Sometimes your pets can teach you a lot about God, and in ways that you don’t expect. This week I had to take our beloved cat, Charlie, to the vet due to his alarming weight loss. Finding out that he was ill took me back to his humble international beginnings.
Charlie was not just any cat; we had cats before, but Charlie was different. He was purchased from Pet and Flower Street in Tianjin, China back in 2002 for about 45 yuan, which at that time was about $4.00. He was a tiny, golden kitten in a very dirty cage with many other dirty kittens, and the twins took a shine to him and picked him out. He seemed to want us to take him out of that cage, clean him up, and love him, which we did. In fact when we got this fuzzy little fellow back to our China apartment, we actually had to give him three baths in one day, just to remove all the pieces of filth caked on his tiny body. He went right to the litter box from the first minute he was home, and he often sat with the twins as they did their homework, or tried to get them to play. Charlie was a people cat, and having a pet in China after living there for five years finally made it feel like home to us.
When we moved from China back to the States, we knew we would bring Charlie back with us when we saw the looks on the kids’ faces as we posed the question of whether or not to find him a good home there in China. Parents, you know the how could you even think of … look to which I am referring. Upon reflection I saw that his $4.00 price tag and other vet fees did not begin to explain his value to our kids. Growing up in China and attending an international school is interesting, and our kids grew to love that lifestyle, however it meant giving up some things. For example, they cannot return to their high school very easily, (and soon not at all since the building will be torn down). Moreover, the wonderful friends that they made were from all over the world, so they would not be in that city, if they did choose to return to Tianjin. Finally, when they come home for Christmas visits in Georgia, there are no high school friends in town to call (maybe some parents would like that). So Charlie was much more than a cat; he was my children’s only connection to their high school life in China that was accessible in their Georgia home. He meant so much more to them than their other pre-China cats, all who were loved.
When it was time to do the actual move, I had to remain behind for two weeks to finish graduate school; therefore I had to bring Charlie home all by myself. For those who have flown from China to the States, you know it can be a grueling trip without a cat. The main flight is anywhere from 12-14 hours, but there is almost always some delay, and connecting flights can add many hours to the travel time, as well as exponentially increase the potential for disaster. There are missed flights, lost luggage, weather delays, and other problems (once I was pulled out of line upon suspicion of being an international terrorist). The door to door travel time was often 30 + hours, and so I always mentally geared up for these trips as if preparing to run a marathon. The thought of doing the trip alone with Charlie had me a bit concerned. The marathon began with getting all the correct papers, signatures, shots, and receipts from fees paid to satisfy both countries’ and three airlines’ constraints. This actually included hiring a go-between in Beijing. For those who have lived abroad, you know that such go-betweens can be hired to do just about anything, with some actually being legitimate. My go-between was a mix of slickness and almost accurate information, so that had its own issues. Your first clue that you may be in for a wild ride, akin to the phrase teen-agers use, is the declaration: Don’t worry…I take care of everything.
During this marathon, Charlie seemed unaffected by all the fanfare, moving, and hype, and when I took him to the vet in Beijing, (arranged by the go-between, but at odds price and regulation-wise from his previous statements to me), one beautiful, well-dressed Chinese woman in the waiting room was so taken by Charlie and his lovely golden fur, that she offered to give me 3,000 yuan if I would sell him on the spot. (Looking back now, I had to wonder if the my slick go-between had arranged this as well.) You want pretty boy cat, already neutered, litter trained, has all its shots, and in good health? Meet me at Dr. Wu’s on Saturday and look for the distressed American lady with the golden cat. I get you good price….Don’t worry…I take care of everything.
For the actual flight, I did my homework, and had my small collapsible plastic container and shredded newspaper to use as a litter box, and Charlie’s food and water at the ready. (I should mention that Charlie actually did not use any of these items on our 32 hour journey). We completed the China flight with Charlie in a pet storage area of the plane which was supposed to be climate controlled. (Supposed is the key word in that sentence, for those preparing for their SAT exam.)
I waited in long lines at the San Francisco airport only to be told that the carrier I had purchased (according to the regulations found on the Internet) was not acceptable, and I had to plunk down more cash to buy a new one. Somehow in the confusion Charlie had escaped and headed over the counter to the luggage conveyor belt. To my surprise, I leapt over the luggage conveyor in front of everyone, and grabbed him. It was one of those moments where I knew that I could catch him then, or he would be lost in the San Fran airport forever. Knowing how disappointed my kids would be as I relayed the story of how we lost our beloved Charlie, I opted for the temporary loss of dignity and potential security arrest. It was a speed of light logical formula: I could eventually get out of airport jail, but I could not replace Charlie. So after paying many fees on both the China and U.S. side, and a very stressful journey, Charlie and I made it home to Georgia, and lived happily ever after. Until this year when he got sick.
We don’t have pet insurance, or any extra money, so I had put off taking Charlie to the vet. I also had gotten so used to his gradual weight loss, that it no longer got my full attention. However when my son Pres came home on Labor Day, along with his two fellow marine officers, they were quite alarmed. Pres made me promise to get Charlie to the vet, which I did the following Monday. I guess God had to send in the marines to help Charlie!
The kind vet explained that Charlie among other things, needed to have his teeth cleaned and some teeth pulled to deal with what had become a systemic infection. I instantly felt a bit of panic, wondering if a cat can be ok without all their teeth. The kind vet explained that cats and dogs can indeed live without their teeth, (and forgive me if this is indelicate for some of you), and that if you examine cat or dog vomit, you often see whole pieces of dog or cat food. True, I thought. I have experience with cat and dog vomit, I am sorry to say, and I might add, with human vomit, (one of the unintended consequences of my ardent prayers to have children; therefore I happily cleaned it up).
Being the curious question asker that I am, I pursued the teeth discussion with the vet, “so what are cat’s teeth for?” “For catching prey…and slicing/tearing it”, not for actually grinding it up.” He went on to explain that domesticating them has rendered the teeth not as important in that regard. I went home ruminating on the idea of my toothless cat, and the whole domesticating experience.
The next day I attended my first Community Bible Study, where we would be studying the books of Amos and Isaiah. Probably you are not seeing the vet connection quite yet. I did not see this coming either, but by way of introducing the lesson, the speaker spoke of the nations of Israel and Judah losing their passion for God, and how God sent Amos and Isaiah to address this. As some of you know, I am not a big fan of the lecture method, and prefer instead interactive methods when I teach. However once in a while I try to pay attention to one, in church for example, (which is not at all difficult since Chuck Hodges is such a funny, empathetic, and passionate preacher), or in other voluntary situations. This excellent and well-prepared CBS speaker went on to say that God’s people had kept some of the forms and rituals of God, but really had moved on from His preeminence in their lives. They in fact, had domesticated Him. I sat up in my chair! Domesticating God. I had never heard it put quite like that, but I thought it was a perfect word to use. From what I could tell, her point was that they took a fierce, strong, powerful God, and shaped Him into something manageable…palatable…to their liking…fit for their use. They tamed Him if you will, so they could have Him live in their homes, but without the wild, unpredictable, unmanageable side. He could be trained to do their bidding, and be enjoyed by all.
I thought of my cat and dog who had been domesticated, and how that works well for pets and other created things, but is a shabby design at best for the Creator of the universe. I thought of the times I have tried to domesticate God, to get Him to bend to my will, to manage Him according to my timetable, and to use Him for my convenience, and how backward that is. Then I thought of the things that show us how wild and unmanageable and powerful God is, in particular, forces of nature, our health, and death. No matter how much science and technology advances, I do not believe we will ever be able to completely take over those items. They are in God’s purview. They remind us that God is in control, and not us. And lucky for us, God is a loving, wise, and capable Manager.
In terms of God, being unmanageable simply means He does not take orders from anyone, and those suggestions that we send Him, you know, the ones where we send Him creative ideas on how to solve a particular problem, those are, well, not necessary, and can even be insulting. Sometimes we try to sell to Him, and sometimes we try to show Him a good way to do something, as if He needed our help. How patient He is with us. I often imagine what I would feel like if my young children had spoken to me as I sometimes speak to God. I think it would go something like this:
Kid: So Mom, I appreciate all you have done for us, I really do. You and Dad have been just great. However there are a few things that you seem to need improvement in. I know you won’t mind if I bring those to your attention, since you love me so much. I have a few suggestions that you might want to consider.
Mom: (smiling and even laughing just a little bit). Why thanks sweetie! I appreciate your appreciation! And yes, I love you more than you will ever know. I would give my life for yours if I had to. You are the apple of my eye, truly. In fact, you have no idea how much I love you.
Now…about those improvements, what exactly did you have in mind?
Kid: Well…since you asked…
Do I pray as if He is unaware of my situation? Do I pray in a way that appears to be pleading with Him to be reasonable? Do I suggest good ideas to Him as if He was not capable of thinking of them Himself? Do I try to be God’s manager, or do I sit at His feet waiting to hear His thoughts, and knowing that He always has my good in mind, (even more than I do). And finally, do I think if i were God… and come up with better plans for running the universe? These are the questions I asked myself as I sat in the Amos/Isaiah lecture.
I went home thinking about my own penchant for domesticating God, and thought that I already had gotten my money’s worth from the $25 CBS registration fee, and the $300 vet bill. When we talked later, I told God that I was sorry for being so bossy and insulting, and sat and listened to Him for a nice long time. It seemed that He was smiling, but that could have just been Charlie nuzzling my arm.