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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara (Nicholas Brown)

The “Tara”

 

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

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

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

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

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

Psychologists call it cathexis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

WE FOUND EMILY AND NICK!

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Please know how thankful we are to all of our family and friends for the love and support you have poured out.  Private yachts taking time, effort, and expense to search, islands governments, our own US Coast Guard, and our friends and family.  Everyone did what they could, and for this will be eternally grateful.

I still have not spoken with Emily, but was just alerted by the authorities that they entered the Dominican Republic Port less than an hour ago.  Apparently the seas and rough weather had caught up with them and sent them off course, and eventually ran out of fuel off the coast of Haiti, which is where they have been for the past three days.  This, as you can imagine, is piecing preliminary bits of information together, and is likely to change as we get more information of their epic tale.

Thank you my friends.  So Many Tears.  So Much Love.

Dr. William Klein and Family

Dan Brown, Rita Hughes, and Family

Where’s Emily?

PLEASE SEE ADDENDUM AT END!!!

My beautiful, wonderful, adventure-loving daughter Emily Klein is on a sailboat that had not checked in for several days.  Please realize this does NOT mean something horrible has happened to Em.  Only that something has happened, and hopefully she’ll turn up with a great story later this week.  In the mean time, I really believe prayers make a difference, and I’d love for you to share and send this to anyone with contacts on these islands mentioned below to look for Emily and Nick.

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She took a week leave from the boat she works on as a stew/mate to grab what she thought would be the adventure of a lifetime; And so she left the Turks and Caicos Islands on the 32 foot “Tara” on Thursday, February 19, bound for the town of Luperon, in the Puerta Plata Province of the Dominican Republic.

“Tara” is a Bristol 31.5 ft single mast sloop, renowned for its safety, and skippered by her owner, Nicholas Brown.   Her last known location was Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos at 15:41 on the 19th, asking for a weather report, and stating that their GPS had gone down.

Although rough weather was forecast to be behind them, it might have caught up, if they didn’t make the speed they were anticipating. Salt Cay to Luperon is about 120-130 nautical miles, and at the slowest likely 4 nauts, should have placed them there by 20:00 (8pm) on Friday the 20th, unless bad weather or something else impeded progress.  Its conceivable that the mast has even broken and they are drifting without much power from (or gas in) the tiny auxillary engine.  So we continue to be hopeful and prayerful that they both are just fine.

We were under the impression that Emily would fly back from DR to T&C on Saturday or Sunday to be back at work on her regular board on Sunday night.

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Having effectively lived on boats his entire life, 31 year old Nick Brown is an experienced yachtsman and sailor, and was extremely familiar with his boat and this route, although with the GPS down, just a few degrees off would have landed them onto Haiti, or other areas of the DR which might be much more dangerous than Luperon.

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After resupplying in Luperon, Nick intended to stop in Puerto Rico, and then on to St. Thomas, where he had made arrangements to meet his mother Rita Hughes, who would fly in to meet him there on Sunday.  She expected a call from him to confirm this, prior purchasing her airline ticket, on Sunday, before he left the DR.

She said he always calls to check in at ports-of call.  Apparently neither of them nor the boat have checked in or passed through immigration at any of the ports we have contacted.

If plans changed for some reason, and they decided simply to sail directly to St. Thomas, it could be end of today (or even later, if equipment is broken) that they would arrive.

Again, normal boating events could certainly have happened to slow the expected progress.

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The coast guard has been notified, and we’ve had numerous discussions with them.  The area involved is simply too large to effectively fly concentric circles, without a recent last known location.  The craft is fitted with a EPIRB device, designed to send out distress signals if submerged or manually triggered, and is used for triangulating location.  No EPIRB signals have been sent out in this region during this period, which (I think) is a good thing.

What the CG has done is send out on “side VHF channels” a description of the boat and a request to report any sighting of it.  These side channels would be monitored by most craft, and this only started this morning (Thursday), so hopefully will yield some positive information.  The Tara would likely get this announcement also, and so would then know they are being searched for.  They may have no idea their people are worried.

Lots and lots of people make this trip, and much more treacherous trips, in less sea-worthy vessels, so we continue to be hopeful.  Thanks to the literally hundreds who have heard some version of this through the grapevine to tell me of their prayers.  We are humbled and thankful.

Which brings me to the point of this entire post.  My intent here is not to cause angst and hysteria to Emily and Nick’s family and friends, but to actually put the real facts out, and the strong likelihood that this will all end well.  What can you do?  Please continue to pray, and ask any prayer chains that you know of to do so.  If you don’t pray, ask your mother to.  Share this petition with everyone you know in a prayer chain.

If you have contacts in any of these islands mentioned, or in the Caribbean yachting community, please share this with them.  I’ll post further information as I have it.

Instead of leaving a comment that you intend to pray, please just do it, right now, and only leave comments if you may have information useful to the search.  Thanks, and Much Love.

Nicholas 1 cropEm1 crop

ADDENDUM:

Please know how thankful we are to all of our family and friends for the love and support you have poured out.  Private yachts taking time effort and expense to search, islands governments, our own US Coast Guard, and our friends and family.  Everyone did what they could, and for this will be eternally grateful. 

I still have not spoken with Emily, but was just alerted by the authorities that they entered the Dominican Republic Port less than an hour ago.  Apparently the seas and rough weather had caught up with them and sent them off course, and eventually ran out of fuel off the coast of Haiti, which is where they have been for the past three days.  This, as you can imagine, is piecing preliminary bits of information together, and is likely to change as we get more information of their epic tale.

Thank you my friends.  So Many Tears.  So Much Love.  

Dr. William Klein and Family

Dan Brown, Rita Hughes, and Family

Why do you want to marry my daughter? (My outline of notes) – What I tried to say when he asked for my blessing

Camille and Nick

Dear Future Son-in-Law,

I’ve considered this conversation for months now;  no, actually since the day I watched the woman you want to marry walk down the aisle in her first communion dress.  Any you’d think I’d have the words by now.  But they’re fleeting, and I only get to have this talk with you once.  Oh, I’m sure we’ll have lots of talks, some of them even important ones, as the months and years roll along, but this is the one I think you’ll remember.

Perhaps I should begin with the most basic of questions.  You want to marry my daughter, but Why?  

Let’s back up and start with this.  Why do you love my daughter?  Because she makes you happy?  Because she “completes” you?  Because she has so many things in common with you?  You have so much fun when you’re with her?  Because you get that really cool, funny feeling deep down in your inner being anytime you’re with her, or even think about her?  Because you think she’s so beautiful?  I would certainly hope all of these are true.  But they simply can not be the reason to marry my princess.

First of all, they’re all about you, not her.  And they describe a “feeling.”  Of course being “in love” implies that happy feeling that you certainly (hopefully) have together – that feeling that “nothing else matters.”  Because of course, everything else does matter.  And that feeling will pass, probably on the way home from your honeymoon, or that first morning when you wake up muttering, “Forever, really?” and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

By now, I’m pretty sure you two have disagreed over things, and know just where the other’s jugular vein is, their Achilles’s heel, that weak spot you know would be really hurtful.  That “feeling” is in serious jeopardy during your first big fight over something “really important.”  Or after the hundredth of them, when you’re still angry and maybe out with the boys, and see an old girlfriend, or someone in some foreign town, or someone who suddenly starts thinking you’re pretty incredible looks at you the way my daughter “used to.”  This is not something that might happen, or a prediction.  It’s something that will happen.  Maybe once, maybe 10 times.  Maybe a week after you get married, or even seven years.  Why am I so confident?  Every male I’ve shared my adult life with has only nodded their head in agreement when we look back over our years.  Some crossed the line, some didn’t.  But any of us could have.  I could have.  Your guard drops at a weak moment, especially after a few drinks, and nothing will ever be the same.

That’s why its not about a feeling.  Love is not a feeling.  Because there will be times, lots of times, weeks of them, when she will not make you happy.  She will not complete you, you’ll grow up and realize that in fact, you are incomplete, but my daughter can not and should not and must not fill that void.  You’ll be sure that you have many more things not in common than you ever agree on.  And that really cool feeling that nothing else matters will be long gone.  Because everything else does matter.  One of you will be immature.  And irresponsible.  Make stupid mistakes.  Make financial mistakes.  Has a selfish side.  One of you?  Both of you have all of these traits.  We all have all of these traits.  And you both have dirty closets – both physically and metaphorically.

Again, this is why love can not be a feeling.  Because all of these things will change.  One of you will get cancer and lose a breast, or the ability to make love.  Or be in an accident and become disabled, or disfigured.  Or just get fat.  And you will no longer be so attractive – to each other, or even more likely to yourself.  And you’ll stop loving yourself, and feel unloved, and feel unlovable.  And so you’ll make yourself unlovable.  And one of you will lose a job through no fault of your own, or through every fault of your own.  Or you’ll be unable to get another job, or keep another job.  You’ll also feel pretty worthless, and make yourself also unlovable.  And you’ll be very hard to love.  In fact, unlovable.  Rather, you’ll be unlovable if your relationship, your marriage, your “love” is a feeling.

But it’s not.  And this is not rocket-science.  But here’s the tricky part – if in fact you suspected I was going to say that instead of a feeling, love is “an agreement,” you’d be right.  But only partially right.

I worked for a guy one time who had separate bank accounts for himself and his wife.  It had nothing to do with his pre-nup, or family wealth, or anything at all about protecting their precious material things, or inheritance, or whatever.  No, it was simply “an agreement.”  They had separate jobs, and they each paid for half of all the bills out of their own accounts.  He argued eloquently that it kept the romance in their marriage, because they would “treat” each other to a dinner, or the theater, or a gift.  And it was truly a gift from them individually, because if it had been paid for out of a joint account, then no gift was involved, they just bought something together.  And he added a bow to the package, when he proudly explained, with a wink and a nod, besides, some things were just “none of her business!”  Then he clicked his mouse to open the computer screen displaying this “hilarious” video I’d surely enjoy, and he resumed the porn session he had been halfway through when I had walked into his office.  This went a long way to describe how much respect he had for her.  She surely reciprocated.

No, so love is not just an “agreement.”  I’ve heard ministers officiating the ceremony describe it as a “contract.”  Surely, this is just as dangerous, maybe more so, because a contract is a trade of one thing for another.  A “quid-pro-quo.”  It’s more dangerous because, again, there will be times, perhaps even years when one of you isn’t holding up “your end of the bargain.”  Trust me, this is inevitable.  We human beings are screw-ups, and we are wired to fall, and fail.  Such a breech of contract then allows the other party license to violate the contract because, in fact, no contract exists anymore.  If she’s not doing such and such any more, neither will you!

Yes, love is an agreement, but not a contract.  It’s a “covenant.”  The difference is in the magic words we use when referring to the ceremony that almost no-one really takes seriously – our “vows.”  We “vow” to do these things, with a swear to almighty God, until death do us part.  The fact that we’re vowing to do them in front of all the “witnesses” is, in fact, pretty meaningless.  Most of them are simply there for the really expensive party afterwards anyway.  Close your eyes and imagine looking out over those you’ve invited, and consider whether or not they’ll hold you accountable to your vows, this promise, this covenant. Or will they “high five” over cheating, because he’s such an asshole, or she’s turned into such a bitch?

You’re not “exchanging” rings as part of this contract.  It’s a sign of a covenant.  You know what observant Jews did (and do) as a sign of their covenant with God!  Would you do such a thing as a sign of this covenant?  They didn’t cut off skin so God would do “something.”  They did it as a sign of their fidelity, a physical statement, an affirmation that they were “all in.”  Are you?  Are you all in?  Will you be true to this covenant if she’s fat and ugly, frigid and hateful, clinically depressed?  Or what if she’s addicted to something to numb some pain?  What if she’s an alcoholic?

I realize I should be having this conversation with her as well, but that’s a conversation your parents should have with her.  And I’ve had 29 years to do my best with her; this conversation is with you.  About you.

And how do you see your role in her life?  Let’s assume you really do understand, and agree with marriage as a covenant, or at least that you’ll think about it long and deep.  What will you be to her?  And to your children?  A provider?  What exactly does that mean?  Will you have a job that requires such long hours that your wife is lonesome, and lonely?  You’ve told me that you want children – is that a pet child? or several children?  Have you seriously made plans together? Will you be there for birthday parties, recitals, and parent-teacher meetings?  What is important to you?  What makes life worth living?  Will you live every day as if it’s your last one, and be happy with the importance you gave people and things?

Do you love people and use things?  Or do you love things and use people?

Don’t answer “correctly,” answer honestly.  

And what does make life worth living?  Why are we here?  Why are you here?  Nobody really has any of this figured out, but do you try?  Do you think about these things?  Are they important to you?  What could be more important to you?

I know you both were “raised” Christian, but what does that mean?  How important is your faith to you?  Will it have a role in your marriage?  Does it now?  Surely you know “a three-ply cord is not easily broken.”  Honestly, if your Christian faith is not an active part of your life right now, what will ever change?  Why do people pray?  Do you?  What does that look like?  Is it so private that you can’t really talk about it?  If you believe in “life after this,” I mean really, then isn’t it the most important thing in life?  Then why is God, and faith, and prayer private, and hard to talk about?  Wouldn’t it be important to help the woman you love get to heaven also?

So, anyway, that’s the “love” thing.  You say you want my blessings?  Tell me again, “Why do you want to marry her?

And What if There Was No Religion

Everybody knows that religion is the cause of all suffering, and most, if not all wars.  Everybody knows that, right?  It’s clearly a fact to the “experts” and “enlightened” who seem to be the first to comment with authority to every news article and blog post (including mine) where religion is presented in a positive light.  It’s one of those claims repeated so often that when we hear it during some social conversation by the resident know-it-all, we just let it pass, because we don’t know any better.  Well, lets go to school.

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars (Phillips and Axelrod), of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them can be classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s less than 7 percent.  Further, the number killed in these conflicts amounts to only two percent. This means that even when wars have been fought over religious disputes, they tend to be less bloody than when they are fought for other reasons.

Lets dig into our own American memories.  The American Revolution, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea; none of these wars was fought for religious reasons. In fact, the bloodiest and most deadly wars of recent history were demonstrably motivated by something other than religion: out of whack nationalism (WWI), anti-religious fascism (WWII), and atheistic Communism (Korea, Vietnam, the atrocities of Stalin and Mao).

Even the atrocities in the name of Islam:  We’re constantly reminded that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that all the current atrocities in her name are a “few” zealots, who do not represent the teachings of Mohammed (and therefore, supposedly, of Allah).  Let’s go with that, because it makes us all feel so much more comfortable.  I’ve heard something similar about Hitler, who was raised Catholic, and seemed to focus most of his vitriol on the Jews.  (Even though hundreds of thousands of Catholics also lost their lives, including over 16,000 priests and nuns).  Just because someone claims to be a faithful member of a religion while “acting out” most certainly does not mean they represent the religion, or that it is the position of their claimed religion.  (Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s strong pro-abortion positions certainly don’t mean the Church sanctions such atrocities).

And, of course what about the Inquisition and the Crusades?

To non-Catholics the Inquisition is a scandal; to Catholics, an embarrassment; to both, a confusion. It is a handy stick for Catholic-bashing, simply because most Catholics seem at a loss for a sensible reply.  Defense of atrocities of another time and culture is not the intent here.  A comparatively objective Inquisition discourse can be found here.

What must be grasped is that the Church contains within herself all sorts of sinners and jerks, and some of them do obtain positions of responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

Some fundamentalists suffer from the mistaken notion Church “membership” includes only the “elect.” For them, sinners are outside the doors. Locate sinners, and you locate another place where the Church is not.

The crusades are like much of our best intentions as human beings -A noble idea, but when humans are involved, lots of mistakes will be made.  This is also well beyond the scope of this post, but Weidenkopf attempts to make some sense of it all in his new book, summarized in these posts.  Each Crusade was different, some were glorious in intent and outcome, some much less so.

With apologies to John Lennon, who wrote lots of catchy love longs and changed music in our culture forever, the “living for today” in Imagine, translates in our world as “can’t we all just get along?”  But he was no philosopher, and clearly no intellectual giant.  “Imagine all the people, living life in peace” is about as naive as the COEXIST bumper sticker.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a lofty ideal, I’m not here to shove my beliefs down anyone’s throat, but I’ll gladly explain why I know mine are the truth for me.  (I may think they’re true for you too, but souls were never saved by winning an argument).  Anyway, back to Imagine (no heven, hell, or religion) and COEXIST – Just remember how wrong the other Lenin and Mao-Tze-Tung proved to be (weren’t these their goals also?)

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Again, this whole lofty ideal thing has proven absurd, because too many people are “in it to win it,” and think it’s “all about me.”  The human condition, freedom to make the wrong choice, and concupiscence from the fall.  Whatever you call it, whenever we live with this as the ideal, it translates as “survival of the fittest,” and “the one who dies with the most toys – wins.”

This sounds like such a cool way to live, until you actually think about it, and what’s important.  And what’s not.

You see, most of us pretty much do live in our “imagined” life – for today, where there’s no heaven or hell or religion.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s imagine no religion.

Lets forget a millennium of science, where the Church was directly responsible for optic lenses, the calendar, (believe it or not) the big-bang theory, and (contrary to Church-hating legend) scientific mapping discussing a round earth.   Sophomoric focus on Galileo having been under “house arrest” misses the point that the Church was simply maintaining that helicocentric theory (actually initiated by neither Galileo nor Copernicus, but rather Aristarchus in the 3rd century) had simply not been “proven” (nor was it for over a hundred years after his natural death), and prohibited his teaching it as fact.  Surprisingly, it was Lamarck, (later read by Darwin) who first theorized species mutation and natural selection, and the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel who founded the science of genetics.

Perhaps the greatest single contribution to education to emerge from Catholic civilization was the development of the university system. Early Catholic universities include Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salerno, Vicenza, Cambridge, Padua, Naples, and Vercelli. By the middle of the 15th-century (more than 70 years before the Reformation), there were over 50 universities in Europe.

Starting from the sixth-century, the Church in Europe also developed what were later called grammar schools and, in the 15th century, produced the movable type printing press system, with incalculable benefits for education. Today, it has been estimated that Church schools educate more than 50 million students worldwide.

Art, architecture, music, philosophy, jurisprudence, and languages.  Contrary to popular prejudice, extraordinary and influential women have been one of the hallmarks of Catholic civilization. The faith has honored many women, such as St Hilda & Blessed Hildegard von Bingen, abbess and polymath. Pioneering Catholic women in political life include Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first Queen of England, Mary Tudor.; many of the first women scientists and professors: Trotula of Salerno in the 11th century, Dorotea Bucca, who held a chair in medicine at the University of Bologna, Elena Lucrezia Piscopia, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree and Maria Agnesi, the first woman to become professor of mathematics, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV as early as 1750.

Whew! But what about now?  Is the Church/religion really relevant today?  Was she just an altruistic pioneer in the Middle Ages?  Hmmm, I think not.

Catholic Charities in the USA alone provide services to over 9 million people, and are the 4th largest charity, much bigger than the United Way.  Lutheran Services is invaluable as well.  Despite their huge size, these two religious non-profits distribute among the highest percentage of donations, over 85%, with less than 15% going to salaries and distribution networks.

Maybe I try to cover too much in some of these posts; I’ve barely glossed over a few positive impacts religion has and has had on the world, and those were just a few of the secular ones.

A common theme I find myself going back to time after time is the head-scratcher of so many folks who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  I think that’s a bit like “playing tennis without a net,” resulting in a kind of spiritual narcisicism.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton critiqued the Quaker notion of the “Inner Light,” but his words just as easily apply here:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. That Mr. Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.

Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine shepherd. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

Spirituality without religion goes hand-in-hand with another modern religious trend: moral therapeutic deism (MTD). Even more popular with today’s youth than “low riding” jeans, MTD eschews revelation, religious commandments, and formal worship in favor of a divine Santa Claus: He’s out there somewhere, he wants us to be nice, but he gives us presents even if we’re naughty. As with unregulated spirituality, the chief moral principle of MTD—be nice to others—relies on the subjective (and thus infinitely and conveniently flexible) interpretations of the “believer.” What’s nice for you isn’t necessarily nice for me.

Small surprise, then, that a recent sociological study published in the journal Criminology found that young people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are more likely than their religious peers—whether spiritual or not—to commit crimes.

“Calling oneself ‘spiritual but not religious’ turned out to more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious,” said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.”

The researchers’ remarks focused on possible sociological reasons why self-identified religious folk commit fewer crimes: shame, fear of divine judgment, greater investment in family and community, and so on. But although there may be merit to such theories (though they turn a blind eye to the most obvious reason: grace), they don’t account for the most shocking finding of this research:  “spiritual but not religious” group was also more likely to commit crime, and to display anti-social characteristics and “negative emotions,” than those who claimed to be neither spiritual nor religious.

Maybe it’s just what happens when Jones worships Jones.

Why do we need religion?  Obviously many people are disillusioned by what they perceive to be corruption and hypocrisy of organized religion, including lots of scandal.  Nothing new – scandal has been with us from the beginning.  Not a reason to leave, but a reason to stay (or return) – how could anything other than the truth have survived so much scandal.  “You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!”

Which brings me, of course, to a theme I return to often – find me a perfect religion and then join it, and I will too. Then it will no longer be perfect, because of the sinners (us).  That’s the point exactly. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, he gave them to someone who had just denied Him three times, and even cursed Him.  He hand-picked an entire group of twelve misfits for a reason.  We are too, and His actions and lessons, time, and time again, show us that not only is being human OK, it’s how He made us.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Christians believe that in this verse Jesus is bestowing on Peter a position of authority from which the office of the pope is derived. But even if the “spiritual” Christian has problems with this belief, there is no escaping the fact that Christ intended his Church to be both visible and authoritative.

“But I don’t need to go to church to find God.  I’m much closer to Him when I’m fishing or hiking than I do in any building.”  (Ever heard this from a loved one?)  I’ll grant you the benefit of the doubt and assume you wouldn’t just rather be “away.”  No one disputes that our Lord is everywhere, and a beautiful sunrise and a speckled trout certainly testifies to His presence in the origin of the universe and its progression.  But if you have a hard time finding Him with you when “two or more are gathered in His name,” perhaps the problem isn’t within those walls (just a possibility).

It is evident from Scripture that Jesus intended for community to gather regularly for worship. St. Paul wrote to the early Christians:

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:25).

This verse indicates that, even in the first century, there were Christians who did not think it was necessary to gather for worship. This runs contrary to the idea that one can be a church unto himself as long as he has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. The Lord intended his Church to be a community.

It’s clear from the Bible that Jesus did not intend Christians to live out their spiritual lives in a vacuum. He founded a Church, gave it authority in the areas of faith and morals, and guards it from teaching error (Matt. 18:17-18).

There is, in fact, true evil in the world.  And God.   This is precisely the reason I’m glad there is also religion.

Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

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

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

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

Would you have?

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And What If There is No Devil

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I’m friends with quite a few people that consider themselves, “spiritual, but not religious.”. Upon further prodding this normally means some form of “New Age” stuff – basically that God is within each of us, and as such we have no need of organized anything.  If God is within, there’s clearly no need for communicating with the “heavens,” or that “divine dimension.”  No, prayer consists of emptying oneself completely of all the “human stuff,” so all that remains is divine.  We effectively become our own god.  Much like those who “cherry pick” what they like to believe is right or wrong, we attend the “church of me.”

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And so with this moral relativism it’s a natural progression to deny the existence of the absolute.  I’m a pretty good person,” or “at least I don’t do such and such” becomes the new standard, and there are no inherent rights and wrongs.  “Don’t judge me” is the new mantra, and we are therefore forbidden to refer to Natural Law.  The best ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Cumberland and Locke, our own John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and certainly Augustine and Aquinas.  Notice my omission of uniquely religious figures; these are philosophers of genius, who maintained that there is, in fact, absolute right and wrong, irrelevant of cultural and societal norms.  So let’s throw out 2500 years of philosophical contemplation and wisdom, because so many people in modern society find the truth inconvenient, shaming, and esteem lowering.

When the trend of culture, or even within our individual consciences (or lack thereof) has no “standard,” setting the bar for right and wrong becomes completely arbitrary.

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Likewise its quite trendy to deny the existence of “evil.”. I’m not talking about “doing” what society considers “evil things,” or even “being an evil person.”   Again, when we are allowed to “set the bar” in different places, standards of behavior become contrived and arbitrary.

No, I’m actually referring to evil.  Evil is not simply that passive void created in the absence of “good.”. Evil is a very real thing, a very active albeit insidious force that has been just as present as it was two thousand and ten thousand years ago.

And so – Most of us would agree that Oliver Cromwell did evil things when he massacred the Irish civilians in Wexford, and when the suicide bomber boarded the bus full of Israeli children, and when a man in charge of children commits pedaphilia or pederasty.  However, it’s quite different to say there was an evil force guiding and driving these feeble minded to justify what they did.  They aren’t simply confused, brainwashed, or even sick.  Consciously or unconsciously, they participated with something truly sinister.

I’m neither naive nor an an idiot.  I realize the whole idea seems absurd if you don’t believe in the existence of an absolute “good,” and in turn, the existence of God.  Much like Paul’s description of the “foolishness” of the cross to those who believe they will simply perish, but the “Power of God,” to those who are confident of salvation (1Cor 1:18).

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Nor has this moral slide happened suddenly.  It’s been with us forever,  And I think I’ve actually witnessed so many subtle, insidious instances of this slide of my culture before my very eyes.  When I was a little kid, comedian Flip Wilson had us in stitches when his character Geraldine claimed “the devil made me do it” every time she did something wrong, and so it became a laughing matter.  We clearly recognized it as facetious, Geraldine obviously was shirking her own accountability, and caricaturing the devil as a cartoon character.  And who hasn’t conjured up the mental image of “the devil,” with cute little curved horns, a fork, dressed in a red leotard, and joking about the heat.  As a child, I was probably in that costume one Halloween.  You see, of course, the theme here – cartoons, jokes, funny.

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In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes this point much more eloquently than I can, as the elder devil, Wormwood, advises his nephew apprentice:

“The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of some¬thing in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

cartoon-devil  Screwtape_bookcover  screwtape111

And if there is no Satan, no Prince of Darkness, no “evil spirit,” what of evil?  Is evil a “positive” thing (actually something that exists), or simply the absence of good, a (void)?Clearly evil exists, but is it a “something (a power unto itself),” or a “nothing (like darkness in the absence of light)?”

I suppose being a 14 year old boy in 1973 Missouri when The Exorcist first played (Blatty’s version of real events surrounding a very credible possession in St. Louis, starring Linda Blair) made me really pay attention and fascinated me.  Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I considered the whole premise plausible, and found these otherwise inexplicable events actually faith-strengthening.  And the fact that Catholic priests are called in during these situations, as “the authorities” provides a subliminal affirmation that the Roman Church provides the most dependable road home.

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So, to me, although scary “as hell,” I consider it a real thing.  I realize that philosophers and theologians much smarter than I have also explored this question and come to both conclusions.  Its easy to see how those in Auschwitz, My Lai, and Syria might feel much more confident with such first hand knowledge.  But what about the 12 year old girl who is bullied?  The 15 year old driven to self-destruction because of gay bashing?  The woman beaten to a pulp by her prince every time he drinks?  Is this darkness simply the lack of light?

One of the most emotionally powerful arguments against the existence of God is the “problem of evil.”  People say that if God is all knowing, all powerful, all good, why does evil exist?

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That drove me to bash my head against the wall for about ten hours, trying to read and understand what the best and brightest for thousands of years have said reconciling the existence of evil with an omnipotent, loving moral God.  From Buddhism, Pessimism and Zoroastrianism to Christian Scientist and Jehovahs Witness.  From Aristotle, Origen and Epicurus to Schopenhauer and Leibniz.  Eckhart, Birmingham, and even Nietzsche.  Gnostics and Deists, Monism and Pragmatism.

Frankly all I learned was that everyone knows that no one knows.  Actually that this is another one of those things that humans just can’t know.  Not that we should stop the great search for truths.  On the contrary, this is exactly why we should continue to learn and explore and dig and think deeply.

I do find myself leaning towards Thomas Aquinas:

The existence of evil functions in the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil. Thus fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the wolf must slay the deer in order to live; and if there were no wrongdoing, there would be no need for the virtues of patience and justice. Let’s assume God did author evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as the consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken without punishment. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the attraction of sin, has the nature of good. But the evil of sin, though permitted by God, is in no sense due to Him; its cause is the abuse of free will.

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Therein, St. Thomas proposes his explanation (apparently logical and sufficient to him) as to why God permits foreseen moral evil.  Why would God, foreseeing that His creatures would use His gift of free will for their own injury, proceed with the plan, and not keep them (us) from misusing this “gift,” deny the gift altogether?

St. Thomas comes to the realization that God cannot change His mind, since the Divine will is free from the defect of weakness or instability. Such fluidity would be a defect in the Divine nature (and therefore impossible), because if God’s purpose were made dependent on the foreseen free act of any creature, God would thereby sacrifice His own freedom, and would submit Himself to His creatures, thus abdicating His essential supremacy—a thing which is, of course, utterly inconceivable.

In other words, I think, “It is because it He has willed it.”  The great I AM.

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