Of cat ownership and “little” sins

September 16, 2009 | 31 comments

My post from Monday reminded me of a story that’s been in my “to write about” stack for more than a year, yet another lesson along the lines of “be very careful about not being loving at all times…”

Longtime readers may remember that a couple years ago I had some serious angst about the neighborhood kids frequently ringing my doorbell and running. The problem was that they tended to do it during my kids’ naptimes, and the fact that they would beat the door a couple times and hit the doorbell about five times was always enough to startle my children and wake them. I even talked to the neighbor kids about it, explained the problems it caused me, and they looked me in the eye and said they wouldn’t do it anymore. And then they kept doing it. And let me tell you. After about the fifth time I found myself sitting on the couch holding three young children who had previously been sleeping peacefully, all now fussing and crying from being woken prematurely, I started to see red.

One of the pranksters lived next door, an 11-year-old girl named Riley, and she and the others would often cross the line into our yard to play with a friendly white outdoor cat we’d inherited from the previous owner of this house. We were planning to give the cat to some friends since we never exactly signed up for petcare duties, but in the meantime I liked having her around, and I always watched the kids closely to make sure they didn’t harm her. It turned out that that was one area in which I didn’t need to worry; the neighbor kids, especially Riley, always seemed to treat the cat well.

One afternoon I walked out front and Riley and her friends shouted over to ask me where the cat was. I was so irritated I could hardly look at them. The day before I’d needed a break so badly, and they’d repeatedly rung the doorbell yet again and woke my children 20 minutes into their naps. I’d opened the door to try to catch them but they were too fast, and I was just standing there in the doorway, red-faced and on the brink of tears, as I heard them snickering from some hiding place a few yards away. Oh, and I felt old. And dumpy. And hated. And it brought back bad memories from junior high. (I emphasize all this woe-is-me stuff so that you will maybe think I’m a slightly less awful person for what I thought of next…)

I muttered that I didn’t know where the cat was in response to their question, but an idea occurred to me: after our friends took the cat, the next time the kids asked about her I could say something like, “Sorry, kids, the difficulty of having my children’s naps constantly interrupted stressed me out so much that I had to dump her at the pound!”

I snickered at my plan. That would be satisfying. I knew it wasn’t the right way to handle it, but, like any good sinner, I rationalized away such inconvenient thoughts. Sure, it would be somewhat sinful — it was a lie, and my vengeful motives were an act against love — but it would really be just a little sin. A harmless joke, really. No big deal. Maybe at some point I’d even tell them the truth.

Fast forward a few months: I disconnected the doorbell, and the Holy Spirit miraculously brought me together with the girls, who ended up becoming fixtures in my living room (that whole story here). Also, the cat stayed. Our friends couldn’t take her in so we adopted her by default.

About six months into my friendship with the girls, one Saturday afternoon Riley and Carmen stopped by my house while they waited for Riley’s mom to pick them up. Over the course of our friendship I had found out that the neighbors Riley lived with were not her parents; she was not able to live with her mom due to some kind of difficult situation. But today was a special day because she was going to get to visit her mom’s house for the weekend and even bring a friend! Both girls had fixed their hair and painted their nails bright colors for the occasion, packed some clothes and snacks into backpacks, and Carmen’s mom had bought them new little purses to take on their trip.

They said they only had a minute before she arrived, so we kept our conversation brief. But thirty minutes later, they were still there. They both began shifting uncomfortably on the couch.

Then Riley’s cell phone rang. She stepped into the other room and I heard a snipped of the conversation with her aunt in which she whispered, “She said 11:45…” I looked at the clock. It was 12:30.

Riley came back into the room and laughed nervously, saying that her mom was late sometimes. Then her phone rang again; she listened for a moment, then hung up. Her mom wasn’t coming. Riley indicated that this wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened, saying with a forced laugh that she figured that this is how it would go. I thought my heart was going to break in half.

Almost on cue my children opened the back door and let the cat in, and her presence in the tense living room was a welcome diversion for all of us.

Riley scooped her up and said, “I love Snowball.”

We’d never named the cat, so I was surprised to hear her called that. Eager to change the subject to anything other than the failed weekend plans, I asked her where she came up with that name.

“I don’t know, ” she shrugged. “I just liked it. And I wanted my cat to have a special name.”

Her cat? I asked her what she meant by that, and over the next few minutes I learned that the previous owner of my house had also asked Riley’s relatives if they wanted the cat, and they had said Riley could have her. He didn’t tell them that he also asked us if we wanted the cat; each of us thought we were the only owners. That explained so much! The kids being unusually vocal in asking about her, following her into my yard, the fact that the cat never seemed to eat that much — it all came together.

Riley proceeded to cuddle and kiss the cat, talking about how she would sometimes let her into her room when she felt lonely at night. “Sometimes I feel like she’s the only one I have to talk to, ” she said.

And then I remembered my little “plan.”

Let me just tell you, internet, that seeing how much that child loved that cat — her cat — and knowing now a little bit more about how difficult her life had been, when I thought about how close I’d come to letting her think her cat had been taken to the pound, I wanted to slink down into the baseboards like the scum that I was. I could hardly concentrate on the rest of our conversation because I was so busy inwardly shouting prayers of thanksgiving to God for having mercy on those of us who occasionally find ourselves caught up in a perfect storm of selfishness, thoughtlessness and intense stupidity.

I think about that moment of Riley cuddling her cat on the day her mom didn’t show up any time I catch myself rationalizing away some “little” sin. I already knew on some level that even the smallest acts against love hurt God more than we could understand; as I learned that afternoon, sometimes those little sins hurt our fellow human beings more than we could understand too.

photo by fling93


  1. Emily a.k.a. Smoochagator

    Oh. My. Goodness. Thank God Snowball "coincidentally" couldn't be adopted by your friends and had to stay in your neighborhood! I can totally relate to Riley's feelings – the cat I had when I was a child was often the only one I could truly depend on.

    Thanks for sharing this story, Jennifer.

  2. James

    I really appreciate this story. Thanks.

  3. Kelly @ Love Well

    This is a powerful story, Jennifer. I remember you originally telling the story about the ringing doorbells at nap-time, and as a fellow young mom, I was ready to join you in the throng of Angry Mothers ready to put the throw-down on those hooligans. Nap-time is above all else! Don't they know that?!?

    And then came the story about how much these girls just needed to be loved and affirmed. And now this.

    I feel like slinking in a corner with you. God's grace toward the obvious sinner doesn't amaze me as much as His grace toward the self-righteous like me.

  4. Anonymous

    Phenomenal post – very moving. You have quite a gift.


  5. Ruth

    May God bless you Jennifer! I find so much help in your posts.

  6. Em the luddite

    "The smallest acts against love…" that strikes me as a fantastic definition of sin, especially when all the commands are summed up in the command to love God and our neighbor.

  7. Mandrivnyk

    Wow, what an incredible story and powerful lesson. Thank you for that.

  8. Jet


    You have an amazing gift of discerning God's voice. I read your posts and have so many 'A-ha' moments and think of how ultimately selfish and prone to anger I can be, completely 'forgetting' these challenges are opportunities to be 'patient and kind….' As a melancholic, I am hard on myself afterwards for yet again having behaved like the Pharisees!

    I get easily annoyed by neighborhood kids (and my own) and their antics because their wants and often needs are inconvenient for me. I must remember that all behavior is a manifestation of a need and I am being called to serve regardless of how I feel or however interesting the screen is on my computer, etc.

    I wish I had known years ago what you know about the Faith and how to really live it. I 'burnt the 1st batch' but am doing much better with my younger set, thanks to God's direct graces to me and through your life lessons and those of your commenters. I don't think I really 'got' the purpose of motherhood until my 3rd and 4th children. I was too task-oriented and scheduled before but now know that relationships matter more than finishing my daily list and more than proving that I am right (like when I argue with my M-i-l about how I want my kids fed–no junk, please!). My spiritual journey is/has one very long learning curve. 🙂

    Thank you, Sacred Heart of Jesus for your endless mercy!

  9. Anne

    Excellent and thought provoking story. I've been in similar shoes with neighbor kids many times and now wish I had been a bit more compassionate and understanding, given them that little bit of love instead of so many small acts against love. Thanks.

    BTW, thanks for your comments on my post about the Consecration. I have decided to go ahead and in the preparation period. I am very excited about it and am grateful for your encouragement!

  10. Fencing Bear


  11. Kim

    After I read your awesome post, I began thinking how the Lord has been revealing to us recently how very small acts of love made huge differences to some people in our lives.

    A person contacted my husband via Facebook to let him know how a tiny gesture of kindness he showed her back in high school (he didn't even remember it) had literally saved her life, because she was planning on committing suicide that day.

    And then another person recently told him how 9 years ago (!) our little girl noticed how sick she looked and took a moment to hold her hand and pray for her and what a blessing that had been—she remembers to this day, while we never even knew about it.

  12. Cassandra Frear

    You're right.

    We must be careful about how we respond, for there is always more to the story of people's lives.

  13. Barbie

    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Emily

    That's brilliant. Really, I mean it!
    Wow. Talk about a Christ-incidence.

  15. Kingdom Mama

    Oh my gosh, Jen. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.

  16. Marian

    Wow. Thank you again for opening yourself with this admonishment/encouragement.
    How sobering to think about both the "little" sins of commission and omission.

    An elderly missionary man just recently told my husband the startling story of how as a young man he once had the very strong feeling that he should go and talk to his dorm neighbor in seminary. For whatever reason, he just didn't. Late that night he heard through the walls that same neighbor screaming at God, something like, "I asked you to send someone to prove that you love me! You didn't do it! You aren't there!" before slamming out. And the young neighbor killed himself that night. Obviously that had quite an effect on this man.

  17. Karen

    This is such a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it. Having small napping children myself not very long ago I can remember how precious those naps were to me! I can feel your anger at the children's behavior and can easily see myself having thoughts along those same lines! I will think of this story whenever I want to react in anger and pray for some restraint instead!

  18. Amanda The Semi-Published

    Wow. What an excellent reminder to always avoid sin even when I don't think there will be serious consequences. Your story is a perfect illustration of that lesson.

  19. becomingthekindofwomaniwantmydaughtertobe

    God is SO good. This is a beautiful, incredible story and you probably won't know for years or maybe even eternity the kind of impact you are having on these small lives…

    Thank you for sharing.

  20. Melissa

    Wow. Thanks for sharing. That was a riveting post.

  21. It Feels Like Chaos

    Such a wonderful post!

  22. beck'sthree

    Thanks for this post. What a needed reminder to think of others at ALL times, not just when it suits me. I've followed the neighbor girls saga with interest as I have a similar situation, and I've appreciated your wisdom.

  23. Barbara

    I'm starting to think that God works grace into us and selfishness out of us the way a baker kneads dough in order to work in the yeast, He keeps squeezing our conscience and drawing out the selfish bits a little at a time. I can totally relate to this. I know I would have reacted the same way in your situation, (probably even worse, I get right pissed when I don't get enough sleep). Yesterday I had an experience like this when I was riding the bus home from school. The bus was filled with University students and the one elderly woman who got on the bus on that route just happened to stand right next to my seat even though I was not in the front of the bus but in the middle. Do you think I offered her my seat? No, I made a dozen excuses why I didn't want to "I'm tired, I have to go right to the end of the route and my bags are REALLY heavy…etc."

  24. angela michelle

    Thanks for sharing.

  25. Anonymous

    Jennifer, I can't tell you how timely this post was. This came on exactly the same day I had words with my neighbor because I felt violated. After talking with his wife she explained he's been going to anger management classes and trying to work on his behavior. It was a lesson for me also of the words we hear in scripture……"though He was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth." Isaiah 53:7

    I'm so thankful for the mercy of God

  26. Shelley

    Wow, that is quite the story – and has a great lesson to it. Thanks for sharing it!

    Shelley @
    Confirm The Work of Our Hands

  27. Mrs. Parunak

    Wow. What an incredible story. Once again, you have totally convicted me.

  28. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    So this is this week's "right between the eyes" post . . . especially so because naps (and bedtime!) are sacred in our house since my daughter has always been a terrible sleeper and it's downright ugly when she doesn't get enough sleep. (I'm still working to get out of PPD, and she's 2.5!!) I linked to this on my weekly link roundup.

    Now, can I request a part 2 to this? Can you tell me how to find holiness in cleaning up the cat hurk? 'Cause I really thought that was where this was going to go. :>) And Lord knows we have plenty of hurking going on around here . . .

  29. Elizabeth Mahlou

    Amazing the way animals are able to cross man-made boundaries. Have you seen the movie Joyeux Noel? I love the way the cat goes from the German trenches to the French trenches to the English trenches on a regular basis, responding to a different name in each of those languages. It is a great movie, too, in that eventually the people are able to do, thanks to the advent of Christmas, what the cat did naturally.

  30. Jason

    Your post says she "lived" next door. Are these girls still visiting you?

  31. monica_divineoffice.org

    This is a truly wonderful story!

    Liturgy of the Hours

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