Monday, October 19, 2009

Ganging Up in Prayer

So many friends, acquaintances, church members, and bloggers have been praying for Nikolina, Shane, and the whole Mahlou family that God must feel like people are ganging up on Him. Many thanks to everyone for those prayers! The Mahlou family is once again not only emerging from the muck but also being washed off and cleaned up. We are almost presentable now.

Thinking about this reminded me about how a colleague and I ganged up in prayer on a senior boss a few years ago, resulting in something very strange (well, not really so strange if one knows the power of prayer) happening at our senior staff meetings. It used to be that the division directors hated gathering together with our boss's boss because he would berate them publicly when production was behind, customer satisfaction was low, or product quality was questionable. Instead of working together to identify and fix the problem, he would verbally abuse the director of the responsible division. Two of the four division directors quit within six months of my arrival. (It had nothing to do with my arrival; they had simply been around longer and were tired of the abuse.) A third talked of quitting. That would leave only me still in place from among the four of us who were on board at the time that I arrived, and I had been there only a few months.

Oddly, I was never berated or otherwise abused. (Moreover, a few weeks ago, on a business trip, I ran into this big boss, and he was genuinely happy to see me.) But, maybe it was not odd at all. God tends to protect me. I don't know why. I guess it has to do with His spoiling me (which I do not take for granted but I do love it).

Maybe it also had to do with prayer. I prayed often for this particular person because he often gave me new reason to pray.

When my former employee was promoted to being my colleague, replacing the third director who did quit, I told him that every time the big boss started turning red, a sign that he was about to sling verbal muck at someone, I would say a silent prayer, asking God to calm him and bring him a sense of peace; always the red would turn back to flesh color and his words would be tempered. Knowing that, my new colleague began to do the same, and we both noticed that meetings became more peaceful and productive. Soon everyone was talking about how the big boss had changed, how much more calm and respectful he had become, and how much easier it now was to attend his meetings.

Maybe all that happened was that our prayers visibly calmed the two of us and that calm spread to others, including the big boss, who sensed a gentling reaction from us. Or maybe God reached straight down into this gruff man's pounding heart or irritated psyche. I do not pretend to understand how God answers prayer. I just know that God does.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What I Was Going To Write Today

This will be a brief post because there really is not much to tell. Nikolina came through the surgery just fine. It turned out that of the prolapsed intestine, the doctors only had to remove 2 cm.

The surprising main difficulty was finding an intensive care unit for her post-surgery. Because OEIS Complex is so rare and so complicated, none of the pediatric intensive care units felt comfortable taking her. That was a bit unnerving -- if nurses are afraid of her being too complicated to care for, what does that mean for us, her parents and grandparents? I suppose that the saying, "ignorance is bliss," is rather pertinent here. If one doesn't know enough to be afraid, then one ends up treating her just like any other baby--and enjoying her, leaving the harder stuff to God.

Nikolina did find a post-operative home. The NICU (newborn intensive care unit) is not supposed to re-admit babies who have been discharged (germs from the outside world and all that), but since no other unit would take her and the nurses in the NICU have two months of experience in taking care of her, there is where she is. God willing, she will be back home with her parents soon.

Thanks to those who have told me that you are praying for her! She is also back on the prayer list at our Old Mission Church.

Good night to all! I am looking forward to a positive update in the morning.


Following up on the post below about answers (and seeming non-answers) to prayer, I would like to share with you three interventions in my life, only one of which came as an answer to prayer. The other two seemed to be gifts given without request, and for those amazing and unexpected gifts I am highly grateful.

While I have read much literature on the topic, unexplained (miraculous?) healings become much more meaningful when they happen to you.

The first incident happened as I was driving to see my gynecologist for a determination of surgical date to remove my 27-year-old IUD, the last 10 years of which it had been so entangled in uterine tissue that no doctor had been willing to remove it because it would have required removing the uterine lining as well. However, now the decision had been made that it simply was time (about 22 years past time) to remove the thing, and the doctor I had found was considered the best of the best and able to handle such things. So, I was not really focused on the medical problem at all but thinking about life and work and children and other things in general as I drove through past open fields enroute to the doctor's office. Suddenly, a streak of blue light appeared out of nowhere, ran through the entire length of my body, and disappeared. I was startled but not enough so to drive off the road. I arrived at the doctor's office on time and had pretty much put the incident out of my mind as perhaps my imagination--except that it was too "real" to be imagination. The doctor did a quick check prior to hooking up a scanner that would help him determine just how complex an operation he was in for. He looked at me, startled, and said, "We don't need an operation. The IUD is exactly where it should be. I can just pull it out in two seconds," which he did. Clearly, the blue light was not my imagination since I have medical records of long discussions with four doctors in two states about the entanglement of the IUD in tissue and now I have a second entry in a record from from a very surprised doctor who found the IUD all of a sudden totally free of tissue.

The next incident I want to relate here was not documented by anyone other than by me, but that is enough for me. I was in a very rural area of Russia, hours from medical care, when I developed a urine infection. It became worse and worse over 4-5 days and on the fifth evening my bladder seemed to shut down. I collected a urine specimen because I knew doctors would need that, and it looked very infected. (Having had a UTI before that sent me to the emergency room, I knew the symptoms.) There was no option for local care, and regional care was not only hours away but would not be available in the middle of the night. I tried to fall asleep, but the pain was too severe for that. After two hours of tossing, turning, running to the bathroom in the hope that my bladder would start working again, and trying hard to ignore pain that kept increasing in intensity, I prayed for the strength to tolerate the pain until morning when I could seek help. Suddenly, I was not alone. A male figure in a brown robe and sandals was with me. He laid his large hands on my abdomen, and I felt warmth spread through my body. Nearly immediately I was asleep. I awoke a few hours later, totally refreshed, and in no pain. Even my bladder was working. I collected another urine sample--perfectly clear. Convinced that I must have been dreaming the infection, I double-checked the urine sample from the day before. It was clearly infected.

The third incident, like the first, is medically documented and occurred very recently. I had fallen and injured the rotator cuff of my right arm, an injury that, I am told, rarely fully heals and often requires surgery. The local clinic sent me to a specialist in the city. The city doctor took two more x-rays, confirmed the diagnosis, and set me up for an MRI the following week. Saturday I attended mass with my youngest son. I often feel God's presence at our mission church; many people do. However, this time, while kneeling, I felt His presence right beside me along with a brief touch on my right shoulder. I leaned over to my son and asked if he had just felt the same presence, and he said he had. When we stood to say the Lord's Prayer, I noticed that for the first time in three weeks I felt no pain in my right arm. Then, during the kiss of peace, I hugged a friend who was in the pew in front of me. "Be careful for your arm," she warned me, knowing that I had not been able to lift it about waist level since the injury. "It doesn't hurt," I told her, "and it is moving now." Once I walked out of the church, I rotated my arm in all directions with ease and no pain. Nonetheless, I followed through with the MRI, the result of which was that no injury showed up on any of the scans. The orthopedic specialist was really spooked. I thought he might want to know what happened, but he did not. He offered no explanation and seemed eager to have me leave his office as soon as possible. Even though I am an extravert, I was unable to engage him in any conversation, and he had difficulty even looking me in the eye. I thought it a very odd reaction, but then, I suppose, he is not used to rotator cuff injuries simply disappearing.

All of these incidents were surprising because I did not ask God to heal me at any of these times. (Of course, who does not want to be healed, whether or not one asks?) Essentially, God answered an unexpressed request. Amazing! Moreover, in all cases, I was given hard evidence or medical documentation of the healing. (God knows I am a skeptic at heart; without evidence, I am not quick to believe.) I guess this is why my Sufi friends tells me that God spoils me. God does. I don't ask why. I just say "thank you!"

I know my experiences are not unique; I have met some other people with such experiences--and we have had such experiences among family and acquaintances in my prayer group, as well as at church and at my work place. However, I never tire of hearing about God's amazing grace. So, I invite you to please share your experiences with me and the readers of this blog!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's Raining! It's Pouring!

Nikolina, as I posted elsewhere, came home yesterday evening, and we had a right fine celebration at Pizza Factory with Donnie, Shane (our son), Lemony (his wife), Nathaniel (our grandson), and Nikolina. As we were finishing, Fr. B and the staff from the local retreat center quite coincidentally showed up, and they all got to meet Nikolina and be rewarded with her infectious smile and highly social, happy eye contact -- she's an extrovert and already a bit of a flirt. (Fr. B, early on in Nikolina's surgical odyssey, celebrated a mass for her and for all of us.) We all left in jolly spirits.

However, the saga is not over, and I am not referring to the fact that Nikolina still has a series of operations ahead of her. Since it never rains, but it pours, we should not have been surprised that Shane ended up in the hospital within an hour of Nikolina's homecoming. We spent about six hours waiting for CT scan results only to learn that my diagnosis was accurate: appendicitis. (I want an honorary medical degree; I think I've earned it!) The appendix is getting close to rupture stage so the doctor would not let Shane, who, like me, has a very high threshold for pain, wait until his day off to do the surgery. It will be done the very first thing in the morning.

Goodness, I never thought I would be doing a post on Shane. He is the perfectly healthy child between two seriously handicapped ones. I cannot remember Shane ever being sick except for about a year with periodic migraines, which he learned to control, using biofeedback. (I control mine that way, too. Surprisingly, we each taught ourselves how to do it, which mightily impressed the doctors in both cases.)

In any event, it looks like life has become just a tad more complicated. I will need to take some time off in order to help Lemony with Nikolina so that she can be at the hospital with Shane and take Nathaniel to school. (Nathaniel was with us after school today.) It is sort of like the game of musical chairs, only its musical kids. Memories of our children's younger years -- musical kids then, too -- flood back these days.

So, it looks like we are going to have to ask for God's help again. I wonder if God ever gets tired of pulling one family out of dilemma after dilemma? I hope not because we are still living in the Land of Splat!, where we really depend upon God to get us out of all that muck that ends up covering us from time to time!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Briefly, Nikolina

Nikolina is still in the hospital, but we are hoping for a next-week discharge. She continues to be naughty -- refusing to be wired or tubed. That strength of will is probably what got her through all that initial surgery. Generally, though, she is very easy-going, and I thought a picture of her would tell more about her than all the words in the world. So here is photo of Nikolina after being patched up and before going back for plumbing repair!

I have added a section on the right of this blog, called Twitterlets, and I will keep readers updated on routine progress there, but comments are always welcomed on the posts about Nikolina.

Many thanks to all of you who have prayed for her and who are continuing to pray for her. I put her back on the mission prayer list. Looks like this will be an on-again, off-again, on-again thing for a while.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Prayers for Nikolina

We knew the day would come that Nikolina would need to return to Stanford for some serious neurosurgery. It is here, and we are asking for your prayers.

Donnie and I have enjoyed the past several weeks, being able to visit our son, Shane, and his family and play with both our grandchildren, Nathaniel and Nikolina. Nathaniel is a great big brother, not jealous, just loves his sister, and understands some of what is happening because he himself had a serious kidney problem when he was born (now just a bad memory).

We have some better pictures of Nikolina now, and I have managed to add her history to my family site, The Clan of Mahlou. Pictures and short bios of both the grandkids can be found there.

Nikolina's surgery is scheduled for Wednesday. She has a lipomeningeomylocele that has to be repaired. The most unnerving part is that nerves run through the area that has to be cut open. Right now, it looks like Nikolina, unlike her aunt who also has spina bifida, will be able to walk. She moves her legs and feet in all the right ways. However, any nerves that get in the way of the laser may result in some form of paraplegia. Please pray for steady hands and strong eyes of the neurosurgical team. I know that God is watching over Nikolina or she would not have made it this far, but I think it never hurts to let God know that we care, too.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Journey Is More Important Than the Destination

One of my favorite places is St Francis Retreat, which is situated in the mountains near the central coast of California. St. Francis Retreat, in spite of being a bit (oh, let's face it, a lot) off the beaten path, has been home to a large number of friars and monks who have done much for the local community and beyond. I know because St. Francis is home to the Secular Franciscan Order in which I am a candidate. In addition to wonderfully restorative and mathemagenic (gonna make you look up that word -- once a teacher, always a teacher) periodic retreats that attract retreatants well beyond driving distance, the priests at the retreat regularly substitute at the local church masses and provide personal counsel to individuals in search of spiritual advice; the retreat has an active spiritual direction program, which includes external qualified & certified spiritual directors. So, when St. Francis caught on fire in June 2006, the community was in shock. A significant piece of history and a significant source of spiritual growth was gone overnight. Fr. B, the newly arrived, not-so-young (oh, let's be honest, elderly) director had an immense task at hand: raise 6 million dollars to re-build or close down. No one wanted to close down, and so the rallying cry became "Bring Back St. Francis." While the bringing back has been going on, SFR has continued to hold retreats, provide spiritual direction, offer a home to retired and not-retired priests and monks, and actively serve the community, doing it out of pre-fabs. The journey is coming to an end after three years of fund-raising: the ground was broken in the spring, the structure is now up, and the new building is slated to open in September. I have heard Fr. B worry that the goal will not be reached, but they are now only $385K short. (If anyone feels inclined to donate, there is a way to do so on the SFR site.)

Reaching the goal, however, in my opinion, was never the most important thing. The journey to the goal was far more important.

As a result of the fire, SFR will have a far more modern, green, and spacious building than they would ever have attempted to build as long as the old building remained. (Hmm...)

This spacious building is very likely to bring far more users and retreatants to SFR because the space is there and the high-tech is there. While the proof in the pudding is yet to be tasted, the financial health of SFR, therefore, is likely to improve even in this bad economic climate. (Hmm...)

Bringing back St. Francis has instigated people to work together (and get to know each other) who might never have met before but who have become supportive friends now. Even those who have not been extensively involved have known that their $5 gifts or whatever amounts they could afford have been added together with larger ones to make building possible. It has become a community effort, a community, that is, of believers. (Hmm...)

I have always known that SFR would be rebuilt. I do not know how I knew. I just knew. My friend, Bennie, also knew and told Fr. B that. His prayers are nearly always answered, and he just simply expected this one to be answered as well. For others, the trust was not as implicit as it was with the two of us (and some other folks), but over time the trust that God would provide geometrically increased. (Hmm...)

Hmm...perhaps, indeed, the journey is more important than the destination.

When the fire came in 2006, I was living in my Land of Splat!. I would loved to have helped, but I had no real money to do so. I did have complete trust that God would fill the coffers needed for rebuilding and I had evidence that God would take care of me financially. After all, God dumped $11K on me when I needed it for the IRS, overcompensating the need by $400, which became my first contribution to the Bring Back St. Francis fund. After that, I began a little experiment. I promised God to give the "extra" money that came my way to SFR, and extra money started coming -- book royalties, merit increases, retention incentives. Soon I was up to $600 extra a month -- an amazing amount for someone living in the Land of Splat! who had spent most of her life with the chihuahua of poverty nipping at her heels (someone who still sometimes has to wait until the next paycheck in order to have a family dinner at a nice restaurant). Then, the diocese offered to loan SFR money against pledges so that the construction could begin on the building, and Fr. B asked me if I would turn my $600 per month donation into a pledge. Hmm... Now I was going to have to trust that God would keep throwing those extra dollars my way. Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar. "Okay, God, I am going to be at your mercy!" I upped the ante to $10K per year for my pledge, a nice round figure, and made a 5-year commitment. Scary thought: a $50K pledge from someone of modest income, inhabiting what has been sometimes called a poor man's art town, and living quite modestly in a small two-bedroom rented house. God was really going to have to help this time. That level of trust flabbergasted many people (mostly those who do not know me), but I know God will provide. Since making the pledge, an additional $350 per month as fallen into my lap from work-related additional income (I only needed an extra $250 -- overcompensation again), and that looks like it will continue through the end of the year, after which, there is the annual bonus and likely a small pay increase. Ah, fishes and loaves -- God sure knows how to multiply them! I certainly am glad that I joined this SFR journey because whatever the destination will be, I have learned a lot along the way, especially about trusting God. (Perhaps that was the plan! Hmm...)

As I think about the concepts of "journey" and "destination," I am compelled to note that we tend to want everything now. I am no exception although I am trying to be. We think we need some "stuff." We want to have it now. We think we want to be able to do something. We want to do it now. For example, I wanted to bring Katya of Tula to the USA for Orphan Cry. I wanted to do it now. God said "Cool it; let me do My part." Years ago, I met Shura and took him into my home. (His story will be coming soon as a continuation of the series about the professionals who have served as angels in my children's lives). He was at the time a dying Siberian child artist, and I wanted to bring him to the USA immediately for medical help. It took a year. When we don't get what we want right away, we think God has not answered our prayer. As Tolstoy said, God waits. We may never know why God waited. It is not important that we know. We just sometimes think it is.

On many occasions, I have found the destination to be great but the journey greater. The journey encourages spiritual and interpersonal development, allows time for miracles and time to see the miracles, and builds faith and trust. So, you see, the journey is more important than the destination.

(And, in terms of "destination," this is what has distracted me from writing this week. I am working at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, picture below. No time to swim or surf -- I'm not much good at either, anyway -- but the natural beauty is so spellbinding that no picture can really capture it.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nikolina Update

This will be a brief post because there really is not much to tell. Nikolina came through the surgery just fine. It turned out that of the prolapsed intestine, the doctors only had to remove 2 cm.

The surprising main difficulty was finding an intensive care unit for her post-surgery. Because OEIS Complex is so rare and so complicated, none of the pediatric intensive care units felt comfortable taking her. That was a bit unnerving -- if nurses are afraid of her being too complicated to care for, what does that mean for us, her parents and grandparents? I suppose that the saying, "ignorance is bliss," is rather pertinent here. If one doesn't know enough to be afraid, then one ends up treating her just like any other baby--and enjoying her, leaving the harder stuff to God.

Nikolina did find a post-operative home. The NICU (newborn intensive care unit) is not supposed to re-admit babies who have been discharged (germs from the outside world and all that), but since no other unit would take her and the nurses in the NICU have two months of experience in taking care of her, there is where she is. God willing, she will be back home with her parents soon.

Thanks to those who have told me that you are praying for her! She is also back on the prayer list at our Old Mission Church.

Good night to all! I am looking forward to a positive update in the morning.

Friday, July 10, 2009

God Has Filled My Life with Priests

As promised yesterday, here is the post about priests. It seems to be an appropriate topic, given that this is the Year of the Priest.

This week I received (1) an enote from Fr. E, our parish priest, who is currently on the East Coast, substituting for a parish priest there who is out of town, (2) a Skype message from Padre (Fr.) Julio, a priest in Colombia who substituted at one point in our parish (followed by a voice conversation with him in English and then his mother in Spanish), and (3) a phone call from Fr. B, the director of our local Franciscan retreat center (and monastery). That concatenation of interactions reminded me that it is indeed the Year of the Priest. Thank God for priests! God has filled my life with them, and they in turn have filled my life with blessings.

I realize what a special gift God has given me when I look around and see that many parishes have no priest or borrowed priests and when I see that many of my friends' interactions with priests are only for significant life events (weddings, funerals, emergencies), during confession, and after mass. The extreme irony of this gift is that until three years ago, I had only ever met three priests (all of them Orthodox) and then only once each for a solitary greeting and mass, as a result of catering to the spiritual needs of Shura, the Russian Orthodox Siberian child artist dying from spina bifida whom I took into my home years ago.

I often wonder why God feels that I deserve this amount of interaction. Perhaps it is more that I need a greater depth of instruction, being a person that He pulled from the wayside and plunked down, totally bewildered, in the middle of His flock. Maybe, too, He was worried that I would stray away from the flock and begin happily cavorting in the bramble bushes again. No fear of that! He has filled my life with priests!

First and foremost there is 80-year-old Fr. B, whom I dearly love. He seems to have seen everything there is to see. He has traveled the world, studied a variety of religions, spent time in the Holy Land (where I lived for an awesome two years), holds several degrees, including one in psychology, and made a film on the significance of each part of the liturgy. A Franciscan and a deeply spiritual and knowledgeable mystic, he was the perfect RCIA instructor for me. He has since left our parish--he was an interim priest here--but has remained in our town as director of our local retreat center & monastery. Since leaving our parish, he has become my de facto spiritual advisor. When I have received "messages" that have totally startled me and point me in directions where I am certain I am not capable of going, I have run to Fr. B for guidance. He accepts these spiritual experiences and helps me sort through what seems to be authentic and what may not be authentic -- and he convinces me that if I am pointed in a direction, I should go where it leads, trusting God to provide me with the wherewithall to follow (and, of course, God always does -- which, on a very deep level, I do fully trust will happen).

The second priest in my life is Fr. E. An Irishman by birth and rearing, he is a down-to-earth 50-year-old with an immense sense of humor and adventure. He has held mass on a local mountain top, serves as chaplain for the fire department (and rides along), and can be found jogging around town mornings, often underdressed for the weather, or participating in marathons to raise money for a good cause. Being a catechist, I have come to know him pretty well, and he has been very supportive in the matter of our granddaughter's health. A very important thing for our parish (and me) is that Fr. E is a wonderful confessor. He sees very clearly to the heart of nearly any matter. And, if he is jovial in his homilies, he is engaged and spiritual in the confessional.

And finally, there is 30-something Padre Julio from Colombia. Padre (Father) Julio used to substitute at our parish's Spanish-language masses. Over time, he became an integral part of our family. It started with my family volunteering to create a website for his project to bring hope to seven rural towns in Colombia through building a school and self-supporting farm, for which he had formed an organization, Por Amor a Los Ninos de Colombia (For the Love of the Children of Colombia). I translated the original documents from Spanish into English for the website text. My husband, Donnie, designed the graphics. Our son, Shane, did the basic programming, and when we ran into difficulties with more complex programming, our son, Blaine, a professional web designer, flew home from Illinois, to put on the difficult finishes. During that time, our younger daughter, Noelle, who has spina bifida, experienced failure of the shunt that controls her hydrocephalus and ended up emergencied to Stanford University Hospital quite some distance away. Padre Julio drove the distance (even more since he got lost for over an hour, trying to navigate strange terrain in a strange country in a strange language) to visit her and pray for her with all of us together right before her surgery, which did, indeed, turn out fine. At that point, it became clear that Padre needed to learn some English if he were going to be living in this country, and I began to teach him since foreign languages are one of my specialties. The timing was fortuitous because the bishop about then decided that Padre had been here long enough to start offering the English masses. Immediately, our "textbooks" for English classes became the English-language Bible and online audio homilies (for developing listening skills). Padre learned to speak English, and eventually I met his mother who claims I am the daughter she never had (she had 7 sons, three of whom became priests). Indeed, we became family. Moreover, all those English classes? I believe that they benefited me more than Padre for I had a private 3-hour tutorial on Catholicism three nights a week as I helped Padre put into English the various thoughts he wanted to express in his homilies. In practicing English, we would get into extended discussions of concepts, and because Padre Julio is as spiritually oriented as Fr. B, I was able to share my spiritual experiences very deeply with him, especially those that contained the grammar and vocabulary components of the topic if the day. While others worried about our granddaughter's disassembled condition and expressed sympathy, Padre Julio's immediate response was very different: "You are blessed!" He definitely understands our family and God's role in our lives!

There have been other priests, of course, along my so-far rather short journey of faith. I assume those relationships are more typical although, not being a cradle Catholic, I have no idea what a typical relationship with a priest is supposed to be. I just know that I deeply love Fr. B, Fr. E, and Padre Julio, and I cannot imagine my life without them. They have so thoroughly enriched my life that I don't know what to say other than "Thank you, God, for spoiling me!"

Please tell me, especially those of you who are long-term Catholics, what role priests have played in your life. How important have they been to you in decision-making, spiritual development, and maintaining sanity in a crazy world? How often do you end up thanking God that they are in your life?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

All God's Children

My last post got me to thinking about God's children. I am referring not to mankind as God's children, but to the little ones in our lives and our second generation regardless of age, the ones who call us Mom and Dad (or Ma and Pa, or Omy and Baba, etc.).

In this, I cannot imagine anyone with a greater sense of humor than God. I see that humor unfold in my life time and again. For example, I never particularly wanted children; I had a career lined up for myself (in my mind). Well, had that career happened as planned, it would not have been one iota as interesting as the career that unrolled, in zigs and zags, before me. And had that career not had to zig and zag around child after child, I would have missed the richest moments of my life.

In a display of great irony, the children that came into my life were not your everyday variety. Well, actually, those, too, ended up in my life, but as adults. My birth children, as well as those who came to live with Donnie and me as children and teenagers, were different: highly gifted, mentally and physically challenged, medically needy, discarded, bereft, foreign. First came my own birth children, one after the other, in spite of my best efforts not to get pregnant. (I hated being pregnant -- if I had a half hour of not being sick throughout all four pregnancies, I do not recall it. As best as I can figure, between all the kids, I have spent 26,298 hours vomiting or trying not to vomit.) On the other hand, once the children were born, all those maternal instincts took over and ran way ahead of me.

After my birth children along came Shura (a Siberian teenager with spina bifida),

All of these children I have talked about in various posts and books. The ones I have not mentioned are the ones that came later. They are the ones who need my help (and your prayers) today. Please meet Lana, Ibrahim, and Maha.

Leyla and Shem (not related to each other) are from Iraq. I met them in Jordan, where they worked for me as work-study students at the university where I was the chief academic officer.

Leyla would periodically come into my office and say, "Mum, may I cry in here?" It was usually because she had heard of a new bombing along Airport Road in Baghdad, where her family lived, or an attack on Baghdad University, where her father taught. Her family could not leave Iraq. She could not return, and communications, especially in 2003-2006 were very poor and, at times, totally lacking. Given a tendency to assume the worst, when she did not hear that her family was okay, she assumed that something bad had happened. And so, she started calling me "Mum" and looking to me for advice and moral support. I took to keeping an Islamic prayer rug in my office for her use, as needed, as well as provided guidance and hugs, as needed. Leyla recently ran into legal problems with an expired passport and the inability to return to Iraq to take care of that issue. I was in Jordan earlier this month for business purposes and called Leyla, worried because she has not responded to email for several weeks. Someone else answered her phone, and if my understanding of the Arabic conversation we had was accurate, that phone number no longer belongs to Leyla. I worry about her. She is as much my child now as my own children. I know that God will watch over her and take care of her until I find her again, but nonetheless I would welcome prayers from readers on her behalf.

Shem was my student as well as work-study assistant. An Iraqi Christian (a small and persecuted group), he thrived in school in spite of being separated from his family, graduating with a 4.0. He has done well also in graduate studies and in subsequent jobs. He, too, called me "Mom," although it did not seem like he needed another mother. Still, he was alone in Jordan and lonely. He emails and Skypes me regularly, and his first words are always, "I miss you sooooo much!" Seeing him in Jordan two weeks ago reminded me how families are families, whether blood or not and whether separated by physical distance or not. We spent hours together. It did not matter what we talked about. I do not even remember half of what we said and did. Rather, I savored the blessing of being able to be together, if only for one day and one night, in spite of living half a world apart in cultures that are rather alien to each other.

Maha's situation is much different. She lives in Bahrain, and she became my "daughter" when I was consulting extensively (over a period of 5 years) for the Ministry of Education there. Shia Muslims, her biological family became embroiled in political machinations over a year ago when her brother was arrested in the dead of the night on a trumped-up charge that has yet to have its day in court. The situation is personally emotionally difficult for me--and truly not understandable--for Donnie taught and I was academic dean for many university students from the ruling Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family. The Shia-Sunni hatred dates back to the struggle after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and the murder of Ali, a tragedy and travesty remembered to this day on the 10-day annual Ashara (the word ashara means ten) when Shias take leave from work and commemorate this piece of history, in part by flailing themselves with branches to the point of drawing blood. One would think that this hatred would have died out after 16 centuries, but emotions still run high. Emotions are part and parcel of the Arab world. And so, Maha's brother has been imprisoned for 14 months, during which time he has been beaten to the point of being almost blind. I tried my best to help, and a friend of a friend convinced a specialist in international human rights to go to Bahrain, but to no avail. The US Embassy did not want to get involved, nor did any other international body, and the Bahraini government repelled any appeal. So, we wait--and pray.

I am sure that I am not alone in having adult children who are experiencing difficulties that require assistance beyond what a normal parent like me can provide. If you are one of those "mothers" or "fathers", what have you done? How has God helped you out with these children?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More from the Land of Splat!

Most of my life I have lived with my family in the Land of Splat! One day we may be able to cross over the border to some other place, but for now, we have developed the survival skills that allow us to be almost comfortable here--and definitely happy.

How can one be happy when popping out from a childhood of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse into an adulthood rife with financial, medical, and career challenges? Easy! One looks for the blessings that are under one's nose. We all have them, no matter how difficult and dark life seems to be at times. Mainly we don't see them because we are covering God's light with our own gloom.

Examples, please? Certainly! I have filled one book (Blest Atheist) with them and am working on a second (Tending God's Sprinklers). Let's take just a couple here.

(1) A friend of mine told me when my daughter-in-law was pregnant with our first grandchild that there is great pleasure in being a grandparent, even more so than in being a parent, and that is because, unlike one's own small children, grandchildren can be sent home. They are not your responsibility, and so you can just have fun with them. That does resonate, but now that I have two grandchildren, I find that the greatest pleasure in being a grandparent lies somewhere else: in watching your own children be good parents (even improving on your parenting). Now the latter (improving) can be quite an achievement when the unthinkable happens, such as your children giving birth to their own handicapped children, as has happened with my son and daughter-in-law, whose son was born with hydronephrosis (eliminated by five surgeries at the University of San Francisco Medical Center) and daughter with a failure-to-close-at-midline defect that involved many of her organs, some aspects of which will be with her all her life. We call these our million-dollar babies because the son's surgery cost more than $1 million and the daughter's to date $3.2 million. Thank God for insurance, for ways in which hospitals and doctors are willing to reduce some costs and take long-term payments on others, and the fact that I earn a good income and can help out. And while we seem to be always scrambling for money to live on, there have been times that money to handle seemingly impossible situations has drifted down onto us like manna from heaven (yep, another possible topic for a post and certainly one covered in Blest Atheist, the book). Those are a few of the blessings: that we can manage these serious problems as a family. The trails through the Land of Splat! may be rocky, but together they are navigable--and God sheds light on our path all the time. Help comes frequently from the most unexpected sources (such as with Maury, the INS overseer who showed up unbidden just when we needed him). I expect that my granchildren, like their aunt and uncle before them, will turn out to be a blessing for other people, too. It has been amazing watching even the most crotchety people turn gentle in their presence, and they have, each according to his/her talents, been able to handle other people in concrete ways, serving as a model for their more physically and mentally capable peers. Good from bad, I think that must be one of God's mottos.

(2) The learning that comes from living in the Land of Splat! is tremendous. The latest proof of learning is my 7-year-old grandson who quizzed a new NICU (newborn intensive care unit) nurse, who was on duty when his sister was discharged after nearly three months at Stanford University Hospital, about an orange light on the monitor of another baby. "Why is the orange light on?" he asked. "The monitor lights tell us when babies need our help," she replied. "No, you don't understand," he answered patiently, "her sp02 level is not low enough to trigger an alarm, so why is the orange light on?" The nurse turned to my son and said, "He's a genius!" "No," answered Shane. "He has just been here too long." Like my grandson, I have learned a lot from being around challenging situations, and I have been able to use that knowledge to save my children's lives at times (yes, really) and to help many other people find the coping mechanisms and medical or educational treatments that they need. Once again, good from bad, the motto that floats around the Land of Splat!

Now, it is your turn. Have you ever spent time in the Land of Splat!? What are your examples?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

All God's People

At the risk of alienating Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews all in one post (that would be a feat but likely more easily accomplished than one might think), I would like to suggest that perhaps God does not care as much about HOW we worship as we care or about how we worship as that we DO worship. On a regular basis, ecumenical questions arise in my prayer group or in general conversation among people in my parish, and I find myself defending Jewish and Muslim believers. Last week, I found myself doing the same thing in Jordan: defending Catholics and Jews.

Yes, there are significant differences in beliefs and practices among the Abrahamic religions, but we all do originate from the same forefather and the same geographical region. It would seem that we could, then, respect each other, if not love each other as brothers and sisters and worshippers of the same God whether we use the name Lord, Allah, or Yahweh.

The greatest irony, it might seem to others, is that it was a Sufi Muslim who started me down the path that led to the Catholic church. To me, though, it is no irony at all, for we are all God's people.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tareq Died Today

To protect the privacy of the individual involved and that of his family, I will use an alias--Tareq--to share with you a remarkable story.

Tareq was one of my employees, and it came as no surprise that he died. For more than three years, he battled tumors and heart disease and rarely missed a day of work. What was a surprise was that Tareq managed to spend three years with us that he supposedly did not have. More than that, Tareq was a reminder to all of us of God's love and power.

I came to know Tareq right after I had taken up the position as his boss's boss's boss. I suppose, given the managerial distance between us, I should not have come to know him at all. However, early on, Tareq had a problem, a serious one. An immigrant to the USA from Iraq, he had family members back home, ones who had not wanted to leave Iraq. Among them was a son. Somehow, members of the insurgency learned that Tareq was working with an organization in support of the US government and targeted his son. (Of course, just being Christian in northern Iraq has, even before the war, been enough to put one in danger.) In the case of Tareq's son, first threatening messages were left. Then, another relative was killed, a case of mistaken identify. Tareq's son went into hiding, pretty much in the same area where Saddam Hussein was able to go undiscovered for weeks. Tareq went to his supervisor for help; the situation was overwhelming for that supervisor, and he sent Tareq to his supervisor. In this manner, Tareq was passed upward until he rather quickly landed in my office in pretty desperate shape. Rather than send him to my supervisor, the "proper" thing to do, I helped him call the Washington office of our senator, which I considered the proper thing to do. It would be much faster, and the worst that could happen to me would be a reprimand for working out of channels. In the interim, we just might be able to save Tareq's son--and we did. The senator leapt into action, contacting the US Embassy in Iraq, which was able to ferret Tareq's son out of the country (one of those exciting adventures that does not get reported and should not, for the safety of all involved, be reported in any more detail than I have provided here).

And so, I knew Tareq, and Tareq knew me. In fact, after that he felt bonded to me in some way, as to a protector, both because of my assistance with his son's rescue and also because I extended his contract a couple of months past the surgery period so that he could continue to get medical benefits. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that he would want to say good-bye to me. He had worked every day throughout his period of chemotherapy for cancer, but once the tumors were shrunk, he was cleared for a long-needed quadruple by-pass.

On the morning before his surgery, Tareq cleaned out his office. He did not plan to return to work, the doctors having given him only a 3% chance of survival, the cancer and heart trouble being a deadly combination. He said an emotional good-bye to his colleagues, then headed for my office. I was out of the office. He left a note. I found the note and went to his office. He was gone, saying good-bye to other colleagues. I left a note. And so it went all morning until he had to leave without saying-good-bye.

The last thing he sent from his computer was an e-mail note to me, thanking me for my support and asking me to pray for him. Now, I had a dilemma. I work in an organization where not only is separation of church and state expected, it is required, and as the senior leader in my division, it is up to me to enforce it (along a myriad other rules). Was the prayer of one person enough? I asked myself. Well, yeah, probably it was, but I wanted more for Tareq. I wanted the prayers of his colleagues. And so, using careful wording to avoid raising many objections, I forwarded Tareq's note to the 400 employees who work for me with a request from me: "If you have a belief system that will allow you to honor Tareq's request, please do so."

Well, many people (actually, most people) responded to that request. We had Christians of several denominations, Jews of various persuasions, and Sunni & Shia Muslims all praying together, often in the same office. Even Buddhists joined in. They prayed, as well, in their churches, synagogues, and mosques and relayed that information to Tareq. We also sent flowers and cards to Tareq. All this cheered him up during his recovery. It was the prayers, though, that were special. They not only bonded all of us to Tareq but also bonded all of us to each other. My organization went from a place where religion had been sidelined to a place where one could feel the spirituality of those working there as soon as one walked through a door.

Three weeks later, I happened to be in the office area where Tareq used to work -- and there sat Tareq. "What are you doing here?" I asked in surprise.

"I beat the odds," he grinned, "and the doctors are still in shock!"

Those extra three years that we have had Tareq with us have continually reminded us of the power of prayer, of God's love, and of how God's people can work together, regardless of religion, for the good of each other and for the glory of God. Since that time, God has always come to work with me and with most of my employees. Not that God was not that before, but now we allow ourselves to speak of God, turn problems over to God, and deliberately include God in our work life. As a result, our organization has gone from being a business-as-usual, impersonal, unemotional set of offices to an involved, gentle, loving, happy, huge family of God where coming to work is something to look forward to every day.