University Congregational Church
May 29, 2016
“Growing in Spirit 3”
I received an email from a friend who shared this “Chicken Soup for the Soul” story, whose author is unknown:
Everyone in the apartment complex I lived in knew who Ugly was. Ugly was the resident tomcat. Ugly loved three things in this world: fighting, eating garbage, and shall we say, love.
The combination of these things combined with a life spent outside had their effect on Ugly. To start with, he had only one eye, and where the other should have been was a gaping hole. He was also missing his ear on the same side, his left foot appeared to have been badly broken at one time, and had healed at an unnatural angle, making him look like he was always turning the corner. His tail had long been lost, leaving only the smallest stub, which he would constantly jerk and twitch. Ugly would have been a dark gray tabby striped except for the sores covering his head, neck, even his shoulders with thick, yellowing scabs.
Every time someone saw Ugly there was the same reaction. “That’s one UGLY cat!” All the children were warned not to touch him, the adults threw rocks at him, hosed him down, and squirted him when he tried to come into their homes, or shut his paws in the door when he would not leave. Ugly always had the same reaction. If you turned the hose on him, he would stand there, getting soaked until you gave up and quit. If you threw things at him, he would curl his lanky body around your feet in forgiveness. Whenever he spied children, he would come running meowing frantically and bump his head against their hands, begging for their love. If you ever picked him up he would immediately begin suckling on your shirt, earrings, whatever he could find.
One day Ugly shared his love with the neighbor’s huskies. They did not respond kindly, and Ugly was badly mauled. From my apartment I could hear his screams, and I tried to rush to his aid. By the time I got to where he was laying, it was apparent Ugly’s sad life was almost at an end. Ugly lay in a wet circle, his back legs and lower back twisted grossly out of shape, a gaping tear in the white strip of fur that ran down his front. As I picked him up and tried to carry him home, I could hear him wheezing and gasping, and could feel him struggling. I must be hurting him terribly I thought.
Then I felt a familiar tugging, sucking sensation on my ear – Ugly, in so much pain, suffering and obviously dying was trying to suckle my ear. I pulled him closer to me, and he bumped the palm of my hand with his head, then he turned his one golden eye towards me, and I could hear the distinct sound of purring.
Even in the greatest pain, that ugly battle-scarred cat was asking only for a little affection, perhaps some compassion. At that moment, I thought Ugly was the most beautiful, loving creature I had ever seen. Never once did he try to bit or scratch me, or even try to get away from me, or struggle in any way. Ugly just looked up at me completely trusting in me to relieve his pain.
Ugly died in my arms before I could get inside, but I sat and held him for a long time afterwards, thinking about how one scarred, deformed little stray could so alter my opinion about what it means to have true pureness of spirit, to love so totally and truly. Ugly taught me more about giving and compassion than a thousand books, lectures, or talk show specials ever could, and for that I will always be thankful. He had been scarred on the outside, but I was scarred on the inside, and it was time for me to move on and learn to love truly and deeply. To give my total to those I cared for.
Many people want to be richer, more successful, well liked, beautiful, but for me, I will always try to be Ugly.
Our traditional word is from Philippians 2….
“What I’m getting at friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. Do everything readily and cheerfully – no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”
Philippians is Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is contagious. Before we’ve read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves – the dance of words and the shouts of delight have a way of getting inside us and making our souls dance.
When we read what Paul wrote to the Christian in the city of Philippi, we realize that Paul himself is the kind of Christian we want to watch and learn from. Paul is happy when you’d expect that he wouldn’t be happy. For example, he wrote this letter from a jail cell. His work was being attacked everywhere by jealous competitors. And, after twenty years or so of back-breaking travel in the service of his Lord, he is tired, exhausted, and would be glad to have some relief.
But Paul’s outside situation doesn’t seem to matter because Paul is experiencing the growth of spirit on the inside. Jail, jealousy, fatigue. They didn’t affect his spirit in the way we might expect. Paul’s spirit continues to be hopeful.
You see, Jesus’ teaching not only happened during a real point in history; it continues to happen. It continues to spill out into the lives of those who believe in him, and then it overflows all over the place. Christ is living proof that God cannot be hidden or contained. It is in this “spilling out” quality of Christ’s life that explains the happiness of Christians, for joy is life spilling over into life after life after life.
Just like Ugly the cat, or the apostle Paul, bad things will happen to us. We don’t have a choice about that. But, we do have a choice about how we will respond.
Will we reflect the bad things on the outside or the joy on the inside?
Will we allow despair, depression, life circumstances or problems to make us hopeless, or will we allow those things to build us into stronger, gentler, more faithful people?
• Will we focus on the ugly scars, battle wounds, illnesses, and pains or will we focus on the joy, the pleasure, the fun, the happiness we experience in life?
• Will we be complainers about the little things or will we see the miracles of life and growth around us?
It is God who is at work within us and we will do all things without grumbling or disputing. We have been charged to be lights in a crooked and perverse world.
• Do we have more laugh lines, or frown lines?
• Do we see the cup half empty or half full?
• Do we look at life from a cynical perspective, or are we optimists?
• Do others experience the joy and passion of faith in us?
• Are we celebrating or dreading our faith?
Someone I knew many years ago posted on Facebook this week about how disappointed she was in her mother’s church. She thought they should have been more responsive to her mother’s illness and hospitalization. She wanted them to visit and demonstrate their care for her mother. She wrote that she left the church because she failed to see evidence of faith inside of the people in the church.
I responded with my regular defense of clergy and congregations with a few questions. Was the church notified of her mom’s illness and hospitalization? Yes. Did the church have a full-time minister who made hospital visits? Yes. Did her mom belong to any small groups in the church where people knew her personally? Yes. After some thought, I realized that perhaps she had a point. Then, I was startled and saddened to see how many people commented on her post with comments about why they left the church – not the same church, but any church. The theme of the comments was that church people have not lived up to the expectations and the faith we claim.
The apostle Paul admonishes us to redouble our efforts, to be energetic in our lives, to show God’s energy in life, to do everything readily and cheerfully, as if we had a red hot in our bellies! The Spirit of God within us equips us and burns within us – providing us with a fire and a spirit to change the world.
We are to be like Ugly – a breath of fresh air in a squalid and polluted neighborhood. Will you act on your passion, be a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of God, a demonstrator of love, in our world this week?