Choosing Hope

Choosing Hope_Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis

This week our church had the privilege of welcoming Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis for a community event here in her home town of Greenwich, CT.

She is the is the author of Choosing Hope: Moving Forward From Life’s Darkest Hours and the Executive Director & Founder of Classes 4 Classes. https://classes4classes.org/

A local newspaper, the Greenwich Sentinel did a nice job covering event and you can watch a brief recap here:

https://www.greenwichsentinel.com/2016/02/25/former-sandy-hook-teacher-inspires-encourages-hope/

Kaitlin is a wonderful example of how a person who suffered through a horrific tragedy is able to move forward..not necessarily move on.

On December 14, 2012 gun shots sounded throughout the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  It was indeed a dark day for America and a day of unimaginable pain and loss for the parents of the innocent children whose lives were taken from them.

While my wife Lauretta and I welcomed our twin boys Jack and Blake into the world that same morning, we were simultaneously reading the reports of that attack back home.  Our faces were flooded with tears of joy (for the new life brought into the world) and tears of profound sadness (for the parents who would never hold their children again in this life).

It was a day that we will never forget, nor will Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis

Kaitlin was there that day, fulfilling her life-long goal working as a teacher.  Her heroic actions saved the lives of her 15 first-graders that day and she shared with us last evening the emotions and thoughts swirling through her mind during those life-and-death minutes between the shooter’s first fire and the SWAT team’s rescue.

I appreciated her vulnerability and honesty in sharing just how frightened and virtually crippled that day made her and how it was a long and painful process towards healing.  Through prayer and the immense support of family and friends, Kaitlin was able to move beyond that fateful day and not let that dark moment define her future.  She now seeks to help others do the same.

Through a powerful array of inspiration stories, poems, quotations and personal reflections, Kaitlin is able to offer a message of hope to all who have gone through difficult and dark times.  Each day we have an opportunity before us to choose hope.  This choice, as she states, is not always easy but is possible and helpful to bring healing. We cannot control the situations surround us, especially the choices and actions of others.  However we can choose our attitudes and actions and how we respond to situations and circumstances.  We will respond with fear and despair (which is crippling) or hope? (which is life-giving).  In her own words:  “Bad things happen to all of us, things that test us and impact us and change us, but it is not those moments that define.  It is how we choose to react to them that does.”

I believe that part of her own journey towards healing and health, was found in writing her story…as many survivors have done after tragedies.

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http://www.amazon.com/Choosing-Hope-Moving-Forward-Darkest/dp/0399174451

By going through this process, she was able to reflect on her life’s purpose and calling to be an educator and advocate for children.   Though no longer teaching in one particular school, Kaitlin now educates children, teachers and schools across the nation. Her messages are still about choosing hope, but now Kaitlin is able to leverage her influence and use her platform for another vision.  Her organization Classes 4 Classes believes that “when we teach kids empathy and tolerance there is no room for hate.”

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Classes 4 Classes provides a social network that promotes kindness and social curriculum by connecting teachers and students with other classrooms. Now in 10 states nationally, this Pay-it-Forward grass roots movement is exciting and much needed in our country and globally.  Part of Kaitlin’s vision is to see this movement of connectivity, compassion, kindness and generosity spread across the world.

Many people, such as myself, believe that education is a foundation of flourishing for any society.  Today’s children are indeed tomorrow’s leaders and Classes 4 Classes has a great opportunity of making a positive impact through developing life-long friendships that cross sociology-economic, cultural, racial and ethnic lines.   This is a beautiful and bold vision, which I am honored to bring awareness about and advocate for.

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I was honored that she was willing to speak at our church and it was a true delight to facilitate a thoughtful and inspiring Q &A session following her presentation.  I consider her a friend, partner and colleague as together we strive to bring a message of hope into our schools, churches, families and societies.

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On Rob Bell…broken foots and deep mysteries

Who begins a talk about the mysteries of the cosmos with a story about a broken foot and a Polish jack-of-all-trades miracle worker?

Rob Bell does.

In my last post, which was a review of the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, I ended by alluding that Rob Bell spoke, without giving much print to him.

https://emergingyouth.com/2016/02/22/pym-16-progressing-in-the-cosmos/

Truth be told, Rob was indeed the featured “celebrity” speaker, the reason why some choose to attend the conference and for many the highlight of the weekend.

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For ten years, much of my youth ministry teaching and pulpit preaching drew ideas and insights from Rob Bell’s books and Nooma videos.  I have always appreciated his thoughts and admired his way of communicating.  I know he has received a bad rap by a sub-sect of more fundamental Christians, but I still applaud his vision and was very happy to see him invited to come and speak at this year’s conference.

In classic Bell fashion, he cleverly crafted a story that helped illustrate how every question (and relative answer) always lends to another question…with a set of answers that inevitably lead to more questions..  Etc.. etc.

Every question and answer leads deeper down into mystery.

One of the basic premises of his talk was the view that all discoveries of humanity thus far, have actually done little to make sense of the human experience and emotions involved.  Scientists becomes theologians the moment they exclaim “Wow” at some wonder they observe. Similarly we become theologians when we experience something profound that no discovery can address.

To Bell, the world will always need those who can create spaces for people to share in the unexplained mysteries of life.  The human experience is rife with raw emotions that cannot be simply explained or rationed away.  These emotions and longings draw us inextricably together in ways that modern science (such as quantum entanglement) may beginning to now realize.

The posture for people of faith towards the advancement of the sciences should be an openness without fear that it will limit our view.  Rather, all discoveries and “truth” should be claimed and celebrated as an expanding of God’s presence in the cosmos and our particular lives.

This mindset does indeed enhance, rather than inhibit, our sense of the inter-connectivity of everything and that the presence of God does permeate in all, through all and with all.  This seems to concur with the ancients view of God and Jesus’ own beliefs.  The great religious traditions have a beautiful role to still play in the world, but too often focus on creating (and then defending/protecting/expanding) their own particular “temples” i.e. institutions, buildings, doctrines, denominations, creeds, etc..

The challenge, Rob offered, is for church to build up the temple in order to inspire others but not to focus on the temple…rather tear it down and let the Divine flood into the world.  This does not insinuate that God’s presence and activity is not already permeable throughout the cosmos, but rather how often people of faith believe that it somehow exists and operates almost exclusively within particularities.   The Jews certainly believed that to be true with the Divine and the Temple.  Jesus came onto the scene and radially revolutionized that concept in many ways, one of which was his conversation with a woman at a well:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Sadly, many Christians have continued this false dichotomy and almost dualism by insisting that God can only be found, understood and experienced through very specific (and often limited) means.  This may include one’s particular creed, denomination, theological view, style of music, method of baptism, etc. etc.. etc…

What if….

What if the whole thing is a temple? 

Everything and everywhere.  The heights and depths.  The earth and the heavens.  The past and the future.  Those of homo-sapien origins and perhaps those of extraterrestrial existence?

It seems to me that if this were true, it would expand God’s majesty and beauty, while at the same time enhancing the importance of every aspect of life.  No more would the sacred -secular divide exist, which appears to be what Jesus desired and ushered in.

Well, every question leads to other questions, so I will ruminate on this idea for some time but am glad that Rob came to not only entertain us comically, but also enlighten us theologically in brilliant Bell fashion.

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Following the trail of Patrick

On March 17 I had the unique privilege of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland. This “bucket list” trip was special and memorable for many reasons. I was always able to spend time in Northern Ireland following the Saint Patrick trail and learn more about the the man and missionary called Patrick. Much information and inspiring was discovered at the brand new Saint Patrick Center, the only museum in the world dedicated to the history and story of Saint Patrick. http://www.saintpatrickcentre.com/

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During my travels I visited a number of historic sites included Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where it is said Patrick baptized converts in a well in AD 450. IMG_4372

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul Church, the site where Saint Patrick built the first Christian Church in Ireland in 432 AD.

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also his burial site in Downpatrick.

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It was a remarkable and memorable experience which I highly recommend if you have the opportunity to visit the island of the Irish.

My time and travels in Ireland provided me an opportunity and invitation to expand the horizons of the Christian faith as well as sounds, sights and spirits of this great culture. During my remaining few months living in Europe, I do hope to experience a few other new countries and cultures, as so much can be learned that help broaden and expand our minds, hearts and lives.

I leave you with these words from Patrick that serve well for us all as we enter into the Eastertide season celebrating Christ’s resurrection and presence with us!

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

 

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

 

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

 

Christ to comfort and restore me,

 

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

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Being in the moment…a Lenten reflection

As I continue my Lenten journey, I am encouraged to reflect on the idea of what stands in our way in experiencing God anew this season. For some, Lent simply becomes a time to give up a favorite snack or drink, somehow confirming personal endurance or strength. Yet, Lent is to remind us that we cannot do it on our own power, but need to rely daily on God. Perhaps it is not chocolate or wine (both very popular here in France and indeed difficult to go without!) that we need to think seriously about. Perhaps busyness, worry, stress, or even our personal agenda is distracting us from experiencing freedom and new life this spring.

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I remember a time one month ago when I was with my boys, Jack and Blake. It was one of those magical moments when they were laughing and playing and simply enjoying life. Rather than being captivated by this moment, I wanted to capture it and so naturally I took out my cell phone and attempted to take pictures and videos. Of course, my phone was not very “smart” then and did not work. Meanwhile, I realized I was missing the moment with my boys: so preoccupied with technology and maintaining a memory, that I was unable to create a memory.

Sometime, I confess, I am too busy taken up with life to step back and record such moments. Even if I am physically present, my mind is full of chores, duties, worries, or other preoccupations. I feel this impacts my time with my boys; and I fear this also has a profound impact on our relationship with God. Could it be that God in fact delights in our presence…our full and attentive presence?

But often we get too easily distracted by life’s worries. Even good things such as food, drink, and technology can become hindrances to entering fully and freely into God’s presence. This Lent, let us each reflect on what we can say “no” to and leave behind, so that we may be open to receiving the joy of God’s company.

One final springtime summary.

As I continue my reflections on what I will miss most here in Paris, I hear the birds chirping outside my office. Growing up in the northeastern United States, I remember that spring rarely showed her face until late April or May, whereas here in Paris, the month of March manifests miraculous new beginnings as the weariness of winter warms away. I have always appreciated and anticipated the early arrival of spring this month. The green grass, bulbs of flowers beginning to blossom, and the once barren trees beckoning forth their leaves. This serves as a hopeful reminder that during Lent, the deaths we may experience during winter, serve as fertile soil for new life to burst forth. May we let go and behold the beauty of it all!

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Real Freedom

As an American, I am very proud of my nation’s history and the independence we celebrate each year on July 4th.  Living now in France, I have also been caught up in patriotic parades on July 14.  ”Bastille Day”, as known among English speakers, is the the French National Day, commemorating the beginning of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789,as well as the Fête de la Fédération which celebrated the unity of the French people on 14 July 1790. Celebrations are held throughout France and I just recently enjoyed a wonderful parade and fireworks display this week.

I recognize and respect the many sacrifices and lives lost in order to protect these national and individual liberties.  Our two countries share much in common and just recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings and the eventual WWII victory.

As I reflect this month on the blessings of freedom, I also acknowledge the harsh truth that my situation is not the reality of so many in our world.  Millions of people live in oppressive situations, held captive by political or religious dictatorships.  Many nations are currently scorched by civil war and longing for safety.

While I watched colorful fireworks and heard marching bands, hundreds of thousands of people were scattered seeking shelter from air raids of missiles and blocking their hears from bust of bombs and screening sirens.

In addition to these “news worthy” stories, we know that millions of people from every nationality suffer under the oppression of hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, poverty, and addiction. These chains in many ways are just as deadly but often are swept under the rug of ignorance.

I will be honest, it is easier for me to enjoy parades eating cotton candy if I do not have to think about starving children in Africa, overworked immigrants in Asia, or orphaned boys and girls in Latin America.

Considering these contrasting realities, I am struck by a powerful quote from the great international leader and humanitarian Nelson Mandela.

He said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

How are we living in a way that not only respect, but also enhances the freedom of others?  How are we spending our time, talents, and treasures in ways that help release people and communities from the chains of oppression?  Are they actually ways in which we spend our money that contribute to these global problems rather than work towards eliminating them?

Personally, I know I have difficult choices and decisions ahead.  We can all do our part and believe that the culmination of many people doing their part can make a big difference.  Mother Theresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

Let’s think this summer about how we can use our lives to help others break the chains holding them back and be set free for the life God intends for them.

 

Magi Musings…an Epiphany epilogue

(the Epiphany mural above was photographed by yours truly at the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris)

I must confess that before I moved to Paris to work at The American Church, I did not know what Epiphany was, so if you find yourself wondering the same question…no worries!

In the liturgical worship of the Christian calendar, Epiphany is celebrated on January 5 this year to mark the arrival of the wise men or “magi” to worship the infant Christ.  Of course we do not know how many of them came to visit Jesus, but we do know that at least three signficant and symbolic gifts were presented.  We also do not know when precisely they arrived, but most scholars maintain it was probably a few months (or even up to two years) after the birth of Christ.  Either way, it is important to celebrate their arrival of these first Gentiles to worship the Savior of the nations.

Epiphany also concludes the 12 Days of Christmas, which contrary to some, is the 12 days of giving gifts after Christmas, not before. Epiphany is celebrated among liturgical denominations and Orthodox Christianity. In fact, a number of students and young adults from ACP who are from places like Russia, Romania and Greece, wait until January to give and receive their Christmas gifts.  Epiphany also marks the end of Christmastide and when the decorations are stored and festivities conclude, thus ushering in a new season of preparation for Lent.

The actual word Epiphany can be translated “manifestation”, “striking appearance” or “vision of God”, and as mentioned  traditionally falls on January 6. It is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a  human being in the person of Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the magi to the baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptisms in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. Many of the Eastern Churches follow a different calendar and so may observe this feast on January 19.

I rather enjoyed rethinking my normal Christmas traditions and assumptions and appreciate the continuation of the season and spirit into January. I was always one who wanted to keep up decorations at least through New Year’s day, but now I actually have a theological reason to do so!

Concerning the magi, we do not know much about their story (background, beliefs, or future faith journey), but we know that they were guided and lead by light.  They responded in faith with what they had.  a vision. a desire. a star.  hope

Many of us are on a similar journey.  We do not know where it will end up but we hope to encounter the Christ along the way.

As I reflect back upon the story, part of the beauty  for me is the journey of the magi.  People in biblical times were accustomed to rather long and tiresome journeys.  Hoping on a plane and traveling from Asia Minor to Bethlehem in 2 hours was not an option.

I  wonder what they were thinking during the day, week, and months of their pilgrimage.  These individuals were scholars, astrologers, and cosmologists.  They were intelligent, observant, and rational people I assume.  They were men of science…and faith it appears and God revealed himself to them in means they could understand and interpret.

A reasonable conclude from this story is that God worked, and works, in mysterious ways and we should not limited God to work only within traditional “religious” or even “Christian” parameters.

Many questions come to mind looking back upon this fascinating story

What the magi were hoping to find?

How much of God’s story did they know or understand?

Did they fully grasped what kind of Savior-King this would be?

Unlike some of our Christmas gifts, which I am sure were returned on “Boxing Day”, how much thought actually went into their gifts.

Did they really know that this baby would be a King unlike any other?  Did they ever come to understand or know that his baby ould serve as God’s High Priest eternally, and would die on behalf of the human race.

Did they know this on their journey towards Nazareth?

Did they leave their visit with this knowledge?

I suppose we cannot know.  But we do know that God spoke to them in amazingly clear and directive ways.

Is God speaking to you?

Might this new year be one of many “epiphanies”?

Are we prepared to hear the voice of God is strange and unusual ways?

May we be open and ready to discover God, not only through these miraculous manifestations but also  in the commonplace; arts, conversations, culture, and sciences.

It has become clear to me that God desires to be discovered in all, and through all things.  He is a self-revealing God, and we should not box God in by our own expectations and limitations.  God will come to us.  The question is…we will let him on his own terms?

Dispersing the gloomy clouds of night, Putting dark shadows to flight, The Dayspring has come to cheer us. The Lord has come to be near us. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!

Virgin Mother and Second Adam

Dec. 6, Bruce Herman, Magnificat Miriam Virgin Mother_1_advent_image

Miriam: Virgin Mother and Second Adam Triptychs
Bruce Herman
Oil on wooden panel with silver and gold leaf
Permanent installation–Monastery of San Paolo, Orvieto, Italy

About the Art 
Bruce Herman’s paintings—in the traditional form of two large altarpieces—constitute a sustained reflection on the life of the Virgin Mary from the time of her “Yes” to God at the Annunciation to the fulfillment of this “sword that will pierce your soul” at her Son’s Crucifixion. Critic Rachel Smith states, ”The two triptychs represent the dual paths of discipleship that Mary exemplifies: the via activa, where Mary is active participant called to be a key instrument in God’s most critical work and the via contemplative, where Mary is a reflective witness pondering the implications of God’s audacious plan.” The theme of incarnation and Herman’s interplay between the traditional biblical narrative of scripture juxtaposed with a modern abstract sensibility make these works unique.

Bruce Herman was an art professor at Gordon College when I attended, and I was personally blessed by many of his pieces on display in the campus art galleries and including in worship events.

The comments below (as well as the image) was taken from The Advent Project of Biola University Center for Christianity Culture & the Arts

http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/

As I view Bruce Herman’s Virgin Mother and The Second Adam I am captured by two images – vessels and bearing. Mary was the chosen vessel to bring the Son of God into the world, yet she was a willing vessel – one who said “yes” to God. She was the chosen vessel, yet she chose to be the vessel. She was willing to bear Him in the pain, fear, and loneliness of childbirth, a foreshadowing of His bearing our sin on the cross. In His example, we are called to bear the cross and the burdens of others. I am struck by the placement of Mary’s arms and hands in these paintings. In one image she has her hand on her belly indicating her pregnancy and expectancy for birth. In another she is contemplating two vessels, and in yet another she is grasping her throat perhaps in a way to contain her sadness at seeing her son on the cross.