What if There is No God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Catholic stuff like Saints & Mass Intentions – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly helps me on mine.

I thought you should know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

 

The Mystery of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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