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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

 

A Teacher’s Spark

Emotions flooded every inch of my body as Susan and I prepared to watch Catherine take to the Kennedy Center Stage and perform a scene from The Diary of Anne Frank with her fellow cast members from West Springfield High School (WSHS) on Sunday evening.

Our drama department won several nominations for their work on The Diary of Anne Frank, including Supporting Actress in a Play, Ensemble Cast in a Play, Supporting Actor in a Play, Play and Catherine’s nomination of “Lead Actress in a Play.”  Because the school received a Cappies Nomination for Play, they were able to select and perform a scene for the Gala.

As I write this, I still find myself sitting on cloud nine.  I was more nervous for the performance than the award – the award would be icing on top of the cake.  When I saw my daughter on the stage at the Kennedy Center, my heart skipped a beat. I felt emotions that I have not felt since the first time I saw her in a performance.   And as the scene unfolded, I was overwhelmed and could not contain myself.  She was poised and confident as she performed in front of a sold-out audience of 2,400 people.

When the performance ended, which I believe the cast delivered without a flaw, I sat in my seat and contemplated what just took place.  Nothing else needed to happen for me at that moment.  I contemplated the journey of the last few months and how we all wound up at the Kennedy Center on a Sunday evening in June.

Then it dawned on me – while education is a life long journey, it starts with a spark.  A bright spot.  A bold thinker.  A motivator.  An inspiration. Someone who is willing to walk the journey with you.  Every child needs to have a caring adult in their lives, and most of the time, that caring adult (not always a parent) is someone who plays a key role in that child’s life – like a teacher. A good teacher inspires children and ignites a child’s imagination. In the process, this major force in a child’s life instills a life-long love of learning.

I’ve been fortunate to have a few of those wonderful teachers in my life, the ones who walk the journey with you.  The ones you know you can always say in touch with.  I still remember how Mrs. Deschamp taught me to love math in the seventh grade and in my college years, Dr. Ellen Smith and Dr. Gary Maris walked the journey and inspired me to be where I am today. And to this day, I stay in touch with a law school professor who inspired and mentored me, Rebecca Morgan.

So it should come as no surprise that as the husband of a phenomenal kindergarten teacher who inspires her children every day, I want that special person(s) to be a part of the educational journey of my children.  For Michael, it was a psychology teacher; for Thomas, a guidance counselor; and for Catherine, a drama teacher.

While I know and believe in my heart that Catherine is talented and has a passion for being on stage, this “segment” of the journey could not have happened without a guiding and encouraging force by her side.  That force is the newest addition to the West Springfield High School (WSHS) faculty – Bernie DeLeo.  There are many talented and dedicated teachers at WSHS.  But I am so pleased that in my daughter’s sophomore year at WSHS, she had an opportunity to work with Mr. DeLeo.

cappie

It was refreshing, exciting and encouraging to see him interact with Catherine and other students throughout the year.  Susan nudged Catherine to try something different last fall – trying out for WSHS’s fall play – and without knowing that, Mr. DeLeo recognized and nurtured her to take that “nudge” all the way to the Kennedy Center on this evening in June.

He inspired her and pushed her slightly outside her comfort zone.  He saw something in her that perhaps she didn’t see in herself.  He believed in her, tugged her and pushed her to the next level.  And it turned out to be a magical night.  After the performance, the gifts of the evening kept on coming when I heard the words “and the Cappie goes to…Catherine Ariale.”

Cappies 2

Catherine’s journey will continue.  I am not sure where it will end up, but I am pleased that in addition to her parents, she has someone who is a motivator, an inspiration, and  a mentor to be her navigator along the way.  There is something so special about the teachers in our lives who play key roles in our education, our growth and our development.  There is something even more incredible about those teachers who go above and beyond and possess the gift that inspires children and ignites their imaginations.

I cannot wait to see what is next on this remarkable journey that was sparked by an amazing teacher.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Life

 

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Women’s Rights and Access to Maternal and Reproductive Healthcare

As someone who has worked on international development issues from my desk in Washington, I was excited to participate in the 2013 Women Deliver Conference last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The conference afforded me an amazing opportunity to listen and talk to a variety of people from 149 countries about their experiences and views related to the health and well-being of women and girls. A recurring theme that emerged from the week was the issue of women’s sexual and reproductive health. I have never written about reproductive health before, but I’ll credit that up to never spending a week at a conference focused on maternal and reproductive health before this experience.

Since returning home, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of reproductive health and I firmly believe that we need to start thinking about this issue in a different way – through the lens of a woman or a young girl in a developing country, and with an eye on equality.

In the U.S., we all face the reality that a majority of young adults engage in sexual relations outside marriage, and we educate our kids to wait to have sexual relationships – preferably until marriage. But as parents, we also want to ensure that they know how to protect themselves when they decide to engage in such activities.

This was a key part of the international dialogue I participated in; however, on the international front, in many poor or developing countries, access to reproductive health includes a very different reality.

That reality is that girls and women’s rights are systematically violated in too many places around the world today. (I would encourage anyone reading this or interested in this issue to check out the trailer, and the movie called Girl Rising, an innovative new feature film that highlights the struggles of women and girls around the world). In some cultures, it is still considered acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for not having sex. In too many places, girls are forced into marriage at far too young an age. HIV disproportionately impacts women. In many cultures, when reproductive health options are available, a woman’s male partner often vetoes her decision to use those options.

Women and girls in developing nations are more likely to become mothers at a young age. We know that pregnancy during adolescence has serious health impacts for girls and their babies. There are complications from pregnancy and childbirth – which is the leading cause of death among girls, aged 15-19 in developing countries.

Approximately one in three women will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime. In some pacific countries, more than 60% of women and girls experienced violence at the hands of their partners.

I met a woman from the Congo at the conference. We were discussing access to female contraception and she explained to me that access to female condoms in her village have been transformative because women and girls are now using these resources when walking miles to the wells to get water. The incidence of rape is so great, that these women and girls have decided to use female condoms to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In developing countries, desire for smaller families and the motivation for healthy spacing of births has steadily increased. Yet, 222 million women in developing countries do not have the ability to determine the size of their families, or have a say in the planning of their families.

MDG 5 — Improve Maternal Health — has two sub targets. Target 5A set a target of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015, while Target 5B set a target of universal access to reproductive health.

The achievement of the MDGs is strongly underpinned by the progress that the world makes on sexual and reproductive health. It is a pillar for supporting the overall health of communities, in particular, that of women. Ill health from causes related to sexuality and reproduction remains a major cause of preventable death, disability, and suffering among women. Apart from the health consequences, poor sexual and reproductive health contributes significantly to poverty, inhibiting affected individuals’ full participation in their own social and economic development.

I was surprised to learn that the world has not made as much progress on this front as is needed to meet MDG5 by 2015. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have shown little progress in recent years; some have even lost ground. Globally, the rate of death from pregnancy and childbirth declined between 1990 and 2005 by only 1% per year. In order to be on track to achieve MDG 5, a 5.5% annual rate of decline was needed from 2005 to 2015.

During my week at the conference, our group was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Melinda Gates. We were all enlightened and her comments during our conversation were extremely helpful to me. Mrs. Gates stated that when she talks about health with women from developing countries, they explain to her that their job is to feed the children. They explain that if they cannot space out their births, they cannot work or properly care for and feed the other children. In many places, Melinda explained that while condoms might be readily available, women – due to cultural perceptions – couldn’t even fathom negotiating the use of condoms because it means they are suggesting that their partner might have AIDs or that she is trying to say she has AIDs.

The Gates Foundation does not fund abortions, and has it right when they state that we need to put girls and women at the center of this debate. We need to start trusting one another and realize that “family planning” is not code for anything else in this debate.

As the week progressed, I became certain that the only way for the world to begin to correct this problem is for us to start trusting one another and to look at this issue as an equality rights one, not something else. Advancing equality among boys and girls and men and women is a goal we can all support.

I am confident that if we are successful in achieving equality, many other aspects of this problem begin to fall into place. Perhaps, once achieved, we might even begin to have a significant impact on achieving MDG5.

Just think of all the good that could come from advocating for ensuring that women and girls have the right to access maternal and reproductive health care. Treating women and girls all around the world equally might eradicate early and forced marriage, keep girls in school, give women a say in their family planning, and end gender-based violence.

One of my take-aways from the conference was that women’s rights and access to maternal and reproductive healthcare must be a highlight of our global development agenda. The issue is too important to ignore, or be mired in obtuse political innuendo. With the right focus and attention, we can ensure that sexual and reproductive health is readily available and sustainable for all women.

 

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