Rude (Part 2) – Why even try?

bettysdog1 bettyanddog1

People like me can not even fathom Betty’s kind of poverty, or what leads someone there.  Culture? Role models? Lack of them? Financial ruin? Death? Mental Illness? Addiction?  Our modern-day lepers – It’s just so easy for us to look the other way as they stand amid the traffic, cross to the other side of the street as they approach, and flip someone a buck when we’re feeling generous.  Haven’t they made their own choices?  And if they’re an addict, it’s their own doing!  Why would I feel sorry for someone who poked holes in the crumpled can to burn a rock, put the lighter under the spoon, or climbs inside a bottle with my dollar?

It’s not so simple.  Seriously, do you honestly think that kid sitting next to you in your high school memory really chose to end up penniless and begging?  Many do have substance abuse issues.  I’ve learned so much about addiction lately from Ryan Robertson’s story as well as a blog I read about Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  What an epiphany!  I had no idea.

Maybe it’s because I’m a lot older now, or perhaps life’s cruel lessons have made me better, more adept at saying what I really believe.  Or maybe I just believe different stuff now, because of those lessons.

“Doctor Klein, that woman with last week’s pyometra is on line 2,” declared the intercom, and I quickly finished the call I was on to grab the other line because I hadn’t heard a thing from her in almost a week.  My heart sank when Betty (not her real name) told me “Baby Girl” didn’t like the antibiotics, so she didn’t give them.  The dog “hadn’t really moved much” for the first two days after I had done the surgery.  My heart sank as I prepared for the grim follow-up sentence – the poor little dog had been so very sick from the infection that I knew, even with our surgery, without the antibiotics, there really wasn’t much hope for survival.  It just didn’t make sense.  Why hadn’t she…  This was all a big …  Hadn’t I impressed upon her enough how important this was?  Besides, Amoxicillin suspension tastes really good – I had taken it myself dozens of times as a child!

My worst thoughts were interrupted, “But then, all of a sudden, she jus’ started drinkin’ water again.  So I tried again, and then she drank it ‘real good.’  Nex thang ya no, she’s jus’ a runnin’ and jumpin’ and beggin’ at her food bowl.”  I thanked her for calling, scheduled a recheck, smiled from ear to ear, and did the “happy dance” in a circle around the medical treatment room.

My staff had heard the entire conversation, and although they were glad also, I think it was more because I really suck when I’m in a bad mood, and when I’m in a good mood, I’m basically a pretty big dork.  They prefer the latter.

Surgery is often time for interesting conversation in an animal hospital.  We typically discuss really important stuff like Jack Bauer’s return, last night’s American Idol performances, and the latest Netflix we’d watched.  My CVT’s (kind-of like nurses), assistants, kennel staff, and sometimes some of the receptionists and managers all participate in these important meetings, mainly because they end the morning, and run into the lunch period.  Sometimes we actually do talk about important things, like why the hell is it so hard to keep the controlled drug log exact, why personalities seem to clash, and medical ethics; often this morphs into real world morals and ethics – life lessons, if you like.

So today, after deciding last nights American Idol girls were mostly disappointing, I told them how funny it was that my blog about last week’s pyo had gone viral.  Admittedly, I’ve only blogged for a very short time, so most regular readers have been family, friends, clients, and a few other followers from last year, when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, and amateurishly began to learn to write.  Anyway, I explained that I normally get about 150 or 200 hits a day, and during the Camino there were a few days when I topped 700 views.

Well, the day I posted about our donating our time for Betty and her dog, I got 300 hits.  “Wow,” I thought, “People much prefer a veterinary feel good story (or maybe just a gross picture) than the embarrassing , personal, cathartic stuff I usually blog about.”  The second day 1000, the third day 3000, then 10,000 views. (Then a surge to 650,000 and as of today, views of 1.42 million)

Like me, my staff was amazed, but they weren’t unanimous about the merits of how it had played out.

Only then did I learn about the scene, in our front reception area, when Betty came in that afternoon with an intoxicated friend.  While she was rushing around, shouting, concerned that her dog had died, he was also up there, to a full waiting room, talking “crap,” certain that even if the dog was alive, we wouldn’t give her back to them; it was all a trick, that’s how “places like this operated!”  Even after she had her dog in her arms, she was still “rude and disrespectful.” When she was given the bottle of Amoxidrops, she didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ only a remark that she wasn’t gonna pay any more for it, that she’d already “paid in full.”  You can imagine how well this went over with the front staff, but they never shared this part, knowing for sure it would change how I looked back and viewed the whole case.

I could only laugh at these new details.  And I (who knew?) got back on the ol’ soapbox.  “Should I be indignant, that the ‘Supersavior vet’  and his wonderful clinic hadn’t been properly worshipped?  Come on guys, what do you need?  You are missing the entire point.  You don’t help someone because you want them to love you, or even thank you.  Think about it – why do you do nice things for people? Or give someone a gift?”  Before he could answer, I reminded him that this had been rhetorical.  “You don’t do nice things because you want the other person to reciprocate!  That’s not even a gift, that’s an exchange, and you’re always disappointed with what you get back.”

“Here’s the deal.  You’ll be so much happier in life if you always do the right thing, because it’s the right thing, not because you expect someone to do the right thing in return.”  Expect for them not to.  Then it would be a nice surprise.  What’s the point of even walking on this earth if we can’t make it better for our having been here.  Who cares if someone says, “Thank you.”

“I think you are naïve,” my tech said to me, “Why even try? You can’t rescue the world!”  “Daddy mode” kicked in, so I shared a paraphrased  Starfish Poem:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn.  In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  As the old man approached the young man, he asked, “Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”  The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.  The old man exclaimed, “But there must be thousands of starfish.  How can your efforts make any difference?”  The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said,” It makes a difference to this one!”

Someone else then thought they were agreeing when they said we had done it to help the dog anyway, not the woman.  My “daddy mode” was in full throttle now, and I’m sure the churlish cynics will also consider this all to be sanctimonious, holier than thou drivel, but I’m just sayin’…

“No, no, no!  It’s not an “either/or, it’s a both/and!  Although we obviously treated Betty’s dog, that’s not where it ends, or certainly not the “why?”  Remember why people even have pets!”  We had had this discourse plenty of other times, and all were in agreement about the importance of that loving bond.

Of course this story involves a pet, but only because that’s what we do.  It really involves another human being.  I did encourage them to be proud of what they do, and what they did, and where they work, but not smug.  “Because every one of us is an accident, a medical diagnosis, a fire, or a divorce away from living in that cardboard box under the bridge.”  (There, but by the Grace of God, walk I.)  Looking back over 50 years forces me to remember so many dumb things I’ve done, and wonder why not me?  “Besides,” just joining us from her kennel duties, Amy added perhaps the most wisdom, “Even if they have become addicts, I don’t think they drink or do drugs to get high.  It’s to numb the pain and loneliness.”

I remember a colleague at a convention shared with me that he had become a vet because he liked animals more than people, that he “hated” people.  I was stunned.  How do you “hate people” in this profession?  Perhaps it was his whiskey bravado talking to me, but his words still ring in my ears years later.  I do hope he found other work.  I shared this story with a classmate and best friend Jim, who practices not far from me.  We were enjoying a beer (seems to be a theme), watching our beloved Mizzou Tigers, and solving the world’s problems with our wisdom.  He also helps out our church’s philanthropies, such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Brevard Sharing Center (a soup kitchen), so I enjoy sharing our stories together.  Jimmy shook his head and agreed that, maybe he’s naïve, but all the vets he knows, the successful ones anyway, in order to really care about their patients, care about their people first.

And so it is a both/and.  I firmly believe we’ve placed here not only as stewards of our animals but to love and support each other.  At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, when we “que up in front of St. Peter,” which line would you prefer? – the naïve, giving, loving line or the “it’s all about me” line.  That’s the choice.

Betty’s calling us that day was no co-incidence.  Much Love.

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She wasn’t being rude

My receptionist Ericka was in tears. The caller had said some pretty mean things, and she’s sensitive to what people say to her. She thrust the phone towards me, and pleaded for me to deal with it, “She doesn’t understand we don’t have any appointments available and, anyway, we’ll be closed in 45 minutes.” Some lady’s dog hadn’t “eated” in 4 days, and so she thinks she’s really pretty sick, and what was I gonna do about it? On such a hectic afternoon, I was glad to take the load off the front desk, and proceeded with the best defense being a good offense. “So he hasn’t eaten in 4 days? Wow, you rushed right in! What makes you think it’s serious now” The colloquialism of her words and accents made it difficult to understand, even for a small town Missoura hick like myself, but I did make out something about not having much money, something about only having a hunnert dollas. Knowing it sounded like a major medical workup, our lab equipment had an hour back log of tests waiting, and it had been a really long day already, I told her that I could see her at 9:15 the next day. My technician Jenny cringed, knowing full well that I had no openings, even for something minor, at 9:15 tomorrow, or anytime, all day. She also thought the front staff might not be very happy when I had allowed someone so rude and disrespectful, accusing them of not caring, to come in when they had been telling good, regular, polite clients that we were booked until next week. I had a funny feeling about this one. I knew this woman’s dog was pretty sick, and a “hunnert dollas” wouldn’t even get her in the front door of the emergency clinic tonight. I hoped it would wait. And that it wasn’t too serious to throw my schedule into seizures tomorrow.

Frankly, I forgot about her until the next morning, when I walked into the exam room. My flippant attitude about her apparent lack of concern for “Baby Girl” quickly dissipated. The “homeless person” stench was overpowering and was immediately telling as to why the visit had been postponed. This poor 12 year old dog couldn’t even lift her head. Indeed, she had not eaten in 5 days now, but was drinking lots of water. “She’s not spayed,” Jenny whispered to me, in case I missed the obvious. We both knew what it was from the history. A pyometra is an infected uterus, life threatening, and one of the important reasons why a female dog or cat should be spayed if she won’t be used for breeding. I’ll spare you the details, but it is typically fatal before five days, from internal rupture, much like a child’s appendix can rupture, spreading bacterial poison and toxins throughout the body.

The pre-surgical workup of confirmatory lab tests and X-Rays alone is about $300, and if it was a pyometra, could easily exceed $1200-1500. And the patient could die, regardless of our best efforts, especially if the uterus had already ruptured. She hadn’t come in because she had been scraping together, begging, and borrowing to get some money together to get her dog fixed.

Nor could I promise her that her little dog would live through the surgery. “So what are you telling me?” the woman shouted at me, with tears in her eyes. Deep down, I knew she had been rejected before, a lifetime of it. I knew she expected me to say to go away, that if she had no money she wasn’t welcome here.

I told her I wanted to run some tests, and that it would cost her “a hunnert dollas.” That wouldn’t fix anything, but we needed to know what was wrong.

Jenny was correct. The test confirmed a high white blood cell count (indicating infection), and the radiographs (X-Rays) confirmed a huge swelling in the area where the uterus would be.

As I delivered the news and the grave prognosis, her eyes reddened and became teary.

Having pets is a commitment. And an obligation. And owning pets is a choice that involves responsibilities and expenses. Therefore, keeping a pet is not a right, nor is it the grocery store’s obligation to feed the dog for free, nor the veterinarian’s obligation to care for it for free. Pets, like people, should have a basic minimum of care: annual examinations, inoculations, and other preventative health care, and the planning for the possibility/likelihood that something may go wrong – an accident or an illness.

So, are people living in poverty allowed to have pets? If she can share what she finds in the dumpster with her only friend in the world, or if she and her cat split a can of food, is that “good enough?”

As I spoke with my staff, receptionists, as well as technicians, I told them that this woman was not rude. The astonished looks of disagreement on their faces faded as I explained. “You can’t be rude if you don’t know what rude is. She doesn’t fit our picture of how we should behave or talk, but she’s not intending to be disrespectful or unappreciative. She just doesn’t know any better. She’s never had anyone give her the benefit of the doubt. How many times had she been excluded as a child, or looked down upon as an adult? How do you expect her to behave?”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how high a value I place on the “human-animal bond.” That unconditional love thing is impossible to put a price tag on. Of course this dog is suffering now, but what about the past decade of loving relationship? Do you honestly think this dog’s life didn’t live a happier, worthier life for having met this woman instead of starvation on the street, or the animal shelter’s needle? As Pope Francis said in different circumstances, “Who am I to judge?”

“I can only promise you two things,” I told her solemnly. “I’ll do my very best to save your dog, and she most definitely will die without the surgery.” I was emphatic, because she needed to really understand how sick her little friend was. “Baby Girl” couldn’t lift her head, but her eyes followed my every move and she wagged her tail when I scratched behind her ears.

I told her that we had all discussed it and that we were willing to do surgery during our lunch break, and that it would only cost her the “hunnert dollas.” I’ve learned over the years that even if you work pro-bono that the client must contribute something, to take ownership, and to feel the value – something about pride, that they had contributed also.

I don’t take any credit. And I honestly do not write this story to look like some kind of a hero. My staff clocked out over the lunch hour and also donated their time. We’re all confronted with choices in life where we can make others’ journey’s better, or at least less miserable. I know pain, and anguish. We all do. We have a choice to be angry at God or whomever for allowing/causing crap to happen, or we can rise up from the ashes and be better for our losses. Is it to better to be bitter and angry, or realize what suffering feels like, and gain empathy?

“Really? No one’s ever done anything nice for me before,” this smelly woman wailed and wanted to hug me, so I embraced the leper. If you’re skeptical, of course this may seem disingenuous, and I do get it, I’m from Missouri (this is the origin of “show-me”). We are constantly barraged with cardboard signs on the off-ramps. Are any of them really willing to work for food? At the end of the day, does it make any difference? “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”

It’s easy to puff your chest out when you do something difficult. But this wasn’t difficult. If I’m not there that day to fix the torn ACL knee ligament, the liver shunt, the heart defect, the broken hip … someone else would have. I’m truly not particularly intelligent or even very talented. But I sleep well tonight, knowing that no-one would have done this simple surgery for this indigent woman. This was truly no big deal, a very simple surgery that took just a few minutes. But after so many years, these opportunities to make a difference, make it all worth while.

I usually ask for comments, but not on this one. Please don’t leave any comments. Like it if you want, and share it. If you like this story, pay it forward. You think your life sucks? Look around. Make a difference. This isn’t even a story worth telling if you don’t use it yourself and think about it tomorrow as you look around. This story would have remained untold if I hadn’t had a couple of beers and like to write. Your life is charmed and blessed BECAUSE you are reading this, are capable of thinking about the big picture, and can make a difference. It’s not the big things we do that are heroic.

At the end of the day, this woman ran in, frantic about her dog. She didn’t have a phone so had no idea if her dog made it through surgery. Certainly, she thought the worst when she was escorted into the room, and told the doctor would be with her shortly … she stomped and shouted and cried for some answer, “How is my dog?!! PLEASE dear God, please somebody just tell me, did ‘Baby Girl’ die?!!” I ran from the appointment I was with when I heard the commotion, but Jenny beat me there. All I heard was, “She’s alive?!!! She’s alive?!! Oh dear God, praise dear God! My Baby Girl’s ALIVE!!!”

I’m sure they heard the shouting and crying next door.

Pay it forward. Much Love.

Please Continue with PART TWO

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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

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

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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.

Road to Emmaus

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Everyone who knows me, knows that I have a horrible memory.  Not just, “Where did I put my car keys?” or “Crap, I forgot why I came in here” type of bad memory, rather more like, “I could hide my own Easter eggs!”  I could watch the same movie ten times and be shocked each time at the ending!

So, I dread seeing clients in public.  As a veterinarian, I form personal relationships with my clients, and get to know them, their children, and their pets – often a very real part of their family.  People appreciate when you connect with them, and I do genuinely love my job and (most of) my clients and their “families.”  So when I greet them by name and remember their kids, and that their cat purrs on Grandpa’s lap and the dog digs up the daffodils and enjoys leg humping Uncle Donnie, and never left Maggies side when she had cancer surgery, I get to show them that I understand, and that I’m honored to also be included in their family’s story.  But remember, I have “crib notes” or “cheat sheets” called a medical chart.  I’ve not only read “Otis’s medical notes, but also the post-it notes attached that remind me of the personal stuff.  Please know that I am truly interested in you personally and your family, but frankly, I do well to remember my own Kayla’s swim meet this weekend, or that I agreed to pick up printer ink for Noah’s book report on my home tonight.

So that explains the “deer in the headlights” look in my eyes when I see you at the grocery store, as I cheerfully blurt out, “OH Hi!! How ARE you???!!!”  But, I really don’t have a clue who you are.  Now I do know you look familiar, and so you probably are a client, and I very much appreciate that you like me, and I truly do like you also.  Because I like everyone, or most people anyway.  And I really and truly DO wish I could remember stuff like that, because you really ARE important to me – and not just professionally, because you pay the bills.  No, much more so because I believe “we’re all in this together,” and I do enjoy your company and your stories.

But that’s the sort of stuff that settled into my mind as I listened to Luke’s gospel today about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Apparently, these were two guys that were with Jesus daily, were His friends, and actually saw Him perform miracles.  The loved Him dearly as a friend, broke bread with Him, and actually heard Him say the words of everlasting life, that He would be resurrected and come back.  And yet these two disciples, who knew Him so well, didn’t know Him after all.  They didn’t recognize Him at all as they walked down the road for miles.  Only that night, when they again broke bread together did the light bulb go on.

Which is a pretty transparent segway to my own road.  Where is Emmaus anyway?  I guess none of us know exactly where this road will end, but I truly have learned that we encounter our Lord multiple times on this journey.

An therein lies my real dread.  When I don’t recognize Christ in those I encounter, I’ve lost that opportunity forever to impact that person’s life.  How many times have I walked on past my Lord, too busy to care, too focused on myself and my family, too forgetful to remember that I really do know this stranger.

As I begin my Camino de Santiago in 14 days, I’ll try to remember that those I’ll encounter are already friends.  And when I return, I can only hope that I will have learned some valuable lessons.  But most importantly, I desire a better ability to remember the one I’m actually looking for.

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Falling in Pamplona

My new friend Matt, a teacher in California, has a student who had an accident, falling and hitting his head so brutally that he’s been on a ventilator for a week.  His family and friends prayed and held hands, and sang and played guitar in the ICU.  They prayed and told stories, and hugged and lifted each other up.  They prayed and pleaded, and made deals, and became angry, and sullen, and cried, and fell to their knees, and said goodbye to Gregory.

They unplugged the ventilator and lost their friend, their inspiration, their dreams, their son.

We will always look back with regrets.  But we know that living life is at its very core, running the race, not watching others.  How I wish I could lift them up and give them strength.  I’m only able to get out of bed, and put one front of the other, and breathe at all – because I’ve been lifted up and granted strength.  Prayers lift me up, prayers will lift Greg’s family up.

As I’m anticipating my approaching Camino, it occurs to me that the running of this race seems like the running of the bulls – absurd to those watching, exhilarating to us running.  When we stumble and fall, the near misses force us to doubt whether it has been worth it to be here.  Then we see the horns approaching a neighbor; we swoop them up to safety.  We can because we’re here.  I’ll be in Pamplona in a few weeks for the first time.  Again.

Buen Camino.

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