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”

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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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Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

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

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

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

Would you have?

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What if There is No God?

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Yeah, Yeah, I know lots of folks are pretty sure its all a “fairy tale,” and God doesn’t exist.  Although most of the people in “my bubble” are pretty convinced that there is a god, I’m well aware that many seemingly good, nice people do not believe.

In the Mayberry I grew up in, we all did.  And we were all Christians.  I met my first Jew when I was 12, at Camp Zoe – he was singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the roof, and I remember he had a box of candy under his pillow and was really funny, but must have been homesick, because he cried in bed every-night.  A few years later Pentecostal classmate accused me of not being a Christian when she discovered I was Catholic, and I didn’t really have a reply.  I was pretty dumbfounded that she could think such a thing.  But it urged me to do some research so I did have a reply when a similar remark was made at an Amy Grant Concert ten years later.  Only in a college “comparative religion” class was I really forced to consider other world religions, and even atheism.

I got an “A” in the oral argument/debate/logic half of the class, but barely passed the assignment effectively requiring us to “admit” the absence of any proof of god, and that all religions are effectively absurd.  (In fact he used that word).  I spent my thousand words explaining very logically how “absurd” it was to consider such a complicated world as this could exist without a creator directing the very beginning, and the course of nature – evolution, if you like.  I got a C on the thesis, with only a comment that it was a shame that I hadn’t paid any attention to him all year long.  (That kind of arrogance smacks of the recent movie, God’s Not Dead.

Anyway, I’m a big boy, and I realize lots of smart people think they have everything figured out, and so they have no proof for “God.”  I’ve sparred online lots of times, cause although I HATE big confrontations, I still like a well thought out and reasoned dialogue.  But I continue to be floored when someone looks me in the face, and tells me, in person, that they don’t believe in the existence of God.

So there I was last week, in surgery, where I solve most of the world’s problems, when someone (I’ll call her Sara) walks into the conversation I was having with someone else about theology (imagine that!), and matter-of-factly says she doesn’t believe in God.  Nope, she and her brother decided it – they were convinced that there is no God.

So, of course, I was more than a little surprised, and the room was eerily quiet sans life monitoring beeps from three machines.  Finally, my gay technician broke the silence, with an astonished, “REALLY???”  “So you consider yourself an atheist???!!!” She puffed her chest out and reiterated that she was quite sure.  He just stood there shaking his head, saying he wasn’t convinced we had all of Christ’s teachings just right, but he was positive there is a God, and that He helps him constantly.

The best I could come up with was, “So the fact that the existence of God hasn’t been objectively proven to you, is proof enough that there is NOT a god?”  Afraid that I was setting a trap, she hesitatingly said, “Yeah, I guess.”  My mind and my heart wanted to take her a hundred places, with a thousand experiences, seemingly revelations for me.  But in a right-brain/left-brain flash of a second, I realized these were personal revelations, and there would be no possible way any of this information could be useful, or convincing for her.  Pascal’s wager came to mind, but I realized that souls are never saved by winning an argument.  No, besides it was probably also inappropriate banter for an employee/employer type relationship.

She said lots of people have tried to show her the error in her thinking, but this apparently just seem to strengthen her resolve.  “Yeah, ha ha, I’ll probably get sent to hell, but I just don’t believe it.  When you die, its over.  That’s it.  Nothing after.”  I was horrified at the thought.  Really?  Nothing after?  Then what’s the point?  Indeed, there would be no point.

I told her, my own leanings were closer to, “we choose” to be in God’s presence, or to be away from Him, based on our beliefs and how we live our lives.  It seemed like a good starting place to begin, and end this conversation.  To plant a few seeds, and do my best to “act” like a Christian.  Isn’t that the best evangelizing?  So they’ll “know we are Christians by our love.”

But then Sara continued, “But why does everyone have to shove their religion down my throat?”  Glad that I, in fact, had elected not to do that, I mused.  But then I replied to her question.

“Suppose you and some others you really care about, your family, were all exposed to Ebola, and the cure had been discovered, and was available in Sikeston, MO, and free to anyone who got there in time.  Well you know where Sikeston is, because you have a map.  You’re convinced the map is accurate, and so, again, you are positive that you know how to get to Sikeston.  Isn’t it loving to tell your family how to get there?  In fact, wouldn’t you be a selfish jerk if you saw someone headed on the wrong road, towards Dallas, or New York?  They might be able to get to Sikeston via these other places, but isn’t it most loving and compassionate to share your knowledge with people you care about?”

Before she could doubt the accuracy of the map, I quickly added, “Whether or not it can be proven that the map is correct is irrelevant; you asked why someone might be compelled to ‘shove their religion down someone else’s throat.’  Even if they’re wrong, they’re doing it out of love.  They want to save someone else’s life, and they personally are positive they know where the cure is.  They might have even taken the same road, and even “gone to Dallas,” only to realize they were so fortunate to get a “do-over.”  Many don’t.  So it makes it a bit easier to “swallow” when we realize it’s really out of love that this is done, and that you’d be a bit of a jerk if you didn’t care enough to share.

Why not “live and let live,” and “coexist?”  Suppose you see your neighbor pull out of his driveway with his coffee-cup or phone on the roof of his car.  Don’t you care enough about him to wave and yell at him?

This conversation was “about a week ago,” and clearly I’m still thinking about it.  What exactly is our level of responsibility to our “neighbors?”  Do we let them head towards Dallas, when they may die of “the virus” before they realize there’s nothing there to save them?  Do we let the coffee cup smash to the ground?  And who, exactly is  my neighbor?

I read a FB post a few days ago condemning “imposing our religions” on our children.  “Let them wait until they’re adults, and can decide for themselves.”  I’m so thankful my parents did such a horrible thing to us, so I could in turn do so to my own.  I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that “imposing my parent’s religion” saved my son Cullen’s eternal life.  Indeed, at the end of the day, at the end of our days, nothing else matters.  That’s the point.

But what makes me squirm, and probably why I’m sitting down on a Friday night with a couple of IPAs in front of the keyboard, is another question.  It’s nothing new, and I’ve read much more intelligent people than myself discourse about it.  What if someone could and did prove that there is no god.  How would that affect life?  Clearly I have no idea how others would respond, but how would I respond?

I mean, really – do I try my hardest to be a good person and to live a loving life only because Jesus of Nazareth was killed for telling me to do so?  Is His staying on the cross to bleedout and suffocate the epitome of self-sacrifice as an example that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s own life for those who hate?  Or what if the Discovery Channel’s special a few years ago really had opened a tomb and found Jesus’ bones?  Would this be “proof” that He did not resurrect and ascend?  Or what if Paulkovich is right and Jesus never even existed as a historical figure?

Clearly I’m convinced these are absurd assertions.  Paulkovich is an engineer, and probably reasonably intelligent, but from what I’ve read, no smarter than me, and definitely dwarfed by two thousand years of theologians who have devoted lifetimes to prove, and many attempted to disprove, this very thing.  And what of the thousands of early Christians, especially the apostles who were killed because they refused to recant the story.  Don’t you think even one would have if it had all just been a big lie?  And if even one did admit to the big lie, wouldn’t other religions of that day (and this day) have held them up as “proof?”

But again, let’s just, for argument sake, query this.  What if someone could and did prove that there is no god.  Is it a coincidence that every civilization and every culture has an idea of god?  Why is this so important to humans?  Is there this “space” inside each of us that only God can fill, and so we do our best to do so?  Is it relevant that Christianity is the only world religion based on a real historical person?

How would I respond?  How would you?  Is it even possible for someone of deep faith to imagine their world without?  And what is our responsibility to others?  Are we truly “in it alone?”  Or are we our brother’s keepers?

I always post all comments, but please be civil and respectful.

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Pentecost with Cullen – Speaking in Tongues in Haiti

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Yesterday was Pentecost, which will always remind me of this story:
The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area. Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean. Amazing. They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride. The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen. I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair. We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time. I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read. I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.” How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children. So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse. Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.

Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36

36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident. (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)

Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.

I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them, to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned. Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something. I moved through dozens of children to get closer. Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also. I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear. My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole. My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”

From then on I got it. I’ll never be the same.

(This is a shortened repost of a two part Recollection from last year of time spent on mission in Haiti. For the full version, click here).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

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Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

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Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

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Dreams and Signs

My brother-in-law Donny spoke matter-of-factly as he described that night, in great detail, what he saw through sleepy eyes.  He had dozed off on the couch in the living room, and woke to the feeling that he was being watched.  This startled him, prompting him to suddenly open his eyes and lift his head.  He rubbed his neck from the awkward neck cramp and turned towards the hall to see his mom standing there, very much alive, looking down at him with a smile and shaking her head.  “It’s as if she was laughing at my having dozed off on the couch again,” he explained.  “She used to always think I was so funny – guess I should be glad that I can still entertain her!”  I feigned a laugh, but deep down I was so frustrated.  Regardless of whether or not he was really awake or simply dreamed this, I was so jealous.

When I was a child, I had colorful dreams, sometimes even screaming nightmares.  I remember my father rolling his eyes, calling me “a dreamer” with his heavy “Missoura drawl,”  and Mom agreed that I had a vivid imagination, as I would recount the adventures I had encountered the night before.  But I don’t dream much anymore, or if I do, I just don’t remember them – even tiny glimpses into what I had encountered in my slumber.  Oh, how I wished I could see some of my own loved ones.  A vision of some sort would be really cool, but I’d even settle for a dream encounter.

I’ve lost several of my favorite people recently: my dad 16 years ago in 1998, my mom in 2010, then my grade school best friend 2 years ago and my 19-year-old son 5 months later in 2012.

Last year, a friend who knew of these longings, told me that a famous psychic would be speaking just a few miles away.  Mark Anthony (his “professional” name) owns lots of credibility because he is also a licensed Florida attorney, is well-educated, well spoken, and, as you can imagine, quite charismatic.

I wrestled with the ethics of it all.  Christians are prohibited from “conjuring up” the dead (necromancy), and specifically consulting for advice or to predict the future.  The logic is that there’s no possible way to discern between your loved one, a good spirit, or an evil one.  The “evil one” is a master of disguises, and sure to lead us astray.

But it’s always easy to make an justify exception for yourself for basically anything.  First of all, according to Anthony, we’re not conjuring up anyone – the spirits, including our loved ones, are right there with us all the time – we just can’t see them.  But a psychic can, apparently.  Furthermore, I wasn’t looking for advice or predictions, I just want to know they’re ok.  Sounds good, right?

So, of course we were there in his audience.  What we didn’t know was that we really needed to get there early, sit in front by the aisle, and be the first to volunteer if he asked for one if we really wanted something for “free” .  The idea that he would pull us out of the crowd and describe Mom or Cullen, Mike or Ricky was perhaps unrealistic, even if it happens that way on TV.  Shar did pull my arm and tell me to stand up when he asked if anyone knew an elderly woman in a flowery yellow dress.  At this point I was back to my skeptical “Missoura show me” cynicism, so I simply rolled my eyes at the thought this might be my Mom.  But three others certainly thought it was theirs.

I did feel obliged to give him a “second chance” when we went up afterwards to have him sign one of the books he had authored (I had read it years ago).  I also wanted to ask him a question regarding something he had said during his talk.  Someone had asked him about feeling so important, being able to connect the living with their loved ones who had “crossed over.”  He replied with much humility, that he was just a regular person, that for some reason could pick up on the different “vibration frequencies” that these passed spirits have, much different from our own, since we’re still alive.  He said he had the same questions and doubts that everyone else has.  But this intrigued me; I was fascinated.

As my turn in the queue to Anthony’s table neared, he looked up, turned to me and kind-of gave me a funny look.  I wasn’t sure whether he saw “something” around me, or if he was just perturbed that so many wanted his signature.  Just as I was making sure that my “Camino with Cullenbracelet was hidden, and my Chinese tat of Cullen’s name was tucked under my sleeve, he greeted us and I proceeded to ask him my question.

“Mark, you mentioned having doubts, just like everyone else.  What the heck does that mean?  If I could see and communicate with the other side, I can’t imagine having any doubts.  As a matter of fact, I’d be on TV and the radio, proclaiming from the mountaintops what I had seen!”  Frankly I don’t remember his response, because before he answered he said something about knowing St. Francis of Assisi being important to me.  Now, I hadn’t told him my name yet, so there’s no way he could know I had once owned “Assisi Animal Hospital,” and since I wasn’t coming from work, I wasn’t wearing scrubs or any other tell-tale animal or vet adornments.  So I was in a bit of a WTF mode and I forgot everything else he said to me.  Bear in mind that this was also more than a year before our new Pope would take the name of Francis, so even if he had seen me at church or come other Catholic “marker,” he couldn’t even know this.

Whether or not dreams really mean anything, it would still be nice to talk to my son.  Or Mom.  Or Daddy.  Until then I just need to keep plodding forward on “Faith.”

“Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed they who have not seen and have believed.” JN 20:29

Guess having faith is what we’re supposed to do anyway.  So although I’d love some kind of a vision or apparition, I really gotta stop demanding one.  As I remember, Jesus got pretty upset when people were demanding “signs” so they could believe.

“The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  MK 8-11-12

I suppose the line forming for “people who have made Jesus upset” is another one I’d rather avoid when I leave here.

Much Love.

Holding the spirit