Leaving Peter

IMG_5171

Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

It was early morning on the 8th day of my hiking the Camino de Santiago, and, as I approached a group of three ladies, I could tell they were speaking English.  This wasn’t entirely unusual, as about a third of the pilgrims I encountered spoke my language, but I hadn’t understood anyone since dinner the night before.

As I closed the distance behind them, I realized they were Irish, speaking with quite a brogue.  We introduced ourselves, with the typical small-talk, and they inquired as to whether or not I´d been to Ireland.  Well of course these stories of  Camille, my oldest daughter being a many time American Irish dance champion, with the resultant trips overseas, including Ireland came out.  Soon we were discussing our friends Donica and Sheena (I never can get the Gaelic spelling of their names right, so I won´t even try), who own a B & B in Roosky, in Rosscommon.

As we chatted about such stuff, we walked through a typical small town in rural Spain, with the one beautiful village Church crumbling.  Of course this then became a topic of discussion including the magnificent cathedrals throughout the place in much need of repair, and the consolation it brought to see at least a few of them being restored.

I made the passing remark that the churches in ruins were perhaps but a commentary of what has happened to Christianity throughout Europe and beyond.  The Irish ladies, from a wonderful island that had provided perhaps more priests than any other part of the world, then commented that the church scandals had really damaged people´s faith, as well as any support of religion whatsoever, especially in Ireland.

The light-bulb, of course, then went on.  I pointed out that throughout life, our leaders – our parents, elected officials, scout leaders, friends, mentors, and yes even our priests and ministers are in fact “waymarkers.” They serve to guide us, to point the proper direction, to guide the way.  The problem is that all of these “waymarkers” are simply human beings, with all the weaknesses, frailties, and sinful tendencies that all of society, all of us have as humans – it is the “human condition.”  Not to belittle the scandals, or any sin for that matter.

***

The Camino de Santiago is an assortment of routes that lead to the Cathedral of San-tiago (Spanish for St. James), where St. James the Greater, one of Jesus three closest companions was buried.  Along these routings are markers to let the pilgrims (perigrinos) know that they, indeed, are on the right road.  Most of the times the markers consist of a small, simple yellow arrow, painted on the street, curb or side of a building.  This instills much confidence after hours of hiking that the weary traveler is traveling in the right direction.  Outside the cities, towns, and villages the waymarkers are constructed of concrete, small pillars about three feet tall, with the symbol of the Camino attached as a ceramic tile to its side.  These are strategically placed to greatly aid the perigrino by confraternity volunteers, and are greatly appreciated for the same reason.  You come to expect these at regular intervals, every few miles, and start to feel lost and question your path when you haven’t seen one recently.  Its rather easy to daydream, or get lost in thought, contemplation and prayer and miss an indicator which may have indicated a turn, for instance.

Most of the waymarkers along the road were in excellent condition, well maintained with fresh “clam-shell” icons, and a coat of paint.  A few had a few cracks, but were generally in acceptable shape, and served the purpose of guiding us in the correct direction.  However more than a few were in dis-repair, crumbling, and a couple in a sad pile of rubble on the ground.

crumbled waymarker1

Crumbled Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

And so the metaphor seemed obvious.  Because our way-markers are also human, they can crumble, like we can, and often do.  “Still,” Irish Eileen exclaimed, she’d “not be going back into a church anytime soon.”

“Fair enough, I replied, “but perhaps this gives us some thoughts to ponder.  The fact that our way-markers crumble doesn´t stop our journey, only to throw our hands up and quit.  Furthermore, we leave the paths ourselves, even when they’re well marked, by not paying close attention, or thinking we know a better way.  “Eileen laughed and muttered under her breath, “Something tells me you’re no longer talking about Spain.”

“Of course I am, but not ONLY the Camino de Santiago, also the Camino de Life!”  Just a few days ago, I left the marked path because someone from Germany told me there was a more direct way.  I left what I had known and trusted because I had heard there was a better path.  Soon I was on a cow path that lead to a stream, and I had to turnaround and look for a way back to ‘the way.’  That was an honest mistake, probably my misunderstanding.  But some people even lead us astray intentionally, because they don’t even think there even exists a final destination, and to them, it’s all about today, having fun, screwing everyone along the way.”

“And sometimes those we trust the most, just let us down.  Our parents fail in their marriages, or have addictions; our friends really aren’t; and those who we look up to just fail.  Because they’re all humans, they’re screw ups like us.”

“Although I doubt he coined it, a famous Jesuit retreat-master named John Powell SJ, shared this advice:

You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!

judas

“So you’re right, it’s not just about being here in Spain.  It’s about being fully alive.  Everywhere we turn, we’re told to enjoy the moment, you only live once – ‘It’s all about me!’  Well, it’s not ‘All about me!’

“An ‘All about me’ attitude creates a selfish, entitled mentality.  This draws us away from the path, and gives those in power license to use people, and destroy lives.  The President that cheats, the priest or teacher pedophile, the addicted spouse.  Then the victims and observers, ironically, take their own ‘All about me’ attitude that they get to make their own rules, because someone they once trusted was frail, and human, and made mistakes, even horrible ones.”

“Of course we expect our leaders to have a higher standard.  And when they look at themselves in the mirror, I´m sure many are disappointed in themselves.  As I am many times.  As we all are, if we´re being honest.”

“Anyway, I’ve gotten off the path lots of times, and now I really feel like I’m back on it.  Look down, this road still leads to Santiago, there will be twists and turns along the road, with the need to have guidance when there is an obstacle.  The Church and all she offers, the Word of God, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the social gathering strengthening and supporting each other.  The fact that the markers sometimes crumble is irrelevant to the goal, the desired endpoint.  It’s not just about “me,” it’s about “God and me,” and because of that, its about, “You and me.”

They smiled politely, and said they’d be stopping for some lunch now, realizing I wasn’t going to join in the bashing of the monster they had encountered.  Not that we shouldn’t fight the monster, and we certainly must protect our children, but it’s important to have perspective, and realize that monster is everywhere, in some form.  Judas isn’t always the dark sinister figure in the shadows, often he looks back in the mirror.

kneeling_head_down

Those words were easy to say.  When the rubber meets the road, it’s often a bit more difficult.  My children have never been abused, or raped, or even taken advantage of.

But we’ve all been disappointed, and let down.  Just a few days ago, someone that I’ve grown to love and trust, and help me discern lots of important decisions acted in a way that, at the time, felt hurtful.  My human side reeled, and I felt indignant.  Then I did my best to stand back and learn those lessons that life has been trying to teach me.  These are still my friends, and have made decisions they thought were correct.

We all make decisions based on the information we have in front of us.  Seldom do we intend to hurt our friends, and so, in turn, we should give that benefit of the doubt to those we’ve invested our trust in. Sometimes a course of events appears to turn in a direction that we hadn’t expected or wanted.  With deeper consideration, we’ll likely find that we, in fact, are still on the path, or with simple adjustments can get back with an improved tool-set from this experience.

The direction of our Camino leads to ¨Santiago”  Let’s not give up the journey because we sometimes get lost or are confused as to whether or not we´re on the right road.  There is a right road, a correct path. It does exist, and we all do our best to stay on it.  Buen Camino

IMG_7745 IMG_5339

Advertisements

Prayer, Parking, and Presumptions – (How are prayers answered, anyway?)

The father of the bride was becoming frantic.  He sped up and down the lanes of the church parking lot, but there were no parking spots.  The wedding would start in four minutes! Time for bargaining.  “I know I skip church on game days, or when the bass are biting, or when I just want to sleep late – never again! – I’ll go every Sunday! FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!! I’ll never look away when a beggar needs a few dollars.  I promise!  Ok, Ok, I’ll even go to my in-laws next weekend.  AAARRGGGHHH!!! JUST FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!!”  Two minutes to go, and the car ahead backs out, opening a place to park.  “Never-mind God, I found one!”

Image result for parking space picture

Are prayers answered?  How?  What IS prayer, anyway?  What is it for you?

Is prayer simply asking God for favors?  Is it begging, pleading and deal-making from a “fox-hole?”  Or is it a two way conversation? Certainly, the mystics claimed to hear the voice of God.  Saints Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Ignatious, Therese, Bernadette, and many more, wrote volumes sharing what they heard God say.

When I was walking the Camino de Santiago as part of my grieving process, I wanted desperately to hear Charlton Heston or James Earl Jones booming from the clouds, but was met with silence. However, a few hundred miles into the journey, it became clear that our Lord speaks to us in many, many ways.  That clumsy first attempt at blogging described dozens of these “encounters,” apparently quite common on that pilgrimage.

But you certainly don’t have to travel to Spain to encounter God in a very real way.  Many/Most of you may grimace at the idea of God “talking to you.”  Even the “churched,” especially if their faith consists of “checking the box” every Sunday, or even twice a year, may cringe at the idea of someone who claims to hear the voice of God.  SNL skits come to mind ridiculing Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts.  But without “hearing the voice,” can we really get answers?

Answered prayers are news-worthy, because they surprise us.  Headlines, movies, and books are often written to describe cured cancer, inexplicable near misses, and unlikely rescues. These re-invigorate the faithful.  Which is good.  Except…

Why would you pray, if you didn’t honestly feel He was listening, cared about you, and was anxious to have these “encounters?”  If we really believe our prayers could/will be answered, then why is it newsworthy when they are?

prayers

Perhaps we simply don’t know how to listen.  Its almost as if we hold out for an answered prayer to be accompanied by a vision, a voice, an apparition.  But, really.  If Jesus of Nazareth is really and truly here with us as we walk each step, every day, perhaps we should express a bit of common sense.

Was the father of the bride (above) expecting an explosion and a new parking lot, with the glowing Christ to be directing him into a parking place?  Wouldn’t a much more logical explanation be that He “directed” the driver of the exiting car to have business finished so they could leave when they did, so you could pull in just in the nick of time for the nuptials?

Likewise, how would the creator of the universe, create the universe?  Wouldn’t you expect it would be so through a natural phenomenon?  How absurd would it be for a big bang to cause itself?

Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause Argument.

If there is no first cause, then the universe is like a great chain with many links; each link is held up by the link above it, but the whole chain is held up by nothing.

If there is no independent being, then the whole chain of dependent beings is dependent on nothing and could not exist.

For the smart aleck out there who thinks Steven Hawking adequately addresses this, I’ve read Hawking’s refutation, and even though he’s probably lots smarter than me, he misses the entire point.  He dismisses (see also addendum A) a “caused big-bang,” because:

You can’t get to a time before the big bang, because there was no time before the big bang.  We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in.

But therein lies the problem, Christians (as well as most other faithful types) believe God is omnipresent (has always existed), and, in fact, created time, when He created stuff, and non-stuff (space).

It’s the whole “time-space-continuum” thing that makes me as dizzy as that ridiculous quantum physics class (that greatly contributed to my insanity).  Einstein’s insistence to keep asking, “What if…” results in (see also addendum B) his Theory of Relativity, and at least a profound theist belief in a Gd who directed creation. (addendum C).

Image result for maker of the universe picture

Time and space are characteristics of our world, not God’s. He is not limited by hours, days and years as we are. In fact, the Bible tells us that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

And so, if God is “timeless” and not bound by the concept which in fact, we believe He created, it follows that He sees all past, present, and future on the same page – all at the same time.  Therefore, we believe that He knows each of us intimately at the very instant of conception, when we are instilled with what we call a “soul.”  He knows each of our decisions, beliefs, rejections, and our final destiny.  “Clearly this all becomes fuzzy,” especially when we consider Calvin’s treatment of Gods omniscient knowledge of our choices and therefore our destination.  And since God made us this way, including the part of our brain which makes decisions, Calvin had it all figured out with his five pillars – only a “few are chosen,” therefore, most of us are in a bit of trouble.  But it’s not our fault, and we (obviously) didn’t really have free choice.  (That’s Calvin’s bent, clearly not mine).

I realize my line of reason seldom takes a strait line trajectory…

If, in fact, God is timeless, and we truly believe God can affect and effect the course of outcomes (possibly by giving us additional opportunities to make new “free” choices which change the course HE sees otherwise happening), then it seems to me quite plausible to take this a step further.

Since He sees past, present and future all together, can not He favor our petitions, effecting a change, even if we pray for something after its course has already been determined?  Let’s think about this with a simple example…

Suppose you prayed for an exam scheduled for today to be easy.  You were at the hospital all night with a sick mother, and never even studied.  You knew the test was important, and offered up your petition at her bedside.  Our Lord considered your position and … obliged.  You were THRILLED to see such an easy test.  Every question had an easy answer – it seemed like common sense.  Not only are you thrilled, your confidence in God, prayer, and faith has been affirmed …  UNTIL … The teacher announces that she had had commitments yesterday, and so prepared the questions the previous week – long before any prayers had been offered up.  Your prayers couldn’t have been answered, due to the timing.  It was just an easy test.

Or perhaps you’re on a sailboat and encounter an unexpected storm.  Treacherous waves, unrelenting wind, sounds eerily similar to the hurricane you remember so well.  For hours, all you could do was lower the sail.  The craft was awash, waves cresting well above and over the deck.  Heading into the wind she finds herself “in irons,” and the captain can only lower the sails, and hope the tiny auxiliary motor can keep some semblance of control.  Soon the storm has passed, but out of fuel, you can only drift with the current, and after three days encounter the friendly shores of an unintended island.  Haha, you knew you could do it, and you never really felt in danger.  So exciting, so exhilirating.  The adventure of a lifetime.

However, unbeknownst to you, literally hundreds of thousands of family, friends, and strangers had offered up prayers for your safety.  The fact that the petitions were offered AFTER the storm was over made them, of course, “wasted effort.”  Or were they?  Could the Creator-of-the-Universe have, in the aforementioned time-space-continuum, have considered the petitions about to be offered up, and changed the course that miserable storm was to have on you even before the fact?  Could the winds have finally relented, as you reached a current that would drift you into safety?

How are prayers answered?  I think in many ways.  And I purport that our questions and needs are addressed in many different ways as well.  Perhaps its presumptuous of us to assume that we have the cognitive ability to know the ways of the same Creator-of-the-Universe.  We don’t really expect to hear a deep, resounding human voice from the clouds, do we?  We would be stunned if that actually happened, so clearly we anticipate other forms of response.

We believe that God is love.  Not simply that He loves.  Not simply that He, through His Son, showed us how to love. But rather, that God is love.  Emmanuel – God is with us in the love that we feel from others, and for others.  164,882 people praying for my daughter, expressing love for a complete stranger in need, is in fact, the pure manifestation of God’s love and evidence that in fact, He is with us.

Much Love.

Thank You.

IMG_6636

 

 

 

 

 

addendum A:  Hawking’s argument of gravity’s role in the bang assumes that gravity somehow existed before the Big Bang, yet Hawking then goes on to maintain that nothing, including God, existed before the Big Bang. Hmmm … Hawking’s logic is selective.

addendum B:  <Planck?> Non Euclidian Geometry evolves into the concept of the “tesseract,” and eventually his Theory of Relativity.

addendum C:  although he rejected the Hebrew (and Christian) notion of a Gd with whom one has a personal relationship, and involved in each of our own personal decisions and destinies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara (Nicholas Brown)

The “Tara”

 

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

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

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

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

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

Psychologists call it cathexis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bristol32

 

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

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

 

 

 

Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

behindme4

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

camino_friends camino_friends2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boxerbaby2 boxerbaby1

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

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

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

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

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

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

Would you have?

no_vacancy

I Should Be Standing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coach Mike

536006_3966574450628_1468412559_33563239_1709470802_n

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

Mike_Snelgrove_Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike_Snelgrove_Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does it mean, going forward?

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

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

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

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

Much Love.

536006_3966574450628_1468412559_33563239_1709470802_n

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

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

IMG_5222

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

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

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

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

IMG_5137

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5502

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

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

1 Kings 19:11-13

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

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

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

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

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