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

I Should Be Standing Up

“I really doubt I’ll have a job soon,” replied the man sitting next to me at the GCN convention in Chicago.  Like me, Rev. Danny Cortez wasn’t really sure why he was there, but felt quite confident that he needed to be.

Cortez has been a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist minister in Southern California; happily married, four kids, a big congregation that loves him, and today he has a problem.  About five years ago, one of his flock, a 20 something girl “came-out” to him, and challenged everything he had taught and had been taught about homosexuality.  Sara had been one of his “shining stars,” a youth leader who genuinely witnessed for Jesus; the Pastor considered her a Christian to be admired and emulated.  So when she admitted to him, in confidence, that she had a same-sex attraction (SSA), nothing fit.  Although she, and they, tried desperately to  “pray away the gay” striving for a closer, more faith filled relationship with our Lord that would “fix” her, she continued with her SSA..  She had done this for years, and would continue to plead that this burden be lifted, and reparative therapy was also tried, even though it sounded absurd:  The idea of “repairing” a disordered sexuality was based on the premise that children formed a SSA when they had a faulty or dysfunctional relationship with their parents.  But her’s were model parents, who love each other and their children, and both have a healthy relationship with her.  Sara eventually switched to a more “affirming” church, but continues her sharing and mentoring, pastoral relationship with Reverend Cortez.

However the Pastor wasn’t really sure who had done the mentoring.  She had showed him that his ideas about homosexuality were built on a crumbling foundation.  He had been misinformed about SSA, and he was now very challenged, and very troubled.  Had some of his sermons wrongly condemned?  Had he caused self-hatred in adolescents (and adults)?  Had his messages split families?  Was he to blame for bullying, or worse yet – suicides?  The next five years were filled with research and discovery, anxiety and guilt.  Finally he simply came to the conclusion, “I can no longer do this.”  His wife knew the torment he was enduring, and supported his decision to tell his church elders at its next meeting.  He was quite confident that this would lead to him being out of a job, and he would need to tell the kids to prepare for some belt-tightening.

The next morning he was taking his kids to school when the infamous “gay equality” Macklemore song came on the radio; he turned up the volume.  This would be a segue for the conversation he needed to have with his children.  When the song was over, as he struggled to put his pending unemployment into words they could understand, his son asked why he had turned up the song.  “I really like the lyrics,” he explained.  “Really, dad?” asked his son in astonishment, “but do you understand what the lyrics say?”  “Yeah, son, actually I do.”  There was a five-minute pause, before his son said…

“I’m gay,” his son sobbed, having dreaded this conversation for years.  (Just this week, his son Drew posted this)

Suddenly all the angst and theological gymnastics precipitated by Sara’s coming out to him all made sense.  This certainly did not feel like any kind of coincidence.  Even though the sequence of events now was starting to feel like the hand of Providence to Pastor Cortez, this was all still very foreign, nothing really made any sense at all. At least he had a better acceptance, if not understanding, of the journey.  How many of his colleagues had asked members of their own congregations to worship and seek counsel elsewhere? They would only be welcome back when they were “normal.”  So there he sat at the Gay Christian Conference, worried about his career, and his family.

So why was I sitting there, next to Danny and his wife?

On the Camino de Santiago, I had made a decision to make a difference with my own life.  Before his accident, my son had such a strong and loving connection with God that it overflowed onto every one he knew.  Surely he had confusion and anxiety about his SSA.  This was a challenge, adding some stumbles to his rocky road, but we all have some.  So how did he work it out with God?  Why did he enjoy such a healthy relationship and so many others, straight as well as gay do not?  I honestly don’t know, and I certainly don’t take any credit.

I can say that my son Cullen never heard the hateful sermons that I have read about.  They are “always our children,” and my minister has only pounded the lectern with messages of God’s love manifest through Jesus, who seemed most angry with those who sat in self-righteous judgment as hypocrites.  Our Church is a “hospital for sinners, not a sanctuary for saints.”  As a father, I embraced every conversation with him to use as a “parenting, even pastoral moment.”  Faith without journey is blind and shallow.  Our God invites our questions and doubts as we stumble through.  If there’s proof for everything and it all makes perfect sense, it’s not “faith” at all!

For my readers well versed in the Bible, we’re all aware of the seven famous “gotcha” verses in scripture which “seem” to condemn all aspects of homosexuality.  I’m not a scholar, but I am well enough read to know how the many versions, translations, and commentaries differ for a myriad of reasons, including cultural context.  I honestly only know one thing: I am sure of much less than I was a thousand bible hours ago.  I’ll not go into any more details here, it’s so easy to Google search until you find something you want to believe.  If you’re curious, and have no idea where to start, look at these people:  Rachel Held-Evans, Justin Lee, Andrew Marin, Alan Chambers, Susan Cottrell, Matthew Vines, Daniel Mattson, Kathy Baldock and Julie Rodgers.  These are really incredible people and really thought-provoking links, and many vehemently disagree with each other; All challenge the way we think, so come back and look at each one thoughtfully…

If reading and research sound like too much work, start by watching this video of the Robertsons, who lost their son Ryan to a drug overdose, with their initial evangelical rejection of his orientation playing a huge part of the story.  A shorter slide-show version here and also an animated one (bring tissues when you watch Ryan’s story).

I’m most devastated when I hear so many stories of rejection by their own families.  If we fail to provide unconditional love to our children, what message are we sending?  Are we the hypocrites so often condemned by so many of Jesus’ parables?  How can we possibly expect forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love from our heavenly Father when we refuse to forgive, accept, and love our own children? (Mt 18:33)

These are statistics that most certainly must make Jesus very sad:

When gay youth are unaccepted by their family, they are:

  • eight times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted
  • (The Trevor Project was formed specifically as a gay child suicide prevention website & hotline)
  • six times more susceptible to depression than those who are accepted
  • three times more likely to get involved in drug and alcohol abuse than gay youth that are accepted
  • three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and STD”D than gay youth that are accepted?

So I sat in my chair in the back of the room next to my new friends.  I looked around and I was honestly in awe.  I was in the room with over 700 people – many were parents there supporting their child and some were pastors learning how they could possibly change their approaches, but most were people with same-sex orientation there to worship Jesus Christ.  Yes, we were “in church” for much of the four-day conference.  I would look out at the crowd, and pretend that I was there with my own child and these were his friends.  They held their hands up high in worship, with every voice singing with such volume!  Every denomination was represented and standing together with the most ecumenical thing I have ever witnessed. This was, without doubt, one of several times in my life when I was sure the Holy Spirit was present and truly directing an experience.    (These are people that have been told not to return to their congregations until they had been repaired?)

Churches should be safe havens filled with a loving message of support.  The fact that many are not makes me confused.  Even if you think homosexual relationships are sinful, ESPECIALLY IF you think this, shouldn’t you be the one MOST welcoming to those seeking the love, forgiveness, and counsel of Jesus Christ?  As you sit in the pews and look around, you do realize you’re looking at the spouse cheat, the tax liar, the work thief, the hateful bigot, the one living in adultery, the porn addict, substance abuse cripple, and the jealous covet.  If you’re honest, you may see them in the mirror.  Who are we to exclude an entire group of others from standing next to us?

As you lament the fact that your own children have “lost their faith,” look closely.  This one piece of the puzzle may be a metaphor.  Our new generation has more empathy and is much more accepting of homosexuality today.  They see the loving “Christian” community that rejects and vilifies their gay friends as not very loving at all.  Clearly we don’t get much positive secular media coverage, but perhaps the biggest enemy of our faith is not outside the walls of our churches at all.

Before beginning the keynote address, the speaker specifically recognized the parents who were there supporting their children.  They stood to thunderous applause.  Pastor Cortez reached down and pulled me up.  “You’re son is here, and you should be standing up.”

I’m no theologian, and am an expert about nothing.  I have opinions that have been formed by my upbringing, my culture, my immediate environment, and my conscience.  If Pope Francis, who I believe is the Vicar of Christ on Earth can honestly say, “Who am I to judge?” then my slamming Leviticus over someone’s head would seem wrong.  If my boy could converse and embrace with our Lord the way he did, I feel I it a worthy enterprise to foster that kind of relationship in folks of all kinds, as best I’m able.  So, I’ve read dozens of books, attended this conference, as well as at The Marin Foundation.

In previous posts, I’ve described lots of my mistakes and failures and a few of the many times I’ve fallen far short; I’ve shared them for a reason.  Exposing your true self, warts and all, shows you’re vulnerable, approachable and able to relate.  It’s an invitation to others in my Church, my Community, and anyone who I might encounter who doesn’t know where to turn to approach me if they need resources. I’m not really sure what it will look like just yet, but I am forming a support mechanism, a ministry of sorts.  The perception seems to be that my Roman Catholic Church has no where to turn.  In fact, we have quite a few support mechanisms if you know where to find them; the most helpful support ministries are the folks themselves.

I have been there, walked in a parent’s shoes.  I’ve shouted at God, pleading for help, begging for answers. I’ve read dozens of books, spoken with mentors.  I’ve cried the tears of panic and anguish with concern for my son’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Because of the unique texture of my life Camino, I can be quite a resource.  There’s much comfort and consolation in knowing you are not alone when you face something so frightening.  I can direct concerned parents and their scared, confused children, as well as frustrated adults with many struggles associated with this journey.

Please feel free to contact me or pass this post on to someone who may need to hear this.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Coach Mike

536006_3966574450628_1468412559_33563239_1709470802_n

My daughter Emily called me from college, crying because she heard about Mike Snelgrove’s passing – apparently from a heart condition. We spoke for a while about what a real impact he had made on her life. Not just that he had been a strong influence for her to pursue a cheer scholarship to HPU, but what a good person he was. She was feeling the horrible guilt we all do when someone we care about leaves our world. We don’t stay in touch, tell them that we care about them, or even thank them. So the next day I found the funeral home online-obituary and posted my thoughts, hoping so much that Mike’s little girl would someday know how her daddy had positively impacted those he touched.

Mike_Snelgrove_Daughter

By now, I’m thinking he’s well aware of my feelings:

Mike Snelgrove was a coach at Extreme All Star Cheerleading in Melbourne, Florida for years.  I hope he knows how many little people he touched, and what a positive influence he was at such a vulnerable age.  These adolescent years are probably the most important formative times of our lives. (Don’t we all remember them vividly, even decades later?) These are children, and they never feel good enough, never quite feel that they measure up to goals at home, at school, and especially with their peers.  Mike was the rock that God calls us all to be.  My Emily and later Cullen spent several hours a day, and often 5 days a week at the gym.  He was a constant source of affirmation.  Positive energy that was so authentic.  Mike was the genuine thing.  He loved these kids and they loved him.  He told them how talented they were, even when they really weren’t.  How he could tell how hard they had been working, and just how hard they were trying. “Good job!” “I’m so proud of you!” They formed their little fraternity, their club that only their squad could understand … the stress, excitement, sweat, blood, pain, failure, success, failure again, practice, keep trying, practice, competition, keep working, you’re awesome, I’m so proud, you can do this, wow that was awesome, wow I’m so proud of you.  None of their school friends got it – they didn’t need to.  They had their cheer friends who did “get it.”  They knew, so what others thought at school mattered a lot less.  They knew they were awesome. Cause Coach Mike said so.

Mike was a man’s man, a real guy, as I’m sure his military buddies know.  But he didn’t judge, he didn’t need to.  Not only did he keep little girls from feeling inadequate and weak and failures like we all do in adolescence; he was also an inspiration to the boys.  Constant “attaboys” and high fives and hugs.  They were working so hard, and Coach Mike appreciated it.  And some of these boys had a different kind of a struggle than any of us can even imagine.  As concerning as having a gay son is to many parents, we can’t imagine the inner angst and confusion, and lack of worth they often feel.  Coach Mike looked past this, and made them feel OK with who they were.  Their sexuality may or may not be a struggle, may or may not be real, may be painful, may be a source of torment and fear.  But Coach Mike made it irrelevant, because these were also great kids, hard workers that needed a hug and to be told it was gonna be OK.

I don’t think he really got it, how important he was to them, what a wonderful role model, how loved he has been by hundreds of little people over the years.

I explained to my crying daughter Emily not to be sad; she must be so thrilled that such a positive influence had come into her life at such a hard time for her.  Many of her friends were headed the wrong direction, and cheerleading had been a stress valve, the positive channel for her energy and daily frustrations.  She worked so very hard and is a much better person for it.  I reminded her to make a positive thing out of her friendship with Coach Mike.  Remember the ripple effect.  She wasn’t even in his inner circle of family and close friends, and yet he had still made such an impact almost ten years later: to remember how we influence every person we’re with every day of our lives, and to pay him forward with each and every person we lift with our words and deeds.  He lives in his legacy, that cup of loving enthusiasm that over flowed onto everyone he touched.  And I know my kids lives were made better for having known him.

I read the online comments – how his buddies in Iraq trusted him, what a great guy they found him to be.  I honestly don’t know about how his close friends and family feel, I don’t know them.  Surely some who knew him better are well aware of his human faults. I praise our God for being compassionate and forgiving.  I pray for Mike and that those who love him to know that his short life was not wasted because it was cut short.  Instead, that his life was a wonderful fulfilment of all that we’re sent here for.  My family is blessed for having known Mike Snelgrove.

Mike_Snelgrove_Iraq

That was the backdrop of my acquaintance with Mike.  We were not friends, per se, but certainly friendly.  He would always shake my hand and smile, and tell me how much he thought of Emily, and later, of Cullen.  I was one of the always-present “cheer-parents” that he actually seemed to seek out to high five and hug when my kids had competed well, when Emily finally “stuck” her first “full,” or when Cullen did it on his first try!

Which segues into Cullen and Mike.  And Cheer.  Since Mike was always so friendly to me, I have to assume that Cullen never told him what a jerk of a father he had.  I realize how disingenuous “self-deprecating” sounds after you write it, but Dear God, how I wish I could have a “do-over.”  Inside I squirm when someone remarks about what a great father I am.  I’ve made more mistakes than anyone I know.

OK, unless you’re totally new to my blogs and never knew our dear Cullen it’s no secret at this point he had a gay orientation.  You also probably are aware that like many (most?) parents, I was not very happy about this kind of reality.  This is addressed at length in prior posts.  Suffice it to say, looking back, my attitude towards Cullen’s participation in cheer makes me hang my head even lower.

I remember his excitement when he told me that when Emily was on stage competing, it looked so fun.  He felt exhilarated just watching them; it seemed so exciting, and he really wanted to start.  Without hesitation, I replied that there was absolutely no way I could afford it.

Admittedly, cheer is an extremely expensive activity for kids.  His mother and I had just divorced, the finances were drained, and we just wouldn’t be able to afford it.  That was all true.

True, maybe, but we all know how it looks now.  The only boys that cheered were gay, and I couldn’t allow him to do something that was so gay, because maybe this was, you know, “just a phase.”  Right, just a phase, and all we needed to do was to go camping, and to more ball games, and spend more time teaching him to throw the ball, and maybe carelessly leave the Victoria’s Secret catalog in his bathroom.  Yeah, that should do the trick.

How much harm did all my efforts do to my dear Cullen?  Maybe it made me feel better; I was doing “everything I could,” so this problem certainly wasn’t my fault.”  But no, despite my attempts, Cullen HATED going to ball games, and he most definitely could not throw a baseball or a football worth a crap.  I couldn’t either, but at least I didn’t “throw like a girl.”  Wow, I really wish I could take those words back.  How must that have hurt to hear from your father, when you were doing your best to be “good enough” in his eyes, to make him proud.

And why would I care how about how he would wave his hand, or put it on his hip?  (Maybe if he stops doing that, nobody else will know, and I wouldn’t be so embarrassed and ashamed).

So, there it is.  So much to be proud of, and I chose that hill to fight on.  Claiming poverty, I did not pay for my son to do the sport that he wanted to participate in.  I had paid three years for Emily, and a for a decade of dance for their older sister.  But the rules were different now that his mother and I split up.  I’m sure it didn’t help any that there was money for his new step siblings to be in swim club.  Admittedly, those were funds that had long ago been set aside for them, but for 13 year old Cullen I’m quite sure it just didn’t feel fair..  He never said a mean word, or resented his new siblings; and was quick to correct any of his friends who might refer to them as his “step”- brother or sister, they were real siblings.  I know he saw right through me; Cullen saw it better than I did.  Sure, the monthly budget was a convenient excuse, but the bottom line was, I could have found the money, but I didn’t.  I did not support my son in the one sport where he could excel.  It will become apparent later why I’m sharing such ugly and painful admissions.

If you didn’t know Cullen, here’s a glimpse.  Did he get depressed and mope around and complain how unfair life was and hate me for how much I sucked?  Not a chance.  In a few days Cullen had gotten a job washing dishes at Rosati’s, the only restaurant within bicycle distance, so he could pay for cheer himself, and had arranged a carpool system to get to class.  Remember also that Cullen was dually enrolled in college classes, and despite the work and practice regime, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and tutored several of his classmates.

This enthusiasm and resourcefulness might have been news to his father, but not to Mike Snelgrove.  No, as I said above, Mike was nothing but affirming and supportive.  Quick with a compliment, constructive with the criticism, he fed Cullen’s talent and self esteem so that, within 6 months of joining the club, he was on the elite squad, the very best of the competitors.  Mike stayed late after practice, and gave Cullen lots of private lessons.  Mike was a young adult, with lots of his own bills to pay, but only charged for a fraction of the lessons for Cullen, knowing he was paying for the classes and privates himself.  Cullen knew this and really looked up to Mike for being such a “stand-up” and affirming person.  About the time Cullen left to attend Florida State University, Mike joined the army.  In 2010, he was home on leave, and died in his sleep of a “heart condition.”  Indeed.

We roll our eyes and laugh when a news story reports where someone says “God told me to do this,” or simply that God “spoke to me.” Maybe the way such stories are presented by the media is a reflection of our culture itself – that folks who hear what God is saying, and even religious folks in general are weak for needing some mythical god to lean on, or are uneducated morons, buffoons.

I don’t really care what people like Bill Maher say about anything.  I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I know what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve experienced.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, on May 4th, 2013, Mike Snelgrove walked past me on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  What you now know is that this was three years after he had left this world.

I had longed to see an apparition, or even a dream in which I got to see Cullen.  Other people were having them.  Lots of them.  (The subject of a later blog post).  But why not me?

My Map-My-Hike app showed that I was hiking at 4.2 miles per hour, a reasonably brisk trekking speed through the Spanish forest when I was passed by this person, who whispered something to me.  The log then shows me stopped there in my steps for over 10 minutes.  I honestly don’t remember this at all.  I do remember I was dumbfounded when it hit me who I thought I had just seen, and what it could possibly mean.

This was pretty big stuff.  Even if I just imagined the entire thing, why?  Why not something, or someone else?  I had lost touch of Mike when Cullen left Extreme Gym, and had no idea he had joined the army.  Why would I see someone that reminded me so much of him, with an army rucksack, on this particular day?

Was this the message I had so been pleading for God to give me?  Had God indeed spoken to me – in the earthquake, the fire, the wind, and now the whisper of a passing “stranger?”  And what did it all mean?

And what does it mean, going forward?

Anyone who knows me, know that the gears are always turning in my head.  I’m usually not paying attention because I’m so engrossed with hidden meanings, the metaphors and lessons presented by life.  I suppose I overthink everything, so this whole thing just kind-of makes me numb.  Clearly this was some kind of message.  Was I to take comfort that Mike was involved, and that somehow he had found Cullen and that they were safe?  Or was this something about where I was supposed to go.  As you can imagine, its a bit of a struggle charting a new course after such a loss.

I think it is all of those things, and probably lots more.

We had founded the William Cullen Klein Memorial Scholarship at FSU to help a student each year realize the dream that made our Cullen so very happy, studying in China.  I raised almost half of the money necessary to have the Scholarship endowed (permanently funded) from sponsorships of my walking the Camino last year.  A memorial scholarship certainly seemed (and still seems) appropriate, but where is the real “legacy?”  To me, a legacy would be something going forward, making a difference; doing perhaps what Cullen would have wanted done, a difference in the world, because he had been here.

The answer came to me in the airport in Chicago, on the layover.  I read a book called, “Love is My Orientation,” by Andrew Marin.  This set the backdrop for going forward, and for the first time in a long time, I sensed a smile looking down on me.  I’ll continue to share, and expound, as I do go forward.  Please share your comments.

Much Love.

536006_3966574450628_1468412559_33563239_1709470802_n

I’d really love your feedback! (either press the link or comment here:)

“I Hope It’s Everything You Need It To Be”

IMG_5222

When I left to hike the 540 mile Camino de Santiago last May (2013), people didn’t really know what to wish for me.  Most knew I was working through a major grieving journey after losing my 19-year-old son Cullen, but no one seemed to “get it.”  My associate at work honestly didn’t expect me to return (was I to stay in the Pyrenees to herd sheep?)  In retrospect, I’m not really sure what I was hoping for either.  I wrote my siblings a letter informing them that I was going, and that I literally hoped to have some profound conversations with my God and my son.  Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Bernadette, Therese, and blessed Mother Theresa are among many who claimed they very clearly heard the voice of God throughout their lives.  I think my family were deeply disturbed by such an expectation; lacking faith that such communications could indeed transpire, were scared that I would spiral into deeper and deeper anguish and depression.  Several simply said, “I hope its everything you need it to be.”

Regardless of my expectations, it was something that I simply felt compelled to do.  Watching a movie called The Way, was the last thing Cullen and I had done together, and its eerie foreboding of a father who must confront the accidental death of his son pulled me forcefully.  Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who learns of his son’s accident, and when he travels to Spain to bring the body home, discovers the accident had occurred as his beloved son was hiking the 800km Pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago towards the Cathedral at Santiago, where St. James is buried.  We agreed to make the pilgrimage together when he returned from China, after he earned his master’s degree.  I decided to make that Camino and enter the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the first anniversary.

On my 31 day Camino I did, in fact, have many such conversations.  Although I longed for the voice of Charlton Heston or James Earl Ray to come echoing through the woods or from the sky, those weren’t my expectations.  I learned from Elijah that the voice of God wasn’t in an earthquake, the wind, or fire, but instead in the “soft whisper of a voice.”  So I walked the weeks alone and most hours, there was only the silence.

On April 20, 2013 as I entered the tiny village of Utrega, Spain, the ground began to rumble, and as I wondered if there could be a train nearby, streams of people ran into the street and began to shout.

IMG_5137

May 5th, I began my trek across the Meseta.  I have no idea why I thought the Mesa would be dry and hot, but today it certainly was not.  The entire day was below freezing, and the steady wind varied between 20 and 40 MPH.  Fortunately it blew from behind me, but the sound of the wind was extremely loud and sometimes made it hard to carry on a conversation or even think.

Later in May, on the 9th, with the Meseta 4 days behind me, the weather was still chilly, and now included frequent showers, resulting in a bone chilling shiver that began to play tricks on me.  I struggled onward (as many pilgrims I had met liked to say, “Ultreya!” (an expression urging one to “go beyond,” or “onward with confidence!”).  sarcastically telling myself that these past few days had certainly fulfilled some of the requisite suffering to constitute a “pilgrimage!”  The rain had trickled off my waterproof pants, but the small drops that wicked onto my socks had taken a toll.  My toes were numb and my hands had tremored with shivers for hours.  The road forked and I committed to the albergue (similar to a hostel) 4 kilometers down this road.  As I neared, I realized I would have difficulty continuing, but the strengthening smell of wood in the fireplace kept my feet trudging forward.

My heart sank when I discovered the typical 8-12E cost 25E here, as I realized I only had about 20E until I got to the next town big enough to have a bank.  I shrugged as I continued on, realizing there were no other nearby accommodations listed in Brierly’s Guidebook.  But as I got further from the albergue, the intoxicating sweetness of the fireplace smoke seemed to get even closer.  Less than 100 meters later, just around a bend in the road, was something that made me start to sob.  Here was a farmhouse with “pilgrim accomodations,” including dinner that night and breakfast, for 12E.  Within 30 minutes, I had enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious home cooked meal, and sat with my feet by the soothing warmth of this fire, communicating something with its popping and crackling.IMG_5775

None of this clicked until the afternoon that I hiked for hours alone through the logging forest.  This was one of the emotional days, as I shouted out at God in frustration.  Why was he not speaking to me? I read scripture every morning to give me something to meditate on.  I said several rosaries every day as I walked.  I spoke aloud the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Speak, Oh Lord, your servant is listening” repeatedly.  “WHERE ARE YOU?” I finally shouted through the tears at the top of my lungs.  “I’ll do anything you want, but you gotta talk to me, show me something!

Later I would recall this day, as I read C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Revealed, where the devastating grief from losing his wife Joy to cancer made the author very human to me.  Here was the quintessential man of faith, that I had on such a pedestal for authoring such inspiring Christian literature (from the apologetics of Mere Christianity, humor of Screwtape Letters, thought provoking The Problem of Pain to his best known children’s books, so full of symbolism such as Chronicles of Narnia), having the very same emotions I was having.  Lewis didn’t doubt the existence of God, just “what sort of a God?”  “A loving God?  He wasn’t very loving to Joy!”

Lewis continues, I turn to God now that I really need Him, and what do I find?  A door slammed in my face.  The sound of bolting and double bolting.  After that, silence.  It’s like being in prison.”

That’s exactly how I had felt for months, and more specifically, at that moment.  No one around for probably miles, I hadn’t seen anyone for hours.  And silence was all there was up there in the Spanish mountains, except the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, which now was loud enough that I couldn’t have heard that “soft whisper of a voice” that I was trying so hard to hear.

IMG_5502

And then, out of no where, I was startled and jumped as the shadow of someone passed me, as if I was standing still.  He muttered something very softly, almost a whisper, that I couldn’t understand, maybe some other language, I assumed.  “Wow,” I thought, “that guy is really flying!”  And there was just something really strange about him, he looked so … familiar.  And he wasn’t carrying a backpack like everyone else, it was more like a rucksack.  That’s it, he had what looked like khaki or desert camo colored – rucksack.  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  This guy didn’t just look familiar, I knew exactly who he was.  But Mike Snelgrove was gone now.  (Mike is the subject of my next blog post)

So, I stood there in utter astonishment.  I really gotta read more of that “Old Testament” stuff that’s not “actually relevant” anymore.

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

I had felt an earthquake, felt a toppling wind, and the warmth of the fire.  And finally, the passing whisper.  As I relived this day in my mind the other day as I was working around the house, trying to find the message, this song shuffled out of my playlist:

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?
[CHORUS]
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?
So, that’s it.  When we try too hard, when we talk too loud, when we make ultimatums and demands – we hear nothing.
“I tried to hear from Heaven, but I talked the whole time.”
C. S. Lewis also makes some progress in A Grief Observed:
     Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks because he can see nothing, that he is in a dungeon.  In the middle of that darkness, he hears a sound.  The sound is brief, and comes from far away.  Perhaps the sound of waves, or the wind in the trees; and for the first time, he senses that he is not in a dungeon, but in the open air.  Nothing in his situation has changed.  He still waits in darkness.  Only now he knows the unseen world is greater than anything he can imagine.
     It came in the same moment that I sensed that the door was neither shut, not bolted.  Was it ever shut?  Was it bolted from the inside by my own desperate need?  They say a drowning swimmer can’t be saved if he is too fearful, because he grabs and clutches his rescuers too tight.
Had I been doing that –  making demands, and ultimatums of God?  Was He talking to me, just as desperately as I was to Him, but I just couldn’t hear through all the shouting from my desperate need?
It sure looks that way as I write the words.
Much Love.
   IMG_5808
I’d really love your feedback!  (either press the comment link above, or comment here:)

Haiti, Part 2 – Speaking in Tongues

HaitiHuddleIMG_2426Cullen Village

This is part two – if you’d like to start with part one, click here.
Kirby’s was not a works filled food distributing, hammer-swingin’ mission.  We were there to evangelize, to spread the good news.  “Sure,” Kirby explained, “We can, and we often do, clothe them and feed them for a day, but when we’re gone, it’s still just a miserable existence for these poor people.”  By spreading the Gospel, we give them hope, something to look forward to, knowledge of our God who loves them and gives them strength and a will to life and love as they struggle through each day.

His logical explanation reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s observations of time spent in the death camps of the Holocaust – the ones that survived were the ones who had hope, a reason to survive, to scratch out an existence, to love and serve each other.  They knew that their captors, their misery, only had power over them if they chose to let them, they would then give up hope and autonomy, and quickly their lives faded away.

Each day we walked most of the morning to a neighboring village.  Only one had a well, and it was not potable water.  The village leader gave us a walking tour  as we were tailed by dozens of filthy and naked children, and we saw the well that the huts and the village were build around.  A naked woman was sponge bathing and washing her clothes there in a bucket as her friend washed the families cooking pot into this water source.  “Wow,” I thought, “This is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen – a living National Geographic magazine.  These kids will never forget this: This vision of true poverty, hunger and thirst, a third world culture, a three hour flight from home.”

These little villages all seemed to have a small church, and the best I could tell, were all served by Pastor Beau, a seemingly close associate of Kirby.  We would all stay up late at night discussing faith issues, and he was curious that I could clarify and scripturally justify some major misconceptions he had about Catholicism; He seemed most fascinated to learn that some random Pope hadn’t inserted 7 extra books into the Bible, rather Luther disliked them and so after having been there for 1000 years, they were soon removed.  Beau was equally impressed to find Cullen and me reading morning scripture as the sun was rising over the beautiful horizon.

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.”

We sat and chatted for a while over an ice cold Coca-Cola from the good pastor’s private stash!

We were led from shack to mud hut, talking to people, praying with them, holding their hands.  We knelt and prayed over the village elder woman, very aged and feeble, beginning her transition to the other side.  We held hands with the young mother, with a “hemorrhage” that had lasted for years; I was asked if I wanted to say a prayer, and from somewhere I quoted Luke 8:43.  She was weeping and so sure that her sins were causing her disease.  By quoting this verse (also Matthew 9:20 and Mark 5:25), I did my best to remind her that through faith her sins WERE forgiven, through Grace; she was “touching the hem of Jesus’ garment,” and that her’s should be a familiar Christ message, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  The look on Kirby’s face was priceless – a Catholic quoting scripture in a “healing service!”  I turned to see how my young Catholic boys were processing this event.  I hadn’t noticed Cullen’s hand on my shoulder, and Noah’s hand on Cullen’s.  Our eyes met and I saw a look of pride in his father that I will forever hold as consolation that he knew what I was made of.

As we walked the long mountain trail back to the mission, Kirby asked me if I’d like to speak at the evening service that night, that someone could interpret for me.  For some truly unknown reason, without hesitation, I immediately told him that I’d love to!  I’d never preached before (my children might take exception), so I wasn’t really sure how to prepare.  All the folks at Bible study had their Scripture “tabbed,” so that seemed appropriate.  I chose a few passages to deliver a brotherly love message on, and inserted bookmarks, sticking out as tabs.

That evening we travelled by truck to a much further village, where apparently clothing was also optional.  Bad attempt at humor, but it all seemed so surreal.  The few clothes that children had were obviously donated, or left behind by some other “missionary tourist.”  Torn, stained Ron Jon surf shop and Van Halen t-shirts seemed out of place on children with nothing else on.  Again, this was a living National Geographic magazine.  Which reminds me of something that was pretty funny.  As we walked towards that village well that morning, I shared with my boys how my big sister Maureen and I used to dart to the bookcase with National Geographics when Mom and Daddy went out on a rare date night.  She was about 12, so I was 8ish and I remember like yesterday laughing ’til my sides hurt and her wetting her pants as we looked at the pictures of the naked African natives.  The four of us were still belly laughing at this image as we reached the well, to see that young woman standing there naked, washing her only clothes in the only water source.  She turned to see us, and made no attempt to cover up.  It was we who were embarrassed that she might think we were laughing at her.  Not such a funny a story after all.

Anyway, the leader explained that this village actually contained enough people that they had TWO churches.  Kirby must have told them about “us,” because it was quickly explained that one of them was a Catholic church!!!  This certainly piqued my curiosity.

Both “churches” were effectively huts – concrete block buildings held together by mud (rather than concrete mortar), with a galvanized steel roof.  Not even a cross (or crucifix) on either wall.  The Protestant preacher, Pastor Beau, was one of the leaders that had been walking with us, and he explained Father Sergio was equally friendly, and that we’d really like him, but that he served hundreds of villages, so only said Mass there about once every two months.  One of the parishioners lectored and served as acolyte, distributing the previously-consecrated communion each Sunday.

We met, saw, and talked to different groups of folks at each of these two churches.  Although only 100 feet apart, the members did not enter each other’s place of worship, supposedly out of respect, but I’m sure the misconceptions and superstitions of the culture played a huge role.

But here’s the rub.  Pastor Beau seemed to really connect with us (most definitely due to Cullen’s presence and his language abilities), and his request to Kirby that I speak that night I later learned was quite a coup.  Never before had a Catholic stood in front of his congregation, and no one could remember if the Catholic folks had ever been inside their Protestant church.

My message was basically that it was we that were honored to be with them, and that we are called to love and serve each other, with verses read intermittently, and my interpretation of how the message applied to our walk here together.  Afterward, Kirby, Beau, and I all embraced, with what I, at the time, felt was a bit of an exaggerated response.  I didn’t think it was really such a big deal.

Later, it was laid out for me quite clearly.  “You have no idea what you have done tonight,” Pastor Beau and the Catholic leader agreed.  “Our village has been very divided, at times violently so.  The mistrust, and misunderstandings are rooted in differences in religion.  As an outsider, you were allowed to do something we’ve tried to do for years.  You stood as a Catholic, and simply claimed to be a brother Christian, stating matter-of-factly that we are called simply to treat each other with love and respect.  If this white American is willing to come to us and tell them that they are his equal, his brothers…”  Beau just shook his head and kept saying he never thought this could happen, and that I just didn’t understand.

It still just doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Of course I would feel differently if I was a Christian in the Middle East or a Catholic in 1500’s England or even 1970’s Belfast, or a Jew in Poland in the 40’s.

We turned on the iPod playlist as we readied for bed that night.

Third in line to turn up in the shuffle – Matt Maher:  “and I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Rosemary was Mom’s big sister and one of her dearest friends.  Two of her children, Lewis and Rosie, are still good friends, and when Aunt Rosemary passed away earlier this year I felt obliged to fly up to Missouri to pay my respects.  Lots of family came down for Cullen’s funeral, and I’ll always treasure that they cared enough to come; I now realize how much these gestures mean.  The closing song at Aunt Rosemary’s funeral was “Be Not Afraid:”
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come follow me, and
I will give you rest.

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

“Wow'” I thought.  So many gifts left behind.  I get it.

Speaking in tongues forever takes on new meaning.

Much love

IMG_2490IMG_2498IMG_2506IMG_2163

IMG_2518 - Copy - Copy - Copy IMG_2447 - Copy (2) IMG_2514 IMG_2513      IMG_2481 - Copy IMG_2386 - Copy - Copy (2)

Haiti, Part 1 – Spring Break

Really?  You think I should just take off and go to Haiti for a week?”  I asked, incredulous at my wife Sharon’s random idea.  But it wasn’t really so random.  I’d wanted to mission there for a decade.

“Baby, Cullen’s going to be in China this summer, and then stay another two years getting his masters’ degree.  This is his last spring-break, and I think you should take him to Haiti for the week.  You’ve talked about going for years, and this will be good for you.

Cullen and I had been having a much better relationship, and he seemed so much happier, content with who he was since returning from his summer in Morocco.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether he had really “found Jesus” (or more correctly, fatigued by the incessant pounding on the door, finally opened it and let Him in), whether he was just “playing the game” and saying what he knew I would have wanted, or maybe just wanting to spend some moments with me before he left the nest.  It didn’t really matter at the time, I would embrace any of those reasons.  I had begged and pleaded for him to spend more time with us, as most of the preceding three years had spent at his mom’s house.  My son felt that I couldn’t possible see him as any kind of a role model for the two new ones in our home.

On the contrary, I insisted, “Noah and Kayla look up to you, and love you so very much.”  Cullen smiled and shook his head, “You and Sharon do not want them looking up to me, those kids are perfect!”  “Of course we do,” I insisted! (I hope as earnestly as I think I remember); We all have ‘stuff,’ and despite it all, you are a really smart person, and even more importantly, a really good person.  You are an awesome big brother for them, and a good friend.”

Sharon considered Cullen every bit as much her child, as I did Noah and Kayla, although the words were still fresh from our recent “remarriage” version of Pre-Cana: “Regardless of how much you will love your spouse’s children, when arguments and difficult times arise, it will be different.  You didn’t know them when they were cute!”

For some reason they are deeply repressed in my distant memory, but there had been shouting matches and arguments.  Regular hormone changes and adolescent rebellion were laced with confused angst that would come out, easily explained, if not justified, a bit later.  I knew what would become the eventual explanation for much of that rejection of our traditional, newly functional home.  I knew it long before he did.

But for once, Cullen actually wanted to spend time with me, and us.  That’s the stuff I keep ready for reference in my memory, one of the “gifts left behind.”

Cullen had planned to go to Michigan to spend his Spring Break week with Tim and his friends, but without hesitation, chose to spend the week with me.  He only had one class conflict with a test, and when she said it would be unexcused, he said something about her being unfair to him because of his religion, whereupon she laughed and allowed him to take it early.

When Sharon discovered that we actually were going to do it, she said she’d understand if I wanted it just to be Cullen and me, but that including Noah on our “boy’s trip” would be a good experience for him  as well.  I was thrilled.  Less than two years prior, when we were writing our wills, she had insisted that Noah and Kay would be going to Susan and Donnie, and now she trusted me to take her only son to another country, a third world country.  Besides, this would give Noah a chance to get to know his big brother before he left.

Kirby met us with an ear to ear smile and genuine joy at Port-A-Prince Airport.  As a hardline evangelical Protestant, Kirby had discussed several issues with me the week he stayed with us, a year earlier.  He seemed a bit surprised that a Catholic such as myself was actually familiar with scripture, and could reasonably well defend my faith.  Mainly, I think he was just relieved that Rick’s wife was loved by someone who didn’t actually worship statues, and seemed to know and love his same Jesus.

But my concerns were with what Kirby’s fire and brimstone approach to “some issues” might do to Cullen’s newly reconciled faith.  I now found myself less upset with Cullen, and more concerned with defending and protecting him.  Having never met Cullen, I was a bit anxious to see how they would get along.  Frankly I was concerned that Cullen’s mannerisms and body language would “give him up” and there would be tension, or even bigotry during the week.

This worry quickly vanished.  When Kirby found us at the Port-a-Prince airport, he swept us all up like we were old friends, and embraced my Cullen like he was family.

Kirby Kepner was Sharon’s late first husband’s childhood best friend, and had served for years as a fulltime missionary, serving a tiny mountain village in northwest Haiti. It was late, so we spent the evening at an orphanage called New Life Children’s Home, there in Port-A-Prince.  I glowed with pride as Cullen astonished him, so successfully speaking with the (mostly disabled) Haitian children.  Cullen was flawlessly fluent in French (as well as Spanish and Chinese, and conversant in Korean, Italian, German, Portuguese & Russian), so within about 2 hours had become conversant in Haitian Creole as well.  He and Noah wandered through the mass of their new brothers, demonstrating how to throw the footballs we had brought them, kicking their soccer ball, and just sitting and talking with those who could speak and holding those who couldn’t.  The horribly disfigured, disabled children, thrown away from even the poorest culture in our western hemisphere were carried out to lay on blankets for a few hours, under the shade of the one tree in the playground, as their care facilities were cleaned and changed.    Tears come to my eyes as I remember Cullen cradling one of these children without hesitation, talking to them in Creole as if they could answer back, unfazed as the saliva dripped from the disfigured mouth onto my son, as his brother Noah held the child’s hand that squeezed back in a gesture of appreciation.

This is another one of many memories later recalled when I read “Gifts of Passage,” by Amy Hollingsworth.

At dinner, we were asked to join the schoolchildren for their Wednesday night prayer service.  I quickly accepted the offer before Kirby could gracefully decline, “Bill, I had wanted to pray together with you and your boys tonight.”  “We can, Kirby, after their service, and for the next five days!” I replied.  I was anxious to see worship in this culture.

Kirby and Cullen probably got the gist of the hour of Haitian preaching, but I was only drawn in by the music.  Initially, I was fascinated by the native music, children singing, and rhythmic drum beat, and felt bathed in the Holy Spirit, it just felt so raw and authentic.  And then, I was drawn in by something totally unexpected.  In a night so dark in a world far away, these kids started singing songs that we sang every week at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, FL!  How did they learn English?  Our voices couldn’t match their volume and enthusiasm as they sang beautiful harmonic duets of Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is a Mighty God,” “Here I am to Worship,” by Hillsong, and “You are my All in All,” by Natalie Grant.  It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt, sitting with my two sons doing my best to join these beautiful Haitian kids in prayerful song.  About a minute into it I just put my head into my hands and wept.

Soon the lights came on, and I looked over to comment on how awesome it was.  “Wasn’t that so cool that we could sing these songs with them?!!”  Cullen turned with swollen, puffy eyes and said he couldn’t sing very much of it because he too had cried the entire time.

The next day found us cramped in a 4WD truck for 9 hours travelling on what I would have never before considered roads.  First we had to navigate our way through the 3rd World traffic in Port-A-Prince, where traffic lanes and signals were pretty much just guidelines.  Everytime the traffic came to a standstill (repeatedly), we were confronted by throngs of locals begging or trying to sell something.  Believe it or not we bought several scoops of fresh conch salad from this large woman carrying around a big wooden bowl of fresh conch, spices, peppers, and whatever else goes into the stuff.  Kirby said it was probably ok, since they use vinegar dressing, and not mayo, so we gave it a try.  It was INCREDIBLE, and the cultural beginning to a day none of us would EVER forget.

The boulders in the road, the mud, the heat, mountain cliffs with no guard rail, the incredible “Travel Channel” scenery made for an exciting journey up to Kirby’s mission in “Petite (T) Paradise,” in NW Haiti.  Much of the way up we listened to music on my I-Phone, with Christian music including every Matt Maher song ever made.  Music was becoming one of those things that was touching our senses very deeply, and Maher’s song “Hold Us Together” seemed to play every time we restarted the 2000 song playlist on shuffle.  It became so predictable it was a little eerie.  This soon became our unofficial “theme song” for our trip, which felt pretty appropriate as we sang along our memorized lyrics.

“…and love will old us together

make us a shelter to weather the storm

and I’ll be my brother’s keeper,

so the whole world will know that we’re not alone…”

IMG_2307IMG_2308IMG_2165

Cullen Two Girls Crop IMG_2177 IMG_2426

Saints & Mass Intentions – Part 2. And Morocco

Always a little teary and short of breath when I hear my son’s name at church as a soul we’re praying for, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the next intention.

If you haven’t glanced at “Part 1,” please scroll down a bit first; its a really quick read.

The kneeling moments after communion often touch me deeply, for a number of reasons.  As a devout Roman Catholic, I totally accept that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, quite literally.  Even non-Catholics have shared with me how moving the reverence in a Catholic Mass is for our Lord.  And if you truly believe in His presence here with us, how else would you behave?  This in itself puts me in a special place.

The second reason is that one of my last memories of Cullen, my eternally 19 year old son, was kneeling next to him at an adoration service where the Holy Eucharist was present on the altar for us to reverence, meditate, and in an Ignatian way, to contemplate on.  Sarah Kroger was the music minister, and I’ve always been so very moved with her worship music.  After kneeling in prayer and adoration of our Lord, for over an hour, I looked over at Cullen.  I truly expected him to be dis-engaged, even texting, or at least at this point, sitting.  An hour is a very long time to kneel.  I was taken back to see my beautiful boy, kneeling in deep prayer, tears running down his cheeks, and a smile on his lips.  I was then also brought to tears.  My son knew my God in a way that I am, to this day, still in awe of.  He was conversing with our Lord, and so many of my prayers had been answered.

When he was a little younger, around 15 years old, my son was pretty typical.  Rebellious and a bit of a smart aleck, Cullen preferred staying with his Mom, cause there were few rules there, particularly concerning curfew, weed, and sleepovers.  He resisted going to Mass, and often butted heads with me on a few issues, but in retrospect, probably rooted in frustrations he had not yet come to terms with.  He was much more like me than he could admit at the time, with a deep seated compass and a very conservative nature.

A self described “polyglot,” Cullen was fascinated with all things linguistic.  At 17, he was fluent in Spanish, French, and conversational in German, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic.  He was up at all hours of the night studying Rosetta Stone and reading, and Skyping with friends all over the world, practicing and attempting to speak without accent.  Extremely intelligent, he was awarded his AA degree (having dual-enrolled at the local community college, he had completed his first four college semesters), and graduated from his high school after summer school his Junior year.  So, nine days after his 17th birthday, Cullen started Florida State University as a Junior, with majors in Spanish and Chinese Mandarin.  Wow.

Cullen participated in an international studies program in Fez, Morocco the next Summer, where he would earn enough credit hours to qualify for Arabic as a Minor degree.  After that 6 week study program, he was to stay for two weeks in Barcelona, Spain with the sister of his mother’s best friend, who lived there.  He planned to drop by to see us for a short weekend, then return to FSU to start the Fall semester.

We texted with a phone App periodically, but I do vividly remember Skyping with him one evening with his Moroccan family walking back and forth in the background.  At some point the elderly grandmother started shouting at him, glanced at me on the computer screen, then shouted again.  He laughed and explained that it was time for the family to eat dinner, and she treated him like all the other kids in the family, scolding him for not being seated at the table and ready.

I also remember vividly having the very serious conversation about his “orientation” in a Muslim country.  I pleaded with him to take this stuff seriously when he was there, because I wanted his head to come back attached to his body.

It was also around this time when I dramatically changed my approach to praying for him.

I am a pretty religious guy; I seriously study scripture and Church teachings, and try to apply them to my life.  I constantly converse with God, all day, every day.  I ask for favors and intercessions, I give thanks, and I beg for guidance.  So you could say I “pray” all the time.  However, at times, I have a much deeper, contemplative prayer time, such as after Communion.

For the longest time – for years, I prayed for Jesus to have the compassion to change Cullen’s orientation.  I knew it was so difficult on him, and that no one would “choose” to be attracted to the same sex.  A lifetime of prejudice and hatred was certainly going to accompany him.  I was sick with anguish about the physical and mental health risks.  And certainly, as I’ve expressed previously, I was concerned as to how this would affect his salvation.

It was about this point in time, after so many years, that I found myself no longer praying for my son’s “healing.”  “Normal” seemed to take a back seat to “healthy.”  I prayed for extended periods of time that Jesus walk with my son and keep him safe; To guide him in his decisions; To know how very loved he was; To realize that God was knocking on the door and it was time to open it.

God had made my son the was he was for a reason.  I’ll never know why.  It still seems unfair, and even cruel – unless there are other components to our relationship with Him that we just don’t understand yet. And, of course there are.

So I prayed, longer, and deeper, and more often than ever before.  I pleaded for my son to develop a healthy, happy relationship with my Jesus, who I knew so very well.  The Jesus I know loves unconditionally, because He is love, personified.  I begged for an intercession, by whoever was listening up there, to God to rescue my boy, to bring him “home” and keep him steadfast and righteous.

I had completed my 2 hour commute home from work on Saturday afternoon, about 2 weeks before Cullen was due to return from Morocco.  For some reason we had decided to go to Mass on Saturday, as something was going on Sunday that would keep us from all being together.  My wife Sharon had said something that led me to believe that my oldest daughter Camille was back in town for the day and would be joining us at Church, which I always considered good.  Apparently everyone was “in on it,” except for me.  So I remember being in a really good mood, anxious to see Cam and glad that she wanted to join us for Mass.  I’m sure I bounced, in my happy, dorky way from the parking lot to where I saw them gathered in the foyer in front of Holy Name of Jesus Church.

I remember the odd look on everyone’s face when I looked around and asked where Camille was.  Pregnant pause.  Then their eyes left mine, and looked towards the fountain, and the statue of Jesus.  Seated there next to Jesus was Cullen, with an ear to ear smile!

I get a little choked up every time I think of this scene playing over and over again in my mind.  We ran to each other and embraced, both with tears down our cheeks.

Not that my shedding a tear is anything unusual.  Everyone that know me, knows that I cry at SPCA and Hallmark commercials.

“Cullen!”  I exclaimed, “Why did you come back so early?”  I knew he had so been looking forward to being in Barcelona, in real Spanish culture, living with Spanish friends.  “Dad,” he explained, “When I was landing in Spain, I looked out and saw a Cathedral.  I never thought I’d be so glad to see a cross on the top of a church!”

“Every moment of every day,” he said, “Someone was trying to convert me to Islam … from the guy selling newspapers, to the pretty girl on the bench, to the host family.”  The proselytizing had taken its toll, and he was ready to go “home.”

From that moment on, Cullen was so very different.  He actually seemed like he wanted to spend time with me, with us.  He looked forward to going to Church, and discussing religion and spirituality with me.  At first I skeptical, it was just such a turn-around.  But it became more and more credible every day.  On Sundays, Cullen would call me from school, as he walked 45 minutes home from Church to his apartment, to discuss the homily.  How many college kids walk 45 minutes each way to attend church?

So, I digress.  But it does serve as background.  Anyway, it was August 27th of this year.  I was born on August 27, and so was Cullen.  That’s right, Cullen was my 32nd birthday present from God in 1992.  So of course I had requested Mass be said for Cullen on August 27.  And, even though I was expecting it, the mention of his name as the “special intention” of the day’s Mass found me squeezing Cullen’s cross pendant necklace, and looking down.

The rest of the Mass was a bit of a blur, except the mention during the homily of the patron saint for August 27th.

St. Monica.

The very same St. Monica who prayed and cried daily for the salvation and return to the faith of her son Augustine.

With all my heart I now believe in the intercession of the Saints on our behalf.  We are not here alone.  We are part of the “Communion of Saints.” The time/space continuum is certainly something that we, as finite creatures just can not grasp, but one thing is definite.  Is it a coincidence that Cullen and I were born on the feast day of St. Monica?  Lately I’ve just noticed way too many things and people woven together with that famous “red thread”  that Amy Hollingsworth discusses in Gifts of Passage.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no coincidences.

Life does not end with our mortality.  There is life on the other side, and it’s not somewhere else.  Our loved ones are with us in a very real way, and touch us in ways we can not even imagine.

Catholic stuff like Saints & Mass Intentions – Part 1

I never really understood why non-Catholics have such a problem with the saints, or asking the saints to intervene for our intentions, on our behalf, to God.  My purpose here is not faith apologetics, there are plenty of resources devoted to that which would be more helpful to the curious seeker. However my own understanding is that the saints were just regular people, many in fact quite like me, very rebellious and sinful early in life, only to grow in their faith and touched by our Lord such that they became worthy of imitation.  (ha, not that I am!)  A common theme seemed to be their humility, none of them seemed to feel very “worthy.”  We hold it to be a truth that these “Saints,” are in heaven with our Lord.  Therefore, being “closer” than we are, it just seems logical that they could put a word in edgewise, and referencing Maccabees and Revelation 5:8, they in fact do receive our prayers (symbolized by incense) and relay them on to God.  Why not pray to God ourselves? Well, of course we can, and should, and do.  But when we’re hurting, or scared, or facing tragedy, don’t we also ask our friends to pray for us?  And aren’t we more likely to ask those who we consider “the faithful,” “saved,” or at least “believers” to pray for us than our cousin Joey who thinks it’s all a bunch of crap?  So who better to ask to pray for us that those we believe are so “saved” that they actually are with God already?  I’ve heard claims that praying to the dead amount to necromancy or even “idolatry.”  This is absurd, no one is conjuring up, worshipping or deifying the dead, simply asking them to relay a request.

Ok, that all being said, during my life, I haven’t prayed much or very often to the Saints – at least not until recently.

St. Monica (AD331-387) is remembered and venerated as a devout Christian during those early years, and her virtues, particularly the suffering against the adultery of her husband, and a prayerful life dedicated to the reformation of her son (Augustine), are legendary and heroic. Saint Monica was said to have prayed and wept every night for her son Augustine’s conversion.

Monica was married to a Pagan named Patricius, though like so many his religion was no more than a name; with a violent temper, he was drunkard and quite a carouser.

Monica seemed to spend a lifetime of worry centering on one of her three sons, Augustine; who was wayward and lazy. He was sent away to school, but lived there “dissolutely.”

Always the arrogant “intellectual,” Augustine had been living an “immoral life,” and adopted a heresy called Manichaeism. When he returned home, he shared his new theological views and Monica drove him away from her table. However, she is said to have experienced a strange vision that convinced her to reconcile with her son.

Monica followed her wayward son to Rome, where he had gone secretly; when she arrived he had already gone to Milan, but she followed him. Here she found and pleaded with the local bishop St. Ambrose for assistance.  Through him she ultimately had the joy of seeing Augustine convert to Christianity, after seventeen years of his resistance, and decades of her prayers.

Augustine would become one of the most influential thinkers in all of history.  Considered a “Doctor of the Church,” St. Augustine’s writings and teachings including his Confessions, have shaped Church teachings, as well as philosophy forever.

St. Monica is forever remembered as the “Patron Saint of parents,” especially “parents of troubled or wayward children.”

Being a “Cradle-Catholic,” I also wasn’t aware that other Christian denominations (and non-denominations) had a problem with “praying FOR the dead.”  This was just something we always did, without really wondering if it was necessary or helpful.

Hadn’t the deceased already determined their destiny by their Faith (or lack of it), and consequential actions manifesting that Faith during their lifetimes?  Of course they had.

So, of what good would prayers be for them?  Not being a theologian, I’m not really sure; being a Catholic there was the issue of “purgation,” mentioned numerous times in scripture.  Regardless of whether or not Purgatory is real or figurative; lasting “the blink of an eye,” or some longer element of time; and whether or not we can actually aid those in that position, I can’t be sure.  Again, this has been argued for centuries by folks much smarter than I, but suffice it to say, it all becomes different when you lose someone you love.

I really have no knowledge whether or not it helps my Cullen grow a bit closer to God, or whether he’s there with Him already.  I am relatively sure, however, of two things.

(1) The act of praying for my son certainly does no harm (Pascal), and (2) You would do so also if it was your own son.

Several Masses were said “for” my son, as well as for Mom and Dad this past year.  The “Prayers of the Faithful” is a part of the Catholic Mass where we pray for each other, the world, victims of natural disasters, guidance for our leaders,etc, etc, with a special intention for the individual for whom that Mass was being said. “For the remission of their sins and the repose of their soul.”

It may or may not help my son on his journey.

It certainly helps me on mine.

I thought you should know…

“Billy, um… have you looked on Facebook lately?”  my brother Steve was calling me on the phone.  Not shocking, but certainly an infrequent occurrence.  “I thought you should know what Cullen posted.”

Being called “Billy” always startles me just a bit.  I haven’t called myself “Billy” since the 7th grade, so it generally means family or a childhood friend.

One of the few famous people I know actually called me out with that moniker in college, and I was forever treated differently afterwards.  Fraternity hazing was still a popular sport in 1977, so at the University of Missouri Theta Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho, I was “lower than the fish-shit scum at the bottom of the ocean.”  I can still smell the foul mouths of Kevin Shopher and Jim Famuliner as they shouted at the tops of their lungs what an embarrassment I was to the upperclassmen, and that I might as well quit right then, because I just wasn’t cut out to be one of the “finer gentlemen” of Ag-Rho.  “Ha ha, what a bunch of jerks; If these two can make it into this frat, any one can!” Dave McKee and I used to double over laughing at these idiots when they weren’t around.  But during the “evening activities,” we’d “Sir, yes sir!” and complete the obligatory 24,410 push-ups (we actually counted that pledge semester) that were required to get our ticket punched.

Anyway, I was in Schnucks Liquor store in Columbia, Missouri, with my “big brother,” Don Cupps and several others who loved me dearly, getting the beer, etc. for the football game pre-party at the frat house, when someone shouted, “Billy Klein” from all the way down the aisle.  I cringed hearing this childish name that I had graduated from, knowing my “brothers” now had new ammunition to tease me with.  We all spun our heads around to see James Wilder, the BMOC running-back for the Mizzou Tigers, who was in the midst of taking us to the Big 8 (later the Big 12) conference championship, and an unprecedented number 4 in ranking polls.  Jersey number 32, known as the “Sikeston Train,” was a giant physically, and as it turns out, a really nice guy as well.  He would later be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (keeping #32), and in breaking all their records, rescue them from being such an embarrassment.  His son James Wilder Jr, also wears #32 for Florida State (I do wish the Rams had drafted Wilder instead of the Bucs; Jr would be playing now for my beloved Mizzou Tigers, instead of the ‘Noles!

What nobody knew until that moment, was that I had grown up with Wilder in Sikeston, Missouri.  Number 32, as you can imagine, was quite a sensation in our home town also.  “The Mule” shattered every known record and the Sikeston Bulldogs went to the State finals for the first time in over 30 years!  We admittedly weren’t the best of friends, because that was back when blacks hung with blacks, and whites hung with whites; we also never met until 7th grade, since I had gone to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School for the first six grades.  But we did know each other from school, parties and athletic banquets; out of 365 kids in my senior class at Sikeston High School, only 5 went strait to the ‘ZOU, and so we certainly were acquainted.  So when James called out to Billy Klein, my esteem zoomed immediately.  Funny how life works.

(Back to that phone call)  So on that day, when my 16-year-old son Cullen “came out” on Facebook by saying he was “bi-” and “in a relationship” with a boy, it was rather upsetting to the fam.  I wasn’t thrilled that he had made the whole thing public, especially since Mom was alive and actively keeping up with all of her beloved family through FB, but I certainly wasn’t shocked.  I had known for years which team he’d be playing for, and as I’ve explained earlier, had anguished over every angle, and every “alternative.”  When we were going through the divorce, it was just horrible for everyone, and Cullen, as expected, acted out with some rebellious stuff, so I did take him to Anthony Feretti, a local family therapist to have “someone to talk to, and work things out with.”  (It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I would have thought it quite a relief to learn, in working ‘things’ out, Cullen had discovered he was just ‘going through a phase,’ and that he was now ‘normal,’ and playing for our team.)  Dr. Tony soon told me Cullen was fine, very healthy, and just a really good, sweet kid.  God knows I knew all of that already.

I was well aware that even then, long before Allan Chambers would abandon Exodus, that reparative theory really did originate from a loving approach, but was horribly flawed in its theory.  Sure, I blamed myself, blah-blah-blah, but I had read enough and educated myself well enough that none of this was supported by facts.  Just as many straight kids have horrible parents, and just as many gay kids come from supportive, interactive, loving, functional families.  Chambers and I have become friends, and I hope the world lightens up on him, as everything he did was out of love and honest integrity.  Remember, in the 50’s physicians appeared on TV commercials promoting cigarettes as a healthy way to relax.  It’s not lying if you believe current evidence supports your position.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what Steve thought I could do.  Get him “into therapy?”  Disown him?  Throw him out?  Give him a spanking, or at least a “good talking to?”  I know I’m being snarky, but it truly is as frustrating as hell, as well as all the other emotions I’ve described elsewhere.

But what about my poor dear Cullen?  It must have been so frightening, lonesome, embarrassing, and so many other emotions that I’ve had so vividly explained to me by so many gay people who have recently “come out of the woodwork.”

Having tossed that ball around in my head for so long, I replied with the only thing I could reply with.  Remember “Pascal’s Wager?” this is my play on it.  Weigh one horrible extreme against the other, and choose between the two possible tragedies.

“Steve, I’ve thought long and hard, cried many tears, and prayed many tears about this.  I have come to the decision that I’d much rather hold my son’s hand as he’s lying there, dying from AIDS at age 30 than walk into his room to find him hanging from a rope in his closet at 15.  So we’ve decided, God and I, to accept him, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll be there for him as much as he allows me to be, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll cherish the small time I have with him (since he seems to prefer to stay with Debbie), I’ll support him as best I can, I’ll pray for him, and I’ll love him unconditionally.  And Steve, I ask that you pray for him, and us, as well.”

Steve really didn’t know what else to say, and I’m sure was , at that point, a little embarrassed.  I hope not, because he also acted out of love, the best way he knew how.  I did thank him for calling.

Every post I write seems so full of regrets, but how I reacted to the call, and Cullen’s coming out isn’t one of them.  It was the very best I was capable of at that time.  I love(d) him unconditionally.

I do however regret not telling Mom.  I also miss her so very much, and her warm loving smile, compassionate voice, and healing embrace.  In wanting to spare her “the hurt,” I robbed her of that true loving, honest relationship that she would have wanted.  I effectively kept my son and my mother apart.  I kept him from knowing her unconditional love.

I kept her from her reason for living, to love her family unconditionally, because she would have.

My mom was a true witness for God’s unconditional love through His son Jesus Christ.  If I really did love Cullen unconditionally, and I very much tried, it came from her.  Thanks Mom, and I’m sorry.

———-

Just a couple of footnotes.  None of my family, my brothers or sisters have never have had unkind words that I’m aware of (at least as adults), and all actions have clearly been rooted in love.  Feretti is a very competent therapist.  I do wish James Wilder, Jr. played for Mizzou.  Regardless whether or not you agree with his personal opinions, Alan Chambers is a good person.  Alpha Gamma Rho is a wonderful organization, and it does “build better men.”  I would join her again, in a heartbeat. I do miss my mom and my son.

Although I have lots of life regrets, I do have lots to be thankful for and feel very blessed.

 

The Mystery of Faith

“So that’s it?” “I’m just supposed to accept so many things that don’t make any sense??”

I just smiled at my beautiful 18 year old boy, who’s new-found enthusiasm and truth-seeking I found inspiring and a blessing.  “Cullen,” I replied, “you are a really intelligent person, a torch-bearer for the next generation.  You are supposed to seek the truth.  Fortunately, our faith tradition is a logical one.  Ours is the church that Jesus Himself built.  He appointed the apostles, He handed the keys to Peter, he instituted the sacraments, and on and on.  Question, research, dig and seek for the truth, the dig some more.  Pray for answers and revelation.  Our faith tradition has a reason for absolutely every thing we believe, either written in scripture, or passed along in the oral tradition, started before the followers of Jesus could even read and write.”

“You may well find that you don’t like what you find, and you may well not agree.  And that’s your prerogative, believe it or not, to disagree.  But you can’t leave it there.  Keep looking, deeper and deeper until you at least understand where these beliefs came from and why.  Two thousand years of theologians who devoted their entire lives to discovering the truth, and thousands of Christians over the centuries, martyred because they were convinced that their convictions were indeed the truth, have certainly made a case for the truths of our tradition.  Of course you’ll agree with most things, because it feels like common sense – you’ve been brought up to accept certain truths that others may disagree with.  But you will most certainly disagree with other things.”

“Like the whole Adam and Eve story, when science tells us that’s a ‘fairy tale’?”

“Yes, of course, Cullen, like that, among many, many other things.  But certain things in scripture may or may not have been meant literally.  There are lots of literary devices in the bible – prose, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, metaphors, parables, etc, etc.  The whole ‘Adam and Eve thing’ may indeed be literally true, or simply an allegory of how the first man’s original betrayal of God, because of his pride, arrogance, and disobedience led in some way to our sinful nature, our concupiscence, what we call ‘original sin.’  Could God have created two original people from “dust?”  Of course He could have!  Could He have caused the ‘big bang’ and directed an evolutionary process over millennia? Certainly!  Wouldn’t that be “creation” also?  We aren’t required to believe many of the traditional teachings of our faith, only the “dogma.”  Many things are symbolic and have very deep meaning even though we don’t interpret scripture as “literalists” would.  The stories in the Bible were written over many centuries for audiences in many different cultures, so they had writing styles that they would understand, and lessons that they needed to hear at that time.  So as we read the inspired Word of God, its important to extrapolate, to glean the real message that God wants YOU to hear for your own life in our own times.  This does take a lot of work sometimes, because you must immerse yourself into that culture.  St Ignatious of Loyola showed us one way to do this – to focus on one lesson or passage, and to meditate or contemplate on it deeply, placing yourself into the event.  Feel the hot dust through your sandals, hear the voices, smell the place, really feel the message because you are actually there.”

“Ok, I’ll try that,” Cullen promised, and then… “What about me, dad, doesn’t Catholicism teach that its a sin to be gay?  Doesn’t the Church say I’m going to hell?”

Of course, I was waiting for that, and I really thought I was ready.  I had read several books, and spoken with psychologist clients.  I had downloaded and almost memorized Always Our Children, the pastoral letter from Catholic Bishops directed towards clergy as well as parents on dealing with this difficult subject with loving compassion.  So I intended to pour forth with all my “knowledge.”  And I did, and I agreed it was pretty compassionate (compared to Westboro Baptist).  So out came the “Love the sinner/Hate the sin “clear explanation.”  We’re all called to chastity, outside the confines of a sacramental marriage.

“No!  Of course not Cullen, the Church does NOT say you are going to hell.  You were born with a same-sex-attraction (SSA), and we all have temptations that lead us to sin.   Now, acting on those temptations, now that’s another matter.  Yes, the Church WOULD consider the same-sex physical act sinful – just as it would consider it sinful for your unmarried sister to be having sex, or myself, before I was married.”

Knowing full well about him and Tim, his “best friend” for two years, I was quick to clarify.  “But Cullen, here’s the thing, and the beautiful thing about our faith.  Forgiveness is the biggest and quite unique component of Christianity.  We believe that God sent His son to walk among us to show us how to love, and the lesson he most often taught in words and action, is that of forgiveness.  We’re ALL sinners, and we all make mistakes.  Every Day!  I do!  In fact, I screw up more than anyone I know.  But God does know how hard I try, and how sorry I am when I fall, and how I really do love Him and other people the best that I can.  In walking with us, Jesus was like us in all things but sin.  He was tempted, He hungered, He felt loneliness, He grieved and wept, and He felt pain.  He really felt all of our emotions, because although He was fully God, He was fully human also.  Now here’s something that requires “faith.”  Faith is required not when something can’t be proven, but when it also can’t be disproven.  It’s a true mystery, the ‘mystery of faith’ that He was God AND man both at the same time.

“Yeah dad, I know all that, but you never answered my question.  Does the Church say I’m going to Hell?”

Cullen didn’t know the times I had literally wept over this very question – alone, in prayer, and in conference with priests at several of my annual Jesuit Retreats in St. Louis.  How could the loving God that I know, sentence my son to life with such a burden?  To create such a yoke of burden to bear all his life.  How could a loving God be so unfair?  To create a person who must choose between the love, affection, companionship and intimacy that we all long for or eternal salvation?  Seriously? That just feels so unfair, even cruel!  My Jesuit confessors were very sympathetic, it wasn’t the first time they had heard this lament.  One even cried with me.  “Remember, He is God, and we are not.  And He IS the loving, forgiving, compassionate Jesus that you know.  Love your son as He loves us.  Let your son walk with God, and he will find salvation.”  But we do suffer with our children.

I’m sure Cullen knew I was fumbling for his answer, but he knew I was always honest with him, and that I did my best to lead him.  “The Church’s official position is that your SSA is the cross you must bear, and that you are called to celibacy.  I realize it doesn’t feel fair, and frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes.  One thing is for certain however.  My strongest advice is to pray, talk to God, pray for guidance for the truth.  Your relationship with our God is just that – YOUR relationship with a God so loving that He suffered and died on the cross for YOU.  Kneel down in adoration at the cross, and see the definition of perfect love.  Close your eyes and talk to Christ on the cross.  Pray and contemplate like Ignatious suggests.  Listen in the silence for His love poured out for you.  That’s all I know.  And always pray for strength to do what you know he is telling you.  Just know that He will pick you up, time after time, when you fall down.  Remember that God loves us, but He doesn’t just love us, He IS love itself.  That’s why His is unconditional, unfaltering love.

I felt like I dodged the bullet, the hardest question of all time for someone like him when he then asked, “Dad, that’s the other thing, what’s the point of the whole crucifixion thing?  I get the whole cultural thing back then, about offering sacrifice and all that, but – really?  He was God.  Couldn’t he just snap his fingers and forgive our sins?”

In retrospect this was really the question of existence, His and ours!  But at the time, compared to the previous question, it felt like an easy one.

“Of course He could.  But we wouldn’t see His love.  He showed us He knows all our emotions: loneliness, isolation, and betrayal.  He showed us He knows pain and physical suffering.  That’s why He has the utmost empathy and compassion.  He actually walked in our shoes, because He was one of us.”

That’s the gist of what I remember about our conversation that night in the kitchen.  We both had lots to think about.