Sunday, August 10, 2014

Silence! Finding God in the Quiet

We've gotten used to noise in our lives-- smartphone, iPod, car stereo, television, video games . . . life feels like a constant barrage of noise. If you're like me, you're starting to wonder where the silence has gone!

I heard one of my favorite Old Testament passages at Mass today (Aug. 10, 2014). The First Reading from 1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah, fleeing into the wilderness, and then hiding in a cave on "the mountain of God, Horeb"(1 Kgs. 19:8). While there, the word of God directs him to the mouth of the cave because "the Lord will pass by"(1 Kgs. 19:11). 

You know the rest of the story-- Elijah experiences incredible natural disasters: winds, earthquakes, and fires. But, God is not to be found in any of these. Instead, Elijah recognizes God's presence in the "light, silent sound"(1 Kgs. 19:12, N.A.B.R.E.) In another bible translation, the verse goes "and after the fire a sound of sheer silence"(NRSV). 

Sheer Silence
Whether a parent or teacher, noise seems to be life-- especially with young people around. Home and school are vibrant and loud with laughter, chatter, music, and more. We focus our energy on engaging our kids in activities that will develop them physically, academically, socially, and artistically.

Lately though, I've been trying to bring more silence into the lives of my children. Yes, my kids are seven and two years old, so in the interests of full disclosure, this may have more to do with dad than with them! 

But the truth is, the most powerful experiences of God I've had have happened in utter stillness and silence. Being at peace internally and externally allowed me to hear God's whisper for my life. I want my kids to be prepared to have this same experience of God someday, too.

For that reason, I'm trying to ensure that noise doesn't always rule their lives. Whether it be car rides without turning on the stereo, quiet time during nightly prayers, or moments of reflection before beginning a meal, I'm trying to share with my kids the joy of giving God my quiet, peaceful heart that is waiting and listening to hear His voice. I'm trying to give them age-appropriate experiences of silence.

Have you been thinking about this, too? Do you have other ways you help the children in your life become accustomed to silence? Please share in the comments! 

Photo credit: bernat... via photopin cc

Monday, July 14, 2014

Intentionally Complimentary



Take the time to point out to others what we can see but they don't.  #Leadership #Caring #Sharing pic.twitter.com/R4JUQGNFSy— Bruce Van Horn (@BruceVH) June 26, 2013
I came across this tweet by Bruce Van Horn last month, and it struck deep. Although possibly not the interpretation he intended, the beauty of the quote is that it made me stop and think: 
Do I take the time to point out to others the positive things I see in them? Things they may not see themselves?
I'm forced to answer: not enoughIn just a few short words, this question convicted me of something that I've been considering in recent months-- I don't compliment people enough. I mean the real deal-- compliments that are specific, reinforce positive qualities, and make our world a better place.

I'm not saying that I am rude or ungrateful. The opposite, in fact, because I often think of the many wonderful qualities of the people around me. I just don't feel I point out these qualities to them enough.

Why not? There could be a number of reasons-- lack of time or energy, or maybe I just tend to be too "task-oriented." I'm left wondering how many opportunities I've had to share a compliment, and by extension, share a little bit of Jesus' love and compassion with those around me.

So today I pledge to point out the positives. I pledge to be observant enough to note the things about others that they might not even notice themselves. I pledge to compliment others in ways that are life-giving and affirming. I pledge to try to validate the actions, characteristics, or qualities of those around me that make a positive impact on our environment, helping to create a caring, compassionate, and truly Catholic community.

Will you join me?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Everyday Unbelief

Forms of Unbelief
Whether an everyday Catholic in the pews or someone like me who works in a ministry of the Church, we're meeting more and more people who profess not to be Christian. This comes in many forms. The following three tend to cover the most basic categories of unbelief:


  • Some people have left the faith and profess nothing. They simply don't think about it, try not to, or in many cases are just too busy.
  • Some people claim it is impossible to have an answer to the question of God's existence (agnostics).
  • Some people profess a belief that God does not exist (atheists).
Most people fall into the first category, and these are the ones we frequently meet, work with, or even love as family members and friends. They're not hostile to the idea of God. In fact, they may say that they still believe in Him on some level. However, the fact that this belief doesn't seem to impact their lives in any measurable way is really a form of unbelief. 

The "God void" gets filled with many good things (and as with all of us imperfect humans, some bad), not leaving much time left over for God. (Have you seen the Church of Softball taking place at most parks on Sunday mornings? Again, softball is great, but it's not God.)

This became abundantly clear to me recently as I was speaking with a person who had seen a picture of our seventh grade students carrying the flower-strewn litter with a statue of our Blessed Mother on it during the May Crowning. He asked, "And who is that they're carrying?"

Making the Case for God
At the extreme end of the spectrum are those who are hostile to the faith. I had the pleasure recently of viewing a DVD of a debate between Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn, and atheist Dan Barker on the topic: God: Supreme Being or Imaginary Friend? I've enjoyed Trent Horn's approach to engaging atheists on Catholic Answers Live for over a year now. Trent is intelligent, logical, and well-read, while at the same time being kind and considerate to those who disagree with him. I'm in the middle of his book Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity

The debate was an even match and ended cordially. However, I couldn't help but feel that Trent took it more seriously, having prepared arguments based on science, philosophy, and logic-- that's right . . . science, philosophy, and logic! I won't try to be Trent here in this blog by explaining these arguments (he does it much better in his book), but I encourage anyone who is surprised that reasons for God's existence could come from these very UN-faith-related disciplines to check him out.

Dan Barker, on the other hand, while definitely an intelligent and well-read person, appeared frustrated and insulting, as if he couldn't believe a smart guy like Trent could be duped into believing in an imaginary friend like God.  

Responding with Charity
What impressed me most about the debate was the way that Trent respectfully responded to Mr. Barker. He wasn't a pushover by any stretch of the imagination, but Trent was confident in his beliefs and knowledge, and that gave him a peace that couldn't be shaken by the insults and taunting.

I believe this is the approach we all should take: to respond with charity, remain calm and confident in our beliefs and in our knowledge that God loves us and cares for us. Where does this confidence come from? Where can we find an abiding peace that remains, even when someone responds negatively to our belief?

Peace and confidence (fortitude) are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and fruits of prayer, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and reception of the Eucharist, among other things. These three aspects of our faith have fortified saints, popes, and martyrs down through the generations of Catholics since the time of Christ-- and they can help you and your children, too!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"You Can't Measure Up"

Funny thing . . . on the surface, society and God both tell us the same thing:


"You can't possibly measure up."

Society-- through media like television, music, movies, print, and digital-- tells us we can't measure up to its standards.  Through these different outlets, society has set the standard for perfection: the perfect life, perfect family, perfect job, perfect body, etc. Society keeps sending us the message that we aren't good enough. "You're not rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, popular enough, etc." Society looks on us with disdain, disapproval, even disgust, and we can get caught up in a restless, ceaseless struggle for unattainable perfection. 

In a way, God says we can't measure up, too-- that is, we can't merit salvation on our own (CCC 2007). We need His grace just to come to faith in Him, and even that faith is a gift we are given freely by a God who looks at us as we are, takes us as we are, and loves us as we are. After all, He created us! This is an incredibly different outcome of what seems to be a similar message on the surface. 

When it comes to my own children and my students, I'm going to do my best to help them learn not to worry about failing to measure up to society's impossible standards. I want my children and students to know that:

  • God accepts them, loves them, and died for them, making their salvation possible.  
  • Even though they couldn't earn this gift on their own, it's attainable.
  • With God there's no need to struggle. No seeking perfection through 10 easy steps found in the latest People Magazine or Facebook post
I want my students to know that with God, they don't need to worry about not measuring up because He doesn't look at what they're lacking.  He only sees children He loves so much that He sent His Son to die so that He would not to have to spend eternity without them.

Come to think of it, I could stand to hear that more often myself. How about you?

Photo credit: Sepehr Ehsani via photopin cc

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Time to End the Lie

"God won't give you more than you can handle."
I'm tired of hearing that.  Aren't you?

Don't get me wrong. Well-meaning, believing, folks say this to people who are struggling under some weight or difficulty in an effort to help them cope. You've probably said it. I know I have. We say it so much it becomes trite, like a greeting card message.  Our goal is to diminish the challenge, build up the person, and in the process lay out a path to overcoming the trial or difficulty. It's the equivalent of saying: “YOU can do it because God has measured this trial and found your strength just barely adequate.  You are only being stretched and challenged right now. That’s all."

The Truth
What's the truth? 
As I have become convinced of it, when God allows trials into our lives, He often gives us more than we can handle. Most of us need only look around to find the evidence of this: the family member struggling under the crushing weight of a medical diagnosis; the friend challenged by financial ruin; the young child caught in the grips of his parents' contentious divorce.

Can we honestly say that no problem is too great for us to handle? 

The Good News
This is the good news! When we realize that there will be problems too great for us to deal with on our own, t
hen and only then are we brought to the point of utter dependence upon God's grace, mercy, love, and power to sustain us in the face of these pressures and difficulties-- and that’s precisely what He wants from us!  Cease the struggling, the striving, the restless seeking for an answer or solution . . . and trust Him. His “grace is sufficient.” St. Paul would say this is when we can “boast gladly” of our weakness, so that Christ’s power “may dwell” with us. (2 Cor. 12: 9) We have access to a power source that will never be found lacking!

We, our friends, our school parents and our students need to hear this message: that their true power comes not from their own struggling, but from Christ. YES, we must keep living and working. We have to do our part. But, while we push on through the difficulties, our internal condition must be one of peace and the absence of struggle or fear because of the confidence that comes from knowing Christ’s power is with us. 

Doesn't that sound like fertile ground for facing the different challenges that might come into our lives? Saying that God won't give us more than we can handle is a lie that is poisonous to the kind of true faith that can actually help us overcome the most difficult problems we'll face.

Remember: The truth is that God loves each and every one of us, and He therefore provides us with His grace to endure even the most crushing blows.  Let's share this truth!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Happy Children

"Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery - the preconditions of all true freedom." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223)
One phrase stands out for me in paragraph 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "self-denial." 15 minutes of television is all you need to know that there's not a lot of self-denial preached by mainstream society. Seems to me that the commercials might be right-- after all, I know how unhappy I am when I desire a Double-Double from In 'N Out and can't have it. I also think about how happy I would be if I had that Double-Double . . . and some fries . . . animal style.  

In teaching self-denial, does the Church have it wrong here?

Of course not. Like so many things, Church teaching as found in the Catechism, seems backwards only when viewed through the fallen perspective of the world. In reality, my reaching out for that Double-Double brings only temporary, sensory-based happiness, but it damages the true, lasting happiness that comes from being healthy, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, etc.

Happy Children
I think that's what we really need to distinguish for our children-- the difference between temporary, sensual or sensory-based happiness, and true, lasting happiness, particularly through the kind of education we provide them.  

Please, don't get me wrong-- our senses are gifts from God, and it's okay to enjoy them! However, the Catechism is pointing us toward an education that prepares our children for something much deeper than success or the fulfillment of the material desires of their hearts. In fact, I'd go so far as to propose that if the education we provide as parents and teachers leaves our children bound by their own desires seeking only to satisfy their wants, instead of able to control them through self-denial and self-mastery, we will have failed in teaching our children one of the most important lessons prescribed to us by the Church.

Let's begin teaching self-denial and self-mastery during this Lenten season by setting realistic and virtuous limits on our children's expectations, and by emphasizing charity and generosity before wants and desires. Though successful careers and material things are definitely blessings granted by God, they are not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and they don't bring us the true freedom achieved through the virtue of self-denial.

After all, true happiness is not being bound by the desire for something (and thus frustration when not able to possess it).  True happiness is found in the peace that comes from being able to master these binding, overpowering desires.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Internet Safety for the Children in Your Home

As a school administrator, I'm having an increasing number of conversations with parents regarding problems they're having with their children and the Internet at home. Social websites have impacted many students' emotional well-being and/or social development by exposing children to around-the-clock access to their friends. Video and image sharing websites have negatively affected many students' developing sense of beauty or purity.

After so many of these conversations, the realization struck me-- students are well-protected while using the Internet on our school grounds, but so few of our families are aware that they can provide this same kind of protection at home, free of charge.

In my mind, there's no good reason not to set up a content filter (a means of controlling which websites can be accessed) at home-- I have one on my home network, and I'd recommend that every parent, regardless of the age of their children, thoughtfully use at least one form of Internet safety tool. Though the Internet is a powerful tool for education, communication, and entertainment, the reality is that it is just as powerfully capable of causing intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual harm to our children. 

This recommendation is not about censorship. It's about protecting our children from exposure to images, ideas and experiences before they have the tools to deal with that exposure. Unrestrained, the Internet is clearly having an impact on our children's moral development. I think it's time we stopped playing "catch up" with the fast-paced spread of the Internet into every corner of our family life, and we start to make thoughtful, informed, effective decisions about what role it will play in the growth and development of our children. As a parent, it's our right and duty to be the primary educators of our children.

Offering these thoughts, I'm fully aware that I could be accused of advocating Big Brother-esque control, or censorship. Although I assure you this is not the case, I encourage anyone with concerns or counter-arguments to leave comments below so that we can have a civil discussion. As I've said to parents on many occasions, "I believe that our children must develop the tools to integrate the Internet into their lives properly, and this comes from experience with these tools. However, there's a reason why we don't give drivers licenses to kids under 16!"

Tools for Content Filtering at Home
I have personal experience with two specific tools, which I'd recommend any parent looking into. They're free, simple to set up, and effective for protecting your children. Please note-- these recommendations are not the result of exhaustive research and comparison. I'm sure a simple Google search will reveal sites that have done this. I simply offer these two tools to exemplify what is possible.

Before implementing either of these tools, I recommend you set up your child on a limited user account. (I apologize to Mac users for my lack of experience with OSX-- this first recommendation is PC-centric.) Allowing your child full "administrator" access to a computer enables them to bypass any security restrictions set up. If this recommendation isn't familiar to you, or you need help setting it up, visit this link: "How to Teenager-Proof a Windows 7 PC."

Tool #1: Microsoft Family Safety
http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/set-up-family-safety#set-up-family-safety=windows-7 
If your child uses a PC that runs Windows 7 or later, setting up Microsoft Family Safety is simple. It does require that you have a Microsoft email account (i.e., Hotmail, Live, or MSN). Once set up, Microsoft Family Safety enables you to implement an Internet "whitelist" or "blacklist" on your child's limited computer user account. With a whitelist, your child will only be able to access the sites you specifically clear for him or her. I have this set up for my 6 year old's account on our home PC. He's currently whitelisted to visit our school's math practice website, National Geographic Kids, and PBS Kids. If he tries to visit any other site, Microsoft Family Safety blocks it.

Even better is the weekly report I receive via email from Microsoft Family Safety. Each Sunday I get an email that charts out how much time my son spent on the Internet each day, which websites he visited and for how long, and which websites were blocked (if any). I haven't found anything that is this easy to set up and maintain, and is this useful.

Tool #2: OpenDNS
http://www.opendns.com/
Where Microsoft Family Safety only filters the activity that takes place on the particular PC on which it has been configured, OpenDNS has the ability to filter Internet activity on every device that connects to the Internet at your home. This is key with so many mobile devices in the home today (iPads, iPods, laptops, cell phones, etc.). You'll need a little more technical know-how to set this up, but OpenDNS provides clear, step-by-step instructions here: https://store.opendns.com/setup/router/ and a video introduction on this page: https://store.opendns.com/setup/

When you create a free OpenDNS account and set up a content-filtering profile, you'll be able to block websites by category (weapons, alcohol, pornography, etc.), or by setting up whitelists or blacklists of sites. My school used OpenDNS successfully for about six years, and we never experienced any problems. If you're unsure about any of the technical aspects at the links above, it's best to seek out the help of someone who can assist you. 

I offer these as examples of two simple, quick steps parents can take to provide safety and security for their children. If we are to grow faith-filled kids, should we do any less?

Image:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/75/Internet1.jpg

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Kids We Have
















I'd like to riff off Dr. Maxwell's now famous quote, meant for teachers, for the purpose of relating an idea that I admit to finding difficult to accept at times:

Our calling is parent the children God gave us.  Not the children we would like to have. Not the children we were when we were little. The children we have right now.

Perfect Children
My kids aren't perfect. 

Yes, they make messes everywhere. (I actually cleaned spaghetti sauce off the ceiling once . . . and before you ask, I have no idea.) 

They whine. ("Shall I call the 'waaaaaambulance' for you?") 

They fight. (I swear there are two cushions on the couch, but they both seem to see only one . . . and each must possess it.) 

Ironically, Sunday Mass seems to bring out the worst in them. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

And yet, my kids are small-- my youngest only about to turn two. I'm not complaining. These misbehaviors are normal, routine, and entirely understandable. 

So, why do  I sometimes wish they behaved even better? I believe it's because I've fallen into the trap of wanting to parent the children I wish I had, and not the children I actually have.

To use the classroom metaphor, it is ineffective for a teacher to approach his or her class with the expectation that the students will "be" precisely what he or she expects them to be, sight unseen. Teachers can't direct and orient their teaching to the "ideal" student or to past students. They must adapt to and address the needs of the students sitting before them at the moment.

The same goes for those of us parenting imperfect children. (Yeah . . . that's all of us.) We can lament the fact that they don't behave a certain way, or that they aren't as good as we were when we were kids (or as good as a brother/sister). Ultimately, this does our children no good, and it creates a harsh environment for learning and growing.

I'm not suggesting we do away with standards of behavior and accept misbehavior as the norm, just like I wouldn't suggest that a teacher forget the subject area standards or codes of conduct.  What I am suggesting is that we focus less on the "wishes" and "wants," and more on embracing the children God gave us, faults and all. Their flaws are opportunities for growth. Their sins are doors to God's grace. 

The fact is, I love my kids more than my own life. I owe it to them to parent the children God gave me.

Image: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BbE55bzIAAESgJD.jpg

Not "Shy" at All!

Odds are that one of every three people (or so) who reads this blog post will feel like the following bullet points describe him or her (they definitely describe me):
  • Large crowds and loud noises are tiresome, even overwhelming.
  • Hearing the words, "Now turn to the person next to you and make a new friend!" while sitting in a class or conference is a source of panic and/or simple frustration.
  • Being put on the spot to "share" thoughts or feelings actually freezes brain function and/or halts thought processes.
  • A quiet lunch and good conversation with one close friend is preferred over a party or gathering of many people.
You may not be familiar with the characteristics of introverts because extroverts are so much more common in our society, and in many cases even more prized-- "He's so outgoing!" or "She's so friendly!" being common refrains. Introverts are typically (and mistakenly) characterized as shy, withdrawn, or even brooding. In reality, being an introvert means that one's energy comes from being alone (whereas extroverts are energized by being around people). Read more about the differences here: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/09/11/7-persistent-myths-about-introverts-extroverts/

In her fantastic TED talk on the power of introversion, Susan Cain describes how our society has come to prize extroversion over introversion, and how this hurts people and ultimately damages our world.  (See it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html)

Introverts in the Classroom
As a parent and educator, my primary concern is that my own children and my students are learning and growing to their fullest potential, especially in their faith. There are introverts in our classrooms who need quiet time to think, ponder, and assimilate new ideas. If you're an extrovert, this may not make much sense to you since you think aloud, by talking out your ideas with others. 

As an introvert, however, my process is very different. The best illustration I can offer is what a college professor once told me. She said that she could actually see me process new ideas during her class, "It's visible," she said.  "You wrestle with the ideas, taking them inside of you, turning them over and over, and making the connections needed for that idea to have meaning to you." This is how introverts make meaning-- by taking ideas in and bouncing them off of prior knowledge, challenging preconceived notions, and fitting the ideas in with existing knowledge.

If 1/3 of our students need time to make meaning like this, then silent time for reflection would seem to be essential to the classroom environment. Even more so, silent time in faith formation classes is an absolute necessity, as we strive to help young people develop a personal relationship with Christ.

How to Care for Introverts
Following some great educators and Catholics on Twitter, I came across this recent image through a tweet, and hosted here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BbUKtVLIYAABxaN.jpg.


It's easy to see how this list can be applied to classroom or work environments. For students who are introverts (who process ideas internally), constantly forcing them into group activities can be detrimental to their learning and even lead to their frustration with the classroom. It's in the best interest of students to give them time to process, quiet time to think, and periods of peacefulness. These 12 guidelines are a great start.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ready for Christmas


Not Quite Ready?
The tree is decorated. The lights are twinkling. Even the little snowman who counts down the days to Christmas has taken up residence in his normal spot by the fireplace. With only 11 days to go before Christmas, all but a few of the presents have been purchased. All indications are that we are ready for the holiday.

But, I keep thinking about my Nativity set.

Two years ago, on Thanksgiving weekend, I had one of my brilliant ideas. Our house needed a large nativity scene for our Christmas decorations out front. We always go all out on our lights, but the light up reindeer who eerily moved its head back and forth was starting to seem too gaudy. The candy canes and snowmen were looking tired. Instead of replacing them with more stuff that pointed to the North Pole, I thought it time that our house point folks to true north, Christ.

Like a man on a mission, I dove into the internet, only to find that outdoor nativity sets are a difficult find-- either too cheap to look really nice, or too expensive for my budget. Then it hit me: I could make my own! I had a few weekends before Christmas. Making my own nativity set would be a snap, and I'd be offering the gift of my own talents in glory of the King.

That was two years ago. As those two Christmases came and went, I got a little bit closer to completing my Nativity scene, but I never could get it finished.  Just as I could never quite complete the Nativity scene, I also felt like I'd never really entered into the spiritual aspects of Advent and Christmas either. Sure, I prayed a little extra, but the joy of waiting for Christ's birth on Christmas Day just didn't seem to be complete. 



Ready Now

The drawing I sketched out on my iPad (top) two years ago didn't actually become a reality until this evening, when I finally finished the Nativity set and placed it in front of my house (above). Granted, I didn't work on it at all from January to mid-November over the last two years, but there was something inside me that was ready, willing, and able to get it done this year. Something that said, "This Christmas won't pass without that Nativity getting finished!"

What's left now is to get my heart in this same place to be ready for Christmas Day.  To be in a place where I can say, "This Advent won't pass without me being ready for Christ's birth!" Funny thing is, even the desire to be fully prepared is increasing my joy and expectation of what Christmas morning will bring-- the birth of Jesus.

Who knew it was that simple?  At least, way more simple than building a Nativity set!

Blessings of Advent and Merry Christmas to you!

Images copyright Joseph A. Ciccoianni 2013