Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stand Up

The Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Mr. Cory Booker, made national news recently after running into a burning building to rescue his neighbors.

Now, I am the furthest thing from political, and I do not bring him up to praise a certain party or herald a political cause or to demean or diminish the good work and life saving actions carried out by service men and women every day (police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, military personnel, etc.). I was impressed. I was amazed. I was inspired.

With no formal training and against the advice of his security detail, he ran into a burning building and rescued someone.

What made this action even more poignant to me was the fact that I shook hands with Mr. Booker once. He was the commencement speaker at my graduation from the University of Notre Dame's ACE Teaching Program in 2003. His address to us was so powerful (to me at least) that I not only remember the feeling it / he evoked in me, but much of the message. Well delivered and well-written, it was probably the best speech for which I've ever been present.

Since hearing his speech, I've kept tabs on Mr. Booker, watching his career from afar. Hoping that the passion with which he spoke was inspired by a passion within himself (or in other words, that he practices what he preaches), I've been excited to see him take on larger and larger roles as a public servant. I was affirmed in my admiration of him when I heard of this act of heroism.

He went into a burning building and saved a life.

Mayor Booker's commencement address touched on standing up for others, standing up for that in which we believe, and ultimately taking action to make the world a better place. The recurring phrase was "stand up" and it became the theme of his speech.

At the end of it, I stood. Everyone did. He received, as I'm sure happens often, a standing ovation.

His words were enough for all in the audience to stand up. We took action, even if for a brief moment, and stood up on our feet and applauded. How much more could and should we do to stand up as a result of his actions?

Catholic schools should be places where students learn how to stand up for that in which they believe. They should be places where teachers, administrators, parents and other adults practice what they preach. They should be places that move students to not just stand up but to go out and make the world a better place.

Because, while we have wonderful modern day models like Mayor Booker to emulate, Catholic schools have the Greatest Role Model Ever - Jesus. He went up to the top of the cross to save us all and His words and actions should inspire us to follow Him wherever He leads us.

Up into burning buildings. Into war-torn countries. Into poverty and ill-stricken lands. Anywhere.

Sometimes the first step isn't a step at all.

Stand up...and follow Him.  

(The following is a mash-up / found poem of Mayor Booker's 2003 Commencement Address and excerpts from The Legend of Baggar Vance by Steven Pressfield (1996) that I wrote in 2004):

Life is action
We cannot do otherwise than act
Even in choosing not to act we do.
We act.
Therefore, act with vigor.
Act without attachment.
Hold nothing back.
Strike and act without fear or forethought.
Do honor to yourself and to your station.
Simply act.
Stand up
And act.
Stand up and allow the destiny you once chose to choose you.
Chip away all that is inauthentic.
Allow its purity to emerge.
Let it reek of life- something wild and pure.
Fly with winged sandals on your feet and enter the spirit.
Stand now!
Take your place amidst something ancient and noble
Where great armies once clashed in battle
Blows thundering heavenward with ringing steel
Horses and men crying out in victory and defeat.
Simply act.
Simply do.
Simply be.
Stand up!
Stand and let all that you are shine in His magnificence
Let yourself burst forth from this stone
Let it come from that place deep inside yourself
That place that was there before you ever were
and will remain once you are no more.
He was with you on that ancient battlefield and He is with you now.
You are never alone. 
No sin, no lapse, no crime can make Him desert you.
He will never abandon you. 
For you never were then, nor will you be now, alone.
He is always with you.
Even when it seems as though you are drowning, in that hour remember Him.
He will preserve you.
Therefore, stand up!
Stand now!
And live!

Monday, April 16, 2012


My daughter Elizabeth began walking, without the aid of a toy stroller, outstretched hand, or furniture of knee height right before Christmas 2011. In the three plus months since, she has taken to running. I'm a worried parent anyways; her first steps were, for me, coupled with nervousness and anxiety. What was even more nerve racking was that right after she took her first steps, we went on a two week trip up North to visit family for the Holidays. Stints in three different houses, none of which were baby proofed, luckily ended with neither Elizabeth nor myself any worse for the wear.

Fast forward to the end of February and Elizabeth can run. In being so able, my worries have also increased and accelerated. Elizabeth runs when she's excited (which is frequent). She runs when she's outside (which given the beautiful weather as of late has been often). She runs when she has something that she shouldn't (which is also quite often!).

She runs, and in being so able, she falls. She trips. She slips. She collapses. She takes turns too fast for her little feet and legs. She veers toward walls and doorways. Edges of tables and chairs jump out at her. And sometimes, she falls for absolutely no (apparent) reason. She gets bumps, bruises and just this past week, bloodied lips (thanks to a face plant on the sidewalk!). As she's learning how to run, she is simultaneously learning how to fall, how to put her hands out, how concrete is a lot harder than grass, how she needs to step over lips in doorways or subtle changes in the height of her walking surface. She's learning how to avoid obstacles, maintain her balance and when to slow down and take a seat.

As her parent, I have been learning how to both let her run and let her fall. I have been learning how to support her. When does she still need a hand to hold? When does she need picked up and held after a stumble and when should I give her some verbal encouragement? When do I ignore her tears? When do I help her get back up, dust her off and give her a pat on the tush?

I am learning how to surround her without smothering, how to support her without suffocating, how to simultaneously give her roots and wings.

I'm learning how to let her learn.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews (12: 1 - 2), alludes to how such support can be liberating:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.

We aren't able to "run" in any facet of our lives as we otherwise could without support. We aren't able to persevere in that "run" without support. With a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we can do great things.

We can run.

Hopefully, my (and Emily's) parenting is allowing Elizabeth to run today and in years to come.

Hopefully, our Catholic schools are places where such support is also apparent, allowing students to run, too. Catholic schools should be places where students, teachers, parents, and administration feel so supported that they run. Catholic schools should foster a community of Christian support for all of its members to be their best selves. A strong community equals a strong school. Strong schools equal strong Catholics. Strong Catholics equal a strong Church.

What does a cloud of witnesses look like? Teachers reaching out to students and combining high standards with even higher support. Teachers treating students, colleagues and parents with respect. Teachers getting to know each student as an individual and taking an interest in their respective interests. Teachers making difficult phone calls before they become impossible conferences. Teachers basing instruction on assessment evidence and sound educational practices. Teachers modeling their teaching after Christ. Teachers teaching about Christ. Teachers being Christ.

A cloud of witnesses also looks like parents believing that their child(ren) are imperfect and being okay with this fact. Parents taking an interest in their child(ren)'s homework without actually doing it for him/her/them. Parents attending parent-teacher conferences, Back to School Nights, and Home and School functions. Parents setting up conferences out of concern instead of out of a chance to attack. Parents putting the safety of all of the school's students first and not just their own child(ren). Parents taking their child(ren) to Mass on Sundays and praying together as a family at mealtimes, bedtimes and any times.

A cloud of witnesses is a group of students who are committed to learning. It is a group of students that respect their parents, teachers, and peers; a group of students who do what is right. A cloud of witnesses is a group of students who hold each other accountable and stand up for others when they are getting picked on or even bullied. It is a cloud that takes pride in their school and understands their two-fold purpose for attending: salvation and education. It is a group who are open to being disciplined so as to become disciples of Christ. Students praying together and for each other.

Finally, this cloud involves administrators who are fair, consistent, visible, good stewards, accountable, firm, understanding, and committed to ensuring that this support is fostered and maintained by all of the various aspects of the school.

Of course, other members of the "cloud" exist - pastors, parishioners, school board members, staff, alumni, former employees. Basically, anyone with any connection to the school makes up this cloud. The bigger the cloud, the greater the support. The greater the support, the better the school...

Together everyone accomplishes more. "What we dream alone remains a dream, but what we dream with others can become a reality" (Edward Schillebeeckx). Individuals win games, but teams win championships.

With support and with a focus on Christ we can persevere in running the race, no matter what it entails, that lies before us.
We could move mountains. We could walk on water. We could run on water. We could do anything.

Because with a cloud of witnesses surrounding us we have roots, wings...and running shoes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


"On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb."
-John 20:1

On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday / the beginning of Lent, my wife Emily started to show signs of being sick with our second child. About 5 weeks pregnant at that point, both she and I had hoped that it would not be a sign that this pregnancy would mirror our first. Emily was sick until about week twenty with Elizabeth.

I had high hopes for my Lenten journey (as I always do). I would pray more. I would reach out to those I love more and do a better job at staying connected via phone, email and other long distance communications. As such, I had high hopes for Easter (as I always do). Because of my sacrifices and discipline, I would enjoy the Resurrection of Jesus Christ with that much more faith. Little did I know that my Lenten journey would be one of the toughest and most arduous of my life.

Enter hyperemesis gravidarum: extreme, persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy that may lead to dehydration. Symptoms: Severe, persistent nausea during pregnancy, often leads to weight loss; lightheadedness or fainting. It did lead to dehydration. Twice. The nausea, despite medications and monitoring, persists...constantly. Emily's weight loss has been severe; luckily her drop has leveled off. Two hospital visits, one with a two night stay. Home health care to change IV's and the pump for her medication. And despite all of this, perpetual vomitting.

Before going any further, let me clearly state my love and admiration for my wife. While I have and will continue to relate my struggles through this first trimester, I know that what I am enduring pales in comparison to the torture she has suffered. In no way am I saying that my plight has been worse than hers or more challenging than heroic single moms, dads, or any family members of anyone with an illness. But, it has been difficult.

Normally, trying to balance leading a school, being a husband and the father of a 17 month old, trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, keeping up with friends and family, working around the house and actually relaxing every now and never and keeps me pretty busy. All of this was hard enough when I had my wife to share the load - true partners in our journey through life. Take her out of the equation, almost completely, and my journey throughout Lent took on a lonely, trying, exhausting and taxing spin.

Fortunately, things for Emily have seemed to turn a corner. Furthermore, the amount of love and support shown to us by both friends and family has been truly humbling. I am always amazed by how giving people can be and I have been touched multiple times by multiple people over the past month and a half. In case I never get around to it, and by the volume of things on which I'm behind this seems likely, thank you to all that have helped. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Having gone through an unexpectedly difficult Lent, I expected that Easter Sunday would bring some sort of immediate hope/peace/calm/change. It didn't. Much like Easter bringing the fulfillment of other Lenten sacrifices in years past, I thought that my "suffering" during Lent this year would turn into the same joy I had experienced on Easter Sundays before. While I did have a great day, I still feel empty.

Some connections:

First, how often do we look for Jesus in empty tombs? How often do we go to the wrong places expecting to encounter Christ? Whether it's in other people, or disciplined sacrifices, or the nightly news, or music, or TV, or anything, we most likely come up empty. St. Augustine explained this phenonemon well saying, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." We can go to just about anywhere looking for Jesus. No matter how deep a particular Earthly fulfillment is, the encounter will still leave us unfulfilled. This is both good and bad. It causes us to still search. But, it can also cause us to give up the search and/or become complacent with something that is less than the Christ (which is everything). Easter Sunday has come and gone. The eggs no longer contain jellybeans. The plates are bare. The Churches are closed. Stores are already focusing on summer - swimsuits, suntan lotion and shades.

The passion we hopefully experienced during Lent shouldn't fade just because Easter Sunday has come and gone.

Even if Emily had somehow miraculously recovered today, my commitment to her shouldn't wane because all in my life is back to normal (whatever that is).

Lent is over, but our crosses remain. What Easter should do is change our perspective. Life is hard, but Jesus conquered both life and death. "In the world you will have trouble," He tells us, "but take courage, I have conquered the world" (John 16:33). Maybe instead of hoping to find Jesus someplace that we haven't been yet, we should look for Him in our current circumstances. We should look for Him standing right beside us because that's exactly where He is.

Second, how often do we look for the same in our Catholic Schools? We would like the best and brightest students. We would hope for the parents that always support us. We would desire that the problems inherent in all schools not be allowed out of the hallways of our public school counterparts, and if they happen into our Catholic institutions, we would quickly and gladly like to put them back where they belong. Instead, let us accept the fact that if our schools were perfect, we wouldn't have jobs.

If we were perfect, we would have never needed a Savior.

Jesus never said it would be easy. He said that it would be worth it.

The tomb, like our hearts, is empty. Our hope, though, need not be.

Death will lose and we will win. Today. Tomorrow. In six more months. At the end of our lives. For now and always...

Happy Easter.