Friday, December 14, 2012

My Grown Up Christmas List (The Redemption of Christmas)

On September 11th, 2001, I was a 7-year-old second grader. I was a pretty naive little kid with a big imagination, whose mind mainly lived in a universe of Legos and Star Wars. My perception of the world was pretty small. I didn't think there were people who did unspeakably evil things. I didn't think innocent people died from the acts of those people, or that people died from other horrible things like cancer or car accidents. I grew up in what to me seemed like an environment where everybody got along for the most part, so I also didn't fully grasp concepts like bitter disagreement, war, segregation, genocide, etc.

Admittedly, those are concepts few 7-year-olds grasp. But not only did I not grasp most of these ideas, but I wasn't even aware they existed. So when my parents tried to softly explain to me that evening at dinner what had happened, I didn't really get it. I didn't know what the World Trade Center was. I didn't understand Terrorism. I didn't understand why somebody would want to crash a plane into a skyscraper to make an attack or a statement against someone else.

Oh, to have such an innocent, pure view of the world.

To this day, I still don't "understand" why somebody would kill or show bitter aggression against any other human being. But the unfortunate side affect of seeing tragedies like 9/11, the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Aurora CO massacre this summer (to name a few) unfold is that you become calloused. Your shock and sadness at the events never numbs, but your initial reaction to them and your processing of them does.

This morning, I got in the car with my mom and drove over to the elementary school where my little brother and sister attend school. My mom let me drive over, which makes me feel that much "older" and more "mature." I went and spent two hours in my little sisters classroom for kids with special needs, getting to play with and learn from this amazing group of kids. While there were definitely high points and lower points, I ultimately walked out with a sense of fulfilment and happiness. It was a nice morning. I also got to quickly slip into my little brother's kindergarten class to say hello and see how he was doing, which was an added bonus.

At the same time that I drove over to an elementary school to share my time with a special group of kids, a man in Newtown Connecticut drove to an elementary school with far different intentions. He had just killed his mother. After he did what he was about to do, his life would end too. But before that, this man's violent actions would claim the lives of 27 people, 20 of whom were between five and ten years old. The damage this man has done to the people of Newtown Connecticut and people around the world who will hear of his horrific actions is incalculable. Words cannot describe neither the evil he has committed, nor the pain he has caused his fellow human beings.

There was a time when I was younger where this time of year was magical for me. It was full of snow days, hot coco, Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and lots of decorations. I would go through the latest Lego magazines, circling all the models that I hoped Santa would bring. There's something about a child's wonder at Christmas that forever ingrains in you this thirst for that time of year, full of anticipation and goodness.

Yet how it changes as we grow older. Christmas is coming in less than two weeks. This month has been chaotic with so many great things going on, and January will be no different. I've hardly had time to sit down with a cup of Cocoa and watch my favorite old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. For all the insanity and distractions of everyday adult life though, the week or so of time from Christmas to New Year's stands as a block of peace. A time to brush all the work aside, enjoy family and recharge before a new year begins. I can't help but think of the families that will have one less child poking their head out their bedroom door in the wee hours of the morning, eagerly anticipating the gifts that wait under the tree. Their parents have probably bought them gifts and taken the time off from work to get to enjoy their holiday season with their little ones. They've probably loaded up on Christmas treats, and maybe baked a cookie or two.

Now, all thanks to one man's savage actions, those dreams of Christmas have been demolished in one fell swoop. In stead of spending Christmas in total bliss, there will be the gaping hole that child has left. They will wonder how long the grief will sting, raw and crippling as it undoubtedly must be.

My "Christmas List" is no longer filled with the most recent lego starfighters and other toys that it once was. Yes, there are still gadgets and Christmas Magazine ads that catch my eye- there's always some part of us that's attracted to the material things of this world. For the most part though, my Christmas list is the changes I wish I could see in the world. That no child, for any reason, would feel rejected or lonely, without friends or family to warm their hearts on Christmas Day. That even though there will always be people who disagree with each other and don't see eye to eye, that we could do so in a loving way, with understanding and compassion. That people never become so embittered, so calloused, so twisted, that we kill other innocent human beings simply to make a statement or vent our anger. That those who suffer with grief know that life will get better, that redemption is on the way.

It is with great thankfulness to God that I realize that even for those families where Christmas will be raw because of a loved one recently gone, it is  because of the presence of another little child that we can still have hope. Jesus' coming to earth and the celebration thereof isn't there to create a shopping occasion, or even to act as a time for makeshift family reunions. It's there to remind us that redemption is always present, even in the most unusual forms and places. After all, if you were to know Redemption was coming in the form of a little baby tomorrow, would you, without any knowledge of the Nativity, look for a baby wrapped in some blankets, sleeping in a trough in a cave turned into a stable? Would you expect the first people to be told of his birth to be some smelly shepherds camping out in the fields with their flocks?

Christmas this year will, undoubtedly, be marked in some way for many of us with the memory that many are celebrating it in the midst of deep grief and sorrow. The good news, though, is that on a deep, dark night in Bethlehem, a night that was just as dark as all those before it, the arrival of a little baby brought a bright star that lit up the darkness and marked redemption was coming.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Struggle

We are free to struggle
We're not struggling to be free
Your blood bought  and makes us Children
Children drop your chains and sing!

Tenth Avenue North, "The Struggle"

Within the world of Contemporary Christian Music, there are a number of artists who I have a great amount of admiration for. The artists in that category have gone the extra mile with their talents, with their music, with how they use those gifts to reach others with the love of Christ. Men like Steven Curtis Chapman and his family have used his fame to shine a spotlight on adoption, orphan care, and mission work. Bands like Casting Crowns are all about being "real" in their songs, whether they're talking about suffering, praise, how we fall short as humans, etc. Mark Hall, the lead singer, has written books and filmed prayerful meditations that have been eye-opening for me in my spiritual life. If I were to mention all the Christian artists I look up to though, I'd be here all night typing. 

I first experienced a Christian band called Tenth Avenue North a couple years ago when their hit single "Healing Begins" came on my radio. While I had heard about them before, I had never heard their music or understood who they were as a band. After I had heard Healing Begins a number of times, I decided to search the internet for a music video for it. I've always loved seeing what visual perspective artists add to a song I really like through a music video. In stead of a music video, I found a "Video Journal" talking about where the song came from and what the band hoped would touch people about it. As I listened to the lead singer, Mike Donehey, express the redemption we have in Christ so beautifully, I knew these guys were special. I bought both of their albums and listened to them heavily. Tenth Ave's sound is something of a soft rock/pop with a little bit of ballads and acoustic vibes mixed in on the side. With both of their first two albums, they managed to combine a solid mix of diverse song styles and lyrics that either described where I was at the time or renewed my hope in the saving power of Christ. 

In March of 2012 Tenth Ave put out a one or two minute long video announcing a new album they had coming out called "The Struggle." I had continued to watch Mike's video journals (sometimes more than once) ever since I had found them, and this new record idea- a record about the struggles of faith in our everyday lives- seemed like a really fresh, beautiful idea. 

3 months down the pipe the band released a 5-minute overview video summarizing on a more in-depth level than before what exactly "The Struggle" was all about. As they played snippets of the songs in the background, my excitement increased- and thus I waited the 3-4 months before the CD came out.  To say the least, I "struggled" a bit with patience ;)

With the new record came a new tour schedule and a new set of cities they'd be playing in. Living in Upstate NY isn't quite the same as living in Tennessee or Texas as far as accessibility of Christian Music goes, unfortunately. Thus, when a band comes anywhere from 1-3 hours within driving distance of where you live, you jump on it if your schedule's open. When I saw that Tenth Ave would be coming up to New Jersey with the incredible Audrey Assad and a newcomer worship group from Ireland called Rend Collective Experiment, I instantly wanted to see if there was the slightest chance I'd be able to see them in concert. I am blessed to say that I am going, and I'm sure it's gonna be a great night of praise and worship with a ton of brothers and sisters in Christ. 

All of this brings me to the reason for this post: I am inviting you, the reader of this blog post, if you have the time and live within a reasonable driving distance of Middletown New Jersey, to come today, Friday September 14th, to come to New Monmouth Baptist Church for a 7:30 concert featuring 3 awesome Christian witnesses/artists for a night of testimony, praise, and worship. All the information (or information for other tour dates if you live elsewhere in the US but still want to see this awesome tour live) is at the link here.

Tenth Avenure North has had a tremendous impact in helping me realize the true love, forgiveness, redemption and freedom God has for each and every one of us. If you have the time and the means, do not miss this tour if they come to a city near you!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One In Him

One week ago last Sunday I made the journey to that place that has been the highlight of my summer for the last 5 summers: Camp Veritas. Since going there in 2008 and having the privilege to be one of the first 60 kids to experience Camp Veritas, the people and the camp itself have always been a home away from home, a sanctuary, a quiet place for me to go and spend a week reconnecting with God and friends. Going in, this year felt a little bit different, for one reason in particular: it was my last year as a camper.

After 4 years of coming as a camper, this year, 2012, would be my last year as a camper at Camp Veritas. While I would be more than welcome to return the following year as a counselor, there was a certain bittersweet feeling as I contemplated that fact.

As far as the week itself, this year flowed as effortlessly and beautifully as previous years have. We arrived on a cool Sunday afternoon with the sun popping in and out of the clouds and a cool breeze blowing. As the group grows bit by bit every year things change a little bit, but the events of each day generally remain the same from year to year. Sunday afternoon is a time to reunite and hug everyone in sight, meet new people, get settled in your cabin, as well as gear up for all of the fun spiritual, social, and athletic activities that will take place throughout the week. It was fantastic getting to reunite with so many old friends as well as meet some great new people as well.

Monday started off with a bang as my group's first big sports activity was the rock wall. While I am happy to say I've made it up to the top every year, this was the first year I made it up without any long pauses or direction as to where I should put my hands/feet. Rock Climbing always provides a great analogy to the climb our faith lives can sometimes be. There are times when the going is easy and natural, and other times where we have to stop, re-evaluate our path, and continue upwards and onwards. As we get to the top, our strength gone, one last easy grip is awaiting us, so we can then look at the beauty surrounding us as far as the eye can see and feel accomplished in the climb we have made.

Tuesday got off to an amusing start. It began drizzling just as my group had lake activities and the go-kart track. While the rain was light enough as not to affect our lake time, its affect on our racing time was interesting. We were allowed to continue racing so long as we were safe, but the kicker was that due to the wetness of the track, all of the grit got thrown up at you. By the end of the period, all of us looked like something out of a battle in Braveheart or Lord of the Rings, covered in race track grime from head to toe. It was still a fun day though, and the weather cleared up nicely. So nicely, in fact, that we had a pool party later that night. There I met a great guy named Kenny, who told me and a couple close friends of ours the story of God's intervention in his life. I walked away that night reminded in a deep way that our God is a God of redemption and wondrous deeds,  who is waiting for each and every one of us, to personally and passionately return to Him.

By Wednesday things were in full swing. We were all drawing closer together as a group, and we also had a special chance to grow ever closer to God that night. At Camp Veritas, every afternoon/evening is praise and worship time. Your mornings are the time to "play hard," while late afternoon until dark is your time to "pray hard." That evening, the counselors broke into groups and stood outside the chapel, willing to pray with us campers for or about anything. Whether you needed healing, direction in life, whatever, they were there to pray for you. After the first huge wave of people had gone and I had had some quiet time to pray and recollect, I decided to go out and ask a group of two nuns and two counselors to pray over me, that I might better know and love God and where He is calling me in life. So often I think people forget that no matter where we are in our lives, whether we're youth, adult, nuns, friars, priests, students, etc., we all come together as one in the body of Christ. For the next 5+ Minutes each member of the group individually prayed over me, pouring out love and support for me as a child of God. While God's presence may be present to all of us who seek it, there's something about when a group of brothers and sisters in Christ surround each other in love and prayer that makes it feel even more real and present.

By Thursday, two big things were clear: One, Cardinal Dolan, the shepherd of the Catholic Church from New York City up to where I live 3 hours north of there, would be coming for a visit to see how Camp Veritas was doing this fine August day. Two, we had passed the midway point through the week. the next day, Friday, would be our last day there. SNIFF!!! Regardless, the Cardinal's visit was a jolly good time. He went around and shook each camper's hand personally at least once (keep in mind, we had over 300 campers this year). He even played Tug of War with us!

I also got the chance to meet up with an old friend and mentor of mine, Mr. David Rider. David was a professional Broadway-level tap dancer who left the business to become a priest. He is now studying over in Rome and will be ordained in a couple years!!

By Friday everyone was determined to go out with a bang-including the weather. As we all gathered in the chapel for Mass before dinner, we heard sheets of rain pouring down on the tin roof over our heads. It. Was. Bad. We had expected that over the course of dinner it would lessen up a bit. It didn't. On came the rumbles of thunder, flashes of lightning, and continuing buckets of rain. We all squeezed back into the chapel for one last great night of praise and worship, with a great talk by one of the friars before singing and times of quiet in a room lit by only a few candles and the fading light from outside. Miraculously, the weather cleared during Praise and Worship, and we were able to have our talent show out on the basketball court. All of the performances were very well done, from song covers to skits to wrapping priests and friars. Friday night really was a great "last hoorrah" for all of us, and we went to bed that night with the bittersweet taste of a fantastic week coming to a close.

As Saturday dawned, the weather couldn't have been better. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, the sun was shining, and yet it was still quite cool for August. Those of us who chose to say morning prayer with the friars and nuns for the last time this year went to the chapel first thing in the morning. After that, we all ate a quick breakfast before packing and getting ready for our final Mass. I had the honor of serving along an extremely inspirational group of priests and one of our Bishops, before saying goodbyes, taking pictures together and leaving that tiny little mountain getaway for this summer.

As I watched friends say farewells and a group of courageous, God-loving teens disband until next year that Saturday afternoon, it was all I could do to fight back tears. Part of it was that the week had ended. Part of it was remembering all of the joy this camp has and continues to bring me. The biggest thing, though, was thinking how much had changed in and around me for the better since that first August afternoon 4 years ago when I first attended the first-ever Camp Veritas. In the past 4 years, I have had the pleasure of watching brothers and sisters in Christ I look up to answering calls that range from dating, getting married and having kids, to joining the seminaries or convents, to joining the armed forces. No matter where in the world God has called them, they never cease to be good role models. People that care about you and are there to help you in any way they can. People like that have given me the strength to become more confident in who I am and in getting to know other people. They've also given me the tools and the inspiration to draw closer to our Lord and seek Him and His calling for me in life on a daily basis.

As I was reading the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles yesterday, I was struck particularly by Chapter 2, Verses 42-47, which talks about the community that the early Church built, founded in awe of the wonders of God and love of neighbor. As I read through that passage, I couldn't shake the image of Veritas from my mind. A place where we unite for Christ. A place where we pour into each other the love, redemption, and life lessons we recieve from the Father, ultimately becoming better people both for our friendship with each other and the friendship with Jesus Christ that is formed simultaneously during that week.

Camp Veritas, you will forever be my home-away-from-home, my sanctum, my special place. To all of you who have called me friend or done anything from have a deep-conversation with me, to praying for me, with me or over me, to just giving me a hug or a hello whenever you see me, thank you. You have pointed me to the Father in ways few others have, and I will ever look forward to that week in August where we all unite in the power of Christ to lift each other up and draw closer to Him.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What It Means to Grow

I am the first person to admit I dwell on the past often, sometimes in good ways, sometimes not. My thirst to remember the good times is what drives so much of my photography and writing, hoping to capture the emotions of what it meant to make new friends, see new places, and experience new things. On the other hand, it is also the trait that often causes me to hold things against people, making it harder to forgive, forget old memories, and turn a new leaf sometimes.

A wise man once said that our past plays a large part in forming who we are. We can either let it define, make or break us, or we can find the courage to break free from it and begin anew.

Recently I was on a retreat for 5 days, in a time of praying, fellowship, and fun times with some brothers in Christ. Early on the first morning of the retreat, we were gathered in a chapel, in a time of quiet prayer and reflection. As we finished that time of quiet, peaceful prayer, the priest who was leading the retreat went up to the front of the room and handed us each a manila folder, pen, and piece of paper. He asked us to think about where we were, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, at that moment. He then asked us to think about where we were a year ago that time. In what ways had we progressed? Faltered? Grown? Changed?

As I began thinking about the past year, and all of the events that had occurred within it, my mind stretched far beyond the last year. I thought back to my younger teenage years. I thought about all of the growing I had done between then and now. I thought about all of the different ways life had changed.

A couple of things quickly became apparent. 1) for however "old" or "experienced" I might feel at the ripe old age of 17, I'm definitely neither sage nor saint, with plenty of growing and improving still to be done before God calls me home. 2) I've definitely had highs and lows. While they may not have been as harrowing or turbulent as others' trials have been, they've been enough to show me there are some times where you bring your troubles all on yourself, and there are some times where things get thrown at you. No matter what, though, it's up to you to decide whether you are crushed by it or let it make you a better person.

Finally, I realized something my mom had told me shortly before: The only constant in life is change. As life moves ever forward, the environment you live in changes. The people around you change. YOU change! And while it might not always "feel good" or seem like something you can handle, change can make us cling to whatever things aren't changing. More often than not, the only thing that isn't changing is God- the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And when we are at our weak points and He is our only constant, the only thing that will hold us up is His strength if we let it.

I can't say that if you had come up to me 1,2,3 years ago and told me where I'd be a year or so later I'd have believed you or how much things would change. If you had told me in late December of 2008 that a year from then I'd e-mail a total stranger on the opposite end of the country, and that they'd become one of my closest friends, I'd have thought you were nuts. If you had told me that exactly a year from the night I sent that e-mail I'd be sitting trapped in a German airport due to blizzards on the way to bring home my little sister from Ukraine who happened to have Down Syndrome (and that said friend would be e-mailing me to make sure I hadn't lost my sanity), I'd DEFINITELY have thought you were out of your mind.

Alas, that's what it means to grow up. You can't always see what's around the corner. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it'd bad, sometimes it tragic, sometimes its amazing, other times it's in between those. You never know what will happen to the people you have the joy of sharing the journey with, or where their journeys will lead them. But it is better to enjoy the times you have with them and love them no matter what, then it is to walk the journey alone. 

Throughout it all, He will lead us through our journeys. And in the end, isn't that all we'll ever really need?

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23:4