Shouting at an Empty Chair, Father’s day 2015

Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.”  I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer.  I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”

“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic.  What a great summer job!  What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”

Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”

Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit.  But I knew better.  If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.

What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question.  What, in fact, is a “good father?”

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Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness?  Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble).  Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?

I’ve seen both extremes.  I’ve been both extremes.  OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids.  But we don’t get any do-overs.  A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:

We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves.  “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him.  You are not perfect.  You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can.  And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom.  Didn’t you always act out of love?  Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”

“Yeah, but…”

Yeah but nothing.  By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again.  We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human.  You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that.  We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day.  But we’ll never be perfect.  Not on this Earth.

You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor.  You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them.  Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do.  As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”

A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage.  So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option.  Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option.  But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).

And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!”  When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!”  I continued to pace in silence.  “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”

He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”

“Can’t I just forgive him?”

Fritz and Laura Perls' Gestalt Theory

Fritz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt Theory

“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”

“But it’s not his fault.  I think he did the best he could do.”

I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.

And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on.  And even more to let go of.  If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself?  It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.

Cullen's Empty Chair

Florida State University graduation, 2012

There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations.  I think this is called Generational Sin.  The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory.  Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature.  As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil.  And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse.  Free will spawned original sin.

But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).

Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.

To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.

Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too.  If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.

For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.

Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father.  If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this.  And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing?  St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).

We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin.  Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings.  But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on.  We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is.  When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).

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In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love.  The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.”  The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice.  We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.

Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return?  No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son!  In tears, he runs to welcome him home!

Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child.  Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me.  I go to church.  I believe in you. I play by the rules!  And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness.  Ouch.  The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.

Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.

The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.

We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).

The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michaelangelo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michelangelo

After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.

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Camino to Morocco, Chapter 27

May 17th, My Darkest Day

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, blaming the heat and loud Arabic chatting from the adjacent room. But the real reason was clear. My plan to go to Chefchaouen tomorrow was absurd, and only an excuse. So many people had told me how beautiful and quaint this little village was, almost like in Switzerland, and I just “had to go there.”  But this wasn’t why I was here. I wasn’t a tourist, on holiday. I was, like Dr. Tom in “The Way,” here, on “family business.” I hope to someday return for those reasons, but it will be with my wife, and certainly not on May 17th.

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What I needed to do was to back to ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute in Fes) again to talk to Cullen’s Professor. We had met, earlier in the week, but not really talked.

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I needed to sit in Cullen’s chair in room 100 again and see “his” classroom.

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I needed to sit in the courtyard and drink coffee and eat almond cake. I needed to wander around the university library and gaze in amazement.

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I needed to eat a camel-burger and drink a chocolate shake at the Clock Cafe. I needed to drink mint tea at the corner table in the cafe with pool tables. I came here to see the world through Cullen’s eyes. One last time, for him, with him.

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But I didn’t want to. It would mean saying goodbye, it would mean that I was checking these things off, and throwing my clump of dirt onto the casket. I didn’t want to, but I needed to.

I jumped out of bed, and swung open the door to again tell Allal that there had again been a change in itinerary. We are NOT going to Chefchaouen tomorrow.

And so we did all those things, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

On the last stop of the day, Allal had run across the street to digitally capture the moment. I sat at the cafe sipping mint tea, and he shouted to make the peace sign, because he knew our Cullen always did this in pictures.
And now, the end of the day, for some reason, and it was always unpredictable, I melted.

Allal pleaded with me not to cry. Today was the first time this year’s journey had immersed me here. I’d been in Morocco over a week, but this was the first time I would visit that place inside where I had such little control. After almost three years, I was, for the most part, in a really good place. But sometimes, and it was hard to predict the catalyst, the emotions would let loose. I had spent the day vicariously as my son, seeing these things with the same blue eyes we had gotten from my father. We tasted the same mint in every cup of tea, and overwhelming cumin and other spices in the food that was so different from what we had both eaten at the same table. We were drenched with same sweat, and burned with the same sand. We were feeling the same cultural amazement, and now had heard the same professor in the same room.

“Please, Mr. William, please don’t be so sad. Please don’t be always crying and sad!” This actually caught me a little off guard, because I wasn’t “always” crying, and certainly didn’t think I had been acting sadly. These moments were now few and far between. And even now, I wasn’t blubbering and wailing like I used to do. It was just a few tears running down my cheek, and probably wouldn’t even have been noticed under my sunglasses if I hadn’t started wiping them away.

“Cullen is with Allah, and it’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful place!” I’d had quite a few conversations about religion in the El Harrami household, and it was touching that he now felt comfortable saying such things in an attempt to console me.  “He is at salam, (peace).”

One of those conversations with Allal included his sister-in-law Nisrine, who knew well the observance of Islamic law. And not just the ritual observance, this family seemed to have dug pretty deeply, and knew in their heart that their’s was the true religion. So, I’m not so sure they were thrilled with the place I was willing to exit our hour’s-long conversation. If I was such a truth seeker, why would I be content with my “false religion?”

I suppose “turnabout is fair play.” Being reasonably well versed in Catholic apologetics, I was used to responding to concerns from Protestants dispelling misconceptions about the RC tradition. At the end of the day, we Christians really do agree on much more than we disagree on, and certainly the most important tenants.

In fact, my then evangelical wife Sharon and I had had this very conversation on our first date. She was incredulous that I thought my faith tradition was right and others’ were wrong. Not that it’s a perfect church, precisely because I (and other humans like me) are part of it; rather I hold that She’s been guided by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession for 2000 years. If I didn’t believe my faith was the “true” one, I’d most certainly be somewhere else.

Anyway, so here I am, a guest in a home who thinks any reasonable person who takes the time to learn about the prophet and his writings, couldn’t possibly come to any other conclusion. In their minds, they were as “right” as I am. The fact that I have all sorts of rebuttals for Christianity, and “gotcha” questions for my Muslim family was irrelevant. Perhaps we were both, in our hearts, as good, as faithful, and as loving, as we were called to be. Perhaps our very same God had revealed Himself differently to different cultures, in a way most appropriate to them, and their customs, and traditions.

I sat silently there with Allal for a few moments, for a few reasons.

I did need to recompose, but I also rather enjoyed hearing my new friend, who had never even met my son, be so confident that he was in paradise with Allah.  The phrase Muslims almost always use to greet includes, “Salam,” which means “Peace,” or “God’s Peace.”  This struck me a bit, since Cullen often lifted his hand with the peace sign in photos.

Allal looked directly into my eyes as I lifted my sunglasses to wipe them again, “I know this, my brother, because he is your son. He must be so much like you. You are so loving and such a good person, my brother.” This was a bit much for me also, so I lowered my glasses again, took a final sip of mint tea, and said, “OK, let’s go.”

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And so I had done what I had intended to do. Cullen had had quite a “reversion,” a return to his baptized faith tradition when he had been here in Morocco. He had returned with a faith I was am in awe of.

And now I felt it too. He’d told me that every movement of every day he had felt proselytized, even assaulted in faith by so many here. I certainly hadn’t felt that way, but it was easy to see how a 18 year old could feel this way. And you had to be awe-struck, and even admire, their faith. Five times each day we would hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. For some reason (I’ll address later), I wasn’t allowed to (visibly) be present to view worship in a mosque, but I found this most interesting, even compelling.

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It’s been called the most beautiful sound in the world, when the muezzin calls to prayer. I would differ in my preference, but I kind of get it. To be so focused on God, and doing what you feel is your reason for being here is a beautiful thing. it’s not all about me, it’s about why I’m here.

I saw so many things during “this year’s Camino.” This has been a culture shock x 10. On any of several occasions I saw things that would have made my son return from this place so changed, so deep, so much better than me.

I am thankful for so many things, and so many people – and you all know who you are. This has been quite a ride, and I am definitely better for it. Much love.

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I realize this is kind of a sad post, and i apologize for that. Lots of good, happy, and funny posts still to come. May 17 will likely always be like this. Sorry.

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“As-salamu alaykum”

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.

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“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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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?

prayers

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 is No Devil

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I’m friends with quite a few people that consider themselves, “spiritual, but not religious.”. Upon further prodding this normally means some form of “New Age” stuff – basically that God is within each of us, and as such we have no need of organized anything.  If God is within, there’s clearly no need for communicating with the “heavens,” or that “divine dimension.”  No, prayer consists of emptying oneself completely of all the “human stuff,” so all that remains is divine.  We effectively become our own god.  Much like those who “cherry pick” what they like to believe is right or wrong, we attend the “church of me.”

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And so with this moral relativism it’s a natural progression to deny the existence of the absolute.  I’m a pretty good person,” or “at least I don’t do such and such” becomes the new standard, and there are no inherent rights and wrongs.  “Don’t judge me” is the new mantra, and we are therefore forbidden to refer to Natural Law.  The best ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Cumberland and Locke, our own John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and certainly Augustine and Aquinas.  Notice my omission of uniquely religious figures; these are philosophers of genius, who maintained that there is, in fact, absolute right and wrong, irrelevant of cultural and societal norms.  So let’s throw out 2500 years of philosophical contemplation and wisdom, because so many people in modern society find the truth inconvenient, shaming, and esteem lowering.

When the trend of culture, or even within our individual consciences (or lack thereof) has no “standard,” setting the bar for right and wrong becomes completely arbitrary.

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Likewise its quite trendy to deny the existence of “evil.”. I’m not talking about “doing” what society considers “evil things,” or even “being an evil person.”   Again, when we are allowed to “set the bar” in different places, standards of behavior become contrived and arbitrary.

No, I’m actually referring to evil.  Evil is not simply that passive void created in the absence of “good.”. Evil is a very real thing, a very active albeit insidious force that has been just as present as it was two thousand and ten thousand years ago.

And so – Most of us would agree that Oliver Cromwell did evil things when he massacred the Irish civilians in Wexford, and when the suicide bomber boarded the bus full of Israeli children, and when a man in charge of children commits pedaphilia or pederasty.  However, it’s quite different to say there was an evil force guiding and driving these feeble minded to justify what they did.  They aren’t simply confused, brainwashed, or even sick.  Consciously or unconsciously, they participated with something truly sinister.

I’m neither naive nor an an idiot.  I realize the whole idea seems absurd if you don’t believe in the existence of an absolute “good,” and in turn, the existence of God.  Much like Paul’s description of the “foolishness” of the cross to those who believe they will simply perish, but the “Power of God,” to those who are confident of salvation (1Cor 1:18).

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Nor has this moral slide happened suddenly.  It’s been with us forever,  And I think I’ve actually witnessed so many subtle, insidious instances of this slide of my culture before my very eyes.  When I was a little kid, comedian Flip Wilson had us in stitches when his character Geraldine claimed “the devil made me do it” every time she did something wrong, and so it became a laughing matter.  We clearly recognized it as facetious, Geraldine obviously was shirking her own accountability, and caricaturing the devil as a cartoon character.  And who hasn’t conjured up the mental image of “the devil,” with cute little curved horns, a fork, dressed in a red leotard, and joking about the heat.  As a child, I was probably in that costume one Halloween.  You see, of course, the theme here – cartoons, jokes, funny.

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In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes this point much more eloquently than I can, as the elder devil, Wormwood, advises his nephew apprentice:

“The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of some¬thing in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

cartoon-devil  Screwtape_bookcover  screwtape111

And if there is no Satan, no Prince of Darkness, no “evil spirit,” what of evil?  Is evil a “positive” thing (actually something that exists), or simply the absence of good, a (void)?Clearly evil exists, but is it a “something (a power unto itself),” or a “nothing (like darkness in the absence of light)?”

I suppose being a 14 year old boy in 1973 Missouri when The Exorcist first played (Blatty’s version of real events surrounding a very credible possession in St. Louis, starring Linda Blair) made me really pay attention and fascinated me.  Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I considered the whole premise plausible, and found these otherwise inexplicable events actually faith-strengthening.  And the fact that Catholic priests are called in during these situations, as “the authorities” provides a subliminal affirmation that the Roman Church provides the most dependable road home.

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So, to me, although scary “as hell,” I consider it a real thing.  I realize that philosophers and theologians much smarter than I have also explored this question and come to both conclusions.  Its easy to see how those in Auschwitz, My Lai, and Syria might feel much more confident with such first hand knowledge.  But what about the 12 year old girl who is bullied?  The 15 year old driven to self-destruction because of gay bashing?  The woman beaten to a pulp by her prince every time he drinks?  Is this darkness simply the lack of light?

One of the most emotionally powerful arguments against the existence of God is the “problem of evil.”  People say that if God is all knowing, all powerful, all good, why does evil exist?

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That drove me to bash my head against the wall for about ten hours, trying to read and understand what the best and brightest for thousands of years have said reconciling the existence of evil with an omnipotent, loving moral God.  From Buddhism, Pessimism and Zoroastrianism to Christian Scientist and Jehovahs Witness.  From Aristotle, Origen and Epicurus to Schopenhauer and Leibniz.  Eckhart, Birmingham, and even Nietzsche.  Gnostics and Deists, Monism and Pragmatism.

Frankly all I learned was that everyone knows that no one knows.  Actually that this is another one of those things that humans just can’t know.  Not that we should stop the great search for truths.  On the contrary, this is exactly why we should continue to learn and explore and dig and think deeply.

I do find myself leaning towards Thomas Aquinas:

The existence of evil functions in the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil. Thus fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the wolf must slay the deer in order to live; and if there were no wrongdoing, there would be no need for the virtues of patience and justice. Let’s assume God did author evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as the consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken without punishment. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the attraction of sin, has the nature of good. But the evil of sin, though permitted by God, is in no sense due to Him; its cause is the abuse of free will.

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Therein, St. Thomas proposes his explanation (apparently logical and sufficient to him) as to why God permits foreseen moral evil.  Why would God, foreseeing that His creatures would use His gift of free will for their own injury, proceed with the plan, and not keep them (us) from misusing this “gift,” deny the gift altogether?

St. Thomas comes to the realization that God cannot change His mind, since the Divine will is free from the defect of weakness or instability. Such fluidity would be a defect in the Divine nature (and therefore impossible), because if God’s purpose were made dependent on the foreseen free act of any creature, God would thereby sacrifice His own freedom, and would submit Himself to His creatures, thus abdicating His essential supremacy—a thing which is, of course, utterly inconceivable.

In other words, I think, “It is because it He has willed it.”  The great I AM.

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Consumed

Yeah, I suppose I am consumed at times, most of the time in fact.  OK, all the time.  Sharon says I’m obsessive about everything I do.  Well, she IS always right.  Seriously.  So although I do seem to be consumed all the time, it’s not always with grief.  At least I don’t think I am.

This Camino thing will be really, really physically demanding.  I mean, I AM 53 years old, and it will be pretty rough.  And I’ve never even hiked before, unless you count boy scouts or walking through the woods to the cliff dive place a couple of years ago with Emily in Hawaii.  So I bought all the right (I hope) gear, and started hiking with my 28# backpack a couple of times a week.  Ok it’s like everyday, but just for a short walk before anyone wakes up.  Well maybe more than a short walk, cause I walk from like 5:15 to about 7:00, but really that only like 6 or 7 miles every day.  Does that sound obsessive?  A little, I suppose, but I gotta get prepared for 18-25 miles each day, and I’m a long way from being in the shape I need to be in. And frankly, the “short walks” are kicking my butt!  I am so sore, and not just pulled muscles and strained ligaments and sprained tendons, but my joints themselves are showing me a frustrating amount of intolerance to this kind of activity.  I remember some arthritic changes in both knees and both hips in the XRays we took about 10 years ago when Cullen and I took Tae Kwan Do and I had a bit of a run in with my aging shell.

I do notice that  the training doesn’t look so compulsive now that Sharon is walking with me when she can doesn’t have to be at work early and if I instead do an afternoon trek.  Kind of kicking her younger body too!

Really though, I am.  I can never just buy something.  I am driven to research for hours.  Heaven forbid not getting the best product for the best price.  Buying socks takes hours; a phone weeks; a car takes months.  Seriously.

Maybe a little ADD too, but that’s a different blog post.

She is right though, I am compulsive, and consumed.  Since I discovered we were mortal, me specifically, I’ve been consumed with exploring faith, religion, God, death, and finally, living.  Not really sure when that happened, but probably when the girl down the street from me named Kim Inman died from Leukemia when we were like 12.  That’s the first death I really remember.  She was someone I knew, a part of MY world, a 12 year old’s reality.  She was there, my playmate, then almost instantly, was gone.  Of course then there was Nana, Papu, Grandma, Grandpa, and Dante.  And then Daddy.  Lots of things there I wish I had done and said, and not done and not said.  And lessons learned – good ones, bot what to do, and unfortunately lots of things not to do.  But that’s another post also.

Also unfortunately some of these lessons came much too late about what not to do.  How to stop generational history from repeating itself…  You know, we become our parents.  But again that’s the other post, but don’t look for it yet, cause its all still in my head.

But yeah, I do obsess about God and the other stuff I mentioned, as well as my perceptions about others’ relationship with God, and their perceptions toward mine; BTW, what the heck?  Why all the vitriol about Catholics?  We don’t worship statues, and think Mary is a God, and where does all this stuff even come from?  Haha, but seriously – we’re not Christians?  We were the ONLY Christians for over a thousand years before Henry got upset that the rules couldn’t be changed so he could get a divorce, and Martin Luther (and probably lots of others) were upset about indulgence abuse and threw out 17 books from the bible that he didn’t like.  They’re inspired for 1500 years, then you decide you knew more than the early Church Fathers?  Guess that’s a different post too.  Don’t look for that one either.

Did I mention I’m a little ADD?

So I am consumed with Cullen’s loss, and no, it’s never gonna be the same again, and the “new normal” grief counselors talk about is bullshit.  No, I’m not always consumed with grief and sadness, but yes, frankly the whole thing sucks, and I do think of Cullen every minute of every day.  But lots of it is good stuff.  Most of it in fact.