Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

Morocco door

“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

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Leaving Peter

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Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

It was early morning on the 8th day of my hiking the Camino de Santiago, and, as I approached a group of three ladies, I could tell they were speaking English.  This wasn’t entirely unusual, as about a third of the pilgrims I encountered spoke my language, but I hadn’t understood anyone since dinner the night before.

As I closed the distance behind them, I realized they were Irish, speaking with quite a brogue.  We introduced ourselves, with the typical small-talk, and they inquired as to whether or not I´d been to Ireland.  Well of course these stories of  Camille, my oldest daughter being a many time American Irish dance champion, with the resultant trips overseas, including Ireland came out.  Soon we were discussing our friends Donica and Sheena (I never can get the Gaelic spelling of their names right, so I won´t even try), who own a B & B in Roosky, in Rosscommon.

As we chatted about such stuff, we walked through a typical small town in rural Spain, with the one beautiful village Church crumbling.  Of course this then became a topic of discussion including the magnificent cathedrals throughout the place in much need of repair, and the consolation it brought to see at least a few of them being restored.

I made the passing remark that the churches in ruins were perhaps but a commentary of what has happened to Christianity throughout Europe and beyond.  The Irish ladies, from a wonderful island that had provided perhaps more priests than any other part of the world, then commented that the church scandals had really damaged people´s faith, as well as any support of religion whatsoever, especially in Ireland.

The light-bulb, of course, then went on.  I pointed out that throughout life, our leaders – our parents, elected officials, scout leaders, friends, mentors, and yes even our priests and ministers are in fact “waymarkers.” They serve to guide us, to point the proper direction, to guide the way.  The problem is that all of these “waymarkers” are simply human beings, with all the weaknesses, frailties, and sinful tendencies that all of society, all of us have as humans – it is the “human condition.”  Not to belittle the scandals, or any sin for that matter.

***

The Camino de Santiago is an assortment of routes that lead to the Cathedral of San-tiago (Spanish for St. James), where St. James the Greater, one of Jesus three closest companions was buried.  Along these routings are markers to let the pilgrims (perigrinos) know that they, indeed, are on the right road.  Most of the times the markers consist of a small, simple yellow arrow, painted on the street, curb or side of a building.  This instills much confidence after hours of hiking that the weary traveler is traveling in the right direction.  Outside the cities, towns, and villages the waymarkers are constructed of concrete, small pillars about three feet tall, with the symbol of the Camino attached as a ceramic tile to its side.  These are strategically placed to greatly aid the perigrino by confraternity volunteers, and are greatly appreciated for the same reason.  You come to expect these at regular intervals, every few miles, and start to feel lost and question your path when you haven’t seen one recently.  Its rather easy to daydream, or get lost in thought, contemplation and prayer and miss an indicator which may have indicated a turn, for instance.

Most of the waymarkers along the road were in excellent condition, well maintained with fresh “clam-shell” icons, and a coat of paint.  A few had a few cracks, but were generally in acceptable shape, and served the purpose of guiding us in the correct direction.  However more than a few were in dis-repair, crumbling, and a couple in a sad pile of rubble on the ground.

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Crumbled Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

And so the metaphor seemed obvious.  Because our way-markers are also human, they can crumble, like we can, and often do.  “Still,” Irish Eileen exclaimed, she’d “not be going back into a church anytime soon.”

“Fair enough, I replied, “but perhaps this gives us some thoughts to ponder.  The fact that our way-markers crumble doesn´t stop our journey, only to throw our hands up and quit.  Furthermore, we leave the paths ourselves, even when they’re well marked, by not paying close attention, or thinking we know a better way.  “Eileen laughed and muttered under her breath, “Something tells me you’re no longer talking about Spain.”

“Of course I am, but not ONLY the Camino de Santiago, also the Camino de Life!”  Just a few days ago, I left the marked path because someone from Germany told me there was a more direct way.  I left what I had known and trusted because I had heard there was a better path.  Soon I was on a cow path that lead to a stream, and I had to turnaround and look for a way back to ‘the way.’  That was an honest mistake, probably my misunderstanding.  But some people even lead us astray intentionally, because they don’t even think there even exists a final destination, and to them, it’s all about today, having fun, screwing everyone along the way.”

“And sometimes those we trust the most, just let us down.  Our parents fail in their marriages, or have addictions; our friends really aren’t; and those who we look up to just fail.  Because they’re all humans, they’re screw ups like us.”

“Although I doubt he coined it, a famous Jesuit retreat-master named John Powell SJ, shared this advice:

You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!

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“So you’re right, it’s not just about being here in Spain.  It’s about being fully alive.  Everywhere we turn, we’re told to enjoy the moment, you only live once – ‘It’s all about me!’  Well, it’s not ‘All about me!’

“An ‘All about me’ attitude creates a selfish, entitled mentality.  This draws us away from the path, and gives those in power license to use people, and destroy lives.  The President that cheats, the priest or teacher pedophile, the addicted spouse.  Then the victims and observers, ironically, take their own ‘All about me’ attitude that they get to make their own rules, because someone they once trusted was frail, and human, and made mistakes, even horrible ones.”

“Of course we expect our leaders to have a higher standard.  And when they look at themselves in the mirror, I´m sure many are disappointed in themselves.  As I am many times.  As we all are, if we´re being honest.”

“Anyway, I’ve gotten off the path lots of times, and now I really feel like I’m back on it.  Look down, this road still leads to Santiago, there will be twists and turns along the road, with the need to have guidance when there is an obstacle.  The Church and all she offers, the Word of God, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the social gathering strengthening and supporting each other.  The fact that the markers sometimes crumble is irrelevant to the goal, the desired endpoint.  It’s not just about “me,” it’s about “God and me,” and because of that, its about, “You and me.”

They smiled politely, and said they’d be stopping for some lunch now, realizing I wasn’t going to join in the bashing of the monster they had encountered.  Not that we shouldn’t fight the monster, and we certainly must protect our children, but it’s important to have perspective, and realize that monster is everywhere, in some form.  Judas isn’t always the dark sinister figure in the shadows, often he looks back in the mirror.

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Those words were easy to say.  When the rubber meets the road, it’s often a bit more difficult.  My children have never been abused, or raped, or even taken advantage of.

But we’ve all been disappointed, and let down.  Just a few days ago, someone that I’ve grown to love and trust, and help me discern lots of important decisions acted in a way that, at the time, felt hurtful.  My human side reeled, and I felt indignant.  Then I did my best to stand back and learn those lessons that life has been trying to teach me.  These are still my friends, and have made decisions they thought were correct.

We all make decisions based on the information we have in front of us.  Seldom do we intend to hurt our friends, and so, in turn, we should give that benefit of the doubt to those we’ve invested our trust in. Sometimes a course of events appears to turn in a direction that we hadn’t expected or wanted.  With deeper consideration, we’ll likely find that we, in fact, are still on the path, or with simple adjustments can get back with an improved tool-set from this experience.

The direction of our Camino leads to ¨Santiago”  Let’s not give up the journey because we sometimes get lost or are confused as to whether or not we´re on the right road.  There is a right road, a correct path. It does exist, and we all do our best to stay on it.  Buen Camino

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Crucify Him!

Language Arts class in small-town Sikeston, Missoura High School English class included dissecting the minutia of literary classics of the day.  Among these was Harper Lee’s treatment of rape, class, racial violence, and justice (and injustice) in To kill a Mockingbird.  

Atticus Finch tells his tomboy daughter Scout to remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.  Mockingbirds never harm other living creatures, but simply provide pleasure with their songs, “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” ‘To kill a mockingbird’ is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson.”  

A color photograph of a northern mockingbird

Atticus is a small-town southern lawyer who raises the legal standard with his unpopular representation of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, named Mayella.  Finch’s children Scout and Jem, and their friend Dill are central characters and through whose eyes we see the plot unfold.

Scout soon must defend her father’s honor when classmates taunt that he’s a “nigger-lover,” and defuses a lynch mob as she stands by him blocking the door to the jail.  Atticus had taught Scout (and us) that mobs do not think, but rather act on emotion.  Atticus tells Jem to remember that mobs are “made up of people”, meaning that if a mob is broken down into the individuals that are part of it, then it is no longer a mob thinking with the emotional collective brain.  It is now just a group of individuals each with his own sense of right and wrong.

People, on their own, are far less apt to do the things that mobs do.  Mobs tend to rely on emotion and not thought, whereas people are more likely to use some thought before they act.  Even people who disagree on some issues can stand up for one another and protect one another.

Absent this, the mob creates headlines and horrible memories of Michael Brown, Rodney King, and Reginald Denny.

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One of the many symbolic side-plots, Atticus must shoot a rabid dog (a not so subtle racism metaphor) running in the street, although it’s “not his job to do it.”  This is clearly Harper Lee’s reminder of our own free choice to do what is right, despite whether or not it’s our obligation to do so.

And so we come back to Holy Week.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. Somehow word has leaked out that here is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Could he be the Messiah?

Word spreads in the gathering crowd. He’s riding on a donkey with her colt. Didn’t the prophet Zechariah say something about this? Could he be the Messiah?

By now the crowd is large. Then the actions start. Somewhere in the midst of all the people someone lays a branch on the ground in front of Jesus. Then someone else does it. Someone else lays a cloak on the ground. And before you know it seemingly everyone is doing it.

And such a clamor! Everyone is making noise, noise that comes together in a din, nothing very defined. Until, ringing out distinctly above it all, a word is heard, a prayer. Others join in. Finally, in unison, like a great choir, all around Jesus the crowd is shouting, “Hosanna!”

Save us, son of David, from the oppressive hand of the Roman rulers!

Save us from our sin, Jesus, you who come in the name of the Lord!

Of course you know what’s next.

It’s not just the Roman leaders here who think Jesus is a threat to the establishment. It’s also the Jewish religious leaders.

For many years the Jewish people have been under foreign rule. Uprisings have been attempted—even uprisings that were thought to be messianic. But now, at this time in history, the religious leaders have it pretty well. They are the “who’s who” in the city of Jerusalem. The Roman overlords give these religious leaders quite a lot of liberty. These religious leaders have grown accustomed to the respect shown them. And so on.

But now this so-called prophet, this Jesus of Nazareth, is causing a stir. Not good, as far as the religious leaders are concerned. Not good, to the point that they want him out of the way—to the point that they want him dead! Yes, he’s that much of a threat!

Apparently they’re not the only disgruntled ones.  Whether it’s impatience, frustration, or something more sinister – truly evil, One of his closest followers, hand picked for redemption, has sold Him out for thirty pieces of silver!

Jesus is then tried in an early morning, nefarious kangaroo court, and found guilty on trumped up charges. Pilate, the Roman leader in charge of the trial, caves to the mob.  Instigated by the Jewish religious leaders, the crowd shouts, again and again, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

But here’s the worst part: this is by and large the same crowd that was shouting Hosanna just a few days ago. And now it’s, “Crucify him!”

We humans are fickle.

There are times we feel like nothing can come between me and Jesus. He has redeemed me; he is saving me from all my sin and wickedness; and he will lead me into glory. I know this in the bottom of my heart, down to the core of my being. And nothing’s gonna shake me. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

But you know how it is. Life sneaks in a sucker punch. We don’t see it coming, but all of a sudden the wind is knocked out of us. All of a sudden, we have questions, doubts, quandaries. And we begin to think, Maybe I’m not so sure about my faith after all. Maybe Jesus was just a man, that this story I’ve heard all my life, that this faith I practice, is just a complex Santa Claus story. Viscerally I believe, and not just with my emotions, but truly with my reasoning as well. But from somewhere creeps these doubts.  Maybe the crowd’s right after all. Maybe I should just give up, forget this emotional wave I’ve been surfing. Maybe I should just give in and yell “Crucify him!” with everyone else.

So then, what are you going to do?

And so, here we are on Palm Sunday participating in the annual reading of Our Lord’s Passion.  We get to the part where we’re supposed to be the worked up mob, “Crucify Him!  CRUCIFY HIM!!!”  My inner Pharisee feigns indignation.  “I would never have shouted that!”  Who am I fooling?  Of course I would have.

Jesus hand-picked these twelve from anyone in the world.  They lived with Him for three years.  They witnessed miracles. Firsthand!  They saw lepers cured; With their own eyes, they saw Lazarus and the small child raised from the dead!  Three of them witnessed the transfiguration.  They saw Him walk on water!

But they fell asleep when He begged them to stay awake.  Everyone of them (except John) deserted him and ran for their lives.  The man He trusted enough to hand over the “keys,” and whom He called “the rock,” denied him three times, cursing that He didn’t even know the Man.

And I think I’m better than they were?  I, who beg and plead for a deeper love and stronger faith, because of my human weaknesses?

God has the fullness of time, seeing the past, present, and future all together.  He knew these men would betray Him.  And He made me this way.  With all of my doubts, faults, and shallowness.  He knows I try.  He knows I love Him with all that my human weakness allows.  But, in fact, I am human.  “Lord I do believe.  Help my unbelief!”

What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God (Hans Urs Von Balthasar)

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Credits to The Holy Bible, Harper Lee, Cliff’s Notes, Vivens In Sacerdotium, Bill O’Reilly, and Wikipedia and Saint Augustine.

They’ve Taken Him Away

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It’s always startling to look up from the pews and not see the image of Christ up behind the altar.  Many churches place a veil there during Holy Week, or even the entire 40 days of Lent, to aid in our Lenten journey of “doing without.” Apparently this is an ancient custom, another tradition packed with meaning and symbolism.  It arose during the earliest times, reminiscent of the Jewish temple curtain, “torn in half,” at the moment of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. (Mt 27:50-51); (Mk 15,38); (Lk 23,45).

My German brothers I met on the Camino call this veil the Fastentuch, or “fasting cloth.”

Everything in the Church has meaning – everything we do, everything we say, every object and every action.  They either are truth, or they represent/remind us of scripture, or a calling to reverence for our Lord.  This is the essence of the “tradition” that is so confusing to those looking in, and mis-represented by so many “leaders” outside of the Church to their respective congregations.

From “crossing ourselves” to a Crucifix on the wall.  From Holy Water to statues.  From memorized prayers and a liturgical form of worship to vestments worn by the ordained.  Even if your own faith tradition doesn’t understand the relevance or scriptural basis for “traditions” such as these, certainly you can see the beauty in provoking a deeper atmosphere of prayer and reverence.

So anyway, the inner curtain of the Jewish temple separated  the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, from all of us.

And so, this tearing open of the curtain with the death of Jesus opens up access to the inner sanctum, and we now may enter into our own relationships with Him.

The Lenten Veil separates the community from that image of Jesus we grow so familiar with, and tend to take for granted.  There are many places where any display of this symbol representing the very heart of our faith are forbidden, and actually subject to severe punishment.  When we look up and see the Cross of Jesus gone, it pulls viscerally, and creates a longing.  It symbolizes an emptiness of life without our faith, without Jesus.  We are truly alone, and life has lost all of its meaning.  

This is a form of physical penance, of fasting.  The vernacular term “starving” thus refers not only to material poverty, but to a spiritual nakedness of facing life alone, the futility of suffering for no reason.  Again, life loses all of its meaning.

Wikipedia affirms it in its German edition:

The somber custom is believed to come from a 9th century German practice of extending a large cloth called the “Hungertuch” (hunger cloth) before the altar from the beginning of Lent. The cloth – which hid the altar – was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on the Wednesday in Holy Week – at the words, “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”

The building and placement of a fast cloth was – as a religious – with a few exceptions Tradition maintained until the 18th century only in Catholic areas, as Luther against this tradition of religious art pronounced as “Gaukelwerk”. Although they once extended far beyond the original boundaries, they remained after the Reformation obtained only in the formation bidding; occasionally there are still churches that maintain the tradition. However, it appears that the Lenten veil is being rediscovered as an art form, and many Protestant churches now participate in the custom.

And so as we joyously and jubilantly welcomed the Messiah Yeshua into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we progress through the most holy of weeks.

We are encouraged to commit to our own sacrifice.  If we’ve never “given up” anything for Lent, or if we’ve failed to keep good on that intent this season, its time to recommit for these last seven days.  Again, it’s not what we sacrifice, its that we sacrifice.  And it’s not for Him, it’s for us.  Some small reminder of what should really be important in our lives.  Something that forces us to pause, to focus, to imagine being without.

Most certainly Jesus knew how the week would end – the suffering of His Passion, the panic and despair of his followers, and their jubilant ecstasy of his victory over death at His Resurrection.  As we remember and desperately miss our beloved family and friends who have departed, we take much consolation in the confidence that our Lord has torn open that curtain, embracing them as they enter to the other side.

Much Love.  Have a Blessed Holy Week, 2015.

Prayer, Parking, and Presumptions – (How are prayers answered, anyway?)

The father of the bride was becoming frantic.  He sped up and down the lanes of the church parking lot, but there were no parking spots.  The wedding would start in four minutes! Time for bargaining.  “I know I skip church on game days, or when the bass are biting, or when I just want to sleep late – never again! – I’ll go every Sunday! FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!! I’ll never look away when a beggar needs a few dollars.  I promise!  Ok, Ok, I’ll even go to my in-laws next weekend.  AAARRGGGHHH!!! JUST FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!!”  Two minutes to go, and the car ahead backs out, opening a place to park.  “Never-mind God, I found one!”

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Are prayers answered?  How?  What IS prayer, anyway?  What is it for you?

Is prayer simply asking God for favors?  Is it begging, pleading and deal-making from a “fox-hole?”  Or is it a two way conversation? Certainly, the mystics claimed to hear the voice of God.  Saints Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Ignatious, Therese, Bernadette, and many more, wrote volumes sharing what they heard God say.

When I was walking the Camino de Santiago as part of my grieving process, I wanted desperately to hear Charlton Heston or James Earl Jones booming from the clouds, but was met with silence. However, a few hundred miles into the journey, it became clear that our Lord speaks to us in many, many ways.  That clumsy first attempt at blogging described dozens of these “encounters,” apparently quite common on that pilgrimage.

But you certainly don’t have to travel to Spain to encounter God in a very real way.  Many/Most of you may grimace at the idea of God “talking to you.”  Even the “churched,” especially if their faith consists of “checking the box” every Sunday, or even twice a year, may cringe at the idea of someone who claims to hear the voice of God.  SNL skits come to mind ridiculing Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts.  But without “hearing the voice,” can we really get answers?

Answered prayers are news-worthy, because they surprise us.  Headlines, movies, and books are often written to describe cured cancer, inexplicable near misses, and unlikely rescues. These re-invigorate the faithful.  Which is good.  Except…

Why would you pray, if you didn’t honestly feel He was listening, cared about you, and was anxious to have these “encounters?”  If we really believe our prayers could/will be answered, then why is it newsworthy when they are?

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Perhaps we simply don’t know how to listen.  Its almost as if we hold out for an answered prayer to be accompanied by a vision, a voice, an apparition.  But, really.  If Jesus of Nazareth is really and truly here with us as we walk each step, every day, perhaps we should express a bit of common sense.

Was the father of the bride (above) expecting an explosion and a new parking lot, with the glowing Christ to be directing him into a parking place?  Wouldn’t a much more logical explanation be that He “directed” the driver of the exiting car to have business finished so they could leave when they did, so you could pull in just in the nick of time for the nuptials?

Likewise, how would the creator of the universe, create the universe?  Wouldn’t you expect it would be so through a natural phenomenon?  How absurd would it be for a big bang to cause itself?

Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause Argument.

If there is no first cause, then the universe is like a great chain with many links; each link is held up by the link above it, but the whole chain is held up by nothing.

If there is no independent being, then the whole chain of dependent beings is dependent on nothing and could not exist.

For the smart aleck out there who thinks Steven Hawking adequately addresses this, I’ve read Hawking’s refutation, and even though he’s probably lots smarter than me, he misses the entire point.  He dismisses (see also addendum A) a “caused big-bang,” because:

You can’t get to a time before the big bang, because there was no time before the big bang.  We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in.

But therein lies the problem, Christians (as well as most other faithful types) believe God is omnipresent (has always existed), and, in fact, created time, when He created stuff, and non-stuff (space).

It’s the whole “time-space-continuum” thing that makes me as dizzy as that ridiculous quantum physics class (that greatly contributed to my insanity).  Einstein’s insistence to keep asking, “What if…” results in (see also addendum B) his Theory of Relativity, and at least a profound theist belief in a Gd who directed creation. (addendum C).

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Time and space are characteristics of our world, not God’s. He is not limited by hours, days and years as we are. In fact, the Bible tells us that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

And so, if God is “timeless” and not bound by the concept which in fact, we believe He created, it follows that He sees all past, present, and future on the same page – all at the same time.  Therefore, we believe that He knows each of us intimately at the very instant of conception, when we are instilled with what we call a “soul.”  He knows each of our decisions, beliefs, rejections, and our final destiny.  “Clearly this all becomes fuzzy,” especially when we consider Calvin’s treatment of Gods omniscient knowledge of our choices and therefore our destination.  And since God made us this way, including the part of our brain which makes decisions, Calvin had it all figured out with his five pillars – only a “few are chosen,” therefore, most of us are in a bit of trouble.  But it’s not our fault, and we (obviously) didn’t really have free choice.  (That’s Calvin’s bent, clearly not mine).

I realize my line of reason seldom takes a strait line trajectory…

If, in fact, God is timeless, and we truly believe God can affect and effect the course of outcomes (possibly by giving us additional opportunities to make new “free” choices which change the course HE sees otherwise happening), then it seems to me quite plausible to take this a step further.

Since He sees past, present and future all together, can not He favor our petitions, effecting a change, even if we pray for something after its course has already been determined?  Let’s think about this with a simple example…

Suppose you prayed for an exam scheduled for today to be easy.  You were at the hospital all night with a sick mother, and never even studied.  You knew the test was important, and offered up your petition at her bedside.  Our Lord considered your position and … obliged.  You were THRILLED to see such an easy test.  Every question had an easy answer – it seemed like common sense.  Not only are you thrilled, your confidence in God, prayer, and faith has been affirmed …  UNTIL … The teacher announces that she had had commitments yesterday, and so prepared the questions the previous week – long before any prayers had been offered up.  Your prayers couldn’t have been answered, due to the timing.  It was just an easy test.

Or perhaps you’re on a sailboat and encounter an unexpected storm.  Treacherous waves, unrelenting wind, sounds eerily similar to the hurricane you remember so well.  For hours, all you could do was lower the sail.  The craft was awash, waves cresting well above and over the deck.  Heading into the wind she finds herself “in irons,” and the captain can only lower the sails, and hope the tiny auxiliary motor can keep some semblance of control.  Soon the storm has passed, but out of fuel, you can only drift with the current, and after three days encounter the friendly shores of an unintended island.  Haha, you knew you could do it, and you never really felt in danger.  So exciting, so exhilirating.  The adventure of a lifetime.

However, unbeknownst to you, literally hundreds of thousands of family, friends, and strangers had offered up prayers for your safety.  The fact that the petitions were offered AFTER the storm was over made them, of course, “wasted effort.”  Or were they?  Could the Creator-of-the-Universe have, in the aforementioned time-space-continuum, have considered the petitions about to be offered up, and changed the course that miserable storm was to have on you even before the fact?  Could the winds have finally relented, as you reached a current that would drift you into safety?

How are prayers answered?  I think in many ways.  And I purport that our questions and needs are addressed in many different ways as well.  Perhaps its presumptuous of us to assume that we have the cognitive ability to know the ways of the same Creator-of-the-Universe.  We don’t really expect to hear a deep, resounding human voice from the clouds, do we?  We would be stunned if that actually happened, so clearly we anticipate other forms of response.

We believe that God is love.  Not simply that He loves.  Not simply that He, through His Son, showed us how to love. But rather, that God is love.  Emmanuel – God is with us in the love that we feel from others, and for others.  164,882 people praying for my daughter, expressing love for a complete stranger in need, is in fact, the pure manifestation of God’s love and evidence that in fact, He is with us.

Much Love.

Thank You.

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addendum A:  Hawking’s argument of gravity’s role in the bang assumes that gravity somehow existed before the Big Bang, yet Hawking then goes on to maintain that nothing, including God, existed before the Big Bang. Hmmm … Hawking’s logic is selective.

addendum B:  <Planck?> Non Euclidian Geometry evolves into the concept of the “tesseract,” and eventually his Theory of Relativity.

addendum C:  although he rejected the Hebrew (and Christian) notion of a Gd with whom one has a personal relationship, and involved in each of our own personal decisions and destinies.

And What if There Was No Religion

Everybody knows that religion is the cause of all suffering, and most, if not all wars.  Everybody knows that, right?  It’s clearly a fact to the “experts” and “enlightened” who seem to be the first to comment with authority to every news article and blog post (including mine) where religion is presented in a positive light.  It’s one of those claims repeated so often that when we hear it during some social conversation by the resident know-it-all, we just let it pass, because we don’t know any better.  Well, lets go to school.

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars (Phillips and Axelrod), of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them can be classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s less than 7 percent.  Further, the number killed in these conflicts amounts to only two percent. This means that even when wars have been fought over religious disputes, they tend to be less bloody than when they are fought for other reasons.

Lets dig into our own American memories.  The American Revolution, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea; none of these wars was fought for religious reasons. In fact, the bloodiest and most deadly wars of recent history were demonstrably motivated by something other than religion: out of whack nationalism (WWI), antireligious fascism (WWII), and atheistic Communism (Korea, Vietnam, the atrocities of Stalin and Mao).

Even the atrocities in the name of Islam:  We’re constantly reminded that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that all the current atrocities in her name are a “few” zealots, who do not represent the teachings of Mohammed (and therefore, supposedly, of Allah).  Let’s go with that, because it makes us all feel so much more comfortable.  I’ve heard something similar about Hitler, who was raised Catholic, and seemed to focus most of his vitriol on the Jews.  (Even though hundreds of thousands of Catholics also lost their lives, including over 16,000 priests and nuns).  Just because someone claims to be a faithful member of a religion while “acting out” most certainly does not mean they represent the religion, or that it is the position of their claimed religion.  (Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s strong pro-abortion positions certainly don’t mean the Church sanctions such atrocities).

And, of course what about the Inquisition and the Crusades?

To non-Catholics the Inquisition is a scandal; to Catholics, an embarrassment; to both, a confusion. It is a handy stick for Catholic-bashing, simply because most Catholics seem at a loss for a sensible reply.  Defense of atrocities of another time and culture is not the intent here.  A comparatively objective Inquisition discourse can be found here.

What must be grasped is that the Church contains within herself all sorts of sinners and jerks, and some of them do obtain positions of responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

Some fundamentalists suffer from the mistaken notion Church “membership” includes only the “elect.” For them, sinners are outside the doors. Locate sinners, and you locate another place where the Church is not.

The crusades are like much of our best intentions as human beings -A noble idea, but when humans are involved, lots of mistakes will be made.  This is also well beyond the scope of this post, but Weidenkopf attempts to make some sense of it all in his new book, summarized in these posts.  Each Crusade was different, some were glorious in intent and outcome, some much less so.

With apologies to John Lennon, who wrote lots of catchy love longs and changed music in our culture forever, the “living for today” in Imagine, translates in our world as “can’t we all just get along?”  But he was no philosopher, and clearly no intellectual giant.  “Imagine all the people, living life in peace” is about as naive as the COEXIST bumper sticker.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a lofty ideal, I’m not here to shove my beliefs down anyone’s throat, but I’ll gladly explain why I know mine are the truth for me.  (I may think they’re true for you too, but souls were never saved by winning an argument).  Anyway, back to Imagine (no heven, hell, or religion) and COEXIST – Just remember how wrong the other Lenin and Mao-Tze-Tung proved to be (weren’t these their goals also?)

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Again, this whole lofty ideal thing has proven absurd, because too many people are “in it to win it,” and think it’s “all about me.”  The human condition, freedom to make the wrong choice, and concupiscence from the fall.  Whatever you call it, whenever we live with this as the ideal, it translates as “survival of the fittest,” and “the one who dies with the most toys – wins.”

This sounds like such a cool way to live, until you actually think about it, and what’s important.  And what’s not.

You see, most of us pretty much do live in our “imagined” life – for today, where there’s no heaven or hell or religion.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s imagine no religion.

Lets forget a millennium of science, where the Church was directly responsible for optic lenses, the calendar, (believe it or not) the big-bang theory, and (contrary to Church-hating legend) scientific mapping discussing a round earth.   Sophomoric focus on Galileo having been under “house arrest” misses the point that the Church was simply maintaining that helicocentric theory (actually initiated by neither Galileo nor Copernicus, but rather Aristarchus in the 3rd century) had simply not been “proven” (nor was it for over a hundred years after his natural death), and prohibited his teaching it as fact.  Surprisingly, it was Lamarck, (later read by Darwin) who first theorized species mutation and natural selection, and the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel who founded the science of genetics.

Perhaps the greatest single contribution to education to emerge from Catholic civilization was the development of the university system. Early Catholic universities include Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salerno, Vicenza, Cambridge, Padua, Naples, and Vercelli. By the middle of the 15th-century (more than 70 years before the Reformation), there were over 50 universities in Europe.

Starting from the sixth-century, the Church in Europe also developed what were later called grammar schools and, in the 15th century, produced the movable type printing press system, with incalculable benefits for education. Today, it has been estimated that Church schools educate more than 50 million students worldwide.

Art, architecture, music, philosophy, jurisprudence, and languages.  Contrary to popular prejudice, extraordinary and influential women have been one of the hallmarks of Catholic civilization. The faith has honored many women, such as St Hilda & Blessed Hildegard von Bingen, abbess and polymath. Pioneering Catholic women in political life include Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first Queen of England, Mary Tudor.; many of the first women scientists and professors: Trotula of Salerno in the 11th century, Dorotea Bucca, who held a chair in medicine at the University of Bologna, Elena Lucrezia Piscopia, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree and Maria Agnesi, the first woman to become professor of mathematics, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV as early as 1750.

Whew! But what about now?  Is the Church/religion really relevant today?  Was she just an altruistic pioneer in the Middle Ages?  Hmmm, I think not.

Catholic Charities in the USA alone provide services to over 9 million people, and are the 4th largest charity, much bigger than the United Way.  Lutheran Services is invaluable as well.  Despite their huge size, these two religious non-profits distribute among the highest percentage of donations, over 85%, with less than 15% going to salaries and distribution networks.

Maybe I try to cover too much in some of these posts; I’ve barely glossed over a few positive impacts religion has and has had on the world, and those were just a few of the secular ones.

A common theme I find myself going back to time after time is the head-scratcher of so many folks who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  I think that’s a bit like “playing tennis without a net,” resulting in a kind of spiritual narcisicism.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton critiqued the Quaker notion of the “Inner Light,” but his words just as easily apply here:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. That Mr. Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.

Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine shepherd. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

Spirituality without religion goes hand-in-hand with another modern religious trend: moral therapeutic deism (MTD). Even more popular with today’s youth than “low riding” jeans, MTD eschews revelation, religious commandments, and formal worship in favor of a divine Santa Claus: He’s out there somewhere, he wants us to be nice, but he gives us presents even if we’re naughty. As with unregulated spirituality, the chief moral principle of MTD—be nice to others—relies on the subjective (and thus infinitely and conveniently flexible) interpretations of the “believer.” What’s nice for you isn’t necessarily nice for me.

Small surprise, then, that a recent sociological study published in the journal Criminology found that young people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are more likely than their religious peers—whether spiritual or not—to commit crimes.

“Calling oneself ‘spiritual but not religious’ turned out to more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious,” said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.”

The researchers’ remarks focused on possible sociological reasons why self-identified religious folk commit fewer crimes: shame, fear of divine judgment, greater investment in family and community, and so on. But although there may be merit to such theories (though they turn a blind eye to the most obvious reason: grace), they don’t account for the most shocking finding of this research:  “spiritual but not religious” group was also more likely to commit crime, and to display anti-social characteristics and “negative emotions,” than those who claimed to be neither spiritual nor religious.

Maybe it’s just what happens when Jones worships Jones.

Why do we need religion?  Obviously many people are disillusioned by what they perceive to be corruption and hypocrisy of organized religion, including lots of scandal.  Nothing new – scandal has been with us from the beginning.  Not a reason to leave, but a reason to stay (or return) – how could anything other than the truth have survived so much scandal.  “You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!”

Which brings me, of course, to a theme I return to often – find me a perfect religion and then join it, and I will too. Then it will no longer be perfect, because of the sinners (us).  That’s the point exactly. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, he gave them to someone who had just denied Him three times, and even cursed Him.  He hand-picked an entire group of twelve misfits for a reason.  We are too, and His actions and lessons, time, and time again, show us that not only is being human OK, it’s how He made us.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Christians believe that in this verse Jesus is bestowing on Peter a position of authority from which the office of the pope is derived. But even if the “spiritual” Christian has problems with this belief, there is no escaping the fact that Christ intended his Church to be both visible and authoritative.

“But I don’t need to go to church to find God.  I’m much closer to Him when I’m fishing or hiking than I do in any building.”  (Ever heard this from a loved one?)  I’ll grant you the benefit of the doubt and assume you wouldn’t just rather be “away.”  No one disputes that our Lord is everywhere, and a beautiful sunrise and a speckled trout certainly testifies to His presence in the origin of the universe and its progression.  But if you have a hard time finding Him with you when “two or more are gathered in His name,” perhaps the problem isn’t within those walls (just a possibility).

It is evident from Scripture that Jesus intended for community to gather regularly for worship. St. Paul wrote to the early Christians:

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:25).

This verse indicates that, even in the first century, there were Christians who did not think it was necessary to gather for worship. This runs contrary to the idea that one can be a church unto himself as long as he has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. The Lord intended his Church to be a community.

It’s clear from the Bible that Jesus did not intend Christians to live out their spiritual lives in a vacuum. He founded a Church, gave it authority in the areas of faith and morals, and guards it from teaching error (Matt. 18:17-18).

There is, in fact, true evil in the world.  And God.   This is precisely the reason I’m glad there is also religion.

Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

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A while back, I walked the Camino de Santiago as part of my grief healing process after losing my son.  I had been informed, and found it true, that the spirituality, the soul saving energy of the Holy Spirit was “so thick there that you could cut it with a knife.”  The love and fraternity penetrated every perigrino, the pilgrims there for so many reasons, with such affect and effect that even the social participants would be changed forever.  Especially during the evenings at the albergues, the Spanish hostels for pilgrims, where sharing, toasting and camaraderie were evident. It was truly one of the highlights of my life – so much so that I would return back to operate my own albergue along “the way.”

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And so, I saw myself working with such effort that I was exhausted each day.  We decided to operate our hostel for no set fee, the pilgrim would pay what they could afford, a tariff called “donitivo,” or simply, donation of what one feels is worthy.  At the beginning, it was like my first marathon – exhilarating at each day’s finish line, but so worth it that even my wife, who I pulled into this journey with me, felt this service fulfilling.  But this calling began to take its toll.  We certainly collected enough to pay our bills, as many donated much, much more than the 12 euro typical of most albergues with set fees.  But day after day, week after week, year after year we were worn down.

Much like the decades of veterinary medicine I practiced, I loved the calling, the connections I made, the love and brotherhood I shared.  I knew what I was doing was worthwhile, and made a difference in so many lives, but, still, after all the time, we were just weary.  Some days turned into most days that I wondered if people cared how much effort was involved in what I did for them.  And like the few that didn’t seem to appreciate my veterinary service, the traveler or two that didn’t express appreciation or even pay anything at all for the meal and bed that we provided began to hurt my feelings.

I grew indignant, such that I looked forward to the slow season, when fewer and fewer people would impose upon me.  I was just plain tired.  And so when November, and then December rolled around, I was so relieved.  Imagine my frustration when, at the end of December, more tour groups came through and kept me at capacity for day after day, and now weeks of exhaustion.  Every night, Sharon and I melted into our bed, only to be startled a few hours later to start it all over again.  Preparing their food, and changing the linens on the beds that the next nights refugees would so appreciate.

And so that night, ever so memorable, began just like every other.  It was cold, we were full, and the words came so easily – “sorry but we’re full – continue on to the next town,” where lodging might be available.  But this was different.  These travelers were so presumptuous, even inconsiderate.  It was well after ten, and they thought there were vacancies?  We had been full, and turning people away since 2 o’clock!  But what was most inconsiderate was not the hour, but the condition of these travelers.  He was old and clearly out of shape, and she was very pregnant.  What the heck were they thinking, doing the Camino at all, in their conditions, much less when it was so cold.  Their previous town had been well over 10 kilometers prior, how could he possibly expect her to make it here, and now … nothing for another 18 kilometers.  They could never continue on.

I reminisced back to that night, forever ago, when I trudged ahead on my own first Camino, so cold and tired, only to find the fee for lodging I so desperately needed to be “cash only,” and more than I had remaining in my pocket.  The tears were streaming down my cheeks as I was turned away, on to the next town, in the freezing driving rain.

This was precisely why I had no set fee – someone might need my help and not have whatever I wanted to charge.  A donation of the travelers’ choosing seemed so appropriate.  And this was, in fact, the tradition, a thousand years ago, when so many saints and sinners, including my favorite St Francis, had walked this Camino de Santiago.

It’s hard to put into words my appreciation, that first Camino, when just around the corner from where I had been turned away in that freezing rain, was a different albergue, one that wasn’t in the guidebook, that allowed me to stay for what I could afford.

Sharon startled me from those memories, when she whispered into my ear what I should have thought of myself as the weary couple turned and walked away in disappointment.  “We’ll make room somewhere, they can even stay in our room,  they’ll never make it to the next town.  Besides, they’re probably also full at this hour.”

“Wait!” I shouted as they disappeared in the dark, “If you want to, you can sleep in with the pups.”

To help pay the bills, we raised boxer dogs and had a litter almost ready to wean in what used to be the garage.  It was foul smelling of canine waste, and probably loud with whining and barking, but at least they would have a cover for the night.

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I was surprised that my wife wasn’t happy with me.  Apparently she was serious about giving up our own bed.  She was nuts, there was no way I was going to go without, because of someone else’s lack of planning. I was tired, and had worked hard.

My heart was full of chaos, I was exhausted, and I needed rest for tomorrow.  But there would never be another tomorrow.  My life would be demanded of me tonight.  And in my business, I had missed Him in our midst.  I’d prepared my entire life for this very night, and yet my own lamp was without oil.

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

But I had given them shelter.  Wasn’t that good enough?  Was it?

I’d never killed anyone or robbed, or cheated, or told any big lies.  Wasn’t that good enough?

I had allowed the mother of my Lord to sleep with my dogs.  How could I possibly know she would have the child that night?  I hadn’t turned them away, had I?

Would you have?

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