Dr. Sam

The 12 year old boy stood alone, looking around frantically, unable to think clearly. Why had he ever asked for this? He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  How could this have happened?

“Big Red” was an old Snapper riding mower that only Johnny Byford was allowed to operate.  He had been Dr. Sam’s “vet assistant” and the general fix-it and maintenance-man around the animal hospital property for over ten years.  Today he’d be going out to help Dr. Sam work 800 head of cattle, and so the property maintenance would be postponed for a day or two.

Billy had wanted to be an animal doctor for as long as he remembered.  He had begged for years to have a dog, but the pleas were always met with a resounding, “No, it would just too big of a responsibility for the entire family (translation: you’re a pretty irresponsible kid, so grow up a little).”  When Billy’s big sister had gotten a kitten for Christmas from her boyfriend, that broke the ice.  Within 6 months, his persistence had paid off, and Billy had his first dog, “Pooch,” the ugliest, most pitiful, miserable little wretch anyone had ever seen.  Even then, life was fleeting and ever so precious.  Within six months of “Noelle” dying from feline leukemia, Pooch was found poisoned in a neighbor’s yard.  And so a steady progression of relationships with the small-town veterinarian were born, as Roger, Wolfie, Sam, Sean and Mandy became successive members of the family.

Having thus become acquainted with Dr. Sam, as the dorkie little kid with the ever-present “wow” big eyed look behind his wire glasses, Billy finally got up the nerve.  He asked if he could volunteer sometimes out at the clinic, “Just to help clean up and stuff.”  Hair thinning at the top, even at 30, Sam looked down, “How old are you young man?  When you get to be about 10, I’ll put you to work!” (This was well before minimum age requirements, or at least before they were really enforced).  Sam thought for sure this would be a few years off, and by then the silly little kid would have long since moved on to washing dishes, or mowing lawns.

“Great,” Billy almost shouted, I’ll be ten this summer!  August 27th!”  Johnny looked at the scrawny little brat and laughed, relieved that it was at least 4 months off.

Billy home sick with Wolfe & Noel 1972crop

August 27th of 1969 fell on a Wednesday, and Billy was sitting on the front steps when Jackie the receptionist arrived, without a clue as to the importance of the date.

Billy was mainly a bothersome pest that just wouldn’t go away, everywhere at once, always asking questions, and basically a pain in the ass.  But Sam was a “stand-up” man, and they had a deal.  Besides, Sam didn’t have any children yet, and Billy was growing on him.  The weeks turned into months, and weekends turned into summers.  He really wasn’t allowed to do much in front of the clients, but he gave most of the baths, walked the dogs, scooped the litter-boxes, and kept the runs free of feces.  This was the perfect job.  Except he knew he really wasn’t allowed to do anything important, anything of real responsibility.  That would soon change.

Billy used the push mower around the edges and behind the clinic, watching with envy as Johnny got to ride the big riding mower and do the “real” lawn work.  How he longed to do something that cool – when nobody was watching, he’d sit on the mower in the barn and shift the gears.  Such was the innocent stuff of little boy’s fantasies in 1971 Sikeston, Missouri.  Billy’s imagination was startled as he clipped a rock with the rotary blade and sent it hurtling across against the metal building.  Johnny’s head turned, and Billy sighed to see him laugh at his carelessness.

Dr. Sam bounded out the side door with his arms filled with syringe guns, castrating instruments, blood tubes, and rolls of cotton.  As he walked towards his Bowie Vet Truck, he motioned to the boy to come over.  “Dr. Sam needed to talk to me!  Maybe he’s gonna take me with him to work the cattle!  I’ll be such a big help!” his mind racing as quickly as his little legs.  “Johnny and I won’t be back before quittin’ time, so when you’re finished mowing, just go in to see if Jackie needs anything before you leave for the day.”

“Yessir,” he replied as he turned and hung his head, walking back towards the push mower, kicking the ground.  If not for the approaching shadow, he would have walked right into ol’ Johnny, rushing towards the truck after putting Big Red up for the day.  That would have been really funny to them.

The next morning Billy had to ride his 10 speed Schwinn the 3 miles to work, because his Mom was teaching a remedial summer class, his daddy was at the farm, and siblings were all busy.  He arrived just to see Dr. Sam and Johnny cleaning up the instruments from working on a limping bull, and he braced for admonishment for being a few minutes late.  But Doc simply said, “After you get the kennels cleaned, Billy, I need you for something big.”  He looked up to see a serious face, but Johnny was behind him smiling.

As the boy scrubbed the dried feces off of the concrete kennel floor, he couldn’t help but imagine, “Is today the day he’ll actually get to do something big?”  As Billy squeezed  the floors dry, the idea fell apart as Dr. Sam said they’d be leaving soon to finish at the feedlot where they had been yesterday.

“Since you’re pretty much finished up here, come on out and let Johnny show you how to run Big Red.  This grass is gettin’ mighty tall an’ it really shouldn’t wait another day.”

Billy’s heart was bursting with excitement, but he did his best to look unmoved, answering matter-of-factly, “Sure Doc, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  Johnny rolled his eyes, because he knew this was a big deal for the little brat.

Johnny had actually already showed him what everything was, and how it worked , many times, in anticipation of this glorious event.  Johnny made a point to let Billy know that it was his suggestion yesterday, as they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, that he thought he could be trusted with the big mower.  So within about 4 minutes, Billy had mounted the trusty steed, and was doing “manly work.”

What everyone but Billy knew, was that Big Red was a rust bucket.  This thing was over twenty years old, and always breaking down, throwing a belt, or getting overheated.  Nuts and bolts constantly loosened and fell off, and just last spring, a wheel had fallen off.  But to Billy this was the most responsibility he’d ever been given, much like the little kid in the movie A Christmas Story, summoned by his father to help change the flat tire.  He is entrusted with the hubcap and lug-nuts until he loses his balance, flinging them into the dark, and utters the famous expletive.

Billy puffed his chest out as he had suddenly become a valuable employee, riding the trusty steed on its first lap around the field in front of the barn.  He watched Doc and Johnny loading up the truck for the day.  “When,” he dared wonder, “would he be considered for a day of that – now that’s what he really wanted to do, his life’s mission.”  As he pondered these dreams, basking in the glory of the moment, the tension rod holding tight the belt connecting the engine to the transmission snapped in two.  The belt fell off the camber, and into the path of the blade.  As the mower coasted to a quick halt, the belt wrapped around the blade, quickly chewing it into black rubber pieces, sprayed all over the driveway.

Billy’s head spun around to see the reaction of those who had trusted him.  They hadn’t seen a thing, but were inside getting another load of medical supplies.  He jumped off the machine, frozen in panic.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong, but (he thought) nothing like this had ever happened before, and somehow he had screwed up his first real chance to prove himself.  He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  And failed.

Billy had no idea what to do, but more than anything, he didn’t want to face them, and just wanted to run.  Dr. Sam was supposed to teach him how to be an animal doctor, and Johnny Byford had trusted him.  He had let them down.  As he raced through the possibilities, he saw his bike leaning against the building, but before he could consider the consequences of racing away, the door opened and out ran the two men.

There was fear and panic, dread and disappointment.  But it was all Billy’s.  The consolation from Dr. Sam’s response would be remembered, valued and put to prose some 40 years later.  There would by no tears, or hugs – these were three grown men.

I looked up to my mentor, my role model, and my friend with tears, I’m sure, in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”  Johnny was smiling, probably relieved that his little pal hadn’t been hurt.  Dr. Sam, who’s initial reaction appeared to give me a hard time, suddenly realized this I just a little kid, and this was one of those serious moments where you don’t mess around.  But I anticipated his change in body language was now be one of regret, that I was too little for such a chore.

He squatted down beside me and said, “Billy, this is not your fault.  Even if it was, the only people in this world who never screw any thing up are people who never do anything.  I’m proud of you for wanting to work so hard.  Now help Johnny get this mess cleaned up and put Big Red up ’til tomorrow.  We could use a hand at the feedlot today anyway, so after you’re done here, get you’re boots on and get in the truck.”

Much Love.

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.
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MLK Day, Irony at Half Mast

halfmastI’ve always flown a flag over my home and my animal hospitals because I enjoy proudly expressing my patriotism and love of the freedom we have in this country.  I’ve been fortunate to travel many places where the freedoms weren’t quite so evident.  Guns have literally been inches from my family’s faces in Northern Ireland, Mexico City, and most recently China.  I often add a second flag beneath the Stars & Stripes to commemorate an occasion.  The Black & Gold of my beloved Missouri Tigers on game Saturdays, Miami Dolphin Aqua & Orange on game Sundays, and the Irish Tricolor on St. Paddy’s and Bloody Monday.  Less frequently you’ll see her flying at half mast to memorialize fallen heroes or tragedies.

Over the years, many clients and neighbors have commented on my lowering Old Glory the third week of January.  Most are pleasant surprises of my honoring Martin Luther King, and numerous black clients expressed their appreciation.  One elderly woman did so just today.

Jean Murray Klein was born in Southeast Missouri on October 4th, 1921 to a family involved in farming for generations.  He graduated from Mizzou, came home from WWII a decorated war hero, married my mom, and overcame the demons of alcoholism and cigarettes.  He always enjoyed game day in the man-cave with his best friends Lee Bowman, and Dick Tongate, and he treasured that football I had Dan Marino sign at our children’s shared pre-school.  But Daddy was a product of his environment and Jim Crow culture.  Let’s just say he didn’t have the tolerant world view his children have adopted.  I don’t think he even knew any black people, or if so he never spoke of them.  Mom had a “colored woman” (Dad’s words) help her around the house while I was young, and I became very close to Beulah.  My earliest childhood memories include her ironing while I was “rockin” next to her on my spring suspended horse, while “Charlie Brown,” by the Coasters played on the radio.  The old man really did the best he could – I later found out that every holiday he would bring her family a turkey or a ham.

Anyway, Dad certainly didn’t have any problem cheering for the black athletes who led the St. Louis Cardinals and the Missouri Tigers to success, but that was pretty much the extent of his comfort zone.  I belly-laugh when I remember my sister Maureen showing him a picture of her with a huge black man, whom she told him she had been dating.  It was actually a picture of  a football player she had taken for him, but the narrative changed, “Because it would be really funny.”  Daddy almost had a heart attack, then forced a laugh about it, pretending he had known all along that it was a joke.

Cancer took my daddy 7 years after he had laid down the non-filtered Camels, on January 16, 1998.

So you see the obvious irony.  Daddy was buried the third week of January, which “co-incidentally” turns out to be Martin Luther King day.

Yes ma’am, I do fly our flag today in memory of one of this country’s finest men, I’m as proud of him as you are.

Christmas in Sanford – Just Like Us

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Sanford, Florida brings forth vivid images of Trevon to most of us – Images of hatred, intolerance and separate worlds. This is both unfortunate and ironic, since for decades, Sanford has been a microcosm of middle-America in the South.  Black and white can work, and despite the headlines, it usually does.

Most families have memories of holiday get-togethers that didn’t go well.  Ok, typically alcohol was involved.  It’s frustrating and painful because its family, but much funnier when it involves a spouse’s family.  My brother-in-law is considered a “rascal” for reasons and stories that aren’t my business or relevant to this post, except that he and my other brother-in-law had “words” again, this year involving Sanford.

Donnie loves Sanford, FL for lots of reasons.  There is so much tradition – historical houses with Spanish moss, famous persons, and family lineage.  Jeff asked what seemed like an innocent enough question regarding “gentrification” of the neighborhood, basically the changing socio-economic evolution (and property values) of the historical. and surrounding neighborhoods, and how the whole Trevon Martin thing had affected everything.  Donnie got all upset, thinking there was an implication that he should move the family the hell out of there if the neighborhood wasn’t “improving.”  There were really, really bad neighborhoods (the ‘hood) just a few blocks away, and the folks often stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air.  He replied with something I never expected, but frankly I never really wondered why he lived here.

“Jeff,” Donnie addressed him tersely, “This is all part of the package; we live in the community, and we’re part of it.  We love Sanford, and embrace her with all her faults.”  Jeff was simply stunned that someone would live here by choice, regardless of how cool the vintage house is or how many wonderful friends he had, black and white.

Now don’t get me wrong, Donnie isn’t some “flaming liberal,” or someone who ignores common sense to make a statement.  He and I are both just to the right of Ronald Reagan on most issues, but only “tow the line” when it’s logical, moral, and practical.  For example, I do drive a Prius, but not because I really am convinced that hydrocarbons have changed our climate, and so I want everyone to see me shouting about it.  I traded my Jeep for my Prius, because I drive 94 miles each direction, and frankly, have already paid for it twice in four years worth of commuting gas saved.  Donnie’s the best joke teller I know, and his repertoire includes many of “color,”  complete with colloquial expressions and accents.  Never mean spirited, his jokes typically include Sheniqua, but if she heard them, she too would laugh.  (Alternatively, they may include Lars and Yan, Norwegian farmers in Meenasoda).  Anyway, so I did a double take to hear him preach about what it takes for us to get along and actually function with cultural diversity.

So, I was struck by Donnie’s realistic altruism, a kind of pragmatic open-mindedness.  This, though, is the love that makes the world go round.  It’s one thing to say you are tolerant, something entirely different to actively seek a world with tolerance.

Still thinking to myself, “Hmmm…,” I left the next morning for a training walk.  (I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I’m counting the weeks until my next adventure, one that may begin to define how I commemorate my darkest day, May 17th).  About an hour into my hike, I found myself walking along railroad tracks, a little bit lost, listening (of course) to Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, Sarah Kroger, Brandon Heath, and Chris Tomlin in a playlist shuffle that had me deep into thought (who would have guessed?)  Technology to the rescue! IPhone out, MapMyHike Ap opened, and there was the route I had been travelling – not lost at all!

I soon saw a sign announcing that I had wandered into “Washington Heights,” looking like a typical middle income suburbia.  It wasn’t gated, but was laid out with predictable cul-de-sac’s and dead end streets that had me passing many houses twice, coming and going.  As I put two and two together, I passed a “Neighborhood Watch” sign and began to actually notice that all my new friends were black.

The irony was haunting, the previous day’s conversation about a community with diversity that actually functions, how that process may well be forever tainted or even ruined after Trevon Martin, a guy from out-of-town (me) walking through a neighborhood which is clearly not my own, now looking up at a Neighborhood Watch sign.  The only thing missing was the hoodie.  Or maybe not if the hoodie was a metaphor for some form of dress code inconsistent with the locals.  I wasn’t exactly dressed like Ron Burgundy (Anchorman), but in my T-Shirt and plaid jeans, and my dorky walk and mannerisms, I certainly appeared as out-of-place as Treyvon did.  Ok, in all fairness to Martinez, my “hoodie” didn’t make me look threatening, or hide my identity, and there hadn’t been months of criminal activity by someone dressed like me.  So, fair or not, I wasn’t tailed by a “watch commander,” and the cops that were parked in the driveways actually waved back at me.

I forced myself to overcome the urge to cross-over to the other side of the street when I approached a group of teenagers, nodding and uttering what I thought would be an appropriate greeting, “Sup?”  After all, I was in their home and uninvited, but never once felt in danger.

Admittedly, this was not the ‘hood that was previously mentioned, but simply another middle class neighborhood in suburbia.  There were crime-watches because they don’t want crime in their neighborhood either!

I switched my playlist over to the soundtrack from “The Way,” because this was feeling more and more like another leg of my Camino de Santiago.  I’ve learned that we’re always walking on our journey, and its up to us to learn those lessons our Lord puts in front of us everyday.

This was one of the humbling days, and my embarrassment profound as I realized how surprised I was to discover these people really were my brothers.  I might have needed to travel to Haiti to recognize my that those who lived quite differently than I do are my brothers, but I shouldn’t have to go anywhere to recognize my brothers here at home.

Indeed, “these people” are just like us.  Better, in fact, in many ways.  Every one of the little children, playing on the sidewalks and in the streets looked me strait in the eyes and waved and responded when I said, Hi,” or “Merry Christmas.”  Would that be the case towards a black man in my own neighborhood?

I looked and smiled at the hundreds of empty toy boxes, lining the street next to the garbage cans, displaying all the toys that are popular this year, virtually shouting “Merry Christmas” at me.  Dozens of kids on trampolines, riding mini-bikes, skateboards, and bicycles.  Most young fathers (they weren’t absent in this neighborhood) also smiled and waved at me, one as he washed his dog in the front yard.  I was struck by the number of floks sitting in their front yard, socializing, watching the kids, drinking a beer, BBQing, being out together and enjoying Christmas together.  I saw company logos, Miami Dolphin license plate holders, Obama bumperstickers (who knew?), and believe it or not two NObama! and one Nobamunist! stickers.  Another “Hmmm…” this neighborhood of color had its own “diversity.”

I had spent almost an hour hiking up and down every street in Washinton heights, and headed out, towards my own Christmas dinner with the fam.  Two blocks further, and I started getting hustled by a few teenage kids, anxious to provide whatever it was that I “was looking for.”  Why else would this goofy looking old white guy be walking around through this part of town?  I just smiled, knowing sometimes the best finds aren’t looked for, but rather stumbled upon.

Many times when we stumble, we fall.  We naturally avoid those uncomfortable events and unfamiliar places to avoid the anxious tension that makes us squirm.  And so, as we lose our balance or realize we’re a bit lost, we often so focus on keeping upright and not falling, we miss the sunrise and the blooming flowers.  I’ve done this most of my life.

A few blocks further I again smiled as I declined another kind offer to get ‘something’ for me.  “Thanks, bro,” I replied, “I’m good.”  I was now in “the hood,” and realizing why I had seen so many “Neighborhood Watch” signs during my walkabout in Washington Heights.

Soon I left the classroom of this unplanned social experiment.  Guess I was gone longer than I had planned, so I’d better gather some ammo as an excuse for not helping prepare for the 25 guests due to arrive in a few hours.  Then I realized I’d been walking for two hours, and knew they’d be concerned, and wondering where I had been.  But as I opened the door I simply slipped in and started frying bacon for the brussel sprouts topping.

As I turned the sizzling rashers, I thought of the Christmas the families on the other side of town were having, and I looked around at my own, and smiled again.

I Love My Teacher

Whatever we think of the state of our public education system today, there is no denying that being a teacher is one of God’s holy callings.  Being a parent is difficult enough, requiring patience and restraint, smarts and courage.  But they are, after all, your own flesh and blood, and we seem to feel obligated to do our best to see that our own turn out well.  (Most of us anyway.)

However, can you imagine what it requires to do this for someone else’s children?  Some schools are for children resembling spoiled pets, who have never heard a reprimand or had any rules or criticism, resulting in a child feeling quite entitled.  Many children from many cultures have never felt that love and compassion that we take for granted.  Too many “me-first” parents who dump the kids off the first chance for someone else to “deal-with;” There’s just not enough time to spend with their spouse (if there is one), and certainly not for these inconvenient creatures.  Funny how some parents only have 24 hours in a day.

I come from a family of educators.  Mom taught and was a guidance counselor for forty years, my two sisters are teachers: Tina for years in Mobile, and Maureen still does in St. Louis.  I think I’m pretty objective, but yeah, some of this is personal.

My wife Sharon has taught exceptional needs and disabled (ESE) children for over a decade, lately in a Title 1 school, where 90% of children can’t afford lunch.  Almost exclusively minorities, most are from neighborhoods my friends don’t even know exist:  The projects.  A trailer behind a warehouse.  A neighborhood that rots with the stench of crack, weed, old beer and urine.  Most don’t know their father.  Many don’t know either parent.  These children are the least of our brothers, and although most do not endure the poverty I witnessed in Haiti, they may well have more despair and frustration, and certainly less love and hope.  School is the highlight of their day.  Many find their only food there, and some stay as late and return as early as they are allowed, because there is no electricity at home for lights to study by.

Their teachers smile and encourage, love and encourage.  They aren’t allowed to hug them, but do so regularly.  These are role models for these kids.  They know their names and treat them with respect and dignity.  They share stories about siblings, and piece together familial stories.  Based upon this, home visits with a teacher and her principal, along with a social worker or the law sometimes is required to check a story out.  Sometimes without merit, but these “leads” often put an end to unfortunate abuse when scars and bruises are noted at school.

Shar has bought as many shoes and socks for her students as she has her own children.  Sometimes there is a need for a change in clothes, because of an embarrassing body or urine odor.  You think children lack self-esteem from not having a new cell phone, or new $200 Nike’s?  Try walking with your head held high when there’s no electricity or running water at home to bathe with.   Children at these schools can be cruel too, and disparaging comments cut deepest when they are true.  Teachers notice drooping heads, eyes on the floor, and little to feel good about.

My wife is one of the most incredible people I know.  The strength, compassion, love and empathy she exudes is contagious.  I find it almost impossible to pass someone with a cardboard sign now without rolling the window down.

Two weeks ago I went to (another) Matt Maher / Audrey Assad concert with my daughter Emily, and (of course) they were begging for Compassion International sponsors.  For $38 a month you get a picture for your refrigerator of a third world child, and knowledge that you have fed, clothed, and educated them.  Sharon, was quick to explain that we had “sort of” already done this.

I’ll omit the names for obvious reasons, but Sharon teaches two children of a family with six.  Both of these kids are behind their peers developmentally and intellectually.  One is what we used to call “retarded,” and may well never be able to function independently in society.  None of these six children have ever had what “we” would consider a “typical” Christmas.  Their father works hard as a gardener (field hand?) and handyman, and provides as best as he can.  They do have water and electricity, and usually ample rice and beans on the table.

This year, the teachers and the PTA took the initiative and approached many of these families to ask what a nice Christmas would look like.  Without hesitation, Shar found their family name on the tree in the teacher’s lounge.  Each of the children named something that seemed reasonable, certainly not the frivolous “must-haves” for most of America.  At 40 or 50 bucks apiece, it was a bit of a stretch for us, but well beyond the reach of a family like this that struggles to provide food and clothes after the rent and utilities.  One wanted towels for her mom and tools for his dad.

The day before Christmas break, the students were allowed to go to the “School Store,” to purchase items for family and friends at a nominal cost.  Sharon gave $3 to each of the six to buy something for themselves or a friend.  The children pooled their money and bought their Papa a flashlight, and their Mama a necklace and brooch.  Our “disadvantaged” family had children that had never been able to give their parents a present.  This year was different.

Sharon described them walking from class to the bus as if walking on a cloud.  Heads held high, and smiling from ear to ear.  They were so anxious to see their parents reactions on Christmas morning! The parents won’t have the only happy faces on Christmas morning.

Like Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, Sharon and her principal delivered the packages to the baby Jesus on Friday.

Merry Christmas.

Please know that although Sharon is an exceptional teacher and an exceptional person, she is not alone.  Teachers are a special people.  Please remember financially our unfortunate families and children, but also remember those who feel called to this profession in your prayers.  The work they do with our children, the time spent into the wee hours grading papers and planning, and the money they take out of their own pockets for their classroom supplies is unknown to the general public.  Pray for our teachers, and if you know one, tell them how much you appreciate them.

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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

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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…”

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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.