how Jesus’ birth meets you in the joys and messes of your own life?

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The Tallgrass Prairie & Looking for Beauty

Several weeks ago the hubs and I took advantage of a breezy, warm Saturday to check out Kansas’ very own national preserve. We had a lovely time adventuring, and the writer in me couldn’t help but notice a prairie-style life lesson along the way. Read on to hear my uncharacteristically brief thoughts on the subject.

The Tallgrass Prairie is located in East Central Kansas along the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, a lovely place for a drive if you’d like to see what the long-ago prairie looked like or if you need convincing that, yes, there are hills here. The Preserve covers over 10,000 acres and offers more than 40 miles of hiking trails for visitors, as well as bus tours of the Prairie and self-guided tours of the 1880’s Spring Hill Ranch.

Greg and I saw a variety of terrain during our six-mile loop.

We especially enjoyed getting up close and personal with the bison herd that lives at the Tallgrass Prairie.

Just kidding! We didn’t go near the bison, as we didn’t want a reenactment of what was portrayed on the caution sign. We did have to take our hike off the beaten path a bit as several large bison were grazing quite close to our desired route.

Shortly after we'd hiked beyond the buffalo pasture, something amazing happened--Greg spotted this little guy! This is noteworthy because neither of us had ever seen one of these--which we later identified as a Texas horned lizard--and also because, well, sometimes my husband doesn't see the milk in the fridge! Good eye, Babe!

We also saw some wildflowers here and there, purple and yellow blooms providing a striking contrast to their overwhelmingly earth-colored surroundings.

Ready to wrap it up with a life lesson? I’m a Kansas girl, so I think the prairie is beautiful, though I don’t mind admitting that its beauty is less obvious than, for instance, the ostentatious glamour of lush Hawaiian gardens or majestic Swiss peaks. I love traveling to these gorgeous locations, but I think it’s good for me to live my day-to-day life in the humble prairie. Why? Because the prairie teaches me to look for beauty in the here and now—to hunt for wildflowers amid otherwise barren landscapes and to notice unique surprises along my ordinary path. They are there! But I have to look for them.

How can you look for beauty in your here and now?

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Bird Nests & Bad Attitudes: What I Learned in April

Today I’m linking up with Emily Freeman and some other bloggers, and we’re sharing what we learned during the past month of our lives, from the minuscule to the monumental. Here's what I learned in April:

1. Not everything in the news is bad news.

Every once in awhile the doom and gloom that is today’s news is broken by a ray of happiness, like this story: “Midwife rides inflatable swan through flood to deliver baby.” How happy is that?

2. Fixer Upper fixes me right up.

New episodes of Fixer Upper arrived to Netflix this month…and my husband rejoiced!...because even the worst wifey mood can be improved if we just watch Chip and Joanna “widen that opening,” “paint the brick,” “take the cabinets all the way up to the ceiling,” and “add some recessed lighting.”

3. Kansas has a National Preserve.

I know, right? The Tallgrass Prairie is located in East Central Kansas and is home to a bison herd. The hubs and I enjoyed singing “Home on the Range” while we hiked among the buffalo.

4. Bad attitudes are ugly.

I recently overheard a mature, Christian person giving a bad attitude rant about mostly #firstworldproblems, and it was ugly. I didn’t have half a second to look down my nose at them, though, because their words instantly brought into sharp focus the ugliness of my own bad attitudes.  Real heartache should be grieved and shared—that’s not what we’re talking about here. I’m talking about car trouble, bad hair days, and my dinner not cooking as fast as I’d like. Lord, help me to get some perspective, get a life, and remember that I’m a child of God, eternally secure and immeasurably blessed.

5. I need old friends.

I’ve only lived in my current town for a year and a half, so most of my day-to-day relationships are relatively new ones. I love these new friends and am excited to get to know them better. But a girls weekend in Tulsa with three of my long-time besties reminded me why I love and need old friends too: they already know me, and they’re still here anyway. I don’t need to explain to them that yes, I’d like more guacamole, and no, I didn’t set out to say that inappropriate thing because I don’t even know what that means. They know. And they accept me. Kind of like Jesus.

6. Country music gives voice to my feelings.

Dan + Shay’s new single “From the Ground Up” captures perfectly how I feel about my farmer husband, our marriage, the family heritage with which we’ve been blessed, and our big dreams for the future. All the feels.

7. Miracles happen all the time.

Some girlfriends and I went to see Jennifer Garner’s recent based-on-a-true-story movie, Miracles from Heaven. Tear-jerkers like this one aren’t usually my jam, but I loved it, particularly its message that miracles—big and small—happen all the time; we simply need to have the eyes to see them. Even better than the movie was the discussion my friends and I had afterwards about the miracles we’ve seen in our own lives, like how God intentionally comforted my friend’s family after the tragic loss of her brother. These off-camera miracles are the ones that fortify my belief.

8. You can’t stop a bird from flying over your deck, but you can keep it from building a nest in your grill.

This lesson I learned secondhand, thanks to the firsthand experience of my dad, who you’ll see is both hilarious and innovative. Several weeks ago he stepped out onto his deck to grill some hot dogs for dinner. When he opened the grill, this is what he found:

After removing the nest, he had to find some way of preventing the determined birds from coming back to their cozy spot, so this is what he came up with:

The owl does double-duty by preventing the return of the birds and causing passersby to do a double-take, which amuses my dad.

 9. Administrative Professionals Day is a fabulous thing.

Who knew this was a thing? Not me. I typically pay zero attention to all those random days listed in my calendar. But I’m telling you, I felt like it was my birthday at my workplace this week on Administrative Professionals Day. Though the treats, kind words, and professional massage (I know, right?) were awesome, what stands out to me here is people celebrating people, intentionally finding ways to say what you do matters and I appreciate you. I want to celebrate people like that too.

10. I want a big pantry.

Greg and I toured some model homes in our area to get some inspiration for our current and future residences. We saw stone fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and all manner of lovely features, but I couldn’t stop drooling over big pantries. I guess my current allotment of two and a half small cabinets of pantry space isn’t cutting it. Let’s be honest, this is totally a #firstworldproblem. But that big pantry is still on my wish list.

Find out what other bloggers learned in April here. What did you learn in April?

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The Wrong Party

'Tis the season for graduations and parties. Each year around this time I reflect upon an experience I had several years ago. Read about it from my fresh, day-old perspective:

Last night I went to a party at a friend’s house. I’ve never been to her house before, so she texted me directions. When I came to the end of the cul-de-sac per her instructions, I had some trouble locating house numbers. However, I came upon a driveway lined with cars, house with front door open, people visible through an upstairs window—obviously this was the place.

This is sort of a new friend, but I knew she wouldn’t have me stand on formality, so I confidently opened the front door, went inside the house, and marched right up the stairs towards the sound of voices. I was a little surprised when the first room of people I encountered consisted of mostly middle-aged men. I had no idea what kind of crowd to expect at my friend’s party, but I felt like I was remembering correctly that she had said this would be a girls night. I excused myself to slip between two people standing in the doorway in order to see everyone in the room, about twelve people. No sign of my friend, but I did notice that one of the men was wearing a graduation cap. Apparently we’d have multiple celebrations going on under one roof--how nice! I left that room and poked my head into another room, where several women sat talking. Still no sign of my friend.

It was then I noticed that the first room had grown rather quiet yet seemed to be whispering about something. All of a sudden it dawned on me: I was in the wrong house at the wrong party.

Since the joke was already on me, I decided to embrace the awkwardness of this situation, so I stepped back into the middle of the first room and announced, “I am at the wrong party.” They stared at me for a second, unsure how to respond, and then burst into hysterical laughter. I looked at the man in the cap, said, “Congratulations on your graduation! Great party,” gave him the double guns, and walked out of the room.

As I went back down the stairs, one of the men yelled at me, “Would you like to stay and have a sandwich?” Another said, “If anything turns up missing, we’ll know who took it!” They were howling with laughter, and I laughed pretty hard myself during the walk of shame to my friend’s house.

The right party enjoyed hearing my story almost as much as the wrong party enjoyed witnessing it, and now you’re enjoying my story, so I guess I’m willing to sacrifice my pride for your amusement. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

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Hi, My Name Is Rachel, and I Laugh at Inappropriate Times

I’ve noticed something disconcerting about myself: I laugh at inappropriate times, and I can’t even help myself.

Last evening as we were preparing to enjoy a walk around the pond in our neighborhood, I asked my handy husband to take a look at our mailbox. It had become warped and nearly impossible to open due to a recent ice storm and subsequent death-blow dealt by our annoyed mail carrier who was clearly so over these frozen-shut mailboxes. (I don’t blame him.) Hubby wrestled with it for a bit, as I had done earlier in the day, only his scuffle ended in a cry of pain, a furious glare at the offending mailbox, and blood. He immediately took off walking at a brisk pace to release some angry energy. I caught up with him and took a look at his bleeding thumb…and then I laughed. Out loud. I became the next recipient of an enraged glare.

You don’t need me to spell out for you that laughing at your husband’s pain does not, in fact, foster marital bliss. You might, however, need me to assure you that I’m normally a sensitive, considerate, and empathetic person. Why, then, are situations like this just so darn funny sometimes?

I’m tempted to blame it on my mother. When I was a little kid, she would regularly make me eat prunes in order to—how do I say it?—make me regular. I hated those nasty things; they tasted bad, and their texture was even worse. So I’d inevitably start gagging, which Mom thought was hilarious. She’d start laughing, which prompted my six year-old self to get mad and run out of the room. This whole scene was not nearly as amusing to my dad, which ironically seemed to make the whole thing more amusing to my mom. We repeated this entire spectacle weekly for about ten years. (Don’t worry; my parents are loving and compassionate people, and we all have a great relationship now. I even eat in front of them...everything except prunes, that is.)

I don’t actually think that my tendency to laugh at inappropriate times is due to unresolved mommy issues. (You’re off the hook this time, Mom.) I do believe, however, that in tense situations the brain seeks relief, and for some of us oh-so-fortunate individuals, this frequently spills over into nervous laughter…in the face of our not-so-fortunate loved ones who aren’t sure how we can be so nice normally and yet so maniacally amused by their agony occasionally. Consider another similar instance that happened recently:

I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was in the kitchen slicing sweet potatoes into fries. I heard an exclamation of pain, followed by yelling for me to bring a bandage. In my brief dash to him, I mentally prepared myself to secure a temporary dressing on his hand, load him into the car, and place the portion of the finger he’d cut off into a baggie and then put that into a cooler to take with us to the ER…because these situations are not unheard of, and I’m a farm wife, and this is what we do. When I saw that he was still in one piece, though with a deep gash in one finger, you guessed it…I laughed. Hubby once again didn’t see the humor.

Laughing at inappropriate times isn’t limited to tense situations caused by someone’s physical discomfort. Another trigger for me is being on stage. Go with me for a moment to my sophomore year of college. I was standing at the front of a crowded banquet hall with several other students. We were being inducted into an honor society, and we were holding lit candles while we listened to a professor talk about the rich tradition of academic excellence of the society, etc. etc. Maybe it was the crowd, or maybe it was the flashbacks I was having to burning my fingers on hot wax at Christmas Eve church services past. (Those cardboard drip-catchers are worthless.) In any case, I was feeling a bit anxious. I was handed a lapel pin, and the prof began to explain that at campuses across the country new inductees would wear their pins proudly for a full week to identify with other members of the hallowed society, crossing the normal social boundaries of campus culture. It was too much for me. I laughed—one of those laughs that sort of bursts out of your nose because you’re trying so hard not to make any noise. Everyone heard, and everyone looked at me, and I was horrified. But come on. This was the 21st Century, and I was not going to wear that lapel pin on my t-shirts for a week. This college girl had an image to maintain, for heaven’s sake.

There’s simply not enough time to elaborate on all the other occasions in which I’ve laughed at inappropriate times, like the time a gleeful tail-wagging dachshund raced past a solemn wedding ceremony, causing tears to run down this maid of honor’s face. Or the time I took the age-old advice to combat nervousness by imagining the audience in their underwear when I had to speak at a Sunday night prayer meeting—yeah, that didn’t go as planned… I wasn’t nervous anymore! I just couldn’t stop giggling long enough to offer a coherent thought at the microphone.

Whatever the situation, it’s simply a fact that something that’s funny under normal circumstances is ten times funnier when you should not laugh. If you suffer from the same particular ailment that I do, please know that you’re not alone. And if you suffer from being in close relationship with someone like me, please reassure yourself that they love you, they are not in fact making fun of you, and if you just give them a moment, they’ll get right back to being understanding and serious.

Have you ever laughed at an inappropriate time? Tell me about it in the comments!

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Decide: Taking Back My Feelings

The path of life is a complex one, with twists and turns and many roads we’d rather not take, particularly when it comes to our feelings. The signposts on those roads read “bitterness,” “jealousy,” “fear,” and the like.

I’ve tended to view those feelings as non-optional, as if someone who hurt me or a situation that disappointed me gave me a big shove down one of those roads, and all I could do was walk forward on it. However, I’ve realized that’s the mentality of a victim, and I’d like to believe I’m not the victim of my story but rather the heroine.

Perhaps a more helpful analogy is this: when one of those difficult circumstances happens, it forces me to come to a crossroads. My initial emotional response may indeed be non-optional, as some things are just really hard, and I’m a human, not a robot. But as for which feeling I continue to walk in, that I get to decide.

If I’ve been hurt, the “anger” road, for instance, will certainly be easier to take than the one towards peace, which will be an uphill climb. But I still get to decide which way to go.

This isn’t a one-time decision, by the way. That situation may cross my mind one hundred times in a day, giving me one hundred opportunities to move towards either anger or peace.

Though the process may not be easy, engaging with it might just change everything.

What will you decide?

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Alive

When in your life have you felt most alive? For me times like these come to mind: finding out how fast my jet ski could go in beautiful Ozark lake country, learning to lope for the first time during my childhood horseback riding lessons, skiing above the tree-line along a snowy ridge in Colorado, and floating in huge ocean swells in Mexico.

These experiences have some common denominators—a bit of risk, an element of being outside of myself, and the requirement that I give up some control and surrender to something bigger—the lake, the horse, the mountain, the waves. I guide the horse and move my body to direct my skis, sure, but there are about 57 things that could go wrong in each of these scenarios, and if I think I’m the one holding it all together, I’m deluded.

In a similar fashion spiritual “aliveness”—what Easter is all about—comes from surrender. I do nothing to achieve my own spiritual vitality—it’s all God. I can’t control anything about the process with bad or good works, and the result is vivacity, freedom, and elation that puts even the best earthly thrill-seeking to shame.

“But because of His great love for us, God, Who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5

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