A Birthday Choice

The OB/GYN looked down at the young couple authoritatively and did his best to console them.  “I’m very sorry, I know how much you’ve been looking forward to another child.  But you’ve lost this baby.  I know how much this hurts, but you’re very young and have plenty of time to try again.”

The 29 year old looked up from the beautiful baby bump and met the eyes of the doctor. This father was a veterinarian, and as such had significantly more medical knowledge than perhaps most other expecting parents.

“But Dr. Shure, how can you be so certain? Couldn’t there still be a heartbeat even though your doppler stethoscope can’t locate it?”

The physician looked so soothingly compassionate.  “Bill, I’ve done this for a long time. Your wife has an abnormal pregnancy with a condition known as placenta previa, and although sometimes this corrects itself, this time it’s getting much worse. We need to get her downstairs for a D & C before she loses any more blood.”

This was before the age of Google, but hours had been spent digging into his medical books, leaving the young father with an irritating unwillingness to follow doctor’s orders.  “I’m not comfortable with your advice. I think we should get an ultrasound to see if the baby’s still alive.”  Dr. Shure’s compassion was becoming transparent as his confidence turned to arrogance.  “It doesn’t really matter.  Even if there’s a heartbeat, there won’t be very soon.”

Knowing very well that this would be self-fulfilling if they went downstairs, they nodded in agreement.  “We want an ultrasound,” they said in unison. “We’re Catholic, and we’re just not comfortable with abortion as an alternative.”

Dr. Shure was red-faced now and the veins on the side of his forehead were clearly visible from across the room.  “Well, I’m Catholic too, but this is important, you need to face reality.  You are making a mistake, and wasting time.”

Perhaps they had different definitions of Catholic, or different interpretations of what was important.  For them their faith was what helped them discern what really is important, as they face reality.  Risking his further disapproval of their blind ignorance, Bill clarified: “Well, we’re practicing Catholics.”

The door closed abruptly as the man they had chosen to help them bring forth life left in disgust.  And so the young couple was engulfed with fear as they looked down at the bloody sheets.  Before they could get her dressed, a nurse came in to assist. “The doctor doesn’t understand your feelings, but I certainly do.  I’ve made arrangements for you across the street to have an ultrasound performed, and they’ll be waiting for you.”

Their tears of joy were contagious with the entire staff at the imaging center, who now knew what was happening, and were all in tears.  Emily’s heart was most certainly beating, and it continues today.

It wasn’t an easy final 6 months of pregnancy, all spent in bed.  Any attempt to become vertical resulted in massive blood loss, and progesterone supplements were taken as a precaution against premature labor.

Of course the young man was me and today I remember that fateful day.  Beautiful memories of each of my five children have carried me through some pretty tough times. Today is September 13, and I celebrate one of them.  Happy Birthday Emily.

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Please help me celebrate by remembering precious memories of your own children, or siblings, or growing up. Recall a moment when something life changing happened. Give someone a hug and tell them how much you love them and how glad you are that they’re alive today.

Life is beautiful.

emilyotis

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

Lessons From Emily’s Missing Boat, Teaching Me to Sail

“I’m fine, I think I’m doing really well, considering it just happened a year ago.”

The conversation is still fresh in my mind, although it took place over a year ago. The best part of family reunions is breakfast talk, and this one was with my oldest brother.  With a father who was absent much of the time, this brother takes on the alpha role, and it seems to continue on, decades later.

Anyway, he asked me a second time, “Bill, really, how are you?”

Really, I’m much better than most people would be after losing a child,” I replied very matter-of-factly.  “But life is just much different now.  I have absolutely no patience for bull-shit, no interest in unimportant things.  I don’t care about anything at all that doesn’t make me a ‘better version of myself,’  more likely to do what I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun, there’s more to life than just the important things!”

The tone had suddenly become very serious.  “Here’s the deal…  trust me, you have nothing to worry about – I would never do anything to hurt myself, but I don’t really care if I live, or not.  I’m ‘over it,’ and ready to check out”

My big brother’s face drained of all color.  I continued, “If I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I’d tell no one, and not even consider any treatment.”  I was talking to a man in the midst of debilitating and painful prostate cancer treatment and recovery.  I’d held his hand as he recovered from anesthesia.  That was back when I thought divorce and the loss of my mother would be my darkest days, and the greatest tests of my faith.

He looked down at me as I had grown accustomed, he was the big brother with all of life’s knowledge, and I was Billy, the naive little boy.  He was using his adult logic to tell me how “stupid” my feelings were.  Except this time he was wrong.  It was I that had the knowledge, the life experience.

I ripped back into him angrily, for the first time in my memory,  It was as if he was from Mars, and had no idea what he was talking about, about how things really were.  This time it was I who possessed all of life’s knowledge.  I had lost my son, and he had no idea what he was talking about.

It seemed perfectly logical to me.  If a 19 year old child, my first son, could die, the world would end soon for all of us. Perhaps I felt as though the world had ended already.  My world had.  This was not a metaphor, it’s truly how I felt.  And if I was going to die soon, why would I get my oil changed, or get new tires, or cut the damn grass.

The shrinks nod approvingly, because apparently it’s just another stage to progress through, and mine were not uncommon feelings.  I hadn’t sought out mental health therapy, but it seemed to seek me out.  I’d been urged to visit, or even visited by organizations like Compassionate Friends, Rainbows, and ClearCause Foundation.  These are some pretty awesome folks well versed in uplifting the survivors.  But I’m a self-help junkie, and prefer to experience epiphany myself, especially if I can do it in a setting with my Lord and Savior.

Besides, like in the Tim McGraw song, Live Like You Were Dyin’, shouldn’t we all live like today could be our last day?  The tragedy had tested my faith, and directed me towards (an attempt at) being that “best version of myself,” that Matthew Kelly talks about.  In fact, it’s become my mantra when dealing with people myself, or pontificating to others – “Never say or do anything to someone that you wouldn’t want to be the last thing you ever said or did.”  And, in fact that is most certainly a healthy “life vision,” the best way to navigate through our daily encounters with others.

But the problem is, how selfish it was making me.  My focus of getting me through life righteously, would be much easier if it was a short life.  And so when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, I always took the highest, most dangerous, risky passages at every opportunity.  I agreed to jump out of “a perfectly good airplane” with my daughter Kayla on her 18th birthday, and I didn’t really care if my tires had been bald for a month.  That was the stuff I did subconsciously, my self-destructive unconscious.  My visible encounters with others took on the tone of, “What’s the right thing for me to do?”  But not for their sake, but for my own.  To get to heaven, but not just to get to heaven.  Because it makes God happy with me.

Upon reading back over this last paragraph, I realize it sounds like splitting hairs, and very philosophical.  Here’s what I mean – years ago, I heard a Buddhist version of a parable.

The student, after years of instruction, was told that his route to heaven was his mantra.  It was whispered in his ear, and he was sternly warned not to share it with anyone.  He asked the wise old monk, “What if I tell others of this mantra?”  “That would give them all access to heaven, but you would lose your own salvation.  It would be very foolish.”  Shortly later, the wise old monk heard much commotion outside, and looked to observe his student on the street, sharing his mantra with his family, his friends, everyone, in fact, who would listen.  The wise old monk rushed out to him, and looked down proudly, “You have learned well, and will most certainly join your friends in paradise.”

You see the difference?  It can not be “all about me.” Getting myself to heaven may, in fact be the point, but a much more loving and effective way to do so is selflessly.

So what’s any of this got to do with my daughter being lost at sea?

Tara (Nicholas Brown)

The “Tara”

 

Six days after we lost contact with Emily, I actually became angry with her for being so inconsiderate.  How could she put her life in such peril?  All of our lives had been torn apart, how literally destroyed each of us have been, how much pain her brother’s death had caused.  What was she thinking?!!  Clearly not thinking! Completely selfish and inconsiderate!  I’d had this very talk with her as we flew back from China with his ashes.  Our family could not withstand another loss.  Blatantly discarding all consideration of her family, she disregarded us and our feelings, and went on a tiny sailboat in predicted rough seas, and… and…

And yet, here I had been doing the same thing for two years.

Much of last Thursday’s workday had been on the phone with the United States Coast Guard and with Emily’s big sister’s fiance (a yacht captain), and the parents of Emily’s friend (the captain of the 32 foot Tara), being strong and coherent.  The rest of the day was spent squatting in the back room of my veterinary hospital embracing Cullen’s dog Svedka with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Then I drove home for two hours going 80 miles an hour in the rain on bald tires.   “And so, when I hydro-planed to my death, surely my son would embrace me, and lead me ‘home,’ to our Lord.”  How incredible will that be???  Much like Mercy Me’s hit I Can Only Imagine, I do look forward to that day!  But somehow, now it sounds embarrassing to even write down those words.

Do I think the loss of my own life would be any easier for Cullen’s siblings?  To lose their father, and new stepfather? And my own siblings?  Any my wife?  After already losing her first husband to lymphoma, I don’t have any more compassion and consideration for her than to take absurd risks with my own life, because I’m “over it?”

Psychologists call it cathexis.

It’s the emotional energy used in concentrating on a person, or the emotional value we develop and place on someone.  

I had so valued my relationship with Cullen, that I had disregarded my own value to Emily (who I was now angry with for being so “selfish”), Camille (who is counting on me to walk her down the aisle in a few months and to love and embrace those grandchildren she has planned), Kayla and Noah (who already said goodbye to their first father when they were just babies), and Sharon, who has already had the love of her life ripped from her by cancer.

And on that sixth day, as my anger evolved into concern, and I found my voice cracking, and often unable to complete sentences containing her name.  Only when I made myself numb could I speak matter-of-factly to the Coast Guard and others involved in the search.  I flashed back to my steps to the pulpit to deliver Cullen’s eulogy.

Our “Camino,” this journey through life, is full of growth and lessons that must be learned through living, and not taught from someone else’s perspective.

I can not be told how stupidly I’m behaving, I must come to that realization on my own.  In psychoanalytic terms, this process is called de-cathexis.

In order to refocus your life’s energies toward the future, you need displace some of that emotion onto other people and things in your life.  This process cannot be rushed, it takes time.

There have been many lessons learned from the Tara’s being blown off course by a wicked storm:

  • Many people, loved ones as well as strangers, have reconnected to prayer with our Lord.  Seldom are our prayers so quickly and visibly answered.  Thanks again to over a hundred thousand who bowed their heads for us.  In the only conversation I’ve had with her since, Emily described this all as very humbling.  If reconnecting others to prayer was the only consequence of this saga, its all been worthwhile.
  • My big brother still knows more than I do.
  • Emily’s a big girl, and gets to make her own decisions.  I’m not allowed to get upset if she doesn’t see things from my perspective.  I’d have gone on that sailboat too.  I have many times.  And she won’t learn the same lessons that I would have.  She’s not me.  Others travel their own journey, stumble and fall, and gain their own knowledge.
  • My car handles much better now with my new tires.
  • Sometimes, when the storm is too brutal, we must lower our sails, but then we drift and will eventually founder.  I’ve learned that it must be raised again to catch the wind, and move forward.

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Perhaps most importantly, I’m afforded the unexpected luxury of learning one of life’s valuable lessons, this time without tragedy.  It’s much different than reading books on grief recovery assuring me that, “It’s OK to keep living.  We don’t betray our lost loved ones by resuming life.”

It’s OK, or even required, to refocus some of that emotion, and reconnect with others that continue to love us, and also ache with their own bloodied knees.  Much Love.

 

 

 

Why do you want to marry my daughter? (My outline of notes) – What I tried to say when he asked for my blessing

Camille and Nick

Dear Future Son-in-Law,

I’ve considered this conversation for months now;  no, actually since the day I watched the woman you want to marry walk down the aisle in her first communion dress.  Any you’d think I’d have the words by now.  But they’re fleeting, and I only get to have this talk with you once.  Oh, I’m sure we’ll have lots of talks, some of them even important ones, as the months and years roll along, but this is the one I think you’ll remember.

Perhaps I should begin with the most basic of questions.  You want to marry my daughter, but Why?  

Let’s back up and start with this.  Why do you love my daughter?  Because she makes you happy?  Because she “completes” you?  Because she has so many things in common with you?  You have so much fun when you’re with her?  Because you get that really cool, funny feeling deep down in your inner being anytime you’re with her, or even think about her?  Because you think she’s so beautiful?  I would certainly hope all of these are true.  But they simply can not be the reason to marry my princess.

First of all, they’re all about you, not her.  And they describe a “feeling.”  Of course being “in love” implies that happy feeling that you certainly (hopefully) have together – that feeling that “nothing else matters.”  Because of course, everything else does matter.  And that feeling will pass, probably on the way home from your honeymoon, or that first morning when you wake up muttering, “Forever, really?” and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

By now, I’m pretty sure you two have disagreed over things, and know just where the other’s jugular vein is, their Achilles’s heel, that weak spot you know would be really hurtful.  That “feeling” is in serious jeopardy during your first big fight over something “really important.”  Or after the hundredth of them, when you’re still angry and maybe out with the boys, and see an old girlfriend, or someone in some foreign town, or someone who suddenly starts thinking you’re pretty incredible looks at you the way my daughter “used to.”  This is not something that might happen, or a prediction.  It’s something that will happen.  Maybe once, maybe 10 times.  Maybe a week after you get married, or even seven years.  Why am I so confident?  Every male I’ve shared my adult life with has only nodded their head in agreement when we look back over our years.  Some crossed the line, some didn’t.  But any of us could have.  I could have.  Your guard drops at a weak moment, especially after a few drinks, and nothing will ever be the same.

That’s why its not about a feeling.  Love is not a feeling.  Because there will be times, lots of times, weeks of them, when she will not make you happy.  She will not complete you, you’ll grow up and realize that in fact, you are incomplete, but my daughter can not and should not and must not fill that void.  You’ll be sure that you have many more things not in common than you ever agree on.  And that really cool feeling that nothing else matters will be long gone.  Because everything else does matter.  One of you will be immature.  And irresponsible.  Make stupid mistakes.  Make financial mistakes.  Has a selfish side.  One of you?  Both of you have all of these traits.  We all have all of these traits.  And you both have dirty closets – both physically and metaphorically.

Again, this is why love can not be a feeling.  Because all of these things will change.  One of you will get cancer and lose a breast, or the ability to make love.  Or be in an accident and become disabled, or disfigured.  Or just get fat.  And you will no longer be so attractive – to each other, or even more likely to yourself.  And you’ll stop loving yourself, and feel unloved, and feel unlovable.  And so you’ll make yourself unlovable.  And one of you will lose a job through no fault of your own, or through every fault of your own.  Or you’ll be unable to get another job, or keep another job.  You’ll also feel pretty worthless, and make yourself also unlovable.  And you’ll be very hard to love.  In fact, unlovable.  Rather, you’ll be unlovable if your relationship, your marriage, your “love” is a feeling.

But it’s not.  And this is not rocket-science.  But here’s the tricky part – if in fact you suspected I was going to say that instead of a feeling, love is “an agreement,” you’d be right.  But only partially right.

I worked for a guy one time who had separate bank accounts for himself and his wife.  It had nothing to do with his pre-nup, or family wealth, or anything at all about protecting their precious material things, or inheritance, or whatever.  No, it was simply “an agreement.”  They had separate jobs, and they each paid for half of all the bills out of their own accounts.  He argued eloquently that it kept the romance in their marriage, because they would “treat” each other to a dinner, or the theater, or a gift.  And it was truly a gift from them individually, because if it had been paid for out of a joint account, then no gift was involved, they just bought something together.  And he added a bow to the package, when he proudly explained, with a wink and a nod, besides, some things were just “none of her business!”  Then he clicked his mouse to open the computer screen displaying this “hilarious” video I’d surely enjoy, and he resumed the porn session he had been halfway through when I had walked into his office.  This went a long way to describe how much respect he had for her.  She surely reciprocated.

No, so love is not just an “agreement.”  I’ve heard ministers officiating the ceremony describe it as a “contract.”  Surely, this is just as dangerous, maybe more so, because a contract is a trade of one thing for another.  A “quid-pro-quo.”  It’s more dangerous because, again, there will be times, perhaps even years when one of you isn’t holding up “your end of the bargain.”  Trust me, this is inevitable.  We human beings are screw-ups, and we are wired to fall, and fail.  Such a breech of contract then allows the other party license to violate the contract because, in fact, no contract exists anymore.  If she’s not doing such and such any more, neither will you!

Yes, love is an agreement, but not a contract.  It’s a “covenant.”  The difference is in the magic words we use when referring to the ceremony that almost no-one really takes seriously – our “vows.”  We “vow” to do these things, with a swear to almighty God, until death do us part.  The fact that we’re vowing to do them in front of all the “witnesses” is, in fact, pretty meaningless.  Most of them are simply there for the really expensive party afterwards anyway.  Close your eyes and imagine looking out over those you’ve invited, and consider whether or not they’ll hold you accountable to your vows, this promise, this covenant. Or will they “high five” over cheating, because he’s such an asshole, or she’s turned into such a bitch?

You’re not “exchanging” rings as part of this contract.  It’s a sign of a covenant.  You know what observant Jews did (and do) as a sign of their covenant with God!  Would you do such a thing as a sign of this covenant?  They didn’t cut off skin so God would do “something.”  They did it as a sign of their fidelity, a physical statement, an affirmation that they were “all in.”  Are you?  Are you all in?  Will you be true to this covenant if she’s fat and ugly, frigid and hateful, clinically depressed?  Or what if she’s addicted to something to numb some pain?  What if she’s an alcoholic?

I realize I should be having this conversation with her as well, but that’s a conversation your parents should have with her.  And I’ve had 29 years to do my best with her; this conversation is with you.  About you.

And how do you see your role in her life?  Let’s assume you really do understand, and agree with marriage as a covenant, or at least that you’ll think about it long and deep.  What will you be to her?  And to your children?  A provider?  What exactly does that mean?  Will you have a job that requires such long hours that your wife is lonesome, and lonely?  You’ve told me that you want children – is that a pet child? or several children?  Have you seriously made plans together? Will you be there for birthday parties, recitals, and parent-teacher meetings?  What is important to you?  What makes life worth living?  Will you live every day as if it’s your last one, and be happy with the importance you gave people and things?

Do you love people and use things?  Or do you love things and use people?

Don’t answer “correctly,” answer honestly.  

And what does make life worth living?  Why are we here?  Why are you here?  Nobody really has any of this figured out, but do you try?  Do you think about these things?  Are they important to you?  What could be more important to you?

I know you both were “raised” Christian, but what does that mean?  How important is your faith to you?  Will it have a role in your marriage?  Does it now?  Surely you know “a three-ply cord is not easily broken.”  Honestly, if your Christian faith is not an active part of your life right now, what will ever change?  Why do people pray?  Do you?  What does that look like?  Is it so private that you can’t really talk about it?  If you believe in “life after this,” I mean really, then isn’t it the most important thing in life?  Then why is God, and faith, and prayer private, and hard to talk about?  Wouldn’t it be important to help the woman you love get to heaven also?

So, anyway, that’s the “love” thing.  You say you want my blessings?  Tell me again, “Why do you want to marry her?

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.”

camino_friends camino_friends2

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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