Missing Our Parents, Helping the Hurting

Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.

None of his children were with my father when he died.  Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent.  .  I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.

I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.

I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom.  And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.

I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed.  Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak?  This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.

Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified.  My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal.  Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48.  I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.

Maureen Blanton Klein

At about age 48, this is the way Mom will forever live in my memory. Maureen Blanton Klein

That day is mainly a blur.  A surreal experience where nothing made sense.  A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place.  I had spoken to my mother the day before.  She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.

She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!

Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends.  When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed.  She had not been sick a day before this.

Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain?  As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?”  The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done.  I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.

The problem was that there was no doctor.  Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night.  The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is.  I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken.  I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her.  I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day.  Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”

As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?”  When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”

The medical record was astonishing.  The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling.  I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results?  Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken?  The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”

“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately.  DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOTDO NOT TRY!

“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is).  His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”

I’ll leave this alone for now.  DNR is a blog posting all by itself.

Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone.  She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her.  Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices.  Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.

I never got the time to grieve into closure.  I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together.  But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt.  Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening.  And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up.  (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).

And then the unthinkable happened.  Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.

The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures

You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?

Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.

Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand.  I don’t understand.

As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.”  We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom and Cullen

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom with Cullen

William Cullen Klein and Sharon Tidd Klein

Cullen and Sharon

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Lewis Klein

Our beautiful mother in 2007, on my wedding day

I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button.  It just didn’t feel right yet.  Things were too raw.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.

Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.”  The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss.  There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt.  But at least these people tried.  So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say.  And so they say nothing.  They disappear.  They do nothing.  And that is the most hurtful of all.

Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident.  And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child.  Their kindness will never be forgotten.

Being present means you know they are hurting.  Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them.  Just sitting together, hugging, and crying.  You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss.  Empathy.  It’s not something you read about, or something you do.  It’s who you are.

Its the age old question.  Its that which shakes our faith to its very core.  Why must we hurt?  Why does tragedy happen to good people?  Hurt is the price we pay for our love.  We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison.  Warmth without the chill of loneliness.  Compassion without our own hurt.

Rather, embrace your pain.  For this pain exists precisely because you feel.  You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved.  To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.

Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

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Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

Morocco door

“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

Moroccan scene1

Pentecost with Cullen – Speaking in Tongues in Haiti

Cullen Two Girls Crop

 

 

Yesterday was Pentecost, which will always remind me of this story:
The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area. Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean. Amazing. They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride. The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen. I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair. We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time. I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read. I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.” How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children. So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse. Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.

Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36

36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident. (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)

Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.

I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them, to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned. Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something. I moved through dozens of children to get closer. Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also. I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear. My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole. My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”

From then on I got it. I’ll never be the same.

(This is a shortened repost of a two part Recollection from last year of time spent on mission in Haiti. For the full version, click here).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

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Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

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Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

IMG_6493   svedCullen Sved Carsvedsmile1

Coach Mike

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does it mean, going forward?

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

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

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

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

Much Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Kings 19:11-13

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

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

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

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?
[CHORUS]
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?
So, that’s it.  When we try too hard, when we talk too loud, when we make ultimatums and demands – we hear nothing.
“I tried to hear from Heaven, but I talked the whole time.”
C. S. Lewis also makes some progress in A Grief Observed:
     Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks because he can see nothing, that he is in a dungeon.  In the middle of that darkness, he hears a sound.  The sound is brief, and comes from far away.  Perhaps the sound of waves, or the wind in the trees; and for the first time, he senses that he is not in a dungeon, but in the open air.  Nothing in his situation has changed.  He still waits in darkness.  Only now he knows the unseen world is greater than anything he can imagine.
     It came in the same moment that I sensed that the door was neither shut, not bolted.  Was it ever shut?  Was it bolted from the inside by my own desperate need?  They say a drowning swimmer can’t be saved if he is too fearful, because he grabs and clutches his rescuers too tight.
Had I been doing that –  making demands, and ultimatums of God?  Was He talking to me, just as desperately as I was to Him, but I just couldn’t hear through all the shouting from my desperate need?
It sure looks that way as I write the words.
Much Love.
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Haiti, Part 2 – Speaking in Tongues

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

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

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

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

The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area.  Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean.  Amazing.  They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride.  The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen.  I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair.  We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time.   I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read.  I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.”  How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children.   So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse.  Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.

Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36

  36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident.  (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)

Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.

I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them,  to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned.  Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something.  I moved through dozens of children to get closer.  Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also.  I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear.  My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole.  My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t make this stuff up.

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

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

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

Speaking in tongues forever takes on new meaning.

Much love

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