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America Deserves Better

I recently facilitated a Sunday School class at my church on the faith and politics.  During our two weeks together, the class wrestled with the question “How does our faith call us to engage in politics?”  Preparing for the class was very difficult for me as I struggled to balance my life and career on Capitol Hill with the core principles I have embraced along my faith journey.  At the end of the day, I concluded that it was not so much how our faith calls us to engage in politics, but rather how we engage one another at the place where our faith and politics intersect.

With that as a point of reference, I am terribly saddened that American politics may have hit an all-time low.  Yet, I remain ever hopeful that together, we can shift the dialogue during the final five weeks of the 2016 Election cycle.

In many respects, the tone of the election is an reflection of the electorate.  I am not trying to minimize the nature of concern of the American people, but we are so far off track and it seems as if no one cares. We can and must change the course of the conversation.

I want a Presidential candidate who is humble, visionary, empathetic, possesses leadership characteristics, and has a moral compass.  I want a natiounknownnal dialogue on gun violence, job creation, reducing the national debt, entitlement reform, international conflicts (and how they impact American national security), and racial tensions in America – among many other important topics.  We deserve nothing less.

I reject the argument that Americans are satisfied selecting a Presidential candidate without knowing where he completely stands on important issues of the day.  I refuse to believe that we – the American people – are satisfied with “non-answer” answers to critical issues. And I categorically reject the notion that we are satisfied with candidates who continually re-write history, lie about their answers, make up facts, refuse to be transparent, and inject flippant, erratic, and hateful speech in public presentations to win over the electorate.

Why is this acceptable?  I cannot answer that question, but I can try in my little part of the world to demand more.  I am owed that from those seeking elected office, and frankly, the stakes are too high. The next president of the United States will inherit a plethora of problems that must be addressed with a steady, educated, well versed, tempered and visionary voice.

Instead of talking about these issues, today’s morning news reported on the early morning twitter rant of a man who hopes to occupy the White House. Obviously Mrs. Clinton hit a nerve at the debate with her apparent trap of bringing up the Alicia Machado matter.  If Hillary Clinton is able to set and execute such an obvious distraction, what will happen on the world stage during a Trump presidency?  What will happen when Congress rejects a Trump proposal?  What will happen when we try to have a real debate on serious issues and something gets under Trump’s skin?

A three o’clock tirade about Alicia M three days after the debate is just the latest example of how the American people have allowed the most important election in our country to be degraded into a junk-yard dog, Jerry Springer type of reality television fight.  And I for one am tired of it.  It must stop.  No matter who you support, plan to support, or are thinking of supporting, I think we can all agree that this is not the type of political engagement that we should settle for.  It is too important.

If we do not change course quickly and demand more from these candidates, when the final episode of this series airs, the American people will be left with the reality they complacently sat by and allowed to unfold.

 

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Life, Politics

 
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Remembering one of ABLE’s Biggest Advocates, Steve Beck

Almost nine years ago, a group of people entered my office for the first of what would be countless meetings on the problems and potential solutions faced by families who have children with disabilities.  We talked for hours about the inequity of the situation, the concerns of long term financial security, and I saw the passion and dedication of this group of people.  And while I did not know it at the time, they would all become my friends.

Beck Family

The Beck family during the ABLE Act Debate in the House, December 3, 2014

Chief among this group was a man named Steve Beck.  I got the sense that Steve was new to this lobbying/advocacy role he was about to embark upon.  But he was a natural because he was lobbying on behalf of something he was passionate about, his family and particularly his daughter Natalie.  Steve and I grew close as we pushed for the creation of what would ultimately become the ABLE Act.

I became reliant on Steve’s straightforward and candid input on ABLE.  He would become a trusted and valued liaison to me and Congressman Crenshaw’s office over the course of the last nine years. The two of us would present together at national conferences on ABLE.  And we even began running into one another on a regular basis after we learned we both lived in the same area of northern Virginia.  Most recently, last weekend at our families’ favorite local hangout, Spartan’s Restaurant.

Steve attended my retirement party when I left Congressman Crenshaw’s office last December and I remember him stating that he rarely “liked coming into DC at this hour, but he couldn’t miss my celebration.”

I high-fived and shared a toast with Steve in the Chairman of the Rules Committee’s private office off the floor of the House Chamber just a few days ago when we both watched with excitement as the ABLE Act passed the House.

Little did I know that that toast together would be the last time I would see this man who became my friend over the last nine years.  Steve was one of the many driving forces behind the ABLE Act and there is a hole tonight in our ABLE family as a result of his death.

His warm smile, friendly handshake, compassion, and love for his family and the ABLE cause will be deeply missed. My prayers go out to Catherine and the entire Beck family for their loss, but I hope they know that Steve touched so many lives in such a positive way.  The hesitant advocate who entered my office nine years ago leaves behind his wonderful family and a legacy in the ABLE Act that will help countless families around the United States.

I hope that in some small way, knowing that provides some comfort to those missing Steve Beck tonight. Thank you Steve for your energy, commitment and most of all your friendship.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in ABLE Act, Life

 

Thin Places

I first heard someone use the phrase “thin place” a few years back at a Montreat Conference. I had not thought about that phrase before, but during my entire time in Montreat – and on each subsequent visit – I became more and more enthusiastic about this notion of “thin places.”

As I understand the term’s use, “a thin place,” describes those unique places in our lives where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily. I would go so far as to say we even have “thin moments” in our lives, like our wedding ceremony or watching the birth of a child.

Whether it is a thin place or a thin moment, the intimacy with God is extraordinary. The barriers that seem to separate heaven and earth evaporate and perhaps, just maybe, the stage is set to allow God more deeply in. Perhaps these places and moments help create an environment that allows for life-transforming experiences to take place.

I am certain that there are hundreds of thin places for each of us, but I want to share two of the most amazing thin places that I have had the blessing of experiencing. Most recently, I helped to lead a group of 22 youth and adults on our journey to attend the 2014 Montreat Youth Conference. I arrived in Montreat full of the normal anxiety that any leader might have. I wanted to make sure we traveled safely, we were ready to register properly and I wanted the participants (especially our first-timers) to enjoy their time at my favorite thin place.JMA_9935

A few days later and this amazing place softened hearts, opened minds, and the Spirit was present. An amazing sense of calm came over me and I was able to watch as our group transformed into young people excited to be in Montreat, able to embrace new relationships, and speak of God and their relationship with Him in a different and authentic way.

For me, many things stood out as special moments from our time at the Youth Conference. But the words of the Keynote leader – that what you reach for has everything to do with what you are rooted in – resonated deeply with me. What I realized is that I like what I reach for when I am around dynamic young people, excited adults, and Montreat.  I like what I reach for when I see a young person question his or her faith and instead of discarding those feelings, embrace the possibility that God is at play in his or her life.  The bottom line is that I like what I reach for when I am in a “thin place.” My time in Montreat once again helped center me and equipped me with the tools I need to step back outside the gates of this wonderful place. It is truly a gift that I wish everyone could experience.

I discJMA_8905overed another one of these special places during a recent trip to Jordan. During this business trip, I took some time to visit the Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus. This protected region of Jordan is truly holy ground. John the Baptist walked the region. There were churches from different denominations built in this preservation area. As we visited the site believed to be where Jesus was baptized, I sat along the old riverbed and a slight breeze blew through the hot arid air. I looked up and saw two or three doves flying in the sky against a bright blue backdrop. We walked down to the river bed and I saw countless Christians being baptized in the waters – some from the Jordanian side of the river and some from the West Bank portion of the river. It was a site I will never forget. As we walked back up the path to where our vans were parked, I saw the bell tower of The Orthodox Church of John the Baptist.

There, sitting in the window of the tower, I saw a white dove perched. I stared at the dove and a second one flew up and landed next to him. For that brief moment in time, I felt like I might be walking and experiencing one of the thinnest places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. There was no doubt in my mind or body that God was present at that place, at that time.

I believe there are many thin places in our lives.  Whether you visit a biblically historical site or you find yourself in the mountains of North Carolina – I hope we all keep our eyes and hearts open for those unique places (or moments) where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It is truly a gift to experience them.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Life

 

Parents’ Graduation Day

Three of the greatest moments in my life have been the arrivals of each of my children. All three of them were gifts from God, entrusted to me and my wife to raise with patience, unconditional love, forgiveness, grace, and spiritual guidance. As we shepherd these gifts through life, we keep looking forward knowing that one day it will also be our responsibility to let go and allow our children to be who they were born to be. I always looked upon that day as being a parent’s “graduation day.” And like many other milestones in our lives, a day of pride and celebration.

Susan and I had our first “graduation day” recently as we assisted our eldest son move to Boston. And yes, there were feelings of celebration and excitement for his new adventure and the fact that he is now beginning his journey into adulthood, there was also more melancholy than I ever imagined. As we drove away from his new apartment, I found my mind filled with snapshots of the last 24 years – from holding my newborn son in my arms 24 years ago to watching him graduate and receive his Masters degree a few weeks ago.  I saw images of being his soccer coach, attending Cub Scout events, Boy Scout camping trips, first days of school, hiking out west, high school performances and everything in between.

I am not sure that I was ready for graduation day – even though I know he is. When I first held Michael in my arms, I recall never before feeling so amazingly overwhelmed with responsibility. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Holding him for the first time and staring into his little eyes, I realized that I would do anything for this new life. And I knew on that day, that at some point in the future, he would grow up to be an amazing young man and begin his own journey in the real world. I know in my mind that he was and is a gift from God and that my role was to simply care for him – temporarily – until he was ready to leave.

Well that day arrived, and it was much harder than I ever expected. I have dropped him off at camp, college, and grad school before. But this was different. I always knew he would be back at some point. But this time was for real. This was our graduation day. Something we have worked hard for over the last 24 years, something we knew was coming, and yet, something I was totally unprepared for.

As we left Boston, I know that Michael begins his new life in a new place, and we begin a new relationship, one steeped in this “post – graduation day” environment. I have come to know that there may be nothing more complicated in life than relationships between parents and children, and I pray that in this new environment, God helps me know, understand and navigate this next stage of my life as a parent.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Life

 

Compelling Theatre Just Down the Street at your Local High School

DSC_0659 Sometimes we overlook our local high school as venues for compelling theatre and once again West Springfield High School did not disappoint. Last night I saw “Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism)” and I left the auditorium wanting to see more of this thirty minute, one act original play written by Bernie DeLeo – the Drama Teacher at West Springfield.

“Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism)” premiered last night as part of West Springfield High School’s annual Winter One-Acts festival. I have had the privilege of working with a few national disability advocacy groups – like the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and Autism Speaks – over the last few years to promote some legislation on Capitol Hill and what I saw last night reminded me of the countless stories I have heard from these families over the years. While Nerdicus alludes to – as best as you can in a 30-minute act – some of the challenges that a family, and particularly, a sibling, might encounter in day-to-day interactions with a brother with Autism, the one act captured the other side of life in such a home. In this short one act, the cast drew me into the love, respect, and humor of daily life in the Miller home.

The play, written by Bernie DeLeo, is 90% autobiographical. The play stars senior Austin Morrison as Eddie DSC_0748Miller, based very much on Mr. DeLeo’s own son Charlie. Bernie stated that “Austin is on the autism spectrum and he been taking drama classes since middle school. I’d cast him in all of the plays last year because drama had been an appropriate social outlet for my son – and I was determined to include Austin to give him that opportunity as well. It’s Austin’s senior year now, and he’d never had a lead – so I wanted him to go out with a bang. He’s very similar to my own son in many regards, and he’s doing a terrifically funny job. There’s a movement these days to cast people with disabilities in roles that require characters to have disabilities; as a parent of a child with a documented disability, I decided I need to put my money where my mouth

was – and I’m so proud of Austin.”

Mr. DeLeo is the father of a teenaged boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. And his one act is really about his daughter Sophie, who is two years younger than Charlie and attended high school with her brother. The play examines how having a sibling with a disability affects the other sibling who does not. Mr. DeLeo stated that his son “had some pretty eccentric behaviors that drove his sister, a typical, easily-embarrassed high school girl, crazy.” Many of the scenes on stage come right from the DeLeo home – such as when Charlie, obsessed with Greek and Roman history, showed up at the bus stop one morning wearing his ‘Nerdicus’ armor having an imaginary battle with the Visigoths.

Last January, the West Springfield Drama Department staged a one-act play about autism – and

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won the Virginia High School League district, regional and AAA state drama championships with it. The Other Room by Ariadne Blayde is about Austin, a teenaged boy with high-functioning autism who tries to connect with a fellow classmate – but the voices in his head, presented on stage by warring actors, doom that budding relationship.

“But something nagged at me every time I watched the play,” confessed DeLeo. “Sure, I loved that people gasped and cried at the end of the play – that’s what you want as a director, for the play to evoke a visceral, emotional response from the audience. But it left people with the feeling ultimately that to live with autism is a sad and tragic thing – whereas in my experience, it has been anything but that. It’s not without challenges, but more often than not, life with my son Charlie is quite funny.” And so, in the summer months of 2013, DeLeo sat down to write a comic version of a teenaged life with autism.

Nerdicus is not unique. The passion and amazing talent found at our local high schools, and the dedication of the actors, directors, and stage crews, is something that can be found at countless high schools in our communities. Finding compelling theatre just down the street at our local high school has been one of the many joys of being involved in the West Springfield High School theatre department. I hope you have the chance to check it out yourself – it might just move you as it has moved me!

One acts run again tonight (January 31, 2014) at WSHS from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Door 6 (6100 Rolling Road in Springfield, VA). Tickets are $10 and available at the door. On Saturday, Nerdicus kicks off the VHSL Patriot District one-act competition at Lake Braddock High School (9200 Burke Lake Road, Auditorium – Door 14, Burke, VA). at 10:00 a.m. Admission is free, and all plays are open to the general public.

*****UPDATE******

The one act NERDICUS marches on!  The play was the 1st place runners-up last weekend and on Saturday, February 8, the play heads to the Regional Round at Lake Braddock High School at 3:30 PM.  So, it you missed it last week, want to see it again, or help Autism Awareness,  come on out to support these amazing actors and share this great news with your friends and family.

Photo credits: Catherine Ariale

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2014 in Life, Uncategorized

 

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My Time on Capitol Hill

The dome of the US Capitol building. Français ...

The dome of the US Capitol building. Français : Image panoramique du dôme du Capitole des États-Unis d’Amérique| (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Ander Crenshaw, official portrait, 2009

English: Ander Crenshaw, official portrait, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today a journey ends. Frankly a journey I never intended to take, but one that has filled my life with joy, my career with fulfillment, and my person with accomplishment. I have learned more than I ever thought possible. This journey has been one of the greatest loves of my life.

There have highs and lows. Legislative victories and defeats. Political battles fought and won, sometimes lost. Government shutdowns, landmark legislative initiatives, Supreme Court decisions – like President Bush’s victory and Gay Marriage. Inaugurations, State of the Unions, Visiting Heads of States, and the Presidential funerals of Presidents Reagan and Ford. The final fly-over of the Space Shuttle.

It has been an amazing ride indeed. I have seen the world – without enlisting in the Navy – met heads of state and helped direct public policy. I believe that the work we engaged in on the Hill touched the lives of people we do not know – hopefully always in a positive way. I have worked on the Hill during the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations.

When I started this career, the street in front of the Capitol was an open roadway – right in front of the steps leading into the building!  I will never forget the sights and tragic sounds of a terrorist attack on our country.

I witnessed the challenges to a Member and his staff of working in the minority and the heavy burden of governing while in the majority. And through it all, I have followed a dream – from my first day on the Hill as an Intern for then Congressman Bill McCollum in 1983 to the Chief of Staff for Congressman Ander Crenshaw today.

I have been blessed to work for two of the finest men who have ever walked the halls of the nation’s Capitol. I have made more friends than I can count. And most importantly, I am honored to say that I served alongside the most amazing and talented staff in Congress.

I recently parked on the Capitol Plaza and waited for the Congressman to exit the building after votes and looked up at the Capitol Dome against a clear blue early evening sky. It was a majestic site. From the very first time I walked in front of the Capitol and its impressive Dome, it has always represented the strength, diversity and resolve of a free people. While Congress has taken hits over the years, and more specifically over the last few weeks, that Dome remains a testament to our national motto, “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one.

Grasping that concept is hard for many who have lost the ability to engage in the art of dialogue, the discipline of discernment, and the statesmanship of compromise.  Watching this concept in action is even harder. It’s not always pretty, but when you think about all the peoples, races, religions, view points and ancestries that exist in the United States today, it’s hard to imagine that anything gets done.

Yet, at the end of the day, the system works – generally – as envisioned. Being a part of that process – even with its warts – has been remarkable and gratifying.

It is a bittersweet time for me as this fascinating, fast paced, challenging, and incredible journey comes to an end. I am excited for the next chapter of my life, but today, I am fondly reflecting on my life as a Congressional Staffer.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Life, Politics

 

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Our Summer of Advent at Burke Presbyterian Church

What joyous news!  I could almost hear the bells ringing this past Sunday as I sat in church and learned that Burke Presbyterian Church had called a new pastor – actually a pastoral couple!

As I sat there, I heard gasps of excitement, some concern, and wonderful blessed anticipation from my fellow congregants.  I know that our Pastoral Nominating Committee (PNC) worked diligently throughout the year and reviewed, discerned, interviewed, wondered, and prayerfully considered all those who felt called to be a part of our church family.

Likewise, I know that our Session carefully, faithfully, and prayerfully reviewed the PNC’s recommendation and the business side of calling a co-pastorate to Burke and approved a motion to offer the terms of call for this co-pastorate.  I know that these statements are true, not only because I know the individuals involved and voted in a congregation meeting to accept their discernment, judgement, and decisions, but because I know that this system of governance works in a prayerful and respectful way.

And now we wait!  After all the anticipation and then the announcement, I still have to wait…..it sort of feels like Advent in Summer!

And just like Advent, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Christmas, our summer Advent at Burke will be filled with expectant waiting and preparation for our new pastors.  Just like Advent, I suspect as we wait and prepare for our new pastors, it might be easy for some of us to lose sight of the profound spiritual importance of this time in our church’s history.

I have decided to try to do with my Summer Advent what I often fail at doing during my real Advent season – balance the sacred part of the Advent season with all of the other things that might be floating around in my head about how a co-pastorate will work at my church.

I am planning to address my expectant waiting with the knowledge that my leaders have done the hard work and now its up to me and my fellow congregants to make time for quiet reflection and prayer as we prepare for the arrival of our new pastors.

Just think of the possibilities that co-pastors can bring to Burke!  What an adventure we are about to embark upon – interestingly enough the word “advent’s” English root is “adventure.”  How convenient for my closing paragraph!

If Advent is a season of the year when we open our eyes, ears and hearts to going on an adventure with the God of the Bible, I hope all of our eyes, ears, and hearts are open to the possibilities, blessings, and endless adventures we are about to embark upon as we expectantly await the arrival of this new couple whom God has called to be the newest part of our church family.

As we often say here at Burke, “For behold, I am doing a new thing…..” Isaiah 43:19, and I cannot wait!

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Life