Family

familyOn March 10, 2018, I had the pleasure and honor to serve as keynote speaker for a fundraising event for a college scholarship program created by my good friends, Bishop Nolan and Gloria McCants. The requested theme was, “On Your Own, But Not Alone.” 

From that came this rumination on the definition and importance of “family” in the context of college — and, really, in all of life.

“ON YOUR OWN, BUT NOT ALONE”

Good afternoon! My name is Tom Hernandez and I am honored to deliver the keynote address today.

I promise, I won’t take but a few minutes of your time. I know you have other things to do today besides listening to me, blather on and on, like I’m delivering some kind of sermon or something…

But before I share a few thoughts on the topic du jour, I want to salute and congratulate my very good friend, Bishop Nolan McCants and his lovely, talented, much better half, Gloria, for creating the Nolan and Gloria McCants Scholarship last year to help a young person.

All scholarships are welcome and appreciated, because they help young people take an important “Next Step” in their lives, to attend college.

But not all scholarships are equal.

Many are based on academic achievement, some on athletic prowess, others on special activities or life goals.

But a very few rare ones, like the Nolan and Gloria McCants Scholarship, recognize and support young people for their values. For who they are as human beings. For what is meaningful to them and the Greater Good of the community.

This year’s scholarship, for example, requires a 500-word essay on the applicant’s “position on the importance of integrity.”

“Integrity!” Can you believe it? It’s been about two years now since I’ve heard the word even mentioned by a leader at any level — and here are two people willing to put their money where their mouths and minds and spirits are, to support the idea of integrity!

Now that takes some courage and conviction in 2018. And that’s why it is all the more important that all of us support this Scholarship with our words and hearts, certainly, but also with our wallets and checkbooks.

So, thank you, Nolan and Gloria for doing what you are doing today, and doing what you do every day. This world would be a whole lot nicer, and smarter, and more thoughtful, and kinder, and compassionate and sharper dressed, if more people followed your example. I am proud to call both of you friends!

Now, to the point – the winner of this scholarship will be headed to college. How many of you plan to attend college next year?

This is an exciting time in their lives. They’re experiencing so much change right now, so many big transitions, and for many of our young people, college will be a part of their future.

To all of you, congratulations and good luck. I know you’re looking forward to all that college will bring – new friends, new experiences, new social opportunities, perhaps the occasional class or two…

But most of all, many of you are thinking one thing: “FREEDOM!”

Well, I have news for you – many of your parents are thinking the same thing!

I mean, of course, they will miss you, but…

Now, seriously, please always remember that your main reason for going to college is not the football or basketball games or the new girlfriends or boyfriends or the dances or even to prepare you to get a job.

It is to enrich and expand your brain and your spirit and to become a more enlightened, and enlightening human being! So, on behalf of everyone who will help foot the bill for you, I say, please go to class and study!

Anyway, the point is, college is going to be a whole new world for you, in every sense.

It will change your life.

It will be thought-provoking.

It will be exciting.

It will be inspiring.

And amid all of that, it will also be hard.

And frustrating.

And, sometimes, lonely.

There are many differences between high school and college. But the main one, in my experience through both of my daughters, is that in high school, people are paid to care about you and your success.

That is NOT the case in college. And frankly, that is less the case the bigger the school you go to. As long as your check clears for this semester’s tuition, many professors do not care about you. They don’t have to. They get paid whether you show up to class or not. Whether you do well, or not.

Now, I am not being cynical or critical, just stating a fact that many of our young people never think about, until they have to think about it, which is this: in the adult world, you are responsible for your happiness. You are responsible for your success.

And for many of you, college is your first step into the adult world.

And, sometimes, the adult world of college can be a little sad and dark.

Trust me when I say this, because I know it, I have lived it, and I have survived it:

You are going to find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the work.

Confused and anxious by the illogic of a large institutional system. “I am majoring in pre-law. Why do I have to take biology?!”

Physically and mentally and spiritually exhausted, as you study for your sixth final exam in two days, putting the finishing touches on a blue book essay, while squeezing in two part-time jobs and an internship (that was me my senior year at Lewis University!)

You’re going to see so many questions, that you cannot even contemplate the answer.

Yet, the answer is right in front of you.

And behind you.

And around you.

In this and all things, the answer is, family.

Yes, college is about many things – classrooms and football games, making new friends, finding a good-paying job so you can pay your parents back for 18 years of rent and utilities and food! – but it’s mainly about one thing: figuring out who you are, and who you want to be. Family is always an important part of both.

Now, you’re thinking, “But what good can my family do if I am hundreds of miles and several hours away from home?”

One of the greatest things about the world we live in, is that “family” can and does mean many different things.

“Family” obviously means those folks who raised us and with whom we were raised – our parents, grandparents, guardians, and yes, even our siblings, as awful as brothers and sisters can be!

But today, “family” can – and often does – mean more than those folks who share our blood and our name.

Family can be:

  • Extended relatives.
  • Old friends and new friends.
  • Church members.
  • People of like-minded interests.
  • People who look like you and look nothing like you.
  • People who speak your language, and whose language you can’t understand.
  • People who hold your hand and your heart, who provide a shoulder and an ear, who profess to understand because they’ve been there, and pretend to understand even though they’ve never been there, but they love you enough to give you some of their time.

You see, “family” isn’t so much a blood relationship anymore.

Rather, it’s a collective connection, an intuitive investment in each other’s well-being.

Now, I don’t want to get all “Churchy” on you – Lord knows, no one likes that! – but, “family” is God’s grace in the form of communion and community.

So, as you move toward college – this first step into what can be a mean, indifferent, uncaring world – know that your family – however you define it – will care for you, and keep you, and raise you up.

Your family – whoever they may be – will help you to get back, and move ahead. To believe, and to revive and refresh, and to succeed.

Always know – in your brain and in your heart and in your soul, that you may be far from home, but you’re never alone. Because you are surrounded by your family.

We support you. We believe in you. We empower you. We trust you. We are proud of you.

And we love you.

Congratulations to all of you, and good luck!

 

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Christopher

Christopher Nothing is worse for a parent than the death of your child.

Very sadly, that happened to two of our dearest friends, Mary Ellen and Paul Spencer, when their  23-year-old son, Christopher died unexpectedly on March 2, 2017.  Christopher and our daughters were very close growing up. He was like one of our own children. So we understand our friends’ heartbreak.

Our friends asked me to say a few words about Christopher at his memorial service. I share those words here with their permission, to honor him and them. 

CHRISTOPHER

We knew Chris since he was three years old.

I’ve thought a lot about Chris since I got Mary Ellen’s message saying that he’d passed away.

I remembered first meeting him and his parents at Abundant Life Lutheran Church. We had gone to the third-ever service at this new mission church meeting in a middle school. A few weekends later, the Spencers came to their first service.

We were all so new then – they were new to the community and we were new to the Lutheran church. We became fast and lifelong friends, almost on the spot.

And, like many young parents, our adult relationship grew around and through our kids. We watched our children become friends, go to school, play together, go to birthday parties, become young adults — all the things kids do. Chris very much became a part of our life. One of our kids by extension. So, I am humbled and honored to say a few words about him.

The word that I think most captures Christopher, is “Precocious.”

According to Webster’s, “precocious” means “bright, gifted, talented, articulate, inquisitive, curious, clever.” Chris was all of those.

And beautiful! He was one beautiful child – and later, a very handsome young man!

But most of all, Chris was smart! Now listen – I know a lot of intelligent people, both kids and adults. But Chris was smart. Not just book smart — he certainly was that — but sharp, and witty and intuitive and charming and sly and  funny.

The best thing – although it sometimes made me nuts – was that he knew he was smart, and not-so-secretly got a kick out of knowing that YOU knew that he was smart!

During elementary and middle school, our kids had the same music teacher for a few years, and Paul and I would switch up taking them to lessons every Saturday. Chris played both piano and trombone, and later in high school played tuba in the marching band, too.

I remember talking to Christopher and being astounded – not mildly amused, not impressed, but amazed – at his vocabulary and thoughts coming out of his mouth. It was almost a little off-putting at times because his cognitive age seemed so far out of alignment with his chronological age.

Now I know this is supposed to be about Chris, but to be clear: I do not believe for a hot second that this kind of brilliance just happens. God may have created the spark, but it took someone – or in this case, two someones – to care for and fan those flames.

Paul and Mary Ellen Spencer chose this child, raised him, supported him and nurtured him. They gave him the gifts of intellect and learning and culture.

They loved him.

With everything they had, under every imaginable circumstance.

And that tremendous love informed and guided and shaped Chris, proving yet again that you don’t have to be in a child’s blood to be in his DNA. In their minds and hearts and spirits you will find the seeds of every good thing in Christopher.

In many ways, Christopher Todd Miller Spencer was a shining star.

Sadly, one of the universe’s most vexing and heartbreaking ironies is that that the brightest stars often cast the biggest shadows.

The star known as Christopher Todd Miller Spencer burned brightly. But a darkness that is hard for us who knew Chris to understand, sometimes dimmed his light.

To ignore or gloss over this part of Chris’s life would be disingenuous, if only because his parents, family and friends struggled so hard — for him, with him, and sometimes even against him — to help relieve that burden.

And so here we are in this beautiful church, on this beautiful March morning, confused and angry that a child – our child – has gone on before his parents. Our brains and our hearts tell us that should never happen. It is nonsensical. An injustice against nature. And we are tempted in our frail, cynical, arrogant humanity, to ask God, “Why?”

There are ten thousand answers.

And no answer.

God does not promise us an easy life here on earth. He just gives us the tools to deal with whatever life brings.

Those tools include the faith to believe that there is Good in all things, and the strength to bear our pain while we seek that Goodness.

We cannot ignore the hurt and loss that we are feeling today, nor should we.

But we can put it aside for a little while today, surrounded and sustained by the friends and family who loved Chris, and instead remember and raise up and celebrate the joy of our beautiful, bright star.

March 11, 2017

Faith in Real Life — Public Education and Parenting

praying-handsIn my “real life,” I am the Director of Community Relations for Plainfield School District #202. Plainfield United Methodist Church invited me to deliver a sermon about public education and parenting, as part of its “Faith in Real Life” worship series. I was humbled and honored to accept. (P.S. — yes, I’ve seriously considered pastoral service and  may yet take that road, perhaps as part of retirement…)

FAITH IN REAL LIFE: PUBLIC EDUCATION AND PARENTING

Two older men are sitting on a park bench on a nice, warm, spring day. They are kvetching about all the problems in the world today – crime, drugs, promiscuity on television, violence, world peace, illness, politics.

Finally, one of the men says to the other, “But you know the biggest problem with the world today?”

“What’s that?” the other man says.

“It’s that prayer isn’t allowed in schools anymore!”

The second man pauses for a second, then says, “I have to disagree with you.”

“How’s that?” the first one replies.

“Well, I taught high school science for 35 years, and I have to tell you, I saw lots and lots of praying in school.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Yessir! Every time I announced a pop quiz, the kids fell on their knees to pray that the floor would open up!”

It’s an old joke, but it stands the test of time…partly because it’s true. You may not see kids literally dropping to a knee or even bowing their heads, but trust me, there’s plenty of praying going on in schools all the time!

I share that story for two important reasons:

  • First, as a duly anointed official of the Public Education Bureaucracy, to firmly and clearly debunk the myth that prayer isn’t allowed in public schools. It most certainly is, at least in Illinois.

In fact, a special law was written about 15 years ago, requiring students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and schools to allow a “moment for silent reflection” – which is political code for “prayer” – every single day.

So, don’t believe what you read on social media, and if you think that’s not happening in one of our District 202 schools, please let me know!

  • And second and much more important, to help make the point, even if a little tongue-in-cheek, that faith in a higher power has always been, is now, and will always be an important part of the public school system.

Why? Because our spiritual lives are a crucial part of our humanity – and despite how you might feel some days about your children when they’re laying heavily on your very last nerve, they are human beings!

That goes double for us as parents! Wait – as the dad of two very talented, bright, hard-working and beautiful daughters, both college graduates, one newly married and the other newly moved out, let me amend that – that goes quadruple for us as parents!

Let’s talk about our kids first…

District 202 has 28,000 of them in 30 schools, in every possible shape and size, color, race, creed and religion with 72 languages spoken or represented, and in every socioeconomic category. Their stories change day by day, and sometimes minute by minute. That is the blessing of public education – we take all comers!

Many adults, including myself, spend a lot of time pooh-poohing young people. “Oh, those kids today!” etc.

Well, I have news for you – “kids today” are pretty darned good. They are smart, thoughtful, creative and resilient. Because they have to be.

Kids — most especially our adolescents and teens — face challenges today that we could never have imagined much less addressed nearly as capably as they do.

Test Anxiety. Bad Grades. What Do I Do After High School? College? A job? The Military? Travel the world?

Let me just take a minute to say a word about college. And please keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who works for the public school system – college is NOT for everyone, nor should every student feel pressured to attend the WORLD’S GREATEST COLLEGE (insert your own alma mater here).

For forty years, we as a society and the Public Education Industry have turned College into its own Cottage Industry — the End-all, Be-all for every child, I think to our own detriment. This has created a tremendous amount of pressure for our young people to aspire to and succeed at something that many simply do not need or want – not to mention an untenable financial burden for many families.

Don’t get me wrong. College can be a wonderful thing – particularly liberal arts universities that teach you how to think and be a better human being. But so are vocational schools, and the military, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply joining the workforce and making a few dollars until you sort out whatever your tomorrow will look like.

Now, back to the program.

Kids today also face immense pressure from Bullying. Name Calling. Hunger. Drugs. Sex. Poverty. Family Problems. Politics. And the ever-popular Boyfriends and Girlfriends.

Now factor in social media, and you have a recipe for emotional and social disaster. So much information, so much stimulation, all bombarding our children constantly, at 10,000 miles per hour.

The result is that our social workers, counselors, nurses and teachers are seeing more childhood anxiety and depression than ever before. In fact, one of our high schools recently designated a room just for students (and sometimes even staff members) to simply take a few minutes, cool down and collect themselves.

This is not to say that kids are perfect – far from it! But it is to say that kids today are no worse, relative to their world, than we were, or our parents were.

Sure, they push boundaries, test limits, and do things that seem dumb and disrespectful to us as adults. But guess what? So did we!

Adolescents by nature live in the moment. They don’t have any true sense of consequence, and there’s a very good reason for it. Brain science in recent years has shown that the part of the brain that regulates long-term thinking doesn’t develop until we’re about 25 years old. That means that kids are hard wired to be goofy!!

Sixty thousand years of evolution and nothing has changed! I’ve even seen stories about cave drawings of cave parents slapping their foreheads as their cave kids tried chasing a saber-toothed tiger over the edge of a cliff! “Oh, your friends are doing it? Does that mean you’re going to do it too?”

No, kids haven’t changed. What’s changed is the world around our children, which has now equipped everyone six years old and older with tools that not only facilitate adolescent behavior, but encourage and sometimes even reward it! “Hey, do something stupid, and we’ll give you a reality television show!”

I often says that the Real World comes through our school doors every single day in all of its glory — diverse, frantic, exciting, frustrating — filled with countless opportunities to soar and succeed, and just as many chances to fall and fail.

And to hurt.

That Hurt is where we come in as parents.

No decent parent ever wants to see his or her child in pain.

But what can we do? I cannot begin to count the conversations I’ve had with parents who are frustrated with their own inability to help their student – their child, their baby – feel better, or understand why “this” or “that” happened, or didn’t happen.

And sometimes they take that frustration out on the schools – they get mad at their child’s teachers or the school district because, somehow, WE cannot make everything right in between Algebra, English, AP Physics, Band, football, cheerleading, choir, standardized testing, insufficient state funding, politics, afterschool jobs, Homecoming, graduation, promotion or the myriad other things that fill our students’ school days.

I get those calls all the time. Sometimes there’s yelling, sometimes even crying at the other end of the phone or the email.

And it’s OK! Keep calling! We understand. We get it. We live and work in the same world.

Very often, after doing my best to help parents understand the official “This Is What the Law Says” aspects of administering a very large, bureaucratic system, I will say, “Now, let me talk to you, Parent to Parent.”

Because we want our families to know that we’re in this together. Obviously, they’re your kids, but they are also our kids, at least for the six and a half to 10 hours each day that they’re in our schools.

And the first — and maybe best – thing we can try to do, is slow things down. You know that old saying about how you cannot fix a flat tire on a car that is still moving? Well, sometimes being a parent is similar – you cannot ease their child’s pain – or your own – in a world going 10,000 miles an hour, all the time.

You may not be able to fix the actual problems – I mean, let’s be honest: I forgot half of the Algebra that I learned in 8th grade 15 years before I had my first child. By the time she was doing 8th grade Algebra, I was lost. That’s why God invented teachers! But you can at least reduce the speed at which the problems are coming at you.

Not to go all “Science Nerd” on you, but remember your basic physics – Speed is a measure of the time it takes an object to travel a set distance through space, right?

So, the solution may be to deal with the only thing that is separate from, above, beyond time and distance and space.

And we call that thing, God.

I am standing here in a House of God – specifically, a Methodist House of God.

I was raised Catholic and I now practice as a Lutheran. My maternal grandmother was Methodist, so I spent a lot of time in the Methodist church as a child

I have worshipped and celebrated with Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians Unitarians, Greek Orthodox and non-denominational Christians. (It helps that I had a lot of girlfriends in high school!) Last weekend, I watched a beautiful Islamic worship service at a new Mosque in Bolingbrook.

I am a proud alum of Lewis University, a De Lasallian Catholic Christian Brothers school.

Studying the evolution of theology and the history of organized religion is one of my hobbies.

Yet I am not nearly wise or brave enough to try to define or limit God by my own belief and worship systems.

What I can tell you – and All that I can tell you – is that I am certain, to the core of my being, that there is a God.

And God – no matter what you call Him/Her or how you worship Him/Her – loves children.

And God requires us to love them, too, on His/Her behalf.

How you do that, of course, is up to you. But I suggest that it’s a whole lot easier when you’re standing on the firm ground of faith, with a firm understanding that “Truth” (capital T, “Truth”) is eternal. It is beyond any limitations we can impose – social, religious or political.

It is often said that God is found in the space between us as human beings. That certainly applies to us as parents with our children.

So, when school – or any part of life – gets to be too much for your kids (or for you, truth be told), STOP!

Take a deep breath.

Close your eyes. Open your heart. And listen for God’s voice in the silence.

Talk to your kids.

Be brave and strong enough to be their parent, not their friend – you can be their friend later. They don’t often say it, but study after study (and plain old common sense) confirms time and again, that our children need us and secretly want us to help them learn, show them where to step on life’s path and sometimes hold them accountable when they slip up.

By the way, a little bit of etymology for you this morning – the original meaning of the word “discipline” – as in, Disciple — is to teach – not to punish.

Guide them with the firm, but loving wisdom and authority that comes only from having cried a thousand more tears, taken a thousand more tests, survived at least a few more broken hearts and overcome a thousand more mundane challenges, day in and day out, than their young minds can ever conceive.

My friends, children learn what they live, and they live what they learn.

Pray with your children so that they get a sense of the largeness of the universe, and their smallness within in. Humility goes a long way in today’s world. Respect their intelligence. Encourage them to be people of good character, accepting of and loving everyone. Forgiving. Kind. Sympathetic AND Empathetic.

Teach your children that God does not solve all our problems, but God equips us to solve our problems. With strength. Courage. Conviction. Diligence. Perseverance. Collaboration. Creativity. Hard work. Confidence.

And yes, even the “F” Word — Faith.

Through Him, With Him and In Him.

Most of all, show them God in your world, so that they know that God has a place in their world.

And in that way, God will always be in school – and not just when the teacher announces a pop quiz!

February 26, 2017